One of the great temptations in reading history especially in the church is to imagine some great former age (e.g the early church or the 16th century) and see our own age as greivously failing in comparision. One can then be tempted to somehow restore the former times .
Often however we romanticize the past and read great sermons or treatises and imagine the past as an age of heroes. Certainly there were heroes but to live in these supposedly glorious periods was, I suspect, mostly like living today. Messy, ordinary with much sin and distraction and imperfection.
That truth is one of the charms of a nice little book by Robert Taft, entitled Through Their Own eyes : Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It. It is a look at the liturgy in the ancient East from the bottom up. Surprises abound.
Here is a bit of a description of what experiencing the liturgy was really like:
But that was only half the story. During all this, one should not imagine the congregation primly seated like Methodists at a wedding in Indianapolis.
There were no pews in church to keep the people penned in—they sat on the floor if at all—which may be one of the reasons why Late Antique congregations in East and West were an unruly lot, wandering around and chattering even during the Scripture readings and homily. Chrysostom in Constantinople (398-404) accuses his congregation of roaming around; of either ignoring the preacher or pushing and shoving to hear him, when not bored or downright exasperated with him; of talking, especially during the homily and Scripture lessons;" of leaving before the services are over (or not coming to church at all), and, in general, of causing an uproar and acting—the words are Chrysostom's—as if they were in the forum or barbershop —or worse still, in a tavern or whorehouse.
Things did not improve with time, apparently, for in the Holy Land three hundred years later Anastasios of Sinai (ca. 700), whose wonderful Oratio de sacra synaxi, unfortunately never translated from the Greek as far as I know, gives a whole spirituality of the liturgy, accuses his churchgoers of being irritated if the sermon and prayers drag on too long, of gabbing when they should be praying, thereby distracting even the priests serving, of ogling the women, and of being eager to get the liturgy over with so they can get out and busy themselves with less noble endeavors.