Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thoughts After Visiting an Eastern Orthodox Church

My reaction to my visit on Sunday was really just what I expected.

I love that the liturgy was put together by John Chrysostom and reflects the worship of the early church better than any other form we know. I love the physicality of it and just how tactile it is- that the incense fills the senses, the paintings and colors fill the view, that you cross yourself and bow and kiss. Expressing worship in a variety of ways and engaging the whole person..... and again, always reflecting the early church.

I love the symbols - I love that small things always mean something, whether it be the colors of a painting or each line in a song. There is little "fluff" as you find in evangelical services.

I love the connection to history, I love that so little is based on the subjectivity of the local leaders or the leader of that particular service. There little personal opinion expressed anywhere. It is mostly ancient, the same words used for worship for thousands of years.

All of those things are things that I loved from the beginning, when I first looked into Orthodoxy.

On the other hand, it's sort of like finding out about some country or culture and loving it, researching it, watching movies set there and reading books about the place. You may end up being quite informed, but when you finally go visit, it's still a foreign country. You may love it, but it's still new.

That's how I felt. I knew what was going on. I knew what to expect, but it was all still foreign, still almost entirely out of my experience and comfort zone, despite being a service in English. I can really appreciate all of the above things as a visitor. There are some things that are uncomfortable too - like the standing. It's a small thing, something that is no big deal as a visitor, you put up with it like you put up with all sorts of new and uncomfortable things when you enter a new culture. That one was hard for me - just 30 minutes into the liturgy I found myself getting dizzy and nearly blacked out. I was luckily leaning against a wall, and I had to find my way to the back door and sit with my head between my knees until it passed.

I don't know what was up with that - I was prepared to deal with my blood sugar dropping and I'd brought orange juice (which I was embarrassed to drink, since I believe many Orthodox fast on Sunday until the service is over)and had a good breakfast, and I really don't think that was it. Maybe it was the incense? Maybe I'm just a wimp and not used to standing and I really did just get dizzy for that reason?

In any case, that is, again, a small thing. There are things that are uncomfortable that you put up with when you visit a new place. Here's the thing, though. Do I look at this service as a visitor, a tourist of sorts? If so, I admire much about it, I can learn from the Orthodox in many ways.

But - the claims of the Orthodox Church are that they are the true Church. They aren't quite as exclusive as the Catholic Church, but still, if their claims are true, then to fully experience wholeness as a Christian and a member of the Church here on earth, we should join the Orthodox Church.

That is an entirely different way of approaching things. So - what if the Church I attended is the closest representation of the true Church? In that case, there would be an awful lot to get used to. There are things I would love, but I would also miss the informality of evangelical churches, and the emphasis on relationship and community and mission. I would find it difficult to enter the Orthodox church, which has such a distinct culture. That is what bothers me, actually. I have so appreciated the theology, the distinct beliefs of the Orthodox church. So much of the service and the actual FORM of the church, though, seems SO SO cultural. Ancient, yes. Some of the ancientness is beautiful and good. But is it necessary?

I grew up seeing the church morph to express the same truth in different cultures. Tribal Papuans, Muslim-background Indonesians, villagers from Sulawesi, and of course the variety of races and cultures represented in the US. It's really hard for me then to think that the form of Orthodoxy is necessary. Maybe it isn't, maybe because the form that the service takes isn't absolutely necessary to their theology, it would be okay if it was changed and adapted in a new culture, as long as they held to Orthodox theology and unity with the Church. That's not the impression I get, though. I get the feeling that the outer forms are very important, and that changes to adjust to culture would be viewed with suspicion.

As a somewhat jaded evangelical, I enter an Orthodox church and see the robes and the icons and the chanting and the incense and it is beautiful because I have read and studied it and I understand what it is and where it came from and why. However, if you have to know all of that to understand the outer form (because it is so far removed from our culture today that understanding all of that doesn't come naturally at all as it did in the early church), does it, in the end, actually slow people from seeing and hearing what is most important, which is Christ and His salvation?

That, I suppose, is what I wrestle with. It is beautiful. But is it necessary, is it absolute? And if it is not, then why is it treated as such?

I wholeheartedly echo this from the Liturgy, and I long for this to be what is true of the Church universal, and the primary truth that we convey with our truth, with our lives, and with our Church.

Having beheld the resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One. We venerate Your cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify Your holy resurrection. You are our God. We know no other than You, and we call upon Your name. Come, all faithful, let us venerate the holy resurrection of Christ. For behold, through the cross joy has come to all the world. Blessing the Lord always, let us praise His resurrection. For enduring the cross for us, He destroyed death by death.


Young Mom said...

Very interesting thoughts! I agree with you in many of your points. While my husband and I have loved reading Orthodox theology, I think the cultural rigidity is the main thing that pushes us away from it.

