I’ve been asked by someone why it is that I seem to enjoy participating in the Liturgy, and even look forward to it, while my friend finds it more difficult to feel the same motivation. I have been Orthodox for 22 years, and there have been times in my own life when I have been rather absent-minded during the service, or found my mind wandering. Even in my service in the altar as as Reader there were occasions when I was more occupied with fiddling with candles and charcoal than giving the prayers of the Church my undivided attention.
Yet perhaps I have an advantage over some others. I have deliberately and definitely chosen to be and become an Orthodox Christian, and that very decision has not been made easily or been easily worked out in my life. Nevertheless, it is as possible for those who have come to Orthodoxy to find themselves disconnected from what is happening in the Liturgy, just as it is for those born into Orthodox families and brought first to the Liturgy as infants. With that in mind I have a few comments to make about this situation in which perhaps all of us will find ourselves at one time or another in our lives.
It is possible to have entirely the wrong understanding of what the Liturgy represents and why we are there. This is usually rooted in having a wrong idea about the Christian faith. If we believe that God is angry and distant and that we must do things to please him otherwise he will punish us in Hell for eternity, then we are not going to have a positive motivation to attend the Liturgy. Why would we want to commit ourselves to such a God? If we believe that we must do many ‘good’ things to outweigh the ‘bad’ things we do, so that we have a chance of getting to Heaven, then we will also not have a motivation to attend the Liturgy beyond fear of failing to accumulate enough ‘good’ points. And if we attend the Liturgy because we hope that it means God will give us good things in this life, then that might lead us to turn up to Church each Liturgy, but it will hardly make us likely to enjoy the prayers or find much benefit from them.
No, none of these views, common though they are, even among Coptic Orthodox, represent the substance of the Christian Faith, which is Good News, not a business transaction, or magic, or the propitiation of an angry God. If this is the sort of view someone holds then it is not surprising at all that there is no blessing in the Liturgy and no sense of being a willing participant.
Our Christian Faith is in a God who loves us unceasingly. It was in love that he sent his only-begotten Son, God the Word himself, into the world for our salvation. It was in love that the Word of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, manifested the love of the Father in all that he did, and especially in his participating in the death that is our own, so that he might destroy it for us. It is in love that rising from death victorious he invites us to participate in this same resurrection life by the indwelling Holy Spirit whom he pours out upon the world.
Why do I look forward to the Liturgy? It is because God the Word himself will descend upon the altar as the Holy Spirit broods upon the congregation, and I will be offered once again that opportunity to receive Christ, God Himself, so that I might be united more closely and completely with him by the Holy Spirit. It has been said that the whole purpose of the Christian life is to acquire the Holy Spirit, and this is entirely true. The Holy Spirit is not an optional extra for serious and hard-core Orthodox Christians, but the presence of the Holy Spirit within us is the very meaning of what it is to be a Christian.
It is possible to have been baptised and yet not to have a continuing experience of the Christian life in its fulness because this experience depends on the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is possible to be busy with activity and yet not to have a continuing experience of the Christian life in its fulness because this experience depends on the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is possible to have a full social life based on a congregation and yet not to have a continuing experience of the Christian life in its fulness because this experience depends on the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is even possible to wear a tonia, even to be a priest, and yet not to have a continuing experience of the Christian life in its fulness because this experience depends on the presence of the Holy Spirit.
To be a Christian is therefore not primarily to be someone who does certain things and avoids others. It is not primarily someone who practices various religious disciplines. It is not primarily someone who attends Church a lot, and has some responsibility for service and activity. It is possible to do all of these, either with a determined exercise of our own will and strength, or to find ourselves caught up in them almost against our will and with no enjoyment at all. But this does not make us a Christian.
A Christian is someone who has received new life in Christ by baptism and chrismation, and this new life is the Holy Spirit, that indwelling life which Adam and Eve had lost when they sinned, and which is the gift of Christ, in his obedience to the will of God in the incarnation. But a Christian is one who having received this new life then seeks to preserve the gift, and to be more completely transformed and transfigured by the indwelling Spirit who brings about union with God. Indeed, this is what it means to be a Christian. It is to experience in increasing measure a true and mystical union with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit, which is already to experience the life of eternity.
Everything that we do in the Orthodox spiritual life supports this increasing union with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit when properly understood. Our use of the Agpeya, our fasting, our practice of unceasing prayer, our prayerful study of the Scripture, and even our service of others. These are all means by which we experience a greater union with God, by participating in the life of the Holy Spirit, and seeking to be obedient to the will of God in all things.
