Last weekend, my family and I attended our local Greek Festival at Holy Trinity church. It’s a great place to identify everyone in Asheville who claims even the teensiest bit of Greek ancestry. In that sense, it’s kind of like St. Patrick’s Day at the end of September. The irony is that the Greek Orthodox faith really has very little to do with Greece, per se. All of that mattered very little to the hundreds of people eating, drinking, dancing, shopping, and jumping in the bounce-houses.
The Greek Picnic, as it was called in my hometown, was the occasion of my first independent interfaith experience. I was in high school at the time, and I look back on it with a certain amount of regret, but as you will see, I accept only part of the blame. Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church was known for hosting the best church picnic in the county. There were grilled chicken halves rubbed in olive oil and lemon, salads with feta cheese, stuffed grape leaves, and baklava. During my teen years, I went to the picnic almost every year with my Catholic high school friends. My small Midwestern town was home to at least five Catholic grade schools, all associated with their own Catholic parishes, and they all fed into a single Catholic high school. Needless to say, my friends had been to a lot of church picnics over the years, and they assured me that the Greek Orthodox one was the best of the bunch. It felt rather risky to attend an event at such a weird church, but how dangerous could it be if all my friends’ parents had agreed to it?
One afternoon, while eating our Greek Picnic lunch, a friend and I decided to sneak into the church. I’m not sure where the rest of our friends were on that particular day, but somehow, it ended up being just the two of us at the picnic. Slowly, tentatively, over platefuls of moussaka, we both admitted to having a somewhat morbid curiosity about the inside of that church. What did they do in there anyway? They seemed like nice enough people, but how nice could they really be if they held such odd religious beliefs? What were their beliefs anyway? Energized by ignorance, we scurried away from the main event. Our hearts beat faster as we tested the front door. It was unlocked! We glanced around furtively to see if anyone was watching. Nope. Everyone else was pre-occupied with the festivities. Quickly and quietly, we tiptoed in.
The sanctuary was both distinctive and familiar. Like many sanctuaries, it felt calm, peaceful, and comforting. On the plus side, as far as we were concerned, the figures depicted in the beautiful artwork, appeared to be Mary, Jesus, and maybe some of the disciples. But there was something strange about their appearance. Their faces were long and thin, and their hands were positioned in peculiar ways. Also, we weren’t looking at paintings or even stained glass windows; we were surrounded by mosaics. Beyond that, however, we had to admit it all looked rather typical – maybe even boring – with the usual altar, pews, and organ. With our curiosity somewhat sated, we scurried out before anything bad happened, rather relieved that we hadn’t been caught spying on someone else’s religion.
I cringe just a bit when I think back on this story. We were not stupid; we were smart and inquisitive. But we were teenagers. It never occurred to us that if they had wanted to keep people out of the church, they would have locked the front doors. It never occurred to us that any one of those old, Greek women cooking in the kitchen would have thoroughly enjoyed showing us around. It never occurred to us that our parents might know something about the Greek Orthodox Church. My overachieving parents probably would have taken me to a service if I had mentioned it! Our interest in “the other” might have opened the door, just a bit, as we peered out from our little egocentric teenage closets. After all, we lived in a Catholic, Midwestern factory town of only 35,000 people that had a Greek Orthodox Church! That, in and of itself, was pretty amazing. Instead, our adventure was mostly an artless act full of missed opportunity.
How did that happen? The truth is that I wasn’t just a teenager. I was a teenager who had spent a lifetime in a very well-defined religious world. Baptized as an infant, I then spent countless hours in religion classes at my Lutheran Day School and Sunday School classes at my Lutheran church. I had memorized Bible verses, Christmas play lines, and various parts of Luther’s Small Catechism. I had studied the nuances of Holy Communion and the Trinity as a pre-requisite to confirmation in the 8th grade, and I had suffered through countless sermons. The only denomination ever mentioned during that entire time was Catholicism, and I can assure you that the Lutherans didn’t have flattering things to say about it. Catholics had the wrong number of sacraments (7 instead of 2), mistaken notions about Holy Communion (believing in transubstantiation instead of sacramental union), and idolatrous views about the Virgin Mary. My Catholic friends weren’t going to hell, but they were certainly out in left field when it came to theology. One thing the Lutherans and the Catholics seemed to agree on, however, was that exploration of other faith traditions should really not be encouraged – unless, of course, you were identifying all the ways in which they were strange or just flat-out wrong.
