It’s happened more than once. Way more than once. I will be standing in church during the Divine Liturgy, singing the responses, crossing myself, and literally going through the motions, but my mind is a million miles away. I’m filled with worry, with grief, with stress over my to-do list.
My heart might be heavy, or simply numb. Or, I just can’t focus. I’m sure you’ve been there too. The list of problems that occupy our thoughts during the worship service is endless: Heartaches. Stress. A cancer diagnosis. Broken family relationships.
The problems vary, but the result is the same: I am massively distracted by . . . fill-in-the-blank. My body is present in the nave, but my mind and heart are traveling. And the situation is enormously discouraging.
This distractedness and fragmentation are part of our fallen state in this fallen world. The saints and the Fathers have written and taught at length about the logismoi, the constant stream of automatic thoughts that plague us, as well as the force of the passions in our lives.
But when I’m listening to the Cherubic Hymn and asking forgiveness yet again for drifting, I’m not really interested in thinking, “Oh, my, there’s another logismos popping up in my mind,” unless the realization drives me back to the present moment.
So, why bother going to church? If I can’t find a way to be spiritually present, does it even matter? If I’m actually incapable of more than a few minutes of attentiveness at a time, or, worse, if I am so consumed with my worries that I can’t concentrate at all, should I just cut out early? Am I being disrespectful to God when I struggle like this?
The Importance of the Marinade
When I’m cooking with a tough cut of meat, like a flank steak for making fajitas, I don’t just open the package and throw the beef on the grill. That’s a great recipe for making leather. Instead, I soak it in a marinade for a while—various combinations of soy sauce, wine vinegar, lemon juice, and herbs and spices.
Marinating is especially useful on a fasting day if I’m cooking with tofu. By itself, tofu is not very appetizing. It tastes a bit like moist cardboard, although that’s an insult to cardboard. However, tofu is a great sponge that absorbs flavors, so the marinade is key for making it tasty—for transforming it.
Proteins absorb the flavors they’re swimming in. Depending on the ingredients, with a bit of marinating, that steak or chicken or tofu becomes Italian or Mexican or Thai.
I hope you understand where I’m going with this. Work with me here.
You and I, as humans created in the image of God, also take on the flavor of our surroundings. That’s why the Scriptures warn us about the company we keep and the thoughts we entertain.
In cooking, a marinade seasons food, and it can also increase juiciness and browning. I’m not sure how far I can stretch this metaphor, but let’s just agree that our surroundings transform us. Participating in the Divine Liturgy transforms us.
Even when we’re tough. Even when we’re flavorless. Even when we’re cold.
That might sound a little simplistic. We think, “I’m in church every Sunday, marinating my sad self in the Divine Liturgy, and I’m no different now than I was last year.” But is that really true?
Let’s try a different example. Imagine walking into a locked room and staying there for an hour and a half. Maybe it’s your bedroom, or a neglected corner of your basement. You can do some cleaning, some knitting, some bill-paying—whatever you want. But while you’re stuck there, I’m going to pipe in some music on a portable speaker. The playlist includes death metal, screamo, and some hardcore rap. The lyrics are filled with rage, profanity, violence, and misogyny.
After your hour and a half is up, will you leave that room unaffected? I don’t think so. You would probably feel extremely agitated and angry, even if you weren’t listening closely.
This principle—that we soak in the atmosphere—is a primary reason for attending the services of the Church, even when we feel nothing. Even when we can’t concentrate. The struggle itself is important.
I’ve collected some pastoral advice and lessons from my own wayward experience to keep in mind during those days of struggle in the nave. In many ways I’m directing this post at myself, since my mind has been preoccupied a lot lately at church. I hope you’ll find these reminders helpful too.
Things to Remember about the Divine Liturgy
1. Worship is work.
This statement can sound rather unspiritual, even if your background is thoroughly Orthodox. The saints of the Church toss around words like “mystical,” “noetic prayer,” “prayer of the heart,” and “divine Mysteries.” These are all solid theological concepts, but they sound so ethereal. They can make us feel disappointed when we aren’t transported, like St. Paul, to the third heaven as we worship (2 Cor. 12:2).
