Church incognito; where culture and religion entwine, my experience at an Assyrian Catholic Church

Last Sunday I attended an Assyrian Catholic Church. My father informed me about this denomination, that the services are held in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke in his day and age. Because of this I had to check it out for myself.

I arrived there a little bit early, and the first person I introduced myself to made it known that I shouldn’t dress casually in church, “in front of the almighty” and while I didn’t know the dress code prior to going to the church I was more than slightly taken aback.

I made my way to the sanctuary and I was greeted more cheerfully and with less baggage by one individual who was helpful in answering my questions. The service started promptly, the curtain was drawn and the priest and the altar men gave way to cantoring in Aramaic; it was beautiful to hear this language in the form of cantoring, it was very much a Middle Eastern way per music I have heard from that region. Now the congregation seemed to be comprised of a lot of old men and women, but after some scanning of the congregation I recognized that there was a large group of young women, they intrigued me because they played an active role in the cantoring; the priest would cantor and the response was given by the altar men, congregation, or these young women at any given time as well as any combination of individuals.
The first hour of the service was nearly continuous cantoring, it only varied when there was a reading from the Gospel and when bells sounded as a signal to stand up or sit down.

After the hour of cantoring, the priest delivered a sermon in Aramaic that was nearly an hour long. When he had finished, it was time for Communion. I initially utilized this time to take time to pray, but I was encouraged by the man who talked to me near the beginning of the service to partake because it was an inclusive table. I waited in line, watching and meditating on what I had witnessed, and when it was my turn I accepted the bread and drank from the communion chalice just as everyone else did.
The service ended once everyone partook of Communion. From there the congregation gathered in their gathering hall to enjoy refreshments and tea. They had a gift shop and so I decided to check it out, unfortunately it wasn’t open in the traditional sense, but I lucked out! The men responsible for counting the offering were very hospitable, and they gave me a run down of some things about the Assyrian Catholic Church:
1. The church is led by a patriarch, in which they trace their church history back to St. Thomas and Nathanael. They make the claim their church started in 33 A.D.
2. The language Aramaic has changed some over the years, but not too much; when The Passion of The Christ came out, they could get by for the most part without the subtitles.
3. The church was founded in Mesopotamia / Babylon / Iran, but it spread from there to India and China.
4. The denomination was once 80 million people strong, but wars and conflicts reduced their numbers to 5 million.
5. The Assyrian Church is historical in nature both from a church history basis, but also an Assyrian history basis. It didn’t strike me as homogenization, but truly an entwining of culture as well as belief system.
6. While there were close to 100 people in attendance that Sunday, on their main church holiday they usually get 1000+ people in attendance.

I thanked these guys for answering my questions, and the ill feeling I had for being corrected for my attire vanished! 🙂 I was wished a good Sunday and I was invited to come back. Once I get some “church clothes” I probably will!


Rambling confession; I am human, I am fragile

Over this past weekend I acquired a 24 hour fever. I seldom get sick but when I do I despise it.

Being sick is part of being human, but it’s ultimately a leveling ground of our fragility. No immune system is strong enough to ward off being sick, and I honestly wish mine was.
Sickness leaves me tired and restless; I want the solace of my bed but sleeping away the hours is hardly my idea of a good time. Sickness makes my skin crawl, my body’s hot one second and freezing the next, this flux sucks. Sickness drains my appetite; I’m hungry for food, a nice cold beer would hit the spot, but I’m left to eating soft foods and staying hydrated solely by water really chaps my ass.
As if the fever wasn’t bad enough, I had a pounding headache and a ringing in my ears. While I slept I had all the above and nightmares, making my possible relief impossible.


And after the fever broke, my bones and joints felt brittle and lined with glass. I walked slowly, timidly, haphazardly. Hell, despitefully this lumbering disposition I managed to fall down my stairs in my apartment. This heaped a bit insult to injury because I stayed there a while, I didn’t bounce back up from that and I was reminded to take things slowly. I hate taking things slowly.
The eating solid foods curve post-sickness is a sharp one. I’m glad I have no major appetite, but still the body needs sustenance. Soup and sandwich, delicious when I’m well nausea-inducing when I’m recovering.
The nightmares returned, this time a tormenting “everyone dies alone” was played on repeat for 3 hours. When it had ended, I awoke to the fact that as I was subconscious, I shit myself- need I continue on how vulnerable and helpless I feel?

I will get better, but it’s an exasperating process that I would rather skip. And yet in my vulnerable state I’m surprisingly mindful to what’s around me and what I’ll going through. I am also aware that God is present to my suffering, and despite horrific nightmares I know I will not die alone (whenever that day might occur).

Here’s to recovery, here’s to vulnerability.
– Nathanael –

Church incognito; of silence and community, my experience at a Friends Meeting (Quakers)

Now prior to attending a Quaker service on April 12th, my knowledge of them was very limited. I knew they were prone to be progressive and peaceful, prone to social justice both in small and large ways. With that in mind I decided to go to the one nearest me.

As I got to the door I was greeted warmly and was handed a pamphlet about Quakers. I was encouraged to attend the church meeting as I was a bit early for the service. The meeting addressed some financial issues, and after that a call to silence occurred, and what was lively discussion quickly became collective quiet.

Quietness, sheer quietness. It reminded me to a certain extent John Cage’s 4’33 piece, but there was something sacred to it that I was unfamiliar with on a larger scale.

