Without any doubt, the most exalted and precious of all earthly buildings is the Church, the house of God. Though God is present everywhere in the church, His presence manifests itself in a special way, in a most palpable and beneficial for man. … Let us now speak about the physical church of God, created by the hands of man and the services that are sung within it, as well as the responsibilities for every Christian to diligently visit this temple of God, and the benefit he receives from attending church services.
The church of God is an earthly heaven. “Standing in the temple of Thy glory, we seem to stand in heaven.” declares the holy Church in its hymnography. The church is the place of God’s communion with man. In it are performed all the sacraments of the Christian Church. The Divine Liturgy and ordinations can only be performed in the church. The other sacraments should also be done only in the church, but in extreme cases some may be performed at home, especially the sacraments of Confession and Unction. Day and night the church of God rings with the doxology of God. The church has no place for the words of this world. Everything is holy in the church of God. Even the very walls, the platforms, the air. An angel of God constantly presides over each church; the angels of God and the saints of the Church Triumphant descend into it. One’s presence in such a holy place comprises the greatest joy for an earthly wanderer. The holy prophet David, though a king with large and majestic palaces and all possible means for earthly pleasure and enjoyment examined all and counted its worth in the proper way, saying, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, which I will require; even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to visit His holy temple.” (Ps. 26:4) The Holy Spirit said this, uttered through the lips of David. Whoever will attend the services in the church of God as often as possible during this earthly life will easily pass into the eternal feast after his soul leaves his body to enter the heavenly, uncreated temple, whose founder is God Himself. In the church, we pray, and we are instructed, and we are purified of our sins, and we communicate with God.
An example of frequent attendance of the Temple of God was provided by the Lord Himself (Jn. 7:14)) and the holy apostles (Acts 3:1). Christians of all epochs have admitted that frequent attendance at the church of God to be an imperative duty. St. Dimitri of Rostov compared church attendance, in all of its many services and rites, to a tax paid to a king that a dutiful subject must pay daily. … Only the poor receive waivers due to their poverty, and only the sick who cannot leave their homes are allowed to miss the services. … All soldiers and civil servants are exempt from taxation, and in the same way, those Christians who are busy with obediences (and occupations) during services are also freed from attendance at all services. However, you must pay attention that your obedience or your work (or even your invented sicknesses) do not become a secret justification to avoid prayer. That is a snare of the devil who hates prayer as the mother of all virtues, as the sword that destroys all evil spirits. For the devil uses all possible exertion and means, giving these means all possible good appearance, to distract man from prayer, to disarm him, and then to defeat him or wound him.
There are seven prayer services in a given day (1) Vespers, (2) Compline, (3) Midnight office, (4) Matins with 1st hour, (5) 3rd hour, (6) 6th hour, and (7) 9th hour. ... When matins is combined with vespers or great compline, then the service is called an “all-night vigil”. It is served on the eve of great feasts, in honor of the feast. The effect of the all-night vigil on the ascetic is the following: the one who spends the greater part of the night in prayer, with the necessary reverence and attention, feels on the next day a special lightness, freshness, purity of mind and a capacity for contemplation of God. Therefore, St. Isaac the Syrian said, “The sweetness given to ascetics during the day comes from the light of their nightly prayers shining forth on their pure minds.” The Divine Liturgy is not included in this daily cycle of service, since it is a special, holy service that celebrates the bloodless divine Sacrifice.
We see a salvific image of proper church attendance in the praer of the publican (Lk 18:9-14). The publican stood in the back of the church, considering himself unworthy even of raising his eyes to heaven, but beat his chest saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The publican left the church having attracted to himself the grace of God. And you also, when you come to church, if you have not specific obedience in the church proper, stand in the back in a humble corner and behind a column so that you cannot be distracted and so that your reverence will not be exposed to the ridicule of others. Direct the eyes of your mind to the heart, and your physical eyes to the ground, and pray to God in compunction of heart, not seeing any worthiness in yourself, no virtue, instead admitting yourself to be guilty of a countless multitude of sins, known to you and unknown. We sin a great deal in ignorance because of our limitation and because of the perversion of our nature by sin. The divine Scriptures say that “a contrite and humble heart God shall not despise” (Ps 50:19). You also, if you pray with a sense of your own sinfulness and poverty you will hear He will pour out upon you His abundant mercy. You have some kind of responsibility in the church; then perform it with the greatest reverence and carefulness, as a person who serves God, not man.
