Worship Vs. Veneration

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Back when I was on Facebook, I recall a discussion with some Protestant friends about veneration of saints. I protested that worship is for God alone – yes, even for Catholics and Orthodox. But they felt, as most Protestants do, that one risks accidentally offering worship to a creature when one venerates him, her, or it. They illustrated the point by asking me to define the difference between worship and veneration. My answer was rambling and never really got to the point. I really couldn’t answer it. That ended the conversation.

I felt that I knew the difference but couldn’t explain it. I still feel that, but I can maybe come a little closer to explaining it now.

For one thing, I think confession comes into it. Confessing to the object of one’s devotion what he or she is, what he or she has done – that is part of the devotion. It involves an act of the spirit that is at once generous, proper, and warming to the heart. It educates us even as we do it. It directs the streams of our being toward that holy person or thing.

And here’s the thing. What we confess about God, as traditional Christians, is so different to what we confess about saints. I think this is really the hidden weakness of Protestant thinking about God in this area. Their God is not really different enough from our saints.

For us, negative theology has proved so fruitful in distinguishing the Uncreated from the Created that there is always that which may be confessed about God, but no one else. So there’s that. The Biblicist says “God is Love,” and with good reason. But the Orthodox Christian has no problem going beyond the words of scripture and confessing:

Ah, Lord God! You are that which I cannot mean even when I say ‘Love’; you are that from which Love flows and to which Love returns; you are that which Love strives again to be at its holiest and best, but never approaches. Unlove is anathema to you; Love is what you have given us to be like you and think of you; Love is the closest thing I can say to what you are. Still, you are not Love. You are that you are, for which no Name is enough.

Silence follows, and that silence, too, is worship. Other silences may accompany devotions to saints, but they contain an element of companionship which is impossible before God.

And, too, they lack an element of intimacy which is only possible with God.

Yes, I think privacy and integrity and reserve is something that is appropriate even with saints. We never open our whole selves to them, never give them ourselves entirely, never surrender ourselves to them utterly.

And that, I think, is the essence of the thing that worship really is: the pouring out of oneself without reserve, without fear, without hesitation. When giving oneself has no proper reserve, that is the giving that is for God alone.

That outpouring is more than devotion; it is the impatient, reckless, headlong reciprocation of everything one is, to the Source of everything one is; the requital of all gifts; the return of the homesick pioneer from the frontiers of being, Home. For the heart, there is only one Home.

Frankly, it is quite true that the devotion traditional Christians offer to saints, especially to the Mother of God, is so much more than anything I at least offered to God as a Protestant. That is sad, and at the same time, no reason at all not to give all one can properly give to the holy ones and their relics and even to the artifacts of our religion. They simply don’t compete with God in the slightest.

To be perfectly honest, I think at this point in Christian history, many traditional Christians could probably even pay their respects to many of the gods of old without any temptation to idolatry whatsoever.

13 Comments »

  1. How disappointing, that they shunned your family. Your thoughts about worship and adoration are very helpful. It seems to me also that the “worship” of many Protestants — and Catholics for that matter — is such a weak thing. And those who want to be more enthusiastic tend to follow the tangent of emotionalism that only takes them further from real adoration.

    Your post encourages me to more veneration and especially more worship, “the pouring out of oneself without reserve, without fear, without hesitation.” Glory to God, that He accepts our worship. Glory to God!

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  2. Amen, thank you. Good points, GretchenJoanna. I agree that emotionalism takes people further away. I’m sure it feeds some real need… just not that “one thing needful” to the spirit, the deepest heart.

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  3. The first part, your explanation of the two types of confession (I do like the way you use this word), really helped me, who grew up Roman but couldn’t get the statue rituals, especially related to Mary. After long absence from any church building, and now at peace during vespers and liturgies at little St Basil the Great, I still can’t bring myself to walk around church bowing and kissing icons, but I respect those for whom it seems quite natural and understand better, thanks in part to your reflection, what it means.

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    • This anecdote comes at fourth or fifth hand: when we were first chatecumens, the priest involved told us a story about two priests or bishops someone had seen worshipping side by side during a liturgy. One had incessantly bowed, crossed himself, prayed aloud and generally involved himself in the liturgy with an intense extroverted-style focus. The other stood rock still and silent, only crossing himself once at the beginning and one at the end. Both were praying intensely, neither observed the other, and both, the priest informed us, were equally Orthodox. (He grew up Roman, too.)

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      • Alana, some folks, I think, need more of the constant physical involvement to maintain themselves where they are. Others do not. The key I think is to not allow the acts of others to distract oneself.

        Veneration, it seems to me, is the recognition that grace is everywhere present and fills all things and to be thankful for it no matter where we find it and to appreciate those who manifest that grace in abundance. All real communication comes through that grace especially with what we normally consider the “unseen” world that departed saints, angels and others inhabit.

        Worship is to realize from whom the grace comes, especially to forgive my own sins and to bow down before the source of all life and mercy knowing how unworthy I am

        Many years ago during the silent entrance in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts as the priest was translating the presanctified body and blood from the altar of preparation up into the main altar, I was kneeling down in prayer when all of a sudden, I felt something like a hand pressed on the back of my bowed head. I literally could not lift my head again until the priest passed by. It was a fearful thing to be so utterly helpless and yet awe inspiring too. I know to whom the hand belonged without doubt. I also learned a bit of the difference between veneration and worship.

        Most of the time I fear I do not enter very fully into worship but remain safe in the realm of veneration. Perhaps that is why it is difficult to separate the two?

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        • Your first paragraph puts it beautifully. I wish I could just delete my comments and leave that one in their place.

