Archive for February, 2008

Missionaries, not professionals

Unlike many, I didn’t grow up singing in church; the music of the churches I went to growing up actually made me distinctly uncomfortable. I didn’t really start singing in church as a regular practice until I was eighteen and part of the choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bellingham, WA. (By the way, I have nothing but the fondest of fond memories of St. Paul’s.)

The St. Paul’s experience, it must be said, made a church musician out of me, or at least started the process. I have never been one for whom either prayer or singing is as natural as breathing, but I found that by putting them together it makes both significantly easier. Fourteen years, lots of singing, and a music degree later, I serve in the function of choir director and cantor at All Saints Orthodox Church, where I was received by chrismation a little over three years ago. So — I am Orthodox; I am a church musician; therefore, I am an Orthodox church musician.

My Orthodox church musicianship does not exist in isolation, however; I am also trying to be a scholar of things liturgical, and I am also just a guy trying (unsuccessfully, more often than not) to live a Christian life. These matters, it may be said, all feed into one another — the scholar I am trying to be wants to understand the tradition, how it developed, how it was received, how it was expressed, how it was proclaimed, and how it was handed down; the church musician I am wants to figure out how I might best apply the tradition to the function I presently serve, not just in my own parish but in a way that will be more broadly beneficial; the “little Christ” I really wish I were and am not has his hands full just failing to order my own life around the same principles which the scholar and church musician are trying to place in a larger context.

And if it was confusing reading that, I can tell you it’s also confusing living it. I’ve never wanted to be a “church musician” in the sense that I go where the paycheck is (I never would have become Orthodox if I had); I eschewed “church jobs” so that I could sing in the choirs of the parishes I actually attended, and eventually became the choir director at All Saints. For me, it is service; it is a vocation in its own way; it is application of my research interests; I seriously doubt it will ever be a way for me to earn a living. Those kinds of jobs simply do not yet exist in Orthodox parishes in this country, with the number of exceptions perhaps in the low single digits.

It is also very much the case that being aware of what the ideal might be which informs the tradition that ultimately filters down to present-day parish practice is not necessarily an asset as a parish choir director. I expect that many choir directors are familiar with the cognitive dissonance which arises when an attempt to adhere more closely to traditional practice, rather than enriching parish experience, clearly diminishes parish practice for some people, if not outright disenfranchising them, for no other reason than it isn’t what they know or expect. I’m sure my colleagues know what it’s like to hear somebody say, “But nobody ever does it that way” — meaning, at times, the two parishes they’ve been to don’t do it — “and we’ve never done it that way here, and it doesn’t go with the music everybody already knows.” I would assume that other choir directors are aware that sometimes that response even comes, not from an in-depth theological or historical justification, but from merely pointing out what the service books actually say. This is not — let the reader understand — to speak ill of anybody; we choir directors are certainly not perfect, and if I’ve learned anything in my tenure as choir director, it is that it is impossible to please everybody no matter what you do, and that doesn’t need to be taken personally. (What I describe, by the way, isn’t specifically an Orthodox problem, either. Read The New Liturgical Movement sometime — although I would argue the historical reasons the Orthodox have some of these issues in America are different from why Roman Catholics might have them.)

If it sounds like I’m saying, more or less, that it’s a lot of unappreciated work for next to zero compensation, and the harder you work and the more you put into doing it right the less it will be appreciated — well, okay, sometimes that’s indeed how it seems. However, that’s looking at it from a strictly professional point of view. I would argue that Orthodox liturgical musicianship is quite far away from being able to consider itself a professional endeavor, that the necessary structures to support such a notion simply don’t yet exist, and that we need to consider ourselves first and foremost missionaries rather than professionals. In so doing, we will be in a much healthier spiritual place as choir directors and cantors.

Which brings me to “Historical Models of the Patronage of the Liturgical Arts,” by Rev. Deacon Nicholas Denysenko, in the Winter 2008 issue (Vol. IX, No. 2) of PSALM Notes.

Dn. Nicholas, a Ph.D. candidate at Catholic University’s Liturgical Studies program, puts forth the thesis that

[t]he Church…finds herself in an increasingly prophetic situation, with the need to define her distinct identity in the midst of religious pluralism and confusion. Within this context, Orthodoxy needs to develop a new model for supporting the liturgical arts for the proliferation of the Church’s tradition. (p. 4)

No question about that — as Dn. Nicholas also says, we don’t have a well-funded and well-heeled state church in this country to fund the kinds of artisans and craftsmen who built Hagia Sophia, and many parishes struggle to pay a fulltime salary for a priest, let alone a building sometimes. Pay musicians? What?

