An Introduction to Orthodox Liturgical Praxis

by Bernard Brandt

Explanatory note: this is the text of an address which I gave in early October of last year at a Roman Catholic conference on Liturgy which took place at Colorado Springs, Colorado. I hope that it might be of help to someone.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit:

O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who Art everywhere present and fillest all things, treasury of blessings and giver of life: come and abide in us, cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One. Amen.

Your Grace, venerable Fathers, honored Doctors and religious, ladies and gentlemen.

I have found that every lecture that has moved or informed me has begun with a story or a joke. I hope that you will therefore indulge me in telling you this one:

The abbot of a small monastery was once unpleasantly surprised to find a letter from his Bishop, informing the abbot that the Bishop would be visiting his monastery in a week’s time. The surprise was an unpleasant one because this Bishop had the bad habit of closing churches, abbacies and monasteries, selling their lands, and pocketing the profits for himself.

After much prayer and thought, however, the abbot resolved upon a plan, which he hoped would help him and his monastery. So, when the Bishop arrived in the morning, a week later, the abbot knew what to do. The abbot received his Grace with all grace, brought his Grace gifts of wheat, wine, salt, and oil, and led the Bishop into the monastery’s small chapel, where the monks sang Matins, Lauds, Prime and Terce. This led directly to a full missa cantata, which ended by one o’clock that afternoon.

At the end of the Mass, the monastery, with the Bishop in tow, quickly entered the refectory, where they ate a quick, meager and late breakfast of gruel and cabbage soup. Perhaps twenty minutes later, though, monks, abbot and Bishop had returned to the chapel, where they sang Sext, Nones, and First Vespers, which last ended at sunset.

While the abbot had quietly promised the Bishop another brief meal of beet soup before they were all to return to complete the day with Second Vespers, Compline and the ominiously titled Midnight Office, the Bishop abruptly informed the abbot that he had forgotten another duty, and that he would need to leave immediately. After assuring the Bishop that there was an inn with good food an hour’s ride hence, the Bishop scurried away, boarded his carriage, and rode off, long before the monks could give the Bishop a proper send off in prayer.

But as his little flock of monks was gathering around the abbot, and waving their goodbyes to the departing Bishop, the abbot quietly remarked to them, “Truly, it is as our Lord has said: “This sort can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.”

The topic of my address is on the praxis of Byzantine Orthodox liturgical worship. You might well ask why I, a layman, without formal theological education, should claim expertise on this or any other subject. Please therefore allow me to begin by presenting a rather odd curriculum vitae, which might explain matters.

I was born, baptised, and educated as a Roman Catholic, having gone through a Los Angeles parochial grade school in the years before Vatican II, and to a Roman Catholic High School in the years thereafter. I will note that one of my fellow alumni, a year before me, was the poet and scholar, Dana Gioia, with whom I had had some acquaintance. While I had been an atheist and agnostic in my high school years, by the time that I had received my baccalaureate degree, I had become both a theist and a Christian. After a long search among the Christian churches, I came to the conclusion that the Early Church of the apostles, martyrs and confessors was the true center of Christ’s Church, and that that Church had two descendents and successors: the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches.

In choosing between those Churches, I was drawn to the Roman Church, after a thorough reading of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I was impressed with the decree on Divine Revelation, which spoke of the three means by which the Holy Spirit has spoken to the Church—Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium; with The Decree on the Church and its presentation of the apostolic nature of the Church; with the Decree on Ecumenism, with its plan for a dialogue which involved neither indifferentism nor triumphalism, or the Decree on Non-Christian Religions, which generously stated that Christians could gratefully accept from the successors of Lao Tze, the Gautama Buddha and Confucius (among others) all that is true in those beliefs.

