Sunday, March 06, 2005


I remembered reading this in Philip Yancey's Reaching for the Invisible God some time ago. Lately, it has taken on a new significance for me. It's quite a long quote, so I seek your patience in reading it. Thanks.

On a visit to Russia in 1991 I attended my first Orthodox church service, which is designed to express sensually the mystery and majesty of worship. Ensconced candles lent a soft, eerie glow to the cathedral, as if the stucco walls were the source of light rather than its reflection. The air hummed with the throaty, bass-clef harmony of the Russian liturgy, a cell-vibrating sound that seemed to come from under the floor. A service lasts three to four hours, with worshipers entering and leaving at will. No one invites congregants to "pass the peace" or "greet the folks around you with a smile." They stand -- there are no chairs or pews -- and watch the professionals, who after a thousand years of unchanged liturgy are very professional indeed.

Later that same day, accompanied by a priest and a representative from Prison Fellowship, I visited a chapel in the basement of a nearby prison ...

... Ron Nikkel of Prison Fellowship ... turned to Brother Bonifato and asked if he would say a prayer for the prisoners. Brother Bonifato looked puzzled and Ron repeated, "Could you say a prayer for the prisoners?"

"A prayer? You want a prayer?" Brother Bonifato asked, and we nodded. He disappeared behind the altar at the end of the room. He brought out another icon of the Lady Who Takes Away Sadness, which he propped up on a stand. Then he retrieved two candle holders and two incense bowls, which he laboriously hung in place and lit. Their sweet fragrancec instantly filled the room. He removed his headpiece and outer vestments, and laced shiny gold cuffs over his black sleeves. He placed a droopy gold stole around his neck, and then a gold crucifix. He carefully fitted a different, more formal headpiece on his head. Before each action, he paused to kiss the cross or genuflect. Finally, he was ready to pray.

Prayer involved a whole new series of formalities. Brother Bonifato did not say prayers; he sang them, following the score from a liturgy book propped on another stand ...

Elsewhere in Russia I met western Christians who sharply criticized the Orthodox Chruch. Reverence, submission, awe -- the Orthodox convey these qualities superbly in worship, they admitted, but their God remains faraway, approachable only after much preparation and only through intermediaries such as priests and icons. Yet I came away with the conviction that we have something to learn from the Orthodox. Under a Communist regime that had no place for God, that made human beings the measure of all things, the Russian church continued to place God at the center and survived the most determined atheistic assault in history.

I knew that Brother Bonifato was no otherwordly mystic, for I had seen his service among criminals in a place that could only be called a dungeon. His tradition had taught him, though, that you do not approach the Other as you would approach your own kind. The ritual helped him move from a spirit of urgency and immediacy ... to a place of calm whose rhythms were the rhythms of eternity.

If you find God with great ease, suggested Thomas Merton, perhaps it is not God that you have found.

Lately, I have found myself drawn to tradition, silence and darkness -- the very opposite of the Pentecostal Christian background in which I was raised.

I know not what form of rebellion will follow, especially with my life going rather haywire lately, but I only ask that if I die, I may die in the hands of my Maker, and no one else.

No comments: