Archive for April 12th, 2006

Maria’s Question

On Palm Sunday, in the middle of the Divine Liturgy, dazzling in its beauty, my three year old daughter, Maria, turned to me and asked "Is this Heaven?"

Yes, I told her, on Sundays we get to visit Heaven.

A lot has been written about the beauty of the Byzantine Liturgy, but Maria’s wonder sums it up better than any scholarly tome.

The traditional Latin liturgy has a very different, if still transcendent, spirit. Restrained rather than exuberant, meditative rather than ecstatic, it possesses a different, Western sensibility.

I have often remarked that the Western liturgical tradition is one designed by grown ups: a direct, no nonsense, focused approach to God.

The East, on the other hand, has a liturgy that seems to be made up by children. Is something worth doing? Then do it over and over again. I think of Chesterton’s comment that God is like a child in this regard. If an adult is performing some act that delights a child, like tossing the child up into the air, the adult’s arms will ache before the child becomes bored. "Do it again!" is the child’s tireless refrain. And so, Chesterton says, God makes the sun rise day after day, saying "Do it again!" in His delight.

And so the Byzantine liturgy. The West, businesslike, opens and closes the Mass with the sign of the cross. In Byzantine liturgy, we cross ourselves over and over, every time the Holy Trinity is invoked. Prayers and petitions are repeated, the phrase "Lord have mercy" a refrain throughout the Liturgy.

There is a childlike sensibility, too, in the Byzantine approach to the senses. Do we have incense burning? Yes, of course: incense is used at every Divine Liturgy, not just on feast days, and the sweet smell delights our senses even in Lent.

But this evidently wasn’t enough. What else can we do? "I know," someone said, deep in our history, "Let’s add some bells to the censer!" And so they did, and the sound of jingle bells accompanies the act of censing to this day.

I have heard it said that the spirit of the West and the spirit of the East are incarnate in their respective archetypal architectural forms: the spire for the West, and the dome for the East.

The spire is masculine, reaching upward, piercing the sky, transcending the earth. The interior of the archetypal Western Church draws the heart, the mind, the eyes upward. God is transcendent.

The dome is feminine, womblike, enwrapping and overshadowing the congregation. Traditionally the interior of the dome bears the image of Christ the Pantocrator, the ruler of all, His gaze enveloping the worshipers. God is immanent.

Like most generalizations, this is no doubt an oversimplification, but there is truth in it.

This difference in sensibility is reflected, too, in the forms of traditional chant which accompany the liturgy.

In the West, Gregorian chant is austere and severe, otherworldly. When I was in a Gregorian schola we were taught to sing without stress or emotion, deliberately ethereal.

Eastern chant, though is emotionally rich and expressive, whether Slavic, Arabic, Greek, or Romanian. Slavonic hymns about the Passion are mournful, dirgelike, spooky. Hymns about the Mother of God are sweet, tender, loving.

It is not that one or the other of these very different ways of worship is superior, contrary to the claims of some of their partisans. The West, with its restraint, and the East, with its celebratory excess, can both bring the soul to God. While I have embraced the intoxicating exuberance of the Christian East, I
recognize and remember the beauty of the West.

It is easy for me to imagine a little girl, surrounded by the ethereal sound of Gregorian chant, gazing at the distant and mostly silent priest, turning to her father in awe to whisper Maria’s question: "Is this Heaven?"

What I can’t imagine is a child doing this in the banal liturgies which have replaced the austere solemnity of the traditional West in many modern Roman Catholic churches.

I am not painting with too broad a brush here; I recognize that the so-called Novus Ordo rite is capable of beauty and transcendence. But too often the rude tribe of modern liturgists has rejected the traditional restraint of the West and replaced it, not with the celebratory sense of the folkways of,
well, folks, but with a need for novelty and stimulation apparently acquired from the entertainment industry. The child, watching the glad-handing game show model of priest, and the earnest but ersatz folk singer with his Tin Pan alley hymns is more likely to wonder "Is this Broadway?"

It is evident to me that any form of worship which does not evoke Maria’s Question, or at least aspire to do so, is hardly worthy of being called "worship" at all. Worship is a great Mystery, suffused with Beauty, and it shouldn’t take an act of blind faith to believe this.

Daniel Nichols

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