|Left to right: Robert Taft SJ, Met. Kallistos Ware, and Vassa Larin|
John F. Kennedy insisted on hiring the "best and brightest" when he became president, a departure from the career politicians and political aristocracy of prior administrations. My father personally worked for one of Kennedy's economic advisers, who also held key positions at several international banks, affording a unique view of what transpired. Kennedy's "best and brightest" of academia created the Great Society, but the Bostonian lacked the political capital to implement it. His successor, Johnson, lacked scruples, but not political leverage. And so the most pathetic war in history, one created a priori by postmodern scholars, was put into place.
The other day, His Traddiness was listening to a lecture by Sr. Vassa Larin, a Russian Orthodox liturgiologist trained under Robert Taft, SJ. Sr. Vassa came by way of recommendation from an Orthodox friend. Her daily "Coffee with Vassa" podcasts are light and edifying presentations on basic Christian matters. Her lectures, however, leave much to be desired and much to be concerned about.
Her mentor, Robert Taft, was reared in the Society of Jesus during the liturgical revolt of the 1950s and 1960s, which he acknowledges was "an overwhelming success." Today, Sr. Vassa takes great strides to establish the necessity of scholars—liturgical specialists by any other name—in order to understand the Byzantine liturgy with an eye towards reforming it.
Much of the Byzantine liturgy, Vassa maintains, is "incomprehensible" without a scholarly background. Indeed, some parts of the liturgy have no real meaning, she expounds. One example the nun gives is the moment when the deacon waves his orarion (deacon's stole) towards the people and finishes the priest's prayer with "And unto the ages of ages" before the Trisagion. Commonly, people bow in reverence. Vassa thinks this silly; this gesture is meaningless and originated as a signal to the choir in the Hagia Sophia to begin the Thrice Holy Hymn. She also has an issue with the accusative case replacing the nominative declension in "Mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise" before the anaphora.
The liturgy is arrantly symbolic and symbols cannot be understood through veils, barriers, arbitrary customs, sacred languages and strange translations, or silent prayers. Everything, including the anaphora, should be done as it was in the primitive Church: aloud and in the vernacular. Vassa dilates at length about her concern for the disinterest of younger Orthodox faithful, who lose their intention to attend the Liturgy on Sundays when reaching their teenage years. The Liturgy is not catechetical enough, too immersed in customs that detract from focus on Christ, such as women wearing veils. "This is the state we find ourselves in," she says.
Sr. Vassa could be just one liturgiologist with views tending toward unstable reforms if not for Taft. Vassa, Taft says in his introduction, is one of the few students he met in his 46 years teaching who could be a truly great scholar. Both of them are positively exuberant that discussion of liturgical reform, impossible a century ago because uneducated people craved stability, is now possible in the Orthodox Churches. Taft himself related an invitation to a conference on reform hosted by the Greek Church. Vassa herself has lately been taking her lecture on liturgical history and the problematic nature of the Divine Liturgy on tour. Why?
Vassa recalls that a poll of Orthodox Christians in the United States revealed most believers want more money in their parishes' coffers; desire for liturgical reform only garnered 10%, to the nun's confusion. Orthodox Christians are leaving Orthodoxy just as fast as white American Catholics lapse when graduating high school. Can anyone really claim the Divine Liturgy's supposed textual inconsistencies are to blame? I have never heard of an Orthodox Christian leaving his church because he sees the priest prostrate during the anaphora without hearing the epiclesis. The Orthodox Churches are national religions removed from their home countries. Young men and women are tempted to look at their churches as ethnic associations their parents frequented and which they have outgrown. They cease to be Orthodox because they want to be modern, not because "Mercy, peace...." has mutated into "Mercy of peace...."
As attendance drops, both in the old world and in the Orthodox "diaspora", the leaders of that communion may be drawn towards the apparent fix of liturgical reform, which intellectual and spiritual successors of Taft will be eager to eventuate. Orthodox Christians should be very cautious of this, given that the first suggestion of a reform is never the last.
The early Liturgical Movement in France did not seek to replace the existing Roman rite, but to practice the existing rite to its full potential. France saw a resurgence in high Mass, public celebrations of the Divine Office, and the innovation of readings in the vernacular. The 20th century liturgical reforms found no stronger opposition than in France, which produced the Fraternity of St. Pius X, Opus Sacerdotale, and one-off dissidents like Quintin Montgomery-Wright. The early Liturgical Movement's legacy is more honestly found in St. Nicolas du Chardonnet than in the average parish, which is the point. True reforms do not restore the liturgy to an imaginary state of pristine order or refashion it according to contemporary needs. It cleans the liturgical lens so that people may peer more easily at God through it.
Does the Byzantine liturgy need an overhaul? Perhaps a scrub, but not a general reform. The Greek rite does not know rubrics in the Latin sense, which might be a good thing, but some unified guidelines would be helpful. A suggestion for a unified Slavic or Greek ritual would not harm the Eastern Orthodox, but this small reform group does not stop there. There is the ringing insistence that the liturgy has textual problems that only they, as scholars, recognize, which is disconcerting.
Do not believe for a minute that Vassa Larin, or those who think like her, is a "modernist" who knows better and who is hell bent on destroying the Byzantine tradition. If a reform movement accumulates, it will be because specialists with little to no parochial experience have convinced the hierarchy that amending perceived defects is the last option to restore church attendance and usher in a revival of Eastern Christian practice. Scholars rarely see past their own desks, and those bowing at the deacon's orarion should keep their heads low, lest well intentioned reformers accidently sever them when trimming excesses.
Ethnocentricism, political relations, a skewed view of the Latin Church's history, and poor catechesis are all legitimate criticisms of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Divine Liturgy is one thing is clearly not wrong in the Orthodox Church.