Melissa said...

Over the years I have been Orthodox, I have found that each time I have felt I understood why the Orthodox Church does something in a particular way, my eyes are opened to another layer of meaning within the form of the work of the people (liturgy). Not every parish is good at helping visitors or members understand the layers. Thus form can appear to be purely cultural, but it is not. Often it is Biblical.

If much of the form were to change, the icon of the Kingdom would be lost. As an example, I remember thinking what is with this closing up of the altar - doors, curtains. Why aren't we allowed to see what is going on? But there is a reason - not a cultural one for this. This is an icon of both the resurrection and heaven itself. Each time the bread and wine goes into the altar, yu see an icon of Christ entering into the tomb. The door was shut. The stone was rolled in front of the tomb. On the third day the stone was roled away and the tomb was empty. Christ had risen overcoming the power of death. When the curtains are drawn back and the doors of the altar are opened, Christ comes out to meet us with life. Should we leave the doors open and remove the curtains, this icon of the living God suffering, dying, and overcoming death for us would be dimnished.

It is rather like the acceptance today of man and woman living together without the sacrament of marriage. Can they have a relationship? Of course. Is that relationship diminished? Yes. It is not ully what it was meant to be. It loses the icon of Christ that it was meant to be. A live together relationship is missing something - something that was instituted not by the church, not by a culture, but by God himself. (Genesis 2)

May your exploration of Orthodoxy continue and be blessed By Him who created and loves us all!

Oh, and be sure not to lock your knees when you stand for more than 15 minutes - it causes dizzyness! All that bowing and use of the body during Orthodox liturgy helps keep the circulation going! Orthodoxy is very deep, but also pretty practical!

Kacie said...

Melissa, great point, but let me ask another question. In your example, the treatment of the alter.... as you say, it's not just cultural, it's deeply meaningful. I do list that as something I really love about the Orthodox church, everything is really filled with layers of meaning.

But I still don't see how that is something that is absolute and unchangeable. The truth is unchangeable, but that particular action and ritual way of doing things is just symbolic of the truth... if the ritual changes, the truth can remain, taught in another way, perhaps. What if there is another way to represent that same truth to another culture?

As a kids, my parents work was to bring the scripture to tribal people. The thought of bringing orthodoxy to these people is difficult - these are people who don't even wear clothes. You have to get through so much explanation and cultural changes to get to the meaning of the robes and colors that the priests wear....

I am very Protestant in these questions, but they are my questions nonetheless. For instance, the marriage relationship. I would say the marriage relationship is sacred, and should always be taught as being sacred, everywhere. However, how they live together, what that relationship looks like, who works, who makes money, etc... those external things change.

As you say, we want what was instituted not by the church, not by the culture, but by God himself. And I suppose that's exactly my point. What is instituted by the church and the particular cultures that the church has grown in, what is actually instituted by God himself and is thus absolute?

Troy said...

Thankfully, the Orthodox Church is entirely uninterested in distinguishing between the beautiful and the necessary.

Andrea Elizabeth said...


Just a couple of thoughts, unworthy though they be:

About your comment about evangelical churches being relational - I'd say that the sacramental, confessional relationship with one's Priest is more therapeutic than one can have with one's Christian, supportive, and even wise friends, though I think the latter is healing and necessary too.

About the necessity of Orthodox Tradition - I do believe it was instituted by the Apostles and is the way things should be. Whether it is how it "has" to be, I don't know. God is merciful.

Praying for you on your journey.

Andrea Elizabeth said...

One more thing about adapting the services, while a message may be adapted to suit the learning needs of the audience, such as is done in personal conversations and the homily during Liturgy, changing the traditions would be to us like changing the Bible, which of course is also part of our tradition.

Language and local musical tones are usually eventually incorporated though when Orthodoxy comes to a new land. We're still working that out in America.

PresterJosh said...

I'm very glad that you were able to appreciate your visit. I am curious about one thing, though. In what sense do you think that "They aren't quite as exclusive as the Catholic Church?"

My understanding has always been that Catholic and Orthodox teaching regarding the Church is virtually identical. Namely, that each claims to be the "True Church" and that though other communions may possess elements of grace and sanctification, there is a fullness only to be found in the "True Church."

See footnote 1 to the joint Catholic/Orthodox Ravenna document for example.

Of course, maybe you meant something entirely different? At any rate, I'd love to know exactly what you were thinking.

Lucian said...

Well... Orthodoxy DID adapt to the West 2,000 years ago: it's called Catholicism. And it did change and shorten its liturgy, reducing its extravagant beauty, shaping it into something more akin to the informality of a familiar Protestant service: it's called the Novus Ordo. :-)