Some of Dn. Nicholas’ examples of alternate models ultimately undermine his point, however. He speaks of the “liturgical movement” of the early twentieth century which, as he notes, culminated in the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy at Vatican II. The Liturgical Arts Society was a

small group of art professionals… [who encouraged] new styles… that would facilitate full ecclesial participation in worship… [and engaged] many clergy in the discourse on good liturgy and by carving a niche for the important role of the arts in the [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy]. (p. 5)

“This legacy,” he writes, “provides a positive example of the good influence the gathering, cooperation, and educational endeavors of liturgical arts professionals can have on the life of the Church” (p. 5).

Dn. Nicholas is very careful to not speak of how the recommendations of Vatican II were implemented in the Mass, but it is nonetheless troubling to me that he would point up as a positive example efforts which culminated in such a radical discontinuity from what came before. This example is ultimately unhelpful because the post-Vatican II reforms have made life harder, not easier, for many who would consider themselves traditional Roman Catholic church musicians.

What is also troubling is an uncritical use of the phrase “full ecclesial participation” — what does that mean? In practice, it seems like more often than not what people want it to mean is “if everybody isn’t singing everything, then they aren’t being allowed full participation.” “Full participation” is also the language used by many who want to see a revision in the understanding of clerical eligibility. We need to clarify what “full participation” means from an Orthodox perspective — better yet, let’s avoid reflexively adopting language that isn’t ours in the first place.

Then there is this hypothetical example:

Let’s say the choir director at St. Mary’s parish in Anywhere, USA, has run across a new setting for the Eucharistic Canon that provides a perfect fit for both her parish and her choir. The price for a single copy is $1.75… Before making the purchase, however, she needs to receive approval from the choir council for the expenditure. The choir treasurer tells her that the choir’s budget is entirely devoted to an upcoming event, and asks her if she can buy one copy and then photocopy as many as the choir needs… Feeling frustrated, the director decides to wait on ordering the music until the choir budget has sufficient funds. (pp. 1-2)

To be perfectly frank, this example is so divorced from the reality I face as a choir director as to be close to absurd. The idiosyncrasy of Dn. Nicholas referring to the Anaphora as the Canon aside (unless St. Mary’s happens to be a Western Rite parish), if I were to simply decide on a new setting of it, I would have people calling for my head. Beyond that, the idea of a “choir council” or “choir treasurer” is completely removed from the little heartland parish I serve. Dn. Nicholas prefaces this example by saying that “[i]n an ideal situation, the conductor will have the opportunity to review new and fresh compositions for the weekly services and liturgical seasons at least semi-annually,” but I’m trying to imagine my choir, let alone my congregation, being receptive to that kind of constant flow of “new and fresh compositions.” Perhaps it makes sense to me as a musician to have different settings of the Liturgy available for different liturgical seasons, but I guarantee Dn. Nicholas that my own parish would not view such a rhythm favorably. At least not yet.

Now, I understand that the thrust of Dn. Nicholas’ point has more to do with the hypothetical choir director’s choice to not buy the music, and to some extent he acknowledges my situation as a possibility when in the next paragraph he speaks of these problems being rooted in “a lack of appreciation for the integral role liturgical music plays in church life, and a lack of knowledge of the arduous work that is put into creating and expressing this art,” but I suppose my point is that at least some of us are very much in, as Dn. Nicholas put it, “prophetic roles” in our own parishes, perhaps more than others might realize.

The part of his example that does actually resonate with my experience is the issue of photocopying. When I first took on the choir directorship, the choir books were filled with umpteenth-generation photocopies, often of handwritten stuff of uncertain origin. I have no idea what the copyright status of any of it was; some of it I’m sure was authorized to be copied for liturgical use, but it’s hard to say. I will say that in general, the Antiochian Archdiocese is very good about making its musical resources readily available and affordable, but it is very true that copyright status and the financial implications higher up in the food chain generally aren’t the first consideration of the folks whom I would ask to write a check for additional Vespers books, etc.

