Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, in his little classic, Beginning to Pray, focuses first on the absence of God rather than His presence – which is helpful for me since that’s starting where I have to start (as do almost all of us). He grounds this in God’s personhood and His freedom. God is not some object that we always have at our beck and call. Though He is indeed “everywhere present and filleth all things,” He is still free. It is not at all unusal for us to begin prayer only to find only a sense of absence.
St. Gregory of Nyssa is said to have opposed the idea of pilgrimages to Jerusalem since we could far more easily encounter God in our hearts. It is well enough said, but it is still true that being creatures who dwell in time and space, we sometimes have to go somewhere specific in order to reach the Jerusalem in our heart.
Over my years of pastoring I have been told a number of times, “I can worship God more easily on a walk in the woods than in Church.” In my snappier moods I have been known to counter with, “That seems very odd that you should encounter God in the woods since He had an appointment to meet you last Sunday in Church at 10.
We are human beings, not pure intellects (or however we are to describe the “bodiless powers of heaven” – angels). Thus it should come as no surprise to us that being dwellers in time and space we might have to be somewhere and sometime if we are to encounter God.
The great Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, knew something of this. After every remarkable encounter with God it seems to have been their practice to build and altar and make sacrifice and even to change the name of the place to remember the specifics of the encounter.
Several years ago we had a Methodist Sunday School Class of young boys and girls (around age 10) come and visit our parish on a Sunday. We knew about the visit ahead of time and were glad to welcome them. We did nothing unusual in the service. At that time St. Anne met in rented commercial space. Other than the icons and candles there was absolutely nothing remarkable about our space. After Church one of the young girls said to her mother (who happened to be the Sunday School teacher), “Can we come back here next Sunday?”
Puzzled, her mother asked, “Why.”
“God is here,” was the girls answer. There was nothing to be said. The mother blushed and ushered her out. I can only wonder how long it will take that young girl to return to an Orthodox Church, for “God is here.”
The Church does many things to help us in our pilgrimage to God. The “beauty of our temples” (not a ubiquitous phenomenon) is part of that effort. We place icons for veneration. We encourage people to light candles, to cross themselves, to make prostrations (when appropriate). Incense rises before our eyes and fills our nostrils with the odor of a “sweet sacrifice.”
Still, St. Gregory is right. The pilgrimage is to the heart (even if you are going to Jerusalem). St. Mary of Egypt’s simple story is graphic illustration of the heart’s utter importance in this journey and encounter.
Our narthex is filled with things for worship. Candles, alms basins and the like. I have sometimes felt tempted to put a box in the narthex and mark it, “Earthly Cares,” so that we might have a place to put them when we lay them aside. It is more easily sung than actually done.
Protestant reformers when in an iconoclastic mood, smashed images and whitewashed walls of churches. All distractions to the pure Word of God were removed. Of course our minds are such that they cannot stand a blank slate. Give us a blank slate to look at and we will fill it in with all kinds of images, very few of which are holy.
Even in an Orthodox Church, where the images are there for us to see and direct our minds to heaven, we still find ourselves distracted. That is where we finally encounter God in His utter humility. Such is His love of man and compassion for our frailty, that when all is said and done He offers Himself to us on a spoon. How many times have I felt like a mother giving medicine to her children (please ignore the gender issues in that last statement). Communion is our “medicine of immortality.” We would never find our way there except for the condescension of God.
In the fear of God and with faith and love draw near…