The Liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church; being a parent of modern Russian it still needs to be learnt if one wishes to understand the words of the Liturgy.
 Mark 12:30
This essay is a natural outcome of the hurt and dismay which I experience almost every time I participate in the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy. Why such emotions? – Because I came to firmly believe that in the overwhelming majority of cases the Liturgy is not conducted properly, from a lay person’s point of view. I have deliberately chosen these words which are doomed to be perceived as the silliness of a philistine who does not understand what she is talking about. I readily agree that I am, in the eyes of many, especially the Eastern Orthodox clergy, a double philistine: as a laity and as a woman. That is right: I am writing as a lay person who wants to be with Jesus Christ maximally fully, especially in the established by Him, for this very purpose, sacrament of the Eucharist and who, as a laity and as a woman, can participate in the Liturgy only as much – or, more fittingly, as little – as the Church “tradition” allows her.
Hence this text is essentially about the participation of lay Christians on multiple levels: in the Liturgy, in the life of the Church, in the life of the world. I believe that both the source and the purpose of this participation is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Being with Christ is the ultimate goal for any Christian so it is right to measure any activity by the notion “how much this or that brings me to or separates me from Him”. But, to be able to measure, one must be firmly planted in Christ first. There are many ways of aiding that process but one of them is primary and universal, “the source and the summit of the Christian life” – the sacrament of the Eucharist. While being the pure gift of God and Christ Himself, the Holy Communion still cannot be experienced independently from the way the Church conducts the Liturgy. Therefore I will explore two contemporary liturgical practices, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, considering them from the angle of how they help or divert a person on their way to Christ.
Before I begin I wish to state that I do not seek to convince a reader via building up a detached academic argument. There are an overwhelming number of recourses on this topic, pro and contra my opinion but “the dry letters of the law” achieve nothing in justifying such a subjective case as personal spiritual experience. More than anything else, this essay is simply a statement of a person who has been starving, spent years trying to come close to food and then suddenly realized why she was starving. The food was always there but those whose duty it was to distribute it appear to have done their best to obscure it.
From what I have seen, heard and read over many years I conclude that people come and stay in the Church initially (without making a conscious commitment yet) because they can sense “something there”. Anything in the Church can communicate it: beautiful singing, not-of-this-world images, the faces of the believers, etc. This vague “something” of course is God drawing a person to Himself through the means He has given to His Church. The spirit of an individual is being raised up to the unknown before realms. The emotions caused by such a flight can be very powerful but they do not have a clearly defined object or focus. “I felt like the angels were singing”, “I felt grace”, “It was the first time I cried like that”. Those are strong waves of the stirred spirit experienced by an individual for the first time perhaps. And they, I believe, are genuine experiences of the mystical reality, yet without an object – the experiences of a person who has not yet met Him Who caused them and Who wishes to bring that person into a communion with Himself. Alas, many of those who experienced those initial vague mystical states would soon drop out. Some would remain in the Church, with minimal = ritualistic participation.
When I recall my own experience in the Church in the very beginning, it was exactly as I have just described with the difference that I, being already baptized and frequently attending the Liturgies, theoretically knew Who was behind all those graces generously poured over me (as over any beginner). Of course I knew – I read the books on the Liturgy, sacraments, theology, even began studying Church Slavonic. I came to relate to some saints closer than to others. I also began studying Christian art and eventually (later) became an iconographer. And yet, still I did not know Him. I knew that He was in the sacrament of the Eucharist; I was partaking Body and Blood and still failed to relate to Him as to Person – with one exception only. Once I heard the sermon or discourse of a certain priest on the Passion Friday. It was said with an awful force and horror of a witness of those events. I listened to his words about the details of the crucifixion, about the description of the psychical injuries Christ suffered in the process and suddenly something broke into the wall of my quite dead soul. Suddenly I could catch a glimpse of Him, I could relate to Him as Person. The sheer horror of the crucifixion shattered my soul and I cried and cried. All this was happening while I was painting something at home while listening to the radio. It was, as I see it now, a potentiality of coming into conscious communion with Him. “Conscious” because I was in an unconscious communion, meaning that I regularly received the Body and Blood and knew in my heart that it was the most important thing. But, by some weird reason, I was unable to put together the Eucharist and Him as Person.
Before I continue my story I would like to pause here and recall the experiences of others. I know quite a lot about them because of my own activity as an annoying neophyte. Being devoid of a personal connection with Jesus Christ but driven by something indescribable that I experienced during the Eucharist I would tirelessly preach to anyone the necessity of going to the church and participating in the Liturgy and, the most important, partaking communion. The responses of the already baptized and those who tried to go to the church but stopped boiled down to the following: they were bored there; they could not understand what was happening during the Liturgy; they could not understand the language; they could not understand what was so important about communion and even what it was. In the past I would angrily think that they did not want to make an effort to educate themselves – read the translation of the Liturgy from Church Slavonic to modern Russian for example, read about the sacraments etc. I thought of them, with some degree of pride, as about lazy people who did not have a genuine desire for God. Perhaps some of them indeed were lazy and did not want God. However, now, in the light of what has happened with me and being able to analyse my experience I am far from such neophyte certainty.
