Last week, I had a little trouble because I was improperly dressed. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, this morning I put on some nice slacks, a nice button-down shirt, and a tweed jacket. I didn’t put on a tie, nor did I put on my dress shoes, opting for black sneakers instead. So I guess my manner of dress would be somewhere between “business” and “business casual.”
Turns out putting the sneakers on was a good idea. Not only because I walked a little over a mile to the church, but also because you don’t sit down during an orthodox service. You stand.
Like last time, I went to the front door, and like last time, it was locked. I guess they’re not used to people walking up to their front door. The back door, which opens off of their parking lot and into a common area with a kitchen and tables, was open. There was a lady there pulling stuff out of her car, and I stopped to help, grabbing a box of cups and bringing it into the kitchen for her.
There were a couple of other ladies there as well. There was prayer and singing coming out over the PA system, just like last time. According to the schedule, there was Orthros at 6:50 am, the sunrise prayers, and then at 8:15 was the divine liturgy. It didn’t want to get up for the Orthros, so it was around 7:30 when I arrived. I had some coffee, sat down at a table, and read their welcome pamphlet.
The pamphlet was pretty helpful. It told me I shouldn’t take communion (which I already kind of knew) since I hadn’t fasted and I wasn’t baptized into the church, that I should stand the whole time if I could, and that I should bow when everyone else bowed. It also went on at some length about the history of this particular church, which I find interesting.
This church started as a Greek Orthodox church. But at some point, that organization began to include heresies such as a change to the Gregorian calendar and a shift towards ecumenism. Ecumenism is a doctrine that essentially states that most churches are headed in the right direction, but are going about it in different ways. Orthodox Christians generally believe that there is one right way to worship, and all other ways are wrong. They’re particularly unhappy about Catholicism, which they view as a rogue offshoot of their church. And in a way, I suppose it is.
Well, this group left the Greek Orthodox organization, and joined Russian Orthodox for a while, but the Russian head guy switched to the modern Gregorian calendar too, and that was heretical, so they left that organization. Now they’re part of a group called “True Greek Orthodox” which claims greater legitimacy, and none of that cooperating with other churches nonsense.
Now I can fully understand why they didn’t want a dude with sandals inside their church.
After reading and caffeinating, I asked what the procedure was. It was about 8:00. Do I just wait until 8:15 and go in? “No,” said a nice lady, “You can just go in any time. In fact, you can go in now if you want.”
It was surprisingly casual. Well, let me restate that. It was surprisingly casual about people coming and going and moving about the room. It wasn’t casual about anything else. The congregation kept arriving in dribs and drabs right up to the end, and nobody seemed to mind.
I walked into the main room. There were some folding chairs and stools along the sides, but no seating on the main floor. There were perhaps a dozen people when I first got there, but by the end there were nearly fifty people. Along the walls were many portraits of saints. They were all done in that highly stylized medieval way, where all the faces kind of look the same, and the really important people had their heads turned at a forty five degree angle. They all had radiant halos, and the only way you could really tell them apart was from their facial hair and manner of dress.
Up the center of the room was a wide red carpet, which led to a pair of swinging doors. Behind the swinging doors was the sanctuary. I couldn’t see back in there very well, but the father stayed back there most of the time. There were regular doors to either side of the swinging doors. Any time people other than the father came and went to the sanctuary, they used the regular doors. Only the father went through the swinging doors.
Just in front of the swinging doors and on either side of the red carpet were two large candle stands, and next to them were the pictures of Jesus and Saint Mary. On the right side of the room was another saint, presumably Saint Nectarios, who was positioned on his own table.
There were also two podiums. One on the far right, and one on the far left. At the podium on the left was a man dressed in a black robe who was singing prayers from a prayer book. He was the source of the sound over the PA I heard from the common room.
There were also a few women next to him, looking at music books. On the far right was an identical podium with some other people at it, but they weren’t singing. Not yet.
As people came in, they would cross over to the picture of Saint Nectarios, cross themselves, and kiss the portrait. Then they would do the same thing at the portraits of Mary and Jesus. Some of them lit a candle on one of the candle stands. Every time anyone crossed over the red carpet, they would face the front and cross themselves.