The silence was broken by a handshake, and it became mutual and communal. I met a good portion of those gathered as there were less than 30 people gathered for the meeting. We gathered together outside the sanctuary, they were curious as to my interest and I divulged to them this project, they were glad that I was there and I could feel it too and it was not a shallow feeling in the slightest.

After having engaged those around me, I took some time to be on my own in the form of reading over the titles on their many bookshelves. A lot of the books I have read or have some knowledge of; progressive Christianity books alongside books by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my kind of library!

Shortly there after the service started, a service that didn’t involve singing but rather praying and meditating and mindfulness all in silence. I was aware of this in advance, and as their website puts it;

“Our Meeting is based on silent worship. It is

possible that no one will speak during the entire

meeting. Anyone is free to speak if he or she feels

moved to it by a leading from the Light within. Each

message will help someone, but our needs differ. If

the message does not “speak to your condition,” try

to reach the spirit behind the words. We maintain

silence for at least a few minutes after vocal

ministry to give time for a message to reach a quiet


I adapted to this style quickly…albeit too quickly, as I found myself listening to nature outside and the grumblings of stomach inside (mine as well as others). My thoughts found its center time and time again, but I admit I grew internally restless because I am unaccustomed to such a service. I mentally made note of the congregation makeup; one kid, two adults close to my age, and a lot of people in their mid 50s and older. More women than men, and all seemed content to be there.

At the 53rd minute of the service, a woman stood up and talked about wildflowers and faith, how sometimes it is visible to ourselves and others, and other times it lays dormant. And yet it is there even if we don’t see it. It was beautiful and simple, and she was the only one who spoke during the service. It started in silence and ended with communal handshakes.

After the service we gathered in the dining hall to partake in banana bread, fruit, and cookies. I met even more people and they too wanted to hear about my church incognito project. I took time to listen as much as I could, and I talked about what being a Quaker means to them.

I realized from the individuals I talked to when I posed the question “what does being a Quaker mean to you?” that a lot of them resonated with the mysterious nature of God, the part of God that cannot fully be grasped. They were okay to live in the unknown-ness and it caused no distress to them. I also gathered that a lot of them were first generation Quakers coming from mostly Catholic church backgrounds.

I talked a great deal to one woman in particular because as we got to talking it became evident that we’re in the same work field! It was interesting to hear about her perspectives and experiences, and what she hoped to imprint upon others and integrate into her practice.

The Quakers I spent time with were wonderful, hospitable people. Not only to I the visitor but to each other, tending to the needs of each other out of love in the context of community. It was good to engage in their core values, but more importantly to see them in action because that is what matters most, faith in action.


Church incognito; from darkness into light, my experience at St. Athanasios Greek Orthodox Church

On April 11th and part of April 12th I attended St. Athanasios Greek Orthodox Church to usher in Pasha, or Easter. I first noticed that for a 11pm service the parking lot was packed! I almost had to park on the grass on the property, but thankfully I didn’t have to. As I approached the entrance I heard some chanting, which sounded live (until they cut it off midway). There weren’t any seats in the sanctuary, so I and a lot of other people were directed to the overflow seating arrangement in their dining hall, in which we caught the service in the form of HDCS (high definition church service) played via projector and projection screen.

It was a bit on the noisy side at first, not in a bad way but one of hopeful anticipation. A bit of cantoring based upon the scripture reading from the gospel of Mark, first in Greek followed up by English, all the while signing the cross was done in homage. And after the gospel reading it got dark, really dark, they actually made it even darker in the building by unscrewing light bulbs for a brief time.

The priest had a lit candle and altar boys and girls came forward and had their candles lit, and from there they lit all the other candles in the church. It was beautiful! I have never been part of a candlelight service that moved from darkness into light. I was left in awe at this practice because I find it to be the nature of things; the darkness before dawn, the bad that seems to prevail in the world and yet God…and good, is pushing forward all the more.
People were leaving at a quick rate and so I moved from the overflow seating arrangement to the sanctuary.

When I got there I took time to take in the icons; I appreciate iconography (I have a few) and to see the host of saints, the holy family, Jesus, etc. was beautiful and I took it in with all my senses. The pine resin incense took me back to my first time attending a Greek Orthodox service, also on Pasha, many years ago with my father. These things are not common in the Protestant tradition, but I appreciate them nonetheless because it resonates with me the mystery of faith and certainly the unknown-ness of God that I will never fully grasp while I am living but striving to learn more but never know all (not that it is humanly possible in the first place).
I left shortly after 1am and there were still a lot of people gathered to worship and celebrate Pasha together. It was good to be a part of this service, I enjoyed it greatly for it nourished my mind as well as my soul.


Church Incognito: In the beginning…

Because of a change in my work schedule, I now have a traditional Saturday and Sunday weekend. So I have decided that I will help out with my church’s youth group on Saturdays and visit different churches in my area on Sundays.

I am undertaking this task because I like diversity in community, that is, the more we might appear in our differences the more we are actually the same. I’ve grown up in the church and there are some traditions of faith that are unfamiliar to me, and so it is my intention to engage in said traditions of faith both in showing up, but also by interacting with those who attend if I am able to do so.
I have no guidelines as to what places I will attend, but I will allow the Holy Spirit to prompt and guide me in finding God in church (building) and Church (the people). I will be honest and sincere with others. I will listen, take notes, and BE and perhaps even DO with others. I will have fun. I will listen with open ears and an open heart. I will be dutiful in writing about my experiences here.

Onward and upward!