Tag Archives: liturgy

Liturgy & the Spiritual Fatherhood of the Priest

Let me make a provocative assertion. The priest has nothing of his own and it is only in accepting this that he can hope to have a personally fruitful ministry.

While women are maternal by nature, men are fathers only by analogy. Motherhood—whether biological or spiritual—is inherent in what it means to be a woman. For men, however, paternity (again biological and spiritual) is not intrinsic to their nature.  A man’s fatherhood is a participation in the singular, unique and unrepeatable Fatherhood of God. As we read in Scripture: “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9; see also 1 Corinthians 8:6).

Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) is Being as Communion says we call God Father because He is the Source of all. He begets the Son, He spirates (breaths) the Spirit, and He is the Creator of “all things visible and invisible” calling them “from non-existence into being.” In addition, the Father sustains all things in existence by His Word (see Colossians 1:15-18).

A priest’s spiritual fatherhood is not his but a participation (sharing) in the Fatherhood of God. While the priest is not the source of things in the parish (a sadly not uncommon misunderstanding among priests and laity alike), he is responsible for helping people come to know God Who is the source of their lives and the life of the parish. According to St Dionysius the Areopagite this is the work of illumination.  A priest reveals the hidden and unsearchable presence of God in the lives of those he serves (see Jeremiah 33:3).

Dionysius also says that to accomplish this the priest must himself have attained the second of the three stages of the spiritual life: illumination. (The first stage is purification, which is both the requirement for ordination to the diaconate as well as his primary pastoral mission. The third and final stage is theosis, which is both the requirement and mission of the bishop.) It is primarily through his liturgical ministry that the priest fulfills his task to illumine not only the life of the faithful but also events in human society and the nature of creation itself.

Or to say the same thing in a different way, ordination to the priesthood is a call to a prophetic office.

This prophetic ministry is accomplished in and through the words and actions of the various liturgical services of the Church. Through his liturgical ministry, the priest reveals for all to see (include to himself!) the will of God. For example, “the servant of God N is baptized…”; “May God now through me a sinner forgive you…”; and, of course, “take, eat, this is my Body…take drink, this is my Blood.” All of these are prophetic actions in that they reveal or manifest God’s plan to “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Ephesians 1:10).

This is why all of the sacraments of the Church include an epiclesis, an invocation of the Holy Spirit. In fact, this invocation of the Spirit is included in all the services in the prayer “O Heavenly King.”

I said above, that the fatherhood of the priest—like the fatherhood of all men—is not his by nature but only by participation in the Fatherhood of God. Likewise, liturgical ministry of the priest is not his. It is rather lent or delegated by the bishop to the priest (this is something which sadly, is not infrequently misunderstood by priests as well as the laity and even at times bishops).

Zizioulas in Eucharist, Bishop, Church points out that in the early Church, the bishop presides at the celebration of the Eucharist. While he stood in the first place (as an icon of God the Father in the Holy Trinity), he did not stand alone. Rather he was surrounded by the presbyters, assisted by the deacons and in the presence of the faithful (who are themselves not only a unique order in the Church but through baptism the first order and foundation on which all subsequent orders are conferred).

The presbyter or priest only took the first place at Liturgy when (for one reason or another) the bishop was unavailable. Especially as the Church grew this would often mean a priest would be sent to an outlying, rural community to celebrate the Eucharist and the other sacraments with them. He was sent because the bishop couldn’t go.

If in the early Church, the priest was not (to use contemporary language) ordained primarily to celebrate the Eucharist, why was he ordained? Zizioulas’s Eucharist, Bishop, Church is helpful here as well.

In addition to the biblical requirements for ordination (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7), it was expected that a candidate for the priesthood have demonstrated as a layman certain abilities (or really, spiritual gift after the pattern in 1 Corinthians 12:28, Romans 12:3-8, Ephesians 4:7-16). Specifically, the man had to be able to teach the Gospel, to offer wise counsel to the bishop to help him govern the church and to prudently and justly administer the wealth of the church.

It was because they demonstrated the ability to teach, counsel and administer in a godly fashion that men were ordained to the priesthood to assist the bishop in governing the local church. And it was because they had demonstrated their fidelity “in what is least” (governance) that they were trusted “in much” (the celebration of the Mysteries) as the need arose (see Luke 16:10).

