22 October 2016

Orthodox Spirituality
as experienced by an
Anglican visitor to Greece

At the Divine Liturgy in the village church in Tsesmes, near Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

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

The envoys first visited the Muslim Bulgars of the Volga, and 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 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 riches of Orthodox spirituality need to be understood in Ireland today, not merely because of the beauty of the liturgy but for practical and ecumenical reasons too:

● Who are the Christians caught in conflicts in the Middle East, in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, or between the extremes of militant Zionism and militant Islam?

● Four EU member states have an Orthodox majority – Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria.

● How did Orthodox spirituality sustain 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?

● What expressions of spirituality are sustaining the people of Greece in the current economic and political crisis?

● How should I behave when I visit a church while on holiday in Greece, Cyprus or Russia?

Orthodoxy is the fastest growing Christian tradition in Ireland today. There are Greek, Russian, Romanian, Antiochene and Georgian churches, many of them using former Church of Ireland parish churches. In addition, there is a variety of what are known as Oriental Orthodox parishes, including Indian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox communities, as well as the Mar Thoma Church, which has its roots in Syrian and Indian Orthodoxy but is in full communion with the Anglican Communion.

Understanding Orthodox spirituality is a key to understanding modern literature – from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis, the poems of Yiannis Ritsos or JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey – or the music of composers like Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and John Taverner. Orthodox spirituality also explains the themes in some modern movies – from Zorba the Greek to My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

Worship in church

I have spent time in many Orthodox countries, experiencing the life of churches and monasteries in Greece, Romania, Cyprus, Albania and Egypt, especially on Mount Athos, Mount Sinai, and Patmos, and in Crete, Thessaloniki, Athens and the Greek islands. This year, I visited a number of monasteries and churches in Crete, where I also spent time in the studio of a leading icon writer. I also spent a short retreat in an Orthodox monastery in Essex, and for the past ten years I have been a regular student on courses in Cambridge organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

Although the majority of Greeks see Orthodoxy as an essential ingredient in their national and cultural identity, Church attendance figures on Sunday mornings are surprisingly low, with high numbers among those who are middle-aged or older. Many Greeks only come to church for baptisms, weddings and funerals, for the major church holidays and local festivals, especially Easter, and to mark their name day. Often people in resorts try to forestall questions by explaining their need to open shops, restaurants or hotel reception desks early on Sunday mornings. When young parents come with their recently baptised children so that they can receive the Eucharist, they often arrive late, just in time for the child to receive Communion, and the parents rarely take Communion themselves.

Even regular churchgoers are casual about attendance and participation. They greet one another with hugs and kisses, constantly chatter, and leave it to the cantors to chant the responses and those parts that Anglicans would always expect to join, such as the Gloria, Creed, Trisagion (Sanctus and Benedictus) and the Lord’s Prayer. Few people ever receive Communion on a Sunday morning – apart from the children brought by their parents, there may only be four or five communicants in any church.

Yet everyone understands and follows the Liturgy in their own reverential ways. There is silence and reverence at the most appropriate times, including the Gospel procession and reading, the invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) and words of institution, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and when others come forward to receive the Sacrament. No-one ever comes into a church without lighting candles and kissing the main icons. During the Liturgy, people come forward intermittently to the side doors of the icon screen with the names of people they want prayers for. The sermon at the end seldom lasts for more than three to five minutes – and there is much incense … and much ringing of bells.

The prósphoron is the loaf of bread used in the Divine Liturgy. Holy Communion is received as bread and wine mixed together in one large chalice and is administered with a long, ladle-like spoon. The antídoron is ordinary bread that that comes from the remains of the prósphoron and is blessed but not consecrated. This bread is distributed to all at the end of the Liturgy, and many people take home small portions to family members who have not been to church.

In the midst of this relaxed formality, priests never abandon the liturgical tradition or vary it to suit their own personal preferences, prejudices or impulses. The variety or chaos throughout Anglicanism on a Sunday morning is not possible in the Orthodox Church, and would never be contemplated.

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 θέωσις (theosis) as it is called in the Orthodox tradition. A life of prayer is a life of active love for all people and is filled with mercy, forgiveness and love. For the Orthodox, all hours are appropriate for prayer and all places good. It is sufficient that we want to pray; learning comes after that. However, five specific aspects are keys to understanding Orthodox spirituality: the Liturgy; Daily and Personal Prayer; Icons and Prayer; the Jesus Prayer; and the monastic life.

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 the worship of the Church. 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 Metropolitan 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.’

This word liturgy is well-understood by everyone in Greece. The term is not technical or purely theological. Signs in shops regularly announce ‘Opening Hours’ as ώρες λειτουργίας (ores leitourgías) – the hours of service or the hours for serving the public.

