Sunday, 29 March 2009

The body in Greek worship

In addition to his overview of attitudes to the body in Greek Orthodoxy, Kallistos Ware also lists the following as ways in which the body is involved in worship:
  1. The Orthodox liturgy involves the body in worship through various symbolic actions. Worshippers face towards the East, mark themselves with the sign of the cross, make deep bows and sometimes prostrate themselves.

  2. The practices of fasting and abstinence involve the body in spiritual life.

  3. The two chief sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist, directly involve the body. The Orthodox Churches prefer full immersion baptism rather than sprinkling and use ordinary bread instead of communion wafers.

  4. Anointing of the body with oil is common practice, and in the Christian East oil is both a normal ingredient in cooking and a regular part of worship. In the Euchelaion, 'the oil of prayer,' the sick are anointed with oil which is seen to confer both physical healing and the forgiveness of sins.

  5. The laying on of hands is a regular part of confession and ordinations.

  6. At funerals the coffin is left open, and all give a last kiss to the departed. The dead body is seen as an object of love, not abhorrence. Cremation is normally forbidden because of reverence for the physical body and belief in its ultimate resurrection.

  7. In marriage, the sacramental 'matter' that receives God's blessing is the actual body of the man and woman entering matrimony (as opposed to, say, the Eucharist, where it's the bread and wine that are blessed and then consumed by worshippers). While the Greek Fathers have an ambiguous relationship to marriage, which is often seen as inferior to celibacy, and see sex as primarily about child-bearning rather than an expression of love, the negetive elements of their attitude to marriage aren't present at all in the service for a first marriage (although in the service for a second marriage following a divorce, marriage is portrayed as a remedy against sin and a way of controlling our unruly impulses). Instead, the reasons given for mariage are the love of husband and wife, and the bearing and bringing-up of children.

  8. The body has a part in private prayer, especially in the (sometimes controversial) practice of 'hesychast prayer', which uses the Jesus prayer (the repetition of this prayer: 'Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner') and links it with the rhythm of breathing. There are three elements of this 'physical method' of prayer:

    1. Bodily posture: sit on a low stool with head bowed and chin resting on chest.

    2. Breathing is regulated – slowed and coordinated with the words of the Jesus Prayer.

    3. Hesychasts practice inner exploration, or searching for the place of the heart. The hesychast pictures ther breath coming in the nostrils, passing down within the lungs and into the heart, and at the same time seeks to make their intellect descend with their breath so that intellect and heart are united. Interestingly, it's seen as dangerous to explore the body below the heart in this way.

Ware concludes that, whatever the ambiguity in the Orthodox tradition as a whole, this shows that the 'Hebraic' attitude which sees the body as a unity wins out. I think this is where is argument is most precarious - leaving aside for now the question of how fair his Hebraic/Hellenic distinction is (and I know that some people would question it), I'm not totally sold on his idea that a positive view of the body wins out. Still, he's an Orthodox bishop and I'm neither of those things, so maybe he knows better.

1 comment:

Marika said...

Thanks for your comment - it's always nice to know that people are reading and enjoying what I write, and it's nice to 'meet' you!