From the May, 2007 issue of Touchstone

Unwashed Masses by Mike Aquilina

Unwashed Masses

Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It
by Robert F. Taft, S.J.
InterOrthodox Press, 2006
(200 pages, $19.95, paperback)

reviewed by Mike Aquilina

Despite the civil unrest in the late 1950s, a young Jesuit priest serving a parish in Baghdad traveled the Iraqi countryside observing the liturgies of the Syriac-speaking villages and monasteries. And there Robert Taft, S.J., got hooked on liturgics. Since then, he’s written about three dozen books and several hundred articles on the ancient liturgies and the Fathers.

A longtime professor of liturgy and patristics at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, he is a Catholic priest of both the Latin and Byzantine rites. (And yes, he is indeed part of the family that produced several illustrious American statesmen, including one president.)

It would be an understatement to say that Taft is outspoken. He has a first-rate mind, and he speaks it with force and wit. Read his 2004 interview with John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter. It is the very image of a loose cannon rolling down the tilting deck of the barque of Peter and firing away. I’m sure it sent several dozen ecumenists into damage-control mode for weeks afterward.

His academic work has been a little more restrained in expression, but no less certain in its conclusions.

Bottom-Up Liturgy

But his most recent book, Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It, now that’s another story. Made up of edited transcripts of his 2005 Paul G. Manolis Distinguished Lectures at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, California, this book combines the academic rigor of the published Taft with the frankness of his live lectures.

It is a book by turns moving and entertaining. Taft sets out to give us a “bottom-up” view of the Byzantine liturgy, as it was experienced by the congregations of late antiquity, rather than as explicated by the church fathers. The situation was, as he points out, “not all incense and icons.”

Citing the Great Fathers, he evinces free-ranging congregations, where young men and women trolled the crowd for romance. Chrysostom complained that the women at church were no different from courtesans, and the men like “frantic stallions.” He also noted that people were talking throughout the liturgy, and “their talk is filthier than excrement.” Old Golden Mouth went on to report that the rush for Communion proceeded by way of “kicking, striking, filled with anger, shoving our neighbors, full of disorder.”

It almost makes today’s American Catholic parishes look reverent.

Taft walks us through the liturgy, from introit to dismissal, in a kind of reverse mystagogy. Traditional mystagogy—that is, instruction in the mysteries—begins with the outward signs and proceeds to their hidden meaning.

Taft, however, begins with the assumption that the liturgy is heavenly; he then shows us the very incarnational, very earthly (and earthy) details of the scene where the liturgy touches down. At each stage, he quotes from contemporary accounts of what was going on in the assembly. We learn about the vigorous singing, the popularity of the Psalms, the entertainment value of a sonorous homily, even if it’s in an archaic language that no one understands.

Liturgy was central to life in the big city. Entire populations turned out for icon processions and for the movement of relics. Sometimes, these mass liturgical rallies turned into mob scenes as the herd stampeded toward the center of grace. He brings up the fourth-century pilgrim Egeria’s story about the man who bit off a piece of the true cross to take home as a souvenir.

And yet, for all that, “the Church’s earthly song of praise is but an icon, the reflection—in the Pauline sense of mysterion, a visible appearance that is bearer of the reality it represents—of the heavenly liturgy of the Risen Lord before the throne of God. As such, it is an ever-present, vibrant participation in the heavenly worship of God’s Son.”

Sacred Window

“Byzantine art and ritual,” Taft says as he brings his final lecture to its conclusion, “far from being all ethereal and spiritual and transcendent and symbolic, was in fact a very concrete attempt at portrayal, at opening a window onto the sacred, of bridging the gap.”

Even the best-dressed and best-behaved among us are oafs and waifs pressing our dirty noses against the window. If we spend our hour of worship worrying about the comportment of the Joneses in the next pew, we’re missing the point of worship.

Taft’s book offers a good counter-balance for those who feed off the liturgical works of Ambrose, Cyril, and Theodore (though we do get a hint of the underside in Augustine). Taft confesses that he himself has written books romanticizing the ancient liturgies. Perhaps Through Their Own Eyes is his act of reparation.

This book will inflame passions all around. For one thing, it includes the transcripts of the question-and-answer periods after the lectures, and there the erudite father does not mince words as he asserts the appropriateness of the vernacular, the “stupidity” of the trend toward more variety in liturgy, and so on.

But whether you agree with Taft or not, his new book will give you an experience of time travel. And a joy ride.

The NCR interview with Taft can be found at

Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology ( and a general editor of The Catholic Vision of Love catechetical series.

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