I was also (and remain) most impressed with the man originally named Karol Wotilja. At a time when the most fruitful branch of modern philosophy was phenomenology, when Edmund Husserl was its prime exponent, and when the Analecta Husserliana was the major periodical presenting the work of Husserl and his school, an entire issue of that work was devoted to a treatise written by the then Archbishop of Krakow. I was even more impressed to learn that the good Archbishop was also a major figure in the Solidarity movement of Poland. And so, near the beginning of the pontificate of His Holiness, John Paul II, I made an appointment with a priest in my local parish, made a confession of my sins, and reentered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Alas, I was afterwards introduced to Roman Catholic liturgy as celebrated in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, during the episcopate of his Grace, and later, his Eminence, Roger Cardinal Mahony. My experience was made worse by my having read the book, Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1977. In the ten or so years of my worship there, I could count the number of times that I experienced a reverend and well served Mass, without at least one major liturgical malfunction, on the fingers of one hand. In short, it seemed that what the Archdiocese and its clergy were saying was a bitter paraphrase of what Henry Ford said about his Model-T: “You can have any mass you want, as long as it is bleak.”

And then, nearly thirty years ago, I happened to find a cassette tape of the Eastern Catholic monks of Chevetogne, singing Russian Monastic Vespers. I was so taken by what I found there that I prayed to God for a solid month that I be sent to a church where they prayed as those monks had. And God answered my prayers. I was led to St. Andrew Russian Catholic Church on the very week that Fr. Alexei Smith was ordained to serve the Divine Liturgy there. I quickly learned the music and joined the choir to sing at his ordination liturgy, and I have been singing at St. Andrew’s ever since.

As a brief note, St. Andrew’s is one of three Russian Catholic Churches in the United States; the other two are in San Francisco and New York. Fr. Alexei was originally a parishioner of St. Andrew’s, who entered into the Melkite seminary in Boston, and took courses there, at the Boston Theological Union, and at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary, where he received his theological degree. In addition to being the pastor of St. Andrew’s, he has also long been the head of Ecumenical Affairs for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I am also happy to say that he is one of the three finest homilists in my experience, and is both my confessor, and my friend.

For the twenty-seven years that I have been there, Fr. Alexei has worked both diligently and hard to make St. Andrew’s as genuinely Orthodox in its liturgical worship as possible. And I believe that he has succeeded admirably. I am happy to report several examples of Orthodox, or a renowned scholar of Orthodoxy, saying just that about St. Andrew’s. The first is the former Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) of the Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of San Francisco and the West, who wrote that “St. Andrew’s Russian Catholic Church is more Orthodox in its worship than many churches in my own diocese.”

The second example is from the Right Reverend Archimandrite Robert Taft, who was kind enough to visit our parish in the spring of 2013 for a month. After his first liturgy with us, he remarked to Fr. Alexei, “Wow, you guys are really kosher.” And later, after attending our first Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, Fr. Taft said to Fr. Alexei, “You do things more extensively here than when I was at the Russicum in Rome.” Finally, we have had a great number of visitors from many Orthodox churches who have told us, in varying ways, that “If it weren’t for the prayers that you offer in the litanies to the Pope in Rome, you would be worshipping exactly like us.”

I offer all of the above in an attempt to demonstrate that for nearly the last thirty years I have been spiritually formed by my presence and service in an authentic Byzantine Orthodox church, at least in terms of its worship. I have also had the great honor of attending and helping to serve at hundreds of Orthodox liturgies and services. In short, while I have been and remain a spiritual child of the Western Church, I have also become by adoption a child of the East as well. I would like to offer you some observations as regards what I have learned in the course of that adoption.

As a final note before I begin those observations, I will refer in my talk to the work of scholars; not as a fellow scholar, but in appreciation of who have helped me to better understand my own experiences.

1) Mimesis

One of the first things that I experienced was the need to learn a great deal more in the way of texts and music. In the West, we have an ordinary of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, propers of the day, and these days, four additional hymns, a sung responsorial psalm and perhaps a sung litany before the Sanctus. I had had twenty years of experience in singing in Western church choirs, and my experience was that the choir would sing, then the priest or deacon or reader would say something, and then we would sing something else, and so on until the Mass or service ended. There was plenty of time to dawdle, or to daydream.

