Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith. Lesson 8.

Posted in The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 12 November 2010

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

Lesson 8


According to the current practice, while the deacon proclaims the petitions of various litanies during the Liturgy, the priest “secretly” recites other prayers.  These prayers are even called the secret prayers.[1] This, however, may be a misunderstanding.  In the early Church, Christians indeed hid from persecution and often participated in the sacraments—such as the Eucharist—in secret.  However, this was not in secret from each other, but in secret from those who were not Christian.  Additionally, some of the Christian knowledge, especially with respect to the praxis of the Eucharist, but also to some of the core Christian beliefs—as the latter are inseparable from the former[2]—comprised what was known as the disciplina arcani and was not revealed even to the catechumens until they were fully initiated into Church.  As we mentioned in the previous lesson, the catechumens had to leave the church before the Eucharist began, and as a symbol of the exclusivity of some of the Christian praxis, the deacon calls on the faithful to guard the doors—both of the temple and of our tongue—before the faithful join together in the recitation of the sacred wisdom—the Creed of the Orthodox Faith: “The doors!  The doors!  In wisdom let us attend!”

Concerning the ancient practice of allowing only the faithful to participate in Christian sacraments, Origen wrote around the year 248: “When those who have been turned towards virtue have made progress, and have shown that they have been purified by the Word, and have led as far as they can a better life—then (and not before) do we invite them to participate in our sacraments.”[3], [4] Likewise, Saint Basil the Great wrote: “Of the dogmas and kerygmata, which are kept in the Church, we have some from the written teaching, and some we derive from the Apostolic tradition, which had been handed down sacramentally (εν μυστηριω). And both have the same strength in the matters of piety. […] They come from the silent and mystical tradition, from the unpublic and ineffable teaching.”[5]

Thus, one thing is becoming clear: the sacrament of the Eucharist and the wisdom contained therein are to be offered to the faithful, but guarded against the uninitiated or the profane, against those who have not devoted themselves to God and have not shown the fruits of this devotion in their lives.  But herein lies the problem in our discussion of the “secret” prayers of the Liturgy: in the early Church, only those who were serious about living as Christians actually became Christians; and the prayers of the Eucharist were recited aloud for all Christians to hear.  Beginning in the fourth century, however, churches started filling with people who did not strive for holiness in their lives.  Around that time, we see two things happening to the Eucharist: people begin partaking of Holy Communion less and less frequently, and priests begin to recite their prayers in secret.  In the sixth century, this new practice of “hiding” liturgical prayers from the ears of those present became so prevalent that the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (483-565) was compelled to “direct that all the bishops and presbyters shall pronounce the prayers in connection with the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism not silently but with a voice which may be heard by the faithful, so that the hearts of the hearers may be thereby aroused to a greater contrition and a greater praise of God.”[6]

Nearly fourteen hundred years later, Saint John of Kronstadt appeared to agree with the Emperor’s argument: “The priest or the bishop recites many prayers to himself; it would be much more interesting and profitable for the minds and hearts of Christians to be aware of the full text of the Liturgy.”[7], [8] Likewise, both future patriarchs—then archbishops—Tikhon (Belavin) and Sergii (Stragorodskii) recommended to the 1917-1918 Council of the Russian Orthodox Church that the “secret” priestly prayers be read aloud for the faithful to hear.[9] Another delegate to the Council, Bishop Nazarius of Nizhni-Novgorod wrote that, “in order that those present would completely understand the structure of this most important liturgical service, by experiencing it in all of its wholeness and seeing how it develops, it might be desirable to permit the secret prayers to be read aloud. This would even be in agreement with the practice of the Early Church. The public reading of the priestly prayers would uplift the prayerful spirit of the worshippers.”[10] Unfortunately, due to the revolution in Russia, the Council never had a chance to discuss such matters.

On the other hand, those who would wish to preserve the secrecy of sacramental prayers may be fighting for a cause which is already lost.  Anyone who wishes to know the full text of the “secret” prayers or anything else about the Divine Liturgy—whether this person is a Christian, a pagan, or an atheist—can find everything he or she is looking for in a vast number of sources—both paper and electronic—made widely available by the Churches themselves.  Service Books containing all of the prayers as well as detailed instructions on how the Liturgy is served are widely available to anyone who wants to purchase them, and no religious affiliation is verified at the check-out counter.  Nothing at all prevents any infidel from studying the Divine Liturgy or even standing in church through an entire service with a Priest’s Service Book in hand.  Thus, hiding the liturgical prayers or making them secret—while certainly a well-established practice—appears to only hinder the understanding of the faithful.  Instead of nourishing the faithful while being veiled from the uninitiated, the sacramental prayers are now available to anyone but are veiled from the faithful.  Our small parish Sunday school classes are certainly not the right place or time to question or discuss whether the current liturgical practice should be revised in any way, but it seems appropriate that Orthodox Christians should be familiar with the complete text of the service in which they are called to fully participate, as we have discussed in previous lessons.  It is for this reason that we will study the “secret” prayers in our lessons.