To go back to what I said at the beginning, the priest has nothing of his own. His spiritual paternity is by participation in the Fatherhood of God. His prophetic office is fulfilled through his faithful celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the sacrament and services of the Church. And in the parishes, he speaks not in his own name but as representatives of the bishop (this is why he can only celebrate the Eucharist on an antimension with the bishop’s signature).

And yet, as St Paul says of himself, though the priest has nothing of his, in Christ he possesses everything (see 2 Corinthians 6:10) in Christ.

If I may offer a final personal word, the more I have come to understand that everything I have and do as a priest is not mine but only entrusted to me, the more I find real joy and peace not only in the liturgical life of the Church but the strength and willingness to meet the many demands and obligations of serving in the parish, teaching at the seminary, ministering to college students and representing the Church in the wider community.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Magic, Liturgy & the Priest

When Ronald Grimes refers to magic, he’s not making “a pejorative” judgment but discussing “rites that aim to effect.” Magic is functional and so refers to any ritual, or “any element of ritual,” that we undertake “as means to an end.” Insofar as a rite not only has meaning but also works, it is magical. Insofar as it is a deed having transcendent reference and accomplishing some desired empirical result, a rite is magical” (Beginnings in Ritual Studies, pp. 42-43).

This kind of analysis is likely to make Christians in liturgical traditions nervous. “After all,” so their thinking might go, “isn’t something accomplished in the Liturgy and the sacraments of the Church?”

Grimes seems to anticipate this objection. He writes:

Liturgy speaks in an interrogative voice, then a declarative one: “Can this be?” then “This is the case.” By contrast, magic depends on the declarative to reach the imperative: “This is how things work; therefore, let this be the case!” Magic has in common with ceremony a propensity for performative utterances, but the frame of reference of the former is political, while that of the latter is transcendent. Magic uses a transcendent frame of reference to effect change in the ordinary reality of social and ecological interaction (p. 43).

The distinction he draws here is subtle.

It might help us if we think of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental tradition as the anthropological fruit of awe. I have in mind here the response of St Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist, to the Virgin Mary. “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43) The questioning inherent in liturgy isn’t skepticism but wonder. Seen in this way, there is a developmental continuity (both psychologically and spiritually) between our appreciation of the beauty of creation, the mystery of the Eucharist and our own dignity as Christians.

The middle step here—the Eucharist—is critical. Without it, our wonder is rooted simply in ourselves and our own finitude in the response to a largely but ultimately equally finite creation. Yes, there is a grandeur to a sunset, a mountain, the birth of a child. But apart from the Eucharist (and the rest of the sacramental economy), these experiences remain locked into the finite and ever-shifting character of creation and of our own experience of creation. Without the Eucharist, I remain a prisoner of my own, internal, psychological processes.

It is the Eucharist, the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, that liberates the normal, universal, human experience awe in response to transitory beauty into a foretaste of the Eternal. “Grant them in return for earthly things, heavenly gifts; for temporal, eternal; for corruptible, incorruptible.”

Magic doesn’t begin in the experience of wonder but in an act of the will; not awe but assertion. Yes, magic seeks to change things but change them according to my own desires, my own ideas of what is fitting. “The force of magic,” Grimes writes, “lies in its use of desire as a major contributing factor in causing hoped-for results” (p. 43, emphasis added).

Rooted as they are in awe and wonder, the dominate mood of liturgy is thanksgiving. Yes, liturgy is a transcendent and transforming, event. But the liturgically mediated change is predicated not only on divine grace but my ability to accept with gratitude the fact of my absolute dependence on God and my relative dependence on others. Implicit within the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the rest of the Church’s sacramental economy, is my grateful acceptance of my own finitude.

The affective mood of magic is quite different. Typically, magic reflects human anxiety and a desire to control reality. Again Grimes: “magic restores, or takes, control by employing symbols more for their consequence than for their meaning. Thus magical anxiety is likely to be coupled with its opposite: confidence. Magic frequently conjures confidence as a step toward producing the desired results” (p. 43).

