The previous post in this series highlighted some areas where foundational shifts of perspective took place as I approached Orthodoxy from an evangelical background. The main ones were: (1) how authority in the church is derived, established and passed down (2) understanding of the sacraments, (3) the way the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity intensely shape the focus and the form of the worship of the Orthodox church, and (4) that worship and communion is what human beings were created for.
These realizations fueled others (and each other), which led to a deeper, more full appreciation of other issues, and then ultimately fed back into the primary, fundamental convictions -- who God is, what and who humanity and the Church are, and how they all relate -- again. I discovered the Orthodox faith to be a rich, intricate, and beautiful tapestry woven from these threads.
Initially I was going to explore this infinite inexhaustibility of Orthodoxy in writing, but as a lot of it is too much for words, or certainly beyond anything that I have to contribute, I have decided to defer some of that for now. Instead I would like to take a brief look at my first concrete experiences with the Orthodox Church.
With my interest in the Orthodox Faith piqued, and undergoing a sort of intellectual transformation, I knew attending Orthodox services was the next step. Many of the Church Fathers stress the centrality of the liturgy as a defining witness of what the Church believes and how she lives. St. John Chrysostom says that the best catechism is faithful, mindful attendance of divine services. Having listened to many episodes of Ancient Faith radio programming, one notices how often Orthodox will answer questions or address issues by saying, "Well, at such-and-such part of the liturgy we pray these words.." or "This hymn is sung during such-and-such a period the liturgical calendar for this reason.." And it is a common aphorism, accepted by the Orthodox Church that "we believe what we pray and we pray what we believe". With all this in mind, I set out to attend divine liturgy at an Orthodox parish.
The first I attended was the closest Orthodox parish to my home, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Upland, California. On their website it said that 'Matins' began at 9 AM and liturgy at 10 AM. Not being sure exactly what Matins was, I figured I'd attend both. It was a small, ethnic parish and arriving at 9 AM, there was only the priest, the chanters (two of them) and one member of the laity (though many other parishioners arrived later in the hour). Immediately I realized (I'm a very attentive sort) that the liturgy was almost entirely in some form of Arabic. There were candles, an iconostasis, incense, much crossing of one's self, and other elements of worship foreign to my experience, but the service was beautiful and ancient and I felt strongly compelled to find an Orthodox church with (at least predominantly) English services.
A kind family at St. George recommended St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside, which they said performed services in English. It was a bit of a drive, but I figured it was worth it. St. Andrew's temple (I later learned) is only about a year old, and is a magnificent, beautiful building, built in traditional Byzantine style of architecture.
While I had been among the first to arrive at St. George (and so saw no one else as they entered), this wasn't the case at St. Andrew. As I was entering the narthex of the church (the Western portion which is where the main entrance is), the first thing that struck me were the presence of icons and candles, and parishioners venerating the icons, lighting candles and praying. Looking beyond the narthex into the nave of the Church, there were icons in many places -- on the iconostasis, on the pillars, on the walls, inside the central dome, and on the walls and ceiling of the sanctuary. There seemed to be an open-air area of confession off to the side where parishioners were confessing before the priest. At St. George there was just the one priest and some altar boys, while at St. Andrew there was a priest and many deacons or assistant priests performing the liturgy. There was also full choir that sang hymns and prayers, in concert with the presbyters and deacons. Something else that caught my attention was a relative dearth of chairs and that during most of the service -- practically all of it -- the parishioners stand.
Having my senses overwhelmed in such a manner, with such unfamiliar sites, sounds and smells, it was difficult to process everything that occurred. But the beauty -- and therefore truth -- of it all struck me as unmistakable.
Something I kind of passed over without comment in the previous posts was that in my reading I had, in an intellectual way, come to a greater understanding of beauty and its theological significance. Largely -- but not solely -- due to David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Here was a Church that seemed to take what was -- for me, at the time -- mere ideas and manifest them in a living reality.
But venerating icons? The intercessions of the Saints? Mary, the Theotokos? All of these things -- though I was aware of some of the history behind them -- are not just doctrines that the Orthodox Church affirms, but are actual significant elements of their liturgical worship, and elements that were utterly foreign to me, coming from the background that I had. These were stumbling blocks for myself and -- as many programs on Ancient Faith radio attest to -- for most Protestant converts to Orthodoxy. However, as I had already become somewhat inclined to accept the Orthodox Church as the true New Testament church, persisting throughout history and with us still today, I endeavored to approach these matters with a humble heart and the spirit of a learner, operating on the assumption that there must be much that I did not understand. Part of me instinctively recoiled at some of this, but I was eager to learn more. In the next installment we will look at these matters more closely, from the perspective of the Orthodox Church, and we'll examine the scriptural basis for these doctrines and practices as well as their theological significance.