I recall a morning early in my Orthodox Christian experience. My hands folded in my lap, I waited for the Sunday service to begin. I watched people entering the room, greeting one another in ways I was accustomed to from my life in churches. They smiled, they said hello, they hugged. I noticed a few greeting with kisses, which wasn’t the usual form from my past, but I figured those folks were the Russians.
Nearly every person began their entrance into the church by crossing themselves in front of, bowing to, and then kissing icons. These painted pictures of Jesus, of Mary, and of saints hung all around the room, but the ones most people bowed to (or venerated, as I heard the term being used) were set on three stands, which looked to me like pulpits. One was near where we entered, and the others were up front on either side of the double doors (called the Royal Doors) that led to the area containing the altar.
I knew next to nothing about icons. My experience with them so far hadn’t been great. Perhaps no other aspect made attending an Orthodox worship service feel so foreign as icons being there, and then everyone was interacting with them.
For my daughter’s sake, I had earlier tried to follow what seemed a prescribed ritual. Months ago, when visiting St. John’s, I tried. After the service ended that day, I went forward, fumbled making the sign of the cross, and bent toward the icon, lips puckered. I bonked my nose. The kiss failed. That was it. I would never make such a humiliating attempt again.
Now I’d changed my mind. This morning I had arrived with Tim before most other people. Determined, I made my way carefully to the first icon, the one of St. John the Wonderworker, for whom this church is named. Taking my time, I touched my forehead, then my midsection, and last I touched my right and then my left shoulders. I repeated this action. Then I took a breath, tilted my chin, and lowered my head until my lips touched St. John the Wonderworker’s robe. Once more I crossed myself and slowly moved to the other icons.
My outer person is a timid one, but the state inside of me this morning wasn’t the state of someone being shy. I existed in a complex space, but it was mainly one of interest. By my usual forms of reasoning this should not be. Months ago I had, in this building, dismissed what I saw going on.
I was uncomfortable with a dogma — a basic tenet of the form of faith held by the people pictured in the icons and the people bowing to them around me — the belief in the Trinity. This was due to my most recent interpretations of Scripture. Years earlier as a Christian I had accepted “God in three Persons” to be true. For about a decade now, I hadn’t been sure.
I was in an intriguing spot. When someone came into my Protestant, Bible studying community and mentioned the Trinity, I felt awkward. This sort of person would be welcome to speak his or her mind. But I would hold inside myself the sense (though unarticulated) that this person wasn’t one of us. I would have considered them ignorant of church history. Or possibly just superstitious. Mind you, I had never thought through very carefully my view of God’s nature for myself. But I would have sensed these things nonetheless.
Today I began to see myself bumping up against a habit of accepting the Trinity as untrue. I was, in a sense, safe here at St. John’s to consider what I really thought, because no one from my dearly loved Christian community was present. If anyone from my group had walked into the service, I would have felt like a 14-year-old caught smoking behind the barn. Why was this so? I’d never considered the question of my conformity to that group. Why had I, maturing believer that I hoped I’d become, been unwilling to think differently from the group? I had assumed I was a free agent; now I recognized I held at least one belief — my views on the Trinity — simply because my friends did. This was disconcerting; it wasn’t even what my Protestant teachers encouraged. It was hard to know what to think about myself.
All I knew was something had happened at the core of me (as I’ve recently recounted in another post). Because of this, today I needed to inspect, to partake, and to hold nothing back. At the end of the morning’s Liturgy I once again venerated the icons.
Later, after the church’s communal meal called Trapeza, I helped Tim and our daughter on the clean-up crew. People bustled back and forth from tables to kitchen to cupboards. Other church members lingered at their places over coffee and tea, conversing in earnest, laughing, reminding active children to slow down or head outdoors. Such a scene could have unfolded at any church I’d ever attended — time together following worship, study, and prayer. (Here, though, of course, hung a few icons, even in the dining room.)
While I wasn’t at all eager to go through the process of meeting everyone in this new context (I hadn’t been looking for another community; I’d had my own, thank you), I recognized the feeling of home. St. John’s appeared doable. I thanked God for this, as we finished the intense, light work of setting things right in good company beneath faces on the walls.