Jane Austen's novel, Sense and Sensibility is about two sisters: one is guided by her senses and emotions, and the other is guided by her rational outlook on life. In the end, it all works out, as the emotional one marries someone very sensible, and the sensible one marries someone full of heart. In our lives we are sometimes tempted to separate the sensual from the sensible.
In the Western Church, mind and body have been separated. They worship with their minds, can recite chapter and verse - it's all up here. The insides of their churches have been stripped of everything that could distract from intellectual engagement with the preacher. In Protestant churches, at least - not so much in Catholic churches. This was the result of iconoclasm - for us, this idea of iconoclasm is a misinterpretation of the Bible, since we don't worship images, we honour the person the image is of.
Iconoclasm has been a strong temptation in many places - the Muslims, for example. Protestants don't have representations of anything except a cross. The Catholics have their statues. Part of this is down to the Western notion that body and mind are totally separate. Therefore their churches try not to appeal to the body, to the senses, at all. The Orthodox Church doesn't make these distinctions. We are one person. We have always known what modern science now tells us - that the body influences the mind.
At the central and most holy moment if the Divine Liturgy, which is to say, the most holy moment in the recurrent flow of our lives, the priest asks God to send down the Holy Spirit, saying: "Again we offer to You this reasonable and unbloody sacrifice; and we beg You, we ask You, we pray You: send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these Gifts set forth." The original phrase translated as "reasonable" here is logiki latreia - reasonable, logical, worship (but the English is utterly inadequate for the layers of meaning here). We worship God with our minds and words, but also with our body, our nous, our senses, our whole being.
Knowing this, the Church offers worship not just with words, but with our whole body. Even in private prayer, we bow down, we perform prostrations, we kneel. But we start by worshipping God with our discipline and restraint.
Moses had to fast for forty days to meet God. We also fast in order to worship. We fast during Lent, on Wednesdays and Fridays. We fast before any communion service. We don't eat breakfast before the Divine Liturgy. We restrain because we're dealing not with flesh and blood, but with God, and we prepare.
So, let's talk about the physical aspects of the Church. The aim of these aspects is to unite heaven and earth in every possible way so that the earthly worshippers are continually reminded through all their senses of the heavenly state of the Church.
Icons: You may have noticed that icons don't look like realistic representations of earthly people - they are stylised. This is purposeful - the Byzantines who invented the form of iconography we use today knew how to paint naturally, but they deliberately didn't - the icons are purposefully beyond the natural, because they are a window into eternity. With the visual connection of the icon, we are invited into heaven.
One difference between Western churches and our churches - Western churches have a spire pointing up, signifying the struggle and the journey to God's kingdom. Orthodox churches have the dome: it is heaven. When we enter the church, we are in God's kingdom. We also struggle, but in God we are in Heaven. That's why the walls are painted with the hierarchy of Jesus, Theotokos, the apostles, saints, events in Jesus' life. We're surrounded. There us no distinction between us and the saints - we are all alive whether in mortal or immortal flesh. We worship together in the house of God.
Vestments: The brocade of the priests, the black of the chanters, the vestments of the altar Hellers (who represent the angels assisting the priest with the liturgy). The vestments indicate the responsibility and position of the wearer. They also express the 'mood' of the Church - for instance, for about two months after the celebration of the Resurrection, all church vestments are bright white and red whereas during the solemnity of Lent they are dark purples.
Chanting, singing, bells. In monasteries they have a wooden plank - simandro - which they tap to call the monks to prayer. There are little bells on the censers.
At the recent tonsuring of Father Eusebius [a Greek Orthodox monk based in Pantanassa Monastery in Mangrove Mountain, NSW], he was slowly outfitted throughout the service with different items of clothing; the armour of the monk. We chanted a mournful hymn for him, and then a joyful hymn sung at baptisms. A monk went around with a censer. It was an eruption of joy in the church, attended by those amazing sounds!