But the confidence of magic, is not the fruit of trust but fear and so reflects a lack of appreciation for my status as a creature. Yes, as Grimes points out, magic can lead to “awe or thankfulness.” When it does, we are “one step closer to liturgy or celebration.” Usually, though, magic is a way of explaining reality; it “is how we account for causes and consequences.” This search for an explanation often involves “trickery” and again, while this can grow into something else—the “playfulness of celebration” (p. 44)—it doesn’t necessarily do so. For magic to become liturgy requires gratitude; for it to become celebration, it requires that “surrender idiosyncrasies and independence” (p. 41).

In both cases, for magic to become something more requires that I surrender control and the pursuit of my own desires as mine.

Contrary to what we tell ourselves, magic isn’t absent from contemporary societies “although it is probably adumbrated in them.” Specifically, as Grimes says, “modern therapy and sexuality are as laden with magical thinking as healing and fertility rites ever were.” Likewise, “advertising is full of it. People deny that they believe in magic but ingest this pill and use that shampoo, expecting ‘somehow’ (the cue for magical transcendence) to become what they desire” (p. 44).

And the priest? What has this to do with him?

People often come to the Church, come to the worship of the Church, anxious and weary. Jesus tells us as much. “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, NKJV).

In those moments when we come to liturgy anxious, weary and weak, there is a temptation to see the Liturgy and the sacraments as magical and the priest as a magician. The priest needs to be on guard for this attitude among his parishioners. It is important that he be viglant in this matter not only for their sake but his own as well.

The temptation for me as priest is that to see me—and not Christ—as the source of healing and transformation.

Responding to this temptation, and guarding against it, is the subject of our next conversation about Liturgy and the spirituality of the priest.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Decorum, Liturgy & the Priest’s Spiritual Life

Let’s return to our earlier discussion of liturgy and the spirituality of the priest (see here). To recap briefly what I said,  the idiosyncratic liturgist seeks to shape the liturgy according to either his own personality or the ethos of the community. Doing so, in either case, means constricting human freedom to what is given. Here the insights of the social scientist can be helpful.

When a social system becomes closed in on itself, it tends to concentrate dysfunction and pathology. This is Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good) applied to a social group.To understand this, think about how a pond, cut off from free flowing water, will eventually become stagnant. This usually doesn’t mean nothing grows in the pond—that there is no life—but that only a very few things grow. And what does grow, grows at the expense of other forms of life that would naturally be in the pond.

Another way to understand this, think about a pond. Now imagine that the pond is cut off from free flowing water, will eventually become stagnant. This usually doesn’t mean nothing grows in the pond—that there is no life—but that only a very few things grow. And what does grow, grows at the expense of other forms of life that would naturally be in the pond.

So if idiosyncratic forms of liturgy lead to spiritual stagnation, what is the priest to do? After all, as we said earlier, the fact that we are embodied creatures mean that a certain amount of idiosyncrasy is unavoidable. I will, in other words, only mostly “Say the Black” and only mostly “Do the Red.”

The spiritual life of the priest-celebrant doesn’t just go awry when he tries to shape liturgy according to his own personality or the community’s ethos. His spiritual life is also deformed when he uses liturgy as a means of denying the fact of human embodiment. Yes, in the words of the Cherubic Hymn, the celebrant, like the congregation, “mystically represent the cherubim.” But neither the congregation, and more importantly for our concerns here, nor the priest are actually angels.

There needs to be a gentle, peaceful and appreciative acceptance of the unavoidable missteps and variations that emerge whenever we gather together as the Church. It’s worth repeating Grimes when he says that given the nature of liturgy, “it is easy to overstep oneself, and as a result there is always something inherently clumsy about the liturgical stride.” This why, as he concludes, we humble ourselves “and apologize by confessions of sin, cleansings, sweats, baptisms, and incensations” (Beginning in Ritual Studies  p. 45).

And when we try, either individually or corporately, to block out the need to confess our myriad missteps and lack of attention, what happens?

In this situation, even when celebrated according to the rubrics, liturgy becomes something else. It becomes what Grimes calls “decorum” or a pattern of “indirection and repetition” (p. 39) that doesn’t so much serve transcendence as it does to reinforce “roles, statutes, and interpersonal intentions” (p. 40).

The irony here is that reducing our celebration of liturgy to decorum (what Schmemann Introduction to Liturgical Theology, p. 97, called “liturgical formalism”) we are is just as self-enclosed, and so just as prone to stagnation, as in the idiosyncratic form of liturgy. What makes this confusion so deadly spiritually is that like liturgy, decorum is also a relatively conservative way of ritualizing our social interactions. From the outside, decorum and liturgy can look very much the same. It is where they diverge, however, that it is important for our concern here.

