The Practice of Preparation for Communion in Russian Orthodox Christianity

"Like the seven days of creation, the week of our lives should focus on this preparation [for Communion]. . ."

Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Jan. 10, 7530 (civil calendar Jan. 23, 2022).

The Gospel readings today are exemplified or typed by the life and work of St. Theophan the Recluse, the great 19th-century Russian monastic elder and writer whom we commemorate today, in this After-feast of Theophany. Appropriate to that feast, a major message of St. Theophan in his writings is repentance and preparation.  This is evident in his work in translating and compiling the Russian Philokalia, focused on the prayer of the heart, and also in translating and editing the book Unseen Warfare, about spiritual battle that extends from the heart to the body and mind. In his book-length commentary on Psalm 118 he reflects on that primer of the law of God, and the equation of God’s law with both contemplation and testimony, in the sense that God’s law as principle is logos, a synonym for principle or law that is also translatable as harmony, and of course is a Greek term also used for the word of God and for the Word Who is God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Law in St. Theophan’s commentary becomes identified with grace, and he presents in effect the law of salvation as grace. That is the love of the good shepherd Who is Christ.

In particular, St. Theophan writes about govenie [говение], the practice of preparation for Communion in Russian Orthodox Christianity, which he teaches should extend across the week when laity do Commune. Like the seven days of creation, the week of our lives should focus on this preparation. Even though this winter season we will have had a few weeks without Communion at our rural mission parish, we should not feel sad about this, but grateful, and rejoice all the more to greet our beloved mission pastor when he returns next week, God willing, for the Lord’s Supper. In this winter season of Reader and Deacon services, we should be grateful to devote ourself even more to the deeply joyful sorrow of govenie, for the nourishment of our souls. Govenie involves, St. Theophan wrote in his book The Art of Salvation, ascetic labors in preparation for receiving the Mysteries of Confession and Communion. Such mission services as we have today are worship that is govenie and good for our souls. Such ascetic spirit and practice of preparation is what sets us apart as Orthodox Christians from forms of heterodox Christianity that have split off from Orthodoxy and lost for the most part the central practice of govenie, only to decline into the secularism and apostasy of modern culture. Govenie is what often people remark on in particular as a culture of ascetic preparation for Communion in Russian Orthodox practice especially but not exclusively. It should not be a source of pride at all, brothers and sisters, for we know we are the chief of sinners, as we say in the pre-communion prayers. But we also know that in this preparation, in so completely unworthily following our Lord through His grace into the Garden of Gethsemane, to sweat blood as it were, we come into Communion in which we are no longer alone, but with Him, under His pastoral care and in His flock as our Good Shepherd.

Govenie involves self-reflection that observes what we need to confess, the spiritual battles through God’s grace that we need to practice every moment, fasting, spiritual reading, and how we spend our time and thought, including alms and evangelism we can do to help others, which is really allowing them to help ourselves, and attending Orthodox worship whenever we can, even when it is a humble Reader or Deacon’s service or an Akathist, or also participating in Orthodox Bible Study blessed by the Churche. It also especially involves submission in confession and seeking guidance from our spiritual fathers and the fathers of the Church, and even when this is not always possible due to human circumstances, bowing our head and our knee and prostrating ourselves before Divine Providence in submission and obedience, and seeking spiritual guidance from morning and evening prayer, from reading in the lives and works of the saints, and having those holy ones such as St. Theophan the Recluse as our spiritual fathers too through their writings, and in continuous prayer in our heart. I read in the news that some activists today say that it takes a cycle of 21 days or so to make a habit, good or bad, in the lives of children in schools. We are children before the Lord. Let us take periods of govenie to shape the habit of continuous preparation and accountability through grace to our Good Shepherd.

This is what softens or relates our heart to Him in tenderness, and strengthens our heart for deeds of battle for truth and help to others, this condition of preparation. This is what allows us like attentive sheep to hear the voice of the Shepherd and to go in and out of our inner and outer battles under His safekeeping. The heart in Orthodoxy is understood as the whole person, the body and soul made according to the image of God, Jesus Christ. He modeled this preparation of the heart for us in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he said “Not My will but Thine be done,” and sweated blood. Then he went to the Crucifixion and Resurrection and Ascension that completed the span of our salvation. Through this preparation we gain the strength of the Shepherd protecting us. Metropolitan Antony of blessed memory, the first First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, some have said as a young man with the birth name Alexei was a model for the unforgettable figure of Alexei Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers of Karamazov, since he met Dostoevsky. But in any case Metropolitan Anthony placed great emphasis on the struggle of Jesus in the Garden as a part of our redemption, so much so that some felt he went too far in that teaching, although it was to him a pious belief or theologumenon. Yet in this he arguably was in the spirit of Russian Orthodoxy. Its emphasis on govenie came out of St. Paisius Velichovsky’s contribution with his monastic followers in the late 18th century to renewal of hesychasm in the Russian Church, at a time when the Enlightenment was gripping the West with secular thought and self-centered materialism.

