Archive for October, 2010

(Continued from my previous post.)

Typically, a seeker or inquirer asking an Orthodox clergyman about Orthodoxy will be told first of all to attend a liturgy, to see the Church at prayer. A central principle adhered to throughout the Eastern Church is lex orandi, lex credendi, “the law that is to be prayed is the law that is to be believed.” In other words, theology flows from the liturgy and from prayer and not vice versa. Eastern Christians often accuse Western theologians of being too focused on abstract intellectualism and philosophical arguments which have little relevance to the spiritual life of ordinary Christians. Regardless of how accurate this characterization is, the fact is that the theology of the Eastern Church is embodied in its liturgy.

Eastern Christian theology is also an embodied theology, an incarnational theology. The liturgy consists not only of words, but also of gestures, vestments, iconography, song incense, movement and foods blessed and distributed. All the senses are engaged in worship. Spirit is not divorced from matter; indeed, material objects can serve as a vehicle for an experience of the Divine.

One of the most striking aspects of the Eastern Christian tradition is the pervasive use of iconography. Orthodox churches are lavishly decorated with icons, which are seen as “windows to heaven.” The veneration of icons may seem a strange practice to those who are unaccustomed to it, but the icons are not seen as ends in themselves, but as gateways to a mystical experience of the Divine.

Another aspect of Orthodox church life that other Christians may find problematic is the Orthodox canonical policy of restricting access of the sacraments or “mysteries” to the Orthodox faithful. The basis of this policy lies in the fact that the Orthodox adhere to a communion ecclesiology, a concept of church structure and unity that is rooted less in denominational and bureaucratic structures, and more in a sacramental life shared in common. In this ecclesiology, in this conception of the church, the sacraments are the end result of unity, and not simply a means to that end. One is either in communion or not in communion with the church, and sacramental communion thus forms the boundaries of the visible church. On very rare occasions,  exceptions have been made, so as to assist the salvation of particular persons, but the rule holds firm. Likewise. the Orthodox faithful are not allowed to receive the sacraments from non-Orthodox, so from an Orthodox perspective, the open communion policy found in some western Christian communities can be a challenge. Also, from a personal perspective, I am inclined to favor a more open approach to sacramental sharing, as has been adopted in varying degrees in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and other communions in line with current ecumenical understandings, but as a simple layman, I am obviously in no position to dispense with the traditional canonical rules.

Although canonical Orthodoxy sees itself as representing the visible Church of Christ on earth, this does not necessarily imply a negative judgement of non-Orthodox Christians. It is often said that the Orthodox will define where they believe the Church is, but will not define where the Church isn’t, thus leaving the possibility of ecumenical relationships open. Ecumenism has in the past been seen as primarily a Catholic-Protestant endeavor, but the addition of Eastern voices to the ecumenical table can only enrich and enliven the dialogue in spite of the numerous challenges and obstacles.


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(Adapted from a presentation I gave on May 6th, 2010)

I have always had a fascination with the Christian East, beginning with the exploration of aspects of my own heritage and background. I generally describe myself as a typical American “mutt”, claiming decent from a number of different peoples from various parts of the world. One part of my ancestry traces back to the turbulent and ever shifting border region of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. This region is a fault line between the two hemispheres of Christendom, the Orthodox East and the Catholic and Protestant West. Eastern Christianity is woven into the fabric of the Belarusian and Ukrainian cultures, and it would be difficult to understand eastern European history and the so-called “Russian soul” without reference to its ancient, historic faith.

I spent many of my formative years in the “Slavic belt”, a region stretching from western Pennsylvania through northern Ohio and across to the Chicago area. In the part of Ohio where I did much of my growing up, in addition to the usual assortment of Catholic and Protestant churches, there were Orthodox churches and Byzantine Catholic churches. I was raised Roman Catholic, but I found the more ornate rituals of the Byzantine rite much more to my liking.

As a young adult, I began to regularly attend a nearby Antiochian Orthodox parish, and I was received into Orthodoxy via Holy Chrismation, an anointing with oil similar to the Western sacrament of Confirmation. I was an enthusiastic convert, but I eventually found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the acceptance of traditional cultural values which seemed to me to embrace both sexism and homophobia, among other things. Ultimately, I found myself becoming simultaneously a lapsed Catholic and a lapsed Orthodox, and for a long time, I was something of an interspiritual nomad, not feeling totally at home in any one tradition.

However, there are many aspects of Eastern Christian theology and liturgical practice that continue to engage me. I wish to share with you a quotation from Archimandrite Lev Gillet, a “monk of the Eastern Church” and a French convert to Orthodoxy: “O strange Orthodox Church. so poor and so weak, and at the same time so traditional and yet so free, so archaic and yet so alive, so ritualistic, and yet so personally mystical, Church where the pearl of great price is preciously preserved, sometimes beneath a layer of dust – Church that has so often proved incapable of action, yet which knows, as does no other, how to sing the joy of Easter.” (Quoted in The Orthodox Church by Timothy [Bishop Kallistos] Ware, pp. 180-181.)

