Walking into church Sunday, I was more than usually aware of entering a different world, or at least a different dimension. Not that it is separate from the wider world; far from it. It is, mystically, the very heart of it, creation's inner sanctum.
But it's different. Everything is different: the architecture of an Orthodox church, the sights, the sounds, the "smells and bells". The icons do not look like real people and aren't meant to; they are stylized. (They attempt to depict glorified souls as well as bodies.) The music is composed to appeal to your inner spirit, not to your ears, though if sung well, it may do that, too. The air is sweet with incense. People are dressed modestly. People move about reverently but freely, kissing, kissing, kissing. They kiss each other, Bibles, icons... and it seems everybody is always bowing to everybody else. Including the priest, who bows to the people three separate times during the service.
In this place, values are different. Money, fame, status, and prestige do not reign; indeed, they count for nothing. In this place, candles, oil, water, wine, bread, all mean something different. Everything means something different, and all is transformed. In this place, people's beliefs are different. They may seem to those outside the Church like elaborate fables: a God Who came among us as a true man, without compromising His divinity, Who permanently transfigured death into a new form of life. Sunday, chills ran up and down me as I recited the Creed, those foolish-sounding, ancient words of wisdom. In this place, both explicable and inexplicable miracles abound. Physical and spiritual blindness, lameness, deafness are healed, with equal mystery. In this place, the damage life has inflicted upon our emotions and intellects and character is gradually undone.
And all this difference can be summarized in one word: Love. That is, unconditional, self-sacrificing love, Love that gives without asking anything in return. It's all because we have encountered this Love in the flesh, and it has overwhelmed us, and made us long to love, and struggle to love, with that same love that has lifted us up. And when we fail to love infinitely, perfectly, we sorrow, but to the extent we do participate in this Love, our joy know no bounds; in fact, we come to know deeply that there is no other true Joy.
And in Orthodox Christianity, every dab of paint in the icons, every note of the music, every flicker of candles, every doctrine and every gesture, is in the service of this Love: to explicate it (insofar as that is possible), to help us grow in it, to guard the authentic experience and true understanding of it, to propagate it. And that is what makes the church the heart of the world; it is a piece of the world as thecworld ought to be. And that in turn makes it a little piece of heaven on earth.