Saturday, May 25, 2013

More to it than that, Liturgy

Not all that long ago, I discovered a great blog (called SYMPOSIUM), writing principally about the Eastern Tradition of our Church (the author hails from England, which really isn't "east" enough). He's published now on RISU and the article is captivating from my point of view. It is entitled: "THE LANGUAGE OF THE LITURGY: SPEAKING GOD’S KINGDOM". The author: Father James Siemens. The name is not typically Ukrainian and, if my sources serve me well, he would proudly profess himself to be the fruit of the evangelization efforts of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church worldwide, which he is eager to promote.

Let me lift just one quote from the article, which speaks about the Ukrainian language for liturgy and for culture:

"Indeed, as its lineage can be traced directly to Saints Wolodymyr and Olha, it is not just appropriate that it should be a language of worship, but should be considered a real gift. Yet, as Byzantine worship in the Kyivan tradition has spread across the globe, its continued use in places where the dominant language is not Ukrainian also means that, if the Ukrainian Church is to serve the people of God as an ‘Eastern lung’, she will need to do so in something other than – or at least in addition to – Ukrainian."

Other than in the case of Sts. Cyrill and Methodius, we don't usually think of the Byzantine tradition as missionary, as evangelizing beyond its borders. Father makes a good case for why we might rightly dump that stereotype and sort of breezes past the issue of inculturation, limiting his discussion to language as comprehensibility. I leave the matter of how the two "lungs" should complement each other on mission for you to judge. Our track record (Latins and Greeks) over the centuries for working harmoniously side by side on the same territory doesn't exactly read like a romance story. Sts. Cyrill and Methodius, with their disciples, were not the only ones who didn't have it particularly easy.

Personally, Father Siemens perplexes me as much as do folk within our "Latin" Tradition, for it seems to me they are thinking rather in terms of linguistic comprehension as the principal if not only vehicle in Divine Worship for carrying us to God. While people in the past have yearned and still today yearn for vernacular, our great liturgy, Byzantine or Roman, is not a book which we proclaim/read or chant from end to end; it is not so one dimensional or linear. Great worship is "layered": sometimes we are singing, while the celebrant is praying sottovoce; look again at the ancient Roman Rite as celebrated; understand the role of silence; remember that people were nourished by that liturgy for centuries.

When it comes to beauty, the little bit of Byzantine Liturgy which I have experienced in English pales in comparison to Old Slavonic or Ukrainian. No doubt there are some beautiful renditions of the Lord Have Mercy or the Holy Holy or the Lamb of God out there, but how can they compare with some of the Kyries, the Sanctus' or the Agnus Deis which we have in our Gregorian chant treasury, if not amongst the wealth of polyphony at our disposal?

In St. Augustine's day the catechumens were ushered out at the end of the Liturgy of the Word; they could not stay for the celebration of the great mysteries, the Eucharist. When after baptism they finally could, all needed to be explained to them, as they had never experience it before. What drew them to baptism was not the liturgy itself but, perhaps above all, the witness of Christian lives. Granted, that exclusion holds no more and there are many famous examples of unbelievers converted by encountering the sublime of worship, either simple or festive.

The crisis of faith and culture, the estrangement from the life of the Church today, is something which in the West people tend to lay at the door of liturgical abuse and banality. The recovery of the sacred would go a long, long way toward putting things in order. I cannot but believe that more is at stake however, in terms of family life, in terms of the witness to Christ which should be the hallmark of our daily living. Action speaks louder than words, or as one of the Popes of my lifetime stated: our age requires witnesses more than preceptors. A healthy and eager, fraternal competition for the sake of saving souls might be fun and might truly edify. My only point would be that I doubt seriously if it depends on linguistic comprehensibility.



  1. I agree with your observations concerning the catechumens during the time of St. Augustine and what fueled their conversion; however, upon reading it, one of my favorite quotations from the Confessions came to mind:

    How I wept when I heard your hymns and canticles, being deeply moved by the sweet singing of your Church! Those voices flowed into my ears, truth filtered into my heart, and from my heart surged waves of devotion. Tears ran down, and I was happy in my tears.

    It seems that, at least in the case of St. Augustine, even the Liturgy of the Word had a great impact on him. This is not to contradict what you say; in fact, I think it is to further strengthen the idea that both beautiful liturgy and a coherent Christian witness ("both/and") are necessary elements of attracting people to the faith nowadays. Thanks for your writings on this subject!

    1. "Hymns and canticles" probably refers to the chanted Office rather than the Divine Liturgy. In any case, Liturgy per se is not a tool either for evangelization or for catechesis, but rather as "source and summit" the expression of something very much lived and sought after. As source and summit, when celebrated properly, the Eucharist certainly steadies the barque of Peter and moves us along, but we have to avoid the flawed "logic" of movements like "Life Team" which privilege bouncy popular music and active participation (if you can't sing or read, then take up the collection)over giving young people the wherewithall to enter into the Mystery of Christ and His Church.

      I may attempt writing on this too. Thank you so much for great insights!


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