For what purpose do we attend church?
To learn? To worship? To be inspired and uplifted? To be humbled and edified?
Do we want an emotional experience that fires us up for a day and a half at best, but fizzles out before the next high? Or a deeper, richer, fuller understanding of the faith, that might not be as bright and cheery at times, but ultimately sustains us for longer?
With so many Christian denominations, the reasons behind why one attends church can vary widely. Most seem favor an emotional experience over a spiritual one. And these experiences are not bad to have. At least every once in a while.
It is good to sing the praises of the power and glory of God. It is good to inspire people with the love of Christ. It is good to feel good about going to church. Wanting an emotional experience is not wrong. But it is lacking, and could potentially be dangerous.
For most, the aforementioned is all they want in their relationship with God. To feel good. To leave church each Sunday feeling loved, supported, and pumped up by the (forgive the harshness of the term) “act” put on before them by their pastor and praise team/worship band. But does this experience foster a sustainable relationship with God?
It might, for some. Some people can hold onto these good feelings and carry them through each week. But I cannot do this. Nor can many others.
Humans are anxious. We are weak, not having the strength to be carried by simple song and bible study. We need more than a day of emotional uplifting every week to aid us in our journey towards Christ.
Why? I can speak from personal experience.
I am not always capable of “feeling” God's love. His presence often eludes me, as a person living in the secular world. But that does not mean He is not there, nor that He does not love me, nor that He does not exist. And spiritually, I know this. If I based all this solely on emotion, I'd be a wreck. I would assume I had fallen away, or that I am “not saved”, simply based on what my emotions tell me at that point in time. But God is bigger than our feelings, anxieties and temptations. He does not simply exist when we feel that He does.
And it is important to note that it is much easier to fall into temptation when we feel this way. Church becomes a segregated emotional and cerebral experience. A series of mental gymnastics and factoids external to our own souls instead of a lifestyle and a truth that resides in our hearts. While knowledge is nice, it is hollow. We need spiritual building blocks upon which we can grow in faith, not just verses and phrases that can be difficult at times to internalize and apply to our own struggles.
In the traditional Orthodox liturgy, God is in everything we do. Our hymns are taken right from biblical texts, as are our epistle and gospel readings. Icons line the walls of the church and our homes, depicting the miracles of Christ and the lives of the saints. Both at church and in our icon corners, we light candles and burn incense. He exists even in the Eucharist and we commune with Him each and every Sunday. These traditions, which follow us into our everyday lives, keep us on the straight and narrow; following us to work, school and everywhere else in this fallen world.
This makes it much easier to see where our creator exists: everywhere.
If you associate God with lights, a band and a stage, that becomes the only place you will expect Him. If you think you can only follow Him by pouring over pages of scripture, you will only feel content with a bible in your hand. If singing, smiling, and stretching out your hands are the only times you feel His embrace, then any other moment will become cold and lonesome.
While this might make sense, some may feel that you can’t help but be emotional when moved by the Holy Spirit. That it’s in our nature to react a certain way when we are at church, in the presence of God.
And I agree! There are numerous times when I have felt overwhelmed with joy while in church. Father Eumenios often laughed during liturgy due to the joy he felt being in communion with Christ. We are not called to be emotionless in the face of God’s love and glory.
But life isn’t always warmth and acceptance. We will suffer. And we need to know how to temper these negative emotions with the knowledge that, though we do not feel it, God is still a good and loving God.
Ultimately, it is more profitable to our souls to be spiritually close to God than be emotionally attached to Him.
On the Sunday’s I leave church feeling the closest to God, I have:
A. Have partaken in communion
B. Heard something, whether read, chanted, or preached, that reaches down into my soul, rends me to my knees, and allows me to confront my own sin
Why would I want to feel this way? Confronting your own sins is uncomfortable. Wouldn’t I rather just thank God for being forgiving and be on my merry way?
No. It’s uncomfortable, but ultimately important to my spiritual well-being!
Like the gentle father of a disobedient child, the Lord knows what you need to hear, and He makes sure that the message comes through clearly. The only way we can change for the better is if we are made aware of our shortcomings. We must be told we are wrong and feel sorry for what we have done in order to make spiritual progress.
Furthermore, it is more beneficial to leave church feeling chastened rather than feeling "uplifted". Such a temporary high leads to feelings of self-importance and self-righteousness that stimulate our egos and our pride. These feelings go against the work we need to do spiritually, in order to avoid similar pitfalls in the future.
In a similar fashion, we should also feel remorse and sadness in church. This is especially true during Clean Week and Holy Week. Some Orthodox hymns sound dreary and depressing to those who are unfamiliar with them. And they should. These hymns often commemorate Christ’s journey to and death upon the cross. It is necessary that we take the time to properly mourn and lament, in order to prepare ourselves for His glorious resurrection. We cannot celebrate the Paschal feast without first enduring the passion. Nor will we find solace when it is our turn to bear our own crosses. Suffering is a part of life.
This is what I believe encompasses spirituality.
But it is also important to discuss what spirituality is not.
Being Orthodox, many people do not understand the more enigmatic parts of the faith. Some hear the word “spirituality”, and immediately interpret anything labeled this way as “demonic”. Obviously, this is not true. An Orthodox view of spirituality is detailed on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s website:
“the spirituality of the Orthodox Christian is portrayed as a life in Christ, a life of commitment to the Lord, and a complete submission to his will. One lives only to do everything for Christ's sake, as Christ wants it and as Christ would do it. The Christian commitment to Christ must be made by an inner, free act and is not compelled by any external force, not even by God. "Man is free and able to enter into relations with both kingdoms - the kingdoms of light and that of darkness." These kingdoms, the spiritual and the satanic, are hidden, not in the mind, but much deeper in the soul - "under the mind, beneath the surface of the thoughts," as Saint Makarios asserts.”
Before concluding, I would like to comment on the latter part of the above quotation. "Man is free and able to enter into relations with both kingdoms - the kingdoms of light and that of darkness." Emotionality, while not inherently wrong or evil, can lead people astray. The goats feast while the sheep starve.
Speaking in tongues, uncontrollable laughter, crazed dancing, especially if they take place outside of the church, are often not works of the Lord, but the result of demonic forces. And some churches make it easy to give yourself over to these practices, whether through song, suggestion or preaching.
Demons exist and influence emotion.
The nous is present in us all and is unshakeable once we acknowledge it.
Emotions ebb and flow. You will feel so many in your journey towards Christ, and it’s important that you do not trust all of them. At your lows, you will feel distraught and be tempted to give up. At your highs, you will feel you are near sinless, and can do no wrong. Both ends of the spectrum are detrimental to our souls, and it is important that we find a balance between pride and despondency, especially in the midst of so much temptation. That is why a healthy spiritual foundation is necessary in our emotionally volatile, secular world.
Papademetriou, G. C. (2012, August 17). An introduction to orthodox spirituality - introduction to Orthodoxy Articles - Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Go to Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Retrieved June 14, 2022, from https://www.goarch.org/-/an-introduction-to-orthodox-spirituality