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Images of faith and beauty

Father Matthew Tate describes the mysteries of his faith and the history of his church in this special, extended web-edition of this week's feature
by: patrick sherman, Father Matthew Tate, senior priest and rector of the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Milwaukie, discusses how he was "drawn" to the Orthodox faith.

To enter the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, near the Milwaukie Center, is to encounter a different world.

There are icons aplenty, and if Father Matthew Tate, the senior priest and rector, is there, he will open up the doors to the altar, and happily explain the symbolism of each eye-catching piece.

The altar itself is shaped like a box, which is similar in shape 'to a coffin used in the Middle East,' Tate said, adding that the coffins in the Middle East are smaller than those used other places, because of a 'lack of space' in those countries.

There are two brilliant, shiny gold fans flanking the central cross; Tate said he finally understood their practical use when he spent a couple of months in Africa.

'They use the fans to keep the bugs off the chalice and the bread in third-world countries,' he explained.

Then there is the central tabernacle with the gospel book in front, and what Tate called a 'blessing cross' from Russia. It is three-barred and represents the crucifix, which was used 'to inflict the most profound pain,' Tate noted.

Finally, there is the processional cross, containing the 'image of Christ glorified.'

There are two 'holy doors' or 'deacon's doors' on either side of the altar, with representations of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Icons depict life of Mary, Jesus and saints

But above all, there are the icons.

An important icon on one side of the altar 'always tells you what church you're in,' Tate said, pointing out that in his church there is an icon of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was going to be the mother of Jesus.

What this particular icon celebrates, Tate noted, is that Mary said, 'Yes, I'll do it.'

On the other side of the altar is an icon of St. John the Baptist, complete with wings, because 'he lived the angelic life.'

Other icons that flank the altar include one that depicts Christ's first coming, and one that depicts his second coming.

In describing many of the icons, Tate said that Christ is always depicted as 'fully God, but fully man'; even when Christ was an infant, 'he always knew he was God.'

Tate also said that many icons show the 'incredible depth and sadness of the understanding of the human condition' and this 'is in the eyes - it's all about the eyes.'

There are even icons of two more recent important religious figures, Archbishop John of San Francisco, who died in 1989, and St. Herman of Alaska, who lived as a monk and died in 1836, Tate noted.

Easter a time of 'effervescence'

Easter is in four days, on April 8, and Tate said that this is a good time to visit the church, if people want to see 'orthodoxy explode.'

Normally services are in English, with a 'little Slovenian,' Tate explained, but at 'Easter there are lots of languages, because we recognize the universality of the church.'

He noted that the congregation is about 70 percent American converts and 30 percent people from Eastern Europe.

At Easter there is an all-night vigil, beginning Saturday at midnight with Matins and the Divine Liturgy.

Tate added, 'We'll be done by about 3 a.m., and then we'll go to the Fellowship Hall and have a feast. It's a time of effervescence.'

Although Easter is a special time, in general, when people come into the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, Tate said, 'the response is 'This is so beautiful and peaceful.''

He added, 'Those who have religious backgrounds say they can really feel the presence of God.'

SPECIAL FEATURE: Meet the Father

Father Matthew Tate said he was 'drawn to the Orthodox clergy,' when he was working as a chaplain in a children's hospital in British Columbia in 1980.

'We had a 5-yer-old girl with leukemia, and we knew it was going to be a rough death. Then I saw an Orthodox priest walk into the room and the feeling was, 'Here's someone who could help,'' Tate said.

He added that he watched as the priest went through the rituals of lighting candles and anointing.

'Everyone prayed together - compared to my method, it seemed more natural. There was something being accomplished by ancient ritual,' he added.

Tate then began to talk to other priests, who directed him to books about the Orthodox faith, and 'within five books I was sold,' he said.

For Tate, it was all about the history.

'This was a church going back to the apostles - there were so many writings from the first, second and third century of the church, and we are still reading this,' he explained.

It wasn't easy for him at the beginning, when he first visited an Orthodox church and no English was spoken.

A friend told him to try a different church, and then Tate began the process to become an Orthodox priest.