Therefore when we come to the Liturgy we are already those who are seeking to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and eager to meet with Christ, who promises to descend among us and give himself to us. I do not attend the Liturgy to please God, or to bargain with God, or to propitiate his anger. I attend and participate in the Liturgy to meet God and to be united more closely with him.
Now in the real world there are plenty of reasons why this is not always so straightforward. When we are bound by sinful habits, or when we have bad attitudes towards others in the congregation, even the priest, then these will affect our spirituality. Sin prevents that union with God which is the meaning of the Christian life. If we have such sin in our life then we should not be surprised that we find it hard to participate in the Liturgy. The Liturgy is not a ritual simply performed by men and women, and so spiritually neutral. It is the descent of God himself and the offering of the congregation in holiness, humility and obedience. If we cannot share in this offering of self, and are unprepared for the presence of God, then we will not find it easy to participate in the Liturgy.
But there is also a sense that it requires practice and effort to train the eyes of our spirit to see spiritual things. At the beginning what do we often see? Noisy children? Misbehaving singers? People in the congregation talking, or checking their phones? Out of tune chanting? A priest with a croaky voice? Modern Western pictures on the iconostasis? So many things can distract us and can make it seem that nothing important is happening. Can God be present in such a place?
If he seems absent it is often because the glory of his presence is so bright that we cannot comprehend him and are blinded by our own inadequacy. But this can be overcome if we have faith. In faith we persevere, believing that the one we cannot see is nonetheless present and gives himself to us. And as we find ourselves nourished by his giving of himself we find that he gives grace for us to pray more earnestly and unceasingly, to become more spiritual men and women outside the Liturgy, in the grace of that which we receive at the Liturgy.
And slowly, even though our circumstances may not change, and I have prayed in many different places, and with many different distractions, we discover that Christ is made known to us in the Liturgy, and this is all that matters to us. We come to the Liturgy with a certain joyful expectation because we know that Christ will be present among us, and will give himself to us, and pour out his Holy Spirit to renew us.
I do not expect great emotions to sweep over me. Emotions are a poor measure of what is important. I expect to have to make some effort, to work at paying attention by concentrating on offering that part of the service which is my own responsibility, whether laity, deacon or priest. But when we participate with faith then we find that Christ gives himself to us and we grow in unity with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit. And when we grow in unity we desire this unity more and more, and we find that Christ gives himself even more completely as we give ourselves wholeheartedly.
There are other issues of course. If the worship is conducted in a language we do not understand then this is indeed very difficult. But apart from this, and apart from sin, and apart from having wrong ideas about the Christian life, it is possible for each one to discover the transforming and transfiguring experience of the life of eternity by the indwelling Holy Spirit, when we seek this life with all our heart and mind and strength, and seek the participation in this heavenly Kingdom before and above all else.
If we do not desire God then how will we receive him or come unto union with him? And if we do not desire this unity completely then how will we experience it with any depth or profundity? Yet there is hope even if we do not feel this desire as a motivating energy within us. It is enough to cry out earnestly to God in the beginning to grant that we might find such a desire within us, and he will begin to work out our salvation as if it was the smallest of seeds within the heart. But as soon as we find such a movement of our heart we must unite to it all of the determination we are able to muster so that the seed might take root and flourish.
We expect too much at the Liturgy, wonderful emotions and an easy experience of grace, and also too little, as if it were just a ritual that must be performed to please God. But we do not celebrate the Liturgy to please God, rather we offer ourselves, as best we are able, so that we might receive not just a blessing, but God himself into the closest interior union that increasingly recreates in us that person God wills us to be.
And we offer ourselves best when we are already prepared by the practice of our Orthodox spirituality, and especially through unceasing prayer. This is a virtuous circle. We receive grace and the divine life in the Liturgy and we put this into practice in our spiritual life so that we grow closer to God and more able to receive more of God at the Liturgy. And this greater grace leads to a deeper spirituality, and so on, as far as God wills, and as far as our humble and obedient service allows.
Yes, I do look forward to the Liturgy, but it is because I meet God there, and he gives himself to me, and he pours out His Holy Spirit into my heart. I do look forward to the Liturgy because even in the most humble circumstances there is a mystical transfiguration, not seen by the eyes of the flesh, which increasingly becomes manifest to those who are becoming truly spiritual. When it seems that God is absent it is because I am unable to see clearly, not because God is absent. And if the problem is within my own heart then I can be healed. And in being healed I discover that God was always descending upon the altar for my salvation, and will always do so according to his promise.