Menno is for Mennonites

Sunday May 16, 2010

I figured I better dress up. The Amish, the Mennonites, they take church seriously. I buttoned up the dress shirt, knotted the tie, and laced up the dress shoes. Nestled among winding streets in Madison’s Westside, the Madison Mennonite Church holds Sunday service at 6:00pm in the Orchard Ridge United Church for Christ building.

I was nervous about this church. I didn’t know much about this branch of Christianity. I arrived in the parking lot unsure if I would be accepted or rejected. Would I stand out like a sore thumb? As I parked I noted people entering the church wearing shorts and t-shirts. Hmmm, that was curious. T-shirts and shorts? Was I in the right place? These people looked so casual. I expected Mennonites to be more dressed up for church, wearing black, solid colors, black hats, beards. Obviously I knew nothing about Mennonites or the Amish.

Before exiting the car, I removed my tie. If they’re going to be casual; then I’m casual.

As I entered, I grabbed a bulletin and a brochure titled, “Who are the Mennonites?” Perfect.

I learned the Mennonites are “related” to the Amish. Both are part of the Anabaptist faith tradition. The Anabaptist or “re-baptizers” started around 1525 in Northern Europe during the time of the Radical Reformation; a time when some people chose to rebel against the corruption of Roman Catholicism and the dictates of Martin Luther. The Anabaptists believed a person should make the choice to become baptized into Christ. “True faith is voluntary” is still the motto among Mennonites and Amish. With such a belief system they rebelled against infant baptisms, and instead chose adult baptisms. Because of their beliefs, Anabaptists were heavily persecuted for much of the 16th and 17th centuries by Catholics and Protestants.

Menno Simmons, a Dutch Catholic priest who converted to the Anabaptist tradition in 1536, began to write and teach about community, mutual aid, sharing of resources, support to widows, their children and the poor, sister/brotherhood among believers, simple life-style, nonresistance, nonviolence, peacemaking, and servanthood. His teachings became the basis for the Mennonite faith.

Mennonites and the Amish migrated to America to Pennsylvania at the invitation of William Penn “to live and worship in peace” in 1683. Throughout the 1700s-1900s waves of Mennonites and Amish came from the Upper Rhine region of Germany settling in the Great Lakes region and the Midwest.

I was assuming Mennonites still carried on their Amish-style traditions. Little did I know I was associating them with the Old Order Mennonites and Amish who still live simply in farming communities. However, I learned, most Mennonites don’t live this way. The New Order Mennonites make full use of technology and dress in mainstream clothes.

Taking a seat in the back, I settled into the “Gathering and Praising.” After the call to worship, we sang “Come We that Love the Lord.” I noted people were very relaxed and cordial; looking me in the eye and nodding from time to time.

After the lighting of an oil lamp near a simple undecorated altar (similar to Unitarians), we moved into “Hearing the Word.” First up: Children’s Time. The children gathered at the feet of the Leader at the front of the church.

“What is the taste of salt?” she questioned, passing out salted and unsalted popcorn.

The children eagerly ate their samples. “Can I have some more popcorn?” a young boy quickly asked.

“Salt makes things taste better,” she noted. “Jesus said, ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ By being in the world, you can make things better. What can you do to make the world a better place?”

After singing the hymn, “You are the Salt of the Earth,” Readers read from the Scriptures:

Isaiah 61

“… the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; …”

Matthew 5:1-20

“… Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth…. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God…. Ye are the salt of the earth…”

After making the obvious comparisons between the writings of Isaiah and the beatitudes of Jesus, the Worship Leader assured the parish no matter how hard we try, it would be impossible to live up to the beatitudes perfectly. But we do the best we can, because through our actions “the kingdom of God is visibly unfolding in the present moment.”

“The action is heaven. It is not about us, it is about the action.”

I noted throughout the sermon, women in their seats knitting on their laps. Their eyes on the the Leader, but their fingers and hands working effortlessly, looping and tying yarn.

After singing the hymn, “In Lonely Mountain Ways,” people were encouraged to share their reflections, joys, concerns, and prayers. A young college-age girl stood up and thanked her Mom for helping her move into her new apartment. A man informed the parish his wife was in the hospital recovering from a recent car accident; he began crying and people around him comforted him, laying their hands on his shoulders.

