Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mother Russia: A Reminiscence

I'm not quite sure I can call this a reconciliation experience. I have for some time had something of an infatuation with Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, when I went through the standard Lutheran post-adolescent drift away from Christianity, the Orthodox classic The Way of a Pilgrim was one of the decisive elements in my return. But for whatever reason, I had never stepped foot in an Orthodox church.

Then a couple of years ago I was in Russia on business. Unlike typical business trips, this one left some free time for non-business activities. I was in Nizhny-Novogorod, so after visiting the house where Maxim Gorky was born, there wasn't a lot of typical touristy stuff to do. Naturally I wanted to see some churches, and let me tell you...Wow!

So Nizhny doesn't have anything like St. Basil's Cathedral, but for someone who had never seen a Russian Orthodox church before, all of them are awe inspiring.

My first experience was with a group of co-workers. First, we visited a monastery where after a small contribution the monk who was trying to get us to leave gave us a tour and (through a Russian co-worker who translated for us) gave a very motivational speech about St. John the Baptist ("Sometimes you have to preach to explain," our interpreter said). Later we visited a church whose name my Russian co-worker translated for us as "the Church of the Death of the Mother of God." We happened to be there during a worship service, and I was very uncomfortable as our mixed, mostly non-Christian, group stood in the "tacky knicknack shoppe" area and observed.

As it happens, however, because there are only two flights a week out of Nizhny, I had a Saturday morning free and was able to return to the church of the Dormition for Divine Liturgy. It was then that it became a place of prayer for me. The liturgy was, of course, in Russian and I only know about three words in Russian (no one taught me the Russian word for lip). I think I picked up "спасибо" ("thanks") a few times.

But it turns out that this language barrier was, for me, the greastest blessing of the whole visit. It allowed me to notice the non-verbal aspects of worship -- the sounds, the smells, the sights and the motions -- most of all the motions.

The sounds: there seemed to be a choir somewhere, but I never did figure out where they were, which was brilliant. Listening to these beautiful, far off voices singing something that I couldn't entirely comprehend...it's a wonderful metaphor for worship.

The smells: incense, incense and more incense. I thought of the refrain I know from Ash Wednesday services, "Lord, may our prayers rise like incense in your sight...."

The sights: this particular church, and every church I saw in Nizhny, had a full iconostasis, which was stunning, but beyond that, the arched walls of the area where the laity worship was covered with icons. Having these images of the saints "looking in" on the liturgy -- from behind, from above, from all around -- gave me, for the first time, an experiential knowledge of what is meant by worshipping with the whole Church.

The motions: Lutherans think they move around a lot in worship...sit, stand, kneel...but we've got nothing on the Russian Orthodox. First, they don't sit. They don't have pews. They would just be in the way. Throughout the service, everyone was constantly prostrating, bowing and making the sign of the cross. At first, I watched the people next to me and tried to keep up, usually half a step behind. Eventually I picked up on some of the auditory cues and began doing things at the right time (to the extent that there is a right time -- there was quite a bit of variation). I saw what it means to worship God with one's body. Anyone who speaks of "just" going through the motions in worship hasn't truly noticed what the motions are capable of.

All of this showed me a side of worship I never knew. I haven't been able to even approximate the experience in a Lutheran service, but the mere memory of it calls me deeper. It reminds me that there's more going on than meets the eye.


P.S. an after-thought said...

September Christian Reconciliation now posted Your article is included.

Weekend Fisher said...

I love Eastern Orthodox services too. The closest parish to me is (mostly) Greek with some Syrian/Arab and Slavs mixed in for good measure. Beautiful. ... and they do enough of the service in English that I can follow. :)

Have you ever been to an Orthodox service back home?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

And thank you for participating in the Carnival! :)

Andy said...

There's an OCA church near me, and I've been meaning to visit for about four years. Their website gives me the impression they actually have services in English. I'm not really sure why I haven't visited yet.

Where I used to live there were several ethnic Orthodox churches nearby, and I have to say that the ethnic specificity kept me away (perhaps rightly so -- I know many immigrant groups have a felt need to preserve their cultural identity for at least a generation or two).