Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
Worship begins with a choice. The word “worship” in English from the dictionary, which I consult when I don’t know what English words mean, comes from the word “worth” and worship begins when you discover what is the supreme value, what is the most important thing which you can relate to, serve and adore. And so the first question, which I would ask of myself or anyone who comes to see me asking for advice about worship and about prayer, would be, “What is the supreme value that exists for you? Whom or what do you feel is the most important thing or person for you?” Or if you prefer, at times at a later stage of a conversation: “Have you got a God whom you can worship, to whom you can pray?” Because ifyou have no-one to whom you could address your prayer, there is no point in trying to learn to pray. It is not by repeating the prayers of others, it is not by crying, shouting into an empty sky that you will make an act of worship.
So this is the first and a very important question, which we must ask ourselves time and again because of course we are all believers, of course we are all Christian, followers of Christ but as time passes, as maturity increases, or as in my case senility begins to creep in, we must ask ourselves, who is the God to whom I relate? What does He really mean in my life? And in what terms can I speak to Him? Because as in every relationship whether it is relating to one’s wife or one’s parents, or one’s children, or one’s friends, or strangers, the type of relationship that exists will determine also the type of conversation we can have, the way in which we do relate directly to one another. This is a very important thing, perhaps not so much for you personally, although I do believe that we must reassess continuously our position with regard to God, what we know about Him, how we relate to Him, what kind of God He is in our eyes, how ready we are to consider Him as the supreme value in our life. But it also is important for us with regard to people committed to our charge because people will ask us about worship, about prayer, and it is so disastrous when we try to give to people ways and show them techniques about praying, when they have no-one to address themselves. So often it results in deep disappointment, it sounds very much like telling a person: sit in front of an empty chair and talk to a person who is not there. And in fact there are a great many people who pray that way, who pray on the off-chance that there is someone who may hear. One can’t have a deep real relationship with someone whom one doesn’t know, who may exist or not, who may pay attention to us or not, who may care or not. So this is a very important thing, which I wanted to underline at the outset, - worship begins with asking ourselves what is the importance of God in my eyes, first, in my life, second. And the two things do not coincide absolutely because one can very well have a very warm sentimental feeling for God at moments of repose, at moments when there are no particular problems and then, confronted with an acute problem, feel alienated to Him. It applies in the same way to our relationships with people. How easy it is to have a free, affectionate, interesting relationship with a person who presents no problem to us, and how things change when suddenly this person appears to be quite different, either a challenge or an offence to us, or at times even gives us an impression that we are betrayed by this particular friend in whose friendship we felt so secure.
This of course is the extreme situation, and I think no-one can say or imagine that he is mature unless he can truly love not only his enemies, but also accept lovingly the person who betrays him. Remember Judas coming into the Garden of Gethsemane and Christ speaking to him and saying, “Friend, what for has thou come hether?” Friend… And friend is a very warm word.
So this the first question - who is God in my life. And “who is God in my life” implies a certain number of things which are not acts of prayer or at least are not couched in words. It implies a whole life. Again, a life in terms of loyalty, in terms of loyal friendship and in terms of obedience, understood not as submissiveness or enslavement but as the desire and ability to listen, because the word “to obey” comes from a Latin root that means “lend an ear”, not simply accept to be drilled in one way or another.
So again, where do I stand when I think of worship in God? Have I the slightest desire to meet Him or is it a duty? In the morning, in the evening do I say prayers because being a Christian it is my Christian duty, and being a clergyman I can’t help doing the things which I teach others? Or is it that the whole day I longed to have a moment when I will be able to be with God alone, face to face, with the joy we experience when we come home after a tiring day and meet the people whom we love most? It may be our mother, it may our wife, may be our children, but the people who mean most in our life.
I remember a French saint Jean-Baptiste Vianney, the Curé d’Ars. He was a very simple man with little education but filled with the grace of God. Some of his colleagues laughed at him, at his simplicity, some felt that his lack of theological knowledge made him unfit to fill his place and they approached his bishop and said that he was completely uneducated. And the bishop answered: “I don’t know whether he is educated, what I know is that he is enlightened.”
Well, this is what we should be with regard to God and with regard to the people who are around us because it is not our education that will help people, it’s the light that may stream out of us, that will reach people through our being and through our words, not so much through our actions, - we can be very charitable and attentive to people and perfectly cold-hearted, - it’s light, it’s warmth.
But to go back to the Curé d’Ars, he was the parish priest of a minute village not far from Lyon in France and he saw time and again an old peasant in his church who was sitting there hour after hour. One day he approached him and said, “Granddad, what are you doing sitting here for hours? I don’t see your lips move in prayer, you are not running your fingers over the beads of a rosary, what are you doing?” And the man said: “I look at Him, He looks at me and we are happy together”. That is worship, that is a true real relationship between a human soul and God. And this man felt that these moments were the moments of happiness, the moments of fulfilment, not of contentment, but moments when he grew to the full measure of his own stature growing towards the full measure of the stature of Christ. He did not pray particularly, he was in God’s presence, that was the true act of worship. It is very sad to think that one can come to church and say, “Fortunately, it will not last more that 40 minutes”. It would be so wonderful if having stayed for a long time, we could say, “O, must we part from God and from one another?”
I was a youth leader number of years ago in a boy’s and girl’s camp near Paris, and one evening a group of them said to me: “We have noticed that you read evening prayers. Could we come and pray with you?” And I said, “Yes, of course.” And then I thought, let us pray and see how long they can live in this act of prayer. So I read the evening prayers, then I went on to other things. You know, they stood there from 11 o’clock at night until 5 o’clock in the morning. They did not notice the passing of time, because they had never met these prayers, and they had never been in this atmosphere of a small group of people who wanted to pray together. They have been coming to church, they have been doing a variety of pious actions, but here they had chosen to do it. It was their joy and they enjoyed it, and they did not notice how time passed. I think this is a very important thing.
When we speak of worship, we say that God is the object of our adoration, but is He the object of our joy? Are we hungry for the moments, which we can spend with Him? In the course of the day do we feel this hunger, do we feel that there are moments when we are with Him, He is with us, we are in Christ and Christ in us? and that in Him we relate to the whole depth of the divine mystery in the Father? and that the Holy Spirit is speaking within us either by the unutterable groanings or clearly teaching us that in Christ we can say “Father” to the living God, the unfathomable, unreachable God whom we can know in communion, in participation? Are there such moments in the course of our day or is it that our faith is a situation accepted once and for all: I am a believer and I now get on with the work I have got to do - administration, preaching, reading, preparing sermons, preparing lectures, doing all the things which should be flowers and fruits on a tree and not replace the tree? And very often we all, clergy, could be compared with a fruit shop or a vegetable shop. The things are there but they have no roots anymore. If people are quick enough to buy them while they are not yet fading or rotting, it’s good but if people come too late, it will no longer be fresh fruit or fresh vegetables.
Is it the kind of persons we are? Are we capable at all moments to be a tree full of sap from which anyone can detach a fruit or a flower? Are we in God? If we are not in God at that moment we have nothing to do with worship, we are less than a pagan because a pagan at least worships a false god, - we have no God to worship when we drop out of the awareness of God. And when I speak of the awareness of God I don’t mean remembering things intellectually, I mean something which is deeper within us, which allows us to act and to think and to speak and to be, while that is still within us and we are within it. One of our saints canonised lately by the National Council in Russia, Theophane the Recluse, says that our sense of God should be like a little pain in our heart, the sense of loneliness which a child feels, when he is left alone in a room. There is no danger, there is no problem, only - the mother is not there, and there is a longing. This is what we should feel.
To take another example: when in the morning you open your letters and receive a letter that brings you a joy that fills your heart, that makes your heart dance and sing, the whole day will be illumined by this feeling. You will not need remind yourself that you received such and such letter, it will be light in your heart, it will be light in your mind, it will quicken all your energies; joy, exaltation has entered into you, and then everything which you will be doing, saying, thinking will be in the light of this event. And conversely if you received a message of pain, the same will apply to you, the whole day will be under a cloud. This is what should happen to us with regard to God, - we should all the day be in the light of God or in the brokenheartedness of our awareness either of sin, to use a very general word, or of the loss of God. I have let the contact go, where am I to find Him? How can I do it?
You may think that it is not as simple as that - it is. I’ve been a physician for fifteen years of my life, five years in the war, five years in general practice, and I made a rule whenever I felt that I lost touch with God to try to re-establish it, and if a patient came into my surgery and I felt I was loosing touch I would say to him or her, “I don’t know whether you are a believer or not but I must pray. If you are a believer, pray with me, if you are not, sit quiet.” And then I would kneel in front of my icon and keep silent until I felt I was back in God’s presence, then I would turn to my patient and say, “Now, what is the matter with you?” Well, some people probably felt that I was mentally disturbed, other people who know me better than that, still think that; but some people also discovered that there is no reason to be afraid of being what one is. Why not? He is a believer, I am not, or I am a believer in my own right. And that also established a depth and vigour in the relationship that otherwise might have not existed. So it’s very important to recapture our sense of God, it may be great, it may be small. There are people who are so deep in God, as no-one else. There are others who just touched the fringe of Christ’s garment, it doesn’t matter, but don’t let the fringe go, don’t let the presence go because otherwise we are like fish on the sand, we have no raison d’être, we have nothing to say to others. What can we say if we have no God ourselves? And it’s a very real thing. I don’t speak of extraordinary mystical experience but of just a feeling of loyalty, a feeling of belonging together, a feeling that we do things together and we are in togetherness.
Now I remember someone who has been coming to our church for years saying to me, “I am not an Orthodox, neither is my husband. When we come to church, are we total strangers to your liturgy because we don’t receive communion? Where do we belong?” And I said what I believe to be true, “If during the service you are immersed in prayer, you are immersed in the divine presence, you are participant of the liturgy even in it’s sacramental dimension because you are makers of the liturgy. If even you are an Orthodox you stand there waiting impatiently for the end of the service, you are an outsider and you have nothing to do with it.”
I remember a Russian officer who came to our parish in Paris. He was a small thin man whose dream was to spend his time in the pub; and he had a tall andportly wife whose dream was to bring him to church, and she did. And he stood behind her during the service and periodically he pulled at her skirt and said, “Ada, Ada, let’s go home, they will never finish their clerical parades.” Well, if you imagine that being an Orthodox made him participant of the liturgy, I think you are very optimistic. And the same applies to an Anglican or to a Free Churchman - to the extent to which we are in God and in act of worship, we are of the Church. If we are not, at that particular moment we are on the fringe. We are in the position in which in ancient times unbaptised people or excommunicated people were that had to stand in the porch and were not allowed into the nave of the church. Whether we stand in the nave or not, we are outside of it, and that we must be aware of for ourselves and for others because it’s a great temptation, especially in the army, to consider that everyone who chooses to come to church is in the act of worship. You are not naive enough, I suppose, not to know that in the army to go to church at times is a great advantage because you are spared a certain number of other chose or exercises and to be in church at times is much more restful than cleaning the barracks.
So it is not everyone who is there is of the Church, and yet everyone who has come can receive a message. What message? From whom? From the priest who is there and from others who are there. And this will depend on whether we can convey something which sounds true or not. And conveying does not mean use words that convince. You remember probably this passage in which Christ was speaking to a crowd of people and what he was saying about eating His flesh, drinking His blood sounded unacceptable to most, and they left. Christ turned to his disciples and asked, “Are you going to leave Me also?” And Peter replied, “Where should we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
What are these words of eternal life? If you read the Gospel, Christ does not speak of eternal life in the sense of describing it, giving an image of it, calling people into it. He speaks words of eternity, words that reach the hearts of people and awaken, bring to life the hearts and minds and the whole personality of those who received the message. This is our function, but to do that we must ourselves have something to do with it. I am not implying that we haven’t but I am implying that we must be watchful, watchful all the time, we can not take a service simply relying on the book and the text and the effect it may have on others. If it does not reach me, why should it reach someone else?
There is a passage in St. John Climacus, a writer of the period of St. Benedict, on Sinai, in which he says, “The Word of God is like a pointed arrow, it can pierce any shield and yet, unless there is a bow, a cord, an arm, an eye, it will remain dormant on the soil.” Well, we are called to be the eye that sees to whom we speak, to be the bow, the arm in the bow that will fly the shaft. But how much we must be aware of the aim because so often whether we preach, whether we lecture, whatever we do, the aim seems to be the mind of the person, the intellect, we try to convey information, knowledge. Are we reaching the heart? And when I say “the heart” I do not mean a person’s emotions, I mean the core of this person, the point in this person from which real feeling, real thought and real action will come. And the word “action” is not irrelevant because prayer, yes, adoration, worship of God, yes, faith, yes, but there is also a way of worshipping God in action. You remember the words of Christ, ‘Whatever you will have done to one of these, you will have done to Me.” And we have no right to imagine that action can replace prayer and prayer can replace action.
