Things I Like About Eastern Christianity (Part 1)

As you might guess from some of my earlier posts on Pray Tell, I appreciate Eastern liturgies – mainly the Byzantine tradition – and I think the Roman liturgy can learn a lot from them. This does not have to do with a mixture of incompatible traditions. It is rather a mirror that helps me to understand what the characteristics of my own tradition are. It can also be a good safeguard against absolutization of one own’s theological, spiritual, and esthetic one-sidedness.

I would like to post some thoughts on Eastern Christianity every now and then: as far as I understand it, appreciate it, and regard it as an inspiring background for Westerners.

So here is part one:

At first sight, Eastern liturgies look quite chaotic. Clerics and cantors have little talks every now and then. They perform gestures and processions in a somehow casual way. People come late. People leave the service somewhere in the middle and return after a few minutes. People walk around in the church whenever they like. And no one seems to find this chaos disturbing or distracting.

It took me a while to understand the mystery behind it. Western liturgies follow an important ritual principle: Either you are in, or you are out. “Being in” means: listen carefully to what the reader reads, sing the hymns that we want to sing together, answer to the priest when he greets you. Stay focused. Anyone who is not focused annoys the others. Of course, we have found ways to deal with crying babies, laughing altar boys, slamming doors, creaking pews etc. But all this disturbs us in our concentration on the liturgy. Western liturgy has a clear focus, and that is why it is hard work to deal with disturbances.

Eastern liturgies follow a different ritual principle. An Eastern liturgy is like a busy marketplace: It is a gathering in a wide area (often without pews, the people casually standing around), and things are going on (mainly, but not only at the altar). There is not always a clear focus, there are several things happening at the same time (e.g. a chant sung by the choir, a prayer recited by the priest, and adult altar boys preparing something that comes next). There is not always anything to observe because some things happen behind closed doors. Large portions of the liturgical texts are always the same, so it is not necessary to be focused: you will become more familiar with them step by step over your entire life, even when you do not listen carefully every single time.

In this type of celebration, you can decide on your own whether you want to be very close to the events – then go near the altar, listen to the prayers and the chants, join the choir and become a singer, or maybe become a deacon or a priest – or whether you prefer the periphery. Are you insecure in your faith? You do not have to do anything, just stay somewhere in the marketplace as long as you feel well. Do you have kids? Let them play inside or outside the church, just have a look at them. Are you a guest? You do not have to play a role, you can be an observer.

In Western liturgy you must decide: am I in, or am I out?

In Eastern liturgy, your participation in the sacred play is steplessly variable.

Once you understand this ritual principle, the chaos turns into a sort of spiritual freedom that the strict and precise Western culture cannot (and does not even want to) offer in the same way.

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4 comments

  1. Beautiful reflection. One of my biggest “complaints” against Western Liturgy is that is it so open to disturbances. Also the repetitions and seamless transitions from one part of the liturgy until the other helps with the sense that the liturgy is one prayer and not just composite of individual parts.

  2. What you are describing is nothing like my church. Furthermore, you might need to be more specific when you say Eastern liturgies since there are several liturgical traditions in the Catholic Church. As far as being a chaotic marketplace my church is nothing like that. When I look down from the altar everyone is participating and we encourage participation. Even during the week our cantor is hard at work preparing ways to help people participate. In addition, there is always a clear focus and sometimes with the greatest precision. Ritual preparation may not be the same but it has a focus. Things might be hidden but its for the propose of the reveal. Also, I know I can speak for other Byzantines when I say I wish our liturgical texts were always the same. Sometimes we must spend several hours a week to prepare for the liturgy, especially during Lent, the liturgy of St. Basil is a lot of work. I could go on but I think you get the point. I think what you are describing is more of a cultural setting and not the liturgical setting. In fact, if I want to chaos I would go up the street to the Spanish mass. Talk about people coming and going….Hope you have a blessed Lent.

  3. I encountered “chaos” when I attended a Greek Orthodox liturgy (people arriving at all times, coming and going, lighting candles and praying devotions, etc), while things were more orderly at the Eastern Catholic (Byzantine) liturgies I’ve been to. I didn’t really perceive the former group as participating less than the latter.

    I personally find the Eastern rites I have experienced appealing for many of the same reasons I find the old Latin Mass appealing. They are all immersive and beautiful even when not celebrated perfectly and they don’t expect a congregation to act in lock-step conformity.

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