Saint Gregory’s Evenings: Reflecting on the Introductory Prayers

by Doru Costache

Within the Romanian Orthodox Diocese of Australia and New Zealand currently there is only one English-speaking church, active in Sydney’s northern parts since 2017, when believers of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, together with me, asked for Bishop Mihail’s blessing to pray together, and received it. The church gathers under the patronage of Saint Gregory the Theologian, but does not have its own building. In fact, the church has (and raises) no funds; everything is freely undertaken, on a volunteering basis. Once a month, or so, the church meets at the Pittwater Wesleyan Methodist Church, in Mona Vale, New South Wales, by the generosity and friendship of our Wesleyan friends. But we meet for prayer and reflection more often than that, through video link, with the activity being coordinated via a Facebook page. Interested people can keep up with what’s on via the relevant pinned post.

Sporadically, since the middle of 2022, the church and other people interested have been meeting for the “Saint Gregory’s Evenings,” a series of “informal conversations about things in heaven and on earth.” This is to say that there is no agenda. The discussions have been focusing on the participants’ various interests and concerns, including my own.

As a number of things had already been addressed during the “Evenings,” the time has come for me to present some of our findings. I begin by summarising the group’s thoughts about the daily string of introductory prayers, based on the text I have partially retranslated and partially revised after the original Greek version. As these prayers open all our “Evenings,” it was fitting to reflect on their meaning, so that we can pray together intelligently. One participant in these meetings, Peter Dimitrov, had the following to share about our discussions:

On reading the introductory prayers, it is easy to race through them as they’ve been used many times before. But embarrassingly, when reread and discussed in our evenings together, being guided by Fr Doru, whole new powerful insights emerge. It is reassuring to know that those new understandings are based on themes that are consistently supported in the scriptures and the patristic writings. And even more reassuring when we acknowledge the spiritual mystery of things and avoid making speculative statements which others are often compelled to generate.

Well, I wouldn’t say that our discussions have been entirely free of speculative thinking, and I might be have been the main culprit, but we always tried to land in reality.

Below, I give the text of each component of this suite of prayers, italicised, followed by our thoughts in normal script. The reflection was led by me, but other participants made valuable contributions by asking questions and making comments. That said, I am responsible for whatever faults might be found in the following summary.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This line, apart from the conclusion “Amen” (of Hebrew origin, meaning “let it be so! so say we all!”), quotes the words of our Teacher, Yeshua (in Hebrew, “the Lord who saves”) the Anointed (in colonial parlance, “Jesus Christ”) in Matthew 28:19. This is a dedication of our time to God the Trinity, as well as an expression of our commitment to the trinitarian faith that guides our lives. For, indeed, our faith is not an ideological platform devoid of existential resonance. What we believe in establishes our way of life, and our way of life confirms and gives expression to our faith. As we proclaim a trinitarian God, we express our conviction that “God is love,” as saint John the Theologian says (1 John 4:8), which means “fellowship” and “communion.” God, as three persons, lives in fellowship. When we dedicate our time to the trinitarian God, we show commitment to the same way of life, characterised by fellowship. That this is the meaning of this—and of any other trinitarian proclamations in the Orthodox Churches of Byzantine tradition—becomes obvious in the liturgical dialogue “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity of one essence and inseparable.” This dialogue means that only insofar as we experience fellowship—namely, we love one another—we can truly confess the trinitarian fellowship. If there is no fellowship among us, proclaiming a trinitarian faith becomes hypocritical and ultimately blasphemous.

Glory to you, our God, glory to you!

After we dedicate our time and life to the Trinity as love, we glorify God. Of course, God does not need glorification, praise, or doxology; God does not need anything from us. It is we who need to glorify God, to remind ourselves of how much we depend on God’s mercy. Without grateful acknowledgment and doxology, we quickly forget about God and our dependence on God’s mercy. And, growing big in our own eyes, we become foolish and lose our way, as we keep doing, from the first members of God’s people in paradise to date. But since we, God’s people, are a philosophical school—as we are disciples, students of the Teacher of all—we learned from him to glorify God in order to remember. Remembrance is an ancient philosophical exercise, and we practise it in many ways, from repeating “Lord, have mercy” to the annual cycle of readings to this very string or prayers. It is for this reason that we keep returning to God with praises.

Heavenly king, comforter, the Spirit of truth, present everywhere and filling all things; the treasury of goodness and giver of life; come and dwell in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O good one.

Through most of the liturgical year, we pray the “Heavenly king,” but not between the Holy Pascha (the Lord’s Resurrection) and Pentecost (the Descent of the Spirit). We begin our annual practice of this prayer on Pentecost day, when we hear it repeated, again and again, during the whole cycle of services. It is addressed to the Holy Spirit, one of the Trinity. While variants of this prayer could antedate the end of the fourth century, the present text clearly echoes the teaching of Saint Basil “the Great” of Caesarea, espoused in his treatise On the Holy Spirit. All of the words of this prayers can be found in that treatise, as well as throughout the Scriptures.

