Liturgy and Spirituality: a call to transformation
The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is the eucharistic service that has been celebrated by Orthodox Christians throughout the world since the fifth century, when it was attributed to the remarkable preacher and renowned Archbishop of Constantinople (347-407). The central words of the liturgy are proclaimed by the celebrant praying on behalf of and with the entire community: “Send down your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts,” namely the bread and wine that symbolize the life of the world. The celebrant then continues: “Transform them into your sacred body and precious blood.” And the community responds with the unique liturgical repetition: “Amen. Amen. Amen.” This is followed by a profoundly renewing moment of sacred silence.
There are three crucial and essential dimensions in this liturgical expression of transformation:
i) Transformation begins within the human heart, since the divine Spirit is first invoked “upon us” as human beings;
ii) Transformation occurs within the wider community, since “the gifts” are offered by and for the entire community;
iii) Transformation occurs for the whole creation, since bread and wine are representative of the natural environment.
Transformation as the Healing of the Heart
The early spiritual literature of the Christian East has through the centuries emphasized the heart as the place of transformation, where God, humanity, and the world coincide and coexist in a relationship marked by prayer and peace. The Philokalia underlines the astonishing paradox that the transformation of all things is only achieved through inner silence: “When you find yourself in silence, then you will find God and the world entire!” In other words, transformation begins with the awareness that God, and God alone, is to be held at the center of all life. The grace of God is closer, more integral to us, indeed more definitive of us, than our own selves! This is why St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1358) defended the “prayer of the heart” as a powerful way of realizing how “the kingdom of God is within us” (Lk 17.21).
While the ways of silence and serenity are nurtured in a unique way in the Christian East, they are of course neither a monopoly of the Orthodox Church nor of Christianity itself. The exhortation of the Old Testament Psalmist is: “Be still, and know God.” (Ps. 44.1) Moreover, the Arabic root of the word Islam connotes a sense of holistic transformation, of wholeness and integrity. Ordering one’s relationship to God, others, and the world is the Muslim state of “salam,” which is closely related to the Hebrew word for peace, “shalom.” How, then, is it possible to hear the Word of God — whether as Christians, Jews, or Muslims — unless we first stop to listen in silence? How can we ever be sure that we are working to transform the world around us unless we have first transformed the world within us?
Inner transformation, however, requires radical change. In religious terminology, it requires conversion or metanoia — a change in attitudes and assumptions. We cannot be transformed (or converted) unless we have first confronted everything that stands in opposition to transformation; we cannot be transfigured until we have been cleansed of everything that disfigures the human heart as it was created and intended by God. Such a process of self-discovery leads ultimately to the respect of human nature, with all of its flaws and failures — both in ourselves and in others. It paves the way for the respect of every human being, irrespective of differences — within society and within the global community. Indeed, these differences are to be welcomed, honored, and embraced as unique pieces of a sacred puzzle, the mystery of God’s wonderful creation.
Transformation as the Way of Community
The healing of the heart leads to the way of community. Transformation is a vision of connection and compassion. How unfortunate it is that we Christians have disassociated spirituality from community. When as Orthodox Christians we depart from the transforming event of the Divine Liturgy, we move out to the same world, the same routine, and the same problems. Yet, now, we can see otherwise; we now know differently; we are now impelled to act graciously. When we are transformed by divine grace, then we shall seek solutions to conflict through open exchange without resorting to oppression or domination.
We have it in our power either to increase the hurt inflicted in our world or else to contribute toward its healing. When will we realize the detrimental effects of war on our spiritual, social, cultural, and ecological environment? When will we recognize the obvious irrationality of military violence, national conflict, and racial intolerance, all of which betray a lack of imagination and willpower? Transformation involves awakening from indifference and extending our compassion to victims of war, poverty, and all forms of injustice. As faith communities and as religious leaders, we must proclaim alternative ways, which reject war and violence and which recognize peace as the only way forward. Human conflict may well be inevitable; but war and violence are not. Human perfection may well be unattainable; but peace is not impossible. If this century will be remembered, it will be remembered for those who dedicated themselves to the cause of peace. We must believe in and “pursue what makes for peace.” (Rom. 14.19)
Indeed, transformation is our only hope of breaking the vicious cycle of violence and injustice; and it is vicious precisely because it is the fruit of vice. War and peace are systems; they are contradictory ways of resolving problems and conflicts. Ultimately, they are choices. This means that making peace is a matter of individual and institutional choice, as well as of individual and institutional change. It, too, requires conversion or metanoia — a change in policies and practices. Peacemaking requires commitment, courage and sacrifice. It demands of us a willingness to become communities of transformation and to pursue justice as the prerequisite for global transformation.
Transformation as the Renewal of the Earth
Over the last two decades, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has made the preservation of the natural environment a central focus of its spiritual attention and a priority of its pastoral ministry. We consider the healing of the heart and the way of community as integrally linked with the survival of our planet as well as with the way its in habitants relate to the natural creation. A responsible relationship between the soul and its Creator and among human beings inevitably involves a balanced relationship with the natural world. The way we treat each other is immediately reflected in the way we treat our planet; the way we respond to others is at once measured and mirrored in the way we respond to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we consume. In turn, these influence and reflect the way we pray and the way we worship God.
Whenever we narrow religious life to our own concerns, then we overlook the prophetic calling of the Church to implore God and invoke the divine Spirit for the renewal of the whole polluted cosmos. For, the entire world is the space within which transformation is enacted. When we are transformed by divine grace, then we discern the injustice in which we are participants; then we labor to share the resources of our planet; then we realize that eco-justice is paramount — not simply for a better life, but for our very survival.
Like the healing of the heart and the making of peace, ecological awareness also requires conversion or metanoia — a change in habits and lifestyles. Paradoxically, we become more aware of the impact of our attitudes and actions on other people and on the natural environment, when we are prepared to surrender something. This is why fasting is a critical aspect of Orthodox Christian discipline: in learning to give up, we gradually learn to give. In learning to sacrifice, we gradually learn to share. Unfortunately, so many of our efforts toward reconciliation — whether spiritual, social or ecological — prove fruitless partly because we are unwilling to forego established ways as individuals or as institutions, refusing to relinquish either wasteful consumerism or prideful nationalism. A transformed worldview enables us to perceive the immediate and lasting impact of our practices on other people (and especially on the poor, our neighbor) as well as on the environment (our silent neighbor).
Transformation and Promise: the ecumenical imperative
In the spiritual classics of the Orthodox Church, transformation signifies a foretaste of the kingdom to come. It can never be fully realized or exhausted in this world; it always tends and extends towards the heavenly world, which informs and imbues this world with sacred meaning. Christians should remember that the Church is called not to conform to, but to transform this world. The ultimate goal is not compromise with this world, but the promise of another way of seeing, living, and acting.
Such is conviction of the Orthodox Easter liturgy, when the Resurrection of Christ is proclaimed as “the first-fruits of another way of life,” “the pledge of a new beginning.” Transformed in the light of Mt. Tabor and the Tomb of Christ, we can see the same things differently; we can march to a different drum — sometimes inevitably clashing with established patterns, with unquestioned practices, and accepted norms.
Transformed in this way, Christians become a grain of mustard seed, a form of leaven. They become enthusiastic and joyful witnesses to the light of the kingdom in our world. And there is only one way that we shall, with the grace of God, prevail as people and communities of transformation: together! Individuals and institutions are easily exhausted and discouraged if they act in isolation. The vision of the Psalmist is within our grasp: “Behold, it is a good and pleasant thing for us to dwell together in unity.” (Ps. 133.1) Such is the imperative of the ecumenical vision of transformation.