Posts Tagged 'liturgical adventures'

Follow up on choir schools, with a suggested course of action

Well, the spike in traffic the last few days leads me to believe that maybe the idea of an Orthodox choir school has drawn the attention of more than my usual two readers. Cool. If that’s so, then let me go into some more detail, and let me suggest a course of action.

First of all, thanks for all of the positive reactions. It’s great to see that there’s a way to describe this vision so that people get it and get excited about it; I hope that this is a sign of things to come. Please continue to share these posts far and wide; it’s an idea that has to gain a certain critical mass before it can go anywhere besides this blog.

Also, there have been a number of excellent suggestions that have come from my “Orthodox choir school: how I’d do it” post. Suggestions about cities, about teaching methods, about other schools to look at, and so on. I appreciate all of that, and I’m all ears for that kind of input. When (I repeat, when) the time comes, that will all be extremely useful — keep it coming!

Something that has been brought up is that there have been people who have toiled in Orthodox children’s music education for years, and there are existing programs that struggle to stay afloat. Wouldn’t it be better to try to build everybody up rather than concentrating efforts in one location? Might putting all the eggs in one basket be a well-intentioned, but ultimately misplaced, idea?

I had a response to this, but before I go into that, I want to make everybody aware of some valuable resources that should be looked at if this subject is going to be taken seriously. There is the Choir Schools’ Association in the UK, and they have a document titled “Reaching Out”, which is a great overview of the current state of the tradition in England. One is a doctoral thesis by one Daniel James McGrath titled “The Choir School in the American Church: a study of the choir school and other current chorister training models in Episcopal and Anglican parishes”. There’s also a doctoral thesis by Lucas Matthew Tappan, “The Madeleine Choir School (Salt Lake City, Utah): A Contemporary American Choral Foundation”.

IMG_3755Something that, alas, I can’t link to but that you should be able to acquire if you want a copy, is the 50th anniversary season brochure for St. Paul”s Choir School. They have them out for the taking in the narthex at St. Paul’s; I got a copy when I went to their Christmas concert on Friday. If you contact the school and ask for one, I have to imagine they’ll send it to you.

Nota bene — with all of these resources, one has to make sure that one takes them mutatis mutandis to a certain extent. McGrath and St. Paul’s are dealing with a context of boys’ choirs, and I’m talking about a co-ed approach, for example. The Madeleine Choir School and St. Paul’s are Catholic, and McGrath is writing from an Anglican perspective. Nonetheless, all are extremely useful in terms of how they talk about organization, curriculum, challenges, and so on — Tappan in particular explicitly has the objective of serving as a “road map” (his words) for those who might want to follow the Madeleine’s lead. Handy, that.

One of the main things I want to put forth here is this passage from Tappan’s thesis on the Madeleine as the justification for a choir school:

…a choir school consists of an institution where children are given a well-rounded musical education as well as liturgical formation in the ars celebrandi, and where they put these skills at the service of the sacred liturgy on a regular basis within a specific community (often that of a cathedral or collegiate chapel). In return, these children are given an outstanding elementary and religious education.

Even though these qualities constitute the basic elements of a choir school, each institution is a unique place where the choir school tradition exists within a particular time and culture… Perhaps the church musician will find in the choir school a model for training young people in an art that has the power to transform lives and to bring many out of the isolation of modern living into a living community of musicians and believers, forming young musicians “for the lifelong praise and worship of God” (p. 2).

But then there’s the epiphany of Gregory Glenn, the founder of the Madeleine Choir School, when he spent three months at Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London:

What Glenn realized was that the institution itself was the formator (emphasis mine). The incessant rounds of daily rehearsals and liturgies in the cathedrals and the process of going through a massive amount of repertoire year after year was crucial to being able to sing, for example, a Poulenc Mass on short notice. The choristers sight-read so easily that rehearsal time was never spent learning notes. There might be a false note or two the first time through a work, but the boys usually corrected themselves the second time around. Choir masters were able to spend the majority of rehearsal time working toward a more musical performance of the repertoire. According to Glenn, the Madeleine Choir School is still working toward this goal, but it becomes more of a reality with time. (Tappan, p. 26)

Here was my answer to the concern about concentrating efforts in one location:

I spent 11 years in a location that was, theoretically, fairly central in the United States, but as far as Orthodox Christianity went, was about as isolated as you could be without being in Wyoming. Almost anything and everything the parish there took on could be (and often was) fairly described as “being a lot of effort for one location”, right down to building a church. It still needed to be done. Along the same lines, the Madeleine school is certainly “a lot of effort for one location” (in Salt Lake City, no less!), but it’s still worth doing.

The other thing I’ll say is that musical efforts in particular often get problematized in “American Orthodoxy” (whatever we mean by that) as “reinventing the wheel”, that reduplication of effort doesn’t accomplish anything… What needs to be recognized is that not all wheels will travel on the same roads[…], people and institutions need to play to their strengths, and dispersion of effort that hangs everything on the energies of either one person or a tiny handful of people is a disaster waiting to happen. The Madeleine Choir School is not the only Catholic school in the Salt Lake City metro area, for example, but its existence allows for the faculty and students to play to a particular set of strengths, and the result is an example that is inspiring. Supporting music education in existing Orthodox schools is a great thing to do, but it also seems to me that establishing a model school that focuses particularly on that aspect will allow for a level of excellence to develop and be made manifest publicly. I think we accomplish a lot more when we’re able to work together than when we’re isolated; my experience is that most of us Orthodox musicians are too isolated from each other as it is, and that that is a bad thing.

Beyond that — as I said earlier, I attended a Christmas concert sung by the choirs of the St. Paul’s Choir School Friday evening with Megan and Theodore; one of the big takeaways was that Theodore was absolutely enrapt when the boys processed in, wearing black cassocks and singing “One in Royal David’s City”. I’ll say that the evening was was mostly the work of the the preparatory choir (the main choir had their big concert yesterday with Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols”), but everybody did something, and they’ve got a good thing going there.

So, where to, folks? How do we get there from here? I’ve told you how I’d do it — and, I have to say, it’s remarkably similar to what Tappan describes Gregory Glenn, the Madeleine Choir School’s founder, as having done (and I discovered Tappan after I wrote that post) — he put a great deal of time in visiting model institutions and putting together a feasibility study/planning document with a proposed budget. Realistically, I think this is going to be somebody’s full-time task for at least six months.

My modest proposal, then, is this — a great Christmas gift to me, to your kids, and to our Church, would be a gift in support of this initial effort. Somebody shared the post saying, “I wish I had a million or two to give to such an undertaking”; well, it doesn’t need a million or two, not yet, and while you might not be in a position to give a million or two, maybe you can do something (particularly since it’s near year-end — taxes are coming!). It doesn’t really matter how much you might be able to do; if everybody who saw my posts over the last week even gave something relatively small, it would go a long way towards making this possible. Anyway, I don’t want to do a hard sell on giving right now. Rather, this is just the trial balloon — the question is, can we fund the initial planning activities, yes or no? You tell me. If we can, then maybe we can do this for real.

The way to give is through The Saint John of Damascus Society; click here, click on the donate button, and you’ll be taken to PayPal. The Society is a tax-exempt (501(c)3) non-profit, so all gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. If you want to do something but don’t want to do it via PayPal, drop me a line at richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus DOT org.

I’m really not interested in asking for money right now, so we’re clear. This isn’t about money to me. At the same time, without some money, the next steps are really out of reach.

This is an open forum on the topic, so please, any questions, suggestions, comments, requests for more information, anything — keep it coming! And if you want one of the The Choir DVDs, e-mail me with an address.

Okay, my friends. I’ve made my pitch. You’ve all told me you’re interested and supportive; pray for us, tell me what we’re doing next, and share this far and wide if this is important to you. Thanks for sticking with me so far.

An Orthodox choir school: how I’d do it

Since I’ve just run a couple of posts that have touched upon the topic of choir schools, and last week I had occasion to run the pitch — such as it presently is — past a couple of friends, maybe I can take a moment to go into detail about how I could see an Orthodox choir school coming together.

First, what have I already done? Well, in 2005, I went to New York for the first time. While I was there, I visited St. Thomas Episcopal Church on 5th Ave, and heard their choir of men and boys for the first time. I learned more about the St. Thomas Choir School (there’s a video here that I can’t embed), and became fascinated by the model and its heritage, and convinced that it would be fantastically worthwhile to adapt it for Orthodox use. In 2007, I published this piece as a blog post (it originally had been intended for The Word, although, alas, the submission was never acknowledged). In 2009, it was picked up by AGAIN Magazine as an article titled “Teach a child to sing: Thoughts about Orthodox choir schools”. Fr. Chris Metropulos noticed the article, and interviewed me on the OCN show Come Receive the Light. All of this really amounted to me throwing the broad strokes of a big idea out there to see if anybody would run with it; I can’t really say I wasn’t given a platform, because I was, but nobody ran with it.

Which isn’t to say that nobody responded at all. I got an e-mail from a Mover and Shaker who was really intrigued, but who said, frankly, we’re so far away from being able to speak meaningfully of what a school could accomplish that there’s just no conversation to be had with anybody right now.

And that was that, until 2013, when a documentary on the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City titled The Choir was released on DVD. I immediately bought ten copies in bulk and sent them out to various musical leaders on the American Orthodox scene with a copy of my AGAIN article saying, in essence, This is exactly what I was talking about. This is what we should be doing. Watch this and then let’s talk.

The same Mover and Shaker who had responded positively to the article was the sole person to respond to the mailing, and this person continued to respond positively. In fact, this person said — that’s great; now, here are another ten people who need to see this. So, I sent out another ten copies of the DVD with the article to the suggested names; no response.

Well, now there’s been a piece on a Catholic choir school that has run on CBS Good Morning. It’s a moment, a fleeting one, but I may as well try to take advantage of it.

So, I’m going to give you my pitch. If it inspires you, makes you want to help, please talk to me. This is a vision, to be clear, that I want to see succeed because I want there to be just such a school I can send my kids to. Certainly I want to facilitate the vision, but I want to be a participant, not an overlord. I’ll do whatever I have to, but I don’t need to run the show. I’m shouting it from the rooftops as much as I can until there’s a critical mass of others to do it, and then if there’s a capacity I can serve in that I’m actually suited to, I will, but I’ll be happy just to be a parent of a student. This is my vision thus far, but it need not be mine alone, and it need not be my baby that I guard jealously.

An Orthodox choir school is a parochial school attached to a parish or a cathedral that has as its educational mission the training of primary school-aged children from all Orthodox jurisdictions for excellence in Orthodox Christian musical service. They will receive, as part of their standard curriculum, a high level of musical education, both in terms of general musical skills as well as skills specific to Orthodox musical service, and they will be exposed broadly to the rich heritage of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music — Byzantine chant, Slavic chant and polyphony, Greek-American choral music, modern composers who engage Orthodox spirituality in concert works, and so on. The students will contribute regularly to the liturgical life of the parish/cathedral by singing services throughout the week; they will function as outreach to the community at large by means of concerts and recordings; they will also represent the school, the parish/cathedral, and the musical traditions of Orthodox Christianity by touring. Historically, many such schools are made up of boy trebles, who must then leave when their voices change; the vision here is that an Orthodox choir school will be co-educational, and there will be choirs for students to sing in as they get older.