Not so with the Orthodox liturgy or other services. I have counted more than thirty, and sometimes up to forty, litanies, antiphons, hymns, troparia, kontakia, prokeimena and other sacred songs that the choir and congregation sing in one Divine Liturgy. And there is a constant chanted interchange between priest, deacon, choir and congregation between and among those litanies, hymns and songs. All of this makes it necessary for the clergy, the servers, the choirs, and hopefully the congregation, to pay constant attention. As a matter of fact, there are a number of times in the Liturgy where the deacon reminds us to do just that, by chanting: “WISDOM! LET US ATTEND!”

My task of learning the liturgy was made more difficult because my then choir director, Frank Ryan, would switch me from one part of the music to another, according to the needs of the choir that week.

As I wanted not just to sing the Liturgy, but to pray it, I quickly had to develop my sight reading, and I also began to memorize the words and the music in all of its parts. As our choir books had at least ten versions of each litany, hymn, or song, it was a great deal of work. But I found that it was an excellent apprenticeship for becoming a cantor and a choir director, which I was later called upon to do, after my friend, Frank Ryan, fell asleep in the Lord.

My point in bringing this up, however, is to note that this process of mimesis was not unique to me, but that all present at the Divine Liturgy are called upon, to one extent or another, to enter into that process.

As my Liddell-Scott Lexicon tells me, mimesis is that process by which a singer or an actor takes on a song or a part, makes it a part of him or her, and submerges himself or herself in that song or role. For those who serve, and those who sing, mimesis has both an exterior and an interior aspect. That exterior aspect starts with being obedient to the text. My pastor, Fr. Alexei, has told me of an occasion in which a liturgist asked him to explain how he planned his liturgy. In answer, he told her that what he did was to open the Liturgicon, start at the beginning, keep reading until the end, and then stop. I believe that you have a Fr. Z, who puts the same concept in different terms: “Do the red, say the black.”

But while mimesis begins with obedience to the liturgical texts, it by no means ends there. In Orthodox praxis, it means that in reading or chanting the holy texts, one does not work in a vacuum, but one does as others have done. The first place where one learns this is from one’s own church, from hearing and remembering the priests, deacons, cantors, readers, and choir that one has heard there, and repeating what they have done. In the same way, the priests, deacons, readers, and cantors repeat what they have been taught at the cathedrals or the seminaries in which they have been taught. In this, we see reference to what our Lord has said in John 5:19: “Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise.” Orthodox are also warned against ‘creative liturgy’ by the words of the Prophet Jeremiah (48:10): “God’s curse is on those who do the things of the Lord negligently.”

But returning to the process of mimesis, it is also one which has an interior aspect. That aspect begins with the priest, server, reader or cantor making the text a part of one’s self, in much the same way that the Old Testament prophet Isaiah or John the Theologian figuratively consumed the scroll of the law to make those texts a part of one’s self, or to make them, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “part of the furniture of one’s mind.” The purpose of such interiorization is to make the text so a part of one’s self that one can meditate on that text long after the service is done. As we read in the first of the Psalms (which are recited each Saturday evening for the Orthodox Vespers service): “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Ps. 1:1-2)

It is good to remember at this point that in the Orthodox Typikon, the priest or deacon or reader is warned not to attempt to recite the texts of the liturgy from memory, but always to have the appropriate books in front of him (or in the case of some readers, her). I believe that this is done to remain in service to and for the words read. But the result of having those texts available while reciting them is to allow the process of them entering into one’s very being to continue, long after the reading or chanting has been done.

As witness to this process, the Russian musicologist and liturgologist Ivan von Gardner wrote of his experiences in the trans-Carpathian mountains, where otherwise ignorant peasants there, either Orthodox or Greek Catholic, would be able to recite or to chant hundreds of hymns which they had learned in the churches there, and which they would sing congregationally. Likewise, in many Greek, Slavic or Arab Orthodox churches throughout the world, members of the congregations there would learn the treasures of Orthodox hymnography by being present, listening, and quite often by singing. This leads me to the next factor which I learned about Orthodox liturgical praxis.

