Western Rite Critic

A Balance to Contagious Enthusiasm

When Proof Texts Go Wild

It’s always easy to justify one’s personal agenda for the Church and Orthodox religion by creative placement of texts. Recently, for instance, we read a passage from [this blog] which makes a case for emotionalism in Orthodox pieties (something rare and generally foreign to our experience). It does this by presenting a lengthy description of events in Constantinople in the 4th century as of Great Thursday. In fact, they are in the main a description of Great and Holy Friday, the most solemn and sorrowful day of Holy Week, and a day of total fast. Whereas the text to which the quotation links makes this clear, the article citing it does not, putting only a header concerning Thursday above the quotation. It then boldfaces the portion about the “emotion shown and the mourning” before the cross on Great Friday which, of course, one can only expect.

This example is just one of many, but it illustrates the problem of scouring history for proof texts in an effort to recreate and reconstruct an Orthodox experience presumably now lacking in the attitude of contemporary Orthodox. This dialectic, misused, can actually be quite harmful, and is solely a matter for conscientious converts and ambitious academics (meaning, in both cases, theoreticians) who wish to rescue the Church from its failings by restoring to it a history they barely comprehend, deprived in fact from its full context. This is history as a tool rather than hagiology as a means of theosis. We really aren’t meaning to pick on the blog owner above. He asks for and receives quite enough flack. But since his is perhaps the ‘loudest’ example of the evangelical hermeneutic at work in the “Western Rite” theatre, his posts are typically replete with helpful examples of the matters that concern a sober mind about what is getting called “Western Rite”.

Again, to try to create a blanket justification of concepts or experiences detached from their context (by proof texts in the wild, or by any other hermeneutic) is a dangerous process to set loose upon a Faith. Its harmful effects have already been experienced in the history of the Roman Catholic and Anglican religions, which have become bywords for this error, and we find it a dubious undertaking for clergy of any religion in the name of winning an argument or scoring support for a private agenda. Besides, if that agenda is indefensible otherwise, then it should be rejected as lacking the very historical continuity it presumes to demonstrate.

Not all critical examination of contemporary Orthodox community life or investigation of historical precedent is a bad idea. Indeed, we benefit from it frequently. But it must be done in a mature and circumspect manner, with some sense of how the Church uses history in the first place, how it ‘places’ its thought within history, and how it’s Faith differs from the manufacture or “rediscovery” of concepts, as in Protestantism and archaism. The Church is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Our essential ecclesiology, our fundamental hermeneutical tradition, and our basic mysteriology must guide our consciences in our treatment of the Church’s history, Her texts, and Her sacred experience.


April 28, 2008 Posted by | Western Rite Questions, Western Rite Weirdness | , , , | 3 Comments

Give Evil No Place

It’s worth reminding ourselves, as we do periodically, that we must avoid the blindness that comes and delusion that precedes belittling and ridiculing our brother. For all such offenses, we ask forgiveness. And to any who are caught by the demon that inspires these things, we say “save yourselves, and pray for us, so we can be saved.” We may disagree, indeed must disagree at times, but we are not enemies.

Let us leave off all forms of saying to our brothers “raca”, which in modern parlance is translated: fool, idiot, moron, simpleton, bone-head, dolt, loser, human waste, excrement, or any number of other attributions. But let us give the demon speaking such words through our lips no place, and speak of the limitless value of our brother and only of our own failings. In this way is the Evil One defeated and cast out.

“For this reason it is very beneficial for a person to think of himself as smaller than all, so that he sees the brother as better, in order that he may, with the help of God, be delivered from this evil. ” – Elder Ephraim of Philotheou

In every personal failing we see in another, let us turn the finger around and point it at ourselves. Then people will listen when we speak of real concerns about the directions of our religious communities, and will not confuse this with personal insults. But, as it is, we accept as true all things that people say of our character – that we are silly, angry people, filled with passions. In this way, we will deprive the enemy, too, of power.

If we have to criticize, and we do, and that is what this site is for, it is a criticism of those things which deprive us of salvation, and is not meant to undermine anyone’s view of another person, though we are sure we fail to communicate this at times, and to show sufficient love to our detractors. Pray for us; we cannot walk this delicate path without your prayers.

April 15, 2008 Posted by | -- Catechesis & Conversion | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Meditation during prayer

Orthodox MeditationWe recently read a discussion on meditation “prior” to prayer, which included this: “I suggested meditation on the mystery under consideration prior to prayer, precisely as a means to “warm up the heart” as recommended by, e.g., St. Theophan the Recluse.”

Since we don’t know exactly what is meant by this discussion, we offer some theses on the subject:

* Meditation is not prior to prayer but an act of prayer (with the understanding that much that we consider prayer is prior to ‘true prayer’).