The value of such a school hopefully is obvious. The next generation of musical leaders in America’s Orthodox churches is not going to fall out of the sky, and the major concern expressed at every Orthodox musical event I have ever attended is, “How do we get our kids involved?” This is a way to do it.

What is necessary to move forward? Well, a lot. How I’d do it, if resources were no object, is this:

I would first form a planning committee made up of people familiar with the broad range of Orthodox musical repertories and who had experience with working with children in particular. This planning committee would make an initial presentation to the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops and get their blessing to proceed. The committee would also seek to talk to organizations like PaTRAM, Cappella Romana, the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, Axion Estin, the Antiochian Department of Sacred Music, and so on, as well as music faculty at the Orthodox seminaries, and others, to get their input. From there, the job of this committee would be to assess how choir schools operate in this country and how Orthodox schools operate in this country. For the choir schools, we’d visit the Madeleine, St. Paul’s, St. Thomas Choir School in New York, and then also for perspective we’d go to England and spend some time at Westminster Cathedral’s choir school, as well as the Brompton Oratory’s choir school and a couple of others. For Orthodox schools, we’d look at Agia Sophia Academy in Portland, the Theophany School in Boston, the school of St. George Cathedral in Wichita, and then there are, I think, some in California we’d look at as well. (I’m already going to be visiting St. Paul’s at Harvard Square in January for an initial observation.)

The kinds of questions we’d be asking everybody are these: what’s the curriculum? How do you find students? How do you find teachers? What are the benefits and pitfalls for kids — spiritual, physical, emotional, otherwise? What are the benefits and pitfalls for the church communities that are served? How does everything get paid for? How do you keep it financially accessible for students, assuming that’s an objective? How does everything keep runing smoothly? How does accreditation work?

The next question we’d have to answer would be location. My guess is, at this point, such a school would need to be someplace where there is a diverse and sizable Orthodox community already, and where there would be a parish or cathedral big enough to be able to accommodate such an undertaking, given that in all likelihood such a school would not have its own classroom facilities at first. Perhaps the choir school could represent an expansion of a school that already existed. I’m not sure. In any event, I’m guessing there are very few places in the United States where this could be done successfully the first time, and that would have to be very carefully considered.

Probably, the committee would zero in on three candidate locations, and then survey Orthodox communities in those locations to see where there might be the largest concentration of prospective students.

Then, there would need to be a careful consideration of staffing. Who are the teachers? Where are they going to come from? What will they need to be paid? I anticipate that here, the committee would put together a wish list of faculty, and then make informal inquiries about interest, willingness to move if necessary, what it would take for them to accept an offer, and so on.

We’d then take our findings from all of these inquiries and create a planning document. This document would include the faculty/staff wish list, a projected budget for 5-10 years of operations, a narrative of what the school would do in its first five years from an academic standpoint, a musical standpoint, a recruiting standpoint, a facilities standpoint, and a development/fundraising standpoint. There would a curriculum plan as well, and sample concert programming.

This planning document would then serve as the basis for a major gifts campaign, at which point we would open our doors when we could do so responsibly.

Most, if not all, of these tasks could be undertaken under the aegis of the Saint John of Damascus Society; it would be well within the Society’s mission, and it would certainly be easier to perform these initial tasks via the mechanism of a nonprofit that already exists. Certainly, when it came time to move beyond planning stages, in all likelihood it would be ideal to spin the school off as its own entity, perhaps with its own foundation.

So, there you go. That’s the sketch of what I think would need to happen to move forward. There’s much more I could say, but that’s the backbone.

The Madeleine Choir School sends out a season booklet every summer, and last year that inspired me to try to put something together that’s similar, as kind of a proof of concept. I didn’t quite finish it — I have a dissertation to write, after all — but here are some pages from what I did finish. The names I list are nobody I’ve actually asked to do anything; they’re simply there to indicate real people who could serve this kind of school were it to be up and running. The concert programs are also strictly intended to be representative ideas. Nonetheless, see what you think.

If I might make a plea from the heart — if you’ve read anything I’ve written or seen anything I’ve done that has to do with Orthodox music, you know that this is a labor of love for me. Nowhere in that brochure mockup do you see my name; I am not trying to promote myself by any stretch of the imagination. I believe strongly that there is a desperate need that this fills — a desperate need for our churches, certainly, but also a desperate need for our world — and I hope to see that need filled. No more, no less.

If this is of any interest to you at all, let me know. If you want a copy of anything, ask — I’ve got a lot of resources related to choir schools, including somebody’s dissertation about the use of the choir school model in America. I’ve still got copies of the DVD of The Choir I can give out if that helps. I’m entirely and absolutely serious about wanting to see this happen; if you’re at least halfway serious about wanting to help, I’m all ears.

Okay, back to work for me.

St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square

As a brief follow-up to yesterday’s post — I made reference there to my advocacy for Orthodox use of the choir school model. As part of that, I give you the video from this morning’s appearance of St. Paul’s Choir School at Harvard Square on CBS This Morning.

http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/catholic-boys-choir-brings-its-music-to-the-masses/

It’s a pretty good summary of what I maintain are the opportunities and advantages of such an approach — a high level of musical education, liturgical participation, spiritual formation, and overall engagement with the tradition starting from a young age, a focus on excellence and discipline, an excellent means of outreach via performance and recording, and traveling to perform in amazing places. I’d advocate a co-educational school along the lines of the Choir School of the Madeleine (see my comments about that institution here), but regardless, this clip is another excellent “proof of concept”.

I’m working on setting up a meeting with John Robinson, St. Paul’s music director, sometime in January. I want to chat with him and also observe how the school works. What would you like to know about such a place? How might you envision such an undertaking moving forward in an Orthodox setting? Talk to me — I’m very serious about wanting to see something like this come together. I’d love to be able to send Theodore to a school just like this — how can that happen?

Review: Garments of Salvation: Orthodox Christian Liturgical Vesture by Krista M. West

Kh. Krista West has made a name for herself as a wonderful tailor of Orthodox church vestments. She does lovely work; I bought an exorason from her three years ago to replace the cheap, ill-fitting, mass-produced cassock that I originally got when I was tonsured as a reader, and it is high-quality. I have heard people gripe about her work being supposedly “the exact same thing you can get through one of the ecclesiastical suppliers, just for three times the cost”, but I know the difference, and that’s just not true. If one follows the principle that the most cost-effective way of doing anything is to do it right the first time, then Kh. Krista’s work is definitely worth it. Yes, I may pay four times for an exorason from her what I paid for one from one of the supply houses, but I expect one of her garments to last me a lifetime if I take care of it properly, as opposed to replacing it every few years.

Kh. Krista has done a lot of work, through media efforts like The Opinionated Tailor, to try to inform laypeople about the importance of, not just vestments, but good vestments. She’s a practitioner of a liturgical craft who, to the best of her ability, tries to be as informed about her craft as she can be, and also an evangelist through that craft, and through education about that craft. This is something I truly respect. As somebody with similar objectives in the craft I work in, I find it intriguing, but also unfortunate, that the people who work seriously with the liturgical crafts of Orthodox Christianity are put in a position of having to be the best advocates for those crafts, rather than the leadership of the Church itself. Sometimes it can very much seem like lay and clerical leadership tries very hard to downplay advocacy for liturgical crafts, either out what is called “pastoral necessity” or a desire to “not reify worship” or simply from a lack of resources making it necessary to speak of them from a spiritual, rather than practical, standpoint. I’ve seen this with music, I’ve seen it with architecture, I’ve seen it with vestments. Orthodox Arts Journal I think is a good venue for discussion of a lot of these things, and I’d love to see Kh. Krista write a piece for them. Architect Andrew Gould also has pulled together his own workshop/cooperative for liturgical crafts, and vestments are among what his collaborators are producing. My hope here is that “more is more”, and that this points to more of quality being produced by all involved, in all disciplines.

So, the most recent fruit of Kh. Krista’s efforts is a book — Garments of Salvation: Orthodox Christian Liturgical Vesture, published this year by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, and they were kind enough to send me a review copy.

I’ll talk about the book in a moment. Before I do so, however, I need to talk about how I approach reviews for this blog. As a blogger, I really try to review things first and foremost from an inherently friendly, constructive, and appreciative perspective. This isn’t to say I try to make every review an exercise in sending everybody off with a head pat and a “Good try!” at the very least, but I also don’t want to be a nitpicky critic who tears things down because he enjoys tearing things down, because I don’t enjoy tearing things down. I should also say that this is different from my persona as a writer of academic book reviews for scholarly journals, where it is my job to be critical and merciless where it is necessary (and I have most certainly done that when I have had to). Bottom line, I don’t like to be jerk if I don’t have to be, and even when I have to be, I try to not be any bigger of one than is necessary.

However, even within the rubric of “not being a bigger jerk than I have to be”, I still have to report fairly and honestly on things I review for this blog. If something has problems, I have to be up front about what those problems are — but I will endeavor to be as constructive in my discussion of those problems as I can manage. I don’t want to be in the business of hatchet jobs; I want to be helpful, not obnoxious.

So, all of this is is a very long-winded prelude to saying that there are severe problems with Kh. Krista’s book that can’t be sugar-coated, and this is going to be a negative review (one that I really don’t want to write). My hope is that it can be a constructive review, however, because there is a lot here that deserves a hearing; there’s just a long way to go yet before it gets there.

First off, this is a great topic. Vestments are, along with iconography and architecture, one of the most striking visual elements of an Orthodox service. Even if one is in a storefront church with two mounted print icons on easels at the front, there’s going to be a fully-vested priest (probably). The iconography of the priesthood that the vestments carry will at least go with with the person who himself stands as the icon of Christ at the altar, even if other iconography might be lacking. Kh. Krista seeks to cover a lot of ground with this topic, too, starting off with a Prologue that summarizes her own journey from recent convert to experienced vestment maker, with a discussion of Photios Kontoglou’s writings on Byzantine aesthetics as providing a basis for her understanding of the principles at work. The first chapter outlines the theological import of vestments in terms of incarnational theology, the sanctification of matter, and the heavenly beauty of the Church; the second chapter traces the historical development of garments from antiquity through late medieval Byzantium; the third chapter discusses in detail present-day use and practice; the fourth chapter looks at church furnishings or “paraments”; the fifth chapter is a discussion of the Byzantine perception of color and how that applies to the colors of vestments used throughout the liturgical year; the sixth chapter is about the history of textiles used for Orthodox liturgical vestments. There is then an Afterword that is something of a manifesto about how Orthodox Christians in this country need to approach the vestment tradition, and then appendices on the practical care of vestments, the prayers of vesting, and a glossary of terms.

