We have all heard people speak about the “feeling” they had at a service or a church event. This is natural, since we are all creatures of soul and body, and our emotions come into play in all sorts of situations. And yet this accent on “feelings” can be very deceptive and dangerous when it becomes the dominant element in our worship or prayer.
Subjective impressions and affective, or emotive, responses can dominate our attention to the extent that they can become distractions from true prayer. The holy fathers teach us that prayer must be sober, that is, alert and responsive to God and not to one’s own thoughts and feelings, imaginings. For most of us, this means concentrating on the objective meaning of the words of prayer, the hymns, and the scriptural texts. It means cutting off other thoughts, and even more important, cutting off the quest and desire for an emotional “fix” or “charge” from text, music or surroundings. The person who comes to church and puts out some sort of “magical” feelers to gauge the emotional or spiritual climate of a congregation is bound to be deluded because his or her concentration on subjective and vague feelings becomes a distraction from God, from real prayer, and from any real knowledge of those with whom he or she stands in church.
Despite her tradition of sobriety in prayer, the Orthodox Church has not escaped from the influence of “Pietism,” the Western European movement that has cut across denominations. Pietism places a strong influence on the cultivation of feelings in the spiritual life. It is the type of religiosity that inspires insipid and “sweet” religious art [“Precious Moments” leaps to mind – ed.] and romantic, sentimental church music. It emphasizes the appeal to the emotions, the swelling of which is mistaken for faith, hope and love. Prayer becomes fixated on producing an emotional charge which, if lacking, causes the one who prays to fret about “coldness” or “dryness” of heart. The concern with one’s own feelings becomes a kind of idolatry: the idolization of one’s own affective response. Pietism is a great hindrance to real prayer, for the emotions become a substitute for attention to God and His Word. Emotional effect is not a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence; it can be a sign of passion and “fleshliness” in prayer. Such things actually make prayer impossible.
At the annual Church and the World Conference in Milwaukee in the fall of 1992, Fr. Paul Tarazi, Old Testament Professor at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, observed that Americans want to see God and religion in terms of warm, cozy feelings. Modern pietism is compounded by the American tendency to make everything casual and familiar. But, said Fr. Tarazi, we cannot be casual with God.
When we come to services or to prayer in any place, we must forget about emotions and feelings. Concentrate on the text, on the meaning of what you are saying to God and what God is saying to you. If emotions well up, so be it. Do not be distracted by them. Do not wallow in the gratification they bring. For to do so is to be distracted by them from the knowledge of God who is indeed loving, but Whose love is not cozy, but awesome. God, not our own emotional self-gratification, is the end of prayer. Let us not make idols of our feelings.