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Crossing a Spiritual Threshold
The Eastern Orthodox Church, full of ritual and rich symbolism, is an enigma to our Western Protestant minds. And yet these faithful, steeped in tradition, are fellow believers in Christ.


I am driving west but I am going east. I am in my own city, Toronto, but I am crossing a great divide, a split of a thousand years. I drive past Jewish cemeteries on Roselawn, past massive synagogues on Bathurst, in order to reach a little Eastern Orthodox church tucked away in a Catholic Portuguese neighbourhood, just twenty minutes from my home.

Inside a myriad candles burn fiercely in the dark. Red vigil lamps illuminate the screen of icons …

Too often in North America, Eastern Orthodoxy has been the unknown spiritual sister in the Body of Christ. Although I am an Anglican, it is not easy crossing a new threshold. Tonight I am stepping alone into Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral for Saturday evening Vespers. As in Judaism, the Eastern Orthodox liturgical day begins at sunset.

I enter through a wooden door graced with the Orthodox cross. The Eastern cross has three bars, the lowest one tilted up, toward the good thief. The Orthodox have a special affection for such penitents as the repentant thief, the harlot, the publican and the prodigal.

Inside a myriad candles burn fiercely in the dark. Red vigil lamps illuminate the screen of icons, the iconostasis, at the front. There are more images of saints on all the walls and pillars. I want to bolt from what appears to my Protestant imagination to be a pantheon of gods. I have spent almost every Sunday of my life in churches where most of the walls have been bright and bare. This seems totally foreign. For some the icon is an idol ensnaring the superstitious; for others it is a beautiful work of art; but for the Orthodox Christian it is sacramental—a symbol through which grace is conveyed.

"When an Orthodox kisses an icon or prostrates himself before it, he is not guilty of idolatry," writes Timothy Ware in The Orthodox Church. "The icon is not an idol but a symbol. The veneration shown to images is directed, not towards stone, wood and paint, but towards the person depicted."

For the Orthodox there are no fixed barriers between heaven and earth. They worship with the saints and angels in the eternal now, with the Church Triumphant. But while intercession is asked of the saints and honour may be paid to them, worship is reserved for God alone. The Eastern Church doesn't believe in purgatory, so no prayers are said to escape it.

There are no sides-people to show me to my pew. Indeed, there are hardly any pews, a few in the centre and against the walls. Everyone stands to pray. This open space allows a fluidity of movement for clergy and laity that rigid pews would block.

The faithful enter, cross themselves from right shoulder to left, approach the front, cross themselves again, completing the gesture with a deep bow, their fingertips brushing the floor. Then they kiss the festal icon. Beeswax candles are lit and placed prayerfully in brass stands or before various shrines. In the midst of communal worship there is still room for personal devotion. Despite the ancient liturgy, there is casual ease among the faithful. There are whispered greetings, even hugs, but generally silence prevails. No Protestant chit chat.

There is no organ—no musical instruments of any kind. An a cappella choir sings in both English and what I mistake for Russian—it is actually Church Slavonic. Everything is chanted: the psalms, the prayers, even the Scripture readings. Only the sermon is said.

When the "royal" central doors of the iconostasis are open, I glimpse an altar adorned with an ornate cross and candelabra. Only the priest may enter through these royal doors; altar boys pass through side doors emblazoned with angels. There is a lot of coming and going and changing of priestly vestments.

The spicy fragrance of incense rises as the priest swings a censer, first towards the icon of Christ, on one side of the royal doors, then towards the image of the Virgin Mary or Theotokos, God-bearer, on the other. After censing the whole screen, he descends to the nave to cense its icons and the congregation. In censing us, the priest is saluting the image of God in each worshipper. We are to be living icons, imaging God's holiness. The sign of the cross is made by the priest, writ large over the whole congregation. He also anoints the faithful with scented oil.

During a General Confession all kneel on the floor, heads occasionally touching the ground in a partial prostration. Full prostrations are made during Lent.

I slip out after the service, not giving anyone the chance to be friendly. A week later I attend morning communion or "Divine Liturgy."

One priest reassuringly places his hand on a penitent's shoulder; another priest kneels to hear a child's whispers.

Kneeling is forbidden on Sundays and for the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost. Despite the daylight, dozens of candles burn. There is no robust congregational singing nor quiet thunder of assembled prayer. Only the choir, the clergy and the cantor chant; the congregation remains mute. Still there is a worshipful attentiveness, especially for the solemn, thrice-holy (Trisagion) Hymn: "Holy God! Holy Mighty! Holy Immortal! Have mercy on us."

Some last minute confessions are heard, all within public view. A penitent stands with head bowed, facing a desk upon which there is an icon and cross. The priest stands behind the desk and a little to one side. The penitent is confessing to God; the priest must only witness it. One priest reassuringly places his hand on a penitent's shoulder; another priest kneels to hear a child's whispers. The priest offers an absolution while covering the penitent's head with his stole.

Communion is received standing with arms meekly crossed over chests. Communicants accept the consecrated, wine-soaked bread on a silver spoon, then kiss the stem of the chalice and the priest's hand. Orthodox infants, once baptised and "chrismated," may communicate. There is on a sidetable blessed bread for all, even the non-Orthodox. Later the congregation kiss or venerate a silver cross with a flat, crucified form.

After an almost two hour service, we sit for a homily. The Orthodox won't cross their legs, for such a posture would be too casual for worship. Protestants may be surprised by the brevity of the sermon, but considerable teaching is borne in the special prayers for each day. Leaving Christ the Saviour, I pass under the golden Pantocrator, the icon of Christ, the Ruler of All, set outside above the wooden doors, blessing the neighbourhood, whether it cares or not, blessing all who enter. I have passed under it several times without noticing it. How often are we blessed, unconscious of the benediction?

Sue Careless, a Toronto-based writer, is the recipient of three Canadian Church Press Awards.

Discovering the Book of Common Prayer
In a friendly, down-to-earth style, Sue Careless shows the depths of Christian tradition and piety in this practical guide to the Book of Common Prayer. To find out more details, or to order, click on the picture.

Originally published in The Herald, a publication of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canada, Feb. 28, 1999.

 

 
 
 
 

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