Year of Sundays

In an era of secularism and do-it-yourself community, why do churches still exist?

I believe a big part of the answer lies in the power of the ineffable. Everybody loves a good mystery. And that’s the one aspect of human experience that churches still hold within their purview. Thus, the lifeblood of a church has less to do with Jesus’ plasma than it does with its ability to keep its members in awe.

As far as I can tell, nobody in Portland does mystery better than the army of clergymen and clergytweens we observed at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox cathedral last Sunday.

This monolithic brick structure looks and feels a lot older than its age—about 60 years—suggests. Inside, the dark wood, much of it overlayed with gold leaf, creates an atmosphere of sumptuous holyness. And the icons! Everywhere the eye lands, there are hand-painted images of Jesus and his entourage depicted at various points in his career. Though some of the larger pieces were produced as recently as 1982, these Byzantine knockoffs looked as if they could have been 1000 years old, imbuing the environment with a feeling of venerability and imparting to it a sense of uncanny significance. This church proclaims its orthodoxy before a word is spoken.

At first glance, the Greek Ortho building doesn’t look all that different from a Catholic church. Its crosses, Christian imagery, candles and holy water are all familiar enough. But scratch beneath the surface and in many ways they are polar opposites, with the Orthodox church providing a mystical, woo-woo foil to Catholicism’s legalistic sobriety.

You can see a taste for mystery in the way their Mass is celebrated. While post-Vatican II Catholic priests bless the bread and wine in front of the entire church, Orthodox peers still do it in a backstage “sanctuary,” which symbolizes God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. In practice, this means that for much of the two hours during which we sat, knelt and stood, the real action took place behind the iconostasis, or icon screen, behind which we glimpsed priests, deacons and altar boys flitting about, miming the sign of the cross, carrying sacred utensils around and otherwise engaging in religious ritual.

A peek into the sanctuary, whose Virgin Mary bears a strong resemblance to ray Romano.

A choir was ensconced in the balcony, singing hymns, while the priest simultaneously uttered prayers from inside the sanctuary, the chalkboard-scratch of his words indistinguishable above chorus drifting down from the rafters. At other times he would swing a censer back and forth, its chimes jangling rhythmically as it emitted little dragon puffs of incense that filled the hall like the presence of the Holy Spirit itself. The specific meaning behind that blend of hidden music and hidden words was lost on me, yet I was nevertheless impressed with its ethereality pointing to the idea that there is something Greater Than and that we can commune with it if we want.

Finally, that emphasis on mystery culminates in the presentation of the sacraments themselves, which are blessed, fawned over and marched around the auditorium to such an extent that even I began to buy into the miracle. After all that fuss, it’s a shame to see that the bread was still just bread and the wine, just wine. This is by far the most complicated mass I’ve yet attended, with chanting and prayers and altar boys popping out of special portholes in the icon screen, candles in hand, to parade around the congregation. They do this every single Sunday of the year. I felt as if I were inside one of those giant cuckoo clocks you see in Swiss villages.

There was also a brief sermon, a bitter little diatribe about how some of the church members were showing up empty-handed. At one point, a mobile phone rang, and in front about 300 people, the officiating priest  kicked him out of the auditorium. I can only hope the poor fellow didn’t return.

With a service that lasts about two hours, almost half of which is in Greek, if you visit, you might want to leave the kiddos at home. Or you can do what the Orthos themselves do: most of the congregation skipped the ritualistic mumbo jumbo and showed up just in time to receive the sacraments. Who says Greeks aren’t efficient?

Okay, so the ceremony and the pomp were quite lovely. And the feeling of mystery is enchanting—albeit, truly a case of smoke and mirrors. But for me, one litmus test of a church service is, Can you take the God-talk out of the ceremony and still have your thirst for meaning and ethics nourished? In this case I’d have to say no. When it comes to Greek Orthodoxy, it’s their way or the highway.

I’ll take door number two.

Hey, dear reader! It’s time for New Year’s resolutions. Amanda’s and mine is to stay in touch with you. It’s been too long! Without getting into too much detail, we’ve agreed that church needs to be returned to its rightful place in our Sunday calendar — right up there with vodka and trashy spy movies (for me) and romance novels (for her).

To kick things off, this last Sunday we popped in at Portland’s Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox cathedral. Although we attended the epiphany service, we doubted we’d have any profound spiritual realizations. At the very least, we hoped to get a good recipe for spanikopita. Check back and see how it turned out for us.

Yay for dead people!

