The subject of my talk today is, as you know, part of a series on worship in a secular age, and I will take for granted Father Lev Gillet’s lecture last time, which I did not attend, but which I read and which I found remarkably interesting. He makes two points that I would like you to keep in mind as a background to what I have got to say. First of all, that worship, as we understand it, is a purely religious exercise and activity, but worship in a wider sense can be defined as the attitude of one who has singled out certain values as ultimate values and orders his life around them, to serve then in an act of reverence and of fulfilling duties attached to them. So there is a notion of worship which is wider than religious worship. Worship begins at the moment when we discover outside, beyond, above ourselves values that are more important to ourselves than we are. I have put it once in another way to some of you when I said, repeating words that were spoken to me, that a man’s life is of no account: what matters is what be is prepared to live for and die for. Worship is rooted in that attitude, whatever the ultimate value is. For us believers worship is centred round God – God known, God venerated, God respected and loved, God obeyed, etc. But we must remember that worship begins at the moment when ultimate worth is attached to something And this makes us akin, in a way which we don’t always sufficiently realize, to people who are profoundly different from us, whose ideals are incompatible with ours, who can go as far as rejecting all we stand for, and who yet, in spite of this, are in an attitude of worship, give their lives, and offer their death for something which they value, treasure, respect more than themselves.
The second point which Father Lev made is that we must remember that however dear to us and significant are the classical and traditional way in which we express our acts of worship, they are not the only ways, that the Church has evolved them gradually, that it is an expression of its knowledge of God and its ability to express and convey it, and also to express the feelings and attitudes of mind and soul which this knowledge of God awakens. But from generation to generation new ways can be evolved which are not contradictory, nor are they complementary they simply have newness, while they remain each as genuine as the others.
In our present time we live amidst a secular society, we are within it, even if we are not of it. Yet we must be very careful not to draw these distinctions too sharply and imagine that we live in the world without being worldly at all. In fact, the world is not only around us: the world to a very great extent is within us. And when we face the problem of worship in the midst of a secular society, we must continuously keep in mind the fact that we are not a group of people who belong to nothing but the Kingdom of God, unreservedly, perfectly, in a fulfilled way, and that we stand in the midst of a world which is alien to this. The two terms of this contrast are false. We do not belong unreservedly, perfectly and in a fulfilled way to the Kingdom; we are in a process of becoming, but not yet become. And the world around as is not simply the outer darkness of which the Gospel speaks: it is also a complex, extremely rich milieu in which God is active and which often is more aware of spiritual values than we are, blinded as we are by our habits of mind and by the ways which we have inherited from the past.
It still remains that two characteristics can be drawn, I think, to define this secular society in which we live, and the secularity, the worldliness, which is ours in the midst of this society. The first is the loss of the sense of God. This loss of the sense of God, when it is particularly clear, when it is radical, would define a secular society, I would almost say an ‘ideal’ secular society, because the secular society as we observe and experience it has not simply lost any sense of God. This should be completely alien to the Church as such, and yet, when we turn inwards, when we Judge ourselves, we can see with clarity, with dramatic clarity, because for us it is the kind of judgement which is already the beginning of the Last Judgement – we can see that we belong to a very great extent to this secular society, because the sense of God in us is blurred, weak, anaemic. We cannot say that we have the sense of the Living God as the great men of the Old and New Testament, the saints of the march, the great heroes of the spirit possessed it and still do possess it. I am insisting continuously on this presence of the world in our experience, or, if you prefer, of this lack there is in our experience, which is characteristic of what Scripture calls the world, because we must be very careful when we try to evaluate both ourselves and what we do, and the world in which we live.
The second characteristic of a secular society is an acute awareness of the world. This acute awareness of the world quite naturally is the dominant charade of a secular society to the extent to which it rejects or ignores or remains insensitive to the other dimension of the world, its transparency to the Divine Presence, its dimensions of immensity and eternity. But we must be careful here again not to imagine that it is because a society is secular that it develops a deeper, more acute awareness of the world. If we read the lives of saints, if we turn to the Scriptures of the Old or the New Testament, we will see clearly that none have such awareness of the world, both of its glory in God, in spite of sin, and of its dramatic severance from God, in spite of the Divine Presence within it, the saints, and ultimately God Himself revealed in Christ. So this loss of the sense of God and this acute awareness of the world are not necessarily correlative. All one can say, I think, is that one or the other is predominantly evident in either the society which we call the secular society – the world, to use Scriptural expressions – or the church.
