I wasn’t in the mood for an “O Happy Day! Praise the Lord!” kind of church today, so it was Provident that I had scheduled to go visit St. Nicholas Orthodox Church this morning. I have visited many churches in my day, and even a couple synagogues, but I have never been to an Orthodox church before. I had decided to visit this one today because I saw online that they were having a Russian festival this weekend and I planned to stay and check that out.
The church is a small building with an Orthodox dome on the top and several iconic paintings of St Nicholas around the outside. I saw women and children wearing traditional Russian costumes. When I entered the narthex, there was a woman there selling tall, slender candles for lighting in the sanctuary, so I bought one. I stepped into heaven! There were Persian rugs on either side of the sanctuary with a bare wooden floor between. Around the walls were chairs and benches, but the faithful were all standing on the rug facing the front. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling and the walls were lined with icons of saints. There were several places at the front with candle stands in front of various icons. I lit my candle in front of the crucifix and said a quick prayer of “Lord, help me!” From that vantage point I could see that the choir was behind a screen on the other side of the room. At the front was a wall of icons painted on doors that were opened at various times throughout the service to reveal the mysteries within. The priests wore rich vestments of white, and the bishop also wore a cape of gold and a tall hat on his head.
The litergy was mostly sung or chanted in English, with a little Greek and Slavic thrown in on occasion. I could make out the singing of the Psalms, the Nicene Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, along with some other things I wasn’t sure of the origin of. As I say, the congregation stood throughout, including a 99 year old woman who leaned on her cane as much as possible but had to sit sometimes. There was also much motioning of the sign of the cross and genuflecting to the point of touching the floor. The only point at which people sat was when one of the priests came out and read the life of the newest saint, St. Elias of the Ukraine who was just sainted this month. When the scriptures were chanted by the priests and the bishop, they brought out a gold-plated Bible and held it up for all to see. There was a Eucharist cup that the bishop spooned out to people as they threw their head back and opened their mouth, a red cloth held under their chin so nothing of the blood of Christ would be spilled on the floor. Incense was waved about in a thurible during the most sacred parts of the service. At the end, people lined up to kiss a golden cross held out to them by one of the priests. I watched as I proceeded from the end of the line, but when I got up to the priest, I said, “I don’t know what to do.” He said, “Kiss the cross,” which I did, “and kiss my hand” which I did. Then as people left the sanctuary I walked around and got a closer look at all the icons.
Outside, the Russian festival was being set up with various booths. There were two that featured books, and of course, these were what I gravitated toward. One of the booths was from an Orthodox book store, and they had books and CDs and icons for sale. I began looking through the CDs to see if there was anything like the liturgy I had just experienced. The woman behind the table got to talking with me and I learned that she had converted to orthodoxy about 18 years ago. She had come from a Protestant background, but the Orthodox church met her spiritual needs. She began telling me a bit of the history of the Orthodox church and said that it dates back to the way the New Testament church worshipped. She said it incorporates some of the Jewish traditions that the early church adopted. She said that some of the orthodox know their family heritage all the way back to Bible times. One person she has heard of could even trace their family lineage to Mordeccai, the uncle of Queen Esther. She said the Orthodox church is the only one that still exists from the early apostles. She really took me under her wing and introduced me to the bishop and found a pamphlet for me that would explain more of the church history.
By this time, the food was ready and people were lining up to buy their lunch. I bought a meat pirozhke and a diet Coke. I sat at one of the dozen or so tables, and as I ate I watched some children (mostly girls) in costume dance to recorded balalaika music. There were puppet shows of traditional Russian folk tales for the children in another area. I was at my table alone, and at one point, the bishop sat down at my table and he and I spoke. I poured out my heart to him, and he listened to me. He was very compassionate. Then duty called him elsewhere. I began reading the pamphlet the woman from the book store had found for me. Before I was able to get through it, a man stood up at the microphone and announced that he was going to play Russian bells, but first he had a long board in his hand and he explained that when the bells were banned in Russia, this board was struck with a piece of wood instead. He said it was supposed to sound like Noah building the ark. He demonstrated as he walked to the bells. He told us to stand back because the bells could be very loud. He and a young woman put earphones on and began playing them. They sounded very joyful.
Then one of the priests gave a tour of the church. A large group of us (including what appeared to be a Sikh man) listened as the priest explained the why’s and wherefore’s of orthodoxy. Apparently they stand throughout the service to show honor to God, and they believe this is the way the early church worshipped too. The room at the front that is divided by the iconic doors is basically the Holy of Holies where the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. I found I was mistaken to have put my candle in front of the crucifix and prayed for myself. That is the place for candles in memory of those who have died. However, I think Christ will overlook that faux pas. The other places for candles are where people usually pray for themselves or others they know of who need prayer. He explained that the veneration of the saints doesn’t mean that they are other gods. The Orthodox believe there is only one triune God. However, the saints lived exemplary lives and serve as a reminder to us of the life we should live. The Orthodox also ask the saints to intervene for them in heaven. He said that at one point in history the Orthodox church was connected to the church in Rome, now known as the Catholic church, but they split when Rome began making their own decisions without seeking a council with the eastern churches. In the Orthodox church, the bishops are all equals; there is no hierarchy like in the Catholic church. The Orthodox church observes all the same sacraments as the Catholic church, but ordained priests are allowed to be married if they marry before their ordination. In other words, if their wife dies or they get a divorce after their ordination, they remain single the rest of their lives.
The day was a mixture of mystery and the sacred, on the one hand, and celebration on the other. My spirit sucked it up like a dry sponge.