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Vespers at the Orthodox Church

2008 October 13
by Julie Clawson

This past weekend we headed to downtown Austin for the oldest festival in Austin – the 76th annual Mediterranean Festival at St. Elias Orthodox Church. The church, officially an Antiochian Orthodox church, has since become a pan-orthodox community – proximity of geography achieving what centuries of dogma never could – an ecumenicalish orthodoxy. So here the Coptics, Syrians, Greeks, Russians (to name a few) worship together (in English nonetheless) and share their cultural hertiages. The Mediterranean Festival is a chance for that heritage to be shared with the larger community. Taking the term “Mediterranean” lightly the offerings included Greek, Turkish, Eritrean, and Romanian foods and folk and bellydancing lessons. As great as these elements were, what intrigued me the most was the evening vespers service I attended at the church itself.

While the bands got going and the alcohol began to flow (clear sign that this was an Orthodox not Evangelical fest), Saturday evening vespers commenced as scheduled at Saint Elias. It was immediately apparent that most of us attending the service weren’t regular attenders. There were of course the gawkers who wandered in throughout the service, stood listening for a couple of minutes, got tired and sat down, and then got bored and wandered out. Then there were those of us who stuck it out with the whole stranger in a foreign land demeanor. We stealthily (or not so much) watched the few regulars for when to bow or cross ourselves or pray aloud. I gave up on that after awhile and just listened.

Although almost entirely in English, I understood little of the service. I am unused to sung prayers or liturgy of any sort for that matter. I’m not part of that whole ancient/future stream of emergent; it’s just not in my realm of experience. So, I had no clue what the role of the parade of priests (or whatever title they hold) was as they each performed different aspects of the service. I recognized a few familiar verses and prayers and I caught phrases referencing the salvation of the pious orthodox and some stuff about heretics, but mostly I heard repeated over and over again the phrase “Lord, have Mercy.” It was devout, but from my vantage point, utterly confusing.

So I was torn in my response to the service. I felt out of place. I wasn’t unwelcome, but it was obvious that no concessions were made to help make the service accessible to outsiders (who this night at least were in the majority). My low-church, seeker-sensitive/evangelical roots balk at such a system although I intellectually know that such a reaction is unfair and unloving. This was about a prayer service, not about what I expect from church. So I attempted then to simply acknowledge the beauty of the service and of the faith reflected in it. It was beautiful and the repeated prayers for mercy were moving (although the icons done in sentimental 1930’s styles were more cheezy than transcendent). But then as I sought to see the beauty, I wondered if I was merely being condescending. Was I acting too much like the outside observer patronising a cultural event not so much as to enter into it and become part of it, but to stand apart and look down upon it.? Philosophical discussions about the possibility of either and all that gets lost in translation aside, I left the vespers feeling more like an outsider than when I entered in. I didn’t want to be an anthropologist, but I discovered I wasn’t a participant either. I was assuredly out of place.

Perhaps that is a good thing, perhaps not. Whatever the case, it has had me thinking and asking questions about such experiences and what they mean for my faith and for the church…


17 Responses leave one →
  1. Karl permalink
    October 14, 2008

    Julie, I had a similar feeling about the Orthodox service during college – feeling like an outsider. But reading about Orthodoxy later on (I am one of the ancient-future types) gave me an appreciation for it that I never expected.

    It’s a shame that your encounters with Frederica Matthews-Green’s writings have had to do with feminism and women’s issues. Because she writes (in my opinion) beautifully and winsomely about her journey from protestantism to orthodoxy. I first really encountered Orthodoxy through reading her book “Facing East.” If you can get past your negative feelings toward her on women’s issues and set aside temporarily (agree to disagree) the places where she makes reference to gender roles in the Orthodox church, I think you’d appreciate some of her writing on Orthodoxy. Or at least find it informative and maybe even find *some* aspects of Orthodoxy attractive.

    12 Things I wish I’d Known (First Visit to an Orthodox Church):

    Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Facing East:

    If you have time I’d love to read your thoughts on these.

