In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In this blog post we will be considering worship, the Language of Heaven, especially having in mind the corporate, liturgical worship of the Church as we gather at the Liturgy and when we offer hymns, praises and spiritual songs. And we will consider four myths, or opinions about our worship which I believe are current in the present times.
Why do we worship the way we do?
This is an important question.
I am a convert to the Orthodox Faith. I was born and brought up in a devout and very active Evangelical household. As I grew up I served in many church activities, participated in children’s evangelism and even spent three years at an Evangelical Bible College preparing for service as a Pastor. I have experienced many different forms of worship from the very traditional to the charismatic and pentecostal. Until I discovered the Catholic and then the Orthodox spiritual traditions I had no experience of liturgical worship at all. In fact when as a young man I was leading a service of worship and put the words of the Lord’s Prayer on the overhead projector for us to say together it was the very first time we had prayed that prayer as a congregation. There was a sense that we were doing something forbidden and dangerous. We had been taught and convinced that written prayers could not be sincere, spiritual or pleasing to God.
You can imagine that my exposure to the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of prayer and worship challenged these assumptions. I have had to ask myself many of the questions which those coming fresh to Orthodoxy, as well as those growing up within Orthodox households, find themselves considering. Liturgical worship is subject to a number of myths, false ideas which I had certainly accepted before I even had any experience of the liturgical tradition of the Church.
Myth #1 is that liturgical worship is not sincere. The argument goes something along the lines that if the words we use are not our own then we cannot really mean them and we are more or less being untruthful. We often use set words and texts in a wide variety of other settings. If a couple are being married there are certain words and phrases which must be used and which by their very formality express the importance and the meaning of what is taking place. The minister may well add other words but there are certain things which he must say which make the event a marriage and not some other event. If he omits those words then whatever is intended, it is not a marriage. When the minister says, ‘By the power vested in me by the state of wherever, I now pronounce you husband and wife’, is he not meaning this to be the case?
Likewise, a witness in a court swears ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’, should we assume he is not sincere just because he is using a formal set of words? The use of these formalities makes things absolutely clear. A witness could tell us in his own words that he will do his best to tell the truth but he could end up saying something filled with ambiguity. But this formal sentence leaves no room for confusion. We know exactly what is meant.
Far from diminishing sincerity the use of such written words allows people to clearly express their meaning in a way that their own hesitant and stumbling words in such a situation might not allow. Of course people can indeed be insincere in court, and even get married in Las Vegas under the influence of too much alcohol. But this does not require us to reject the use of written words. Those who are insincere will be insincere under any circumstances. But those who use these written words, and I am extending this to the written texts of our liturgical services, are expected to repeat them with sincerity so that they express clearly what it is that we are doing and to what it is that we are committing ourselves. If I wish to communicate in a language then I must try to repeat the words of those who are fluent, even if they do not come naturally to me. When I make the words of others my own then I am able to communicate, and if I am to worship God then I must learn the language of worship, the language of heaven, the liturgical tradition of the Church, so that I can communicate what my heart wishes to express.
If we use written words we can fool ourselves and others, but it is just as easy to fool ourselves with prayers offered in an extempore manner. Our Lord said of the scribes that they made long prayers but it was just for show. The issue is not whether liturgical prayers can express our sincerely held thoughts and feelings. Of course they can. The issue is always whether we are entering into the prayers and hymns of the Church with such attention and concentration that they are becoming our own prayers and hymns.
The Orthodox Christian spiritual life is one of change and transformation. The prayers and hymns of the corporate worship of the Church are designed intentionally to offer God a mature worship formed by the best and greatest souls, and are a necessary part of our own formation in Christ. We follow their words, with all the effort that this requires, until they become our own words. To do such, with sincerity, is to be transformed into the likeness of Christ and to grow up into a mature faith.
