American Orthodox

Home at Last

I had my catechism and First Communion before Vatican II (no nasty cracks about my age, thank you) and remember well the sacred mystery, the theocentric experience Mass was then. You didn't talk in church not because you'd get in trouble, but because you didn't dare; God was present in the tabernacle, and the church was in every sense, a holy place.

Vatican II brought us a degraded, God-free, humanocentric church and liturgy, and I lapsed. For many years, I did not go to church, but I yearned for God in my life, for that divine worship that had so awed me as a child.

Even when I was not attending church, I devoured church history and theology. It fascinated me, this historical continuity back to the first Pentecost.

When I completed my BA, we moved to Louisville, and for the first time in years, my yearning took me from church to chuch (my church shopping in Louisville is documented here).

My first experiences with Orthodoxy were a couple of Russian Synod (Russian Church Outside Russia) and Greek churches, were they were not pleasant. In the Greek churches, the liturgy seemed to almost be empty; it was obvious nobody under the age of 40 had any idea what was going on, or cared. In the Synod churches, there was a piety and a reverence from the congregants so palpable, something that has been nearly lost in Western Christianity, but the sermons were jarring rants about the evils of communism, restoring the Czar, and the godlessness of the other Othordox churches. In the Greek and Russian churches, the congregants went out of their way to make sure I knew I was unwelcome there.

So my search continued, until I went to an Antiochian parish, St. Michael.

St. Michael was utterly different from the Orthodox parishes I had previously visited. There were members from nearly every Orthodox ethnic group on the planet, even Greeks who had grown tired of the ethnic social club status of their parishes. A third of the members were converts. The liturgy was in English. That same piety and reverence I had seen at the Russian Synod churches was very much present, and the sermon was about faith and theology. Perhaps most strikingly, everyone there went out of his way to make me feel welcome.

I will be honest. I found many things there strange. Church etiquette is entirely different between East and West, and people mill in and out during liturgy. As people came in, they crossed themselves (I did know, even before the first time I had been to an Orthodox church, that the Orthodox cross themselves from right to left), then kissed an icon; some went up to the front of the church, lit candles, and placed them in front of icons. I'm sure I blinked when I saw the priest communing the congregants with a spoon. And I figured out that the people who went forward and knelt at the only kneeler in the church, in front of the icons, were going to Confession — not in a confessional, but up front, in full view of everyone there. The old chanter chanted in Syrian modes full of quarter-tone trills, and sounded like a muezzin, and then, the choir took over and the music became Russian polyphony (I did not realize when I first went that Matins flows directly into the Divine Liturgy, with no clean break). After the liturgy, people went up front to kiss the crucifix and the hand of the priest, and took a piece of bread. I had no idea what that was, and would not have gone, had the woman sitting next to me gestured for me to join them.

Many things were strange — yet also strangely familiar. The general order of the Divine Liturgy was the same as the general order of the Mass: the Word followed by the Eucharist. I recongized the Nicene Creed and some of the prayers. The sense of the divine, the theocentric nature of the Liturgy was what I had yearned for since my childhood as a Roman Catholic. And I cannot stress this enough, but the piety all around me, not just in the Liturgy, but in all of the worshippers, that was, for me at least, perhaps the most moving thing of all.

So I began talking to the priest there.

The Father was no namby-pamby New Age-y therapist priest. Oh no, he was the kind of priest I remembered from my childhood: An authority figure, an adherent to the faith and theology of the church, and a spiritual advisor. The first book he gave me was The Orthodox Church, by Timothy Ware.

I devoured it and took it back. He gave me more to read, and I read. I went to every service I could, and even felt guilty about all the hours I spent talking to the Father.

And then, I realized something. I had thirsted for all those years, and here I was, drinking and drinking, unceasingly drinking.

In 1984, I made my first confession, was Chrismated, and partook of the Eucharist as an Orthodox Christian. I sang in the choir (we sang for the Patriarch Ignatius IV in Toledo). I couldn't go to church enough.

But I despised cooking in restaurants, and decided to go to grad school. So I left St. Michael behind.

There was a small Synod mission in Indiana, and I attended there for a while. But they were more interested in returning the Czar to power than they were in faith, more interested in railing about the evil Gregorian calendar than they were in worshipping God, and then, the rumors began to fly, rather disturbing rumors.

When the priest there insisted on re-baptizing me, I stood my ground. I said no, left, and did not look back.

I went nowhere for a while, then returned to Catholic parishes. But the thirst was back, and singing kumbayah with Sr. Benedict Arnold and the Lenin Sisters was not slaking it.

When we moved here, to Pennsylvania, the list of churches we got had no Orthodox parish listed. For a while, I went to Our Lady of Victory, a surprisingly (and refreshingly) conservative Roman Catholic parish, until my neighbor told me that across the street from our house, at the nutty leftists Roman Catholic parish, there was a Byzantine mission that met on Saturday nights.

I had no experience with Eastern Rite Catholics. I did not know what to expect. Other than the fact that they follow the Roman Liturgical calendar for Easter, and kneel, they were indistinguishable from the Orthodox. Then while driving rather aimlessly through town, I saw a sign: Holy Trinity Orthodox Church.

Orthodox churches are like Protestant churches in that they are not open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week (Roman Catholic churches are). So I went back home and googled the parish. I got the schedule of services, and went to Matins and Divine Liturgy.

I did not go without anxiety. My experience in Indiana with the Synod mission had left me careful. I put it off a couple of weeks, both because of my anxiety (some of that had been dispersed when I found out it was not a Synod parish), and because I had formed a bond with the Byzantine community. I felt that I would be betraying them (yes, Catholic guilt).

I cannot begin to describe the feeling of being there, after all these years. I met the priest, and we talked, and I have no more fears — though yes, I do feel guilty about leaving the Byzantines.

Somewhere, I have a box full of Orthodox books: prayer books, theology, history, icons. I have no idea where they are (this is the problem with using movers), but picked up a copy of The Orthodox Church at the bookstore, and ordered the prayer book online.

So again, I have a home. Holy Trinity seems much like St. Michael: very much an American church, and the people so far have been warm and friendly.

1 Comment »

  1. I love your site!

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    Comment by Michael Tim — February 28, 2009 @ 1:26 pm


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