“Finding Divine Beauty in an Age of Liturgical Idolatry”

If a faithful Christians asks their pastor, “where can I find divine beauty,” many pastors would refer to examples from the Liturgy. The liturgical traditions of East and West offer numerous examples of divine beauty. Congregational processionals taken from a common hymnal, the proclamation of the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil, the raising of the cross at the solemnity of its elevation in September, and the community’s veneration of the plashchanitsa are examples of liturgical rites in which one could discover divine beauty.

Українською читайте тут:
«У пошуках Божественної краси у добу літургійного поклоніння»

The discovery and contemplation of divine beauty challenges me, however. Perhaps this is my vocational dilemma. After all, I am a liturgist writing about a fundamental question already addressed eloquently by philosophers. In discussions on beauty in the humanities, it is customary to refer to Dostoevsky’s line that “beauty will save the world.” In practice, recognizing true beauty can be elusive, even for those who wish to behold the glory of God. A series of serious discussions with students on the manifestation of divine beauty in the world – and in humankind in particular – has reminded me of just how difficult it is to develop the discipline to truly see the image of Christ in another.

In this lecture, I will identify the obstacles to discovering divine beauty in the contemporary world , and will conclude by offering suggestions for religious communities with the potential to form faithful, liberating them from the obstacles that blind them, and enabling them to see the glory of God in the cosmos and in humankind.

Liturgy Wars: Subjectivity, Relativism, and Alienation

As the twentieth century witnessed to a series of catastrophic wars and unprecedented instances of genocide and death, theologians capitalized on the spirit of urgency for change. Reformers identified active participation in the liturgy as a central element of revitalizing the laity. The pioneers of liturgical reform understood that active participation is not merely cognitive, an exercise of the mind, but an experience of the whole person. Active participation necessitated reforms in liturgical aesthetics. Architects began to design worship spaces that diminished the separation of the laity from the clergy. Designs for new churches called for moving the altar table from the wall to a central location in the Church, visible to all, and in some cases, inviting the entire royal priesthood of Christ to stand, together, around the table at which the risen Lord hosts his holy supper.

Vatican II introduced unprecedented freedom in composing art and liturgical music that draws from the local culture. The impact of this new freedom on liturgical practice was enormous. The liturgical experience of the ordinary lay person changed drastically. By 1969, the people were praying in the vernacular, hearing new readings from the Bible, seeing new art, and learning new music. This was an entirely new experience, one added to the novelty of clergy encouraging the people to receive communion at every Mass, and in some places, to receive in both kinds (bread and cup).

The implementation of liturgical reform had multiple outcomes. Among those was the outbreak of a series of “liturgical wars,” often battles over liturgical music. Academic and ecclesial discussion of liturgy wars has largely taken place among Protestants and Catholics. The wars raged among Protestants divided over traditional music and the introduction of contemporary music. Catholics are also sharply divided on music, but their divisions also extend to the placement of the altar in the Church, the posture assumed by the priest, accusations of iconoclasm, and the compatibility of certain cultural rites with the spirit of Latin-rite liturgy. The liturgy wars motivated many Catholics to refuse adoption of the Missal of Paul VI and continue praying in the sixteenth-century missal of Pius V. 

The liturgy wars are also afflicting the Orthodox Church.  The musical reform promoted by the disciples of the Moscow synodal choir introduced change in the Russian Church. Musicians such as Boris Ledkovsky identified the flaws inherent in the received tradition. In the dynamic relation between music and liturgical text, music was primary, and a choir performed the music, two flaws that hindered the laity’s understanding of the liturgy. The priorities of the disciples of the so-called Moscow School were for the music to serve the liturgical text, making the text primary, and the music secondary. Other priorities included appointing the parts of the liturgy to be sung by the laity, and replacing “choir” with “people” in the service books. In North America, architectural innovations supported the implementation of this initiative. In some churches, a special place was designated for the choir near the front of the Church, permitting the choir to stand and worship with the people (instead of above them), and inviting the choir director to lead the people in singing their appointed components. The reformed liturgical music of the Moscow school was not universally received in North American Orthodoxy. While some choirs blended the new music with established repertoires, other parishes resisted the influence of the new style.

