Byzantine Spirituality
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Byzantine Spirituality

From the rising of the sun even to the going down, my Name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my Name a clean oblation.

    -- Prophecy of Malachias 1:11-12

The following is based upon the Introduction to the Byzantine Rite by Archbishop Joseph Raya.

The characteristics of Byzantine spirituality may be summarized under four qualifications...

Universal ¤ Traditional ¤ Popular ¤ Mystical


    The Church is Christ continuing to live in his Mystical Body. The Sacrifice and prayer of the Church are the sacrifice and prayer of Christ, Prototype of the Cosmos. The Greek Fathers are so clearly aware of this doctrine that all their prayers bear it's stamp. This universal (or Catholic) largeness of the Fathers' views faithfully rendered in the prayers of the Byzantine Church is a reason why this Church is both so attractive and so modern in its theology.

    When St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of the single universe, he does not limit it to the material creation, since everything outside the inner activity of the Blessed Trinity proceeds from the single will of God. In this sense, the Kingdom of God contains everything that participates in his being. the only thing that is outside this Kingdom is darkness, non-being, evil, sin. The frequent use of the supplication, "Lord, have mercy," in the Liturgy of the Byzantine Church is an application of this universality.


    Tradition is the permanent and living presence of the Holy Spirit continually inspiring, enlightening, teaching and sustaining the Church in truth. Holy Tradition, therefore, is the truth of God in the life and voice of the Church, part of which is recorded under the inspiration of God and constitutes the "Word of God" in Holy Scripture. Another part, not recorded in the Scriptures, has been passed down from generation to generation in an ongoing Tradition. There is, then, one source to the living inspiration of God, running in two parallel streams: the word of God recorded in Holy Scripture, and the conservation and transmission of the truth of God passed on to us by the Fathers of the Church. Together they transmit to us one truth; for, as St. Nicephor of Constantinople says, "Everything in the Church is Tradition, including the Gospel, for Jesus Christ consigned nothing to writing, but planted his word in our hearts."

    Since it claims its origin from Christ and his Apostles, the Church proves the authenticity of its teaching with the teaching of the living Spirit, the uninterrupted faithfulness to the word of God, by always referring to it as the Faith of the Fathers, the Teaching of the Fathers, the Tradition of the Fathers, the Apostolic Tradition, an so forth. All the prayers of the Byzantine Church are taken from this tradition, thus forming mosaics of quotations from the Word of God, the writings of the Apostles, and the teachings of their successors.


    The word "liturgy" (from the Greek meaning "work" or "occupation") is the name given to the act of taking part in the solemn corporate worship of God by the priestly society of Christians, the Body of Christ. As members of Christ, they share in his priesthood; they must, then, share also in his prayer and immolation. The Liturgy is a common action of the people of God, with and through their priests -- with and through the High Priest, the Man-God, Christ. St. John Chrysostom describes with joy and enthusiasm the part the people play in the performance of the mysteries of salvation: I mention and insist on these things to excite the vigilance of those who are in an inferior state of life, that we may learn that we are all one body. We differ only as one member may differ from another; and therefore we should not cast all upon the priests, but should be concerned in the care of the whole Church as one common body. Echoing this idea of Chrysostom, Pope Pius XII declares, The faithful should be aware that to participate in the Eucharistic Sacrifice is their chief duty and their supreme dignity

    Byzantine ceremonies are to the worshipers not a duty to be discharged but an experience to be lived. They unfold in action the meaning of the Church as the Body of Christ. In them there is constant motion and personal participation. The celebrants -- even in the divine and Holy Liturgy of the Sacrifice of Christ -- do not stay at the altar; they come out of the sanctuary and walk in the midst of the congregation, first to incense, then to carry the Gospel Book, finally to transfer the oblations in a solemn procession. The faithful are, as it were, in another world. Around them the saints are wrapped in their icons with a mantle of eternity; candles flicker in a thousand hues of light; incense creates a warm atmosphere of prayer; music swells from every corner of the assembled congregation. The deacons move around and between the people and the priest. In the middle of the sanctuary stands the "Pontiff" -- the pirest in the image of Christ -- presiding over and performing the Liturgy. Every act, gesture and movement of the priest has its meaning and points to a spiritual reality. The envoys of the Prince of Kiev to the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople summed up the Liturgy well in their final report: We did not know if we were on earth or in heaven; for there is no such splendor to be found anywhere upon earth. Describe it we cannot; we know only that it is there that God dwells among men.


    When Byzantine theologians describe the reality of the love of God, they always turn to expressions of admiration, amazement, awe and wonder. To define this love is to limit it. It must remain unlimited, boundless, indefinable, unexplainable. The explainable has only limited value and trasient interest. The true is always wondrous. The Mother of God has a high place in Byzantine devotion because she participates, in an intimate way, in the very life of God. She is the creature, the human medium, by which God is communicated to man through the Incarnation. Because of this, the Byzantine Church never ceases to sign her praises, or regard her veneration as anything less than essential.

    In a sharp departure from the principles of Roman Catholic spirituality, Byzantine spirituality makes no distinction between private and public prayer. There is continuity between the prayers Christians recite in the assembly of the church, and the interior life by which each of them unites in the divine mystery. The Byzantine Liturgy offers to each one the seeds of contemplation he needs. In return the Church expects of each one a close participation in its prayers of praise and thanksgiving (E. Lanne, "La prière des Chrétiens d'Orient"). According to St. Nilos the Sinaite, prayer, or spiritual activity, is the conversation of the intelligence with God, the green branch of sweetness and the liberation from evil, the exteriorization of joy and gratefulness. Prayer is the elevation of the intelligence to God, not in order to learn about God but to discover God; not to know about Him but to know Him, to experience God in one's own life.