Worship: Spiritual and Physical

This worship had a physical component to it, since the worshipper is an amalgam of flesh and spirit. If human beings were only spirit, like the angels, and consisted only of mind and intellect, worship would have no bodily components, but would be the bodiless adoration of the invisible God, a mind seeking the Mind. But in fact, humans are amphibious. Just as amphibians live in both water and on land, so human beings live both in the world of the physical senses and the world of the spirit. Therefore, our worship partakes of both qualities, and is both spiritual and physical.

The spiritual component is the more obvious one to us moderns. Prayer and worship mean not simply reciting syllables, which we may or may not understand. It involves the understanding, the nous, the inner capacity for receptivity and relationship. At times the Greek word nous is somewhat misleadingly translated as “mind”, giving the impression of an entirely intellectual component. But the nous involves more than just the intellect. It includes the interior ability to absorb and receive.

That is why worship must be conducted in a language which is understood, so that the words uttered are expressions of the relationship between the worshipper and the Lord. For this reason, St. Paul insisted that words openly spoken in an unknown tongue in the congregation be interpreted and translated (see 1 Cor 14:13–19).

Ultimately our prayers are spiritual, the fruit of the Spirit within us, praying within and causing us to cry out “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:26–27; Gal 4:6). They are not solely our own creation and work, but the combination of the Spirit’s work within and our own yearning after God.

But our prayers and worship have a physical component to them as well, since what we do with our bodies affects and souls and spirits also. We stand for prayer and worship, though one can pray upon one’s knees or can prostrate if one’s prayer is fervent (compare Matt 26:39; Acts 20:36). In prayer one usually lifts up one’s hands and eyes to God (The gesture of clasped hands dates from feudal times and was the gesture of offering fealty to one’s liege lord.)

Similarly, one can make deep bows from the waist (in Russian a poklon) or even a prostration as one offers prayers (as often done by monks as part of their prayer rule). One also makes the Sign of the Cross at the conclusion of prayers which finish with a mention of the Holy Trinity.

Such physical actions are bodily prayers, as one worships God with the body as well as the mind. The whole person, the inner self and the outer self, is involved in lifting oneself up to the Lord. It is this principle which is fully and savingly expressed in the sacramental mysteries and rituals of the Church. The Church uses physical things such as water, bread, wine, and oil, things made Spirit-bearing by the command and authority of Christ, to produce spiritual results. Salvation involves sacraments because all life is sacramental, consisting of physical things charged with spiritual significance and power.

Read more: The Sacraments (opens in a new tab), Eucharistic Canon: Anaphora (opens in a new tab), Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness (opens in a new tab)