Here is what this prayer says. “Heavenly king,” proclaims the Spirit’s royal or divine status, a status that is “heavenly,” not of this world; the adjective “heavenly” also indicates the presence of the Spirit—indeed of the Trinity—throughout the universe, as the prayer confirms a little later through the words “present everywhere and filling all things.” The words “comforter, the Spirit of truth” come from the Lord Yeshua’s sermon at the mystical supper, in John 14:16-17. “Comforter,” Paraclete, in the Greek of the New Testament and therefore here, actually means “called upon.” It shows that we need to invoke the Spirit to “dwell in us,” as we say later (which is the meaning of the Lord’s reference to “the kingdom of God is within you,” in Luke 17:21), to stand by us and to comfort us by the divine presence. The phrase “Spirit of truth” shows both the personal relationship between the Spirt and the Lord Yeshua, who is the Truth (John 14:6), and the fact that the Spirit continues the Lord’s work among his people, teaching us the fullness of the Truth, since at this stage we do not comprehend the Gospel in its depth and breadth (John 14:26). The words “present everywhere and filling all things” indicate the Spirit permeating the universe, for there is no part of the creation that exists by itself, without ongoing divine support; as “the treasury of goodness and giver of life,” the Spirit keeps all things in existence and gives them opportunities to fulfil their tasks and to flourish. We know that without the Spirit’s presence all things collapse, while in the Spirit’s presence all are renewed (Psalm 103/104:29-30). The universe’s existence, the earthly ecosystem, and our very lives denote the Spirit’s presence and ongoing activity.

The words “come and dwell in us” show that, while the Spirit is in all things, God’s people must consciously and deliberately open their lives to the divine work. God does not work against our freedom to choose. But this denotes a higher level of access to the Spirit’s activity available to people, beyond the purposes of merely surviving. This invocation, in short, signifies our desire to access the spiritual—or mystical—life through participation in the divine and deifying life through the Spirit’s indwelling. As the Spirit is “good,” the source of grace as divine energy, we further ask to be readied for God’s indwelling and sanctification (to become the Spirit’s temples) through being washed clean from the stains of our failures, which make us incompatible with the divine and deifying presence.

Christ rose from the dead and trampled down death by death, granting life to those in the tombs.

Between the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension, the “Heavenly king” is replaced by the above Paschal hymn. This hymn proclaims the divine presence in our midst today, as the Lord was present among his disciples from the first to the fortieth day after his resurrection (Acts 1:1-3). But this is not only a proclamation of his defeating death; it also announces the grace of resurrectional—or renewed—life granted to all believers, “those in the tombs.” The certainty of the Lord Yeshua’s resurrection is the certainty of our own renewal and resurrection.

Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us! Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us! Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us!

Here is a typical exercise of repetition, in the philosophical tradition earlier mentioned. We repeat this hymn in order to remember, we remember in order to learn, and we learn in order to lead a life open to God’s overwhelming mercy and awesome presence. In the Byzantine tradition, this hymn encodes trinitarian significance, with “God” referring to the Father, “mighty” to the Son, and “immortal” to the Spirit. Reciting or singing this hymn brings us in God’s proximity, for it celebrates, together with the Holy Trinity’s awesome majesty and overflowing mercy, a sense of fellowship and closeness. Traditionally, as we have seen in Saint Basil’s Caesarean congregation, we pray this hymn with lifted hands—the endearing gesture of children asking their parents to take them in their arms. Our tradition also gives examples of spiritual experiences relating to this hymn. Saint Antony of Egypt was humbled when he saw the life of a simple layman who worked honestly, gave alms, and kept singing the Treisagion, the threefold invocation “Holy God.” Later, Saint Symeon the New Theologian experienced the return of divine grace in his life when he obeyed his spiritual father, Saint Symeon the Pious, who asked him to go to bed repeating this hymn.

Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

This glorification returns to the motif of acknowledgment and doxology mentioned form the outset, and for the same reason. We keep repeating it so that we remember and act upon this lesson of depending on God. And, again, we should remember that God as Trinity is love; no other description befits the divine life; and that love takes the concrete form of ineffable, endless mercy towards us.

All-holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse our sins. Master, forgive our wrongdoings. Holy one, visit us and heal our weakness, for your name’s sake.

