Monday, February 23, 2015

Things I’ve learned from Eastern Orthodoxy, again: Cheesefare Sunday

Every couple of years, I visit an eastern rite church to see how they do things on the “other side” of the empire. I often consider this exercise to be the closest I’ll get to knowing what it was like to go to church during the Middle Ages because the Orthodox, in many respects, are stuck in the 11th century; and I say that as affectionately as possible.

Yesterday’s victim was a local parish of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). I’m not too well-read on the history of Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, but my understanding is that the OCA started out as a Russian mission in Alaska and grew to embrace a bunch of other Orthodox ethnic groups elsewhere in America. During the Cold War, growing differences between this communion and the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia (ROCOR) and an influx of Anglo converts to Orthodoxy led to this communion, with the Moscow Patriarchate’s consent, gaining autocephaly and dropping the “Russian” part of the name. As a result, the OCA is the “least ethnic” of all the major Orthodox churches in this country.

I walked in about 40 minutes late, just in time to miss the first sermon (yes, there was more than one). It was Forgiveness Sunday, which is the last Sunday before Lent begins in the east. Eastern fasting rules for Lent are exponentially more difficult than the west’s, so this day is dedicated to getting rid of all one’s dairy stores. Hence, they call it “Cheesefare Sunday” and make lots of pancakes, just like our nearly-forgotten Pancake Tuesday on the day before Ash Wednesday. I stood mostly in the back, but also observed part of the forgiveness rite which follows the Divine Liturgy on this day, and stayed afterward to eat pancakes with the parishioners because I will never say no to free pancakes.

Here follows my observations as an incognito Roman, in a handy numeric list:

1.)    No pews.
Not that I expected there to be, but it’s always striking as a westerner to go to a church that has no furniture whatsoever except for a handful of pews along the walls for the elderly and infirm. The first sermon was just coming to an end, so I saw that a lot of people were just standing from having been seated on the floor like it was story time at elementary school (or, perhaps, like being one of those lucky people listening at the feet of the Lord Himself in those paintings of the Sermon on the Mount). I walked in with Madame and our six-month old daughter, and one of the church ladies immediately spotted us and said, “please help yourself to this seat over here! You’ve got your hands full!” Some folks who were still sitting there immediately vacated the pew to make room for us. I decided not to take advantage of this luxury, but I appreciated the gesture and stood in front of the pew about half the time. I spent the other half perambulating around the church, holding my fussy daughter and showing her the different icons of saints to keep her amused.

What I learned: pews, consciously or not, erect barriers between worshippers. When you stand among other believers in an amorphous crowd, you’re more likely to smile at others as you bump elbows and feel as though you’re part of a true assembly of the faithful. Pews also clutter up space, but when you throw them out, even a small church building (like the one I visited yesterday) can suddenly feel a lot bigger. Western churches, too, were open spaces for most of Christian history. Pews didn’t come fully into vogue until the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation, both which saw the length of sermons triple or quadruple in length; Protestant ministers emphasized the spirit of the “word” over vain repetitions and readings from a book, and Catholic priests fought back in kind by drilling the catechism into the faithful to dispel the heresies of Luther’s minions. All this preaching required lots of sitting, so bam! Pews came in to save the day. (For Catholics, the growing prevalence of low Mass and the custom of kneeling entirely throughout also ensured a steady demand for kneelers.) But the trends toward the privatization of religion go back a little further. In a few old English churches, we can see the remains of chantries built by wealthy families as far back as the 15th century to give them private worship spaces, e.g. walled off from the unwashed plebs. The “it’s just me and Jesus” mentality, held even by many orthodox Catholics while attending Mass, contributed in some way to the trends leading up to the Reformation.

If I were ever tasked with designing a new church, I would definitely give serious thought to trashing the idea of pews altogether. Though, of course, this is probably why no one will ever ask me to….

2.)    Walking aimlessly around the church is a thing.
Again, this is made possible by ditching the pews. Now, I’ll walk around with my daughter even in a western church to tour the statues during Mass without much regard for whether people in the pews are distracted, but this is much easier to do in an eastern arrangement. There, the church is built to engage people in their surroundings. I noticed, for example, people walking up to kiss the icon in the center of the church at random. At the same time, the congregation as a whole was still more engaged with the priest’s actions behind the iconostasis (by singing the responses and making endless dramatic signs of the cross in sync) than your typical Catholic parish, despite forty-plus years of liturgical experimentation after Vatican II in a crusade to get the peasants to drop their rosaries and prayer books.

