East & West

While on holiday in the Dodecanese recently I made my way each Sunday to the town’s church to attend the Divine Liturgy according to the Greek Orthodox Rite. As always I was struck by timelessness of this ancient liturgy, of the sense of being caught up into the heavenly places, but also by the differences with the Sunday Liturgy of the Western Rite. As far as liturgy goes there is indeed “a wideness in God’s mercy” as Frederick Faber famously wrote. Here are a few observations based just on two Sundays on one Greek island. I’m afraid I have no idea whether what I experienced was typical, but here goes;

  1. The Liturgy is offered in the context of a religious monoculture. The Liturgy is the offering of a whole people, of a place, as well as of the Church. On the island where I was staying, there were no other Christian traditions offering different forms of worship alongside. It would  simply have made no sense. This was an Orthodox community, and Orthodox was what you got.  This meant that the Liturgy was rooted and grounded in its culture in a way which is difficult to appreciate in a pluralistic society like the US, or indeed much of Europe.
  2. This close identification of the Liturgy with the local culture was visibly embodied in the person and role of the parish priest, in and out of church. The person who as it were guarded the gate of heaven in the liturgy, as he moved between the people and the holy of holies beyond the iconostasis, was the same person, highly visible in his cassock, who every day walked the streets of the village, stopping to talk to all he met, who sat in its cafes, and was prominent among those who gathered at the police station when an incident arose one day involving a boatload of illegal immigrants.  This kind of highly visible representative role was familiar to many of us ordained in the 60s in England, but has long since gone.
  3. Participation in the Divine Liturgy was minimal. People stood, or sat, with great attentiveness, and made the ritual gestures with devotion, but in the main were content to observe the rite and listen to the cantors who sang for them. This is a far cry indeed from the full, conscious and active participation encouraged and expected in the West.
  4. Likewise there seemed to be no encounter, no real dialogue, between priest and people. The priest faithfully observed the rite, performed the ritual acts and spoke or sang the ritual words, but there was no direct connection made, no eye contact even. The Liturgy went its own majestic way and the people tagged along. They seemed to need no encouraging word, no little clerical ad libs, no lifting of the spirits with humour. They evidently felt supremely privileged simply to be there.
  5. Of the congregation of about 60 or so local people, only 3 received Holy Communion, whereas everyone, visitors included, went forward at the dismissal to receive the blessed bread, or antidoron. Although delighted at this gesture of inclusion not customary in the West, I was saddened to think that here was exhibited that evasion of direct encounter with the Holy, historically common to both West and East. At various periods of our history, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant communions have each found ways of spurning the gracious gift of God with barriers and prevarications of our own making. It was a pity, though  perhaps also a little reassuring, to find that in this respect at least East and West were exactly the same.
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23 comments

  1. Interesting. I wonder what the results would be if the members of that congregation were polled as to whether they felt their participation had been “minimal.” My guess is many would be shocked at that characterization.

  2. +JMJ+

    I was about to write a very similar comment, Scott. What would the responses of the faithful have been if they were asked about the degree and nature of their participation in the Divine Liturgy? (Are they bothered by seeing the priest’s back? Or by the iconostasis? Do they feel like these are things they need to be liberated from?) I’d also like to hear their thoughts on #4.

    As for #4, how do we know that the people were not also going on the “majestic way” of the Liturgy, not merely “tagg[ing] along”? I happen to find it intriguing that “no little clerical ad libs” or “humour” was required to lift their spirits: to think that the ritual words Ano schomen tas kardias were enough.

    My comments on #5 are already in a much older thread on PT. While I am saddened by the lack of unity among Christians, I think the “barriers” are appropriate. While Rev. Giles describes the Eucharist as a “direct encounter with the Holy,” I think it would also be fair to consider the antidoron (or the coffee-and-donut social) a “mediate encounter with the Holy,” no?

  3. While I can appreciate that there is some spiritual experience had by both those attending the Greek Orthodox liturgy as well as Rev. Giles, let’s not confuse matters by using the word “participate” to describe what they experienced. There is a reason that Sancrosanctum Concilium used that word – so that the people, as well as the priest, took an active (and full and conscious) role in the prayers of the liturgy. To describe the standing, the sitting, the gestures and even the “attentiveness” as “participation” is to twist the meaning of the word.

    Did those in attendance have some sort of liturgical experience? Of course they did. But to call it “participation” is like telling the poor that they are “participating” in the wealth of others because they are watching them spend it.

