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.

This is a mishmash of things, some of which I’ve been meaning to note for a while…

A Further Update on Life-Giving Spring
After neglecting it for far too long, I recently did another update on the Life-Giving Spring site. Things are proceeding slowly and life is not without challenges, but I am still here and there is also encouraging news to report.

Acquire the Holy Spirit Series
I’ve made a page for my recent posts in this series and put it on the Completed series page. I’ll hopefully also turn it into a PDF file, along with other things I want to make available … when I get to doing that, and also working out how best to arrange things online.

South African Religious Blogs
For those interested in South African religious or Christian blogging, Jenny Hillebrand of Carpenter’s Shoes has done us a real service by creating blog aggregator called Antioch Blog Community. It’s described as “South African Religious Thinkers” – as far as I can see they all seem to be Christian of one sort or another, and “thinkers” sounds rather grand for some of us, but there you are!

Some Worthwhile Podcasts
I’ve recently been trying to get into listening to podcasts while I work, at least a bit. There is a wealth of material online, but also lots of rubbish! It would probably be a good idea to create a page to compile an ongoing list of things to recommend, but for now let me note these, in case they’re of interest to anyone:

  • Worship in Spirit and Truth: Father Thomas Hopko’s series on the Liturgy is long and ongoing, but very well worth the time. I have been particularly struck by his discussion of worship in the Old Testament – it should be obvious really, but for me much of it was an eye-opener!
  • Nine Sessions with Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou. I’ve only listened to the first of these, but Archimandrite Zacharias of the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Essex and a disciple of Father Sophrony, is a very important contemporary Orthodox teacher and it’s great to have these talks available.
  • Coffee with Sr Vassa is a recently begun weekly series of podcasts on the saints by Sister Vassa Larin, a liturgical scholar and ROCOR monastic,  that are both humorous and enlightening.
  •  Father Vassilios Papavassiliou has started posting links to his theology lectures and Bible studies on Matthew on his (highly recommended) blog. They’re on YouTube, but I can’t find a good way of linking to all of them without other things, so the best way is to probably go via his blog until someone produces an index. I’ve only listened to one of them, but it was excellent, as are his books which I really should say more on sometime!





What more does one need to say, especially after not having had that much sleep last night? A joyous Pascha to all!

In case anyone is interested, I have recently uploaded two files of Orthodox liturgical music in Afrikaans. The Kontakion in Tone 3 can be found here and “All the generations…” from Good Friday Vespers can be found here. They come from CDs that Father Zacharias has produced and I have uploaded them because I am busy working on a new website for Bedehuis Bethanië which I’ll link to once it has been made public – which I hope will be reasonably soon!

Update: I’m afraid that those links aren’t working, but you can listen to them here.

I should have posted this earlier, but I’m sure that there will be readers of this blog who will be interested – and pleased – to know that the lectures on Saints Athanasios, Dionysios, Maximos and Gregory Palamas, that Father Andrew Louth has been giving at the Amsterdam Centre for Eastern Orthodox Theology (ACEOT), are now available on iTunes. I still haven’t worked out why my computer doesn’t like iTunes so haven’t been able to listen to them yet, but have no hesitation in recommending them nevertheless.

There are also lecture handouts available here.

For those who understand French, or sort of understand French, or wish they understood French, or think they should do something to improve their French, or fear that the American dominance of online English-speaking Orthodoxy may lead them to a crisis of faith, or get put off by the glib Orthodoxism of Ancient Faith Radio and company (no offence to Americans intended, and, yes, AFR does occasionally have worthwhile things),

I have just discovered Podcast Orthodoxe Francophone. It is refreshingly free of hype and doesn’t ask for money on the opening page. But it offers a wealth of podcasts which I still have to explore properly, including, among others, interviews with Father Placide (Deseille), Father Boris Bobrinskoy and quite recent interviews on the iconographers Père Grégoire Krug and Léonide Ouspensky, among many other things.

I still need to work out how to download things properly, but this could be a worthwhile way to try and improve my French.

The Orthodox Christian Network now have their second interview with Father Andrew Louth on the filioque online. It’s part of a series of interviews based on his book Greek East And Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071 (The Church in History) that I mentioned previously. It’s definitely worth listening to but rather a shame that the first half of the programme is taken up by something else.

They also have an interview with Paul Schroeder on St Basil the Great’s sermons on social justice. Schroeder is the translator of St Basil’s sermons on this topic, On Social Justice: St. Basil the Great (Popular Patristics), and it is definitely work listening to. As in the case of Father Louth’s interview, the first half of the programme is taken up with something else but at least in this case it’s a fairly useful, if basic, introduction to St Maximus the Confessor.

I happened to chance upon this yesterday, and rather suspect that some readers will be interested:

The Orthodox Christian Network has started a series of  interviews with Father Andrew Louth, based on his book Greek East And Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071 (The Church in History) (which I once started reading and, well, never mind, I may get hold of it sometime again). I listened to the first part last night, which was on iconoclasm. Unfortunately the first half of the half hour programme was taken up by someone else, and what Father Louth could say in fifteen minutes was limited, but still worth listening to. The next one is due to be on the filioque, and there are few scholars I would trust more to introduce people to that topic, so will be interested to hear what he says.