Perhaps it will be accepted that liturgy can be sincere, but there are those who will use Myth #2 and say that it is not Biblical. Now when Zachariah, the father of St John the Baptist, is introduced to us in the Gospel of St Luke, it is as a man ‘who was righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord’. Zachariah was waiting his turn in the liturgical worship of the Temple, and when his name was chosen by lot he entered the holy place and offered prayers and incense at the altar of incense. In the midst of this highly elaborate and liturgical ritual and prayer the angel of the Lord appears to him saying, ‘Your prayer is heard’. In the Acts of the Apostles, after the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostolic community we read of the believers gathering in the Temple and continuing to participate in the liturgical life of the Temple until they were eventually driven out and persecuted by the Jewish religious leaders.
When St Paul writes about the sort of building which by analogy the Christian community is being built into, he chooses to use the image of the Temple. He says that we are the Temple of God, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me to be impossible to think of any temple worship without thinking of some priestly and liturgical activity. In the Book of Revelation, St John, when thinking of the Church in the Age to Come, also uses the same image of the Temple with great and dramatic effect. Indeed much of the description of the worship in the Heavenly Temple seems to be liturgical in character. In Revelation 15 we have a description which says..
And after that I looked, and, behold, the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened: And the seven angels came out of the temple, … clothed in pure and white linen, and having their breasts girded with golden girdles. … And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God, and from his power.
This seems to be a deliberate use of imagery taken from the temple in Jerusalem and applied to the worship of Heaven. The angels are dressed as Jewish priests, and there is a great smoke like incense. There was no need for St John to use this image, but it is what he saw. In heaven, in the world to come, there is a Temple and there is worship fitted for a Temple.
Liturgical worship is found throughout the Scriptures and is taken as a given. This is how people worshipped. All of the experience of the Apostles at the beginning of the Church had been within a context of liturgical worship. Nor was this limited to those Jews who lived in Jerusalem. For those who worshipped in the synagogues wherever Jews were found, a typical service would have consisted of the recitation of the Shema (the confession of faith in the one God), prayers, Scripture readings from the Law and the Prophets, a sermon, and a benediction. This was a liturgical service.
It was natural then that liturgical worship was adopted from the beginning in the Church. The passage of St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians which is still recited in every Apostolic eucharist, says…
That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.
This is considered by scholars to represent words which were already in use at the earliest celebrations of the eucharist or liturgy. Elsewhere in the New Testament we seem to have very early hymns within some of the Pauline letters. And in the Didache, a first century manual of instructions for the earliest believers we already have liturgical practices commanded, such as the praying of the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, and words which were to be said over the bread and the wine. They say..
We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..
This shows us that from the very earliest period of the Church it was always liturgical, and it remained liturgical through all the centuries that followed. Our Lord spoke about his disciples being those who would worship in spirit and in truth, and his disciples, surely following his commands in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, established a church which was liturgical from the beginning. Liturgy is not only a means of expressing with clarity the heartfelt worship of a sincere heart, but it is Biblical and Apostolic. It is how Christian worship was always intended. Liturgical worship is not a matter of taste or fashion, it is part of the very structure of the Church.
Myth #3 suggests that liturgy is not spiritual and that only spontaneous prayers are pleasing to God. This was certainly what I was taught. Spontaneous words came from the heart, it was said, while written down words at best came from the head. I have on occasion decided to spontaneously treat my wife to a meal in a restaurant. Unfortunately it usually happens that the restaurants we visit are filled with people who planned ahead and booked a table. It might appear that my spontaneity is more romantic and thoughtful, but while the less spontaneous couples are enjoying a candlelit dinner, my wife and I have often been left to spontaneously share a meal in McDonalds.
Even those Christian traditions which give great value to spontaneity allow it only a very limited character. Those who insist that only spontaneous prayers can be spiritual, do not insist on spontaneous hymns and songs. Why have hymn books and song books if written down texts are not spiritual. Why do such congregations read the Bible, if the written word is not spiritual? And if the Scriptures are excused from condemnation then how can it be unspiritual to offer the very words of Scripture in prayers and hymns?
