15 March 2010

Orthodox Spirituality: an introduction

An Orthodox convent on a small island off the coast of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2006)

Patrick Comerford


Orthodox liturgical music:

Tracks 26 and 27 from Russian choir, Gregorian and Orthodox Chant: My Soul doth magnify the Lord; and the Great Doxology (Znamenny Choir)

There is a story in the Orthodox Church that when Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, was still a pagan at the end of the 10th century, he sent out envoys to discover what was the true religion and to advise him on which religion should be the state religion.

The envoys first visited the Muslim Bulgars of the Volga, but found no joy among them “but mournfulness and a great smell.” In Germany and Rome, they found the worship and liturgy was without beauty. But when the envoys reached Byzantium, they were so dazzled by the splendour of the Byzantine liturgy in the great church of Aghia Sophia they instantly decided that Orthodoxy should be the faith of the Slav people. “We knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

The beautiful interior of a typical Greek Orthodox church, on the island of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2006)

In ministry in Ireland today, we need to be aware of the Orthodox churches not merely because of the beauty of their worship and liturgy, but for practical and pastoral reasons too:

1, Enhancing our cultural experiences: we cannot understand many modern movies – from Zorba the Greek to My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Captain Corelli’s Mandolin; modern literature – from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis, the poems of Yiannis Ritsos or J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; or the music of composers like Rachmaninov and John Taverner, without an introduction to Orthodox piety, practice and spirituality.

2, The current world situation: Four EU member states have an Orthodox majority– Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria. How did Orthodox spirituality sustain the people in Soviet Russia or in Ceausescu’s Romania? What was the role of faith in the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia? Who are the Christians caught between the extremes of militant Zionism and militant Islam in the Middle East? Or, how should I behave when I visit a church while on holiday in Greece, Cyprus or Russia?

3, The current situation in Ireland: there are four Orthodox churches in Dublin, Greek, Russian, Romanian, and Antiochene, with the Romanians and Russians using former Church of Ireland parish churches. In addition there are Georgian Orthodox, Indian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox communities in Ireland. Five distinct Orthodox Churches are members of the Irish Council of Churches, and Orthodoxy may be the fastest growing Christian tradition in Ireland today.

4, Orthodox spirituality offers many rich gifts and insights into worship, liturgy, spirituality and prayer. Indeed, Orthodox insights on prayer and spirituality have enriched many Anglicans, including Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Archbishop Rowan Williams, and many Anglicans have been helped to pray through the books of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

I have been privileged to spend time in many Orthodox countries, experiencing the worship and prayer life of churches and monasteries in Greece, Romania, Cyprus and Egypt, especially on Mount Athos, Mount Sinai, Patmos, in Crete and in the Western Desert.

Orthodox understandings of prayer

The life of an Orthodox Christian is one of prayer ... inside an Orthodox church in Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

The life of an Orthodox Christian is one of prayer. In the Orthodox tradition, it is the person who truly prays who is a theologian and a God-seer. The purpose of all life is to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to become one with Christ, so that we may “become participants in the Divine Nature” (II Peter 1: 4), or theosis as it is called in the Orthodox tradition. Everything an Orthodox person does should be to further the goal of living a life of active love for all people. A life of prayer is filled with mercy, forgiveness and love.

For the Orthodox, prayer is doxology, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication and intercession to God. “When I prayed I was new,” wrote a great Orthodox theologian, “but when I stopped praying I became old.” For the Orthodox, prayer is the way to renewal and spiritual life, is being alive to God, is strength, refreshment and joy, is a personal dialogue with God, is a spiritual breathing of the soul, is a foretaste of the bliss of God’s kingdom.

The Orthodox teach that God does not ask us to talk with him using beautiful words, but to talk to him from a beautiful soul. For that, we need no particular eloquence. He hears us no matter how softly we speak, he understands us even when we say little. All hours are appropriate and all places good. It is sufficient that we want to pray; learning comes after that.

However, there are some specific aspects of Orthodox spirituality that I want to touch on briefly this morning: the Liturgy; Daily and Personal Prayer; Icons and Prayer; the Jesus Prayer; and the monastic life.

