When I first met my wife I often acted ridiculous. I would get off of work late, hop into my yellow Chevette, and drive 35 miles to her home in the country for a half-hour visit before driving another 35 miles back home. I spent 3 times as much time in my car than I did with her but I didn't care. Being with Denise was the highlight of my day (and still is). When I got back to my house I would call her again before turning in.
No one had to prod me to drive to Denise's house. Seeing her was never onerous or a burden but always a joy. I kept pictures close at hand to remind me of her when we were apart. I didn't forget her birthday or Valentine's day. Seeking to bring a smile to her face was as natural as breathing.
Years later I recall these memories with great fondness at the oddest times. For instance, when I stand in front of the holy altar, I get a glimpse of the great mystery of God's love for us and how far it surpasses our own, even the intense love of a young starry-eyed couple. God's love for us is ably demonstrated by the coming of Christ into the world and by His gift of His body and blood in the Eucharist celebration.
What concerns me today is how the Orthodox in this country today hold His love and our participation in the divine services of the Church in such low regard. I am mystified by our meager liturgical life. I was not raised Orthodox and did not experience the rich prayer of our liturgical tradition as I grew up. I still don't take it for granted. For me, the sine quo non of my prayer life is to gather together as community and offer our prayers to the God who listens. That so few even make the attempt to do so strikes me as a monumental tragedy.
People often visit our Church to see the splendor of our iconography. During the tours a question inevitably arises: "What is being Orthodox all about?" I always speak first about prayer. I tell them that if they really don't like to come to church services, or don't like to pray at home and throughout the day, then they may not really like Orthodoxy since to be Orthodox is to pray. Yet, I feel a bit uneasy about such brash statements when I look at the sparse participation in our services.
Almost no one attends Sunday Orthros, Saturday and Festal Vespers services (some parishes don't even schedule them anymore) attract only a handful of "religious fanatics" or people with "nothing better to do." The vast majority of Sunday worshppers arrive whenever they want, even as late as the start of Holy Communion. These habits are so entrenched that they are taken as normal.
How did we arrive at so pitiable a state?
First we have to assess blame to the priests. Sir Thomas More's maxim to King Henry VIII that "silence gives consent" applies here. Left unchecked and uncorrected, inappropriate behavior becomes a bad habit. Priests are called to lovingly correct the people, and tardiness or inattentiveness during the services is one habit they need to correct.
Further, many people hold strange and even heterodox notions of what the divine services are all about. Some attend the services to "hear the beautiful music," others to "witness the pageantry," and still others to hear their native language and affirm national and cultural affinities -- all laudable goals I suppose but nevertheless irrelevant to the purpose of corporate prayer.
Correctly understood, liturgy is about none of these things. Rather it is about the leitos (the people) offering up their ergon (energy and effort) to God in prayer. The term "liturgy" implies an active, rather than passive, role on the part of those attending.
Again, here I blame the priests for allowing this malaise of non-participation to fester unchecked. Is it any wonder that our people deem the liturgical tradition of the Church irrelevant to their day-to-day lives when they are relegated to the role of passive observer?
Orthodox believers tell me "You know, Father, I don't need to go to Church to pray!" or "I can feel close to God anywhere." I even heard Orthodox people say that in lieu of attending Church they watch their favorite televangelist! When I was Protestant, I expected to hear such unenlightened pap. To hear it from our own parishioners is staggering!
This unhappy situation gives rise to a false dichotomy in our attitude toward the services as well. One one hand we neglect the services and dismiss the form and rubrics of the Typikon as meaningless. We change, alter, or cut our liturgies with no regard to liturgical tradition.
On the other hand, the rubrical formulae can become so entrenched and rigid that it becomes unclear whether we are worshipping God in a liturgy or worshipping the liturgy itself. We forget the Lord's teaching when he was questioned by the Pharisees about eating corn on the Sabbath, "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).
Both positions fail to address the needs of an American Orthodox community now largely ignorant of its own heritage of prayer. We are like the rich heir who lives in squalor because he doesn't know what he possesses.
How do we correct this pitiable state?
Do we throw up our hands and say, "well the real Church has always been very small," and descend into fortress mentality, dispensing the services to those few who share our enthusiasm? I pray not. Do we forego the liturgical tradition in favor of programs, concerts, lectures, sports, festivals, cultural events, committees, and whatever new idea blows into our board rooms from the flea-market of popular religion? God spare us from such a fate!
We first must become persons of prayer because we cannot give that which we do not possess. We need to kneel at the feet of the Crucified One and beg his mercy that we might complete our lives according to His design. Then, having done this, we must patiently teach our people to commune with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the divine services of the Church.
A return to pastoral liturgics is needed to move beyond the entrenched/whimsical paradigm that holds us in thrall. Kat oikonomeia, or "by economy" only works if it stems from an awareness of what has always been considered normal. It breaks down however, when our traditions are forgotten so that we make up the rubrics as we go.
Let us so love Jesus Christ so that prayer becomes our raison d'etre and not merely an afterthought. Let us learn the rhythm of the Church's life of corporate prayer. In so doing we can leave behind the tired husk of dead quasi-religion and pseudo-spirituality that masquerades as a living faith.
To do less is to denies the Gospel of Jesus Christ. May it never be said of us that we have "neglect(ed) so great a salvation" (Hebrews 2:3). Let us recall the words of St. Paul, "Not forsaking the assembly of ourselves together as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another and so much the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25).
Fr. Apostolos Hill is the assistant priest at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Denver, Colorado.