When we think of the Church no longer as an empirical society, us, but in a wider and more real sense, that body, that society which is simultaneously and equally human and divine, this society where God is present together with us, this body in which the fulness of Godhead abides, in Christ and in the Spirit, and which rests in God, – when we think of this society that includes God and men in their becoming the Kingdom and the Body, then we see that the Church is concerned with both aspects I have spoken of, but differently. The loss of the sense of God and the acute awareness of the world are both, or should equally be, the concerns of the Church. The loss or the absence of the sense of God should be alien to the Church. It is alien to the Church when we speak of it with a capital ‘C’, when we think of it as this body which I have Just mentioned. It is not alien or strange to the members of the Church. It is inherent partly in the fact that our process of becoming is not a smooth, regular ascent from the earth to heaven, from creatureliness into participation in the Divine Nature. It is a jerky up and downhill journey in which sin is present, which is a denial of God, a rejection of God, but also an ignorance of God, because if we knew God more than we do, we could love Him as wholeheartedly as we can in time love the beloved one of our life, and order our life much more clearly according to the itinerary which Christ has set before us. The church, however, is rooted in faith born of experience. It is rooted in a certainty concerning things which are invisible, which are unseen, but which for the Church – and now I speak about each member of the Church if he is a live and not a dead member – should be central.
We must realise that faith is not simple credulity, that faith does not draw its strength from the fact that we have inherited a message. When it is alive, meaningful to the person who claims to possess it, the faith is rooted in personal discovery and knowledge. St. Macarius of Egypt says in one of his writings that when we meet God face to face it happens beyond words and beyond thought and beyond emotion is a state of rapture that doesn’t allow us either to observe ourselves or to become intellectually or emotionally aware of what is happening to us. But when this experience begins to fade away it leaves behind the certainty that it has taken place, and although what was vision has now disappears and become invisible, the certainty remains with us, and this is the moment when direct overwhelming experience becomes faith. Of course the example given by St Macarius is one of particularly striking character: what happens to us are minor aspects of the same. Shall I remind you of the passage in Corinthians in which we are told that we can see the light of the glory of God on the face of Christ? But I can also remind you of the saying current in monastic circles in Orthodoxy, that one can abandon and forsake all things only if one has seen on the face of another person the shining, the light, the splendour of eternal life.
This is also an experience mediated by men, but as concrete and certain as that described by Macarius in terms of rapture. This is the root of the Church’s certainty, and this is why the Church can witness without hesitation, without a sense of tension, with serenity, – witness that those things which others do not see are real and perhaps more real than the visible world around us. The loss of the sense of God is incompatible with our belonging to the Church. Our witness is to that, and it is not the perplexities that we have got to speak of, but that certainty which is ours. But we have also, must have, an awareness of the world is which we live. Yet our awareness of this world is not the same am that of the world understood in scriptural terms as contrasted from, opposed to the Kingdom. We do not see the world as material, inert, opaque and dead. According to the Scriptures and to the experience of all believers, we are aware that within this world, not simply filling the empty spaces between heavy and opaque objects, but filling all things by His presence, there is God. For the unbeliever, we are surrounded with volumes that have density, colour and contrast, For the believer, these volumes have not only density and presence, they have depth. The world seen by the eye a of the unbeliever may have volume and thickness: it does not possess depth, because all things which we try to enter into, to penetrate deeply into, lead us to the deeper point and then further beyond this point to the point of emergence. If we enter into a sphere, we come to its centre. But this centre is a last point in depth. If we try to go beyond, we emerge on the other side. For a believer, the depth of the world that surrounds us, the depth of men and things, does not reside in this but in its rootedness in the created world of God, in the fact that it has a destiny, that it is potentially as wast as God Himself, because nothing but God can fill the heart of man. And a day will come when, according to the promise, the prophetic promise of St. Paul, God will he all in all, and this ‘all’ of which he speaks is the visible world that will prove wast and deep enough to contain God while it is contained within Him.
So we also see the world, but we cannot see the world in the way in which the world itself, blind by definition (as we are using this term) to its own depth, can see it. But there is also another way in which we are aware of the world. We are aware that this world has a calling, that it has a destiny and a vocation, and that we are responsible for the fulfilment of this vocation. The whole world has this destiny, not only man, but man is a key to the fulfilment of this destiny, this calling, this vocation, Man stands on the threshold of the world of God and the world of that which we call things. Man is called to be the guide of all things towards their fulfilment. And when man falls away from God, forsakes God and loses Him, indeed the whole creation loses its guide and loses its will.
