We ended up at Divine Liturgy at an OCA Orthodox church last week. Never mind how we got there. There we were, an hour too early. We sat on the steps and waited until it was time to go in. It was the tiniest of churches, a little clapboard rectangle like a Pioneer schoolhouse, with an onion dome on top of the spire, built into the side of the hill so the back of the church was flush with the ground, but the front was at the top of a long concrete stairway.
I saw that the cornerstone said “Russian Orthodox,” not OCA, and remembered when I’d been told that the Russian Orthodox were very strange. They were a kind of Christian, but not a Catholic like us– yet, they had sacraments and the Eucharist, so not really Protestants like my father’s Methodist family either. The sacraments were valid, but “in schism.” What a horrible word, “schism.” It sounds like “incision,” which it is– a schism is a cut in a living Body. I was also told that Orthodox priests were married– some Catholic priests are married, of course, but I didn’t know that when I was raised a Latin Catholic. Further, I’d been told that they’d canonized Rasputin and the Romanovs– it turns out it’s true about the latter but not the former. The Romanovs were glorified as Passion-Bearers, for what they endured in captivity and how their suffering converted them, notwithstanding what they had been before. I wondered if they had an icon of the Romanovs in this church.
I remembered a history professor I’d had in undergraduate, at a secular university before I came to this town; a peppery, businesslike woman from Greece who called Catholics “Catholics” and Orthodox “Christians.” She described the East-West Schism simply, in her thick accent, with tremendous spittle-laden emphasis on her h’s: “The Pope said, ‘go to hhhhell.’ The patriarch said, ‘No, you go to hhhhell.’ And they are both in hhhhell to this day.”
Are we both in hell? Is that what it is, to be in schism?
I had plenty of time to wonder about this, because we were so early. Finally, they opened the door. A puff of overwhelming spicy sent wafted out the door as I went inside– they must use a lot more incense even than the Byzantine Catholics. The whole building was permeated with the smell as if the bricks were gingerbread. And I felt like a child in a gingerbread house– like somebody pleased beyond measure to be in a strange place where they weren’t really supposed to be. This wasn’t my church; this was another church, on the other side of the East-West Schism.
My new church, the local Byzantine Catholic church, is beautiful, but architecturally Latinized. I wasn’t ready for a non-Latinized church. It took my breath away.
The nave was the smallest nave I’ve ever been in. You could have taken the whole thing and stuffed it in the little Portiuncula chapel at the campus up the hill. There were four little benches on either side of the aisle, then the tetrapod with the Dormition icon on it; then two brass bowls full of sand, in which a dozen beeswax candles were stuck; and then the iconostasis– the wall that separated us from the sanctuary.
Nothing could prepare me for the iconostasis. They weren’t stylized icons like the ones at my Byzantine Catholic church; these were more like oil paintings in dark colors, regarding me with an unnervingly attentive stare. There was Moses parting the waters and Elijah in a flaming chariot, on either side of the doors. There were Gabriel with a lily and Michael with a sword, on the Deacon Doors. There was the Theotokos in red, holding a flailing Christ Child in her arms. There was Christ, grown up and solemn, pointing to a book with letters I couldn’t read. There an odd little painting of a seraph, just wings and a human face, above the door in the middle. The door was a wrought brass gate, shut tight, with other icons hung on the front.
There were icons all over the walls, the names written in Greek and Cyrillic; I’ve been learning about icons for awhile now, but I still can’t read Cyrillic and I can’t tell you what all those icons represented. I didn’t see the Romanovs. I kept staring at the archangels on the Deacon Doors as the candles were lit. Candle after candle after skinny beeswax taper candle, all around the tiny claustrophobic little nave.
I knew the basic structure of Divine Liturgy, having gone to Byzantine Catholic Liturgies for four months. But it was still new, and besides, I didn’t know the tones they were using to chant. It’s odd, for a cradle Catholic like me, to be the one who doesn’t know what to do in a church. Try to mouth the responses, softly enough that you don’t mess up the chanting. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Face the priest and bow when he shakes his jangling thurible at you. Stand when everybody stands. Kneel when everybody kneels. Bow and cross yourself whenever you don’t know what else to do. Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.