To an outsider, an Eastern liturgy may seem formidable and bewildering. I will share with you the experiences of Frederica Mathewes-Green, who wrote about her journey to Orthodoxy in her book, Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy. (The following quote is taken from pages xii-xiv.) “At the altar a gold-robed priest strode back and forth swinging incense, moving in and out of the doors of the iconostasis according to rubrics that were as yet unfamiliar. Golden bells chimed against the censer, and the light was smoky and dim. Over to the left a small choir was singing in haunting harmony, voices twining in a capella simplicity…[Frederica] was standing…thinking about her feet. They hurt. She wondered why they had any pews if you had to stand up all the time. The struggling choir was weak and singing in an unintelligible language that may have been English. The few other worshippers weren’t participating in the service in any visible way. Why did they hide the altar behind a wall? It was annoying how the priest kept popping in and out of the doors like a figure on a Swiss clock. The service dragged on, following no discernible pattern, and it was interminable. Once the priest said ‘Let us conclude our evening prayer to the Lord.’ She checked her watch again; that was ten minutes ago, and still no end in sight.”


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This past weekend, I attended a retreat at New Skete monastery and this prayer was used to close the lectio divina session (a time of mediation on scripture) that focused on the parable of the healing of the blind man.  It is rich in imagery and reminiscent of the multiple dimensions of healing. (As I post this, I am keeping in my thoughts and prayers a friend who is currently undergoing chemotherapy.) I share it below.


(All kneel)

“In the Garden of Eden, our ancestors reached out to pick the fruit of the Tree of Life. Now we bend our knees and stretch out our arms to You, Almighty Lord, so that we, too, may partake of everlasting life.

We are infirm and bent over, like the stricken woman in the Gospel, weighed down by despair, with our gaze fixed on the ground. Like her, we are reluctant to approach You face to face.  Grant us the courage to draw near to You.

O Master, You are our refuge of mercy.  Turn Your ear toward us and raise us up, for we have fallen like a dead tree.  Give us new sap and make us blossom.

Like one born in darkness, we cannot see Your face, O compassionate Creator, yet, out of nothing, You rekindle the light of being within each of us.

O kind and loving Son of God, our helper and Saviour, we look to You for every healing of mind and body and spirit.  When You approached Your friend Lazarus, entombed in the cave, You called him out to life.  Now, give us Your hand, O ever-shining Sun, O Orient on high, and lift us into Your radiant light.

Pluck out the weeds and tares of every physical and spiritual infirmity with Your mighty hand, and cultivate the garden of our souls and plow the fields of our earthly bodies so that they may bear the fruit of the gospel of life.

Lord, You are the healing balm of Gilead, the salve for our wounds.  You are our true Physician.  You shared the pain and weakness of our flesh made of earth.  Seek out all illness in every limb and organ, from head to toe, and heal it with Your grace.  Free us from any distressing thoughts, crippling memories, or paralyzing fears.  Hear our prayers as we prepare this unction, and answer us as we call to You: Lord, hear us in our time of need! Come close to us in Your great and loving kindness!

For Yours it is to have mercy of us and save us, O God, and we give You glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:  now and forever, and unto ages of ages.


-from the New Skete healing service, based on a prayer by St. Gregory of Narek (Armenia)

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I think that it is clear to most people who have at least a nodding acquaintance with Orthodoxy that liturgical worship in general, and the Divine Liturgy in particular, lies at the heart of Orthodox Christian spirituality. The Orthodox Church is a liturgical church, a church that is an assembly of the faithful who unite in a common voice for the worship and praise of God. I freely admit to being a fan of good liturgy. (Even as I type this, I am listening to the wonderful liturgical music broadcast by Ancient Faith Radio: http://ancientfaith.com/) I enjoy the pomp and ceremony as much as anyone, but I do worry from time to time about the possibility of glorious, aesthetically pleasing liturgy becoming and end unto itself rather than a vehicle for God’s praise.

I have found in my spiritual journey both within and outside Orthodoxy a number of approaches to liturgy which strike me as questionable. One approach, increasingly widespread in the Christian West, seems to view an almost constant, ongoing liturgical revision as a means of somehow ensuring the continued relevance of the Christian message in contemporary times. It is not that the liturgy cannot ever be revised; indeed, it has been revised many times throughout Christian history. However,  I would argue that the constant revisions that try to latch on to every passing fad and fancy are not necessarily as relevant as they may seem and ultimately are not helpful for the long-term cohesion and stability of the faith. As a matter of fact, from the Orthodox perspective this is one of the issues that continues to be a barrier to greater rapprochement between separated Christian communities, and I will write more on this in a moment.