The Liturgy

The iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The first experience many have of Orthodox prayer, worship and spirituality is as a visitor to an Orthodox church. That first experience of the Orthodox liturgy can be so overpowering that many people agree with the envoys from Kiev who said: “This we know, that God dwells there among humans.” But Orthodox liturgy has had an immense influence on the western liturgical movement, reforming and transforming, for example, our understandings of the separate Services of the Word and of the Sacrament, the Gospel procession, the epiklesis in the Eucharist, even the fact that we stand far more often during the liturgy.

The word Orthodoxy means, primarily, not right doctrine but right worship or praise, and doctrine is understood first and foremost within the context and setting of divine worship. As the Russian theologian Father Georges Florovsky (1893-1979) writes: “Christianity is a liturgical religion. The Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second.” Or as Bishop Kallistos Ware says: “Orthodoxy sees human beings as liturgical creatures who are most truly themselves when they glorify God, and who find their perfection and self-fulfilment in worship.”

We use the word liturgy loosely, meaning all the public offices of the Church. But in Orthodox theology, the Divine Liturgy refers only to the Eucharist. Although the Liturgy may be celebrated on most days, there is no tradition of a daily celebration in parish churches, and the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on weekdays in the penitential season of Great Lent.

The sense of worshipping the Lord in the beauty of holiness is experienced in the singing and in the decoration of churches, with their frescoes and icons. The singing is often a capella, and generally there is a noticeable lack of seating or pews (Canon 20 of the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in the year 325 forbids all kneeling on Sundays). There is a mixture of formality and familiarity that is particular to Orthodox participation in worship, for the worshipper knows he/she is in the house of their true Father. The church and the liturgy are truly meeting points between heaven and earth.

Daily services and daily prayer

Apart from the Divine Liturgy, on a daily basis the Divine Offices of the Orthodox Church, the daily services, are conducted each day in the church by the clergy, and must have at least one other person present. Traditionally, the services follow a daily schedule:

● Vespers (Ἑσπερινός): at sundown, the traditional beginning of the day;

● Compline (Ἀπόδειπνον), “after supper,” after the evening meal, prior to bedtime;

● The Midnight Office (Μεσονυκτικόν), in monasteries;

● Matins (Ὂρθρος), the first service of the morning, usually starting before sunrise;

● The Hours (1st at 7 a.m., 3rd at 9 a.m., 6th at noon, and 9th at 3 p.m.).

These services sanctify those times of the day. They consist mainly of readings from the Psalms and prayers, with the Psalms arranged so the entire Psalter is read over a week, and twice a week during Great Lent.

Alongside the public prayer of the daily offices and the Liturgy, Orthodox Christians are taught that their daily prayer should include Morning, Midday and Evening prayers. Personal prayer in the home often includes morning and evening prayer, usually before the family icons, with either the whole family or individuals praying on their own. When they pray on their own, they are still praying with the Church. As Georges Florovsky writes: “Personal prayer is only possible in the context of the community. Even in solitude, ‘in the chamber,’ a Christian prays as a member of the redeemed community, of the Church.”

And, as the Russian theologian, Paul Evdokimov, remarks: “Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer – prayer incarnate.”

Icons and prayer

The Hospitality of Abraham ... a contemporary icon of a much-loved traditional theme

Orthodox prayer, both public and private, is also marked by the use of icons, and, in a very developed way, by the use of the Jesus Prayer.

Through the traditional use of icons, the Orthodox Church has had a remarkable influence, not just on aesthetic considerations, but on our theological journey too. Our understanding of the Trinity, for example, has been transformed by the way in which many theologians have come to a fresh way of talking about the Trinity because of insights developed through Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham.

[Apart from a cross, there are five icons on the wall in my study: an icon of Christ from a monastery in Corfu, which is a copy of an icon from Patmos; a copy of Rublev’s Visitation of Abraham; a copy of an icon of Christ as the Great High Priest from Mount Athos; an icon of the Apostles Peter and Paul, which is the icon of Christian unity; and an icon of Saint Catherine of Sinai, patron of the institute where I have studied in Cambridge. (Pass around icons.)]

