Saint George Melkite Church, Milwaukee
For quite some time, well over a decade to be sure, I've cultivated a deep interest in Byzantine spirituality. Truth be told, I am captivated by Byzantine liturgy and history. Loyal visitors to this site will probably not be too surprised by this little confession. I never tire of reading about the magnificence of Constantinople and the sheer beauty of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Whenever I pop into a used book store, I snatch up every book I can find on the history of Byzantium. I've always thought it a shame that so many Catholics do not have even the slightest knowledge of this remarkable culture.
About ten years ago I discovered a small, simple Eastern-rite Catholic Church in Milwaukee called Saint George Melkite Church. Located on Milwaukee's ever frenetic State Street, Saint George is easy to drive right by and miss altogether. But if you look carefully, you'll see the church's three distinct, golden onion domes from a distance glistening in the sun. I don't even remember how I came across this treasure, but I'm happy that I did. Whenever I visited Milwaukee during college and grad. school, I would always try to make it to Saturday evening vespers at 6:00pm, and now that I'm back home, I try to be a regular there.
During those short visits home over the many years away from Milwaukee, attending evening prayer at Saint George provided a much needed sense of continuity and stability in my hometown. To this day, the same good priest, a tall, bearded, black robed man with a billowing bass that is perfect for chanting through the ancient, earthy prayers, presides at vespers. Sometimes, he'll approach me and ask in his deep voice, "Do you have a book?" He wants to make sure I will follow the prayers.
In the summer months, the setting sun passes through the stained-glass windows, piercing the church with a golden beam that beautifully enhances the mesmerizing icons of Christ and the Saints. The ray of light is outlined by the clouds of sweet scented incense that quickly fill the small church. Sometimes, the priest will burn more incense than usual, and the pluming clouds rapidly escaping the golden censer meet the sunlight and the effect is remarkably captivating. The censer swings about, and the small bells attached to its chains make an enchanting sound with the flick of the priest's wrist, as he intones the supplicatory hymns and processes around the church. The experience is a feast for the senses. The priest constantly prays a litany of intentions. He stands with his hands out, in the ancient manner, representing a pleading disposition before the Holy of Holies and the imposing icon of Christ Pantocrator.
During the cold, long winters, the darkened church is all the more inviting and warm. While there is no sun to illuminate the wonderful iconostasis and ignite the billowing clouds of aromatic incense, the soft glow of the candles that fills the church reflects off the gold panels and the faces of Christ and the Virgin Mary, breathing an unmatched sense of calm. The outside darkness and chill contrast mightily with the warmth of the candle-lit church interior. The cadences of the intercessory prayers envelop you as you are brought deeper into the mysteries. The profound bows and repeated signing of the cross bring the body into greater harmony with the soul's orientation. We are usually a very small group on Saturday, but there seems to be an unspoken solidarity among those of us who make it for vespers week after week, as one season changes to another. I know that we're all happy to see each other.
It is an experience of undeniable beauty to partake in a tradition that has its origins in the ancient rituals of the hallowed church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the great Saint John Chrysostom. The glorious building of Hagia Sophia is now, sadly, a museum, a shell of its former self, after having served as a mosque in the wake of the Ottoman conquest. But to have a taste of this timeless tradition and to experience a clear glimpse into that noble past at Saint George is a true blessing.