Speaking of the situation created by the fall of man, Theodore Studion, trying to explain the bewildering disharmony of the world, says that the world is like a horse ridden by a drunken horseman. He who has gone wrong is the horseman, and yet the horse seems to be completely wild. So is the world in which we live. It is wild. It is in a dramatic state of disharmony. This disharmony may be ugly, cruel, destructive, deathly, but the world, like the horse, groans and suffers and waits for the time when drunkenness will he over, when sobriety, clarity of mind, purity of heart, straightness of will, will be restored, and when the freedom and the fulfilment of the children of God will he revealed, not only in man, but in the harmony of things. We are responsible. We have a greater responsibility as who know God’s mind.
Don’t you remember the definition which Amos gives of the prophet, of the one who speaks for God: he is the one to whom God reveals His thoughts. But this, which was the peculiar vocation of the Jew, is now the vocation of all Christians. Can we forget the words of Christ, who says: “I no longer call you slaves, or servants, but friends, because the slave does not know the mind of his master. I have told you all things’’. If we are so rich in knowledge shared by God, given to us by God, then we have a heavier responsibility for all that is happening. And this responsibility God Himself has accepted. He has taken responsibility for His act of creation, when He, having created man, has not turned away from him in his fall and had accepted solidarity with man by the act of the Incarnation. And again, this act of incarnation, which identifies the Lord with His creatures, this act of incarnation which is the way in which God dies – of His solidarity – has been taken on continuously throughout history by those whom we call martyrs, who are simply witnesses of the love of God, of the sense of divine responsibility, of the divine solidarity shared with us abroad within our hearts. I have said that outside the world is seen only as material, dead and inert. Within the Church it is seen as transparent, filled with the Presence and dynamically moving towards its fulfilment – dynamically but not obligatorily, dynamically, but also at times tragically.
Apart from this vision of the world, one comes to a desecration of the world. The world ceases to have any sacred quality: it becomes not only profane – which is a neutral situation – but is profaned, snatched out of the realm divine. And yet for us this world becomes sacred, not only sacred in the sense in which we use the word when we say that the life of man is sacred, i.e., should not be touched or destroyed, but sacred is the sense of belonging to God not only potentially, not only virtually, but in actual fact. It is God’s own, and God is alive within it. Short of this, if we accept this desecrating attitude to the world which is characteristic of the world itself, of a radical secularisation, then we mast deny the Incarnation of the word of God, we must deny the miracles of God, we mast deny the sacraments, because it is not only that the Son of God has become the Son of Man: what we affirm is that the Word of God, God Himself, has become flesh, that the fulness of the Godhead has abided in our midst in the flesh of a man, that the flesh of the Incarnation representing the visible and tangible substance of all things created has proved capable of being God-bearing, filled with the Divine Presence, without being destroyed. If it weren’t otherwise, then the Incarnation would have destroyed the very quality of the created being and Christ would have been God revealed in the guise of man but not as the Word Incarnate, as a true man who is simultaneously true God.
And this applies also to the sacraments. It is only if we believe, as the Bible commands as to believe, because it is God’s own truth revealed to us, if we believe and if we know from an incipient experience that all things are capable of being spirit-bearing and God-bearing, that they all have their origin in a creative Word that is already a relatedness to God, and that their end is that fulfilment of which I have already spoken: God all in all – unless we believe this, then we cannot have any faith in a realistic theology of the sacraments. Then indeed this bread shall never be the Body of Christ, because it cannot be anything but bread unfulfilled, edible, destructible but nothing else, and the wine shall never be the Blood of Christ: it can be nothing but a creature incapable of being pervaded and filled with the Divine Grace, the Divine Presence. And yet this is what we believe in. But when we speak of this bread and this wine, we do not speak of a peculiar piece of broad or a peculiar cup of wine which is different from other things created. It stands for all things, and all things are called to this miraculous incredible fulfilment which we see is the sacraments of the Blood and the Body, a fulfilment which shall make all things, – if I may put it this way – into the Body of God revealed in matter as it was once revealed to the flesh of Him Who was born of the Virgin. God has created things is such a way that they do not need to cease to be themselves, to be In God, and this is why when we bless the bread and when we bless the wine, indeed they become the Body and the Blood of Christ. But because they are great enough for that, they need not cease to be what they are, bread and wine.
