Monday, January 25, 2010

Kallistos Ware on the boundaries of the Eucharist

The Most Reverend Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia is a titular metropolitan of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Great Britain. From 1966-2001, he was Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford University. Retiring in 2001, Bishop Kallistos has continued to publish and travel widely, lecturing on Orthodox Christianity. The following is one of the best known passages from his book The Orthodox Church, first published when he was a layman in 1963 and subsequently revised several times. A large portion of the book is available online HERE.

"There is a story in the Russian Primary Chronicle of how Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, while still a pagan, desired to know which was the true religion, and therefore sent his followers to visit the various countries of the world in turn. They went first to the Moslem Bulgars of the Volga, but observing that these when they prayed gazed around them like men possessed, the Russians continued on their way dissatisfied. 'There is no joy among them,' they reported to Vladimir, 'but mournfulness and a great smell; and there is nothing good about their system.' Traveling next to Germany and Rome, they found the worship more satisfactory, but complained that here too it was without beauty. Finally they journeyed to Constantinople, and here at last, as they attended the Divine Liturgy in the great Church of the Holy Wisdom, they discovered what they desired. 'We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.'

"In this story can be seen several features characteristic of Orthodox Christianity. There is first the emphasis upon divine beauty: we cannot forget that beauty. It has seemed to many that the peculiar gift of Orthodox peoples - and especially of Byzantium and Russia - is this power of perceiving the beauty of the spiritual world, and expressing this celestial beauty in their worship.

"In the second place it is characteristic that the Russians should have said, we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. Worship, for the Orthodox Church, is nothing else than 'heaven on earth.' The Holy Liturgy is something that embraces two worlds at once, for both in heaven and on earth the Liturgy is one and the same - one altar, one sacrifice, one presence. In every place of worship, however humble its outward appearance, as the faithful gather to perform the Eucharist, they are taken up into the 'heavenly places;' in every place of worship when the Holy Sacrifice is offered, not merely the local congregation are present, but the Church universal - the saints, the angels, the Mother of God, and Christ himself. 'Now the celestial powers are present with us, and worship invisibly' (Words sung at the Great Entrance in the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified). This we know, that God dwells there among men.

"Orthodox, inspired by this vision of 'heaven on earth,' have striven to make their worship in outward splendour and beauty an icon of the great Liturgy in heaven. In the year 612, on the staff of the Church of the Holy Wisdom, there were 80 priests, 150 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 70 subdeacons, 160 readers, 25 cantors, and 100 doorkeepers: this gives some faint idea of the magnificence of the service which Vladimir's envoys attended. But many who have experienced Orthodox worship under very different outward surroundings have felt, no less than those Russians from Kiev, a sense of God's presence among men. Turn, for example, from the Russian Primary Chronicle to the letter of an Englishwoman, written in 1935:'This morning was so queer. A very grimy and sordid Presbyterian mission hall in a mews over a garage, where the Russians are allowed once a fortnight to have the Liturgy. A very stage property iconostasis and a few modern icons. A dirty floor to kneel on and a form along the wall ... And in this two superb old priests and a deacon, clouds of incense and, at the Anaphora, overwhelming supernatural impression' (The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, p. 2.18).

"There is yet a third characteristic of Orthodoxy which the story of Vladimir's envoys illustrates. When they wanted to discover the true faith, the Russians did not ask about moral rules nor demand a reasoned statement of doctrine, but watched the different nations at prayer. The Orthodox approach to religion is fundamentally a liturgical approach, which understands doctrine in the context of divine worship: it is no coincidence that the word 'Orthodoxy' should signify alike right belief and right worship, for the two things are inseparable. It has been truly said of the Byzantines: 'Dogma with them is not only an intellectual system apprehended by the clergy and expounded to the laity, but a field of vision wherein all things on earth are seen in their relation to things in heaven, first and foremost through liturgical celebration' (G. Every, The Byzantine Patriarchate, first edition, p. 9). In the words of Georges Florovsky: 'Christianity is a liturgical religion. The Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second' ('The Elements of Liturgy in the Orthodox Catholic Church,' in the periodical One Church, vol. 13 (New York, 1959), nos. 1-2, p. 24). Those who wish to know about Orthodoxy should not so much read books as follow the sample of Vladimir's retinue and attend the Liturgy. As Philip said to Nathanael: "Come and see" (John 1:46).

"Because they approach religion in this liturgical way, Orthodox often attribute to minute points of ritual an importance which astonishes western Christians. But once we have understood the central place of worship in the life of Orthodoxy, an incident such as the schism of the Old Believers will no longer appear entirely unintelligible: if worship is the faith in action, then liturgical changes cannot be lightly regarded. It is typical that a Russian writer of the fifteenth century, when attacking he Council of Florence, should find fault with the Latins, not for any errors in doctrine, but for their behaviour in worship: 'What have you seen of worth among the Latins? They do not even know how to venerate the church of God. They raise their voices as the fools, and their singing is a discordant wail. They have no idea of beauty and reverence in worship, for they strike trombones, blow horns, use organs, wave their hands, trample with their feet, and do many other irreverent and disorderly things which bring joy to the devil' (Quoted in N. Zernov, Moscow the Third Rome, p. 37; I cite this passage simply as an example of the liturgical approach of Orthodoxy, without necessarily endorsing the strictures on western worship which it contains!).

"Orthodoxy sees man above all else as a liturgical creature who is most truly himself when he glorifies God, and who finds his perfection and self-fulfilment in worship. Into the Holy Liturgy which expresses their faith, the Orthodox peoples have poured their whole religious experience. It is the Liturgy which has inspired their best poetry, art, and music. Among Orthodox, the Liturgy has never become the preserve of the learned and the clergy, as it tended to be in the medieval west, but it has remained popular - the common possession of the whole Christian people: 'The normal Orthodox lay worshipper, through familiarity from earliest childhood, is entirely at home in church, thoroughly conversant with the audible parts of the Holy Liturgy, and takes part with unconscious and unstudied ease in the action of the rite, to an extent only shared in by the hyper-devout and ecclesiastically minded in the west' (Austin Oakley, The Orthodox Liturgy, London, 1958, p. 12).

"In the dark days of their history - under the Mongols, the Turks, or the communists - it is to the Holy Liturgy that the Orthodox peoples have always turned for inspiration and new hope; nor have they turned in vain."


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