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From the December, 2004
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Ritual Correctness by Patrick Henry Reardon

Ritual Correctness

Patrick Henry Reardon on Enduring Liturgical Experts

The usual subjects were under consideration at our annual symposium of Orthodox clergy this past summer: parochial ministry, the formation of lay leadership, worship and music, Christian education, counseling, medical ethics, and so on. There was even a workshop on the use of the Internet in pastoral work. On the whole those discussions were useful and helpful to the ministry.

As is common at these symposia, most of the presentations were made by ordinary parish priests who have become especially proficient in this-or-that aspect of the ministry and are willing to share the fruits of their mature experience with the rest of us. Moreover, ample time was provided for conversation among ourselves, and this informal discussion of the material was likewise helpful.

Expert Lows

I believe that the chance to discuss the practical aspects of the ministry with fellow ministers is probably the major advantage of these events. Without such opportunities, in fact, parish priests can become extremely isolated, so the concentrated opportunity to talk with (and worship with) one another and with our bishops is arguably the best benefit of our gatherings, and I invariably return from them with a general sense of refreshment.

It is inevitable, nonetheless, that “experts” are also invited to speak at these symposia, and, if one may speak candidly, the presentations of the experts sometimes provide the truly low points of the whole enterprise. On former occasions, for example, we have been obliged to bear up under onslaughts of “the renewal of feminine ministries” and to endure the ravages of rationalist biblical exegesis. This year we were, on the whole, mercifully spared such torture.

The single exception to this mercy was a disappointing lecture on “liturgical renewal” by a professor from one of the Orthodox seminaries. The material was essentially the same shortsighted nonsense that the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans were forced to endure thirty or forty years ago.

We clergy, three quarters of us adult converts to the Orthodox Church, sat in sackcloth and inwardly groaned like pelicans in the wilderness, while a life-long Orthodox liturgical expert explained to us at length that Orthodox worship “no longer speaks meaningfully to modern man” and suggested ways in which an established panel of his cronies and clones might bring their expertise to bear on this crushing problem of Orthodox irrelevance to American life. They would pull our worship up to date and make it more meaningful to the refined sensibilities of contemporary society.

Growls and low rumblings were audible in the assembly. The fact that there was not a sudden, violent rush at the speaker’s podium is chiefly to the credit of Orthodox restraint and ascetical discipline.

Afterwards, by way of constructive reaction to the presentation, the more devout among us went off to the chapel to breathe deeply and recite the Jesus Prayer repeatedly in order to regain their inner composure. Others went out jogging with a view to lowering their blood pressure and using up the excess adrenalin that only a liturgist, or perhaps an exceptionally adept terrorist, is able to elicit. Neither devout nor strong, I confess that I was not to be found in either of these groups. Rather, I was among those lesser brethren gathered in the recreation room to deplore the event, regretting meanwhile my failure to tote along a flask of Scotch or Bourbon to serve as a restorative. In this age of international terrorism and liturgical renewal, one must take every precaution.

Among the more objectionable aspects of this most objectionable lecture was the sustained presumption that academic experts know more about the requirements of modern life than the rest of us do. Even a priori we should suspect that this is not the case, because a certain abstraction from the urgency of “life in the world” has always been considered one of the essential requirements of an academic education. Our prior suspicion on this point, moreover, is rather often justified by what the professional academic actually has to say.

A Quaint Cosmology

Let me cite a single example from the liturgical lecture that I just described.

Among the more deplorable shortcomings of traditional Orthodox liturgical texts, we were told, is the dominance of an outdated cosmology, evidenced in our liturgical references to the “four elements” in creation. How, we were asked, are such references going to strike “the average high-school student”? This hypothetical student, our lecturer assured us, knows that four is not the correct number of the world’s elements. He has studied the Periodic Table and, we were given to infer, he ponders it incessantly. Day and night he prowls the earth, this modern high-school student, reviewing in his mind the process of photosynthesis and reciting the formula for oxalic acid. Therefore, his imagination would be overly taxed by Orthodox liturgical references to the four elements, because these are quaint, confusing, and obscure.

In the refutation of such a suggestion, one hardly knows which of a thousand possible handles is the first to be grabbed.

My initial reaction was to inquire why in the world we should measure our liturgical texts by the dubious standards of contemporary high-school students. However, when I expressed this query down in the recreation room (drinking my Coca-Cola), a young deacon properly yanked me up short. Today’s high-school students, he pointed out, seem not to be so fixated on the Periodic Table. Indeed, they appear to experience no deep cognitive dissonance respecting the alleged four elements of the universe. One suspects this, in fact, from their apparent enthusiasm for literary and dramatic works based on that same cosmology.

This young deacon cited the Tolkien sensation as an obvious example. The companions of Frodo would probably have not the slightest trouble with the Orthodox Baptismal service, which refers to the water as one of the four elements of the world. Boromir, Gandalf, and their friends rather often speak of earth, water, air, and fire, whereas their allusions to calcium oxide and sodium nitrate are somewhat rare.

I further reflected that I, even I, went to high school once. Admittedly, it was a very long time ago, and I was hardly a stellar student, but still it was during a period somewhat after the discovery of the atom, and I did pass some of my courses. I, too, was obliged to know that nitrogen was designated by the atomic number 7 and that the specific weight of helium was 4.003. Until this past week it had never occurred to me that such information would destroy my ability to pray the Psalms or sing the traditional hymns of the Church. Even though I have known, pretty much all my life, that the daily reappearance of the sun is a phenomenon caused by the spinning of the earth, I still find myself praying the Jam lucis orto sidere (“Now the lightsome star is risen”) when this phenomenon occurs, and, if feeling especially romantic at the moment, I have been known to refer to it as “sunrise.”

Let me suggest that most of us are like this. The last thing we need is a liturgist to tell us how to pray and how to look at the world. Should the Orthodox liturgy be reformed to rid our souls of the aforesaid anachronisms? I don’t think so. It would be more proper, rather, to study the Sermon on the Mount in order to remain in the State of Grace when dealing with liturgists.


Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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“Ritual Correctness” first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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