Crowded Prayer

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For reasons I won’t go into here, I am in Boston for the better part of the week at a conference with a group of priests. Many good conversations, to say the least. In the course of one I was reminded of how “crowded” Orthodox prayer is. The service in the Chapel was part of the reminder. The place was packed, like most seminary chapels, with an extra thirty priests thrown in to boot. But the little children present (seminaries always seem to have lots of these in the Orthodox world), peeking, and poking, and laughing, and singing, and filling in the extra spaces between all of these big adults, was a wonderful image. Orthodox prayer, even when you’re not looking at the kids is crowded. There are the icons – usually lots of them – everywhere you look. And they are all praying, or blessing, or standing there as reminders of heaven. And even when you close your eyes, ignore the children and block out the icons, the words come crashing through in their own crowdedness:

Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed, Lady Theotokos, and ever-virgin Mary and all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.

This petition occurs in almost every litany of the service. The image is of a very crowded heaven. Scripture itself tells us that God is the “Lord of Sabbaoth,” that is, “the Lord of Hosts.” He is not the God of one, but of many – even very many. The Orthodox experience of prayer has this crowdedness about it. I pray to God who hears me – but so do all of these “eaves-dropping” saints. The other aspect of it is that I wouldn’t want it any other way. The loneliness of some American spiritualities is unbearable. We weren’t created for it. “It is not good for man to be alone,” God pronounced in the earliest chapters of Genesis. This isn’t just a good reason for marriage, but a general observation of human beings. Not even hermits, in the Tradition, are alone. They may live alone in a cave, but the caves become crowded – with angels, saints, distracting demons, what have you. We were not created for alone. When we pray, we should get used to the crowd that joins us. We should not ignore the “great cloud of witnesses” that surround us. We should not pretend there are no angels constantly crying aloud and saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I want to cry aloud with them.

8 comments:

  1. I noticed this sense of crowdedness early in my Orthodox experience–at your church, in fact.

    There were all these persons everywhere. Icons of them, and of angels. Then, there was the naming of all these saints. Then we named everybody in the church, in fact lots of friends of people in the church and lots of people who may have only come once or twice.

    Then, there was the naming of lots of deceased people. We also named lots of bishops and Metropolitans and what have you People everywhere.

    This was quite different from my Protestant experience with lots of blank, white walls and calls to meditate on great propositions. Instead, we kept naming three really important people over and over again–the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–and mentioned the characters surrounding the throne (Cherubim and Seraphim) a few times, along with the Mother of God and the Forerunner. All these characters helped in establishing a theme that made the other lists of many persons seem to make more sense.

    Church was no longer an isolated, desolated experience. It became a party. Afterward, we had another party.

  2. What *is* an introvert to do? I ask this sincerely, because my awkwardness around people means I’ve never been able to like going to church- any church- so it seems a bit of a spiritual impediment. I wonder if the distance I often feel from God is part or result.

  3. Gina,

    You pray and you go to Church. Nowhere, does it seem to me, that the fellowship of the saints intrudes on introverts (I’m an introvert though most of my friends don’t think so – but it’s true). But the crowdedness of it all is not for our harm. If it’s hard, well, the extroverts have their difficulties too. Life and salvation are not supposed to be easy. But they will heal us, not hurt us. If it’s difficult it’s not for bad reasons.

    Every week I go to an alergist office and I get two shots. I don’t like getting two shots a week. But thus far, my colds and laryngitis have been greatly relieved, and I do not spend 4 t0 8 weeks a year with hardly a voice (a problem for a priest).

    Neither will the hardships we introverts incur in regular attendance at Church. It’ll help in the long run.

  4. But the crowdedness of it all is not for our harm. If it’s hard, well, the extroverts have their difficulties too.

    That’s true. I recall a very extraverted friend telling me how difficult it was for her to do a one-day prayer retreat in solitude.

  5. Fr.
    A most excellent reflection. It is one of the things that I am constanly reminded of, that I am not alone. Even as I have prayed Daily Matins during Great Lent by myself until the priest arrived, I’ve realized that I am not alone, rather I am in the presence of that “great cloud of witnesses”. I prefer to be in the presence of the Church militant, but knowing that the Church triumphant always stands together with us is indeed a great comfort
    Peace,
    Don

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