Kissing Icons, Swinging Censers: The Ancient Vibes of Eastern Orthodoxy

by Sam Buntz

The censer swings… and swings. The censer keeps swinging, persistently, throughout nearly the entirety of this Eastern Orthodox Church service in Central Connecticut—indeed, throughout the recorded history of Christendom. The censer emits little puffs of incense, beseeching the altar, partitioned from the congregation by a barrier featuring paintings of saints. (The first official Christian martyr, St. Stephen, adorns one). Altar boys and assistant priests pass in and out of the swinging doors fixed in this barrier; there is constant activity—things are happening. It’s a performance of color and sound and matter-in-motion, with a sense of silence and stillness lying behind it. You might not understand 75% of what’s going on, but the believers believe in its efficaciousness. They stand in hallowed expectation, waiting to be fed God.

The priest sings the Gospel reading; in fact, with the exception of the homily, the entire service is sung in English with bits of Old Church Slavonic thrown in. Parents hold their children up to kiss icons—images of the Virgin Mary (in Eastern Orthodox parlance, “The Theotokos” or “God Bearer”), Christ, and the Saints. Christianity, which we normally find so familiar—such a known quantity—suddenly appears foreign. After all, the faith began in the East, and here, at a Russian Orthodox Church, the East seems strangely close to the West. Much of what the average Catholic or Protestant accepts as Christianity is certainly present, but there is more—the fullness of the service, the amount of activity and imagery, attended by a chorus of crying babies brought by young families (youth is in short supply at most other denominations these days, though not this one), is impressive, and to a passing observer such as myself, a little intimidating. What’s happening? Suddenly, the priest flaps a white cloth about twenty times over the altar. Why?

(I’ll explain later).

This brief dip into Orthodoxy helped me gain some perspective on Christianity—on what it is and what it does for people. G.K. Chesterton lamented the skeptic’s lack of fair-mindedness towards the Christian Faith, stating that we tend to take it for granted as something ordinary, the wearily trod province of church committees and spaghetti dinners. But, he argued, one could see it more clearly if one first de-familiarized it: “It would be better to see the whole thing as a remote Asiatic cult; the mitres of its bishops as the towering head dresses of mysterious bonzes; its pastoral staffs as the sticks twisted like serpents carried in some Asiatic procession; to see the prayer book as fantastic as the prayer-wheel and the Cross as crooked as the Swastika.” (The swastika, at the time Chesterton wrote this sentence, was still a peaceful Hindu and Buddhist symbol, and hadn’t yet been stolen by the Nazis).

Sitting—or, primarily, standing—at this Orthodox service, I saw Christianity as such an Eastern faith. Atmospherically, the experience was oddly closer to being in a Hindu Temple than it was to being in, say, a liberal United Church of Christ service… An Eastern Orthodox Mass has the feeling of an ancient, almost Shamanic rite—of something magical and timeless. (I don’t mean to wallow in exoticism, but it’s hard to deny that it’s part of the appeal.) Here, bread and wine are transformed into the flesh and blood of a God, and dispensed to people who are made mystically one with that Deity by partaking of His very being. While this basic purpose is the same as that of Catholic Mass, the presentation has a distinctly pre-Vatican II feeling. (A congregant told me that the Eastern Orthodox mass is closer to the Tridentine or Latin Mass than to the current Catholic version). It is proudly unreformed, and its antiquity is palpable. This is attractive: Eastern Orthodoxy offers a historical connection to the origins of Christianity, and folds to a millimeter the distance between Christian and Christ—time past is time present and time present is time past, to paraphrase a T.S. Eliot line. Naturally, all true believers want to be as close as possible to the living reality of Jesus and the Apostles, to a way of life instituted not by the ever-conniving human intellect but by the pure breath of God. A Protestant fundamentalist can do this by trying to reconstruct true Christian life from a close reading of the New Testament—but an Eastern Orthodox lay person looks to a tradition of ritual and shared experience that claims to go back to the very beginning. Only Catholicism can make a similar claim on historical continuity (though, again, it seems a bit more reformed these days). In the mists of the past, the Mass eludes the sense of being a merely human innovation.