An icon of Saint Catherine of Sinai, patron saint of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge

[The icon of Christ in this chapel is a copy of the earliest surviving icon of Christ, from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. There are two smaller icons in the sacristy: Christ the Pantocrator, and Saint John the Theologian in the cave on Patmos, dictating the opening verses of the Book of Revelation to Prochorus.]

For the Orthodox, the church building, the whole edifice, is one great icon of the Kingdom of God. The frescoes, the icons and the icon screen (εἰκονοστάσι, iconostásis) separating the congregation from the sacred mysteries behind the royal doors are not to make the church look more pretty or beautiful, but are central to understanding Orthodox worship and life, liturgy and prayers.

The dispute over the doctrinal orthodoxy of icons and their place in the Church was settled at the seventh Ecumenical Council in 843. Icons are part of the heritage of the undivided Church before the Great Schism. Their use has increased among Anglicans in recent decades, although some Anglicans treat them as decorative religious items rather than aids to prayer, while others raise questions about idolatry or, at the least, about an emphasis on things seen rather than faith.

The word εἰκών simply means a depiction, image or representation. The New Testament describes Jesus as the eikon or the image and exact representation of God (Hebrews 1: 3). The Ecumenical Councils declared the incarnation had made it permissible to represent God in visual form. If Christ himself made God visible, then visual theology was as authentic as verbal theology. But the Orthodox say that an icon is written rather than painted, and speak of icon writers rather than icon painters, and carved or graven images are still unacceptable. Icons used in the Liturgy and in prayer are no more worshipped than the pages, ink and typeface of a prayer book, so that the Orthodox pray through but not to an icon, and while an icon is given reverence it is never worshipped.

Christ the Pantocrator in the dome of a Romanian Orthodox church in Bucharest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Large icons can be found on the walls of churches and icon-style frescoes usually cover the inside walls. They begin with more worldly scenes at ground level, and work their way up through the Gospel stories and the stories of salvation. In this way, as we are distracted by worldly thoughts during the Liturgy, we are called back to the purpose of worship, until our eyes are drawn ever upwards, and in the height of the dome we see the evangelists and angels surrounding the highest and holiest of all, Christ the Pantocrator, the one who rules all and through whom all things are made.

Orthodox homes also have icons on the wall, usually on an east-facing wall in a place where the family can pray together, illuminated by a candle or oil lamp. Besides the practical purpose of making icons visible in an otherwise dark church, both candles and oil lamps symbolise that Christ is the Light of the World.

The Jesus Prayer

Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με

The Jesus Prayer, also called the Prayer of the Heart by some Church Fathers, is one of the best known spiritual traditions within Orthodoxy. It is simple: Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλό (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner).

This short, simple prayer has been widely used and taught throughout history. For the Orthodox, it is one of the most profound and mystical prayers. It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. The theology of the Jesus Prayer was most clearly set out by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), and its practice is an integral part of Hesychasm, the subject of the Philokalia, a collection of texts on prayer compiled in the late 18th century that has become a key compendium of Orthodox spirituality and prayer.

An icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, from the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai

The practice of repeating the prayer continually dates from at least the 5th century. It is first referred to in the writings of Saint Diadochos of Photiki (400-486), is described by Saint John Cassian, who died in 435, and is recommended by Saint John Klimakos of Mount Sinai (523-603) in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Today, Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.

The use of the Jesus Prayer is the subject of the Russian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, which became familiar to many western readers in J.D. Salinger’s 1960s novel, Franney and Zooey. The Russian pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim discovers the Jesus Prayer and the answers to many of his questions in the Philokalia. With the Scriptures and the Philokalia in his hand, he places himself under the guidance of an experienced elder and begins his life-long struggle to develop inner prayer.

In its simplicity, the Jesus Prayer is rooted in Scripture, echoing the cry for mercy of the blind man near Jericho (Luke 18: 38), of the ten lepers (Luke 17: 13), of the publican in the Temple (Luke 18: 14), and of the penitent thief on the cross (Luke 23: 42). Last Wednesday, in this chapel, Colin introduced a dramatisation around a song based on the cry of the Crucified Thief. Let us listen to a similar theme in The Cry of the Thief Crucified by the Russian composer Pavel Grigorievich Chesnokov (1877-1944), who suffered greatly under Stalin – when the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where he was the last choirmaster, was torn down, he stopped writing altogether. The tenor singing here is the Russian Evgeny Akimov (1910-1949).

