September 2, 2008

The Church Hoppers

and ZACH NORD

St. Michael Orthodox awes and confuses


THIS MONTH’S CHURCH HOP

Name: St. Michael Orthodox Church

Location: 3701 St. Michael Drive (near the corner of Hikes Lane and Furman Boulevard), Louisville

Service Times: Sunday at 10:30 a.m. (Vespers and Matins services are offered on weekdays)

Website: www.stmichaelorthodoxchurch.com

Size: Medium — the church boasts 750 members

Denomination: Eastern Orthodox

Senior Pastor: The Rev. Alexander Atty

You Might Like This Church If: You appreciate very formal, ritualized worship

The Church Hoppers visited on May 4, 2008.  Source for church facts: www.stmichaelorthodoxchurch.com


As we walked into St. Michael Church, 

I was overwhelmed with a sense of holiness.

Candles flickered in glass jars and the sweet smell of incense permeated the air. My eyes were immediately drawn to the painted icons (stylized portraits of saints) that adorned the walls. On a huge rotunda over our heads, a beautiful icon of Jesus looked down over the congregation.

While I tried to absorb the surroundings and quiet my soul, hidden voices softly chanted prayers. I’ve never been in a more reverent atmosphere.

By definition, God is perfect and set apart. He infinitely surpasses any human conception. So to encounter him on Earth, say the theologians, we must approach through metaphors. Words to describe the indescribable. Beautiful art that lifts us above the mundane to contemplate the infinite.

If that’s all there is to church, this one has the market cornered.

However, there’s an uneasy balance that every faith has to find. How can you bring deep encounters with God to lifelong Christians without making things incomprehensible to newcomers? If folks don’t know when to stand up and sit down, they might not come back. If they don’t understand what the pastor’s saying, they’ll tune out — with good reason. You can’t encounter God through metaphors without understanding the symbols.

That was the Church Hoppers’ problem at St. Michael. We figured out it was a holy place … but that’s all we understood in a 90-minute service.


Trying to follow along

Most worship services are a conversation among the pastor, the people and God. But St. Michael was different: The discourse here was between the priest, the choir and God.

Oh, the congregation stood up and sat down a lot. The regulars crossed themselves so many times I lost count. But we barely said a word and never sang. When we finally got to talk — like when everyone recited the Nicene Creed — it was jarring after the long silence.

“The people were being quiet and obedient, just listening,” Zach observed. “It felt like they were treating themselves as unholy — as mere peasants before the holy priest.”

If the people don’t even participate in worship, how likely are they to walk out the door and live like Jesus? Instead of being a rehearsal for life — listening and responding to God — worship felt like a choir concert.

Nonetheless, it was a really good choir concert. Almost the entire service was chanted a cappella, and the singers were incredible.

“I thought the angels in heaven were singing down on this church,” Zach said. “I felt like I was in another world.”

The priest, on the other hand, seemed prone to mumbling. I often couldn’t make out his words (and the service was hard enough to follow already).

St. Michael provides a handy guide for visitors, detailing all the prayers and responses. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very reliable, as they seemed to skip sections without reason. Zach and I were perpetually flipping pages, trying to figure out where we got lost.

“I couldn’t tell if it was the reading or the incense that was giving me a headache,” Zach said. “The whole time, I was like, ‘Where are we? Did we just jump 12 pages? Oh, yeah … we did.’”


A foreign tradition

If your Church Hoppers ever pay a return visit to St. Michael, we’ll have to do some research first. Eastern Orthodoxy is very different from our Western traditions, and I’m sure it would make more sense with some advance study.

But I would’ve hoped that St. Michael could make it easier on the visitors.  Standing up and sitting down without knowing what was happening got old in a hurry. 


The Church Hoppers are celebrating their sixth article in LEO Weekly! If you’d like to help them party, gift cards and dead presidents are always the right size.