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Fidelity in the Life of Christ: A Lenten Reflection by Bishop Thomas

by Bishop Thomas (Joseph) and Peter Schweitzer
April 5, 2017

In my last article, I wrote about the notion of the Orthodox Church as the Ark of Salvation whose mission concerns the salvation of its members. In so doing, I dismissed the notion that the Church functions as a corporation concerned with the smooth administration of an institution. The corporate mentality has no place in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Christ. This affirmation leads to the next issue--what does it mean to be a member of the Church?

At first glance, one could reasonably assume that membership requires a fidelity to the Church’s teachings and, on the local level, participation in the life of the parish. Of course, this is true and a necessary first step but it doesn’t capture entirely what membership in the Orthodox Church implies. Just as a child who is initiated into the Church through the mysteries of baptism, chrismation, and Holy Eucharist must continue to be nourished throughout life by the regular and consistent participation in the Mysteries and the services of the Church, adult members can’t claim fidelity to Christ and His Church without the same.

Since fidelity to the Church and its teachings is a determinative factor for all those who claim the mantle of Orthodoxy, it’s imperative to examine in concrete terms, how fidelity is manifested in the daily life of an Orthodox Christian. Since holy Orthodoxy is not a religion among many but a way of life in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic faith, uniting oneself to the life of the Church through regular and frequent attendance at church services is a necessary requirement of fidelity. This cannot be emphasized enough! One need only look at the words and witness of our holy fathers to realize this is true. Saint John Chrysostom emphatically notes:

Very few have come here today. Whatever is the reason? We celebrated the Feast of the Martyrs, and nobody comes? The length of the road makes them reluctant; or rather it is not the length of the road that prevents them from coming, but their own laziness. For just as nothing stops an earnest man, one whose soul is upright and awake, so anything at all will stand in the way of the half-hearted and the lazy.

The Martyrs gave their blood for the truth, and you are not able to think little of a brief stretch of road? They gave their life for Christ, and you are reluctant to make a small journey for Him? The Martyrs’ Commemo­ration, and you sit in sloth and indifference! It is but right that you should be present; to see the devil overcome, the Martyrs triumphant, God glorified, and the Church crowned with honor.

But, you will say to me, I am a sinner. I cannot come. Then if you are a sinner, come, that you may cease to be one! Tell me, who is there among men without sin? Do you not know that even those close to the altar are wrapped in sins? For they are clothed with flesh, enfolded in a body: as we also who are sitting and teaching upon this throne are entangled in sin. But not because of this do we despair of the kindness of God; and neither do we look on Him as inhuman. And for this reason has the Lord disposed that those who serve the altar shall also be subject to these afflictions: so that from what they too suffer they may learn to have a fellow feeling for others.[1]

Saint Macarius of Optina writes, “Concerning prayer in church, know that it is higher than prayers at home, for it is raised by a whole group of people, among which many are most pure prayers, offering to God from humble hearts, which He accepts as fragrant incense. Along with these our prayers are also accepted, even though they are feeble and worthless.”[2]


When Elder Barsanuphius was asked if there are clear signs to know whether a soul is drawing closer to God, he replied by referring to the words of Saint John Climacus who wrote, “A sure sign of the deadening of the soul is the avoidance of church services.”[3]

Saint John of Kronstadt, who served the Divine Liturgy every day of his priestly life in spite of a very heavy pastoral schedule, is perhaps the most contemporary witness to the importance of immersion into the spiritual life of the Church. He wrote in his “My Life in Christ”, “The Church, through the temple and Divine service, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendor of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.”[4]

There is no substitute for attendance at church services for those who seek union with God (theosis). One can’t substitute “church work” such as cleaning, preparing meals in the trapeza, or serving on committees for the divine services. While these are necessary and laudable works, they are not a substitute for Church services. This includes recreational activities such as playing cards, sharing a drink with friends or attending and participating in church bazaars, bake sales, and fundraisers. It’s been my experience as a priest and a bishop that these activities do not benefit the spiritual life but rather increase the opportunities for idle talk, gossip, and petty quarrels. There is a spiritually qualitative difference between being at church rather than being in church.

Once one makes the decision to forgo these activities and enter into the life of the Church, another set of obstacles will be present. As Saint Theophan the Recluse writes,

Everyone knows that a church calls for reverence, for a collecting of thoughts, for deep thinking about God, and for standing in the presence of God, but who fulfills this? People go to church with a desire to pray, to stand in it for a while with warm fervor; but then thoughts begin to wander, and bargaining begins in one’s head even louder than that which the Lord found in the Jerusalem temple.