How the east is so successful at doing both at the same time (milling about AND being engaged in the liturgy) is beyond me. I can only guess that centuries of privatized worship in the west, starting with the chantries and growing ever further with the pews and the low Mass mentality, ensure that no matter where you stand on liturgy; no matter how many clowns you put in the sanctuary, swooping gestures your lectress makes, or even how many fine Saint Edmund Campion Missals you put into people’s hands; Roman Catholics are usually just going to stay put, mind their own business at Mass, and get the heck out after Communion to catch the game.

3.)    Bad music is everywhere.
I don’t mean to say that I heard anything like “On Eagle’s Wings” or fake folk hymns to get everyone to feel more culturally sensitive; just that this parish, as with every other eastern rite church (Catholic or Orthodox) I’ve ever personally attended, had the same dreary four-part responses throughout the entire Divine Liturgy. Whatever happened to Byzantine chant?

The same thing that happened to Gregorian chant, it seems. I’m still learning about the history of sacred music in the eastern churches, but it seems the tide of modernization did hit the Orthodox in at least one way: in his push to reshape Russia as a modern western nation, Tsar Peter the Great imported the concepts of harmony and multi-voiced choirs from France into his own court chapels, which thence trickled down to the parish level over time. What probably sounds beautiful in the hands of a professional choral music program is easily several degrees less edifying among Sunday volunteers; thus we arrive at the same warbling one might have heard in the pre-Vatican II days from a small Roman parish attempting the Mozart Ave Verum as the that of the choirs singing the responses at these parochial Divine Liturgies today…. those descended from the Russian tradition, at least.

4.)    You can never have too much of a good thing.
In the classical Roman Rite, for example, the incensing of objects and people is governed by very specific rules. A single server gets a single swing. A major minister, like the deacon, gets two double-swings. The Blessed Sacrament and icons of our Lord get three doubles. The congregation as a whole gets three swings total: middle, left, and right. It’s all very hierarchical and reserved.

If any such rules exist in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, this priest has never heard of them. He came out of the iconostasis to incense the congregation like a madman. Imagine the motion of a quaint suburban lawn sprinkler, but in the form of a heavy, golden mass of fire and smoke, riddled with bells, swinging furiously in one great arc. Dwell on this, and you can understand the fundamental difference between eastern and western liturgy in a nutshell.

5.)    Normal people can like reverence, too.
This is all quite subjective, and I don’t use the word “normal” as though it’s necessarily a positive thing, but in the face of the Divine Liturgy’s sheer intensity (in length, amount of singing, and lack of seating), the people in attendance struck me as quite average. I was the only man below 60 in a suit and necktie, and Madame was the only woman below 70 in a hat. A few other ladies wore headscarves, but most were bare-headed. Even most men singing in the choir were of the jeans-and-flannel-shirt variety. By contrast, a Catholic parish which consciously works toward reverent worship will probably attract a slightly more eccentric crowd, from your prairie skirts, to your bow-tied professors, to your seven brothers all wearing the exact same blue blazer and red necktie. At this Orthodox church, though, there weren’t even all that many men with beards, which I found disappointing. One lady did stop us after the DL, however, to say "you really raised the fashion consciousness of the entire church when you came in here today. I'm glad some people still take going to church seriously!" I wasn't sure how to respond to that.

As I said in the beginning, the OCA is probably the least "ethnic" of all the Orthodox churches here in the States. This parish, as I found from speaking with people at the breakfast, was made up of a lot of converts, including the priest. The ones who stuck out the most, ironically, were the ones who were obviously Russian expatriates. Apparently in the motherland, it's normal for women to dress for church like they're going to the club. Not judging, merely making an observation here. I don't know how they can make all those prostrations in those heels.

Also: during the pancake breakfast afterward, there was one middle-aged fellow with a five-o-clock shadow who greeted me with a thick Russian accent: “hello, my name is Dmitri. Are you Orthodox?” And yes, he was wearing a chain necklace. And he was exceedingly friendly. If this gentleman who one could easily mistake for being an agent of the Russian mob could be so welcoming, Catholics have no excuse for being brusque with visitors after Mass.

I don’t have any profound thoughts with which to conclude this article, except perhaps this: let us western Christians try harder this Lent. It doesn't matter how many or how few show up to church on any given day. When we're there, though, let's try harder to follow the essence of the great commandments, "love the Lord thy God" and "love thy neighbor as thyself", with all heavenly grace. Too often we think it has to be one or the other; and while it's certainly better to err on the side of the first commandment, there's no reason we can't do both, as this humble little parish does.