Again the same applies to our vision of the world and of the miracles of God. It is only if we have a theology that gives matter a depth, a vocation, a significance, a relatedness to God, that recognises its ability to be filled with presence that we can believe in the miracles of the Old and New Testaments. I am not now speaking of those miracles of healing which are easily – much too easily – explained away in terms of psychosomatic action. I speak of those miracles is which nature is involved without man’s participation, too storm on the Lake of Galilee and so many other events. That the Church cannot Rive up, that is our faith, not only is God, but In the things Be has created’ And if we cease to see the world as we do see the world through faith and experience, then we have accepted to be worldly, that is blind, to be secular, that is to desecrate what God has made sacred. And this is a very earnest problem for as, because for as within the Christian or other believing communities there is a crisis of faith, because it is a crisis of experience, and this crisis of faith makes us worldly, deprives us of that participation throughout our lives of the original primeval experience of God, of man and of the world of matter. This is important because if we lose our quality, then this quality is lost to the world, if the salt is no longer salt, it is good for nothing but to be thrown out so that people will walk on it, tread it with their feet. And this is the just reward of our betrayal of what God has revealed and is revealing to us.
But apart from those basic categories of the loss of the sense of God, of the acute awareness of the world, which we find in a complex commixture, both is the secular society, where the one is dominant, and in the Church, where the other is dominant, there is both in the Church and in the secular society another thing which I believe we must take into account. It is the anti-clerical attitude which is growing and spreading. That the world around us should be anti-clerical is not surprising, because if all that the clerics stand for: the sacredness of the world – is lie and nonsense, of course they are the people who are responsible. (Why should I say ‘they’? I am one of them) We are the people who are responsible for the greatest lie there can be. But there is an increasing sense of anti-clericalism within the churches. It may be an evil, and it may be one of the greatest blessings. If it corresponds to the confusion which I perceive, at least, in many quarters now – a confusion between clerical and sacred – then it is an evil. When whatever is done by the clergy is to be rejected because the clergy is always wrong and evil, and when this all that is rejected implies the sacraments of the Church and an attitude to the world which I have tried to describe before, then it in evil because it is a rejection of reality in favour of a small, blind, or at least short-sighted vision of the world. But there is another sense in which am anti-clerical attitude to the Church, within the Church, has a great importance, and I think, a great value.
I am not going to say anything about what the priest is, but I would like is this connection to say a word about what the priest is not, or rather, to put the priest in the context to which he belongs. I read a few years ago a post-graduate course of a given denomination about the significance of the priest. It was given by one very well-known, renowned theologian. He underlined the fact that the priest has incredible power. He said that Christ had committed to him the power to consecrate His Body and His Blood, to distribute communion, to give or refuse absolution, that is, to bind and to loose. And be said words which I found terrifying: “Strictly speaking, the priest is more powerful than Christ, because now that Christ has died and is risen, now that He rests on the Throne of God, the priest has power to refuse to people what Christ might have given. It is enough, says the theologian, for the priest to turn the key of the Tabernacle for the sick and the dying to be deprived of communion”. Well, this is what the priest is not. This is a vision which indeed is a blasphemy. We must remember that there is only one priest, the High priest of the Church, and this is the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other priest is the full sense of this word. Whenever we celebrate the Divine Mysteries, whenever we celebrate sacramental mysteries, whenever something is done even is words, Christ is the One who is active. More than once have I reminded people of these words which are is the beginning of our Eucharistic Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, that when all things are ready, the congregation assembled, the bread and wine prepared, when there is nothing left now except to start the Eucharist, the deacon turns to the priest and says, “And now it is for God to act.” How strange! Isn’t it the very moment when the priest, the deacon, all the clergy, all the people that fill the sanctuary, will become, as it seems to them at least, supremely active? Isn’t it the moment when they will begin to do things? No. They will begin to proclaim words that are not their words and make gestures that are not their gestures. The words are Christ’s own. They repeat them. The gestures are the Lord’s they repeat them. But what they expect am the result of these gestures no gesture can fulfil. What they hope for as the result of these words no words can accomplish. No word – unless we accept a theology of magic – will make this bread into the Body of Christ or this wine Into the Blood of Christ. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that can work the change, that can fulfil and answer the prayer. So the priest indeed has got his place, his significance, but when it comes to things that are essential to the major events of the Church, no one is the High Priest but Christ, no power is at work but that of the Holy Spirit in His freedom and His love.