As I said, liturgy assumes that I will always fall short of what is celebrated. This is why repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are built into the Church’s worship. For this reason, liturgy always challenges me to ask if I am who my actions claim I am. And if I am open to the question, I realize that I’m not. “Liturgy,” in other words, “is how a people becomes attuned to the way things are— the way they really are, not the way they appear to be” (p. 45).

Decorum moves in the opposite direction. When I violate “the decorum of an occasion” I’m saying that even though I’m physically present, I am psychologically or spiritually not “participat[ing] in … the occasion” (p. 40). And when I break the “rules of decorum”? Then “I am ignored, snubbed, gossiped about, or frowned at” (pp. 40-41; in light of this, the offense of the wedding guest in the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1-14 is evidently a more serious matter than his merely being rude).

While the consequences are relatively light, return for the offending party requires a great deal of effort. Return means that the offender conformity to group’s  “lightweight cultural ‘ought'” and so ratify, affirm and accept the group’s power structures. In other words, restoration comes not through forgiveness but hazing.

When a priest (or a parish) habitually defaults to snubbing or gossiping or shunning this is a sign that—however faithful he is to the rubrics—decorum and not liturgy is the wellspring of his spiritual life.

What the priest has lost, or maybe never found, is the ability of the Church’s liturgical tradition not simply to challenge him but to transform him. Transformation is always personal and so requires that the priest not only see how his life and ministry fits within the broad sweep of the tradition of the Church but also how that same tradition is, as it were, being played out in his own life and ministry. “Death in general is transformed by a funeral into the events of a person’s dying. By means of ritual, a natural demise is made for family and friends a concrete occurrence. This is the kind of work that liturgical rites do best: transforming the inevitable” into the personal and communal (Grimes, pp. 46-47).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Liturgy & the Idiosyncratic

Because we have bodies, there is an inescapable idiosyncratic element to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. No matter how faithfully I strive to “Say the Black” and “Do the Red,” my saying and doing will reflect something of my own, physical and temperamental, individuality.

Yes, with time, I can minimize how much of my individuality “leaks” through. But “as long as I am in this tent” (2 Peter 1:13, NKJV), there will be small variations in how I celebrate Liturgy that reflect something of my own personality, character, biography, and physiology.

Being at peace with a degree of inescapable variation in how the Liturgy is celebrated, however, is different from the attempt to shape Liturgy according to the personality of the priest or the ethos of the community in which it is celebrated. This latter situation is more than just a concern for a formal integrity of the rubrics. It runs contrary to the deeper, anthropological, meaning of liturgy. It is a problem, in other words, that effects our spiritual formation.

Ronald Grimes in his work Beginning in Ritual Studies offers us a view of liturgy drawn not from Christian theology but from the human science of anthropology. He would the word liturgy for “any ritual action with an ultimate frame of reference and the doing of which is understood to be of cosmic necessity” (p. 45). While this definition is not in itself theologically sufficient, it certainly captures something of the Orthodox understanding of the Divine Liturgy.

So too does Grimes’s observation that liturgy’s power is “not the force of labor” or as “a way of achieving results.” No the power of liturgy (and of the Divine Liturgy) is that it is “a mode of tapping the way (tao) things flow or [of] connecting with the order and reason (logos) that things manifest.” Above all, it is in and through liturgy, that we can come “to rest in the heart of the cosmos. Liturgy is how a people becomes attuned to the way things are— the way they really are, not the way they appear to be” (p. 45).

This last point—of becoming “attuned to the way things are”—is important when considering the spirituality of the priest as the celebrant of the Eucharist and for the spiritual formation of all members of the Church.

As I said above, as a bodily creature there will always be something unique in how as a priest I celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The timbre of my voice, how I move, the pace I set, all of these will necessarily reflect my individuality. While I may over time become better able to gracefully submerge my own personality and allow it to become the servant of the Liturgy in much the same way as the music serves the text of the service, there will always be limits.

