Missing East

Given the heavier nature of the previous three posts, I thought I would post something more relaxed while also striving to answer a question that several people have posed to me over the years, namely, “Don’t you miss the Orthodox liturgy?” (Admittedly, this question has been pitched in various ways, some more “polemical” than others.) That question, when it comes from the Orthodox, is usually bound up with their not-incorrect sense that the Church of Rome, at this point in her storied and sometimes tumultuous history, is by and large a liturgical wasteland with only a handful oases to sustain the faithful.

There is no denying that comparing the Byzantine Divine Liturgy to the Novus Ordo Mass isn’t much of a comparison. The former is ornate, reverent, and theologically rich while the latter has, well, its “issues.” This is not to say that the Novus Ordo Mass cannot be served beautifully and in conformity with the classic Roman liturgical principles of elegance and austerity; it’s just that it usually is not. (I am, for the time being, setting aside the more contentious theological matters which surround the new Mass.) A more proper comparison between Byzantine and Roman liturgy should probably be made using the latter’s vetus ordo, that is, the Tridentine Mass, along with the services and rites which were extant up until 1962. There it is easier to discover where these two liturgical forms converge while appreciating the logic and purposes of their respective divergences. For regardless of which rite a person prefers, it goes without saying that the Byzantine Rite is more ostentatious than the Roman liturgy by an order of magnitude or more—and that’s fine. However, for someone who has drunk deeply the aesthetics and atmosphere of the classic Roman Rite, liturgical Byzantium no doubt appears confusing, over-the-top, and needlessly complex. At the same time, an individual acclimated to the ways of the East may find the Tridentine Mass and Vespers dull and uninspired. Both postures are understandable even if they’re not entirely defensible. I doubt very much that there is a coherent and universal principle available by which one can properly judge one form “superior” or “greater” to the other. The criteria which often comes into play on these matters tends to reflect preset theological, ecclesial, and cultural biases more than anything else.

Having been away from full-time participation in Eastern liturgy for well over three years (and by “full time” I mean attending not just the Divine Liturgy, but Vespers/Vigil as well), I can honestly say now that I do miss it, though not because of any dissatisfaction with the traditional Roman Rite per se. You have to remember that I grew up, and then spent much of my 20s on into my very early 30s, surrounded by the Byzantine Rite. It is a part of me—one that I have no interest in shedding despite my shift in ecclesial affiliation. Admittedly I steered clear of it for more than a year after returning to Catholicism, though that was mostly because I wanted to enculturate myself in the “Roman way” before turning back East. Today I am fine with trying to breathe with “both lungs” of the Church’s liturgical patrimony, but Eastern options—outside of private prayers—are slim in my geographical locale. (There is a notable Orthodox presence in West Michigan, though I am not so sure they’d take too kindly to an “apostate” darkening their doorways.) I can, from time to time, still experience the wonder that is the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, but that still leaves a pretty sizable experiential gap that is unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon. And so I have resigned myself to remaining in a state of mild longing for my Eastern roots—a longing which also extends, in measured amounts, to the theology and spirituality of Christian East. I don’t mind that; it keeps my appreciation and love for the Byzantine Rite sharp. In fact, it keeps that appreciation and love fresh; there is always a great joy in my heart whenever I hear a priest intone, “Blessed is the Kingdom…”

0 Comments

  1. The young fogey
    October 27, 2014

    No. I’m far from anti-Eastern. My first traditional real Catholic liturgy was with the Ukrainians 29 years ago. But the Tridentine Mass has everything I need and then some. The only difference is, with us the icons are optional. I’m home but I don’t rule out the Greek Catholic option, either unlatinized or latinized; it would be nice to use again most of the stuff I learned. And since you’re in a new town, why not visit the Orthodox if you want? They don’t have to know your life story.

