Nations, cultures, and people all have some form of religions surrounding them. Religion is a part of life. It affects us all in some way or another, both positively and negatively. Religion does not only entail the service and worship of a god or supernatural beings; it also includes personal or faith related actions, practices, and attitudes. Christianity, with its different denominations, includes different actions and practices. My parents grew up in Methodist and Baptist churches, yet both left and started a non-denominational church focused more on freedom to worship and live how The Bible teaches. The ways to experience the Christian religion can be almost endless. I attended the St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church (Byzantine Rite) in Mishawaka, Indiana where the palpable ambiance, interpersonal communication, and empirical challenges brought an endearing experience to my faith.
A large group of students from Bethel College went to this church to find a different experience. We all certainly found what we had been looking for. To be honest, I had never held the Catholic section of Christendom in high regards. Meeting most of the Catholics that I had, I was utterly disappointed as a whole with what I had been involved with at school, with family, and within my community. I had found Catholics to be hypocritical, wearing a mask of faith, no truth to what they “believed”, and almost ignorant of their own church. At St. Michael’s, I found a much different atmosphere. From the first moments I started walking up the uneven stone steps to enter, the sweet fragrance of the incense permeated the air; the candles provided an intimate setting, the vibrant colours of light diffused through the unique stain glass windows to flood the sanctuary with a warm glow of reds, yellows, blues, and greens that one could almost pull out of the air. This was no grand cathedral as I had always pictured a Catholic church would be; it was personal, the connections felt real. The front half of the sanctuary was filled with pews and a short platform area for the clergymen to walk around on. Around the back third of the sanctuary was the tabernacle area, which was fenced off from the mortal area.
After the entire group was directed to some pews to take refuge in, Father Jim came to speak with us. I remember him talking about some things within the church service, the books for liturgy, hymns, communion, etc. He apologized that we would not be able to partake of communion with them but soon after he said something I remember very well. Father Jim began to explain some of the proceedings of a Byzantine Catholic church service. He said “When you ask a western Christian what he believes, he will tell you with his mouth that which he believes. When you ask a Byzantine Catholic, we want to show you what we believe.” I could not agree more with this statement. By simply looking at the church it was possible to see these tangible items and paintings of what they believe. Floor to ceiling, the complete 180 degrees around the north side of the sanctuary was painted with stark reds, lavish metallic golds and silvers, vibrant violet and blues, and many more colors. Patrons, saints, angels, Mary, and Jesus were all depicted in a beautiful manner.
The father asked the members of the church to help us along in the service if we seemed lost or confused about what to do, and they did just that. Not only was the father extremely excited to have us visitors at the church, but most of the congregation was excited for us to be there as well. The welcoming atmosphere constructed by the congregation is one unlike I have experienced most anywhere else. Only two churches, an Assemblies of God church in Missouri and a Deaf Missionary church, have helped me to feel as welcome as I was.
Besides just the visual two dimensional items to look at, there was much seeing of what is believed left. The amount of incense used during the service was nearly unbearable at times. The amount of respect given for all things holy was boggling. The sacrifice of incense to the Saints, Patrons, and cross, was interesting to watch as the clergymen were synchronized in bowing, and ringing the bells of incense. Everything was sung. The reading of God’s word, prayers, songs, and the rest of the service except the actual sermon itself was sung. When we asked the father about it afterwards he explained that “communicating with God is not ordinary communication. Because it is not ordinary, we want to give the best that we can to God. We feel that singing is the best form of extraordinary communication we can give to God.”
After the extraordinary service, we were invited to a dinner in the parsonage next door to the church. A few of use went and got to interact with many of the members of the church and with the father. This was a great time for us to learn the backgrounds of people and ask the father a lot of questions relating to the practices. It was here that a feeling of true sincerity was felt. Protestant Christians tend to dislike the idea of “religion” and value the idea of “relationship”. This is where the religion is just a set of rules and practices that one has to do to be part of a church. In St. Michael’s, and other Byzantine Rite I assume, religion was found, but with sincerity. So often, religion seems to be a problem because the congregation cannot remember or understand the true reasons for their practices, which renders them useless. At this church, I felt a strong and sincere ambiance; the people knew what and why they were doing. These little practices were not done simply because it was the way the three generations before them had done it, they understood the reasoning which so many Christians seem to lack and fall in the present day.
When it came time for us to leave, sad feelings settled over my being. It was revitalizing to be in such a welcoming, strong, and sincere atmosphere. I walked away with a few things to keep in mind. I personally felt deeply challenged by the fathers comment about western Christians speak, but Byzantines show. I realized the truth behind this and the reality that many times even our talk is frivolous. In parallel with this challenge, I also felt compelled to learn and understand better the practices which I have done for quite sometime and never truly thought about the purpose of them. Seeing the amount of respect and glory that is given to God was also mortifying for me; I felt convicted that I so often am too lax with God. I often find that myself, my friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ all together often approach God in too much of a friend orientation, instead of the King and Lord that he is also. There is a time to approach Him as friend and a time to approach Him as lord and king. The last thing I realized, is that if one has bad asthma issues and intends to go repeatedly, the incense can become an issue so use and bring the inhaler or bronchial dilator.
Visiting a Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite can be one of the most rewarding experiences a protestant Christian can have. Several Bethel College students, including myself, found this experience to be challenging and rewarding at the same time. I would love for my parents and brothers to come and get a taste of the sincerity and the challenges that lie within the church that everyone can apply to their own lives. When I recount my exposure of this service, I find myself in awe of the things aforementioned. As the future comes into the present and the present into the past, I hope that I will always remember these feelings and challenges to better myself and the people around me so that God might better use me in what ways he will as his humble, privileged, and grateful servant.