All those memories came flooding back as I walked onto the church grounds last Saturday. I’m happy to report that my experience this time around was about as different as it could have been. I suspect that the Greek Orthodox Church has always been welcoming, so I’ll attribute the change to my own attitudes and efforts. The web site for Holy Trinity specifically invited festival-goers to join their regular Saturday evening Vespers service which my daughter and I attended. The priest explained how the service worked and how long it would last (about 40 minutes). He told us that most of the service would be in English, with a few portions in Greek. He also briefly explained that the chanting for this particular service would use “Grave Mode,” one of eight styles found in the Byzantine musical system (and completely unrelated to death). Once the service began, I was immediately struck by how the tones resonated in the sanctuary. I could feel them in my chest. I’ve experienced something similar in huge, Gothic cathedrals in Europe, but this church was average in size, and the ceiling was relatively low. Was it something about the architecture? Or was it something about the musical form? I wasn’t sure. For part of the time, I read along with the English; for the other part, I simply enjoyed the vibrations of the chanting. “It’s like being at the beach,” a Jewish friend of mine said last week at Rosh Hashanah. “I don’t really understand the Hebrew, so I just let it wash over me.” My Muslim friends who don’t understand Qur’anic Arabic say much the same thing.
I was fascinated by the altar which glistened with gold but which was largely hidden behind a screen. Although we could see into that space, only the priest stood there, and for part of the time, his back was to us. Other times, he would come through a door in the screen and chant in front of us. Occasionally, a Reader would say a few paragraphs, but most of the time, we were simply sitting there. We didn’t say anything, we didn’t sing anything, and we stood only a couple of times. The priest told me later that this approach was rather unorthodox for the Orthodox; in many cases, the parishioners stand for the entire service. But all of those details were swamped by the resonant sound of the chanting. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a Greek Orthodox service, I highly recommend it, even if it’s just to experience that deep-in-your-chest feeling.
After Vespers, it was time to enjoy the festival! We ate souvlaki, spanakopita, dolmades, diples, and galatobouriko; we watched the traditional dancing; and we enjoyed the music. And then it was back into the church! The web site had also listed all the church tours being offered throughout the weekend, so I took advantage of that opportunity after dinner. The priest briefly described the different areas of the church – the nave, the dome, the sanctuary, the icon screen, and the altar – and what they symbolize. He talked about the typical icons seen on either side of the screen’s central door – Jesus as Christ on one side and the baby Jesus in the arms of the Virgin Mary on the other. He also explained that the Greek Orthodox Church was not named after the country of Greece, founded in 1821, but because of the widespread Hellenic influence that existed in that area of the world at that time. In addition, both the Old and New Testaments of the Orthodox Bible were written in Greek during the time of the early Christian church. He commented on how well sound travels in these churches and pointed out that he could hear someone’s extremely courteous cell phone conversation during Vespers even though they were way in the back of the church. One of the people on the tour confessed that he had, in fact, been talking to his elderly mother. The priest concluded by sharing his hopes and dreams for the future of his church.
The tour was interesting, but even more impressive – and heartening – was the array of people in the group. Some were young, some were old, some were self-identified Baptists, and others were Catholic. The priest offered plenty of time for questions-and-answers, and the queries ranged from why the candle holders were red to why the Coptic and Orthodox Christians separated in the 5th century. In between, the priest talked about the Great Schism of 1054, the First Council of Nicaea in 325, and the non-idolatrous use of icons (for the Protestants in the room). But it wasn’t the content of the questions, or even the clarity of the responses, that struck me most. What I found most remarkable was the compassionate curiosity being displayed by everyone in the room. It was the same curiosity that motivated my friend and me to sneak into that hometown church so many years ago. This time around, however, no one was creeping anywhere. The dialogue was unrestricted and engaging, the interest was sincere, and the open-heartedness was palpable. And in the end, isn’t this what genuine interfaith interactions are all about?
Understanding the Byzantine Musical System (If you are musician and want to learn more, this article is fantastic!)