In these church visits I often practice the mental exercise of imagining what the experience of worship would be like for someone who was attending church for the first time. Would a visitor know where to go, what to say, what to do? There was no need for this to be merely an exercise last Sunday. Neither Mindy nor I had never been to an Orthodox church, and we had no idea where to go or what to do. And we weren't provided with many clues.
We arrived a couple of minutes before the service starting time. There were a couple of doors to the church and apparently we chose right, because we entered at the back of the sanctuary (we didn't choose the first door we saw, the one that faced the parking lot. That one would have brought us into the front of the sanctuary). Inside we noticed the cruciform design of the space. I noticed a counter near the entrance where candles were available, and on the same counter were muffin-like pieces of bread. In the main portion of the sanctuary there were a number of framed icons on podiums with holders for candles. There was also a crucifix with many more candle holders in front of it. The paintings around the ceiling, particularly in the front of the sanctuary, were quite beautiful. The art would be the most striking thing I noticed aside from the small number of chairs.
In the back of the church there were rows of three chairs on each side and in the front of the church there were scattered chairs by the walls. I counted a couple dozen chairs, and when we arrived, there were already more people than that. (People continued to arrive up through the second ringing of chimes, about halfway through the service.) So the question in my mind was, "Do we sit or stand?"
Sitting is deeply ingrained in my Protestant tradition. Posterior rest is my native worship language. Sure, I'll tolerate those enthusiastic song leaders who want everyone up for the next chorus. And I'll stand when pastors ask us to stand for the Gospel reading (though the Old Testament and the Epistles are just as much God's Word as the Gospels so I find it puzzling why the Gospels are singled out in this way). But my knees are not used to being straight for a sermon, let alone announcements. It became quickly apparent that we would be standing because those chairs were there for the sick, the elderly, children and wimps.
There was a screen with doors in front of the church that hid the priests, clergy and assistants along with the Scripture and Host. It reminded me of the Holy of Holies found in the Tabernacle and Temple, separating God from His people. That wall was torn apart when Jesus was crucified. People came in and out of the doors at various times, and the center door was sometimes left open so the congregation could see the priests at work around the altar. When the center door was closed, there was a curtain in it that was sometimes open and sometimes drawn.
The Priest chanted prayers, requesting God's blessing on the home country and this country, the armed forces and travelers, the clergy and lay people among many others with the choir responding, "Let us praise the Lord." In other prayers, the choir responded with "Let us pray to the Lord" or "Grant this, oh Lord." The choir, above us in the balcony, led to inevitable comparisons to angel choirs. There was no instrumental accompaniment to any of the singing or the chanting.
I had assumed a majority of the service was spoken, chanted, sung in Russian but I learned later that most of the liturgy was in Church Slavonic, which is used in the conservative Orthodox churches much as Latin used to be used in Roman Catholic churches. Some of the songs were in Slavonic, and others in English and still others in Russian. I had a hard time telling which was which. Sometimes when the singing was in English it took me a while to figure it out. There were certainly were no hymnals, song sheets or lyrics projected on screens to follow along. The singing was all a cappella; there were no musical instruments besides bells and chimes.
The sermon was most certainly spoken by the priest in Russian. After giving the sermon in Russian, he gave it in English. He told about the demon possessed boy that Jesus healed. The disciples were unable to heal the boy, and the priest asked a really good question, "If the disciples, who had been with Jesus for a long time, didn't have enough faith, what hope is there for us?" But he answered the question with the story of some saint or other from the third century who became a physician and then was tortured and beheaded for his faith.* Frankly, I thought I had more hope of living up to the apostles' example than this executed saint.
When I saw a gentleman reaching for his wallet, I knew the offering was about to be taken (there was no announcement of an offering, at least not in English). I also saw a woman getting change for the offering from one of the men selling candles. Sadly, my thought was, "I thought the moneychangers had been driven from the temple?"**
Children were the first to line up take the Lord's Supper, a mixture of water and wine spooned out by the priest. To the side there were pieces of bread and cups of watered wine that seemed to be available on a self-serve basis. It was apparent by the caution taken with the elements that the church believes in the doctrine of transubstantiation (that the bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of Christ).
After the service, a gentleman named George invited us to lunch in the fellowship hall. We had a wonderful time talking with him and his wife as they told us stories of immigrating to the United States and the foundation of Saints Peter and Paul Church. We were very pleased by his greeting, because throughout the rest of the morning we were never greeted by anyone else, let alone offered any explanations of how we were to worship or what any of it meant. Not even the clergy made any effort to greet us (at the meal, we were at the same table as the senior priest, and while we waited in line, the other priest was a few feet away) or find out why the heck we were there taking pictures. George told us there was some literature that explained about the Orthodox Church and its worship (it was next to the counter with the candle), but it would have been helpful if someone had pointed these things out to the quite obvious visitors when we arrived.
I can see why Russian speakers would be attracted to come to this church (conversation after the worship service ended seemed to be equally in Russian and in English) and the affection that the congregants had for one another was good to see. The beauty of the art, music and ritual could be quite inspiring. I wonder though, whether a visitor would feel welcome to return. They would, of course, feel welcome if they met George.
Service Length: 1 hour 45 minutes
Sermon Length: 15 minutes (just over half in Russian, the rest of the time in English)
Visitor Treatment: politely ignored (except by George and two women. One let Mindy know it was okay if she wanted to sit down, the other was friendly as she served chicken wings)
Our Rough Count: 100
Probable Ushers' Count: 120
Snacks: pizza, chicken wings, salad, cookies and other sweets, coffee, tea, juice, water, wine
Musicians: about a dozen singers in the balcony; eight women and four men
Songs: the congregation seemed to sing along with two songs, and most of the service was sung or chanted.
Miles to place: 10
Total California Miles: 10,816
*This is the saint mentioned in the sermon: Panteleimon
**We're not sure, but buying candles at that counter in the back might also be considered an offering. And there were two baskets passed at the same time, and people seemed to put something into each of them. One basket had a label in Russian.