    1. +JMJ+

      There is some spiritual experience had by those attending the Greek Orthodox liturgy… but to call it participation

      To me that sounds so condescending, as if you are being so gracious to acknowledge they have some sort of “experience”.

      There is a reason that Sancrosanctum Concilium used that word – so that the people, as well as the priest, took an active (and full and conscious) role in the prayers of the liturgy. To describe the standing, the sitting, the gestures and even the “attentiveness” as “participation” is to twist the meaning of the word.

      As was said before and after Vatican II, participation is FIRST of all internal. I might go so far as to say the person who is verbally making responses without “attending” (as the Greek liturgy so often calls them to) is participating less than the person who “attends” but does not verbally respond.

      Could you go into greater detail in your analogy to the poor and the rich? Just how do you see the two situations being similar?

    2. I’ll just chime in to say that the restriction of “participation” to vocal participation, which seems to be what Dcn. Weigel is doing, is a bit arbitrary. I think it would certainly be better for the people to join in the responses/chants, but there is nothing tricky or capricious, no twisting of meaning, in saying that “participation” is not exhausted by vocal activity.

      I think in the reformed Roman Rite we’ve got vocal participation out the wazoo. I’d like to see more of the other three types of participation described by Bp. Untener — lets get people beating their breast at the confetior and bowing during the creed — let have the dialogs between priest/deacon and people sung — lets have significant silences after readings and after communion. I suspect that all the verbal busyness in the current rite contributes to the incredibly didactic understanding of what goes on at liturgy that I find among undergraduates.

      1. +JMJ+

        lets get people beating their breast at the confetior and bowing during the creed — let have the dialogs between priest/deacon and people sung — lets have significant silences after readings and after communion

        Amen, amen, and amen! I’m a bit baffled by people who are following along with the prayers of the Mass in a missalette (or comparable book) and yet are oblivious to the directions to beat the breast during the Confiteor or to bow during the Creed. And if their books do not mention such things, shame on those books for misrepresenting the bodily participation expected of us at Mass!

      2. The Orthodox certainly out do us when it comes to language of gesture. Their many, often multiple, signs of the cross probably take up more time than everything else we do put together except singing.

        Then there is the great amount of standing which certainly takes more effort than sitting or slouching.

        An then there are the full prostrations with knees, hands, and head during penitential seasons. Obviously something that works easier in churches without pews! Some of those services make you feel like you have gone to the gym.

        I like balance and rhythm in the liturgy. I liked the alternate singing and listening as in the old chanted office. I liked singing the antiphon, sitting for the psalm, rising and bowing for the doxology, then singing the antiphon standing.

  4. My suspicion is that most of the people in this monocultural would see the Liturgy as being worship done by their whole community, and would attach less importance to what they do individually as we in the West tend to do.

    When visiting a local Orthodox Church here I have been amazed at how comfortable people are coming late to services, going right up front, saluting the Icon of the Day, lighting a candle and then integrating themselves into the ongoing worship. They are obviously going through a ritual transition into a state of prayer, and people who are already praying don’t see this process as interrupting their prayer.

    My local Orthodox priest at Forgiveness Vespers each year apologizes for anything that he might have done to distract people from their prayerfulness at liturgy. Seemingly he sees his attentiveness and prayerfulness as a model and means for facilitating that of others. The same could be said of the cantors and choir. They seem to see their roles as being the background to the prayerfulness of the community rather than taking its place.

    The local orthodox here give out the Propers for each Liturgy which are done in polyphonic harmony that is relatively easy to do. The young people of the parish, including the young women are being increasing given roles as cantors, readers, etc. In this country you have to involve people because they have choices. They have at least as much if not more participation than our local Catholic parishes.

    1. Jack R–When visiting a local Orthodox Church here I have been amazed at how comfortable people are coming late to services, going right up front, saluting the Icon of the Day, lighting a candle and then integrating themselves into the ongoing worship. They are obviously going through a ritual transition into a state of prayer, and people who are already praying don’t see this process as interrupting their prayer–

      Jack,

      I found your old post! I knew you were something of a subject
      matter expert on Orthodox. Actually attending an Orthodox church makes you much more of an expert than me!

      That’s why I don’t understand why you didn’t bring this up in our later discussion on ‘Chattering’. Since I haven’t had your experience, I must ask: How are the Orthodox with ‘chattering’? and does the priest stand on the forward side of the altar and ‘face the people’ when praying? Is it OK for you to take Communion in the hand? (assuming you do communicate which I believe in many circumstances is even a good thing to do)

      Would you say – ecumenically- we have a lot to learn from the way the Orthodox worship?