There will always be something idiosyncratic to how the priest celebrates Liturgy for another reason. IWhen we “gather as the Church” (compare, 1 Corinthians 14:26) we are striving to do something which is always beyond us. Again, Grimes is helpful here.

In liturgical rites people try to learn to walk on the ground of their being, to walk, as Lakotas say, “in a sacred manner.” In such an effort it is easy to overstep oneself, and as a result there is always something inherently clumsy about the liturgical stride. For this reason, ritualists humble themselves and apologize by confessions of sin, cleansings, sweats, baptisms, and incensations (p. 45).

Even with the greatest care and attention, I will inevitably fall short of the mystery at the heart of the Divine Liturgy. And so, as Grimes points out, my celebration—from the perspective of the angels if you will—will always be clumsy. This requires from me not only humility and repentance but also a radical acceptance of the limits imposed upon me by my body and my ontological status as a creature.

Whether we are talking about it from the perspective of secular anthropology or Christian theology, liturgy is “a symbolic action in which a deep receptivity … is cultivated.” Holy Communion, after all, is received not taken. This means that in liturgy what we do is “actively await what gives itself and what is beyond [our] command.” Ultimately, “liturgy is a structured waiting upon an influx of whole-making (holy) power, it is inescapably a spiritual exercise” (p. 45). In this process of active waiting and gracious sanctification of bread and wine, men and women, and the Christian community, what is unique to each of us becomes the means by which divine grace is communicated.

Or to put it slightly differently, in the Divine Liturgy what is merely individual becomes a unique express of what is universal; the temporal communicates the Eternal and the created becomes the sacrament of the Uncreated.

This transformation requires from me a “deep receptivity” (p. 46) that is really contrary to any even well-meaning attempt to shape the Liturgy according to my own personality or the character of the community.

Such shaping, again even if well meant, runs contrary to what Grimes calls the “‘interrogative'” mood” intrinsic to the liturgy. The interrogative nature of liturgy requires that the celebrant “waits ‘in passive voice,'” as the servant of liturgy’s revelation “of the way things ultimately are” (p. 45). Yes, the personality of the priest, the ethos of the community does have a role to play in this process. But liturgy challenges the priest and the community to self-reflection. Are we who our liturgical actions say we are?

And, as we saw above, that answer is always “no.” I always fall short of who my liturgical actions say that I am.

The spiritual problem of intentionally shaping the celebration of the liturgy to be more personally or communally meaningful is that, in doing so, I subvert liturgy’s power to challenge me to engage in a deep form of self-reflection. It trades the thankful reception of what its ultimate and lasting for what is merely immediate and transitory.

The betray of the ultimate, however, is not limited to the intentionally idiosyncratic celebration of the Liturgy. It can also take the form of a rigid adherence to the form at the expense of substance. Put another way, saying the red and doing the black can also be a way of undermining the formative potential of the liturgy.

We’ll look at this in the next post.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Vitz & Vitz On Liturgy and Clerical Narcissism

Psychologist Paul Vitz and his son Br. Daniel Vitz (“Messing with the Mass: The problem of priestly narcissism today“), offer an analysis of narcissism among Roman Catholic clergy. Their argument about narcissistic clergy is offered in a liturgical key. Vitz and Vitz contend that “the primary motivation behind many of” liturgical “irregularities” seen in the celebration of the Roman Mass are derive “from underlying narcissistic motives — that is, extreme self-love — found in many people in contemporary culture.” They have in mind here not so much major abuses but rather “the relatively small changes introduced in an idiosyncratic way into the Mass.” Such small changes, they argue, are “especially” indicative of an unwholesome form of self-love.

After tracing the various social factors that lead to “this country’s increasingly narcissistic—this is, self-preoccupied—character” and a brief summary of the “psychological definition of narcissism,” they get to their main concern: the “Catholic expressions of clerical narcissism.”

Looking at how narcissism is manifest liturgically is provocative. Given the importance of liturgy to the life of the Church, and to the self-image (and wholesome self-worth) of the priest, I think their approach has merit. The temptation for a priest to place his “‘personal stamp’ on the liturgy” is one faced by all clergy—including Orthodox clergy.