In closing, we sang, “You Shall Go Out with Joy.”  The Worship Leader then lead us in Benediction:

Leader: From where we are to where you need us.

All: Jesus, now lead on.

Leader: From the security of what we know to the adventure of what you will reveal.

All: Jesus, now lead on.

Leader: To refashion the fabric of this world until it resembles the shape of your kingdom.

All: Jesus, now lead on.


Godly Righteous Grace

From the small notebook I carry in my left front pocket:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Today I attended my first Baptist Chruch [Grace Baptist Church, 1801 S. Thompson Drive, Madison, Wis.]. These will need further exploration. Don’t know how people get hooked into empty words. Words like, “Godly” or “Righteous.” Phrases like, “Producing Christian youth with Biblical convictions and character” or “Standing for all that is right while opposing everything that is wrong”  or “Man was made in the image of God by special creation and has not evolved from some lower form of animal.” 

The religions that really scare me are the religions that read the Bible literally and have no rituals. These lose sight, to me, of the real aspects of religion: Dealing with suffering in a constantly changing world. When you lose rituals, the symbolism of religion, and speak from the interpreted “truth” of the Bible, all you have left is propaganda.”

A few days later, I received the following message on church letterhead:

It was a real joy to have you as our guest at Grace Baptist Church. We sincerely trust that you received a blessing from the service and we hope to see you again soon.

At Grace Baptist Church we are striving to glorify the King and to increase His kingdom together. If you do not have a church home please prayerfully consider Grace Baptist Church.

If you have any questions, or if we can be of any help to you, feel free to call our church office. It would be a joy to be of service to you.”

In Loving Spirit

It was a spirit-lifting summer day in Madison, Wisconsin. The sun burst through minimal powderpuff clouds in a sea blue sky. Low humidity made the air comfortable for relaxation and I awoke at 10:00am. Sunday July 25, 2010 was perfect to attend the “Loving Spirit Community Celebration” at the Center for Conscious Living (849 E. Washington Avenue).

The Center for Conscious Living is about 4 blocks away from my house on East Washington Avenue; the main drag of Madison. A part of an old industrial red brick factory complex, the front door features a picture of a large, inviting, almost-glowing, yellow sunflower above the door. The sunflower almost speaks, “Enter here, all you seeking soul-satisfying Spirit.”

Upon entering, you are kindly invited to remove your shoes. Footees are available if you haven’t worn socks and are uncomfortable walking barefoot. A long counter on your right is filled with invitations to future shamanic and New Age adventures. On your left is a large cloth depicting a smiling sun and a grinning crescent moon, dotted with twinkling stars, hung from the wooden rafters to separate the lounge/entry area from the large meeting space. Throughout the entire loft-like space are hung large colored cloths with sanskrit symbols, as well other New Age, mystical, spiritual pieces of art. The space felt very comfortable and accepting; nothing stuffy.

Now, I know for some of you the word “New Age” starts you thinking in directions I don’t want you to go. New Age has lots of baggage. For some; including myself, “New Age” is cheesy. My cynicism kicks in right away, and I’m soon making fun of whatever it is I think is New Age-y. Maybe I’m using the wrong word to describe the Center for Conscious Living, but that’s how it fits into my mind. It’s New Age. But I must admit, right away in this blog, my typical cynicism for “New Age” was quickly diminished by my zeal for this project; to fully immerse myself in the experience of the church I am visiting at the time I am visiting.

The meeting space had an open-ended square of folding chairs facing the stage area. The stage, bounded by two large speaker towers, held bongo drums, music stands, acoustic guitars, and a small table featuring a large purple quartz geode with a burning candle in the center that sent sparkles of light cascading into my eyes as I watched the flame dance.   

I took a chair near the stage. From what I had researched about the “Loving Spirit Community Celebration” it sounded like an interesting take on Spirituality. In my journey back in church I want to venture through all churches; Christian and non-Christian. I want to learn more about spirituality and what people do with it. According to their website the “Celebration” is, “…re-inventing what used to be called ‘church.'” Through live music, guided meditations, singing, and chanting, the Center for Conscious Living is hoping to spread a message of self-empowerment.

Approximately 20-25 people, mostly baby-boomers (probably former Hippies), milled around the space, chatting, hugging, taking their seats. Pastor Rev. Gene Ferrara called us all together,

“Let your outer eyes close and your inner eye open.”