There is certainly a conversation worth having about copyright, photocopying, and how to make money off of liturgical music. I’d point the interested reader to this piece on The New Liturgical Movement for a point of view to which I’d be interested in hearing Dn. Nicholas’ response.

My overall reaction to Dn. Nicholas’ article is this — I’d argue along with him that the fullness of our music practice can itself be just as expensive as the fullness of any other part of our liturgical life. A well-trained cantor and choir director with a professional degree who is at every service and also rehearsing the choir regularly could very well be spending 20-30 hours a week doing what they do, particularly during Great Lent. If they’re trying build towards anything that looks remotely like a traditional two-choir setup (go here and click on the photo labeled “Please click on the photo for an excerpt of Sunday services” to see what I’m talking about), that’s going to be even more work. Copies of music for everybody will cost; traditional-looking kliroi and/or choir stalls will most certainly cost, and so on and so forth. It won’t just be a dollar cost, either; because most people haven’t seen anything like this in their parishes, something of a public relations effort will be required as well. If you pay what all of this would actually be worth, you’re looking at capital investments, at least one full-time salary for the protopsaltis, and maybe a few part-time salaries as well. I don’t know that there is a single parish in this country which is exactly falling all over itself to provide this, and to that extent, Dn. Nicholas is absolutely right — the liturgical practice which we have inherited is, in many regards, predicated on the availability of resources which we just don’t have, and we have to find new ways of making provision for them.

However, my sense from my own parish experience is that we’re just not there yet, and some parishes are, shall we say, less “there” than others. Saying “we’re not there yet” isn’t just applicable at the parish level, either; the means by which we systematically cultivate and train choir directors and cantors and composers for service in the Orthodox Church are still nascent at best. It’s going to take work, and a lot of it, to get this into place, and to cultivate a love for the best what we can do as liturgical musicians among the faithful. (I have weighed in elsewhere about what I think a step in the right direction could be — “get ’em while they’re young” being a guiding principle.) As I said earlier — missionaries, not professionals. Missionaries, in particular, who aren’t afraid to stick their neck out and be prophetic. Pastoral, certainly, but still prophetic. Dn. Nicholas gets there, sort of, in saying that “professional liturgists and musicians must take the initiative in educating the Church” (p. 6), but there’s that word “professional” again for which I’m not at all convinced we’re ready.

I must also confess that I don’t know what a “liturgist” is in an Orthodox context. The services already exist. We don’t need to mess with them, and moreover, we shouldn’t mess with them. Pull the book off the shelf and follow it. Liturgy, and liturgical music, adapts organically. Let it, and don’t force it. Let’s not make changes we don’t need to make just for the sake of doing things differently.

Which brings me to my final thought (for now). Dn. Nicholas asserts that “the liturgical arts of the Church are steeped in repetition and aridity, with no new expressive elements… Tradition cannot… be understood as mere repetition of past models” (p. 2). Agreed that we cannot define Tradition as “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way and don’t have a better answer,” but liturgy expresses the faith of a community first and foremost, and individuals secondarily. Liturgical musicians and artisans should not be in the business of trying to “express themselves” — that’s not the point, anymore than an iconographer should be trying to “express himself.” What they are tasked to express is the faith of the community as it was received and as it always has been. While there is certainly room for creativity within that, it is creativity within definite boundaries — particularly given the fact that a culture of Orthodox liturgical singing in this country is far, far, far from mature. To put it another way, if we find ourselves dialoguing (I really hate that word) with Tradition, let’s remember it’s not a conversation between equals.

If I had a concrete, positive suggestion to make, I’d say let’s figure out how to adapt genuine American folk singing (for example, Sacred Harp/shapenote) to Orthodox liturgical use. That would be creativity within the Tradition, and I argue it will be a lot more productive in the long run for Orthodox Christianity in America than continuing to try to cram the English language into a Slavic paradigm of setting texts.

(I lied — I’ve got one more thing to say, and that’s the observation that Dn. Nicholas’ bibliography is not exactly crammed to the gills with the work of Orthodox scholars. Is that because it’s not out there for it to be cited, or is it for another reason? Either way, it seems to me that’s another issue we need to address.)

Ways you don’t expect to spend your Sunday afternoon

Um. Well.