    Reply
  2. Vito
    October 27, 2014

    Here is the extremely brief version of my story:
    I am a cradle Western Catholic brought up in a very devout Italo-American family. Religion, including liturgy, was important to me. I grew up with many examples of religious and cultural traditions transplanted to the U.S. Our small community and parish church had a large number of Italo-American families.
    I am old enough to remember the pre-VII Mass and something called the Dialogue Mass in which the congregation gave many of the acolyte and choir responses.
    I have been fascinated by Eastern Christianity for many years. Part of the reason is that through my reading of the history and culture of Calabria, Italy, the birthplace of my parents, I learned of the Greek and Byzantine heritage of the region. From my research I discovered that one of the patronal churches of my parents’ town was originally Greek. (I think I have a genetic disposition to Eastern Christianity; I’m saying with a smile) However, my interest was largely confined to reading. That is, until I came to St. Mary’s for the first time—over 15 years ago.
    Our local newspaper had an article written by the pastor of St. Mary’s, concerning the upcoming visit to the church by Mirna, a young woman who was having mystical experiences in Damascus, Syria. One of the manifestations of these experiences was the exuding of pure olive oil, especially from her hands. I thought that I would like to be there for Mirna’s visit. However, and I don’t recall the reason now, I was unable to be there. Sometime later, while talking to my daughter who was doing student teaching at a Byzantine Catholic School, she happened to mention the priest who came to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The name rang a bell. I thought to myself that even with my interest in the Eastern Church I had never attended the liturgy in one. I decided that I would, but which church? Being of Italian background I thought that St. Mary’s being Romanian (a sister language to Italian) might be a good choice. (The Liturgy is in English although Father sneaks in some Romanian at times) And of course, the “priest” connection seemed fortuitous. I should say that at this point I had become troubled by the way many Novus Ordo masses that I had attended were celebrated.
    So on one Sunday morning I attended the Divine Liturgy at St. Mary’s and have been there ever since.
    The pastor is a foreign born former Orthodox priest, married with children. Our parish is extremely small in numbers and really a hodge-podge collection. There is no cantor or choir so the congregation chants our off-key responses. Father is devoted to serving the Liturgy whether there are 2 or 3 or 100.
    I haven’t changed rites.
    Also, I should mention that I have attended a couple of Extraordinary Form Masses and felt a certain unease because I had become used to the almost total occupation with recitation and chanting in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy contrasted with a seeming passivity in the Latin Mass. A period of both sensory and spiritual adjustment would be required.
    The story is much longer and more complicated than I have written, but I think I’ve hit the essentials.
    Vito

    Reply
    1. modestinus
      October 28, 2014

      That makes sense to me in a lot of ways. With respect to Tridentine Mass, whether high or low, I don’t see it as any more “passive” than what I experienced in a number of larger Orthodox churches, especially ones that still used Greek or Slavonic as their liturgical language. Congregational singing is typically confined to smaller-to-medium sized parishes, and even then it depends on the music that’s being used. In brief, the more ornate the chant, the less the congregation participates. I will say that I have felt more “alienated” or “abstracted” from large-sized, ornate Orthodox liturgies than any Tridentine Mass. Perhaps that’s because so much of the “liturgical action” is behind the iconostasis. I don’t know.

      Back in early 2011, when I took my son with me to the Institute of Christ the King’s parish on the South Side of Chicago for low Mass, I was stunned by how quiet it was. For the first six months or more after becoming a full-time Catholic, I only went to low Mass just to get a “feel” for the environment. It also helped me get a better sense of the liturgy, its pace, ethos, etc. And even though my access to the Tridentine Mass outside of Sundays is severely limited up here in West Michigan, I always appreciated the juxtaposition of having a week of low Mass and then high (or at least sung) Mass on Sundays.

      Reply
  3. Diane
    October 27, 2014

    Vito, that is fascinating! I cannot personally relate, because I have zero attraction to the East. But I do share your unease with the congregation’s passivity during the Extroardinary Form of the Mass. I guess I feel most comfortable with the extremely reverent and beautiful Novus Ordo celebrated by our amazing priest, Father Anthony Forte, complete with plainchant antiphons and Latin responses.

    By the way, I am half-Sicilian, and I recently learned that my Sicilian maiden name is Greek — which makes sense considering that Sicily was once ruled by the Greeks. (At one time or another, Sicily was pretty much ruled by everybody. But anyway….)

    Nonetheless, despite this apparent Greek heritage, I am Latin through and through. It’s in my bones. Statues and Novenas forever!

    Reply
    1. The young fogey
      October 28, 2014

      By the way, I am half-Sicilian, and I recently learned that my Sicilian maiden name is Greek — which makes sense considering that Sicily was once ruled by the Greeks.

      Is it Anastasi? (Greek for resurrection: ἀνάστασις.) So you’re Greek. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer lady. Actually that crossover with Italy goes both ways. Some Greek islands used to be ruled by Venice, and some of modern Greek is from Italian, such as the words for door (πόρτα, porta) and kitchen (κουζινα, cucina). Near my town, the Greek pizzeria Colonial Kitchen (Christos and his crew) makes the best local spaghetti sauce.

      Some people living in the heel of Italy still speak Greek! There are centuries-old Byzantine Catholic parishes in Italy (from Greece by way of Albania).