The truth is that I myself, being so “educated” was feeling that something was missing. Yes, the soul was still occasionally flying up to the cupola during the Liturgy but less and less frequently. All that I loved so much: the meditative music, the inexhaustible depth of liturgical hymns that splits the heart, icons, harmonious gestures of the priest during the Liturgy – all that superabundant wealth of the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy somehow did not feed the soul as it did before but left it hungry. I must state firmly: my attachment to the Liturgy was far from being “just aesthetic”. I perceived another reality behind all those riches; the lines of psalms or prayers like ‘Let God arise…” would still fill my soul with rapture but there was no focus or no connecting element in all of those. The half-understood singing in Church Slavonic allows the soul to fly somewhere on its own; they do not hammer it down like the Evangelicals’ straightforward lines, which make room for one meaning only. Such freedom is good but only up to a certain limit, as long as it can eventually bring a person to the ultimate purpose of a Christian life. In a few years my spiritual life became ritualistic, dull, and very dry. If I continued attending the services it was only because of the Eucharist I think.
The situation improved when I, for a period of a time, became a member of a congregation which did not have its own church building. The Eastern Orthodox Liturgies were celebrated in the small wooden Anglican church which was temporarily lent to us. It meant that there was no iconostasis, only a symbolic barrier. Nothing obscured the sight of the priest during the Eucharist. I was also given a task of reading the prayers before communion. I remember myself noticing that I was more involved in the service; the service itself did not appear to be as lengthy as before (although it was the same). Without going into too personal details I state that during that period I felt I was beginning making a convoluted move towards Christ, for instance the repentance became far less superficial. But still it was not fully conscious.
Then my circumstances radically changed and the only church within reach was Roman Catholic. It was the Easter time and I desperately wanted to go to the service. I want to highlight that I was a typical Eastern Orthodox, i.e. very conscious of our liturgical and artistic superiority, of the superiority of our sacred art as the perfect expression of the faith, and so on. I heard from some Roman Catholics about the “castration” of the Mass by Vatican II – I am mentioning all this only to convey that by no means was I prepared or conditioned for what I experienced next. The initial few minutes in the Roman Catholic church confirmed my clichés: I was very much put off by the crudely painted sculptures and the simplistic Protestant-like hymns. But then I beheld something unimaginable; the non-obscured Eucharist. That means that everything that I was missing in the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy was given me back. At last I could say the prayers – so many prayers! – together with the whole congregation; at last I could see the priest asking God the Father to send the Holy Spirit and clearly hear his words; at last I could see Christ in the host raised up with the words “behold the Lamb of God”. The whole Mass was centered in Him and pointed at Him as an arrow; if I was not a Christian I would for sure have some understanding of what all that was about or at least I would be able to distinguish the most important moments – by the actions of the priest and by the actions of the congregation.
The hymns still were irritatingly simplistic, the Mass, compared to the Liturgy – very naked. I experienced a culture shock but very timely recalled the words of a certain Eastern Orthodox priest that the most important thing in the Liturgy is Christ and that the cultural things (even so much beloved art) are secondary to Him.
Those who may say, with approving or dismissing intonations: “Aha! – this is the story of conversion” are quite mistaken. This is the story of the Eastern Orthodox who suddenly found what she needed in a Roman Catholic church without ceasing to be Eastern Orthodox otherwise I would not bother to write these lines. The reality is even more complex; would I be able to fully appreciate that what I received in the Roman Catholic Church if I did not have my Eastern Orthodox background?
I will move now to the analysis of the strengths and weakness of the Liturgy and the Mass made from the angle of their major task of bringing an individual to conscious communion with Christ.
“To communicate each day and to partake of the holy Body and Blood of Christ is good and beneficial; for He says quite plainly: "He that eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life." Who can doubt that to share continually in life is the same thing as having life abundantly? We ourselves communicate four times each week…and on other days if there is a commemoration of any saint.”
(St. Basil the Great, c. 330 - 379 A.D.,‘Letter to a Patrician Lady Caesaria’)
“We see that the Saviour took in His hands, as it is in the Gospel, when He was reclining at the supper; and He took this, and giving thanks, He said: “This is really Me.” And He gave to His disciples and said: “This is really Me.””
(St. Epiphanius of Salamis, c. 315 - 403 A.D., ‘The Man Well-Anchored’)
It is obvious indeed. The Eucharist is the centre of the Liturgy and the Anaphora (the Eucharistic Canon, the centre of the Eucharist, is the oldest part of the service. The chronology reflects its original source and importance: the communion was ordered by Jesus Christ and the ancient Christians would gather for the primary purpose of partaking His Body and Blood. The second important thing would be the reading of the apostolic letters and later the Gospels. All the rest were adornments and extensions. Eventually, after a few centuries the order of the Liturgy or the Mass took the shape we know now (with the variations in different local Churches). I do not know how to stress this enough: in the Eucharist a Christian is united with Christ in the closest possible way. This is beholding God with all our soul and body, deification. This is indeed the most important thing, for a Christian who cannot exist without communion; it is so obvious that ideally it should not need to be stated at all – words are useless here because those who know that do not need them and those who do not would not be helped by them. Only personal experience gives those words meaning.
I know the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy mostly as it is celebrated in the Russian Orthodox Church and the Church of Constantinople (the Ecumenical Patriarchate), and the Roman Catholic Mass in the format of Novus Ordo. The general structures of the Liturgy and the Mass are identical: Preparation, Liturgy of the Catechumens, Liturgy of the Faithful in the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy and Introductory Rites, Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Mass. Below are the expanded structures with selected details provided.
