Three Ways to Persevere in Orthodox Worship Even When It’s Boring

I’ll admit it. Recently the liturgy felt longer than usual, even though my FitBit told me it wasn’t. I had been unable to corral my wandering thoughts during worship and had difficulty focusing. No spiritual or temporal crisis loomed. I believed the words, I appreciated the service and those who ministered, but going through the motions left me disconnected, stifling yawns. And yet…

[“Asleep in Church” image from Mr. Bean Official Site]

The thought of worshiping elsewhere, of looking for more contemporary music, more practical preaching, a better facility, maybe a coffee shop and jazz combo in the lobby (yes, that’s a thing) never occurred to me.

Why not? Clearly the service wasn’t “meeting my needs.” It was repetitive, and the melodies weren’t particularly hummable. Maybe Orthodox worship just isn’t my “style.”

All these thoughts—which, at base, are centered on the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I—circled back to an important question: Why bother with Orthodox worship?

Obviously this is a huge question, impossible to answer in a short blog post. Scholarly textbooks and seminary courses in liturgics are devoted to the subject of worship. I am not struggling with questions of what is true and right, however; I believe that Orthodoxy contains the fullness of the Christian Faith as the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

But to be honest, Truth with a capital T does not always get me out of bed in the morning. Sometimes I attend church more out of raw obedience than out of heartfelt desire. On those days, certain aspects of the Orthodox worship experience settle my heart, if not my distractible mind, reminding me why I keep returning to the nave. Here are three of them that help me to persevere. I’m sure you can come up with many more.

1. True Worship Transcends Time and Space

[Image of “Christ in Glory” from “A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons” blog]

The Divine Liturgy is not simply a “high church” expression of formal religious experience. In the Orthodox understanding of worship, when we enter the nave, we are not only standing in a particular geographic location down here, doing our thing. We actually ascend to heaven and join those in Christ who have gone before us. We are both here and there; we stand simultaneously in the temporal world and in eternity.

This entrance into heavenly worship is reality, not mere sentiment. It is also a primary reason why the Divine Liturgy does not change or try to entertain us. Worship begins in heaven, with the angels and saints who stand continually before the throne of God. (Wait—they’re standing, too? Revelation 7:9 and 8:2 say yes. Okay, I’m wearing flats next week.)

The priest’s opening blessing in the Liturgy proclaims, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” Together we embark on a journey with the Kingdom of God as its destination. The Church invites us along, leading us to humble ourselves, repent, and believe. I can do that, even when my thoughts and emotions won’t cooperate.

2. Orthodox Architecture Communicates Spiritual Reality

Although I frequently forget this heavenly dimension, the architecture of an Orthodox Church reminds me where I am and who is with me. The iconography surrounds us with saints and angels because the saints and angels actually surround us. Icons are not mere artwork illustrating the truths of Scripture; they are “windows into heaven,” allowing us to perceive the reality of our resurrected brothers and sisters in Christ who are worshiping along with us.

This is very different from many Protestants’ experience of a church as “four bare walls and a sermon.” What do those bare walls communicate? Usually they bring focus to what is happening on the stage—the music and the sermon, a concert and a lecture. Traditionally, Protestant churches have also featured a large cross on or above the stage.

[Image of historic Bodie Methodist Church, Mono County, California, from Bodie.com]

But even the tradition of a physical cross is falling by the wayside in some places. One OCA altar server, a former elder in a well-respected Evangelical congregation, told me that in that church, the prominent cross on the stage was moved to a wall at the side of the sanctuary. Eventually it disappeared altogether from the church. (So did he.) This change was intended to make the church more “seeker-friendly,” but the result was an auditorium that could easily house a business conference or a New Age meditation workshop.

Bare walls communicate the primacy of the sermon in the worship experience, whereas Orthodox icons lead us to communion with Christ in the Eucharist. Wherever we rest our gazes, we are invited back to Christ and His Church.