2) Worship which involves the entire human being.

As Bishop Kallistos Ware notes in his explanatory notes to the five volume translation into English of The Philokalia, human beings, as considered by Orthodox ascetic and liturgical theology, are not a dichotomy of body and mind, but are instead (as is held in both biblical and neo-Platonic philosophical views) a triunity of body, soul, and spirit. This belief has some important consequences in the ways that the Orthodox engage in worship.

Let us begin, as Evagrius does, in his entry at the beginning of the Philokalia, with the body and the senses. We learn all that we do through those senses, and so it is proper that our theological education should begin in the same way. Evagrius notes that while the doors of all five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell) can be used to teach us, the senses of sight and hearing are more noble, and thus, priority should be given to them. This is certainly done in Orthodox liturgical worship, where the architecture of the church, the shape and color of the icons within it, the color and form of the vestments, lights, and other furniture of the church, as well as the sounds of the bells, wooden clappers, and the voices of clergy, readers, choir and congregation are testimony to the uses of sight and sound in the Divine Liturgy.

But even the supposedly ‘less’ noble senses play their part in Orthodox worship: for example, the smell of the incense properly used at the beginning of each Liturgy; the touch of the omophorion or veil of the priest which enfolds the penitent at the point at which Christ, in the icon of his priest, forgives those sins during Orthodox confession; and in the taste of the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, during the communion of the clergy and the people at Divine Liturgy. The Roman Catholic essayist and journalist, Charles Coulombe has noted in one of his essays the importance of senses in worship. I will also note that his first religious experience through the sense of taste was at my parish, St. Andrew’s, while he was a communicant there.

In addition to the five senses in classical psychology, however, I will note that even the two senses discovered by modern psychology have their place in Orthodox worship: balance and proprioception. As for balance, it is a commonplace that most Orthodox worship is done standing (except for the times during Lent when one bows or prostrates one’s self, or during the Kneeling Vespers of Pentecost). And as for proprioception, or muscle awareness, the worshiper is reminded in his worship by the many signs of the Cross (holding the index and middle fingers of the hand together with the thumb, to remind the worshiper of the life-giving Trinity, and the ring and little fingers curled in against the palm of the hand to remind one of the two natures of our Saviour Christ), and by the many bows, prostrations and other liturgical gesture performed by all during the course of the Liturgy and the other services.

While it is a commonplace that Orthodox worship begins with a sanctification of the senses, it certainly does not end there. Orthodox worshippers also seek to worship with the Nous, or mind. What that mind or soul consists of or in requires a bit of explanation, especially these days. Anyone who has spent an hour or so in introspection of the workings of the mind, or who has read Plato’s Republic, knows as viewed from the inside, our minds have three parts: the part that experiences desire or disgust, the part that experiences anger or fear, and the part which speaks or imagines. And I have to stress this: the fact that these are commonplaces does not make them any the less true.

My point in drawing attention to these matters is that most of us are awash in a constant stream of thoughts and feelings, even when in church, and these thoughts and feelings can distract us from any encounter with what is being said or sung there, and more importantly, any encounter with the Lord God which we might find there. It is therefore necessary to take these facts of our nature into consideration in our worship, to help the worshipper better able to put his or her attention on what really matters.

It should not be surprising that Orthodox worship takes this tendency of human nature, and attempts to address it. The Divine Liturgy thus begins with the Litany of Peace, or the Great Litany, in which we ask (among many other things) that we might pray to the Lord in peace, for the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, and for the peace of the whole world. This call for inner peace continues in the Little Litanies between the First and Second Antiphons, and the Litanies between the Gospel and the Cherubic Hymn.

I believe that this repeated prayer works to help the worshiper toward peace in two ways: first, by asking our Lord’s help that we might have peace, and second, because the repeated action and response of the litanies helps to elicit a natural process in us, which recently has been described as The Relaxation Response: a process where by a repeated response we might calm the fight/flight response, and where we might for a time still the flight of desire within us. While some might see this as a justification for what has been called ‘New Age’ spiritualism, I prefer to see it as a fulfillment of a maxim of the Blessed Augustine: Pray as though it were all up to God; Work as though it were all up to you.

