Holy Week, Schmoly Week

It’s Holy Week but it doesn’t feel that way. Lent hasn’t felt like Lent, either. I’ve made and eaten a lot of cake. I’ve had wine in the middle of the week. I’ve slept late almost every day, and went for days at a time without meditating.

It’s weird, but back in February, when I was trying determine what I would give up for lent, I kept coming up against a big blank. I tried to give up coffee because that seemed sufficiently painful—and I lasted exactly three days. Now I think I must have been intuiting how bad things would get without any help from my lack of caffeine.

I find myself reminiscing about Holy Week back in my Orthodox days. Those who could went to church every single day. It was a hassle, but the church-nerd in me loved it. On Good Friday alone there were three different services to commemorate distinct events Christ’s sentencing and crucifixion. The services were exceedingly sad and somber, but in between there was an undercurrent of camaraderie and joy. Using fresh greenery and real roses, the women would clean and decorate the bier. Downstairs, people were boiling and dying red eggs for Pascha.

I miss those days. Those ancient songs and rituals connected me to a lineage of countless faithful (and unfaithful) believers. It comforted me to press my body into those familiar postures of veneration, to prostrate myself or kiss an icon or tip my head back for a spoonful of warm wine during Eucharist.

Now I watch the priests on Facebook, lofting the host above the altar like a tiny moon, breaking it for an empty church. Only the dead are there, in the columbarium. At home, my partner and I exchange Ritz crackers and sip the dregs from a bottle of Chianti.

What’s the deal with church anyway? What’s the point? I’ve been asking myself for years and can never get a straight answer from myself. It is for structure? For an aesthetic experience? For a collective in which I can share and examine my particular experience with God? For me it’s all these things and more. It’s also less. By which I mean, it’s simpler than any of that: I go because I’m drawn to it. I love church—Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish—I love it all, as long as no one hands me a live snake.

I miss St. Mark’s. I miss standing and kneeling for liturgy. I miss reading Psalms from the lectern. I miss exchanging the peace with real handshakes and hugs. I miss the smiles now concealed behind masks.

I miss the holy water font and the colored stones in its basin.

I miss the way the light is all golden in the sacristy and yet cool and blue as it falls over the pews. I miss the reassuring flicker of the red votive above the small door where they keep the goods. I miss how some of the prayer books are new and stiff and creaky, and some flop open, exposing their spine-flesh. And because I don’t have a prayer book of my own, I miss the prayers themselves.

Somehow I suspect Sunday isn’t going to feel like Easter. I can put on my Easter dress (instead of yoga pants) for some #quarantine photos, I can roast a chicken and bake (another) cake. I probably will.

I will probably remind myself that faithful people have endured worse than this, that our church hasn’t been bombed, it’s just shuttered for a while. That feasting can be an act of hope and defiance. I’ll probably light a candle for you, whoever you are. Light one for me, too.

Why Go To Church?

Last Friday, I went back to the Orthodox Church I’d all but stopped attending. I’m sort of obsessed with the Virgin Mary; feast days in her honor are hard to resist. Plus, there was going to be a fish dinner. (Every year on the 25th of March, Eastern Christians commemorate Mary’s visitation by the archangel — nine months before Christmas.) However, because I’d been participating in Western Lent this year, it was jarring to celebrate Christ’s conception on the day that I was also marking his death.

As I stood in the choir loft and sang the familiar words, I remembered that time is not a line. But neither is it a circle. Moments do not open and close like blossoms. Though we move through them, they do not cease to exist. The first kiss my husband and I shared—sunlight on our faces, hearts effervescing with possibility—is contained within the same reality as our final kiss. So do Christ-the-embryo and Christ-the-brutalized overlap.

Likewise, the me that once attended an evangelical church, the me that once had a voudou altar, the me that piously knotted her headscarf before entering the Orthodox cathedral — these selves are not not abandoned husks; they live and breathe within their allotted moments, eternal. It’s so easy to forget that.

On Easter Sunday I attended church with my sister-in-law and her family. The church, housed in a nondescript metal building, had a state of the art sound system and Power Point slides displaying song lyrics. It was the kind of church I attended five years ago, the kind in which I was married. The kind I left.

It couldn’t have been more different from an Orthodox service. The congregants were unrestrained, weeping and waving their hands to the music, which was accompanied by a saxophone and drums. I looked around and thought, Who are these people? What do they think they’re doing? No one even served communion.

With sudden horror, I realized that I was being just the kind of Orthodox person I despised: judgmental, holier-than-thou. Full of ideas about the Right Way to Do Things. This sort of arrogance—in other people—was, in part, what drove me from the church a year ago. The real question was, What was I doing?

After that, I tried to see the sincerity in the other congregants. Their outstretched arms and tears became beautiful, terrible expressions of our souls’ exile to earth, our separation and mutual longing for union with some ineffable Source. We try to name it and give it attributes, we codify behaviors that we think will increase our chances of experiencing it, but the truth is that most of us never experience God in the ways we expect. There are no scroll-bearing angels, no fingers writing on walls. For all his vastness and omnipotence, God tends toward subtlety.

Except when he doesn’t.

Last week, for instance. I’d gone to bed frustrated after pondering a chapter in Kenneth Leong’s The Zen Teachings of Jesus, in which the author champions the “ordinary mind” and claims, “striving for holiness is still an expression of ego.” (165) So what are we supposed to do, I wondered? Shall we live unexamined lives? Should I start watching copious amounts of television? Should I go back to the Orthodox church, accepting its dogma the way a spaniel takes its food? Let my soul atrophy, its arteries too clogged for even the narrowest revelation?

Around two a.m., I was jolted from sleep by a violent storm. Thunder tore across the sky like cannon volleys. In it, I heard God’s voice, laughing. The laughter was affectionate, but the message was absolute. Try if you like, the voice said, but I will not be comprehended.

So why, then, do we go to church?

I’ve grappled with this question for years, vacillating between regular attendance and long periods of complete abstinence. When in church, I long for a God I cannot find in the stained glass windows and curtained altars, and I stop going. But after long periods of Sabbath solitude, I find myself needing to hear prayers murmured in unison, the old words worn smooth as river stones.

In this season of my life, churches seem to me like God’s watch-pocket: impractically small and mostly useless. Nevertheless, I sometimes want to be there among the lint and other detritus. Probably, there is nothing in there that he needs. It’s unlikely that he’ll reach in, searching for something, and brush the crowns of our bowed heads with his fingertip. But—oh!—he might! Such possibility fills me with urgency.

This is why I go to church time and time again, even though most of my encounters with the Divine have been outside of church and unexpected, even though church mostly disappoints. I want to make God look at me. I want him to whisper in my ear and touch me. I think of our souls as little broken-off pieces of God, and the piece within me has never healed of that severing. It bleeds and bleeds.

Perhaps there’s no Right Way, only seasons. God cannot be cajoled, neither can he be seduced. Revelations are his alone to bestow, and it is ours to be aware, to listen and watch and wait.