By Judy Alsop
For me, coming into the Orthodox faith was like entering an enormous, ancient and majestic cathedral full of unimaginable treasures. Even the treasure-filled cave of Tolkien’s dragon Smaug could not compare to these riches of the soul, both small and great. And, I still feel very small as I stand in worship just inside the doors of the towering Church, mother and guardian of the “true faith.”
To reflect on the myriad of precious jewels in Orthodoxy would take a couple of millennia, for the Church has been gathering those gems to her bosom for that long. But, a few precious stones stand out to me at this point in my journey. They give me pause, and continually change the way I think and act: worship, prayer, confession, beauty and truth, community, and, above all else, the Eucharist. How could I have been so unaware, for so long, of these life-giving treasures? Could it be that God in His wisdom prepared me all my life for this rich discovery? I believe so. And, from my limited knowledge and experience this far, I want to share some personal thoughts on each one of these pearls of great price.
Orthodoxy is all about worship. Worship is not about me or anyone else. It’s about the one and only true God and Creator of the universe. It is about honoring Him, adoring Him, surrendering to Him and offering to Him all we are and have. As I enter the nave of my local Orthodox church during Matins or the Divine Liturgy on any given Sunday, worship washes over me. Both my body and soul are saturated with the sights and sounds, the bells and smells, songs, prayers, Scriptures, and theological proclamations of the 2,000 year old Church Christ Himself established. I find myself deeply touched by the communal singing of the words “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” These expressions of true worship bring me restoration, healing and salvation. Even if I come into the church a little disgruntled, or perhaps not as peaceful as I should be, the atmosphere of worship soon engulfs me. It refocuses my attention on the living, loving triune God. It restores my sense of belonging and safety – I’m home.
My “home” is a house of prayer. Orthodoxy is all about prayer. Prayer is what we do. Prayer is our life line to God. We pray standing, sitting, kneeling, prostrating, with metanias, and very, very often with the sign of the cross. Hopefully, through diligent practice and over time we begin to live and breathe our prayers. Of course, Orthodoxy provides prayers for everything imaginable – just take a look at the prayer menu in the little red “Pocket Orthodox Prayer Book”! Not to mention the volume of prayers handed down through the centuries, both oral and written, by wise, spiritual athletes of the faith – men and women skilled in worship and praise and disciplined in every kind of intercession and spiritual warfare. Most importantly, we can learn to turn our thoughts toward Christ every moment of every day through “The Jesus Prayer,” a prayer recited by Orthodox Christians for centuries. These simple words can be repeated aloud or silently, continuously or intermittently: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” They are life and peace to the soul – like breathing is to the body.
Through this life of continuous prayer comes a keener sense of our shortcomings and the need for confession, forgiveness and the cleansing of our souls. Orthodoxy is all about accountability. The Sacrament of Confession keeps us accountable. It is a sacrament preserved through the centuries by the Orthodox Church, as a means of healing and restoration. It is therapeutic. The Church, after all, is a hospital for the soul. And, if approached with sincerity and honesty, regular confession of sin keeps the soul clean and the heart open to the sweet ministry of the Holy Spirit, Whose work it is to make us more like Christ – theosis is the Greek word for that process. Our parish priest is simply a witness of our confession to God Himself. With the wisdom of the Spirit, he offers counsel to help us correct our errors and grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord. He prays over us a beautiful prayer, concluding with the petition that we would have “grace to go and sin no more.” That old, often quoted conventional proverb is certainly true: “Confession is good for the soul.”
It is good for our souls because that continual cleansing enables us to be fully influenced by the beauty and truth of the Church. Orthodoxy is all about beauty – beauty which reveals truth in a unique and sensory way. It speaks to us in the elaborate jewel-toned vestments of the clergy, ornate and fragrant censors, opulent chandeliers, handcrafted altar, holy tabernacle, and altar furnishings. And, most loudly, in the brilliant Byzantine icons of our Lord, the holy angels, and Orthodox saints covering walls, ceilings, and display stands. The changing colors of the clerical vestments and altar trappings have deep meaning, announcing both seasons and saints: most prominently, red for our Lord; purple for His passion; white for His resurrection; green for Pentecost, blue for Our Lady Theotokos; and gold for seasons in between the great feasts. All this beauty draws us to Christ. And Christ is Truth. Beauty and Truth dance together in harmony throughout the Liturgy – one complimenting the other. It never ceases to amaze me.
I’m not the only one that often stands in awe and holy reverence in the midst of the swirling, majestic theological beauty of an Orthodox Liturgy. In a very real sense it is a community experience. Orthodoxy is all about community. We believers worship together, pray together, sing together, repent together, celebrate the Church feasts together, and are shepherded and guided by the wisdom of our priests together. We take very seriously the roles of God parents, God children and God family. We rejoice when infants are churched and baptized, becoming official members of the Church, the Body of Christ. We celebrate the baptism and chrismation of adult catechumens with just as much joy and fervor. We love getting together for almost any reason – coffee hour, baby showers, bridal showers, Bible studies, play dates for mothers with young children, family night, and, of course, all the church services and liturgies – the list goes on.
But, first and foremost, Orthodox Christians partake of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ together. Orthodoxy is all about the Eucharistic celebration (or Thanksgiving per the Greek). Christ our God took on human flesh to live and die for us, cleansing us from sin, redeeming us from every brokenness, restoring us to the position of God’s dear children. And, by His resurrection, He literally “trampled down death by death” to secure for us eternal life. The life of Orthodox Christians revolves around this ancient holy sacrament of remembrance, celebration and participation in the “mystery of our salvation.”
Mid-week Vespers, Saturday Great Vespers and Sunday Matins all help prepare us to take part in this Holy Communion, this “partaking of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). From its very opening prayer – “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – the entire Divine Liturgy moves toward that Eucharistic moment when the very life of Christ is imparted to each of us. To Orthodox Christians, this is a transforming, life-giving mystery. It is not something we try to explain in concrete or scientific terms. We reverently and joyfully receive the bread and wine as the Lord’s true Body and Blood, by faith. From this spiritual nourishment we receive forgiveness of sin, cleansing of soul, and restoration; and, we are drawn ever closer to Christ, all by faith.
Yes, one would have to say the whole of Christian Orthodoxy is lived out by faith. These treasures – the all-consuming power of worship, the tonic of unceasing prayer, the healing of confession, the life-altering inspiration of beauty and truth, the enriching sense of community, and the precious life-giving Eucharist itself are all expressions of faith in the one and only triune God. They are treasures that bind us all together in His great love. Treasures that make life worth living and give us hope beyond this life into eternity. Treasures that save, heal, restore and transform us into the image and likeness of Christ our true God, the One Who has forever won our hearts.
Judy Alsop attends Saint Barnabas Orthodox Church in Costa Mesa, California with her husband Ron.