Sunday, June 8, 2014

Vespers of Pentecost - Unleashing the Spirit

There are still times when events or experiences convince me of the limits of the visual arts, including both film and photography. Sometimes the naked eye and the physical insertion of yourself into an ambiance provides an incomparable experience. I had one of those last evening in the Kyiv Pokrovsky Monastery Saint Nicholas Church. It is the big church of a female Orthodox monastery just a short walk from home. Both for our Ukrainian Greek Catholics and for the Orthodox, first vespers of Pentecost are quite solemn and well attended. Not thinking so much about that, my intention was to show a house guest the monastery. I have been to the monastery, usually with guests, a number of times over these three years, but for me personally this time was exceptional.

As any Byzantine Church, St. Nicholas of Pokrov is oriented; the apse it toward the east. As is often the case with Orthodox Churches, the walls of the church are uniformly darkened from candle soot to the point you can hardly make out any of the frescoes on the walls. In recompense, because it is a wealthy monastery the iconostasis and numerous shrines throughout the church sparkle with gold to the point of ostentation. St. Nicholas has a towering iconostasis in brilliant gold: not so much a distraction as a striking invitation to focus on Christ as Oriens, the Dawn from on High. Either by custom or because of the exterior scaffolding over the main west entrance to the church, you enter on the north side and find yourself, despite a side chapel and a couple of shrines, right in the midst of the church. The evening office was being sung and the priest (unseen) was alternating with the nuns' choir. There are no pews or general seating in a Byzantine church, the nuns not in choir where scattered about among the laity, all assisting silently, most standing.

What struck me was that different than most Orthodox churches and even than St. Nicholas as I have otherwise experienced it, there was none of the usual milling around of people absorbed in their own devotions, signing themselves, bowing and kissing the accessible icons and relics. All stood in ordered rows, with heads slightly bowed, obviously absorbed in prayer. The rich, spiritual attention of the scene truly touched me with joy and inspired from the depths of my heart a fervent prayer for the recovery of this which was once our common heritage: orientation toward Christ and silent attentiveness to a prayer which is both ours and on our behalf.

That being said, I guess I sort of want to respond with this post to a question raised by Fr. Z. after reporting a list of advantages for priests in celebrating the Liturgy ad Orientem. He asked for input on what then would be the advantages for the congregation. My response to Father would be very simply that by not restoring our ancient tradition of orientation in worship, which we share with the Byzantine world, we are depriving our people and ourselves as priests of that which is needed for worship, focus on Christ. Orientation and an attentive silence are a sine qua non for doing that work which God calls us to do in worship, caught up to the Heavenly Court in the company of the angels and saints.

We do not have the tradition of the iconostasis and brilliant gold probably should be reserved to rich, Orthodox, female monasteries founded by pious Russian princesses in the 19th Century. We do have the tradition of the high altar and the Cross of Christ on high. We've been too distracted with horizontal exchanges which are proper to gathering spaces outside the sanctuary. After nearly fifty years, it is time to make haste to come home to the tradition of always and everywhere and restore our focus. A congregation deserves no less than the best.



  1. I don't remember where I read it (maybe Mosebach's book The Heresy of Formlessness), but one author likened the beauty and rich decoration of the old vestments, which was most intricately done on the side the people saw -- the back -- to a sort of iconostasis in the Western Church.

    1. Fair enough, but the spirit of our Liturgy is different. Both traditions have beautifully vested ministers, but they are "moving targets" of our contemplation. The correspondence is between iconostasis and high altar with crucifix or Pantocrator above in the apse. Even where we find the Rood Screen in our tradition, it is always a throne for the Crucifixion.


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