Sunday, March 8, 2015

Between Rome and Byzantium

I managed to make it to the evening Akathist hymn at the cathedral last night, my first for this Lent.

There will be no analysis of the text herein. At some juncture I will undoubtedly turn a critical eye towards the liturgical books of the Orthodox Church, although there is scarcely any desire to engage in the methodical analysis and deconstruction of the liturgical texts of the "Eastern" Church.

This is partially due to Orthodoxy's presentation of its liturgy. Liturgy is not so much for comprehension, but for experience. In both the Greek and Antiochian dioceses in North America, so far as I've experienced, this is the insisted approach.

When one pivots to the Orthodox Church from Western Christianity, especially if one is in those areas that have more or less appropriated a number of converts over the last fifty or so years, or whose original ethnic group has been established in the US for at least three generations, one will encounter fairly well educated clergy who adamant on this point. One will not be necessarily handed a book on the Orthodox liturgy. One may or may not be referred to a book about Orthodoxy. However, it will be adamantly insisted that if one really wants to "get" Orthodoxy, one ought to avail oneself to every available liturgy.

There is a sort of unnameable qualitative difference as pertains to the perception of liturgy between the "Greek" Church and the "Latin" Church. Over the past ten years, I have struggled to define it, at least to have a referent for myself.

A colleague of mine once proposed the difference was that the Western liturgy has become largely cerebral. To some extent there is probably a bit of truth to this. Legislation and doctrine govern liturgical form and content in the West. Indeed, there is not only no pretense for otherwise, there has been a blatant insistence on the primacy of legislation and doctrine as the fons vitae of the Western Church since at least the counter Reformation. Greek Christianity, by comparison, subverts everything to the liturgy. The liturgy is the "source" of legislation and doctrine. Yet, the liturgy is not a cerebral event in Orthodox Christianity. There is a visceral quality to the Orthodox liturgy; there is an unabashed appeal to every sense perception, an unembarrassed application of tactile sensation and targeted use of supplicating and adoring bodily movement (in forms which resoundingly rub post-modern Western culture the wrong way). It is tempting to theorize if over intellectualization in the Western liturgy produced the excessive sentimentalism that marked Roman piety and which has gradually sublimated itself into the celebration of the Roman liturgy in the contemporary period. If a liturgy does not have matrix visceral stimuli and responses, people will insert their own emotions and sentimentalism in the liturgy in order to fill the gap. Again, it is interesting to theorize.

If there is a bridge between the Greek and Latin understanding of liturgy, then it may well be found in the monastic communities of the West. Much as it may be true that one can't really "get" Orthodoxy unless one regularly experiences the liturgy, one cannot survive and thrive in a monastic community without the integration of the liturgy into one's daily life. This is not to say every monastic community in the West, certainly in the United States, exemplifies this quality. There are still monastic communities that haven't quite gotten themselves out of the pervasive deconstructionist impulse of the 60s. More recently, communities founded during both the Traditionalist reaction to the modernization of Western Church and the "Catholic Identity" phase of the last decade oftentimes center their lives on rigid legalism and witch hunts for any slight deviations from their notions of Catholicism. Yet, where one finds a balanced monastery in the West, one finds noticeable continuity between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

The downside is that most of us are not monks, nor should we be. Monasticism does not often lend itself to the lay life, and an unmeasured adoption of monastic praxis can be a source of psychological ruin for a layman who has no broader context to instill the appropriate understanding of the praxis, or sensibly disqualify it as being unsuitable for the lay life. This is a problem in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy; laity are seeking a deeper praxis and definition of Christianity, something that is total, without pivoting to evangelical, Pentecostal or independent Christian groups. Most laymen do not know how to moderate monasticism in their lives. Truthfully, most monks are equally unawares as to the measure most appropriate for the normative Christian life.

Ultimately, in the juxtaposition of contemporary Roman and Orthodox approaches to liturgy, one sees the divide between a conception of liturgy which sees liturgy as the formative source that defines all aspects of Christianity, both individual and corporate, and a conception of liturgy that sees the action and assembly of worship as an event that reflects the continual self-evaluation of belief on the part of the corporate whole. It can be asked when this distinction emerges, however, it seems naïve to identify the books promulgated after Vatican II as the nefarious actor.


  1. The West lost its "liturgical sense" way back in the high middle ages. The Franciscans sowed the seeds, taking the abridged curial liturgy into every corner of the West. The cult of the Blessed Sacrament laid waste much that was good, leading ultimately to the lonely priest, the lonely server, mumbling away to each other at a side altar while the high altar gathered dust. Then inevitably came the Reformation - people aren't going to stomach falsehood for too long - and Counter Reformation, which just codified all that was wrong with the pre-Reformation church. Then came the decadence of the Baroque era; then came rubricism which sucked the life out of the liturgy. Then came Pius IX. Then came Pius X, and the rest is all too familiar.

    Meanwhile, the Greeks, suffering at the hands of the Turk, kept the Faith alive by long adherence to Tradition. Compare the 1960's in the west lands, when Rome tried to "modernize" everything to bring back the lost congregations. The utter ignorance is astounding! But then, I would argue, Rome had long ceased to be a Church and had lost the ability, innate to the Orthodox, of keeping the Tradition alive by faithful celebration of the Liturgy.

    1. Instinctively, I agree with you.

      I am still not sure what the quality is, only that there is some form of palpable difference. Whether it is universal across the Orthodox world, is another matter. In my little corner of the world, this distinct quality is quite real and present.

    2. I worship with the Russian Orthodox (Moscow patriarchate) and there is, as you say, a palpable difference between the ethos of their liturgical worship and that of Rome, in any manifestation, whether that be in monastic communities following a weird combination of 1965 ritus servandus with bits of the lectionary, bits of monastic practice; or the traditionalists with their own hodgepodge of 1962 with bits of pre-1956 thrown in at their whim; or the mainstream lot who are so far gone that they are scarcely worth mentioning in any "liturgical" context - that counts for modern Cathedral usage too.

      Even so, the Russians are as different from the Greeks as the Greeks are from the Latins, albeit in comparatively trivial respects. The Greeks have pews, for example, and a generally relaxed (sloppy) approach.

      My experience of Russian liturgy is that it is at once didactic, pastoral yet traditional, worthwhile and authentic. This is in all aspects; the womenfolk dress modestly, with their hair kempt and covered, the prayerful atmosphere untinged by beads and chaplets, the icons of the church; the fact that we all stand for the liturgy, all conducive to a whole which is profoundly liturgical and conspicuously lacking in Roman Catholic worship. And there is conscious participation too. The people know the staves of the Akathist better than even some traditionalists know the works of Prudentius and Ambrose! The chants are familiar, repetitive and didactic. And this didactic is infinitely more subtle than, say, the turgid collect for Joe the Worker, in which the new doctrine floats about like oil on a liturgically muddied water. Therefore the liturgy provides them with what the Roman rite deprives them; fortifying them in orthodox belief and praxis, both former and latter never needing to be constantly updated to reflect the latest papal decree. Yea, go to a "Latin Mass" and be forever put off!