Andy's very last assignment for his month-long diversity class was to go immerse himself for a few hours in an unfamiliar environment. Somewhere he could experience being "other." Where everyone differed from him, either in terms of race, ethnicity, class, or religion.

The Isamic Institute of Orange County is right down the street from us, so Andy thought that would be an obvious choice. The location was ideal, and even the timing was wonderful, since Friday afternoon was the first big slot of time Andy had available to work on this.

But it turned out that you cannot observe their services without first going through an orientation, and that just didn't fit into Andy's schedule, since, well, Friday afternoon was the first slot of time he had available to work on it.

Thus it was that on Sunday morning we trekked down to Garden Grove to visit an Antiochan Orthodox Church.

It was a very strange experience, and strangest of all in how strange it was not.

We came looking for the experience of being outsiders, very different from everyone else. Instead we found a bunch of people very much like us. Isaiah and September were little angels during the liturgy, but Nathan was quite noisy. I didn't mind waiting out in the narthex with him, though. You can't get angry when your little boy is chattering incessantly about all the crosses and how they remind us that Jesus loves us. And it was so good to spend time with all the other young mothers chasing around their little ones. Families like ours seem to be the norm around there. Young intellectual couples with lots of babies--two toddlers and a bulging belly seemed to be the average family size. Mothers breastfeeding three-year-olds. The gypsy-garbed young woman---adorned with tatoos, piercings... and a head covering---pointed Nathan out to her adorably dred-locked son, and whispered "Look! Another little boy with long hair!"

I felt so very, very normal.

Which is, to be perfectly honest, a rather strange experience for me.

The liturgy, too--the little I saw of it... I expected the beauty, expected the strangeness, but I was completely taken aback by how comfortable it all was.

There was so much beauty, and yet beauty was so obviously not an end in itself, all was meant to draw the mind to Christ, and anything that draws the mind to Christ cannot help but be very beautiful, almost as though by accident, it's that inherent.

The choir was at the back, singing so beautifully, but they stood at the back. They were not the point, they were simply worshipping together with us, facilitating our worship, sweeping us forward with their song, sweeping our souls toward Christ.

The large icons at the front, too, and the dozens upon dozens of smaller icons in clusers along the side walls... all were beautiful and golden and glowing... and decidedly two-dimensional. Which is true, of course, of all icons, lest they decieve the eye into seeing them as more than they truly are, and thus seeing less than there is. As windows to heaven, they must necessarily be flat.

I must say, though, that lovely as they are, I'm quite uncomfortable with the whole idea of icons. And flipping through their pamphlets did little to allay my discomfort. That an icon of Christ would actually share in certain properties of Christ Himself, and serve as a window by which the soul can glimpse heaven... the belief seems blasphemous.

But of course that is precisely what I firmly believe about art in general. When a work of art depicts something, it's really like the thing it depicts, and by participating in and isolating certain qualities of the object, it can teach our soul to see the object in a new way. But it is a very uncomfortable thing indeed think hard about great art about Jesus.

It is strange and disorienting to realize that coming to a reasoned, consistent disagreement with their stance on icons would require as big a shift in my thinking (if not a bigger) as to come to agree with them.

The emphasis on Mary is extremely uncomfortable indeed, though, and I see no potential resolution there.

As for their claims to truly be The Church, I have no basis on which to evaluate them. I was under the impression that the Orthodox Church believes that nobody else is saved. But from the little I've been learning, it does not sound like they deny the existence of true Christians outside Eastern Orthodoxy. They simply claim to be, here on earth, what Protestants believe only exists in heaven. They don't deny that Protestant churches are what they claim to be, they simply claim that the Orthodox Church is something more.

Which turns out to be a much bigger claim than I ever imagined.

In all its branches, Christianity is about both doctrine and practice. While Protestantism leans toward the doctrine side, Eastern Orthodoxy leans more to the practice side. There's a big emphasis on spiritual disciplines, and achieving mystic union with Christ. Christianity isn't just a set of doctrines, with practical applications, it's a skill that can only be learned through observation and mentoring. Suddenly apostolic succession becomes very, very important. You want to learn how to become like Jesus from someone who learned from someone else, who learned from someone else, who learned from Jesus himself.

It seems that it should be a theoretically simple thing to discover whether this claim is institutional only, or a vibrant, living reality. I don't really place a whole lot of stock in apostolic succession in the West, because it has passed through unholy hands. Whatever conclusion you may come to about the rightness of any particular branch of the faith, there is no Western church which you can trust on the basis of pedigree.

Is there a trustworthy pedigree in the East? I have no idea. I'm fairly familiar with the history of Western Christendom, but I know next to nothing about about the history of Eastern Orthodoxy. Does it share a rocky history much like our own? Or is it indeed an unbroken chain of holiness? The latter seems highly unlikely, aside from the profoundly miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.

But I really don't know a thing about it, so I'm quite eager to cast my eye over a few history books.

In the mean time, we're embedded in our own church at Blessed Sacrament, but I think we have much to gain in learning from these other followers of Jesus. So we just might be back Wednesday night.

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