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.