The last sensation I expected to encounter on Sunday was cinnamon wafting thick from a censor. Much less at a church still deep in the lenten cycle of contemplation and fasting. The spice of Christmas is associated in my mind with feasting, gifts and family - things antithetical to the season leading up to Pascha. The Orthodox are still deep in their lenten observances. My attendance there has been more and more sporadic, for a vast array of reasons that I shall not attempt to pinpoint here. Suffice to say, I was in no way prepared for my first "irregular" Orthodox service, expecting as I did the subdued nature of my own tradition's march up to Easter.
Christina, my primary contact and closest friend at this small mission parish, grabbed me from behind as soon as I had kissed the ikon, and pushed me towards her gathered children behind the chanters. She has been calling me all weekend, trying to solicit my attendance at the spring (ha! It's been snowing for two weeks!) retreat. I have been avoiding returning her calls. She whispers that it is a special Sunday, and did I know? Even now, I don't remember the name. The presentation of the cross?
Just walking across the threshold of that little mission's doorway had brought me into an acute state of confusion. I have been avoiding this place. Three weeks ago, I drove all the way out only to turn around again when I was close enough to see silhouettes of worshipers swaying through the windows. Yet with my hand on the snow-crusted door of the narthex, it was all I could do to to keep from crying. The only associated feeling I can muster is that of a homesick runaway, standing at the door of her parent's home, hand on the wood, smelling the trees, her father's aftershave and bread baking in the kitchen, savoring all these familiar things, yet refusing to let herself be known. And at the same time, I am loathe to admit that these were the tears I choked back. That would preclude confusion. Yet confusion remains.
I stood through the service, through the circling, the chanting, the wafting scents, the snow increasing and blowing into drifts outside, the kneeling, the kissing of the cross presented in a bed of roses. I held the tiny hands of Christina's boys, encouraging them to stand, pointing out our place in the children's liturgy book - the only one I have a hope of following. But after watching a congregation feast on a meal I cannot participate in, a palatable reminder of the leaps I have taken from everything I used to believe and trust, I couldn't stay any longer. I was not sad, nor angry. I did not feel rejected or excluded. I was not gripped by conviction, nor was I fleeing some powerful presence. I had simply had enough.
I have been receiving tracts from concerned Orthodox parishioners, carefully worded to help Evangelical Christians understand (and embrace) the differences found in Orthodox worship and theology. They do not understand, I think, that these are exactly what I don't need - little booklets pointing out how similar the Orthodox are to a tradition I am fleeing with deliberate steps.
The gold-and-purple-robed priests in birkenstocks, the ikons lit with flickering oil lamps, the miniature bodies of Duncan and Keegan barefoot and prostrate beside me, the earnest baritone voice of a man near us drowning the chant, the weathered cane of the sub-deacon tapping as he shuffles towards the cross, the unexpected scent of celebration, of birth and of hope, wafting from the altar as my stomach growls; these are the instants that pull me towards hope that redemption is possible. More, that redemption is true.
But the ice-encrusted world outside awaits, and blacks out these rare moments when I think I might open the door and come back inside.