Together with the already-mentioned publican, the Gospel tells us that a Pharisee also entered the Temple to pray. As a person with distinction, the Pharisee stood in a prominent place. It is likely that he had a thought – typical to all Pharisees – to instruct the people by his example of pious standing and prayer. He considered vanity to be no danger to him, since he was so advanced in virtues, while a certain amount of hypocrisy was excusable, in the view of the benefit to all. What was the prayer of the Pharisee? First of all, he praised God. A good beginning. However, he followed not by listing the blessings of God, but his own merits and glories, so that his beginning should properly have been entirely different. It would have been more correct for the Pharisee to begin by praising himself, not God.
His praise of God was only pro forma, as a half-hearted attempt to cover his own pride. This pride however, manifests itself in the condemnation and debasement of his fellow man, whose conscience was unknown to the Pharisee. The Pharisee failed to guess that the publican’s repentant admission of his own sinfulness attracted the mercy of God. The Pharisee, having hypocritically glorified God, said, “I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I possess” (Lk 18:11-12). The following is apparent: an ignorance of his own sinfulness, a sense of his own greatness, the subsequent pride that reveals itself through condemnation and humiliation of his fellow man. The prayer of the Pharisee was not accepted by the Lord, Who in conclusion of the parable said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14). From this we see that every person who desires God to accept his prayer must bring it with a sense of his own sinfulness and his extreme inadequacies of virtue. He must bring his prayer after first rejecting any knowledge of his own worthiness, being totally worthless before the boundless dignity of God. He must bring it from a heart that has humbled itself before all others, from a heart that has come to love all others, from a heart that has forgiven all others their insults and offenses. “As for me,” says the prophet to the Lord in prayer, “by the multitude of Thy mercy will I come into Thine house; in Thy fear will I worship toward Thy holy temple.” (Ps 5:8)
Great is the mercy of God to man – the establishment of the cycle of services in God’s holy temples. These services were established by the apostles, their holy disciples, and the Holy Fathers of the first centuries of Christianity by inspiration from Heaven. Every Christian can take part in these services and even the illiterate man can absorb the knowledge, erudition, and spiritual poetry of the orators and scribes of Christianity. Through these services, the one who desires can be well trained in the practice of the prayer of the heart for quantity of prayers lead to quality, as the Fathers said, and so the prolonged monastic services are very capable of helping the ascetic ascend from prayer of the mouth to prayer of the mind and heart. The serves of the church contain within themselves the breadth of Christian dogmatic and moral theology. Whoever constantly attends the services and pays attention to the readings and hymnography can instruct himself exactly in all that is necessary for the Orthodox Christian in the field of faith.
Blessed is the Christian who always lives near the temple of God! He lives near heaven, near Paradise, near salvation. Let us not reject the salvation that the merciful God gave to us, so to speak, into our very hands. Especially a beginner monk must attend church without fail. In his mature years of exhaustion, when both his years and his sicknesses will confine a monk to his cell he will then be nourished with that spiritual reserve that he gathered during his years of youth and strength, when he cleaved to the house of God. This spiritual reserve is the prayer of the mind and the heart. May the merciful Lord find us worthy of taking advantage of our monasticism, and before our departure from this earthly life, of already passing to the heavenly realm in our mind and our heart. Only prayer can raise us up to those heights, prayer that is illumined by divine grace. Then, prayer in man becomes already not the prayer of man, but the prayer of the Holy Spirit, who intercedes for the sake of man with “groaning which cannot be uttered” (Rom 8:26).