An afterthought:  for those who don’t know or weren’t around in the earlier days of this blog, there are also these lectures by Father Louth:

Last night I had a less-than-pleasant encounter with the Dutch railways, in which there seemed to be delayed trains all over the country, resulting in chaos in stations and on trains. Standing in a coach, and slightly frazzled after chaos at the station, I was not really inclined to read the book I had brought with me. So I pulled out my little MP3 player which, given the disrupted state of my life in the last year, has not been connected to a computer for more than a year. I have some patristic texts on it – thanks to Maria Lectrix – and a few old lectures. One of these, David Fagerberg’s paper at last year’s Liturgical Symposium at St Vladimir’s Seminary on “The cost of understanding Schmemann in the West” had particularly resonated with me then, so I listened to it again. There is much that is quotable, but I should really find the printed article before doing more, but here is a taste…

The West tends to think of theology as a mental activity. Probably this is because the people to whom the West gives the name theologian live in the academy. Theology is a science practised in the hall of sciences, and even if an individual theologian is also urged to have faith commitments in his or her heart, and to be active in service to the poor, the only reason for calling these people theologians is because of what they think about. Worship is taken to be either an expression of believe, or an instrument for the creation of belief. And only if that believing requires a tune-up clarification does theology enter the picture. Liturgy is a place to stage the theological content we have deduced and believe. But theology’s origin is not in liturgy, it is in texts and its output is more texts for the next generation of theologians to critique and surpass. As Schmemann says in an early essay:

It is indeed the original sin of the entire western theological development that it made texts the only loci theologica, the extrinsic authorities of theology, disconnecting theology from its living source, liturgy and spirituality.

Schmemann is capable of understanding the term theology in this cognitive way. Of course, you can speak more than one language game. He does so in a definition in his first work Introduction to Liturgical Theology, where he writes: “Theology is above all explanation, the search for words appropriate to the nature of God. That is, for a system of concepts corresponding as much as possible to the faith and experience of the Church.”

But in a journal entry a dozen years’ later, Schmemann uses a different language game:

Pascha, Holy Week, essentially bright days, such as are needed. And truly, that is all that is needed. I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of theology is here. All that is needed for one’s spirit, heart, mind and soul. How could people spend centuries discussing justification and redemption? It’s all in these services. Not only is it revealed, it simply flows in one’s heart and mind.

I think it would be wrong to use this as a brush to paint Schmemann or Orthodoxy as anti-intellectual. Instead, there are two things going on here. First, Schmemann is identifying theology’s home, its native habitat. Theology is more a vision than a cognition. And all that theology would speak to explain in words is here in act, in the liturgical act of the Church celebrating Christ’s Paschal Mystery. Schmemann is not opposed to theological discussion; he is opposed to letting theological discussion ever break free from a vision of the Trinity in action. …

The second thing going on in this quotation is the connection of theology with theosis. The beginning of theology is not the card catalogue, but doing battle with the passions. And the end of theology is not becoming a professor, but becoming a saint. The image of God grows more into the likeness of God. And although Schmemann writes little about asceticism explicitly, he stands in a tradition for which theologia is at the end of an ascetical journey.

What can we learn from the Fathers, seen this time as fellow participants in times of radical change? Norman Baines, the renowned Byzantinist from earlier on in the last century, once remarked that what struck him as a historian about the early Christian movement was a stark asceticism and a staggering confidence, a stark asceticism and a staggering confidence. It seems to me that these two go together and that together they explained how the Fathers lived through periods of dramatic change without being discouraged or dispirited, indeed rather the contrary, for the Fathers became spokesmen for what was being created and refined in the crucible of the times through which they lived.

The confidence was founded on God. But not just on a confidence in His guiding providence in general terms. The Fathers believed that God, who had created and governs the world through His Word, had made Himself part of that world by assuming humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the Incarnation, God had lived and died as a human being and by death had conquered death and in the Resurrection given life to humankind. This was the core of their faith as it is the core of our faith, as we sing constantly during the period of Easter, “Christ is risen from the dead, by death He has trampled on death and to those in the graves given life.”

And that gift of life, they, the Fathers, took very seriously. This gift of life was the gift of the life of the Triune Godhead, the life that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit share in their consubstantial communion with each other. So, as God had become human in Christ, so in Christ we humans are called to become God, to be deified. And that confidence demanded asceticism, a stark asceticism answering to a staggering confidence. For the life that we live in this fallen world is far from the divine life promised in Christ. It’s even far from the truly human life that Adam and Eve were to have lived in paradise. It is, as the women of Canterbury constantly bewail and lament in T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, “living and partly living.”

If we are to grasp and experience the divine life of the godhead, then we have to destroy death in our own lives, the death that makes our own living no more than partly living. And that demands a lifetime of ascesis, training, or perhaps better what the root of that Greek word suggests, to work in raw materials as an artist does, to create and fashion something beautiful out of the raw materials of human living and human loving, of hoping and fearing, of longing and experiencing. Asceticism is often understood in a negative way, as a matter of denial. But that denial is only demanded by the presence of the negative in our fallen human life, a negative that needs to be excised, cut out, so as to make evident the beauty of God’s original creation and beyond that the beauty of the divine life that is offered us through the Incarnation. To be able to distance ourselves from the negativity of the corruption and death that cast their shadow over human lives lived apart from God is to find freedom, that freedom that is the fruit of the Fathers’ stark asceticism and manifest in their staggering confidence, a freedom that enabled them to keep their eyes on the vision of God’s transfiguring glory while living in a society bewildered and often defeatist, with its ancient certainties eroded and crumbling. It is that freedom that we need to grasp and experience and the Fathers offer themselves as our guides to the confidence in God and this corresponding practice of asceticism that is its basis.

Father Andrew Louth, lecture on “The relevance of the Church Fathers Today”

For those who haven’t seen it yet (here or here), a commenter on The Way of the Fathers has kindly tracked down some lost lectures by Father Andrew Louth and made them available in MP3 format.

As anyone who has been reading this blog for more than a couple of months knows, Father Louth is eminently worth reading. Now it turns out that he is also worth listening to!

Next Page »