In his book Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey tells of a visit to Russia in 1991 during which he attended his first Orthodox church service. Back then, of course, the Soviet Union was still perhaps the most aggressively atheistic system in the world.
After the service, Yancey and his traveling companions went to visit a prison at which a chapel had been dug underground. The chapel was an oasis to beauty in what was otherwise a grim dungeon. There was an icon entitled “Our Lady Who Takes Away Sadness.” One of their number remarked that there must be a great deal of sadness within those walls and asked the Russian Orthodox monk who accompanied them, Brother Bonifato, if he would say a prayer for the prisoners. Yancey writes:
“A prayer? You want a prayer?” Brother Bonifato asked, and we nodded. He then disappeared behind the altar at the end of the room. He brought out another icon of the Lady Who Takes Away Sadness, which he propped up on a stand. The he retrieved two candle holders and two incense bowls, which he laboriously hung in place and lit. Their sweet fragrance instantly filled the room. He removed his headpiece and outer garments and laced shiny gold cuffs over his black sleeves. He placed a droopy gold stole around his neck, and then put on a gold crucifix. He carefully fitted a different, more formal headpiece on his head. Before each action, he paused to kiss the cross of genuflect. Finally he was ready to pray.
How different that is from our western Protestant practice of “tossing off a prayer” while we are stopped at a red light or brushing our teeth. I wonder if things might not be different for us if we engaged the spiritual practice of prayer with a bit more ritual or solemnity.
I do not mean to suggest that is the only way we can pray, but I wonder if we might not take prayer more seriously if we engaged it more fully, considering it a holy act that requires something different of us if we dare to enter the holy of holies. You may not need to take off your shoes, but perhaps we could at least wash our hands or something …
Rev. Michael Piazza