If only we were taught more often in theological schools where we belong, it would probably be a great help for the lay people as much as for the clerical. It does not subtract anything from the significance of the priest, but it gives God the place He occupies, and it makes possible what otherwise is beyond belief. No word, no gesture, no man can make things earthly into things divine. No human power, or no human ways can force God into an act that is a form of incarnation.
That leads me to another point. I have already said that the Church is a very peculiar society in many ways To sum it up, I would like to underline that it is the only society, perhaps, into which one is not born. One becomes a member of it, and one remains a member of it as long as one remains alive to its values. Otherwise one becomes a ghostly presence in the Church, one is dead, alienated to it, even if outwardly one fulfils all its rites and motions. One cannot belong to it mechanically, one cannot stay in it mechanically, it is a dynamic situation, a society which is both and equally human and divine, in which humanity is revealed in the humanity of Christ, and our humanity is grafted on that -which it is our vocation to possess, a society at the heart of which is God. Remember the word “Emmanuel”, God with us. And in that sense the Church, in a true, strict and sober sense, is the end of religion as under-stood in the pagan world as a system of rites, prayers, incantations, spells, actions that can bring God near, that can compel or at least convince God to come close. We need nothing of the sort. God is in our midst, we need not coerce Him to come, even if we could. There is no rite, no way, no gesture that can add or subtract anything. Christ has said, “Blessed are the pure is heart: they shall see God.”
The Church is the place of the Presence, of the indwelling, but if the Incarnation, the gift of the Holy Spirit, all this complex mystery of the Church is the end of religion understood in this ancient way, it is not the end of adoration, and not indeed the end of worship. Adoration is born of our awareness of God. Worship defines the place which we give the Lord God in our life. But then also it means that there can be an infinite complex variety, not only in the way in which we express our relationship with God, but an infinite variety is the way in which each of us and all of us are related to God. At present it seems to me that not only the world but the Church, the people of God, are tired of words and of gestures that go beyond the necessary sober expression of real situations. I would have loved to speak a great deal more than I can about the ways in which I believe one should think of a reform, or rather of the creation out of the depth of the Church’s experience not only of private, personal worship, but also of liturgical worship. Let me say Just a few things.
First of all, if God is already in our midst, if we are together with Him one mysterious society and incredibly mysterious body, then basically as far as the Church is concerned, we could abide in silence in this awareness, worshipping in Truth and in Spirit.
Secondly, the Church is not made only of those people who are capable of that kind of adoration, and certainly not only of those people who are capable or receiving the message of silence and understanding in silence what silence has got to say. In a discussion that was extremely rich in the course of the last year that culminated in a consultation in Geneva of the World Council of Churches on this question of worship in a secular society, taking advantage of research done particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, it seems that there can be, there should be developed within the churches by the Church at least two types, perhaps three types of liturgy. That of the Church for those people who are aware, who are capable of sharing in a liturgy where silence is the dominant characteristic, where gestures and words are symbols pointing away from themselves to the heart of the silence in which God acts. Experiments have been made which I think are rich and rewarding. Then there are marginal liturgies, liturgies which are not only a way of being and receiving the divine impact, but liturgies which are meant also to convey to those for whom silence is too deep, incomprehensible, by gesture and by words, what the silence contains more fully than any word or gesture can convey. These marginal liturgies can range rather wide, between almost silence and the kind of worshipping that we have nowadays.
But at the heart of this there must be this consciousness that all that is going on is a divine act that is not to be expressed adequately, because it cannot, which is not to be framed in liturgical beauty, but which must be framed in such a transparent, sober and crystal-like way that no beauty can blur the vision and the sense of the Presence. Quite obviously is this talk I am not able to give you any kind of description of it. But unless we come, in all our different communities, to the point where God becomes the One Who celebrates the Mysteries, we will never meet anywhere. If we can make God the Celebrant, the Holy Spirit the Power that acts, silence the form in which we receive, in which we discover, in which we live the Divine Presence and the Divine Gifts. If we can do this at any moment, we will be able to meet, because at that depth and in that situation we are already almost mature to meet. If we develop other liturgies in which from within and not from the outer world we convey the meanings held by the silence, we will be able to make many things understandable for each other in a way acceptable by all, or at least by many. God must become absolutely central if we wish our liturgical worship to be the place where we can meet, not in ecumenical terms as divided Christians full of good will who are prepared to compromise or to discard or to forget their own experience and allegiances, but in a new way, is a basic way, that of people related to God and who find one another within this relatedness. Then our worship will be a scandal. Then it will be a challenge. Then it will become incompatible with what is evil, godless, blind, opaque in the secular approach. Then perhaps the contrast will become more acute and more dramatic than the contrast between Church pageantry and the secular forms of worship. But then also the Church will recover its dimension and its rhythm. And at the heart of things at that point, I believe, the Church will become again what it originally was, not a small society within the wider society, but a society which is both divine and human and therefore not only is God, but in us also, wider, deeper, greater than the world itself, greater and wider than the whole world, capable of containing the world, capable of fulfilling the world.
