I lit a candle for Angela today. I lit it in a huge Russian Orthodox Church. Not exactly the spiritual home of our Greek Orthodox ancestors but close.
I bathed in the light of the gleaming garnet stained glass cross painting the floor.
I knelt on the eastern side of the smooth golden wood beside the strip of carpet which bisected the expansive room and led up the steps to the alter.
I was told when I came in I could pray here.
I knelt in the glowing light of the cross and meditated, my version of prayer, for 45 minutes.
I counted my breaths. I laid my new ‘little computer’ on the wooden floor before me cleansing her in the bloody light of the giant western facing window.
I am preparing…heading to the beach to write “A Letter to My Father”.
How did I come to be in this bastion of Orthodox Christianity?
Drawn in by the round gold rooflines gleaming in the sparklingly blue San Francisco day I tentatively drift across Geary. The little coffee shop I had originally been seeking; falling away behind me.
I notice one of the 12′ tall, ornately carved doors is standing open as I cross the 4 lane street that runs across the heart of San Francisco.
The coffee shop will still be there I remind myself as the church bookstore at the corner of the massive building catches my eye. Wondering what fascinating books might be lurking inside this bastion of the Virgin Mother; I allow myself to softly climb the 10 narrow steps to the first door.
I peek into the cave-like opening and feel my skin prickle with readiness to dart back down to the street. I don’t exactly understand this feeling of timidness I am experiencing at approaching the building. Nonetheless I do not step more boldly and my skin continues to crawl with tension.
Eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom a second, carpeted, set of stairs rises 10 careful paces in. Hesitating in the doorway what becomes noticeable is a hutch off to the right. The top half is fronted with glass. It has a 3×5 card, with the word “free” scrawled on its face, taped in the center.
It is unclear to me what exactly is being offered for free. However, the words “free” and “books” are musical for me at any time. Well, and truthfully, looking at the cabinet means I am not moving any deeper into the space and I am still alone.
It is way easier for my squirming flesh to make it inside the door if I do not have to talk to anyone quite yet. Flickers of movement and the murmur of voices announce the presence of people at the top of the stairs.
I linger just inside the first door facing the cabinet my senses tuned to the sounds drifting towards me. They are safely engaged with each other and do not appear to have noticed me.
Exhaling a minute bit of tension, my focus turns to figuring out what is on display. Not much as it turns out. Some half a dozen Christ Crucified pictures mounted on flat blocks of wood, a book explaining the Liturgy and some small pamphlets in Russian.
Unwilling to trust what free means and unready to talk with the faceless voices up the next set of stairs, I leave everything as I found it and turn back towards the sunlight.
‘I will come back’, I tell myself, ‘after I go check out the main building.’
Feeling ready to mount the main staircase and happy to have escaped the bookstore without being noticed, I slip back outside.
Around the corner and up the expansive sun-drenched stone steps I head for the tall narrow opening.
‘Of course,’ I think to myself, ‘it would be the absolute farthest of the 4 towering doors to be standing open.’ Thus necessitating a long walk along the entire front of the church.
My neck ruffles with awareness of how different I look as I cut diagonally across a seemingly endless width of very open stairs. I often find myself in such positions, standing out like a neon sign announcing difference, but it appears particularly notable when compared to anyone I can see in this moment. And perhaps most especially from the Russian Orthodox woman in traditional clothes minding the entrance.
I notice my Irish Man Hat, my leather moccasins, my dreadlocks and my mohawk. I notice my shaman, my priestess, my gender presentation and energy of the day. My warrior is on a mission of peace though.
We (the Social Scientist, the Artist, and the Priestess) seek to experience this ‘Holy Place’ from a position of noticing another system’s spiritual energy. I have been studying the art history of western civilization much of which was directly commissioned and controlled by different organized religions.
The churches, like me, have always noticed the incredible power of art to move and speak to people. Therefore many large ‘Holy Sites’ are full of art of various types.
In this church, for example, there are no statues but paintings abound. Gold coats every surface and framed paintings circle me climbing thickly over the walls. Murals coat the highest parts of the curving walls and the ceiling arching far above. Giant stained glass windows center the side walls.
A voice accosts me as I start to move out of the entrance hall and into the main church. I whirl around to face the blue cloth shrouded woman who smiles and walks towards me. Her hands and face the only skin visible amidst the flowing blue.
“Have you been here before?” She asks again when she is sure I am listening.
“No,” Fast and firm, “Oh no. I haven’t.” I find myself bouncing up on my toes the readiness to dart back into the sun prickling up and down my body.
Her face is welcoming. “You can pray anywhere inside. Except, please, stay off the steps. Also, today, we have a person laid out for a viewing.” She points to a coffin sitting open on the far right side of the vast room.
Viewing huh? I think to myself looking at the coffin. How very appropriate for a day I am here.
The one time my Midwife for the Dying self (the Shamanic Priestess) steps foot inside a church and there is a dead woman in residence.
“Thank you”. I say out loud smiling back.
My breath slows and I settle back on my heels. I guess I am not dashing back out; not right this very second anyway.
Turning back to the expanse of gold I step slowly feeling my way along. Just inside the inner doors, all of which stand wide open, I slow even further. The air feels thick with the weight of ritualized expectation.
Sliding sideways through the door and moving around the curving wall to the left I slip through the press of energy filling the room.
As I cross the threshold I remember ‘Irish Man Hat’ should be removed in a House of God. My gender presentation and energy is (mostly) masculine today and the respect of taking the hat off is what feels appropriate.
Semi-familiar and strongly different at the same time. My parent’s religion is Christian. It is, however, a form of Christ following without all the golden art, 30 foot ceilings, and alters heavy with candles.
After meditating for almost an hour in the light of the window I went back to the bookstore. I found a fascinating book on a group of monks in upper Egypt. I also bought a candle for Angela.
I went back into the main Church to light the candle. I offered a brief ‘prayer’ for the dead woman and for Angela.
Then the woman from the front entrance came to find me. “Please”, she said with some urgency in her voice this time.
“The evening Service is starting in half an hour. There are scarves for you to wear if you are staying for the Service.”
She is worried I do not know that women, female bodied people, are ‘suppose to’ cover their head in church.
“Don’t worry! I’m leaving right now. I’m not staying. I was just lighting a candle.”
I was out of the building in under 10 seconds.
I wonder if the wind of my escape made her blue scarves swirl around her.