Archpriest Alexei Sorokin, rector of the Vologda Church of St. Lazarus the Four-days-dead, speaks with our readers on the long-awaited prostrations that return to our Church services on Pentecost.
—Pentecost is an enormous triumph, the birthday of the Church: the churches are decorated, all are joyful, just like on any birthday—the most important birthday there is: that of the ark of our salvation—and perhaps we could say that it is the day of our spiritual birth. So, why do the austere, wise, peaceful, and logical Church rubrics—which, as centuries have proved, do not advise anything superfluous or unreasonable—so insistently prescribe the “kneeling prayers” for Christians? A host would hardly require his birthday party guests to kneel. Why then do the Church rubrics insist upon the kneeling prayers?
—Comparing the Church’s birthday with a person’s birthday is the main “deception” of this comparison itself. We customarily think of a birthday or some other holiday as an event that is supposed to make someone happy. In the Church, the meaning of the feast has first of all an instructive, edifying aspect. It is supposed to provide food for thought, food and labor for the soul as it turns away from the vanity of everyday affairs. Yes, it is true that in our tradition the feast of Pascha is associated with festive activities, and Christmas brings gift-giving to mind. This is all understandable. However, we need to strive not to miss the inner content of the feast itself amidst the externals. Isn’t that the most important part? And the feast of Pentecost is not simply a “remembrance” of the Church’s birthday, but primarily the recognition of our own place in the Church, and what we have done in order to walk the path of salvation.
—Is what seems at first glance to be a complex mystery of the Church rubrics’ austerity hidden in this?
—Seeing himself on the path of salvation as infirm, weak, and sinful, man asks that Holy Spirit God has given to His Church not leave us, that it would strengthen us, heal us of our infirmities and spiritual passions. This is what is said in the kneeling prayers. The contradiction that you are talking about would be fall away if people only knew the text of the prayers read during the Vespers service on the day of Holy Pentecost. If we read the text attentively we can see the answer to this question and solve many perplexities. Look, for example:
O pure and blameless Lord, Who art without beginning, invisible and incomprehensible, unsearchable, unchangeable, immeasurable, and unbounded… Accept us, who kneel down before Thee and cry out: we have sinned, and we have cleaved unto Thee from our birth, even from our mother’s womb. Thou art our God, but as our life passes in vanity, we have therefore been stripped of Thine aid, and have been deprived of every defense. Yet do we trust in Thy compassion and cry unto Thee: Remember not the sins of our youth and ignorance; cleanse us of our secret sins. Reject us not in our old age, and forsake us not when our strength fails. Before we return to the earth, prepare us to return to Thee, and attend to us in favor and grace. Measure our transgressions according to Thy compassion, and set the depth of Thy compassions against the multitude of our offenses. Look down from the height of Thy holiness upon Thy people who stand and await abundant mercy from Thee. Visit us with Thy goodness and deliver us from the possession of Satan and preserve our life with Thy holy and solemn laws. Commit Thy people unto a faithful guardian angel. Gather us all unto Thy kingdom. Grant forgiveness to those who put their trust in Thee, relinquish us and them from sin. Purify us by the operation of Thy Holy Spirit and remove from us the wiles of the adversary.
Oh, if only we were more attentive during the services! What a treasure of Orthodoxy we would possess!
—Does that mean that the main meaning of the prayers on the evening of Pentecost is man’s recognition of his own unenviable spiritual state?
—As regards Christians living on Earth, yes: the main meaning consists in the awareness of oneself as a person having the possibility for salvation, who has been given such a possibility, and who has all the means necessary for salvation. But out of our laziness, infirmity, and vanity we disdain this and fall into such terrible snares that distance us from God. And so, when a person sees this and honestly admits it, he asks the Lord to give him strength, and the strength is given by the Holy Spirit in the sacraments—the strength to struggle with sin. He asks that strength be given to walk the path of salvation, to fortify our weak, injured, sinful human rhythm of life in order to remain a Christian in it always and everywhere, at all times of the day and night.
—Understood. Now here is a question that probably troubles many parishioners—and not only parishioners, but also clergy. Doesn’t it seem to you that the words of these prayers, like other prayers, do not reach the people who are praying or trying to pray? The words of the prayers are too hard to understand, or are read too softly, or, what is even worse, there is too much fuss, too many tree branches that everyone is trying to get blessed—even considering that to be the main meaning of the feast. Doesn’t the ritual to some extent eclipse the content? Much more attention is given to the externals—those much touted tree branches—than to the internal content you were talking about.
