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Wednesday
Jun241998

Green Linoleum Floor

[NPR, "All Things Considered," June 24, 1998]

An hour before worship my husband and some guys from church arrive to set up, going down the alleylike passage to the side door, past cigarette butts and soda cans. It isn’t a church building, and it isn’t ours, except on Sunday morning; the rest of the week it’s a day care center for adults with psychiatric disabilities. Since we’re Orthodox Christians, creating a worship space takes some work. In the middle of the green linoleum floor stands a massive oak table, smeared with red fingerpaint and glitter; two guys heft it to the back wall. The jumble of chairs get lined along the sides and back of the room, since most of us stand for the liturgy. We pull the altar out from the corner and strip off the movers’ quilts, bolt together easels to hold the big icons, and set out smaller ones along the window ledges, next to construction-paper cutouts.

Compared to a glorious, gilded Orthodox church, this isn’t very impressive. It’s pup-tent Orthodoxy, making do as best we can, with candlesticks from someone’s attic and a table from someone’s garage. Every week incense must overcome the smell of disinfectant and cigarettes.

Does beauty matter? The Bible seems to say so. God dictated very elaborate appointments for the tabernacle in Moses’ time. Although the people were wandering the desert in tents, worship was commanded to be in gold and scarlet, embroidery and bells. From Isaiah’s vision to the book of Revelation, throughout Scripture, worship is extravagant and gorgeous.

A fully-appointed Orthodox church is like that, stately, fragrant, and ringed with images of the saints. Here, the saints who surround us are only small, laminated plaques leaning against the windows. Our only loveliness is Orthodoxy itself. We set out like a jewel the liturgy, the music, the scriptures; the ancient Faith, and our own growing faith. We make this church each week, by our own labor; we take down each week, like desert wanderers seeking a home. Our labor is part of the offering, part of the beauty. A jewel looks stunning set on black velvet, but here it is displayed on simple muslin. There is nothing to distract from the faith alone.

It’s not quite true that the saints around us are only small icon-plaques. I stand every Sunday in the midst of saints, Jeannie and Basil and Jonathan, with my sons and husband in gold robes beside the altar. It is enough. Someday we will have our own home, and hand-painted icons will ring the inside, making visible the heavenly community we cannot now see. But for now, this is enough. And this is beautiful.

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