Translated by Alexey Malafeev
Edited by Paul Michna
When a person starts going to church, they treat everything connected with church life with wonder, care, love and awe. Their prayer goes from the inside, from their innermost feelings. Awe. It affects all aspects of a believer’s life, including relationship with close people, behavior in church, veneration of holy objects, and, most importantly, the soul’s attitude to God. “God be merciful to me a sinner. God cleanse me a sinner,” prays a parishioner before entering a temple.
Some time passes, and the person gets involved with church life, doing church jobs and becoming part of the parish. “I’ve no time for praying and bowing before entering the church, there is the old timetable of church services. Where is Ivan, why didn’t he change it? Okay, what do we have here? Things donated for the poor? Maria, come on, we need to put it away, let’s carry it together, these things shouldn’t be lying around here. Oh, we also need to change the icon stand here, hurry up, the service starts in half an hour.” A person’s becoming part of the parish life is joyful, the same as their active help about the temple. But many people are concerned that getting used to Church and helping the parish might eliminate the borderline between the temple of God and an ordinary workplace, an office, where we also like to put things right.
The problem of losing the feeling of awe has always been acute, and it is still a problem today. We have decided to discuss this problem with Archpriest Alexander Lavrin, cleric of Temple of Mother of God in Tsaritsyno.
– Father Alexander, we often hear about awe in connection with church life. How would you define awe?
– There is a number of definitions of this word, such as deep veneration, fear and humility, caused by love and faithfulness, a Christian’s feeling towards God, homage to God’s greatness. However we put it, awe is essentially about standing before God.
It is said twice about Enoch in the Old Testament that he “walked with God,” and the Church Tradition says that he, like Elijah, was taken to Heaven alive (Gen 5:21,24). This walking with the mysterious and unfathomable God gives birth to the desired inner state, which we call awe. That is, if people inwardly encounter Christ in their life, they start to have a personal, yet minimal so far, relationship with Him. Such people believe in God, and even though their faith might be weak, they still have awe in the measure of their communing with God.
When a person goes to church, it may be too early to talk about their faith. As such, it is more like hope. On the level of this hope the person starts to have the relationship with God. From now on, this relationship should develop. The more there is communication between the person and God, the more this person trusts Him, which underlies faith. Then the person acquires the feeling of awe, realizing from their own experience what standing before the living God is like.
The fear of the Lord, which the book of Psalms calls “the beginning of wisdom” (Psa 111:10), is awe itself, awe that we Christians often lack in everyday life. In another psalm, God, speaking through His prophet, calls us “children” and invites us to listen to Him, which will teach us the fear of the Lord (Psa 33:12). Therefore, awe is God’s gift.
The fear of God is the polar opposite to bodily fear. The latter makes us deceive, lie or flatter people while hating them at the same time. On the other hand, the fear of God makes us open, sincere, brave and righteous whatever the circumstances be.
For instance, if we truly love somebody, we are afraid to offend this person not only by our words or actions, but even by our facial expression, by intonation of our voice, or anything else. When we hurt our beloved ones, we hurt ourselves. This is something similar to the fear of God. When we have the latter, we are also afraid of doing something careless, not because God might abandon us, for He is always with us, but because it is we who might lose Him, shutting ourselves off from Him and focusing on ourselves again.
– What do you think: is awe the foundation of the spiritual life, or a means of spiritual growth?
– Both. It is hard to draw a distinct line between the two things. In the spiritual life, consequences often become reasons, and reasons turn into consequences. It is a means and the purpose at the same time. Without awe one cannot communicate with God. Technically, one could pray without awe, yet it is not the real prayer but empty words. Unfortunately, we often “pray” like this.
What is the essence of Judgment Day? A person stands before Jesus Christ face to face and, looking at Him, sees what they could have become. But they lacked love, patience, willingness to help others, etc., failing in all aspects of the spiritual life! They have lived the whole life without God, just for themselves. Having had the chance to become gods (see John 10:34, Psa 82:6), they have remained narrow-minded and self-centered and have not learned anything in life. Without standing before God in awe one can have no spiritual life. The aim of Christians is to reach God through their own deadness, despite being fallen, limited and self-centered. Awe opens up our souls for His visitation. As God said, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20). By having a relationship with God we learn to treat people right, seeing His image in every one of them.
– Indeed, awe is pivotal in an Orthodox Christian’s life…
– And it is inseparably linked to penitence. No penitence, no awe. If one starts communicating with Eternity, they find themselves standing before the living God. At that time penitence becomes natural. It also becomes clear that penitence isn’t about humiliation or self-abasement, but it’s your chance to rise up to the fullest! You realize that God wants you to reach Christ-like purity and righteousness! Then you may have a broken spirit because you know there’s something separating you from God. Penitence results in feeling grateful to God for His accepting people in spite of their unworthiness.
