Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Getting on and off the train: in praise of Orthodox worship


In the West people like their church services complete; short and manageable, like the good old Catholic or Anglican duo of priest and clerk reciting lickety-split. There are so many Low Masses because the people want them. (The Novus Ordo is a sliced and diced Low Mass junked up with sappy hymns.) Stay for the whole thing and you feel like you've fulfilled your duty. Practical. Let's look at something else I know, my second home, Byzantine Christianity (this is the Orthodox tradition, and we Catholics should not be afraid of the word Orthodox, but there is no Orthodox Church; they're all independent). In its native form it's not like that at all. (Neither is much of medieval Latin Catholicism. Native Byzantine Christianity is also a medieval folk Catholicism.) To understand, first consider something I heard; I forget where: that traditional monks don't see prayer as compartmentalized from work etc. but rather they are constantly in a state of prayer, raising their minds and hearts to God, an awareness and consciousness of God; the work in church only turns that up. That's what "pray without ceasing" in the New Testament (1 Thessalonians 5:17) really means (what started the Russian Pilgrim on his Way in that famous book). So ideally in Byzantine worship the services go on and on and on, for literally several hours: perpetual prayer and a type of the perpetual worship in heaven. Several hours for the Russian Vigil Saturday night (Vespers plus Matins, really Lauds, plus Prime; called the All-Night Vigil) and again several hours Sunday morning for the offices (Matins for Greeks and other Eastern Europeans and Arabs; Terce and Sext for Russians) and Liturgy (Mass, itself over two hours). The Russian midnight round of Easter services really does last just about all night. Turning that state of prayer up or down: the rank-and-file laity DON'T stay for the whole thing and aren't expected to. If you approach native Byzantine worship like Latin Catholic or other Western services you will likely burn out. For the layman the church services are like riding the commuter train: you get on and off as you need. Only the clergy (including subdeacons and readers) and choir, like the driver/engineer and conductors, are there for the duration; few are called to do this (and even there, some choirs have been known to pass around a bottle of vodka). The layfolk receive Communion infrequently (midnight fast like traditional Latin Catholics), only a couple of times a year (again, like traditional/medieval Latin Catholics). Communion prep for the Russians includes going to Vespers, part of the hours-long Vigil the night before, and going to Confession. (If you only receive a couple of times a year, Confession before each Communion has you covered even if you don't use the concept of venial vs. mortal sin; a concept I find comforting, by the way.) Saturday night or Sunday morning, you stop by, buy a bunch of candles at the candle desk, put them in front of your lucky icons and on the panichida table for the dead (the souls in purgatory, we say — prayer for the dead logically presupposes an intermediate state), say your prayers, whatever they may be, chat with your friends, and then be on your way. (In traditional Catholicism East and West the laity actually have a lot of freedom.)

This is an ideal but assuming a society that no longer exists is often unworkable for a parish, so in Western countries both Byzantine Catholics and, less so, Orthodox shorten services. I'll be honest: among our people (Byzantine Catholics) in America much of this has died out, replaced with the American Catholic norm of relatively short Masses for everything. (I see that as an ecumenical opportunity to pray some of the offices with the Orthodox; pray, don't preach, so they all come back and the rite is left in peace.)

But the full form doesn't get more un-Novus Ordo. When Latin Catholics recover their own traditions, then they'll deserve to have the Orthodox take them seriously.

By the way, before I posted this, a Greek-American whose family went to the Old Calendarists in Astoria when he was growing up read it and vouched for its authenticity.

Миръ вcѣмъ!

Pictured: Churchgoers in Moscow.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with what you say. Russians are perhaps the most practical. If there is a concelebration (what happens a lot), one or two priests might come out of the sanctuary at some point during the Liturgy, to hear confessions while the service goes on. Rather dynamic the whole thing.
    The question beyond, in any case, is how much of the Holy Scriptures are the faithful able to receive from the Readings (which are actually sung) and how closer are they able to get to the mystery of Jesus Christ in the context of the Last Supper and the Calvary.
    Without falling in the common place of contrasting the Last Supper with the developed Liturgies of the Church, I think we should reflect on the fact that wandering around the Church kissing icons, doing your prayers in a corner or something else are things that you can normally do at home. Whereas you should focus in the annunciation of the Word, the litanies and the moment of Communion, actions that cannot take place anywhere except in the church.
    As a TLM goer and Sunday Byzantine Liturgy server, I've come to appreciate the reforms of the Novus Ordo too. True that you expect an artificial succession of short acts like in a play, while in the Divine Liturgy you make yourself comfortable when the Great Litany starts because it feels like you're all slowly warming up the engine of the Liturgy.
    But when you see the faithful outside the sanctuary looking to the roof, concentrated in the candles rather than in the litany, others sitting down staring at the floor and barely listening and paying attention to what is going on, then it feels like there's something to be concerned about. I've also felt that in Solemn High Masses where there's music by some author rather than plain chant and you're just sitting listening to a concert and watching a choreography (same happens in Hierarchical Liturgies sometimes).
    Anyway, each Liturgy has its own "pros and cons". You just have to enter in the dynamic of each one to be able to receive the spiritual fruits of them with an open heart. Thanks for sharing this. I found some details funny too!

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