The St. Lawrence Orthodox Church occupies a broad, barn-like and very beautiful redwood building a scant two minute walk from my apartment in Felton on Highway Nine. Orthodoxy has fascinated me since my acquaintance with it, academically thru my Russian Studies major, and personally thru a lovely Professor, one Masha Kipp, who more or less adopted me in college, often providing my meal for the day accompanied by wine, brandy, good bread and literary argument. It values beauty, in an opulent, Near-Eastern manner, and retains enough old church qualities, like the singing of the service, the dedication of each day to one saint or event or another, to please me and seem, somehow, essentially honest. It will often surprise you with its modern lyricism. The church blooms 'like an orchid in Siberia' and the Lord is asked for mercy for all those 'unwatered by the streams of grace.'
However, incense makes my throat close.
Having a longing for devotion, prayer, and ritualized beauty, and believing in building my life thru the accident of what surrounds me, I stopped in last night for their Vespers service, sung almost nightly, and twin to Matins, a morning service more or less the same.
I can't say I grew up in any church per se. Our family was vaguely Irish Catholic but my grandfather had had a falling out (or, rather, a casting out) and this carried over to Mom, who also honestly worked too much to have time for church. The only church in Mentor, the little grain elevator town I lived in before the farm, was Methodist. Being a civilized sort of feral child and immensely curious, I began attending by myself, sitting in the unoccupied second row, and devouring everything, hymns, parables, homilies, that the services and their books provided.
Now, since the fervor of prohibition has mostly come and gone, Methodism has become one of the most milquetoast of the Protestant churches. They use grape juice for communion, and only do that once or twice a year, but other than that have adopted a bland, Mid-Western, middle-class tedium of faith, which was, for me, saved by the garrulous, fearless, melodramatic personalities of the mostly elderly membership. They hated and thwarted each other so politely! And the pancake feeds where all the kids served and stole sausage links dipped in syrup on the sly.
At ten I encountered my religious crisis, my first thoroughly intentional and conscious act as the man I have become, and left the church, tho retaining a sort of automatic monotheism and habit of prayer. The rest has been a reflexive animism grounded in the transcendence of beauty.
So I attended the small service, made up mostly of the monks actively serving, and stood along the back wall with one of those thin aged to agelessness women heavy with suffering and devotion found in every Orthodox church everywhere. They may not even be people, rightly speaking, but a kind of goblin native to the buildings.
How good it felt to sing the response, Lord. Have Mercy. in the ancient lilting minor key melodies. The plea for mercy-- I believe in this.
After the service, I spent a modest amount of time looking at the many icons and the organization of the church. Imagine my surprise, and complete lack of surprise, when I turned to the icon directly behind me and found St. Patrick. Has it been you the whole time, Pat?
I could go on. I have an entire line of thinking based on Religious 'gesture'
for instance, but I'll leave you with some words from the newsletter that I essentially, tho clearly not in every detail, agree with, and describes what I try to counter when I invite people into my home.
"It seems thousands of years removed from us, but it was not so very long ago
that life was marked out by religious feasts. Although everyone went to church,
not everyone, of course, knew the exact contents of each celebration. For many,
perhaps even the majority, the feast was above all an opportunity to get a good
sleep, eat well, drink and relax. And nevertheless, I think that each person felt, if
not fully consciously, that something transcendent and radiant broke into life
with each feast, bringing an encounter with a world of different realities, a
reminder of something forgotten, of something drowned out by the routine,
emptiness and weariness of daily life.
Consider the very names of the feasts: Entrance into the Temple, Nativity,
Epiphany, Presentation, Transfiguration. These words alone, in their solemnity,
their unrelatedness to daily life and their mysterious beauty awakened some forgotten
memory, invited, pointed to something. The feast was a kind of longing
sigh for a lost but beckoning beauty, a sigh for some other way of living.
Our modern world, however, has become monotonous and feastless. Even our
secular holidays are unable to hide this settling ash of sadness and hopelessness,
for the essence of celebration is this breaking in, this experience of being caught
up into a different reality, into a world of spiritual beauty and light. If, however,
this reality does not exist, if fundamentally there is nothing to celebrate, then no
manner of artificial uplift will be capable of creating a feast."