Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Danger of Orientalism

Orientalism. The tendency of Westerners to look upon Eastern cultures with a derisive spirit and to feign a paternal interest in those cultures. British and American imperialists caused untold damage invading, pillaging, and re-constructing Asia along the lines those nations thought fitting for those lesser peoples. 19th century Americans spoke of their "little yellow brothers" in California. England more or less created the current debacle in the Middle East by agglomerating religiously and culturally diverse areas into single nations, such as Iraq, presuming that these novel nations would function according to the Western model. The United States took that bad situation and made it much, much worse.

St. Birinius. A well done modern rood screen.
As a Roman Catholic fond of the Greek Fathers and the Byzantine liturgy I attempt to taxonomize what the Roman Church can actually learn from or has in common with her Eastern relatives and what is distinct from the Roman way. Without this distinction we can create our own liturgical, theological, or disciplinary Iraq.

One facet of Greek Christianity that attracts traditional Roman Catholics is that the Greeks have managed to retain the essentials of their liturgical tradition, even fostering it in some places while retaining vestiges of other practices elsewhere. Some of these retentions and developments match the Roman tradition remarkably well. The sanctuary in the first millennium was veiled from sight for most of the Liturgy. In the Roman Church the veil disappeared, but the frame around it remained and the addition of sculpture and paintings transformed these frames into the Rood Screen. The Byzantine Church did not lose the veil until the 14th or 15th century, when, like in the West, artwork metamorhized it into the Iconostasis. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation destroyed the Rood Screen and, outside of some localized neo-gothic interest, it has not yet become common again in Latin churches. The separation of the sanctuary and the nave reflects a deeper common theology of the temple, wherein the fallen world is the narthex, the nave is earth restored—where God's renewed people worship, and the sanctuary is heaven. In the liturgy we join the saints and angels in praising the Holy Trinity but, owing to our lingering faults, we must do so through a veil until the end of time, when the heavenly liturgy described in the Apocalypse becomes true for us. The veil/Rood/Iconostasis is that divide and points toward a deep convergence between Greek and Latin theology, liturgy, and sensum fidelium

Elsewhere on this blog I have written about the common features of the Byzantine and un-reformed Roman Triduum rites (namely here). Those rites manifest a profound connection between the Roman and Byzantine understandings of Christ's redemptive work, of Baptism, of time, of the Eucharist, and of culture. Ignorance of these rites for a century or more, followed by their consignment to the dustbin by Pius XII, could perhaps be ameliorated by paying heed to the rites and liturgical theology of the Byzantine tradition, where our Roman tradition is still used (!). Indeed, I can conceive of no ecumenical gesture more genuine, lasting, and heartfelt than a revival of the old Holy Week in the Roman rite. 

And yet not all infusion of theological Hellenism into the Latin Church has been successful or even wise. The West could do with a heavy dose of theosis, appreciation of the Office, and the emphasis on experience that the East has to offer, perhaps a partial antidote to liturgical minimalism. Yet more than a few introductions of Eastern theology have been an utter disaster because they are not points of convergence.

The most obvious example is the theology of the Eucharist as a meal. This tradition, which neither excludes nor opposes the theology of the Eucharist as Sacrifice, goes back to the Passover (Pascha) meal of the Old Testament when the Israelites ate a sacrificed lamb and were delivered from death. At the Last Supper Christ instituted a perpetual eating of His perfect Sacrifice. The Roman Church, for whatever reason, chose to give special emphasis on the sacrificial aspect of Christ's command while the Greek Church kept a more holistic approach. In the Divine Liturgy we sing at Communion "Make me this day a partaker in Your Mystical Supper, O Son of God," still sung in the Ambrosian rite on Mandy Thursday. When many 20th century liturgical reformers became aware of the balanced Greek approach they assumed it was similar to the protestant "Lord's Supper," during which a president administers bread and wine to people as a memorial of the Last Supper. Even the ubiquitous Gregory Dix somewhat admitted to this nonsense when he sided with the then-trendy opinion that Mass was celebrated versus populum in the ancient Church. The reformers did not dig deeper into the historical ground of the liturgy and came away from their reading with the assumption that the Easterners had the ancient meal practice, that the protestants had recovered it, and that we Westerners still made use of a clericalized and paganized orientation.

A current occasion of orientalism is the hotly debated topic of Communion for the divorced-and-remarried. On his plane ride back from World Youth Day the Pope mused over the Eastern Orthodox practice of re-marrying the divorced and admitting them to the Sacraments through the economia of the Church. Cardinal Kasper no doubt has this very practice in mind when he speaks of God's mercy upon those who have failed in their marriages. What neither the Pope nor Cardinal Kasper mention, with any significant prominence, is that the Eastern Orthodox approach relies heavily on penance. A second or third Orthodox marriage is a penitential ceremony with no blessing or crowning. A common Orthodox saying concerning marriages is that they "Bless the first, witness the second, and tolerate the third." While I believe that the Orthodox practice is a departure from Apostolic practice and Church teaching, it is certainly grounded in a healthy spirit of self-deprecation and penance for sins. The Western Church does very little with penance these days and without penance admission of the divorced and remarried to Communion would only further erode the Church's teaching on marriage. The modern promoters of divorce and remarriage have no interest in penance. They want a justification for admitting the divorced and remarried to the Sacraments without the booming voice of their consciences in the backs of their heads. They look upon one practice in order to justify something entirely different, much like the Paschalism of the Pauline Mass, which replaces the old Roman emphasis on Christ's Passion, but does not replace it with the Byzantine joy of living in God's light.