Play: The Cry of the Thief Crucified by Chesnokov (Track 13, Authentic Russian Sacred Music).

The Jesus Prayer is a way of taking one of the most important first steps on the spiritual journey: recognising my own sinfulness, my estrangement from both God and the people around me. The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which I admit my desperate need of my Saviour. For “if we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth” (I John 1: 8).

The 19th century Russian spiritual writer Saint Theophan the Recluse identified three levels in saying the Jesus Prayer:

1, It begins as oral prayer, a simple recitation that is prayers’ “verbal expression and shape.” But this level of prayer is still external and only the first step, for “the essence or soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.”

2, As we enter more deeply into prayer, we reach the point where we begin to pray without distraction. At this point, “the mind is focused upon the words” of the Jesus Prayer, “speaking them as if they were our own.”

3, The third and final level is prayer of the heart. At that stage, prayer is no longer what we do but who we are. It is a return to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit, which is the purpose of all Christian spirituality; it is to be open to the presence of the Kingdom in our midst.

The author of The Way of the Pilgrim says the Jesus Prayer has two transfiguring effects on his vision of the world.

1, It transfigures his relationship with the material creation around him. The world becomes transparent, a sign, a means of communicating God’s presence. He writes: “When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvellous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man's sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise.”

2, The Jesus Prayer transfigures his relationship with other human beings, giving them form within their proper context: the forgiveness and compassion of the crucified and risen Lord. “Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invocation of the name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.”

Monks often pray this prayer many hundreds of times each night in private in their cells. Under the guidance of an Elder (Russian Starets; Greek Gerontas), the monk aims to internalise the prayer, so that he is praying unceasingly, answering the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing.”

When it is practised on a continuing basis, the Jesus Prayer becomes automatic. It is prayed repeatedly, often with the aid of a prayer rope (Greek: κομποσκοίνι, komboskíni), sometimes accompanied by the sign of the cross and even prostrations.

In the practice of the Jesus Prayer, there is an emphasis on humility, with countless warnings about the disaster that befalls those who use it in pride, arrogance or conceit. There are warnings that seeking after unusual “spiritual” experiences can cause great harm, ruining the soul and the mind of the seeker. Seeking after “spiritual” experiences can lead to spiritual delusion, where a person believes himself or herself to be a saint, or has hallucinations in which he or she “sees” angels, Christ, etc. This state of spiritual delusion can be a pleasure in a superficial or egotistical way, but can lead to madness and suicide.

In many texts, it is also said that that the Jesus Prayer must only be prayed by members of the Orthodox Church in good standing.

The monastic tradition today

The Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2004)

Mount Athos is the most important centre of monastic life in the Orthodox world today. There has been a recent revival in the fortunes of many of the monasteries on the Holy Mountain, with new monks arriving from Cyprus, Romania, Russia and Australia. The mountain is loved among the Orthodox for nurturing great writers in spirituality and on the life of prayer. Three of the best known of these writers in the 20th century were Saint Silouan (1866-1938), his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993), and Father Joseph (died 1959).

Although some of these great writers also lived as hermits, they gathered many followers, and were particularly known for their practice of the Jesus Prayer.


Evagrius Ponticus, one of the fathers of the Western Desert in Egypt, once wrote: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

To pray truly, we can learn from the traditions of others. There are rich treasures in each and every Christian tradition that we can draw on without compromising our own Christian tradition, experience and spirituality.

The beauty of the Orthodox liturgy, the insights provided by Orthodox use of icons, the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and the rich treasurers in the writings of Orthodox monks can help each of us to develop our own practice of prayer.

