Mystery Worshipper: St Antiochus of the West
Church: St George's
Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 August 2010, 10:30am
Constructed around 1940, this is a classic Orthodox building complete with dome and two bell towers, both capped with antique copper and budded style Eastern crosses. The interior is a mix of Byzantine and western style religious art. Icons are classic gold tone Byzantine. The interior was painted by the world renown Art Deco artist Emmanuel Briffa, whose work graces many theatres and even the Parliament building. The top of the dome has a blue star field. The iconostasis is marble, with Western art depicting saints; floating above this are two Byzantine gold tone icons – on left the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) and on the right Jesus. The most surprising feature was toward the altar area, namely, a prominent geometric shape in light green and yellow interrupted by light orange flames and crystalline structures. Less attractive were computer monitors in the sanctuary focused on the altar area.
One of two Antiochian congregations in Montreal. Surprisingly the other, St Nicholas, is mere blocks away. This was the result of a rather painful split (I'm not sure which one split off first); the other built in spite. Both have been around close to 100 years. Happily they consider each other now to be sister churches. They even share a website and have many joint outreach and Christian development ministries.
Middle class Montreal. If the neighbourhood had once been Arabic, it is now predominantly Asian/European with many textile stores around. It is also home to a very large outdoor farmers market, rated more than once as the best outdoor market in North America. Almost directly across the street is a major Metro station that is hub to two of Montreal's four underground rail lines.
The Revd Father Antony Gabriel, pastor; the Revd Father Michael Shaheen, assistant pastor; the Revd Father Jean El Murr, pastoral assistant. The choirs were directed by Paul Jabara and Anhila Abunowara.
What was the name of the service?The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom
How full was the building?
About 90 per cent, so a good crowd. It was a middle aged to elderly crowd; I saw very few young adults and no children or teenagers. However, I understood from a discussion after liturgy that most of the youth were away at a summer camp that weekend, so their "poor" turnout Sunday actually indicated an active interest in camp participation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, but this is normal for visiting Orthodox. Since holy communion is closed to those outside Orthodoxy, visitors from another parish are expected to contact any church in advance of a visit, and on the day of the visit to enter the altar area by a side door, the "deacon's door", and introduce themselves personally to the clergy. The priests were very warm and friendly. I will say these folks went far above and beyond the normal welcome, though. I was asked to read the day's New Testament lesson, and the pastor also invited me to sit in on a private blessing ceremony after the service for a couple newly engaged. Both very unusual extensions of hospitality considering I was a first-time visitor.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes wooden pew - no upholstery but that's OK. Most of a liturgy is spent standing anyway and the homily (sermon) was only 20 minutes, so typically there is not enough time spent sitting down to become uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Worshipful. The priests were finishing orthros, a series of opening prayers and songs. As people came in, they generally tuned in to the service by the time they found their places.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Divine Liturgy (Organized by St John Chrysostom).
What musical instruments were played?
Vocal only. Some churches do better than others at this; this was by far the best I've heard. There were two choirs: the main choir, who sang most of the musical parts of the liturgy, and the Arabic choir, who sang some prayers in Arabic, including the Lord's Prayer. In this congregation the Arabic choir only had three males and one female, but they sounded spectacular.
Did anything distract you?
In this congregation, they moved the homily (sermon) to a relatively late part of the liturgy; usually it is right after the gospel reading. So when the service moved into the communion part, I thought they were skipping the homily. It threw me off a bit when it finally took place.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Neither. The musical tomes are so ancient and the lyrics meaningful enough. The best way to describe it is an uplifting and joyful somberness. It is sacred, but at the same time can be very emotional. Some call it a very bright sense of sadness.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Father Antony spoke very well. He didn't come across as the type who tries to fill in time with long speeches. He had a good message, presented it clearly – and then ended it! He also delivered an existentially relevant application of scripture without reducing it to triteness or metaphors.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The central theme of the message was loyalty being one thing that defines us as human beings. That the current trend to utilize others under false pretenses of friendship is not only disloyal but utterly dehumanizing. Two things Father Antony said stuck with me above anything else: (1) We pray for a Christian ending to our life to be painless, peaceful and blameless, but how can we expect it to be painless and peaceful if we are blameworthy? (2) What can we offer to God? Nothing but gratitude to him and each other. (Father Antony attributed the latter saying to a rabbi.)
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The entire liturgy is transcendent, but especially some of the musical parts. And receiving communion, which is sacred in Orthodoxy.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Having one or two people I was sitting/standing near convey enough of a response to avoid discourtesy but not seeing any love or welcome in their eyes. I had the impression, though, that these were irregular attendees. I responded with as much love as I could appropriately show.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I picked an empty table and resolved to finish my coffee and croissant and then leave. But midway through, the wife of one of the deacons made a beeline for me and we had a great conversation. Her daughter and one or two others joined in. We ended up closing the place!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Refreshments were served. We were expected to pay for them, but not much. It was basic stuff: not great, but enough to enjoy over a pleasant conversation.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – Hard to say. I am a chrismated Antiochian (why I chose to visit in the first place), but I would have to see over time whether relationships would occur with these people. As a convert from evangelicalism, I don't regard church as a place to sit once a week, take communion, and go home. I have to be in a place I can regard as family. Also, a midweek Bible study is mandatory for any prospective church home, and if I found this wasn't available, that's a deal killer.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely! The liturgy, homily and music were all substantial and uplifting.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Being invited by the pastor to read the epistle. That is unusual! It was humbling and blew me away.