The examples cited here demonstrate plurality within the liturgical lives of particular Church communities. This plurality would probably be healthy if the liturgy wars did not generate divisions among the people. Unfortunately, the liturgy wars have inspired some of the most vocal proponents of opposing sides to embellish their particular tradition – often a style of music or iconography – as the sole bearer of authentic tradition. The effort invested into defending one’s position contributes to an existing crisis on the ground for the Church, raging in two major areas. The first crisis is separation and demonization, where one side’s polemical narrative accuses the other side, identifying them with terms such as sectarian, renovationist, liberal, conservative, and in the most extreme cases, heretical. The second area of crisis is the tendency for proponents to exaggerate the tradition they are promoting and defending to such a degree that it is transformed from a ritual component or practice into a false idol that is worshipped. The crisis is one of liturgical idolatry (liturgiolatry), where the rite is no longer a means of communion with God, but becomes a false god. Ideally, the principles of liturgical reform, rooted in rehabilitating the royal priesthood of the laity, could yield governing principles for liturgical aesthetics that assuage the divisions of the liturgy wars.[1]

Digital Media and Idolatry   

The expansion of the digital and virtual worlds exacerbates the problem of liturgical idolatry. The primary problem is one of a false ideal. Dissatisfaction or boredom with the liturgical aesthetics in one’s local community can be solved by partaking of virtual and digital liturgies. The temptation to satisfy one’s desire for a customized liturgy is all around us with ubiquitous access to YouTube and streaming Divine Liturgies.

One might respond initially by claiming that “ideal” liturgical aesthetics have always existed, and that Christian people have always indulged the temptation to participate in a preferred liturgy. In the pre-revolutionary period, Orthodox faithful would occasionally check the list of musical compositions displayed in the narthexes of urban parishes appointed for the Liturgy, walking from one church to another until they discovered the right place. The willingness to travel for an ideal liturgical experience is not limited to musical narcissists, either. Numerous historical accounts inform us of the wonder of liturgy, from the brilliant choirs and skilled mourners Egeria introduces to us from her fourth-century pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to the awe experienced by St. Volodymyr’s emissaries to Constantinople. Indeed, the experience of heavenly liturgy on earth is a core component of the religious mythology of Kyivan-Rus’ and its successors.

The ideal liturgy is not limited to aesthetics. The urban cathedrals of the late antique and early medieval periods established patterns for the surrounding parishes to adopt. Many of the earlier Constantinopolitan monastic Typica refer to the order of liturgy at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as the established pattern observed by “all of the Churches.” Christians of diverse regional Churches exchanged liturgical traditions through pilgrimages. The phenomena of the translation of relics and the visitations of wonderworking icons are the results of this process of liturgical “cross-pollination.”[2] From a certain perspective, then, liturgical centers have emerged in different places throughout Christian history, usually on account of the presence of a living saint or relic.

The negative dimensions of liturgical idealizations come from limitless accessibility to liturgical beauty in the digital and virtual worlds. The spiritual marketplace grants faithful unprecedented freedom in choosing their place of worship. In America, it is common for Orthodox Christians to forsake the church communities in their neighborhoods and drive up to 90 minutes to their preferred Orthodox parish. People make this choice for reasons other than ideal liturgy (preference for the pastor and jurisdiction are also significant factors), but liturgy is a factor. Media sites hosting streaming or recorded liturgies are in the process of displacing traditional liturgical centers. Not only is one able to create a customized playlist of liturgical music, but one can attend a liturgy in another world location virtually, with commentary. While this is a needed service offered to invalids who are otherwise unable to participate in liturgy, it prevents us from encountering divine beauty when we partake of liturgy as consumers instead of faithful receiving God’s gift.

