Thursday, June 27, 2013

Western Orthodoxy, in Actuality


       Some concerned Orthodox Christians wonder why the Church of Antioch chose to restore the living tradition of the Western Rite, rather than attempt a return to previous eras before the East and West were separated. These concerns tend to focus on particular elements of liturgy and spirituality that didn’t find their full expression until after the Great Schism tragically tore the seamless garment of the Church in two (a smattering of elements, to be sure, for the western tradition is exceedingly ancient). This includes the texts of certain prayers, musical styles, or the cycle of Psalms in the Divine Office. It includes liturgical feasts such as “Christ the King” or “Corpus Christi.” And it even includes devotional elements, such as the Rosary, or Stations of the Cross. Though much could be said about this, I initially want to focus on three key things that I believe provide the context for everything else. First, the incarnational essence of catholic Christianity. Second, the importance of living patrimony. And third, how the Orthodox Church approaches new cultures when bringing to them the light of the Faith. When these three things are understood, we can get a better understanding of why the Antiochian Western Rite has taken the shape that it has.

“An Infinity of Harmonies”

Catholic Christianity is incarnational in its essence. The mysteries of the faith are embodied and expressed in materiality. Paint and melody, space and language, the full gamut of human expression becomes sanctified by incarnating the Christian Mystery in creation, as the Holy Spirit breathes through the Church. The English mystic, Margery Kempe, put it beautifully:

“From this balance between the total Body and the unique characteristics of every human soul, there arise the great catholic schools of spirituality, all differing according to temperamental and racial traits, yet all in harmony with the dogmatic facts of the one Faith. As twelve musical notes are arranged and woven into an infinity of harmonies, so the clauses of the creeds, by emphasis and arrangement but without omission, are woven into the rich diversity of catholic spirituality.”

Orthodox theologian, Fr. John Meyendorff, put it another way: 

“The Christian [tradition] has been given various forms, and these in turn have gone through various transformations in the course of history, in both East and West, in response to new conditions and in accordance with the peculiar genius of different peoples.”

This interplay of the “genius of different peoples” with “new conditions” that arise, in concert with the Holy Spirit, is the natural and creative force behind the flowering of the Church’s variform tradition. It is both human and God-breathed. The intangible gets “dressed up,” as it were; it is made beautiful and adorned, and over time crystallizes into the broader expressions that the people of East and West left their mark upon. But these expressions always existed within theological and dogmatic unity, like water and sunlight in a spiritual ecosystem. The Church that fought heresy, that came together in the Great Councils, that took the Lumen Christi to the far reaches of the known world, this was One Church. And when this One Church was at its closest unity, in faith and purpose, it was most diverse in its expression.

Living Links with the Past

Since Christianity is incarnational in its essence, and we can see that the great Christian traditions which took form in the first millennium came about as the people of God expressed their faith according to their own genius, it’s important to understand another related aspect of this grand unfolding: living patrimony. Living patrimony is that organic process of receiving from our forebears what they themselves received, growing into it as we are formed and nurtured by it, humbly accepting it as our own heritage, developing it further when “new conditions” arise and necessitate it, and passing it on in living continuity to future generations. This is at the very heart of tradition (in Latin, traditio, meaning “to transmit for safekeeping”).

In his superb work on this subject, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, Dom Alcuin Reid lays out the guiding principles of this process. First, there must be a necessity for any development, otherwise you humbly leave the received tradition be. Second, there must be a profound respect for the received tradition. We must enter into our inheritance, not turn it into what we think it should be. Third, there must be little pure innovation (as Meyendorff says, only when “new conditions” require it). Fourth, newer liturgical forms are then tentatively posited alongside the older forms, so that lastly, the integration of these newer forms can occur, following their acceptance over time. He says, 

“This is the principle of the organic development of the Liturgy in operation. It combines profound respect for the received tradition with an openness to necessary development. Continuity and harmony with Tradition are primary concerns. Liturgical orthopraxy and orthodoxy are thus ensured, without precluding necessary and natural development.”

Father John Meyendorff, puts it more succintly, 

“[L]iturgy resond(s) creatively to the changes of history. The interplay of continuity and change, unity and diversity, faithfulness to a central prototype and local initiative, is unavoidable in the lex orandi of the Church.” 

The key underlying motif in all of this, is that the received tradition comes down to us in an organic process, gradually taking its shape as it passes through the course of human history, responding to the unique needs of the people in every epoch, and in every corner of the world. The importance of this cannot be understated. Our patrimonial context is the very thing that shapes who we are as individuals and as communities; the way we speak and pray, the way we show respect and awe, the way we sing our praises and love our neighbors, these are not things that can be conjured up. To be catholic, in the true and full sense of the term, is to necessarily be traditional. And to be traditional means you work with what has been received, passed on in loving faithfulness. St. Jerome knew this, even in the 4th century:

“The best advice I can give you is this. Church traditions, especially when they do not run counter to the Faith, are to be observed in the form in which previous generations have handed them down.” Letters, 71, 6

 And this should occur even if the tradition got things wrong at times. It is better to restore the living tradition than to forsake it for something else.

