Gordon Atkinson is a Baptist pastor in San Antonio. Recently, his church graciously granted him a 13-week sabbatical. He decided to take advantage of the time off by visiting a different type of Christian church each week, in order to broaden his spiritual life. On the fourth week of his sabbatical, he decided to visit St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Church (OCA), also in San Antonio. On his blog "Real Life Preacher," he wrote about his experience (it was his first time ever to visit an Orthodox service). His writeup has been widely and heavily circulated in the Orthodox blogosphere and even on Facebook. You may have read about it, but just in case, I thought I would post it. Gordon writes well, with much wit and wisdom. Enjoy this.
Last Sunday was the 4th of 13 in my sabbatical time. Each of them is precious to me. Each week I am choosing a place and a way to worship. I’m not a church tourist, hoping to see new things. I’m seeking spiritual experiences. I want to worship. Saturday night Jeanene [Fr. James' note: this is Gordon's wife] and I still hadn’t decided where to go. I experienced something common to our culture but new to me. The “Where do you want to go to church - I don’t know where do YOU want to go to church” conversation. I found the Saint Anthony the Great website. It's an Orthodox church that has beautiful Byzantine art in the sanctuary. We decided to go there.
Shelby and Lillian [their daughters] went with us. On the way we warned them that this was going to be different. “They might not have changed their worship service much in a thousand years or so,” I told the girls.
That was an understatement.
Saint Anthony the Great isn't just old school. It's "styli and wax tablets" old school. We arrived ten minutes early for worship and the room was already filled with people lighting candles and praying. There was one greeter. I said, “We don’t know what to do.” She handed me a liturgy book and waved us inside.
Pews? We don’t need no stinking pews! Providing seats for worshipers is SO 14th century. Gorgeous Byzantine art, commissioned from a famous artist in Bulgaria. Fully robed priests with censors (those swinging incense thingies). Long, complex readings and chants that went on and on and on. And every one of them packed full of complex, theological ideas. It was like they were ripping raw chunks of theology out of ancient creeds and throwing them by the handfuls into the congregation. And just to make sure it wasn't too easy for us, everything was read in a monotone voice and at the speed of an auctioneer.
I heard words and phrases I had not heard since seminary. Theotokos, begotten not made, Cherubim and Seraphim borne on their pinions, supplications and oblations. It was an ADD kids nightmare. Robes, scary art, smoking incense, secret doors in the Iconostas popping open and little robed boys coming out with golden candlesticks, chants and singing from a small choir that rolled across the curved ceiling and emerged from the other side of the room where no one was singing. The acoustics were wild. No matter who was speaking, the sound came out of everywhere. There was so much going on I couldn't keep up with all the things I couldn't pay attention to.
Lillian was the first to go down. After half an hour of standing, she was done.
Jeanene took her over to a pew on the side wall. She slumped against Jeanene’s shoulder and stared at me with this stunned, rather betrayed look on her face.
“How could you have brought us to this insane place?”
Shelby tried to tough it out. We were following along in the 40 page liturgy book that was only an abbreviation of the service were were experiencing. I got lost no less than 10 times. After 50 minutes Shelby leaned over and asked how much longer the service would be. I was trying to keep from locking my knees because my thighs had gotten numb. I showed her the book. We were on page 15. I flipped through the remaining 25 pages to show her how much more there was. Her mouth fell open.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. And I think there's supposed to be a sermon in here somewhere.”
“They haven’t done the SERMON yet? What was that guy doing who said all that stuff about…all that stuff?”
“I don’t know?” I said.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. I looked around and saw the door at the back of the sanctuary swinging shut.
And then there was one.
I made it through the entire 1 hour and 50 minutes of worship without sitting down, but my back was sore. Shelby came back toward the end. When it came time for communion I suggested that we not participate because I didn't know what kind of rules they have for that. We stayed politely at the back. A woman noticed and brought some of the bread to us, bowing respectfully as she offered it. Her gesture of kindness to newcomers who were clearly struggling to understand everything was touching to me.
Okay, so I started crying a little. So what? You would have too, I bet.
After it was over another woman came to speak with us. She said, “I noticed the girls were really struggling with having to stand.”
“Yeah,” I said. “This worship is not for lightweights.”
She laughed and said, "yes," not the least bit ashamed or apologetic.
So what did I think about my experience at Saint Anthony the Great Orthodox Church?
I LOVED IT. Loved it loved it loved it loved it loved it.
In a day when user-friendly is the byword of everything from churches to software, here was worship that asked something of me. No, DEMANDED something of me.
“You don’t know what Theotokos means? Get a book and read about it. You have a hard time standing for 2 hours? Do some sit ups and get yourself into worship shape. It is the Lord our God we worship here, mortal. What made you think you could worship the Eternal One without pain?"
See, I get that. That makes sense to me. I had a hard time following the words of the chants and liturgy, but even my lack of understanding had something to teach me.
“There is so much for you to learn. There is more here than a person could master in a lifetime. THIS IS BIGGER THAN YOU ARE. Your understanding is not central here. These are ancient rites of the church. Stand with us, brother, and you will learn in time. Or go and find your way to an easier place if you must. God bless you on that journey. We understand, but this is the way we do church.”
I’m going back again on Sunday. I started to write, “I’m looking forward to it.” But that’s not right. I’m feeling right about it.
And feeling right is what I'm looking for.
Today, as it turns out, Gordon and his wife Jeanene were in Houston, and can you guess where they went to church? St. Joseph's! I had the privilege of speaking to them for quite some time after church. Tomorrow, I'll post Gordon's reflections on his second visit to St. Anthony's (yes, he went back for more!). I'm sure he will do a writeup on today's visit to St. Joseph's; if he does, I'll reproduce it here for you.