Ferrara invited us to choose a “shamanic device” from a basket in the middle of the seating area. The “shamanic devices” included rattles, tambourines, and other noise making toys. This is an interactive service where attendees are encouraged to not only “sing like no one is listening,” but to also “raise our frequency” by adding to the music. I chose a small rattle in the shape of an egg; black and plastic with a pin-pricking sound. Encouraged to stand and “shake what your mother gave ya,” we sang and performed a simple song titled, “I Am So Blessed.”

Diane took over. After informing us of a “sacred space” she had found on Governor’s Island, she moved us into a group chant, “Mother I Feel You.” A Native American-inspired song/chant, we worked ourselves into a spiritual frenzy with rattles blazing the path.

Our frequencies raised, we melded into a guided meditation with Rev. Ferrara leading us down an imaginary path, bursting into a soaring leap through the atmosphere, over a fecund forest rupturing into green, beside a rumbling waterfall. I relaxed as we sat in silence, except for Ferrara’s hypnotic voice guiding me towards my inner Light.

After returning to our earthly, vehicular bodies, we entered into the Namaste Greeting. At Catholic Mass this would be “Extending the Sign of Peace”; shaking each other’s hands and saying “Peace be with you.” At this service, you look deeply into another person’s eyes, place your hands together in front of the third eye (middle of the forehead), bowing the head, and then bringing the hands down to the heart, stating, “Namaste.” I had to do this with every person in the room. I have to admit, this was probably one of the harder things I’ve had to do in a “church.” Every cell of my body was screaming, “This is so cheesy!” While at the same time, my mind felt comfortable, I felt cared for, I felt there were nice people in the world, I felt these people really cared, and if I kept returning every Sunday, these people could be my friends. By the last person, I felt more open, I accepted his stable gaze into my eyes and, I recognized their saying, “I honor the Spirit in you which is also in me.”

From there, there was a reading and spiritual discourse. Then more group singing.

As we sang the closing song, “Let There Be Love”, I realized this was a variation on one my favorite hymns we sang at my home church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mayville, Wisconsin. Except we sang it as “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

As we close this blog posting, choose your favorite version and sing like no one’s listening:

“Let there be love on earth          “Let there be peace on earth

And let it begin with me               And let it begin with me

Let there be love on earth            Let there be peace on earth

The love that was meant to be.   The peace that was meant to be.

With God as creator                      With God as our Father

Family all are we.                            Brothers all are we.

Let us walk with each other           Let me walk with my brother

In perfect harmony.”                       In perfect harmony.”

Laden with black backpacks and wearing white dress shirts and ties, the two Mormon missionaries approached me at the front door of my condominium around 8:30pm.

“Hi, you guys here to see someone?” I said. “I’m fixing the doorbell.”

“Yes we are,” they stated. “We need to ring him on the bell.”

“Hey are you guys Mormon?” I questioned. “Cause I ordered a bible from the Church of Latter-Day Saints website a few months ago.”

“Are you Mitch Freund? We’re hear for you. We have your bible.”

In June 2010 while researching my recent attendance of the local Meeting House, I learned I could request a free bible from the LDS.  Having no bible to call my own for many years, I jumped at the chance to receive a bible. The only catch; they would hand-deliver it. But if there’s one thing I’ve found I enjoy, it’s talking to religious people. So I looked forward to our conversation.

June came to an end, and no bible.

July; Michelle gave me a bible for my birthday. New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. Soon I was spouting Ecclesiates 3: 1-8: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…”

August went by; no bible-bearing Mormons.

By this time I was only attending church sporadically, and Back in Church had stopped completely.

September came and I had completely forgot about requesting a bible.

October, November, December; nothing.

Then, earlier this month (January 2011) while visiting Washington DC, I received a voicemail on our cell phone, “Hello Mitch Freund, this is a missionary from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. We’d like to arrange a time to deliver the bible you requested.”

Being in DC on vacation, I deleted the message and laughed. Almost eight months had passed since requesting the bible and now they were getting back to me. I was over it.

Two weeks later and back home, I received another call on our cell. I didn’t recognize the number and let it go to voicemail. The Mormons again with the bible. Again I deleted the message. I didn’t need a bible anymore.