The Eastern Orthodox Liturgy of St John Chrysostom
Preparation (of the bread and wine for the service; Hours)
Liturgy of the Catechumens
Rites of Entrance:
Great Litany (petition), antiphons, the Little Entrance (the clergy circling the altar, come out to the centre of a church with table with the Gospel Book and then return to the altar); various troparia and kontakia;
Rites of Proclamation: the reading or chanting of the Scriptures (the lines from the Old Testament, Acts, and the Letters), triple alleluia, the Gospel reading or chanting, homily, the Litany of Fervent Supplication (very extended), the litany for the catechumens.
Liturgy of the Faithful
The Great Entrance: the procession with holy gifts accompanied by the singing of the Cherubic Hymn, Creed;
The Anaphora (the Eucharistic Canon)
blessing and dismissal.
The Roman Catholic Mass Novus Ordo
Greeting, Penitential Rite (confession of ones’ sins), Kyrie, Gloria, Opening Prayer (communal prayer)
Liturgy of the Word
first reading (of the Old Testament), responsorial psalm, second reading (the Acts or the Letters), alleluia, Gospel reading, homily, Creed, General Intercessions (an extended communal prayer for various people and their needs)
Liturgy of the Eucharist
Preparation of the altar and the gifts, prayer over the gifts, Eucharistic Prayer, Preface, Acclamation (“Holy, holy, holy Lord of hosts”) with Epiclesis, Memorial Acclamation, Concluding Doxology
Communion Rite: ‘Our Father’, doxology, sign of peace, breaking of the bread, communion, prayer after communion)
Concluding Rite: blessing and dismissal
I will not go into further details here; even from seeing those bare structures one can deduct that the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy and the Roman Catholic Mass are essentially the same service built around communion and done for the purpose of sharing His Body and Blood by the faithful. There are also many differences and Roman Catholics can endlessly debate with Eastern Orthodox whether it is good to have so many repetitions of the litanies in the Liturgy or whether it is bad to have an implicit (or not developed enough, from an Eastern Orthodox point of view) Epiclesis in the Mass. I am not interested in academic analysis of the differences and similarities for their own sake. What I am interested to define is how those differences help or hinder a Christian to come into communion with Christ.
To me the most obvious (and shocking) experiential difference between the Mass and Liturgy is that that in the former the Eucharist, the climax of the Mass, is literally laid before the people naked. The same can be said about the whole Mass. Everything is crystal clear: the readings of the Scriptures; the compulsory every-day short sermon; the actions of the priest in the altar which are not obscured by the iconostasis. The required participation of the laity through the whole Mass makes this initial clarity even more transparent. At the climax of the Eucharist the host is raised above the altar with the words “Behold the Lamb of God!” – something that to me is the extreme reality of beholding before my eyes the Body of Christ. It is hard to explain what it does exactly – the certainty? – my peculiar need to see? The words of Christ “come and see” come to mind. Perhaps it can be understood and appreciated fully only in the context of how the Eucharist is done in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
As it was said before, the Anaphora is the seed and the oldest part of the Liturgy and its climax: with its prayers the Church is asking for the changing of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Our Lord. Currently the majority of the prayers of Anaphora are read by the priest behind the iconostasis that is the wall of icons between the congregation and the altar; the prayers are read very quietly or whispered, they are even called “secret” or “silent” prayers. The congregation hears only what it is allowed to hear – the occasional laconic disjoint exclamations but even those are often obscured by the singing of the choir. To appreciate what exactly is hidden from the congregation I will give a quote:
“(a priest says quietly): It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion; for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same; You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come. For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit; for all things that we know and do not know, for blessings seen and unseen that have been bestowed upon us. We also thank You for this liturgy which You are pleased to accept from our hands, even though You are surrounded by thousands of Archangels and tens of thousands of Angels, by the Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring with their wings,
(also quietly) “Together with these blessed powers, merciful Master, we also proclaim and say: You are holy and most holy, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You are holy and most holy, and sublime is Your glory. You so loved Your world that You gave Your only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. He came and fulfilled the divine plan for us. On the night when He was betrayed, or rather when He gave Himself up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy, pure, and blameless hands, gave thanks, blessed, sanctified, broke, and gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying:
(with the audible voice) Take, eat, this is my Body which is broken for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
[Those who wish to see the whole picture i.e. the whole Anaphora with the prayers marked as audible and silent can refer to the Appendix at the end of this essay.]
I believe it is enough to read those prayers even once to understand that they are truly the pinnacle of the Liturgy, the stone on which the whole building is resting. They are unmistakably the New Testament prayers, insane in their daring and their metaphysical might. If I say that they restate the essence of the faith and thus must be heard by all who dare to approach the Cup it will not be enough. Their power I think is in that insane flight of mortal human beings up to God, the flight supported solely by the hope in His promise. Those prayers combine the vastness of the universe with the intimacy, the dogmas with the extreme emotion. Yes, “emotion” is the right word – and this emotion, the product of the swift flight through history from the beginning of creation to the fall, from the hopes of the Old Testament up to the Incarnation and the Passion is denied to those who later will come to receive communion. The Liturgy, rising from the Old Testament psalms and books of prophets to the words of the apostles and Christ Himself brought the congregation to the meeting with Him for Whom all that was done. The only one effort left – to stretch the spirit even further in an impossible attempt to prepare oneself, to realize that nothing can prepare for that which is to come and still fly up in the thin mountains air on the wings of those prayers. The procession with the holy gifts walked around the church, enters into the altar and… nothing. There is a strange illogical interruption. The choir is singing something, from the altar some exclamations reach the ears occasionally and the particularly devoted ones can, using them as a blind person uses objects to feel his way, guess what is happening there. This strange interruption in the flow of the Liturgy is used in some churches for collecting donations; in the more pious places people are just waiting; sometimes the prayers of preparation for the Holy Communion are read while the priest is finishing the preparations. Eventually there is almost a sigh of relief, the doors are open, the priest with the Cup comes out and the people form a queue. The question arises how the congregation can emotionally – not intellectually meaning “I know this is the Body and Blood” but meaning “I feel” – relate to the Cup if they did not hear the part of the Liturgy which establishes the incomprehensible connection between us and Him Who is in the Cup? The “secret” prayers are often called mystical (this term in fact is used by some to justify the denial of them to the congregation). Indeed they are, they do have the strange power of tearing apart the curtain of habitual faith which prevents one from feeling what exactly they are partaking. Perhaps their power lies in their raw, albeit restrained, emotion? – There are very compressed; they are the extremely compressed energy accumulated during centuries of the expectation of humanity which is literally fainting because of its thirst for God. And the experience of those fainting of the spirit and thirst for God is for some reason denied to the congregation who receives Christ Who, dare I say, is being prepared for them somewhere behind the curtain. The congregation is “spared” of the Passion and Sacrifice. But how can one appreciate communion fully without emotionally living the Passion and Sacrifice through?
