Sunday, November 25, 2007

West Returns East

If you've ever been to a Russian Orthodox liturgy, you know that there is a lot of ritual involved: the incense, the non-stop crossing, kissing icons, performing every action in symbolic threes. Many people who feel the Roman Mass has become impoverished since the liturgical reforms of Vatican II change to an Eastern Catholic rite, or join the Orthodox Church. These are people who love liturgy; I am not one of them.

But whenever I am home I go to church with my dad, a small Ukranian Catholic church in Warrington. The gold domes spiked with the signature three-bar crosses of the Eastern Church can be seen from 611 as you pass the Porsche dealership and the AAA store. Inside the church is the iconostasis which separates the congregation from the sanctuary. Icons of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, and stern-looking Christs adorn its walls. The priest's back is to the congregation and he alternates between Ukranian and English. If you've ever longed for the days of Vatican I (before the progressives sacked Rome with their "reforms"), this is it.

The church received a new priest after I had moved out. He was from Ukraine, and came with his wife and daughter. I saw the daughter at the summer festival while my dad was playing bartender and I was slinging holubtsis with the old ladies in the kitchen--no complaints there.

But when it comes to attending services there, I have lots of complaints (which I keep to myself). It mostly has to do with the fact that I am a "big picture" person, not a detail person--and an orthodox liturgy is chock-full of them. Maybe the Roman Mass is just as detail-laden, and I have just grown accustomed to it. But I also grew up going to church with my dad and getting the feeling that God was in the details--in the icons, the gold guilded crosses, the elaborate and perplexing rituals. I thought it was silly that the services were in Ukranian when only the old ladies understood it. Maybe the church was for them, but as for me, I wanted God.

I still live with this "religious aversion to religion" in a state of uneasy tension: I am attracted to the fundamentals of religion as a means to an end, but repelled by the attachment to religion and all its accoutrements that many people have. I don't even like to pray out loud.

But, as always, a lot of these feelings rise up from the muck of history. During the patristic period, when Christianity was just starting to shape itself, the Greek and Roman churches took two different approaches to their formal conception of Christ. The Greeks, with their long pagan history, glorified the body through statuary, a practice the early church saw as dangerous because it emphasized the flesh more than the spirit. The Greeks made prohibitions against statuary, the Romans did not, and that is why you see statues in Roman churches emphasizing the humanity of Jesus and icons in Byzantine churches stressing Christ's divine nature.

It's no accident that two of my favorite books are Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. They celebrate humanity religiously--not the other way around. But to each his own.

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