corporate vs private worship

As I mentioned in a previous post from my time away in Scotland, I felt great refreshment from a visit to an Orthodox parish while on a business trip, something I do rarely have the opportunity to do. During this time away I also feel into a grave sin, that off not being in Australia when it was my Godson’s birthday. To rectify this (as much as is possible in the eyes of a five year old) I visited their parish on the weekend and served rather than going back to my own. (while not really the topic of this post, we had a wonderful lunch and spent the afternoon with his family and he liked his presents!!!!!).

For some reason this again tugged on a spiritual string and made me feel more refreshed and appreciate the communal worship even more. Perhaps this was just the old “change is as good as a holiday routine” coupled with spending quality time with my Godson, but it did cause me to ponder more on the importance of the Church as Body of Christ in the spiritual growth of an Orthodox Christian.

During this time of pondering a podcast appeared on the subject from Fr Thomas Hopko (in his series “Worship in Spirit and Truth). There was a poignant chain of thought that struck me throughout this presentation starting with the Greek word “liturgia” that became the common form of the word Liturgy. Our corporate worship, our liturgy and services are not so much about “us praying” as they are the “common work” of the body of Christ in worshipping our Lord.

What an incredible thought in this day and age, it is not all about us – our common work – liturgia  – is (and should be) focused on the worship of our Creator, and our common growth towards him. Our goal should be the salvation of our brothers and sisters in Christ; unlike those Christians spawned from the reformation onwards we believe that it is within the church, in participation in it’s mysteries that we are saved.

We are all called to forsake ourselves, repent and become dead to sin and to  participate in the communion of the Holy Trinity. The Liturgy is not “us coming to church to pray”; sure it includes prayers, petitions and the like, but the we are the Church, as the Body of Christ, coming together in the Liturgy to commune with the Living God. This communion is similar to what we should aspire to in our personal prayer life, but given to us by Christ in the form of the common activities of the services.

There are some other interesting insights on prayer in the podcast that ring true from my former Protestant life. Fr Tom recalls Fr Alexander Schmemann’s spiritual father’s comment that many people believe that prayer is “telling God what he already knows and telling him what to do about it”. When I became Orthodox I had many of my Protestant friends warning me that the Orthodox do not allow unstructured prayer (amongst other issues), and that this somehow is a blockage between us and Christ that is not needed. They looked down upon the structure of a Prayer Book and the prescribed manner of prayer. This manner however is the structure handed down from the Apostles and evident in all our services. Our prayers begin with worship and psalmody and are rich with scripture.

During these complaint all that came to mind with me was the times during small group sessions where I would spend most of the prayer time trying to think of something to pray about in the group that wouldn’t make me sound like a mental patient. Considering general consensus is that I should be a mental patient this was probably a lost cause, however, it certainly helped me to realise more that prayer was not about what we thought or wanted but about our growth in relationship with God.

Archimandrite George [1] writes  “We are not followers of Christ in the way that one might perhaps follow a philosopher or a teacher. We are members of Christ’s body, the Church. The Church is the body of Christ, the real body, not a moral one, as some mistaken theologians have written, not having looked deeply enough into the spirit of the Holy Church. Despite our unworthiness and sinfulness, Christ takes us Christians and incorporates us into His body.” As Fr Tom says in his podcast “we are not called to go to church, we are called to gather as the church” it is not some random meeting hall where we go to ask for help for the upcoming week.

As I have been trying to work on my personal prayer life as a search for stillness I am finding being drawn more to the corporate worship. Last weekend when I finally returned to my home parish after a few weeks away the same feeling appeared. Maybe it is not the change that has renewed me, rather the focus on personal prayer is opening up a greater connection to the Liturgy. Maybe I just think too much, maybe we need to make this all much simpler. In the words of Anna Hopko (Fr Tom’s mother as stated in the podcast, and apparently available somewhere online as a T-shirt).

  1. Go to Church
  2. Say your Prayers
  3. Remember God
Seeing those three points makes me wonder why it could ever be that difficult 😉