I had read two books on Orthodox Christianity. That’s it. So obviously, I had no idea what to expect when I visited St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church for its Sixth Hour Prayer service. What I did know was that for some time now, I’d felt a deep desire to silence myself before the Lord, and felt led to do this mid-week in a local church. A faith tradition dating back almost 2,000 years ago, I figured Orthodoxy would have much to offer in the way of ancient worship practices.
A kind lady walked into the church with me and directed me to the chapel. Prayer services weren’t held in the Sanctuary, but in a smaller room filled with short, wooden pews and a variety of iconic images. In the center at the front, there was an open window with a drawn curtain in front of it. Off stage right, there was a rotating lectern displaying two or three older-looking books. I walked past the icon painting sitting on a wooden stand in the center of the small entrance and settled into an empty pew, two rows from the back. I wasn’t opposed to mingling with others that day, but more than anything, I’d come to sit in the fellowship of silence with our Father.
Right away, I noticed the room had a pleasant aroma. I observed several glass containers, about the size of a votive candle holder, suspended in front of more paintings on the wall. In these days of essential oils, I felt myself relaxing as I deeply inhaled the scent of burning incense. Slowly, I exhaled and felt stress releasing some of its tight grip on my shoulders. I sat in the very silence I’d been craving and waited for the service to begin.
Forty-some years on this earth, and this was the first time I’d ever experienced prayer with my Orthodox brothers and sisters. For some time, I’ve ventured out to attend various services with the Catholics. When I worship with them, I dip my hands in the holy water found at the entrance with great spiritual delight. Feeling the water moisten my fingertips, a tangible signal to alert my heart, better preparing me for worship.
Perhaps the key element to these services though, for me, is how they incorporate silence. All over this planet, we hustle and bustle non-stop every day. The fact that I can sit in unhurried silence as the priests move from one facet of the service to another, screams sacred to me. As if there just might be a place left in this world where we can focus on what is holy and true.
I could go on and on about the ministry my eyes receive when I sit in these churches. They aren’t concerned about the latest worship trends on Pinterest. For thousands of years, they’ve offered artwork depicting various saints, including men and women from the Bible.
Many of these things are missing from the Evangelical churches I’ve always called home. Often, I engage only two of my senses on a Sunday morning. I observe a stage colorfully decorated based on the seasons of the year, and my ears are bombarded with a cacophony of praise music, words composing a sermon and believers engaged in fellowship. Does our decor remind believers of the tie that binds us to an ancient faith? When are we ever silent so we can actually talk to God? As for taste, we only take Communion every so often.
What say you? Does your church smell? This father, who created us with the ability to experience our world through sight, smell, sound, touch and taste – wouldn’t he have us worship with all five senses? I read online about others who are exploring these ancient practices, and it helps that I’m not alone.
I’m not looking for a new church. God has set me firmly in the Evangelical tradition, and he whispers ongoing affirmations of my place among them. But I can’t get over the smell of that incense. Every time I enter a sanctuary, my fingers long for a touch of holy water, signifying to my heart I am there for a purpose. I might, just might, go online and see if I can order these materials myself, and start smuggling them in with me on Sunday mornings.