The NaBloPoMo Theme of the Month has been “Eyes” – all the questions asked have had to do with seeing. There have been a couple I’ve chosen to skip, either because my response would be too personal or because I couldn’t think of a good response (“Who is someone you wish you could see again” would take at least a year’s worth of blog posts). But I’d like to keep with the theme, at least Monday to Friday – weekends are for free-writing – so in keeping with Things You See…well…what about Things You Don’t See?
From the time I was a small child, I loved going to church. Catholic churches tend to be dark, quiet places, and in my youth, there was usually a lingering smell of incense; the whole atmosphere was conducive to belief in the Unseen Presence of God. My mother and her sister, both very pious Catholics, especially liked to attend the 6:00 a.m. Sunday Mass; it took care of their religious Sunday obligation, and left them time for a cup of coffee and a roll before beginning the round of familial Sunday obligations, like getting the kids out to the Children’s Mass on time. During the school year, I had to be at the Children’s Mass, but in the summertime, I was occasionally allowed to accompany my mother and aunt to the 6:00 a.m. Mass.
As I grew older, I began to experience something a little weird. I mean, really, six o’clock in the morning – not a lot of people were in church, usually eight to ten early birds, people who had to work, like cops and nurses, and my mother and her sister. And our parish church was big; it had been designed to hold the entire school, and this was at a time when a family of four or five children was considered a decent size. When I started school, there were forty children in my classroom, and about the same number in the other first-grade class; by the time I finished, there were sixty in my room, sixty-one in the other eighth grade, and seventy in my brother’s first-grade classroom. So, to accommodate all those kids, and their parents, the space had to be sizable, and the Masses numerous; they started at 6:00 and ran hourly until 12:15 p.m.
All that so you get an idea of just how big this place was, and it was one of the smaller churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn. During 6:00 a.m. Mass, it felt cavernous. The voices of the priest and altar boy echoed, and back then, those were the only voices that were heard; the rest of us either followed along in our Missals (encouraged) or said the Rosary (grudgingly permitted – at least it was praying). But along about the Offertory, there was a change in the atmosphere: somehow it felt as if the whole place had just filled up, was packed to the rafters, in fact. I could never account for it, but you just knew there were whole hosts of unseen beings in attendance. And it stayed that way right through Communion; once everyone had received Communion, the place emptied out again of all but the people who had been there originally, the people you could see. It was a wonderful awareness of the ranks of angels and saints, and of long-gone parishioners who had built the place and had come to see it again and to worship in the space their prayers had built.
I never drifted away from the Catholic Church. I stayed with it when my contemporaries were leaving in droves because, you know, “you can find God at the beach as well as at church” (no, you really can’t). I was married in the Church, and we both attended church faithfully; our daughter was baptized in the Catholic Church, even though it was already feeling like a foreign country. But one hot Sunday in July, standing with my husband and our year-old baby, I knew I had come to the end; there was nothing recognizable about the Church anymore, nothing beautiful, nothing of God. I had to leave.
It took fourteen years for me to find my way to Orthodoxy, and at first it felt completely foreign, probably owing to its being a Greek parish – Greeks are fanatic about hanging onto the Greek language and customs – but eventually, as I learned more and more about the theology, I came to the startling realization that everything I had always believed about God was to be found in the Orthodox Church. And I started to settle into it, even learning the Liturgy (in Greek, of course) well enough to become a cantor for weekday Liturgies.
One day in February I was in church for a major Feastday, the day when Jesus was brought to the Temple by His parents for His Mother’s forty-day purification (so in the Catholic Church it’s called the Purification, and in the Orthodox Church it’s called the Meeting of the Lord, since this is when two aged people, who had been promised they wouldn’t die until they saw the Messiah, met Him). It was nasty weather, so as it turned out, all the stalwarts stayed home, and only the priest and I were there for Liturgy. We began with reading the Matins prayers for the day – a service that can take anywhere from half an hour to an hour – and at the close of Matins, as is customary, I began to sing the Doxology.
And wham – the place filled to the rafters, with the “cloud of witnesses” St. Paul mentions in Hebrews (chapter 12, verse 1). And I knew I was home.