“Come come I will show you!”
The elderly hunched-over woman said as she adjusted her head covering and took me by the hand to lead me into the Church.
“Oh really, it’s okay I can find my way around!”
“Nonsense! I show you, you will see the Saints. They are alive.”
We had been having a discussion prior to the evening’s service which the Orthodox Church refers to as “Pre-sanctified Liturgy” and I mentioned it was my first time actually visiting an Orthodox Church. I was fascinated by their customs and traditions from an academic point of view and finally convinced myself to attend a service. I elected for a quieter gathering as opposed to the full-scale Sunday morning Liturgy. It would ease my wading into the water as I came from a protestant evangelical background in which tradition and ceremony were concepts as lost on us as the dinosaurs. I mentioned my general respect for their long history of “saints” as they called them. I believed every Christian to be a “saint” but they have a tradition of pointing out certain exceptional examples and remembering them. I feel this was something sorely missing from protestantism and I said as much to the kind old lady in conversation.
“Oh yes, we love our Saints! They guide us and pray for us always.”
She opened a small locket which held a pictured “icon” of a woman.
“This is St Euphemia, I ask for her prayers always. I have loved her since I was still small and she loves me. Even when I sin!” She crossed herself as she said the last part. And continued to tell me of the Saint’s life and martyrdom in the 4th century. And then a fantastical tale of this very Saint appearing to a modern day elder who himself later became a Saint! Although in theory I appreciated their devotion to a remembered history of believers throughout the centuries I found some of these tales and exuberant emotions of affection for the dead to be quaint.
“Well that’s amazing” I said, “but where I come from religiously we don’t believe the christians who have passed away are still involved in earthly affairs. We don’t pray to them or for them. They have entered into God’s presence so they’re not with us anymore.”
She looked troubled by my words and repeated “passed away?” “not with us?”
This is where we found ourselves at the beginning of this story. With myself being ushered or dragged into the Church for the very first time by a little old lady I could’ve picked up with one arm. Upon entering I was immediately assaulted by the smell of incense hanging in the air and the beeswax candles being lit by the faithful as they said silent prayers in the soft glow of their light. The little lady crossed her self very reverently in front of a portrait I knew to be an icon and then beckoned me to follow her into the main sanctuary where the service was just beginning. I was surprised perhaps more pleasantly than I would’ve admitted by how dimly lit the whole church was. This was a very intimate and solemn occasion. Not a showcase for pop-rock church ballads churned out by whatever Australian church band was hottest at the time. Even as a young boy I never could quite reconcile the God of the Bible with the raucous performances put on by the bands on Sunday morning. Surely God wasn’t here for this, or if He was He must have earplugs in. But in this place now…In the smoky darkness with the quiet chanting of scripture swimming through the sacred space like incense itself…yes here, I thought to myself. Immediately a scripture was quickened in my mind:
“And Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.”
Indeed, God could be here. I felt the elderly woman tug at my wrist:
“Look here!” She quietly whispered as she pointed upwards to the walls of the cathedral.
In the dimly lit Church building were the faces and figures of many men, women and children of centuries gone by. Some held crosses, others were actors in various scenes some of which I recognized from scripture. So many faces. So many stories.
“You see? They are here with us. They are not gone. They are not dead. They are always worshiping God and we join with them. We pray for their help because they have become what we want to be. They love us and we here love them.”
I smiled at her and nodded as we settled in for the rest of the service. She was a pious lady and it was admirable, sure, but I had my apologetics neatly lined up like walls around the castle of my mind. Still…I found myself in a maelstrom of new experiences. A perfect storm brewed up by her childlike devotion, the otherworldly music, and ethereal atmosphere of this place all under the watchful eyes of these “Saints” looking down on us. On me. It was enough to shake my intellectual framework by the roots.
I went home that evening with a million new things on my mind. The totality of this new experience was more than I bargained for as a mildly interested visitor to a historic institution. I came to sight-see in a museum but found a living organism that instead examined me. All this was on my mind as I drifted to sleep.
I awoke to find myself drenched in impossibly white light so bright I feared my eyes would burn out of my head! But I stood up unharmed and noticed a radiant glow pouring out of myself. My clothes were soaked with the light. I heard the powerful roar of a multitude of voices chanting in a language that was foreign and innumerable in dialect yet clear as pure newborn crystal.
“HOLY GOD, HOLY MIGHTY, HOLY IMMORTAL HAVE MERCY ON US”
I looked up to see the source of the voices and saw what appeared to be shining stars greater in number than all the stars in the universe swirling in a vortex of ecstasy and praise for the Holy Trinity. I found myself being lifted and floating up to meet the stars and found they were not stars but people. Glorified men and women with new bodies glowing as my own was glowing. When they gazed at me I saw endless depths of love and devotion for Christ I did not think possible in man. This love and devotion was being offered up to Christ and in turn He poured perfected Love out like hot fantastic blood to all of us in an endless cascade of perfection. Amidst the furious flurry of heavenly worship swirling about in a violently holy tempest one brilliant shining star flew to me. I recognized her immediately.
“We are not dead. We are alive and we are with you.”
I shot up in bed in an instant breathing heavy gulps of air and wiping the sweat from my forehead. Panting, I whispered to myself in the dead of night:
“I need an icon.”