It is now over twenty years since the first time Presvytera came with me to an Orthodox service. Her reaction that day occasionally makes it into conversation to this day: “There are gold people on the walls!” On the campus at Notre Dame, the basilica does have biblical scenes and icons, but the scenes are up in the ceiling and the icons mostly on the outside. Dorm chapels are generally bare. The immediacy of the presence of the saints was something different, unsettling, but welcoming.
The icons of the saints being in our vicinity, surrounding us, remind us of the heavenly nature of worship, of the saints and angels who worship with us. When we enter a church, we come to a place which has been set apart as a meeting place of heaven and earth.
In the prayers for the consecration of a church, the bishop prays:
[S]end down Thine all-holy and worshipful, and almighty Spirit, and sanctify this Church and this Altar; Fill it with the light everlasting; elect it for Thy dwelling place; make it the abode of Thy glory. Adorn it with Thy divine and supernatural gifts.
Appoint it for a haven of the tempest tossed, for a healing of passions, for a refuge of the weak, for an expelling of evil spirits. Let Thine eyes be open upon it day and night and let Thine ears be heedful of the prayer of those who shall enter therein in Thy fear, and in devoutness, and shall call upon Thine all honorable and worshipful Name; that whatsoever they shall ask of Thee, Thou wilt hear it in heaven above and wilt show mercy and be gracious unto them. Preserve it indestructible even unto the end of the ages, and show forth the holy Altar therein, an Altar of Thy Holy Things through the power and indwelling of Thy Holy Spirit, Glorify it above the Mercy Seat according to the Law; that the holy offices which shall be celebrated thereon may attain unto Thy holy, and most heavenly and super-sensual Altar and obtain for us the grace of Thy most pure overshadowing; for we trust not in the service of our unworthy hands, but in Thine unspeakable goodness.
Fill with Thy glory divine this Church erected to Thy praise, and show Thou forth the holy Altar therein set up as the Holy of Holies: that we who stand before it, as before the dread Throne of Thy kingdom, may serve Thee uncondemned, sending up unto Thee petitions for ourselves and for all the people, and offering the bloodless sacrifice to Thy goodness, unto the remission of sins both voluntary and involuntary, unto the governing of our life, the attainment of a good life and the fulfilling of all righteousness.
These prayers help us understand the character of the church building. While God is everywhere present and filling all things, we have a sense that certain places have a closer connection with Him. Perhaps this intuition is most easily seen in pilgrimages to holy places, especially the places where Jesus lived. The church is meant to be such a place. We have seen that the bishop, in his prayers, asks God to make it so, but we also have a role to play by adding our prayers at each service. As we offer up our prayers and hymns we help fulfill the purpose of the church.
Keeping this purpose in mind can also help us prepare for services. There are many temptations and distractions that come during services – wondering whether the email we received is important, thinking about starting a conversation with the person who just entered the church with us, thinking about what to make for dinner, and a myriad other things. Entering the church with prayer and becoming active participants in the prayers of the church can help us block out the distractions become more attuned to God’s presence in both the services and the rest of our lives.
As we prepare for the service by calling to mind the sacred purpose of the church building, we can enter it with a spirit of peace, and add our prayers to those of the rest of the congregation and the angels and saints who worship with us.