Questions and Answers
Does this mean that the Quaker way of worship is more perfect….
I think that the one doesn’t follow from the other. It may be true that if we worship truly in spirit and in truth, the heart of our worship is at the depth of silence, but it doesn’t mean that silence itself is enough to create the total situation. I am not now making a critical comment on Quaker worship, but I think that there are in worship a variety of sides. There is the silence that makes us commune at the root of our being with God. But there in also the fact that we are made of a soul and an intellect and a heart and a body, and that our worship is meant to include all things visible and invisible, and is that sense there is space in worship for a great deal more than nothing but silence. But what worries me in the forms of worship which are familiar to us is first of all that there is very little provision for silence during an act of worship, secondly, there is no education in silence whatever. Thirdly, that nowadays with the present-day mania for community it seems that you are active, you participate in worship only if you move your limbs or produce sound, that if You can’t sing, you are not actually taking part. If you do not do certain things You do not take part, while I think we do take part in any of God when we stand deep enough to commune with the event, which does not mean that there is no space for other expressions. And I think that the liturgies which are now under discussion can be destroyed in their very nature if they are performed in the wrong way. I am thinking now of Roman Catholic liturgical experiments. I have had certain experience of them in Belgium particularly, and in other places. I have seen the new types of liturgies celebrated by men who took about an hour or more for a liturgy which, according to its text is extremely short, because it was made of silence brought out by gesture all word. You know there is an idea, for instance, which is current, that archi-tecture is the study of things people have built. Well, many architects would say that the purpose of architecture is to reveal space through those things which are being built. That is just the whole thing. You can build something loaded with so much that it becomes a value of itself, and space doesn’t exist any more because there is no space for space in that. On the contrary, you may conceive architecture as a way or delineating space so that you can perceive it and be seized by it. The same is true about these liturgical forms. I have seen, as I said, several of these liturgies performed in the way I have just expressed. But I have seen the same liturgies performed in the most classical twenty minutes up and down time in other places. And then nothing is left, because all that was meant to be brought out by the intervening deep silence of being in the Divine Presence collapses into a sequence of phrases and gestures which, one on top of the other, are less satisfying than anything that was done before, except perhaps that it goes quicker, but this is not the aim of the exercise. And I think that there should be in our liturgical practice a way in which silence can be secured.
I try to secure silence in a way which is at times resented either by people in the congregation or by the choir because they don’t know whether I have gone to sleep or forgotten the next sentence, by simply keeping quiet when they have finished singing – because I have no desire to move one inch further before the time when silence has got its place. It is not practical in our Orthodox liturgy, because it is not built and meant in that respect, although it can be used also in that respect. But at times one could use silence. And then there is an education for silence. There is an education which we should be given and which we should be prepared to receive. Usually when silence intervenes in an act of worship at an unexpected moment people begin to fidget as though “God has gone out. What has happened! Why doesn’t the clergy speak to God any more? Has He turned away from us?” – which is a very strange attitude, but which is a prevalent one. And then we should learn silence. We should learn to come into Church and merge into silence and keep our mouth shut until the silence has pervaded us. And this is possible. Last Sunday it was perfectly easy to have a period of silence, because everyone saw the point. But the strange thing is that Christians don’t see the point in being silent for a while in the presence of God, we forget too easily what a writer of the early centuries said, that prayer begins the moment God begins to speak and we have stopped talking. Usually we treat prayer in the opposite way. The moment we are no longer talking, the function is over. I think its a mistake, and certain denominations are better at it and certain worse at it. And within denominations people are different. But we should take that into account. But what I meant to say is not that silence in itself is an achievement, but it is a necessity. But I don’t think it is all the problem any more than other ways of worship are all the problem.