Evangelism the old-fashioned way

As long as we’re talking about Western saints, here’s this item from Aaron D. Wolf (what a great name) by way of Ben at the Wittenberg Trail (to whom I’d love to link, but I can’t, because the Wittenberg Trail is evidently a private forum) by way of Alden Swan:

Here’s what I can’t figure out: How in the world did Saint Patrick evangelize all of those Druid priests and clan chieftains without a mission statement? After all, history and tradition tell us that he walked around preaching and performed an occasional miracle. But how did he know what his mission was? Aaron D. Wolf, The Mission of Souls: When Experts Attack

[…] Mr. Wolf raises some interesting questions and challenges to modern Evangelical concepts of evangelization and mission, contrasting the wisdom of being “pupose driven” to the pre-marketing (pre-modern) habit of simply proclaiming the Gospel.

Wow. What a concept.

This gets me thinking about something which has occurred to me before — I have to believe that liturgy is one of our better and more underappreciated evangelism tools. I guarantee you that St. Patrick wasn’t just walking around preaching and “performing occasional miracles” — he would also have been celebrating the Mass, with the Eucharist as his “mission statement.”

small country churchThe model of evangelism that would be wonderful, if cost-prohibitive, would be to go places where there aren’t churches and start by building simple, but identifiable, churches (such as Trinity Church in Antarctica of all places, pictured at right) where they would be visible and accessible, start publicly holding services so that people can tell that’s what you’re doing, and equip them so that they can host a soup kitchen or something similar. The problem with so many missions is that they can ill-afford being in a place where they would actually be visible and it would be clear what they are doing, so they wind up evangelizing only the people who are already there. Right now, at least in the Antiochian Archdiocese, you have to have some number of pledging families (25?) before you can have a priest assigned to you; that’s good business and fiscally responsible, no question about it, but who’s doing the evangelism in that case but people who aren’t necessarily equipped to do it? I’m not saying that any Orthodox jurisdiction in this country has the money to spend, say, a half million to a million dollars planting missions so that they have buildings, priests, and services for the poor at the outset, but I sometimes wonder if that wouldn’t be a better witness all around.

I’m still waiting. Actually, I’m waiting on a couple of things — one fairly big thing, and one thing that is big-ish, but not on the same level as the other thing. (Confused yet?) In the meantime, however, I can reveal that I’m presenting a paper at Indiana University’s Medieval Graduate Symposium on 29 March. I can also give a heads-up that my church choir will be publicly presenting music from Holy Week as part of  IU’s Middle Eastern Arts Festival on 29 March. (Yes, the same 29 March. It’s gonna be a busy day.) Details for the whole ongoing program are here, but here’s the blurb for this particular event (I’m not going to use the word “concert,” for several reasons):

Concert: Choral Music of the Middle East
Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: chants from Holy Week in the Lebanese and Syrian tradition

March 29, 2008, 8 pm
St. Paul’s Catholic Center

The All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Christian Choir under the direction of Richard Barrett will present an evening concert of liturgical music from the Middle East. The program will highlight music from the Syrian and Lebanese traditions. Meditative and celebratory selections drawn from Holy Week and Easter services exemplify how this music became an integral and functionally practical part of Orthodox ritual. While the traditional liturgical languages for the Orthodox in the Middle East are Greek and Arabic, selections will also be performed English.

I didn’t write that, by the way. I will be writing a set of program notes, however, which I will post here. I can say that this is exactly the kind of thing I hoped we’d eventually be able to do, and I’m really encouraged by how the rehearsals have gone — it’s stretching them beyond what their comfort level has been, but in a very doable fashion, and it will be a good thing for us to participate in this kind of outreach. Hopefully I can post a snippet or two from the evening itself afterwards.

St. Richard of Wessex

st_richard_of_wessex.jpg There isn’t exactly a ton known about St. Richard of Wessex (alternately known as St. Richard of Swabia and St. Richard the Pilgrim), whose feast is celebrated today. All we really know for sure is that he was an English saint who, after reposing in Italy, was venerated in Germany. There is far more known about his children, Ss. Walpurga, Winebald, and Willibald, and his brother, St. Boniface (aka St. Wilfrid) than about him. Nonetheless, here is a fairly reasonable summary of what can be said about St. Richard, from this website.

