In one of our recent services (Paschal Vespers as I recall) we had a handfull of visiting Russian Nationals. I’ve noticed this before – it’s sort of a cultural distinction – but the women (they were all female) came in, and stood for extended lengths of time before the icons, as if waiting for something, and then lit their candles.
It is not universally true, but I have often noticed that we Americans, and maybe “we American converts” especially, tend to rush through our entrance into the Church. Managing candles and children at the same time is enough of a struggle, and so I will spare them. But frequently, greeting the icons and lighting a candle can seem like a chore that must be performed and done quickly.
I have no way to judge the piety of another person. But I was struck that Sunday by the time and attention that was spent before an icon. It seemed clear that something was passing – from parishioner to God, or saint, and from God or saint to parishioner. As I say, some of this is cultural, but much of that cultural difference comes from a culture that remembers to pay close attention and respect. These things can come hard to a culture schooled in democracy, where greetings are pretty perfunctory, at best.
When people ask me, “Why do you kiss icons?” I have to remember that we Americans come from a culture that does not kiss in general unless it is a very intimate relation (wife, husband, offspring, etc.). Hollywood is an obvious exception as are several ethnic groups within our culture. But we kiss icons for the same reason that two Greeks kiss upon meeting (or two Frenchmen, etc.). “Greet one another with a Holy Kiss,” the last time I checked, was a Scriptural admonition.
But it is more than the kiss. It is the time and concentration. I know all too well when it’s the last two minutes before the Liturgy begins and the vast majority of the Church is arriving at the same time, kids in tow, etc. It’s hard not to want to rush because the lines are getting long and you want to let others make their greetings.
All of this simply argues for getting to Church earlier and being sure that I have time to collect myself and properly put myself into the place of prayer – to attend to God and to my heart.
Worshipping at St. Seraphim Cathedral this week, where the icons cover everything, there is very little excuse for me not to direct my attention somewhere. But the key is to direct my attention. Of course a great battle can ensue when I want to direct my attention somewhere and something else is forcing me to direct my attention somewhere else. Those parishes (like my own) where the number of young children is growing can be particularly challenging. And yet, with the noisiest of distractions, I can always pray for the source of the distraction (not praying for it to go away but praying for the richness of God’s blessing to be with them). And praying for others is always pleasing to God.
Our gathering for Liturgy can be many things. I can recall stories from Bishop Kallistos Ware in which he speaks of worshipping in the cave of the Revelation with 2 monks chanting, and three mice watching. That lends itself for one kind of attention. Where 90 or more souls are pressed into little space, and thirty of them are beneath the age of 8, some hyper, some with attention deficit, some autistic, concentration will have to be defined differently. But God surely does not judge us for our kindness and care for children.
We offer what we can in liturgy. But there are other times, both in Church (before and after services) and at home, when attention can be given – when my heart, the icon, and God can meet together and have the communion we have been promised.
Mostly I am convinced that we should not settle for living without that communion, somewhere, sometime.
May God multiply such opportunities in our lives and enlarge our awareness of their presence.