Sunday, June 20, 2010

Visiting an Eastern Orthodox Church

Today I went to an Eastern Orthodox service in English for the first time.

Consecration of Bishop JONAH

I've been to a Russian Orthodox service in a Ukrainian Church in my Ukrainian neighborhood in Chicago. It was beautiful and ceremonial, but I couldn't understand anything that was happening. Over the past year or so as I've wrestled with church history, I've wanted to visit St. Seraphim's Orthodox Church here in Dallas. I've been to a number of Catholic churches thanks to having a number of Catholic family members, but I feel like I have been doing a lot of reading about Orthodoxy without seeing or experiencing the theology put into practice.

St. Seraphims is English speaking and not overly nationalistic, friendly to new people, and I believe that they used to meet in a building that they sold to my husband's seminary. It is now a beautiful bookstore, and their new building is 10 minutes from my new apartment. Knowing that they have had an ongoing friendly relationship and theological dialogue with the seminary gave me confidence, and I've wanted to visit. Since my husband and most of my community group is out of town, I figured this was an ideal time to sneak into the back of an Orthodox service.

Luckily I've read enough about Eastern Orthodoxy in the US that I knew that visiting a service can be shocking and very unfamiliar. I knew generally what was going on, but I did stay in the back and watch most of the time, trying to just follow the flow of the liturgy and see how the people interacted. I think today I'll post what I observed and photos that I nabbed from flikr, and then tomorrow I'll post how I felt and thought about it all, okay?

The first, most striking thing about any Orthodox service in any language is the richness that fills the senses. Incense is thick, candles are everywhere, fine embroidered linen in rich colors drape podiums and priests and catecumens. Icons in the form of paintings and statues are scattered through the room, and the walls and ceiling are covered in paintings of the disciples, patriarchs, biblical characters, Jesus, Mary, etc, all in vivid color (there is a very specific method of painting all things Orthodox. Everything means something, the color, the expression, the way the body and hands are turned...). AND everything is chanted - everything. It's a feast for the senses that is initially overwhelming.

Consecration of Bishop JONAH

Consecration of Bishop Jonah

Consecration of Bishop Jonah

Consecration of Bishop Jonah
Diocese of South Assembly Dallas 2008

Consecration of Bishop JONAH

Consecration of Bishop Jonah


It's all very tactile. It's a mystery to me as a new observer, but everyone is crossing and bowing at the same time, sometimes inexplicably. They cross themselves before they walk in, as they walk in, after they walk in, anytime God is mentioned... and many other times. They hug each other, they kiss each other - it is, after all, a faith brought to America first from Russia, a kissing culture! The room is open in the middle with chairs set around the back and side for old folks and kids who need to sit down, but most people stand the whole time. You can see the room here, although it's pictured during a meeting with seating the whole way through, unlike most services:

Diocese of South Assembly Dallas 2008

There's a lot of movement too, as people move from icon to icon, lighting candles, crossing themselves, and kissing the icons. Icons are said to be a window to God - the kissing and crossing is not meant to be a worship of the icon, but worship expressed to the God portrayed by the icon, or reverence for patriarchs, etc.

The people were interesting. It was mostly white, but I was surprised to see several Africans or African Americans, several East Asians, and several Hispanic folks. There were babies and kids up through teens, and a lot of older people too. Maybe half or more of the women wore shawls or veils, which again I believe stems more of the tradition of Russia than a theological belief most of the time. Most of the women wore skirts or dresses, but the young ones were still quite stylish. Others, not so much. :)

Diocese of South Assembly Dallas 2008

DSC09817

There was a small choir up front leading the chanting. Most of the liturgy is the same week by week, so the congregation joined in. People had their own books with the liturgy (which was put together by a leader in the Church, St. John Chrysostom (Isaac loves him) all the way back in the fifth century), and I picked up a pamphlet with it printed for guests, and everyone picked up a printed sheet of the bits that varied for this particular week. It's meant to be something that unites the church of all ages, since it's been used so long and was originally drawn partly from Jewish sources and the early Christian celebrations of the Eucharist. It is truly striking how ancient it feels in contrast to an evangelical service.

Consecration of Bishop Jonah

There was a short homily, but most of the liturgy was walking through Chrysostom's ancient order of service. In some ways it reminded me of an Indonesian service, the way they pray for anything and everything you could possibly think of and the way people seem to wander in and out throughout the service. As I stood in the back someone who was probably stationed there to find visitors approached me and asked me if I'd been to an Orthodox service before, if I had questions, etc. He was very nice and helpful, and encouraged me to not feel uncomfortable just standing in the back observing my first time.

It was, indeed, unlike any English service I'd ever been to before. I do think all my research prepared me well for what I was going to see, though. Tomorrow I'll write my thoughts...

9 comments:

Young Mom said...

Very very interesting, I've never attended but I have read about it quite a bit.

s-p said...

A very beautiful post. You represented everything wonderfully. I'm looking forward to your comments. It has been 12 years since my first liturgy and you expressed a lot of my reactions too.

s-p said...

By the way, is the last photo one you took? Is that Metropolitan Jonah? If so you happened on a heirarchical liturgy with the Archbishop of all America and Canada (OCA), a relatively rare occurrence in a parish.

David said...

Keri:

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts! I always love to hear people's impressions after their first visit (or first in English, in this case) to an Orthodox Church. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your thoughts.

David

DebD said...

I'm so glad you were able to go to a service. After all the reading you've done it seems so natural to experience it too. The pictures look like they came from two difference services though? Were you able to attend more than one? The pictures are wonderful and the cathedral looks so lovely.

Kacie said...

The photos aren't mine, they're from flikr when I searched for the name of the church, you can click on them to see more or to find the photographer. And yes, a number of them are from the consecration of Bishop Jonah. It's a beautiful church, and seems to have an involved congregation!

DebD said...

Ahh, that explains the different liturgical colors.

Andrea Elizabeth said...

Oh my. I do not want to admit this, but you chose our friends' pictures! And I am the one with the unfortunate black jacket and white shirt. I have blood sugar and standing issues too, well and age and weight issues. DH George says that's a bad picture of me. But it's really good of Ana, Cristina, and Joey, the photographer's sisters and friend. I'm glad you have a good first impression of the Church and services!

- Andrea Elizabeth

Kacie said...

Andrea Elizabeth - how funny that a blogging friend ended up in a photo on my blog without me having any idea what you look like! :)