Elder Aimilianos, the recently reposed (†2019) abbot and Elder of Simonos-Petras monastery on Mount Athos, would often remind his monks that the grace they receive in the Eucharist is proportionate to the preparation they undertake beforehand. Of course, he knew that Christ is always fully and completely present in the Liturgy, and that this grace that is available to those present is never diminished. But that does not always mean that those who participate in the Liturgy have the capacity to receive everything that is offered. That is why the labor of preparation is so crucial, Elder Aimilianos taught.
He taught his monks that how they chose to think, and live, and pray between the Liturgies (and all the services) critically determined how deeply they would be able to take in the Mystery of Christ present in the Eucharist. It was how they treated their brothers, how they guarded their hearts and thoughts, how they attended to prayer in their cells, how they studied and read, that would open their hearts and minds, slowly purifying them and preparing them to receive and keep ever more of the full table of mercy and grace set by the Lord in the Liturgy. In other words, he wanted them to understand that the time spent outside of church is as critical as the time spent in church. He taught the monks to see their lives outside of church not as something separate, but as an integral part of their participation in the Liturgy.
For those of us who are experiencing an involuntary time out of church, it is perhaps helpful to be reminded of the Elder’s word. The time we cannot come to church is not for us somehow “lost time”—or it is only so if we make it so. Rather, it is always the beginning of Liturgy. However many days stand between today and our next service at church can become for us a time of preparation and anticipation. But it is a time that has to be consciously and actively connected to the Liturgy.
We must connect our lives to the Liturgy consciously because our lives cannot be divided up into different categories and boxes that have no relation to each other. We are whole people whose minds and hearts and souls do not naturally function divided up into little compartments. There is not a “church part” of us and a “work part” of us and a “family part” of us. There is only “us.” We are not waiting for another part of us to become active, and if we are to manage to bring ourselves to the Liturgy we cannot do it in parts or half-measures.
And this is why we must connect our lives to the Liturgy actively. We must take action to set aside the things that deafen the ears of our hearts and dull the senses of our souls so that when we return to church we can hear and understand with our souls. We are in need of being careful with our attitudes and where our attention is directed, with how we speak to (and of) others and the disposition with which we do so. We are in need of the words of the Scriptures to purify our ears and the lives of the saints to cleanse our eyes. We are in need of stillness in prayer to calm our hearts and wash away our agitation.
It is always the case that there is an interval between Liturgies. Sometimes it is short, sometimes it is longer. Sometimes we don’t even know for how long it will be. But the character of that interval, long or short, is always the same—for us it is always the beginning of Liturgy.