I am typing this quickly on a mobile device. I apologize in advance for ant typos.
I may have told this story before. If I have, please forgive me if it bores you. But some stories bear retelling, even if they are boring. I am about to go to my home church, it is Thanksgiving, and I am feeling contemplative.
My home church is not the one I attend in the South. It is the one that truly started me on the path to Orthodoxy. In a way, though I was not chrismated there, it is the one that made me Orthodox. (I wish I could say the name of the church here, in my hometown, where I am actually from, but experience has taught me that trolls, when they know who has ministered to me, will make the lives of those people more difficult, which is not to complain, only to explain my relative silence.)
Two statements stick out in my mind that were said early to me when I visited this church. The first morning, my wife and I carried in my daughter, wrapped up to keep her warm, sucking on her passifier in her carseat, and old man met us as we came into the church. As many older people are wont to do, took a moment to admire our little girl. Then he looked up at me and my wife and said, with a smile on her face, “Now, you’ll want to keep her away from me, because I’ll teach her to say, ‘Bullshit!'”
My wife and I are converts from a fairly legalistic tradition. So my wife was shocked, even scandalized, to hear an otherwise saintly looking old man curse in front of an infant inside of a church. Personally, I was overjoyed! God knew I needed to hear a little scandal, you might say. I think it was God’s way of telling me that this was not going to be the kind of place that strained at gnats but swallowed camels.
The second statement came maybe on our third visit. An older lady met us in the narthex, handed us a bulletin, asked us who we were, and said, “Well, it’s nice to finally see some white people around here!” Of course, we were not the only white people, but it was a fairly “ethnic” church, and that little joke, a little bit of ribbing toward us, and a little self-deprecating about the community, was yet another reminder that this was a church that did not take itself too seriously.
That is not to say that they did not take their faith seriously. They did! Very! I have yet to see a place where the little old ladies could cross themselves as fast whenever they heard the name of the Trinity. And they did it three times, not just once, usually finishing somewhere around the “P” of “Spirit!” The difference is that, for them, faith was less about the trappings. Don’t get me wrong! I love the trappings of Orthodoxy, but the trappings are pretty diverse. One of the challenges of the church I attend in the South now is that it is mostly made up of converts, and converts tend to get very concerned about getting the trappings “right.” (Yes, I get the irony of what I, as a convert, just said.)
One example is a sign somebody put up in the narthex of my current parish. “This is a holy place! Please keep silent!” Maybe the exclamaition points are not there in real life. I am not certain. But that is what it feels like sometimes, “Hey, you! Do this right!” Of course, I do not care for too much talking and joking in the narthex. The sign is right. But sometimes I just want to say, “Lighten up!” Sometimes, I pretend it says, “Bullshit!”
A friend once called it “Orthodox compulsive disorder.” It is a tendency to get very, very pharisaical about things. And though such people are relatively common in Orthodoxy, they are not very true to the spirit of Orthodoxy. (I am also not quite sure how common they are; I meet a lot of Orthodox Pharisees on the interwebs.) My experience is relatively limited, mind you, but there is a certain kind of carelessness and improvisation to the way I have seen my sisters and brothers who are “cradle” Orthodox attend to the trappings. They are reverent. They are devoted. They are serious. But sometimes, they are doing it “wrong,” at least as far as a person suffering from Othodox Compulsive Disorder might say. Sometimes they talk a little too much in the nave. Sometimes they say, “Bullshit!” in the narthex.
I am not saying I want to be evangelical again. Puh-lease! There is a propriety and reverence to the liturgical orchestra (by which I mean the people, not an actual orchestra) that truly makes the Orthodox Church feel like nothing else. I guess the difference really is the improvisation. It is the “errors.” The church I attend now tends to have people who are very concerned about getting every step in the dance just right. The dance looks technically perfect at times, but also very rigid, lifeless. The dance of the cradle churches I have attended are less perfect, but the little missteps, improvisation, and even moments of ignorance about how things are “supposed” to be done makes it all the more beautiful, because it makes it all the more human. We are Christians. Not robots. The Orthodox Church has always been like that, a little wide, a little fluid. That is what Christianity is. Difference is a part of who we are. We are not all the same. We read the same notes, but we never play the same tune. In a manner of speaking, I guess you could say that my home church reminds me that the more we care about getting Orthodoxy exactly right, the less Orthodox we actually become.