The Experience of Time and Eternity in Orthodox Worship (Part II)

Saint Sylvester

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

by Dr. Jane M. deVyver


Orthodox Architecture and Icons Correspond to Heavenly Prototypes

First, one very important example in Orthodox architecture is that the traditional Orthodox dome over a basically square, rather than rectangular space, is understood to be a reflection of the heavens over the earth, and symbolizes that the liturgical action that occurs beneath the dome is a reflection of the heavenly worship.

Second, in authentic Orthodox icons which, in addition to the iconostasis, normally cover the walls and ceiling of the Orthodox temple, and reveal salvation history while making the invisible heavenly realm visible, also reflect the Orthodox experience of standing in two worlds at once. Authentic icons correspond to and reflect the vision of the transfigured, redeemed and Eternal Reality in a similar way as Divine Services do. Some of the techniques used to convey this reality are: not depicting the figures as we see things with our outer bodily eyes, but showing the bodies, nature, animals and buildings is a 'stylized' way, as seen with the inner, spiritual eyes. Another iconographic technique, which symbolizes that time and space are transcended in the Divine realm, is the use of what is called "reversed perspective." This means that instead of trying to depict a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface by using "Renaissance perspective," in which things in the background are shown to be smaller than things in the foreground, icons use what is called "reverse perspective," where things in the foreground are smaller, and things in the background are larger. "Renaissance perspective" tries to imitate the world as seen with our human, temporal eyes, whereas "reversed perspective" seeks to convey the Eternal, heavenly realm--Reality from God's perspective, not from human perspective.

How Orthodox Worship Corresponds to Heavenly Prototypes

How are these characteristics reflected in Orthodox worship? First of all, the numerous references in the Apocalypse/Revelation and in many of the Psalms of the Angels singing, or worshipers being called to sing psalms and hymns are reflected in the Orthodox Tradition of singing and chanting all Divine Services. A chanter "reads" hymns and prayers, but to "read" does not mean to speak read, but to chant-read. (In other languages of the Orthodox world, the same word is used to refer to both chanting and singing although in English we usually distinguish between the two.)

Second, another vital component of Orthodox worship is the experience of "time." There are several liturgical practices characteristic of Orthodox worship which are intended to convey that what we doing in Orthodox Divine Services is a reflection of Divine worship, wherein we participate in the continuous singing of the Angels before God's Throne in Heaven, and wherein we leave the temporal world and its "chronos" concept of earthly time, and enter into the "kairos" concept of transfigured and redeemed time. These liturgical practices, vital of the authentic celebration of Divine worship and to an accurate reflection of Orthodox theology, include:

1. Not sharply cutting off at the ends of phrases.

2. In general singing and chanting "legato" (smoothly) and holding out the last syllable.

3. Overlapping between the singers, cantors, priests and deacons.

4. Not having "empty spaces," where the singers or chanters stop before the next liturgical action starts, and there are silent "holes" in what should be the continuous flow of worship.

5. Singing and chanting at an appropriate tempo that is neither too fast nor too slow, and at a volume that is neither shouting nor inaudible, (as is appropriate to what is being sung or chanted, the acoustics of the church, and size of the choir, etc.). Racing through hymns and responses and shouting at full-volume reflect the rat-race of our temporal world, not the peace of the heavenly realm.

6. The texts and their theology are of primary importance to Orthodox liturgical practice, and basically "drive" the music. Therefore the words must be pronounced carefully with great attention to diction, so the words are understandable. If the tempo is too fast, clear diction disappears, and there are simply sounds, not words. Much of our magnificent Orthodox theology is contained in the beautiful poetry of the hymns of the Divine Services, which is lost if not sung and chanted in an understandable way (and of course, in an understandable language).

Recognizing the Contemporary Liturgical "Heresy"

When we fail to adhere to these basic elements of the liturgical practice of Orthodox Divine Worship, and allow our secular and worldly practices and mentality to creep in, we basically are participating in what can be called a modern-day heresy that gradually undermines the fundamental principle of liturgical theology, namely, that what we do in our Divine Services is a reflection of, and corresponds to, continuous heavenly Divine Worship. It is vital that we recognize this growing, insidious "heresy" for what it is and avoid it, and not protest against and reject our centuries of authentic Orthodox Tradition.

Since it is natural for us Orthodox to be influenced by our surrounding Protestant and secular culture, we might point out here that the very concept of earthly worship as corresponding to heavenly worship is totally absent in Protestantism. As a result, what is called "worship" easily becomes individualistic, self-centered and worldly, instead of God-centered--"what do I get out of it?" rather than, "how can I worship God more fully and more continuously?" What should be worship, then easily becomes "entertainment," especially in the music dimension of church services, so that people will "enjoy" themselves. In contrast, only Orthodox call their church services "Divine Services," reflecting on earth the experience of the continuous worship of God in Heaven. And only Orthodox call the Mass/Eucharist/Communion service the "Divine Liturgy." Orthodox must guard against a "protesting" against Traditional Orthodox liturgical practice and introducing individualistic personal preferences, under the influence of secular culture and music practice, and Protestant "worship" ideology and practice which contradict Orthodox liturgical theology and practice. It is urgent and vital that we resist the temptation to insidiously secularize and protestantize our Orthodox Divine worship, and recall to mind that the word "Orthodox" means both "correct worship," as well as "correct doctrine."

It is vital that we understand the meaning of Orthodox Divine Services as Divine, not earthly and worldly Worship, so that choir directors, choir singers and chanters authentically fulfill their privileged and honored roles given to them to properly lead heavenly worship on earth. If we know why Orthodox do things a certain way, it helps us to resist the worldly influences and temptations to alter Orthodox practice to conform to what we have been socialized in our worldly lives to think is the "correct" way of doing things. To succumb to these worldly, secular, "protestantizing" temptations is to participate in this modern "heresy."


In conclusion, we hope that these few words have been helpful in understanding why things are done in certain ways in Orthodox liturgical practice, and therefore to understand why it is so necessary to guard against the temptations to change Traditional liturgical practice (changes that at first might be barely perceptible), in order for it to conform more with what we experience around us in our everyday lives--that is, that it conforms more with the values and practices of the secular, temporal world, rather than reflecting and corresponding to Divine Reality and the opportunity to participate in the experience of standing in the Presence of the Eternal God in Orthodox Divine Worship.

(The author has a seminary M.Th (Masters of Theology), M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, with many years of studying, teaching and writings on a wide variety of Orthodox subjects, including liturgical theology, and the history and meaning of icons and other Orthodox liturgical arts, as well as a lifetime of singing Divine Services, plus chanting and conducting.)

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George