Died 722. Perhaps Saint Richard was not really a king–early Italian legend made him a prince of Wessex–but his sanctity was verified by the fact that he fathered three other saints: Willibald, Winebald (Wunibald), and Walpurga (Walburga). Butler tells us that “Saint Richard, when living, obtained by his prayers the recovery of his younger son Willibald, whom he laid at the foot of a great crucifix erected in a public place in England, when the child’s life was despaired of in a grievous sickness. . . . [he was] perhaps deprived of his inheritance by some revolution in the state; or he renounced it to be more at liberty to dedicate himself to the pursuit of Christian perfection. . . . Taking with him his two sons, he undertook a pilgrimage of penance and devotion, and sailing from Hamble-haven, landed in Neustria on the western coasts of France. He made a considerable stay at Rouen, and made his devotions in the most holy places that lay in his way through France.”

He fell ill, died suddenly at Lucca, Italy, and was buried in the church of San Frediano. A later legend makes him the duke of Swabia, Germany. Miracles were reported at his tomb, and he became greatly venerated by the citizens of Lucca and those of Eichstatt to where some of his relics were translated. The natives of Lucca amplified accounts of his life by calling him king of the English. Neither of his legends is especially trustworthy–even his real name is unknown and dates only from the 11th century. A famous account of the pilgrimage on which he died was written by his son’s cousin, the nun Hugeburc, entitled Hodoeporicon (Benedictines, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Gill, Husenbeth, White)

In art, King Saint Richard is portrayed as a royal pilgrim (ermine- lined cloak) with two sons–one a bishop and one an abbot. His crown may be on a book (Roeder). He is venerated at Heidenheim and Lucca (Roeder).

sanfrediano.jpgSome additional information about St. Richard and his family can also be found here. I hope that at some point I can visit the church of San Frediano in Lucca (pictured) to venerate his relics. I almost had a chance to go a few years ago, but it didn’t pan out.
A word about names. “Richard” is a Germanic name which means “Powerful ruler”; I expect it is related to the modern German word “Reich” and the name “Reichert”, and I’d be really surprised if it weren’t cognate with the Latin “rex”. If they presumed the anonymous saint was a king, “Richard” would have been a perfectly descriptive name to ascribe to him.
For my part, I was thrilled to discover the existence of a pre-schismatic St. Richard. Richard is my name, and count me as part of the camp that believes that names are given and not chosen, so I was overjoyed when it turned out that my given name was a perfectly good Orthodox saint’s name. Of course, having a feast day doesn’t mean he’s on my priest’s list of saints to commemorate, so it’s a name day that virtually nobody (and I mean nobody) ever remembers, but oh well.
St. Richard of Wessex, pray to God for us!

A one-sided interfaith dialogue

With a tip of the hat to Dr. Liccione, I give you “Is religion losing the millennial generation?” from the weekend’s USA Today. I won’t belabor any point Dr. Liccione hasn’t already made, except to take some of what he says a step further and to suggest that the way these students “invent” their religions indicates that for them, religion is best when it functions as a mild, feel-good, universally-affirming entertainment — not unlike, perhaps, a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy.

That said, there’s this point —

Study after study has shown that American college students are fleeing from organized religion to mix-and-match spirituality.

True; let’s also note, however, that this trend also exists within organized religion. My emergent church friends like to tell me that their idea is to take the best of all Christian traditions, put ’em all into the same pot, and then have everybody put something else intensely personal into the mix, so that the end result is (as they argue) something totally new. They may not be busting down the door of their parents’ or grandparents’ churches, but they want to build a modern church using the best of what those congregations had to offer. No, they say, we don’t want to be Orthodox and limit ourselves to a particular tradition, but icons, incense, and chant seem like they’d be cool to use as building blocks for something else. Their argument is that, sure, maybe that’s reinventing the wheel, but wouldn’t it be limiting the creative movement of the Holy Spirit to have it any other way?

Then there’s this point:

…I can’t help but think that priests, rabbis, imams and ministers would do well to engage in interfaith dialogue not only with one another but also with this “spiritual but not religious” generation.

It is certainly true that we need to do a better job of engaging the “spiritual but not religious,” but I think it would be a mistake to suggest that it’s “interfaith dialogue.” “Nothing” is not a different kind of “something”; it is nothing. The job we need to do is, while having compassion and charity for how they’ve arrived where they are at, showing them why having something is better than having nothing.

It will be a tough job, no question about it. Part of the problem — and I think this is demonstrated by the article — is that if they don’t think it’s real in the first place, then why does it matter which made-up version to which one ascribes? Then it really is a question of which one is more entertaining, which one gives you a fuzzier feeling in your stomach. So how do you engage so that they see that there is in fact something real there with which to connect?