  2. October 14, 2008

    I often find myself sitting in very familiar evangelical/charismatic church services asking the same questions — what would this look/feel like to an outsider? Finding it difficult to enter in myself for various reasons, it’s easy to put myself in the role of the outsider and wonder what they might think. Frankly, it all seems mighty strange. But I suspect that any of us encountering a new style or tradition of worship would have to go through a process of moving from outsider watching and wondering to insider participating. It also makes me wonder whether the seeker sensitive model really is that — does the first-time visitor really feel at home, or does anyone ever make the transition from spectator to praying participant?

  3. October 14, 2008

    I feel the same way even in a Presbyterian service, and those, or so I’m told, don’t even count as high church liturgy (apparently since the pastor has the freedom to choose which scripted prayers and readings to use, that makes it not fully liturgical?)

    Yeah, I can still appreciate those for whom the ancient/future thing really resonates, but I’m finding that personally I’m not as into it as I once thought I might be. Liturgy is nice on occasion, but I don’t think I could handle a steady diet of it. And I really can’t stand the attitude (very much in evidence at my seminary BTW) that it is the only “right” way to do worship.

  4. Karl permalink
    October 14, 2008

    Presbyterian services might be formal, but they aren’t really liturgical I don’t think. One of the primary components of the liturgical service as I understand it anyway, is celebration of the eucharist as the central focus of the service. The liturgy is designed to symbolically re-tell key elements of the gospel story, culminating in the eucharistic celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. That eucharistic celebration, not the homily, is the primary focus and highlight of the service.

    In the typical protestant service – and very much the presbyterian – the structure of the service leads up to the sermon as the highlight of the service and everything afterwards is denouement. In fact, few presbyterian churches actually celebrate the eucharist weekly. That’s not an argument for what’s right and what’s wrong, but at least one distinction between a service that is truly a “liturgical service” vs. one that is just “formal” and that borrows some elements from the liturgical tradition.

  5. Scott M permalink
    October 14, 2008

    Last year, in September, the Austin American-Statesman had a lengthy Life & Arts article on the festival. It included comments and pictures of the multi-generational effort that goes into preparing for it, especially the food preparation. This festival was never on my radar when I was younger (especially before I was Christian) and I spent a lot of time at different festivals, though I’m sure I would have enjoyed it. In more recent years since I’ve known about it and wanted to go, I’ve been unable to do so. Last weekend, for example, I was at a Friday football game then got up and spent all of Saturday (basically from noon to midnight) watching a marching band competition. Sigh. One day.

    I suppose I had a ‘pan-spiritual’ childhood. Even though I focused more on non-Christian paths up until around age 30 or so, I seem to have somehow experienced a wider swath of Christian traditions than most who actually grow up identifiably Christian. I’m not sure exactly what an ‘ancient-future’ sort might be, but I have always had a particular interest in history, especially ancient history. And I find I’ve never fit easily in the low-church context (even though it’s the only Christian ‘home’ I’ve had these past 12-15 years as a Christian) because it has no discernible continuity with the historical church.

    Karl makes a good point. All of the liturgies, Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, though they do vary a great deal, share a core structure, the liturgy of the word followed by the liturgy of the eucharist. This is a basic shape to the liturgy that can historically be traced back to the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. Whatever it might be called, a liturgy that revolves only around preaching is at best a drastically truncated liturgy. Of course, as you noted Julie, you weren’t actually attending a Divine Liturgy. Rather, it was a Great Vespers service, which is something else entirely. (Note that the Orthodox retain the Jewish practice of starting the liturgical day at sunset, so Great Vespers is actually the first service of Sunday and begins the progress to the Divine Liturgy.)

    As I read the post, Mark Galli’s book Beyond Smells & Bells kept coming to mind. He has a chapter that actually explores how liturgy puts physicality to the theological truth that God is incomprehensible. A God we can understand is a God that we can control. Now, some of the confusion was simply unfamiliarity. That happens when a person enters any new setting. However, even when you have attended a particular sort of liturgy your entire life, there should still be aspects of the worship of a transcendent, incomprehensible God that eludes our rational minds. Mark Galli spends a full chapter on it because it is a difficult idea to express in words, but he does a good job. I would probably recommend the book just for that chapter, but the rest is good as well.

    However, your point at the beginning of the post is off-base. The Orthodox Church has always been both catholic (the whole or full church present around each Bishop) and ecumenical (universal). Greek, Antiochian, Russian, etc. are and have always been in full communion with each other and are the same church. The divisions are for the purposes of administration. And the differences are not in core belief. Rather, the Orthodox Church has always evangelized regions by first translating the liturgy and the Holy Scriptures into the local language, even when they had to develop a written form of a language to do so. That’s been true from the Slavs of the first millenium to the native Alaskan tribes much more recently.Other than Alaska, though, Orthodoxy did not come to the US by missionaries but through immigrants. And so there is a great confusion of administrative jurisdictions in the US. But they are all one Church. Just with variations in style, music, architecture, vestments, and sometimes using different liturgies. (Orthodoxy has more than one Divine Liturgy, though the one by St. John Chrysostom is the most commonly used.)

    Well, except for one in your list. I double-checked St. Elias site to be sure. They are pan-Orthodox, in that they serve families that have come from many jurisdictions. However, that list doesn’t include Coptic churches. The Coptic churches are non-Chalcedonian and though the issue is being worked through (most people today agree that the expression of faith in the non-Chalcedonian churches is not actually monophysite in intent), those churches are not in Communion with the Orthodox Church and thus aren’t included under the umbrella of ‘pan-orthodox’. Unless, of course, you were using ‘Copt’ in its more ethnic sense. It’s used a lot of different ways, but describing some of the non-Chalcedonian churches seems to be the most common usage today.

    Hmmm. I’ve rambled again. I need to get better about that. It’s a character flaw. I almost deleted the comment without submitting it, but decided that something in what I said might be worthwhile.

  6. October 14, 2008

    @ Mike –

    I’ve spent a lot of time on the other side – feeling that non-liturgical worship was being pushed on me and heralded as the “right” or “better” way to worship. I’m a huge lover of liturgy, and I have specific reasons for it, and feel frustrated when people tell me that it’s stifling, inaccessible, old-fashioned, etc. So I think that we share similar frustrations about trying to be “converted” to a different worship structure.

  7. Scott M permalink
    October 14, 2008

    If you have an interest in history, there are lots of written sources. The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware (Bishop Kallistos Ware) is a good, brief introduction. But on his podcast on, Speaking the Truth in Love, Father Thomas Hopko has been doing a series on the history of the Church. I’ve really been enjoying that series, but as I already mentioned, I’ve always had a love for history.

  8. Scott M permalink
    October 14, 2008

    I’ve also been mulling the whole “accessible to outsiders” thing. I agree with the comment in #2 that there is nothing particularly accessible in the Protestant experience, however low church, unless you have been culturally conditioned at some point in your life to feel comfortable in it. That’s a myth. I didn’t feel the slightest bit comfortable when I first entered the church we still attend some fifteen years ago and I still don’t feel all that comfortable in it.

    But I didn’t expect to be comfortable. I knew that by my presence I was at least tacitly expressing a willingness to experience reality with people who saw through a different lens than I did.

    And here is where Orthodoxy continues the patterns set during the earliest centuries. The Divine Liturgy is not primarily seen as evangelistic in nature, though many have certainly been converted by exposure to it. Rather, it is primarily the place where the people of God, the royal priesthood of all who follow Jesus, perform the necessary work of worshipping God and are in turn nourished, formed, and sustained so that they can leave and be the Church outside the walls. It is as the Church lives as the Church in love and service to all that most are evangelized.

    St. John’s liturgy even retains the ancient words where the catechumens left and the doors were closed. That occurred between the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. The reading and expounding of Scripture was a primary source of catechizing or teaching would-be converts. But the mystery of the Eucharist was reserved to those who were baptized. That faded over time once Christianity became a legal (and even official) religion.

    It seems that when you perceive a need to attempt to make a church service or liturgy somehow accessible that you place the evangelistic center of the church in the service itself. And I’m not sure that’s a proper placement. Of course, once again, our God is so powerful and so wonderful that we cannot limit his means of conversion. I think here of Sara Mile’s experience in Take This Bread. My life and experiences are nothing like hers. Nevertheless I totally empathized and related to her story. And cried when she described her first encounter with the bread of the Eucharist.

