A STUDY IN SPIRITUAL CONTRASTS

Could it be like travel, where being free of your usual surroundings and routines engenders a rush of fresh sensations and perspectives yet, at the end, leaves you appreciating home all the more? For some, this is a matter of going abroad, revisiting favorite destinations or exploring somewhere altogether unfamiliar, although a backpacking trek or canoeing through wilderness will also deliver. Think of something as simple as a hot shower or bath, if you must, after days or weeks of deprivation.

I’m finding a parallel in my encounters with Greek Orthodox culture and faith in my town – consider it, in part, research for my newest novel-in-progress – and my extensive Quaker practice.

Both streams face the struggle of maintaining a distinct culture and identity in contrast to the generic Christianity – mainstream Protestant or Roman Catholic – that prevails in American awareness. Both, in fact, are generally invisible to the rest of the populace. (It does give us sensitivity, then, to others like Jews and Muslims who are not of that general fabric.) Both also run into the tensions of marriage where one spouse continues in the faith while the other is not a participant – how is the tradition passed on to a next generation? Or does it become extinct or ambiguously reconfigured? (Growing up, I had no clue of my family’s long Quaker ancestry.)

Outwardly, the Quakers (or Friends, in our more formal name) and Eastern Orthodox couldn’t be more different.

Just consider:

  • A Quaker meetinghouse typically has no religious symbols in sight – we worship in an unadorned room with clear windows, typically facing each other on simple benches. The Orthodox, in contrast, sit surrounded by visual splendor, from the icons painted on the arched ceiling and on the iconostasis, the three-door wall that separates the congregation from the altar itself, and as the array of saints on the right and left walls of the nave, the main body of the room. I appreciate that many of the saints depicted are women, not just men. And when I return to Friends Meeting, I find many of the faces I gaze upon resemble those ancient saints, maybe with eyeglasses added.
  • Our Quaker worship is officially an hour, more or less, but by the time you add announcements and the like usually approaches an hour-and-a-half. In practice, though, there may be a committee meeting or study group beginning an hour earlier or a business session or workshop or other presentation that may mean several more hours on a Sunday. A few Friends also arrive early to “warm the room” with presence before the rest of the folks settle in. The Orthodox service begins with the Orthos an hour before the liturgy itself, another hour-and-a-half. The Orthos (something I can sometimes attend on my way to Meeting) commonly begins with only the priest and the readers present, warming the room as it were, and then others begin to filter in. The liturgy begins when the choir bursts into song and the chandelier bursts into light – a thrilling moment, as I find it. (My cue, too, to slip out if I’m really going on to Friends Meeting.) So either tradition is anything but short.
  • Quaker worship is drenched in silence. Typically, in the historic tradition, one or more individuals will rise in the hour to voice some short heartfelt utterance, although some mornings the silent meditation remains unbroken. Rarely is anything read, but the speaker is expected to be faithful “as the Spirit leads.” Such ministry is open to all, men and women, who are tender to inward promptings of a spiritual nature. For the Orthodox, though, the worship is a torrent of chanting, readings, and choral responses in English and Greek – entire Psalms, chapters from the gospels and epistles, set prayers, processions with bells and rich incense, even before we consider the Eucharist at the heart of the service. The chanting in the haunting modal scores, by the way, has me wondering about the many years when Friends ministry was often delivered in a distinctive singsong style that’s been lost in recent time. As for Scripture, a single line or phrase can fill an hour of contemplation in Quaker worship. Thickening the plot is the argument that the oldest Orthodox hymns are received from angelic choirs and not to be tampered with. Sounds a lot like Quaker free-gospel ministry to me.
  • While vocal ministry in Quaker worship is a shared responsibility – those who remain quiet may be prayerfully upholding the speakers, after all – the Orthodox priest is not alone, either. The text is an interplay of his part, the robed readers in their parts, and the choir, all advancing the service. I am amazed at their stamina, by the way – sitting in silence can be harder than you might think, but singing and following the choreography for two-and-a-half hours? That’s impressive.
  • With our emphasis on the Light, Quaker meetinghouses are usually painted white, with light-colored interiors and natural light, as much as possible. The Orthodox have their own slant, with beeswax candles in the entry and around the altar, and shining gold everywhere, including the iconostasis and the priest’s robes. Forget the prevalent dim lighting filtered through painted glass or dark woodwork so common elsewhere. This is intended to be glorious, even riotous, as celebration.
  • The Quaker testimony of simplicity, or the earlier, stricter Plainness now exemplified by the Amish – led to a rather ascetic lifestyle, one without the arts and fiction or entertainment for much of our history and shorn of passionate outbursts, especially anger. (While these strictures did focus our attention on pious living, they carried a hidden cost, as Wilmer Cooper acknowledged in his memoir, Growing Up Plain.) Eastern Orthodoxy, however, is awash in the senses and passion – the reverence of kissing the icons held by the priest being only one example. At the annual Greek festival, the joyous lines of dancing to lively music bring to mind a common conversation between one of my great-grandmothers and one of a cousin’s great-grandmothers, as they’d denounce that evil around them … dancing! (Well, I also remember a Plain Friend in her bonnet doing something similar during Quaker worship in Ohio.) At least we Friends have loosened those strictures, and New England contradancing is included in many of our longer gatherings.
  • Other crucial differences remain, beginning with our roots as a believers’ church – along with other Anabaptist lines like the Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren, we’ve never been a state-sanctioned denomination, dependent on public taxes for income. Independent of political control, we’ve maintained a pacifist witness, often as a loyal opposition. Eastern Orthodox, on the other hand, have been closely aligned with those in power in their respective nations. Considering the persecution the Greeks have endured and somehow survived, it’s easy to understand their prayers for public officials in their liturgy. Pacifism, as Friends know, can be a complex issue.
  • As much as I’d like to assume that the rank-and-file in both traditions would be wise in the ways of their faith, but these days I’m all too aware of how much knowledge is held incompletely. For Quakers, our outlook can turn from quiet mysticism to practicality or reason or counterculture activism. The ideal of holding every day as holy, in contrast to observing a liturgical calendar, can simply give way to routine. For Eastern Orthodox, the elaborate details can likewise turn routine, with superstition rather than clear comprehension taking hold. Still, I value the fact that both traditions emphasize daily practice and discipline – Quakers include refusal to swear oaths, bear arms, gamble, or, for many, smoke or drink alcohol; the Eastern Orthodox have elaborate rules for “fasting” for Advent and Lent, as well as deaths in the family and other life passages.

As you can see, I take all of this seriously and with gratitude. I’m strengthened by both, and humbled. Best of all, I’m glad to be home in this place.

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