It’s going to take some work.

On being late to parties

It often happens to me that I come to a particular conclusion on my own in isolation, only to find out much later that not only are there educated people who are thinking the same way, but there have been educated people thinking about it for years and have a formal way of talking about it.

When I was a child of eight or nine, I formulated a set of principles regarding how to describe the sounds we use to form words; I tried explaining them to my parents, who didn’t understand anything I was saying, patted me on my head and treated it similarly to when, at age five, I told them I was going to build a time machine. (Long story. Short version: I built it, but it didn’t work.) When I was seventeen, in my freshman Italian Diction for Singers course, I learned the International Phonetic Alphabet and was floored to realize this was exactly what I was trying to explain to Mom and Dad ten years earlier when they were giving each other looks saying, “Are you sure this is our kid?”

When I was thirteen, I discovered this awesome movie on VHS that neither my parents nor any of my friends had ever seen. It was called Blade Runner. It was 1990.

When I was sixteen, realizing I was extremely hard on my footwear, I shopped around for a good, durable shoe that could last me a couple of years. After a bit of research, I bought a pair of Dr. Martens, only to discover that the alterna-kids had been wearing them for a couple of years by that point.

Then there are parties to which I’ve been late as an adult.

All of this is to say — because I’ve evidently been far more sheltered than I realize, it’s always a shock to me to find out that there are smart, credentialed people out there who have had “my ideas” — well before I was born, in some cases. It’s a good shock, more often than not; it tells me I’m not as crazy as I sometimes think I am.

So, with that as background — my whole life, I’ve felt quite conflicted in terms of where I fall on the political spectrum. In broad strokes, we may say that I’ve never felt conservative enough for the Republicans or liberal enough for the Democrats, or at least never on the right issues, for either platform to particularly want me. I’ve often self-identified as a “moderate,” which I’ve sometimes joked as meaning “Everybody wants my vote but nobody wants to admit they agree with me.”

Let me give an example to demonstrate how this is problematic. I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that I’m pro-life, but I’ve further concluded that in order to be completely consistent and intellectually honest, “pro-life” can’t just mean “anti-abortion.” It has to mean pro-life. All life. Therefore, if abortion isn’t justifiable, neither is capital punishment, nor war. However, insofar as “pro-life” means “anti-abortion,” I vehemently disagree with people who blow up abortion clinics and attempt to kill doctors who work at Planned Parenthood. I would rather see about volunteering at a Crisis Pregnancy Center (which is itself problematic, partially because I’m a guy and partially because many of those places are set up around an Evangelical Protestant paradigm and want you to sign a “Statement of Faith” which includes things with which Orthodox and Catholics disagree) or supporting peaceful, positive events like the Walk for Life or some such.

Anyway, the point is, already I’ve taken a stance that pretty much rules out any ability to identify with Democrats, and also eliminates the Republicans as political allies, by and large.

This has had no small impact on how I’ve practiced my faith; there was a point, particularly in my late teens, when I was hesitant to identify myself as a Christian, because the biggest and loudest examples I saw of Christianity were abhorrent to me. Particularly given how I grew up, I knew of only three ways: Evangelical Christianity, which certainly had the most airtime and seemed to yell the loudest, but which also seemed to put forth the most effort in pointing the Almighty Finger; Roman Catholicism and anything which looked, sounded, or smelled like it, which I had been carefully taught was not Christianity and was potentially the most dangerous force on earth; and finally, the blatant non-Christian cults, which, I had been taught, included Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, and Unitarian Universalism. My Evangelical friends didn’t understand my discomfort with identifying Christianity with the Republican party OR with the handwaving and shouting that went on at the church at which I (sort of) grew up; my liberal, “spiritual but not religious” friends didn’t understand why I couldn’t see that Christianity was fundamentally stupid and evil.

Over the years, these issues have sort of shaken themselves out. When I first discovered Russell Kirk and his six tenets of conservatism, I thought to myself, “If that’s what a conservative thinks, then I guess I’m a conservative.” Kirk’s classical conservatism was radically different from the angry, anti-intellectual neo-conservatism to which I had been primarily exposed growing up — a philosophy that steadfastly refused to define itself any further than, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Kirk, Orthodox Christianity, Crunchy Cons, G. K. Chesterton — these have all to some extent provided answers and explanations, if not easy resolutions, to many of the tensions I perceived growing up. If they haven’t provided answers, they’ve at least given a window through which I can see the other people who are thinking the same way I am — however few there may be.

