As far back as I can remember, I spent every Sunday morning taking a spot in a church pew, attempting to sing along to English as sweet-smelling incense wafted in front of me. Over the years, I became accustomed to the aroma, and eventually, I was able to sing along with ease — not only in English but in Arabic and Coptic too. Although routine, I never felt my faith become mundane. Through liturgical services and teachings, I realized the true depth of the Orthodox Christian faith.
The Orthodox Christian Church is predenominational; it’s approximately 2,000 years old. It contains both Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, whose members are referred to as “Orthodox Christians.” Within these two groups are churches that are all part of one family — just separated on the basis of geographic region. I am part of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which originates in Egypt.
The theology that is foundational to the church remains steadfast and constant and was passed down from the apostles — the disciples of Christ — and continues into modern day. Although the doctrine is, without argument, the principal component of the church, there is a cultural presence that must be considered. Unless one is part of the growing American Orthodox Church, one is bound to be confronted with cultural norms that prove to be perplexing.
Despite the fact that I’m Egyptian, being born and raised in the United States has lent itself to some difficulties. Growing up in a church that had an apparent Middle Eastern influence, it took conscious effort to distinguish culture from beliefs. Over time, I came to terms with the fact that every culture has faults distinct from its faith. Fortunately, I also came to perceive the beauty that culture added to the church.
For a person unfamiliar with Orthodox Christianity, it may seem strange at first. The unfamiliar languages and traditional form of worship coupled with a large number of people with the same ethnic background and uncertainty about how to behave is normal and expected. The primary culture differs between various Orthodox Churches, but the belief systems remain the same. It just takes some time to realize that the peculiar is not very peculiar after all.
Whether it is the Coptic, Greek, Russian or any of the other Orthodox Churches, icons depicting Jesus Christ, the saints and other holy imagery line the walls, reminding the congregation of the saints’ continual presence in the church. Also, hymns are sung in English as well as in the traditional language connecting the modern-day church in America to the geographic region where it originated.
In a liturgical service, where the Eucharist is administered, members gather together in participation of the sacramental life in accord with the early church started by the apostles. This is the pride of the church. It is able to unite with the past, for it remains grounded and consistent in dogma, withstanding the pressures of time and culture, allowing for a coherent remembrance of the past.
Although cultural values and social norms are unnecessary to practice the true faith, this history is what makes the church a living remembrance to the past, adding to its richness. Even though the incense has lost its poignancy and church attendance may have become plain routine, the profoundness of the faith continues to be realized on a daily basis.
The UC Berkeley community takes pride in being a collective group of individuals that is always seeking and learning. Most students are willing to listen to differing beliefs from their own, whether they be religious or not, but when it comes to certain topics, you may feel like you know enough about a topic to form an educated opinion. Whether or not you are informed enough, this is the time to explore and not hold back. It could be scrutinizing doubts you’ve had about your stance on certain social issues, it could be taking a class in a field of study that has been intriguing you lately — even though it has nothing to do with your major and will not satisfy any requirements — or it could be inquiring about believers because of ongoing persecution in countries like Egypt and Syria. The time is now. Be proactive.
Monica Mikhail contemplates the truth of the matter in her Thursday blog. Contact Monica Mikhail at [email protected].