On Sunday 19th March, Wild Wisdom School transported its learning vessel to the Russian Orthodox Church in Totnes; the Community of St Antony & St Elias. This was our field trip following on from the day we shared together around the themes of Iconoclasm and Reformation. These refer to particular periods in Church history; the inner themes to which they reflect are the themes of splitting and healing, or breaking and mending. The Orthodox Church, with its many different parts – the Russian Orthodox being one – carries one of the oldest forms of Christianity that we have available to us today. This was our reason for attending their Sunday Eucharist, in the hope to come as close as possible to the early Church, prior to the many splits. What we didn’t anticipate was that we would also be invited very authentically and personally into the experience of Christianity’s splits alongside an act that provided healing and mending of the divided relationship.
This Russian Orthodox church is contained within the beautiful home of the Very Revd Benedict Ramsden, who was leading the service today. We walked through the front door and turned right to find a small room, with walls painted purple and decked with icons, which had been converted into a chapel, or as Father Benedict called it, a temple. There are no pews – only a few seats around the sides – since it is traditional in this church to stand if you are able to. I walked over to a space near a bench against the wall, fearing that I wasn’t capable of standing for 2 hours, despite being “young and fit”. I was surprised to find, however, that it wasn’t as much of a struggle as I had anticipated. In fact, none of it was. I was expecting to have to try hard to feel the spiritual connection, to find meaning for myself in the words and motions, to keep myself from slumping bored against the wall. I did put energy into not slumping – keeping my mind and body present and practicing an open-hearted awareness, as I do in all church services I attend. But, unlike Anglican services where I am often wrestling with the medieval words, I found that I could simply rest in the devotional space created by this community. In this resting place I found I didn’t have feelings of like or dislike in response to the words spoken, the stories told or the rituals performed. I felt swept up into the worship of this community and bathed in the gold painted longings of union and integration. I felt the purity of the longing captured in icons, chants and rituals carried in prayerful hands to this moment through millennia, infusing worship today just as they did in the early church.
We stood in this small chapel with Father Benedict and two other clergy in front, sometimes facing in the same direction as the congregation and sometimes turning to face us. Father Benedict would sing prayers, and these would then be responded to by another member of clergy at the back. The effect of this for me was that of a vessel, perhaps a ship, sailing the seas towards union with God. The prayerful presence of each member of the church felt essential in the movement of this ship, each with an oar to paddle us through the waters. We stood amongst these well practiced oars-people, invited into their way of praying, and even given an oar when possible.
There were two significant moments in the service where oars were passed to us. One was during the sung Lord’s Prayer – a prayer which unites Christians across division. Knowing this, Father Benedict made simple hand gestures to enable us to sing this prayer to the same tune they sing it, thus acknowledging and celebrating what we do still share. The other was during the Eucharist, where he chose to pause the order of prayer and speak to something that would normally go ignored. In the Orthodox Church, as in the Catholic Church, it is unlawful to offer communion to anyone who is not a member of this church, regardless of being a member of another church. Father Benedict spoke to the pain of this exclusion, both for those unable to receive and for those unable to give. He spoke directly to the split that this is a manifestation of; to the pain of the split, but also to his personal belief that God wants this split to be honoured since we are not yet ready to unite. We are not ready to unite because we confuse unity with uniformity. We do not know what true union means, and therefore we must remain separate.
However, in what I perceived to be an act of healing while honouring the split, Father Benedict invited us to participate in the ritual in a different way. We were invited to walk up to the altar and kiss the chalice from which the sacraments were given, and then walk to the side and take bread and wine which had been blessed and would be given out to the community. I was moved to tears by this authentic and creative offering, in which he honoured the tradition and yet reached out to us in fellowship.
The sermon Father Benedict shared with us was about lent, which I learned means ‘spring’ in Old English. He pointed to the daffodils outside and said that lent is about joy, not severity and abstinence, which is how it is often perceived. It is a time to clear space, to cleanse and to purify, so that the buds of spring can find their way to the surface, and the joy of this blossoming can be celebrated. On Easter Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus after 3 days of darkness, just as the darkness of winter gives way to the brightness of spring.
I left the church feeling so full of gratitude for this experience; an experience of splitting and healing, and a doorway into my journey of lent…
Words and photos by Beth