Photo: Anatoly Goryainov/monastery.ru Thus, the church of God is holy. Therefore, we treat it with reverence, we cross ourselves when we pass by. We didn’t use to have this tradition of crossing ourselves when going by a church in Limassol, but this good tradition is becoming more and more of a habit lately, I’ve noticed, and especially among the youth. Sometimes I stand here at the door, watching people pass by, and I see children, teenagers, and young people crossing themselves, while older people are embarrassed to bless themselves with the Sign of the Cross. Once I witnessed the following: A young man was driving by, talking on the phone. When he saw the church, he wanted to cross himself, but he didn’t have any free hands, since with one he was driving, and with the other he was holding his phone. What did he do? He crossed himself, while still holding his phone. “Well done!” I thought to myself, praising the young man.
The church reminds us of the presence of God, therefore, let us love the church of God and take care of it and pray for it. The church should be the most sacred thing in our lives. Note how our ancestors built churches (this is especially noticeable in rural areas). They would choose the best and most beautiful places to build. And although they themselves could live in a pitiful hovel with a dirt floor, like a barn or stable, nevertheless, two buildings in their villages were beautiful—the church and the school.
Go to Lofa1 and you’ll see an amazing example of what I’m talking about. This village still has these shacks they used to live in, which no one has built for a long time now. The locals grazed cattle; they were very poor people. They lived in huts with earthen floors, but they built a stone church so beautiful that few could build it now. And their school is no less magnificent than the church. Look at this school and you’ll feel like you’re standing before a building of Athens University. Why did our ancestors need such beautiful churches and schools? Being wise people, they knew that it’s thanks to the church and school that their children would become people. Otherwise, they would have built something else: a discotheque, restaurant, fast food, or something like that.
“Do you have children?”
“Yes, holy Father.”
“Bring them here. Can they read and write?”
“Where would they learn that from?”
“Ehh, then who are you bringing to me? Piglets? What am I doing to do with them? Let the children learn their letters. Let them learn, let them learn to pray, let them learn about God.”
St. Kosmas wanted Christians to understand that a child should receive an upbringing, an education, be spiritually nourished, and fully develop as a person.
The condition of churches, their external appearance and interior decoration testify to the culture of each people, since the church is in a certain sense a place of public use, like a hospital, school, institute, gym, or theater.
I think that our era is in need of churches more than ever. Why? Because this age can be characterized as a time of general fatigue. Everyone’s tired today. I’m talking not about physical, but spiritual fatigue. Our souls are tired out by many things that we see and hear and come into contact with every day. But most importantly, we’re tired because God is absent from our souls.
There is grace in the church of God. This place is sanctified by many Divine Liturgies and other Sacraments, the presence of the holy icons, and the prayer of all those who come here. You go to church and immediately feel something different there, some other atmosphere, some other energy. We priests must take care that our churches preserve this atmosphere of the presence of God, of His grace.
How many people come to church every day just to sit there for a few minutes, to pray, calm down, and find some peace. Places where people can calm down and rest their souls are extremely necessary today. The churches of God are like quiet harbors. Just as boats and ships are overtaken by waves out at sea and need quiet harbors to toss anchor, stock up on all the necessities, and repair any damage, so modern people need churches. A church is a harbor, where people can rest; it’s a hospital where they find spiritual and bodily health. Here, in church, they find what they can’t find anywhere else.
Think about what a great misfortune it would be for us to live without churches, or to live in a house where there are no icons of the Savior or Mother of God. Such a house would be a true wasteland, wild and abandoned. Take icons of Christ and the Mother of God, hang them in some dark cave, and immediately it will be transformed, ennobled. And the most magnificent palace in the whole world, if God isn’t present there, turns into a wilderness. And the people living there also become savages. Sometimes you see someone living in such a mansion, with fifteen servants who bring everything their master wants, even before he orders it… You see how he yells, swears, with no spiritual calmness or peace. What’s wrong with you? Why are you fighting with your servants? What do you lack? You have everything you can imagine… And yet, this man lacks something: the presence of God in his heart and soul. Without God, everything else is nothing. But with God, even if a man lives in a miserable shack or under the open sky, he’s calm, peaceful, full of love for everyone, and glorifies God: “Glory to Thee, O God!”
