When titling this post I encountered the difficulty I have been facing since yesterday morning: How do I describe my first experience with Eastern Orthodoxy? I could tell you about all of the individual moments that stand out most, or the people I met, or that I felt something different about that service than I've rarely encountered in my life. I might say that it was "profound" or "moving" or "spiritual," but none of those words are truly appropriate.
In an attempt to describe what I'm feeling, I shall begin by sharing three of the most memorable experiences. Having never been to an Orthodox service of any kind, my Orthodox friends will please excuse any ignorant comments that I unwittingly make. I will do my best to be as accurate as possible in my description of the events.
I entered the church, walked up a few steps, and was immediately faced with an empty room. I realized rather quickly that there were chairs to the side and at the back, but everyone was standing. Though I had expected this, I was still not prepared for the small space and had thought that I might be able to sink into the background unnoticed. Not so!! I hadn't been in the place two minutes before a very sweet woman with her head covered approached me with the most sincerely welcoming smile I've seen in a long time and asked, "Is this your very first Eastern Orthodox service?" "Umm, yes. Yes, it is." She told me not to feel self-conscious and comforted me by telling me that almost everyone in the room had at one point been completely new to Orthodoxy as well. I was a little sad that I had been that obviously new, but considering the size and intimacy of the parish it is hardly surprising that I was spotted so quickly. This woman (I intend to learn her name next week) approached me at least once more during the service to ask how I was doing and to tell me that I could sit down if I needed to and that I shouldn't be embarassed about it.
Later in the service I recieved a blessing from Father Patrick. I had no idea how that would effect me, but it left me feeling...blessed, I suppose. I don't really know. He bent toward me a little and said, "And what is your name, precious?" I just about cried. It was the sweetest thing, and in that moment I understood why priests are celibate--they really are the "fathers" of their parishes and ought to have the time and emotional energy to care for all of their "children." I think the closest I could come to describing my emotion after that particular experience is to say that I felt joy in a way that I rarely do. It was peaceful, yet tenacious, and I feel it now as I remember that blessing!
The Veneration of the Cross is the last experience I will share with you before I finish. It occurred at the beginning and end of our time there, but I only participated the second time. The first time I felt it was prudent, knowing that there would be another chance, to observe and make mental note of the process and have some time to think about it before actually participating. Helpfully, Father Pat discussed the reason behind the practice in his homily, so I was given further motivation. This aspect of the service is simple to explain--the people line up and prostrate themselves before a small brass cross several times before kissing it and bowing again. The whole time, a chant is going that is repeated again and again. This is another moment that I'm having trouble explaining, but I think I could give it a shot! It felt...right. Like it was finally not about me or us or them...okay, well, I guess I can't really explain as well as I would like, but you get the idea. Transformational might be a good word. I don't know.
These are just a few of the things that I remember from yesterday. As I've been thinking about this as I write, some things came to mind. First, despite the discomfort accompanying an entirely new experience, I never once felt that anyone thought anything of my presence. Which brings me to my second point--the entire service was SO about GOD! It was not about me, it was not about the group that I came with, and it wasn't about the priest or the deacons or the parish or the building or the music or any of that. It was all about God. Everything. In that stretch of time our focus was directed toward the worship of our Creator, Master, Saviour, and Judge. I felt God's prescence yesterday in a way that I normally only do when I'm alone with him, and I am actually waiting in expectation for next Sunday. I don't think that this evaluation could ever possibly express what happened to me yesterday, but I'm glad I tried. =)