Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith. Lesson 7.

Posted in The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 23 October 2010

English-language supplement for the Law of God classes for adults at the Holy New Martyrs of Russia Church in Mulino, OR

Lesson 7


In the previous lesson, we began our discussion of the Divine Liturgy with its very first words—the blessing given by the priest and the response of the faithful.  In this lesson, we will continue our discussion of the structure of the Liturgy and the fundamentals of the Orthodox faith revealed to us through this service.

The Liturgy consists of two parts: the Liturgy of the catechumens and Liturgy of the faithful.[1] The first part of the Divine Liturgy is called the Liturgy of the catechumens because in ancient times the catechumens attended this part of the service, but had to leave the church when the part called the Liturgy of the faithful began.  Catechumens are people who have decided to become Christian and are preparing for baptism.  In ancient times, this preparation consisted both of instruction in the form of classes, lessons, and lectures, but also of praxis, such as prayer and fasting.  The length of this preparation varied by century, location, and circumstance.  The Apostolic Constitutions, a document which was compiled at the end of the fourth century but is based on much earlier documents, contains the following rule: “Let him who is to be a catechumen be a catechumen for three years.  However, if anyone is diligent and has a good-will to his earnestness, let him be admitted [to baptism].  For it is not the length of time that is to be judged, but the course of life.”[2]

Naturally, as more people became Christian, there were more children who received instruction in the faith from an early age from their parents and the Christian community.  At some point in the history of Christendom, when most people in some countries were born into Christian families, the institute of catechumens diminished or nearly disappeared.  Today it is coming back again both in the United States where adult conversions to Orthodoxy necessitate catechetical work, and in Russia where in some dioceses, for example, parents cannot have their children baptized without first attending catechetical classes or lectures themselves.

“In peace let us pray to the Lord!”

Following the priest’s exclamation—“Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”—and the response to it by the people—“Amen,” the deacon (or priest if there is no deacon) begins a litany[3] of various petitions, each one ending with the same words: “let us pray to the Lord.”  This litany, also called the great litany, is one of the most ancient parts of Christian public services.  At the end of the first century, Saint Clement of Rome wrote of a very similar litany, probably taken from the liturgical praxis of the Roman Church.[4] Versions of the great litany are also found in the Liturgies of the Apostles James and Mark, as well as in the documents compiled in the third and fourth centuries—The Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ and Apostolic Constitutions.[5]

We will not focus our attention on the individual petitions of the great litany because these petitions are publically proclaimed by the deacon at every Liturgy, and everyone should be very familiar with them.  What is important is that these prayers are not a conversation between the deacon and the choir, but rather between the people and God.   Writing about this, Saint John of Kronstadt said: “In the sacred services of our Orthodox Church, the clergy and people, or the sacred ministers and people, are presented as one: one heart and one soul … The priest or deacon urge [the faithful] to pray … —the laymen pray, praise, and thank together with the clergy.”[6] This is why the great litany is not a time for people to walk around, whisper to each other, or do anything else that separates them from the common prayer of the Church—rather, it is a time to fully participate in the liturgical work of their community; it is a time for prayer.  The same Saint John wrote concerning prayer: “It is necessary that the one who prays does not forget [even] for a single minute that he is talking to God, standing before Him face to face…”[7]

According to Saint Cyprian of Carthage (ca. 208-258), in prayer we “speak with God.”[8] Likewise, Saint Clement of Alexandria said that “prayer, then, to speak more boldly, is conversation with God.”[9] Even when speaking with each other we must do so with honesty, love, and simplicity,[10] observing the manner in which we speak.  It is equally as important to follow these rules when we speak with God.  Saint Cyprian wrote: “When we pray, we should let our speech and petition be under discipline, observing quietness and modesty … For it is characteristic of a shameless man to be noisy with his cries.  On the other hand, it is fitting for a modest man to pray with modest petitions.”[11]