In my own experience those godly and serious men who could stand up and speak about a passage of the Bible spontaneously were those who had spent much of their lives preparing for such opportunities. Because they read and studied the Bible so thoroughly they were able to say something of value whenever it was required. If we have not prepared anything in the storehouse of our hearts then we will have nothing to give when it is required. This is a scriptural principle.
The Liturgical services of the Church are that spiritual school which each one of us requires if we are to learn to offer acceptable worship to God. If I asked my bishop, or any of the older and most faithful priests and monks in our Church, to offer prayer they would certainly be able to do so. But every word they prayed would resonate with the years of attentive prayer and study with which they had occupied themselves. They have made the language of worship, the language of heaven, their own.
Spontaneity without preparation produces outcomes without spiritual depth or substance. This is true of any field of activity, not only within Christian spirituality. I cannot just choose to play a wonderful piece of music on the piano. I must put in years of work, submitting to the discipline of studying the works of great composers, following their notation with accuracy and humility. There is no benefit in listening to a person who has made no effort in their musical studies, and if they launch into a piece without learning how the greatest composers constructed their own works then it will be painful and tedious for all those who listen.
A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good. (Matthew 12:35)
How can we expect to spontaneously produce anything spiritual if it has not already been stored as treasure within the heart? I have not yet been so transformed by participation in the liturgy and in the study of Scripture that the words and phrases of my own prayers naturally fall into the patterns of these much greater and more significant texts. I have not yet learned to become fluent in the language of heaven.
This is the difference between that spontaneity which has made no effort, and that sense of things coming naturally which is the fruit of a lifetime of perseverance and application. Liturgical prayer allows us to gain experience in using the best of prayers so that our own spirituality is formed by the words we use as we make them our own. Liturgy reminds us that the spiritual life is one of great effort and application. Our Lord says..
No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
And St Paul says…
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.
Why do we imagine that all of the spiritual life will suddenly become accessible to us without effort? If we are training for an sporting event we will have to spend many months and years running alone in the rain, feeling pain and discomfort, loneliness and frustration. Our first efforts at training may well make us feel like we are completely unable to make any progress. But if we persevere then the training becomes more enjoyable, we become fit, we have the hope of greater progress.
We can’t have it all at once. The Liturgical worship of the Church demands patient endurance of us. If we could have it all at once it would not be worth having. If I want to think of what grace may be given to one who perseveres in learning the language of heaven I think of Pope St Kyrillos, or Pope Shenouda, praying at the altar as men who had endured a lifetime of spiritual training in the liturgical worship of the Church and had been transformed by it. The liturgical prayers are a means and a source of great grace, of the transforming presence of God Himself, but we must make every effort and persevere to the end if we wish to find ourselves standing before God. The precious grace in the worship of the Church is not given without cost, and those who understand its value treat it as the Pearl of Great Price, hidden in a field and not manifest to all, but worth selling all that we have to obtain it.
Myth #4 is that liturgical worship just isn’t suited to modern people. Well surely that depends entirely on what is expected of liturgical worship and of modern people? Physical exercise doesn’t seem suited to modern people, but would we say for that reason that people should be encouraged to eat even more, just because that is what they prefer?
It is relatively easy to fill a place of worship with people if they are only offered what they want. But if they are only given what they want then they will never get their real needs addressed. How do modern people know they don’t like liturgy, and how can we say that on behalf of others? Is it a matter of taste in any case?
