I reverenced the icons of the Pantokrator and Theotokos, and then entered the nave of a little hovel of an Orthodox church in suburban Texas. Amid industrial megachurches replete with competing production values reminiscent of the battles between MGM, Warner Brothers, and the other Hollywood studios of the ‘30s and ‘40s had sprung a devout little church of oriental extraction. The men leaned against the wall and the women fervently stared forward, clad head to toe in their native peasant dress and wrapped in the babushka, making their prostrations, their numerous signs of the cross at every mention of the Holy Trinity all without as much as a sigh of strain. As is the Russian norm, only the choir sang. I made the mistake of singing “Glory to You, O Lord” at the Gospel and drew several gazes of disgruntlement; I had violated their Slavic piety.
Except they were not Slavic. None, or nearly none, were anything other than Texas born and Texas reared Americans. It was Good Friday on the Julian scheme. An Orthodox friend attended Good Friday and Annunciation Divine Liturgy at our Ukrainian Catholic parish and asked if we might return the favor when the equivalent date arrived in the Eastern Orthodox Church. In this case it was not a Russian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox ethnic church, but the OCA, the Orthodox Church of America, a 20th century attempt to create an indigenous Orthodox Church without constricting ties to the old world. After three hours of Jerusalem Mattins, all sung in recto tono with a descant, I thought that this church could do with an umbilical cord to the East. No one was impolite to us in the least, but there was a distance perceptible that I did not find when I went to the neighboring Greek Orthodox Church to ask the priest about a few specific icons. Everyone introduced themselves with their baptismal names rather than their given names (Dimitrios, Sheraphim, and the like). Coffee hour discussion turned to the “Eastern Roman Catholics who use our liturgy and call it the ‘Western rite’.” I let it go.
This parish was a community, one without roots and fumbling for a religious instinct, looking for the sensus fidelium of liturgical piety and finding instead external significations of membership. It was like the local Tradistani parish, except with babushkas instead of Little House on the Prairie dresses and disdain for “Uniatism” instead of the Second Vatican Council; the affinity for homeschooling remained. This was intellectual religion looking for a Sacramental expression. Someone read about the Latin Mass or the Orthodox Church in a book and, bypassing the normal channels of devotion, dove into the small pond of the strictest standalone communities of their relevant creeds.
Aidan Kavanagh, reacting to Pius XII’s reversal of lex orandi, reminds the reader that it was the Presence of God that drew Moses up the mountain to the burning bush, not something intellectual. It was a revelation, something revealed by God to mankind, not something discerned by a clever mind. Revealed religion is not subject to progress in the way physical sciences are, with every succeeding generation creating new theories on the shoulders of the previous generation’s theories. It is, however, something handed on, a traditio in the most Latinate sense of the word. It cannot be something figured out. It must be something handed from one generation or one person to another. Irish migrants in London taught many 19th and 20th century English converts how to be Catholic; in the Apologia Newman reminisced about watching them go to Confession and pray their rosaries at St. Mary’s on Warwick Street. In my own life I have seen Arabs at a Melkite Church show Americans how to be Eastern Christians without ostentation. Passed on liturgical piety and a lived faith may not create a parish, but they will sustain it. One thinks of the “high” churchmen on the past century—none of them the “trained” liturgists who pest Fr. Hunwicke—like Quintin Montgomery Wright, Clement Russell, the prior generation at the Brompton Oratory, and the “slum priests” of poor neighborhoods, men known for their elaborate praxis, but in fact more concerned with pastoral matters than with stiff posture at the collects.
We should take to heart those Greek words, which bear as much wisdom as they do honor to God: "We have seen the True Light/ We have received the Heavenly Spirit/ We have found the True Faith..."