      1. George,

        In many ways comparing the Byzantine and Roman Rites is like comparing apples and oranges. For example the approach to Lent is very different.

        Rome developed daily Eucharistic liturgies. The Byzantine tradition is a weekday Liturgy of the Presanctified which is combination of vespers, liturgy of the word, and communion service.

        The Byzantine approach is far more positive. It is the Lenten spring. They keep the alleluia. They begin with Forgiveness Vespers in which they sing the psychological equivalent of our Exultet while individually forgiving each other for offenses during the past year. In the words of that hymn, “let us forgive each other, lets us greet other as brothers, even those who hate us because of the Resurrection.”

        The first week of Lent is dominated by the Great Canon of Andrew of Crete which could be seen as a very individualistic, penitential service, since it is like a sung homily calling to repentance. However the part of the long service that is not usually sung in parishes consists of the Old and New Testament Canticles that go with the penitential antiphons and are the history of salvation. So it is like you are listening to one half the instruments in a symphony and are supposed to hear what the other ones are playing.

        The lesson I have taken from my long experience with the Byzantine Liturgy (beginning when I was in high school) is not that it is a better way of doing liturgy but that there are different ways of doing liturgy, and we can learn from those differences.

        So be wary of dropping into a local Orthodox Church expecting to pick up points for Catholic liturgy debates. Both my Liturgy of the Hours and my Liturgical Year courses were from Fr. Taft which have been helpful in figuring out what is going on and putting that in historical perspective.

  5. I attended a Greek Orthodox liturgy once (here in the US), and what the author described above what pretty much identical to what I experienced (people coming late, reverencing icons, etc). It was considered a very traditional – and very Greek – church where even the sermon was Greek. The church had seating for maybe a third of those in attendance, and most did not receive communion. A fellow Catholic I was with thought that the people were running off with the Eucharist, as he didn’t know about the blessed bread (antidoron). I found it very beautiful and holy, though difficult to follow because for the liturgy of the faithful I had to stand in the vestibule with the other non-Orthodox and watch through the vestibule doors.

    As for how much they participated, I wouldn’t dare to say. To me, they definitely did seem to participate in their own unique way. My encounters with the orthodox suggest that they are quite fulfilled by their experience in the liturgy.

  6. Before we make the “West” a paragon of active participation, we need to take into account Bishop Untener’s data on videos from Masses. He maintained the congregation has little to do
    http://www.npm.org/Articles/Ritual&Community.pdf

    He classifies four major ritual languages “spoken” at Mass: silence, movement and gesture, the spoken word, and the musical word. How much of each of those languages do the members of the congregation get to “speak” in an hour-long Mass?

    Timing video with a stopwatch he discovered: three-and-a-half minutes of movement during the Pax and communion, at most sixty seconds of silence at the pauses during Mass. If there is a creed, the congregation gets to speak for ninety seconds. If there is no creed, fifty-eight seconds. That includes every “Amen,” every “Lord, have mercy,” every spoken word assigned to the congregation. Congregational participation in the sung word varies from parish to parish and from liturgy to liturgy. But, generally, if there is a sung Gloria, most members of the assembly get to sing for eight to nine minutes.

    That is a maximum of 15 minutes or just 25% of the Mass.

    My guess is that far more than 25% of a Greek Liturgy is taken up with chants by cantors and choir. IF the people chant along with the choir, their participation probably exceeds ours, IF NOT, then it is probably far less. If we don’t sing at Mass we have only 6 minutes of participation as defined above.

  7. My revisionist TEC bishop told me (while I was still a priest) that I couldn’t love my people with my back to them. I was a traditonalist and insisted on facing east – as “middle” between west (congregaton) and east/Sun/Beth-el. In Holy Tradition, as in Scripture, God meets us at the sacred center. That is part of the mystery that the Latin Church has forgotten, and Anglicans especially.

  8. At the risk of starting an endless discussion of what ‘participation’ means I would like to point out that being an Orthodox Christian does not require participation in a Western Christian sense. The Divine Liturgy in our understanding is not limited to the service that takes place in church. It exists outside of time and is an eternal act. The church service is the closest point of contact between that eternal service and what we can achieve here in the world. To an Orthodox Christian, therefore, attendance in church is meant to be a normal extension to normal life and normal life is an extension of the Liturgy.