Secondly, this is a great topic being tackled by somebody who clearly has a lot to say about it and has gone to great lengths to understand it from the inside out. As the above outline hopefully makes clear, Kh. Krista speaks about vestments from a number of different vantage points; the history of their development, the materials they’re made from, how rubrics in the service books about color assume a different perspective on color than our modern view, how they work in conjunction with other liturgical furnishings, how the textiles are made, and so on. These are all worthy things for Orthodox Christians to think about, whether they might be wearing them, making them, or simply looking at them being worn. What do these colorful garments mean, where do they come from, and why do our clergy wear them?

Unfortunately, this book is hampered by a lack of an obvious intended audience, which subsequently keeps the book from having sufficiently specific focus or a clear structure. It is further hampered — and this, I think, is the core problem — by an apparent lack of proofreading or outside readership at the pre-publication stage, which is made evident in some obvious factual errors and an approach to citations that is at once overdone to the point of being distracting, but also not as informative as one would want. To put it another way: this is a book that needs to decide whether it is primarily for clergy and interested laypeople, or if it is a more academically-shaded work (but perhaps still at the popular level). Right now it is trying to be both, but it manages to be neither.

Let’s start with the factual errors: the most obvious, and therefore the most troubling, are in the chapter on historical developments. Page 60, for example, tells the reader the following:

At the Council of Laodicea in Phyrgia [sic], at the end of the fourth century (AD 342-380), minor orders were forbidden to use the orarion, which demonstrates that the garment was already well established as an identifying mark of the clergy by that time.xxii In Canon 23, St John Chrysostom provides the first extant mention of the sticharion as a purely liturgical garment (although he refers to it as a “chitoniskos” which is linguistically related to “chiton,” the ancient Greek word for tunic).xiii [sic]

First of all, there’s the typo on Phrygia, but then there’s the reference to the Council being “at the end of the fourth century” with the years given as 342-380. 342-380 cannot be considered “the end of the fourth century”, but then Laodicea was actually in 363-64 to begin with, which also can’t be considered “the end of the fourth century”. And while she’s right that Canon 23 speaks of the orarion, to attribute Canon 23 of Laodicea to Chrysostom is a head-scratcher, since he wasn’t there and would have been all of 16 years old when it took place. To Kh. Krista’s credit, her footnotes help one track down the error — although, again, a typo hinders the effort somewhat; note that we go from citation xxii to citation xiii. Since the next citation is numbered as xxiv, I assume she means to give the notes in sequence, so looking at citation xxiii, she cites page 37 of Archimandrite Chrysostomos’ Orthodox Liturgical Dress, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press in 1981. Page 37 of this book does indeed talk about the orarion and Chrysostom’s mention of it: “The first use of the sticharion as a purely liturgical garment is recorded in the writing of Saint John Chrysostom. Chrysostom describes a garment which in every respect is the sticharion, but he uses the word chitoniskos to identify it.” The author provides a footnote; it’s a Patrologia Graeca reference, and looking it up, it’s from chapter 6 of Chrysostom’s Homily on Matthew 26:26-28, not the acts of the Council of Laodicea. Finally, as a minor point, describing chitoniskos as “linguistically related” to chiton is too imprecise of a statement to be at all informative. “chitoniskos from chiton” would be sufficient here.

Another factual problem is Figure 10 on page 66 (below).

west page 66 figure 10

This is a mosaic she refers to as “[a] mosaic from Sant’Appolinare in Classe depicting courtiers wearing the pallium.” The trouble is, it isn’t; it’s the mosaic of Justinian from San Vitale in Ravenna, one of the most identifiable mosaics from Late Antiquity:

Again, to her credit, her footnotes help track down the problem. Kh. Krista cites Plate 27 of Sacred Fortress by Otto Von Simon [sic, actually Von Simson], which is this image:

von simson plate 27

This is, in fact, Sant’Apollinare in Classe, but it’s not the same image as what she shows. I grant that they are similar enough in the broad strokes that it’s easy to see how the error might happen, but this is still a major misidentification. It’s particularly unfortunate because later in the book Kh. Krista mentions seeing San Vitale in person; it’s clear she knows the difference, but this mistake made it into the manuscript and through the editorial process regardless.

The book’s citation system is helpful in cases like this, but it is also at once overdone and underdone. Kh. Krista, for some reason, uses both endnotes and footnotes, inserting numbered footnotes for additional commentary and Roman numeral endnotes for source citations. I’m not sure I understand what this accomplishes, and it’s certainly not a standard approach. Better to do all endnotes or footnotes, or, if one must separate source citations from comments, to use parenthetical citations. The problem isn’t just how she does it but also when, however; in the third chapter, she speaks extensively of practical matters concerning vestments — how they are made, what they look like, who wears them, and when — but cites almost nothing in terms of sources of this information, and this is particularly concerning when she asserts that this is the oldest tradition or that one is not in keeping with tradition.

To be clear, Kh. Krista is forthcoming about her own limitations in the acknowledgments and the Prologue; she describes herself as “just a tailor… I do not have any letters after my name and I certainly am not a scholar” (p. 16). Well, it is clear from the scope and the effort put into this book that she is more than “just a tailor”. At the same time, this is a big project with an expansive scope, and details such as those I’ve described are going to matter. Another point where the boundaries of her abilities don’t help her is with non-English sources; she is, again, up front about her limitations where this is concerned, but it means she isn’t able to engage things that should directly impact some of what she discusses. There is, for example, her discussion of the use of the exorason by cantors:

The outer cassock, known as the “exorason” in Greek or “ryasa” in Russian, is the more voluminous form of the cassock and is worn over the inner cassock in semi-formal, formal, and liturgical settings. Of elegant design, the exorason features the same front and back construction as the zostikon, but instead of angled fronts a triangular-shaped section is sewn to each front and the particular cut of this piece allows the fronts of the garment to overlap along the center without any closure, save for the hook-and-eye closure at the mandarin collar (whereas the zostikon has multiple collar variations, the exorason invariably features a mandarin collar). These front edge panels are fully lined so that, when they fall open as the wearer walks, the back side of the piece is as beautiful and finished as the front side. The garment employs the same general sleeve panel arrangement as the zostikon, but instead of a tailored sleeve-and-gusset combination it has a very large kimono sleeve sewn to a side panel which has eight-inch vents at the hem to allow greater freedom of movement while walking.The width of the sleeves is an indication of rank: chanter’s width sleeves are approximately thirty-six inches in circumference, the deacon’s and presbyter’s are forty-eight inches, and the bishop’s width is sixty inches. The sleeves have a six-inch deep lining that is made from the same fabric used for the lining of the front edge panels. The sleeves are worn long, typically two to three inches longer than inner cassock sleeves and thus covering the hands entirely when the wearer stands with his hands at his side. […]

In the Greek tradition the exorason is worn for services by chanters and sextons (liturgical assistants) with the narrowest-width sleeves and with no inner cassock underneath… Orthodox faithful in North America are sometimes puzzled by this liturgical use of the exorason by members of the laity, particularly when it is worn by women chanters. In this regard it is helpful to note that the narrow-sleeved version of the exorason is essentially the traditional Greek Orthodox Christian version of a choir robe. In Greece the chanter’s exorason is often made distinctive by the placement of galloon or colored, decorative banding upon the collar. (pp.114-116, emphasis mine)

This is certainly descriptive of some customs regarding the cantor’s use of the exorason; however, something that needs to be addressed here is the instruction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that the psaltis‘ cassock is to be indistinguishable from that of the priest, and not made distinct by collars or sleeve width, precisely because the cantor is part of the clerical order and not something separate. Kh. Krista also does not mention in her historical discussion the distinctive vestments worn by the psaltes and domestikoi previous to the fall of Constantinople (and colorfully recreated by the Romeiko Ensemble).

There are three more problems I’ll mention briefly; there is a historiographical problem, in that her historical treatment (particularly of textiles in chapter 6) does not adequately acknowledge periodization. Does the rich textile industry she describe persist from late antiquity until the Latin Empire in 1204? How, then, to make sense of Liutprand of Cremona, who writes during his visit to Constantinople in the middle of the 10th century that the robes are “old, foul smelling, and discolored by age”? Periodization is always arbitrary, to be sure, but it will be helpful here to keep from misleading. There is also a bibliographic problem, in that even in English language literature, there is much missing from her citations that would help her discussion. One of the most interesting chapters in the book is about how the Byzantine conception of color is very different from the modern understanding of the spectrum, and the work of Liz James here would be incredibly useful — notably, Light and Colour in Byzantine Art (Clarendon Press, 1996), as well as her more recent article “Colour and Meaning in Byzantium” (Journal of Early Christian Studies 11.2, Summer 2003, pp223-33). Mark Bradley’s Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome (Cambridge University Press, 2011) would also probably be a worthwhile reference.

Finally, there’s a theoretical problem, and it’s one that troubles everybody who would be a practitioner of traditional Orthodox liturgical crafts in this country; p.79-80 avers that “[t]he study of vestment construction… must be based upon the traditional apprentice and master model in which one desiring to learn the craft of vestments must study with a master tailor for a period of several years.” And yet, what Kh. Krista tells the reader of her own journey to being a master tailor she tells in largely the language of an autodidact. How do we reconcile this? I don’t know. It is certainly the reality of being an Orthodox Christian in this country that easy access to the sources for this kind of knowledge is not readily available — as I’ve recounted here before, the closest Byzantine chant teacher to where I live is five hours away, and I ultimately found it more practical to go to Greece for a summer and find somebody there.

All of this said — and I need to stress this, since I’ve spent around 2000 words talking about the problems — there is a lot here that’s good, it’s just a question of getting clear on the audience and reworking it accordingly. The good parts here are disjunct; her foregrounding of Photios Kontoglou’s aesthetic writings is really nice, for example, but it’s not threaded through the entire book sufficiently to feel like a framework. Besides that, it feels like there are pieces of at least three books here; a historical treatment, a description of present day practice, and a call-to-arms about what Orthodox Tradition means in the United States. These parts can be synthesized into an organic whole, but it’s not there yet.

Right now, the problem with citations aside, the chapter where she talks about present-day practice is her surest footing, and is what I would look to as the centerpiece of any revision. Perhaps the book is really for an audience that doesn’t need citations, just a list of books at the end titled “Additional Reading”, in which case the history chapter really could get away with being a summarized version of its present form that’s a few pages long. Or, maybe it really is a more scholarly treatment, in which case the third chapter is still a great anchor, it just needs to be clearer where she’s getting her information. In either case, once the focus is figured out, then the long block quotes from secondary literature need to be summarized rather than quoted, the citation system needs to be straightened out, the errors need to be fixed, and I would also make a strong plea for at least some color plates.