Many of the members of the congregation I visited were former Catholics or Episcopalians, searching for a connection to a venerable tradition, mixed in with a fair amount of ethnic Eastern Europeans. Since Eastern Orthodoxy has a historical pedigree, and since it is both less reformed than Catholicism and less overtly hierarchical (there is no Pope and no doctrine of infallibility), one can feel the peculiar magnetism of its aura. If you were present at the creation—at the origin—you have a strong claim to be the bearer of Christ into the New World.

But why was I there? I’m interested in all religions, and have attended numerous services—from a Sikh Gurdwara to a Swedenborgian reading group to Buddhist and Sufi meditation sessions to Hindu puja—but hadn’t previously been to an Eastern Orthodox Mass. This seemed like an unfortunate gap, given its strong claim to being the original Church. Also, aspects of its inner life—its spirituality—were highly intriguing: on the whole, Orthodoxy has been more open to the mystical life than Catholicism and Protestantism, despite the great mystics of both those traditions. Books like The Way of a Pilgrim and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov further contributed to my interest, as did the sayings of an Eastern Orthodox sage, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who offered this striking and rather cryptic observation about prayer and Orthodox ritual to the philosopher Jacob Needleman: “In prayer one is vulnerable, not enthusiastic. And then these rituals have such force. They hit you like a locomotive. You must not be enthusiastic, nor rejecting—but only open. This is the whole aim of asceticism: to become open.”

So—why did I go? Anthony Bloom, vulnerability, Dostoevsky, the way of a pilgrim… Is that a coherent explanation? I think it adds up to one. I wanted to see a portion of the past made present—receive a material impression that there’s something eternal underneath this changing flux of dreamlike appearance. I wanted a little evidence that you can’t really bury the human need to make contact with Eternity under diodes and wires: people will proudly revert to the ancient ways.   Also, and perhaps most importantly, I wanted to see if I could enter, if for a second or two, Bloom’s state of vulnerable receptivity to experience. I liked his depiction of prayer: clearing out a space, emptying one’s self of ordinary human thought and emotion, so that a higher influence could enter. It gives a sense of what seekers are likely looking for in Eastern Orthodoxy: an open space in the midst of modern noise, a place where your ear might be able to catch a higher tone.

But, unfortunately, I’m not really a morning person, and my brain was haphazard with irrelevant thoughts throughout the ritual… Additionally, while I’m not what you would call a “skeptic,” I’m not sure I could bring myself to a point where I could feel anything sincere as I kissed an icon or received the Eucharist (I refrained from doing either, out of respect). In order to do it, I would have to shift my stance towards reality in a fairly radical manner… But, nonetheless, I was impressed by the experience.

The form of the Quaker service I went to a week before could be succinctly summarized in one sentence: “The congregation sits in silence, and when someone feels like the Spirit has moved her, she speaks.” (I enjoyed this, and, in many respects, it seemed closer to my own wavelength.) But one could spend multiple volumes detailing the nature of the Eastern Orthodox Mass and Liturgy. There was a long period in which the priest flapped a folded white linen over the altar—there were many flaps (as mentioned earlier). A friendly lay person told me later that the original purpose of this was to ward flies away from the Communion wine.  Yet, even without flies around, the practice remained in place… Mundane gestures take on a mood of sanctity when repeated in a devout manner, I suppose.

To further explore the contrast: Quaker worship intends to connect you to an immediate sense of divine presence—an Eternal Now, in which revelation can still happen.   Eastern Orthodoxy does the same thing through nearly opposite means. It also feels timeless, because it’s been going on forever with its relatively unreformed approach. But it tries to connect you to the Spirit by placing your attention on a heavily symbolic ritual, whereas the Quakers try, mystically, to allow you to open your attention to the Spirit without reliance on any external aid. Both techniques have just claims in their favor, though they lie on opposite ends of the spectrum of Christian practice.

In the midst of the gory mess that we call history, the rituals of Eastern Orthodoxy provide an escape hatch for their devotees, connecting them to Eternity. Many souls in the modern world can’t accept the notion that everything we see and experience is sentenced to the cycle of birth, decay, and death—and neither can I. There must be something that transcends… An ancient tradition like Orthodoxy symbolizes, in my eyes, an ongoing counter-movement beneath the bustle of time—the swift but silent footsteps of Divinity through the ages.

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