But the culmination of this process, whether of prayer, or of the inner workings of the soul, may be found in Orthodox worship with the Cherubic Hymn, which rests in the exact center of the Divine Liturgy, and reads as follows:

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim

And who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity

Cast aside all earthly care. Amen.

This central hymn is sung very slowly, and if necessary, repeated. At its end, and after the priest has repeated prayers which we answer with the response, “Amen”, choir and congregation sing, more rapidly and triumphantly:

That we may receive the King of all,

Who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic host.

Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

In short, we pray that we might cast aside all earthly care, so that we might receive, or have a direct and living encounter, with the King of all.

I would assert, however, that the Divine Liturgy is not simply designed to calm the worshiper of anger and desire, but also to fill the reasoning and imagining mind as well. This requires some explanation as well. The neo-Platonists spoke of two rational minds: the nous logike, or speaking or logical mind, and the nous musike, or non-verbal or musical mind. I believe that these ancient descriptions of the mind have scientific confirmation in the findings of the neurophysiologist Roger Sperry and his many successors: that the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex have separate and parallel functions which go on simultaneously.

While I believe that the psychologists among us would agree with me that those functions are not as simple or demarked as the left brain/right brain paradigm of the 1970s would depict, and may be better described as the difference between direct and indirect focuses, it nonetheless remains the case that modern science agrees with ancient philosophy that the human mind has several functions which can act simultaneously, and several means of simultaneously coding information.

Whatever the source or basis for that concept, however, the neo-Platonic concept of the two minds, or nous logike kai musike, finds expression in the Orthodox practice of chanting words to music in all liturgical gatherings. The Western concept of Low Mass, or a liturgy without chant, is entirely foreign to the Orthodox ethos. And I believe that the Orthodox process of combining word, music and visual images in order to present the saving truths of Christian doctrine has the effect of filling the whole mind of the worshiper with those truths.

But while the Orthodox liturgy has the effect of filling the senses and the mind, its ultimate goal is to unite the spirit of the worshiper with its action. By Spirit, both scripture and the church fathers mean that central awareness, will and energy of the human being. Or, as St. Seraphim of Sarov said in his book, On the Spiritual Life, the human spirit is ‘our awareness and our freedom’.

In Holy Scripture and patristic literature, the human spirit is said to dwell in the heart. While modern humans may be unwilling to agree with what they would think to be such a naïve psychology (or in this case, pneumatology), I believe that just about everyone, save perhaps for strict behaviorists or thorough going materialists, would agree with me and the Fathers that there is such a thing as human will and awareness. And as for those few, I would offer the following reductio ad absurdum: if human beings have no central awareness or will, how can they be aware of this argument, or indeed, of any argument.

In that spirit, then (if you will pardon my pun), the ultimate material goal of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy is to unite the heart, or the inmost awareness and will of the worshiper, with the action of the Divine Liturgy. It is interesting to note that at least one Roman Catholic author has identified participatio actuosa as the union of the human heart with the action of the liturgy, and not (as has been claimed by some, allegedly speaking in the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’) the ability of the congregation to say or sing the words of the priest, the deacon, the readers, or the choir. I believe that I most Orthodox would agree with such a statement, and would agree that it is a major object of the Orthodox worshiper.

3) Iconography

This leads me to one primary aid by which the Orthodox worshiper is united with the action of the liturgy, and that is through iconography, or more particularly, through the Orthodox theology of the icon. In that theology, the icon is not simply a pretty picture used as a devotional aid to worship, nor is it a mere symbol with a heavenly referent. Instead, the definition in the canon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council is that the honor paid to the saints or our Lord Jesus Christ in and through the icons is the honor to be paid to their holy originals.