Before addressing the role of emotions in spiritual life I will make a small preliminary conclusion. Being an Eastern Orthodox, with great bitterness I must state that all my life in the Church I was deprived of participation in the Eucharist fully and consciously. I went through the stages of being sure that if I learn Church Slavonic and the text of the Liturgy I will gain that conscious participation but I did not; the dissatisfaction the sense of something missing only grew. It took me years to begin to understand that the major reason for this was conducting the Anaphora in secret by the clergy (among other, secondary things that followed from the original reason). Witnessing the bare Roman Catholic Mass was the last blow. I clearly saw that of what we, the Eastern Orthodox, are deprived despite all the riches of our tradition.
The emotions are highly subjective things and I can discuss them using my experience only. My conscious relationship with Christ began only when I was able to relate to His Humanity, especially His suffering. First they were convoluted breaks-through, sudden glimpses of my feelings for Him coming to my awareness. They were provoked by the passionate sermons of some marginal Eastern Orthodox priests, by reading the works of the saints of the undivided (before the Great Schism) Church, and by seeing Roman Catholic medieval art. Drawing on my experience, I can say that if I was not forced to acquire compassion for the sufferings of the Son of Man I would never have been able to appreciate communion, the scale of Atonement and other mysteries in all the totality of my being – as a person with emotions, feelings, and mind. I could never begin developing the personal relationship with Christ (to which we are all called).
I do not think it is only my peculiarity – that only I somehow need the emotions and feelings to learn to love God. It is a universal principal of the humane psyche: we cannot love someone we do not know; we cannot love someone if we do not feel gratitude towards them (even in case with children parents feel gratitude for their existence for example); we cannot love impersonally. From here it follows that it is impossible to love “with all heart and with all soul and with all mind” the distant God. Thus we are given Christ the Person to relate to and to love and through Him to develop our love for the Father and the whole Holy Trinity. The Son of God is still beyond anything we know so we must find something in Him we can relate to. Any human being suffers therefore he or she can relate emotionally to the suffering of Christ; feeling it through his own experience he or she can come to appreciate what the Son of God has done for us. And then the love for Him comes, and only with love can a person begin to contemplate the mysteries of Atonement, the Divinity of Christ, the Holy Trinity, and so on. The deeper the relationship with Christ the believer has the more he understands himself and the mysteries of our faith; this knowledge deepens the love for God and the relationship with Him, and so on, as a never-ending ever-expending spiral. Having a personal relationship with Christ makes everything – even the most “abstract” dogmas – very concrete and personal. The believer is truly included in the life of the Holy Spirit; he begins participating in the Kingdom of God already here and now. He, if you wish, is in the process of incarnation into that what he is supposed to be according to the idea of God about him. But this is only possible on the personal level and with Christ the Person.
By no means am I implying that this process of incarnation of a human being is absent in the Eastern Orthodox Church. There are various and very sophisticated means for doing that there: the whole Liturgy is extremely spiritual; it lifts up the spirit and leeds it to the higher realms. This is precisely the point I wish to make: very broadly speaking, the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy provides the excellent and highly sophisticated food for the spirit but does not do so for the soul meaning its emotional, compassionate, very personal part. Being the beautiful mystery, the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy with its high language (in the case of the Russian Church understood with various degrees of difficulty), sublime harmony of words, music, chanting, movements of the clergy, incense an so on is supposed to affect all of the human being in its triple composition of “body – soul – spirit”. In reality however a believer may experience a flight up, a clear sense of the Holy Spirit present, a general sense of experiencing something of another world, the Kingdom of God perhaps but one thing is missing. I dare to say, drawing on my experience that what is missing is the clear sense of the Person of Christ, the Son of God incarnated, here and now, before me. It is not that He is not present in the Church but He is obscured. His Last Supper and the Passion are hidden from the congregation, and this is the major reason for His perceived absence. The very unclear reading, often chanting, of the Scriptures (that is His voice) adds to that sense. Lastly, there is also developed over the centuries un-emotionless, detachment of the Eastern Orthodox sacred art. There is simply nothing or almost nothing in the service that a believer could grasp to relate to Christ the Person, suffering Person and thus to feel close to Him. It is awful to say the words: the Son of God is as remote and as God the Father.