Why is this so?

Because the way one stands in church is a reflection of one’s entire life. As people live, so do they behave in church. A church influences and somewhat supports spiritual movements; but then the usual course of one’s spiritual constitution takes over.

Therefore if you want your time in church to consist of worthily standing in the face of the Lord, prepare for this in your ordinary life; walk, as much as you can, in a prayerful frame of mind.

This labor will bring you to the point that in church also you will stand reverently all the time. This reverence will inspire you to be reverent in your ordinary life as well. Thus you will walk ever higher and higher. Say, ‘O Lord, help’ —and begin!”[5]

The Gospel of Saint Luke provides us with the proper disposition once inside the holy temple of God. The cry of the publican in contrast to the Pharisee, should always be our goal. The publican focuses his prayer on his relationship to God and begs for mercy. The Pharisee, on the other hand, notices others in the temple and compares himself to them, thanking God he is not like them, but superior in every aspect. The Lord Jesus instructs His disciples that the Publican went away justified and received mercy.

As we enter our temples, we too are often confronted with the temptations and distractions of others around us. The most effective tool we possess to combat these temptations is to cry out with the Publican, “Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner.” There are practical tips to assist in recollecting yourself properly once you enter the temple for divine services. First, prepare at home for the service through the recitation of your prayer rule. If the service is a Divine Liturgy, pray the pre-communion prayers which can be found in good Orthodox prayer books or online. Secondly, carry your prayer rope with you to church. After you’ve venerated the holy icons and found your place in the temple, pray the Jesus Prayer continuously. I know some pious Orthodox faithful who will stand in the front of the temple in order to avoid visual distractions. Others may keep their eyes fixed on the iconostasis or simply shut their eyes as they pray. Whatever method you choose, know that you will be confronted with temptations once you enter the church.

Being prepared is being forearmed. This is spiritual warfare, make no mistake about it. However, you are not alone; the Lord Who sees and knows all things, will see your ascetical efforts and reward you with abundant spiritual fruit over time. All too often, sincere people will tell me they’ve given up because they can’t seem to overcome the distractions and the many thoughts that enter their mind once they enter the church. In response to such complaints, Saint Paisios once remarked, “Thoughts are like airplanes flying in the air. If you ignore them, there is no problem. If you pay attention to them, you create an airport inside your head and permit them to land!”[6] The key is to return to the Jesus Prayer as soon as you notice your mind wandering, asking the good and merciful Lord Jesus for mercy. In the Gospel, the Lord reminded His disciples, “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.”

In commenting on this Gospel passage Saint John of Kronstadt notes, “If you only pray when you are inclined to, you will completely cease praying; this is what the flesh desires. The Kingdom of heaven suffers violence. You will not be able to work out your salvation without forcing yourself.” This is particularly true regarding frequent attendance at church services.

The holy fathers often remark that the life of heaven and hell begin right here on earth. A true sign that we are on the heavenly path is our regular and frequent participation in the holy services of the Church. Gradually, our lives are transformed. We no longer mark the passing of days and weeks by secular standards but rather enter into the mysteries presented to us in the Church’s rich liturgical calendar. Even the routine of our daily lives can be transformed by the pious observance of saints’ days, the fasts, and the Great Feasts of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the Most Holy Theotokos. Such pious observances keep our routines and problems in proper perspective. Suffering, illness, and difficulties take on a new meaning for us when we are fully engaged in body and spirit in the life of the Church. This is precisely how the holy fathers were able to respond to illness and misfortune by exclaiming sincerely and full of joy, “Glory to God for all things”. This is why Saint James is able to write in his epistle, “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations;” (James 1:2)


[1] Taken from http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/respect.aspx
Patrologia Graeca 63, Cols. 623-32. Taken from The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, trans. and ed. by M.F. Toal (Swedesboro, NJ: Preservation Press, 1996), pp. 137-145.

[2] Elder Macarius, Living Without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Elders of Optina trans. by Archim. George Schaefer (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2005).

[3] http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/elderbars_talks1.aspx From Elder Barsanuphius of Optina (Platina, CA: St. Herman Press), pp. 439-450. Copyright 2000 by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, California.

[4] Saint John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ Verlag: Jordanville, Archimandrite Panteleimon, Erscheinungsdatum: 1971, p. 401.

[5] St. Theophan the Recluse, Thoughts for Each Day of the Year St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, California.

[6] Priestmonk Christodoulos (Aggeloglou), Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos, Greece, 1998), p. 31.

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