I mentioned quite a while ago that I had been listening to Father Thomas Hopko’s series on the Divine Liturgy, Worship in Spirit and Truth. It’s been a somewhat disrupted listening, but then it is a rather long – albeit worthwhile – series and it took him thirty podcasts to get to the beginning of the Liturgy! Anyway, having just listened to his podcast on the opening words of the Divine Liturgy, I was struck by what he had to say about the words that we use in worship, and in our own personal prayer. I have touched on this before, having quoted Father Florovsky’s words about the point of the prayers of the Church being to teach us to pray. And I have also noted how I have been struck that it is those religious traditions that are most insistent on the use of the right words in prayer – and theology, for that matter – that are, seemingly paradoxically, also most aware of the limitation of words.
I can’t help being aware that this goes rather against the grain of what many people in our society consider prayer to be, and what I was brought up to see it as. Yet I am also aware that, growing up in an Evangelical Protestant home, I was often profoundly uncomfortable with the expectation that prayer was primarily speaking to God in one’s own words. Without wanting to offend anyone, it somehow sounded, well, trite, projecting, and somehow banal, although that sounds like a terribly judgmental thing to say. However, listening to Father Hopko this afternoon, I was able to understand some of my discomfort more. Prayer is a training, as Saint Benedict tells us, to put our mind where our mouth is. Words train us and form us. They form the heart and the mind. And it therefore matters what words we use in prayer. This is an extract from the transcript of Father Hopko’s podcast, and the rest is found here:
The animals and the plants worship God just by their very being. The animals worship God just by their very nature, whereas the human being, who is a free being, has to open their mouth and their lips and show forth God’s praise through their speech. We have speech, and Christian worship is logike latreia, the worship of those who speak; those whose words and sounds have a content to them.
Now, it’s very interesting here to note that when we’re calling on God to open our lips and to put the words into our mouth, we have to really pay attention to the fact that we are praying in the words that are given to us by God. These are words given to us by God. Worship is not done in our own words, certainly not in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. We do not pray in our own words, so to speak. We pray in the words God gave us to say.
St. Benedict, a great monk of the Western Church; very much influenced by the Eastern Tradition, says that in liturgical prayer, in the Church’s worship, we do not put our mouth where our mind is. We put our mind where our mouth is. In other words, we don’t say what comes to our mind. The words are first put on our mouth, our lips. They are given to us by God, and then we put our mind on what we are saying, and we’re saying it because God has commanded us to say it. He has inspired us to say it.
As Saint Anthony the Great said, “In the worship of the Christian Church, God gives His own words for His own glorification.” He puts His words into our mouth. And that’s very important, because in traditional Biblical worship when the Kahal Israel, the People of God, the People of Israel, the Ekkli̱sía tou Theoú, the Church of God, the Church of the Lord gathers, the words of the Lord are provided by God. We don’t make them up. We don’t express what’s on our mind and heart when we go to Church.
Now, when we pray privately, we even then don’t begin in our own words, at least in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We begin private, personal prayers in our room; in our heart in the words God gave us. We say, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.” We say, “Holy God. Holy Immortal. Holy, Holy, Holy.” We say, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Those are words that God gives us.
We say the words of the Psalms, which are the words that are inspired in human beings by God. They are the words of God in human words. But they are ultimately God’s words. They are inspired words. They are the Holy Spirit praying within us. Now, we begin with those words that God gives, and then in our private devotion, we can move in several directions.
We can move where, taking those words that God gives, we somehow use them as a formation or a pattern for what we ourselves might personally wish to say. So sure, we can pray in our own words or fill our own content with these words, but we never do that publicly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We always use the words together. We use the same words, and these words are primarily those inspired by God; given to us by God.
But then also, the words of prayer, both in our heart, in our room, in our closet, and the corporate worship of the Church can lead human beings into the wordless prayer; into the silence from which God’s words emerge and into which God’s words lead us. So in the Orthodox Tradition, the hesychastic prayer, the prayer of silence, is deeply connected to the prayer of words.
But you begin with words. You don’t begin with silence. You are led into the silence through the words. And the words lead us deeper into a meaning, which even the words themselves cannot really contain, limit and totally express. So there is a communion with God in silence that is beyond and above words, the wordless prayer of the heart.
St. Isaac of Syria and St. Seraphim or Sarov even say that there’s a condition beyond worship. There’s a condition beyond petitionary prayer where you are just one with God. The Holy Spirit is in you totally, so to speak, and you are in communion with Christ; in communion with God; in a love relationship; a union of love that’s beyond words.
And we know that really love is always beyond words, even the best of words. All the best of words are limited and in some sense, if taken too literally, are misguiding. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “When it comes to words, even the words inspired by God, every man is a liar, because this reality so transcends words.” But they are words, to use the expression of St. Gregory the Theologian now, theoprepic. In other words, they are appropriate to God. They are true words, or to use the line of the Psalter, they are pure words.