Feast of St John the Apostle, Evangelist & Theologian
WE FIND OURSELVES standing before the mystery of a God who is beyond knowledge. And it is from this point that I want to indicate our next steps. We stand before God. We are always standing before God, for there is no place where God is not, as opposed to a place where he is: wherever we are we are before God. But there are places where, from a human perspective, the presence of God is more apparent to us, places where it is less easy for us to forget that God is here.
These places are many and various, and our sensitivity to them is in part a matter of our upbringing and history. There is, for example, a very strong tradition—in many geographical and historical cultures—that mountains are places where God is encountered. The reason is partly because mountains are not easily amenable to human modification. Other places are more easily covered over with what humans have done to make themselves at home in them, but mountains—and rivers, and the sea—are resistant to human fashioning. One is already detached from what humans make of things; one is already open to the power that lies behind everything. We have a sense of the transcendent, as we put it, a sense of the divine. The poet, T. S. Eliot, put it well when he said of Little Gidding (the holiness of which has to do with historical events) that it is a place “where prayer has been valid.”
I want to suggest that the first step in the pursuit of Orthodox theology, in coming to know God in accordance with the Orthodox tradition, is the rediscovery of this sense of standing before God (standing is a more customary attitude for prayer in the Eastern Orthodox tradition than kneeling), and pre-eminently standing before God in church. This is the place where people pray, where the liturgical services are held, a place surrounded and defined by icons. It is filled with the evidence of human worship of God—the singing of sacred song, the sight of sacred architecture and garments, the smell of the incense, the touching of sacred things—icons and relics—and the sense of other people standing there before God. This is where we start.
Many who stand in such a place are already committed to the faith being celebrated. Yet you do not have to believe to go into a church; you can stand there alongside people who do believe, next to people you know, or even out of curiosity. But here is where theology begins, according to the Orthodox tradition, at least as I understand it: in a mysterious togetherness, mediated by silence (chattering during the services is not encouraged, even if it is sometimes difficult to prevent), full of sounds and smells that seem to interpret this silence rather than dissolve it. And here, too, it may end—caught up in the presence of God, open to his spirit, bearing before him in our hearts the concerns of those with whom we have to do. If we seek to understand it, we shall only ever understand in part. But there is something to understand, and such understanding is what we might well call theology.
—Fr Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology