About this content: What follows are notes taken from previously recorded audio lectures given by Father Thomas Hopko to seminarians. The recording audio quality was poor at times since they were converted from cassette tapes to mp3. The date of the recordings is uncertain. It seems Father Thomas named this series of lectures “The Practice of Personal Prayer and its relation to the Spiritual Life in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition”. With God’s help, this series of posts simply aims to share some of the main points of this teaching with other people who have a sincere longing for God.
Why go to Church if we can pray at home?
- Liturgy is not prayer. That’s the first answer. We are going to Church for another reason. We do have to try to pray there and obviously there are certain times even when we are called to pray for example when the Deacon says “Let us pray to the Lord”. At these times we all try to pray together, but the liturgy is not a prayer service.
- The liturgy is a public corporate action of the gathering of the people of God that is commanded by God.
- God commands the liturgy from as far back as the time of Abraham and Moses in the Law.
- Liturgy includes prayer but is not only prayer.
- Liturgy includes Psalmody and prayer.
- Psalmody is for one thing and prayer is for something else.
- Psalmody is needed for prayer and you must do Psalmody prayerfully because you have to pray in whatever you do including chanting Psalms, but they are not the same thing.
- Yet, the direct purpose of the singing of the Psalms (i.e. Psalmody) or singing of the hymns or singing of the canticles is not prayer in the technical [same] sense that Jesus used when He said said “go into your room and shut the door”.
- Liturgy is not a prayer service.
- The Liturgy is not getting together [with others] to do what is done by yourself when you pray alone.
- Many people think that a modern “free” prayer group is the way the early Church prayed, but nothing is further from the truth.
- As a matter of historical fact, the practice of what would be called today “corporate free prayer” or in other words praying together with other people the way you would pray by yourself – is not found anywhere in the Orthodox tradition. It does not exist.
- Even in the monastery there is not one example, not even one oblique reference to the fact that two or three Christians or two or three monks would get together and say “let’s pray” and then just pray out loud in their own way with each other. It does not exist.
- The only thing that you have in the tradition is…the personal prayer of the heart that is secret and private. So much so, that in [homes] husbands and wives hide it from each other. It is not done together, it is done alone.
- Liturgy is fixed. Liturgy is not “free”. There are certain fixed times that you do liturgy and the Church also prescribes the fixed way that it is done.
- In the Bible, we see Jesus prayed alone, apart all by himself and He also prayed the liturgy of the Jews.
“Now don’t forget – both the liturgy of the Jews and the liturgy of Christians were not done only in Temples. Certain liturgies are also done in our homes – for example, when we pray before a meal, that is a liturgical act, a common act. We are going to eat, we get together and we bless it. Someone blesses it, someone gives thanks, and we have a form for the blessing and for the thanks. It may be “free” in the sense that we don’t have to follow some book word for word but it’s pretty obvious what we do. However, you don’t make it up and you don’t try to be original. You ask God to bless the food. You thank God for the food. You don’t have to get into details…”
- At home, we have the Trisagion prayer and the Lord’s Prayer – these are most fixed prayers. Everybody knows what is. Everybody knows what it’s going to be.
- And you have Psalmody, probably in the original Christian tradition taken from the Jews. Even the morning and evening prayers were Psalms.
- Certain Psalms were said at morning, noon and night.
- Sometimes in the most diverse places the same Psalms were used in the same way. Ninety one, for example was used at noon and at midnight.
- The morning Psalms, which used to include twelve, have been reduced in the Eastern tradition to the “Six Psalms” (i.e. Psalm 3, 37, 62, 87, 102, 142) that we currently include today and this is evident as early as the eleventh century.
- To be a monk in early centuries you had to be able to say the entire Psalter by heart or you couldn’t be tonsured.
The purpose of liturgy
- Liturgy brings Christians together. Gathering together is even a sacramental act. There’s a mystery of the gathering because in the gathering we somehow become the Church.
- Not one of us makes up the Church alone, so the liturgy is the constitution of the Church – the gathering of God’s people together.
- When the Church is gathered, we gather around the bishop. St. Ignatius of Antioch says “where the bishop is, there let the people gather, just as where Christ is, there is the catholic church”.
- So people gather around the one table, the one bishop, the one cup in the one place and they are all together as it says in the expression from St. Paul and from the Acts of the Apostles…”in one place” (Acts 2:1).
- This gathering together was considered absolutely essential to the very life of a person in the early Church – you’re dead without it.
- Namely on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the first day of the week, the Christians gathered even under persecution and didn’t say “oh you can pray at home, why should i risk my neck and go in there with those other people?”.
- It is true, God is everywhere, but in the time of persecution early Christians still gathered together even risking their lives – why? Because there’s an essential value in the gathering – it shows to one another that we are not alone. It shows that you’re a member of the community, that you belong to one another, that “one Christian is no Christian” as Tertullian said.
- We belong to God together, Christians constitute a new people, just as the body has many parts, many members, so in the liturgy (which means “common action”), it is the common action of the Church meaning the realizing of the many members who form one body.
- It is only in that body of believers that the Lord Jesus Christ [the head of the body] then becomes present.
- In the Orthodox tradition the ordained minister is a sacramental actualization of the Lord himself, meaning he holds the place of God, so you don’t even have the Church unless you have the priest there, otherwise it’s just people, very nice people, Christian people, praying people, doing all kinds of things but it is not the Church.
- It is only when you gather as Church and with the succession to the Apostles, then you have a transformation taking place – from “no people” wandering around, to God’s people.