* By preparation for prayer, what the Saint is describing is a process of movement from attention to the world to prayerful attention – in short, preparation for prayer is actually movement into true prayer, or beginning to pray, or becoming prayerful. The use of the vehicles of prayer, icons, candles, and even the words are part of these means of preparation.

* The notion that one should have a separate period of meditation on the sufferings of Christ, and afterwards begin praying, strikes us as a Latin approach to piety that is foreign to Orthodox piety, but we are willing to be corrected on this.

* We still have concern that a danger of the use of a heterodox format for meditation in prayer (much less in any way separated programmatically from prayer) is the use of imagination in prayer (the consensus patrum is against this) and its inevitable transformation into fantasy, and fantasy’s transformation into prelest against which, says St. Seraphim, the fathers armed themselves more fiercely than anything.

* “Warming up” is actually warming the heart by means of movement from the cold attention to the world and its cares to the warm attention to union with God. It is not a separate activity ‘prior’ to prayer in the sense that the cited article seems to be indicating. In fact, it would seem to us to be slightly dangerous to engage in any meditation on a subject separate (even if prior) to prayer, since this could only be, in our view, a flight of the imagination’s fancy.

* The kind of attention ‘prior to prayer’ that we are familiar with takes the form of standing in silence and removing from our hearts and minds the attentions to the world, but also removing from our minds and guarding against all false images. This is very important. The notion that these moments of readiness are to be filled with imagination or constructed images of Christ, makes us uncomfortable. It is one thing to be wounded with the fact of Christ’s suffering for us, with its meaning and implications, and it’s another to play in our minds a virtual movie of the Passion, the focus of which becomes rather inevitably a reconstruction of the details. We aren’t meaning to be sticklers, but we think we’re reading these texts slightly differently than some others.

* This puts forth the question not of whether meditation on the Passion is proper in fact (which is and has been acknowledged), but what exactly is meant when the fathers talk of ‘meditating’ on the sufferings of Christ: “the crown of thorns, the robe, the reed, the blows, the smiting on the cheek, the spittings, the irony” [source1] [source2]. Are we talking about running a mental movie, or else what the meaning of these things is for us? We think the latter, and we think that when the fathers speak of considering, meditating, fixing in mind the thorns, they mean not a mental movie but a kind of contemplation (with the aim of prayer, never dangerously separate from prayer) of Christ’s suffering for us. In other words, it proceeds in terms of meaning more than images.

* We take as our primary text Orthodox iconography, and it’s treatment of the Passion, which is not the realism of Latin painting, but the expressionism of Orthodox attitudes on the subject. To the extent that images provide us with impetus to prayer, the icons are the standard, and teach us what kind of images we mean, and indeed offer us an objectivity of images that does not require a subjective searching of mental and cultural movie references, or an illicit realism, which is not ‘real’ at all.

* It’s not as easy as posing various rabbinical authorities against one another in a as though we’re doing either Talmud or mediaeval scholasticism or messing around with Orthodox action figures with their various superpowers: Sts. Diadochos, Maximos, and Peter of Damascus on the one hand and Sts. Ephrem, Tikhon, and John Chrysostom on the other. It’s tantalizing to the Western mind to believe that there are different “schools” of thought on this within the one true faith, and all are equally ‘valid’, but this is to scholasticize Orthodoxy in a neo-Marcionist way; it begs the question by presuming a Western cultural hermeneutic and arriving, of course, at a Latin understanding of how we read the Fathers on these subjects. A better way than to hurl quotations at one another is to presume that there is one consensus of the Fathers, if read in an Orthodox manner, and to read them looking for this consensus and understanding of what they mean in the living context of how the Church has lived and prayed at all times and in every place. Then we will be truly catholic in mind as well as in name. That said, we offer the following texts, since they were first cited by the enthusiasts rather than ourselves, as key texts for consideration of this question: Continue reading

April 14, 2008 Posted by | Western Rite Pieties, Western Rite Quotes | , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Enemies, Opponents, and Brothers in Christ

Wool over one's eyes.Recently a Christian speaker stood before an audience desiring to gain acceptance for a path that conflicted quite clearly with their tradition. The technique he used is tried and true. He began to describe how there’s a difference between crazy and not crazy. Always he drew associations with his theoretical opponents and craziness, always with his own views and sanity. In other words:

