I remember, as an undergraduate student in a university chemistry laboratory, a fellow student who was having tremendous difficulty understanding the basic principles of laboratory science. A pre-medical student, she lacked both proper high school preparation in the general ideas of science and any concept of the importance of procedure in experimental methodology. Having accomplished very high scores on college entrance examinations, she was capable of learning what she did not know. However, something prevented her from understanding her ignorance.
Try as I might to help this young woman during our long laboratory sessions, I proved myself unable to do so. As I was unsuccessfully explaining to her one day the principles of a certain experimental technique, the doctoral student who was directing the session happened by. He asked if he might help me. What he said to the girl—directions which turned around her performance in the class—has always stayed in my mind. Looking at her intensely, he noted:
“Your intelligence is protecting your ignorance. In science we must not think that ‘things are as they are’ and that an intelligent person is one who discovers this fact. In science, we must treat our knowledge of events as a form of ignorance. Then we are free to ask, ‘Why is this as it is?’ For example, we are told that we should never pour water on acid. If we learn this piece of information, it may allow us to appear intelligent. But we are in fact ignorant. And unless we learn ‘why’ we should not pour water on acid, we will invite disaster. For one day, knowing the fact but not the ‘why,’ then we would never have made this error. In science, then, we must always understand causes and effects and know the ‘why’ of things. Otherwise we are ignorant with facts.”
I have often thought of this wise teacher while reading texts on Orthodox liturgical theology—a subject in which I have great interest and which has invited the attention of some modernist Orthodox theologians. Many of our contemporary Orthodox thinkers know a great deal about the history and development of the Liturgy. Under the influence of Roman Catholic scholars, they have even produced cold, critical commentaries on the Liturgy which aim at exposing its supposed inadequacies. Using the catchy phrases of contemporary scholarly trends, they spew forth snide and even sarcastic analyses and critiques of the worship services which the Fathers of our Church have always approached with awe and trembling.
In all of their ponderous studies of the Orthodox Liturgy I suspect that many of these popular scholars suffer from the same ignorance that I found in my laboratory companion at university. They know facts. They observe historical data. They criticize and attack the Church’s liturgical traditions. But in the end, I wonder if they really know the ‘whys’ and the rationale that underlie what we might call “procedural” liturgics.
Under the influence of these scholars, many young Priests wish to dispense with the Icon screen in Orthodox Churches, prompted as they are by the poor scholarship of their mentors, who have invented a history of the templon that ignores its early use and development. Recently I heard of a Priest who dispensed with one of the entrances in the Liturgy. Yet another Priest has proclaimed the expression, “Again and again” in the liturgical petitions redundant. And all of these innovations are no doubt backed up by high-sounding “facts” and historical observations. They reflect the idea that the Liturgy is a man-made drama subject to the tastes and developments of various ages and cultures.
But what of the “why” of the Liturgy? What of its procedural realities? In fact, the Icon screen in our Churches divides the Holy of Holies from other sections of the Church. And this division is not architectural or merely “spatial.” The Eucharist rests in the Altar on the Holy Table. And its Presence there sanctifies and changes that place. In the procedure of the Liturgy, the Icon screen protects that which is holy from the profane and that which is profane from the power of the holy. No historical acrobatics meant to prove that the Icon screen is an impediment to worship can change the fact that the Altar contains something which must be protected and concealed, except in those moments when the Holy Things are brought out for the sanctification of the people. Such acrobatics represent the ignorance of knowledge without “whys.” And just as water poured on acid can cause a tremendous explosion, so too can an ignorance of liturgical procedure bring spiritual harm to those who know facts but cannot put them, in context.
The Liturgy is a mystical event. Its development is subject to historical investigation. But the “whys” of its development lie within the action of the Holy Spirit. The Liturgy is a formula, as it were, by which the earthly lifts itself up to the heavenly. It exists for this purpose. Any changes and developments which we see in it are not the result of human whim but of maturation and the development of Divine procedure. When St. Basil, for example, wished to utter the Liturgy in his own words, this proved impossible. Rather, by his own account, holy personages came to him and guided him.
The entrances in the Liturgy are not just processions. They re-enact, outside time and space, events in human salvation. They bring those events into fruition for the Faithful. When we say “Again and again” in our prayerful petitions during the Liturgy, we are not being redundant. We are expressing in a mystical language, the symbolic language of Liturgy, the inner intensity of our prayer. We are expressing with repetition the dimensions of prayer in a realm which is open-ended, just as we close many of our petitions with the words, “unto the ages of ages.” In every liturgical act and phrase, we are adhering to a Mystical formula by which what is transcendent is made present and by which the unholy are deemed worthy to behold the holy. To understand these acts and phrases as mere movements and words is to be ignorant. To participate in them by knowing their meaning as a procedure is to be a true worshipper.
The Church has taught us liturgical procedure. Those who analyze this procedure without knowing why it has been taught to us risk great danger. Our scholars and clergy have begun to throw water of human disbelief and rationality on the acid of spiritual truth. The Liturgy has been chopped to pieces in the modernist Churches. Evangelicals coming into the Church without proper preparation have made what is often a cheap circus act of what should be a window into eternity. Snide scholars, the masters of “Punk Patristics,” have suggested that the Liturgy is an a “sad state.” And spiritually deluded fakirs in the guise of Orthodox believers have begun to rewrite and redefine the Liturgy.
The explosion that awaits those who fail to understand the Liturgy at a procedural and spiritual level is a sad one. It consumes not only the Priest, but the Faithful. It consumes not only the body, but the soul. It burns and disfigures not only external belief, but internal faith. Those who follow the heterodox in their treatment of worship as something man-made and invented—a device for “creating” Grace—have failed to know that the Orthodox Church alone preserves that which is authentic. They have defiled what is holy by associating it with that which is indeed an invention of man. They sin not only against the Church’s Divine worship, but against the very Church itself.
It is time that the modernists either cease their deprecatory studies of Orthodox worship or openly join the heterodox whom they so wish to please by their adolescent rebellion against the Faith. And it is time that modernist clergy cease taking pride in their ignorance and immerse themselves in an understanding of the general nature of worship in Orthodoxy and of the authenticity of spiritual experience which the Liturgy guarantees to those who enact it with fidelity to the spiritual formulas by which its power is made manifest.
What I have said may seem harsh. And it may seem that I have not allowed for sympathy for the modernist clergy who, coming into the Orthodox Church with no knowledge of its true spiritual power, are themselves victims. I am, however, compelled to speak truthfully, for through the Liturgy we Christians receive the very source of life: The Body and Blood of Christ. If the Liturgy is defiled, our food becomes defiled. And if one can sympathize with modernists who have gone astray, this sympathy prompts us also to speak firmly to them about their responsibility to overcome ignorance and its dangers.