I’d like to close this review by saying that I think Kh. Krista has probably made about as honest of an effort as somebody in her position could possibly make on the first draft of a project like this. Errors happen, focus gets lost, chapters get away from people — even for the most celebrated of scholars! Unfortunately, much of the apparatus that used to be standard for publishers in terms of getting books to the next level after the first draft — outside readers, copy editing, fact checking, etc. — is, so people at my own lowly level are told when we attend publishing workshops, cost-prohibitive for all but the most financially secure of presses. It is unlikely that even a seasoned academic will be able to successfully edit and evaluate their own book without mistakes creeping through, so as far as I’m concerned, none of this really reflects badly on Kh. Krista, the “just a tailor” who is clearly more than “just a tailor”. My sincere hope, however, is that this feedback will help spur discussion between the author and the publisher on how to make the second edition the excellent book that it I have no doubt that it can be.

In which an English-language Prophetologion makes an appearance

A touch under three years ago, I posted a bit of a complaint about the current state of liturgical books in the English language, and one of the things I mentioned was the lack of a Prophetologion outside of the incomplete draft translation of Archimandrite Ephrem’s that is online. Since then, our parish has acquired an HTM Menaion, which contains all of the Old Testament readings for fixed feasts organized for liturgical use. Alas, most of our readers still wind up using a single-volume Bible that wasn’t intended to be read liturgically, or reading straight off the printout of the liturgical guide; to retrieve the Menaion volume from the psalterion seems to be an undesirable extra step, and our priest isn’t entirely sure how he feels about their scriptural translations. If I happen to be doing the OT readings (and as a rule I don’t do readings at all, since at any given moment we have a 3-5 readers, with me at the psalterion and the others at the altar; our priest likes to keep them involved, and under the circumstances, I’m happy to have a little less vocal stress), then I will do them from the Menaion, but since I already have it in hand, that doesn’t create any extra work, real or imagined.

It has come to my attention that +Demetri of the Antiochian Archdiocese has posted a draft translation of what is purported to be the complete Prophetologion on his personal website. This is the second major previously-unavailable liturgical book that +Demetri has published on his website, with the first being “a” Typikon — it’s an English translation of the Arabic reception of Violakis, basically, and I have to say it’s a bit amusing to note the places in his work where certain “thou shalt nots” that are strictly forbidden in the printed liturgical guide on account of being “Slavic practice” are prescribed as normative “Antiochian practice”. Oops. Well, what can you do.

The text is the “St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint” — that is, the New King James corrected for the Greek text as found in the Orthodox Study Bible. This means that it uses modern English, and thus varies from most if not all AOCANA liturgical books, to say nothing of the very nice Apostolos that the Antiochian Archdiocese just published, but there we are. (So we’re clear, I’m not at all opposed to modern English by any means — I think my admiration of Archimandrite Ephrem is reasonably evident — and I’m aware that +Demetri is not publishing under the imprimatur of the Antiochian Archdiocese as such.) I’m not entirely certain how a *.pdf is going to be useful liturgically if the practice is reading from the center of the church (+Demetri has suggested that it be printed and bound locally), but if it’s read from the psalterion (which I’ve also seen), then practically speaking, it’s a non-issue — an iPad fits very nicely on the psalterion.

I haven’t had much of a chance to peruse it yet, so I’ll be curious to hear peoples’ thoughts. In the meantime, it seems like a step in the right direction, and I’ll be curious to see what +Demetri works on next.

Review: Anton Baumstark, On the Historical Development of the Liturgy, trans. Fritz West

I first encountered the ideas of Anton Baumstark in the fall of 2005, when I wrote a paper for my undergraduate early music history course that (badly) attempted to compare Byzantine, Gregorian, and Old Roman use of Psalm 67 (“Let God arise…”), specifically one of the cornerstones of his comparative liturgy project, the so-called Gesetz der Erhaltung des Alten in liturgisch hochwertiger Zeit (usually translated as something like “law of preservation of ancient practice in especially solemn celebration”). There’s not really anything salvageable in that paper, but it pushed me towards many of the things I do now, and Baumstark was effectively a “gateway drug” to other liturgical scholars of the twentieth century, such as Dix, Schmemann, Taft, and so on.

Vom geschichtlichen Werden der Liturgie is a somewhat lesser-known work of Baumstark’s; it was published in 1923, a good eleven years before the publication of the lectures that would become the more famous Liturgie comparée (Comparative Liturgy). While the latter has been available in English translation since 1958, the former has only just been translated by Fritz West and published as On the Historical Development of the Liturgy.[1] West, a liturgical scholar and UCC minister, has produced a very accessible and thoroughly annotated edition of the book, which hopefully will be thought-provoking and generative for a current crop of both liturgical historians and historians interested in liturgy.

A truly useful outcome of West’s translation would be a re-articulation of Baumstark’s framework in a way that takes into account modern historiographical approaches; as West notes in his introduction, Baumstark’s perspective is notably weighed down for today’s reader by a reliance on “Great Man”-style theoretical models. Even more problematic, however, is his post-World War I resentment-fueled German nationalism (Baumstark would become a Nazi sympathizer in the 1930s). This is most clearly evident in chapter 11, titled “Language and Nation,” in which he attempts to show the relationship between ethnic identity (the German word he uses is Blut; West translates it as “race”) and liturgical development. This section of the book is frankly uncomfortable to read, given Baumstark’s own historical context; consider passages such as this one:

The readings in the Roman Breviary from the First and Second Books of Maccabees make for a singular impression, with their responses containing prayers for times of war and expressing a soldier’s delight upon seeing sunlight reflecting off of golden shields. Had the German people not become the preeminent guarantor of the Roman liturgy’s preservation and dissemination, these readings would have been hard put to maintain their impressive position in the lectionary of the office. Now they stand there as a towering monolith, recalling the proud days of the Vikings and bearing public witness against all would confuse the virile spirit of the church with programs for world peace, born of a weak and weary spirit. Could a nation in fact collapse utterly when suffering the heaviest blow fate could mete out in a national war of desperation if — in that decisive hour of its history — that nation were able to experience firsthand the Breviary prayer for the month of October in a liturgical setting? […] Without exception it was emotional values that the German people contributed to their adopted Roman liturgy… the full actualization of the German national character in liturgy was fettered by the use of Latin, a foreign language… one can only imagine how the Roman liturgy would have developed on German soil had the dialect of the Saxon troubadours, who chanted Heliand, had the opportunity of becoming the language it used for worship.[2]

Looked at another way, however, it is possible to see Baumstark’s project as tracing liturgical development in history as a way of constructing a Christian community that is truly universal, not just in geographic or national terms but in temporal terms — a way to establish a link to the Fathers, to putatively better times for German “Roman” Christianity in the person of Charlemagne (a figure constantly invoked by Baumstark), to Christ and the apostles themselves.

[The liturgical partcipant] participates in the deepest life of them all: the life of the millenniums. His individual prayer becomes for him an infinitesimally small ringlet in a virtually endless golden chain, stretching from the earthly days of the Son of Man, when Jesus wandered upon the shores of the blue Sea of Galilee, until that final day when he will await the return of the Son of Man in the glory of the Father.[3]

Baumstark’s proposal is that the impact of historical factors — such as political developments, missionary activity, theological crises, and so on — on liturgical development leads to identifiable strata in the evidence, explicitly invoking geology as a comparable image (chapter 1). He begins tracing this impact through identifiable modalities in pre-Constantinian Christianity: differing liturgical practices in the private home and public gatherings (chapter 2), the Jewish synagogue (chapter 3), and the Hellenized world in Greece, Asia Minor, and beyond (chapter 4). This examination leads to the preliminary conclusion that the trajectory of liturgical development has been a fundamental diversity which are molded into increasing conformity (chapter 5).

Following that, Baumstark examines how the fundamental diversity manifests regionally, with major cities functioning as strong centers of influence on surrounding regions (chapter 6). These centers tend to influence each other, such as Jerusalem and Constantinople in the East and Rome and Gaul in the West (chapter 7). The top-down influence of political and ecclesiastical elites on liturgical development, with Baumstark’s prime example being Charlemagne’s project of simultaneously forging a German identity that is Roman and a “Roman” identity that is unmistakably German (chapter 8). Monastic and urban practices represent another axis that tends to more or less blend together (chapter 9).

Baumstark also argues that the impact of notable historical actors upon liturgical development is paradoxical but undeniable. The end result of the liturgy for the worshiper of any given period is necessarily impersonal, an object fundamentally rooted in communal experience, but looking backward, the hand of individuals must be acknowledged, be they hymnographers, ecclesiarchs, or putative “authors” of entire rites — but he is careful to point out that sometimes it is less significant that an individual actually had a particular liturgical impact than the community believes that person to be worth the attribution (chapter 10). Language and ethnic identity, as already discussed, are also important factors to be considered for Baumstark (chapter 11).

At some point, rites tend to coalesce into more-or-less final forms with their own immutable tendencies and characteristics that reflect the various factors that have led to this point (chapter 12). This seems to inevitably give rise to a situation where liturgical language is frozen independent of vernacular usage, leading to a pastoral problem that a given rite has to figure out how to solve without losing its fundamental character. Baumstark argues that the West solved this problem by emphasizing Latin as a unifying characteristic of the Roman liturgy; the East by assigning to the deacon a role that mediates the action at the altar to the congregation (chapter 13).

Rites may tend to let their characteristic tendencies completely overshadow their core liturgical function; here Baumstark specifically criticizes the East’s allowance of liturgical poetry to become a “thicket of rank growth, proliferating out of control (chapter 14).[4] He also argues that the manifests in the East as a tendency towards overscripting the altar, turning the liturgy into a long exercise of personal devotion for the celebrant (chapter 15).

In the West, at least, the coalescence into a final form has led to formal, top-down mechanisms of reform and pruning, starting with the Council of Trent. These mechanisms, according to Baumstark, generally work as intended in the West, although in the East similar attempts appear to have messier results, such as the Old Believer schism in Russia (chapter 16).

Finally, Baumstark cautions, the scholar and worshiper must be careful with what they do with this kind of information, because of the clear limits of what we can conclude from our data. Of course, the methodology modeled by Baumstark is useless for predicting future changes, but epistemological boundaries exist looking backward as well. A historical understanding of the liturgy can enrich a present-day encounter, but without the context of direct experience, we can never completely ascertain the liturgical practices of a given time and place in their fulness (chapter 17).

