IN GREAT LENT, we often hear these very significant words in our churches, for they are read at every Matins service.
“In truth the church is an earthly heaven,” our great righteous one and man of prayer, the ever-memorable pastor of Kronstadt, Father [now Saint] John emphasizes: “where God’s altar is, where the awesome Mysteries are celebrated, where the Angels minister with men, where there is uninterrupted glorification of the Almighty - there heaven truly is, and the heaven of heavens.”
And in fact, our church with the celebration therein of the Divine services for us, who still live on earth, is, as it were, the portal, as it were the earthly preparation for that heavenly Supper of the Lamb of God, of which all the Christians in the future life, who await us there in heaven, are called to be participants.
“Let us lift up our hearts” we hear, a bidding addressed to us by the celebrants of the Divine service. And we, while standing in church, as it were actually breaking away from the earth for a season, with mind and heart offer ourselves up there “on high,”- to heaven, where God dwells with the countless hosts of Angels and Saints.
Everyone praying in church, if he is really praying, must consider himself as not being on earth, but in heaven. He must leave outside the walls of the church all his earthly thoughts, feelings, desires and worries, all his usual worldly habits, manners and ways.
This is why it is wholly inappropriate and inadmissible for one, coming into church, to conduct himself as if he were with guests, in a worldly gathering - to approach his acquaintances, wish them good heath, and inquire or chat about this and that.
Such behaviour, even if it is allowed [not corrected], is a breach of reverence, an insult to the unearthly, heavenly sanctity of the church!
In church, everything is different:there one’s particular world is not earthly, but heavenly; there one’s rules, customs, one’s regulations and customs are prescribed by the church order. And he who loves the church, for whom it is the way to heavenly sanctity, such a one must know all this, and, if he does not know it, he must strive to learn it.
But our entering the church and our standing therein must be with the very greatest reverence and with the fear of God. As you come it, you should sign yourself three times with the sign of the Cross, doing this on feast days with bows from the waist and on ordinary days with prostrations to the ground.* To those already standing in church bow very slightly to the right and to the left, and then take up the usual place where you stand and pray. Men must stand on the right side and women on the left, leaving a clear path between the Royal Gates and the exit. This is an ancient custom, hallowed by the centuries, which those break who do not observe it.
All those who come into church - this “earthly heaven,” - must, even in their outward appearance, imitate the celestial ones, with whom they are entering into converse there, and they should not by any means cause them, or the other people praying there, any visual offence. Their clothing should be modest and decent, and not in any way frivolous, modish or loud. In particular, it is inadmissible for women to come into church bare arms and legs, in dresses which are extremely short and insufficiently covering, which only serve to suggest that they have unchaste dispositions; nor with their heads uncovered or with made-up faces and painted lips. To come in God’s church so indecently attired is tantamount to swearing blasphemously against its heavenly sanctity.
Is it acceptable to be late, when you are invited to a dinner party with someone of high standing? All the more it is unacceptable and sinful to be late for the Divine service in God’s house, where the Lord and Master Himself, our Sovereign Host and our Leader, in Whose hands are our life and our death, is awaiting us.
It is not futilely in churches the insistent exclamation is made: “The doors! The doors! In wisdom let us attend!” And then, after the confession of the Faith: “Let us stand well! Let us stand with fear. Let us attend, that we may offer the holy oblation in peace.”
The doors of the church, not only as it was in ancient times, but even now should at this time be completely closed, lest anyone, by his untimely entering the church or leaving it, disturb those standing there from concentrating on their prayer at these most important and holiest moments of the greatest Christian Mystery, the Divine Eucharist.
If even at worldly spectacles, such as are shown to people of the vain world, often the entrance is closed when the presentation begins, so that the spectators will not be disturbed, then surely it is permissible for us in the churches of God to prohibit coming in and going out during the preeminent moments of the Divine service, and to prohibit wandering back and forth, distracting those who are praying from their prayers?
A great responsibility for this break-down of reverence will be borne before God by the pastors, who do not instruct their flocks on concentrating on prayer in church, and, being lenient with regard to every kind of indiscipline, fail to give those of a pious disposition the possibility of praying in peace. But it is even worse and more offensive if, even in the sanctuary itself there is such irreverent and unnecessary going back and forth, for then there is no, and there cannot be any, real prayer even among the priestly ministers!
Always and in every circumstance, we must bear in mind that, according to the remarkable declaration of the ever-memorable Father John of Kronstadt, “The Church, though it is founded on earth, nonetheless belongs to the number of heavenly institutions.”
For this reason, everything in the Church must be heavenly.
And the very purpose of the Church consists in this: to lead us up from earth to heaven, from being earthly to make us heavenly.
Preeminently the pastors of the Church themselves have to be heavenly and not earthly, estranged from worldly vanity and from the passions and lusts, which prevail in the world, for to them in the persons of His disciples and Apostles, of whom they are the successors, the Lord clearly said: “Ye are not of the world” (John 15:19). Even without yet speaking of their inward dispositions, a consequence of this, the very outward appearance of the pastors, all their conduct and the character of their life, their every approach to the affairs of their ministry, all the methods and all the ways in handling their flock - all this has to be special, separate from the normal worldly ways - heavenly, and not earthly.
And all the ordinary believers, constantly recalling that the Church of Christ glorifies those, whom She calls “earthly angels,” and “heavenly men,” must ever have before them this unworldly ideal: to be estranged from this world, which lies in evil, - to become heavenly.
Be as “they that use this world, as not abusing it,” (1 Cor. 7:31), thus does the Holy Apostle Paul bring this to mind.
Estrangement from the earth, striving for heaven - this is the exalted ideal with which our Christian Faith present us.
