Recently I’ve been attending an Eastern Orthodox church. Those close to me are skeptical, doubtlessly thinking that I’ve entered another phase of religious dabbling. Maybe that’s all it is. I collect religious identities the way some people collect Hummel figurines. To wit: I was raised Southern Baptist, but I’ve also practiced voudou. I’ve been non-denominational, a wiccan manquée, and an atheist.
In the past few years, though, I’d resigned myself to the idea that a person’s experience of the Divine is a necessarily individual experience, and I gave up on church. Any time I’d had any kind of numinous experience, I’d been alone. When I thought back to many of my church experiences, I remembered a room full of people, not God. Usually, the people were distracting: kids fidgeted, adults had gingivitis, or wept openly. When I finally decided to give up on church it was a relief, and I was proud of the way I’d liberated myself from a cycle of disappointment.
At home on Sunday mornings, reading poetry or listening to podcasts, there were no crying babies, and the only bad breath was my own. It wasn’t always transcendent, but sometimes I’d read a line from Rumi and it would blow my mind. But often I was lonely. Sometimes I would have some new theory about the way things are—and I’d want to discuss it with somebody. But in my life there is a dearth of people with whom I can have metaphysical discussions.
I’m attracted to the Eastern Orthodox Church because it’s supposedly a spacious tradition, able to account for both the boundless mystery of God, and also man’s intellectual scrutiny.
But it’s liturgy that really sends me. The entire thing is sung! They swing this incense censer all over the place, and the censer has bells on it. There are candles everywhere. And the icons are those beautiful Byzantine kind with the pointy golden faces and the sad eyes, and there’s a lot of parading around and whooshing curtains. It’s dramatic—but also very solemn and mystical, so different from the evangelical church I attended several years ago, where the service was structured around the whims of the pastor, and where a rock band played and people waved their hands around in the air before and after the sermon.
My favorite part of the liturgy—and it doesn’t happen every time—is when this particular woman sings a mournful Arabic song during Holy Communion. Her voice is like a banner rippling in the hot desert wind. It makes me think of pomegranates and broken hearts and ashes, but when she finishes singing, she looks very matter-of-fact about the whole thing.
A new religion is like a new lover—you can be head-over-heels with what you think it is, when in actuality it’s pretty much the same as your ex. I know that right now, the allure is purely aesthetic. Eastern Orthodoxy and I have had some nice dates, but we haven’t really gone beyond the superficial — we haven’t had any deep discussions. Next month I’ll start taking catechism classes, and get beyond the “bells and smells.”
This is the only way I can really discover what it means to be Orthodox. I have a huge list of questions. Some will be easy to answer (What is the wooden paddle and why do people kiss it?) and some will be more tricky (Why does the church exclude people from Communion? Why does the church exclude women from the clergy? What about gay people?). I plan to do a bit of blogging about it here.