We took the whole family to our first orthodox liturgy today (what do they call it anyway? mass? liturgy? service?). The church (um, temple?) is a Ukrainian Orthodox church which meets in Tad's old high school in a newly added annex. The priest is a wonderfully warm and smiley man who remembered Tad, JT and Ben by name from when they attended a couple of weeks ago (I suppose he and Tad have corresponded a bit by email as well). Which brought me to my very first realization. Tad has been introducing himself to all new people as either Joel or Fr. Joel. I was quite taken aback when I heard him addressed as "Tad". I mean, I still call him this at home, his family still calls him this, we had even already discussed that he would be reclaiming his childhood nomenclature but it was a shock to hear it come out of a stranger's mouth somehow. Joel, Fr. Joel....gone...replaced simply with Tad, the wonderful, simple, geek I married 15 years ago. It seems we're back to square one and I sort of relish the idea of it. There are many things I'd like to begin again at the beginning and this feels like a fresh start somehow.
It took us a few minutes upon entering to get our bearings. It seems we had actually gotten there at the end of whatever and before the beginning of whatever - I am going to have learn the parts of this service, I just can't keep it all in my head...So a lone reader was standing at a podium facing the altar. She seemed to be the only one paying any attention to what she was reading. Even Fr. Greg was walking around, fully vested, but speaking in a normal speaking tone to the few people who had already arrived and were setting up...um, something else. While we stood there awkwardly trying to decide where to put coats, where to arrange the children and just who would walk into the area where the service was being held first, another family breezed in. The father had a pony tail and was carting two young children. He had his hands full and headed straight for the kitchen area where he spent about the next half hour, well into the beginning of the next part of the liturgy.
I've been reading quite a bit about what to expect in an orthodox church and so some of it seemed vaguely familiar. There were two screens hiding the altar and an icon on either side of the little doorway in the middle of the two screens. There was a table off to the side holding a basket of bread which was also joined later by little cups of...something... Right smack in the middle of the center aisle was a podium which held an icon of the Four Evangelists, the parish's namesake. The only surprise was the many chairs lined up in neat rows facing the altar area. I had prepared to sit on the floor when my pregnant body could stand standing no more but this church chooses to provide chairs for the rather random acts of standing and not standing throughout the liturgy.
Fr Greg wore a beautifully embroidered set of vestments. They were white with blue embroidered patterns all up and down the sides and chest. I was so taken with the vestments and the craftsmanship of them that I failed to notice until much later the matching garments for the altar and various podiums. Someone spent a lot of time making those.
Slowly, the space begin to fill up. By the time the first reading was chanted (at least I think that's what it was) anyone who was going to come had arrived and arranged themselves in various spots. The choir all huddled around the podium off to the side. Because the source of a lot of my reading was Frederica Mathews-Green's blog, books and articles, I recognized her daughter right away and quickly discerned which of the two of her sons has autism. Megan did spend quite a bit of time on the floor with her children and had brought a small family photo album to entertain them. I had read so much of "Mama Fred's" blog that I even recognized many of the photos as I glanced over at the children throughout the liturgy.
The liturgy was long. We did have a book to follow with all of the music printed so we were able to pick our way through the notes of each chanted bit. I am just skilled enough at sight reading to follow along if I have a strong lead but Tad was able to eek out a bass part on his own for most of it. I have always loved to make some harmony with him. There wasn't much hope of getting any of the kids to follow along, though, so they just had to stand there. Philip and Ruth managed to keep their odd behaviors down to a constant stare at the surrounding folks. Noah had an occasional whiny moment and David spent quite a bit of time on the floor between Tad's legs. Nathan was sleepy and acted the part while Ben and JT did their best to just focus on standing for as long as they could before taking brief breaks in their chairs.
I'm still not sure of my first impression except that I know I found it to be long and difficult to follow. I'm not even sure how many readings were chanted - I believe just two. This was compounded by the fact that a reading would be announced, then there would be about 5 more minutes of chanting and responses and intercessions and then I think the actual chanting of the reading would occur. Somehow I completely missed the consecration of the gifts - or the gifts had already been consecrated at some other point. I suppose without being able to focus on the priest and the altar I was rather lost. The most concrete thing I could put my finger on was a feeling I had about 3/4 of the way through. I just suddenly felt physically saturated with incense. I felt like it had settled into my clothes, my hair, my skin and at one moment sunk in to stay. I don't know if there's a greater esoteric meaning to that experience but it felt like something comfortable, like being able to sit in the comfortable chair when visiting relatives instead of forcing myself to perch awkwardly on the end of a footstool for the sake of propriety. It will take many times going back and back and back to learn to appreciate each piece of this experience - or to be able to take it all in as one experience. For today, it was just enough that we have a start.
Fr. Greg shared some announcements at the end which included welcoming our family. He thought he had us all in one place and was just about to count heads when I had to let him know - don't commit the head count to memory until our three stragglers return! Afterwards we had warm conversations with so many people. There was no pretense, no gushing over new folks in the midst and I felt, for the first time in a very long time, that I could just be myself in a church setting. I hit it off right away with Megan and really enjoyed meeting all the people. Next time we should be able to send the children off to Sunday school during the fellowship time and enjoy building relationships without them and their demands. Unfortunately, we had to cut our stay short so that we could get home and send Tad and Ben off again to retrieve our stragglers.
I don't know what I think. I think that I think that I am not ready to commit to anything this week. I want to stay there, to soak it in, to make sense of it, to let the whole thing sink in just as the incense did, but I don't want any responsibility. I don't want to think today about this is where I will be for a long time to come. I like this temporary freedom we have in this little sabbatical we've taken and yet, I know if we use this time to visit other churches and worship with other friends, I will now long to be back at Four Evangelists again for another Sunday. Now if only we could get the kids to jump on board....