”THE DIVINE SERVICES OF THE CHURCH are words in which we converse and speak to God with our worship and with our love. The hours spent closest to Paradise are the hours spent in the church together with all our brethren when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, when we sing and when we receive Holy Communion. [However] whatever you do under compulsion and whatever causes your soul to kick instinctively and protest, causes you harm.” (St. Porphyrios the Athonite Elder, Wounded by Love, p. 165)
Man’s inborn instinct has always been to worship, to transcend his own existence in the hopes of connecting meaningfully and influentially with a higher divine power. The annals of archaeological history have rendered magnificent religious edifices as proof of this innate need to honor one’s God or gods. In Orthodox Christian theology, this instinct rests in man’s creation in God’s very image and likeness; we imitate the Lord in His communicative and interpersonal nature. The transcendent and omnipotent God condescends to the lowliness of our fallen human nature out of pure love and mercy, to reestablish an implied tender relationship with humanity that He initiated from the beginning. Worship simply gives us a venue to be with God and one another as a family and to interact — nothing more, nothing less.
The words of St. Porphyrios above resonate with the genuine joyfulness that naturally comes when worship is done properly. By “properly”, I do not mean a strict adherence to the rubrics of a service but the disposition of the mind and heart before one enters church, where the activity of liturgical prayer takes place. The elder makes an observation very characteristic of his other teachings, namely, that when prayer is forced or mechanical, it is stripped of its efficacy and joy and so has the potential to become harmful to the soul. Cynicism, hatred, and depression are all possible results that can stem from compulsory prayer that is not rooted in freedom. “Pressure causes a person not only to react negatively against the Church, but not to want the Church at all … it’s not beneficial; it’s not spiritually edifying” (p. 166). Under duress from the outside or from within one’s own heart, when prayer in church is done “as a chore, the pressure builds up inside you until it bursts out in some evil” (p. 166). In this manner, the evil one works cunningly to turn a blessed act that should help us into a catalyst for our personal destruction — and all because of our wrong disposition.
With the Great Fast at our doorsteps this month, the number of liturgical services in church will be manifold. Will we make the effort to attend as many of them as we can? Even more importantly, will we joyfully participate in them? With what disposition of mind and spirit will we enter the temple of God? The Psalmist exulted in his heart with the words: “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Psalm 84:2). This sublime instant of realization, of spiritual connectedness with God, is possible at any moment in our life, throughout the day or night. The prophet Isaiah prays: “My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you” (Isaiah 26:9). But in order to arrive at this grace-filled moment, it is our positive disposition that is required of us. Our attitude will either admit us to the sublime bliss of spiritual union with God or dismiss us completely from it.
Do we long for fellowship with God as much as we long for other people or things we label important in our lives? Or is the liturgical worship of God simply another “ho-hum” moment, a forced activity done out of guilt or habit, an empty mechanical task that we compartmentalize like all the other tasks during our work week, which has no bearing whatsoever on the course of our day? Approaching God with the right attitude is an investment. Like monetary investments, the more we put in, the greater the dividends. The more we open our hearts up to God and bare our inner concerns and fears to Him — the more we become vulnerable before His tender love — the greater will His grace be toward us and those for whom we pray.
Man’s fall from God’s grace, as recorded in the Old Testament Book of Genesis, has been the central theme of many theological works and conferences over the course of the last few centuries, not to mention the history of Christianity. I will submit that all of the traditional reasons given for the Fall — pride and disobedience — are firmly grounded in something else, something far worse than these two aforementioned vices. What can be worse than pride and disobedience? What can be the cause of pride and disobedience? Disinterestedness. Spiritual lethargy, an “attitude problem” in which one’s drive to seek God is eclipsed because of life’s distractions or simply a giving up on life. In this condition, man enters a despondency in which he seeks neither God nor the devil nor anyone nor anything … he loses all focus and drive for life. This is nothing but a perpetual state of depression, self-imposed, tragic — very possible to attain but also very possible to avoid, so long as we will it.
I am vividly reminded of the disturbing scene from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, in which Satan is depicted at the lowest level of hell, mouth opened and lackadaisically receiving the souls of the damned. He “exists” in a mechanical state of meaninglessness and self-torture, cut off not only from God and from his own minions, but also from his very self!
Man has forgotten how to love himself properly in genuine relationship with God. He has replaced this healthy self-love with a distorted, egotistical self-adoration, which is expressed in very harmful and repulsive ways. He has lost his true connection with himself because he has lost his sincere drive for God, to live in communion and fellowship with Him. Man was created as a relational being; any attempt to the contrary, that is, for man to ostracize himself from God and man, goes completely against his fundamental nature. And this is precisely why liturgical worship is critical to our wellbeing, precisely because it brings us back to our true selves. And when we seek God with our whole being, we seek to repair our fragmented selves, to reverse the ramifications of sin by reentering the only relationship that admits us to the arena of non-death, to the paradise St. Porphyrios speaks about, where there is only abundant life and sanctifying grace.
My dear people, you have heard me say on occasion that Holy Lent is the mode of life that we should live as Orthodox Christians not just during this prescribed period of the year but throughout our lives. During Lent, we fast intensely, we pray intensely, we worship intensely, and we love our fellow man intensely through acts of charity. Whatever we do, we do with our whole being, and the reward of pleasing God and dispensing grace are obvious. But why only during Lent and not every day of the year? Why stop on Holy Saturday night, just before the celebration of the feast of feasts? Every day should be Lent and every day should be Pascha. And every day should be a celebration of responsibly returning to ourselves (cf. Luke 15:17), like the Prodigal Son, of affirming our inherent value in communion with the Lord our God.
The key to unlocking God’s heart, or rather our own heart to invite God’s grace, lies within us. During the Great Fast, let us not only burn our oil lamps at home, following traditions that we may not readily give attention to, but let us kindle the fire in our hearts to desire God with all our being, freely and joyfully. Our Lord Himself taught that “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). Let us live the intensity of our faith in God, not mechanically but meaningfully but with deep love and understanding, that we may intensify our efforts to win our true selves back … and so experience Pascha like never before. Amen. (+)
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