Readings and resources

(Bishop) Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002, ISBN: 0-232-52472-6) ... written as an introduction for English-readers to Orthodox theology.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer (London Libra, various editions 1966-1971) … may be out of print now, but worth looking for in libraries.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom, School for Prayer (London Libra, various editions 1970-1972) … again, may be out of print now, but worth looking for in libraries.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom and Georges LeFebvre, Courage to Pray (London: Darton Longman & Todd Libra, various editions 1973-1974) … once again, may be out of print now, but once again worth looking for in libraries.

(Metropolitan) Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, The Living Body of Christ (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008) ... a series of talks and interviews about what we mean when we speak of the Church, and in which he speaks of the Church as an icon of the Holy Trinity.

Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2008) ... one of the most remarkable books on Christology of the 20th century.

The Divine Liturgy of our father among the saints John Chrysostom (Oxford: University Press, 1995, ISBN: 0-19-110012-9) ... a simple bilingual (Greek-English) presentation of the main Orthodox liturgical texts and prayers.

E Kadloubovsky and GEH Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London: Fabber and Faber, 1992, ISBN: 0-571-16393-9) ... access through the English language to selections from the major Orthodox work on spirituality.

John Anthony McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: the Byzantine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001) ... a vivid introduction to the leading figures, key themes and values by a priest of the Romanian Orthodox Church and church historian (part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series).

Frederica Mathews-Green, Fracing East: a pilgrim’s journey into the mysteries of Orthodoxy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) ... the journey of an evangelical family, described by a well-known author and blogger.

Charles Miller, The Gift of the World, an introduction to the theology of Dumitru Staniloae (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000, ISBN: 0-567-08732-8) ... an English-language introduction to the Romanian Orthodox theologian whose stature has been compared to Barth, Rahner and Schillebeeckx.

Solrunn Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004, ISBN 1-85311-657-2) … lavishly illustrated, beautiful thoughts as well as images.

Nicholas V. Sakharov, I love, therefore I am (Crestwood NY: St Vladimir's, 2002) ... deep insights into one of the great, influential spiritual fathers of Orthodoxy.

Deborah Sheldon, Gospel Icons (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1999, ISBN 1-85174-401-0) … Grove Spirituality Series S 69, addresses many evangelical questions about the “orthodoxy” of icons.

Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002) ...a guide to life on Mount Athos by a regular visitor.

(Bishop) Kallistos Ware (Timothy Ware), The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1997, new ed, ISBN: 0-14-014656-3) … the standard introduction in plain English to the Orthodox Church … covers history, liturgy, church calendar, theology, &c.

(Bishop) Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2002, ISBN 0-913836-58-3) … a good general introduction to Orthodox doctrine, worship and life.

Additional note:

Canon 20 of the Council of Nicaea (325), binding on the whole church: About not needing kneeling, on Sundays and in the 50 days of Eastertime:

Ἐπειδή τινές εἰσιν ἐν τῃ κυριακῃ κλίνοντες, καί ἐν ταῖς τῆς πεντηκοστῆς ἡμέραις, ὑπέρ τοῦ πάντα ἐν πάσῃ παροικίᾳ ὁμοίως παραφυλάττεσθαι, ἑστῶτας ἔδοξε τῃ ἁγίᾳ συνόδῳ τάς ἀποδιδόναι τῷ Θεῷ.

Because there are certain persons who kneel [in prayer] on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, so that all things may be observed in the same way (ὁμοίως) in every diocese (ἐν πάσῃ παροικίᾳ), it seems good to this Holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.

We consider it unlawful to fast or to pray kneeling, on the Lord’s Day. We enjoy the same liberty from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday (Tertullian, De Corona Militis, s. 3, 4).

Augustine and others give the reason for this tradition. They say that we commemorate the Resurrection of Christ. Standing on Sunday and in Eastertime signifies the rest and joy of our own resurrection, assured by the Resurrection of Christ.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This lecture was delivered in the institute chapel on Monday 15 March 2010 as part of the weekly “Spirituality” lecture series.

1 comment:

Thomas Macarius McCloughlin said...

Dear Rev'd Comerford, I read with great interest your posts on icons as I am an iconographer in the Greek tradition. I am sorry to have missed you in Skerries yesterday, as I was there also (I am based in Lusk). Thank you for your great blog. Thomas