The opposite approach, which is just as problematic in its own way, is the treating of the liturgy as a sort of sacred museum piece. If overzealous liturgical revision leads to excessive concessions to a sort of relevance that is more imagined than real, than liturgical museum keeping leads to utter irrelevance, reducing the liturgy to a theatrical performance in which the Christian message is obscured to the point of unintelligibility. This is most noticeable in the use of liturgical language. Old Church Slavonic, Byzantine Greek, classical Arabic and even Elizabethan English are all very beautiful and expressive languages that have been adapted to liturgical use, but these languages are not in and of themselves the liturgy. The Byzantine Greek that has come down to us is derived from the common koine Greek spoken on the streets of the Hellenistic world. The New Testament and the Septuagint version of the Old Testament are written in this common, ordinary Greek of the time that has since become frozen and canonized as a liturgical language not easily accessible to most modern Greek speakers today. I have not been following the current situation in Greece very closely, but I have heard that there have been attempts to render the liturgy into modern Greek which have met with considerable resistance. I do not feel qualified to comment at length on the matter, except to say that it has been the genius of Orthodoxy throughout the centuries to render the liturgy in an idiom intelligible to its particular time and place in the most aesthetically pleasing manner possible.

Likewise, many Christian communities, Orthodox or not, make use of Elizabethan English as their preferred liturgical language. I freely admit that as a member of a Byzantine Rite Antiochian parish, I find the translations of the liturgical services made by Isabel Florence Hapgood to my liking for the most part. In my private devotions, I frequently make use of the authorized Western Rite materials made available under the auspices of the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate, which preserve the English of the Elizabethan Settlement. (I plan to say more regarding the Byzantine and Western Rites at a later date, but suffice to say, the Byzantine Rite is the more commonly used rite in Orthodoxy, whereas the Western Rite is used mainly by a small number of communities of Western Christian origin that have been received into Orthodoxy.) However, many Orthodox communities use modern rather than Elizabethan English in their worship. I have worshipped on a number of occasions in parishes and monastic communities affiliated with the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), and I have found the contemporary English translations used there to be quite reverent and uplifting. As much as I enjoy listening to Elizabethan English, I certainly do not feel that Orthodox liturgy can only be celebrated using Tudor idioms, and I applaud the efforts of the OCA and other jurisdictions which make more extensive use of readily intelligible modern English. Indeed, much to the horror of some folks, I would love to see the traditional Western Rite as well as the Byzantine Rite liturgies in elegant contemporary English. (No, I am not advocating a wholesale adoption of the Novus Ordo by canonical Orthodoxy, but again that is a discussion for another time.) 

Discussions of liturgy are more often than not quite contentious in Orthodoxy, in part because liturgy is so central to Orthodox faith and practice. Orthodox Christianity adheres to the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, that is to say, “the law that is to be prayed is the law that is to be believed”. In other words, praying shapes believing, and what we say in the liturgy really does matter. In fact, the bulk of the theology of the Orthodox church is expressed in the liturgy rather than in formal confessional statements. This is why Orthodoxy cannot simply accept uncritical revisions in the liturgy which do not take into account the theology expressed by the liturgy. One of the functions of the liturgy is to teach the faith, and any liturgy which  is not up to this task will simply not do for the Orthodox. The Orthodox Church is a maximalist church, and liturgical minimalism is just not  in harmony with the spirit of Orthodoxy. This is why in ecumenical discussions, Orthodox and non-Orthodox can come to considerable agreement on paper, and yet reconciliation seems so distant. The liturgy is at the heart of Orthodoxy, and for the Orthodox, there can be no compromise of the liturgy, no matter how well-intentioned.

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Recently, I was invited to join the small group of folks who lead the chants during Vespers and Orthros at my parish. Some of my fellow parishioners who met me at New Skete heard me sing with the monastic choir during our retreat there, and somehow the little secret of my musical competence leaked out into the parish back home. Truth be told, I do fairly well at sightreading, and I have a good ear for the Western and Slavonic styles of music, but my parish uses Byzantine chant, which is a totally different musical world. Mind you, I am not totally unfamiliar with the sound and tonality of Byzantine chant, but I do not really know the eight canonical tones and I have not yet learned how to read Byzantine notation.

Prior to my first time as a cantor, I warned the assembled personnel that anything I was liable to produce would most likely come out in “tone nine”. “Tone nine”, of course, is the entirely uncanonical tone that is made up on the fly by those who don’t know any of the canonical tones. The priest joked with me and said, “We attribute that to the influence of the Holy Spirit.” Thanks father, that makes me feel so much more confident. *groan*

The first few times up on the podium I was a bit nervous (read: terrified), but somehow I managed to stumble through the services without making too obvious a fool of myself. My fellow cantors have been helpful for the most part, although I was told at one point to “do this section in your impression of tone two”. Well, so far, I’ve been plugging ahead and doing the best I can, and who knows, maybe someday, the tonality of Byzantine chant might finally “click” with me cognitively and I might actually turn out to be a competent cantor.

In closing, I thought I’d share a sample of what Byzantine chant is supposed to sound like for those who are unfamiliar with it.


Todd G.

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