Restlessness—just hearing the word makes us antsy. It brings up thoughts of tossing and turning through a sleepless night, or the sudden desire to quit our jobs, or the yen to “pack up and move” to another place…restless feelings make us aware that we aren’t happy with our current life, and the feeling becomes like an itch we absolutely must scratch. The problem is that, on our own, we cannot soothe this feeling; like a person desperately trying to scratch an itch in an out-of-reach spot, we contort our lives into strained—and even painful—positions in futile attempts to alleviate our restlessness.
Finally, exhausted and hurting, we gasp: where is the joy? Blessed Augustine looked at this problem and arrived at the only solution: “Everlasting God, in whom we live and move and have our being: You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
We saw in the first unit that the acts and relations of the Holy Trinity are joyous—remember St. Athansius’ statement that “the Father delights (in the Son), and in the same joy the Son rejoices in the Father,” as well as St. Gregory Palamas’ teaching that the “rejoicing of the Father and Son is the Holy Spirit.” This joy isn’t something that only God experiences, while His creation suffers: God both rejoices over us, and gives joy to us. This is made particularly clear in Zephaniah 3:17, where the prophet says, “The Lord your God is with you. The Mighty One shall save you. He shall bring gladness upon you and will renew you with His love. He will delight over you with joy as in a day of feasting.”
The fact that we read the passage from Zephaniah on Palm Sunday tells us a great deal about how we respond to the loving actions of our God. We do not stand in glum silence on Palm Sunday; instead, as the prayer at the blessing of the palm branches proclaims, we “carry palms and branches in our hands” and “join the crowds and the children who sang Hosanna to (Christ).” Orthodox worship is an intrinsically joyful activity: our God gives us joy, and we joyfully respond to Him.
One of the greatest examples of joyful worship is Psalm 67:4, where the Holy King and Prophet David sings out, “And let the righteous be glad; let them greatly rejoice before God; let them be glad with merriment.” We read this during the Paschal Matins, when we’ve walked through the darkness outside the church building and are about to enter into the brightly lit, joyous celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. It is particularly appropriate to read this verse before celebrating the Resurrection—a day on which, St. John Chrysostom says, “the Angels leap with joy and all of the Heavenly Powers rejoice”—but this also highlights a great truth for our daily lives: even when problems seem to spread a cloud of darkness over our lives, we can enter into brightness and joy when we worship God. St. John of Kronstadt puts it like this: when you are praying, “and your spirit is dejected…remember then, as always, that God the Holy Trinity looks upon you with eyes brighter than the sun; and so do all the angels, including your own guardian, and the saints of God. Truly they do; for they are all one in God, and where God is there are they also. Where the sun is, thither also are all its rays. Try to understand what this means.”
St. John provides us with an important insight into joyful worship: God is, of course, both the source and focus of our joy, but He is not the only one involved—we join with the angels, saints, and other Christians in a transformed (and transforming) community of joyful worship. Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green describes her experience of this during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy:
Heaven will strike earth like lighting on this spot. The worshippers in this little building will be swept away into a divine worship that proceeds eternally, grand with seraphim and incense and God enthroned, ‘high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple’ (Isaiah 6:1). The foundations of that temple shake with the voice of angels calling ‘Holy’ to each other, and we will be there, lifting fallible voices in the refrain, an outpost of eternity. If this is true, it is the most astonishing thing that will happen in our city today. I believe it is true.
As we thrill to the experience of entering into heavenly worship, we can affirm St. John’s description, “There is on earth nothing higher, greater, more holy, than the liturgy; nothing more solemn, nothing more lifegiving.”
This experience of joyful communion with God isn’t restricted to church services: it should also be part of our private worship. We can see a wonderful example of this in the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, who tells us, “All the enjoyments of this world are not even a shadow of that which is prepared in the heavenly abodes for those who loved God: there, is eternal joy and triumph. So that our spirit will have freedom to uplift itself there and be nourished by sweetest conversation with the Lord, one must humble oneself with constant vigils, prayer and remembrance of the Lord.” He says he reads a Gospel book or epistle each day, then adds, “And I do not for a single day neglect to read the daily Epistle and Gospel, and also the readings to the saints. Through this not only my soul, but even my body rejoices and is vivified, because I converse with the Lord.”
Many, if not most, of us are unable to give the extended time to Bible reading and prayer described by St. Seraphim. We should not allow limitations on our time to prevent us from any spiritual devotions, however, because this will prevent our growing in true joy. Instead, as St. John of Kronstadt says, we should remember, “It is well to pray long and continually, but all men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. It is better for those who are not capable of long prayers to say short prayers, but with a fervent spirit.”
St. John goes on to remind us of the reward for engaging in acts of corporate and private worship: “The Lord does not forsake those who labor for Him, and who stand before Him; for with what measure they mete, He will measure to them in return, and He will reward them for the abundance of the sincere words of their prayer by sending into their souls a corresponding abundance of spiritual light, warmth, peace, and joy.”
We noted in the previous unit that one of the main obstacles to experiencing joy is sin. It should therefore be obvious to Orthodox Christians that Holy Confession is one of the most important things we can do to grow in joy. As our Lord tells us, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
St. John of Kronstadt points out that our primary reason for confession is so that we may spend eternity with God. He adds “a second motive is inner calm. The more sincerely we confess our sins, the more calm will the soul be afterwards. For sins are secret serpents, gnawing at the heart of man, and never letting him rest; they are prickly thorns, constantly goring the soul, they are spiritual darkness.” We can therefore see that joy can be found in adhering to the exhortation of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “If any here is a slave of sin, let him promptly prepare himself through faith for the new birth into freedom and adoption; and having put off the miserable bondage of his sins, and taken on him the most blessed bondage of the Lord, so may he be counted worthy to inherit the kingdom of heaven.”
It is important to realize that true joy isn’t something you receive as a reward after your first attempt to pray, immediately enabling you to experience endless, unrestricted bliss forever after. Instead, as Archimandrite George, abbot of the monastery of Gregorios on Mt. Athos, explains, “All of this, of course, does not come about immediately. Throughout the whole of our life the Orthodox Christian must struggle, so that, slowly—slowly within the Church, with the Grace of God, with humility, repentance, prayer, and the holy Mysteries, he may be sanctified and deified.” This is one of many reasons why Orthodox Christians are called to engage in the spiritual life, and not just the spiritual moment.
St. Theophan the Recluse recommends this rule of prayer into which you can grow as you grow in your spiritual life. You should start with the first step; then, after becoming comfortable with it, you should move on to the next step, and forward.
1. Attentively perform the morning and evening prayers in one of the Orthodox service books.
2. Work at memorizing the prayers.
3. Memorize psalms to maintain a prayerful attitude throughout the day. St. Theophan recommends beginning with Psalm 51, then progressing to Psalms 102, 145, 22, 23, 115, and 69.
4. Extend the time spent in your prayers, and include prostrations into your prayers. St. Theoleptus of Bulgaria says about prostrations, “Let each genuflection be accompanied by the spiritual invocation of Christ; prostrating oneself soul and body before the Lord will make the God of souls and of bodies bend easily.”
You can learn more about the transforming power of Orthodox worship in the free study, Worship & You, online at worshipandyou.com.