Like Schmemann (for example, his 1966 essay “The Task of Orthodox Theology in America Today“) Vitz and Vitz are critical of the “common contemporary focus on being ‘relevant'” because doing so “is a straightforward articulation of making the Mass focus on the ‘now’ with a serious neglect of where the Mass came from and where it is leading us.” The pursuit of liturgical relevance, in the pejorative sense, causes us to become forgetful of the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. As in the East, so in the West the Eucharist is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God which is to come.

The underlying psychological point here is what matters most for Vitz and Vitz:

To be relevant is to be involved in the present, commonly at the expense of the past as well as the future. In fact, most of the innovators would argue that a “relevant” liturgy is one that speaks to the people “now”, rather than serving as a fixed reference point in a confused and changing world. The “now” is also an expression of narcissistic preoccupations. Indeed, it is difficult to disentangle the connection between narcissism and “relevant” liturgy: focusing on the “now” breeds narcissism, and narcissism creates a preoccupation with “relevance” and the “now.”

While it is easy (too easy to be good for our own salvation) to focus on dramatic liturgical abuses, it is those small “changes and additions to the Mass” that aren’t “obvious to the man in the pew” that can do the most damage to the spiritual life of the faithful. Liturgical personalization by the priest, they contend, communicates to the laity that the celebration of the Eucharist is less an encounter with Jesus Christ and more an opportunity to meet “their own narcissistic needs” through the Liturgy.

The authors conclude that “Since the narcissistic or vain needs of many priests lie behind their peculiar and idiosyncratic changes in the liturgy, it is time for these unprepossessing and non-theological factors to be more widely recognized in Catholic seminaries and in the Catholic community at large.”

Avoiding the temptation to engage in liturgical “self-aggrandizement” requires making priests and seminarians “aware of the danger of inserting one’s personality into the liturgy.” Successfully struggling against using the liturgy for his own “ego renewal” requires that the priest cultivate “a sense of the sacred” (awe) as well as a wholesome form of humility. The latter is harder than we might at first think.

Those suffering from narcissistic traits require “excessive admiration” from others; “with this comes extreme sensitivity to criticism. Such criticism often leads to social withdrawal or an appearance of humility.” So while “Imitating Christ’s self-forgetfulness and humble heart are the antidotes for these tendencies” those in the grip of narcissism can be, and often are, experts at feigning humility as a way of seeking attention.

While Vitz and Vitz are concerned with Roman Catholic clergy, their observations are relevant for Orthodox Christians. American culture, as the authors point out, can and does fosters narcissism. Even if Orthodox Christians are able to avoid the culture’s “preoccupation with the present,” “its obsession with consumption,” “its encouragement to incur debt” and “glorification of transient sexual gratification and sensory pleasures,” living in such a cultural environment still has a harmful effect. We can be clear what we reject without, necessarily, knowing what we believe. Recognizing what is unwholesome, dysfunctional and sinful is not the same as knowing what is wholesome, functional and virtuous. And knowing is itself different from doing and being.

In the next post, I want to look again at a Catholic source to help flesh out what it might mean not simply to reject vice but embrace virtue as an inoculation against narcissism.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Property, Liturgy & Asceticism

One of the oldest Eucharistic prayers is from the Didache. It is in this, first century text, that we read

Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever (9:4).

Though not sharing our concern here with property rights in the tradition of the Orthodox Church, the prayer nevertheless has I think implications for that bundle of rights. This should come as a surprise because, as Fr Alexander Schmeman writes, liturgy reveals “the true ‘nature’ and ‘destiny’ of . . . the world. By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, . . . matter becomes again [a] means of communion with and knowledge of God” (For the Life of the World, p. 132).

Creation mixed with human labor—in the case of the Eucharist, bread and wine—through prayer and the invocation of the Holy Spirit become the Body and Blood of Christ. Or in the words of the Roman rite‘s prayer at the preparation of the Altar and the Gifts (here):

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
for through your goodness we have received
the bread we offer you:
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
it will become for us the bread of life.

Likewise, with the wine in the chalice it is “fruit of the vine and work of human hands.”

In the celebration of the Eucharist we see the process by which creation is returned incrementally to God through human labor. The latter is not only priestly but technical; land must be cleared, seeds planted, weeds pulled, vines trimmed and the harvest collected. And all this before wheat becomes flour and grapes wine.

While we can and should distinguish between the priestly and technical modes of engaging creation, in the Eucharist they converge. Not only is creation is returned to the Creator, it is given back to humanity transformed. No longer is creation simply the source of physical life. Now, in the Eucharist, it becomes the source of divine life.

