Sunday, November 4, 2007

The View From the Pew

I visited my former church this morning for their All Saints observance. I'd let the pastor know several weeks ago that I'd be visiting today (told him that I just had a hankering to sing "For All the Saints" - but I really just wanted to be sure that he'd be in town so that I could see him, too).

When I was a member of this church, I had a favorite place in the church from which to worship (and, like several others there, I usually arrived early enough to make sure I got it!). It's a spot on the aisle, pulpit side, about halfway up the nave.

The first time I sat right in that place, I remember vividly when the Gospel Procession came down the aisle to stop right in front of me as I faced it. At first I was almost uncomfortable with just how close I was, and my inclination was to step back - but the pew was full and I couldn't. During the end of the Acclamation I noticed just how close I really was - that I was near enough to be able to read the words on the page, to feel the warmth of the candle, to hear the rustle of vestments, to smell that wonderful smell that is the combination of church garments and book and candle and sanctuary. I was close enough to reach right out and touch it. I will never forget how alive the Gospel reading seemed that day, how much a part of it I felt, how I heard it in a way that was somehow different this time - somehow more real, how all of my senses were awakened for those couple of minutes during the Gosepl reading. So as the liturgical party made their way back to the chancel that day, I made a mental note of where I was, thankful that on the floor right next to the pew where I was standing was a very pale wax-stain. And for the remainder of my months as a member of that parish, I sought out that stain on the floor and the pew right next to it for worship every week - and every week (at least the weeks that there was a Gospel procession) I experienced the Gospel reading in this same way...invited into it not only by hearing the words that were read, but by the nuances of nearness.

And I remember equally well the very next time I felt such a connection in the liturgy at worship - this time it was at an Orthodox church. The feeling was much the same, but here it wasn't limited to the reading of the Gospel - it was the sense I had during the entire liturgy. Each part of the service came alive in new ways and invited me not just to listen and to look, but to be an active part. It's a hard thing to explain, and I realize that this might be something unique to me (and so, though it was sort of a big thing for me, I mentioned it once only in passing in a meeting with the man who would soon become my priest - though I didn't know it at the time. While he seemed to get what I was describing, he didn't seem very surprised).

But when I visited my former parish today, some things about this experience began to make a little sense to me for the first time.

ElderSon accompanied me this morning on my visit, and I was delighted to see when we arrived that my favorite spot in the nave was still open, so we went in and sat. When it came time for the Gospel reading, the procession came down from the chancel and again landed right smack in front of me - and as the reading was begun, there was that same sense. Except this time the feeling of involvement in it was somehow very familiar. After the reading as the liturgical party returned to the chancel, it occurred to me that this feeling of closeness, of being drawn into liturgy through the senses of sight, sound, and smell is what I now experience during the entirety of every liturgy. The sense isn't so shockingly new anymore - but it remains undeniably real.

I recently read a blogpost where the Orthodox blogger said something like, "there's just so much going on during liturgy - what am I supposed to pay attention to?" And all I could think to say in response was, "All of it!" Maybe it's just this easily distracted worshipper who needs constant reminders of what I'm to be doing, but in the Orthodox liturgy, all things cry out for my attention - grabbing me by the ears and saying, "Look at this! - Listen to this! - Do this! Sing this! Touch this! Smell this! Taste this!" And in the seeing, hearing, doing, singing, touching, smelling and tasting, I am given a foretaste of heaven. It reminds me that worship is the work for which I was created, for which all of humankind was created, and that in the doing of this work we are blessed and filled to overflowing.

So ElderSon and I had a good visit to my former church today. I was glad to see some of those I love and miss, I heard a fine sermon and got to sing a couple of hymns I love. And I came away from this service thankful for that spot in the pew on the aisle in the center of the nave - pulpit side - at Resurrection.


Mimi said...

I'm giggling at you having a favorite place, I do in church too.

What lovely reflections on participation in Liturgy and how to pay attention.

Anonymous said...

I certainly remember that building. I played at its dedication (the original -- not the "fixed""

My question through the years (and I think, my Father's) was why they fixed what didn't need fixing.

In those days in the mid 1960's, though, there were few processions of any kind!

WRT to Divine Liturgy: in my last decade or more as a Lutheran pastor, I was what some called "Catholic" or "High Church." Now an Orthodox, I am overwhelmed by the rich fullness of the ancient liturgies. That was really something last summer when in Fairmont, MN with mother-in-law, and we attended her Lutheran church: I missed the icons, the hymnody, the incense -- and the service in the Lutheran church was far too short! :)


-C said...

Hi Ezekiel!

Now you've got my curiosity up -

What did they fix that didn't need fixing? Are you referring to the sanctuary renovation?

I was not at that church when the major renovations in the chancel were done - though I've seen pictures. But I was part of that community when the windows were installed - which I thought was nothing short of amazing. I saw the befores and afters and thought the renovation was well in order - and a dramatic improvement aesthetically and functionally.

Do tell, though, about the fixing ...

But the point of this post, I suppose, was that this visit in particular was very telling for me personally. It revealed to me my longing for this sort of involvement in the liturgy throughout the whole liturgy - something I'd only caught a glimpse of during these couple of minutes, but which I experience during the entirety of Orthodox Divine Liturgy.

But the glimpse is still there -


Ezekiel said...

The chancel "fixing" is what I was talking about. The windows did indeed add something. Even moving the Font to the rear seemed fitting ... but I certainly wasn't impressed by the shiny cross! :)

I know that my father was wondering just why all the change -- main answer he got was "because."

It could have been worse: apparently, at one time, there was a group ready to move the chancel to the side and span the seating lengthwise in the nave ... something that would never fit that building.

But then, I'm not a fan of change for change' sake. Of course, I wasn't part of that scene at all and haven't been for many years.

However, your comments about the Divine Liturgy -- how true!


-C said...

Ah, I see.

Well, about the windows, I will have to admit that the first time I visited Resurrection, my first thought was "too bad about these windows, which neither allow a view outside nor allow any light in. The olive and blue squares - while almost old enough in style to be "retro contemporary" didn't serve the room in any practical way. But, as you say, the new stained glass windows serve that sanctuary well in so many ways -

About moving the chancel to the side you are right, I think - I'm not sure it would have worked in that space at all (unless, however, they had wanted to move the chancel to the east wall where it belongs, right? :-) Another local ELCA congregation changed the orientation of their sanctuary and it really was just sorta weird.

Anyway - I am not a fan of change either, unless I can be convinced that a change is being made for good reason. I can say now with much certainty that change does not come easily for me, that's for sure.

But I owe a debt of gratitude to Resurrection for several personal reasons, and so I always think of them with great fondness, and for the time being try to visit them from time to time.


Ezekiel said...

My history with them goes back to the 1950's, when we (my family) moved to MN. I can't say that I'm pleased with some of the changes since then (not the building, now! :) )

But, I have fond memories of "back then," but most of those who were part of that time are resting from their labors.

Glory to God in all things!