Friday, July 21, 2006

Apostles and Icons

I realized today that I never reported on my most recent visit to an Orthodox service, for the Apostles' vigil at a ROCOR parish. As I mentioned in "some random updates," I had arranged to attend the service with an Evangelical friend. We got there a few minutes before the service began, about the same time that Fr. Athanasy showed up with the myrrh-streaming icon of St. Anna. We all had a chance to venerate the icon at the beginning, and then again after the matins Gospel reading. As I expected anyway, my friend just watched and chose not to venerate. I was kind of surprised to see that there were other non-Orthodox visitors--folks who apparently had no interest in becoming Orthodox either, or for that matter in learning about Orthodoxy. I suppose it shouldn't have surprised me, after reading that even Muslims showed up to venerate John the Baptist's hand as it toured through Russia. I'm just wondering how they knew the icon would be there. I only knew because I checked the church Web site for information about the service and noticed that they were expecting it. I suppose word about this kind of thing gets around in certain circles.

The service was perhaps the most crowded that I've attended there. It's a very small parish that meets in some converted office space. The nave is practically non-existent or at least indistinguishable from the ambo. It's about one or two steps from the entrance to the central icon and maybe about the same distance from there to the iconostasis. The choir takes up most of the space on the right. I've tried standing to that side, sort of between the central icon and the reliquary. You always feel like you're in the way. The left side isn't much better. One or two people can stand there without too much trouble. You just have to dance with the clergy. Everyone has to clear out into the narthex (which is also the fellowship hall, kitchen, and library) for anything that happens in front of the central icon. If there are more than a few people there for a service, most people have to stand out there anyway. My friend and I stood in the nave, to the left, until the first such occasion. I wanted him to get a chance to see things up-close for at least part of the service. After that, we stayed out in the narthex for the rest of vespers and the first part of matins.

At the veneration, everyone who came up was anointed with myrrh from the icon and received some of the bread offering (I don't know what the technical name is for it) and a prayer card. It's the first time I can recall being anointed with anything other than holy water. I tried to leave it alone, but it kept running down onto my nose, and it was a fairly humid evening, so I was sweating anyway. We left shortly after the veneration and anointing. (I had asked the matushka in advance when a good time might be to make our exit, if we couldn't stay for the whole service, and that's what she had suggested.) We wanted some time afterward to talk about it, and I didn't figure there would be much of that if we stayed until the end. (3:45 is early enough to get up for work, without staying up past 11:00.) I would have liked to talk with Fr. George after the service, but I'm glad we had a chance for our own conversation. We stood in the parking lot for a few minutes chatting. Fr. George came out at one point and reminded us that church was inside. I did feel kind of bad that we left when we did. I'm sure that's when the other visitors left, once they'd got what they came for.

After that, we went to Wendy's and talked for a couple of hours. I appreciated the discussion. For the most part, my conversations with Evangelicals have followed a standard pattern--they don't know much of anything about Orthodoxy, they think it sounds like a fine option for those who are into that kind of thing, and although they might not agree with everything about Orthodoxy themselves, they don't care much to debate the issues. This case was a little bit different. I kind of thought it might be. My friend has a lot of experience discussing religious differences with Mormons and other cultists, so he's not afraid to challenge what doesn't sound right to him. It never got heated or anything, but he did ask pointed questions about the areas of prominent difference. We talked quite a bit about intercession of saints, for instance, and other concepts related to Mary (perpetual virginity, sinlessness, etc.); we talked about Tradition and Scripture, and my reasons for choosing Orthodoxy; we talked about more formal aspects of the service--some things he liked, some he didn't. He brought up an interesting tension--he noted the reverence and formality (compared with Evangelical traditions), but at the same time, it seemed like there was a lot of stuff going on during the service. Of course, there are a lot of elements combined into the liturgy itself, but his point was the somewhat more incidental stuff, from disruptions caused by kids, to elements of personal piety like venerating icons and lighting candles, to people doing things that didn't seem to be part of worship per se while participating in worship at the same time (talking to each other or to visitors, coming in late or leaving early, even the priest getting distracted with something and then jumping back in when it was time for him to do something). I explained to him about the practice of taking confessions during the service, which requires the priest to keep popping in and out. Later, I followed up with some thoughts in an e-mail:
One other thing I should mention from last night. Regarding the movement and apparent distraction from the solemnity of what was going on, to one degree this can get out of hand, and that is why there is a certain amount of regulation on when it is and isn't appropriate. Much of what goes on with people moving around, venerating icons, lighting candles, is all part of worship, and so there is no problem with it. Even the elements that seem like distraction, where the priest is doing something else and breaks it off to jump in with something he's supposed to say--in part, this reflects that the priest has a lot to do during the service, some of which involves just praying quietly on his own while other things are happening; it also reflects the practical mechanics of running a service. I'm sure you know that when you're actively involved in a service, your attention does sometimes have to be given to the tasks and processes that need to keep going. There's a sense in which the ideal of Orthodox worship is for everyone to be actively involved. When you're doing that for something that lasts hours, it's just part of human existence that you can't be 100% focused on worship 100% of the time. Things like greeting people who have come in late, explaining things to visitors, watching a child, going to the bathroom, and yes, sometimes sitting down to relieve aching joints, are just part of human existence that is not altogether excluded from worship. If we could really worship 24-7, we would probably figure out ways to cook and clean during the service, since they need to get done sometime. The important thing is to keep it all balanced, and with the right attitude. It's perfectly acceptable to be comfortable with what's going on because you've been doing it for so long, but you also have to combat distraction.
As for me, I'm still not sure what I think of the whole myrrh-streaming icon thing. I honestly didn't even get a chance to see whether the icon was doing anything while I was there. I never actually thought to check when I went up to venerate it. I did look at it, but I went quickly since I knew others were waiting. I wasn't particularly expecting it to do anything to me--heal me or anything like that. (I didn't have anything to be healed of, that I knew anyway.) So it was something I just kind of did and went on with life. I never really doubted that it does in fact stream myrrh, although I don't know exactly what the reason might be.

This was the first time I invited someone to visit that particular parish with me. Normally, I invite them to the Antiochian parish, but in this case it just worked out better--my friend works closer to this one, and it was a service that I happened to go to, and he happened to be available for. As I explained some of the features of the service to him, it occurred to me that I was noting several points where the Russian tradition wasn't my preference. I thought about this later. I have a great deal of respect for Russian Orthodoxy--for its role as the first coordinating structure of Orthodoxy in America, and for that matter its missionary outreach of which the American mission was just one part, for its resistance to some of the modernizing and Westernizing trends that seem to have been advocated by Constantinople, for its preservation of Orthodoxy in general during centuries when other Orthodox cultures were oppressed, for its resistance to the atheistic forces that tried to destroy it in the last century. But when it comes to the flavor of Orthodox worship, I think I really do favor the Byzantine style--the music, the design of the iconostasis, the observance of Orthros in the morning. There were probably other things--I seem to remember it coming up a lot. I guess one thing that I'd like to see come out of an effort to create some sort of American Orthodoxy is the seriousness of the Russian tradition combined with what feels to me like the somewhat more authentic flavor of the Byzantine traditions.

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