In all this entire process property rights play a secondary but key role. Wheat and grapes aren’t simply collected but cultivated. This cultivation must be protected. The land and its fruits must be safeguarded from general use so that they can be used in turn for the common good.

Without a right to property, that is to set aside some of creation for a specific purpose, the universal destination of creation is frustrated. Unless farmers, and the mill owner and the vintner are all allowed to practice their crafts as they see fit, there will be neither bread nor wine and no “spiritual sacrifice without the shedding of blood” no “sacrifice of praise and true worship” offered in behalf of “all and for all” (Liturgy of St Basil the Great).

Property rights in the social realm fulfill a similar function as does asceticism in the personal realm. In both, human desire and ingenuity are progressively conformed to the divine will and so transfigured without loss of what is truly unique to the person. And it is only in this way—what we might call the ascetical and liturgical use of property—that the particular can become an epiphany of the universal; the created the sacrament of the Uncreated.

None of this is automatic. The mere fact that I have a right to property no more guarantees that I will exercise that right wisely than ascetical struggles guarantees that I will become a saint. In both cases, more is required. Like asceticism, property rights protect human freedom. But neither is the source of that freedom. For this we must look elsewhere.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

When Prayer Is the Problem

Try as I might, there are times when prayer seems to lead me further away from love; sometimes it seems that prayer is the problem.

Let me suggest that this happens when I confuse spiritual formation with the life of prayer. This misconception is as common among Christians in liturgical traditions as it is non-liturgical Christians. But we need to remember that while a life of personal and communal prayer is essential to our spiritual lives, spiritual formation itself is concerned with helping a person or a community discover and incarnate their identity in Christ. Put slightly differently, formation is about vocation and not strictly speaking about devotion.

One of the most important parts of my day is the time I spend with the Psalter and reflecting on Scripture. My life of personal prayer is nourished by the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and reception of Holy Communion and my participation in the other sacraments of the Church. Vespers and Matins (communal evening and morning prayer) are also important parts of my prayer life.

Just as communal prayer sustains my personal prayer, the personal prayers also helps shape my experience of communal prayer. Personal (in the sense of private) prayer fosters in me an awareness of the depth, beauty and wisdom of the Church’s liturgical tradition. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate how personal and communal prayer—like grace and freedom—are the two wings by which the soul ascends to God.

The formal, liturgical prayer of the Church purifies my personal prayer. As I reflect on the vision of the human person embodied in the Church’s hymnography, I am better able to distinguish what in my prayer life is of lasting significance. This in turn helps me understand what in my prayer is merely transitory. Maybe most importantly, the Church’s liturgical tradition helps me see what in my prayer life is immature and even sinful.

Without liturgical prayer, my personal prayer lacks a firm foundation in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11, 2 Timothy 2:19). At the same time, I can’t depend on liturgy to carry the whole weight. When I neglect personal prayer, liturgy becomes merely a religious performance (or worse). In the Cherubic Hymn, we say that we “mystically represent the cherubim”; like the angels, the Church gathers around the Throne of the Lamb that was slain and offers Him worship and praise (Revelation 5 and Colossians 1). This is what we mean when we say that the Church’s formal worship is sacramental.

Sacramental worship isn’t magic it is prophetic, because it is a revelation (mysterion or “revelation”; see Ephesians 5: 32) here and now of who we will be in the Kingdom of God. Together with ascetical struggle, daily prayer is how I bring the whole of my life into greater conformity with the life of Heaven, with who I will one day be in Christ. Personal prayer helps me take captive not only “every thought” but my whole life for Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:5). Personal prayer is about becoming the person I claim to be in liturgical prayer.

All of this is lost on me without a sound spiritual formation. If I have no sense of who I am in Christ or if I don’t strive to be the person God has created me to be, then prayer—personal or liturgical—will never be more for me than a rote exercise. The tragedy of merely routine prayer (private or liturgical) is I come to prefer the words I say to who I am. Over time this leads me away from God, my neighbor and myself; I become rigid, lonely and angry. Consonant spiritual formation is part of how we avoid this situation.

And more importantly, spiritual formation lays the foundation I need to correct it when prayer becomes the problem.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory