By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
I worshiped this morning with my knees, my calves, and the balls of my feet. Standing at the back of the church, I watched the women in high heels and dared myself to match their (somewhat inexplicable) fortitude. I should be able to do it: my shoes, cheap cloth mary janes, were still not the four-inch wedges sported by a woman holding a baby. I saw her ankles wobble a few times, and watched another woman’s calf muscles tense and strain as she shifted her weight from one foot to another, invoking the intimate bond with the space that I was surprised to feel: I was uncomfortable. And although other churchgoers’ muscles may have been more inured than mine to the sensation of standing on hard stone for an hour and a half, I suspect that they were too.
There is a peculiar unity to the knowledge that your physical engagement with a space is happening in the same way as the stranger standing ahead of you. Your knees have the same dull ache; your noses breathe in the same incense; your ears absorb the same chanting. This happens, of course, dozens of times on any given day, and I’ve never felt a particular connection to the people next to me on the elliptical machine, just because we’re exercising the same muscles, or the other people walking through a garden, by virtue of a shared smell. But there was something about the combination of all of this shared physicality – and the fact that it involved some physical discomfort – that transformed the liturgy this morning into something larger than my individual experience.
This may also be due to the non-participatory nature of the liturgy itself; although there is near-constant music, the congregation does not sing, nor are there responsive readings, or any of the staples of a Roman Catholic or Protestant service. The most holy moment of the ritual takes place behind a curtain. And although the worshipers’ interactions with the icons allowed for more movement throughout the course of the service (the children who ran in and out of the church, tugging on their parents’ clothes and giggling to themselves, helped too), the engagement that I feel in other services through singing or kneeling or exchanging signs of peace was happening, literally, inside my calves.
This is all to say: I understood for the first time why the faithful (and, of course, those who are able) choose to stand during Orthodox services, even in high heels. Constant reminders of our physical embodiment are crucial to worship and to human unity in general, in part because of their intense inexpressibility. As Virginia Woolf once observed, far more articulately than I ever could: “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver or the headache…The merest schoolgirl as she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”
The (very slight) pain that I felt this morning, though, was of the healing kind. It reminded me of the vulnerability of my body, but also of its strength. And, more importantly, it bonded me to the bodies of everyone standing around me, without sharing a language, a culture, or even fundamental religious beliefs. Later that morning, I helped the nuns clear away the scads of tiny cups strewn across the tables by the congregation, who stayed to chat and eat bread and drink the strong Greek coffee, and felt the same connection that comes with collective physical labor. I think there will be no lack of these intimate connections during these two weeks.