A while back a young woman of my acquaintance wrote a blog post wherein she described a large worship service/concert, and said something to the effect that the spirit of God moved greatly there. I objected – what does that mean? It’s not self evident. If you want a glimpse of what I might have experienced at that same event, my post last week of a scene is a pretty good example. I would dearly love to read the counter-point to that: what it looked like to somebody who can love such events. But in retrospect I was probably being too harsh – goodness, it’s hard writing that kind of thing! Of course, just because a thing is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try more often than we do, so here’s a bit of an attempt. I doubt very much that this is liturgically correct.
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O Lord I have cried unto Thee: hear Thou me. Hear Thou me, O Lord, give ear to the voice of my supplication. O Lord when I cry unto Thee; hear thou me. Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee, at the lifting of my hands as an evening sacrifice: hear me, O Lord.
Irene and the icon of Christ stared at each other quietly from across the church. A man with a white beard and his hair in a pony tale slowly chanted the beginning of Psalm 140 in the tone of the feast. The psalm was sung at every Vespers, with seven tonal variations, and Irene had heard it perhaps a thousand times: it was always beautiful, a bit mournful, and kind of dark purple. The “bright sadness” of being lost, but not forever, surrounded by gleaming darkness, and hope. She stood in the back of the nave of the church, her bare feet half on a smallish oriental rug, and half on tile. Bells on the censor clinked as the priest came out to cense the icons and people. Scented smoke drifted through a beam of light that fell from the dome windows, and curled up luminously around a thick chandelier chain and bright threads of spider silk. Irene’s headscarf slipped as she bowed toward the alter, and was quickly righted.
Can crosses stare? The little hardwood one in the center of the iconostasis seemed to be. Mother Michaela says that in church one ought to be like the candles – burning, yet still. Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, and a door of protection round about my lips. A woman from the choir had joined in, chanting quicker and lighter. Incline not my heart to evil words, to make excuses in sins. The man alternated verses with her. With men that work iniquity, I will not communicate with the choicest of them. Candles were lit in the chandelier, behind the icons, in the stands, upon the alter, and in the souls of the people in honor of the feast.
Some invisible brightness trembled within the dome of the church, enclosing the congregation like a womb. The choir sung another psalm on a very minor scale, give thinks unto the Lord – Alleluia! Alleluia! – for His mercy endureth forever, Alleluia. In Irene’s limited experience, the heart is deep, but not very fast. Again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord. Irene replied with the choir: Lord have mercy. Her mind and heart were going in slightly different directions: the heart appreciating a beam of something like tangible warmth and light and quiet joy, while her mind tried by turns to categorize, and to refrain from categorizing whatever it was. The icon was still looking at her, as though it were the source of that beam. Well, it seems good, and it’s a feast day in church, so I’m going to suppose it’s good. Like… for peace in the world, and the salvation of mankind – Lord have mercy… like… God?
In the middle of the room was a small table with five stacked loaves – festive, baked with butter, eggs, spices, citrus, dried cranberries, and with a lovely pastry-like texture – a small cup of wine, and oil with a lit candle wick in it. The priest had come out to bless these things, and intoned prayers, censed them, and then broke the loaves into chunks, placed the tray aside, and moved back up to the alter. Let us complete our prayer to the Lord. Lord have mercy! And presently: O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance; granting to thy people victory, over all their enemies. And by the power of Thy cross, preserve Thy community. The Troparion of the Cross, appropriate to Wednesdays, Fridays, and the Exultation of the Holy Cross. It was a Church militant kind of hymn, very sure of itself, of God, and of the goodness of the Church. In Greece it asked for victory of the Emporer, but had been translated differently in America. Even then, there were the People of God, and the enemies, on no uncertain terms. The priest had been at a meeting not long ago, and another choir was to sing A Mighty Fortress is our God, but first they apologized for how militant it seemed, “and remember that at that time there were all sorts of historical contingencies, and really we don’t mean it that way – it’s not like anybody believes in enemies, or the Enemy anymore! But it’s our heritage, you see, so we’ll sing it, and beg your indulgence!” Father could be heard in the pews: “really!? Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy!…” O Lord save Thy people, and bless Thy inheritance – every day for a week, in honor of the finding of the Holy Cross by the Byzantine Emperor in Jerusalem. The first Sunday of Lent he would read the proclamations of the Council of Nicea, which after many remarkable statements sums up the feelings of the Church toward its enemies: this is the Faith that established the Cosmos!
The priest and alter servers came out from behind the iconostasis again, bearing a golden cross decked with flowers and sweet basil. After telling a story about the finding of the Cross, where basil had grown up overnight in front of the true cross, and not the others, he began to sing: Thy Cross do we worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection do we glorify, prostrating at Cross, and standing again at Resurrection. The congregation joined him: Thy Cross do we worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection do we glorify, they chanted twice more. Then the priest grabbed a knob on the bottom of the main chandelier, and swung it, so that the candles flickered with the motion. The priest and a chanter sung 100 times: Lord have mercy! in tonally ascending groups of ten. In peace let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy! … and then another 100 times: Lord have mercy!, repeated three more times, for 4 litanies and 400 exclamations of Lord have mercy! They rose from lips and hearts, and hung in the air like incense, an evening sacrifice of praise to God, in honor of the Holy and life-giving Cross