Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Word From the East

I was invited to contribute something on Byzantine liturgy, so that the Catholic liturgical traditions could be more fully represented. While each liturgical tradition in the Church ought to preserve its own distinctive character and practices, there are certain basic approaches or perspectives that can be shared for mutual enrichment. Since there has been something of a crisis in the Western liturgy since Vatican II, it may be helpful to reflect on a few fundamental aspects that can assist the necessary restoration.

One important dimension of the Byzantine liturgical tradition is what may be called its “sensual” or incarnational approach. The Liturgy thoroughly engages the senses, and the body is actively involved. We were created and redeemed body and soul, so we ought to worship that way as well. To sit in a pew and sing from a hymnal (which is the extent of much Protestant, and “protestantizing,” worship) is hardly an experience that involves the whole person. A style of worship that is too cerebral or “spiritual” is not one that adequately expresses the adoration of the Incarnate God.

So we use lots of incense, candles, bells, chants, rich vestments, icons; we have processions and venerations of the Gospel book and the cross, and we employ liturgical gestures like the sign of the cross, deep bows, and prostrations. You love Jesus? Here is his icon: kiss it! Get involved, body and soul, in the worship of the Lord. (Of course, the bright-colored felt banners that have replaced sacred art in many modern Roman churches also engage the senses—but the sensation they produce is more like a touch of nausea than religious awe.)

Paradoxically, with all this active involvement of body and senses, the Byzantine Liturgy is meant to be a contemplative experience—not in the sense of silent prayer, for it is one of our liturgical principles that the worship should be unceasing, without gaps or breaks, like that of the angels in heaven—but in the sense of disposing oneself to receive the ineffable gift of the grace of God by personal openness in worship. Since the Byzantine Divine Office is complicated (unnecessarily so, but that’s another question), we usually just invite our guests to listen and receive, rather than hand them a stack a books and try to explain the complex liturgical navigation. There are sufficient repeating refrains to make participation easy, but listening deepens the experience. Without trying to push this point too hard, one can say that to read from a service book is to grasp with the eyes and the intellect, in a sense to be in control of the experience. To listen is to let go, to abandon oneself to the mystery without wishing to grasp or contain it.

The founder of our monastery, Archimandrite Boniface Luykx, himself a liturgical peritus at the Council, told us that many of the Council fathers explicitly insisted that the liturgical revisions be done so as to make it all intelligible and hence acceptable to modern man. Transcendence and mystery were not to be part of the new program, still less popular piety. They were embarrassed, for example, by feast days such as the Circumcision of Christ (which was in fact suppressed) and the Presentation of Mary (which I think is now merely optional). Both of these are still solemn feasts on the Byzantine calendar. They also succeeded at reducing the level of liturgical language to that of middle-school colloquial. But this insistence on intelligibility (and making “modern man” the norm for determining it) was a grave error. It was the beginning of the evacuation of statues, candles, relics, and timeless beauty from the churches, along with everything else that “modern man” finds unintelligible in his ignorance or contempt of the sacred traditions.

Therefore Byzantine churches aren’t “intelligible.” Some people complain that the churches are “cluttered,” that it’s hard to focus, that they don’t know what’s going on, that they are distracted by old ladies in babushkas walking around lighting candles. Good. It’s a little disorienting when you enter an Eastern church. It should be. Sensory overload is OK. You shouldn’t be able immediately to grasp and understand everything, and hence feel comfortable in your relative control of the situation. You are supposed to be entering the world of God, who is ineffable, mysterious, and beyond human comprehension, yet who has invited us into his life and holiness. Some people walk in and are immediately seized by the Holy Spirit and would exclaim, like Jacob, “This is the house of God and the gate of heaven!” They are like the envoys of St Vladimir who attended a Liturgy in Constantinople and said they couldn’t tell if they were in heaven or on earth. It didn’t matter if they didn’t know what page the choir was on.

That is how worship should be. A Catholic church should be an anteroom of the Kingdom of Heaven. As time goes on, you do understand more, and maybe you can even find the right page. But that is still secondary. The primary thing is to fall on your face before the living God.

I hope to continue these reflections in a week or two, God willing.

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