  9. October 14, 2008

    Karl – maybe someday. As fascinating as it is, that’s not a path I have time to follow right now.

    Maria – I know a lot of what most churches do is strange and hard to enter into. I’ve always been a fan of explaining why we do anything in church. some say that distracts from the worship feeling, but I prefer understanding to awkwardness.

    scott – to touch on one of your points, I understand in theory how liturgy is meant to feed and fill worshipers – that is just not me. It doesn’t happen in clappy happy praise services or is liturgical services. So I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it.

  10. October 14, 2008

    You know, I’ve read a lot of the types of books that are being recommended here, I’ve heard all the theory about how liturgy is supposed to be so meaningful if you really understand what is going on, and about how it is supposed to be especially attractive to post-evangelical emergents like myself. And I totally respect that for some people that is very much the case. At one time (before I had actually experienced much liturgical worship) I thought that might all be true for me too. However, when I actually came to participate in liturgical worship I found that the theory didn’t match up to my experience. It wasn’t quite what I had been looking for.

    At any rate, I don’t personally think that there is only one “right” way to worship, so I’m glad that a lot of evangelicals are rediscovering ancient forms of worship. However, for myself, I’m finding that liturgy is not everything I was told it would be. In the words of U2: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

  11. February 6, 2009

    I understand in theory how liturgy is meant to feed and fill worshipers

    But that’s just it — liturgy isn’t meant to do that. Expecting to be fed and filled is part of the consumerist mentality.

    Liturgy is “the work of the people”. It’s not directed towards the people; it is done by the people, and directed towards God.

    And that is the chief difference between liturgical worship and other kinds. Non-liturgical worship may directed towards the people, to instruct them, to edify them, or to entertain them. But liturgical worship is done by the people, and directed towards God. So it’s definitely not “seeker sensitive”.

  12. February 6, 2009

    Liturgy is “the work of the people”. It’s not directed towards the people; it is done by the people, and directed towards God.

    That’s a helpful distinction Steve, though I still have to wonder “for what purpose?” It’s directed towards God, and that’s great, but does God need our worship? Is it “for” God, or is it still ultimately for us? That is, does God want us to direct our worship towards herself because God needs it, or because God knows we need it?

    As much as I disagree with him on most other things, I think John Piper’s discussion of this question in Desiring God is helpful.

  13. February 7, 2009

    does God need our worship?


    I find such questions difficult to answer, perhaps it is because they sound too utilitarian to me. It’s like when people ask if something is “necessary”. Someone once asked me if incense in worship was “necessary”, and it seemed to me that it was as necessary or unnecessary as anything else. James Thurber and E.B. White wrote a book called Is sex necessary?.

    As for who it is “for”, in one sense I think it is for and on behalf of the world. God created us to be in relationship with him, and worship is part of that relationship. He didn’t “need” to create us, but having done so, he’s gone to a great deal of trouble to send prophets and his own Son to restore the relationship when it was broken. Did he “need” to do that? I don’t know.

    Alexander Schmemann, in his book For the life of the world, puts it thus

    I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live.
    I will praise my God while I have my being (Ps 104).

    And it must be so. There must be someone in the world — which rejected God, and in this rejection, in this blasphemy, became a chaos of darkness — there must be someone to stand in its center, and to discern, to see it again a full of divine riches, as the cup full fo life and joy, as beauty and wisdom, and so to thank God for it. This “someone” is Christ, the new Adam who restores that “eucharistic life” which I, the old Adam, have rejected and lost; who makes me again what I am and restores the world to me. And if the Church is in Christ, its initial act is always this act of thanksgiving, of returning the world to God.

  14. November 21, 2014

    I’m a convert to Orthodoxy, and I’m very thankful my experience has been in a parish that understands just how “outside” a newcomer can feel (probably because it has quite a few converts). It took me a while to get completely comfortable, and I still struggle with the length of services–and maybe always will. But the struggle is part of my spiritual growth.

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