The Russian writer Solovyev in one of his short stories presents us with two persons in argument, and one of them says to the other, “I cannot understand why you, Christians, are so keen on action. Isn’t it enough for you to pray?” And the answer is, “Not quite. Very devout people pray before meals but then they sit down to eat.” And I think it’s a very important approach. Yes, pray, pray for God to give us, you, me, light of understanding, determination to act the right way, a warm, glowing heart capable of receiving message of need, of pain, of suffering or of joy, a will firm and the ability to help, yes; but then - act. And unless we act, we do not do what we are supposed to do, because to be faithful to God, to worship Him implies action, it implies to do with regard to the people around us, not to speak of ourselves, what He would wish us to do or rather what He would do Himself if He was there is the flesh. And that is a very important thing. There is no way of worshipping God unless it is incarnate. We worship a God who is the living God that has become true Man and who has acted and has called us to act, to live the Gospel, to live it in all its richness, in all its detail, to live it in such a way that every commandment of love, of compassion, of understanding, of truth should be fulfilled by us with regard to people and through us that other people should be brought into true worship of God, which is considering Him as our supreme Lord, Master, Teacher, Friend, Who gave us an example that we must follow.
There is a last point I wanted to make about worship: morning prayers, evening prayers and the day. The substance of morning prayers is really to awake with the awareness that I am emerging out of sleep as Lazarus was called out of the tomb by the voice of Christ. Well, I sleep, I am as helpless, as unaware of self and the surrounding world as he was, and a voice says, “Lazarus, arise”, and we become aware of God, of self, of the surrounding world and the day that has dawned. The second thing, which I think we must remember, is that this day is a new day, a day that has never, never existed in history, it is like a vast plain covered with snow, with not one footstep mark on it, and God says to us, “Here is this day, virginal, pure of stain, and you must cross this vastness. Let your footsteps mark the right way, don’t stray, don’t soil this vastness, only mark it by a line that is the way to Heaven”. With what veneration we must enter into each day, not saying, “O, Monday again!” Or perhaps, for a clergyman, “Sunday again!”
The second thing is that we must realise that we can face everything in this day as a gift of God. Every person who will come our way, every circumstance, - and I do not mean that they will be pleasant, - is a situation or a person to whom we can do good or evil. Every person whom we meet may be a messenger from God to us or we may be a messenger from God to this person. How do I listen, how do I hear, how do I respond, how do I act in both directions? And then it does not mean at all that every person will be a pleasant encounter or every situation will be a nice one. But are we called to be in the nicest places? Are we supposed to be a Christian ghetto? No, indeed, we are called to be the light of the world, and the light must be there where there is darkness, where the darkness is the darkest, for us to dispel it. We are called to be the salt that prevents corruption, we are called to be the people who know the truth and can speak in charity. We are the people who must live as Christ lived on His terms, love if necessary at the cost of our lives. That’s where we are and that’s what our vocation is. And if we ask ourselves, when there are choices, what should we do?
There is a children’s story, a Russian children’s story about it. A church dignitary that was told by the king that unless he can answer him within 24 hours three questions, he will be flogged publicly. This man reflects, goes to his library, asks questions from all of wise men around him and he can find no answer. And he is trotting sadly back to town knowing that tomorrow he will be flogged and he can hear the hoofs of the horses saying to him, “Flog tomorrow, flog tomorrow, flog tomorrow.” And then he runs into a little girl who is minding geese. This little girl looks at him and says, “Why do you look so sad?” He explains. “And what are the questions?” The questions are, What is the most important moment in life? What is the most important person in the world? What is the most important action one can fulfil? And the little girl says, “But what’s the problem? The only important moment of life is the present moment because the past is gone, the future is not yet there. The most important person in the world is the person with whom you are now. And the most important action you can fulfil is at this present moment to do the right thing about this present person.”
Well, if that was our attitude, we could do things with God because at every moment we could say to God, “Here is the person, here is the situation, allow, give me Your eyes, give me Your hearing, give me Your heart, let me understand things as You do and let me act as I should.” That would be a complete attitude of worshipping God, not of reading prayers but of worshipping the living God.