  • He presented a false dilemma: Your choices are: my novel views or else these extreme and unpleasant attitudes and motivations; those are your choices. He didn’t define craziness, of course. You could insert the word ‘extremist’ or ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘liberal’ or any other undesirable buzzword. The important thing is to leave it vague enough, and to indicate, without indicating why or how, it is undesirable: You don’t want to be thought of as “x”, do you? Well then, the only alternative is my views.
  • He poisoned the well: Those who would oppose me are, by opposing me, demonstrating that their motivations are irrational. Of course, he did not have any actual opponents on hand to prove him wrong – the goal was to prevent opposition, and stereotype it in advance.
  • He mischaracterized his opponents, theoretical or otherwise. By attributing to them irrational, he easily escapes contest with the many rational books and articles that have been written to refute his position. He likewise, escapes having to engage such things, since a scholar needn’t, after all, debate with the irrational. [1]

In short, this speaker silenced opposition, embarrassed concern, and slid a pre-packaged point of view into the minds of those least educated on the matter, least versed in the relevant body of thought, and most likely to desire an easy avenue to intellectual status – namely, the mass of new converts and under-educated members of churches that cater to every novelty while fostering ignorance of tradition. He pled to dilettants.

These techniques are cited here, because they’re not uncommon among Western Rite enthusiasts. Frequently, those who express concern, potent questions, and certainly challenges to things done in the name of “Western rites” are characterized as “hysterical” [2], “raving”, “railing”, “polemicists” [3] “bashing”, “attacking”, “hostile”, “attempting to demean the rite” [4], and so on.

In other words, a variety of irrational emotions (rage, hysteria), evil motives (hostility, hatred, the desire to demean), and extreme actions (railing, raving) are attributed to those who would express concern over some of the enthusiasm being expressed, question the wisdom of some of the initiatives undertaken, or oppose the novelties introduced. The technique is the same, and it’s effects are:

  • Present a false dilemma: you must choose the “balanced view” of the enthusiasts, or the extreme emotions, motives, and actions presumably characterizing their opponents. There is no third choice – namely that of happy approval of what is good, and firm, even adamant opposition to what is not, coupled with cautious consideration of what is questionable. There is only, in this presentation, “us” and “them”, and “them” aren’t really an option.
  • Poison the well: when you see opposition, you must read it with the remembrance that it cannot come from genuine and legitimate concern, a righteous desire for fidelity and purity, and a human struggle to balance the need to admonish and sometimes correct one’s brother for his own salvation, for ours, and for the sanctity of the Faith, with the need to seek dispassion, find humility, and pray for the best. No, opponents must be ‘read’ with a certain pre-packaged hermeneutic – with eyes provided to you by the enthusiasts.
  • Mischaracterize opponents: you are encouraged to read opponents with prejudice and feelings, all the while being admonished not to read the enthusiasts with prejudice and feelings, except of course where prejudice and feelings are deemed to favor the enthusiasts. The first step in persecuting anyone (as the enthusiasts so frequently claim to be persecuted) is to dehumanize them – to make them into caricatures of honest, honorable, reasonable people. This is how you become the enemy of another, and not merely the opponent. Once you have decided that your opponents are not honest, honorable, reasonable people with whom you can seek and indeed find the truth together, you may feel safety from them, but in fact you are no longer safe from yourselves. The truth is, we all need each other, to challenge one another, question one another, admonish one another, and indeed to listen to us. Once we willingly decide to end that, no position we hold is worth having.

Opponents need not be EnemiesThis capacity, to treat opposition as warfare, which always reduces opponents to something less than our fellows, lies in wait as a temptation for any of us, and we are most vulnerable when wounded by one another. As St. Nikolai said, “Men can do me no evil as long as I bear no wound.” And likewise, he offered an entirely different way of looking at enemies in [this wonderful prayer].

So we must encourage those who are enthusiasts, those who are critics, and those who aren’t sure, to use moderation in characterizing opponents. The very caution that we use in examining these matters for approval or disapproval, let us use in choosing how we portray our counterparts, for agreement or disagreement. Let charity teach us to use more strictness with ourselves and more leniency with others. We who are writing this have often failed in this regard. We have sometimes let prejudice, defensiveness, and the desire to finish the course easily determine our words. We are resolved to do better. At the same time, we must, for the sake of the things for which we are striving, point out misleading and harmful techniques, when they endanger our brothers among Western Rite enthusiasts, our fellows anywhere, and ourselves in the temptation to respond in kind. We only seem to be opponents, after all, but to the degree we seek salvation in this striving, we are not opponents – not really. And just as we must acknowledge behaviour sometimes unbecoming, we must seek forgiveness, too, for driving our opponents to behaviours unbecoming fellows in Christ.

Let us love one another, that with one mouth, one mind, one accord we may confess, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the Trinity, One in Essence, and Undivided. Amen.

