Friday, March 31, 2006

Ritual Correctness: On Enduring Liturgical "Experts"

By Patrick Henry Reardon

The usual subjects were under consideration at our annual symposium of
Orthodox clergy this past summer: parochial ministry, the formation of
lay leadership, worship and music, Christian education, counseling,
medical ethics, and so on. There was even a workshop on the use of the
Internet in pastoral work. On the whole those discussions were useful
and helpful to the ministry.

As is common at these symposia, most of the presentations were made by
ordinary parish priests who have become especially proficient in
this-or-that aspect of the ministry and are willing to share the
fruits of their mature experience with the rest of us. Moreover, ample
time was provided for conversation among ourselves, and this informal
discussion of the material was likewise helpful.

Expert Lows

I believe that the chance to discuss the practical aspects of the
ministry with fellow ministers is probably the major advantage of
these events. Without such opportunities, in fact, parish priests can
become extremely isolated, so the concentrated opportunity to talk
with (and worship with) one another and with our bishops is arguably
the best benefit of our gatherings, and I invariably return from them
with a general sense of refreshment.

It is inevitable, nonetheless, that "experts" are also invited to
speak at these symposia, and, if one may speak candidly, the
presentations of the experts sometimes provide the truly low points of
the whole enterprise. On former occasions, for example, we have been
obliged to bear up under onslaughts of "the renewal of feminine
ministries" and to endure the ravages of rationalist biblical
exegesis. This year we were, on the whole, mercifully spared such

The single exception to this mercy was a disappointing lecture on
"liturgical renewal" by a professor from one of the Orthodox
seminaries. The material was essentially the same shortsighted
nonsense that the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans were
forced to endure thirty or forty years ago.

We clergy, three quarters of us adult converts to the Orthodox Church,
sat in sackcloth and inwardly groaned like pelicans in the wilderness,
while a life-long Orthodox liturgical expert explained to us at length
that Orthodox worship "no longer speaks meaningfully to modern man"
and suggested ways in which an established panel of his cronies and
clones might bring their expertise to bear on this crushing problem of
Orthodox irrelevance to American life. They would pull our worship up
to date and make it more meaningful to the refined sensibilities of
contemporary society.

Growls and low rumblings were audible in the assembly. The fact that
there was not a sudden, violent rush at the speaker's podium is
chiefly to the credit of Orthodox restraint and ascetical discipline.

Afterwards, by way of constructive reaction to the presentation, the
more devout among us went off to the chapel to breathe deeply and
recite the Jesus Prayer repeatedly in order to regain their inner
composure. Others went out jogging with a view to lowering their blood
pressure and using up the excess adrenalin that only a liturgist, or
perhaps an exceptionally adept terrorist, is able to elicit. Neither
devout nor strong, I confess that I was not to be found in either of
these groups. Rather, I was among those lesser brethren gathered in
the recreation room to deplore the event, regretting meanwhile my
failure to tote along a flask of Scotch or Bourbon to serve as a
restorative. In this age of international terrorism and liturgical
renewal, one must take every precaution.

Among the more objectionable aspects of this most objectionable
lecture was the sustained presumption that academic experts know more
about the requirements of modern life than the rest of us do. Even a
priori we should suspect that this is not the case, because a certain
abstraction from the urgency of "life in the world" has always been
considered one of the essential requirements of an academic education.
Our prior suspicion on this point, moreover, is rather often justified
by what the professional academic actually has to say.

A Quaint Cosmology

Let me cite a single example from the liturgical lecture that I just

Among the more deplorable shortcomings of traditional Orthodox
liturgical texts, we were told, is the dominance of an outdated
cosmology, evidenced in our liturgical references to the "four
elements" in creation. How, we were asked, are such references going
to strike "the average high-school student"? This hypothetical
student, our lecturer assured us, knows that four is not the correct
number of the world's elements. He has studied the Periodic Table and,
we were given to infer, he ponders it incessantly. Day and night he
prowls the earth, this modern high-school student, reviewing in his
mind the process of photosynthesis and reciting the formula for oxalic
acid. Therefore, his imagination would be overly taxed by Orthodox
liturgical references to the four elements, because these are quaint,
confusing, and obscure.

In the refutation of such a suggestion, one hardly knows which of a
thousand possible handles is the first to be grabbed.

My initial reaction was to inquire why in the world we should measure
our liturgical texts by the dubious standards of contemporary
high-school students. However, when I expressed this query down in the
recreation room (drinking my Coca-Cola), a young deacon properly
yanked me up short. Today's high-school students, he pointed out, seem
not to be so fixated on the Periodic Table. Indeed, they appear to
experience no deep cognitive dissonance respecting the alleged four
elements of the universe. One suspects this, in fact, from their
apparent enthusiasm for literary and dramatic works based on that same

This young deacon cited the Tolkien sensation as an obvious example.
The companions of Frodo would probably have not the slightest trouble
with the Orthodox Baptismal service, which refers to the water as one
of the four elements of the world. Boromir, Gandalf, and their friends
rather often speak of earth, water, air, and fire, whereas their
allusions to calcium oxide and sodium nitrate are somewhat rare.

I further reflected that I, even I, went to high school once.
Admittedly, it was a very long time ago, and I was hardly a stellar
student, but still it was during a period somewhat after the discovery
of the atom, and I did pass some of my courses. I, too, was obliged to
know that nitrogen was designated by the atomic number 7 and that the
specific weight of helium was 4.003. Until this past week it had never
occurred to me that such information would destroy my ability to pray
the Psalms or sing the traditional hymns of the Church. Even though I
have known, pretty much all my life, that the daily reappearance of
the sun is a phenomenon caused by the spinning of the earth, I still
find myself praying the Jam lucis orto sidere ("Now the lightsome star
is risen") when this phenomenon occurs, and, if feeling especially
romantic at the moment, I have been known to refer to it as "sunrise."

Let me suggest that most of us are like this. The last thing we need
is a liturgist to tell us how to pray and how to look at the world.
Should the Orthodox liturgy be reformed to rid our souls of the
aforesaid anachronisms? I don't think so. It would be more proper,
rather, to study the Sermon on the Mount in order to remain in the
State of Grace when dealing with liturgists.

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox
Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms,
Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press).
He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

Original: Touchstone Magazine

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: