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Modern Language and Liturgical Deconstruction

Dn. James Bryant

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The problem of modern language vs. traditional or liturgical language is not confined to the choice of words to be used in the services and prayers of the Church. There is another and much larger aspect that invariably accompanies efforts to modernize the language used in the Holy Orthodox Church, and indeed has happened regularly in Western Christian denominations or expressions. That aspect is inseparable from the changing of the words and it is the changing of the services and prayers themselves which can lead to the eventual changing of the Faith itself. This discussion involves two points, modern language, and an accompanying deconstruction of the liturgy. Modern language is the camel's nose under the tent. There is a lot more camel waiting to come into the tent.

Modern Language

Much discussion has taken place regarding modern language vs. liturgical language. It is commendable and desirable to keep the services and language of prayer in an expression that is understandable to contemporary participants. Great care must be taken however to preserve a language of worship that is qualitatively higher in usage and expression than modern Six O'clock News or common modern secular language, and which accurately translates the liturgical texts. The architecture of our places of worship, the Orthodox temples, is distinctly different and of a separate order than that of secular buildings, barring a few modern twentieth century aberrations that have appeared in America. What is sometimes referred to as artwork, the iconography, is of a different order. The music is also of a different order and without instrumental accompaniment. We chant in church and we sing outside of church. Words and how they are used are extremely important. As the Church Fathers have said "What is prayed is what is believed."

The architecture, iconography, music and words of the Orthodox Church are all images of one type or another. Images are extremely important in that they convey in an instant, information and messages that penetrate to the inner person, to the soul. What and how they are transmitted can leave an indelible and long-lasting impression upon the observer. The advertising industry understands this better than anyone else. They are very studied and careful in the choice of images and words.

Imagery is also symbolic or has symbolic content. Images and symbols, visual or poetic, have a way of penetrating to the heart and soul of a person. A symbol unites the invisible with the visible. The Greek word for "symbol" and "devil" share the same root. One means "to throw or place together," and the other means, "to throw over, divide, or set at variance." One unites and the other separates. A very fine line exists between the construction, use and employment of imagery and symbols. Artists, writers, and translators can create a work which contributes to unity and points to the beauty, goodness, and truth of God and His creation, or one which contributes to disunity, disintegration, and dissolution of the world we live in and our perception of it. Words are extremely important symbols.

In dealing with modern language versions of our services, it is not enough to "clean up" the archaic Elizabethan language that earlier translations from the Byzantine or Slavonic traditions have employed. As a member of one Liturgical Commission once remarked to me, five things are required: (1) A sound knowledge of liturgical Greek. (2) Thorough familiarity with the Byzantine liturgical and patristic tradition. (3) Many years of life within the bosom of the Holy Orthodox Church. (4) Fidelity to the original text. (5) The inspiration of the Holy Spirit. One might also include a sound and comprehensive knowledge of the English language.

In my secular calling and profession as an architect, I am often called upon to travel in conjunction with my commercial projects. In the last few years it has been a privilege to serve in or attend numerous parishes in a variety of locations and jurisdictions. In such capacity I have heard and served using many different service texts. Most of the modern language versions fall woefully short in language and expression as compared with some of the earlier "archaic" versions and with some more recent versions which preserve a certain liturgical expression or style of language.

For example, in Vespers, the Hymn of Simeon in one version reads "Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to your word." This just doesn't have the same authority or ring as that of a recent yet traditional rendering in the Liturgikon which reads "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word." Not only is the language of the first of a lower order, but the impression conveyed is that Simeon is saying "OK Lord I am going now" or is stating a simple fact rather than asking in a solemn way the permission of the Lord to depart. The context and implication is of asking permission to depart this life, in itself very solemn and especially significant to anyone who knows the Church's teaching about St. Simeon and how he came to the Temple, awaiting the Messiah. A simple declarative statement is not what the original is and is highly misleading from a theological, historical or spiritual perspective. This is only one of many examples.

One area still is apparently sacrosanct. By and large no one is willing to tinker with the Lord's Prayer. This is still hallowed ground. The few modern versions I have seen are of a much lower order of language than the above example.

Another danger in employing modern language in the services and prayers is that the first attempt or version, while of good intention, may be benign or neutral as to the actual theology conveyed. However later revisions and updates by the original authors or their successors often carry changes in language of prayer that move one away from the central truths of the creeds and confessions of the Faith gradually and incrementally, until as in the Episcopal Church, it may be contended that it is no longer a church of the Christian Faith. Again, "What is prayed is what is believed."

When those of us who came from the Anglican or Episcopal tradition hear about modern or contemporary language versions of the liturgies we automatically look over our shoulder to see if something we have fled is gaining on us again.

As a hieromonk recently remarked to me, it's not about archaic vs. modern language. It's about a fully expressive, liturgical dialect vs. a dumbed-down and artificially restricted dialect, the hidden effect of which is to constrict or altogether stop the transmission of the truths of the Gospel, in their fullness, leaving only a hollow facade of Christianity, as has happened in the Franco-Latin Christianity of the West, both Roman Catholic and Protestant.

Liturgical Deconstruction

An area of concern I have not yet seen explored is liturgical usage, or how the Divine Services are actually conducted. Accompanying the attempt to change the language of the rite is the attempt to change the use, that is, the rubrics of the services themselves. This I will address in the context of deconstruction. The Deconstruction Movement in the arts had its first complete expression in the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the middle of the twentieth century. A deconstructionist approach to literature assumes that what an author wrote or meant isn't the true meaning of the work, that one can take apart the work and reassemble it, so to speak, in a contemporary or new context or new construct to derive the true meaning. This new meaning will have relevance to our own time, whereas the original only applied perhaps to the time in which it was written. Deconstruction denies that there are any universal or transcendent truths. Deconstruction is essentially nihilistic.

