Worship in Spirit and Truth

Hymn to the Theotokos

How shall we not marvel at thy Divine-human Offspring, O most pure One?  For not having received the experience of man, without a Father O immaculate One, thou didst give birth in the flesh to a Son Who before all ages was begotten of the Father without a Mother.  He, in no way, underwent change, intermingling or division; rather He fully preserved the properties of each substance.  Therefore O Mistress, Mother and Virgin, pray to Him to save the souls of those, who, in an Orthodox manner, confess thee to be the Theotokos .  (The Dogmatic in Tone 3 of Saturday Great Vespers)  

Worship in Spirit and Truth 

In its outset, this article shall take excerpts from St. John Chrysostom’s homily on the meeting of our Lord with the Samaritan woman and then continue to develop the idea of worshipping in spirit.  So then, as we read in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of St. John our Lord travels through Samaria and stops at Jacob’s well.  There He asks a woman of Samaria for a drink and then speaks of “living water” which He has to offer.  Then, as making an inquiry, the Samaritan woman comments: “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship”. (Jonh 4:20)

And then our Lord replies: “Woman, believe Me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.  Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.  But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him.  God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth”. (John 4:21-4)

St. John comments:

So our Lord takes away from both Jerusalem and the mountain in Samaria priority in dignity.  He rouses her soul by showing that neither Jews nor Samaritans possessed anything great in comparison with that which was to be given; and then He introduces the difference.  Yet He still declared that the Jews were more honorable, not preferring one place to another, but giving them the precedence because of their intention. As though He had said, “About the place of worship ye have no need henceforth to dispute, but in the manner the Jews have an advantage over you Samaritans”, for “ye” He said, “worship ye know not what; we know what we worship.'”

How then did the Samaritans “know not” what they worshiped?  Because they thought that God was local and partial; thus, at least they served Him, and therefore they sent to the Persians, and reported that “the God of this place is wroth with us” (2 Kings 26), in this respect forming no higher opinion of Him than of their idols.  Therefore, they continued to serve both Him and devils, joining things which ought not to be joined.  The Jews, on the contrary, were free from this supposition, at least the greater part of them, and knew that He was God of the world.  Therefore He said, “Ye worship ye know not what; we know what we worship.”

Then our Lord continues: “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.  Since what the Prophets said they said long before the event, to show that here it is not so, He says, “And now is.”  Thus indicating that this is not a prophecy of such a kind as shall be accomplished after a long time, the fulfillment is already at hand and at your very doors, “when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”  In saying true,” He excludes Jews as well as Samaritans; for although the Jews were better off than the Samaritans, yet they are far inferior to those who shall come, as inferior as the type is to the reality.  But He speaks of the Church, that she has the “true” worship, and such as is proper to God.

“For the Father seeketh such to worship Him.”  If then He in times past sought such as these, He allowed those others their way of worship, not willingly, but from condescension, and for this reason, so that little-by-little He might bring them in also. Who then are “the true worshipers”?  Those who do not confine their service by place,  and who serve God in spirit; as Paul says, “Whom I serve in my spirit in the Gospel of His Son”.  But when our Lord says, “God is a Spirit” our Lord declares His incorporeal Nature. Now the service of that which is incorporeal must necessarily be of the same character, and must be offered by that in us which is incorporeal, that is, the soul, and purity of mind. Therefore He says, “they that worship Him, must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” For both Samaritans and Jews were careless about the soul, but made great efforts in reference to the body, cleansing it in diverse ways.  It is not by the external purity of body, but by that which is incorporeal in us, namely the mind, that the incorporeal One is served. It is as though the Lord now tells us, ‘Sacrifice not sheep and calves, but dedicate yourself to the Lord; make thyself a holocaust, this is to offer a living sacrifice”. You must worship “in truth”; as former things were types, such as circumcision, and whole burnt offerings, and victims, they now no longer exist, but all is “truth.” For a man must now circumcise not his flesh, but his evil thoughts, and crucify himself, and remove and slay his unreasonable desires.