After doing all of this, most would find a spot to stand. A few older folks and women sat down. I chose to stand behind a guy who looked like he knew what he was doing, so if necessary, I could copy him.
At a little after 8:15, the single chanting / singing became a chorus. It was beautiful. There were several men and women on the right with the singer in black, and several women over on the left. They sang different parts and were often harmonizing with each other. The kind of music was like a madrigal or old-style Christmas carol. There were no instruments, but you could almost imagine a lyre or a lute playing along. Perhaps a harpsichord. It was very medieval.
While they were singing, the father came out with an incense ball on the end of a chain. The chain had bells which rang as he spread the incense smoke around. First, at the portraits of the saints, and then he walked around and spread it on us. As he approached, we bowed.
This thing with the incense was actually done several times, and there were several times I could hear the bells jingling from back in the sanctuary, so I know he was burning a lot of the stuff. It was nice at first, but by the end of the service, the place was choking with it. The air was thick and dark and heavy, and my sinuses started to close from the overwhelming smell of it.
He went back into the sanctuary and there was a lot more singing and chanting. The songs were mostly about glory to God, praising God, but there was a lot more “God have mercy on us” and begging God for help, which I found interesting. I think these guys beg God for help more than any other faith I’ve yet encountered. In fact, the chorus of “Lord have mercy on our souls,” was sang maybe fifty times. Maybe more. It was the major theme.
After a little while a chanter came out. He was in white robes and a black hat and spoke with a commanding robot voice. He commanded the singer guy to pray, and he commanded us to “attend.” He commanded us to pray for mercy, and at various times when the father was about to speak, he’d announce this fact by yelling out “WISDOM.”
Several times the Father came out of the sanctuary, with a procession of altar boys bearing rods with candles atop them. The altar boys would file out of the two side doors and line up along the red carpet, and the father would come through the swinging doors. Once he had a Bible, which he and Chanter Guy kissed, blessed, and then marched back into the sanctuary. Most times he came out and spread more incense.
In between the father proceeding in and out, there was lots and lots of singing. In fact, aside from the father’s lesson, nothing was spoken normally. Everything was sung or chanted in a sing-song way.
There was a confession, during which everyone standing confessed their sins in a generic way and all together. And there was an interesting bit where we recited the Lord’s Prayer. First, in English, then in Greek, then Russian, and then Spanish, and I think German.
Chanter Guy chanted a passage from The Letters of Paul. I don’t know exactly which book, but it was instructions about giving proper praise to God.
Then the Father paraded out again, and he chanted a bit about Mary Magdalen. Sorry, I can’t remember which book, but I think it was Matthew. It was about Jesus casting out the demons which inhabited her.
Then, the Father began to talk normally. And what he had to say was pretty good, I think. It was about women’s rights and equality. Today is apparently a day which honors Mary Magdalene on their liturgical calendar, hence the lesson. The father spoke a bit about how treating women as equals was very Christian, and how the Catholics and Protestants got the story of Mary all wrong. She hadn’t been a whore, she was just from a notorious city. She had, in fact, been regarded as equal in Jesus’ eyes to any of his male apostles, and had been an important partner of Jesus and an important voice in the early world of Christianity. It was an example of why women should be treated with equality.
Unfortunately, the whole concept of women’s equality was pretty much flushed when they lined up for communion. Women had to wait and let the men go first. I also noticed that none of the people doing things of importance were women, and there were no men helping in the kitchen. So, nice sentiment but the practice leaves a little to be desired.
Still, it gets a point because I’m grading based on the sermon, and the sermon was pretty good.
Communion consisted of a whole bunch of singing while people lined up to kiss the portraits of the saints, and then pass in front of the father while he put wine in their mouths with a spoon. There was a table with more wine and bread on it, and a glass of water. The faithful would then drink a little of either the water or wine, and take a piece of bread.
And on to the score:
Being good to your fellow human: 1 (women’s equality)
Help your community: 0 (no mention)
Be good to yourself: 0 (no mention)
Good and timely advice:1 (fix your own problems, don’t rely on Jesus to do it for you)