—The branches are also needed so that people would see before their very eyes the life-creating action of the Holy Spirit. A seemingly dead branch that appears absolutely lifeless in fall and winter begins to sprout and blossom in the spring. Leaves come out and later, fruits. This greenery on the trees reminds us of the life-creating action of the Holy Spirit on man’s withered soul. However, this is only an outward reminder of inner activity. And it can of course be very upsetting when the rustling in the church distracts people from prayer. It is hard to imagine in some large cathedral, especially if there is no amplifier system, that someone in the very back of the church would perfectly hear the priest or bishop reading the prayers on his knees in the royal doors. Therefore, it would make sense to print the prayers out and distribute them to the parishioners, especially to the regular parishioners who understand something about spiritual life, who sincerely follow it, are troubled and repent over their sins, and rejoice in the Church—so that they would know the text of these prayers. After all, there are published texts of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. We see that in the churches many laypeople kneel or stand listening attentively to what the priest reads, compensating by this for our human weaknesses: voice, diction, inattentiveness, or something else. And in these publications there is also some explanation of the text. That is, it would be good to prepare these publications in advance in order to more deeply understand the prayers for Holy Pentecost. These prayers are read aloud, facing the congregation, and so there is nothing to hide from the people.
There is yet another side to the content of the prayers for Holy Pentecost, which is bound up with prayers for the reposed. It is bound up with the prayers for the dead and the feeling of love and concern that the Church shows before God for those who are no longer with us, who have gone to the other world, and can no longer do anything for their own salvation. Only we here on earth can help them in their lot after death. Now we will try to find those words relating to the reposed in the prayers of Holy Pentecost. They are very good words. In speaking of the prayers, praising God’s mercy, His Providence and the way that the Lord has made for the sake of our salvation, the Church turns to Him with these amazing words:
Thou art the Lord of everlasting glory, the beloved Son of the Most High Father, eternal Light from eternal Light, Thou Sun of righteousness! Hear Thou us who beseech Thee, and give rest the souls of our parents, brethren, and the rest of our kinsmen in the flesh, and those who are of the fold of faith who have fallen asleep, and for whom we celebrate this memorial; for Thou hast power over all, and in Thy hands Thou holdest all the boundaries of the earth.
O Almighty Master, God of our fathers, Lord of mercy and Creator of all the races of mankind, the mortals and the immortals, and of all nature, animate and inanimate, of life and of the end of life, of sojourning here and translation there, Who dost measure the years of life and set the times of death, Who bringest down to Hades and raisest up, binding in infirmity and releasing unto power, dispensing present things according to need and ordering those to come as is expedient, quickening with the hope of Resurrection those that are smitten with the sting of death… Who also, on this all-perfect and saving feast, dost deign to receive oblations and supplications for those bound in Hades, and grantest unto us the great hope that rest and comfort will be sent down from Thee to the departed from the grief that binds them. Hear us, Thy humble and piteous ones who pray, and give rest to the souls of Thy servants who have fallen asleep before us, in a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away; and do thou place their souls in the tabernacles of the righteous; and make them worthy of peace and repose. For the dead praise Thee not, O Lord, neither do those in Hades dare to offer Thee confession, but we, the living, bless Thee and supplicate Thee and offer favorable prayers and sacrifices for their souls.
As we can see, there are words here that can also be considered intercession for souls that are in hell.
—These prayers have meaning when they are known, just as any other prayers a person reads in church, right?
—Of course. There is corresponding explanatory literature for people who want to know about the rich treasure of Orthodox services. After all, it is makes no sense to stand next to a sumptuous table that belongs to you by right, a table that was set for you and to which you are invited every day, yet stubbornly eat only stale, moldy crusts, saying that you are too busy, don’t understand the texts, or some other excuse.
—Practice shows that many parishioners—precisely those you were talking about: the zealous, conscious, and constant—greet with great joy the return of the kneeling prayers to liturgical life.
— Yes. Kneeling returns us to our customary rhythm of prostrations accepted in Church life. Nevertheless, we must remember: we do not always kneel during the services, even after Pentecost. In speaking of prostrations, what do they mean? The symbolic meaning of a prostration is the remembrance of man’s renewal in Christ. We fall to our knees, showing our fallenness, our moral fall. But we rise from our knees because Christ called us to rise from them. And this is the path of our whole life: we fall and get up, fall again and get up again. Therefore, prostrations are part of the prayer rule of an Orthodox person—the everyday prayer rule. Moreover if we look at the rule of morning and evening prayers, the prayers of preparation for Holy Communion, we see: “and prostrations as desired”. That is, as much as you feel your unworthiness, that is how many prostrations you make—and as many times also hope in God’s mercy. A prostration is not just slavish bowing; there is also a moment of rising. Incidentally, recall that “rising” in Greek is anastasis; that is, resurrection. This is food for thought, for every day. Every prostration to the ground is a reminder of both the fall into sin, and of man’s rebirth through the Resurrection of Christ. That we kneel on Pentecost is simply a reminder that without God, well, this is what we are. But the Holy Spirit, Who descends during Pentecost, brings us up to the path of salvation—if only we would not hinder Him by our sins.
