I want to tell you about my visit to the Orthodox Church on Saturday night before Easter. But I’m worried about how this might be received. So here are some things I want you to know and remember while you read.
1. The Orthodox congregation I visited responded to me in reasonable and understandable ways. I don’t think they were prepared for a non-Orthodox visitor. And why should they have been? How many outsiders show up alone for a three hour service that starts at 11:30 at night? I might be the only such visitor they’ve ever had for this particular service.
2. I’m quite certain I was giving off a strong “leave me alone” vibe. I just didn’t have the energy to bring out my gregarious persona. So I showed up and sat in a pew and didn’t say anything to anyone. I did that. That was my vibe. I chose it.
3. This post is about me, not about the church I attended. It is about my emotional and spiritual state of mind. My experience Saturday night now seems like a vision to me. Things unfolded as they needed to. There is wisdom for me in the vision I received that night, and I am seeking to find it.
The service began at 11:30. I wanted some time to sit and meditate and quiet myself in preparation for what I suspected was going to be a challenging experience. Orthodox worship is culturally jarring if you’re not used to it. So I got there at 10:30. There were people out front selling candles for five dollars. I frequently don’t carry cash and had none that night, so I was not able to buy one. But I didn’t think much about it.
I went inside and asked a woman if there was a handout or order of worship. She seemed surprised by my question. The Divine Liturgy for this night is far too complex and long for that. Orders of worship are really more of a Protestant thing. I knew that but I was somewhat anxious and just kind of blurted out the question without thinking.
She said, “Are you not Orthodox?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m just visiting.”
She seemed pleased by this and asked if I wanted to sit with her family.
Hmm. That was a nice offer, and perhaps I should have taken her up on it. But in that moment, the idea of sitting in the center of the congregation with people I didn’t know was a little overwhelming. So I thanked her but said I was in a “back row state of mind.” She smiled and I walked away.
And now I wonder if maybe she was an angel presenting me with a choice between two paths that night. Two ways were before me. With no time to think, I followed the desire of my heart, the voice of my unconscious. I chose the lonely way. I chose the path that ran along the back wall of the sanctuary, away from the nice woman and her family. My path allowed me to slip quietly into the last seat in the back row next to the outside aisle. Right where I wanted to be.
My short exchange with that woman would be the last human interaction I would have that night.
At 11:30 two men on opposites sides of the room began singing and chanting in that interesting monotone style the Orthodox Church is known for. The man on the right sang in a language that was unknown to me. The man on the left sang in English, but he had a soft voice, was a little mumbly, and I was in the back row. What he said was babel in my ears. I couldn’t understand any of it. I didn’t care though. In some ways it was a relief not to understand the words. I was present and hearing the liturgy, or at least the humming sound of it. Other people in the room understood what was being said and I let them carry the burden of meaning. I felt happy being surrounded by their words and their songs and their chanting.
By midnight more people had arrived and the church was now full. People were standing at the back, behind me. The lights were extinguished and it became dark. The center door of the Iconostasis was open and I could see two small flames dancing behind red glass. Then someone near the front made fire and lit the candles of those in the front row. They turned and lit the candles of those behind them. This was the moment I realized everyone had a candle but me. The light swept backwards through the congregation. All was darkness, but light was returning to our world.
And then the light came to me. The light was upon me and flowed around me, rejoining itself behind my back. I noticed that no one seemed to see me. No one looked sympathetically at me as if to say, “Oh no, you don’t have a candle.” It was strange. It was as if I wasn’t there. I was left inside a small dark circle with no flame of my own. Like the unwise bridesmaids, I had not made my preparations. I was not ready, so the bridegroom moved on and the door was closed to me.
The priest along with robed men and boys processed down the center aisle and went outside. I was pulled along with the people as we followed and spilled out onto the lawn. A litany was repeated many times in both languages: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” The people lifted their candles each time and made the sign of the cross with the flames. I wondered if someone would bring a candle to the man without one. But I don’t think anyone could see me. This was the moment I began to wonder if somehow I had become invisible.
Now a dark mood fell over me. Not a depressive mood. Something else. I felt my isolation from this community, or really from any community right now. Isolation was a thing, a real thing that I could feel. My sphere of darkness surrounded me and insulated me from the flames of the candles moving up and down and side to side all around me. I had not yet gained the distance of time needed to understand the visionary nature of this experience, thanks be to God. So I just lived in the moment. I was among the people but not with them. By some strange power I felt shielded from their eyes, unseen.
We went back inside to prepare for communion. I am not able to receive communion in the Orthodox tradition, which is something I know, understand, and respect. The people rose and filed into the aisles all around me, moving with small steps down to the front where they received wine from a spoon and ate chunks of bread from a tray. I sat quietly in my seat and watched. The long service was drawing to an end and people were happy and embracing. My back and legs hurt, for we spent much of the evening standing.
Sometimes the Orthodox will bring a visitor some unblessed bread during communion. But it’s not a rule. It just happens sometimes. It didn’t happen that night. People came down the aisle with hands full of bread but didn’t see me. Couldn’t see me. My place was to be the unseen man at the back.
I wonder if somehow they knew I needed this.
There was a feast afterward. It’s hard for me to believe now, but I actually went downstairs to join them, thinking I might have one last shot at connecting and interacting. That’s how disconnected I was even from myself. I spent the evening making myself invisible but had not yet understood what I was doing. I walked into a large room with many tables. People were gathered around these tables hugging and laughing and eating. But which of these tables should I approach now to boldly proclaim my presence? I stood for a few minutes on the edge of things. No one saw me. Then I ran out of energy. Whatever it was that brought me to this place and sustained me for such a long time left me. I wanted to go home
I went out from that place into the darkness of the streets. There are restaurants and bars in that part of town, and the people of the night were wrapping up their own activities. It was clear to me that I’m not part of their world either. I got in my car and drove home. It was about 2:45 in the morning. I wasn’t sad. The feeling wasn’t that sharp. I was something else. Pensive maybe? Thoughtful with a hint of melancholy? I don’t know. I don’t know what I was feeling.
In the days that followed I thought about the night I spent among the Orthodox faithful. I began to understand my experience as a vision with lessons to teach me. Why did I choose the solitary path when in my heart I hoped for connection? What chemistry or pheromone or body language can explain how I was erased from their vision?
What does it mean, this night I spent alone in a crowd of passionate people?
It is not mine to know these answers at this time. While I was there I was meant to feel my isolation. Now I have come to understand that I received a powerful vision.
If I become ready, perhaps the meaning of this vision will one day be clear to me.