Having developed at least a loose framework for the way I’m learning to see things, I have two words with which I want to leave off for now.

Those two words are: Christian communitarianism.

So. Discuss. I think I have a bit of reading to do, on the other side of which it might turn out that it’s nothing. Or, it may very well be another party to which I’ve simply come late, in which case let me know, and then give me a few minutes so I can run out and bring back some beer — or at least read some Wendell Berry.

Is it February already?

It’s been one of those proverbial long weeks. Rehearsals for a choral concert (my first extra ecclesiam gig in a couple of years), a vocabulary quiz in Syriac (which was, shall we say, humbling), plus all of my normal stuff. We’re reading the Gospel of St. Mark in my Syriac class; a moment of unintentional humor may be found in 15:34 — “Jesus cried out in a high voice: ‘My God, my God, why have you left me?’ which is, ‘My God, my God, why have you left me?'” I guess it tells you that the Syriac scribes were following as closely as they could.

I’m still waiting, by the way.

The current issue of AGAIN has a few things worth noting. More than anything, I want to point out the article by my friend Maggie Downham, “The Raphael House: An Orthodox Response to Poverty.” It’s a combination of elements of her senior thesis, “Eastern Orthodox Theology and Virtue Ethics,” with things she’s experienced since she moved to San Francisco to work for Raphael House. The article isn’t yet available online, but here is an excerpt or five (and I wouldn’t post so many if I didn’t think they were worth your time and/or if AGAIN were easily obtainable at Borders):

In 1971, Raphael House of San Francisco became the first shelter in the city to focus on the needs of the family as a holistic entity… [Its] approach to poverty goes well beyond the provision of shelter, however. While there are numerous family shelters in San Francisco, an Orthodox presence at Raphael House creates a very different atmosphere and purpose from those of its secular counterparts… [I]t is the sacramental focus of the Church that makes Raphael House a working whom in which the Liturgy is the focus and renewal of those who both live and serve here. The shared experience of the Kingdom and partaking of the Eucharist make it possible for this community to serve the residential families in a way that goes deeper than provision.

[…] The Church as the koinonia is charged with the responsibility to love its neighbor as Christ has loved His people. It is union with Christ through the cup that strengthens the people to return to the world as one body, just as they entered into it, and to perform the Liturgy after the Liturgy. Having been to the Kingdom, they are now able to understand what the world needs… The formation of the koinonia in the Liturgy is not complete or sufficient in and of itself. Instead, the purpose of the koinonia in the Liturgy is to work on behalf of all people everywhere and at all times, manifesting the social responsibility the koinonia has to the people and the world at large… It is the mission of the Church to make known to the world the love of Christ that is manifested to them through participation in the Liturgy and their mystical entrance into the Kingdom of God… Theoretically, the Church is the embodiment of what the world should be, for it is the manifestation of the reality that is to come. In this way, the Church is to transform the world… [T]he Church’s mission… is to transform the world into the Kingdom through the love and light of Christ it receives in the Liturgy.

[…] Addressing social ills, then, becomes more than an external issue. It is a spiritual matter at its root. Healing people is a matter of reaching out to their souls, of addressing the spiritual violence and evil that roars within. Our work should be oriented toward holistic healing: first spiritual healing, followed naturally by healing the physical consequences of spiritual ills.

It is the responsibility of the Orthodox to make our voice known and to take decisive action if we are going to transform the world.

So — how best to respond to her rallying cry? I’ve got some ideas, sure, on what might charitably be called a sliding scale of practicality. Some of them I’ve discussed here and elsewhere. I’m not sure, in general, that I’m the person to propose them so that anyone will listen. Maggie might be, however.

I’ll just say that I met Maggie when she arrived here to finish her undergrad studies, and in the nearly three years I’ve known her she has never ceased to amaze me, for all kinds of reasons (all of them good). I think she’s got a book in her, and that the work she’s doing (of which this article is just the tip of the iceberg) is very important. Her biographical blurb says that she “hopes to explore her interest in the connection between Orthodox theology and social action through her involvement in the nonprofit sector and in future graduate studies”; let it be so!