Below is the full text of the Kneeling Prayers.
The Kneeling Prayers, read by the priest during the Vespers on Pentecost.
The first prayer
Priest: O pure and blameless Lord, Who art without beginning, invisible and incomprehensible, unsearchable, unchangeable, immeasurable, and unbounded, Who art without evil and alone immortal, who dwellest in the unapproachable light, Maker of Heaven and earth and the seas and all that was created therein, Who grantest to all their petitions before asking, to Thee we pray and of Thee we ask, O philanthropic Master, the Father of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the ever-virgin Mary, the noble Theotokos; Who first didst teach by word, and then gave testimony in deed while bearing the saving Passion, teaching us Thine unworthy, sinful, and miserable servants, to offer Thee our supplications with bent heads and knees, for our sins and human ignorance.
Wherefore, O most merciful and philanthropic Lord, hear us on whatever day we call upon Thee, and especially on this day of Pentecost, whereon, after our Lord Jesus Christ had ascended into Heaven and sat at Thy right hand, O God and Father, He sent down the Holy Spirit to his Disciples, the holy Apostles, Who alighted on each of them and filled them all with His inexhaustible and divine grace; and they did speak in strange tongues, prophesying Thy great deeds. Hear us who beseech Thee, and remember us, wretched and condemned. Deliver us from the sinful captivity of our souls by Thy loving intercession. Accept us, who kneel down before Thee and cry out: we have sinned, and we have cleaved unto Thee from our birth, even from our mother’s womb. Thou art our God, but as our life passes in vanity, we have therefore been stripped of Thine aid, and have been deprived of every defense. Yet do we trust in Thy compassion and cry unto Thee: Remember not the sins of our youth and ignorance; cleanse us of our secret sins. Reject us not in our old age, and forsake us not when our strength fails. Before we return to the earth, prepare us to return to Thee, and attend to us in favor and grace. Measure our transgressions according to Thy compassion, and set the depth of Thy compassions against the multitude of our offenses.
Look down from the height of Thy holiness upon Thy people who stand and await abundant mercy from Thee. Visit us with Thy goodness and deliver us from the possession of Satan and preserve our life with Thy holy and solemn laws. Commit Thy people unto a faithful guardian angel. Gather us all unto Thy kingdom. Grant forgiveness to those who put their trust in Thee, relinquish us and them from sin. Purify us by the operation of Thy Holy Spirit and remove from us the wiles of the adversary.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord, Almighty Master, Who hast illumined the day with the light of the sun and the night with the glow of fire, Who hast made us worthy to pass the course of the day and draw near to the onset of the night; hear our petitions and those of all Thy people. Forgive us all our sins, both voluntary and involuntary, and accept our evening supplications. Send down the multitude of Thy mercies and compassions upon Thine inheritance. Encompass us with Thy holy angels. Arm us with the weapons of Thy justice. Envelop us with Thy righteousness. Protect us by Thy power, and deliver us from every oppression and from every conspiracy of the adversary. Grant us that this evening and the approaching night and all the days of our life may be perfect, holy, peaceful, sinless, without doubt and vain imaginings, by the intercessions of the holy Theotokos and all the saints who have done Thy will from the beginning of time.
The second prayer
O Lord Jesus Christ our God, Who hast given Thy peace to mankind and, being present still in this life, doth ever grant the gift of the All-holy Spirit to the faithful, as an inheritance that￼ can never be taken away, Thou hast sent down today in a manner most clear, this grace upon Thy holy Disciples and Apostles, and didst place into their mouths and on their lips the tongues of fire. Through them all mankind, through the hearing of the ear, hath received knowledge of God in their own languages. We have been enlightened by the light of the Spirit, being emancipated from delusion as from darkness, and through the distribution of the perceptible tongues of fire and the wondrous action of the same, we have been taught the faith that is in Thee, and we have been illumined so as to praise Thee with the Father and the Holy Spirit, in one Godhead, Power and Authority.
