Paths (Part 49: The Divine Liturgy)

It seems to me that the spiritual life, when lived seriously, requires effort on our part. As St. Paul writes in Philippians, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. Then also, that we don’t work alone in this endeavor, as he goes on to write, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” So it is, God’s work in us which enables us to act in obedience to His will, and to find sanctification through our work; but we should fear, lest we fall into complacency, and lose sight of our role in this glorious work. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic, The Cost of Discipleship, it is easy for those of us who recognize and rely on the love and mercy of our heavenly Father, to cheapen His grace by failing to fulfill our part in our own salvation, and to thereby grow nonchalant towards this amazing grace, and lose the gift, but gain the curse. We don’t want the gift of that pearl of great price, as our Lord describes the Kingdom of Heaven, for which we are to sell everything in order to acquire, to instead become the pearls which are cast before swine; having instead transformed ourselves into unworthy and unholy dogs, unfit for the gifts of God’s grace, because of our own lack of interest, and our disregard for holiness.

Sensing my own tendency towards lukewarmness of faith, my own hardened heart, and the ease with which I can become distracted, I have ever been interested in, and mindful of, a life of discipline. It was in the life and tradition of the Orthodox Church, that I found renewed support, encouragement and guidance in this life of spiritual discipline. Up until this time, since my time in the community with MD, I had by and large worked on this aspect of my faith alone, apart from the church body, mainly because the Christian tradition I had known, from my experience, seemed to lack depth and breadth of understanding about the spiritual life, or lacked the interest to pursue it. Since becoming a Christian it has been clear, if I am honest with myself, that I need a life of discipline, if I hope to follow the commandments of Christ, which He has said, is the true and accurate measure of our love for Him.

The Orthodox Church supports the disciple of Christ, and guides him or her ever deeper into relationship with Christ our Lord; it does this through manifold means, all interconnected and assisting the believer in their life transformation into holiness. In Orthodoxy, scripture is not isolated from the historical traditions of the life of the church, or from the life of its apostles and saints throughout the ages, but instead is informed and elucidated by these, so that the disciple can learn and understand the meaning of scripture, and find its application from within this tradition, thereby avoiding heresy, misunderstanding and confusion. In concert with holy scripture and tradition are the ascetic disciplines which are rightly understood by the church, and hold a prominent position in the life of the church through regular fasting, vigils, prayer and spiritual reading; all of which are exercised judiciously to assist each believer in gaining the upper hand against their vices, and to make strides towards holiness; towards theosis, or union with God. Because, Christ assures us that if we make ourselves holy, perfect and whole, that He will make His home within us.

Added to these things, the Orthodox Church also provides a means of living out our lives in participation with the life of the Lord. The liturgical calendar takes us first-hand through the life of our Lord, deepening our understanding of Him through this experience, and revealing our purpose before God, as well as introducing us to the lives of those saints who have gone before us, who can give us encouragement and inspiration on our own path to sainthood. And then there is the Liturgy itself, the weekly celebration of our God, the central work of the church in joining us to our Lord, in bringing heaven to earth and earth to heaven, in praising the Lord, and in thanksgiving for His life, His sacrifice, and the magnificent gift He offers of eternal life with Him.

All of these things, and many more besides, act upon us little by little, time after time, year after year, changing us imperceptibly at first but then slowly revealing an unmistakable transformation in us, to the degree that God is working within us, and the degree that we are working with Him.

I am like a rocky cliff, barren and hardened. These ministrations of the church, as given by the grace of God, are like a holy waterfall. They begin to flow over me, across my hardened façade, and over time, through repetition, they begin to soften me, change me, and dissolve me into that vast stream of love that is the life of Jesus Christ. This is the beauty and the mystery of the Orthodox way.

The Divine Liturgy exemplifies this beauty and this mystery. There is nothing else like it in the world; and it provides the antidote to the emptiness, fatigue and decay found in the world. It doesn’t try to be like the world; instead, the Divine Liturgy brings us into the throne room of God. The Divine Liturgy was famously described by ambassadors of Prince Vladimir, back in the tenth century, who had been sent to experience the beliefs and practices of the faiths in neighboring lands, and to report back to him what they learned. They said of the liturgy:

“And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.”