          Thank you for sharing your experience during the Liturgy. I have been thinking about this, and I realize that your account contains something I left out of my essay. That singular awe and dread, the instinctive response of creature to Creator, belongs to worship rather than to veneration; although veneration may contain a lot of wonder and certainly an instinct to be quiet, still, and self-negating in the presence of one much greater than oneself.

          I am circling back around to this now. So much of Orthodox practice for me has been a needed discovery of the gentle, golden, and glad qualities of the sacred community, lit from above and all around. But I do recall now that a primary impetus for going forth from modern evangelicalism was the tepid emotionalism of the liturgy, and the desire to grasp a more transcendent and awe-inspiring vision of God. That’s why we tried Calvinism first, I guess.

          You suggest that a limited entry into true adoration may account for ongoing difficulty in distinguishing between it and veneration. That may be true. It is notable that God does not force his presence on our awareness very much. We can make greater efforts to be ready for such moments. Yet, attempts to run too soon result in stumbling; and in spiritual practice, force and self-will are more dangerous than diffidence. As always, our own growth is a mystery and surprises must be expected. I still have very little to recommend aside from regular feedings and not trying too hard.

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          • Alana, many religious practices since roughly the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 have strayed further and further from entering into worship and more and more designed to protect us from worship IMAO. Hard to prove but that is my take after studying the history of the Church since I first became interested in the Orthodox Church around AD 1979. Monasticism has kept the experience of worship alive I think but it is easy to believe that non-monastics are not really supposed to worship, venerate at best. Anything beyond that is too difficult, requires too much (you name it).

            Perhaps it is the Protestant rejection (for the most part) of monasticism and sacrament that led to the drastic retreat from worship as well as the manner in which the RCC tended to sentimentalize and romanticize the sacrament of the Eucharist while at the same time making it more difficult to actually participate in? I do not know, but that is at least possible. The personalization of religion also plays a part I think. It is almost impossible to worship outside of a worshiping community. That is why we Orthodox say that no one is saved alone (it is not just me and Jesus). After all the act of offering sacrifice has always been a communal event, never just personal. Real worship is always sacrificial in nature. For Christians that means really entering into the rational and bloodless sacrifice of communion. In the Orthodox Church a priest cannot celebrate the Eucharist just by himself. We can and do prayer in our closets that can include veneration of icons, but sacrament–worship is always done together. A common union. It is NOT, the kind of fairy tale romance popularized by the play The Fantasticks in the 60’s. There one character proclaimed, “Ill marry, when I marry, In my own particular way; And my bride shall dress in sunlight with rain for her wedding veil.” I loved that play as I was growing up any yet now, I find it difficult to not see this particular sentiment as approaching a kind of apostasy and anti-worship.

            The communal aspect of worship deserves more inspection and perhaps there is someone who has done so. I am sure that there is poetry of which I am woefully unaware that expresses such understanding.

            One part of the Orthodox Mystery of Marriage makes that quite clear, at least in the practice of it. I will never forget attending the marriage of my youngest niece many years ago. It was hard for me because it had not been long since my late wife had reposed. Nevertheless, during the sacramental celebration there was a time when I actually saw her grow from a young girl to a woman with a drastically different place in the community and the acceptance of that by the women in the community. I also saw a change in her husband–a new strength and place in the community he did not have before. I wish I could articulate it better. All I can say is that marriage in a worshipping community is never just a personal decision or act. It cannot be. Such understanding can still be seen in a traditional Jewish wedding too. Part of worship is the conscious recognition that God is with us, right now! The response is awe, prostration and repentance or joy and celebration of something new being created. There is nothing in between I don’t think.

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    • That said, intensity seems to pervade these kinds of anecdotes, but was not the point here, I think. I find the attempt, the effort, to focus intensely causes the iron to enter the soul. Your “at peace” in the liturgy is more where I’m at, too. I imagine at some point… who knows, but maybe growth brings the power to focus without self-forcing. Or maybe I’m just too ADHD. 🙂

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  4. Alana, it’s been a long time since I’ve stopped at this outpost of Christianity. I grew up Baptist, and am still Baptist, but of the weird sort that worship in Granite Falls. At any rate, though I don’t consider myself one who practices veneration, I appreciate the distinction you make of God being the only one we totally give ourselves to without reserve. On the other hand, I do think I give much higher honor to Mary than in my youth. Thank you for an inside perspective, so to speak.

    Re: the family you met, that’s disappointing. Long traditions, and those who practice them, ought not to be flung aside.

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    • Thank you for these kind words. It’s been a while since your noble and considered sentiments first consoled me, and I’m finally responding to them. I am happier than not, when I find that my difficulties with Baptists are not universal. My stepmother is another Baptist whose sincere love and faith edifies me.

      I saw your pastor’s writing somewhere recently… can’t recall where, but I appreciated it. Good stuff.

      I’m always happy to see you around.

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  5. I like that I get notices when persons add a comment. I go back and reread the original post. Each time I see it better, and hear voices—yours of course, Alana, but the others’ too.

    I mean (nowhere near like the hand on M.B.’s neck (but still), I do sense presences, individuals speaking simply and honestly

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    • . . . and I am reminded that although the saints don’t talk to me, nor do I actually hear God’s voice while hearing his words and sometimes, I think, his whispers– the voices coming through here are so much clearer than when I try to read “spiritual books.” So again, I am grateful that you keep this blog going.

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      • Thank you, Albert, for that encouragement. I move in a cyclical motion between all my projects, drive from within by what bubbles up. I am also grateful that I have a few faithful readers who interact with me when I need to meditate on something with others.

        I also know what you mean about sensing presences and hearing voices. I feel that I have a sense of the flavor of my the character of my internet friends. I am sure that spiritual communion is possible through such distant communication.

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