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…”