From The Blog

Mission Monthly – November 2009

“The grace of the Holy Spirit makes every good Christian a temple of God's worship, daily work can be done prayerfully and some occupations leave the mind free for direct prayer. It does not matter where or when it is, provided you pray sincerelyOnly one thing matters to God: a religious heart, integrity of soul. But public worship comes firstCertainly you can pray at home: but not so well as at church, joined with the company of the faithful. There the cry of the worshippers goes up with one voice, and the presiding clergy unite the weaker and the stronger supplications into one great prayer to heaven.”

St. John Chrysostom

Fr. Alexander Schmemman wrote about the Orthodox Church being in a state of “western captivity.” It would have been my joy and to my benefit to hear him speak directly about this. From his writings I believe I understand some-what of his meaning. Western models of thinking have caused many of our modern ideological stalemates and to try to use these same models to solve the problems they have created is certainly problematic. In the Church this type of thinking seems to have reduced Christian life in the west to some sort of academic, juridical, lowest common denominator practice rather than the communion with God to which man has been called in the fulfillment of all his longing and in the perfect expression of his life. And echoing the words of St. John Chrysostom, Fr. Alexander taught that it is first and foremost in worship that our life in Christ is revealed in its “true nature and sacramental vocation.”

I meditate on these things today with both sorrow and hope, seeing generally how God's Church in our post-modern world is wanting in the expression of her primary purpose: public worship. As we prepare to celebrate the 13th anniversary of St. Ignatius Church I am thankful for the faithfulness and piety of this parish and the constant striving towards a greater commitment to prayer (public and private), the sacraments, scripture reading, repentance, modesty, fellowship and stewardship; most importantly, however, I am thankful that St. Ignatius is a church where the faithful have the opportunity to enter prayerfully into a quiet and reverent place of worship, to “lay aside all earthly cares.” This is a characteristic I hope will always be the cornerstone of this parish. As St. John said, this must “come first,” and sometimes I wonder if it is this deficiency in the modern Church's worship that prompted Fr. Alexander to develop his theme of “western captivity.” We live in a time where we are all tempted to fall prey to the secular negation of worship. This is revealed in the very fact that most modern Orthodox Christians have reduced worship to only one day a week, at the most! If there is one characteristic that differentiates Orthodox Christianity from all other Christian bodies it is the rhythm and seasons of our rich liturgical tradition and the calling of each Orthodox Christian to make worship and the Eucharistic gathering the FIRST priority of their life: first before scripture reading, first before serving the poor, first before fellowship, first before family, first before employment, and first before hobbies, free time and taking the rest we need (or feel we deserve). Following worship we are free to (and commanded to) do all manner of good works and to be faithful to the many responsibilities of life each of us has been given. It is only after worship that our good works, our responsibilities and our enjoyments have their meanings fulfilled.

As I speak from time to time with many of my brother priests from around the country the greatest lament I hear is how little “the faithful” attend services other than on Sunday morning, and sometimes not even then. To be honest, this is true of the Orthodox Church I was raised in and putting into practice the priority of worship was a difficult transition I had to come to terms with as a young man. But the reality that this attitude is still perpetuated today is deeply sorrowful to me, especially when it is traditionally clear that we as Orthodox Christians are called to gather for worship with priority and frequency. From the earliest 2nd century we read in the letter of our holy patron St. Ignatius to the church of Ephesus, “Try to gather more frequently to celebrate God's Eucharist and to praise him. For when you meet with frequency, Satan's powers are overthrown and his destructiveness is undone by the unanimity of your faith. There is nothing better than peace, by which all strife in heaven and earth is done away.”

Sometimes there are legitimate things that do get in the way of this priority, especially health, weather and distance and occasionally responsibility. The problem is whenwe are the ones getting in our own way either through a choice of priority or just plain laziness. This is a great challenge for all Orthodox Christians and one which we must continue to face head on. People and societies around the world are struggling and we have the answer right here, centered on the altar around which we gather, upon which rests the Good News of Jesus Christ, and from which we receive the Gift of Life in his very Body and Blood. Who is going to be faithful to the priority of worship if not us? Who is going to praise God the Giver of all good things? Who is going to pray for our parents and grandparents, our children and the wayward, the sick and the departed? Who is going to nurture our children to discover the image of God within them if they are immersed more in the idolatry of the world than in the worship of Heaven? As we prepare ourselves to enter the Nativity Fast and all that will follow in the seasons to come I pray God help us to rededicate ourselves to public worship, Sunday morning, including the beautiful Matins preceding the Liturgy, Saturday evening (the beginning of the Lord's Day), the Great Feasts, other prayer services during the week, and to the renewal of faith and life and joy that comes from it! Together and with strength may we cry out often with one voice, in the “one great prayer to heaven.”