He said that he'd already had a 'fair bit of seminary' training, and then 'took courses at Mt. Angel' that culminated in getting his own congregation in 1988.

He met with them in Northwest Portland, before moving to the present site of the church on Rusk Road.

SPECIAL FEATURE: The history of the building

Father Matthew Tate, the senior priest and rector of the Church of the Annunciation, noted that the building that houses his Eastern Orthodox church near the Milwaukie Center is a part of 'old Milwaukie history.'

The large structure, which is made from wooden logs, used to be called the Crystal Lake Cathedral, Tate said, adding that it was formerly located near the juncture of Highway 99 and 224.

'It used to be in the center, where the Crystal Lake Apartments are now,' he said.

He said that about 22 years ago, he and his wife were driving to Estacada.

'We came up on 224 and we looked over and saw this log church all covered with snow. I thought, 'What a beautiful Anglican church,'' Tate explained.

'Then I saw a for sale sign, and it said sale pending. A year later, I was driving by again and saw another real estate sign and it said sale pending,' he continued.

This time he called the real estate company and found out that the building was slated to be part of a 'learn and burn,' where the firefighters train by putting out the fire.

Tate said he realized that he'd 'love to have that church,' so he began making exploratory phone calls.

He called a friend who was an architect, he called a moving company that specialized in moving houses to ask if they could move a church and then he called a CPA to find out if the real estate company gave the church to his congregation, would the company get a tax credit.

Things eventually came together, and the church was moved from the Crystal Lake area to a storage facility near Milwaukie Market Place that was owned by the Schnitzer family.

'They allowed us to 'park' the church there, while we found a place,' Tate said.

There were times when he was unsure that he had made the right decision to acquire the church, Tate said, adding that once he thought, 'This is going to be a nightmare.'

And in fact, it was complicated moving the church.

'They had to remove four things in order to move it - they took the steeple off, they took a wing off. All the utilities and all the stoplights had to come down' on the route the movers used to transport the church from one spot to another.

Finally, in 1988, the church was moved to its current site on Rusk Road, which Tate said they were 'fortunate to find.'

He noted that most of his congregation moved with him to the new church, although some stayed behind at the former site in Northwest Portland.

He added, 'One of my favorite memories occurred in an open field the first day it moved here. It was up on railroad ties in the late afternoon, and an owl came flying through. You could tell it had flown through this spot hundreds of times.

'Then all of a sudden it went straight up, and you could almost hear it saying, 'Where did this come from?''

SPECIAL FEATURE: Three interesting things about the Church of the Annunciation

ONE: The church and the priest face East.

An Orthodox church is very 'God oriented,' said Father Matthew Tate, the senior priest and rector of the Church of the Annunciation.

He clarified this by adding that the church is 'oriented facing the east and the priest has his back to [the congregation] facing the altar.'

He added, 'In an Orthodox church, we worship the same way as the time of the apostles, use the same liturgy as the time of the apostles and use the same service as it was done in the 4th century - we don't contemporize.

'We're not supposed to change worship, worship is supposed to change us. It is incredibly deep, sober, beautiful and fulfilling. If people are not used to worshipping that way, it feels foreign to them.'

TWO: Most worshippers stand throughout the service

'Orthodoxy is truly Judeo-Christian,' Tate said, as he began to explain why his parishioners stand during services.

The way the apostles worshipped was 'structured along the same lines of the Jewish service,' he said, adding that his church 'comes from a temple and synagogue context.'

Tate said, 'A pious Jew stands before a living God - that was the way of early Christianity. There are pews here for older people, but [most] prefer to stand. For us, worship is something to participate in - people are singing, responding - they are involved. It's a very participatory worship service.'

THREE: There is a sense of beauty and symmetry

You can go into any Orthodox church, and 'see the same basic set-up,' Tate said.

'When the [altar] doors are open, when the whole thing is happening, [there is something] 'incredibly enveloping going on,' he noted.

An Orthodox service involves all the senses, he further explained.

Tate added, 'Bells are ringing, incense is burning, there is the sound of a cappella liturgical music - there is always something to look at, touch and smell. There is a beauty and a richness.

'God is beauty - true worship will always be beautiful.'