Then, there I was, fixing the door bell on our condo building and there they were, two Mormon missionaries doing their best to deliver the bible I had requested. We stepped into the lobby, all three of us in disbelief that we found each other.  They explained how my online bible request had been tossed around in the system and almost lost. I explained how my wife gave me a bible for my birthday. We all laughed about the strange coincidence of running into each other on the front door step.

One missionary was from Germany, the other from Utah. They gave me my bible. King James Version.

“Germany?” I said. ” My brother is currently living and working in Bonn. I’m hoping to visit him this year.”

We ended up talking in the lobby for 45 mintes about Germany, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City, Jesus’ personal visit to the Americas, my previous life as a Catholic, my couriosity of the Mormon faith, and my explorations into other churches. They invited me to visit their meeting house to further discuss their faith.

“Sure,” I said. “Give me a call tomorrow when I have my calendar and let’s set up a time.”

Before they left, they also gave me a Book of Mormon.

A few days later and I was at the Madison 1st Ward LDS Meeting House for the second time.

I was Back in Church…

A big part of my inspiration to experience different churches stems from the HBO show, Big Love. A couple years ago Michelle and I became hooked on this television show about radical polygamist Mormons: Bill and his three wives – Barb, Nicki, and Margene.  We hunted down and watched past seasons from the library. After purchasing HBO last year, we watched season 4 with relish and look forward to season 5.

Big Love served as a window into a world we didn’t know existed; a different kind of church uniquely distinctive in its Christianity. From the show we learned that Salt Lake City and some sites on the East Coast are the Mormon equivalent of the “Holy Land.” That the Mormon faith is officially, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” or LDS. That Joseph Smith is considered an official “Prophet of God” similar to Moses. That Mormons worship at a “Meeting House” and “Temples.” That at certain times “God” has directed Mormons in the practice of plural marriage. The LDS officially ceased the practice of plural marriages since the 1890’s, going so far as excommunicating any members that practice polygamy (some radical non-LDS sects do continue this controversial practice in the US). Watching this show perked my curiosity about other religious faiths in contrast to my own Roman Catholic upbringing. Therefore, in the beginning of this year, I began my current journey of church explorations.

Due to my inspiration, it was inevitable that I would attend a Mormon service. On Sunday April 11, 2010 I attended the Sacrament Meeting at the Madison First Ward Meeting House on Regent Street on Madison’s Westside. Having watched Big Love, I figured I better dress up for this one, so I wore a shirt and tie, dress pants and nice shoes. I’m glad I did. Every male in the meeting house was wearing a tie; even the little bitty boys had itty-bitty clip-ons. Women and girls all wore skirts or dresses.

A bishop, and possibly some ministers, presided over the service from seats in the front, but they didn’t really do anything. The bishop and ministers were atypical from my Catholic upbringing since they were not wearing vestments or fancy hats or anything.

From my perspective it seemed like chosen parishioners conducted the actual service. At least I think they were parishioners; they didn’t wear any fancy costumes or have any special titles in the bulletin (other than: Conducting, Chorister, Organist, and Speaker).

After the welcome and announcements, we sang the opening hymn, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty. It wasn’t Mormon Tabernacle Choir caliber, but everyone sang, including me. A fellow parishioner then stepped up to the microphone, bowed his head, and mumbled a hurried rambling prayer having something to do with “… thank you Lord Jesus Christ our Savior.” Everyone bowed their heads and closed their eyes during this invocation and some crossed their arms.

Parishioners with small babies then come up to the front of the church for a blessing. Prayers were recited over the children, blessing them on a “righteous path of Godliness.”

Trays of bread cubes and cups of juice were then blessed and distributed to the congregation. A young boy, maybe two years of age, behind me pleaded “Mommy I want my bread. Mommy I want my juice.” After consuming his portions, he informed her, “That was good bread Mommy.”

A Mormon service is highlighted by speeches given by parishioners, not sermons by ministers.

The first speaker was a Veterinary student at the University of Wisconsin. Having grown up Mormon in Salt Lake City, she was so happy to have found a LDS meeting house in Madison. She reminded everyone about the importance of visiting LDS temples, such as the large one in her hometown or the nearby temple in Chicago. She reinforced her point by reading scripture referencing temples.

The second speaker reminded everyone about the importance of “temple work.” As she stated, “You go once for yourself and every other time is for someone else.” I didn’t really understand what “temple work” is. So I can’t really explain it here. But it sounded really important. This has been a part of these church experiences; sometimes I don’t know what’s happening, I just roll with it and play along.