Through the nineteenth-century flowering of hesychasm in Russia, especially among the Elders of Optina Monastery with others like St. Theophan, govenie transmitted both into the so-called catacomb Church of underground faith during Communism and into the worldwide diaspora of ROCOR, and even across our country in America from Jordanville to northern California and the work of our patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco and of his spiritual son Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory. On the flotilla of boats bearing exiles across the Black Sea from Crimea to Constantinople in 1920, in the labor camps of the Soviet gulag, sometimes housed in former monasteries, and in the hearts of all devoted Orthodox believers in the trying times of this era, it empowered through God’s grace the survival of our Orthodox faith and still does today. We unworthily are lifted up into that great story of govenie that issues from the true story of the Gospel of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, and goes all the way back through His theophanies of old to the prophets and people of the Old Testament Church, all the way back to Creation and beyond, and all the way beyond us to the Apocalypse.

The Good Shepherd giveth His life for His sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ tells us this. Thus too He says, there is no greater love than this, that a man lay down His life for His friends. This do in remembrance of me, he added of the Eucharist supper, but also as a reminder  of His gift in the Eucharist of His body and blood, in which we too empty ourselves in partaking. That self-emptying is the center of the practice of govenie. It is how He teaches us to live, through self-emptying and not self-assertion. This is Christian love in truth, or in grace. Orthodox commentary on the Gospel reading today observes that in the Greek, the famous verse “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly,” really can best be translated into English as “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have something more.” Something more than life, something more than biological safety and contentment. What is that something more? It is meaningfulness, the Word, the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd and His care felt in our hearts as grace.

St. Theophan concludes his discussion of govenie or preparation by reminding his readers that in communing we know that, “I am not alone but with Thee,” our Lord Jesus Christ. Behold the Bridegroom cometh!  The Recluse was the saint’s nickname because he lived long in solitude, in govenie, with God, and when he came out through his voluminous writings and letters, and counsel, it was as a mighty spiritual helper to others, a sheep who knew His Master’s voice and ever-care, who could truly pastor through his words and example, which continue to be heard through his writings and intercession. The Synaxarion updated from St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite’s edition states of St. Theophan the Recluse:

“…in his writings on the Jesus Prayer he placed no emphasis on the psychosomatic methods or on the more theoretical aspects that one finds in the Hesychast Fathers, but he laid all the more stress on the need to keep the intellect attentive to the words of the prayer before God in our heart, in such a way that the heart feels what the intellect is thinking on. While thus leaving room fo the feeling of tenderness of heart and of gentle warmth which the presence of God brings about, nevertheless in order to dispel every illusion, he teaches that the chief fruits of the prayer are fear of God and contrition. Thanks to his well-considered adaptation of the teaching of the Fathers, Saint Theophan has succeeded in making accessible the most precious treasure of Orthodox spiritual tradition to a great many God-loving souls even to the present day; he is therefore rightly considered to be one of the principal architects of the spiritual renaissance which the Russian Church experienced before the great trial of the Revolution.”

Let it so be with us humbly as we come forth from our inner spiritual battles and our growth in our Lord God in our heart, into the world from our govenie, stilling feel our Lord Jesus Christ’s care in our hearts warmed with attentive ongoing prayer, preparation, and Communion. Let us ask also St. Theophan the Recluse for his intercession, that in our mission parish’s meadow in rural Union County, ta Church Temple for our flock may arise forth from solitude, to the glory of God.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

About the Author:

Deacon Paul Siewers serves at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in a northern Appalachian valley of central Pennsylvania. He also works as associate professor of Literary Studies at Bucknell University, where he is adviser to the Orthodox Christian campus community and directs the Bucknell Program for American Leadership. His blog only represents his own views.

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