Thus did St. John Chrysostom speak in his day emphasizing that true worship is to be found in the Church being the fulfillment of the worship of the Law. But we have other challenges to face in our day so let us further comment on what is meant by “worshipping in spirit”. There is a need to offer additional clarification of this because, in the West, the majority of those who call themselves Christians are outside of the Church. They do not necessarily have any ascetic tradition and therefore lack knowledge of the action of the grace of the Holy Spirit and the action of the opposing spirits. Although many such people on coming into the Church change some of their external beliefs to be compatible with Orthodoxy, they remain ignorant of our rich ascetic tradition. They carry the baggage of their former concepts of spiritual life into the Church, and so they remain in their former delusion.  This becomes a stumbling block to them for an ascent in the likeness of God which is the aim of our ascetic practices.  Many such people come into the Church with the idea that they are already spiritual, and believe that experiences of the grace of the Holy Spirit are a normal part of their life. But is it possible that their so-called spiritual experiences are human enthusiasm, human feelings or even the result of the passions?  So then, as has already been stated, there is a need to offer additional clarification on the idea of worship in spirit.

When our Lord says, “the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit” what does He signify?  Does He mean all those who believe in Christ automatically have experiences of the Holy Spirit?  Well, spirit in this text does not mean the Holy Spirit but in a spiritual way, according to the natural human spirit.  This is what is specifically indicated in the translation into Church Slavonic.  When the word “spirit” appears in Slavonic a special abbreviation is used if the Spirit of God is indicated.  On the other hand if it is the human spirit the word is spelled out without any abbreviation, and it is in this latter way that “spirit” is written in the text in question.  St. John Chrysostom also alludes to this in his aforementioned homily when he quotes the Apostle Paul who says concerning our Lord: “Whom I serve in my spirit”.  Elsewhere, Saint John Chrysostom notes that the Jews were more concerned with worshiping with their bodies than with their spirits. Again I emphasize his words “in my spirit”. Saint Cyril of Alexandria also refers to worshipping in spirit meaning to worship as the angelic spirits do.

So what is it to worship “in spirit”? We must first define the human spirit. According to the Holy Fathers of our Church man is two-part consisting of body and soul. The soul has three powers; they are the powers of reason, desire, and incense or zeal. The spirit is the highest function of the reasoning power of the soul. The soul functions mentally in two ways: one is a natural reasoning according to the needs of this life and the other is a natural contemplation when the mind stands before God in the heart. This latter is to pray with the mind in the heart, this is to worship “in spirit”. Yet this is still man’s turning towards God and not a direct action of the Holy Spirit. I specifically said, “not a direct action” because help from God is still necessary to pray as just mentioned. Without God’s help in praying we would be totally overrun by our invisible enemies, dispersed and scattered; but such help from God is still external and, as was stated, “not a direct action of the Holy Spirit.

But what then is a genuine experience of the Holy Spirit? I think this can be illustrated by saying something about the function of the mind. We must remember that the mind is not the brain and the proper place of the mind is in the heart. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov specifically tells us that this place is the upper left part of the heart. I once expressed the following to Elder Ephraim of St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona:

The mind, or nous, is the inner essence of the reasoning (logikon) power of the soul. The energies, or actions which proceed forth from the mind, are of two kinds. One is an action of reasoning (dianoia) the other a function of contemplation (theoria). The first (dianoia) is on a natural level where the mind functions as human reasoning. The other (theoria) is on a level above the natural reasoning in which the mind apprehends spiritual knowledge. In this, the movement of the mind can unite with the movement of the Uncreated Divine Energy; the mind is not merely functioning or acting of itself but enters into an experience of Divine Grace.

He answered: “This is in agreement with what the Holy Fathers say in the Philokalia, but to unite with the Uncreated Divine Energy is very rare. St. Isaac of Syria says that there are few in every generation that experience this”.

In conclusion, what can we say?  Let us offer to God what we can on our part in our human capacity.  We need to be humble-minded and acknowledge our spiritual poverty. We need to realize that a direct experience of the grace of the Holy Spirit is rare and something so far beyond our experiences on the natural human level that the Apostle Paul said, “Whether in the body or out of the body I cannot tell God knoweth” (IICor. 12:3). But what can we hope for? We can set our hope in the blessing that our Lord Jesus Christ pointed out to the doubting Apostle Thomas. When our Lord appeared to the twelve apostles eight days after His resurrection He said to Thomas: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”. (John 20:29)