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Archive for the ‘Prayer’ Category

A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with an old friend about my spiritual journey. We had attended church together at a contemporary evangelical charismatic Protestant church as college students. At the time, I ardently defended contemporary worship. The songs stayed in my head for a great length of time, generally they reinforced the themes of what was being talked about in church, they were fun to listen to, and I could participate as a musician. I also appreciated things being relatively free-form. We stood at the start of services but it was generally accepted as a “starting position” from where you could sit, kneel, lie prostrate, lift your hands in the air, dance, etc as you wanted. Over time, I became very comfortable with an array of postures and utilized a full gamut regularly.

Therefore, the idea of going to a high liturgical church was a hard one for me. In my mind, everything in the liturgy equaled “script.” The minister said this, you said that. Stand, sit, kneel. Catholic aerobics done en masse. Moreover, it was the same. I once worked at a Lutheran summer camp when, in going to church on Sundays, my fellow staffers would ask the usher what service was being said. Some jargon like “Communion, setting 2” would be exchanged and my friends would know exactly what to do. I didn’t get it.

Needless to say, I was surprised when I set foot into an Orthodox Church. I did not expect to find myself there at all. To make a long story short, I was without a church and approaching the Lenten season. Being without a church during Lent was unacceptable to me so a friend encouraged me to visit an Orthodox Church near me. That is a different story, so I’ll be sure to add it to my upcoming posts list.

At any rate, the Liturgy struck me because it was far from the picture I had of it. To begin, I was simply too overwhelmed by everything in the church. I lost my eyes to the icons, I lost my nose to the incense, I lost my ears to chanting… Once I stopped trying to take everything in at once, I got something. I literally had to close my eyes, turn on my brain, and focus to the words being said. Even trying to read a service book was a bit too disorientating because a) there were a lot of things in the service book said at the same time as something else and b) my feet on the deep red carpet kind of gave me the impression that I was floating. Closing my eyes was easier. Wearing ear plugs to church didn’t seem like a wise move.

In focusing on what was being said, I found myself recognizing what was going on a bit more. The choir by and large sung arrangements from the Psalms. What wasn’t related to the Psalms was generally telling me about the Resurrection. There were some points where they told me stories about great Christian men and women in song. One woman in particular got a lot of attention: Mary the Theotokos. Yet it was clear to me that even in this odd presentation, the music presented a lot of the same benefits to me as it had previously in a “contemporary” church.

I grew bold so I opened my eyes. The reverence and solemnity of the people around, particularly on the part of the priests, struck me. People kissed things. A lot. But it wasn’t a procedural thing, people approached with gratitude and love. They did not compel me to do anything (except stand for the Gospel and the Great Entrance, but I wasn’t planning on sitting down anyway). The people at my parish let me decide in my own time how I wanted to participate. While it was overwhelming, I felt things align in my mind, heart and spirit.

In realizing that the Liturgy was far from a static structure and that it functions as a vehicle to ensure that the life of the Church is conveyed, I came to trust it. Over time, I’ve learned that my way of participating is not something that is entirely unique to me. Granted, there is a time and place for worship postures, but they generally flow with how I personally want to worship at that time.

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To Struggle

If I had to reduce Orthodoxy to one verb, I think I would pick struggle. As Christians, we are called to struggle so that we may be united to God in Christ. Even looking at Christ, we see struggle as a central theme. Christ lived for 33 years in constant obedience to the Father even to the point of the cross. The fervent prayer modeled by Christ brought Him to the point of sweating blood (Luke 22:44).

Most of us do not know this magnitude of struggle although the Saints provide witness. Instead, God calls all of us to struggle against the passions. In many ways, this struggle is the requirement of being an Orthodox Christian. Are you willing to struggle? Do you want to fight the good fight? Do you want a lifestyle of repentance? Thankfully, God bears us in our weakness of body. Both Sts Mark and Matthew record Christ’s words that provide comfort to so many Christians along this journey, “Watch and pray so that you do not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Matthew 26:41 and Mark 14:38).

Nail our flesh to the fear of You, and do not incline our hearts to words or thoughts of guile. But wound our souls with Your love, that ever looking to You, and guided by You in the light, and beholding You, the Light ineffable and everlasting, we may offer ceaseless praise and thanksgiving to You. A prayer of St Basil the Great from 6th hour.

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At the top of the Hour

So often, when people think of Liturgy, free-association leads them to repetition, meaninglessness, disengagement, and similar words with negative connotations. All of these words come into play when one considers the liturgical prayers of the Hours. Yet how do we benefit from praying liturgically?

