[NPR, “All Things Considered,” July 22, 1997]
He was an Episcopal priest, but he was standing in an Eastern Orthodox church on this Saturday night and thinking about Truth. At the altar a gold-robed priest strode back and forth swinging incense, moving in and out the doors of the iconostasis according to rubrics that were as yet unfamiliar. Golden bells chimed against the censer, and the light was smoky and dim. Over to the left a small choir was singing in haunting harmony, voices twining in a capella simplicity. The Truth part was this: the ancient words of this vesperal service had been chanted for more than a millenium. Lex orandi, lex credendi; what people pray shapes what they believe. This was a church that had never, could never, apostatize.
She was his wife, and she was standing next to him thinking about her feet. They hurt. She wondered why they had pews if you had to stand up all the time. The struggling choir was weak and singing in an unintelligible language that may have been English. The few other worshipers weren’t participating in the service in any visible way. Why did they hide the altar behind a wall? It was annoying how the priest kept popping in and out of the doors like a figure on a Swiss clock. The service dragged on following no discernible pattern, and it was interminable. Once the priest said, “Let us conclude our evening prayer to the Lord.” She checked her watch again; that was ten minutes ago, and still no end in sight.
That was me, five years ago, as I tried to figure out why my husband would want to leave fifteen years in the Episcopal Church and start over in the unfamiliar—and, to me, uninviting—Orthodox Church. We had three kids in their teens, a parsonage, a pension, and a health plan. Was he nuts?
No, he was moved by the same impulse I’d seen over twenty years of marriage, a hunger for Truth. Of all forms of Christian worship, this was the most ancient, and the most free from familiar cultural markers. It transcended geography and century; multiple generations of use in multiple tongues had given it the stonewashed quality of that which endures. For him, it rang true.
I didn’t want Truth as much as Beauty, which looked pretty scarce that night. But he gradually persuaded me, and before long he was re-ordained and we founded a little Orthodox mission. Then the oddest thing began to happen; I started to find it beautiful. We meet in rented space with a green linoleum floor; each week we drag the altar from its corner and set up metal chairs. It’s not lovely to the eye. But the hymns, icons, candles and incense teach the ancient faith, rooting it deep in the heart. I came to see the juncture: what blooms from love of truth is by nature beautiful.
That night he wanted Truth, I wanted Beauty. Five years later, I think we both got what we wanted.