    One should make an effort in church but if one arrives late, well, that happens in the real world, too. If one prefers (as I do) to listen to the chanters and not sing much it is because this is how I normally behave. This does not mean that I am not praying. It also means that I am not necessarily praying the same prayers as in the Liturgy. I have my own concerns and problems and with the best will in the world I may not be able to participate in the words of the Liturgy but I am participating by asking God for forgiveness. And in time I can tune back into the Liturgy.

    Also worth emphasizing is, as some commentators have said, for us making the sign of the cross, venerating icons, praying silently, lighting candles and standing are, indeed, participation. We do not need to limit our participation to bad choral singing, but we can do that too if we wish.

    1. I don’t want to take the thread off into a pointless Latin Mass tangent, but I sometimes wonder what the Eastern Orthodox (and Eastern Catholics) think when Roman Rite Catholics harshly criticize what they consider to be the major impoverishments of the old Mass since many of the things considered backwards are things that still define the various Divine Liturgies. I’m thinking specifically of Eastward worship, having a physical boundary between the sanctuary and people, the one year lectionary that lacks old testament readings, no lay-ministers giving communion or reading, people not vocally responding, wide-scale usage of non-vernacular languages for worship, fancy vestments and “pomp,” the exclusion of “popular” worship music in favor of chant, etc. While I’ve read harsh criticism of the old Mass by Orthodox, I would say that it is still closer in terms of look, feel, and mood to their Divine Liturgies than typical Catholic Mass today is.

      Is there a “good for thee, but not for me” mentality by both sides, or is it something Eastern folk consider to be worrisome from an ecumenical standpoint?

  9. With all due respect (and I mean that), numbers 3-5 tell me this person is pretty clueless about Orthodox piety and worship.

    1. Dear Ms. Blackburn,
      With all due respect – I’m not an Eastern myself, but even I know that the non-reception of Communion is a pastoral problem which many in the East have been trying to address for a long time. Thus, #5 is a point well taken, I think, and it’s not right for you to say the author is “clueless.” I write this with great respect for the Eastern tradition, but that doesn’t mean everything is perfect there.
      awr

  10. I am always happy to see people go to Holy Communion. As a western convert, I would agree that frequent reception is a good thing-as long as it is reception that has been properly prepared for. Perhaps most of the people were not properly prepared, which means that they should refrain from receiving. The issue would be then, why do they not properly prepare? When I was a Roman Catholic, and working for the church, I was scolded by my employer/priest for refraining from reception one day when I did not feel like I was prepared. He said people might wonder what I had done wrong! I prefer the Orthodox “problem” in the sense that a least you don’t feel pressured to go when you shouldn’t. I’ll stand by my criticism of 3 & 4-I used to say stuff like that when I was a Roman Catholic visiting Orthodox churches. I really didn’t “get it” even though I thought I did. I’m sure you do respect the Eastern tradition, and certainly everything is not perfect-but there is a huge difference in understanding and perception from the inside. Peace to you. I hope your visit was a pleasant one.

  11. As an Orthodox Priest I encourage people to sing and recite as they feel led but the point of our Liturgy is the worship of God and sometimes the greatest form of worship in our world of 24 hour communication is simply a silence that allows God to be heard for a change.

  12. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that all comments on my posting, with the exception of Fr Ruff’s intervention, get tangled up in the definition of ‘participation.’
    It is the issue of the blessed bread which is the real challenge. How is it that Christians in both East and West have at various times developed ways of evading the Sacrament, either by ring-fencing it with special requirements (e.g. sacramental confession) or inventing second-best alternatives (spiritual communion, or alternative worship forms, or the blessed bread).
    Insistence on being ‘properly prepared’ could be a sign of deep devotion, or a spiritual cop-out. Who’s to say?
    When God gives us an extravagant gift, why can’t we just accept it? Why do we get so inventive in avoidance?

  13. Jack R. –The lesson I have taken from my long experience with the Byzantine Liturgy (beginning when I was in high school) is not that it is a better way of doing liturgy but that there are different ways of doing liturgy, and we can learn from those differences.—

    Jack,

    Who’s debating? I’m just trying to learn! Your post addressed questions I had not even thought of asking and none that I did ask. Is it safe to say you don’t want to answer my specific questions?
    🙁 Please recall, they were–

    –How are the Orthodox with ‘chattering’? and does the priest celebrate ad orientem or facing the people? Was it OK for you to take Communion in the hand? (American Catholic style)–

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