We read of Abba Joseph, who said, “If you will, you can become all flame!” as his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. We read of St. Mary of Egypt levitating above the desert sands, and of twentieth-century elders doing the same. We compare these divine experiences to our own inattentiveness and wonder if we’re growing at all. But that these experiences were recorded because they are highly unusual, and they occurred in holy men and women who lived lives of rigorous ascesis.
Now, if you’re from a charismatic background that highly values emotion, ecstatic experiences, and spontaneous “words from the Lord,” it’s easy to feel like an underachiever and a total loser when you stand faithfully in the nave feeling nothing.
On days like these, it’s good to remember that the Greek word translated as “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” The clergy remind us in the service, “Let us attend!” Paying attention doesn’t always come naturally, and when we struggle to attend, that means we’re normal. That reminder in the Liturgy is there for a reason.
Saint Moses the Black, also known as “the Strong,” said, “To live with Jesus you need struggle, humility, and unceasing prayer. These are your tools for the hard road ahead.” He was talking about the spiritual life in general, but this also applies to the spiritual work of worship. Sometimes it really is a hard road.
Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev) of Bogucharsk, who reposed in 1950, advised the people to “guard sacredly and strictly our Orthodox Faith,” and he gave some advice worth repeating: “Do not adapt your faith to your life, but your life to the faith.”
When we marinate in the words of the Liturgy, the prayers, and the Scriptures, we are adapting our lives to our Faith. We often struggle, but we’re there.
But where exactly are we?
2. We are in two places at once: on earth and also in heaven.
If we can’t attend to the service, we can at least bask in it. This goes back to the marinade principle. We are among the saints, the angels, and our earthly brothers and sisters. We need to make an effort in church, of course—I’m not advocating spacing out for an hour or so—but it can be helpful to remember that we are not alone in worship, regardless of the number of warm bodies in the nave. As St. John Chrysostom reminds us,
Following His Ascension, the Lord sits with his Heavenly Father in the heavens and at the same time, He is present with the faithful Christians in the Divine Liturgy… His Presence fills the earth… and the heavens! Thus, together with Christ, the Christian who is in the Church and communes is at the same time on earth and in heaven.
Church is a good place to marinate with Christ and His saints, regardless of how we feel.
3. Emotions are a poor measuring stick for spiritual progress.
I saw evidence of this in the charismatic circles I traversed. The people who were raising their hands in worship, tears pouring down their cheeks, were sometimes the same people who were later speaking rudely to a family member over the phone. I have also observed undemonstrative people stand meekly and silently in the Liturgy, and their lives are filled with quiet humility and love.
I don’t know what any of these people are feeling at a given moment in church—I’m not that nosy—but our emotional temperature appears to be mostly irrelevant.
Early in my Orthodox journey, I read Bread & Water, Wine & Oil by Archimandrite Meletios Webber (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019), and I found it to be tremendously helpful. I had been attending a charismatic church before segueing into Orthodox Christianity, and what Fr. Meletios said has stayed with me:
When taking part in the Mysteries of the Church, Orthodox Christians do not experience mental exercise, nor are their emotions of any particular significance. . . . As can happen when looking at something extremely beautiful, or when suddenly finding oneself in a life-or-death situation, thought and feeling are momentarily stilled, and something much more profound is engaged. The encounter penetrates through thinking and feeling and goes to the very being of the person taking part—to that fathomless state of awareness that exists, yet lies hidden and dormant, in all human beings. (from Chapter 1)
I find his almost throwaway comment about emotions very comforting. Jesus taught, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). He calls us to obey Him, not to feel anything in particular.
This means that we don’t have to understand what’s happening at all times in the service or, worse, try to whip up some intense feelings. Like the old Protestant hymn teaches, we can “trust and obey,” regardless of our psychological state.
4. Life is a spiritual battle, especially in worship and prayer.
This is so basic, it’s easy to forget. We all know that we can sit on the sofa and be absolutely riveted when watching a great movie. We are lost in the storyworld, and our minds remain focused on the action.
The Divine Liturgy is shorter than most full-length movies, yet few of us can attend through the entire service. In the same way, we can be absorbed in a really good novel or biography, but as soon as we pick up our Bibles for the short daily lectionary reading, we are yawning, remembering to buy more cat food, and wrestling with an unpleasant memory that had been buried only moments before.