      Reply
      1. William Tighe
        October 29, 2014

        Actually, the remaining Greek-speaking villages are all in the toe of Italy, Calabria (and maybe one or two in Sicily); a friend who visited that region a decade ago photocopied for me a map from an Italian book showing those villages. Much more numerous are those villages, some of them in the heel, in which Albanian is spoken, which stemmed from an influx into southern Italy after the final Turkish conquest of Albania in 1479; cf.:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arb%C3%ABresh

        Reply
        1. William Tighe
          October 29, 2014

          More here:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italo-Greek_Catholic_Church

          and here:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griko_people

          (I was wrong about the heel, but just barely.)

          Reply
          1. Dale
            October 29, 2014

            A very close friend of mine, and a seminary professor, was a priest at one time of the Italo-Greek Catholic diocese of Lungro in Southern Italy. He did once mention that when he was assigned to take confessions in Lent in some of the mountain villages that elderly parishioners would begin their confessions in Albanian, a language he did not speak. This was in the early 1970’s; but his take was that the language was dying out, but that the people’s attachment to their traditions and the Greek rite was very strong. The liturgical language was not Albanian, but Greek in their parishes.

  4. Stephen
    October 27, 2014

    I think one can appreciate both; a high Papal Mass, esp. vetus Ordo as one sees in old newsreels and reading Benzinger, rivals anything from the East for pomp. (I never understood low Mass). I would enjoy seeing a western installation of a bishop or founding of a parish, which eastern versions are among my favorites.
    We are all in the middle of an iconoclastic mega trend in the world, so if it’s on the downward end of its trajectory (I hope),that would be good for all liturgically. Bad timing for the Rite of Paul VI, to be launched at its height.
    More broadly, what do you think of the notion that the ancient Roman rite’s gifts (tautness, austerity, etc) are a function of its catacomb crucible, followed by the survival imperative for the first millennium? And by the same token, the elaborateness of the East is no less derived from the relative era of plenty of its formation? (Not just court ceremony, but a well-fed laity need more time and stuff to enter into the liturgy than those closer to subsistence living?)
    Interestingly, the tables turned in the second millennium (west richer and calmer, east poorer w more war), but by then the liturgical cores were formed and drill exist today.

    Reply
    1. aka
      October 28, 2014

      The extremely poor, post-Civil War Russian emigre communities in the West tended toward longer, fuller, more ‘monastic’ liturgical observance. Orthodox monastics also tend to be rather poor – not always, but – and their liturgical observance is elaborate. Not sure your theory could be seen as a rule, unless we are talking about the formation of a rite alone.

      Reply
      1. modestinus
        October 28, 2014

        I think his point is historical and looks to the formation of the rites, not how they were maintained through the centuries. As we know from Orthodox history, specifically Russian Orthodox history, the idea of “tampering” with the liturgy is so anathema that it can lead to schisms and violent persecutions. There is (or at least was) a mentality that it’s better to do a lot poorly than a little well. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance in Byzantine liturgy which is a hangover from both Byzantine court rituals and monastic accretions which make sense on, say, Mt. Athos but not so much on LaSalle St. in Chicago.

        Reply
        1. StephenUSA
          October 28, 2014

          Indeed. And that leads to the bigger question – what in fact does the job for modern, post-Christian man? Surely the most ancient Roman rite was what starving, war depleted first millenium Rome needed, even as other rites grew to do “the job” in their respective areas. Or is thinking that the standard is to do “the job” a distorted post-Christian standard?
          (ps. On the schism note, one could argue that the Old Believers were right, in that they were rejecting changes by the Pat. of Moscow, who thought that he was re-instituting older elements, but only ended being anachronistic and weakening the Church.)

          Reply
      2. Dale
        October 28, 2014

        I am going to come to the defense of low mass. One thing that one comes to appreciate in the more traditional Roman and Anglo-Catholic tradition is that churches offer the Eucharist daily. The quiet sobriety of the low mass has a certain attraction. How many of us, usually whilst church hunting, especially in Europe, have come across a church where a priest, with perhaps only a very few laity present, quietly offering the Sacrifice of the Mass? It is almost silent and one can even hear the birds singing. It does have a beauty all of its own. Perhaps I am simply too out-of-date, but the offering of the daily low mass is a true spiritual benefit. One can compare this to the normal Byzantine Orthodox parish which is usually closed from Sunday afternoon to the next Sunday morning; with nothing offered in-between.

        Reply
        1. The young fogey
          October 28, 2014

          Low Mass has its place; one reason is most people aren’t that pious and it’s what they want.

