Yesterday we worshipped at St George Romanian Cathedral. Early in the Divine Liturgy, during the Litany of Peace, the lights went out and the microphone died. The church was suddenly mysterious, quieter and darker, lit only by candles. The icons looked beautiful in the flickering light and the priest’s voice became human and no longer dominated the building.
This, I thought, is how it should be.
As the first Reading began the electricity came on, and once again the church was brightly lit, the priest’s voice boomed.
I had not thought about technology and liturgy for a long time, but I once pondered it a lot. Indeed, that was the subject of my first article in Caelum et Terra in 1991. (http://www.caelumetterra.com/cet_backissues/article.cfm?ID=50)
But I had long ago resigned myself to the triumph of what Neil Postman called “Technopoly” in the modern church.
I once attended a parish meeting in our old church and the subject of raising money for a ringing mechanism for the bell tower came up. They needed over $10,000 for the project.
I raised my hand and said that for under $100 we could install a rope and pulley and I was sure the altar servers would vie for the honor of ringing the bells.
You could feel a collective rolling of the eyes in the room, as if I had proposed something outlandish, like training woodpeckers to be bellringers. The pastor, like his wife and son a technophile, dismissed my proposal with great condescension .
For moderns, the more technology the better, no questions allowed. They never note the fact that brightly lit churches have, in fact, existed only in the last blink of an eye, historically. Granted, not every unlit church will be as dark as St George’s; it is a tall building with few windows, a modern take on Romanian church architecture. But relative darkness, lit only by candles and oil lamps, was the rule for nearly two thousand years.
The awe that this darkened silence inspires is strangely missing in modern churchgoers, and this, I propose, is no coincidence.
I know that agitating for a church lit only by candles and natural light is a lost cause, like so many worthy and sensible causes. Technology rules, unquestioned, though I will be surprised if there is not a revived neo-Luddism in my lifetime.
But for ten or fifteen minutes on Sunday I at least got a taste of timelessness.