"I Knew Not Whether I Was on Earth or in Heaven."
There is a famous story of the pagan Prince of Kiev, Vladimir (Bear is going on memory, so details may be wrong, but the story is just as good) who wished to have a single religion in his realm. So he sent emissaries far and wide to discover the true faith.
All came back disappointed but one. He had been sent to Constantinople, and had seen the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in a beautiful temple. "I did not know if I was on earth or in Heaven," he told his Prince. And that was how Russia became Orthodox.
Imagine you are seeing the Divine Liturgy in a beautiful Russian church with a chandelier overhead to represent the heavens, and the silent witness of countless icons all around. Everyone is standing, but they don't seem tired, even though the service goes on and on.
Yes, there is repetition, but it seems to be building toward something. The music is beautiful, some written by great Russian composers, and very moving. It seems like an organic part of the liturgy, not three banal hymns stuck into the Mass. The Liturgy is sung, of course, and that part you can't understand is probably Church Slavonic.
Even the Epistle is a Big Production
When it is time to read the Epistle, a teenage girl does not amble up front to gabble through it nervously. A man, possibly a tonsured reader dressed in a high-collared black cassock that makes him, as a personality, disappear, separates himself from the congregation. He lifts high the gold-covered book of Epistles and disappears behind the iconostasis through the right door to the strains of the stirring Trisagion Hymn - Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us...
Behind the iconostasis, in the altar, things are busy. In the small place, the priest is assisted by two altar boys in beautiful vestments. They're important. One holds the censer, which is used frequently throughout, and kisses the priest's hand whenever he gives it to him. The other is probably holding a cross. The priest finds time to bless the unworthy reader for the important task ahead.
The reader emerges from the left door of the iconostasis, still holding high the big book, takes his place in the middle of the church and chants. Orthodox chanting goes from tones (similar to the Catholic Church) to freestyle. Epistles are sometimes chanted in the Russian "from the grave" style. Bear has included a sample for flavor, but the true "from the grave" chant by half-steps are is sung by Russian basses who begin several octaves blower than Bear.
Bear does not provide this as an example of perfection, just his feeble effort. Nonetheless, the words are clear, and, if done right, it is spine-tingling. And this is "just" the epistle! (Bear also has a chanted version of Catholic Lauds on Soundcould.)
By the end, when the Orthodox are singing the triumphant "We have seen the true light..." a non-Orthodox visitor is emotionally overloaded. This is how it's supposed to be! he thinks. He may feel like he has come home at last. This seems to be a common reaction among Orthodox converts.
Catholic vs Orthodox Worship
Of course, it's "right." This is human beings taking the worship of God seriously and bringing Him their very best. This is "vertical worship," not the "horizontal" hand-holding, hand-shaking, hand-wringing, banal, Protestantized Mass of, by and for humans. The Bear cannot help but sit there during Mass and think, "Whatever this is, it was designed by people who didn't know a thing about ritual and psychology, let alone theology. Or simply wanted to destroy it."
It is simply awful. The Bear tells himself if the Angel of the Mass (if anyone even believes in that, anymore) can stand it, and Jesus can come, then the Bear ought to be able to sit through a bad amateur theater act for thirty minutes.
There are no stained glass windows. They are clear so that, don't you see, they "let the world in."
If any actual worship happens, it is purely by accident, or grace. It's nearly impossible when you arrive twenty minutes early to prepare and the old folks are chit-chatting away. The first "official act" of the Mass is the Reading of the Bulletin by some teenager, followed by the hokey "Greet your Neighbors" ritual Bear can't seem to find in his missal.
Then the priest processes up the aisle to some painfully dated song about, why, what do you know, us. Our traveling, our gathering, our blathering, if not our frolicking with the "Lord of the Dance," who might be Jesus or a Wiccan evocation of Pan. Bear is just not sure.
Then there are a few jokes by Father to "warm up the crowd." The homily is going to be off the cuff, and about whatever he did the previous week, but you can bet Bear is going to get beat over the head with "the Three Great Abrahamic Religions" stick at some point, and before Father winds down, Bear is going to hear about the last and next great ecumenical events with whomever.
In fact, after some homily about how wonderful the Lutherans are (never the Baptists, or Evangelicals for some reason) Bear wonders why the Hell he's here, instead of over at the wonderful Lutheran service! At least they're Lutherans acting like Lutherans, not Catholics acting like Lutherans. A little honesty goes a long way with Bears.
Contrast that to an Orthodox service and a homily more like; "Demons go into pigs and jump off cliff. What does this mean? Demons are real and you must be careful or go to Hell." In other words, about the gospel, and taking the Christian faith seriously.
Educated Catholics would sneer at that "pericope," like they sneer at the rest of the unreliable collection of folk tales we once thought was somehow "inspired by the Holy Spirit."
Ah, the Catholic Church. No longer disdainfully unconcerned with the age, nor even running up fifteen minutes late, out of breath, but complacently bringing up the rear holding onto 19th century Protestant scholarship long after many Protestants have moved on. And quickly making its peace with and creating a new role in a world that has never been more thoroughly occupied by the Enemy.
A Near Occasion of Sin
It is difficult for the Bear to write about these things. It stirs memories of some of the most satisfying periods of his life. No one knows better than the Bear all the reasons to convert from Catholicism to Orthodoxy. He wishes he were Orthodox every day. He spiritually aches for it.
The Bear wants to go back to Orthodoxy. There is an Antiochian church, mainly converts, just up the road, and his old Russian parish 20 minutes away.
Ah, but there were many gray heads there when Bear left southern Illinois and struck out with only his faithful Yorkie, Buster, as companion. He wonders what will happen when the old Russians all die off. Will there be enough converts to keep the lights on? The Antiochian church in the bigger university town on the outskirts of the Woodlands is the logical future of Orthodoxy in southern Illinois, but it will never be the same.
Small ethnic parishes, tucked away secretly here and there, for all their maddening charm, are not going to survive. It is very sad to imagine the beautiful little temple where the Bear reared his children as another abandoned ghost, its beautiful iconostasis and icons slowly decaying, stained glass windows broken by vandals.
The Bear will always be part Orthodox. But next time, he'll tell you why he's Catholic.