Ancient Christian Prayer, Beyond “Christian Yoga”: Part 2

Ancient Christian Prayer, Beyond “Christian Yoga”: Part 2

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Both yoga and prayer can be spiritual and physical disciplines, but prayer is more than what I can do with my body and in my mind. Prayer centers me in Jesus Christ by the effort I make to say His name, acknowledge His presence, and believe that He is God of my life. This prayerful effort is work, and it changes me from the inside out. My attitude concerning myself, God, and all others changes when I pray. Yoga and other secular meditation practices can strengthen the body, and the mind benefits from self-control and calming of one’s thoughts. While such activities are quite helpful for holistic health, a relationship with God distinguishes prayer from other sorts of meditation practices by the essential goal of salvation. Prayer is good for the body and mind, and it profits the soul. By prayer one is saved. As St. John of Kronstadt says:

“A man becomes spiritual insofar as he lives a spiritual life. He begins to see God in all things, to see His power and might in every manifestation. Always and everywhere he sees himself abiding in God and dependent on God for all things. But insofar as a man lives a bodily life, and he lives for doing bodily things, he doesn’t see God in anything, even in the most wondrous manifestations of His Divine power. In all things, he sees body, material, everywhere and always.”

Embracing the Experience

Throughout the ages, prayer has been a physical experience in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church. This primary prayer service is two-part: the Liturgy of the Word, including the reading of Scripture, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in which the gifts of bread and wine are offered and consecrated to Christ. In this second part of the service, the faithful partake of the bread and wine in a sacramental experience of Holy Communion. Before the Divine Liturgy begins, the priest blesses five loaves of bread in a service called the Prothesis. These loaves of bread symbolize the five loaves in the wilderness from which Christ fed the masses. The priest cuts out a square of bread called the Lamb from the main loaf (prosphora). It is this portion that is consecrated during Liturgy as the Holy Body of Christ. The priest also removes small particles and places them on a plate in commemoration of the Theotokos, various saints, and the living and departed faithful. The leftover bread (antidoron) is blessed and distributed to all people after Liturgy. The priest also blesses the wine and water and pours them into the chalice, to which he will add warm water after the Holy Spirit is called down to “make us and these gifts truly the body and the blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

This is all a holy mystery, but it is effected through the priest’s hands and the parishioners’ and priest’s prayers. I held my infant before the chalice, carefully keeping her reaching arms against her chest with my arm across her. She opened her mouth and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ was given to the handmaiden of God, “Tatyana.” Unexpectedly, my precious, holy daughter spat out Communion. In shock, my free hand caught the fallen Element, as I mumbled to Father, “I got It.” I held my baby in my arms, protected her from loss, and helped her accept God. She was not to blame. In our mutual effort together at the chalice of Christ, we were saving our souls: mother holding babe, Father holding the Gifts, the Saints and angels protecting and helping us to hold on to the spiritual reality of the Divine Liturgy. Without all working integrally together, we could not commune. Without the synergistic efforts of our mutual cooperation in Jesus Christ, the experience was a fail. Only in love and togetherness can we be saved.

I gave a bit back to her and licked my finger, feeling confused by the spiritual and physical reality of the Eucharist. It is easy to think only in terms of the physical and to miss the spiritual dimension of life. How hard it can be, even when at the chalice of the Lord, to realize that becoming holy requires faith in the mystery of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. I open my mouth, accept the gift, and close my lips to seal the hole from which I can lose my life. This is why we sing, “In faith and love, draw near,” because without a ready, willing, and aware countenance, I may expel God from myself.

Communing with the Divine

The Divine Liturgy is more than a church service that includes soothing music and deep meditative prayer. It is an experience of entering into the Divine, even while here on earth. In the first part of the Liturgy, the priest exclaims: “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.” After this Rite of Entrance, the Great Litany begins with prayers for the world: peace and salvation, the Church, her bishops, her faithful, captives and their health and salvation, and deliverance from anger and need. It is concluded, as with most litanies, with remembrance of the Theotokos and the Saints. In light of that powerful witness, the faithful are charged to commend their lives to our Lord Jesus Christ. There is a cycle of three prayers and then the “Little Entrance” where we sing: “O Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ. O Son of God… save us who sing to Thee: Alleluia!” At this point, the people have entered the church and gathered around the Word, and common prayers are chanted.

