Vespers at the Orthodox Church
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…