In the light of the above, no wonder we ask the Holy Trinity for mercy. God is Trinity. God is love. Love is merciful and compassionate. And we keep asking for God’s mercy given that, as the Psalmist (62/63:3) has it, it is better than lives. God’s mercy is what we need, what constitutes our lives and gives us opportunities to thrive. Nothing else matters. But mercy, we learn from this explicitly trinitarian prayer, takes many forms, in this case taking the form of a multifaceted antidote for our failure to live a holy life. Because of the depth of our failure, which has spiritual, physiological, psychological, and emotional repercussions, God’s mercy effects within us cleansing, forgiveness, and healing—for we need purification from the stains of sin, reconciliation with those against whom we have sinned, and restoration to a wholesome life. The effects of God’s mercy, here, complement the one reference to cleansing or catharsis in the “Heavenly king,” as well as revealing the complexity of our fallenness. But what matters more is that the mercy of our loving Trinity does not condemn and punish sinners, does not demand an atoning price for our “offences,” and does not ask for the satisfaction of some idealistic sense of justice. The mercy of our loving Trinity has already taken the initiative of One giving his life for the many. There is no price to pay for whoever wishes to (re)turn to the path of holiness. Full of hope, therefore, sinful believers ask to be restored by God’s mercy.

Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

As with the “Holy God,” so here. Repetition teaches. And the lesson we should remember from the above is that God’s mercy endures for ever. Another lesson is that, while we might have priorities and interests in life, God’s mercy is better than lives.

Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

As above.

Our Father in the heavens, blessed be your name! May your kingdom come! May your will be done—as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today the bread that nourishes us; forgive us what we owe as we forgive those who owe us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For yours are the kingdom, the power, and the glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

This prayer, usually taken to be addressed to the Father, is in fact trinitarian. Let’s not forget that the Lord Yeshua, who teaches it to his disciples, lived among us as a Hebrew person and, in regard to his human side, drew his analogies and metaphors from the culture of his people. It is this culture, symbolic in nature, that embedded codes everywhere and invited the believers to decode them. For example, the first three letters of Genesis in Hebrew, B, R, Sh, are also words, namely, Beit (home; the Father), Ruach (wind; the Spirit), and Shem (name; the Word). That this interpretation is valid is shown by the same order of the trinitarian persons encoded in the first three verses of Genesis, with the Father (“God”; 1:1) creating the universe, the Spirit (“wind”; 1:2) hovering the waters of the original chaos, and the Word (“and God said”; 1:3) bringing the creations into existence, relationship, and meaningful order by establishing their inner law. The same goes for the first three phrases of the Lordly prayer, but the order of the persons illustrates what we learn from the Saviour through the mouthpiece of the same evangelist, Matthew, where this prayer is found (6:9-13). Thus, at the end of the Gospel (Matthew 28:19), trinitarian baptism is revealed, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In this light, the prayer’s first three phrases refer to the Father, the Son (the name, Shem), and the Spirit (the kingdom within, as per Luke 17:21, by which we become temples of the Spirit, as per 1 Corinthians 6:19). That the “Our Father” is addressed to the Trinity is then confirmed by the trinitarian doxology that God’s people has appended to it, which is addressed to the whole of the Trinity, not to one person in the company of others (for example, to the Father, who is glorified together with the Son and the Spirit) as it occurs in other prayers.

But this prayer teaches more wisdom. As “heavenly,” God is not only a transcendent being; it also is present everywhere, in all the heavens, visible and invisible, managing the entire household. Once again, we should remember that the Lord Yeshua lived among us as a Hebrew person, thinking of the heavens as a plurality of layers. Granted, as the Lord could also speak a bit of Greek, we have the singular “heaven” a little later, as code for the angelic world, but this does not contradict the main idea, that the heavenly God is present in all the heavens. And so, the first three phrases proclaim the Father’s omnipresence, bless the holy Name/Revealer of God, Yeshua the Anointed, He Who Is, and invoke the arrival of the Spirit in our hearts and lives, as we also do in the “Heavenly king.”

The next sentence, about God’s will, says something tremendous about us, God’s people: we surrender to God’s will as humbly as the angels. Or so we pray, and the liturgy reminds us constantly of our cherubic status in the kingdom. But later, knowing our weaknesses, the Lord teaches us to ask to be spared of temptations, or testing experiences, at least for a while—until we can say together with him, “but not my will—your will be done.” Until we find within us that strength, we also ask to be delivered—not of an idealistic and abstract evil, for we, Orthodox, don’t believe in such a thing, but—of the evil persons, bodily as well as immaterial, that deceive and hurt us. For the rest, we ask for nourishing bread, which is both material and spiritual, food for the body and food for the soul (Matthew 4:4), knowing that we depend on God’s mercy and providence (Matthew 6:25-33). Lastly, we ask to be forgiven of the good we ought to do to others and do not, in proportion to the forgiveness we grant to those who ought to do good to us and do not. But note the nuance: the prayer does not teach us to ask for forgiveness of sins or offences, as most translations have it; God’s mercy covers those; the prayer teaches us that we have a duty to the neighbour, which most times we ignore to fulfil. The standard is very high, showing that we are called to initiative and responsibility, not merely to wail because of our sins.

I pray that this summary will be of use to others, too, not only to us, at Saint Gregory’s.

6 July 2023 © AIOCS (last update on 4 August 2023)

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