Entering a church can become so commonplace for people that if asked to pick out a specific event, they cannot remember it clearly (unless they have a really good memory).
I am one of these people. Church services tend to blend together so that while I can remember parts, it is mostly a “this is what normally happens”, rather than remembering each service. This is natural and in no way is it “sinful” to not remember a service. For me services became a blur of worship, prayer, message, prayer, worship, prayer, eat donuts.
While this blurring of services is also true in the Orthodox church, I still remember with distinct clarity the first night I stepped into Saint Katherine’s. It was a Saturday night in late October 2014, and I had finally agreed to attend a Vespers service with my wife (on the agreement that on Sunday we would go to a “real” church).
Pulling into the parking lot, I remember thinking the church was small. I was used to sprawling campuses with bookstores, coffee shops, separate buildings for children’s ministry, and a gymnasium for Christian sports. So from outside the church, I remember being a little underwhelmed at the size.
Stepping into the front doors and to the narthex (or entrance) of the church, I was immediately overcome with the smell of incense. Normally, this would be problematic for me. I suffer from chronic migraines, and I am often set off by smells, bright lights, noises, foods, etc. But rather than throw me into a mental spasm of pain, I found the scent pleasing and relaxing.
There was chanting coming from the next room, and we silently slipped into the back. I still held onto my belief that we would just be here for a night and we would never again enter those doors.
One thing you notice when coming to an Orthodox Church is that it will impact all of your senses. Icons of numerous saints cover the front of the church, so that throughout the whole service you are seeing Jesus, Mary, and various other saints (they may differ from church to church, as at least one of them will be the Patron saint of the church). There are no instruments playing in the Orthodox churches I have attended, but this does not mean there is no music. One or more people may be assigned as chanters in the church, and they work in participation with the priests in a type of call-and-response. Both are necessary to the service. Incense fills the air as I mentioned earlier. On Sundays the Orthodox members partake in the Eucharist. And at all services the faithful can touch, kiss, or in other ways give reverence to the cross, icons, or chalice.
On this particular Saturday evening, there were only a few people present. Myself and my wife, two chanters, the priest, a woman with her three kids, and one very kind older man. My hopes at lying undiscovered were dashed as the sound of the doors opening and closing was obvious to everyone present.
After I spent a few minutes of observing the priest perform the ceremony, the woman up front walked out of the room and came back with a notebook. She sat in front of us and introduced herself, and then asked if we had ever attended an Orthodox service before. I said no, and she then handed me the notebook up and started to explain everything that was taking place. The notebook was a list of prayers that were being said, and a list of psalms that were being read. As I glanced through it, she explained why the priest was doing certain actions, the significance behind them, and then asked if we had questions.
I was so struck by the grace this woman showed us, and the obvious care that she had for those she had never met. We had attended almost a dozen different churches throughout the city, and not once come across someone who treated us like family. Yes, others had introduced themselves, but it was never in a familial way. Though most likely unintentional, it often came off as “come and stay and add to our numbers.” Again, I realize that the people who met us in those churches had the best of intent, but it didn’t always feel that way.
She stayed with us until the end of the service, explaining the service and giving some of her background as well. At the end of the service, the priest exited the altar and held forth a golden cross. She rose with the others to give reverence and receive the priest’s blessing.
The older man offered to have us come forward and receive a blessing as well, but I did not feel comfortable with this at that time. I was still in observer mode and didn’t want to commit too much too early.
Once things were finished and we were all exiting the church, she pulled us aside and introduced us to her husband and children. Her husband would become my godfather just a year later. And his journey to the church in many ways mimicked mine.
I did not realize it at the time, but I had just taken my first steps home.