“Is it odd, or is it God?” Questioning in St. Petersburg

Alexander Nevsky Church, the green rood screen doors closed

Alexander Nevsky Church, the green rood screen doors closed

A friend, when I tell him about coincidences—usually those that result in some benefit or insight or positive change either in my thinking or my situation—often says to me “is it odd, or is it God?”

That’s an unfair question. There are other possibilities. I once accompanied on the piano a Southern Baptist soprano of high repute whom I told about a job prospect too good to pass up and claimed God had arranged it (long ago when I still wanted to believe such things). Her response was that the Devil could have arranged it as easily, so I’d better be careful. (It must have been the Devil because I didn’t get the job; I found out later they somehow knew I’m gay.)

Last week (on the Fourth of July) I walked across the street from the Moscow Hotel in St. Petersburg to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. I knew the monks held a service in their church at 7 AM, and I hoped to hear the singing—the glorious music of the Russian Orthodox services. I was not disappointed. It was mass, and the choir (about 8 monks although I could not tell for sure) sang. I was a few minutes late, so I stealthily took my place to stand in the back next to a platform the purpose of which I have no idea. The rail around it was helpful for standing without my cane and having both hands free to use my camera.

I recorded about 4 minutes of the service—a snippet of which is below. I did not have permission to do use my camera; the Devil made me do it—at least he did not make me buy a dress—younger readers will have to look that one up!

The service itself, of course, took place at the altar, behind the rood screen. The giant doors were open so the faithful could see what was happening except during the Consecration of the Mass when the doors were closed. The only vocalized participation of the faithful came at the singing of the Creed. Otherwise, the people (as always in an Orthodox service) stood and listened. At the Name of Jesus and other crucial points, the people kneeled or at least bowed and at many points blessed themselves with the sign of the cross. They all seemed to know exactly when it when these gestures were appropriate.

Helsinki Cathedral - Is Lutheranism ineffable?

Helsinki Cathedral – Is Lutheranism ineffable?

I was there solely to hear the music. But something else happened. I was drawn into the experience (I did NOT say I understood or believed in what was happening or being said). I was puzzled at the sense of transcendence I felt. It wasn’t simply the strangeness of it (I have had many such experiences—I frequently attended services at the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in East Los Angeles years ago). And it wasn’t as if I felt God hovering around ready to strike me into believing.

I was drawn into some kind of mystery—a mystery I have not felt in “church” for many years. Neither Pope John XXIII nor Pastor Robert Jeffress would agree that anything important could have been happening with/to/for the faithful. They were not “participating.” They were not singing, passing the peace, responding in any way (they did make their communion). They were observers. They were shut out. There was no giant screen for them to follow with the words to rock-style music.   They certainly couldn’t join in the singing of music that does not exist outside that place. They didn’t get to kneel around the altar and share the cup with each other.

It was all patriarchal, authoritarian, remote and immovable.

If I am lucky, I’ll hang around on this planet for perhaps as much as another fifteen or twenty years, maximum. The constant nagging question of my existence is “Why?” There are correlative questions. “Where did I come from?” “How will it feel to be dead?” “Why does Alice Walton have billions while I’m worried about how I will live next year when I’ve retired?”  If you don’t think about things like that, perhaps you already know how it feels to be dead. How, why, where, what, when.

We all heard about Socrates and “the unexamined life is not worth living” when we were in middle school.  We didn’t, however, hear that life probably cannot be examined.

So this almost abject humility in the Orthodox liturgy, this admission by every participant that she cannot do anything about the mystery, cannot even express it, is rooted in reality. “These holy mysteries,” as some western liturgies call the communion, really are, well, mysteries. Ineffable. Non-participatory. Numinous. Not projectable on a TV screen to follow the bouncing ball.

One Response to “Is it odd, or is it God?” Questioning in St. Petersburg

  1. gpicone says:

    I like my mysteries to remain mysteries. What’s wrong with that? I think it’s a lot better than when people make up crap just to explain what they can’t and then claim faith in the lack of evidence. I say it’s more fun to just keep on looking 🙂

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