June 23, 2008

Small is beautiful

In the 1960s, when the cult of the big American car was at its zenith, Volkswagen published an advertisement with the headline, "Small is beautiful." It went on to talk about the benefits of a small car payment, small insurance, small repair bill, etc. In the last few days, I had an experience that convinced me that Volkswagens and Orthodoxy have something in common.

Frederica Mathewes-Green once wrote that "Orthodoxy works best when a priest knows his parishioners well, and can give them personal spiritual direction and visit in their homes a few times each year." I had occasion over the weekend to witness the truth of that statement. Yesterday, my wife and I accompanied a friend of mine--the first friend I made in the Orthodox church--to another parish in our area.

My friend--let's call him Stephen to protect everyone's anonymity--had chosen to leave the Greek Orthodox parish where we met following some unfortunate unpleasantness with several different people. Things were said, feelings were hurt, and Stephen decided that life was too short to keep banging his head against a wall (my description, not his). He attended a parish in a nearby city a couple times, but the distance was a problem. I'd had my own frustrations, unrelated to his (and perhaps the subject of a future post), and was also considering making a change, simply for a fresh start.

Fortunately, there was an OCA parish closer to both of us, with a priest whom Stephen had already met. Over coffee, we agreed we'd visit it together. The differences were remarkable. I'd driven past the church many times on my way home from work. It occupies a converted house, next to a used-car dealer in an undistinguished part of town. Once inside, though, there was an overwhelming impression of sanctity. We arrived during Hours (Orthros), to the sounds of the choir, harmonizing in tones inherited from the Russians who first brought Orthodoxy to America. The smell of the incense, the light of the candles, and the glint of sunlight off the gold of the icons brought one into the presence of another world. The priest and deacon, moving behind the iconostasis and preparing for the liturgy about to begin. Of course, all of this could be said of my usual parish, but the difference here was the scale. Whereas my usual parish occupied a converted military chapel, here we were in a space essentially the size of someone's living room (which it undoubtedly once was). There was an intimacy here with the divine; it was impossible to hide in the back pew and melt into the crowd. Indeed, there were no pews at all, save the benches along the back and sides. A few folding chairs were set up to the sides, but the central space was open, giving one a clear view to the iconostasis and making one feel immediately part of the liturgy. The liturgy itself was a revelation. It was conducted entirely in English, and for the first time I was able to understand everything that was said. Although the service books at my usual parish are bilingual--so non-Greeks and visitors can follow along with an English translation--and I have no objection to hearing Greek, there have been times when I have felt somewhat lost. Here, that was not an issue.

Ironically, it is somewhat more traditionally Orthodox to use the vernacular in the service--the first Russian missionaries to Alaska assiduously translated the liturgy into the various native tongues, native languages are a required subject to this day in the Alaskan seminaries, and the Russian alphabet itself was devised so that the liturgy could be translated from Greek and written in the ancient Slavonic tongue. After the liturgy, there was an education hour followed by coffee hour, and here the beauty of a small parish made itself evident. In my usual parish, the priest is quite popular, extremely overworked, and usually quite stressed, and everyone wants a piece of him. The most one can hope for in coffee hour is a few quick words before he has to move on to the next person. Unless it's an urgent situation, anything more than that requires an appointment. Here, we were able to sit down and have lunch with the priest, and spent probably over an hour in conversation with him. He patiently answered questions, and was in no hurry to end our time together. It was exactly the kind of relationship I want to have with my priest, and it will never be possible in the parish I currently attend. That's where things currently stand. Stephen will undoubtedly be attending the new parish, and I'm probably going to do the same. It's not that things are so awful at my old parish (although there have been challenges), it's just that the new one feels so much more inviting--and, it has to be said, without the ethnic distractions of a parish and an archdiocese invested in promoting the culture of the old country. It may be small, but it feels like home. And small, in this case, is definitely beautiful.