The congregation loses sight of Christ after the reading of the Gospels and receives Him in the sacrament of Holy Communion. The link between the two is missing, and this link is heartbreakingly personal: both the Last Supper and the Passion took place before the disciples (symbolically our Church) and before Israel (symbolically all humanity for whom the Sacrifice was done). Those two actions were essentially giving Himself to others, connecting them with Himself. The sheer awfulness of those actions is capable of breaking through the wall of habitual faith and pouring into the heart. They are also the actions through which we are given the privilege to know Him. And yet they are not highlighted but obscured. The comparison arises in my mind, it is like a girl who was given a bridegroom when both were children, then they were separated and then, after many years are given to each other in a marriage but cannot now relate to each other. It is the gross exaggeration of course but I think that with the link of the Anaphora missing we are just like that bride and cannot relate to our Bridegroom fully.
Some can argue of course that for them all this is very good and that they have a relationship with Christ the Person despite all that. I am not going to argue with this. The only thing I would like to bring to the attention of the reader is that perhaps the very strange deviations in the Eucharistic practices (like no communion without confession in the Russian Orthodox Church and some other Eastern Orthodox Churches; not all and even not most of a congregation partaking communion and others) together with the general lack of Eucharistic zeal and of awareness of what is happening in the altar (expressed in casual conversations etc and even collecting the money) are the phenomena that justify my argument. And, if one recalls the lack of clarity in delivering the Scriptures (I repeat, His voice) one cannot help but say there is something very wrong here. This “something” is most likely to be the lack of perceiving Christ before ourselves, that Christ Who approaches each one personally and in person. The Liturgy is “the common deed” of those assembled but that “common deed” of relating to Christ cannot be done without each member relating to Him individually. Perhaps this lack of possibility, for the laity, to relate to Christ during the Liturgy is the main reason why so many people drop off from the Church? After all, not everyone is able to relate readily to the dogmas but everyone has emotions and feelings for relating to Christ. With time the initial mystical sense of “something there” disappears, the dogmas, being devoid of their root – the Person of Christ – become lifeless and uninteresting. It would never happen if the person was madly in love with Christ but how are they supposed to do this if the engine for such a love remains unfueled?
And even if all that is not so bad (as many argue using very pious reasons) why does one have to try to connect with God despite all this? To connect with God labouring through the obstacles presented by the Liturgy – isn’t it absurd? There are grossly many things separating us from God already.
To sum up what was said: I am convinced that a Christian, if she wants to truly relate to God, must relate to Him as a total person; that one must begin from the easiest part available to all – emotional relation; that emotional relation is the fuel for love without which (as was said by the multitude of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic saints) one cannot know God. I know that the modern Eastern Orthodox Church tends to regard feelings and emotions as something suspicious to be ignored but this was neither the practice of the early saints nor does such practice give anything but spiritual dryness. The saints spoke about “reordering” the passions, not about destroying them, and they are reordered in the process of bringing them all to Christ the Person. What I mean is that the natural force of love should not be suppressed but given the right object and order. But to do so one must get in touch with their own emotions first.
I am also convinced that being emotionally prepared for communion is very beneficial and the Church must help each and everyone in this task. Lastly, in my experience many of those who come to the church suffer various degrees of emotional detachment already (as a result of psychological distress or traumas which all of us suffer at some point of our lives) and they need some time and effort to “unfreeze”. The removal of the emotional and personal part of the Liturgy numbs such individuals even more. This numbness may be desirable for some, especially if they perceive (and others perceive) it as a sign of growing spirituality but it is absolutely necessary to overcome this if one is serious about God. Since the Church is called “the healing place” it is obvious that it must help such people, not to make them into totally detached (albeit superficially pious) individuals.
Participation is tightly knitted with the subject of emotions explored here. The occasion of participating in the Liturgy in the church with the absent iconostasis was revealing for me. The visible Anaphora, even with its prayers still largely inaudible, makes a different impact, lessening the sense that “I am a spectator and they are doing something there”. Later, when I was asked to read the prayers for the preparation for communion on a regular basis, the situation changed radically. I did something for my Church, I was included and that inclusion made the Liturgy much more meaningful. I also felt that through reading the preparatory prayers I had a direct relation to the most important thing, communion. The major complaints of those who attend the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy, that their legs and back are sore and numb also became less relevant to me. I am relating my experience in detail here because I wish to show how even the smallest shift in the degree of participation of the lay person changes her consciousness.
Still, those few years of that privilege could not obscure the fact that the laity as a whole participates in the Liturgy minimally. The degree of that varies depending on the country and national/ local traditions. In the Russian Orthodox Church the people say nothing but ‘Our Father’ and the ‘Creed’, together with very occasional exclamations. Even those are often sung by the choir in a quite complex fashion so the rest of the congregation are somewhat pressed to be silent. In other local churches the situation may be better but still the general picture is the same: the priest and deacon exclaim and pray, the chorus answers, the laity is standing in silence observing. The iconostasis obscures much of what is happening. The Liturgy is undoubtfully beautiful but leaves a common believer in the position of a spectator. If only the lay person, being perpetually in the position of a child who was brought by her parents to observe the mystery could at least be taught about it, at least to hear some clear words! Even this is denied – the Scriptures are read in Church Slavonic; if they are read in a modern language they are often chanted in a way that makes it utterly impossible to understand them. The ear catches some familiar words; some who read the Gospels regularly are able to recognize the familiar passages and recall the episode. Is this enough? Do we have a right to say to the laity “if you do not understand read the Gospel at home, study language and then match what you remember to that that you merely hear?” – Absolutely not, because the Scriptural passages must be understood and felt in the context of the Liturgy, here and now. If the structure of the Liturgy is designed to deliver the words of Our Lord in the most effective way, first by preparing the soul for their reception and then by clear reading and explaining (by the priest ) why then is it barely possible to understand those very words? Do we actually want to hear His voice?