Wherefore, O Splendor of the Father, the Likeness of his Essence, His immutable and unchangeable Nature, Thou art the fountain of salvation and grace. Open my lips, sinner that I am, and teach me how and for what I must pray; for Thou dost know the multitude of my sins, but Thine unbounded compassion doth overcome the enormity thereof. Behold, I come and stand before Thee in fear and dismay, casting my soul’s despair into the depth of Thy mercy. Govern my life, O Thou Who rulest the whole creation with Thy word and with the unutterable power of Thy wisdom. O tranquil Haven of the storm-tossed, make known to me the way in which I should walk. Grant to my thoughts the spirit of Thy wisdom, and bestow upon mine ignorance the spirit of Thine understanding. Overshadow mine acts with the spirit of Thy fear; a right spirit renew Thou within me, and by Thy Sovereign Spirit strengthen Thou mine unstable mind, that I may be worthy each day to do Thy commandments, being guided by Thy righteous Spirit into that which is profitable, ever mindful of Thy glorified second Coming, which will search out our life’s deeds. Let me not be led astray by the corrupting pleasures of this world, but strengthen me to delight in the treasures to come. For Thou, O Master, didst say, “Whatever ye ask in My Name ye shall receive” from God the Father, co-eternal with Thee.
Therefore, I, a sinner, implore Thy goodness at the descent of Thy Holy Spirit: grant Thou my request for salvation. Yea, good Lord, Who grantest all riches and benevolence, Thou art He, the merciful and pitying, Who givest us more than we ask, Who hast become a Partaker with us in the flesh without sin. Thou art He Who, for His love for mankind, dost have compassion for those who bend the knee to Thee, having become an offering for our sins. Grant, O Lord, Thy compassion to Thy people, and incline Thine ear to us from Thy Holy Heaven; sanctify us by the saving might of Thy right hand. Cover us with the shelter of Thy wings and turn not away from the work of Thy hands. Against Thee only do we sin, yet Thee only do we worship. We know not how to bow to a strange god, nor to stretch forth our hands to a different god. Pardon our iniquities, O Master, and accepting our requests on bended knee, extend to us all a helping hand, and accept the prayers of all as fragrant incense acceptable to Thy most righteous Kingdom.
O Lord, Lord, Thou Who hast delivered us from every arrow that comes by day, save us from everything that walketh in darkness, and accept the lifting up of our hands as an evening sacrifice. Consider us worthy to pass the night blamelessly and experience no evil. Deliver us from Satan. Grant our souls contrition, and our thoughts concern over our accountability at Thy just and terrible judgment. Nail our flesh to the fear of Thee, and mortify our earthly members, that in the tranquility of sleep we may be enlightened by the contemplation of Thy precepts. Drive from us every unseemly fantasy and injurious desire. Raise us up at the time of prayer confirmed in the faith and progressing in Thy commandments.
The third prayer
O Christ our God, the ever-flowing Spring, life-giving, illuminating, creative Power, co- eternal with the Father, Who hast most excellently fulfilled the whole dispensation of the salvation of mankind, and didst tear apart the indestructible bonds of death, break asunder the bolts of Hades, and tread down the multitude of evil spirits, offering Thyself as a blameless Sacrifice and offering us Thy pure, spotless and sinless body, Who, by this fearsome, inscrutable divine service didst grant us life everlasting; O Thou Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness.
O Wisdom of the Father, Thou great of Name Who dost manifest Thyself a great Helper to those who are in distress; a luminous Light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death; Thou art the Lord of everlasting glory, the beloved Son of the Most High Father, eternal Light from eternal Light, Thou Sun of justice! Hear Thou us who beseech Thee, and give rest the souls of our parents, brethren, and the rest of our kinsmen in the flesh, and those who are of the
￼￼Evening of Pentecost Great Vespers 10 with the Kneeling Prayers
fold of faith who have fallen asleep, and for whom we celebrate this memorial; for Thou hast power over all, and in Thy hands Thou holdest all the boundaries of the earth.
O Almighty Master, God of our fathers, Lord of mercy and Creator of all the races of mankind, the mortals and the immortals, and of all nature, animate and inanimate, of life and of the end of life, of sojourning here and translation there, Who dost measure the years of life and set the times of death, Who bringest down to Hades and raisest up, binding in infirmity and releasing unto power, dispensing present things according to need and ordering those to come as is expedient, quickening with the hope of Resurrection those that are smitten with the sting of death. Thyself, O Master of all, God our Savior, the Hope of all the ends of the earth and of those who are far off upon the sea, Who, on this last and great and saving day of Pentecost, didst show forth to us the mystery of the Holy Trinity, consubstantial and co-eternal, undivided and unmingled, and didst pour out the descent and presence of Thy holy and life-giving Spirit in the form of tongues of fire upon Thy holy Apostles, appointing them to be the evangelists of our pious faith and showing them to be confessors and preachers of the true theology; Who also, on this all-perfect and saving feast, dost deign to receive oblations and supplications for those bound in Hades, and grantest unto us the great hope that rest and comfort will be sent down from Thee to the departed from the grief that binds them.
