St. Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox Church

“You’re trying to, with the music, recognize that when people are singing this here at our parish, there’s people singing this a world away. In Moscow, Russia, they will be chanting the same thing with only the hour changed to split it. What we’re singing on a Vespers on, let’s say, Saturday evening is the same thing that was chanted at a Vespers Saturday evening 200, 300, 500 years ago. And when you take that into consideration, it’s absolutely amazing.”

--Peter Simko

“Any sound that you hear at an Orthodox church has a purpose. It has a meaning behind it. It’s not there for fluff…it all goes hand in hand with this eternal worship of God. It never ends.”

­--Chris Reeves

St. Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox Church sits on the corner of Summit and Oakland, tucked away in a building that used to be a car dealership. Upon entering St. Gregory’s, the non-assuming brick exterior of the building is quickly forgotten, replaced by an ornate, intimate sanctuary filled with sights, smells, and, of course, sounds. Comprised of a wide range of ages, the parishioners of St. Gregory’s come from many different faith backgrounds—some have grown up Orthodox, while others are recent converts. Part of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which was granted autocephaly (autonomy) by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970, St. Gregory’s mostly follows Slavic traditions of Orthodoxy, particularly in the chanting style used by their choir. We attended two separate services on the weekend of Pentecost, one of the major feast days in the Orthodox liturgical year, a Saturday night Vespers service and a Sunday morning celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Despite the small size of its building, St. Gregory’s overflows with energy provided by its vibrant, devoted community and its commitment to engaging all five senses throughout worship.

(Saturday Night Vespers Service at St. Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox Church)

Communion at St. Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox Church The clip above features moments from the Saturday night Vespers service, a service of prayer and thanksgiving, and a brief excerpt of an interview with Peter Simko that gives you some of his thoughts on the “overlapping sounds” of an Orthodox service. First, you heard Father Matthew Moriak, the rector of St. Gregory’s, proceeding around the sanctuary distributing incense with the censer, a container on the end of a chain adorned with twelve bells. With each swing of the censer, the bells ring out bright and clear, mingling with the sound of the choir chanting, overlapping and enveloping each other’s sound and those in attendance. Second, you heard the choir and congregation respond to one of Fr. Matthew’s prayers by chanting “Lord, have mercy,” first in English, then in Greek, Slavonic, and Arabic. For our group, this was a powerful sonic moment in the service, and it illustrates Peter’s point in the quote at the top of this page. The Orthodox Church spans centuries and continents and this simple response to a prayer foregrounds that history and community. Chris, the choir director, described the use of multiple languages as an inclusive gesture, one that allows parishioners of various ethnic backgrounds to feel at home during the service. For parishioners like Peter, these moments in the service bridge temporal and geographical gaps, mystically bringing the material, temporal, and spiritual together through the musical and lyrical power of the hymns and chants.

As almost the entirety of an Orthodox service is chanted, these sonic “thin places” (to use a term from Celtic Christianity) are a constant, where, as Peter explains, “you’re trying to put yourself into this mode where you are seeing eye to eye with God, but also eye to eye with the people around you.” In this way, the Orthodox reject a strictly immaterial pursuit of religion, and instead strive to connect the spiritual and the material, something made evident by the practice of worshipping through all five senses. For those accustomed to a Protestant worship service, an Orthodox service can be overwhelming, almost chaotic, a constant wall of sound, smell, and movement. Yet, if you enter into the cacophony with willing ears, you will find that every element has a meaning, and they are all designed to facilitate an environment of worship for those who attend. As Chris explains, an Orthodox service and its constant engagement with the senses seeks “to emulate as best [it] can worshipping before the throne of God…that’s how it’s done in heaven, so it should be here.” In viewing the service this way, the Orthodox have an expansive view of religious sound which includes sounds that are not commonly thought of as religious.

(Sunday Divine Liturgy Service at St. Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox Church)

Iconson Wall at St. Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox ChurchIn this clip, you heard a couple of moments from the Sunday service of the Divine Liturgy and Chris’ thoughts on the importance of the choir in an Orthodox service. Within these moments from the service, children’s voices suddenly intrude on the traditional religious sounds of the censer and the chanting. However, in the context of an Orthodox service, children’s cries and exclamations are not intrusions, but are holy, enveloped by the sonic atmosphere around them. “Even with the children screaming in church, it’s still something sacred and holy, because they’re there,” says Chris, connecting the presence of children in church to an idea of Orthodox music and tradition being eternal, something holy and sacred that is passed from generation to generation both within a small, local community and within the broader Orthodox Church. The Orthodox believe that they participate in a living, breathing tradition, one that persists not simply through human effort, but one that is upheld by the grace of God working through tradition, community, and the senses. To that end, this page is but a dim reflection of the sensory richness of an Orthodox service, the fullness of which can only be experienced by attending a service in person. We leave you with one final clip that illuminates ideas of Orthodox tradition, music, and faith—the St. Gregory’s choir singing the Phos Hilaron (one of the oldest known hymns of the faith) at Saturday night Vespers.

(Choir singing Phos Hilaron at St. Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox Church)

Further links:

St. Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox Church

Orthodox Church in America

Field Researchers:
Yiyun Chen
Jason Huang
Carl Laamanen
Peter Moeller