Thursday, March 05, 2009

A Bright Sadness: Visiting the Orthodox Church during Lent

The church is dark. Circles of light glow from the vigil candles on the walls and the prayer candles that are lit and placed tilting in humble sand. The dark wood shines, though; it is a deep enough darkness that bits of light become bright. The saints on the walls remind us that we are not alone; we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

Women in scarves gather to the left, old and young, inquirer and cradle-born standing side-by-side. Men in black vestments or rain jackets gather to the right, chanting with rich familiarity or reading with hesitancy. The black vestments have flickers of gold, both dark and luminous.

Majestic and humble are co-existing this night in a beautiful and mysterious way.

The specificity of the confession is deep and honest. No skimming over, no subtlety. But then we sing, over and over, “God is with us” as another continues reading. GOD IS WITH US!

As we leave, the rain is unleashed with fury once again. We jog to the car, passing blossoms big and small on the trees in the church courtyard. They are pink and yellow and white in the lights overhead; as we speed past, the fragrance is like incense to bless us on our way.

This Orthodox world is full of physical pictures of spiritual things: light shining, dark filling, fragrance of blessing wafting in the air. The service stays with me long after I return home to the smell of dinner and the sound of skirmishes and speech practice and guitar strumming.

God is with us.

* Fr. Alexander Schmeman referred to Lent as a "bright sadness."

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