Proper prayer, however, does not begin with outward discipline, but rather with a proper disposition of the heart.  Tertullian once rhetorically asked: “What reason is there to go to prayer with hands indeed washed, but the spirit foul?”[12] With the very first words of the litany, the Church urges us to pray to the Lord in peace—“meaning: let us pray to the Lord in peace with ourselves, without disturbance of spirit, without any enmity or anger, but with mutual love in accordance with the teachings of the Word of God—(Mark 11:25 and 1 Tim. 2:8).”[13]

Finally, prayer must be mindful.  Saint Ignatii (Brianchaninov) wrote that “he who wishes to practice God-pleasing prayer, must only make sure that his mind maintains attention during prayer.”[14] And again: “A general rule for all who practice prayer is to put the mind into the words of the prayer, in other words, to pray with attention.”[15] Saint John of Kronshtadt gave us very similar advice: “ You go to church and wish that the services might be useful for your soul, and a true feat,[16] and a sacrifice pleasing to God—for this it is necessary to pay attention with your heart and mind to the litanies, prayers, and hymns of the service.”[17] This should go without saying, but sadly it is worth repeating: if you came to church a bit late and did not have time to buy candles, greet your friend, or do some other thing that you usually do—the great litany is not the time to do that; it is not the time to mind your private business as you should be minding the common business of prayer.

“Lord, have mercy!”

To each one of the petitions pronounced by the deacon, the faithful respond with the simple “Lord, have mercy!”  This prayer, while very short, expresses the very depth of the Orthodox understanding of our relationship to God—“…one can hardly find a more sincere and vivid expression for our fundamental and constant relationship to God…”[18]

Why do we keep repeating this prayer?  Saint John of Kronshtadt wrote: “And why do we repeat and frequent our breathing?  [Because] it is necessary, it excites and supports our life.  For the same reason we also need frequent prayer, such as, for example, the prayer ‘Lord, have mercy’…”[19]

Thus, it seems appropriate to end our lesson with a quote from the law of Charles the Great[20] (742-814): “On Sundays, instead of loitering at intersections and streets and spending time talking, dancing or singing secular songs, Christians should attend vigils and vespers and sing ‘Kyrie eleyson’[21] as they walk there and back.”[22]

Question for discussion:

  1. What is a litany?
  2. Who prays during the litany?
  3. Is the great litany a good time to light candles, talk to friends, etc.?  Why?
  4. What does it mean: “have mercy (помилуй, ἐλέησον)”?
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[1] Some, such as Archbishop Averkii (Taushev) in his Литургика, divide the Liturgy into three parts: prothesis, the Liturgy of the catechumens, and the Liturgy of the faithful.

[2] 8:4:22

[3] Greek—λιτανεία

[4] Epistle to Corinthians 59:2-61:3

[5] Testamentum Domini nostri Iesu Christi 1:35 and Διαταγαι των αγίων αποστολών 8:10

[6] Святой праведный Иоанн Кронштадский. Собрание сочинений в 6-ти томах. Киев: Оранта, 2006, 2:193.

[7] Ibid. 596

[8] Epistle to Donatus 15

[9] The Stromata 7:7

[10] Matt. 5:37

[11] Treatise 4 (On the Lord’s Prayer) 4

[12] On Prayer 13

[13] Таушев, архиеп. Аверкий. Литургика. Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2000, p. 141.

[14] Святитель Игнатий (Брянчанинов). Вход на вечерю благодати: советы мирянам. Сост. О. И. Шафранова. Москва: Паломник, 2007, p. 240.

[15] Ibid. 238

[16] Russian—подвиг

[17] Святой праведный Иоанн Кронштадский. Собрание сочинений в 6-ти томах. Киев: Оранта, 2006, 2:174.

[18] Скабалланович, Михаил. Толковый типикон. Москва: Сретенский монастырь, 2004, стр. 527.

[19] Святой праведный Иоанн Кронштадский. Собрание сочинений в 6-ти томах. Киев: Оранта, 2006, 2:178.

[20] a.k.a. Charlemagne or Carolus Magnus

[21] Greek: Κύριε λέησον—“Lord, [have] mercy”

[22] Qtd. in Скабалланович, Михаил. Толковый типикон. Москва: Сретенский монастырь, 2004, стр. 528 with a reference to Cap. VI, 205, 197. Lϋft. Liturgik, II, 70.


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