Here, on the issue of participation of everyone in the “common deed” of the Liturgy, the Roman Catholic Church, unfortunately, is putting us to shame because they do what we ought to do but do not. The lay people have to respond to the priest throughout the Mass, they pray together audibly, all who are able are taking turns to read the Old Testament and the Acts and Letters in the perfectly understandable common language or provide the second, after the priest’s, voice for the common prayer (which is followed by the whole congregation aloud). One may say that it may contribute to lessening reverence but I disagree. One of the strongest impressions of literally trembling before God, in God’s house I had was when I happened to read the letter of Apostle John aloud. The very fact that I was given to read the apostle’s word induced in me an overwhelming experience of responsibility and reverence and a clear sense of active belonging to the Church of the New Testament. The words “you are all a royal priesthood” were not an abstraction any more. Here was a clear case of growing from a child who only semi-consciously receives what was given to her up to an adult consciously participating.
Full participation in the Liturgy inevitably leaves a person wanting for more – not “becoming a priest” as many would mockingly say but simply the desire to do more for a Church that is no longer perceived as a separate, from the person, entity. There is zeal to do something – to read, to speak, to clean, to decorate, to organize etc, all those according to the talents given – not only in the Church but to actively apply one’s Christianity in the world as well. And this active zeal in turn makes a person wish to understand their own faith ever deeper and deeper. The emotion of belonging is being activated; one is doing something for the Church, for Christ and this act brings them to closer communion with the Church and its Head. One must try it to appreciate it fully.
It is very sad. Why do they have it and we do not, despite all our liturgical riches? Well, they do not have it all and our Liturgical riches are not at all useless.
I am quite convinced that if I was not an Eastern Orthodox – an Orthodox who has been actively trying to get a hold on that “mystical something” via going to the services despite growing dissatisfaction, reading, looking, thinking, etc I would not be able to appreciate the Roman Catholic Mass as much as I do now. That “mystical air” of half-understood words, the music, in one word the aesthetic of the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy taught me to understand the symbols, to think on many layers of meaning, to perceive what I saw and heard literally, metaphorically and symbolically altogether. It can be vaguely defined as “the acquired sense of the mystery”, the habit of a person not to stick to just the most obvious, literal meaning. Precisely because I have been “stuffed” with the rich imagery, music, words of the saints, all that the Eastern Orthodox Church readily provides I was enabled to substitute the nakedness of the Novus Ordo Mass by what I had been given. The Protestant-like hymns could not stir my soul and gave me no sense of beauty but I could substitute them in my mind with the Eastern Orthodox hymns which combine theological maxima with the refined poetry and prayerful music. It is not the solution though because one wants it all: Christ, meaning and beauty in one service, all real – therefore every time the Roman Catholic priest would sing a few lines of the Gregorian chant my soul would fly up. I suspect that if I was not aided by the riches of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Mass at some point would appear to me too linear. That is not to say that the naked Novus Ordo is devoid of its austere beauty. And, the most important for me, for all its faults it does give a believer the access to Christ the Person as fully as it is possible.
I will sum up what was said in each chapter to make the imaginable argument with me easier. I stated that the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy in its current form prevents the unprivileged laity from beholding Christ the Person during the Anaphora (the Last Supper and Passion) and also in the readings of the Scriptures because they are obscured from them or given in a very limited way that makes it impossible to relate to them fully, as a total human being – emotionally and intellectually, “with all heart and with all soul and with all mind”. Or, interpreted otherwise, I made a usual complaint of someone new to the Eastern Orthodox Church which is typically expressed as “I cannot understand what is happening there and what it is all about.” Such a complaint is readily dismissed therefore I do not think that my argument would be more welcomed than the statement of a new comer. One may think though, (I am speaking of who I am only to make my point) if a practicing Eastern Orthodox Christian who spent years in the Church, an iconographer still has essentially the same complaint albeit expressed differently then perhaps there is something there?
As I stated in the beginning of this paper I am not interested in the academic argument, for a very simple reason: it will not help here because the subject of my concern is the emotional connection with Christ via the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy. The religious feeling is primary; after all it was their feeling for Christ that moved the apostles to gather and break bread and share the cup. Emotion and feeling together with the intellect gave shape to the Liturgy, not vice versa.
Still I will address a few things here, simply to show how the academic arguments fall apart before the wish to behold Christ and before the historical facts and how their fall does not change anything whatsoever if the person values the tradition (that which he perceives as tradition) more than Christ.
The arguments pro the way the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy is currently celebrated are abundant in books, in the Internet, and in real life. The desire to receive communion more often, without a compulsory confession before it is met with “too often is bad because one is not prepared well, will get used to it, will lose the pious attitude” and so on. The proposition to make the Anaphora audible is met with the statements like “those prayers are mystical, not for all, only an ordained priest can say and hear them” or “they are too precious before God so they must be heard only by a priest” or “they are too powerful and a priest cannot thus say them aloud and feel them at the same time” or even the blasphemous “they are said quietly for the sake of making the Liturgy shorter”. All those are not imagined but frequently heard and read. If one argues that the liturgical practices of the ancient Christians were very much in a line with that what a person wants: very frequent communion without compulsory confession, participation of all the congregation in the whole Liturgy, audible prayers, an altar visible to all, the absence of or a different arrangement of an iconostasis (which took the modern shape of a wall not earlier than 13-15 cc.) there are always other standard arguments ready: modern Christians are not like the ancient church but are far worse and, the most important, we must keep the tradition. But which tradition – the original state of affairs or the various novelties introduced as a response to particular problems (like the templon, the prototype of an iconostasis that is a row of the columns which indicate a boundary between an altar and the rest that was done because of the stream of the new converts after Christianity became the state religion)? It looks like the very first centuries of Christianity are perceived as not “tradition” but all that follows them is.
