A Simple Gesture
Max Halik ’14
“We Orthodox”, he said, slapping his chest. Evan is a person who I knew for all of 90 minutes, a man who will unlikely last in my memory, even only the day after, his face becomes blurry in his mind. I met Evan while on a visit to a Greek Orthodox Church outside of Newton, then further at dinner in a South Boston pub, Doyle’s. Though fleeting his contact, he managed to cause me to rethink my religion.
The church was muted in both in sound and light, the pillared domes soaring ahead edging out of vision with the setting sun. Then, to my left, a harshly edged man began speaking, intoning, chanting. He was chanting in Byzantine Greek, in a musical style unfamiliar to my Western ears. Other men near him joined in, in their monophony proclaiming the risen Christ. The men and women in the pews around me would join for floating interludes, then fall silent to give due deference to his firm undulatron. This was my experience at the Greek Orthodox chapel at Hellenic College, a truly magnificent building, modeled off of a famous chapel in the agora in Athens.
Much of the service was unintelligible to me, and I assume as well to the majority of the congregation. There was a mystique to the air, the altar hidden behind a protective wall adorned with icons. I think that the appropriate word to describe the atmosphere would be “shrouded”. Even the air was thick with the smoke of incense, making the priests seem to wave and shimmer in the flickering candlelight. This was very different from the New England congregations to which I was accustomed, bright, naturally lit buildings white-washed with a stark, simple wooden cross affixed to the front, decorated minimally with pulpits populated by pastors who spoke minimally. Their meaning was always clear, spelled out in unadorned rhetoric that was slammed home with variations of the same sentence. These preachers were quite polar examples, therefore, to the bearded man intoning words that had no meaning to me.
And yet… nobody was clearing their throat in interruption, raising their hand, and asking for a translation. The orthodox believers with me seemed content with the structure of the experience, the experience itself, rather than the content of that experience. It demonstrates a startling level of faith in the quality of the experience. My mind wandered in the middle of the service, thinking of the beginnings of this questioning of experience, harkening back to the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, then the Scientific Revolution. When did man decide to ask, “Why”? I realized that I was in a community preserved out of time, one that had its roots before man started probing the content of the universe, a community that trusted the hand that fed them, saw no need to probe the quality of the faith experience that had lasted for more than a thousand years.
I went and ate a burger with an orthodox believer, and that changed everything. Evan was talking to me and happened to make a gesture that annoyingly will stick with me longer than his face, a gesture that I wish I could forget, but still it plagues me. He slapped his chest. More accurately, he inflated his chest, stuck out his chin, and firmly struck his above his heart, proclaiming “We Orthodox”. I in that moment realized that I had never heard, “We Mennonite” or “We Congregationalist” or “We Baptist”. In the fragmentation of Protestant Christianity, however necessary or not, we lost our pride. And though it is not enough to cause me to drive back to Newton and beg to be accepted into his faith, this puts more tinder on the fire of investigation that has been supplied by discussions in class and with friends, in my struggle to understand my own particular brand of faith. Though it will probably lose me some sleep, I have to thank the proud young believer who slapped his chest in that pub. Thanks, Evan.
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