How does one partake of liturgy as a consumer? The consumer culture presents Church and her worship to the people as one option among many others. In the North American religiously pluralistic culture, scholars have long recognized that the people’s selection of Church is like a marketplace. Amy Slagle’s research on the Eastern Orthodox Church in North America demonstrates that people who are considering conversion to the Orthodox Church take their time in investigating a parish before deciding whether or not to join. Most people will typically meet with a parish priest, but they will visit any number of parishes and do research online before making a commitment. Slagle observes that some converts join a parish community with preconceived notions about correct liturgy (especially iconography), and occasionally object to their perception of bad music, iconography, or theology on the basis of their reading.

Unlimited and open access to liturgical content permits faithful to create their own customized worship experiences in a virtual arena. Observing a liturgy with a beautiful choir, one’s favorite chant, or the perfect iconographic program create a false ideal of the liturgical experience by mixing and matching components on the basis of virtual participation. The oversaturation of digital liturgical content is the primary factor in making private enjoyment into a problem. With a seemingly unlimited supply of beautiful musical settings and icons available to us, it becomes tempting to want to reproduce the digital liturgical experience in the liturgical event consisting of real people in a real place. The other problem is the ease of customizing a liturgy: the end-user becomes the only authority in deciding whether or not a particular genre of liturgical aesthetics is beautiful, a process of evaluation that is separated from a living Church community consisting of people. The combination of a limitless supply of digital liturgy with a process of evaluating the quality of that liturgy left to the end user increases the chances of an instance of liturgical idolatry. The end user desires the liturgy they have observed from afar in the digital world, through the mediation of a device. The ease of compiling more and more samples of beautiful liturgy from various parts of the world is not translatable to their local parish. Furthermore, they lack the grounding in community required to evaluate whether or not music or art is liturgical. The end user has heard so many songs and seen so many images that they can no longer distinguish one beautiful sound or face from another, due to the oversaturation of audio and visual stimulation. The ultimate outcome is the inability to behold, recognize, and wonder at divine beauty, even when it passes right before their eyes, or makes a sound within their hearing. The process of subjective evaluation, however, increases the capacity to claim that an image, sound, face, or body is distorted or ugly.

The problems with the oversaturation of imagery and the ability of an individual to create their own virtual chapel have implications for the community and the individual. The process of constructing a virtual, liturgical utopia described here is the absence of a community. The customized creation of images and sounds is no longer native to any existing community. Furthermore, worshipping in a place we wish existed, with imaginary people, can lead to despondency when one returns to reality. For the individual, privileging the idealized liturgy over the real one facilitates aversion to the real – this, in turn, leads to isolation from the community, a vicious cycle that can result in fear and even hate in the worst circumstances. The liturgy wars afflicting all churches are examples of negative outcomes of this process. Representatives of the opposing sides can hold up examples of the “correct” liturgical aesthetic, readily viewable and playable to all on public digital media platforms, while condemning the incorrect style of the opposing side, often in uncharitable and polemical language. The battle for victory in defense of one’s own style is liturgical idolatry, because the liturgical aesthetic becomes a god, not a means through which the living God is encountered in a communal act of God.

Renewing the Process to Discovering divine beauty

An enormous supply of digital images, audio files, and videos is not the only factor in the crisis of liturgical idolatry. The primary problem is the individual’s willingness to create a virtual, idealized liturgy by selecting favorite components and reassembling them into their favorites. Formulating a Christian response to the temptations of social and digital media is necessary in the contemporary environment. Attempting to prohibit or eradicate digital media cannot result in an ascetical victory for Christian communities. Smart modifications to ascetical practices can do much good, and Christian thinkers such as Bernadette Gasselein and Jean-Claude Larchet have presented proposals that can enable the spiritual eye to behold and recognize divine beauty for those willing to engage them.[3]