The Sacramental Prayers

Currently, the sacramental prayers are recited by the priest either silently or in a low voice.  The only parts of these prayers which are said in a loud voice are the very endings or the so-called exclamations.[11] By themselves, these exclamations make little grammatical sense, since they begin with the subordinating conjunction “for” or “because” and therefore must be preceded by some sentence with a predicate which is modified by the subordinate adverb clause.[12], [13] Below is the first sacramental prayer in its entirety (the exclamation is in bold):

O Lord our God, Whose dominion is indescribable, and Whose glory is incomprehensible, Whose mercy is infinite, and Whose love for mankind is ineffable: Do Thou Thyself, O Master, according to Thy tender compassion, look upon us, and upon this holy temple, and deal with us, and them that pray with us, according to Thine abundant mercies and compassions.  For unto Thee is due all glory, honour, and worship: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.[14]

It is to this entire prayer, a plea for God’s mercy and compassion at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy—not merely to the chopped-off adverb clause—that the whole congregation of the faithful replies with “Amen!”—“Let it be so!”

The second and third litanies proclaimed by the deacon—the so-called small litanies—also “end” with exclamations by the priest, which are actually the endings of the second and third sacramental prayers.

Second sacramental prayer:

O Lord our God, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, preserve the fullness of Thy Church, sanctify them that love the beauty of Thy house; do Thou glorify them by Thy divine power, and forsake not us that hope in Thee.[15] For Thine is the dominion, and Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.[16]

Third sacramental prayer:

O Thou Who hast bestowed upon us these common and concordant prayers, and Who hast promised that when two or three are agreed in Thy name Thou wouldst grant their requests: Do Thou Thyself now fulfill the requests of Thy servants to their profit, granting us in this present age the knowledge of Thy truth, and in that to come, life everlasting.  For a good God art Thou, and the Lover of mankind, and unto Thee do we send up glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

These first three prayers are interconnected and are to be a “common and concordant” petition to the merciful and compassionate God from His people and His inheritance, who have gathered in His house, and who praise and glorify the Holy Trinity.  In the first prayer, through a combination of apophatic and cataphatic definitions,[17] we declare which God we have come together to worship: indescribable, incomprehensible, ineffable, merciful, and compassionate.  In the second prayer, we proclaim that we are God’s people and His children (inheritance), who are under his dominion and subjects in His kingdom.  And in the third prayer we appeal to our God’s goodness and love to grant us our requests and petitions which are both of the “present age” and also of “that to come.”

Questions for discussion:

  1. What are “secret” prayers?
  2. What is a “common and concordant prayer”?
  3. What are apophatic definitions?  Give examples.
  4. What are cataphatic definitions?  Give examples.
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[1] A much better term, in my opinion, would be the sacramental prayers or mystical prayers.

[2] Consider, for example, Origen’s writing of “the wisdom hidden in a sacrament”—Against Celsus, 61.

[3] Ibid., 59

[4] Consider also the pledge “I will not speak of Thy mysteries to Thine enemies” from the prayers immediately before Communion.

[5] On the Holy Spirit, 66

[6] Novelae contitutiones 137 (De creatione episcoporum et clericorum), 6

[7] Qtd. in Bishop Alexander. The Life of Father John of Kronstadt. SVS Press, 1979, p. 50.

[8] Saint John not only quoted the “secret” prayers in his writings, but also provided explanations of these prayers for the benefit of the laity—Святой праведный Иоанн Кронштадский. Собрание сочинений в 6-ти томах. Киев: Оранта, 2006, 2:144-150 et passim.

[9] Qtd. in Pospelovskii, D.V. Report to the Sixths International Ecumenical Conference On Russian Spirituality (VI Convegno ecumenico internazionale di spiritualita russa), Bose, Italy, 16-19 September 1998.

[10] Qtd. in Shimchick, John. The Responses of the Russian Episcopate Concerning Worship 1905 and the Liturgical Situation in America. Unpublished Master of Divinity Thesis, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1980, pp. 75-76.

[11] There, apparently, exists a practice among some priests of pronouncing the endings aloud in their proper place, and then silently saying the rest of the prayer at a later time.  Some editions of the Service Book are adapted to this practice.  While it is easy to understand how this confusion may have arisen, it seems to contradict both the grammar and the inner logic of the Liturgy.

[12] In this context, consider some “stand-alone” exclamations which possess all of the necessary grammatical elements of a complete sentence: “Blessed is the kingdom…”; “Blessed is our God…”; “Glory be to the Father…”

[13] For thoughts on how to logically connect litanies and exclamations in the current liturgical practice, see Скабалланович, Михаил. Толковый типикон. Москва: Сретенский монастырь, 2004, стр. 528-9.

[14] The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1999, p. 33.

[15] These are the exact words which are proclaimed aloud by the priest as part of the Prayer-From-Behind-The-Ambo at the end of the Liturgy

[16] The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1999, pp. 34-5.

[17] From Greek πόφασις from ποφάναι: “to show no”; also known as Negative theology or Via Negativa (Latin for “negative way”).  Cataphatic (or kataphatic), on the other hand, refers to positive definitions.


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