The next portion of the service is understood as rites of proclamation, and Scripture is announced with a psalm and responsive singing. Then, a reader proclaims the epistle or the Acts of the Apostles. The reader’s voice is low until the end of the reading when it rises, symbolizing how the early Church rose up from catacombs, the place where the first martyrs were buried. The people sing alleluia and the Gospel is read next. After this, the priest gives a homily, which is a brief reflection on the particular commemorations for the day. Afterwards, there are prayers of supplication and responses of “Lord, have mercy.” At the end of this part of the service, the catechumens are prayed for and the people remember the Great Commission to go into the world with the good news of Christ.

Celebrating the Mystery

The Liturgy of the Faithful opens with the great entrance and the cherubic hymn, or a song of the angels. The priest may then make a procession with the bread and wine, before calling down the Holy Spirit to mystically make it the Body and Blood of Christ. My priest said placing the Elements on the altar reminds him that our lives are laid on the altar as a sacrifice to God. At this point, the Church professes its common faith by reciting the Creed. The liturgical name for this creed is the “Symbol of Faith,” indicating its importance to early Christians in determining the orthodoxy of persons claiming to be of the Church. Following the Creed, the priest begins the anaphora, the great Eucharistic prayer over the gifts, so called because of the initial phrase: “Let us lift up our hearts.” The people, led by the prayers of the priest, recall the history of the fall and redemption and invoke the Holy Spirit.

Having invoked the Holy Spirit and consecrated the gifts, the priest commemorates the Saints, beginning with the Theotokos. At this point, the assembled faithful chant the ancient hymn in honor of the Virgin, “It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim, beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God, the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you.” After consecrating the gifts, commemorating the saints, and praying for the local bishop, the priest lifts up the consecrated gifts, exclaiming, “The holy things are for the holy!” To which the faithful respond, “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father, amen.”

True Unity

The Divine Liturgy is full of body and spirit unity, beginning with the central notion that Christians partake of the Body and Blood of Christ through a mystical reality. The body prays by bowing, censing incense throughout the sanctuary, and revering icons of the Saints. The Saints that have passed on are invisibly and spiritually among those present. Prayer from the mouth is meditation from the heart, without distinction between the body and spirit. As the faithful partake of Holy Communion, people sing the hymn, “O taste and see how good the Lord is.”

As the Lord is taken into one’s own body, this goodness is both physical (we’ve been fasting and the bread and wine is literally good) and spiritual. I keep the Eucharist in my mouth and stand before the icon of the Theotokos, praying without words, my heart begging for her help. There is a pause before entering back into community when I have “mystically stepped out.” Sometimes I feel nothing. Sometimes I feel something. The act is good and helps me believe. Faith, and the prayer that develops with faith, is completely physical, and it is completely spiritual. Prayer merges my life with God’s, and all others who also will for Him.

To read “Ancient Christian Prayer, Beyond ‘Christian Yoga’: Part I”, click here.

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About author
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Lea Povozhaev

Lea Povozhaev earned a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Kent State University in 2014 and an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Akron in 2007. She spent a semester abroad in Russia studying at Nizhni Novgorod State University in 1999, where she was first introduced to Orthodox Christianity. Lea teaches writing part-time as she focuses on writing and presenting her current research on wholeness of body and soul. Two of her recent works reflect the culmination of her writing pursuits as a creative non-fiction writer who believes in merging reflection on one's personal life with current social events. She recently (June 3, 2016) had an interview with Ancient Faith Radio on her memoir: check it out! Lea aims to continue writing, researching, and presenting and invites inquiries from the audience to share her work ranging from academic (Medical Rhetoric—arguments in current health care and their implications for those who value the sanctity of life), creative and personal (focusing on family life and Orthodoxy). She lives in Ohio with her husband and their five children. Read more about Lea and her work here.