Architecture and adornment communicate a message, and the message in an Orthodox church, whether a cathedral or a hallowed space in a shopping mall, is Christ with us, coming to meet us where we are—heaven meets earth. We are part of the Church here on earth and also one with the Church Triumphant in heaven. We are one Body in Christ, not two separate groups separated by an unbridgeable chasm. We are not alone, and even when the worshipers have left, the nave is never truly empty.

3. Liturgical Worship is Crammed Full of Theology

Protestant churches tend to feature very clear statements of faith on their websites, but with the exception of the more mainline, liturgical denominations, the services themselves can be theologically hazy.

[Image by Lauren Bryan on Unsplash]

In retrospect, I think this is because the services are subject to frequent change—in music, in biblical interpretation, in the latest discipleship methods. The entirety of a church’s belief system might be expressed over the course of a year, but in most churches, the theological content is contained solely in the subject matter of the sermon series. (The lyrics of modern worship songs are mostly emotional, not doctrinal.) Creeds are not in vogue, and Communion is often served without explanation—worshipers fill in the blanks on what the grape juice and crackers mean, according to their backgrounds and personal preferences.

[Image from the website of St. George Greek Orthodox Church, Bloomfield Hills, MI]

However, if you attend a Divine Liturgy without knowing what Orthodox people believe, just wait a minute. We’ll spell it out for you in the hymns, the prayers, the Creed, and the homily. We’ll illustrate doctrine through the senses in clerical vestments, in iconography, in incense, and, most importantly, in the chalice, through the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This clear teaching, passed down through apostolic succession over the centuries, gives me solid ground to stand on, even when my feet are weary and restless. Unchanging doctrine requires no defense. It is eternally relevant and needs no updating.

Note to Self: Liturgy is Supposed to be Work

I remain a faithful Orthodox Christian in spite of my off days. When I’m honest, I know the problem is with my heart, not with the Church, and certainly not with God. After all, the word liturgy, from the Greek word leitourgia, means “work of the people.” We sing, we recite, we respond with “Lord, have mercy.” We stand, we sit (in the West, at least), we kneel. During Great Lent, we do lots of prostrations (also known as “Orthorobics”). The service is definitely not a spectator sport.

Sometimes Orthodox worship is a sublime, otherworldly experience; at other times, I am all too earthbound. But regardless of how much I comprehend, regardless of how “present” I am in each moment, I trust that as I continue to immerse myself in the timeless truths of the Divine Liturgy, some of them are bound to soak in.

[Image of St. Catherine’s Church, Moscow, from The Mendeleyev Journal blog]

8 comments:

  1. You make me realize how blessed it is to have five small needy children in worship. If I hear 50% of the service I am doing great! A lot of the time is spent frantically whispering inane things like “stop rolling the rugs!” “Please get your feet out of your brother’s face”, or “please do not shred that bulletin into little tiny pieces.” I may have struggles in worship but boredom is not one of them. It never occurred to me that my children might be helping rather than hindering my worship. Thank you for that perspective!

    1. I am in awe of parents of young children at church! When our four children were small, we attended a Protestant church, and the children were in Sunday School during the service. By training your children to learn respect, reverence, and self-control, you are giving them a precious gift, although they might not appreciate it for another decade or two. 🙂 As my priest is fond of saying, children are not the future of the church–they ARE the church! May God bless you and give you pearls to meditate on during the week!

  2. I am an Orthodox priest and I agree with all that is said above – except that I don’t. In particular the aspect of Liturgy as Work seems to preclude any investigation or IMHO needed restoration into the parish liturgy. I have always said:” the Orthodox worship is like eating wonderful cheesecake – except that after the 15th cheesecake you probably aren’t getting to much enjoyment or benefit out of the cheesecake.” Good Liturgy requires, first of all, putting the people of God first – not history nor typicons or what the choir wants. Many churches I have served in or visited have the typical format: the choir signs the troparions and the Priest and deacon sing the litanies and prayers – and the the people stand there and passively listen to it all. To me this isn’t “reasonable worship” because worship isn’t passive. A great example of unreasonable worship would be the Christmas vigil – or, actually, vigils in general. 2.5 hours of a combined service of three services that ought to be separate. Rich and beautiful – absolutely! Much too long and much too repetitious to really allow the average parishioner to enter into the beauty and the richness of spirit.

