Posted by: Shawn Ragan | June 2, 2008

An “Out of Time” Experience

My first couple times attending Vespers, I wanted to know what was going on…what was being said…and I wanted to be able to follow along, so I did what most of us would do: I asked for the book. If you have not been in liturgical services, then to let you know, there is often a book with the liturgy…the people are not just making it up as they go :). One can follow along and read what is being said as it is being said…for example, if they are chanting a psalm, you can read the psalm as they chant…

My first couple of times, I tried to follow along. Whenever I visited the Roman Catholic monastery, this is what we did. We had a couple of books, and I knew start to finish what they were doing. So I tried to follow along and read what was being said and chanted during these Vespers services. I have already commented on my first experience in Vespers and the profound impact it had on me.

Let me touch on something else briefly before we go on with what I am talking about here. The way the East understands and lives Christianity is different from how the West (Roman Catholic/Protestant) typically understands and views it (I am not speaking categorically for every Westerner – Western Christianity is so fragmented with such a wide variety of viewpoints I could not even pretend to speak on every group’s view of things – I am speaking very generally here. Please forgive if I offend, that is not my intent). In the West, we tend to want to know doctrines – it is more of a knowledge based approach. “Give me your doctrines and why you believe them” (FYI, the first book I was given on Orthodoxy was “The Orthodox Church” by Bishop Timothy (now Kallistos) Ware and the first thing I did was turn to the second half and read the part that dealt with the “Faith and Worship” or doctrines of the Church).

In the East, however, from my limited perspective, it seems to be more about communion – communion with God and communion with one another. Love, rather than knowledge, underscores what the Faith is about. Now, don’t let this mislead you into thinking the Orthodox Church does not consider correct knowledge important – this the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (those seven councils were held in the East and attended primarily by Eastern, not Western, bishops). This is the Church that has paid great attention to the meaning of words and the nuances that they imply – this is the Church that discussed the implications of using the words homoousias vs. homoiousias, and dealt with Nestorius’ claim that Mary should be called the Christotokos instead of the Theotokos (the Church held to the ancient teaching that Mary be called the Theotokos and did not follow Nestorius’ innovation). All of this to say, correct and true doctrine is very important in the East – but it isn’t about knowing that information, it is about communing with God, knowing Him, and worshipping Him in a totally unselfish way. It is about being God-centered in our life, rather than self-centered.

Let me elaborate on this communion vs. knowledge base: Learning the Nicene Creed doesn’t help you to know the Church anymore than reading a biography helps you to know the person you are reading about. It will help you know about them, and you may gain lots of interesting facts, but you still will not know them. To know them there has to be contact – you have to meet them, you need to interact with them. The Church is the Body of Christ – this is a profound statement. To know it, though, you need to meet it.

This is why I am saying this – you can read all the blogs, all the wikipedia articles, you can even talk to people who have been to services – even those who are Orthodox. None of that will replace actually going to a service yourself. Learn about the Church, read the history, study her beliefs, but more important than that – meet her. I am sharing with you, in a very limited way, some of our experiences, but I like the way Jordan Bajis put it in the book Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian : “A book can never summarize a painting. One does not understand a painter’s creation through an understanding of the physical properties that distinguish one color from another. One perceives the message of the painting by the sight one receives through a heart shaped by life experiences.”

So, while I can share the best I can about these impacts and about these experiences, note that here in this blog I am writing about a painting. The best way for you to understand yourself is to go and see it for yourself.

I drove two hours away. Father Patrick was the pastor of a parish a couple hours from where I live (he has since moved to California). I wanted to visit with him about some things that we had begun to talk about that first night and that we had emailed each other on. I figured I would get there in the afternoon, visit a while, go to Vesper, and then we could visit more afterwards.

Vespers started at 5pm, and I went in. I grabbed a book and went and found a place to stand (in Orthodoxy, most try to stand throughout the services). Father Patrick was serving in the altar, and Hieromonk Mark and a Seminary student, Edward, were chanting. Very early on I lost my place in the book, so I figured I would just put it down and listen.

It was then that it happened. I had been so busy trying to follow and read along, that I really hadn’t been engaged in the service itself. Now, I don’t know how to describe that experience, and it always sticks out because this was the first time, but it was like we were, I don’t know, somewhere else. At the time, my impression was that this is what it would have been like to worship God and go to church in those first centuries – but even more than that, in way it was like worshiping in those first centuries – and all of the centuries since, and maybe all still to come). It was an experience that is hard to explain, because in some ways it was like time functioned differently.

A year and a half later, my wife would make this same observation. This last Pascha was her first time to attend a Divine Liturgy – she went for the Paschal services late Saturday night. One of the comments she made right after the services was that it was “like time didn’t matter.” Time is very important to her, so it was a remarkable experience for her (the whole experience and service was very remarkable, this was just one element of it).

Father Patrick is blogging about the Divine Liturgy on his blog, (see the link on the right). There you can learn far more about the theology of the Liturgy and how it truly functions “out of time.” I hadn’t read any of this. I had just put a book down and begun to listen to prayers and the psalms – I began to pray. And while I was there, things just mattered differently.

So, if you decide to visit an Orthodox Church service, put down the book and try to be there with your senses. Listen to what is being said, see the icons and the things that are happening, smell the incense…be there – experience what is happening.

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Responses

  1. I think it’s amazing how so many different people always seem to have similar experiances with Orthodoxy.

    The first time I went to an Orthodox Liturgy I was completely lost, but completely enthralled at the same time. I could feel some very different from other Christian services I’d been to and later I realized what it was: worship!

    “it was “like time didn’t matter.””

    I think most of us must experiance this too. At a Catholic Mass, or a Protestant service I’d always start getting fidgety if an hour passed and we were still there, yet (to use Pascha as an example) I can stand for the vast majority of 4 hours at an Orthodox liturgy and when it’s done I”m looking around wondering where the time went!

  2. Wonderful! I didn’t notice you doing that, but I am sure glad you learned that by experiment. It is interesting to know that the Church has never offered books of the services for the congregation. It is assumed that all will pray. To be sure, we adult converts need to learn the services, thus the need for books. But that need is only temporary. Once we put the book down, and allow our mind to enter our heart, we find the spiritual bridal chamber and can make our offering of prayer.

  3. Zacharias, we’ve noticed that too. I told my wife Pascha began at 10:30pm and would be 4 hours long…when it was over, she said it didn’t feel like she had been standing four hours! Holy Week I must have been at church – who knows how many hours – time just seems to function different. It is neat to hear of other people having the same experience.
    Shawn

  4. A very basic reason for the different approach the West and East have towards doctrine, is the divergence of the doctrinal nature between them. Western (primarily Roman Catholic and inherited to protestantism) theology is by nature cataphatic, ie, trying to explain what is. Eastern theology on the other hand is apophatic, ie, trying to explain what is not. In the eastern tradition there is much more allowance to ‘feel’ the divine presence outside of clearly defined and constrained intellectual barriers


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