This paper concludes with two modest proposals to restore the capacity for Christian faithful to discover divine beauty. The first proposal concerns a renewed appreciation of the liturgy as the assembly of the local Church in a particular place. The cities, towns, villages, and suburbs of places with critical masses of Christian people are hosts to liturgies gathering people who assemble in concrete, physical spaces. These spaces have varying interior configurations, decorations, and traditions of liturgical music, but they are defined primarily by the people who gather in those spaces. The Church as the body of Christ retains the privilege as the venerable model for Christian Church life, based on the Pauline ecclesiology of the letter to the Ephesians. The gathering of Churches in appointed places for the enactment of rituals that involve bodily movement and the encounter of one another in the body holds the key to reclaiming the discovery of divine beauty in the world. Liturgical rituals that direct the people to see and interact with one another introduce the rehearsal of gazing into the face of the other, with that gaze enabling us to see the face of Christ in each person. St. Maria of Paris’s teaching on the Church and monasticism resonates powerfully with the turn to globalization in the contemporary world. The face of the proverbial other – any person, each person with whom we interact at liturgy – is the face of Christ whose image is seated in the soul of each person in this world. The ritual act of encountering the other, greeting them, exchanging looks, hearing the sounds of their voices, shaking hands, embracing or kissing one another, and performing the ritual with them is an invitation to see divine beauty revealed in the person who happens to be next to me in the assembly. It does not matter if a liturgical participant is friends with their fellow worshipper – the point is to share communion with them, even briefly, as a rehearsal for sharing communion with whomever God appoints to our company in daily life. The liturgical rehearsal of worshipping together with others in the body prepares one to behold divine beauty in the face of all others whom we meet throughout the journey of this life.

This process must occur in the body in local contexts, to account for the cultural idioms of a local place. Urban churches are organically cosmopolitan, so it will be natural to encounter the sights, sounds, and expressions of the people of the world in such gatherings. A local community will employ the sights and sounds native to its culture in its worship. Christian faithful can identify divine beauty in the sights and sounds of those gatherings not from a subjective evaluation of the art, but by respecting the divine beauty seated in the souls of the people whose worship of God is expressed through the images, sounds, and movements they learned from their youth. This is an appeal for a rediscovery and the rehabilitation of authentically local worship so that divine beauty can shine through the images and music of “this place” without having external criteria of an arbitrarily appointed urban center appointed upon it.

True worship of God in “this place” cannot be confined to the walls of a church building, even if that edifice is the primary location of the assembly’s worship. God abides in the temple not made of hands and cannot be circumscribed to any particular place – even if it is truly good. The biblical narrative that reveals God to humankind discloses a God who creates a covenant with God’s chosen people in natural spaces – in deserts, the wilderness, forests, on mountaintops, and in upper rooms of houses. Christian topography has never confined God to the images and music performed in enclosed spaces, but has expressed wonder at the God who “touches the mountains with smoke” and nourishes humanity with bread and wine, cultivated from God’s holy soil. The practice of searching for divine beauty through devices made by human hands tires and distracts human eyes created to behold God’s handiwork and express wonder. God planted an innate desire to behold God’s artistry of creation within all of humanity. Designating times in each day of the week to lift up one’s eyes and encounter God in the midst of the temple made without hands –  in spaces honoring the goodness of God’s creation – renews human sight and restores the capacity to behold divine beauty in natural symbols given to us by God.  

In summary, all Christians are caught up in variations of liturgical idolatry identified with worship wars on liturgical aesthetics. Overstimulation of the capacity of the human sensory system through an endless supply of images and sounds encourages faithful to construct virtual worship spaces that are not inhabited by human bodies. This process deadens the senses and prohibits people from discovering the epiphany of God’s kingdom in this world through the face of Christ in each person and God’s awesome creation. Reclaiming the local nature of the Church and renewing emphasis on embodied worship that encourages faithful to interact with one another through all human senses can remove the blindness that keeps people from seeing divine beauty in the world.

[1] In the United States, the Roman Catholic Church approved principles for the composition and performance of liturgical music in the publication Sing to the Lord, approved by Rome.

[2] For example, the small parish of the Joy of All Who Sorrow in west Los Angeles (OCA) has a relic of St. John Maximovich.

[3] Gasselein proposed the addition of scrutinies that include renunciations of consumerism in the preparatory rites of initiation, whereas Larchet has proposed that fasting from the use of devices and social media platforms be required of Orthodox Christians during fasting periods.

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