Thus, the Orthodox believe that the icon, through the grace of God, is a window into the Kingdom of Heaven, and that veneration paid to these ‘treasures in earthen vessels’ is a means whereby the worshiper, through the grace of God, might come into the presence of the angels, the saints, Our Blessed Lady, Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Himself.

But this belief has ramifications not only toward worship and liturgical theology, but in Orthodox sacramental theology as well. Instead of considering the bishop or priest acting liturgically in persona Christi, or in imago Christi, those of the East consider that through the operation of the Holy Spirit, bishop and priest act as the eikon Christou, the ikon of Christ.

But these iconic representations are particular applications of a more general process working through Orthodox worship. And that process is typology.

4) Typology

Near the beginning of my service at St. Andrew Church, I had the great privilege of being invited to take part in an informal seminar in Orthodox liturgical theology, conducted by a then recent alumnus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, a young man by the name of Jim Paffhausen. He has long since gone on to become an Orthodox bishop, first in the Orthodox Church in America, and later, in the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia.

At that seminar, the then Mr. Paffhausen taught me at least two truths about the Orthodox faith which have guided me, and have deepened my spiritual life, ever since: 1) the Orthodox Church, in its liturgical worship, continues the worship of the ancient Temple, and 2) this worship finds its fulfillment in biblical and patristic typology. By ‘typology’, I do not simply mean that process of exegesis or hermeneusis by which figures of the Old Testament are seen in the New Testament, but that process by which important figures of the Hebraic or Christian past are brought into the present in the course of divine worship.

As this liturgical convention is dedicated to the concept of the Temple in modern Christian worship, it should not be surprising that my fellow lecturers have already spoken both eloquently and effectively about the Temple in early Christian worship, and the Old Testament typology of present Christian worship. In the interest of not boring you any more than I most probably already have, I will resist the temptation to plow the ground again that has been more carefully worked by more capable scholars than me.

I will therefore content myself with two observations as to Old Testament liturgical typology, which may possibly not be found elsewhere: 1) that the outer temple of the Gentiles, the inner temple of the faithful, and the central Holy of Holies of the Temple of David and Solomon find their modern parallels in the threefold division of the Christian church into the narthex, or entrance to the Church, the naus or ship of the church, in which the faithful find their refuge and their salvation, and the sanctuary where the sacred mysteries are served and celebrated; and 2) the detailed descriptions of the sacrificial offerings at the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, which detail the wave, the heave, the seeth, the whole burnt offerings, as well as the grain and wine offerings, are not simply sacrifices, but were in fact foods which were shared by the faithful after the Temple worship proper, and that that feast after the service found its sequelae in the New Testament agape feast, as well as the perennial Christian tendency, whether Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, to bring food to share after the Sunday Feast of the Resurrection, after the great Feasts, or after the Feast of Feasts itself, Pascha.

As to the typology of Christian Tradition, I will note that most of it is derived from interpretations of Old Testament or New Testament texts. As to the New Testament texts, I will initially remark that the considerable number of texts in which our Lord has spoken of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the primary text in which Our Lord has given the promise, “Where two or three of you are gathered in My name, there I am in the midst of you” (Matt. 18:20), have found their fulfillment in the invocation at the beginning of the Divine Liturgies of both St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.” To which the people and choir respond: “Amen.”

More particularly, from this, and from the theology which finds its expression in Orthodox worship, Orthodox believe that the Divine Liturgy, whenever it is served, is both a type and a manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Other examples of New Testament typology in liturgy, which help to further or confirm this belief in the Liturgy as a type of the Kingdom of Heaven, is the practice of placing relics of saints under the altar stone or in the altar cloth or antimension, in a type of the vision of the Apostle John in his Revelation of the martyrs who cried from beneath the heavenly altar, or the practice of paving the floors of many cathedrals and churches in marble, as a type of the sea of glass also spoken of in Revelation 4:6.