End Notes:
Continue reading

April 10, 2008 Posted by | Western Rite Questions, Western Rite Seminal Material | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The First Denomination within Orthodoxy

First Orthodox Denomination?The Protestant impulse may be loosely defined as that tendency toward fragmentation over the desires, interests, beliefs, persuasions, passions, etc. etc. of religious adherents. There is substantial agreement on “the Faith” itself, but the very process being performed upon the Faith reduces it to a system of ‘essentials’ which are contrasted with non-essentials. In other words, those who disagree on essentials are of a different Faith. Those who disagree on non-essentials are of a different denomination.

Traditionally, of course, Orthodox Churches grew organically. They were planted by apostles and they were missionized among ‘barbarians’ by those “equal to the apostles”. The notion of programmatically ‘setting up’ a Church was more or less appropriate to the papal or Protestant ecclesiologies.

But what if it were otherwise? What if the Orthodox shared an essentially Protestant/Papal ecclesiology: Church by administration – church by fiat? At least two things would result, but two things, certainly:

1. The impulse and moral justification for creating a church would be “cultural” differences within the fold. This is the Protestant element.
2. The legitimization of this impulse would be juridical – something a hierarchy would sign off on but closely control. This is the Papal element.

And if these two things were to coincide, the result would be an organization within an organization, organism within organism, organ within organ: in short, a church within a church. Anyone else, of course, looking in, would term that a denomination. The basis for departure are the non-essentials, while the basis for administrative authority and control (simultaneously) would be the essentials.

And if this were all there was, these things in theory, we might yet be hesitant to refer to the Western Rite as a denomination within Orthodoxy. But then one reads Western Rite literature, and hears the call to go to one Church if you’re ‘ethnic’ and another if you’re white, to go to one church or another depending on which side of the Bosphorus your ancestry falls, which bank of the Mediterranean, which bloodline, which inclination, how you were raised, where you converted from, etc. This is the language of denominationalism.

Again, though, one might be hesitant to call it that, until one also reads Western Rite apologetics. The sometimes indiscriminate pilfering of the treasure houses of history, finding justifications, references, bloodlines, geneologies, and whatever bases one can for distinction, all the while demanding, often shrilly, recognition of union. This too, holding in constant tension the quest for objective authority in references and the demand for subjective authority in the recognition of others, is the Protestant impulse. And the method of handling texts is akin to arguing your point, and then finding the footnotes to back it up later. Substitute the ‘bible’, and you’ve got the fundamental Protestant hermeneutic, whether you’re doing ‘Orthodox’ hagiography or what have you.

If we took out the words “Western Rite” and inserted the words “Missouri Synod”, one might easily survey a number of “Western Rite” sites and be surprised if someone suggested the Westerrn Rite were anything *but* a denomination of Orthodoxy (aside from the absence of Western Rite bishops that could actually make up their own synod). We mean these observations not to belittle Western Rite endeavours, but rather to call adherents to awareness (no, not of how they look, but) of the religious sociology being introduced into Orthodoxy by the attitudes, mindsets, and resultant activities done in the name of “Western Rite”. A different rite, after all, needn’t be a different denomination, but when a rite is confused with a host of other things, and touted in a tribalist, multiculturalist way, a denomination is what you get, and denominationalism as an impulse – indeed a host of other things that are needed to prop up such an impulse, and which are actually foreign to Orthodoxy of any rite.

In seeking to accurately, adequately, and appropriately pursue a rite, one must not allow a quasi-Protestant, pseudo-Orthodox culture to be constructed that undermines these very efforts. This will prove worse than no effort at all, and what adherents will find themselves clutching in the end is not Orthodoxy but just another religion, whose claim to be the True Faith depends on cognitive dissonance – on saying one thing, and acting as though another were true.

That said, the Orthodox of the rite of St. John (called Eastern, by some), should cease all such denomination-inspiring rhetoric, whether this is making fun of the Russians (as is now popular where Orthodoxy has become an arrogant quasi-Episcopalian dilettantism), or else drawing illicit contrasts between ethnic and non-ethnic, cradle and non-cradle, parochial and monastic, this ethnic group or that one. All such work is the work of Protestantism, even when they call themseles Orthodox, and even when they are clergy or ‘famous’ Orthodox personalities. Many Protestants, in fact, are more Orthodox, when they cast off the very impulse that has so fragmented their Faith and which we now see at work wherever Orthodox has courted acceptance in the cultures in which the heterodox impulse is embedded.

We feel as much at home with those who pray the Western Rite as those who pray the Eastern, when either of them act like Orthodox Christians. But we are concerned that the very things ruining Orthodoxy by Anglicanizing it in so-called “Eastern-rite” churches, is actually generating the programmatic Anglicizing of Orthodoxy in so-called “Western-rite” churches. It’s not our only concern, but a thing seemingly yielding the fruit of Protestantism, and coming from its orchards, bears consideration in that light.

April 9, 2008 Posted by | -- What is Western?, Western Rite Questions | , , , , , , | 3 Comments


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