It seems to me that it would be useful to reconsider many elements of Baumstark’s perspective anew. Off the top of my head, some possibilities of what could be done seem to be — how does a periodization model that includes late antiquity impact how these arguments are articulated?[5] How does a model of center and periphery clarify the relationships of geography and liturgy?[6] How could recent explorations of sensory experience in liturgy allow us to rethink the text-heavy emphasis?[7] How do frameworks such as Benedict Anderson’s imagined community illuminate the various social dimensions of the liturgy?[8] How does Paul Connerton’s work on inscribed vs. Incorporated memory suggest further pathways to better understanding Baumstark’s argument that the liturgy functions “trans-historically”?[9] How does the identification of orientalism as a problematic meta-narrative help us to tease apart Baumstark’s tendency to view development in the East as self-indulgent overgrowth, while the character of Roman liturgy is the standard to which everything else adheres or from which everything else falls away?[10] How might the methodology of ethnomusicology help us to better understand the ways in which the liturgy expresses characteristics and tendencies of the worshipping community?[11] If the liturgy is itself an object that belongs to the community, can we push that further and try to talk about a given rite, or a given section of a rite, as a “thing”?[12] Those are all very theory-heavy ideas from somebody who generally only half-jokingly introduces himself as a “paleostructuralist”, but they strike me as having the potential to be genuinely illuminating and generative of further discussion. They also have the extra advantage of being the kinds of approaches that would make liturgical matters relevant to historians who are not liturgical specialists.

West’s translation is quite lucid and readable; the annotations are generally very useful, if verging on repetitive at times. He also includes a collection of short biographies of all historical figures mentioned, which in and of itself is an invaluable reference. There are minor errors, such as the claim that the Syriac language is named for historic Syria[13] (it appears to have nothing to do with the historic region, with its origins as a distinct literary language apparently being in Mesopotamia)[14]. There also seems to be some fuzziness on the specifics of Eastern liturgical forms; Baumstark refers to the Latin Stabat mater text as “a Western counterpart to the ancient Syrian-Greek lament heard from Mary at the cross,”[15] most likely a reference to the genre of Eastern hymn known as the stavrotheotokion, but West’s note relates it to the ninth ode of the canon for Holy Saturday (“Do not lament me, O Mother…”), which seems to me improbable. Nonetheless, West has made a most valuable contribution by making this book accessible to English audiences.

I can’t help but wonder what Baumstark would have thought about the developments in the Roman liturgy post-Vatican II; would his framework have allowed him to understand the changes in terms of continuity? I expect not, but that may be something for others to argue about.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. 2 ed. New York: Verso, 2006.

Baumstark, Anton. On the Historical Development of the Liturgy. Translated by Fritz West. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011.

Boulay, Juliet du. Cosmos, Life and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village. Edited by Denise Harvey, The Romiosyni Series. Limni, Evia: Denise Harvey (Publisher), 2009.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 1-22.

Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity: Ad 150-750. Edited by Geoffrey Barraclough, Library of World Civilization. London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1989.

Coakley, J. F. Robinson’s Paradigms and Exercises in Syriac Grammar. 5 ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Galtung, Johan. “A Structural Theory of Imperialism.” Journal of Peace Research 8, no. 2 (1971): 81-117.

Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination. Edited by Peter Brown, The Transformation of the Classical Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Jeffery, Peter. Re-Envisioning Past Musical Cultures: Ethnomusicology in the Study of Gregorian Chant. Edited by Philip V. Bohlman and Bruno Nettle, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Reprint, 2003.


[1] Anton Baumstark, On the Historical Development of the Liturgy, trans. Fritz West (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011).

[2] Ibid., 172-74.

[3] Ibid., 44.

[4] Ibid., 204.

[5] Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: Ad 150-750, ed. Geoffrey Barraclough, Library of World Civilization (London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1989).

[6] e.g, Johan Galtung, “A Structural Theory of Imperialism,” Journal of Peace Research 8, no. 2 (1971).

[7] Notably, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination, ed. Peter Brown, The Transformation of the Classical Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

[8] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2 ed. (New York: Verso, 2006).

[9] Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[10] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994; reprint, 2003).

[11] e.g, Juliet du Boulay, Cosmos, Life and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village, ed. Denise Harvey, The Romiosyni Series (Limni, Evia: Denise Harvey (Publisher), 2009). Also, Peter Jeffery, Re-Envisioning Past Musical Cultures: Ethnomusicology in the Study of Gregorian Chant, ed. Philip V. Bohlman and Bruno Nettle, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[12] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001).

[13] Baumstark, Historical Development, 56, n. 1.

[14] J. F. Coakley, Robinson’s Paradigms and Exercises in Syriac Grammar, 5 ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 1, n. 1.

[15] Baumstark, Historical Development, 212.

Brief recap of recent travels

Last month I was fortunate enough to be able to attend, and present a paper at, the Patristic Symposium of the Florovsky Society at Princeton University. I had also been looking for the right opportunity to visit Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary for about the last year or so, and while I missed the opportunity that I had really wanted (I had wanted to coincide with Ioannis Arvanitis’ campus visit, but I wasn’t told it was happening until after it had already happened), I decided that since I was going to be out on the East Coast anyway, I may as well roll a trip to Boston into the travel for the Florovsky Symposium.

I had never been to Princeton before. It was reasonably easy to get there from Newark Airport via train, it’s a lovely little town, and the campus is quite picturesque. It was a good opportunity to see some people I don’t get to see very often; I was able to catch up with an old Jacobs School of Music buddy of mine, Ben Eley, who now works for the university in a decidedly non-musical capacity and whom I hadn’t seen since summer of 2006, and I also was able to stay with our friend Paul who lives nearby. Alexis and Eugenia Torrance, with whom I’ve crossed paths a number of times over the last few years, were there, as was Seraphim Danckaert, whom I first met in the summer of 2004 when he was studying Romanian here. Ioana Patuleanu, a former All Saints-er who relocated to New Jersey last year, was there. My friends John and Katherine, both students at Holy Cross, also came down for the conference, and I rode back to Boston with them afterward.

It was also a chance to finally meet Fr. Andrew Damick in person, with whom I have been friends in the digital world for the last few years. We met for breakfast at PJ’s Pancake House Friday morning before heading over to the conference, and I think found that we are reasonably like-minded on a number of points.

As we walked over to the conference, I saw Fr. Benedict Churchill and Dn. Gregory Hatrak of SVS Press unloading boxes of books. I had met them at Oxford last summer, so I made a point of saying hi and taking one of the boxes to be of help. Well, no good deed goes unpunished; as I set the box down where they told me to put it, I managed to catch something at exactly the wrong angle with exactly the wrong amount of tension, and ripped open the crotch of my trousers.

Do note that this was also the day on which I was presenting my paper. Since I was staying with Paul, whose house was some 5 miles away, there was very little I could do except make sure my jacket was draped strategically and deliver my paper from behind a lectern. This is the kind of thing that happens to me.

Nonetheless, the paper was well-received and got a couple of good, productive questions. The rest of the conference was really interesting, although it was a curious reversal for me; usually I’m a little too ecclesiastical in my focus to neatly fit in with my history colleagues, but here, I was clearly a historian amongst theologians. Well, there we go.

Saturday evening John, Fr. Andrew, Alexis, and I were able to help chant Vespers for the Princeton Orthodox chaplaincy — for that service, in no less of a location than the Princeton Chapel itself. That didn’t suck (although the choir director looked a little shell-shocked at the end and said, “It’ll be lovely to have you all in the choir tomorrow morning, but I think maybe we’ll do a little less Greek chant”). I also got to briefly see an acquaintance I had made in Athens 3 years ago, who just happens to now be at Princeton and was at Vespers (even though she herself is Catholic). Small world. Following Vespers, Paul, Fr. Andrew, and I had really good Indian food for dinner, and then it was back to Emmaus for Fr. Andrew.

Sunday morning, following Divine Liturgy at the chaplaincy, Paul, John, Katherine, and I had breakfast at PJ’s (I just had to do it one more time), at which point the New Jersey leg of the trip had to come to a close, and it was time to head to Boston.

Holy Cross was a great trip; I met some neat people, including fellow blogger Kevin Edgecomb, I had some very good and productive conversations with members of the faculty (I’m contemplating spending a year there while I’m writing my dissertation), I was able to sit in on a number of good classes, especially the Byzantine chant classes, I got to sing in the left choir for a handful of chapel services, and, as with Princeton, I was able to make some new friends and catch up with some existing friends whom I don’t get to see all that often. Something that was a little unsetting was that there were people I met who said, “Oh, I know you! I read your blog!” Well, there we go.

Alas, I wasn’t able to get a Holy Cross shirt; I was told that they only place one order a year, and the larger sizes go quickly, so thus is life. I had to get some item of HCHC swag, though, so I bought a scarf.

One of the great things about the Holy Cross visit was seeing the current level of Antiochian representation there amongst the seminarians. There are 12 AOCANA guys there right now who are all getting a good grounding in Byzantine chant from Grammenos Karanos, good liturgics in the chapel (including the experience of antiphonal choirs being normative), and exposure to Greek and Arabic. This all seems like good stuff to have happening. One of the Antiochian seminarians I met was Rassem El-Massih, whom I’ve heard about for years but had not yet met — he’s an excellent cantor from Lebanon and all around good guy, it seems, and we had a really positive conversation my last morning there. He had some very encouraging things to say about the future of traditional Byzantine chant in the Antiochian Archdiocese, and I told him a bit about the objectives of the St. John of Damascus Society. Hopefully the Society can be part of the efforts he was talking about.

By the way, if you’re a single person considering going to Holy Cross, do be aware that the dorm rooms are tiny. And I mean tiny. Word to the wise.

Anyway, after three far-too-short days in Boston (which, honestly, I didn’t get to see much of because the seminary trip took up all the time I had), it was time to take the train back to Newark and fly home.

And then it was time to start preparing for my next trip, this time to Emmaus, Pennsylvania to give a couple of talks on music at a Lenten retreat at St. Paul’s Orthodox Church, Fr. Andrew Damick’s parish.

I arrived at St. Paul’s the evening of Friday, 2 March, just in time to help sing an Akathist service. Their building is a repurposed valve machine shop; in terms of layout, it’s not unlike All Saints, low ceilings and all, except that enough surfaces are sufficiently reflective that it’s actually a reasonably decent acoustic environment. I was quite surprised.

Saturday morning I sang Matins and Divine Liturgy for St. Theodore the Tyro (we also did the Blessing of the Kollyva). The morning was pretty much up to me, and having such an uncustomary free reign, I sang an all-Byzantine liturgy. It was really nice to sing that repertoire in that room, I have to say.

Following Liturgy, I gave the first talk. There were about 15-20 people, and they had good questions (although some of the questions were such that, the frank way I had to answer them, it was best to omit the Q&A from the online version). Not bad attendance and participation, considering that Fr. Andrew made the mistake of putting my name on the flyer (see for yourself).

During the afternoon, Fr. Andrew gave me a bit of tour of Emmaus, and I have to say, as a town, the place is cute as a bug’s ear. I’d love to have more of a chance to get to know the place sometime.

After Vespers, I gave the second talk. There was about half the attendance, and about half of those people hadn’t been there in the afternoon. Again, some good questions, and all things considered pretty good given that my face was used for advertising. In any event, my job was done, Fr. Andrew took me out for Chinese food, and once again we had a great conversation over a wide range of topics.