The Eastern Orthodox Liturgy is being treated as something that has a value in its own, regardless of that from which it originated – the Body and Blood of Christ. Only this proposition can explain the sad facts outlined in the previous chapters. The priest is meticulously saying “everything” but attempting to “speed the service up” via making that “everything” incomprehensible; the deacon making an aria out of the Gospels reading and the laity standing and watching this – so vaguely beautiful – spectacle. This brings to mind the Old Testament, the Jerusalem temple, the division into the high priest, the other priests and “people”, the love for and obsession with the letter. Where is Christ in all that?
We love our symbols so much and we are so proud of them – often for their own sake again; symbolism becomes our religion. Here is the example: a deacon is not reading the Gospel but chanting it, and not lightly but as an aria, raising his voice from a very low register to very high. I have always been fascinated, why does he have to do it if it makes the words hard to understand? In the case of Church Slavonic it effectively reduces the Gospels to a musical noise. While writing this essay I came across the explanation: “This is a reminder of how the Early Church rose up from the catacombs.” So we are reminded about ancient Christians by obscuring the words of Jesus Christ. I think that we would honour them far better if we adopted a clear way of reading the words of Our Lord. And in any case this particular “symbolism” is absurd, absurd in the light of reason and absurd before Christ. Another example of an originally straight-forward action perceived now as a symbol: during the Little Entrance a priest (accompanied by a deacon) walks the Gospels from the altar to the midst of the church and then back again. This little procession now takes place in the middle of the Liturgy of the Catechumens. The various explanations of the symbolism of this entrance are somehow not convincing. It is not surprising; originally the entrance took place immediately before the reading of the Scriptures and was simply bringing the book for the service – nothing else, a simple necessity. Later it became adorned and thus moved to its current place. The action, being removed from the necessity, looks somewhat out of a place although it is always inspiring to see a solemn procession with the Book of the Gospels. But – would it not be more inspiring if it was in its original place? The problem with current Orthodoxy is not that it has “wrong” symbols or that they are overly rich and too many – it is that they are often considered separately from their function. Originally they rose from bare necessity and thus were potent and convincing. Now, being displaced, removed from their origins, and adored as having a value on their own – all this because “it is our tradition” – they look somewhat as the exhibits in a museum. The fact that our Church has the cross in its structure, vertical – eternal – Christ with His heavenly Church and horizontal – of us, earthly Church moving through this temporal life with all the riches of the tradition at our disposal for our immediate needs, is ignored. Christ and the heavenly church are immovable, not the tradition! But we are sticking to what is changeable and endlessly trying to make it eternal by refusing to change even a letter of it.
The argument between faith in what is perceived as tradition and the wish to see God can be endless. It can be ended only in the light of the ultimate truth, Christ.
The many moves towards changing the various aspects of the Liturgy (the aspects outlined in this paper included) were abandoned because of the fear that any change would be perceived as a threat to the Church and because the task would appear too overwhelming. There is an easy solution I think – to measure everything by Christ. Indeed, if we clearly set the task for the Liturgy to be a device that must prepare a believer to meet Christ then everything will start ordering itself. Everything that disturbs this process must change – the structure to be made clearer, the symbols returned to their origins, the participation of the laity restored to its original level, the Anaphora visible and audible, and so on. It is actually so simple! It would be an almost effortless act if not for the fear of being perceived as “not Orthodox”, not traditional, not pious, a… Roman Catholic or even Protestant-like. But what does the perception of ourselves as traditional, pious, Orthodox mean if it is achieved by sacrificing Christ – our intimate relationship with Him – the whole meaning of a Christian life? I can (barely) understand how the priests, being always in the privilege position of a total participation in the mysteries can be oblivious to the fact that the congregation does not see, hear, feel, and understand what they see – the Sacrifice, the Body broken, the Blood poured into the chalice. What I cannot understand is those of the laity who are not just putting up with it but finding pious grounds for what they call “tradition”.
The various big and small habitual blasphemies like talking and collecting money during the Anaphora and immediately before communion, speeding up the service by sacrificing its meaning, etc are deriving from the lack of the awareness of Christ. At the same time, the Eastern Orthodox routinely commend themselves for their “deep reverence absent among Protestants and even Roman Catholics” – but reverence for what? – Not for Christ Our Savior, the real Man in flesh and blood, not for the living God but the reverence for something “mysterious” mixed with a learnt habitual reverence of a churchgoer, reverence for the priests, icons, relics, numbers and letters or the law but not for Him. It is very simple: who would dare to speak about something unrelated in the sight of the Passion? Absolutely all deviations, vices and sins of the Church, of the separate members and the Church as the whole come from there. How can one hope to deal with them without returning the Source of the healing to His proper position first?
