Interview with Archimandrite Zacharias (part 2) – Prayer and the Divine Liturgy27 June 2020
Question: Saint Sophrony says that the Christian should have unceasing inspiration in his life. What does this inspiration consist of?
Answer: ‘Those who are led by the Holy Spirit never cease going downwards, condemning themselves as unworthy of God,’ says Father Sophrony (cf. ‘On Prayer’, p. 174). Being a humble God, the Holy Spirit teaches humility when He dwells within man, and this humility attracts a greater grace, which becomes true inspiration in him. Father Sophrony defines inspiration as ‘the presence of the power of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man’ (cf. ‘We Shall See Him as He Is’, p. 119), but according to the eternal law expressed in Scripture, ‘he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted’ (Luke 18:14) and ‘God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble’ (Jas. 4:6, 1 Pet. 5:5). Consequently, we have inspiration in our life, when we are inspired by the Holy Spirit to humble ourselves so as not to hinder Him from dwelling in us. And when the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we also become images of Pentecost, we speak ‘strange words, strange teachings, strange doctrines’ of the Holy Trinity (Lauds of Pentecost).
Inspiration comes when, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, we love the humble Christ, Who then imparts to us His grace unto the end and makes us drunk with His endless divine love. Inspiration comes when the Holy Spirit teaches us humility and humility attracts grace, which unites us with Christ. Then Christ is able to take over the ‘helm’ of our life, that is, to govern our life and to establish the Holy Spirit as our guide, so that we may also say with Saint Paul: ‘The Holy Spirit brought us to Jerusalem, to Troas, to Philippi or to Macedonia…’ (Acts 20:22). Saint Paul expresses himself as if he had a Rider on him, the Holy Spirit, Who guided him from place to place. This happens when man learns the extreme humility that Christ teaches us. This utter humility is to hate ourselves in our wretched state, distorted and ugly as we have become because of our vile passions, to hate sin, to which we have been enslaved in this world, ‘for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23). True inspiration is to acquire the humility to acknowledge our corruption and alienation from God in the light of Christ’s word; to hate everything that prevents Christ from dwelling in us, to render Him all glory and to take upon ourselves every shame for our spiritual poverty. We shall derive endless inspiration from the extremity of this humility, which we are taught by the word of the Lord to Saint Silouan, ‘Keep thy mind in hell and do not despair.’
Question: Can a Christian abstain from the eucharistic assembly for a long period?
Answer: The Body of Christ, this wondrous communion of the Saints, is formed in every eucharistic assembly, every time we gather for the Liturgy. Christ is never alone: since He is the One Who performs the Sacrament, wherever Christ is present, all His angels and all His Saints are present, too. Wherever the Liturgy is performed, all the triumphant Church of heaven is present in an incomprehensible way. Therefore, how can we abstain from such a eucharistic assembly where Christ is present with all His angels and all His Saints, and where we can find all the gifts of His elect on earth? This applies in normal conditions. However, the situation is very different if there is a war and we are taken captive into a foreign country, and we remain without a Liturgy for one or two years, and we may never return to our country to see a Liturgy. Or like in our present times, this pandemic has forced us to isolate ourselves for a while in order not to spread the virus. Then, because of necessity, ‘there is made… a change also of the law’, says the Apostle (Heb. 7:12). That is, because of these special circumstances, God will give us other means to communicate with Him. Wherever we are, we will call upon the Name of Christ, bring to mind the words of His Gospel and live with them in the presence of God. Then, God will give us all the things that are needed for salvation.
We are living through a very strange period now, but many of the faithful we know have confessed to us that they have found a great measure of grace during these days, that they have found a way to perform their personal Liturgy at home. By reading the Psalms, saying the Jesus Prayer and making continual reference to the Gospel as well as other spiritual books, many faithful have lived their isolation as a feast. Due to the proscribed circumstances of the crisis and thanks to their desire for God, they found the power of indestructible life and a closer contact with Christ. God is above all things and if there is a need, He can even change His law. What He gives to us through Holy Communion in the Liturgy, He can give even more generously and abundantly in the imposed isolation of those who seek for His Face. However, we need to discern how things are under normal conditions and under special conditions.
Question: How did Saint Sophrony use to live the Divine Liturgy?
