The following are a few paragraphs from my recently released The Orthodox Spring: A Diary (pp. 25-27 and 48-49)
Three centuries after the publication of The Philokalia, Saint Nicodemus’ prologue still teaches us wisdom, addressing our difficulties. For one, we have not found out yet how to balance the inward call and our activity in the world. Saint Nicodemus shows that, while we gather within ourselves from the turmoil of the world, we must not ignore the world with its joys and pains. The inward quest means to discover ourselves truly, not to ignore everyone else. Indeed, only someone who dives inwards can embrace the world, loving people selflessly—working so that all become one in Christ and have life in his name. The beginning of all unity is to return within; the unity of all is the end goal of the inwards movement. Thus teaches Saint Nicodemus.
The shell is not the kernel; not at all. And because the shell cannot nourish us, we keep eating more of the same stuff in the hope that the emptiness we feel in our bellies will go away. This is a fairly good analogy, I think, for the church’s relentless attempts to become “relevant” today. The church donates clothes, blankets, and food, builds hospitals, and organises fundraisers for good causes. It plants trees, saves the world, frees the oppressed, and welcomes refugees. It has a say on all matters social, economic, political, environmental etc. All this is important, of course, but none of it is the church. For one, all this is done, perhaps better than the church ever could, by the many NGOs in existence. And, then, the spiritual void we feel cannot be filled by more of it. The result of adding two or more zeroes will never be one, regardless of how noble the causes for which we fight. Saint Nicodemus warned—in his prologue to The Philokalia—that the void within the church can be filled only by its inward, prayerful turn. The ecclesial experience is to listen to the Gospel in deep silence, within the heart, where its seed germinates and gives fruit a hundredfold. In truth, the Gospel addresses the inner person, having less to say about the shell. The church, therefore, is not about the noisy gospels of the world. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the church is, or that it should become, heartless. Likewise, this does not mean that Christians must not embody inner peace into compassion. After all, as Letter to Diognetus (6.1) has it, they are the soul of the world. But for someone to have a heart, one must gain it, not run away from what enlightens it. And enlightenment is not possible without listening to the Gospel in quiet prayer—nor is the retrieval of one’s heart. One gives only one what has, better still, what one is. Many worthy ideals go wasted because what fuels them is merely heartless activism. Doing without being leads nowhere. Attempting to eat the shell instead of the kernel will always leave our bellies empty. A church that does without being cannot avoid its big crunch. Against the tide, my resolve is to seek the inner side of the Christian experience, as Saint Nicodemus teaches.
Since the source of true prayer is silence—for it is impossible to focus on it before quieting one’s thoughts—how could liturgical noise engender prayer? Music and choreography are not the liturgy’s goals. But we absolutise the means, namely, the arts. Ars gratia artis. We cultivate the arts disproportionately, substituting the means for peace, prayer, and fellowship, our true goals. Forms without content. Forms we endow with sacramental significance, which we end-up worshiping—and we do, since we can’t even think of getting rid of certain futile items, the noise inherent to them. The golden calf. It’s who we are, it’s what we do.
Here is my project for our little church, indeed, the mission to which I minister. This is my dream, my ideal: to recover the silent, prayerful heart of the liturgy. No bands, no choirs, no majestic hymns. Interiorised silence. Peace. Prayer. Long ago, a professor of liturgics reacted to a paper I read at a conference, on which occasion I used the phrase “hesychast liturgy” . . . He was right. What was I thinking? How could our liturgy be hesychast—silent and prayerful—when it’s entirely about music and choreography? We, Orthodox, have become unable to cope even with a single moment of silence in our Sunday liturgy. We sing all through it. Some churches even sing the Psalms, the Creed, and the “Our Father.” I do not wish you to believe that I am against music. I appreciate music and I enjoy singing in church; modesty aside, I’m quite good at it. But that is not the issue. In our modern liturgy, the shell—in this case, music—wholly supersedes the prayerful, communal, and eucharistic essence of the liturgy. The form has become more important than the content. After witnessing one of our noisy liturgies, someone who never prayed before has no idea what a prayer might look like. Apart from the “Our Father” (only in some churches, not all) and the final prayer, our liturgy is made of endless songs and interjections. Couldn’t we read some of those songs, instead of allowing them to obscure the liturgy? Couldn’t we give a chance to the actual liturgy, its prayers—which belong to all, not to the ordained celebrants—to be heard by all and be answered, as they should, with the “Amen” of the entire congregation? Our little congregation sings only a few songs, especially in the liturgy’s first part, to allow the eucharistic prayer to upsurge from quieted hearts. What we (re)discovered is of utmost significance. Once the liturgy regains its interiorised silence and prayerfulness, it teaches us how to officiate, even how to sing, and, finally, how to build a better world. For the liturgy still culminates with the sending of the congregation into the world, “Let us go forth in peace!” If the congregation hasn’t acquired peace in the liturgy, what will it bring to the world? Songs won’t do.
11 April 2020 © AIOCS