Orthodox America

The Bookshelf - Treatise on Prayer, by St. Symeon of Thessalonike

Fr. Alexey Young

Treatise on Prayer by St Symeon of Thessalonike; Simmons, H. L. N., translator; Hellenic College Press, 1984; 104 pps.; softcover, $7.

Seven times a day do I praise Thee because of Thy righteous judgments. (Psalm 118:164)

The old Latin axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi-"As we worship, so we believe"-applies most particularly to the Orthodox Church. The word "orthodox" comes from the Greek and means literally "right belief," but is also correctly translated as "right worship." This is more explicit in the Slav-onic, pravoslavny-literally "right-praising." In the Orthodox and patristic view, worship or prayer cannot be separated from belief; instead, they form a unique and wonderful "whole."

Sadly, it is today characteristic of the heterodox that belief and worship are indeed two different things-and non-Orthodox churches (whether Protestant or Roman Catholic) have suffered greatly from this unnatural, unchristian, and quite unscriptural impoverishment.

Unfortunately, this ancient "oneness" and "wholeness" (i.e., holiness) of belief and worship is also now being rapidly lost among even the Orthodox of North America, where so many jurisdictions (with the notable exception of the "traditional" and, usually, Old Calendar churches) use distorted and truncated versions of the divine services, and where in some cases many services are entirely omitted. Generations have already grown up without the slightest idea of the full liturgical wealth of Eastern Orthodoxy.

This is especially tragic because the Holy Fathers understood and taught that man is most truly himself when he is worshipping God. In other words, mankind can ONLY understand who he is and what he is called to when he is being liturgical.

St. Symeon of Thessalonike's work, Treatise on Prayer, is for those who wish to better understand the rich symbolism and history of the divine services according to the Byzantine or Eastern Rite.

St. Symeon (1429) was a particularly gifted Father of the Church, canonized in 1981 after centuries of quiet but intense devotion and respect on the part of the Church everywhere. This Treatise on Prayer is actually only one section-about one-fifth-of a much longer "dialogue" between an archbishop (clearly St. Symeon himself) and a cleric.

In his introduction, the translator, Dr. Harry L.N. Simmons, an Orthodox convert and graduate of the patriarchal School of Theology at Chalke, tells us that this "treatise" is of value, first, "as a contemporary and authoritative description of how the various sacramental and worship services were performed [at the time and place of this Saint]...; and [second] as a mystical/allegorical commentary on the whole range of liturgical functions and objects."

As such, this work "represents the last great systematic...exposition of liturgical matters before the final enslavement of the Byzantine East." As a young convert myself-nearly twenty-five years ago-I remember asking a priest why we chant the "Lord, have mercy" forty times during certain services. This priest did not know, but assured me that the answer was to be found somewhere in the writings of the Holy Fathers. Indeed, he was right: St. Symeon tells us, in this work, that "'Lord, have mercy' is said forty times as a sanctification of each season of our lives. Because forty days is one-tenth of the 365 days, or as some say, because the Great Fast lasts forty days" [and so] we say 'Lord, have mercy' forty times to wipe out our indescribable sins at every hour..."

This is only one of sixty-seven such questions or "problems" addressed in this valuable book. And although there are some noticeable but legitimate variations from the Byzantine to the Russian or Slavic Rite, it is doubtful that any serious and thoughtful reader will be confused.

There is nothing accidental in the divine services of the Church. And this is as it should be, since Orthodox worship is not man-made but is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Since nothing is "accidental," then everything has deep meaning and practical application. The great concern today, even for those Orthodox who follow a "fuller" and more complete observation of the divine services, is that the actual symbolic meaning of our worship can be lost if it is not purposefully explained and taught in each generation. May this little book be one of many "steps" along the path toward conscious "right-worship."