Sunday morning, it was back to Kazan and their usual polyphonic mix of things; Gail Ortner is a capable choir director, and truthfully, it was nice to just stand there and sing and not have to worry about everything being my problem.

Thanks to a flight delay, I was able to attend the Lehigh Valley Pan-Orthodox Vespers for Sunday of Orthodoxy at St. Nicholas Cathedral (GOA). It’s a beautiful church, and it was a very nice way to end the visit. It worked out perfectly, and I got to the airport with plenty of time to catch my plane.

And now I’m home until May.

I’ll say this — getting to know Fr. Andrew a bit has been one of the real highlights of the last six weeks. He’s one of the good guys — he appears to have a genuine love of God, the Church, Tradition, and the people he serves; he is able to use his theatrical background and intellectual acuity to great effect (as opposed to great affect, which I’ve seen happen all too often); he seems to very much care about the place he is in and wants to serve it to the best of his ability; he seems to have a very good handle on where his parish is at and what they need to be doing; and — very important — he has a supportive group of parishioners behind him, and a really awesome family at home. I hope to have more of a chance to get to know him down the road.

Review: Cappella Romana, Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium

Cappella Romana is an ensemble that’s hard to pin down. Are they an early music ensemble? Yes, sort of, but they don’t generally do Bach or Monteverdi. Are they a sacred music ensemble? Yes, but they’re not affiliated with a specific church institution (i. e., a cathedral or parish). Are they a world music ensemble? Sort of, since much of the music they sing originates in the Mediterranean, but not exactly. Are they a contemporary music ensemble? Yes, sort of, but much of the contemporary music they do is decidedly in an older tradition. Are they a pastoral, confessional affair? Of sorts, I suppose, although their membership is by no means entirely composed of Orthodox Christians. Are they a scholarly project? Well, yes, they’re kind of that too, given that the booklets tend to be article-length affairs with footnotes and bibliography. I suppose you could say that they’re an early world contemporary sacred music vocal ensemble that’s run by a musicologist.

They’ve been extraordinarily productive in terms of recorded output in the last eight years; since 2004 they’ve put out some eight discs (ten if you include the compilation for the Royal Academy’s Byzantium exhibit and their contribution to the Choral Settings of Kassiani project) that have run the gamut — medieval Byzantine chant, Russian-American liturgical settings, a long-form concert work by an American master, Western polyphony, Greek-American polyphonic liturgical music, and Christmas carols (of a sort). Their recordings also continue to get better and better; I picked up their discography in 2004 starting with the Music of Byzantium compilation of various live and recorded excerpts, followed by Lay Aside All Earthly Cares, their collection of Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s music, and then 2006’s The Fall of Constantinople, a program I had heard them perform here in Bloomington. Comparing just those three discs to each other, there’s a noticeable jump in quality, and then comparing them to recent releases such as the Peter Michaelides Divine Liturgy, it’s clear that they’ve found a groove in the studio (as well as perhaps in the editing booth) and they’re riding it now. They’re recording music nobody else is really doing, and while that means it’s hard to know what an applicable comparandum for any particular recording might be, it’s clear listening to it that they’re doing it at a very high level regardless, and the good news about the lack of comparable recordings is that it reveals the sheer richness of the Orthodox musical heritage. Arvo Pärt and Rachmaninoff are great, but there’s much, much more that you can do.

Mt. Sinai: The Frontier of Byzantium fits into this scheme by presenting music from late medieval Byzantine chant manuscripts from St. Catherine Monastery at Mt. Sinai, one of the key crossroads for Eastern Christianity. A Chalcedonian monastic outpost dating as far back as the days of Justinian in the middle of non-Chalcedonian Egypt, it is a treasure house of some of our earliest witnesses to the Christian iconographic tradition (since it was a place of refuge from the iconclasts), and its library of manuscripts in virtually every language of the Roman oikoumene is a witness to the catholicity of the Empire that produced them. The musical selections include portions of a Vespers for the monastery’s patronal feast, as well as the Service of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, a quasi-liturgical drama that would have been served between Matins and Divine Liturgy on the Sunday before Christmas.

The Vespers material is interesting, particularly how Psalm 103 is treated. It is something of a mix of reconstructed Palestinian practice and present-day Greek tradition, where the first three verses are sung antiphonally, and then Koukouzelis et al.‘s setting of the Anoixantaria (the section of Ps. 103 that starts with, “Thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good…”) is interpolated with Triadika, short refrains glorifying the Trinity. It’s an approach to psalmody (in the literal sense of the word) that is generally eschewed in modern American parish practice; we tend to treat whole psalms as something to get through as quickly and as plainly as possible. Of course, just singing the Anoixantaria can take as long as 20 minutes depending on whose setting one is doing, so when parishes want to get Vespers done in half an hour or less, that’s the way it is. Elements like this emphasize how, ideally, our worship needs to be unhurried; we’re on God’s time, he’s not on our time.

The Service of the Furnace portion is lovely. It’s a real curiosity, liturgically speaking; the notes refer to it having been part of the practice of Constantinople and Thessaloniki (and subsequently Crete), and something that developed during the so-called “Byzantine ars nova“, where an artistic and spiritual flourishing was paradoxically occurring in the East at the same time as the political collapse. I’m left wanting to know more about how exactly how it developed, and why, and why it didn’t catch on elsewhere in the Orthodox world.

There are several musical textures in the Furnace section, solo to choral, syllabic to highly melismatic, and they’re all handled with beautiful musicianship and and some of the best male ensemble singing you’re ever likely to hear on a CD. One thing I’d point out is that this actually is something that has been commercially recorded before and is more or less available, even if you have to know where to look for it. Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir (EBX) recorded parts of it for a Polish release called “Byzantine Hymns”, and while I have yet to actually find this for purchase anywhere, you can find their rendering of the Service of the Furnace hymnody on YouTube.   Obviously there’s a bit of a difference in approach; EBX tends to have a different vocal quality all around that I would describe as a little more suntanned and weatherbeaten, and they’re singing the material the way they sing at church every Sunday. EBX also employs a children’s choir for the Three Youths themselves, which is apparently the historical practice and sounds fantastic, but I can see several reasons why that might be an undesirable layer of complexity for Cappella’s presentation.

One other thought — something that a recording like this might help to give a glimpse of is the vitality of the Christian tradition in the Middle East. St. Catherine’s Monastery is an Egyptian witness to a faithful, diverse, cosmopolitan Christianity in the Roman world, and that Christianity is still there, alive, and hanging on. Projects like this show that it is a witness that has much still to teach us.

Dutifully following up…

Thanks to a couple of friends kindly sharing yesterday’s post on Facebook — I suspect that the ulterior motive in doing so was the opportunity to publicly display goodwill to the deranged — I saw a number of comments on the piece that were not actually posted on the blog itself. I replied to a couple of them, but I also thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to address them here.

What I found very curious about some of the criticism is that what they were objecting to was also what I was objecting to, or at least I thought I was. I grant that I finally hit “Publish” at close to 3am and it’s possible that what seemed like a clear, cogent train of thought at the time was actually me calling for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks. I’m also enough of a postmodernist, at least in terms of absorption of cultural surroundings, to know that authorial intent is in no way authoritative, so if you think that I called for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks, I called for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks (even if the words I actually used were “I prefer rhubarb pie, but only with a nice strong cup of Ethiopian coffee and a rose liqueur chaser”).

One comment went as follows:

I think that that way lies madness on two counts:

1) The approach discussed, answering peoples’ ‘Felt Needs’, is exactly the approach that has led to the decline, and now fall of the historic Protestant denominations in the United States. Speaking from my personal background, the Dutch Reformed Church started saying to itself, “People don’t have a Predestination problem…” “People don’t have a Total Depravity problem…” “People aren’t wandering around feeling guilty about the sin in their lives…” and slowly but surely, all of those distinctions went down the sewer pipe and the Dutch Reformed denominations, with Robert Schuller leading the parade, left Protestantism, then Christianity, and blended into the American religion.

2) There’s an exceedingly false premise in the midst of this piece, and that’s that the Holy Orthodox Church isn’t the only one preaching Christ crucified in the United States today. I don’t know if its stated out of charity or ignorance of just how bad the religious landscape has become, but Orthodoxy is, frankly, the last vestige of Christianity available in the United States. Everything else has blended into the hydra that is Americanism, a kind of Nationalistic Therapeutic Deism. One head is Southern Baptist, one is Mormon, one Episcopalian, but at the core they’re teaching the same thing, a bland moralism, worship of patria, and whatever self help strategy is popular this week.

America is a threat unlike anything Orthodoxy has ever faced. We’re faced with a culture that believes itself to be Christian, but is anything but. A culture with no sense of history whatsoever, and which actively denies history’s relevance to religion. A culture whose religious experience is entirely subjective and individualistic. A culture that has fused this false religion with an overpowering Statism.

To my knowledge, the Orthodox Church was not seeking converts in Western European nations in the 19th century, nor in the fascist states of the early-20th century, and Communism of course left Orthodoxy in no state to seek growth until its fall in the lands afflicted. Those are the only places where She might have had a similar experience to attempting to convert the United States today.

The last thing I’m suggesting is that Orthodoxy blend into the American religion. However, I’m also trying to be realistic about the cultural circumstances that inform the problem, and I’m explicitly problematizing the approach of revising our visible, external practices as a way of making peace with those cultural circumstances. As far as the matter of whether or not Orthodox Christianity isn’t the only one preaching Christ crucified goes, my point is that, even if this commenter is right that Orthodoxy is the only one, we nonetheless are in the position of having to fight to be heard over the din of everybody else claiming to do so, and the ways we try to distinguish ourselves in the midst of that dull roar are received more often than not as exercises in question-begging, at least from what I’ve seen. Your mileage may vary.

Here’s a personal anecdote that seems applicable to me. When I was a little kid, I had a Sherlock Holmes-style double-billed deerstalker hat, a trenchcoat, and a briefcase. I insisted on wearing them to school every day. My parents told me, “You can wear those if you want. You need to be aware that you will probably take some heat for it because you’ll probably be the only kid at school wearing anything like it.” I chose to wear them nonetheless, completely unfazed. Yes, I had a lot of problems getting along with some of the other kids at school as a result, but I stuck to my guns.

From where I sit now, close to 30 years removed from that set of circumstances, I don’t think it was right or wrong that I made the choice that I did. It was just who I was (and still am, to a certain degree), and the way people reacted to me was a function of who they were. To be who I was without those externals was incomprehensible to me. But I still got beat up (and worse, sometimes) and my hat still got stolen on a regular basis (but always recovered — I still have it, in fact). I could have saved myself a lot of grief by just choosing to fit in, but I didn’t want to do that. What I did to adapt, rather, was to do the best I could at the things I was good at and that I was interested in, and eventually my path became clear. (Not until I was 29, and then I was 32 before I could actually go down that path, but never mind that now.)