I would like to note, however, that Christian interpretation of Old Testament texts can be as important in liturgical typology as the interpretation of New Testament texts. As but two examples of this process, I would like to examine two texts from the Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 43 and 44. The first is Ezekiel 43:27-44:4:

“When these days are over, then from the eighth day onward the priests shall offer upon the altar your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being; and I will accept you, says the Lord God. Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be open, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way. Then he brought me by way of the north gate to the front of the temple; and I looked, and lo! the glory of the Lord filled the temple of the Lord; and I fell upon my face.”

This text, which is also used in all Old Testament readings in the Orthodox Matins of marian feasts, would appear to be the reason why early Christian Churches, after the Edict of Toleration of the Saint and Emperor Constantine, altered the model of the temple in their cathedrals and church buildings. For the original Temple had gates to the north, the south, the east, and the west. This text from Ezekiel, and its interpretation by early Christians, would appear to be the basis in Christian Tradition for most church buildings in Byzantine, post-Byzantine, and even non-Byzantine churches to place doors only on the west wall, or if other doors were used, in the north and south walls only.

But there would appear to be an additional reason why most Christian churches after the fourth century had an eastward orientation, and why in many Western churches, there is a procession of clergy, servers, and choir from the West door of the church to the eastern altar:

“Afterwards he [an angel] brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold the glory of the God of Israel came from the east; and the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was like the vision which I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision which I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. And the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and, behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple.” (Ez. 43:1-5)

I must here acknowledge my debt as regards the finding of this text to my friend and choir director, Gabriel Meyer, who allowed me to read the pre-publication text of his history, and as it were, the ‘biography’ of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. One of the theses of Mr. Meyer, which I do not have the time, alas, to do more than touch upon, is that the motive of Constantine and his clergy in demolishing the pagan temple of Hadrian, of excavating and restoring the quarry of Golgotha and the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, in which our Lord Christ briefly lay, and the building of the great basilica there, was to build a New Temple which would rival that of the old, and presently demolished, Temple of Solomon and of Herod the Great.

Finally, as regards Christian liturgical typology, I must note examples of pre-Christian practices of worship, which were, so to speak, ‘baptised’ by their use in church architecture and liturgy. Such examples include the use of litanies with a repeated refrain, which were used in Greek and Roman temples; and the structure of Greek Drama in the liturgy, which drama had two or three main speakers who chanted their lines, in interchange with two antiphonal choirs.

Important to a discussion of Christian church architecture, however, is an examination of the origins of what in the West we call the ‘communion rail’ and which in the East we call the iconostasis, both of which separate the nave from the sanctuary. It appears that it was the practice of Roman Emperors, whenever they or their families were present at any public gathering, to separate themselves from the people by a set of pillars and ropes of waist-height, or in any permanent structure, by a set of pillars and posts. After Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, these pillars and posts used by Early Christians as a type of the Kingdom of Heaven, with the honor originally given to the earthly Emperor being bestowed upon Our Lord Christ and the Holy and Life-Giving Trinity, who are present in both the reserved Body and Blood and in the shekinah, or the Glory of the Lord, during the Divine Liturgy.

While the West preserved the pillars and posts in their original or primitive state, after the Triumph of Orthodoxy, when the iconoclastic controversy had ended, churches in the East began to put paneled icons in the interstices of the pillars and posts, until the icons entirely obscured the view of the action in the sanctuary. In the West, however, and in contrast with Greco-Roman practice, by which all stood in the presence of the Emperor, there began the practice of kneeling in fealty before the local feudal sovereigns, and this custom was similarly translated to Western Churches, where by the sixth century or so, there began the practice of communicants kneeling at the ‘communion rail’ to receive the Eucharist.

As this is a mere introduction to Orthodox liturgical praxis, space and time do not allow me to touch fully upon the nature and extent of liturgical typology. I hope, however, that I have managed, by some of the examples given, to show its importance, not only to Orthodox worship, but to a proper understanding of the reasons for Western Christian worship as well.