Lastly, there exists a danger that the Roman Church sells itself short when it engages in orientalism. Did not St. Irenaeus write that "it is a matter of necessity that every Church agree with [Rome]" on account of its "superior origin," which empowered it to continue the Apostolic teachings? In the second half the 20th century a fascination with Byzantine Christianity arose during which some theologians assumed that whatever was Eastern was older. Byzantine theologian Robert Taft calls this approach "romantic rubbish," although for different reasons than I would. The Byzantine Divine Liturgy, particularly the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, did not solidify in its current form until the 7th or 8th century. Particularly interesting is the acquisition of the powerful epiclesis during this period. In the early second millennium the Church of Constantinople dropped its cathedral psalter in favor of the Greek monastic psalter. One could say that prior to the 20th century the Roman rite was set in its essentials (the Office, the Order of Mass, and the Canon of Mass) well before the Byzantine Church and was allowed to grow long after, not freezing its practices until after the Council of Trent. 

We Roman Catholics share much with the Byzantine tradition, but we ought not pick out bits of Greek practice and theology willy nilly, disregarding the very real contrasts between the two. Without prudence, adoption of Eastern practices could distort what we do not have in common and ignore the very real things we do.


  1. I often wonder about what we might have in common with non-byzantine liturgies. I speak for myself when I say I tend to forget on many an occassion that Byzantium is not the only one "outside" of Rome.

  2. A magnificent Article, The Rad Trad.

    Thank you.

  3. Well said.

    RT, would you mind sharing what career you're pursuing out there on the prairie? I'm genuinely curious. You should be in the classroom and publishing. Seriously.

    1. Sadly... finance. I know I should be elsewhere. The matter is constantly on my mind.

  4. You have to support yourself somehow. That you are is admirable. But you're young. Do it now. Go back to school. Don't let anyone tell you the way is too narrow or the hill too steep. I'm nearly thirty years your senior. Take it from someone who knows.

    You're in my prayers.

  5. The photographs at the bottom of the post are interesting. It should be borne in mind that the same object, the triple candle, is being used in two different services: the Vesperal Liturgy (the ancient Baptismal service for the Catechumens) in the West and at Mattins of the Resurrection in the East.

  6. "In the second half the 20th century a fascination with Byzantine Christianity arose during which some theologians assumed that whatever was Eastern was older. Byzantine theologian Robert Taft calls this approach "romantic rubbish," " - THIS!

  7. Rad Trad,

    What needs to be done is that a person from the byzantine rite and a person from the older roman rite need to really immerse themselves in each other's worlds.

    The problem with the latins is that they often have a superficial understanding,they don't read enough patristics, they dont ask the byzantine priest what something means to be certain they understand it. They have to have humility to be true students, and take a few monthes or years to really understand it.

    Additionally one needs to live in the first 1500 years of the faith and look at the writings from before than of the great doctors, saints and fathers of the latins and greeks (or even syrians or copts and others) than once they are immersed in the patristics, they need to immerse themselves in liturgy in the official liturgical texts of the medieval period.

    If they do this it will work, organic healthy exchange will be possible, otherwise if they focus from too much perspective of the most recent centuries, especiall 20th c, more hardened biases and misunderstandings will arise.

    The earlier back in time ones goes the more there was unity, sympathy and similarity between the byzantine and latin churches. This can be revived if enough people read the books and walk the walk immersing themselves in the other sides rite, as it was historically in particular.

    1. One learns much about what the church teaches through the hymns of the church.
      Studying the liturgical hymns, proses, responsories, prosaria, motets, conducti, apolytikion, troparia and antiphons of the latin rite and byzantine rite achieves better understanding.

    2. I wholeheartedly agree about reading the Fathers. The separation from the first 1500 years of Catholicism has resulted in an imploding bureaucratic disaster enforced by legalism and a narrow view of faith.

      Your words concerning the liturgy are too true and they reflect why I want more Roman Catholics involved with the old Divine Office. The Roman antiphons at Mattins and Lauds on some of the ancient saints' feasts (Assumption, Roman Common of Virgins etc) are very similar to the Byzantine troparia in that they convey and teach the faith and belief without being dogmatic and stodgy.

  8. You make good points! Even in the Protestant Episcopalian Church back in the 1950s, I remember a gentleman who had taken a second wife (first had been divorced). He was excommunicated by the then Bishop Eric Francis Bloy of Los Angeles for 5 years, and had to go with his parish priest to visit the bishop and be re-admitted to communion. Alas, those days are long gone, when even protestant clergy get to do some weird marital things without any reaction!

    James Morgan
    olympia, WA