After a rousing intermediate hymn of Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah, the third speaker reminded us of the change we experience by going to temple and practicing our “temple work.” Temple gives us perspective; points us in the right direction; gives a glimpse of eternal life.

Closing the service, another parishioner stepped to the microphone and gave a rambling, mumbling benediction to send us on our way. And as the service ended, I had more questions than answers. But I chose not to seek the answers. Sometimes it’s better to have mystery than solutions.

Easter Adventure

On Palm Sunday I watched children parade Bethany Evangelical Free Church with palms cut from green construction paper in the shape of their own palms bearing written praises to Jesus.

On Holy (Maundy) Thursday I descended into silence as Glenwood Moravian Community Church contemplated the shadows of the waning Light of the World in a Tenebrae service.

On Good Friday I walked the Stations of the Cross in Jesus’ tortured footsteps at Grace Episcopal Church recalling my own adolescent fascination with Jesus’ death.

On Holy Saturday, enveloped in sensory overload, I viewed the resplendent, candle-lit resurrection of Jesus, surrounded by saints and angels at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church.

After my late-night Saturday service, I was excited to attend early morning church at the Madison Pentecostal Assembly. This was my last church to complete my Holy Week Marathon. It was Easter!

My wife, Michelle, wanted to attend the First Unitarian Society for Easter service on the Westside of Madison; my church was on the far Eastside. She decided to take a bus; I took the car.

I pulled into the Madison Pentecostal Assembly parking lot at 8:25am for the scheduled 8:30am service. There was one car in the lot. Where was everybody? I had confirmed the time on their website before hopping in the car.

I parked the car and sat and waited. One minute before 8:30 and finally another car pulled into the lot. An African-American man dressed in an all white suit exited his car and entered the church.

This didn’t make any sense. Two cars in a large parking lot on Easter Sunday and all I saw was one person enter the church. Obviously there was no 8:30am service like the website stated. They must have changed their times and not updated their website.

Here it was Easter morning, I had been attending church since Thursday, and now no church! This was ridiculous! A travesty! This was the most important celebration in the church calendar and I wasn’t celebrating; instead, I was sitting in my car.

I had to salvage the morning. It was Easter morning, there were church services going on everywhere; I just had to find one. Driving down the road, I passed another church. The lot was packed. The sign read, “8:00am service.” It would be over in 25 minutes.

After some contemplation, I realized if I drove straight and fast, I could make the 9:00am service with Michelle at the First Unitarian Society. I could attend an Easter service and surprise Michelle all at the same time! I pushed down the gas pedal and sped to Madison’s Westside.

When I arrived at 8:55am at the First Unitarian Society, the parking lot was so full they had created overflow parking on neighboring streets. I quickly parked the car and headed to the Meeting House. Problem was: There were two different services going on at 9:00am. One service was in the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-constructed Meeting House geared for children and their parents. The other was in the newly built Atrium Auditorium. Which would Michelle be attending?

I contemplated calling her, but then the element of surprise would be lessened. Thinking about Michelle’s child-like personality I waged she would be in the children’s service. I entered the Meeting House and looked at every person in every pew. No Michelle.

I had a couple minutes left, so I ran over to the Auditorium. I looked in every pew on both levels. No Michelle. What the heck was going on? This was getting ridiculous!

I ran back to the Meeting House. Still no Michelle. I finally broke down and called her on the cell phone. No answer. Straight to the voicemail. Her phone must have been off. That means she must be somewhere on the campus. I knew she wasn’t in the Meeting House, so I went back to the Auditorium. No Michelle there either. Well, the service was starting in the Auditorium, so I grabbed a bulletin and a songbook and took a seat.

I was disappointed. I was at an Easter service, but it wasn’t the service I was expecting. I was hoping for a blowout Easter extravaganza for Easter Sunday. Instead that happened on Holy Saturday with the Greek Orthodox mass. I’ve attended the First Unitarian Society services before (see previous blog entry); they don’t get too wild. Since I was unable to attend the service I was expecting, I was hoping to surprise Michelle but didn’t find her. She had to be here somewhere, but I didn’t know where. I decided instead of moping to sit back and enjoy the service.

