Saturday, June 26, 2010

Being "at home" during the Liturgy

I have to credit Pr. Peters at his Pastoral Meanderings blog for giving me some food for thought. Thanks, Fr. Peters!

Going into an Eastern Orthodox Church for first timers can be a strange and even frightening experience. They come in and see the church, usually with low lights if they are arriving at the ending portions of Orthros before the Great Doxology begins, with its iconostasis, most people standing in prayer, the chanters chanting in some foreign tonal system, hymns with large chunks of theology that almost seem undigestable, the smell of incense, the doors behind which stand the altar are shut, a priest wearing lots of colorful vestments, etc.. How can one possibly feel "at home" during all of this? For a Western Christian or even non-Christian, it must take a lot to feel "at home" in this environment, Sunday in, Sunday out.

But such feelings of uneasiness are not just reserved for newcomers or even recent converts to the faith, but for Orthodox who have been baptized and raised in the faith all their lives. I see it every week. I see many of the faithful hanging on to their service books and their bulletins for dear life, as if the moment those are discarded, they will be totally lost in the actions of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

When you go to a house of a person whom you may not know very well, you are not given a booklet or an instruction manual or a rulebook (at least I've never received such when I visit new friends' homes!) on the every day goings-on at that particular household. You go there, you get acquainted and you soak it in. Such should be the way all of us should act when we enter an Orthodox Church, regardless of whether it is the Liturgy or an office being prayed. Go in and absorb.

The Eastern Orthodox are very very fortunate to have such a collection of prayer books and other aides for the spiritual life. Use them at your home, but when you come to the Lord's house, bring only yourself and resist the temptation to merely only follow along and not participate. Granted, you may only be able to participate very little for you may not know the hymns or the texts. It will come; give it time!

So many of our recent converts and people who have been Orthodox for years cling to their service books for dear life and then complain that they don't know their faith. As a teacher, I can tell you that you will never learn anything or make it a part of your very self if you are constantly using an aid. You cannot learn Latin or Greek by having a dictionary and/or phrase book in front of you all the time. Toss the service book for just one Liturgy or one Vespers. Get rid of it and allow all your senses to be uplifted by the divine action that is going on.

At the same time, don't expect to understand everything. If you were able to understand every nuance of the Divine Liturgy, there would be no need for one for we would be God. The Liturgy is God coming to us in the mystery of the Eucharist. We work collectively to feed our minds so that we can partake of the feast to feed our souls. You will be so much more hungry and so much more satiated if you would put away the animal crackers to get you through the Liturgy! Then you will be instinctively at home!

Just a few thoughts. Thanks again, Fr. Peters for some inspiration. I haven't had any for a while!

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