How do we cultivate a sensitivity to the spiritual reality that pervades everything? Mother Victoria, the Abbess of St. Barbara Monastery, said once that it is important to remain in the Church after the Divine Liturgy paying attention to the Angels' presence--I think she actually said, "listening to the Angels' wings," but I can't remember the exact phrase. This is important, she said, because in learning to pay attention to the present spiritual reality in the Divine Liturgy, we learn how to notice and attend to the divine presence in the rest of our lives.
Another important way to develop spiritual sensitivity is to cultivate reverence. To be reverent is to respond to holy things as if they really are holy. I often don't do this. I often, for example, come into church in a hurry. I often walk into a room with an icon and do not even in the slightest way reverence the icon. Sometimes I am quite irreverent in the presence of things that have been liturgically set apart as holy. If I can be irreverent even before what is obviously holy, how do I expect ever to become sensitive enough to reverence God's holy presence in my brother and sister and even yet in all creation?
Elder Paisios said that "reverence is the greatest virtue because it attracts the Grace of God." Reverence is piety from the heart. It involves both an inner attention to what is venerable and appropriate outward actions (piety). Obviously, outward actions completely void of any inner attention--or the desire for inner attention--are empty, although not necessary completely meaningless. This is true because even the empty, almost robotic performance of a pious actions still contains the seeds, or preserves the form into which life and attention can be poured. Nevertheless, empty piety is not good for our souls. Reverence, however, piety from the heart, is very good for our souls--"it attracts the Grace of God."
It is not difficult to cultivate reverence, just as it is not difficult to cultivate a garden. If you try to cultivate the whole garden at once, you will wear yourself out and perhaps give up all together, discouraged by the enormity of the task. However, if you cultivate a small corner of the garden, then slowly, slowly, your garden will come alive. This is the way it is with the cultivation of virtue generally, and especially with the cultivation of reverence. Begin small. Begin by paying attention to the obvious. Come into the Church slowly, prayerfully, making the sign of the cross properly. Notice the icons that are in a room. Greet them if you can; or if that is not practical, at least acknowledge their presence in your heart.
And perhaps most importantly, when you are preparing to receive the Divine Mysteries, cultivate faith and longing. And if your faith is weak and your heart scattered, then sincerely want to cultivate faith and longing. Especially parents of young children find their attention almost completely consumed by their children when they are in Church. This is their prayer, their offering; and this too draws the Grace of the Holy Spirit--not only to them, but more importantly to their children. As their children grow, the parents teaching them piety by their example, that piety grows into reverence as the children see and sense in their hearts their parents' true reverence.
But again, it starts with the small things: reverently respecting the icons in your house, attending Church with a sense of awe, with a sense that you are coming near to something holy. When we cultivate even in little ways a reverent attitude to what is holy, we slowly come to know and experience the holiness of other places, people and objects.
Thank you for this reflection, Fr. Michael.
I read Elder Paisios's thoughts on reverence this morning as well and have been thinking all day about my lack of reverence even though I recognize its importance. I love that he saw reverence as a primary virtue (along with humility). They really can't be separated. I was also thinking about small steps I could take, so I appreciate your thoughts on cultivating a small part of the garden.
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