I have a friend who just very recently started talking to me about the prospect of becoming a priest eventually. It’s coming to him out of a sense of vocation, not to evangelize the United States with the One True Church, but rather — and I can’t say I’ve ever heard any of my various would-be seminarian friends and acquaintances ever put it this way before — to heal people’s souls. Wow. When I think about how rife our culture is with depression, and how much effort we put into possible solutions for it, some that might work and others that assuredly won’t — well, talk about a problem people actually do think they have, and that we as the Church actually can do something about. Is that an impulse that leads to Nationalistic Therapeutic Deism? My instinct is to say no, that it’s rather an impulse to do what the Church should be doing anyway, but maybe I’m wrong.

Here’s another one:

Myeh — he’s right, but he’s wrong. His rhetoric is good, but he dismisses alternate claims on a kind of wistful idealism only then to transition into a realist “let’s meet real problems” mode to throw you off his trail. Not biting, thank you. What’s frustrating is that we _do_ need to translate some things, but it can’t be the result of one generation’s engineering project of “inculturation.”

We do need the Liturgy in English, we also really should have music that taps into some kind of cultural memory (there is such a thing, even if it’s weaker than it is in other cultures — and even, contra the choir director in this piece, if it seems “arbitrarily chosen” according to critical standards…these “arbitrary choices” are the result of decisions that the entire culture has received, that this kind of music captures something primordial about who we are, and it is probably made on a host of very difficult-to-pinpoint resonances between the form of the music and the forms of a bundle of things — the feel of the land, the forms of historical events that are received as defining, etc.).

On the other hand, the ascetical and liturgical tradition of the Church should not be tampered with. I don’t know why people would think that these should change. If there are little changes in iconographic style or vestments or whatever that would translate the tradition better in our land, then these will accumulate slowly over time from deepened fidelity to what is received, and will not result from a program.

Finally, Orthodox people say lots of really silly things about what the West is and what Secularism is. (They also say silly things about what Protestantism is, or what Catholicism is — even converts from these traditions.) This all really needs to be straightened out. In every pre-modern Pagan people that I know of, they had the Gospel translated into the symbolic idiom they knew — so that in the Anglo-Saxon world, for instance, they had the Pagan mythology subtly re-configured to communicate the form of the Gospel. There is continuity, and discontinuity, and I don’t know that there’s any other way to graft something on. Unless someone can articulate the American mythology, we’re not likely to have much success other than pockets of people who’re faithful to their heritage and peculiar converts who can buck all kinds of countervailing forces.

What is there to be wary of in American culture, in the condition of Secularism we all find ourselves in? The shadowboxing will likely continue until someone can speak clearly.

I’m not certain what alternate claims I’m dismissing with wistful idealism, and it’s also unclear to me what he means by saying I’m trying to throw people off my trail. Dealing with the rest of it — I never said we don’t need the Liturgy in English; I said that English is important. What I suggested, perhaps clumsily in my 2:30am stupor, is something that seems to me to be well in line with what he says — that English isn’t functioning as part of a mission so much as part of a cultural agenda. The agenda is looking an awful lot like the tail wagging the dog, and it isn’t addressing what strike me, at least in my own limited experience, as the real pastoral issues that have to do with language and culture.

Unless someone can articulate the American mythology… well, somebody did that. His name was Joseph Smith. The particular genius of Mormonism, it seems to me, was figuring out a way to incorporate an American sense of place into its sacred history in a way that no Protestant group has really managed to do, and that Catholicism and Orthodoxy really struggle to figure out how to do. The way most Protestants seem to have solved this problem is to become semi-gnostic (at least) in their approach to place. I had a conversation with somebody about a year ago, basically a garden-variety Evangelical, about my experience in Greece and being someplace where particular events in Christian history are embedded in the cultural memory. This person looked very thoughtful and said, “Well, that’s interesting, but why does anybody actually need that? I don’t have a sense of place that has resonance with Christian history, but I’ve got Jesus, and I don’t see where I’m missing anything.” (Which again smacks of solutions looking for problems.) I’ve suggested before that the way American Orthodoxy will develop its own sense of place will be American saints who actually were born here and active here, but that’s not going to happen overnight.

(Incidentally, Flesh of My Flesh does medieval Germanic stuff, and I’m well aware of the Gospel being translated into the symbolic idiom that they knew — still, there are limitations there. The Germanic tribes stayed Arian for a long time, for example, and my wife has also talked about there being some very strange things going on with things like the Heliand, the Gospel harmonization written in Old Saxon.)

What is there to be wary of in American culture? That’s a question that I’m sure could take multiple dissertations to answer, but here’s where my brain immediately goes: I met a man once who was a mortgage broker. It wasn’t terribly exciting, but he was very good at it, and he was proud of what he did. “If you’re going to make shoes, make good shoes,” he said. It was a point of view that got me thinking, and I remember mentioning it to my dad, who promptly shot down the man’s attitude as naive and, mortal sin of mortal sins, inefficient. “If you make good shoes that nobody can buy, you’re not going to have a job,” he retorted. “Better to make shoes that are just good enough that the average person can afford them and feel like they’re getting a halfway decent product. Sell to the classes, eat with the masses. Sell to the masses, eat with the classes.” It seems to me that that’s a good place to start.

“Encounter” vs. “reception” vs. solutions looking for problems

As has been our custom for the last seven years, New Year’s found me and Flesh of My Flesh in the company of our dear friends Benjamin and Paul for a long weekend of food and movies. We all started out in Bloomington at about the same time, and we all converted to Orthodox Christianity within a year of each other. During academic year ’05/’06 Benjamin and Paul were roommates, and for all intents and purposes there was something of a miniature commune between our two residences, with at least one shared meal virtually daily at either our place or theirs. When they both departed for broader horizons in summer of 2006 — Benjamin to take an adjunct voice teacher position at his alma mater in Cleveland, Paul to pursue different opportunities in New Jersey — we made a point of continuing to spend New Year’s together, and save for ’10/’11 when Megan was in Germany for the year (and therefore I was overseas visiting her for the New Year), we have done so every year since. ’06/’07 and ’07/’08 were in Cleveland, ’08/’09 was here in Bloomington, and then this time we all made the trek out to New Jersey, since Paul has always been good enough to come out to see us in past years. This year the menu was French food, largely inspired by Benjamin and Paul’s respective travels; the films included The King’s Speech (I’d seen it before; it’s good but I can’t say I found it life-changing or worthy of Best Picture) and The White Countess (excellent on every level, and I was left wondering why in the world I’d never heard of it before). I also had the pleasure of introducing Paul to the Steven Moffat/Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman Sherlock, and I have to say that I have yet to show anybody the first fifteen minutes of “A Study in Pink” who hasn’t both been glued to their chair for the rest and bugging me for the next two or three days about watching the other two episodes. This means I’ve seen “A Study in Pink” now about ten times, but that has yet to be a problem. I will have to write later about how Steven Moffat, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Matt Smith have gradually taken over such TV viewing habits as I have; suffice it to say for the time being that I’m not pleased that I will have to wait until May for “A Scandal in Belgravia” and God-only-knows-when for Series 7 of Doctor Who.

A visit to Paul’s current parish Sunday morning was interesting for a number of reasons. Among them was the choir situation; they appear to be quite blessed with a volunteer choir that can pretty much sing whatever the director puts in front of them, and the director himself is a very capable conductor. He’s given them all very thick binders with multiple options for everything, and he apparently chooses everything on the fly during the service based on whom he happens to have that particular morning. He’s not shy about giving them tougher stuff, either, or about making some, uh, unorthodox musical choices, like Sarum chant and William Byrd.

We had, to say the least, a lively conversation following the Divine Liturgy, prompted in no small part by the director’s mention of the recent publication of the Suchy-Pilalis first Nativity Canon. He brought it up, mentioned that he saw that it was a new melody composed using Byzantine principles for the Lash translation, and I was about to say, “Yes, it’s great work that is one of a few things like that pointing the way forward” when he surprised me with his adamant insistence that it was nonsense. He asserted rather bluntly that composing for English texts using Byzantine compositional principles is no better than keeping an existing melody, whiting out the Greek, and shoehorning in the English. He said over and over again that you absolutely cannot do that — I think he may have even called it “unconscionable” that anybody would think that it’s an acceptable approach. His stance was that Byzantine compositional principles assume an inflected language with particular stress patterns for particular kinds of cadences, and that English doesn’t work that way, so it’s just another way of shoehorning English texts into a context they were never meant to fit. Plus, he said, even if you recompose for English, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re talking about a musical idiom that has zero cultural resonance whatever for the native English speaker, and thus utterly fails in terms of mission. In all fairness, he didn’t really single out Byzantine chant; he seemed to be suggesting that virtually all received forms of Orthodox liturgical music need to be consigned to the dustheap for purposes of English. If they’re going to survive at all, he said, they need to be adapted “organically” for purposes of a culturally American, English-language context, but even when pressed it seemed unclear exactly what he had in mind.

I found myself even more perplexed when it came to what he saw as a better alternative. He was as unsympathetic to the idea of using existing American vernacular musical idioms as a starting point as he was to anything else; “You’re just arbitrarily historicizing something else that way,” was his response. He made it clear that he wasn’t suggesting that we look to Eminem for a example of what “the music of the people” might sound like, but exactly what he thought we should be looking to was never articulated precisely.

He also had unmitigated wrath for anybody who might preserve any kind of Jacobean-style English, arguing that the style has the exact opposite effect from what it was intended to have. Thees and thous were supposed to be familiar, he said, and we now use them to distance ourselves from God and place him higher than ourselves rather than to address him with intimacy. Megan tried to express some appreciation for the style and he would have none of it; “You want Christ’s crucifixion to be meaningless just so you can have your thees and thous!” he told her. (A friend of his started to intervene at this point, only to have him yell, “WE’RE NOT ARGUING!”)

Now, lest I be misleading, I should say that while I intensely disagree with this gentleman on a number of points, he was — believe it or not — good-natured and friendly throughout the conversation, and very well-informed on the whole. There were a couple of things he said where I’m not sure where he’s getting his information, but it’s safe to say that our disagreements are generally informed disagreements, and those are the kind I’d rather have with people.

Megan also asked him, “Why do we need to reinvent the wheel when the wheels we have have done pretty well in every other situation for at least the last 1500 years?” His answer? “Good question. Because those wheels don’t travel on our roads.”

Because those wheels don’t travel on our roads.

Hm.