Penitence leads to awe, while awe supports penitence. There’s no awe without penitence and gratitude, and there is no penitence and gratitude without awe. This is an integral state of a person.
If I only see my sins and focus on them, I will just drown in them and, probably, torture myself and the people around me. Penitence is real and effective only when we stress not our sins, but God’s grace. Then its true meaning is revealed. Penitence is the point where you meet God. That’s what standing before God in awe is all about: it’s people’s chance to see what they really are.
– How much are upbringing and education connected with awe?
– Pascal used to say, “I know a lot, that’s why I believe like a Breton peasant.” The more knowledge we have of sciences, arts, and trades, the more we realize that people’s grasp of the surrounding world is very limited. Knowing your limits makes you humbler.
Most true scientists weren’t atheists. They may have been non-Christians, but they couldn’t deny the idea of God. They tried to uncover the fundamentals, and the most fundamental is the Holy Spirit. He is unfathomable. There is another means of knowing Him, the pure heart (Mat 5:8).
However, education is very important. Of course, any kind of learning is about forcing yourself. You need to put effort, to overcome yourself if you want to study something. But if you aren’t used to working hard, you might have some trouble in the spiritual life. The latter is based on the work of conscience (when baptized, we ask God for a good conscience). In this respect, education definitely prepares you for the spiritual life. Indeed, our faith is based on a book, on the Word that we need not only to understand and accept, but also to follow. Great Russian writer Gogol once put it very simply, a Christian is always a student.
Any education, being both the gain of knowledge and the development of one’s soul, must strengthen a Christian’s faith. If you have found God, all your knowledge and experience becomes something that supports you in the spiritual life. Any hardships, troubles, diseases, and temptations may teach a person real communication with God and other people. Tests like these make a soul stronger and give it priceless experience.
– Can you tell us more about the dangers a Christian encounters down this path?
– The most important of them are our passions, sneakiness, and Pharisee-like hypocrisy. The Gospel often tells us about Pharisees, sly demagogues, not just for the sake of historical detail, but for us to look at them and recognize ourselves.
Being outside Church it is extremely difficult to see this, if possible at all. That is why Christianity is so precious. It gives us a chance to learn to tell ourselves the truth, because Christianity has a way out, penitence. Without God our sneakiness will surely deceive us, fool us.
In other words, the most serious difficulties lie inside us. The right criterion for our faith or our attitude to God is our attitude to life. And we often despair because of some things we don’t like. But any despair is, in fact, discontent with God. We kind of think, “Oh God, why have you given me such a life?”
If our inner life is based on penitence, we will have a positive attitude to life, seeing God’s grace in any circumstances. The most essential is not to lose God, because with Him we can overcome any difficulties or temptations. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me (Php 4:13).”
– What about internal and external signs of awe?
– The external ones pertain to formal piety. Awe is something inside you. Once, during a celebration in honor of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God, we had the following situation. During the service all our parishioners wanted to venerate the icon. There was a huge crowd of people because the celebration was really important. The first in the line was a pious lady, who slowly and solemnly bowed down-to-earth twice, then she kissed the icon, and after that she bowed again in the same deliberate manner. That is, she did everything in accordance with the ecclesiastical rules, but she forgot about hundreds of people waiting behind her back. Being too literal, we can easily forget about others and just ignore them.
Formal piety may often be superficial, not having inner awe. That’s the thing; Judas betrayed Christ with a kiss.
When a person becomes a Christian, they feel the need to help somebody. At first, they make mistakes trying to do a good thing, because they lack experience in good works. But sincerity and simplicity is what matters to God.
Sincerity and Pharisee-like false piety may seem similar on the surface, but there’s a great difference between them in what’s inside.
It is most important that formal piety should be a natural result of inner awe.
– St Paisii of Mount Athos once said in one of his talks that when a person has little awe, this situation doesn’t remain the same, it deteriorates.
– That’s right, we don’t stay the same. Any standstill in the spiritual life always means moving backwards somehow. A person having awe is honest and conscientious in their moving towards Christ.
I think that now we should see God not as a revenger punishing people for their sins, but as Christ, who was crucified for us and who wants us all to know the truth and be saved. We should see Him as the good shepherd laying down His life for us and waiting for our penitence, so that he could enter our hearts. He says about it in Proverbs, “My son, give me thine heart…” (Pro 23:26)
This may move us and make us “broken in heart,” which is absolutely necessary for feeling awe. Struggle and asceticism are God’s gifts, resulting from our response to God, our desire for a relationship with Christ based on sincerity and penitence. There is no other way.
Christianity is Christ-centered. God always accepts us, but we block Him out with our sins. Feeling no awe makes one’s soul “dry,” which leads to a thought that there is no need in Church. Standing before God in awe vivifies the spiritual life. Awe is all about facing God, it is both the means and the end. Without awe we can’t reach what we live for, the state of being one with Christ.