The theme of the service was: Grace. I particularly enjoyed two aspects of the service:

1. The Lighting of the Chalice was accompanied by a wonderful adaptation of a poem by Unitarian Universalist minister, Charles Howe. I found it very inspirational. Here it is for you to enjoy too:

“We kindle this flame to affirm that

new light is ever waiting

to break through to brighten our ways;

That new truth is ever waiting

to break through to illumine our minds;

That new love is ever waiting

to break through to warm our hearts;

May we be open to this light,

and to the rich possibilities that it brings.”

2. In the middle of the service we sang a hymn titled “Lo, The Earth Awakes Again.” I quickly realized this was my favorite hymn from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mayville, Wis., but with completely different words. At St. Mary’s it was titled, “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” It was amazing how the old hymn rattled off my tongue, but created a train wreck with the words they were singing to the same melody. For your enjoyment, here’s the first verse from both versions:

“Jesus Christ Is Risen Today”

Jesus Christ is risen today, Al-le-lu-ia!

Sinners wipe your tears away, Al-le-lu-ia!

Jesus’ death upon the cross, Al-le-lu-ia!

Saveth us from endless loss, Al-le-lu-ia!

“Lo, the Earth Awakes Again”

Lo, the earth awakes again, Al-le-lu-ia!

From the winter’s bond and pain, Al-le-lu-ia!

Bring we leaf and flower and spray, Al-le-lu-ia!

To adorn this happy day, Al-le-lu-ia!

As I exited the Auditorium after the service, I noticed my phone vibrating. Michelle had noticed I had called her earlier and was wondering what was up.

“I’m at the First Unitarian Society,” I said.

“You’re where?”

“Surprise! I attended the Easter service at First Unitarian,” I stated. “Where are you? Did you attend the children’s service?”

“Yeah, I’m outside the Meeting House,” she relayed. “The bus ran late and I was almost five minutes late for the service.”

We quickly met up, jumped in the car, and headed to Mayville to spend Easter with my family. Maybe my Easter didn’t go exactly as I had planned, but everything turned out perfect. Through my Holy Week Marathon, I was able to experience a wide variety of human spiritual experiences. I still don’t believe in God, but I feel like I’m gaining a better, more compassionate, understanding of other human beings through this project. I’m finding that everyone is struggling with many of the same issues I struggle with, we’re just on different paths. I don’t always agree with their paths, and I know they don’t always agree with mine. But in the end, I’m realizing I just need to be “open to the light,” whatever that may be.

I’ve been pondering and dreading how I would talk about my Holy Saturday experience at a Greek Orthodox Church. It’s taken me long time to finally face the computer and sit down to write this part of my Holy Week Marathon. It’s hard enough to find time to write a weekly blog, much less throwing in a marathon of 5 churches in one week. Now I’m far behind, I’ve missed church three times and I still have yet to write about the church’s biggest day of the year: Easter.

The reason my Greek Orthodox Holy Saturday is so hard to write about is because it was so unfamiliar from anything I had ever experienced. And yet, it was also so similar to my Roman Catholic upbringing. It was like a Roman Catholic mass to the MAXIMUM. Everything was to the extreme. Nothing was done minimally; it was all extravagant. Not a single movement or gesture went without meaning. The entire environment was a thick ritualistic sensory overload:

  • The large overflowing bouquets of lilies, azaleas, and other Easter flowers pouring a tidal wave of flowering scent hung throughout the church like gaudy pollen gardens wrecking havoc on my allergy-sensitive nasal passages.
  • Exquisitely painted saints and angels looked down on the congregation from icons decorating every wall. So vividly painted, these were not just simple paintings of saints and angels, but portals for the very deity they personified to enter this sacred realm and join in the celebration.
  • Dimly lit candles and lights and heavy incense smoke created a foggy, flickering dream-like state in the interior of the church.

When planning my Holy Week Marathon, I wanted to have at least one total blowout of Easter festivities. I figured it would happen on Easter. I would attend a Baptist church with a full blown gospel choir or a New Age pagan spring astral projection ritual. I didn’t anticipate it would happen on Holy Saturday.

Holy Saturday back at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mayville, Wis. was a minimal affair. By this time the altar and the sanctuary are stripped bare, and the tabernacle is emptied to represent Jesus’ descension into death or hell. Typically, Catholics hold an Easter Vigil mass in the early evening for Jesus’ Resurrection.