Matthew Namee’s recent piece over at SOCHA, “Toward and American Orthodox historical narrative”, looks to the concept of “encounter” as a way of talking about American Orthodox history — “Encounter between Orthodoxy and the West; encounter between long-isolated Orthodox ethnic groups; and encounter between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox.” He expands on the notion of the encounter with the West using Orthodox youth as an example:

From the beginning, American Orthodoxy has struggled to retain its young people. It didn’t help that, for decades (and in some churches, up to the present) Orthodoxy was treated as more of a cultural artifact than a living faith. Old languages were preserved, and English was resisted, and most young people didn’t care about the misguided justifications for using only Greek or Slavonic or Arabic or what have you. Who wants to worship in a language they can’t understand? And no matter how beautiful a language is, if the people can’t understand it, it has failed in its fundamental purpose: to communicate meaning.

He wraps up the “encounter with the West” idea thus:

We encountered the West, and we didn’t know what in the heck to do with it. We weren’t prepared. We flailed about, dancing with the Anglicans, wallowing in our nominalism, ordaining every male American convert who expressed the faintest interest in the priesthood. All too often, we have lacked a vision for our mission in America, and even our identity as the Apostolic Church — the Church. Sentimentalism, ethnic pride, a desire for acceptance, a pleasant feeling of surprise when we are accepted — these things all can be good, and they can have their place. But they can also be our downfall.

The “encounter with the West” notion seems to agree with this New Jersey choir director that “those wheels don’t travel on our roads”. What we had doesn’t work here, and the more we try to make it work here, the more it underscores how badly it doesn’t work here. From a musical point of view this problematizes the whole notion of a “received tradition”; you can’t speak of a “received tradition” when nobody’s receiving it. This appears to be what the New Jersey choir director is getting at: reception isn’t happening, and the more you try to make the existing idioms get along with our language and culture, the more it emphasizes that it can’t be done.

As far as Matthew Namee’s piece goes — I like a lot of what he has to say, and I think what he has to say about the dangers we’ve set up for ourselves with convert clergy being ordained too lightly and too quickly is probably exactly right. Still, there are some over-generalizations that bother me. The language issue — and I’m not even going to go near the bit about the “fundamental purpose” of language, because that’s a significantly complicated matter — certainly gets its exercise in almost any conversation about this stuff, but the flipside is the phenomenon I’ve seen of people who’ve grown up in parishes where a non-vernacular liturgical language is preserved and for whom hearing the services in English is a cheapening experience. It’s great that it’s in English, it’s great that I can understand this or that part of the service, they say, but… something’s wrong. It sounds like English, but it doesn’t sound like church. What I have come to understand from what I’ve experienced in non-English parishes is that, for a significant portion of cradles, it matters that the language they hear in church is the language in which they remember hearing their grandmother pray. It matters because liturgy builds, maintains, and transmits religious identity, and to the extent that liturgy feels like a “family affair” in a broad and a narrow sense of the term, it’s going to be difficult for such people to separate their earthly family from their church family. I recently met an older Greek-American who lives here in Bloomington and was part of what became All Saints in the early days but who declined to continue to be part of it when the community incorporated under the Antiochians. He said, rather bluntly, “Forgive my ethno-centrism, but I just can’t do it. What a Greek person gets out of going to a Greek church is very personal, and it’s not something you can just transplant or translate.” A somewhat more flippant Greek-American friend of mine recently put it, “So often, you just want to say, ‘American Orthodoxy — you’re doing it wrong.'”

But let’s be honest — that’s what’s at the core of King James-style English, too. Even we as English speakers want church to sound like church. That’s the Lord’s Prayer the way we were taught it as kids — once again, the way we we remember hearing our grandmother pray. And the New Jersey choir director is right, sometimes that means the meaning has shifted — take the Paschal greeting the way it’s typically rendered into English: “Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!” And we hear things about how that means that Christ is risen now, today, that it’s an ongoing reality — but that’s not actually what “is risen” means. “Christ is risen” is an archaic way of saying what we would now express in English as “Christ has risen”. It’s a perfect tense — think the Christmas carol “Joy to the world” — “The Lord is come“. It’s still the way you do perfect tenses in German — “Christus ist auferstanden!” — but in English it’s an archaicism, and one we don’t readily grasp as being so. If you translate Χριστὸς ἀνέστη literally, it’s something like “Christ rose”; it’s an aorist tense, past time and simple aspect — the narrative past tense, if you like, which establishes it as a once-and-for-all historical event, which is something very different from understanding “Christ is risen” as being in the present tense. But if we started saying “Christ arose!” on Easter, I’m guessing it really wouldn’t work for most people.

If archaic language is keeping youth out, but English isn’t necessarily solving the problem, then there is more of an issue here, and maybe Namee gets more to the point when he says that Orthodox Christianity “didn’t know what the heck to do” with the West.

Here’s what I think is the hard reality: Orthodox Christianity in the United States, at least as presented up to this point, is a solution looking for a problem.

I don’t think I’m going too far when I say that Americans, by and large, have no interest in being part of Holy Russia, have no interest in re-establishing the Roman Empire, and have no real interest in Russian or Greek cultures except when they can get good poppyseed rolls or have a gyros while watching some kids re-enact Zorba’s dance. Yes, fine, we all know that. Americans want to be Americans.

But you know what? From what I’ve seen, I don’t think Americans, for the most part, have any particular interest in being part of “the one true Church” either. America, like it or lump it, is culturally Protestant, and as soon as you start using that kind of language, you’re already making assumptions that were rejected by our forebears centuries ago. Most Americans are not looking for a “more authentic” liturgical experience; most Americans are not looking for anything “traditional” or that constitutes a “deeper Christian spirituality”, or whatever the other buzzwords are that we all like to use. I have seen with my own eyes what can happen when certain kinds of American Protestants try to speak in that language, and the result is something like theatre for the deaf. Americans, at least some of them, can be well aware of the consequences when those elements of Christianity with even the vaguest of historical roots are traded for a mess of pottage, and in a way this can be seen as a manifestation of the same problem as language — church seems too distinct from your everyday life, which might be a problem, but in updating, it loses an important distinction from everyday life, and thus there ceases to be a compelling reason to go. But, by and large, these are pretty rarefied problems from the standpoint of most Americans trying to figure out where they might go to church on Sunday morning. Even the apparent cultural impulse in which Orthodox Christianity subsists of gilding and ornamenting the things you love and think are important falls totally flat in a culture that thinks you need to strip the things you care about down to bare essentials. As marketed and described, at least, Orthodox Christianity, frankly, is just in the wrong key for American culture, no matter what melody you try to write in that key. It may very well be what America needs, but that’s something completely different.

Orthodox Christianity, in order to succeed in any kind of an American mission, doesn’t first and foremost need to find a musical idiom that will have cultural resonance, it doesn’t first and foremost need to be in English, and it doesn’t first and foremost need a simpler liturgy or reduced vestments or married bishops or anything like this. I have a lot more faith in what has been passed down than that — those things have survived this long under wars and occupation and servitude and so on, and I’m not convinced that America is a worse threat than any of those issues. Does Orthodox Christianity need to preach the Gospel, Christ crucified? Yes, but it’s going to be painfully obvious in doing so that we’re not the only ones who are, and being “the one true Church” isn’t going to sufficiently elevate us over the competing ambient noise, I don’t think.

What Orthodox Christianity needs to do is actually have a way of addressing real problems real people have rather than thinking that Joe Average is going to care about Arianism or Iconoclasm. I think I’m on safe ground in saying that most people don’t think they have a “true Church” problem. Most people don’t think they have a liturgy problem or a filioque problem. Most people these days are just trying to get through the day with some amount of sanity and dignity and without going broke, and when they go to church they want to feel like they’re getting comfort of some kind. Solace. Some sense of belonging, of acceptance of and respite from their daily struggle the rest of the week. Some sense that God’s in control even if they’re not.

How does Orthodox Christianity do this? I don’t know. Our services don’t really do catharsis, and I don’t think we’ll serve ourselves or anybody else well to try. I don’t think we do it via self-conscious “accessibility” efforts; I could say something really obvious and pithy like, we have to do it by loving other people, and while that’s true, what does that look like so that, as C. S. Lewis might have put it, in aiming for it, the ecclesial, liturgical, and spiritual issues get thrown in? Certainly organizations like IOCC and OCMC already perform valuable social services and missions and so on, but the narrative of “Orthodoxy doesn’t do those things” already exists, rightly or wrongly, and efforts in those areas are seen as confirming their scarcity rather than speaking to their abundance or efficacy.

By the way, what I’m not arguing here is that we somehow need to come up with a “strategy”. I’m actually trying to say that the strategies we’ve come up with up to this point aren’t actually accomplishing what we think they should be. Some of you may recall that over a year ago, I was trying to get an Orthodox IU alumni association going. Well, we put together a mailing list of 500 people, and somebody got involved who himself had a lot of experience at what he called the “science” of marketing and fundraising. He gave a lot of specific advice about what the mailing should and should not do and look like, and what actually went out in the mail, even though it bore my signature, was more based on his concept than mine. In any event, he believed very strongly that what we sent out should have really grabbed a lot of attention and gotten a lot of people involved. It was a well-strategized effort, to say the least — and there was absolutely zero response. Zero. The strategy accomplished nothing. Why? Again, because we were a solution looking for a problem — for a good chunk of the people we were trying to reach, there would be no association of Orthodoxy with their time at IU because there was no church here in those days. There would be no reason for them to be sold on an Orthodox alumni association if they were already members of the regular alumni association and didn’t have any particular already-established goodwill towards the parish here. Strategies do nothing if you aren’t actually addressing an issue somebody has, unless you’re Steve Jobs, in which case you are magically able to convince people they need something they’ve never heard of before. Orthodoxy in this country has not had a lot of luck being Steve Jobs, although the reason why he was so good at it was because the designs produced under his name were useful and elegant and beautiful. We haven’t yet convinced ourselves that we have the resources to do all three of those things the way they would actually need to be done.

To come back to liturgy and music — I myself do not play to English exceptionalism. English is important, yes, sure, fine, but catering to it to the extent of throwing out large chunks of historical practice with the justification that we have to do it because it’s English can hardly be priority zero. (I’ve already said what I think about the textuality of the liturgy.) I don’t hear anybody arguing that icons need to look more like Norman Rockwell painted them. I think the wheels we have do travel on our roads — I think the simple fact is that we aren’t building the wheels well enough for the most part. If we’d actually build them as designed with skill and attention to quality, they’d work just fine. We need to do what we do and what makes us distinctive as well as we possibly can, not decide for everybody else that they won’t like it anyway. What form of music will play in Peoria is, honestly, a side issue. If the Orthodox Church can actually reach an average person in Peoria who is struggling with just getting through the day, love that person unconditionally, and proclaim the Gospel to that average person in a way that sticks, then that person isn’t going to care that the music is Byzantine chant — rather, he or she will associate that music with the difference that is made in his/her life. (That’s something I have seen, I should hasten to add.) If we don’t take our own practices seriously enough to do them well and with care, then such a hypothetical person will sense that we don’t care about them, and he/she won’t care about them either.

Anyway — all of that is to say, Orthodoxy in America as a solution looking for a problem. Discuss.


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