For the most part I grew up in Brooklyn and I was an altar boy at two of its churches: Holy Cross and Kimisis. Kimisis was the older church on 18th Street and the one that most of my relatives attended before Holy Cross was built further uptown.
I would take the bus Sunday morning in my stiff Sunday suit and skinny tie and make the trip to the church to join the other boys in their stiff Sunday suits and skinny ties in the small anteroom next to the altar, where we giggled and shoved and acted like kids talking about important things to us like wrestling on TV (Bruno Sammartino was king in those days) and how the Knicks were doing (the Knicks of Frazier and Bradley and Willis Reed).
And then it was showtime: we would don our robes and become solemn little altar boys with parts in our hair and skinny ties showing over the collars of our robes and our eyes always staring forward. The hard part was staring forward at each other the whole time in the altar while the priest performed the rites and muttered the prayers. One time I couldn’t contain myself and started giggling at the altar boy opposite me and the priest had me kneel in the corner of the altar and stare at the wall for practically the whole mass—till my knees ached and creaked.
I spent many nights at Kimisis during Holy Week herding the self-conscious masses that worshipped overtime for Easter and I loved the procession outside under the stars when the whole world was suddenly Greek Orthodox and the voice of the chanters and the priest drowned out the usual traffic.
I became an altar boy at Holy Cross when the church was still whitewashed walls and most of the icons hadn’t been painted yet—except for the mural of a dour Christ under the dome. I remember going nights for prayer and instruction and spending time with friends. Night at church seemed to be something special and mystical, which is why Holy Week seemed to have a special mystery, particularly the singing of the hymns in communion with all the other souls in the church that evening: it seemed a primitive and profoundly moving experience—what the early Christians might have experienced.
I stopped going to church as I got older, but I missed it and missed the rituals of Holy Week, and one night I went to Holy Cross by myself on Holy Tuesday, when the crowds had not yet massed for the big finale of the week. The church was nearly empty, just me and a few yiayiades, and I sat and stared up at the dome and the mural of Christ, dour and gesturing his blessing as always. I was a teenager and had the usual distress, but the calm of the church, the lull of the hymns, and the moments it afforded me of quiet reflection acted like a balm to my soul.
I left the church that night with my ears buzzing with the holy hymns and my teenage angst subdued and uplifted.