Tuesday, July 14, 2009

An encounter with a Russicum church in New York

This is a repost of a rather common response to a Latin Catholic's first Divine Liturgy. You will find these dotted across Catholic blogs where there is quite often a palpable feeling of awe mixed with uncertainty. A reasonable response, as Schmemann labels the liturgy, "... an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life."

What an experience this week! I wandered into the celebration of The Divine Liturgy. I had never attended this before and it was like entering another world, so different than the Masses I am used to.

I had plans of visiting Our Lady of Loreto church at 309 Elizabeth street in NoHo, but upon arriving at the address, it didn't appear to be a church and the door was closed and locked. I wandered around the block, happening upon a priest who I asked about the church. He told me he was a visiting priest from out of town and that there was no church. I had called Our Lady of Loreto earlier and they told me Mass was at 11am. Trying the number again, I received no answer. A mystery. If anyone out there knows anything about Our Lady of Loreto church, please fill me in...

Knowing full well that this area of the city has a few other churches, I began walking around, heading towards Mulberry street. Approaching 266 Mulberry I came upon St. Michael's Chapel. Someone had actually mentioned this chapel to me before in a comment. Peering through the window of the door I witnessed the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. There were four priests, fully decked out in traditional Byzantine Rite robes, gathered around an altar behind an ornate altar fence; I could hear the small congregation praying and singing in Russian
(Church Slavonic); incense wafted through the air - immediately I was overwhelmed and my first thought was to flee. Which I have seen people do in the past. However, something made me open up the doors and walk in, standing alone in the small entryway corridor. Then, an older gentleman saw me and ushered me inside, and I entered the chapel.

It was a small room, about 15 square feet and already about 20 or so gathered there. The Liturgy had already begun and as I walked in, the commotion of singing and genuflecting and men bending over to touch the ground in solemnity filled the room and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. After dropping off my bag in a small utility room I knew I was there until the end of the service - however long that would be.

Because the singing and prayer were all in Russian, I felt like I had entered a foreign land, at a loss for what was happening. Then, Ed, who must be an usher or work for St. Michael's in some way (very nice, very welcoming,) noticed me and handed me a little booklet - the Divine Liturgy text.
Note here: The text used (per Vatican rules) must be the Orthodox text if it is available. There is a prohibition from writing new texts when an existing version already exists. From there I tried to follow along with the English text, which became easier as I realized the service was going to be a blend of Russian and English.

"For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.
For this holy house and for those who enter with faith, reverence, and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.
For this city, for every city and country, and for the faithful dwelling in them, let us pray to the Lord."
- Portion of "The Great Litany," from the Divine Liturgy text

The song and the prayer that followed for the next hour and a half were incredible, and it was really something special to be in that small, intimate space of such devotion. There were no chairs, save a few exceptions for some older members of the small congregation, and though admittedly an hour and a half is a long time to stand, it seemed to fly by.

The first reading was sung, as was the Gospel of Matthew - such a different way to experience the Word of God. Then the sermon was preached by a visiting priest from their sister church in Australia, Fr. Lawrence. It was a special homily, perhaps this was again because of the closeness and proximity of those gathered together. He preached, succinctly, on the way sin "clings" to all of us, and that the young novice brother or sister who is trying to rid themselves of sin by their own doing, and not God's, is certain to be headed toward some spiritual disaster. It really made the impact and point to me today that there is no way out of sin but through Him. And I listened and took it all in, all the while I stared at the icon of St. Andrew painted on the altar gate which stared right back at me.

"Who for our salvation willed to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,
Who without change became man and was crucified,
Who is one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit:
O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!"
- Portion of "The Second Antiphon," from the Divine Liturgy text

As the time for Communion approached, Ed, who was slowly becoming more and more my guide through the Divine Liturgy (a much needed one, I must add, who helped me to feel welcome and gave me a sense of what was going on and what part I should play - the kind of guide I need in my life right now, who can point me in the right direction and lend guidance, but I digress...) asked me if I took the Eucharist. The mark of a welcoming parish, in my humble opinion, often has one or two people on the lookout for new faces. I told him I did but had no idea what to expect here. He informed me it would be intinction and quietly and quickly verbally walked me through what was to happen.

My heart was racing as the time for communion approached, and I realized this was another reason why I am on this journey of churches - to enhance the experience of the Mass for me. How great it is too feel excitement (and a little fear, or rather some trepidation) mixed with mystery and adrenaline in the presence of the Lord in the form of the Eucharist! It was different than that weekly ritual of Communion time we are all familiar with, when the ushers slowly let us rise, row by row, and we waddle up the aisle, perhaps in prayer and some meditation, but typically distracted by others in the congregation, or our fleeting thoughts, or anything else rattling around in our dumb heads. Another reason why I have a strong dislike for the recent addition of so many extraordinary ministers as it further dilutes the solemnity of the moment.

I made my way to the altar, spoke my name, then the priest dipped the bread into the wine and using a little spoon dropped it into my mouth. The deacon wiped my lips with a cloth and I kissed the base of the chalice as I had witnessed the others in the chapel do. To the left of the altar, a small table had been set up between two priests (or maybe they were deacons or acolytes, I'm not sure) that contained another plate of bread and small ladles of wine. My hand was shaking as I picked up the ladle. I quickly drank the wine, took another portion of bread, crossed myself clumsily and went back to my place against the wall to listen to the post-Communion hymns and prayers.

"I believe Lord, and profess that you are in truth the Christ, the son of the living God, come to the world to save sinners, of whom I am the greatest. I believe also that this is really your sacred body and that this is really your precious blood. And so I pray to you, have mercy on me and pardon my offenses, deliberate and indeliberate, in word and deed, remembered and long-forgotten: and grant that I may without condemnation share your sacred mysteries, for the remission of sins and for eternal life Amen.

This day receive me, Son of God, to eat your sacramental supper: for I shall not betray the sacrament to your enemies, nor give you a kiss like Judas, but like the thief acknowledge you: Remember me, Lord, in your kingdom.

May this sharing in your holy mysteries, Lord, be for me not to judgment or to damnation, but to the healing of soul and body."
- From prayer card handed out before Communion

After the services, Ed instructed me to venerate the cross, and I followed in line with the rest, kissing the base of a small Byzantine-style cross held in the hands of the priest, who, after my veneration was done, told me that coffee would be served after the Liturgy and I should attend. All of the parishioners at St. Michael's were like this - warm, welcoming and sincere. I told one woman, Colleen, that I had just kind of wandered in, and she told me that many of the congregation had discovered the chapel similarly, hearing music from the street, and peering in to discover what was happening inside. Another man too, Auggie, was so considerate and welcoming when I met him after Mass, as were so many from this church, that just thinking back on my short time there today I am filled with such warm, pleasant special memories.

I would say attending the Divine Liturgy here at St. Michael's is another "must" for any New York city Catholic.

I left the small chapel on Mulberry street, filled with peace, and another feeling - a strange fulfilled calm within me that stayed there through the walk to and ride on the subway home, and into the weeks ahead...


  1. Great article, thank you for reposting it.

  2. I've been to this church four times. Loved it. Small and charming with friendly people.

  3. Hoped to go last time I was in town, but the schedule didn't work. Hope for a future chance.