          The pious Byzantine Orthodox parish will have Saturday Vespers, the extreme Russians having a Saturday-night vigil for a couple of hours. Makes sense as preparation for Communion if you only commune a few times a year, a traditional standard.

          Reply
    2. modestinus
      October 28, 2014

      I don’t know enough about the history involved to comment on this theory directly, though there’s no serious question that the Byzantine Rite was formed, in part, out of an imperial context that could afford to be far more ornate than anything that existed in the West. I think one would also have to take into account how monastic praxis also came to influence the final codification of the Byzantine Rite — an emphasis on length and more expansive services was grafted onto the liturgy over the centuries. While these expansions gave ample room for new and sometimes very beautiful and rich hymnography, it also had the strange effect of marginalizing what was, historically, the center of all Christian worship: The Psalter. Psalms (or parts of Psalms) still fill Byzantine liturgy, but the main recitation of the Psalter — the Kathisma readings at Matins (and to a lesser extent Vespers) — come across as “prefaces” to the “meat” of Matins, which is the Canon, Praises, and Doxology. In fact, in most parishes where Matins is still served, the Psalter readings are typically abbreviated or omitted altogether. Moreover, even in monastic settings, the first Kathisma, which is appointed to be read on Saturday Vespers, is reduced to about six verses from Psalms 1-3, known as “Blessed is the man.” (And before anyone objects, far me it for me to disparage singing “Blessed is the man” — easily one of my favorite parts of Byzantine Vespers.)

      Reply
  5. Diane
    October 28, 2014

    Stephen, that is an intriguing theory indeed.

    Reply
  6. Steve Robinson
    October 28, 2014

    I’m 62 and was an altar boy for 6 years in the Latin Mass, pre-Vatican II. I attended conservative parishes until I became a Protestant in 1969. I tried to return to my Catholic roots in 1993 and didn’t recognize the Mass. I left when the nubile young woman in a black leotard and rainbow ribbons danced down the center aisle doing an interpretive dance to the “Lord’s Prayer” performed by a new agey band to the right of the altar. I ended up going Eastern rite Orthodox. I know now that my experience was a bit of a fringe but just the fact it could even happen was a shock to me after only 24 years away.

    Reply
    1. Dale
      October 28, 2014

      Steve, you are lucky that it was a “nubile young woman in a black leotard and rainbow ribbons'” that was the liturgical dancer, in my experience of such things, they are usually middle-aged, slightly dumpy women with the grace of a cow giving birth (sorry if this is deemed offensive).

      Reply
    2. Diane
      October 28, 2014

      Stephen and Dale: With all due respect…and without in the least impugning the veracity of your anecdotes:

      The overwhelming majority of Catholics have never experienced anything remotely like this. Have we experienced liturgical abuses? Sure. But most of us have never encountered anything like this.

      Has it happened? Yes. No one will gainsay that. Is it the norm? Absolutely not. Has it ever been? No. Not even in the bad old days of the ’70s and ’80s.

      I am truly sorry that y’all had such awful experiences. But please understand that they were extreme even for their time. I am a veteran of the Catholic charismatic renewal – with very fond memories of Masses and prayer meetings at the Cenacle in Brighton, Mass., and the Franciscan Friary in Andover — and, while I witnessed some stuff that would give rad-trads apoplexy, I never saw anything like what y’all are describing.

      I have attended countless Masses in many states and in several foreign countries. I never witnessed such craziness — not even in Boston’s notorious Paulist Center (although I am sure much worse has happened there).

      I am NOT disputing the veracity of y’all’s testimony. Far from it. Rather, I am cautioning against extrapolating from a very small sample. I am cautioning against the danger of absolutizing one’s own extremely limited experience. Especially when we are talking about a church of more than one billion souls!

      At the same time, I would venture that there is more than one way to violate liturgical purity. The Orthodox have their own abuses — which take different forms but are nonetheless problematical.

      Meanwhile our abuses are fading; the liturgical trend is overwhelmingly toward tradition. And, at the same time, we remain faithful to the Tradition that matters most — Faith and Morals — in a way that simply is not true for contemporary Orthodoxy. I would respectfully submit that that is worth more than all the huffy rejection of liturgical dancers our critics can muster.

      Reply
      1. The young fogey
        October 28, 2014

        Being American Catholic in the ’70s and ’80s stunk. I think the only way people could understand the former English paraphrase of the Novus Ordo in a Catholic way was if you knew the old Mass and/or the new one in Latin. Most older Catholics just ignored the paraphrase since they “knew” the Mass isn’t really in English; that’s why Catholics aren’t attached to English translations/paraphrases. The young were clueless until the conservative turnaround started around 25 years ago.

