July 2007

I knew not whether I was in Heaven or on Earth

The Latin Doctor of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, once said that “nothing is in the intellect that was not first known by the senses” (nihil est in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu). I say: Nothing pleases the intellect that did not first please the senses.

Celebrating the Orthodox Divine Liturgy the first time around was an amazing encounter for me: the sweet fragrance of the incenses, the beauty of the icons, the delicate carvings on the Iconostasis, the pious bodily gestures, the serenity of the chants and hymns, and generally the mysterious splendour of the entire Orthodox Divine Liturgy. This experience is not just something that makes my heart cry, but, as Brother Gregory (not of Nyssa) said, it is something that pierces your spirit. My heart did not cry nor was there any mushy stuff that I felt inside me which is pretty much the feature of Evangelical charismatic groups. It is something more than that. Rather, there is something more than that. Though, at first, my senses were pleased by the outward flawlessness of the Divine Liturgy, it did not stop there because my spirit and intellect all the more rejoiced by absorbing the Liturgy’s inward perfection.

How can I not kiss the Book of Gospels, from which my mouth gets its daily bread? How can I not sing the Magnificat, of which the Theotokos proclaims the greatness of the Lord and rejoices in God our Saviour? And how can I not eat the Antedorum, by which Christian Unity is symbolized, and most especially hoped for? Actually, the thing that prompted me to attend was because I suddenly took a liking of Eastern History and Culture (for reasons unknown). I never expected that my two hour observation in the Greek Orthodox Church some five weeks past would go a very, very long way: from learning how to do the right-over left Sign of the Cross, to learning how to do Greek coffee fortune-telling (thanks to Fr. Nikitas). Who knows, next time I go there, maybe I will have already learned how to make a prayer rope! And of course, I could never forget the wonderful opportunity of gaining new friends like Father Pan and Father Nikitas, Brothers Gregory, John, Sandi and Matthew. They are the very first people whom I have known.

“I love the church…of the Greeks, and when I enter in,

With smoky fragrance of the incenses,

Liturgical harmony and cadences,

The priests and their majestic presences,

The solemn rhythm of their every movement –

Arrayed in shining vestments on the pavement –

To the great honours of our race my thoughts return,

The glory of our Byzantine achievement”

-          Constantine Cavafy  from his poem  ‘In Church’

And like the 10th Century Muscovite Emissaries who encountered the Divine Liturgy the very first time in their lives I, “knew not if we were in heaven or on earth…”