Idlers at Liturgy

It is easy enough to find historical examples of chaotic liturgies, but that is not my main point here.

I’ve been reading the recent publication of the homilies of St Gregory Palamas, and in homily 51 he makes  these comments (emphasis added):

I observe that the church has a full congregation now, and I am filled with joy, but I recall the last few weeks. It was the season of the grape harvest, and the Church of God suffered a serious lack of worshippers and people to offer hymns and earnest entreaties to God. … When the season for enjoying and gathering the fruit comes round, we ought to glorify God even more. We, however, acting wrongly and unjustly, cut down on His praises and neglect them at that time. But why mention this now? There are many who, both before and after the harvest, do not even wake up for the Sunday morning services of praise. Yet it is also the case that some among those gathered here pay more heed to their conversations between themselves than to the prayers and doxologies. The majority are more interested in the goods on sale than in the readings, and in buying and selling than in the teaching of the divinely inspired Scripture. The noble building thus becomes a shop … People buzz around us, as you see, like drones, not listening themselves, and preventing those who want to listen from doing so.

What makes them like this? The fact that they consider they have nothing to gain from entreaties and praises to God, or from listening to the divine Scriptures and their counsel. Some feel that they are doing nothing – though it would not be fair to level this accusation at them all. Certain of them are of the opinion that they are standing idle and consider that any time spent persevering in glorifying God and making supplications is wasted. Proof that they think they are unoccupied at that time is the fact that they excuse themselves when any seemingly urgent work comes along: harvesting, perhaps, picking grapes, or anything else which appears to be necessary.

I cannot begin to say how much this attitude damages our faith, our Christian conduct, and also the material aspect of our lives. Anyone who thinks that the time set aside for prayer to God is unproductive, despises it and devotes himself entirely to the physical activities, does not believe the one who says, ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5); nor does he realize that the Lord has power over life and death, health and sickness, and that it was He who made us, so our being alive, our ability to act and our entire existence depend on Him. How can anyone who does not believe in the realities of the present believe in the things to come?  … Do you see that it is impossible to have sure faith and genuine virtue without persisting wholeheartedly in hymns and supplications?

First, I’m glad that whisperers during homilies these days keep their voices lower than they did in Gregory’s day.

Second, I’m grateful that the grape harvest no longer keeps suburbanites from morning mass.

Third, what struck me as extraordinarily modern was Gregory’s observation that “some feel that they are doing nothing.” That line seemed to pitch the question of full, active and conscious participation in a different key. When that phrase is used, we are often already focused on ritual activity; but Gregory shifts the focus to the value of liturgical activity. He seems to be asking, “Even if you were the busiest person in the room, do you feel that you are doing something of consequence?” And the answer he worried about receiving was, “No, I feel like any time spent persevering in glorifying God and making supplication is wasted.” Where does such an idea come from? “The fact that they consider they have nothing to gain from entreaties, praise, and Scripture, i.e. from doing the liturgy.”

Fourth, I was struck by Gregory’s response. How can we believe in the things to come if we don’t believe in the Lord’s power in our life today, and establishing confidence in the Lord’s power in our life today requires that we perform hymns and supplications as if they counted, as if the work I did at liturgy was important.


  1. I watched only a portion of the consecration of the FSSP seminary chapel in Nebraska last week. I believe it started at 11:00 AM and concluded around 3:00 to 4:00 PM. The ritual and music were splendid as was the participation. But who in their right mind wants to spend that kind of time wasted on worship and ritual? The secular mind can’t grasp it. The FSSP experience was a taste of eternity, which the Divine liturgy is suppose to be in all its magnificent forms. When my previous parish was consecrated in 1863 in Augusta, GA in the middle of the Civil War (aka, War of Northern Aggression 🙂 ) the bishop who consecrated it gave a two hour sermon! No one complained for no one had anything better to do. Could you imagine that type of pious sentiment today?

    1. Well, speechifying was the MTV of the mid-19th century Western world. Also, I have a feeling that in the summer of the 1863, the Catholics of Augusta had other concerns to complain about first…mercifully for them, General Sherman bypassed the city in late 1864 in the War of Liberation of the Slaves.

      1. This is off topic, but the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta was built by slave labor, many of whom converted to the Catholic faith and belonged to the parish–many baptismal records of such. There were many freemen in Augusta also at that time. The War between the states fractured many Protestant Churches into south and north divisions, but not so with the Catholic Church. By the 1900’s a new Church with a school was built for the growing black population. It was later merged back into Most Holy Trinity in 1970 and in 2009 the school was moved to Most Holy Trinity from its original location of 1900. The parish since 1970 has been integrated with a still very strong and active African American contingency. And yes we are grateful that Sherman burnt Atlanta and not Augusta where the powder-works and ammunition facilities were. Today the region has a run down plutonium plant for nuclear war heads! Tradition! And the first planned nuclear power plant addition which President Obama announced a couple of weeks ago. Go figure! But they’re grateful for jobs.

  2. Today the grape harvest has been replaced by soccer practice, basketball practice, scout meetings, dance lessons, running errands, etc. Among my friends and family members, when they get busy Church is usually the first “activity” to cut. If they miss practice their kid is cut from the team and they lose their registration fee-can’t have that. But if you miss Mass, no one will notice and you can always come back later when you have the time. Religion has become a hobby that people pursue in their spare time, if they have any. It makes good sense that this phenomenon is rooted in people’s ignorance of the congregation’s vital role in liturgy. When I speak to a group and press the point that the congregation is there to DO something and not just WATCH something, I get blank stares.

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