It’s 10:30 on a Sunday morning, and right now at the Orthodox church I’ve been attending, the bell is ringing. Just inside the front doors, the faithful are lighting thin yellow tapers and arranging them in a wooden tray filled with sand. They pause for a moment at this table of light and pray to the icons on the wall before crossing themselves. When they enter the sanctuary, music and incense pour from behind the doors, ancient and sweet.
But I’m not in church this morning. I’m at home smelling the mushroomy scent of rain and listening to the occasional moan of a freight train. I’m barefoot and wearing my favorite ratty shirt. I’m a little depressed.
If a new religion is like a new lover, then I suppose I’m at the phase of the relationship where one realizes the new lover isn’t perfect after all. Now I can’t remember why I thought it would be such a super idea to be exclusive.
Eastern Orthodoxy and I haven’t had a fight or anything. It’s just that at first it seemed so exotic with the incense and the Romanian priest and the sanctuary full of immigrants from all over the world. Last week, I even went to Saturday evening vespers for the first time, and it was so beautiful that I actually cried.
But at liturgy the next morning, it seemed like God had decided to sleep in. Maybe because every little kid in attendance had apparently been mainlining corn syrup—the church was filled with screeching, writhing, raisin-flinging spawn that seemed more like peltless beasts than people. Halfway through the service I started to get a headache, and I left feeling like I’d been stood up. It stung especially after the vespers service been so special—like Eastern Orthodoxy (or God) was having second thoughts about me.
I told my husband I was going to play hooky from church today, and explained about the liturgy where God had stood me up. “Christians are told all this stuff about how much God wants to have a ‘relationship’ with humanity, but then you can’t even count on Him to show up,” I said. “Maybe God is making overtures to me all the time and I’m too caught up in my own reality to see it, but it annoys me that when I’m actually making the effort, it’s still a total crapshoot.”
“Well, how much time during the week do you actually spend praying and stuff?” my husband asked. “Maybe you’re putting too much pressure on a certain day of the week.”
I glared at him. “Look,” I said. “My point is, God is . . . capricious.”
“You’re capricious,” he said. “Your religious life has been very capricious.”
This made me laugh. He’s totally right.
But here is the nut of the problem for myself and anyone who has ever attempted to perceive God: the inescapable human tendency to “make God in our own image.” Consider the warmongering fundamentalists of every religious sect, ever. Consider the past week’s news headlines. If we can only perceive God as a function of ourselves, then what? It seems the best we can hope for is a few strange moments when our conceits are stripped away and we are left with raw wonder.
I suppose that in the end, I stayed home this morning out of instinct. I don’t want to get into the habit of thinking or behaving like there’s only one way to access God—precisely because I know God to be capricious, I know I must leave room for surprises. The Eastern Orthodox way of worshiping is so ritualistic, I worry that once the novelty has worn off, it will become rote and uninspired. Maybe this has already started to happen.
So today I look for God in the rain, and in Rachmaninov.