Along similar lines — elsewhere in AGAIN, a book due out in March by His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today is discussed (“Conflicted Hearts: Orthodox Christians in an Age of Globalization,” John Couretas). Rod Dreher spoke somewhat dismissively of the book, essentially saying it wasn’t the bold work of prophecy he wanted the Patriarch to have written (and he’s not the only one to have expressed that criticism), but I have pre-ordered it and will discuss it further once I have read it. Couretas certainly makes it sound interesting one way or the other:

The patriarch sees how viewpoints on social questions informed by faith are “proving to be the subjects of renewed interest and attention” in politics and policy circles. Yet he provides a caution: It is not social dogma or political ideology that should be at the center of the Christian’s concerns, but the “sacredness of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God.”

Sounds like a book Maggie should read, too.

The letter column in the same issue of AGAIN also contains a letter from John Truslow, Jr., which makes the excellent and indisputable point that in the United States, Orthodox Christianity is not even a single pixel of a blip on the cultural radar, and up until recently we’ve tossed around demographic data which were inflated at best. He then takes this wonderful, important point and hangs exactly the wrong hat on it:

How we do things either helps or hinders the unchurched from coming to Christ and His Church and either encourages or discourages communicants — particularly “the next generation” of younger Orthodox — from either remaining Orthodox or moving on to other Christian faith communities, many of which are intentionally very attractive (and good for them for bothering to be attractive!). Our theology and morality are not up for negotiation. Everything else we do should be the subject of endless review and creative change.

I cannot disagree with Mr. Truslow in the least that we need to engage our culture more fully, and that disappearing Orthodox youth is a gaping wound we need to figure out how to close, and fast. I find his argument to be rather troubling nonetheless. Rather than shoot off my own mouth about it, I will direct the reader to Fr. Stephen Freeman’s recent blog entry, “At the Edge of Tradition”:

[…] The content of the Tradition is not a set of ideas – but a reality – God with us.

And this is the problem that always accompanies attempts to reach that reality through reform. It is not our reformation that is the problem in the first place. We cannot reform ourselves into union with Christ. We can submit ourselves to union with Christ and not much else. We can cooperate with union with Christ.

[…] You do not appropriate something whose content is God. You are Baptized into it. You are Chrismated into it. You are absolved for ever having lived apart from it. You are fed it on a spoon. You are splashed with it. But you cannot appropriate it. To paraphrase: Your life’s too small to appropriate God.

This is very much the point Maggie makes above: the Liturgy, what the Church does, is how we engage the world. As she says, it is in having been to the Kingdom in the Liturgy that we know what the world needs — not, emphatically not, knowing what the world needs, we now know how to serve the Liturgy.

I would also caution Mr. Truslow of the lessons learned the hard way by the Roman Catholics in Chicago as they’ve been trying to figure out how to stop losing Latinos in droves: “We keep trying to imitate the Protestants, but it doesn’t work.” Why does it seem like we’re trying to talk ourselves into making same mistakes everybody else has made in the last forty years? Maybe we all need to go back and re-read Laurence Iannaconne’s “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” (Hint: it isn’t exactly because of “endless review and creative change”.)

If we want to engage the culture, then we need to show the culture more of what Orthodox Christianity is, not only try to carefully show them the parts we think they can handle. We’re told to not hide our lights under bushels; we aren’t told to still try to dim the lights when they aren’t covered so that we don’t blind people. This is certainly food for thought, too.

How about this — there are “evangelism packs” of books like Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter; can’t we do something similar with Metropolitan Kallistos’ The Orthodox Church — say, five-packs that we then just give away randomly? He’s the closest thing to an Orthodox equivalent of C. S. Lewis that we have, after all.

…and then I discover that this group exists. Hmm. Y’know, I remember in the summer of 2004, something of a big deal was made over Bush visiting the Knights of Columbus during his campaign. As I recall, I wondered to myself — do the Orthodox even have an organization like that for presidential candidates to snub? Maybe we do. I think I’m interested in finding out more… but I’m also wary. There’s another, shall we say, “concerned laypeople” organization (which shall remain nameless for a couple of reasons) that I almost joined until I realized that what they were advocating was, for all intents and purposes, congregationalism with bishops being kept around for show.

Okay, it’s after midnight. In pace in idipsum dormiam et requiescam.

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