Hear us, Thy humble and piteous ones who pray, and give rest to the souls of Thy servants who have fallen asleep before us, in a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away; and do thou place their souls in the tabernacles of the righteous; and make them worthy of peace and repose. For the dead praise Thee not, O Lord, neither do those in Hades dare to offer Thee confession, but we, the living, bless Thee and supplicate Thee and offer favorable prayers and sacrifices for their souls.
O great and eternal God, holy and loving toward mankind, Who dost make us worthy to stand at this hour before Thine unapproachable glory, praising and glorifying Thy wonders: be gracious to us, Thine unworthy servants, and grant us grace that from a humble and contrite heart we may offer Thee the thrice-holy glorification and gratitude for Thy great gifts which Thou didst grant and dost still grant unto us. Remember, O Lord, our weakness and destroy us not in our iniquities; but be merciful to our humility that, fleeing from the darkness of sin, we may walk in the day of righteousness and, clothed with the armor of light, may persevere unassailed from every attack of the evil one, so that with boldness we may glorify Thee in all things, the only true God and Lover of mankind.
For in truth, O Master and Creator of all, Thine is the great and original Mystery; the temporary death of Thy creatures, and their restoration thereafter unto eternal repose. In all things we confess Thy grace, at our entrance into this world and at our going out therefrom, O Thou Who by Thy unfailing promises didst hold out to us the hope of everlasting life, resurrection, and incorruptible life, which shall be ours hereafter at Thy Second Coming. For Thou art the Author of our resurrection, the impartial Judge of those that have lived, the Lover of mankind and the Master and Lord of recompense, Who didst partake with us, on equal terms, of flesh and blood, through Thine extreme condescension, and of our irreproachable passions, wherein Thou didst willingly submit to temptation, since Thou dost possess tenderness and compassion, and Thyself, having suffered temptation, art become for us, who are tempted, the Helper which Thou Thyself hadst promised to be; and therefore Thou hast led us to Thy passionlessness.
Wherefore, O Master, accept our prayers and supplications, and grant repose to our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children, relatives, and kinsfolk, and all those who have gone to their final rest with the hope of resurrection and life everlasting. Set their names and souls in the Book of Life; in the bosoms of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; in the land of the living, the Kingdom of Heaven, in the paradise of delight, leading all into Thy Holy dwelling place by Thy radiant angels, and raise our bodies with Thee on the day that Thou hast appointed, according to Thine unfailing promise. There is no death, O Lord, to Thy departing servants who cast off our bodies and come unto Thee, O God, but a transition from sorrowful things to things pleasant and sweet, to rest and joy. And though we have sinned against Thee, be Thou compassionate unto them and us; for there is none without stain before Thee, even though his life be but a day, except Thou alone, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, through Whom we all trust to attain mercy and the remission of sins.
Therefore, O God, through Thy grace and love of mankind, pardon, remit and forgive our sins and theirs, both voluntary and involuntary offenses, which we have committed either willfully or through ignorance, openly or in secret whether by word, deed, or thought and all our acts and movements. As for those who have preceded us, grant them emancipation and repose. To those of us who are here, bless us, and give us and all Thy people a blessed and peaceful end to life. At Thy fearsome and dreadful coming open to us Thy fathomless love of mankind, making us worthy of Thy Kingdom.
O great and most exalted God, Who alone hast immortality and dwellest in the unapproachable light, Who in wisdom didst bring into being all creation, Who hast divided the light and the darkness, setting the sun to rule the day, and the moon and stars to rule the night, Who on this day didst vouchsafe unto us sinners as worthy through confession to present ourselves before Thy presence and to offer to Thee our evening praise: O philanthropic God, set our prayers like incense before Thee, and receive them as a sweet fragrance. Grant that this evening and the approaching night may be peaceful and serene for us. Clothe us with the armor of light, and deliver us from nightly terrors and from everything that walketh in darkness. Vouchsafe that the slumber which Thou didst grant us for rest from our weakness be also free from every satanic imagination. Yea, O Master, Bestower of all good things, may we, being moved to compunction upon our beds, call to remembrance Thy Name in the night that, enlightened by meditation on Thy commandments, we may rise up in joyfulness of soul to glorify Thy goodness, offering up prayers and supplications unto Thy tender love, for our sins and for those of all Thy people, whom do Thou visit in mercy, through the intercessions of the Holy Theotokos.