Updated: Mar 27, 2020
I go to church. This is not a sales ploy to convince anyone to go to my church or any church. I find beauty and value to most religions and respect those who choose no religion. I don't think you are going to hell for not going to church any more that I think one would be an unsuccessful, unemployable loser for not going to college. For whatever reason; through thick and thin, doubt and debauchery, I have always liked going to church.
I have tried all denominations of Christian churches as well as a few non-christian religious celebrations. I think I would have tried to explore other religions but news to most Americans, many don't have regular weekly praise services. Many just have a temple that is open most times for individual prayer or social gatherings. Putting aside the thought that I might not be getting the whole worldly perspective on religious practices, I like the idea of one God with one begotten son who's body and blood I get to consume ( yes, I am a cannibal).
I was raised in a very evangelical christian home that didn't always serve me well, but I didn't "throw the baby out with the bathwater". I did my research and eventually fell in love with the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. (if you don't know what this is, Google it or watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding). I could now give you a 5000 (random number) word essay on the theological, intellectual and experimental reasons I chose this religion, but for the sake of getting to the point and why this has entered my blog, I will reduce it to two reasons: art and sense of home.
The Orthodox Church (as well as Roman Catholic) appreciate the aesthetic in their worship. The protestant mindset that I was accustomed to, shunned the idea of adornment because it seemed like vain frivolity and money that could be better spent on feeding the poor. I get that, but what about the "poor in spirit"? Was not the feeding of the soul the stronger message of Christ? One could have all the physical nourishment that he needs but without beauty, creativity, music, craftsmanship, humanity, etc.; how is life worth living?
In the days before public museums, the church/cathedral/temple was the only way a common person could view works of fine art. Be as bitter as you would like to be about organized religion and the once controlling power of the Catholic Church over Western civilization; but they are the ones who brought artists to the forefront - free of charge. So what's the big deal that once in awhile they let some pompous wealthy parishioner feel like they were getting into heaven by commissioning a fresco in honor of Christ?
Leonardo Da Vinci committed a serious crime when he would break into places of medical study to observe and draw human cadavers. Where would we be without his risk for the patronage of THE church? https://www.artcrimearchive.net/single-post/2013/04/24/Leonardo-da-Vinci-and-Dissection. Eww, get your artsy perverted hands off my beloved relative, Leo!
Sure, these artists can't get very experimental with their subject matter, but the care and craftsmanship is evident and the church supports it. They value artists in all their styles and give the commoner a way to worship God with their eyes as well as the rest of their senses.
The artist who was commissioned to do the icons at my current church, St. George Orthodox Church (pictured here), was Janet Jaime. I am inspired by what she writes for the diocese website about how she decided to use her artistic talents for this brand of art making. She defends her craft by saying:
I have talked to many people who see no difference between a print of a photograph of an icon and a hand-painted icon, even for the purpose of adorning the walls and iconostasis in our churches. Reproductions are a good thing for the home or a small mission or a young church struggling to become established. I have heard, however, some Orthodox people remark that prints of icons are perfectly fine to “decorate” permanently our sanctuaries, or worse, they simply cannot see the difference.
Would we ever take this attitude with our hymnology and replace the choir with digital recordings? Or use store-bought bread for the Holy Bread? We would not accept a modernized translation of Scripture that diminishes the meaning of God’s Word.
These next images are of details from those icons that perhaps only an artist would notice: The folds of fabric with layered depth, the illusionary transparent sign that an angel holds up with clutching fingers, the swirls of bright Pthalo blue waters, the detailed phelanges of feet and fingers and the combinations of primary colors and values that make a severed head stand out. I wonder how long it took the artist to make those little plants that peek out between rocks, looking sort of like playful critters.
Let's not leave out the other arts when speaking about worship. The Orthodox church considers all the senses and honors music, taste and smell. The liturgy is also adorned by a choir with an educated leader and everything besides the priests homily (sermon) is sung or chanted. If the song/chant is done badly, yes, it can make one cringe and want to find church in their bathtub with Enya playing on their 1990s playlist. However, if done well, can make the smell of the priest's incensing of Frankincense, Myrrh, and Rose bring you to another world.
Taste, the part that my chef husband would vouch for as the most soul enriching, is brought to us through the Eucharist; combining dense homemade bread with sweet kosher red wine as our communion supper. We only receive a spoonful of wine drenched bread, so after the silence of church is done, we gather for an hour of food and coffee - connecting our need for physical nourishment with our spiritual needs. Have you tasted Lebanese food!? God and some opinionated grandma worked hard at making chickpeas taste that heavenly! Body and spirit are always connected in our search for God.
