by St. John Chrysostom
Attention and prayer
As long as we are in the church let our conduct be proper, as befits a person who is before God. Let us not occupy ourselves with purposeless conversations, but let us stand with fear and dread, with attention and eagerness, with our gaze turned to the ground and our soul elevated to Heaven.
Many come to church mechanically repeating psalms and prayers, and leave without knowing what they have said. The lips move but the ears don’t hear. You are not hearing your prayer, and you want God to hear it? I knelt, you say. But your mind was flying far away. Your body was in church and your soul outside. The mouth was saying the prayer and the mind was counting interest, contracts, exchanges, fields, estates, meetings with friends. All these things happen because the devil is wicked. He knows that at the time of prayer we gain many things; for this reason he attacks then with greater violence. At other times we might be lying in bed, not thinking of anything, and he leaves us alone. We come to church to pray, however, and the devil puts a bunch of passionate thoughts into us so that we might not benefit at all.
Truly, if God asks you to account for the indifference or the impiety you show in worship services, what will you do? There, at the time He is speaking to you, instead of praying you have started a conversation with your neighbor about unbeneficial things. Even if God overlooks all our other sins, this one alone would suffice for us to be deprived of salvation. Don’t consider it a small transgression.
To understand its graveness, think of what happens among people when they converse. Let’s suppose that you are discussing something with an official person or with your bosom buddy, and while he is speaking to you, you turn your head indifferently and begin talking to someone else. Won’t the other person be insulted by your impropriety? Won’t he get angry? Won’t he seek an explanation from you?
O woe! You are in the Divine Liturgy, and while the Royal Table is prepared, while the Lamb of God is sacrificed for your sake, while the priest is struggling for your salvation, you are indifferent. At the time when the six-winged Seraphim cover their faces from awe and all the heavenly powers together with the priest beseech God for you, at the moment the fire of the Holy Spirit descends from Heaven and the blood of Christ is shed from His immaculate side in the holy Chalice, at this moment, I wonder, doesn’t your conscience censure you for your lack of attention? Think, O my man, before Whom you are standing at the time of the dreadful mystagogy [divine service], and together with whom—the Cherubim, the Seraphim, and all the heavenly powers. Consider together with whom you are chanting and praying. This should suffice for you to come to your senses, when you recall that, while you have a material body, you are granted to hymn the Lord of creation together with the bodiless angels.
So don’t partake in that sacred hymnody with indifference. Don’t have your mind on earthly thoughts. Chase away every earthly thought and ascend mentally to Heaven, near to the throne of God. Fly there together with the Seraphim, flutter with them, chant the thrice-holy hymn to the All-holy Trinity.
And when the moment of divine Communion comes and you are about to approach the Holy Altar Table, believe unshakably that Christ, the King of all, is present there. When you see your priest offering the Lord’s Body and Blood, don’t think that the priest is doing this, but believe that the hand stretching out is Christ’s.
He Who brightened with His presence the table of the Mystical Supper now also adorns the Altar Table of the Divine Liturgy. He is truly present there and examines each one’s disposition.
He observes who is approaching with piety befitting the holy Mystery and who with a wicked conscience, with filthy and impure thoughts, or with defiled actions. So you also, consider which fault of yours you have corrected, which virtue you have achieved, which sin you have quenched with confession, in what you have become better.
If your conscience informs you that you have strived enough to close the wounds of your soul, if you did something more than fasting, then, with the fear of God, commune. Otherwise, remain far from the immaculate Mysteries. When you are cleansed of all your sins, then approach.
So approach divine Communion with fear and dread, with a pure conscience, having fasted and prayed, quietly, without trampling or pushing your neighbors, because this comprises the greatest craziness and the worst scorning of the divine Mysteries.
Tell me, O man, why are you making noise? Why are you rushing? Are you pressured by all the things you have to do? I wonder, does the thought that you have jobs to do pass through you at the time you are going to commune? Or maybe do you have the feeling that you are on earth? Do you think that you are together with people and not with the choirs of the angels? Something like this is a sign of a stone heart…
And when do we commune?
There also is another matter: many commune once a year, others twice, others more often. Which of them are we to commend? None of them, but only those who approach the holy Chalice with a pure heart, with a blameless life. Let them commune always. The others, the unrepentant sinners, let them stay far from the immaculate Mysteries, because otherwise they prepare judgment and condemnation for themselves. The holy Apostle says,
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord…causing his condemnation” (1 Cor. 11:27).
In other words, he will be punished as strictly as the crucifiers of Christ, since they became guilty of a sin before His body.
Many believers have reached such a point of scorning the holy Mysteries that, while they are full of innumerable evils and don’t correct themselves at all, they commune at the feasts unprepared, not knowing that a presupposition of divine Communion is not the feast itself, but, as we said, the pure conscience. Just as one who doesn’t feel any evil in his conscience ought to daily approach divine Communion, so also one who is burdened with sins and doesn’t repent should not commune even at the feast. For this reason also I ask all of you not to approach the divine Mysteries unprepared just because the feast demands it. Rather, if at some point you decide to take part in the Divine Liturgy and to commune, cleanse yourself well for many days before with repentance, prayer, and charity, striving for spiritual things.