So it all boils down to beholding Christ and being with Him. Anything good, being devoid of Him has a tendency to turn in its opposite and rot. The faithfulness to the tradition turns into the hard-neck Pharisee-ism, to the deadness of conducting the rituals for their own sake, to the return to the Old Testament at its worst. It is truly so; by obscuring Christ and not coming to Him we fall into sacrilege. Why do we need Incarnation if we do not want to know Him? How can we be thankful for the Atonement if we do not want to know Him Who made this Atonement? How on earth can we be Christians if we do not want to face the Passion and Him in the Liturgy, if we are not burning with a desire to be joined with Him in communion? What an awful abomination in the eyes of Christ it must be – the flock that sticks to the rituals and neglects Him.
"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. (Isaiah 1:11)
“My son, give me thine heart, and let thine eyes observe my ways.” (Proverbs, 26:36)
I do not understand what my Church is waiting for.
[The ‘silent’ prayers printed in grey]
Priest: Let us stand well. Let us stand in awe. Let us be attentive, that we may present the holy offering in peace.
People: Mercy and peace, a sacrifice of praise.
Priest: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you.
People: And with your spirit.
Priest: Let us lift up our hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord.
People: It is proper and right.
Priest (in a low voice): It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion; for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same; You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come. For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit; for all things that we know and do not know, for blessings seen and unseen that have been bestowed upon us. We also thank You for this liturgy which You are pleased to accept from our hands, even though You are surrounded by thousands of Archangels and tens of thousands of Angels, by the Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring with their wings,
Priest: Singing the victory hymn, proclaiming, crying out, and saying:
People: Holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna to God in the highest.
Priest (in a low voice): Together with these blessed powers, merciful Master, we also proclaim and say: You are holy and most holy, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You are holy and most holy, and sublime is Your glory. You so loved Your world that You gave Your only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. He came and fulfilled the divine plan for us. On the night when He was betrayed, or rather when He gave Himself up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy, pure, and blameless hands, gave thanks, blessed, sanctified, broke, and gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying:
Priest: Take, eat, this is my Body which is broken for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Priest (in a low voice): Likewise, after supper, He took the cup, saying:
Priest: Drink of it all of you; this is my Blood of the new Covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Priest (in a low voice): Remembering, therefore, this command of the Saviour, and all that came to pass for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming.
Priest: We offer to You these gifts from Your own gifts in all and for all.
People: We praise You, we bless You, we give thanks to You, and we pray to You, Lord our God.
Priest (in a low voice): Once again we offer to You this spiritual worship without the shedding of blood, and we ask, pray, and entreat You: send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here presented.
And make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ.
Priest (in a low voice): And that which is in this cup the precious Blood of Your Christ.
Priest (in a low voice): Changing them by Your Holy Spirit.
Amen. Amen. Amen.
Priest (in a low voice): So that they may be to those who partake of them for vigilance of soul, forgiveness of sins, communion of Your Holy Spirit, fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven, confidence before You, and not in judgment or condemnation. Again, we offer this spiritual worship for those who repose in the faith, forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.
Priest: Especially for our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary.
People: It is truly right to bless you, Theotokos, ever blessed, most pure, and mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. We magnify you, the true Theotokos.
Priest (in a low voice): For Saint John the prophet, forerunner, and baptist; for the holy glorious and most honorable Apostles, for Saints(s) (Name(s)) whose memory we commemorate today; and for all Your saints, through whose supplications, O God, bless us. Remember also all who have fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection unto eternal life. (Here the priest commemorates the names of the deceased.) And grant them rest, our God, where the light of Your countenance shines. Again, we ask You, Lord, remember all Orthodox bishops who rightly teach the word of Your truth, all presbyters, all deacons in the service of Christ, and every one in holy orders. We also offer to You this spiritual worship for the whole world, for the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and for those living in purity and holiness. And for all those in public service; permit them, Lord, to serve and govern in peace that through the faithful conduct of their duties we may live peaceful and serene lives in all piety and holiness.
Priest: Above all, remember, Lord, our Archbishop (Name): Grant that he may serve Your holy churches in peace. Keep him safe, honorable, and healthy for many years, rightly teaching the word of Your truth.
Priest: Remember also, Lord, those whom each of us calls to mind and all your people.
People: And all Your people.
Priest (in a low voice): Remember, Lord, the city in which we live, every city and country, and the faithful who dwell in them. Remember, Lord, the travelers, the sick, the suffering, and the captives, granting them protection and salvation. Remember, Lord, those who do charitable work, who serve in Your holy churches, and who care for the poor. And send Your mercy upon us all.
Priest: And grant that with one voice and one heart we may glorify and praise Your most honored and majestic name, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.
Priest: The mercy of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ be with all of you.
People: And with your spirit.
Priest: Having remembered all the saints, let us again in peace pray to the Lord.
People: Lord, have mercy.
Priest: For the precious Gifts offered and consecrated, let us pray to the Lord.
People: Lord, have mercy.
Priest: That our loving God who has received them at His holy, heavenly, and spiritual altar as an offering of spiritual fragrance, may in return send upon us divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, let us pray.
People: Lord, have mercy.
Priest: Having prayed for the unity of the faith and for the communion of the Holy Spirit, let us commit ourselves, and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.
People: To You, O Lord.
Priest (in a low voice): We entrust to You, loving Master, our whole life and hope, and we ask, pray, and entreat: make us worthy to partake of your heavenly and awesome Mysteries from this holy and spiritual Table with a clear conscience; for the remission of sins, forgiveness of transgressions, communion of the Holy Spirit, inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, confidence before You, and not in judgment or condemnation.
Priest: And make us worthy, Master, with confidence and without fear of condemnation, to dare call You, the heavenly God, Father, and to say:
[the Lord’s Prayer]