Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Worship can (and probably should) hurt you (physically)

In today's world of commercial church shopping, would-be church goers and even people who have been at a church for a long time want a place where they will "get the most out of a service" which translates, usually, to "what feels good" or "how much I learned."  Either way, many (if not most) Christian worship services have become mainly mere mental exercises, whether for the emotions or for the reason center of the brain.  In of itself, that is not bad.  The brain/mind/soul/psyche/nous need to be active participants in the worship service, but what about the rest of the body?  Have Christians today become gnostic even in their worship of God?

The Gnostics were the original Christian dualists.  Everything was assigned in one category alongside a diametric opposite:  Good vs. evil, created vs. uncreated, light vs. dark, spirit vs. mind, body vs. soul, hunger vs. satiety, etc.  Now, this type of dualist thought even pervades the Johannine universe of Christianity (read his Gospel and his letters), but it doesn't come close to the extreme application of the Gnostics.  The Gnostics believed that anything created or of the world was evil.  Only things of the spirit of the mind were valuable and were of the true God.  The Gnostic Christians went so far as to say that the act of creation can only be the act of an evil god and thus there were two Gods--one of the Old Testament and one of the New Testament.  In order to draw closer to the true god, one needed to gain "gnosis" or knowledge and that could only be achieved by a severe detachment to the things of the world which lead to harsh asceticism and privation.  Now, the Church, in contrast, has always correctly understood that asceticism and privation are useful disciplines for the body to be a participant in the spiritual life.  Thus, the lenten discipline of fasting is to let the body in on repentance.

In Greek, the word μετανοια is translated as repentance.  It literally means "a change of the nous" which is another word that his hard to translate.  St. John Damascene says the nous is the eye or the heart of the soul, maybe even the power of the soul.  It is through the nous that we communicate with God from the depth of our very self.  But, again, we Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, are not gnostics.  Repentance and communion with God involve the totality of the person, flesh and spirit alike.  In fact, it is  only because we have flesh that we can repent.  The angels who rebelled against God in the beginning cannot repent and thus are forever outside the forgiveness that God offers.  So, if our bodies should be let in on repentance, shouldn't they also be let in for the worship of God?

The obvious answer to that question is yes, but, let's face it, most people don't.  Worship has become an almost exclusively mental activity. What about the rest of the body?  

This is the season of Great Lent.  During this time, Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, take more time out of their already busy lives to immerse themselves into the liturgical life of the Church.  During the first week of Lent, Orthodox Christians are treated to Great Compline (for some, this may be the only time their parish celebrates Great Compline).  It is a long evening prayer service, with many readings from the psalter, prayers and hymns of penance and repentance.  Most of these prayers and hymns are accompanied by not only the sign of the Cross, but also bows and/or full prostations to the ground sometimes one right after the other.  For those not used to it, even for those in good physical shape, it can be a rigorous workout (I sometimes call the experience "The Great Compline Workout').  And sometimes, you can hurt, especially your knees. 

Have many of us ever considered that worship should be physically engaging to the point of feeling stiffness or soreness in muscles and bones?  My back is not in the best shape but I was really feeling it last week.  I should add that I am not advocating that people who have bodily injuries should ignore their doctor's advice and throw themselves fully into the workout. 

Worship should leave us aching...aching for God.  The soul and mind are fed and are prepared for nourishment with the readings, the hymns and the prayers.  Then, the nourishment in the form of the Eucharist is given.  We also should prepare our bodies by bowing, making the sign of the Cross, kneeling, prostrations to the ground and even standing.  The body then is also nourished by the Eucharist which, we pray, is for the feeding of both body and soul.

In many Christian confessions, rubrics have changed so as to eliminate bodily participation in worship or severely limit it.  That will only make the body lethargic.  Pews have helped this along so much.  Worship is about comfort.  There are some churches which advertise themselves by promoting the comfort of their seats!  If the body is a non-participant in worship and repentance, then we do not truly worship nor repent.  For some this will be difficult, physically.  For others, there are physical obstacles in the way, notably pews.

There is an old hymn called "Stand up, stand up for Jesus."  The writer of that hymn, I guess, was not speaking metaphorically, but literally.  Stand up for Jesus, bow to Jesus, kneel to Jesus.  Love and worship  the Lord and repent in soul AND body.

No comments:

Post a Comment