The following is a joint post by Paul Hanna (Epsaltos) and Bishoy Sharobim (Sub-Deacon). Bishoy supplied the content for the article and Paul Hanna assisted with editing the text.
The Sunday service of the Orthodox Church is termed the Divine Liturgy. Liturgy means ‘work of the people’ and so the people participate in the Divine life. Unfortunately, many faithful complain of feeling disconnected with the Liturgy. Certainly in Coptic parishes, one hears more about reading scripture and praying than participating in the Liturgy. Various false attitudes plague those who attend the Liturgies. Some place great importance on a person’s posture to the neglect of inner prayer. Others worship without regard to the body, offering sloppy service.
The Orthodox Church teaches that the Eucharist is the climax or highpoint of the Church cycle. We believe that Orthodox faithful should regain a Liturgical mindset and method. This is for the reclamation of true Liturgy and all the blessings therein. It is vital that Orthodox Christians perform the rites of the Church with physical and spiritual attention. As man is both a spiritual and physical being, what we do physically is important. This post focuses on physical aspects of worship because it is the authors’ experience that these elements are most lacking.
The sign of the Cross
It is customary for Christians to perform the sign of the Cross at various points in Church Services. Many perform the sign of the Cross incorrectly, and many find it nothing more than a habit. This careless attitude degrades the immense meaning and power of the Cross in our lives.
The sign of the Cross very necessarily needs to be performed in a way worthy of its sacredness and holiness. It is impossible that those who perform the sign of the Cross carelessly, quickly, without feeling its effect in their hearts will obtain its grace. And there is great grace to be obtained! If we do it in a mechanical manner, failing to feel anything, it is as if we have not performed the sign of the cross at all!
So important is it to perform the sign of the Cross properly, that the holy hierarch St John Chrysostom rebukes those who do it quickly saying that “The demons rejoice in this frantic waving.”(Abramtsov, 1994) What strong words! Why does he say this? St John is speaking in love because he knows that the immediate grace we can obtain from doing the sign of the Cross properly is exceedingly great. He desires all Christians to experience the grace of the Cross. Hence when we lose this grace, the demons rejoice because are deprived of spiritual enlightenment. By not paying attention to this rite, we give God no chance to work in us.
Practically, how should we perform the sign of the Cross? Above all, it should be done reverently, slowly and consciously; it is a prayer after all. Those are the three essential rules. It is impossible to do it reverently without being mindful and taking the time needed. Furthermore, as we do the sign of the Cross, we may pray in our hearts, saying “Lord have mercy” or repeat the Jesus Prayer. We should do as St John of Kronstadt says “pay steadfast attention to the words of the prayer, feeling them in your heart. Do not withdraw, your mind from them to any other thoughts”(Guii︠a︡ev, 1897). It is amazing that Orthodox converts perform the sign of the Cross more correctly than Cradle Orthodox! One can see this in the local parishes. We should return to our first reverence for the supreme sacredness of the Divine Liturgy.
Reverence in Prayer
It is good to practice bodily rites at home before we enter Church. Some raise a genuine concern that paying great care to physical rites may attract others’ attention and cause temptation. St John Climacus warns “It is not always feasible [to pray outwardly] when other people are present, and this is when the demons particularly like to launch an attack and, because we have not yet the strength of mind to stand up against them and because the hidden power of prayer is not yet within us, we succumb.”(p. 184) Therefore, it is important to practice the rites at home where none may see us (Matt. 6:6). However, this is not an excuse to neglect our prayers in corporate worship.
As humans are physical-spiritual unions, it is important to pray physically many neglect physical rites. We may think that outward forms of worship are unnecessary when we pray, as though God is only concerned for our spirit. But such thinking is actually heretical. Examining the thoughts of St Isaac the Syrian against the heretics of his day, he makes it clear that our outward posture during prayer is essential.
“It is in proportion to the honour which someone shows in his person to God during the time of prayer, both with his body and with the mind, that the door to assistance will be opened for him, leading to the purifying of the impulses’ and to illumination in prayer. (p. 69)
St. Isaac is saying that we receive grace according the reverence we show in our bodily and mental prayers. It is clear that there are correct and incorrect means to pray:
“You should realise, my brethren, that in all our services, God very much wants outward postures, specific kinds of honour, and visible forms of prayer, not for His own sake, but for our benefit. He himself is not profited by such things, nor does He lose anything when they are neglected; rather they are for the sake of our feeble nature. (p. 69)
Humans need bodily forms of prayer. By praying bodily, we pray with our whole person and so have a fuller communication with God. St. John Climacus advises us: “The effort of bodily prayer can help those not yet granted real prayer of the heart”(p. 184). Our age of social media has starved us from communication through body language – how much we ought to realise the importance of paying God reverence with our body! Just as a large portion of communication is bodily, so should we also worship God through bodily reverence.
Although it seems obvious, the Liturgy ought not to be used for idle chatter or for playing on one’s phone. One gains no benefit and even judgement by attending the liturgy laxly. Let us sing heartily and attentively. Let us learn the hymns. Let us pray for the life of the world. Let us listen attentively and contemplate on the readings. Let us fight against all distractions. Let us attend early. Let us embrace God. For the liturgy is the highest point of the Christian life St. John of Kronstadt said:
“There is nothing higher, greater or more holy than the Divine Liturgy, nothing more solemn, more life-giving”
Guii︠a︡ev, E. E. (1897). My Life in Christ: Or Moments of Spiritual Serenity and Contemplation, of Reverent Feeling, of Earnest Self-amendment, and of Peace in God … Extracts from the Diary of the Most Reverend John Iliytch Sergieff (“Father John”): Cassell, limited.
Isaac, & Brock, S. P. (2006). The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh: Gorgias Press.
John, S. (1982). John Climacus (CWS): Paulist Press.
Abramtsov, David F. (1994). The Orthodox Companion: Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.