Yesterday morning, the wife and I went back to an Orthodox church for the first time in probably about 2 years. I was actually somewhat surprised that we did it. The wife's brother and his new girlfriend were staying here for the weekend, and after church, we were all going to meet up with an aunt & uncle for lunch. But we decided, at around midnight, to get up earlier and go to St Nicholas'. So, arising earlier than the rest of the house, we went and managed to get there a little early. We drove around the block so as to arrive fashionably late, and to not betray our lack of knowledge by not having mobs of people realize that we weren't crossing ourselves, lighting candles, kissing the icons and such. We made it in, scooted off to the side and grabbed a seat.
The church is pretty big. Not quite as big as the church we attended in Phoenix, but its laid out differently so its actually a little hard to judge. Its basically square, with two rows of pews running down a central aisle and stained glass on the side walls. The iconostasis was quite tall and ran all the way across the front (different than St George's in Phoenix, which had its altar area kind of recessed into the east wall with the iconostasis running only a little wider than the recess). The ceiling and most of the walls were sky blue, and the dome was right over the doors into the altar and was apparently punctured by several large sky-lights given the sunlight that was streaming in. We were too far back for me to see the icon in it. There was a choir loft, but the choir was up front on the left on Sunday and the chanters were across from them in an alcove. This made them a bit hard to hear at times from our seats. The congregation was large - probably in the 150 to 200 range and well mixed - young and old, male and female. It was largely white, but there were a fair number of non-whites - mostly black, with a few people of possibly Arabic or Egyptian descent.
It is harder to describe my impressions of the morning. In some ways, it was disappointing - but only because we have St George's to compare it with. That was a beautiful church with an amazing choir. The building was wonderfully acoustic, which allowed the music and the chanting to just wash over you, permeating the entire space. Probably due to where the choir was, and I suspect its there because of a lighter summer schedule for choir members, the music didn't reach that same quality. St George's was also built on something of a slant, which gave everyone a nice, clear view of the iconostasis, altar and what was happening down front. St Nick's is flat, and because there wasn't a liturgy book anywhere handy (and because it started with a baptism of a beautiful little baby girl instead of matins), it made things little hard to follow. So in terms of those purely aesthetic things, and only in comparison to St George's, it wasn't quite what we were expecting.
But in other ways, it was deeply satisfying and later in the day, I found myself rather subtly ensnared by the experience. The baptism was a beautiful event, although I must admit it was a bit shocking to see a naked baby butt held aloft in church. It was done so lovingly and with such a sweet spirit, though, I couldn't help but be moved by it. The priest gave a short homily after the baptism, talking about the importance of striving to see the spiritual reality behind what we see & experience. He focused on the spiritual reality of baptism, of its participation in Christ's death & resurrection and likened it to the Eucharist. It was a brief sermon, but powerful and passionately delivered. And though it only came to mind later, Fr Schmemmann's words in "For the Life of the World" about how true worship ascends us into heaven, how it transforms our little patch of earth from the mundane into the joyous eternal, seemed rather appropriate. The feeling of peace I left the church with radiated throughout the day for me.
After the Liturgy, my wife and I got in line for the blessed bread - a first for us, actually. I'm not sure why we never did at St George's, but we didn't. I think it was probably because Fr David had emailed me to tell me to make sure to introduce ourselves to him if we came. He was very nice and said he had a meeting to attend, but would make sure that someone came to talk to us. And within a few minutes, someone did, which was nice. Oh, and during the Liturgy, when the others were going up for communion, a woman sitting behind us brought us some of the bread as well. I'm sure it was easy to tell we were visitors and it was a nice gesture - very welcoming. We left soon after that. We both felt we needed to process things a bit and to talk about our experience, so we figured we'd stay for coffee hour next week. So we headed over to Starbuck's to grab a cup of coffee and talk. I think we're pretty much on the same page - we enjoyed it and definitely want to go back, but had a few disappointments. And we still have some major theological issues to work through, but all in all, it was good to be back.