I enter timid, clueless, urging myself along on the trails of women fifty years older and two feet smaller than I. We enter a dark space, illuminated only by the tall, thin candles burning in their slots at the table to our right. Some burn for the living, and other burn for the dead. Their flickering calms me.
I move to the narthex, greeted by movement and color. This back half of the church looks to be in repair; thin, wooden scaffolding rises all around, criss-crossing up to the ceiling. Those who sit—mostly older women with headscarves—sit on mismatched wooden chairs with mismatched cushions.
Through the crossing of the scaffolding, I can see into the nave, all the way to the glint of the iconostasis—this golden screen, holding icons, hiding the sanctuary from our gaze. We can see only bits of this space through the open door in the middle. The priest sings here, his back to us. Light burns around him; here it is darker.
It is not uncommon to stand through the service. And I do so, on my feet for two full hours, watching, listening, but not comprehending. But do we ever really comprehend what happens when we try to meet with God?
They sing for the entire service. The priest, the choir, the congregation, each in their turn.
It all feels a little magical, like I’m caught in a dream.
To my right, there is a table where people buy candles and small loaves of bread. These little knotted buns are carried all the way to the front of the church, their buyer making a series of movements over them with a fistful of short, thin, lit candles. An older man takes the tray, the steps through a door in the screen—the door depicts an angel—and then disappears from our sight. I do not know where it goes from there, or what it is used for.
The priest comes through, all the way to the back where I stand, swinging incense. Orange sparks leap from the metal censer. We are enveloped in the smoke—it smells heady and warm and dry.
I’m a bit mesmerized.
I watch it all happen through the beams of wood, through the women in headscarves, through the difference. It is good for me, to be in spaces where the prayer is foreign.
They pray with words that are not my own, with songs that are not my own.
They pray with candles. They pray with icons. They pray with bread.
Though I do not understand, I pray with them.
Jenna Griffin loves foreign music, old cookbooks, public transportation, and sunsets in new places. After graduating with degrees in writing and French, she is spending her first post-grad year as an English teaching assistant in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France.