It’s Portland’s oldest burial ground. It’s been listed by National Geographic Magazine as one of the world’s top ten must-see cemeteries. And judging by the panties and malt liquor empties that we found during a recent daytime walk-through, there’s no better place to seek your petite morte.

I’m talking about Lone Fir Cemetery, and tonight, for All Hallows’ Eve, they’re putting on their 7th Annual “Tour of Untimely Departures.” We’ve been told to expect candlelit paths and undead tour guides haunting the shadows to regale visitors with bone-chilling tales of their more notorious residents’ demise. But here’s the scary part: There will be bagpipes.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Also, return to this site in a couple of days. If we survive the ordeal, we’ll tell you all about it.

10 months into our Church Tour 2011, I’ve come to a few conclusions. For one, church gets done best when it serves people who need religion the most. Whether by dint of circumstances beyond their control (often financial and mental health) or what we euphemistically call “poor choices,” it’s safe to say that the homeless are among those who could really use a good church. Thank Allah/Jehovah/Zeus for the Downtown Chapel, a Roman Catholic church serving Portland’s Old Town.

Located on NW Burnside and 6th, the Downtown Chapel is a modern sanctuary that eschews the downscale funk you might expect to see in a “skid row” church. As if taking its cues from a SoHo loft designer, it features a post-industrial design scheme of acid washed concrete floors and broad, flat planes painted brown and olive. It’s functional, modern and dignifying at the same time—a tough feat, when you stop and think about it. Just the kind of place to attract both its target parishioners and the better-off donors needed to keep its doors open.

Before and during the service parishioners placed bags of donated food and clothing at the altar.

Before I tell you about the service, let me add a word about another conclusion I’ve come to over the last few months of church-hopping. As you might have noticed from, say, my post on the Multnomah Friends’ (Quakers), I have a short fuse when it comes to bringing politics into church. The two don’t mix—or, at least, they shouldn’t. And so, cut from the same streetwise, straight-talking Catholic cloth of, say, Karl Malden and speaking without a microphone or notes, Father Steve Newton stepped away from the pulpit to hold forth on the topic, “What is the Church’s Responsibility to the State?” I listened with (mostly) rapt attention.

Newton once visited the concentration camp at Dachau and observed that the town had no fewer than 12 churches. Where were those religious leaders, he mused, when genocidal atrocities were being committed literally down the street? Since some of the Nazi perpetrators probably attended those churches, that could have been a good time to fudge the line between church and politics to deliver a pointed sermon or two about the sanctity of life and how God might frown upon their novel use of shower stalls. But what about lesser matters, such as how to vote in an election year?

“The church has no right to tell you how to vote,” Newton declared. He added, however, that the “church has the responsibility to reflect on these issues in the context of faith, so that each individual can make a choice.” For me, that hits just the right tone. I quit going to the religion of my family tradition years ago because it became increasingly offensive that I should be told what to think and how to think it. After enduring years of mind-numbing indoctrination, I now yearn to have my assumptions challenged and hope never again to experience the warm, sitting-in-my-own-piss feeling of being comfortable in the rightness of some list of hand-me-down convictions. As an atheist, I have to make up my moral and ethical code as I go along. A thought-provoking sermon delivered with respect for my adult autonomy can help with that.

Which brings me full circle to the Downtown Chapel and the services it renders to its members. It’s very easy to think of the homeless and destitute as merely “needy.” Such condescension is just as unhelpful as calling them lazy. Yet that’s what society—not to mention their own interior monologue—keeps saying. Thus, this parish’s greatest need isn’t for food but for dignity. That’s what it provides seven days a week. For instance, along with the standard soup kitchen, food pantry and free clothes and blankets, they also provide assistance for people trying to track down their birth certificates so that they can apply for a job. Soap, shaving razors and a haircut so they can look and feel their best at the interview. Bus tickets so they can get to work.

Poor hygiene, inadequate footwear and transient life itself take their toll on a person’s feet. Footcare specialists at the Downtown Chapel offer podiatry services that start with a good soaking and massage and end with a clean pair of socks. I challenge you to think of a more dignifying experience than that. (Jesus couldn’t come up with one, either.)

Even the design of the church makes parishioners feel a bit taller. And with a priest advocating, not infantile dependence on God, but the self-sustaining message of individual choice, what you end up with is a complete package custom designed help people learn first-hand what it feels like to pull their life together, standing on their own two feet and thinking for themselves. In other words, Downtown Chapel is working overtime to make itself useless to its members. I can’t think of a higher calling than that.