Wheat Field

4. Why Do Orthodox Have Such Long Services?

+ The Divine Office: Sacrament of Time + “Learn to sing psalms, and thou shalt see the delightfulness of the employment. 
For they who sing psalms are filled with the Holy Spirit” ~ St. John Chrysostom

4. Why Do Orthodox Have Such Long Services?

 “This service is so long?” “Why not short and simple?” “Have we repeated ourselves enough?” Many people react to Orthodox worship with these sentiments. We live in such a quick-paced and instant culture that the longevity and repetitive nature of ancient Christian worship seems bizarre, if not exhausting. However, our ancestors embraced these lengthly services for profound reasons. Far from being superfluous or prattling, the long hours that we spend praying psalms or chanting collects is medicine for the soul. The longevity teaches us to be still, purges our hearts of worldliness, and trains our souls to be kingdom-minded. We Do Not Pray to Change God, But to Change Ourselves This is the first point to be made. When asked why we ought to petition God, C. S. Lewis responded, “I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me.” There is a crisis. We really do need to change. St. Peter’s words are an accurate diagnosis for all of us: “"Wake up, O Sleeper" (Eph. 5:14). When we go to church, we should not be thinking, “What can I get out of this?” Our attitude should be, “Take me God, because you are beautiful, and mold me into your likeness.” One can understand Christian worship as the ultimate refinery. As we stand in His presence, we will be changed, and it will take a long time. Learning to Be Still “I have ADHD” is not a good excuse. The struggle to be still is not a physiological or neurological condition, it is a condition of the soul. Our relationship with God, our salvation, depends on our ability to be still. St. Symeon the New Theologian explained: “To the extent that our inner life is in a state of discord and dispersed among many contrary things, we are unable to participate in the life of God. We desire opposing and contrary things, and we are torn apart by the relentless warfare between them, and this is called the ‘discord’ of the mind, a condition that divides and destroys the soul.” Discord in the mind, distactability, and innattention are the primary results of the devil. If we have work to do as Christians, this must be foremost. How can we “know” God afterall? The scriptures are clear: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). Until we acheive inner stillness, we are living in a shell. Deuteronomy 15:9 says it all: “Attend to thyself, and keep thy heart diligently”. This is especially necessary in our modern times. Fr. Maximus Constas accurately describes our spiritual crisis in this way: “Rather than working to alleviate this constitutive weakness, we have built a culture of organized distractions, aiding and abetting the mind in its fallen condition…Lingering unregenerately in a realm of illusions; mesmerized by the images flitting about on our computer screens, we become “dull, predatory flies buzzing on the chamber window,” desperate to consume all the futility of the world.” How can we achieve sanity, let alone peace, in this mess? Our refuge is the Church. There is hope. If Christ came to save us, He came to save us from our innattention. The Holy Spirit inspired the Fathers of the Church who put together all our ancient prayer services. Our worship heals us. Its longevity and repetition is the medicine. Hang in there. While it can take a long time to get used to it, little by little, it becomes second nature. The more you worship, the more you find yourself longing to worship. As we stretch ourselves to “be present” in these long services, exercising our spiritual muscles, our hearts will change. We will learn to be still and know God. Purging Our Hearts of Worldliness How many hours a week do you watch television, listen to the news, soak in godless lyrics or…quite simply…vacuous fluff? How many hours a day? Our minds, souls, hearts, and bodies are stuffed with worldliness 24/7. Are we obsorbing it? Absolutely. To be human is to be a sponge. We soak in everything that goes on around us, consciously or subconsciously. Your environment makes you who you are. This is why our prayer services are so long. I was once speaking with an agnostic friend in Greece. She was an American, like myself, sharing reflections about the culture around us. It was a passing comment, but I will never forget it. “Those monks go through brainwashing.” In fact, it was the second time I had heard it, and that caused me to stop and think. What was this about? What backed up the claim? Was it valid or ludicrous? In the end, I came to this conclusion: we, in the world, are the ones brainwashed. The monks go through the de-brainwashing. In some ways, to take liberties with the word, our long Orthodox services do “brain-wash” us. Here is what I mean, they penetrate into our brains (and hearts) and wash them. They purify us. Imagine your heart as an air-conditioning filter. Week after week, as air passes through, the filter accumulates dust, germs, microbes, and heaven knows what else. Our brains and souls are the same. We hear so many wordly messages, so repetitively, that they coat our spiritual “innards” in filth. The only solution is a good, thorough hosing. This is why we stand through such long services. The scriptures and readings at church are God’s inspired words. They purge our souls and imprint a vision from above. Acquiring Kingdom-Minded Souls During our Easter Vigil, we sit through twelve long scripture readings. After that, we listen quietly as the priest spends an hour blessing water, and we kneel through a litany to some hundred or more saints. Finally, we arrive at the Easter Mass. The whole process takes about three hours. Why on earth do we sit through all this?! It takes a long time for us to get what is going on. The longevity of Orthodox worship puts us in a state of being. It is meditative. Yes, our minds are going to wander. Most of the words are going to pass by us. Perhaps we fall asleep, now and then, when no one is looking. …and that is okay. What matters is that we are present. The time investment alone is a salve to the soul, because it helps us to enter into a new state of presence. The repetition, the chanting, the whirl of colors, vestments, and smoke, gradually work on our senses. We are not naturally “kingdom-minded” in the twenty-first century. We are secular-minded. We are disenchanted. We no longer see nature and time as charged with spirits and divinity. We do not see magic in the way a butterfly flies or a flower blossoms. In the same way, we usually do not get the cosmic splendor of what is happening at Mass or on the feast days of the church. We have lost our ability to see the sublime. The nature of Orthodox worship wakes us up. Learn to Sit in the Presence of Christ Martha was forever rushing and anxious. Mary simply sat in the presence of Christ. “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part” (Lk. 10: 42a). We all have different vocations in life. We all have different personalities and temperaments. Indeed, for some of us, stillness comes less naturally as for others. Yet, we must all acquire it. If you want to be fully alive, fully human, fully in rest with God, then learn to enter into his rest. Where? How? Make an effort to be present through all our long litanies and chants. The Holy Spirit will do the rest.

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