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Ritual and Symbolism

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Church history indicates that when Vadimir, Prince of Kiev, desired to find a faith background for his people, he sent several emissaries to investigate the various religions of the world. After his representatives experienced the Divine Liturgy in the Agia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople, they returned with thoroughly positive descriptions of what they encountered. As a result, their experiences prompted a further investigation that would eventually lead to the conversion of an entire nation.

Just as the Orthodox Church’s rituals and symbolism evoked a response from the Czar’s emissaries, respondents in this study spent a large amount of time talking about their reactions to the Orthodox Church's rituals and symbolism. What follows are some of the primary observations, descriptions and challenges that they shared about Orthodox ritual and symbolism.

  • Non-Orthodox participants found the Orthodox Church's liturgical traditions ineffective in meeting their needs. This was especially true of non-Orthodox who were not from a liturgical and sacramental faith tradition. As a result, many described their participation in perfunctory terms. Here is a sampling of some of their observations. One father stated, “In all honesty, I don’t get that much out of the services. I go because I believe it’s my duty to be with my family on Sunday.” A mother stated, “Even though I don’t get much out of the prayer services, my presence seems to matter to my husband and his family. I guess that’s why I attend.”
  • Numerous comments suggested that the non-Orthodox partner generally perceived the services as long, redundant, confusing, boring, and in need of some revision. Their lack of knowledge and intimacy with the rituals and symbolism was in large part associated with their negative impressions. Respondents’ comments included some of the following examples, the veneration of icons, the place that icons should have in their family home, performing the sign of the cross, kissing the priest's hand, selecting a baptismal name, the Orthodox Church's insistence that sponsors be Orthodox, the repeated standing and sitting during services, the congregation's tendency to be tardy, the formal dress codes, the rules forbidding women from wearing lipstick when they receive communion, the rules pertaining to menstruation… served to confuse non-Orthodox spouses. In addition, because their Greek Orthodox spouses were often unable to offer a meaningful interpretation of these and other symbols, rules and rituals, this increased their confusion and negatively impacted their participation and attendance.
  • Because many non-Orthodox were unable to appreciate the Orthodox Church’s prayer life, many Greek Orthodox spouses talked about how this evoked sadness within them. One respondent’s observations illustrate this point. “Ed can’t understand what’s happening during the liturgy. Knowing this makes me feel sad and empty inside because he’s lost his way of worshipping. It’s also hard because we can’t seem to worship together when we’re in Church, and I’m not sure we ever will.” In addition, other Greek Orthodox participants described feelings of guilt. “Sue’s decided to come to the Greek Church for a lot of reasons that I won’t talk about now…. Sometimes I feel guilty about this because I want her with me on Sunday, but I also know she’s not getting a lot when she attends.”
  • Many participants stated that more education and the use of more English might alleviate some of these challenges. Others stated that "time" and a "genuine desire and effort" on the part of the non-Orthodox partner could make a difference. And still others stated that a combination of education, time, commitment, and some additional communication might help spouses and couples struggle through these and other similar challenges.
  • Finally, many couples in this study observed that their different religious preferences created challenges for them. Most couples were able to resolve these challenges to both spouses mutual satisfaction. In these cases, some determined to worship in different churches, while others decided to remain intermarried and worship in one Church – usually the Greek Orthodox Church. Some couples were unable to resolve the challenges related to their religious differences and preferences. In these instances, many decided to curtail Sunday worship because the their religious differences and preferences were having a toxic affect on their marriages. Some of these couples also described lingering conflict that periodically produced marital conflict.

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