5) Theosis

This leads me to my fifth observation as to Orthodox liturgical praxis: that the Divine Liturgy’s ultimate purpose is in the transformation of the worshiper into theosis. While there are hints of this doctrine in the Scriptures (most notably, in Genesis, where we are told that humankind is made in the image and likeness of God, and in the Gospel of John, where our Lord Christ, citing Psalm 82:6, says to us that ‘ye are gods’, the central message of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite, and of other texts which explicate it, is that the purpose of the Mysteries (and of the clergy who serve them) is the divinization or theosis of the worshiper, which is achieved through the threefold path of purification, illumination, and union with God. Thus, the final goal of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy is to assist the worshiper in that theosis, through the synergy or cooperation between God and humankind.

Needless to say, this theosis is not simply accomplished through the initial and initiatory sacraments of baptism, chrismation, and the eucharist, nor by those sacraments which assist us in our several states of life, (or confession, marriage, holy orders, and the oil of anointing), but by the transformation of the human mind and spirit which occurs, or at least should occur, in the mimesis and education of the human being, and in hearing those saving Scriptures and hymns that are chanted and sung, and in seeing the saving truths of Holy Tradition revealed in the icons, architecture, and furnishings of the Church, and which should assist us in our life of labor and of love outside of the divine services.

6) Conclusions

And so, at the completion of my brief excusus into Orthodox liturgy, the question arises: what does Orthodox Liturgical Praxis have to do with Roman Catholic liturgy?

My answer would be this: I would commend you to study Orthodox liturgical praxis further, because it is quite simply the praxis of the Early Church, to which Roman Catholics are heir, and who until fairly recently had continued to practice most of the same things. In saying this, I would remind you of two repeated themes of two important Roman pontiffs: of the Blessed John Paul the Great, who believed that in the Body of Christ, its two lungs were the Eastern and Western Churches, and for that Body to breathe freely, both of those lungs must breathe freely; and of His Holiness, Benedict XVI, that we must study the Christian past in order to bring its treasures into the present and into our worship.

I would also remind you that Tradition, rather than being a dirty word, is according to the Vatican II statement on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, is one of the three fonts, together with Scripture and the Teaching Authority of the Church, by which the Holy Spirit has spoken. The Orthodox would go much farther, and would say that Holy Tradition is the means by which ALL Christian truth has come down to us, the Holy Scriptures included.

I would further remind you that Traditio (and its Greek cognate, Paradosis) it is not simply a noun, but the description of a process: the process of handing something on. While I was in law school, studying the laws of property, this fact came home to me when I learned that in Anglo-Saxon law, the sale of a piece of land was solemnized by what they called the Traditio: in which the owner of the land picked up a clod of dirt from that land, and handed it to the new owner. In short, rather than being a dirty word, Tradition is simply a process of communication, and a process which can be resumed by whoever wishes to do so. All that it takes is something to hand on, someone to hand it on, and someone to receive it.

Finally, from my own experience, I would like to offer two things that might help clergy and periti in their efforts. The first would be the exercise of some caution in applying some of the findings of ‘critical scholarship’ to matters of religion. To that end, I would like to offer for your consideration a poem by the 20th Century English novelist, Thomas Hardy: ‘The Respectable Burgher, On the Higher Criticism’.

I would not have you think that I, like Tertullian before me, am asking “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Rather, I think that there may be problems for a supernaturalist institution such as the Church in applying a deterministic and anti-supernaturalist philosophical system to its dogmas. In short, I believe that the philosophical tools of Athens should be used in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and I believe that that is our common task now.

At last, to end in my beginning, I would like to observe that at least one spirit, which has appeared in the world after Vatican II, has been a dumb spirit, ignorant if not silent, disobedient to its ancestors, and even to the successors of the apostles, which has thrown the Church or its members into the fires of the passions, or into the waters of change. It is a spirit which has attempted to call holy things like Tradition as unholy, and to make unholy things appear to be holy. It is a spirit with which you contend now. Truly, as in my story at the beginning of this address, and as our Lord has promised us, if you have faith as small and as living as a mustard seed, you can and will prevail, and that this sort can only be cast out by study, by repentance, by prayer, and by fasting.

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