In my own profession, architects take disparate unrelated materials and assemble them in strange hitherto unrelated ways. Often the architectural form has absolutely nothing to do with the function of the building or any traditional context in which it may be constructed. Some of the buildings themselves are disorienting and uncomfortable for the users. Painting, sculpture, music, and literature all have their own expressions of deconstructionism. Part of the deconstructionist philosophy is the proclivity for innovation and introduction of foreign or alien elements.

How does this apply to the serving, for example, of the Divine Liturgy? Deconstruction occurs when liberties are taken to change the rubrics, to delete and some parts, and to add to or change other parts. The Divine Liturgy, as well as the other services of the Orthodox Church, is comprised of many layers. There are the private prayers of the priest, the quiet dialogues between the priest and the deacon, the public prayers and exclamations of the priest, the public prayers of the deacon, the responses of the choir and the people along with the confessions and prayers of the people (the Creed, Lord's Prayer, and "I believe and I confess…"). These form a beautiful tapestry interwoven and with many parts overlapping one another. Certainly there are cultural variations and a certain latitude in serving the liturgies, but as long as the tradition is respected, each essentially remains true within its own tradition, and each is still a valid expression of the liturgy.

To draw an analogy, let us examine a piece of music, a Beethoven quartet, for example. The composer selected four instruments, two violins, a viola, and a cello. There may be anywhere from four to seven parts or movements. Sometimes only one instrument plays, sometime two, sometimes three, mostly all parts play together. Each instrument has its part, and all participate in a multilayered composition that has a definite beginning, a clear and orderly structure, and an end. The composer has made notations as to how to play each part, the bowings, the tempo, pauses, and the transitions. These notations are the musical rubrics. Different attitudes or expressions will prevail depending upon the players and their synergy, but basically we will hear Beethoven's quartet as he intended, it provided the musical rubrics are adhered to.

Now suppose a deconstructionist musician approaches this quartet and decides to "deconstruct" the piece ignoring the musical rubrics. He decides that the first violin will not play with the viola in a certain part as the music was written, and he separates out that particular part. Going through the quartet he makes decisions as to who will play what and when. What he has done is parted out the composition, keeping the same order, however, because he thinks that it will be more coherent to his particular audience and his personal tastes. The only thing he hasn't done yet is to introduce his own or someone else's musical notes. We still have the music of Beethoven, all the notes, but it is a different composition. It no longer has the same pattern, flow, and texture. In a sense it has been linearized, scrambled. It has been recreated in the image of this particular musician.

Deconstruction can be subtle or overtly extensive. If the deconstruction version is all you have heard, then you might think you have heard Beethoven, until you hear the original version as written by the composer and played with integrity by the quartet.

How does this apply to serving the Divine Liturgy? What I have occasionally observed in my travels is different expressions of ignoring the rubrics, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, such as saying various private prayers of the priest aloud. For example, at the Little Entrance saying the prayer of entry aloud on the solea instead of quietly at the altar. I have been told that this is done "for pastoral reasons" or that saying certain other of the private prayers aloud is "good for the people to hear because they contain good theology" or that "the people need to understand what is going on." We do need to understand to a degree, but we are after all celebrating the Mystical Supper, the Holy Mysteries. What of that can we really understand or comprehend?

In another example, rubrics state that certain parts are to be said quietly but audibly while the choir is singing. However, I have seen at the epiclesis a full stop by the choir at the end of their part, and then the priest, saying the prayer of the epiclesis out loud, and not quietly, and then the choir resuming their chanting, all following a new printed rubric.

Ignoring the rubrics and making up one's own is one example. Another example is making innovative substitutions to the text itself. For example, during the Paschal season from Pascha to Pentecost one priest has substituted his own innovation in place of the words of the Cherubic Hymn said at the altar by the priest and deacon, while the choir chants the same hymn. The text reads "Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, lay aside all worldly cares." To which the deacon responds "That we may receive the King of all invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts. Alleluia." This particular substitution reads as follows. "Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death" to which the deacon is to respond "And upon those in the tombs bestowing life." Now I had not encountered this anywhere else, and thought that perhaps it was from a tradition with which I was not familiar. So I asked the priest where this came from, and he replied "Me. I just like it and I think it is appropriate." It is a mystery how one would presume to dare to take such liberties with the Divine Liturgy.

As in the foregoing quartet example, the Divine Liturgy becomes parted out, linearized, scrambled, with innovations introduced and it is at risk of becoming something other than what it is. The constituent parts of the tapestry or composition are still present, but the pattern is broken.

The drift in this direction eventually leads the Divine Liturgy and the other services of the Church to becoming no longer coherent as originally constituted. The risk is that we become engaged in recreating the Divine Liturgy in our own image. If as a convert one comes to a parish that is consciously or unconsciously practicing such deconstruction and has never heard it otherwise, one has no reason to believe that this is not the authentic Divine Liturgy, until going elsewhere and hearing it served true to the traditions of the Church.

In summary we must be very cautious that updating the language does not lead to updating how the liturgies are served, to what is actually served, to the point that we have begun a departure from the Faith once for all delivered to the saints.

James Bryant is an achitect and serves as a deacon at St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Seattle, Washington. Visit the James Bryant website.

Posted: 31-Jul-07

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