A Different Kind of Piety
Last Thursday, I went to the Newman Center with my friend Lisa, and visited a noon day mass. Now, for those of you who don't know, the Newman Center is the Roman Catholic college campus ministry. There was a Newman center at the University I attended and I remember visiting once on a Sunday morning. I thought I was so "enlightened" then, to go in there a criticize everything...Oh, the arrogance of my youth.
I want to avoid that, this time around.
One of my best friends was Roman Catholic for a long time, and it has formed her in very very good ways. Yes, to the apostolic succession. Yes to their Eucharistic theology...so much good there. Sometimes I wonder why she bothered becoming Orthodox.
Coming from a background of Byzantine worship, now, for the past nine years, a few things struck me as so very different that I mistakenly said: "It felt protestant to me." Diarrhea of the mouth, no doubt. Upon reflection, that comment missed the mark and wasn't even what I meant. Just because my experience tends to categorize a dirth of icons, and folding chairs with protestant worship, does not make it so.
There was a chapel on the left as we entered the building. I only peeked in through the window. A byzantine icon of the Theotokos and Jesus graced the wall. My eyes gravitated towards that bit of familiarity. And of course the tabernacle containing the body and blood. I wanted to go in there and make some prostrations, say some prayers, but I was a stranger, a guest, and had neither the courage, nor the confidence that I wouldn't be somehow "showing off"...doing it "my way", so I did not enter the chapel of perpetual adoration. Next time, I want to go in there quietly. Perhaps sit and pray for a time.
Lisa showed me some of the old things in the nave. We went up to look at a very old crucifix behind the altar. There were chairs back there, too, as the altar table was out in the middle, sort of surrounded by a chairs in a circular pattern. It felt very odd to me to walk past that table, and up to look at the cross on the back wall. Space and how it was used was different, unfamiliar. I decided to go with the flow. Fr. Justin explained later that it's a theological emphasis on the gathering of the people of God around the Eucharist. Ok. Orthodox worship space emphasized the Kingdom of Heaven touching earth in the Eucharist. Ok. Space is theological. Different emphasis within the same larger framework.
The place where the noon time mass was held was off from the main worship space in a side wing, near the very old and beautifully carved stone baptismal font. I dipped my hands in the water and crossed myself, wondering if anyone noticed that I was doing it "backwards".
After a couple of minutes of sitting with what felt to me like nothing to gaze upon, a priest came out, garbed in a white robe with a plain green stole. I would have loved to ask him about his vestments. Of course the white robe was familiar, and I assume the stole is the western version of the phelonion.
With less ado and pageantry than I thought humanly possible, the worship proceeded. It was nice to sing an old song that I knew from my childhood, and to meditate on the words of Scripture: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God..." I remembered the time that the songwriter of that song visited our house in Switzerland. I didn't need the hymnal because I knew it by heart. Then, we stood to pray and I dearly felt the lack of icons to my wandering mind. Very short litany. But a good litany. Followed by a gospel reading. It happened to be the same gospel reading that we'd heard on Sunday morning. I wondered how the two lectionarys ultimately compared, in what was read when as it compared to the cycles of the Church calendar.
Everything was very short, but much of it nonetheless familiar. A different kind of piety. I noticed that when going up to receive Eucharist, the partakers would hold their hands out, cupped. The way the Orthodox do to receive a blessing. And those who went up to receive a blessing crossed their hand over their chests, the way we do when receiving the eucharist. The difference, I presume, is pactical: Leavened bread cut into pieces and put into the cup, spooned into our mouths, versus unleavened bread broken up into pieces and given into the worshiper's hands, followed by a sip from the chalice. Interesting.
So, there was much much less pageantry and much shorter prayers, but it was a mass that enables people to partake of the body and blood of our Lord every single day of the week. Wow. Eucharist every day. That would be something! I guess it happens in Orthodox monasteries, but in the full fledged hour-plus long version of St. John Chrysostom's Divine Liturgy. That'd be a bit much for a lay person to do every day.
So this, it was nice. It felt light and airy, much like the building itself. Light and airy in a good, ethereal sort of way. People gather to receive Christ. It was good.
I pray for an end to schism.