Woe to him who does not remember this or does not want to comprehend it, who does not accept this with all his heart and who is not touched by it!
Such people are completely foreign to true Christianity, and bear the name Christian in vain, deceiving themselves and others.
But even greater woe to those who consciously reject this high ideal of Christianity, who in a falsifying way desire to subordinate it to other, lesser, ideals!
Such are the “false prophets,” such are the innkeepers who “mix water with the wine,” according to the expression used in the Scriptures; such people are in fact abusers of souls, to whom we can only address the dreadful threat of the Lord: “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). “Woe unto that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Matthew 18:7).
And see, regardless of this awesome prohibition from the Lord Himself, in our times we can observe manifestations of such dreadful snares, which essentially overturn Christianity itself.
Such is the horrible and destructive heresy of our times, which overthrows the dogma of the Church, attempting to undermine faith in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which has existed for more than nineteen centuries already, with all her doctrines, canons, pious traditions and precepts, which seeks to discredit Her as being exhausted and moribund, and to create in Her place a new “False Church.”
According to the design of her organizers, this new “False Church” has to be torn away from heaven and made a wholly worldly construct, with worldly aims, tasks and operations. The “pastors” of this “church’ must be completely worldly people, both in appearance and in inward disposition. The attention of the faithful must be diverted from heaven, and riveted to the earth; the attitude to the services and all the church arrangements, on a par with all mutual relations in this “church,” will have to be purely formal and official, as such things are in all worldly organizations.
The idea of the new “false church,” which necessitates the amalgamation within it and the union of all the faith confessions on the earth, has now become very popular, “very much in vogue,” and it is spreading more and more, along with the so-called “ecumenical movement.” And this is in no way to be wondered at!
Now, genuine spiritual life in people, which alone draws people up to heaven, making them heavenly rather than earthly, has fallen as never before. “The “inner activity,” which once so flourished among us in Holy Russia, and which produced so many wondrous pillars of Christian piety in the first centuries of Christianity, has now all but disappeared. And, you know, without this “inner activity” genuine spiritual life is untenable, and true Christianity impossible.
Along with this, we observe the most dreadful symptoms arising:with a certain incomprehensible bitterness, and with a kind of evil derision, the spiritual life in general is denied by certain people, as if it were unnecessary or even something “unhealthy” in the task of edifying the Church (with regard to this, bear in mind the building up of the “false church”!), and “inner activity is substituted for by that which is exclusively external - “organization” and “administration” are set up against the spiritual life, as if by external measures it were possible to set the soul of man aright and to save it.
And yet the premier purpose of the Church is precisely the salvation of souls! But now it is as if they do not want to know this, and they talk about the salvation of the soul only occasionally and with a kind of ironical smile.
It is not the man of prayer, nor the struggler for piety, who renounces the world and aspires to raise his glance to heaven; it is not the good shepherd, who sincerely cares for the salvation of the souls of his flock and for this reason introduces into their life the concept that they should break their ties with the earthly and raise their hearts and minds to the heavenly, - but it is the dry smart-dealing formalist, the “organiser,” and the “administrator,” who are now recognized by the false teachers and reformers of the Church as the ideal.
Striving for heaven, - something to which the Church calls us constantly through her prayers, is now dismissed as something “unreal,” “impracticable,” and even “unhealthy,” as opposed to the sham ideal of worldly “organization,” and “administration,” which, contrary to the true teaching of the Church, they are establishing and which they recognise as self-sustaining and as alone responding to contemporary needs.
And so, see the characteristic sign of our times: the true Church of Christ with her preaching of the spiritual life must needs be abolished, and exchanged for a certain false likeness, one with exclusively worldly working principles, aims and tasks.
But isn’t such a mentality the very clearest sign of the approach of that dread time, of which the Saviour and Lord spoke: “When the Son of man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?”(Luke 18:8)?
Already many have no faith in God, no faith in Christ and no faith in the Church; and in the place devoid of faith, they set up other idols, among which the proponents of the new “false Church” have the idol of “organization” and that of “administration.” But why, and what for, if the most important thing, faith, is not there, if it is unknown?
“Organization” and “administration,” without real faith, without a genuine spiritual life, are but a body without a soul, a dead, lifeless corpse!
“Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” and for this reason “repent,” “if therefore thou shalt watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I shall come upon thee” (Rev. 3:1-13). See this dreadful foretelling about this false church, its activists and followers, who rejoice in their “organization” and “administration,” which are but the appearance of life.
In our days, such is the evil of the perversion of the true aims of the Church.
A healthy moral conscience cannot but see diabolical intrigues here - that “strong delusion,”through which people will “believe a lie” of which the Holy Apostle Paul forewarned us (2 Thess. 2:11).
For there are placed before the Church certain other aims, other concerns, besides that single one, for which She was founded by the Lord and Saviour: the salvation of souls - it is mindless and absurd!
But that it is necessary for us to strive to become heavenly from being earthly, and, even while living here on earth, to attempt to live as if in heaven, the true Church of Christ teaches us clearly, and especially now, in the Great Lent, she zealously calls us to do so.
Removing and safeguarding ourselves from the pernicious spirit of the times, let us heed the call of the Holy Church, if we indeed do not wish eternal perdition for ourselves:
“Come, brethren and, before the end, with pure hearts, let us all draw nigh to the Compassionate God. Casting aside the cares of this life, let us take thought for our souls….” (Aposticha of Mattins, Thursday before Palm Sunday).
Footnote: * This custom, although admirable, is not kept in all Orthodox churches and especially not in parishes churches.
From Homilies and Speeches, Vol. II: http://archbishopaverky.blogspot.com/2019/03/stand...