In regard to liturgical worship, there are those who already find it beautiful even if they are not Orthodox. I was talking a week ago to an Evangelical Christian friend who has just started attending an Anglican church as well as her own Baptist church. She is finding a depth in the liturgical worship of the Anglican church which she had never experienced in her Baptist congregation. This was my own experience. While I was studying at Bible College to become an Evangelical pastor I started attending the early morning eucharist in the local Anglican church. There was something very spiritually attractive about it which drew me. It was not the excellence of the music, there was no choir and a friend of mine from College and I provided most of the volume in the singing. There was no tea or coffee afterwards. In the Winter the church was very cold and the congregation was small and elderly. But the words of the traditional Anglican liturgy said something to me, and allowed me to say something to God, that none of the spontaneous services I had always attended had done.
I am not convinced that liturgical worship in itself is any obstacle to a properly informed person engaging with our Orthodox Faith. It was not for me, and I have come from the most anti-liturgical background possible. But it does need to be explained, it needs to be appropriate for the stage at which each person finds themselves, and it needs to be generally comprehensible.
Here in the UK we recently celebrated the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. I was very concerned that the service would try to be ‘contemporary’ and ‘relevant’. In fact it was entirely liturgical and was enjoyed by millions of British people who responded to it very positively. I think that there was a widespread sense, even among those not used to liturgy, that it set just the right tone for such a serious event.
What many ordinary people are looking for is a beauty, order and maturity in worship which they do not find elsewhere. If liturgical worship can be offered with comprehension then it does provide something which many modern people are seeking after. People are seeking worship which makes more than a temporary emotional difference, they want a depth and a spiritual reality in worship. The language of heaven belongs to all people, because it is a language that we were created to use. Those who are coming to true faith in Christ will find liturgy a means of grace, if they are given appropriate opportunities to participate in it. A four hour liturgy may be too much for a non- Orthodox to suddenly be faced with, but a simple service of Orthodox Liturgical prayer from the Agpeya, may well awake an appreciation for liturgy, the language of worship and of heaven.
Father Alexander Schmemann says..
The aesthetic element in the liturgy: in liturgical poetry, music and rite is not accidental but essential;
… when deprived of it, liturgy ceases properly to fulfill its very function, which is not simply to communicate ideas about God, but to reveal ‘heaven on earth.’ In our liturgical tradition this aesthetic structure of worship is absolutely essential … beauty is its very content and means of communication ….
What does this mean? It surely means that the liturgical form has a purpose, and that purpose is to impart a sense of heaven in the soul. It must be beautiful, uplifting, transforming and transcendent. To merely reproduce the culture around us is to diminish the meaning and value of our worship. At the time when the church began to adopt and follow secular culture something went wrong and worship began to lose its proper function. The poetry of liturgical worship, the substance of each word and phrase, (and this does mean that translations need to be of the greatest quality possible), the Scriptural character of the prayers and hymns, the constant focus on God rather than on the worshipper, all of these provide the spiritual structure and order which reveals heaven on earth when the Church gathers. Yet it remains a matter of faith. Just as there were those who did not understand that Jesus Christ was God the Word, so there are those who are not able to comprehend the language of heaven which is found in our liturgical worship.
It is liturgical worship which forms our spirituality. If we wish to become Christian then it is by the means of our Orthodox prayers and hymns that we will be transformed. The way we worship expresses something important and not accidental about our spirituality. In my Evangelical background it was very normal for groups of people in a congregation to try to move the worship of the church in a direction they prefered. We formed the congregation in our own image. But the Orthodox Church forms us in the image of Christ. We begin the journey as those who must learn and enter into a spiritual apprenticeship. The liturgical content of our corporate worship is one aspect of this apprenticeship and it teaches us that to a great extent we have not yet learned to worship God.
When we begin to learn a language it is by the repetition of simple phrases. I am trying to learn Romanian at the moment and I can offer greetings, and bless people, and even ask for a coffee. But I am only repeating what I have heard others say. And so it is with our worship. We begin by repeating the words of others and our understanding and practice of a language is formed by such repetition. Slowly, we are able to get our lips around the unique sounds which belong to each language. But we have a very clear sense that we are the ones who are learning, and we must follow the instruction we receive with attention and accuracy. How can we imagine that it is different in the spiritual life? How can we imagine that we are the ones who should be teaching others and directing the worship of the Church? When we are fluent in the language of heaven then perhaps we will have something to say, but for now we must appreciate with gratitude and humility that we have come to learn how to worship, and when it is hardest we must remind ourselves that it is we ourselves who still have much to learn. Yet it is not all hardship, and as we become proficient in worship by God’s grace, filled with attention, thankfulness and praise, then there is the prospect and possibility of great joy in God’s presence.
