The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 16 “A Physical Faith”

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

From the beginning I noticed that worship in the Orthodox church is physical. It demands your body. From standing for long periods of time to prostrating, making the sign of the cross and venerating icons, there is constant movement.

When you walk into an Orthodox service, the first thing you will probably notice is that people are standing and children are ever-present. “Holy Noise” they are called. I have never felt disturbed by kids. They tend to wander around but with boundaries. There is no giggling or chaos, and generally if a little one begins to cry they are taken out until the crying stops. Children are an integral part of the service.

Beyond the standing there is general movement. Up to the front to venerate icons, over to the side to venerate icons, across the altar making the sign of the cross, up to the front of the church to greet the priest, up to the front of the church to take communion, over to a pew to sit for a homily, up again to stand, prostrating during certain points in the service, out to the narthex to get a candle to light in prayer for someone. Along with that is the movement of the priests with their censers and incense, the procession of the bread and wine through the congregation, the lifting up of the word of God.

There is also the verbal participation. The chanting, the reciting of the Nicene Creed, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, singing the Beatitudes, the phrases “Lord have mercy” and “to thee O Lord” in sung over and over in harmony with the choir.

And it doesn’t end when you go home. Because at home there is the physical act of fasting and the venerating of home icons. It is a faith that demands your body and all of your senses.

It is an active, physical faith.

A 2007 article called “Men and Church” by Frederica Matthewes-Green speaks to the physicality of the faith. She says this: “People begin learning immediately through ritual and symbolism, for example, by making the sign of the cross. This regimen of discipline makes one mindful of one’s relation to the Trinity, to the Church, and to everyone he meets.” 

I’ll admit – it’s taken a while for me to adapt to this physical faith. I’ve written before about sore feet and physical irritation, about how long the services are, about how awkward I’ve felt at points. Bottom line — I’m lazy and would love to be coddled. But more and more I am grateful to be challenged in this way, challenged with a physical response, a physical faith. Because all of this reminds me that this is not about me. This is designed to be Christ-centered and everything is designed to point me to a single truth: that this is about the triune God and as such demands all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my body.

“[Orthodoxy demands] the self-denial of a warrior, the terrifying risk of loving one’s enemies, the unknown frontiers to which a commitment to humility might call us. Lose any of those dangerous qualities and we become the ‘JoAnn Fabric Store’ of churches: nice colors and a very subdued clientele.” from Men and Church by Frederica Matthewes-Green

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3 thoughts on “The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 16 “A Physical Faith”

  1. And we might add… the physicality of the Orthodox Church only increases during Great Lent. As our priest likes to comment, “It is like boot camp for the soul. A physical work-out (with all the prostrations) that rivals any gym membership.”

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  2. Thank you Marilyn. I just wondered out loud to Dad if your second book will be titled “The Reluctant Orthodox.” you almost have enough chapters!
    About children in the service, we were talking one day about church when we were young – no, it wasn’t the good old days. Just thinking about differences. When a neighbor started taking me to church when I was 4, there was no nursery. My Mom had 2 year old twins and was expecting Jean so she wasn’t going to church, and Dad wasn’t interested at that point. He might have been working 7 days a week, it was the middle of the depression. I don’t remember much but I was told that I said I liked to hear the man talk. Going to church and being there for the whole service we absorbed so much, like the doxology, the Lord’s prayer, the words of the hymns, almost before we could read them. I think the Church makes a huge mistake in dumbing down church for kids. I know I loved putting you kids into nursery and Children’s Church when we were in the USA from Pakistan. It was easier for me! But was it best for your spiritual development? I don’t know. Thanks for another good post.

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    1. Ah, this dear mother. What great self-reflection on what has become such a commonplace practice in the Evangelical Church (placing kids in nursery). I for one am glad, growing up, that my parents kept me in church with the adults. It made a big difference. As Rich Mullins says:

      “I was twelve years old in the meeting house
      Listening to the old men pray
      And I was tryin’ hard to figure out
      What it was that they was tryin’ to say.”

      The Blessed Virgin Mother never put Jesus into the Temple nursery; he was right there with all the adults, doing adult things, astounding them with wisdom beyond his years.

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