During my fall religion course my love and fascination with religion and religious traditions as a field of study has been reaffirmed through deeper study. Comparing concepts from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has given a more refined view of each tradition in its own right, as well as their connections to one another. The tradition which continues to interest me most of the three is Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox branches. This guided me to select a Greek Orthodox church when we were assigned to visit a religious site as a final project.
I have been in Orthodox churches before, and I have studied their branch in the past, so I was already somewhat well acquainted with the layout and the imagery displayed within. I believe that the Orthodox Church is one of the purest examples of early apostolic, episcopal, Nicene Christianity. For this reason I am drawn to its study as a model for ecclesiastical religions and their development. Though the influence of medieval Byzantine, Russian, and other philosophers and theologians has changed the Church since the early days, the presence of the Patriarchs as the highest Bishops of the church, in a coequal relationship with one another, reflects the tradition of apostolic succession that many later forms of Christianity have drawn from.
I visited Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Orange Connecticut as part of my site visit, and I was pleasantly surprised by how traditional the architecture was for an American church. The exterior of the church is built in a style similar to that of the ancient churches of the Byzantine Empire, and the interior of the church has some beautiful mosaics depicting religious figures from Christ Pantocrator, to the patron Saint: Barbara “the Great Martyr” as she is known in the eastern church.
The symbolism of these works of art seems to illustrate the concepts Smith discusses in the Christianity section of the book about “The Christ of Faith.” Images of the life and ministry of Jesus play an important part in the art of the church, not only in the church proper, but also in the community center and other buildings on the larger church campus. People there are celebrating the life of Jesus and of the saints. The focus of their faith is on praise and tradition, upholding the traditional tenets and virtues of the Church, as well as recognizing the importance of Jesus’ life.
Orthodox churches seem to exemplify the sense of community and unity in worship that is discussed in chapter 6 of “Faith, Religion, & Theology: A Contemporary Introduction.” These passages of the book emphasized the importance of communal rather than individual worship. This is an idea that conflicts with modernity and modern views, but the Orthodox tradition is in opposition the individualism of modern religion. The sense of community is tangible when expressed in an Orthodox service.
A few months ago I visited Saint Petersburg, Russia with my family, and we took a day long trip to Novgorod to see a church from the 11th century. We were lucky enough to be visiting as a mass concluded and a wedding service began, so we had quite an experience. Russian churches are particularly spectacular, the whole congregation stands throughout the service, and a haze of incense fills the room. The kissing of gold plated icons and praising of Christ in song is one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever had. Though American Orthodox churches have pews and resemble Catholic ones, the same sense of togetherness and community can be felt during a service there. It would be impossible for such a faith to be practiced solitarily.
When I visited Saint Barbara’s church, the Priest gave a presentation on the Great East-West Schism, a topic of particular interest to me. He brought up some thoughts from an Orthodox perspective that I hadn’t considered, but I found the discussion to be a fascinating experience, especially in a church like that one. Smith refers to the presence of Christ’s love being felt in a tangible way by the disciples, and I think that such a welcoming, community oriented place exemplifies this idea in practice.
Though I continue to recognize the importance of the Orthodox Church as a model of ecclesiastical religion and the development of Christianity, since visiting several churches, I also have a new-found understanding of how special their services are. I always try to place myself within the theology of people whose faith I am studying, and while this can be an interesting exercise when using books, it is truly moving when experiencing it firsthand. In the future I hope to visit other religious sites as well, and I expect to visit a mosque at some point in the future since I have really found Koran study fascinating and challenging to my western world view, and I like to be challenged theologically and philosophically in my studies.
Hill, Brennan, Paul F. Knitter, and William Madges. Faith, Religion & Theology: A Contemporary Introduction. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1990. Print.
Smith, Huston, and Huston Smith. The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. [San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. Print.