Friday, June 12, 2015

How to Save the Church, Part 1: Introduction

Over on my Facebook I've been posting all sorts of smart-alecky links about how the Church's bad liturgical hijinks are killing it. I mean, why go to Church if it doesn't mean anything more than a crappy concert? Lots of people commented going "Hell yeah! Authentic liturgical tradition will save us!"

And that's when one of my priest friends commented, bringing his usual common sense. Even where liturgical traditions are more intact the numbers are down. Why? What's going on in our world? Why isn't there a cure-all for the lack of religion in America? I'm partially tempted to be a smart-ass and say "Christ is the cure", drop the mic, and walk out, but that really doesn't help, does it?

I'm a firm believer that liturgical tradition is a huge part of what will get us back on track as a Catholic and Orthodox Church. In fact, I believe it's our only real shot to bringing us to Christ; the liturgical experience is the best place to encounter Christ in a group setting, allowing the individual to experience Christ as a corporate body. East and West have both developed techniques to get us there, we just need to use them. The whole point is to allow everyone to pray individually and, once they've found the Kingdom of God within, to allow them to realize that the Kingdom of God is without as well. But this means everyone in the congregation needs to know how to pray in the first place. And, since we aren't teaching the mystical truths of Christianity for fear of offending people, nothing is going to work, because no one is being renewed from within, which then means that nothing can happen outside.

If there's anything we should be teaching right now, it's how to pray. Both East and West have differing ways of praying that I'll get into in the next few posts. We'll start with the East, since that's what I know best, comment on the Western way of doing things, and then do a sum up post at the end. But, for now, the only thing that needs to be said is that the only thing that matters is prayer. Everything else is a distraction.

But what's the point of talking about prayer if we don't have some definition?

Prayer is the lifting of one' self to God. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing is more important than being in God's presence however one can. But there are ways to be with God that are more effective than others, and that's what Tradition has handed down to us: how to best be with God.

Prayer has three elements: physical, mental, and spiritual. These elements are co-existent, like rings in a tree or layers in  an onion. All three of these layers must be there, otherwise prayer is difficult if not impossible.

The physical element of prayer deals with gestures, space, and images. Gestures include standing, the default stance of prayer, kneeling ,which shows deep respect in the West and profound sorrow in the East, sitting, which means to listen and be instructed, and bowing, which is a sign of respect. All these are meant to help focus the mind on the action of prayer.

Space has to do with making a holy space to pray in. In the East this is called an icon corner and it's where you go to pray. You set up a small table and on it put a Bible and anything else you use to pray, like rosaries and prayer books. Make sure it faces East, for this is the direction that Christ is said to come again and has been the way to pray since the Early Church. Having a physical space and a specific direction to pray helps with the focus as well.

And finally we deal with images. According to the 7th Ecumenical Council it's heretical to not have images. They're emblematic of our Christian faith, as Christ, being the image of the unseen Father, became a man seeable for all. So it's a very Christian thing to have images, it's incarnational. And, practically speaking, it's very useful for prayer. The Fathers talk the necessity of a clear mind for prayer to happen and images like icons and statues allow one to have images outside one's mind to focus on, crucial for us image-based humans.

The mental element of prayer consists of what your mind is doing while you're praying. Most of it consists of focusing on the words you're saying and nothing else. That means excluding all mental images, thoughts, and feelings to the best of your ability. This is extremely hard to do,  and not all mental stuff should be blocked out, depending on the subject matter. Sometimes you don't have the strength to focus that hard and that's OK, that's when your prayer becomes "God, I'm tired, but I want to talk to you anyway. You are everything to me, even when I can't focus on You." It's also very important to keep your mind sharp and free of anything impure. Yes, I mean things like porn and fornication. Those things distract from God, which is why the Church frowns on them. Also? Put good stuff in your brain. Read, a lot. Or, if you're going to watch TV, make sure it's actually good stories that help you hope, that inspire you. Keep your brain food good and your ability to pray will also increase.

Finally there's the spiritual element of prayer. This is where God comes to you and all is a beautiful silence. This is not due to any effort on your part, it is specifically God coming to you and filling you with peace. The first two elements make you more receptive to God so that you may receive Him, but everything else can line up just right and God may still not make Himself present to you. If He doesn't come to you that's OK, it may not be time yet. There may be things that you haven't resolved that God doesn't want to bring up prematurely. Or maybe there's another reason far beyond any human to comprehend. Whatever it is, don't be troubled. God is near, even if you can't sense Him.

All these things need to be laid down because I'll be referring to the three elements through the next two posts, which deal with the Eastern and Western approaches to prayer. Just, as we go through all these approaches and thoughts, don't forget the most important thing: to be with God.

Eastern post next week!

(Also, in case I didn't make it apparent, I'll be concentrating on the liturgical expressions of the two sides of the Church. There's so many private devotions I could never possibly do them justice.)

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