The aroma of incense. Various oils are used - myrrhon - in chrismation and baptism with different herbs and spices mixed in. In the service of the blessing of the water, vasiliko (basil) is used to sprinkle the water. The beeswax smell of the candles. The smell of wine in Holy Communion.
The taste of bread and wine which has become the body and blood of Christ. "Taste and see that the Lord is good."
We do our cross, we stand, we kneel, we bow, we prostrate, we kiss the hands of priests. The Muslims got the idea of prostrations from us, but we've forgotten how to do it! It is called a metanoia - a sign of repentance, real submission to God. Our body performs an action, and our whole heart and soul is moved! We have also forgotten how to do the 'kiss of peace'. There is a moment in the service where we're supposed to kiss and forgive each other - we've forgotten. The Catholics still do this, but shake hands instead of kissing. The only times we perform this action now are at the Forgiveness Vespers at the beginning of Lent, and the Resurrection Vespers on Resurrection Sunday.
In our attitude to prayer, we can't say that it doesn't matter and we'll do it with our mind only. We can't face God before an icon and confess our sins, we must do it before a physical priest. We can't just do things in thought, we must physically face it, or else it loses meaning. We kneel before the priest, he places the stole on our heads.
Having spoken of how we worship physically. We see that we not only sense with our body, but we express with it also. This can't just happen with the body, it must be the whole person - mind and body.
Okay, now onto the chanting section of this talk. I'll talk about a few different hymns, but also a bit about chanting in general ...
The first Christians sang the psalms, worshipped the same as the Jews. Psalms continue to be central to our writing. But at some point, Christian hymns written specifically for Christian worship began to be sung. The most ancient hymn we have is in our Vespers service - "Joyful Light" or "Fos Ilaron". Vespers - esperinoi in Greek - start at sunset. There is much repetition in this hymn. Things sink in with repetition - it is the mother of learning. It's also poetic. Keep in mind that all this developed when most were illiterate - our church is for the illiterate as well as the literate, unlike the Protestants for example, who are only for the literate.
Lent is a time of discipline and preparation. It is a mirror to our souls - a time of renewal, repentance, change, coming back to God. The first thing we sing to mark the beginning of Lent is a very short text, which is sung slowly and mournfully - "Turn not your face away". While this is sung, all the colours in the church are changed from normal to very dark Lenten colours - the vestments, altar-cloth, and so on. This hymn is sung three times. The idea of asking God not to turn His face away is seen in a lot of psalms. It records the experience of the saints, who had direct, physical, personal experience of God - perhaps seeing the face of Jesus, being overcome with God's grace, and then all this being withdrawn at a later time. They grieve because God has withdrawn that comfort and allowed them to stand on their own two feet to be tested. This is one of the most beautiful hymns for chanters to sing. It is very difficult to sing properly, and very expressive.
The service on a Sunday morning before the liturgy is called Matins. The usual hymn is a joyful one - "The Lord is God and He has revealed Himself to us", which on penitential occasions such as during Holy Week, it is changed to "Alleluia", which is sung very mournfully and slowly. This brings us into Holy Week. The church is darkened, no candles are lit.
We move through Holy Week. On the Friday we contemplate the cross in the morning, take Jesus down and bury Him in the afternoon. In the evening, in the famous service of the Lamentations (again a lost in translation moment, as we do not lament but are now hopeful for the Resurrection), we start to sing Resurrection hymns from the beginning of that service, and the priest changes his dark vestments for white ones.
The last hymn I'll mention is the Communion hymn. During Holy Communion, we have a very rich hymn to sing. We can sing the whole of Psalm 148 where the hymn comes from, or we can sing the verse pertaining to Holy Communion. This is very meditative and triumphant at the same time. It brings us to the prayer and preparation before Communion, and at the same time, it celebrates what we do. As St John Chrysostom said, "we are roaring lions". The demons are afraid of us.
Source: Talk given by Mr Basil Stavropoulos at the Sydney University Orthodox Fellowship, Monday March 21 2011.