In November of 1968, Fr. George Grabbe touched on this while talking to Western Rite parish in Greenwich, CT:

“Life is not static. It is development and growth. This is why it is impossible to return mechanically to forms of Christian life that existed in the West more than a thousand years ago, when it was still Orthodox. To express Orthodoxy again, the western forms must be enriched by the heritage of the centuries of uninterrupted tradition in the life of the Orthodox Church. Its experience...must become your experience and be incorporated into western liturgical forms.”

The unbroken tradition of the Orthodox Church puts it in a unique position to shape the Western inheritance to conform to the fullness of Orthodox experience and life over the past two millenia. This is what the Holy Russian Synod did when it initially put forth recommendations on the Western liturgy, it’s what the Western Rite Commission did when it fulfilled those recommendations, and it’s what the Patriarchate of Antioch did when it established the Western Rite in such a way that the vitality and authenticity of the living Western tradition was preserved, while setting it up to grow into itself in an organic way, as part of the Orthodox Church. And it is what the Orthodox Church always does when it encounters new cultures.

“For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.”

When asked how the Orthodox Church approaches people it evangelizes, Archbishop of Tirana and all Albania, Anastasios Yiannoulatos said, 

“We must accept the expressions of their feelings and their life and not say, 'This is not Orthodox!' What is not Orthodox? Not Orthodox is to be impure, to be dishonest, to be against the will of God, this is unorthodox...Respect for cultures, respect for the dignity of others: this is the beginning, this is the Orthodox attitude. This respect was demonstrated in history, in the Byzantine period, when Cyrillus and Methodius went to the Slavic people. The Russian church also kept this tradition in approaching other peoples— and when they kept this respect for the dignity of others, they were successful. When we forgot it, the result of our own efforts was very poor.” 

One could also point out that this was the attitude of St. Gregory the Great:

 “But it pleases me that if you have found anything either in the Roman, or the Gallican, or any other Church, which may be more acceptable to Almighty God, you carefully make choice of the same, and sedulously teach the Church of the English, which as yet is new in the faith, whatsoever you can gather from the several Churches. For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Choose, therefore, from every Church those things which are pious, religious, and upright, and when you have, as it were, made them up into one body, let the minds of the English people be accustomed thereto.”

These same long-standing principles apply when considering the restoration of the Western Rite to Holy Orthodoxy. Devotional temperaments, customs and gestures, musical and artistic expression, these are how western people “express their feelings and their life.” This is their “peculiar genius.” And these are the aspects that tend to evolve the most over time. The role that Orthodoxy plays is one of channeling these inherent attitudes and ways of enculturating the faith towards fulfillment in the unbroken tradition and experience of the Orthodox Church. As Fr. George Grabbe said, the experience of the Church must become our experience and integrated with our western life.

H. A. Hodges said the same thing years ago, when considering the reintegration of Western liturgical life with Orthodoxy:

“The Orthodox Faith must be capable of expression in terms of the life and thought of western peoples...True western Orthodoxy is to be found by bodies of western people, members of western nations, coming with all their western background, their western habits and traditions, into the circle of the Orthodox Faith. Then we should have an Orthodoxy which was really western because its memory was western – a memory of the Christian history of the West, not as the West now remembers it, but purged and set in perspective by the Orthodox Faith.”
This illustrates why the healthiest approach towards nurturing a Western Rite within Holy Orthodoxy (and the approach adopted by the Patriarchate of Antioch), is to begin with the received tradition of the West, correcting when necessary, supplementing when it’s essential to do so, and baptizing whenever possible. This values and honors the living impulse of faithful catholic Christians that, as we’ve seen, is the driving force behind the reception and transmission of liturgy and spirituality, while preserving the unique qualities that characterize the Western tradition. It avoids the arbitrary nature of choosing the liturgy from a specific time period or location, which is so often done in pursuit of nothing more than historical purity. And it is in keeping with the way the Orthodox Church has always approached new cultures.
What we have in Antiochian Western Orthodoxy, then, is not a puritanical drive to recreate the past, nor a romantic longing for bygone eras. It is something much deeper and more profound than that. It is a restoration of those original conditions of the early life of the Church that produced the unparalleled beauties of Christian tradition, and the greatest Saints we have ever known. The Spirit of God, “moving upon the waters” of the human soul, brings forth life in a harmonious synergy with human initiative. This ancient balance between East and West has been re-established within the undivided Church, the fruits of which we will see more and more as we move into the future united.

No comments:

Post a Comment