Q: What is meant by “Church”?
A: “The english term ‘Church’, is translated from the Hebrew word, ‘Kahal’ in the Septuagint as ‘ecclesia’ which means the gathering where the Lord is present and where the Lord acts.“
- When the Church gathers together things happen there that cannot happen elsewhere, even when you’re praying in your room alone, no matter how holy you are.
- As Church, we stand before God together, to pray together, to bring together intercessions, supplications, thanksgivings, blessings, and to try to do these things together as the liturgy says, “as one mind and one mouth and one heart”.
Liturgy, prayer and hermitic life
- How does this all relate to holy people in the Church who live intentionally in isolation by themselves (e.g. Anchorites, Hermits, St. Anthony the Great, St. Seraphim of Sarov who for many years didn’t even talk to anybody; and the countless other ascetics that have had this vocation)?
- The Orthodox teaching is very clear that a person who leads an isolated hermitic life certainly must do so only because it is the will of God.
- It cannot be done to show off, or to cut off. The holy people don’t say they don’t need the Church, they don’t say they don’t need the Sacraments, they don’t say that they don’t need the brothers.
- If they are separated from all because they don’t want to be in communion with all, then they’re in the hands of the demons and have to be excommunicated.
- There is even a Canon law from the Council of Gangra (340) that if anyone accepts the ascetic life out of disparagement for flesh, for disparagement of marriage or disparagement for human brotherhood, they are not to be tonsured, instead they are to be excommunicated from the Church.
- Yet some may have that vocation [of a hermit] and that vocation is only proved when it is affirmed by the authority of the Church itself, and when the hermit realizes that this form of asceticism is their mode of being in communion with others in the Church and very often they even brought the people communion.
- St Seraphim of Sarov for example, lived in the wilderness but he sang the liturgy daily that every other Orthodox Christian alive on earth was singing that day, so he was deeply in touch with the Church in a mystical sense.
- There was also an early Apostolic canon that if you missed a gathering three weeks in a row, you had to make an explanation to the bishop, and if you didn’t have a good one, you would be ex-communicated for a while.
- A person would be put under penance for abandonment of the gathering, because Christians belong together and have to be together, therefore the authentic anchorites [hermits] certainly never dared to say they don’t need the Church because they can pray by themselves in their room.
- Christians are members of the Church and have to be in the Church. Therefore, the gathering is an end in itself and it’s connected to the praying person and there’s prayer in it.
Q: What is meant by Synaxsis?
A: Sometimes if you’re talking about the Divine Liturgy synaxsis might refer to the beginnning which is focused on the Word and then leads to the Eucharist. However, synaxsis is also a general term meaning the gathering of the people usually in the monastery or in a synagogue community. It refers to a gathering exactly for common prayer, psalmody, hymn singing and the reading and the listening to the Word of God so that you go there to read and to listen.
Liturgy, prayer and the Word of God
- Everybody is there to hear the Word of God, to listen to the Word of God and to hear the sermon (homily) preached only by those who are consecrated for the purpose of proclaiming the Word and are entrusted with that…and have that charisma.
- The proclamation and the hearing of the Word of God is a sacramental act and therefore there is a quality of listening and hearing the Word in the context of the liturgy and even for that particular time within the liturgical year (e.g. feast, fast, remember of lives of the saints).
- Humble acceptance and application of the Word of God in this way throughout the year will undoubtedly strengthen the listener’s spiritual life and their own personal prayer life
- Within the Christian tradition and even the Judeo-Christian tradition, if you truly cannot be at the gathering, one might still try to observe certain elements of liturgy alone by reading the same readings at that same time of day, week and year and there’s even something mystical about it.
- We could all hear the same word and it’s very interesting how people can hear from the sermon what they need very differently for each person even though it’s the same sermon.
- So there is something very important about the gathering in the Word, the prayer of the gospel, the prayer to be inspired, the prayer for the creatures to be together which makes liturgy a communal act, the sermon is a communal act and it is part of the sacramental act of the liturgy when it is done properly.
- The liturgy is objectively given. The Lord said “you do this in remembrance of Me”.
- We go to church to remember together, to celebrate together, to thank together…all those specific activities are there and then ultimately to commune with each other, in the one bread, the one cup of the one Lord, the one gathering, the one table, the one minister, to be brought into this unity which you cannot do by yourself.
- Therefore the sacramental life, the eucharist, the community, cannot be done alone! It is canonically forbidden to be done alone!
- The Eucharist is for gathering everybody together at the same time, in the same place, altogether with the altar boys, the old ladies, with the baby screaming, that’s what it’s for. It is not a private pietistic rite. That’s not what its for.
- The liturgy is also not a polished act of the individual. Whether he’s the priest or he’s one of the people that’s not what its for. We go to liturgy to be with the other Christians and for all that this means.
- In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, he says “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ”. We can do this at the liturgy by bearing each other’s burdens. By putting up with each other, by rejoicing in each other, by affirming the existence of the other, that’s what the whole thing is for and you cannot do that alone.
- Now, in the midst of all that, you [still] pray, you try [sometimes with great difficulty] to pray during the Psalms, you try to pray during the hymns, but when it says let us pray to the Lord, you [still] consciously try to pray.
In the Orthodox tradition, we believe the prayer of the liturgy, this common action of God’s people together, is literally the action of God given to us… and it is the faith of the Orthodox Christians that the liturgy is actually Christ’s prayer to the Father.