If I had my way, life would be a musical. And I don’t mean one of those plays-with-songs musicals. I mean full-out-rock-opera, little-to-no-dialog and obnoxious-dance-break musical. There would be ballads equal to Lloyd-Weber, tap-dancing a la Cole Porter and some sort of subconscious singing narrator. As I have told many since its pilot sneak preview last May, “Glee” is pretty much the world I live inside my head.
It’s not surprising that the Greek Orthodox Church, St. Dionysios, was appealing for a similar reason. Ninety-five percent of the service was sung, beautifully. It was not the type of beautiful that requires intonation or rhythm. It was just heartfelt and full, from the Friar to the congregants. These people were born to sing. Every word had shape and purpose. I know this is going to sound completely wrong, but, I’ll say it anyway: if I were a God, I would want to be praised by the Greek Orthodox Church.
This is the most challenging service I’ve attended, and probably where I felt the most ignorant. Whereas the mega-church delights in being accessible, the Orthodox take pride in complex tradition. Interestingly, though they were harder to understand, they seemed more welcoming than most of the churches I’ve visited. No one was annoyed or disturbed by my presence, or by my lack of participation. There was a man sitting two rows ahead of me that came back to explain what was happening whenever the service changed directions. “We do ‘this’ because we believe ‘this’,” was how he phrased his statements. It was very direct but not abrupt. It was almost as if he was saying, “We do ‘this’ because we believe ‘this’, and some people don’t, which is cool.”
At the end of the sung liturgy, which lasted almost an hour, there was a short sermon followed by the Eucharist, though I’m not sure if they call it that. (I planned on doing research before I wrote this, but I didn’t want my experience spoiled with facts and history.) Right as the wine was turned to the blood and the bread to the body, two small groups of people entered from the back of the sanctuary. They participated in the English aspects of the call and response, but not the Greek. I was confused and therefore distracted until I heard The Lord’s Prayer, which, unlike the Apostle’s Creed and most of the other liturgy, I actually had memorized. I spoke the prayer in English and then listened to two-thirds of the congregants say it in Greek. Then, as I began to turn the page in my booklet to the next part of the service, I heard the pulsation and breath-marks of The Lord’s Prayer in a different language. The people behind me to my left were praying as all others bowed their heads in silence. Then, a group on the right side of the sanctuary chanted what I’m sure was the Lord’s Prayer in yet a fourth language.
I was bewildered and moved. I really wanted it to culminate in a multi-lingual recitation of the prayer simultaneously, but it didn’t. I glanced around, trying to be inconspicuous. My racial-profiling radar has never been that good. “If only I could hear a single person speak clearly,” I thought to myself. “Then, I could identify the language and therefore the people.”
I never did figure out what the other two languages were. I kept meaning to call the Friar this week and eventually decided that I didn’t care. Speaking purely from logic, reason and basic knowledge, I would guess that the groups were Romanian, Ethiopian or Russian Orthodox. I know that their worship is similar but obviously, in a different language. Regardless of what separated them, the true unity of Christ is what brought them together. Whatever barriers caused them to worship separately for an hour were ripped down, like the sheet in the temple, when it came to Jesus’ body and blood. The late Reverend Fred Lassen once loosely interpreted a verse from Romans to me: “Embrace each other precisely in your differences.”
This ceremony and communal process really attracts me to the Orthodox religion, the same way I envy the Catholics and the Episcopalians. I like feeling like I’m part of the culture of something, even though I may not ethnically personify that representation. I don’t think I’ve fit into a “culture” since Oberlin, and maybe that’s what I’m searching for now instead of a church.
One of my college professors hated the saying, “Music is the universal language.” She thought it was trite and silly. I would challenge her now with the idea that music is a cross-cultural language, a time-traveling language and a telepathic language. It allows us to embrace precisely what is different, and when paired with prayer, is virtually unstoppable.