[Editor’s note: This piece is part of series, in which Emory-Moore surveys Waterloo Region’s spiritual landscape. See his original article on Buddhism in WR for a better introduction.]
Entering the small uptown church on Saturday just after dusk, a robed priest immediately turned to greet me at the door with a sign of the cross and a “God bless you.” This instant blessing from Father Christopher Rigden-Brascall commenced my warm welcome to his Orthodox Christian community. Christ the Saviour (XCS), on residential Dunbar Street, is the only English-speaking Orthodox parish in Waterloo Region. His welcome was extended through Saturday evening vespers and Sunday morning orthros followed by the divine liturgy.
While he prepared the space for vespers, the first service in the Church’s daily worship cycle, which begins at sunset, Father Christopher carefully answered my questions about Orthodoxy and inquired about my own religious background. He encouraged me foremost to relax and enjoy myself, to stand or sit as I please, but to maybe not lie down as this might attract some strange looks.
I followed him past the candlelit icons in the foyer to a large windowless room filled with candlelight. More icons lined the back and side walls above wooden pews facing the altar. Colourful imagery and ritual objects were partially visible within the altar’s inner sanctuary. The altar was separated from parishioners by a wall of beautifully arched wooden panels adorned with standing icons of the ascension, Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist. After the service, Father Christopher joined me in the back pew to chat. He seemed sincerely touched by my visit and answered my question about the goals of Orthodox practice by elaborating on his brief sermon about humility. He explained how, in the Orthodox tradition, union with God is possible for anyone, but that there is no arrival. The more a person advances towards union with God the more they become aware of their sins. When I raised the subject of theological parallels between Orthodoxy and other mystical traditions, he shrugged humbly.
“Truth is truth,” he said.
Vespers, orthros, and especially the divine liturgy unfolded in full collaboration with parishioners’ physical senses: burning incense, lighting candles, kissing icons, eating holy communion and singing devotions.
The divine liturgy was a bustling family affair. As orthros blended into liturgy, the pews slowly swelled until there were as many children in the room as adults. At one point Father Christopher invited the wee parishioners to the altar steps for a teaching about the importance of saying “thank you” upon receiving a gift. This, he explained, is precisely what we do in the Orthodox Church: We say thank you to God.
After the service I was kindly offered plenty of leftover communion bread to snack on, and invited to stay for fellowship and a proper meal in the church basement. I politely declined, but insisted that I’d be back.
The Christian identity of XCS and its parishioners is rooted in a sense of the historical continuity of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The phrase I heard Father Christopher chant most often was “now and ever and unto ages of ages, amen.”
A pamphlet in the Church foyer explains: “The original Church has remained united in the Apostolic Faith since the first century… Built on the foundation of Christ and His Apostles, nothing has been added to our faith, and nothing can be added. It is complete.”
Such staunch conservatism may seem contrary to my experience of XCS’s warm welcome of “seekers from all backgrounds,” or the variegated sensuality of its worship. But clash they do not. Worship at XCS is a fascinating blend of solemnity and levity, where collective theological certainty supports a collective openness to the squawks of uninterested children and the gawks of unknowing guests.
Walking into liturgy at XCS feels like walking into a rite that has literally been going on for centuries. Candles illumine the altar’s gilt icons and God’s praises are already being sung. Parishioners settle into their pews to partake of the indispensable eucharist, profoundly aware of their own dispensability. Come one, many, or none, the rite transpires. To Father Christopher’s chant, “Again and again in peace, let us pray to the Lord,” the assembled respond melodically, “Lord have mercy.”
Christopher is a doctoral candidate in the joint Wilfrid Laurier University-University of Waterloo Ph.D. in Religious Studies. He is currently writing his dissertation on the changing face of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism in North American cities. He lives uptown with his wife and two daughters.