Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Boredom During Liturgy

I stood during Nativity liturgy, lamenting my inability to focus.  I already let most of the liturgy pass me by, in one ear and out the other.  How am I going to go the rest of the night like this?  I decide to try something.  I look at the page number we were on, and the last page number of the book.  Fifty pages of English text to go.  Hm, that's not as bad as I thought.  Then I think, okay, what is the hardest part of liturgy?  What part feels like it just drags on and on?  It's the Seven Short Litanies.  Okay, when it comes to the seven short litanies, I will count them on my hand.

The litanies come.  As each one is said, I count them off.  It flies by, and I'm startled by how short each prayer is.

I continue to try to pay attention to the flow of the liturgy, and how each prayer is different and has its purpose.  It struck me how each prayer is so powerful and succinct.  What I thought was nauseatingly long turned out to be a super short crash course in the theology of the church.

It seemed like the heavens opened that night.  After 22 years, God finally decides to answer my prayer for the first time.  Is it possible I could go to church without dreading the four hours ahead of me?  Is it possible to pay attention the whole time, yes, the whole time, rather than intermittently shifting in and out of consciousness at random points throughout the liturgy?

Before, there were only two things I would try to do to force myself to focus during the service.  One is what Abouna has always taught us about prayer.  When you're in church, you leave all your problems and worries at the door.  It's not a time to let your mind wander and worry about what you're going to do after church, or how badly you're going to fail for procrastinating so much, or why is that person staring at me, or does this boy like me, or how could that person talk to me like that do they know who I am?  It's not even a time for personal prayer, it's a time to participate in the communal prayer of the church, with His body, and around His Body.  This method is a matter of brute force.  Every time I'd catch myself not paying attention, I'd bring my mind back to the prayer and try to really believe what we were saying.  But that did not make it any easier to enjoy the prayer or prevent my mind from inevitably wandering again.

The other rule of thumb for focusing is to pay attention to the prayer and try to actually pray it.  During the litanies, if we are praying for the sick, think of the people I know who are sick, so that that "Kyri eleison" actually means something.  Doing that also helps, but nonetheless is not a sustainable focus-enhancing method.

So, what is the divine inspiration that seized me and caught me up into the third heaven, you ask?  What is this high spiritual insight that I've received, that will make every Sunday different, rather than the same monotonous words every time?  That will make you ecstatic to get out of bed, antsy for church to start, and sobbing when it ends?

A gym analogy will help me explain.

Just like going to the gym, you can't just walk in having no idea what to do and with just the vague notion of "this is what I'm supposed to do to get fit."  You can't expect to get a good workout in by wandering around bsing on a bunch of machines until you're bored and waiting for an hour to pass by so you can tell yourself you spent an hour at the gym and deserve some chocolate cake.  When I go to the gym I know exactly what exercises I'm going to do, in exactly what order, and exactly how many reps, sets, and how much rest in between.  I am able to pace my energy and focus, giving my all in each rep yet not losing sight of what is next.  I have a solid grasp on the flow of my workout, and am fully conscious of what I should be focusing on during each exercise, knowing good form, knowing proper breathing, etc.  I also am fully aware that this is a process that will incrementally make me stronger, as long as I give it my all day in and day out.  I could be doing exactly the same chest routine for months on end, but it is always different, because I am always trying to push more weight.  The same routine is constantly changing me.

Likewise with liturgy, I realized I had no idea what I was doing or saying.  Liturgy starts, my conscious brain shuts off and goes into autopilot, I mouth the responses on cue, take communion, and leave with the realization "I know I was there, but I have no idea what happened these last four hours."  I go to church with a vague notion of why I should be doing this, with no deep connection or conviction that this is exactly the prescription that I must follow to constantly become a better person.  The prayers are said in the same order every time, but I don't really know why they are in that order or how they differ from each other in any meaningful way.  But perhaps if I had the same sort of exact knowledge of the liturgy as I do of my workouts, the same words would be new for me each time.

What I did during Nativity liturgy is try to have a proper grasp on exactly what is going on in the liturgy.  I've attended thousands of liturgies during my life, have all the words memorized, but I hardly have the order memorized, and I hardly have the purpose memorized.  Of course it is going to drag on if at any point, I have no idea exactly how much has passed and how much is left to go.  Of course focusing is going to be a laborious task, if I have no idea how to pace myself.

I've never taken a course in liturgy or even read a book about it.  But just paying attention to the progression of the liturgy and seeing it's unique component parts as unique component parts, rather than a giant combination of words that come between the beginning and the end, made the liturgy so much more enjoyable and manageable.

Several years ago Fr. Athanasius gave us an outline of the liturgy.  I think if I learn the outline and get a good grasp on its order, I won't fall victim so easily to the petty concerns that clamor for my attention.  Maybe these same words will actually start to change me.

Here is a link to the pdf of the outline:

Please comment with anything you find helps you focus!


  1. Thanks for another great post Martha! I had recently spoken to my confession father about this issue. I told him how I get bored during Liturgy and am not engaged in it due to my lack of understanding. He recommended the following books:

    How to Benefit from the Holy Liturgy by HG Bishop Matteos

    Understanding the Liturgy by Abouna Athanasius Iskander

    Springtime of the Liturgy

    1. Aww thanks Liz! Thanks for reading :-)

      Wow these are awesome! Thanks for the links! I will definitely have to check these out soon.