I was at a food service conference recently and the key note speaker reminded me of something that was instrumental in my spiritual life.
Many years ago, as a member of a small neighbourhood Anglican church, the priest often spoke of his mentor, a professor and member of the Russian Orthodox church, with great love and affection. As we heard Fr.'s stories of Professor S I believe that we came to love and revere him almost as much.
The stories about the Professor's church were most exciting to me. Having never seen (nor really heard of) an iconostasis before made the idea of a gold embossed wall of icons lit only with candles seem like the stuff of a fairy tale. How much I wanted to go to that church.
Then, during one Lent the priest took his warden to a study evening which was being offered by Professor S at that very church. How much I'd wished that I was going. And then, the warden returned with stories of her own about the candles reflecting off the gold of the icons and about the amazing Professor which made my desire even greater.
And so, that Good Friday evening (that would be the Anglican Good Friday. not the Orthodox one) I went to a service at the church.
When I walked in I was struck dumb. The church had been, in its previous life, an Anglican church (ironic eh?) but was now a Russian Orthodox cathedral (albeit with stained glass windows!!). The iconostatis was magnificent, there were only a few pews in the centre and along the sides of the walls. (primarily for the elderly I learned later). The smell of incense filled the air and people walked about.
The service began .... entirely in Russian ..... and I was enthralled. This service taught me that you don't need to understand the words to understand what the words mean. Throughout the service I knelt when everyone else did and I crossed myself (likely 'backwards' in that venue) when everyone else did but I was obviously out of my element. Painfully out of my element. Sticking out like a sore thumb out of my element.
After quite some time I noticed a man off to the side with a few things on a small table. He began to move through the congregation offering the items on the tray to each person. All I could remember was the admonition that had always been included in the stories from my priest ... "whatever you do while in an Orthodox church DO NOT RECEIVE". And so, as the fellow got closer and closer to me I was terrified. Surely, I found myself feverishly praying he'll realize that I "don't belong" and won't put me in a position of having to either (HORRORS) receive what I presumed to be the Host or of bolting out the door thereby eliminating any further possibility for me to ever return and see those glorious icons again.
He got closer & closer and I got more & more nervous. And then, there he was, standing directly in front of me (remember that there are few pews so almost everyone was simply standing around). I looked at him and he looked at me. Well, actually that's not exactly correct because what it felt like was that his soul looked into my soul.
And he offered the tray and said to me .... said to my soul .... "will you share our prayers". It wasn't a question. It was a gift.
At that moment I knew I belonged. I knew that I was welcome and that I was loved. This stranger took away all my fears and hesitation. I accepted what he offered, remained for the balance of the service and then floated all the way home.
The next day I was telling my priest and the warden and as I described the event and the stranger who asked me to 'share our prayers' they both realized that I was describing the illustrious Professor. I'd had no idea that the man in the church was Professor S. But his grace shown through in that moment when our eyes met. It was incredible.