In 987, Prince Vladimir of Kiev is said to have sent emissaries to different countries to learn about the religion and worship of each. He was searching for an appropriate faith for his people.

The emissaries went first to the Volga Bulgars. These Muslims they reportedly found disgraceful, sorrowful, and having a "dreadful stench." And among the Germans (Western Christians), the ambassadors reported they saw "no glory." In Constantinople, they were taken to Hagia Sophia, the cathedral church of the capital. Their report:

"We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty."

Prince Vladimir was convinced, and his subjects accepted Greek Christianity and were baptized.

This account from the Russian Primary Chronicle, though legendary, nonetheless conveys this: the Russians were converted not by theological arguments but by the sheer splendor of Byzantine worship.

This liturgical tradition, followed even in the most remote parish, more than anything else still defines Orthodoxy. A brief "tour" of an Orthodox service will help the non-Orthodox grasp this truth more deeply.

The dance of worship

A western visitor to an Orthodox church is immediately struck by the building. Icons of saints and biblical scenes cover the walls and ceiling, sometimes entirely. A screen covered with icons, called the iconostasis, separates the sanctuary (where the altar sits) from the nave (where the congregation gathers).

Over the nave soars a large central dome, from which an austere image of the Pantocrator (Christ seated ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.