In September, at the new year according to the Orthodox calendar, I started visiting my local Orthodox church. Exhausted by heretical teachings of churches whose pastors had never seen the inside of a seminary, pastors and congregants who embraced anything written as long as it contained the proper buzzwords, and fed up with, ‘movements’ I needed something more but I wasn’t sure what it was… until I found the Orthodox church.
What I found, what I did not realize I was looking for until it was in front of me, what is lacking in so many ‘modern’ churches, is dogma. I already believe in miracles. I’ve seen miracles, I’ve seen angels. Even witches believe in angels. What’s the dogma? Who does your church say Christ is? How does your church approach, Christ? How do they approach the worship of the Uncreated One? Do they even worship Him or do they entertain the flock then have a ‘rah-rah meeting’, also known as a sermon? After almost 50 years of sermons, I’m all sermoned out. I need to be at the feet of God worshiping Him, loving on Him and being loved back.
I believe that the best way for I, or anyone one else for that matter, who is interested in exploring the Orthodox church, is to do so wholeheartedly. Yes, it can be a bit daunting at first to enter an Orthodox Church and to see all the icons, candles, murals, to hear the chanting and watch the deacon cense the icons and people. it can be especially unsettling if the last church you attended before coming to an Orthodox Church was barely identifiable as a church. One, puny cross against a large, bare white wall (so that the announcements can be played while people find their seats no doubt) no more hymnals- who reads music anymore? No vestments. Nothing really to make it stand out from the other cubes/stores in the strip mall with which it shares space. Do I sound snobby? I don’t mean to, I’m just over the blending in that so many churches do so as not to offend. To be inclusive. However, we as Christians are not to be one with the world. We are to be one with God. Set apart and different with a purpose. Purposefully different. I no longer wish to worship in a space reminiscent of office space. I don’t want to pray in a white cubicle that looks worldly. I wish to pray in a space that looks ‘other worldly’. A space that looks like something God would occupy. A space that is grand and opulent. A space that prepares me for an eternity in the presence of God.
When I’m having a difficult time focusing in prayer, looking at a saint’s icon helps. The candles help. My beloved prayer rope helps. Keep your prayer closet. I need a prayer temple. Quiet… mostly. Reverent. A temple which engages all five sense in prayer, and worship of God our king.
One thing that I’ve noticed that I cannot do while in an Orthodox Church is, I cannot look at it through protestant eyes and understand the importance of the mystery set before me in the form of vespers or Div. Liturgy as being a mystery and letting it be a mystery.
It’s ok for us not to understand everything that is going on around us in a spiritual setting. Spiritual things are supposed to be mysterious. God is suppose to be mysterious. In my church travels through the years, I’ve noticed that many protestants believe that they have God all figured out. They do not seem to understand that the moment you think you have God figured out should be the moment you realize whatever it is you’ve been studying was not God or else you would not be able to understand Him. How can you understand His uncreatedness? His wonderment? His divinity? And it is HIS divinity not ours.
When walking into an Orthodox Church, one is to have the sense of leaving the world behind them, and walking east. East toward God, His divinity, and worship of this divine, uncreated Being in the most spectacular, colorful, and reverent way humanly possible. I, for one, am grateful it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a protestant. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ is my current motto. I am walking out my Orthodox Church experience one service at a time. One prayer at a time, and doing my best to experience it with child like wonder and not pick it apart through protestant intellect. That’s not to say that the Orthodox mind is a simple mind. Not at all! I’ve met many amazing and intelligent people at my church. What I am saying is that I’m not going to go into this experience thinking I know all the answers. I am a stranger in a strange land. Just as I would not go to France and expect everyone to be an American, nor have I come to this new-to-me church expecting everyone to change for me and sing all my favorite hymns, paint over the icons, and stop lighting candles. If I wanted a protestant experience, I would not be attending an Orthodox church. I came to this particular church to have this particular experience. To learn what they know. To look at God through the philosophical eyes of the writings of ancient fathers. To learn about tradition (a word scorned in many protestant churches), to learn about saints and martyrs. To hear new prayers. To see the bible written on a wall in the form of an icon or mural. To have this ‘thing’ called Christianity show respect for our Creator and not take important ideas such as an eternity in the presence of God so lightly as I have seen some churches, and many Christians do. If being a Christian is suppose to change us, why are so many of us still the same year after year? Why is it becoming a crime to point out the need for repentance, the need to stop sinning, the need to forgive?
If you have come to the Orthodox Church because you were looking for something different, then BE different! Participate as much as possible. Learn how to venerate an icon. Light a candle, say a prayer, cross yourself and bow down. Submerge yourself in the wonderment, traditions, and the divine mystery of the Orthodox Church. If you end up thinking that it is not for you, at least you can say that you gave it your best shot. If, however, you’ve been attending an Orthodox Church all the while refusing to fully participate, how can you know whether or not it was where you were supposed to be if you were never able to fully put aside your protestant fears and doubts?
How about the next service at your church whether it’s vespers or Div. Liturgy, you fully participate? How about lighting a candle, venerating an icon, or asking Mary to pray for you before the throne of God? You never know, maybe you’ll find out that this is where you were supposed to be all along but you didn’t know because you were holding back? Christmas is just around the corner. What a great time to get over yourself and enjoy some genuine wonderment.
Lord have mercy!