During such worship we sometimes find our minds wandering, we become tired and even bored. We discover that our spiritual eyes are not as clear-sighted as we imagined. Indeed even at the moment when we believe that God descends in His grace and power upon the congregation we may find that we are unable to have any sense of His presence at all. This is not the time for us to fall back upon our own failing understanding. With faith we must believe that the Tradition of the Church, formed by the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ, will lead us to a place where we have spiritual life, health and understanding in much greater abundance than we might experience now. We need to persevere. We need to offer the worship that is due to God whatever our feelings, and it is liturgical and corporate worship which allows us to do this.
It is a mistake to imagine that only people in our own times have struggled with the nature of Orthodox worship. St John Chrysostom says in one of his sermons…
Prayers are going on, and yet some of you are unconcerned. A sleepy indifference and even boredom possesses you. You daydream and your eyes and attention roam all over the place. Some gossip and even indulge in slander and mockery, thereby desecrating the Lord’s House. … Is the Liturgy nothing but a theatrical amusement? Therefore, I solemnly beseech you: Refrain from your wicked conduct. Be attentive to Holy Things. Show devotion and reverence to your Lord!
The response to such a lack of concentration in worship was never to abandon the liturgical traditions of the Church and turn to secular culture. This was always a possibility. There were groups outside the Church who wrote hymns using the current tunes of songs sung in the taverns. But the Church rejected such an approach. Liturgy is not meant to entertain. Liturgy is not meant to be emotional, though it engages the emotions. Liturgy is not meant to be easily digested, but to stretch and exercise the spirit. It is the sacrifice of Abel, who offered the best he had, rather than that of Cain, who offered only what was closest at hand.
Father Matthew the Poor says…
The liturgy of communal prayer and praise in church is able to stir the soul of man into a recognition of his heavenly homeland, to increase his awareness of eternity and his sense of divine things, and to change and renew his thinking.[…] Thus, hymns of praise and supplication prepare us inwardly and without our consciousness to take part in the communal fellowship with God in the mystery of the Eucharist.
He says clearly that much of our participation in the liturgical life of the Church happens inwardly and without our noticing. Indeed what we do notice at first is the struggle to pay attention, the sense of frustration and even boredom, the absence of a sense of God’s presence, all of the things that tempt us to abandon the journey. But if we persevere we have the hope and expectation that as our spiritual muscles grow stronger we are able more and more perfectly to enter into the liturgy of communal prayer and become aware of divine things, having our thinking changed and renewed.
It is communal prayer which forms us in Christ, and forms us all into the Body of Christ. That we are praying the same words with attention matters. When the Deacon says, ‘Let us attend’, it is significant that we are all of us called to be attentive to the worship at hand together. We are not engaged in private acts of devotion but gathered together, participating in the same words, with the same intentions, and making the same effort of patient perseverance, we are always becoming that which we are not yet but hope to become by the Grace of God.
The liturgical language of heaven is the best that we have to offer, and draws the best out of us, forming us into the image of Christ, if we attend to the worship of the Church as if each word and phrase was our own. It is how the Church worshipped in the beginning and has always worshipped. It is rooted in the language and content of the Scriptures, it looks forward to heaven. It is a spiritual poetry that lifts the soul towards God and expresses the desire of our heart towards God when we are unable to find the words. The challenge is never to replace the spiritual ascesis of the liturgy, but to encourage all to embrace the effort more completely.
To the Glory of God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.