Isn’t it true that individual groups in the Church have specialized in one particular thing? For example, the new eucharistic liturgy now has a place for ex tempore prayer, which was a Free Church specialty at one time. My own wife was a Quaker before we were married, and I remember her coming to Mass with me and saying: “Are you never quiet in church?”
Yes, I think we have become specialized. Every denomination really has a peculiar slant. But I think we all lack a certain number of things in common. I think silence is one, but there are other things. I mentioned silence in this particular way because silence is the only way in which one can in a perceptible, obvious manner become aware and make other people aware that God is in action, that we don’t need to do anything, that things are being done, things happen, a situation is there. As long as we are continuously active, either personally or as a group, it is so easy to slip and to forget this. And also because – I may be mistaken, but I have an impression that people become more and more tired of words because life is made of words now to a tremendous extent, and I would say even priests become tired of sacred words. Speaking of myself, when I was a layman and in the evening after a long and tiring day I came back to pray in liturgical words, it was an exhilarating experience, it was something that was Joy. After a day of interviews, discussing things connected with the spiritual life and God, what I long for is a period of silence. I don’t want to lose God in the process, but I feel that words get worn gradually, and you need a period of silence to give then their edge again. And you also need to apply words in life, making those words which you use continuously in a religious context action lit life, because then again they find their edge. And I think we all ore much too deep in words to be able now to do with so many words. The early Christian community was not a community in which thinking and speaking prevailed. Youkknow, the slaves who guarded in the catacombs didn’t spend their week talking, discussing, running groups, etc. When they came, they were capable of putting into words all they had lived silently by. Now we live from the nose upwards, and the rest very little, so that we have too many thoughts, too many words, and we need more silence, I think.
Yes, I quite agree that there are happy people, say in our Orthodox worship. It is the congregation who can be silent. I think ifs one of the great treasures of present-day Orthodoxy, whatever people say about it, that the great majority of people can be silent, are allowed to be silent, and no one will disturb them out of their silence. What I was thinking about is the rather unfortunate fate of those who read, those who sing, and those who celebrate, because there are moments when, even if you are as heavy as any one of us is, You are overwhelmed by what is happening, and you feel all you want is to fall down in silence and prostrate yourself before God, and stay there for a while. The way in which our liturgy is conducted, and meant to be conducted nowadays, doesn’t allow it. And of course we cannot leave that to lyrical attitudes. You know. If you had a priest who kept silent as long as he wanted every time he was moved to do so, you might go to supper, but not to lunch. But there is a sort of balance that a thoughtful congregation could accept. Say, when the priest has prayed. “Bless the bread and the wine” at the moment of consecration, he has a right just to worship. And if the whole church is silent, if there is no sort of fidgeting, if the priest is not aware that the choir is just weighing up “is he going to keep quiet long, or is it time to sing something again, or should someone start reading prayers to fill the gap, it would be a great blessing. And it would be no harm to anyone if before Communion, either during the communion of the priests or at any other moment, there was a moment of silence. This is an example, but what I was saying refers, perhaps, to wider concerns. Archbishop Athenagoras of Thyateira has sent out a sort of questionnaire to all the Orthodox hierarchs very far and wide in all the countries about the possibility of a rethinking of certain aspects of our worship. I think that a return back to the Golden Age, which would be, say, the 6th century in Roman terms and the 9th century in Byzantine terms, isn’t an answer to the problem. We are not people either of the 6th or the 9th century, and a return to those times may be more satisfying, because it would be more sober than what we have, but within the experience of both the Church in its eternal dimension and the way in which it has got to express things immutable within a context which has changed and which is to be taken into account. I am not speaking of compromise, of adjustment: I am speaking of the right that people have to be them selves, and the respect we can have for the real experience – not the lack of experience — the positive experience people have, because that was done in the 9th century, it was done in the 6th. It was done throughout the ages when the liturgies took shape. Then it stopped at a certain moment. Well, in principle this is a thing one can at least think about. And if we think about it, I believe the characteristics which I gave, the suggestions which I made about the significance of the silence, and different types of liturgies for different groups of people, perhaps, or different situations, could be taken into account. And indeed they are in certain communions, not as a compromise but as a very deep and deepening approach to things.
Published: “WORSHIP AND SECULARIZATION”, edited by WiebeVos (1970) and published by Paul Brand, Bussum, Holland