        Meanwhile our abuses are fading; the liturgical trend is overwhelmingly toward tradition.

        Why Benedict was “the Great.” He fixed the new Mass in English so the English now matches the Latin. No heresy, no conscience problem; we won. I came back to the church three weeks after he did it (long time in the making but circumstances allowed it, right then). I can go to Mass anywhere in the country even if I don’t like the ceremonial (that’s on them, not me).

        The anti-Westernism of the online Orthodox, some real-life Orthodox, and their online heretical “Orthodox in communion with Rome” fellow travelers, in the church but not of it, are why I started turning back to the traditional Roman Rite over 10 years ago. It’s my home. I don’t like the way they treat my home. I won’t rule out the Greek Catholic option but for me it’s unlikely.

        Reply
      2. Dale
        October 29, 2014

        Diane, you really need to visit the diocese of Los Angeles!

        Reply
  7. Bernard Brandt
    October 28, 2014

    Modestinus,
    As a dweller in the East for the past 27 years, I can say that I feel your pain. As with Mr. Robinson, I am a sixty-something person who had been among the RCs both before and after the changes of Vatican II. For my part, though, I’ve never been particularly partial to the pre-Vat II Mass, either before or after the changes: when I was young, I didn’t much cotton to repeating words in a language that my elders never bothered to teach me; and after I learned Latin, I didn’t much like the (very few) Low Masses (with or without music) that I have experienced since, including the most recent occasion of about a month ago, when I experienced the priest turned away and muttering over the altar, and the choir occasionally interrupting things.
    I believe, however, that if I were ever to experience a true missa cantata, with the congregation chanting the responses of the servers, with Gregorian Chant common and propers, and with an occasional hymn (preferably in latin) thrown in, I’d probably enjoy it almost as much as the Divine Liturgy. Fat chance of that ever happening soon in L.A., though.
    I would beg to differ, however, with your characterization of the Byzantine rite as ‘ostentatious’. Rather, I would say that we take seriously the idea that the Liturgy is a type and a manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, and the service expresses our belief that that Kingdom involves our cooperation, or our ‘synergy’, with that Kingdom. Youze guyz in the West had that too, once.
    My current (crank) theory is that since Trent, RC liturgical praxis got more and more into the belief that the Kingdom was one where God would talk, and we would listen. And worse, I fear that after Vat II, and with triumph of Modernism, the following vision (which Monty Python so ably parodied), is what most Novus Ordo-ers believe in their heart of hearts Heaven to be:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IivaDS3eWrE

    Reply
    1. modestinus
      October 28, 2014

      Perhaps “ostentatious” was too strong of a word. I should have also been clearer that not all Byzantine liturgy is ostentatious, as anyone who has experienced the Divine Liturgy in a Carpatho Rusyn or Romanian parish would know. I do enjoy a good all-out, basso profundo Russian liturgical extravaganza now and again, but at times all of that can be a bit much. In fact, when I was attending St. John Cantius, I typically skipped the solemn high Masses where they would use very ornate classical compositions. It’s all very well done and beautiful, but it often made me think I was sitting for a performance rather than praying to God.

      Reply
  8. Dale
    October 28, 2014

    If one feels the need to reject one’s own heritage and tradition, I personally far prefer the beauty of the Armenian liturgy over that of the Greeks.

    Reply
    1. StephenUSA
      October 28, 2014

      The Armenian liturgy is indeed beautiful; but before you throw the Greeks under the bus, I heartily recommend to one and all to come to Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles. If what they do there is any indication of what is happening in other GOA parishes, the future is bright.

      Reply
      1. Dale
        October 28, 2014

        And one can hear such wonderful phrases, mentioned by the former Archbishop of Athens, and reechoed by the Archbishop in Canada, that, now get this, “Orthodoxy is Hellenism and Hellenism is Orthodoxy.” Or better yet, go to youtube and watch the present Greek Archbishop Demetrios of the United States calling that arch-abortionist Obama the “New Alexander.” Do not go unless you have a very, very strong stomach. Or hear the same Demetrios explain that being Orthodox is about have Greek DNA (http://qctimes.com/news/local/article_a3fa9e52-d9ab-11df-8f8e-001cc4c03286.html); or the pro-abortion statements made by the present Ecumenical Patriarch, or the giving of the title of archon to Greek-American politicians with a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood.

        I like pretty liturgy, but not that much!

        Reply

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