Two Observations from the Weekend

I spent the weekend visiting my high school friend Fr. Justin, who is an Orthodox priest in the Russian tradition.  I went to services with him on Saturday evening, and then Mass at a local Catholic Church on Sunday.  Each one struck me in a very particular way.

Saturday Evening

There is a sense in which the Orthodox are far, far more conservative than anything we see in Western Christianity.  The Liturgy I attended Saturday evening is basically unchanged for at least 1,000 years, and parts even longer.  I remember attending a service where Fr. Justin was preaching on "the New Martyrs," only to realize half-way through that they lived in the 8th Century--the Orthodox definition of "new" being somewhat out of line with most other uses of the word "new."

Having said that, I think there is a significant difference between the conservatism of the Orthodox and the conservatism of Catholics and Protestants.  With the Orthodox, one gets the sense that the religious conservatism is for its own sake.  A key theological concept in Orthodoxy is that the Liturgy is a kind of shadow of the heavenly Liturgy, and that in performing the Liturgy one is participating the singing of the heavenly host.  As such, the Liturgy, and by extension the Church, is necessarily out of time, divorced from the normal flow of events that exist in other contexts.  To change anything is to introduce a temporal component, a "before" and "after" the change, into something that should be beyond such categories.

You can legitimately ask whether Orthodoxy is actually out of time in the way it claims to be.  And you can raise the danger (which the great Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann raised) that this vision turns the faith turns into this entirely insular museum piece.  But my key take away is that this vision of conservatism contains a self-limiting principle; a clear delineation between "the Church" and everything else.  It is important that the Church is out of time precisely because everything else is not.  As a result, the conservatism of the Orthodox is really limited to the Church itself, and it doesn't really speak to broader cultural questions or ideas.  Orthodoxy avoids, or at least has the potential to avoid, many of these culture war-style debates by limiting its own scope.  Because these cultural debates are necessarily temporally and culturally conditioned, there are limitations on the ability of Orthodoxy to address them in a definitive way, lest the debate itself corrupt the pristine nature of the Church.

Western Christianity lacks this limiting principle.  Whether Catholic or Protestant, conservative or liberal, Western Christianity works on the notion is that there is an inter-relationship between the Church and the culture, such that one is going to necessarily influence the other.  As a result, religious fights are also cultural fights, and visa versa.

If you think about it, Orthodoxy is really the best fit among Christianity for the U.S. style separation of Church and State.  It's already built into the fabric of Orthodoxy.

Sunday Morning

The previous few times I've visited Fr. Justin and his family, I have attended a small, very conservative Catholic parish near where Justin's church was located.  But his parish has since moved to a permanent spot, and so I went to a different parish in the area.

That parish, Pax Christi in Lexington, Kentucky, was like stepping back into 1985.
The building was very modern in that late 70s/early 80s way Catholic churches were--chairs instead of pews in sections, a very open plan, the tabernacle was a brown sphere, etc.  We sang hymns I truly haven't heard in 20 years, The Mass flowed in a relaxed way, completely lacking the self-consciousness that has become the norm for Catholic worship in the last ten or twenty years.  Only the new Mass translation remained, and truthfully it stuck out even more profoundly than it usually does.

It was wonderful.  It is fashionable for almost everyone to decry the state of Catholic worship in the late 70s and early 80s, but that is the Church of my childhood.  I love all of those old St. Louis Jesuit songs.  Coming back and seeing it again felt like coming home.

To be honest, I am a little tired of being told that the things that drew me to the Catholic faith when I was younger are all crap and thank goodness we have moved beyond them.  As the pre-Vatican II stuff was to my parents generation, so is this form of Catholicism to me.  It is part of my history and my lineage.  "On Eagle's Wings" was played at the funerals of both of my grandparents--people who sneer at it can kiss my ass.

I can appreciate that which came before.  I like much of it.  But we can't just pretend that nothing happened between 1965 and 1995.  People grew up, learned about God, and came to love the Catholic Church during that period.  And those people have gotten it from both both directions for a while now.  Maybe its time to let us sing the songs we want to sing.


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