I've heard many times that liturgical church is "boring" (blah, blah, blah) but that is the fault of our modern American society. We have been over stimulated and to sit still and listen to repetitious sounds, ancient allegiances while surrounded by still paintings of people dead, seem banal. It's not. These images, words, acts, sounds are what connect us to community past, present and future. I know people who spend a $100 a month to take yoga or comparable fitness classes at some commercial gym just to find peaceful meditation that their bodies are telling them they need. Don't get me wrong, I need those classes too! However, until I can afford such luxuries, there is a 2000 year old class for free that I can attend at least twice a week - and they feed me!
Sense of Home
I started my Orthodox practice in a small mission church which I am grateful for, but as I have mentioned, my current home is St.George Orthodox Church. This is a parish that has been in Cedar Rapids for 106 years and it is refreshing to be a part of something that is this established. They were formed by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants and still hold the majority; although last April they immediately accepted mutt Northern European descents like myself and my mostly Norwegian family. They treat me like the family and I feel abundantly grateful and special - like Oprah just gave me a car special.
For those who don't have family near or at all, this sacrificial community is vital for feeling good about the world. The Sunday school teachers are my kids aunts and uncles. The warm older gentleman who always greets me with a hand shake and a warm smile is my grandpa, and the other moms are sisters who would come over to my house with soup if I was ill.
When I attend liturgy at other Orthodox parishes when when visiting friends or family in other parts country, I feel as though I'm at a family reunion. I get hugs and invites and personal questions as though I'm meeting my second cousins and aunt and uncles twice removed (is that a thing?) for the first time. We even weirdly know many of the same people from other parishes states away. We share an invisible bond that satiates my need to belong and feel unconditionally loved.
Below are some photos I took of this family that I see almost every week. On the top left is our greeter/gate keeper William, who usually looks friendly but was taken back my request to take his picture. Children are huge focus of our parish but no one is more focused on than our priest's youngest child Harry (top right), who always does his own thing and wears whatever the heck he wants. He used to wear a bow tie with a full suit but he's recently got all emo with a printed T-shirt and track pants. He was almost too cool to let me take his photo but maybe he secretly knew I was writing an arts blog.
I recently noticed this crafted wooden cross (middle bottom) created by the Sunday school. This traditional Byzantine styled cross is scribbled with favorite bible verses and collaged with hearts labeled by the children who made it. Every week they make something that visually explains our centuries old habits and beliefs.
The presiding priest or father of our parish, is Fr. Fred Shaheen. Orthodox priests can marry unlike Roman Catholic priests, and so they have their own immediate family but they are also committed to their church family. These are people who will wake up in the middle of the night to attend to a dire need amongst this family.
A visiting priest to Quincy's St. Raphael Mission parish, Fr. Nicholas Finley of https://www.nativityofthevirgin.com, travelled 2 and a half hours from outside St. Louis to spend a day and a half in a hospital with a dying member of our parish whom he hardly knew. He prayed continuously to comfort her in her last hours and to honor her for her lifetime of diligence to the Orthodox faith. I was attracted to this style of pastorship after years of being casually dismissed by leaders of other denominations who who often said "email me with questions" and only promised to pray for me.
If you can't love Fr. Fred for that amazing beard, how about the fact that he's a writer for the online publication PRN Alumni Foundation?- This website is a connection for those who love and adore the legacy of Prince (yes, the musical legend). Fr. Fred is an avid fan of Prince and who was in Minneapolis for a diocesan conference and snuck away to visit Paisley Park . He stumbled upon a limited 50 person Prince concert and blushes to tell the story. This is man of "the cloth", who in the main level of his home has a wall of icons dedicated to Christ, but in his basement has a shrine under glass of Prince memorabilia. How can you not love that Father? - as crappy as your biological father might be, why not adopt a new one!
I cherish him, as well as past priests I've been lucky to know, because he teaches my kids what the frick is happening in these strange and ancient liturgical rituals that we engage in every week. If my children think it's all bogus later and find another way to worship God or have no faith at all, I will accept that. I will know that I lovingly and whole heartedly showed them my journey through a rogue family who dedicated their lives to make us feel like all of the above mattered: visual art, humanity, love, spirituality, history, tradition and community. With all the frustrations and doubts I face everyday, this is why I go to church and always will.