MANY PEOPLE TODAY EQUATE “SPIRITUALITY” with one’s personal inner life. Spiritual seekers are advised to “listen to their heart” to find peace and clarity, often without any reference to God – or at least to the God revealed in the Scriptures – or to a community such as the Church. Their approach is more individual rather than communal, more mind-centered than encompassing one’s entire being, and often more concerned with self-help than with living in union with God.
As Eastern Christians we stand in a tradition that first of all understands spirituality as mankind’s relationship to God through the operation of the Holy Spirit. At its root this relationship is based on an event which joins the material and the spiritual: the Incarnation of Christ. The Word of God took flesh, became human in order to unite us with God. Because He is truly and perfectly man, the risen Christ is now glorified in His body, seated at the right hand of the Father.
The Body in Eastern Thought
The body as well as the spirit is important in Christian life. As St Paul says, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20). We are not meant to ignore or belittle the body because we are Christians. The body is not an enemy but a partner and collaborator with the soul in the work of our sanctification. The body, as well as the spirit, is meant to be transfigured in Christ and so we are called to glorify God in it.
Purifying the Body
The first way in which we glorify God in the body is by accepting and affirming its freedom from the control of sin and death. United to Christ in baptism, we have already been given a share in that freedom, which will be completely realized in the life of the world to come. As long as we are in this life, however, we must work along with Christ-in-us to maintain the body’s freedom from the influence of sin.
And so, one way in which we glorify God in the body is by the Church’s ascetic tradition, which focuses on freeing the mind and the heart from attachment to the things of the senses. Christian asceticism is not anti-physical but seeks to liberate the body from the lure of the sensual so that the physical may be sanctified.
The Church Fathers considered that the most basic ascetic practices focus on controlling the passions or cravings of the body for food and drink and for sexual release. This is not because they are our greatest inner enemies – pride and vanity have that dubious distinction – but because it is easier to conquer our physical cravings than our spiritual impulses. This is why St Paul, in 1 Corinthians, singles out the power of gluttony and lust as the enemy’s first line of attack on the believer. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (v.15). How can you surrender to the first assault the enemy mounts against you? If we cannot put aside fatty foods on Wednesdays and Fridays, much less during the Fasts, how can we even begin to deal with things like spiritual laziness (sloth) or pride that afflict us in our innermost hearts?
Worshipping in the Body
We live our life in Christ in our bodies as well as in our spirits and so the Eastern Churches have insisted that the body join the spirit in worshipping the One who created us as both physical and spiritual. We bow, we kneel, we make the sign of the cross, we prostrate, we kiss, we eat and we drink. We glorify God in the body by entering body, soul and spirit in the worship of the Church.
One way we glorify God in our bodies at worship is by standing for prayer. In some churches people are directed to stand or sit at different times during the service. Sitting, however, is the stance taken by an audience rather than a participant, whether it be at the theater or at worship. Worshippers are an “audience” during readings or a sermon; during prayers and litanies they are participants and more fittingly stand rather than sit.
Two bodily gestures in Eastern worship not common in the churches of the West are the metany and the prostration. In the metany, we make the sign of the cross and bow from the waist, extending our right hand until our fingers touch the ground. In the prostration we kneel on both knees and bow until our forehead touches the ground. Both gestures indicate our complete submission to the King of all.
Making metanies and prostrations requires a certain amount of free space around the worshipper. In older churches abroad any seating (benches or stalls) was located around the church walls leaving the center of the church free for worshippers. In churches with Western-style pews, worshippers often move out into the aisles to make prostrations.
The Great Fast
During the Church’ fasts we have ample opportunities to glorify God in the body through more frequent church services and through fasting. Eastern Christian fasting incorporates two ways of using our bodies in worship. In ascetic or total fasting, we do not eat or drink anything. Period. This kind of fasting is in the spirit of Deuteronomy 8:3, quoted by Christ to the tempter, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Traditionally people fast this way before receiving Holy Communion. Clergy who will serve the Liturgy – and in some Churches whoever will receive the Eucharist – are expected to fast from sexual activity as well. It is also customary to fast totally for a certain period on all fast days. Thus, many fast this way until noon during these seasons.
The second type of fasting, also called abstinence, is fasting from certain foods (typically meat or dairy products). In many Eastern Churches, people fast totally until noon and then, when they do eat, they abstain from meat and dairy. Since fish is considered “meat without feet” it is not generally consumed on the stricter fast days.
In this kind of fasting, we glorify God in the body by limiting ourselves to what has been called the “food of paradise.” In the Genesis story of creation, humans were created to be vegetarians. God is depicted as telling Adam and Eve: “I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food” (Genesis 1:29). It was only after the flood that God told Noah, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs” (Genesis 9:3). By restricting ourselves to the food of paradise, we are saying that we value above all things the communion with God that our first parents had.
Look upon my afflicted heart, O Christ. Behold how I turn back in repentance. See my tears, O Savior, and reject me not. Embrace me once again in Your compassion and number me with those who are saved, that I may thank and praise Your mercy.
Like the Thief, I cry to You, “Remember me!” Like the Publican, with downcast eyes I beat my breast and say, “Have mercy!” Like the Prodigal, deliver me from every evil, O compassionate King, that I may praise Your boundless mercy.
Canon of the Prodigal, Ode 9