    1. Thank you for responding, Father. Your cheesecake analogy is apt. I know a Protestant convert who once made a similar comparison. He said that Orthodoxy is like a banquet after years of dieting, and because he’s not used to all the rich food, sometimes he gags. Many people from heterodox backgrounds experience a difficult transition from casual, almost entertainment-driven services to the reverence and formality (there must be a better word…) of the Divine Liturgy. Our everyday spiritual disciplines and increased understanding are so important in appreciating and entering into the worship. (Although I’m not sure I could handle that long Christmas vigil!) More posts about understanding the Liturgy are coming soon!

  3. Thank you for this lovely and honest reflection on your truth and experience of Divine Liturgy. I have a great appreciation for Orthodox worship. The beauty of an Orthodox church has always touched my heart and often brought tears to my eyes. I also have great appreciation for the bare walls and simplicity of a simple worship service that communicates community, compassion, charity and love. Jesus taught those qualities without Orthodox iconography, without pomp and circumstance. I tear up in those moments as well. How we worship is so individual and what works for one person who has experienced Orthodoxy their entire lives may not work for another who was brought up with little exposure to any faith tradition but admires the structure and spiritual connection that another tradition offers. As an ordained interfaith minister, I am always fascinated by how people find God in their lives and also, how they perceive God. These explorations are each unique, one no better than another. Is Christ with one person less because they are not in an Orthodox Church? Nope. Christ sees us ALL; sees us all equally and loves us all equally.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Reverend! I also have felt God’s presence deeply in a variety of church settings and especially in nature. Probably my favorite reflection spot is in the mountains in summer, sitting on a boulder and surrounded by aspens and Ponderosa pines. Truly God is “everywhere present and fills all things.” God absolutely loves us all, and I did not mean to imply a sort of “us versus them” mentality. My Protestant friends encourage me In Christ, I knew and followed Christ when I was a Protestant, and by God’s grace I am growing to know Him better in the ancient Church. As Fr. Barnabas Powell is fond of saying in his “Journey to Fullness” video series, the Orthodox spiritual journey is an experience of the fullness of the Christian Faith, without additions, subtractions, or new interpretations. The question is not about who is “better,” since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), but about unchanging truth. I experienced many conflicting teachings and practices in various Protestant churches. The Orthodox Church offers peace and healing in the unbroken line of teaching handed down from the apostles and the Church Fathers, continuing through today. However, the adjustment to liturgical worship can be difficult. The specific purpose of this blog is to address these experiential questions, and often I compare and contrast with other traditions since, background-wise, we converts are a bit of a motley crew. In fact, in this blog we will be looking more closely at the subject of worship, in particular the Divine Liturgy, over the next few months. I hope it will be helpful to readers.

  4. “Jesus taught those qualities without Orthodox iconography, without pomp and circumstance.”

    That’s not quite true. Worship at that time, as it is now in the Orthodox church, liturgical. Synagogue worship consisted of chanting the psalms and pre-written prayers. Perhaps not all, but some synagogues had iconography. The worship in the Temple was highly liturgical, with incense, sacrifices, iconography, and pre written prayers.

    The worship in the Orthodox Church is an unbroken continuity with the worship of the synagogue and the Temple.

    1. Constantine, you addressed this important point about historical continuity more concisely than I ever could. In fact, Ancient Faith Publishing will soon re-release one of its earliest books, which discusses in detail the Jewish practices of Jesus’ time. Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Synagogue, the Temple, and the Early Church by Benjamin D. Williams and Harold B. Anstall is very readable and illuminating, and I highly recommend it. I’m not sure exactly when it will be reissued, but probably within the next few months.

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