None of this boredom while engaged in spiritual effort is a coincidence. Satan, the enemy of our souls, does not want us to draw close to God. Saint John of Kronstadt warned,
Even at the very Cup the enemy sets his snares for you and disturbs you by various thoughts, against which you must fight, or else, knowing that you have wished for a long, long time to find rest in God, the enemy will not allow it. (My Life in Christ, p.108)
And so we continue to do battle, at church and at home.
5. God sees even our small efforts to reach for Him.
As St. Augustine noted, “Faithfulness in small things is no small thing.” Saint Peter of Damaskos said, “It is through victories in small things that the fathers won their great battles.” As we seek God when our minds and emotions tell us to give up, He meets us there in our weakness and imperfection.
Archbishop Isaiah of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Denver used to be fond of saying, “The attempt is equal to the accomplishment.” We try and often fail in many areas of our lives, including our attempts to pray and worship in community, but God smiles on our little efforts. It’s that whole synergy thing in action—He works in cooperation with us.
Saint Paisios, who offered many encouraging words to pilgrims who visited him, said,
We mustn’t despair when we struggle and continuously see nothing but the slightest progress. We all do nearly nothing, some a little more, some a little less. When Christ sees our little effort He gives us an analogous token, and so our nearly nothing becomes valuable, and we can see a little progress. For this reason, we mustn’t despair, but hope in God.
The Value of Perseverance
At times I dread going to an exercise class or walking the dog. I might have a long to-do list or feel exhausted. But I have never finished the exercise and then thought, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” I always feel better.
The same is true with the Divine Liturgy, which is a spiritual exercise. Often, when I’ve had a poor night’s sleep or just want to have some alone time, I drag myself out of bed and head to church anyway. Invariably, I encounter a nugget that feeds my soul—some wisdom in the sermon that applies to a current situation, a hymn that reminds me of the Theotokos’s intercessions, perhaps even a palpable sense of God’s presence. And I’m glad I came.
Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica reminds us,
The Holy Fathers and the Saints always tell us, “It is important to get up immediately after a fall and to keep on walking toward God.” Even if we fall a hundred times a day, it does not matter; we must get up and go on walking toward God without looking back. What has happened has happened—it is in the past. Just keep on going, all the while asking for help from God.
A good friend of mine likes to sing the song from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” Even when distracted. Even when feeling nothing. Even when monumentally discouraged. Even then, we keep partaking of the Mysteries, confess regularly to our spiritual father, and keep marinating.
When my mind drifts during a service, I have a tendency to realize what I’m doing then confess this silently in prayer, explaining to God what just happened—as if He doesn’t know—then asking for forgiveness for my distraction. In the meantime, I’ve missed another section of the Liturgy. This too is a temptation and a distraction. After receiving some pastoral guidance on the matter, I now remember to keep it short: “Forgive me, Lord,” or, better yet, “Lord, have mercy.” Then I come back to the present moment and attempt to remain there to the best of my ability. “The attempt is equal to the accomplishment.”
If our distraction remains a real problem for several Sundays in a row, it’s time to recognize that something deeper might be going on. Depending on our struggles, we might need to schedule a confession, request some counsel, or ask for holy unction. But we talk to our priest and continue to press forward.
My extreme distraction usually resolves when I do these things, but I know I am weak, and I know that temptations will come. Our emotions are untrustworthy, and our intrusive thoughts, once tamed, are likely to run riot again. It’s an ongoing battle, this side of heaven. Our spiritual growth may be incremental, with stops and starts, two steps forward and one step back, but we can trust God to “see a little progress,” in St. Paisios’s words.
In one of his many short, pithy sayings, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote, “If we put God in first place, everything else will fall into its own.” Even when we’re tough. Even when we’re flavorless. Even when we’re cold.
I’m counting on that.
Next week we will examine words. Words, words, words. We’re full of them. We’re surrounded by them in a society and sometimes in religious cultures that value verbal communication.The Church has more than a few things to say about silence, about stillness, and about knowing when to shut up.
I hope you can join me.