Sunday, April 4, 2010

A glimpse into Russian Orthodoxy

In class on Friday, one of the teachers poked her head into our room and said that the last class was canceled but that we could attend her church’s Good Friday service. Of course it wasn’t mandatory, but she knew that it was Easter all over the world, and that we might be interested.

I wonder if American college professors would be allowed to invite students to church. I suppose a plus of teaching foreigners is that you can call it a “Cultural”  excursion.

Valentina is an Orthodox believer and sings in her church’s choir. Even though it seems that attendance at Orthodox services is intermittent, they do have ongoing activities as in other Christian congregations, and the liturgy is read only once a day, so people have to be somewhat intentional if they are going to attend.

There is definitely a mystical side to Orthodoxy, but I didn’t find it as intimidating as I had in the past. continue/-

Perhaps it just doesn’t feel quite as “foreign.” I suppose that kind of fear is a social fear; the fear of being ostracized for being an outsider; for not knowing all the customs. The fear of being plunged suddenly into an unfamiliar ritual; of being forced to do something that you’re not comfortable with; of someone turning to stare at you and say “you don’t belong here.”

No, it is something more. There is a spiritual element. Even when you don’t believe in the rituals yourself, when you are aware of everyone in the room praying to/kissing the icons, aware of them searching for the power of something unseen….well, you feel something “in the air."

Anyway, I had worn jeans that day and I had a scarf around my neck that I figured could cover my head if necessary. When we entered the church, I waited for Valentina to cover her head, but she didn’t. So I didn’t.

Then she led us up to a loft/backstage area where we hung our coats and settled on wooden benches (yes, you are allowed to sit during the service, as long as you are ready to give up your seat to someone who might need it). After giving us a copy of the liturgy so we could follow along, she disappeared downstairs to sing.

From up in the loft we could watch everything going on. I did a scan for head-coverings and calculated about half of the women wearing them, including members of the choir. I thought for a moment that it might be related to hairstyle (loose or pulled back), but there was a woman in the choir with long hair, loose like mine. And no head covering. So I didn’t bother.

We were joined in the loft by some families with infants who could nurse the babies and listen to the service at the same time.

We worked through the text, chanting different prayers, listening to Scripture readings, and offering prayers of supplication. The chanting was in Church Slavnoic, but with the help of the parallel Russian Synodal text it wasn't too hard to follow what was going on. The service is pretty rigid and they don’t do personal announcements or greetings, but at the same time people are all standing up and walking around and shepherding children and such, so it feels loose in that sense.

The priests and deacons were dressed in black and silver costumes, which reminded me of something knights would wear during the Crusades. I found it amusing that from above we could see beyond the iconostasis into the “Holy of Holies,” which just looked like a regular room, probably storing the priests’ coats and shoes and the different things needed for the service. The "Holy Gates" usually hide the room from view, but in this case all the secrets were revealed.

The priests and deacons walked around spraying incense from a censer, letting it waft into the air in puffs. There were moments when the congregation crossed themselves repeatedly or got into a certain position. I didn't participate much because I didn't want to be false or bow to something/someone without understanding fully.

At the moment in the service where Jesus’s burial was referenced, a few elders came out with a “casket” draped in a cloth with an embroidered Crucifix.

In-between meditations of Christ’s sacrifice, I was analyzing this sampling of Russian Orthodoxy. How often did these particular people attend? How serious were they about the words they were uttering? And how did they happen to be there at 2pm on a Friday afternoon? Had they switched shifts with someone? Would an employer in Russia let someone off for a Christian holiday?

Earlier that morning, I had read in the newspaper various descriptions of people's Easter plans... mainly, going to the church to bless their Easter food so they could eat it. "I'm going to get my eggs blessed." Something like that. No mention of Christ.

To me, there are still gaps. I was a bit distressed to read the same newspaper's description of American Easter celebrations (all about the Easter bunny) even though they noted more religious celebrations in other countries.

I suppose it is often obvious to people what we really value. Maybe our Christian observations are not newspaper or Hollywood worthy, but hopefully they are evident...


  1. Interesting! When I was in college, our Russian professor invited us to attend Easter Services with him. I will never forget the power of it, which surprisingly overshadowed the exhaustion of it - both the standing and the staying up for all those hours in the middle of the night. But it was breath-taking. We've also gone to some services at the the church in Ann Arbor. I am really overwhelmed sometimes by the obvious Scriptural references in some of the gestures, and even in the vestments, etc. Everything resonates to me on so many levels at once. Here all women cover their heads...and at the churches we went to in Moscow, too.

    Funny you should have a view down into the holy areas (and the more prosaic ones, too). Reminds me of the time we went to Mass in some little church where for some odd reason you could see right into the door where the priest and servers were vesting. I don't know why that was so disturbing....I mean, at "work" - my own parish - I often see these things, but it is when I'm assisting with the litugry - and from the "right side" so to speak; it was startling to be in a spiritual state of mind and see the more concrete elements.

  2. I guess for me, seeing behind the scenes takes away the "mystery," which raises the the "mystery" for real? When I'm involved in the service myself, it is very unromantic in a way, and anything "powerful" that does happen is from God, if you know what I mean. I wonder what Orthodox believers appreciate in addition to the mystical elements. I do like certain elements of liturgy and reading through specific passages at specific moments in the service.


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