God is Capricious and So Am I

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.


Going on a Date with the Orthodox Chuch

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.