Tony has asked that I recount my experience, since I too went down to Astoria for the feast. I went on Saturday evening by taking the train from White Plains to GC, the shuttle from GC to Times Square, and the W from there to the last stop. Pretty straightforward. Because my train from White Plains was delayed by about 15-20 minutes for some reason, I was that much late, and so I got to the church twenty minutes after Vespers, which was supposed to start at 7.00pm.
When I got there, the roads were blocked off near the monastery to accomodate the rides, game booths, and food and other vendors. The sound of alarm bells going off during those games where you shoot the duck and win a teddy bear (or whatever, I didn't look too carefully) were pretty loud, and I wondered how a liturgical service could be conducted with all this noise outside.
As I walked up the stairs into the monastery church, a lady pinned a small icon of Saint Irene to my shirt. I am not sure why they did this, but it was OK. I've got the small icon in my wallet now. I looked around in the vestibule, where people were hanging around, lighting candles. It was hot.
I walked into the church on the right side and was first struck by the pews, honestly. I did not expect those in an Old Calendar monastery. I figured that when they went under the EP (I think they used to belong to a schismatic group or old calendar Orthodox group like the TOC), the EP must've made pews a part of the reunion.
Anyway, after I got over the pews, and found a place to stand (the church was packed!), I got to admire the beauty of the church. Dustin writes:Upon entering the Church, we were immediately struck by its beauty. It is immaculately decorated with hanging oil lamps, icons were painted directly on the walls, and a marvelous wood-carved iconostasis was the focal point of the Church.
That is a pretty succinct description. I will not attempt to give another, since I'd just keep talking about this and that and not finish the story. Let me just say that, from their website, I was under the impression that the church was in actuality bigger than it was in reality. But I was VERY impressed with the church, and its dimensions reminded me of some Indian churches back home.
Because the church was so packed, and because people were constantly lighting these HUGE candles before the miraculous icon, it was even hotter inside, and although I stuck it through to the end, there were times I thought about ditching it for the cooler outside.
I was in the church at 7.20pm, and Vespers was already in progress. The Great Litany was done about ten minutes later, if I recall correctly. Since I was under the impression that the only things before this Litany in Byzantine Vespers were the priest's initial blessing and Psalm 103, I figured that they might've just been singing slower than I thought. As the service went on, I remember thinking that I might not be that far off in thinking that they were singing slower or more colourfully (and thus taking up more time). But it was Byzantine chant, sung very beautifully, with no organ. And not a word of English. I didn't understand much, although I could feel my way through the service because I know its basic structure, and know a few of the common (ordinary) parts of the service in Greek if I hear it.
The people in the congregation didn't really sing much during the service, leaving this up to the clergy and the monks (and one older nun who would grab the mic and belt out the music), and my experience in most Eastern Orthodox churches has been along the same lines, so I thought it was relatively normal for them. Because the clergy and monks had microphones (devices I have never seen in EO churches of the Russian tradition), it was loud enough to sorta drown out all the old ladies and others chatting away during the service like there was no tomorrow. I could still hear them, though, and it was somewhat annoying. Also annoying was the sound of the alarm bells going on at those game booths where you shoot the duck and win the teddy bear or whatever they were going off during parts of the service. Singing Kyrie eleison
followed by one of those bells going off is an interesting experience, let me tell you...
But there were parts of the service during which the people did sing in unison. Notably, when the hymn Phos hilaron (Gladsome Light) was intoned, all the people stopped their chatting, stood up, and sang very enthusiastically. It was awesome. I could feel something stirring in my heart as that hymn was sung by all. In my parish, everyone sings, but it doesn't always sound good...when they do sing well, however, I get this same feeling. It was great. During the singing of this hymn, all the bells of the church were rung, a very young-looking nun (she looked like a teenager) was banging the simandron, and monks started swinging all of the oil lamps in the church. I was aware that this was done during the Polyeleos on the Holy Mountain as noted above, and didn't expect it during Vespers, but it was impressive and very moving.
The service basically proceeded as Vespers usually does until the end. When it was over (and it took a while to finish, since there was this one litany where they commemorated all who asked for prayers, and the list of names went on for about twenty minutes--I know, I kept looking at my watch), they had the blessing of apples. Three altar boys (actually men) carried three huge baskets of apples on their heads, with priests and hieromonks following them, and a deacon with a censer, altar boys with the cross and ripidia, and the nun with the simandron preceding them. A hymn was sung during the procession (her troparion?), which went around the church three times. They went through the side aisles, where I happened to be standing, and these were filled to capacity, so I had the nun, the altar boys, the apple-bearers, and the priests all bump into me, sometimes, in the case of the bigger priests, very forcefully. When the procession was over, the apples were laid before the miraculous icon of Saint Irene, where they were blessed by Metropolitan Evangelos (he substituted for Archbishop Iakovos, who I think was supposed to lead this service, but couldn't make it for whatever reason).
After this, the Metropolitan (I think) spoke in Greek for a while. Then, Metropolitan Paisios, who I think is Abbot of the monastery, spoke at length in Greek. He was very animated as Dustin was saying. After him, a hieromonk spoke in Greek for an even longer time about monasticism, I think. During this, I was on line to venerate the icon and relics of Saint Irene, and then my plan was to go out to buy some religious articles and dinner and other things, and finally grab the subways and train to go home. But so many people were pushing against each other to venerate the icon that ushers had to govern the line to make sure it didn't get too rowdy. After about ninety minutes of listening to two Metropolitans and a hieromonk go on and on in a language I didn't know while I was ten feet away from the icon and relics but not at all moving forward even though people were shoving me from behind, I decided I'd have to visit some other day and venerate them, because otherwise I'd be there all night waiting, and I wouldn't catch the trains, and would have to find a way home while starving--so I left, bought some dinner, some religious articles, and left for home.
The feast is definitely something to attend (it's quite the experience), but I can't wait till I go again for a hopefully much less crowded service. Then maybe I can venerate the icon. All in all, everything was great, even if chaotic (I don't think it would've been too Orthodox without a good helping of drama
), and like I said, I hope to visit there soon.