The service I attended on Saturday, April 3, 2010 at the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church located on Madison’s Eastside started at 11:00pm. Titled “Orthros of the Resurrection, Resurrection, and Divine Liturgy,” I wasn’t sure what to expect for the evening.

I pulled into an empty parking lot at 10:55pm wondering if I had the time correct. I walked through the front door and was met by a table full of pencil-thin white candles inserted through inverted red plastic cups. A man standing behind the table looked at me questionably.

“Are these for the service?” I asked.

“Yes; donation.”

All I had with me was $0.50. I threw my change into the basket, grabbed a candle, and entered the sanctuary. Only a few people were scattered throughout the wooden pews. The center aisle was roped off, so I walked down the left-side aisle and took a seat in an empty pew in the middle of the church.

Much of the evening reminded me of going to raves in the 1990’s. You remember those all-night, drug-drenched, sensory-overload techno dance parties. It was a Saturday night. I always arrived early, just like I did this time. As 11:00pm approached the crowds filled in. Soon I was shoulder to shoulder with strangers in a packed church. Just like at a rave. But instead of big baggie pants and t-shirts, these participants wore their Easter best. I felt out of place in my polo shirt and khakis.

With dim, womb-like lighting, the DJs would take center stage. This time it was a bunch of priests and ministers. And then the music would kick in. Boom-boom-boom-boom the bass drum blazing everyone into a tribal trance. For the Greek Orthodox, there was no booming beat, instead the chanting began. Chanting like Gregorian monks but in Greek. Over and over they chanted from large books turning page after page. After an hour of undecipherable chanting and my brain reeling from not knowing what would happen next, I again reached a state of trance. The icons on the wall came to life, stepping down from the walls to join in the chant. The overwhelming flowers and incense became more than a scent and became tactile on my skin. I could feel the smell.

Then the lights went out.

Every candle was extinguished. We sat in silence in the dark amongst the pollen of flowers waiting for Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. We waited five minutes, five hours, it could have been five years. From a room behind the altar a minister called through the darkness,

“Come ye and receive light from the unwaning light, and glorify Christ, who arose from the dead”

A parade of priests, ministers, and altar boys entered the church from behind the altar carrying a large lit candle, the Easter Candle. The candle was the only light in the church. The Light of the World. The beginning of creation. The Beginning and the End. The Alpha and the Omega. The risen Christ personified in flame. The parade proceeded down the side aisle of the church, every eye of every parishioner fixed on the candle. As the candle proceeded around the church, every person followed the candle in their gaze turning themselves around. Never turning their back on the candle, the Light of the World, the Christ. The parade un-roped the center aisle and proceeded to the altar with a large robed choir following, singing. The entire time, everyone crossed themselves in a mysterious Sign of the Cross, adding in a swipe of the mouth and a few other notations.

The altar boys lit smaller candles from the Easter Candle and proceeded to light everyone’s candle in church. Soon the space was completely lit by candle light, bathed in a wavering orange. The entire time the priests conducted themselves in rituals unknown to me, speaking in a language unknown to me. Like a rave, I was completely unaware of where I was or what time it was. Little did I know, this was just the beginning, and it was now 12:30 in the morning.

The rest of the evening turned into a blur. Sometimes we were standing, sometimes we were sitting. Frequently they spoke Greek, occasionally they spoke English. Soon they turned on every light in the place. The entire time I held my lit candle like everyone else. By 1:30am, 2 and ½ hours later, I had had enough. I needed out. I needed fresh, un-pollenated, un-incensed air. I needed to hear a language I could understand. I needed a ritual I could comprehend. I needed to get back to reality. Unlike a rave where the un-reality was comforting, the altered reality of the Greek Orthodox was unfamiliar and unsettling. Yet at the same time, it was extremely enthralling. It reminded me of what I’ve heard about Roman Catholic masses recited in Latin; parishioners didn’t understand the language but trusted the priest to know what they were doing.

Looking back on it, I wish I would have had more stamina to stay for the entire evening. I’m not sure how much longer it would have gone on, but for the sake of experiencing an entire unfamiliar ritual it would have been nice to have seen where we ended up. Like ancient rituals (or raves) of the past – tribes dancing till dawn in hypnotic states of euphoria or sweating in a hole in the ground till faintness – you never end up where you began, even if you didn’t go anywhere. Happy High Holy Pascha!