My first visit to an Orthodox Christian church was done in order to check an item off of a list.
When my wife and I began dating, we discussed the possibility of going to church together. I had not been a regular churchgoer in over a decade. She grew up attending a nondenominational charismatic church but had not attended as an adult. So we did what any normal American couple does.
We decided to go church shopping.
I told her that I wouldn’t go to any Pentecostal churches. She wanted something with good music. I said I needed something with structure, like a Lutheran or Presbyterian church. She wanted programs for her daughter. We decided to start visiting churches in the area and see if anything felt comfortable.
But first, I wanted to check out the little Orthodox church on the road to work.
I didn’t think it would be something I would really go through with, much less attend more than once. It took a few weeks of considering it before I actually emailed the priest, asking for a meeting to inquire about attending.
A few days later I drove up to the quaint little building. It looked like any other struggling small church, aside from one of those odd three-bar crosses on the point of the roof. I felt more apprehension than I thought I would when I walked into the building, and even more when I opened the door and walked inside.
Just to the left of the front door was a tiny office, and behind a nondescript desk was a bearded young man in a plain black robe. He stood and moved around the desk to greet me. I’m over six feet, and had to look up to make eye contact. His hand enveloped mine as we shook hands.
I suppose I expected an Russian or Greek accent, but his voice was a gee-whiz Midwestern type. He invited me to sit, and asked me about myself, and why I was interested in Orthodoxy. I didn’t really have an answer for that. In truth, I didn’t know if I was interested.
I gave him a brief rundown of my church history, and he asked if I’d like to see the inside of the temple. You could have asked me if I wanted to see the inside of Willie Wonka’s candy factory and gotten the same reaction.
We left his office and went into the small vestibule. He opened the door into the main worship area and made the sign of the cross as he walked inside. I thought that was cool. I only had seen people do that in movies, or on the news when old people from Eastern Europe were caught in some tragedy.
The room wasn’t a relic of some Byzantine era. It was a modern building, with carpet and government-mandated exit signs and stackable chairs lining the walls. Despite the modernity it was like no church I’d ever been to before.
A sweet smell floated on the air. Beautiful paintings lined the walls. The entire wall at the end of the room was a wooden addition, with doors and a middle gate and candles hanging in front of somber portraits of Jesus and Mary. I stared and took in as much as I could without moving forward. For some reason I didn’t feel worthy of moving all the way inside.
The priest moved to a back corner and we sat down. He told me about his conversion to Orthodoxy in bible college. I began asking him questions about their beliefs, and how it was a fit with my own.
In retrospect, it was a laundry list of typical Protestant questions. What’s the deal with icons? Do you guys worship Mary? How about this transubstantiation business?
While he didn’t dodge the issue of reality or symbolism in what us Baptists called The Lord’s Supper, it was clear that he didn’t want to engage in a debate. He wasn’t interested in convincing me or winning me over with reason. I had never experienced that in a discussion with a church leader.
I brought up the issue of my divorce, and whether the church would allow remarriage. As I told him this part of my story, it struck me that this was supposed to be an exploratory visit, not a request to be received. Still I was relieved at his therapeutic answer.
We wrapped up our visit, and he escorted me to the door. I told him I would be interested in attending a service, with no real promise of when.
It would be much sooner than I thought.
In Part 7, which you can read here, I attend my first Orthodox liturgy.