The first experience many people have of Orthodoxy is visiting an Orthodox church. This 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, including our understandings of separate Services of the Word and of the Sacrament, a full set of Biblical readings, the Gospel procession and the Offertory procession, the ἐπίκλησις (epiklesis) in the Eucharist, and even the fact that we stand far more often during the liturgy.

Although the Divine Liturgy or the Eucharist is celebrated on most days in monasteries, there is no Orthodox tradition of a daily celebration in parish churches, and the Liturgy is seldom celebrated on weekdays during 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. Singing is often a capella, and generally there are few seats or pews in a church (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 in Orthodox participation in worship, for the worshipper knows he or she is in the house of their true Father. The church and the liturgy are truly meeting points between heaven and earth.

Traditionally, the daily services in an Orthodox Church can begin with Vespers at sundown, and then include Compline, after the evening meal, the Midnight Office in monasteries, Matins in the morning, usually starting before sunrise, and ‘The Hours.’ These services sanctify the times of the day and include readings from the Psalms and prayers.

Orthodox Christians are taught that their daily prayer should include Morning, Midday and Evening prayers. Personal prayer in homes is often before the family icons. Even when they pray on their own, the Orthodox are still praying with the Church. As Georges Florovsky writes, ‘Personal prayer is only possible in the context of the community. Even in solitude … a Christian prays as a member of the redeemed community, of the Church.’

Icons and prayer

The word icon (εἰκών) simply means a depiction, image or representation. The New Testament describes Christ as the eikon or the image and exact representation of God (Hebrews 1: 3). The Ecumenical Councils declared the incarnation made it permissible to represent God in visual form. But the Orthodox say an icon is written rather than painted, and speak of icon writers rather than icon painters. They pray through but not to an icon, and an icon is given reverence but never worshipped.

Orthodox prayer is also marked by the use of icons. Through the traditional use of icons, the Orthodox Church has had a remarkable influence, not just on aesthetic considerations, but on theology too. The understanding of the Trinity in western theology, for example, has been transformed by the way in which 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.

Alongside copies of Rublev’s icon, the icons on the wall in my study include one of Christ from a monastery in Corfu, an icon of Christ as the Great High Priest from Mount Athos, the Four Martyrs of Rethymnon, a town I have stayed in since the 1980s, and an icon of Saint Catherine of Sinai, patron of the institute where I have studied in Cambridge.

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 separating the congregation from the sacred mysteries are not to make a church look pretty or beautiful, but are central to understanding Orthodox worship and life, liturgy and prayers. The icons and frescoes on the walls of a church 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, when 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. 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 otherwise dark corners and dark churches, candles and oil lamps symbolise that Christ is the Light of the World.

The Jesus Prayer

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).

The practice of the Jesus Prayer dates from at least the fifth century. It is recommended by Saint John Klimakos of Mount Sinai (523-603) in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The theology of the Jesus Prayer was most clearly set out by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), and later in the Philokalia. 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 JD Salinger’s Franney and Zooey (1961).

For the Orthodox, this is a profound and mystical prayer, and it is often repeated continually as a part of personal spiritual practice. 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 author of The Way of the Pilgrim says 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. 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, sometimes accompanied by the sign of the cross and even prostrations.

The monastic tradition

Monks often pray the Jesus Prayer many hundreds of times each night in private in their cells. Under the guidance of an Elder, the monk aims to internalise the prayer, so that he is praying unceasingly.

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
Mount Athos 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 Sakharov (1896-1993), founder of Saint John’s Monastery, which I visit each year, and Elder 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.


The doors of local churches throughout Greece are open throughout the day; people constantly drop in without any self-consciousness to pray, to light candles, to stand in the presence of God. The domes above are constant reminders that the world below is under Christ’s constant care and compassionate love.

It is a Church that is incarnational and rooted in the everyday lives of the people. On Sundays, even for the visitor who cannot understand Greek, it is obvious that the Gospel is being proclaimed, that people are being invited into communion with God and with one another, and that God is being praised. Orthodoxy in the first instance means not holding a particular set of dogmas or doctrines – certainly not holding to a rigid set of prejudices in current debates – but in giving God the right praise.

Introductory Readings

(Bishop) Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002).

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom and Georges LeFebvre, Courage to Pray (London: Darton Longman & Todd Libra, various editions 1973-1974).

(Metropolitan) Anthony (Bloom), The Living Body of Christ (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008).

E Kadloubovsky and GEH Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London: Faber and Faber, 1992).

John Anthony McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: the Byzantine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001).

Frederica Mathews-Green, Facing East: a pilgrim’s journey into the mysteries of Orthodoxy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).

Solrunn Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004).

Deborah Sheldon, Gospel Icons (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1999).

Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002).

(Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware (Timothy Ware), The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1997).

(Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).

Note on contributor:

Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

This paper was first published in ‘Search’ Vol 39.3 (Autumn 2016), pp 210-217.

The image of Christ Pantokrator in the dome of Saint George’s Church in Panormos, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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