Answer: Father Sophrony lived under normal conditions in his Monastery on Mount Athos, but he also lived under special conditions in the isolation of the desert, in the conditions of the Western world in France as a parish priest in a way, then as the founder of our Monastery, as an Hegoumen, and at the end of his life as a recluse. In the coenobium on Mount Athos, his life went from one Liturgy to another. Then he withdrew into the desert not in order to celebrate the Liturgy, but to deliver himself to deep repentance. It would happen that for weeks he would not open the door of his cave to see if it was day or night. He was on his knees on the floor, lamenting inconsolably over his spiritual poverty, and the Holy Spirit would intensify more and more the awareness of his poverty, so that he might receive inspiration for even greater repentance. ‘I had all my towels wet from weeping hanging on a rope stretched in the cave,’ he told me. This is how he lived in the desert, without frequent Liturgies. In the Monastery which he founded here, he found again normal conditions and then the Liturgy was the centre of his life once more. When he would celebrate the next day, you could not approach him and not feel it: he was transfigured from the eve by his expectation to present himself before the altar of Christ.
This is how Father Sophrony lived the Liturgy. The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist was always the centre of his life, for he knew that in this wondrous assembly of the Divine Liturgy man can say to God ‘Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee in all and for all’ and then hear the answer of God: ‘The holy things unto the holy.’ That is, man can make this exchange of his little life with the endless and incorruptible life of God. This was Elder Sophrony’s vision concerning the Divine Eucharist. He underlined with great seriousness that the perfect grace which the hesychasts find in the desert can be received by the faithful in the Divine Liturgy if they approach prepared and adorned with humility and contrition.
Question: Do divine worship in the Church and private prayer replace each other?
Answer: The one prepares for the other and the other is the perfection of the former. Depending on the preparation we do in our cell, we will feel the comfort and the power of the Liturgy. For those who will give time to invoke the Name of Christ and shed abundant tears in their cells, the Liturgy will be a ‘mighty, rushing wind’ (Acts 2:2), which will take hold of them and bring them into the world of the true Liturgy of Christ. Father Sophrony used to say, ‘Do not jump from your bed to the Liturgy, try and prepare, otherwise you will dry up.’ Of course, if we are ill or we had to do a lot of work for the needs of the Monastery, and exceptionally we cannot do the same preparation, I am sure that God will not deprive us of what He normally gives to us during the Liturgy. Thus, our private worship, our private prayer is a preparation for the common worship, which will give us the perfection of spiritual life by leading us into the communion of life and the wealth of the gifts of all the Saints.
Question: There is a fear, an insecurity in the world today, especially because of the pandemic. How can we overcome this crisis?
Answer: A certain Abba Theodore says in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: ‘Even if the heavens fall down on the earth, I will not be afraid, for I prayed to the end to God to free me from every fear.’ ‘You have proved yourself strong with Me, and you shall also be strong in your relationships with men, and with all the phenomena of this world’, the Lord said to Jacob when he wrestled with Him the whole night (see Gen. 32:28).
Once, a Presbytera asked Father Sophrony, ‘How can I know if I am saved?’ And Father Sophrony replied: ‘It is very simple. We are sitting now in this room. If suddenly the door opened and Christ came in now, what would you do? Would you say, “My goodness, I am not ready!” or would you say, ‘Come, O Lord, glory be to You, O Lord!”? If our reaction is to say, ‘Yes, Lord, come and take the glory which belongs to You from the foundation of the world!’ then we should have no fear.’ Christ created us out of goodness and love, He preserves us in this life, again, out of love, He saves us through His awesome suffering and the shameful death of the Cross so that we, His enemies, may live. The same Christ continually takes care of us with the grace of His Name, with the illumination of His word and the power of His Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. And at the end of times, He will come with an even greater fulness of grace, love and goodness to gather us from the ends of the world and lift us up to the heights of heaven, to lead us into His Kingdom on the wings of an eagle, as Prophet Isaiah says (Isa. 40:31); rather on an angels wings, because the angels will be those eagles that will gather the faithful from the ends of the world so that they may dwell with Him eternally in the feast of the love of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. What is important is to strengthen our relationship with Christ, for if our relationship with Him is strong and if we live continually with the expectation of His coming, breathing the grace of His Name and His Presence, then, when we see Him coming, we will cry aloud with enthusiasm and joy: ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ (Rev. 22:20).
Question: How can we overcome the fear of one another in this crisis?
Answer: Again, the word of God comes to our help. ‘Even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me’ (Ps. 23:4). Let us do what the authorities tell us for the common good, and let us put our trust in Christ. If we constantly cry to Him, calling upon His Name, and we receive His word as the only absolute and authentic truth, then there is no room for fear. As we are faithful to Him, He will remain faithful to us, for He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim. 2:13). The Lord will be faithful to defend us, and to ‘hide us in the secret of His presence’, as the Psalm says (cf. Ps. 31:20), covering us and protecting us from all evil. His presence will be dreadful only for the enemy and his followers, but for those who believe in His Name, there is a solution. We shall say, ‘Lord, we shall be protected only if You protect us. Glory be to You.’