Orthodox Church Nourishes Senses and Spirituality

By Timothy Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

After 19 years of worship, Alyssa Przystawik experienced a shift in her theological outlook and decided to leave the only spiritual home she had known.

After a visit with a friend in November, Przystawik, 37, became enamored of "the reverence and beauty" of the worship service at St. Nicholas Cathedral.

"It started making sense to me, the more I went back," said Przystawik, who left the Washington Community Fellowship in August.

Founded in 1930 as the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, the domed limestone building at 3500 Massachusetts Avenue NW was completed in 1962 and is the National Cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America.

One of the first things visitors notice in the main body of the church, known as the nave, is the absence of pews. Parishioners stand during the service, the scent of beeswax candles and incense wafting as prayers are sung in the presence of hand-painted holy icons on the church's ceiling, walls and columns.

Several tall lancet windows stretch from floor to ceiling, allowing natural light to illuminate the cathedral's spacious interior. An iconostasis, a partition covered with icons, separates the nave from the altar where clergy members perform the service.

"The service taps into all of your senses," said Sky Coon, who began attending St. Nicholas three years ago. "The images of the saints on the wall gives you a sense of the 2,000 years of Christianity."

More than 250 icons decorate the church's interior with images of apostles, saints and a portrayal of the arrival of Orthodoxy in North America in 1794. Thirty-four icons depict the life of Jesus on the church's south wall with the same amount devoted to St. Nicholas on the north wall.

A team of painters from Russia led by Alexander Moskalionov worked for nearly three years to complete the cathedral's interior by September 1994 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Orthodoxy in North America.

"It greatly enhanced the worship here," said the Rev. Constantine White, dean of the cathedral since 1999.

Most people who worship at St. Nicholas have converted from other faiths. When a friend encouraged Abayea Pelt to read the New Testament, she began to research the history of Christianity and discovered Orthodoxy.

"I never thought of myself as being a Christian," said Pelt, 30, who studied Islam for five years. Once she made her initial visit to the cathedral, Pelt said, she "truly felt God was present."

Despite the various cultures and ethnic backgrounds in the congregation, Russian influences have been retained through details in the church's architecture and services spoken in Slavonic and Georgian.

"We're trying to minister to as many people as we can," White said.

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