From the first, Saint Spyridon seemed to me a blend of traditions. The sky-blue ceiling showed an enormous Christ bursting through the clouds, rendered in a quasi-iconic style, his huge eyes gazing down on the faithful. An equally grand-scale painting of Mary adorned the apse; her midsection obscured by a ring framing the boy Jesus: Mary as Theotokos , God-bearer. These, together with the traditional icons hanging on the walls, harkened to the church's Eastern roots. But the paintings on the walls illustrating the life of Christ (meeting the woman at the well, answering the scribes as a boy, etc.) were reminiscent of mid-century Western images, almost like expertly rendered holy cards. Even the icons on the screen before the sanctuary seemed tinged with Western sensibilities, something almost Art Deco in the lines and faces. The blend showed up in the music as well. Throughout, the choir responded to the sung prayers of the priest, often by singing "Kyrie eleison" -- Lord, have mercy -- as if the plea for mercy were the underlying form of every petition. But while the priest's prayers sounded characteristically Eastern -- the intervals and intonation -- the choir's responses seemed more Western, almost Baroque in their harmonies, now cheerful, now solemn, now grand.
More blending -- or at least, more influences: in the Entrance, I caught echoes of the Jewish procession of the Torah. As the choir sang, the priest and servers descended through a door in the screen and processed through the congregation. The servers carried candles; the priest bore the Scriptures aloft. But not simply echoes: later in the liturgy, after this veneration of the word, a second procession, this time of the vessels holding the elements for Communion, hidden under white veils trimmed with gold. (The veils echoed the garments of the priest and servers.) This time, two servers bore lamps, and two others carried staves topped with six-winged seraphim, while a man, walking backward and bowing, continually incensed the elements.
Throughout, the liturgy engaged the senses, often several at a time. The thurible was hung with bells, so that each wave sounded a muted jingle as it sent a puff of white smoke drifting heavenward. Sweet smoke filled the air, giving weight to the yellow light pouring through the southern window, making halos around the lamps hung before the screen. And sense aided intellect -- when Father Scordalakis switched from reading to singing at the end of the Gospel, the words gained force and import: "And as he cried out these things, he said, 'He who has ears to hear, let him hear!'" (So much was sung that it was surprising to hear the congregation unite in plain speech for the Creed and the prayer before Communion: "How shall I, who am unworthy, enter into the splendor of your saints? If I dare to enter the bridal chamber, my clothing will accuse me, since it is not a wedding garment; and being bound up, I shall be cast out by the angels. In Your love, Lord, cleanse my soul and save me.")
As the congregation came forward, a second priest joined Scordalakis, and the two dipped spoons into chalices and placed Communion in the mouths of the congregation. Several small children were hesitant to receive, and the priest gently coaxed them to open up before parents dabbed their mouths with the red cloth below the cup. After receiving, most congregants took cubes of bread from bowls held by the servers before returning to their seats.
The liturgy included two additional rites. First, a memorial, offered before the icon of Christ -- the savior. The priests and servers gathered around a mound of wheat shrouded in white sugar. A sung dialogue of prayers ensued -- first one priest, then the other, then the chanter, then the second chanter. And finally, the blessing of the five loaves, provided by the congregation and offered before the icon of Mary, imploring her intercession. Father had recently arrived from Florida and was yet to be joined by his family. "You honor me with the greatest gift you could have given me," he said, "and that is the gift of prayer.... I ask you now to join me in prayer for the health and well-being of my family." Lifting one of the loaves, he sang, "Bless, O Lord, these loaves, and multiply them in this holy church, this city, in the homes of those who celebrate this day.... The rich have become the poor and hungry, but those who seek the Lord shall never again know hunger." Again the congregation came forward for bread, this time from the hand of the priest, and accompanied by a blessing.
What happens when we die?
"For those who believe?" answered Scordalakis. "They go to be in the presence of God."
3655 Park Boulevard, San Diego
Denomination: Greek Orthodox
Founded locally: 1927; in present building since 1954
Senior pastor: Father Andrew Scordalakis
Congregation size: 500 families
Staff size: 7, full- and part-time
Sunday school enrollment: 130
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: formal; lots of jackets and ties, lots of dresses
Diversity: about half Greek, half other ethnicities
Sunday worship: Matins, 9 a.m.; Divine Liturgy, 10 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 2 hours