Jesse and I have now lived in 3 places around the US, which also means that we have had 3 different Orthodox parishes, in 3 different jurisdictions, no less. The first, Antiochan, the second, OCA, and now the third, Greek. Each time we move, we get to marvel at the differences (which causes us to re-evaluate what’s essential about the liturgy and what’s just “habit” for a particular parish).
Our last parish in Dallas took a lot of getting used to for us at first. We were used to a small, more homogonized mix of people at St. Barnabas who came from roughly the same area of Orange County and roughly the same background (Protestant/Biolan converts).
St. Seraphim’s in Dallas couldn’t have been more different in these respects. People actually didn’t speak to me for the first few weeks because they thought I was Russian and wouldn’t understand a word of English! It is a common assumption there. I found out later that they could only hope that you understood/spoke Russian, instead of some random Serbian dialect. They gave certain announcements in 3 different languages. I went from having seen one bishop in my entire life (Bishop Joseph) to having hierarchical liturgy every Sunday that the Archbishop was in town (and since he was only a year away from retiring, he was home a LOT). And, since it was the cathedral, it wasn’t unusual to see some of the biggest names in Orthodoxy walk through our doors– Metropolitan Isaiah of the Greeks, Metropolitan Hilarion from Russia, the Bishop of Mexico City, Clark Carlton (you may have heard his podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio? we went out to lunch with him one of our last weeks in Dallas), even the Hansen Brothers (Orthodox!). During Metropolitan Jonah’s consecration as a Bishop, we had over 50 priests and bishops within our walls! That was a crazy weekend, one that I remember very fondly. Little did we know that just 3 years later, we would be having him over to our small little apartment for dinner!
And then there were the liturgy’s stylistic differences. St. Seraphim’s services were much longer and much more “ornate” than St. Barnabas’. There were about 8 chairs along the perimeter for all 150+ people on a given Sunday, so we stood the entire time, even for the homily (after the first year, when I joined the choir, I realized a huge perk– we had chairs up there to rest in, from time to time!). It also wasn’t until I joined the choir that I realized that many of the servers, deacons and priests actually did made mistakes– it had all seemed so perfect and formalized at first. I used to think that this perfection was hoity-toity and snobbish, especially in comparison to the warm, familial atmosphere of St. Barnabas. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood the truth about this aspect of St. Seraphim. They aren’t snobbish, they are just so earnest, so heartfelt and passionate, that they strive to be 100% on their game, all the time. According to their personalities, it is just their personal way of serving Christ.
And now we’re at St. Andrews, a small Greek Orthodox parish that meets in a converted house. Now that Cal Poly is back in session, we have around 50+ people on a given Sunday. It’s taken some getting used to, for sure. It’s quaint, for one. No pretty icons painted on the walls. No gorgeous chandelier in the middle. 3-4 people in the choir instead of the 25-30+ at St. Seraphim’s, who were all divided into 2 groups on either side of the altar.
But today, I started to realize that some of the things that stand out as so blatantly different are becoming some of my favorite aspects! For instance, we have pews. A year or two ago, when I visited for Christmas, this annoyed me because of how crowded it made everything. But today, as Gregory was able to sit beneath them, out of sight with a few toys, or walk along them in order to keep entertained, I was supremely grateful for those pews! They created a type of “gate”, so that he could play while we prayed. And it made the morning sickness so much easier this time around. Instead of having to leave Jesse’s side and find a chair, I just had to sit down!
Aside from the pews (small thing, I know), there’s a general atmosphere of “we all mess up, it’s okay!”. To someone who likes formality, this would be very annoying. But it’s so comfortable, especially on days like today where, 10 minutes before it happened, one of the parish council members, Dr. Moffat, crossed the church and the aisles in the middle of the service, handed Jesse a bible, and said, “Would you read today’s epistle?” In contrast, St. Seraphim’s schedules this out weeks and weeks ahead of time! The service is also MUCH faster– about an hour and 10 minutes total, every week. And it begins at 10am (so we get to “sleep in”!).
Or take the choir. While I miss the triumphant throng of voices I am used to hearing at St. Seraphim’s, St. Andrews sings the same exact songs every week. I mean, same exact. Which isn’t as “cool sounding”, but you know what is? The fact that the entire parish sings along too! If I am sitting on the opposite side of the church, I can hardly hear the 3-4 choir members, the congregation is so loud! This was the exact reason the parish council decided that the music should be so predictable– they wanted complete community involvement over having gorgeous versions of the cherubic hymn (but how I miss some of them!).
And, as a mom, it is so easy to get involved in the choir. Athena, the choir director, encourages me to stand in the front pew closest to the choir. The notes are all printed for the entire congregation in the hymnal, so everyone knows the melody of everything. Surprisingly, the choir’s hymnal is no different than what the congregation has. All the choir members are allowed to make up their own harmony parts, as they see fit. One of the moms in the choir (the priest’s wife, actually!) has a 3 year old that runs around the entire service. And it’s okay! If her daughter wants to come and stand with her in the choir, eating goldfish from a bag, no one bats an eye. One older gentleman has actually taken it upon himself to corral a few of the 3-5 year olds who run around the church, all so that the moms and dads can pay attention to the service.
In general, it’s very easy to have kids at St. Andrews. One of the sweetest things is how they involve the little girls in the Grand Entrance Procession. Although the little girls obviously aren’t allowed in the altar, they are allowed to hold candles and process with the priest around the church during that part of the liturgy. It makes for some “messing up” (one little girl got scared and wouldn’t keep walking, kind of like a flower girl who suddenly realizes everyone is staring at her!), but I think it shows that their hearts are on community involvement, especially if that results in mistakes.
Since there are so many kids, they also have activity bags lined up in the back, chalk full of toys and books and crayons for the kids to use. Just like St. Seraphim’s, after communion all the kids go upstairs for Sunday School so that the adults can have a bit of piece and quiet.
Also, something that I particularly like about St. Andrews is the “adult education” they have after liturgy is over. Dr. Moffat, the religious studies professor at Cal Poly, comes up and gives a 5-10 minute talk about what’s significant about that day on the calendar. It could be about a particular saint, or about a feast, or it could just be about the sacrament of marriage and why the Orthodox do things so differently than the rest of the world (no vows, for instance). This isn’t to say that he’s making up for a bad sermon– Fr. Silviu gives great homilies that are always very enlightening and helpful (Jesse, in particular, really likes them as well– high praise!).
All in all, I think it’s a good sign when I stop comparing because I’m annoyed and homesick and instead start comparing and being grateful. No?
Why We Became Orthodox Christians
Guest Starring: Jesse’s Camera Phone