Thus, we pray for the church that hospitably receives us, that gives us abundant blessings—the presence of God within its walls, the holy Sacraments, the Body and Blood of Christ. We were baptized in church, and they will carry us out of the church when our earthly life ends. I often think while serving funerals: What an amazing thing the church of God is! Through it we come into this world, and through it we leave this world. The most significant events of our lives are directly connected with church. There people are married, they bring their babies there on the eighth and fortieth days, they baptize them there, they come there with their petitions, they celebrate the feasts there, and they’re carried out from there after their funerals. How we should love our churches and treat them with reverence! Let us thank God for giving us this blessed opportunity to be in the house of God. As the Prophet David said: I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness (Ps. 83:11). It’s better, David says, to lie on the floor in the corner of God’s house than to live in the palaces of sinners. A corner of a church is better than the palaces of those who are far from God.
How should we enter a church? This is spoken about in the fourth petition of the Litany of Peace, which we’re analyzing today: “… for them that with faith, reverence, and fear of God enter herein, let us pray to the Lord.” We pray for those who come to pray “with faith,” who believe in God and seek Him, who believe that God is present in church, in the assembly of the faithful. We pray for those who enter “with reverence,” which includes not only their outward appearance, but their internal state, the disposition of their heart. When we have a genuine awareness that we are in the holiest of places, where God is present, where the Divine Sacraments are celebrated, where a multitude of Christians have prayed and continue to pray, then we feel that we can’t behave in some inappropriate, irreverent way.
You may ask: Does external behavior really matter? Undoubtedly it does. Otherwise, you pray lying on a bed, or sitting on a chair, or standing up straight, or kneeling. Man isn’t just a soul, or just a mind, but also a body. The body participates in prayer and service to God. For example, when you pray while kneeling, then your soul conforms to the humble position of the body. Is it hard for you to kneel? Stand up straight. One thing’s for sure: We benefit when our whole being is in a state of attention and reverence. Therefore, we must be very attentive in church, and not just during the Divine Liturgy. And when there’s no service, we still have to behave reverently and seriously in church.
We pray for those who come to church with “the fear of God.” The fear of God doesn’t mean the usual fear that people experience, for example, when they pass by a cemetery or enter a dark room. It’s about a sacred fear that appears when a man senses the presence of God. When you feel that God is near, then you feel love for Him, sacred fear, deep reverence. This is what “the fear of God” means in liturgical language.
Even if a sacred place—which a church of God is—is destroyed down to the ground, it doesn’t lose its grace. I’ll give you a well-known example. You’ve read the life of the New Martyrs Raphael, Nicholas, and Irina.3 None of the locals knew there was a monastery on the island in ancient times. According to tradition, every year on Bright Tuesday, the faithful would climb the hill, light candles, and sing Paschal hymns, although there was no church there, no chapel—nothing. From time to time, people would see a light on the hill, or hear hymns from invisible singers, and smell the smell of incense. And it was only more than 400 years after their martyric end that, by the goodwill and economia of God, the saints began to appear and talk about how there used to be a monastery on this hill, and how their holy relics lay there, underground.
I could cite many such stories. Our Elder Joseph of Vatopedi told us that his friends, originally from Asia Minor, once went to visit their native village where there used to be a church of St. John the Forerunner. They wanted to find this church (similarly, many Cypriots sometimes go to the occupied part of the island to find the church in their home village). So, they arrived, they searched for it, but they couldn’t find anything because the little old church had long since been destroyed. One of these people sighed and said:
“Eh, holy Forerunner… We left, and so did you.”
Hearing these words, one local Turk told him:
“You left, but he stayed.”
“What do you mean?”
“He stayed here. We often hear the bells ringing and chanting and we smell incense. So your saint stayed here. He didn’t leave.”
Indeed, the grace of a place remains; it doesn’t disappear. Even if the building of a church crumbles to the ground, the grace remains. Therefore, the Church canons forbid using a holy church for anything else. If the church was consecrated, that’s it—it remains a church forever, and the place remains holy.
In the West, you can see how they’re selling Catholic and Protestant churches now. Priests come, they read a special prayer, and the church as if ceases to be a church. That is, today they read a prayer for the consecration, and the building becomes a church, and tomorrow, when they want to sell it, they read a different prayer, after which the church supposedly stops being a church. Just imagine if they read a prayer over you and you became unbaptized…
Such things are impossible in the Orthodox Church. A place is consecrated once, and that’s it—it’s holy forever. This is about not only the place, but also the things inside. For example, some carpet from the church can’t be used for other purposes. The broom we use to sweep the floor in church can’t be used to sweep the floor in the kitchen or bathroom. The rag you use to wash the floor in church can’t be used to clean your house. The church has its own things, and everything in a church or anything that has something to do with it is consecrated, dedicated in some way to the service of God. Even if a church is completely destroyed, nothing else can be built on this site, inasmuch as this place is consecrated.