I had a similar feeling upon participating in the Divine Liturgy. It can carry one outside of themselves, in a sense, and into a heavenly realm, if one allows this to happen. Step by step we leave the world behind, beginning with our entrance into the sanctuary, where we are met by the transcendent beauty of the worship space itself: the warm light of glowing candles shining from their stands beside the icon stands, the equally mesmerizing glow of the oil lamps which light the faces surrounding us, icons of the holy ones, showing us the way to Christ, the intricate and ornately embroidered vestments of the priests, and those who serve with them, the central dome with its icon of Jesus, giving us a real tangible sense of heaven descending, to sanctify us and the earth, to redeem our world and bring it back into His fold.

The Divine Liturgy presents us with a relationship, not just a knowing about God, but a participation in His life, and like any relationship it is tangible, and consists of more than just ideas; it is rather an experience of God, through all our senses. First we see the beauty of the place in which we worship Him, and then we smell the incense, as it coils upwards in communion with our prayers, made in faith, and finally we hear the sounds of heavenly music. It is said that the Divine Liturgy is almost exclusively based on scripture and that each element, or nearly, can be traced to specific scriptural references; and it is also true that the majority of it is sung, or chanted in a manner of singing.

Perhaps there is no other gift that God has given us, other than music, which can reach into our hearts so deeply and then transport us so completely. Music is universal in its power and appeal, and different types of music take us to different places. Many find that the music of the Divine Liturgy takes them, in a sense, to heaven. Many of the hymns were originally written as long ago as the first few centuries of the Christian church and are still part of the Liturgy today and are still being sung every week, just as they were back when they were first penned.  These hymns, and prayers, various psalms, the Beatitudes, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the introductions to readings from the Epistles and from the Gospels, as well as songs of praise and thanksgiving, which are sung while the faithful receive Communion, all of these are sung throughout the course of the Liturgy; transporting us moment by moment more fully into a realm of beauty and mystery, ultimately into the very throne room of God.

Because Christ says that He is the God of the living and of the dead, and He is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, because of these statements and others like them, Orthodox believers have faith that we are one church together, made up of the living and the dead, not separate, but united, and we are unified in time, past and present and future, through Jesus Christ, since He is the essence and creator of time, and we being now unified with Him, as His body, also share in his timeless nature. So it isn’t mere hyperbole, or symbolic talk, to say that we are transported, in a sense, into His very throne room through the mysterious workings of the Divine Liturgy, because spiritually, this is possible even now, here on earth.

But of course we are free to disbelieve, or wait to find this fulfillment in the next life, or distract ourselves with all manner of worldly attachments. We can resist being drawn into His throne room, even while attending the Divine Liturgy, if we wish to remain on earth. We can deny relationship with Him, and settle for ideas about Him, because He is a merciful and loving Father, and gives His children what they ask. But why not ask for it all, spiritually speaking? Why not ask for a real, living relationship with our God and Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, and for communion with the Holy Spirit, at every opportunity; and there is no better way to do this than through the beauty and mystery of the Divine Liturgy which the Orthodox Church offers to us every week.

Even so, we are in the midst of spiritual warfare and there are many conspiring against our spiritual success, so finding our way to the throne room of God can be difficult even in the best of circumstances. To help alleviate at least some of these difficulties, St Theophan wrote guidelines to help worshippers maintain a proper attitude and focus during the Liturgy. The fact that there are so many saints, like St Theophan, who have come before us, this great cloud of witnesses, who are our spiritual brothers and sisters, and that many of these have written extensively on the spiritual life, for our benefit, is another remarkable aspect of the Orthodox faith and tradition. We are not alone in our quest for relationship with Christ and communion with the triune God, but rather, we have a wealth of wisdom available to us, and a host of spiritual heavyweights, who we can learn from and who we can call upon for support and encouragement along the way. I’ve included St Theophan’s insights about beneficial worshipful attitudes here for your help, if you desire it. I’ve made some additional notes on the margins to his original diagram, to help clarify some points:

(to be continued)



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