To begin, I think it needs to be said that the liturgical prayers are the prayers of the Church. When we join in the prayer schedule of the Church, even on our own time and at our own prayer altars, we enter the same mystical realm that knows neither time nor space. For reasons completely outside of my scope of human reason, we enter into Christ Himself even though we are sinful and unworthy.

Another benefit to the Hours is that it establishes a set rhythm. Our bodies like rhythms. Maintenance of steady eating and sleeping schedules compromises an integral part of our physical health. Analogously, prayer schedules maintain our spiritual and emotional health. Consider that some of the Hours match a meal: Matins-Breakfast, Sext-Lunch, and Vespers-Dinner. Many dietitians recommend eating 5 small meals a day for weight loss; again the Hours help us with Third Hour at 0900 and Ninth Hour at 300p. Similarly, the Hours connect to our natural sleep schedule with First Hour upon rising and Compline before retiring to bed. Even for those of us who struggle with a sleep schedule because of night wakefulness can find solace in the Hours with the Midnight Service.

The Hours offer spiritual discipline that lets us interrupt our day. In some ways, the rise of an hour comes inauspiciously as the clock ticks forward. Other hours come in a more anticipated fashion. However, if we practice the prayers of the Hours, we find a great gift to connect with Christ at key times. Consider the American discipline of 600p News. Several people I know watch the news at 500p, 600p and again at 1000p. If we take 3 hours of the day connecting with the world, does it seem unrealistic that we should spend some time connecting with God? Moreover, do we really need these three points of contact, or could we substitute an office like Vespers or Compline? I know I am always tempted to read my newspaper first thing in the morning, but what benefits may be present if I interrupt my own schedule with prayer? On a last spiritual discipline note, the Hours also have practical guidance as a method of tithing one’s time.

This all is not to say that my private prayer rule is unimportant. However, I have found that praying the prayers of the Church while I go through my own dry seasons of knowing what to pray about with God helps me stay connected to my prayer life.

O Christ our God, who at all times and in every hour, in heaven and on earth, art worshipped and glorified; who art long-suffering, merciful and compassionate; who lovest the just and showest mercy upon the sinner; who callest all to salvation through the promise of blessings to come; O Lord, in this hour receive our supplications, and direct our lives according to thy commandments. Sanctify our souls, hallow our bodies, correct our thoughts, cleanse our minds; deliver us from all tribulation, evil and distress. Encompass us with thy holy Angels, that guided and guarded by them, we may attain to the unity of the faith and to the knowledge of thine unapproachable glory, for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

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In thinking about the gifts of the Church, I keep coming back to the Sign of the Cross. How can one gesture say so much?

When I make the Sign of the Cross, what does my hand say?

To begin, my first three fingers come together, joined at the tips: God is 3 in 1. My 4th and 5th fingers rest together on my palm: Christ in His two natures, God and Man, has come to earth. My hand rises to allow the Trinity to touch my head. Yes, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and He cares for me. He calls me out because He created me in His image. Next my hand traces my mid-line, coming to rest well below my heart. I can make this part of the gesture as big as I want to. There is a constant struggle to offer myself fully to God, yet He makes Himself known in my full person. He cares for my heart and my soul. Moreover, Jesus Christ comes down to Earth in the Mystery of the Incarnation, humbling Himself to be born of a handmaiden. Tracing up to my right shoulder and my left, the Sign of the Cross is complete. In many ways, we say a number of prayers simultaneously:

  • Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
  • By the power of Your Cross o Christ, enable me to love the Lord my God with all of my heart, mind, soul and strength.

In no way is the list above to be taken as exhaustive. I absolutely cherish the gifts of this seemingly simple gesture.

Lord I have fled unto thee teach me to do thy will for thou art my God. Taken from the Great Doxology of Matins

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A couple of years ago, Saturday existed as the day before Sunday.  Today, Saturday equals Vespers, the official beginning to the Liturgy.  In Vespers, we thank God for the creation of the entire world.  At Matins, we thank God for the Resurrection.  And at Liturgy, we see the Work of the People joining with the Mysteries of God.  I love the cycle, even though I struggle to comprehend all that is happening.

However, most people observe a tradition even before they enter the nave.  They light a candle.  Today, I recalled standing with a candle as I entered the Catechumenate.  My Catechumenate has been longer than most, yet the challenge for all the faithful is to remember our first love, to stay open to Christ within the Church, and to be increasingly transformed into the likeness of Christ.  In a way, the challenge is to retain the spirit of a Catechumen.  Every time I enter a parish, I can remember beginning my Catechumenate.  With every candle I light, I can offer myself anew to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.

A Catechumen's Candle

A Catechumen's Candle

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