Monday, December 28, 2009

St. Mary Skobtsova on Ritualism


The next type of religious life, that of the strict ritualist, bears traces of an entirely different origin. Compared to the synodal type it is archaic, but it has never died out. It intertwined itself with the synodal piety, standing over against it, but never struggles with it. Synodal piety encountered strict ritualism in the Church from the moment of its own origin, since the whole of Muscovite Rus’ was permeated with its spirit. The Old Believer Schism grew out of it and absorbed its strengths into itself. By modifying itself and becoming more complex, it has endured even down to our time. It is, perhaps, the most frightening and inert remnant inherited from Muscovite Rus’.

There is no doubt that the creative and theological level of Muscovite piety was extremely weak. Moscow adopted many things from Byzantium, but somehow managed to miss its creative intensity. Moscow reforged all the turbulent and antinomian vibrancy of the Byzantine genius into an immovable form, a cult of the letter, a cult of tradition, a repetitious rhythmical gesture. Moscow was able not only to freeze its Byzantine heritage, but even managed to dry up its Biblical heritage, ossifying it and depriving it of its grace-filled, living spirit. In the words of an ancient prophet, it started to pile up “commandment upon commandment, rule upon rule.” It perceived the splendid flow of Byzantine rhetoric as something that should not be touched, introducing it into its own obligatory order of service, ritualizing every impulse, enveloping every religious lyric with the form of law.

The extreme expression of this stagnant, splendid, immovable, protective spirit was the Old Believer Schism. In a sense it has great merits: it has preserved for us examples of ancient icon painting, it has preserved the ancient chant, it has kept in a safe place, away from the flow of life, one moment in the development of piety and fixed it once and for all. But with all this it confused the hierarchy of values of the Christian way of life, preferring torture and even death not only in defense of the two-fingered sign of the cross, but for the right to write “Isus” instead of “Iisus.”

Here it is not a question simply of illiteracy. The issue is much more serious, as became obvious in the following period. We are dealing here with belief in a particular kind of magic, not just of a word, a name, but of each letter which makes up the name [i.e. Isus]. A frightful retribution has been visited upon the Old Believers for their treatment of Christ’s truth. Go inside an Old Believer meeting house. It contains everything which they have held dear throughout their whole history. It has priceless icons in the ancient style; it has ancient books; it resounds to a special chant sung according to the old kriuk or “hook” notation — all those things for which they struggled and endured martyrdom. It lacks only one thing: its magnificent iconostasis, completely covered with icons in massive metalwork covers, shelters nothing, it preserves nothing. For behind the iconostasis is a blank wall, to which the iconostasis is fixed. There is no sanctuary, no altar table, no table of oblation, since there is no Mystery, no Sacrament.

Everything has been preserved except the living spirit of the Church, its theanthropic, deifying sacramental life. Only the splendid form remains.

One must give some thought to this phenomenon. Here people have received a punishment for their victory, for having attained their aims. Having once distorted Christ’s truth, they were left with its empty shell. One should think about this every time we are tempted to replace spirit with form, love with ritual. In this temptation the same danger lies in wait for us: to be left with form and ritual, but to forfeit spirit and love. It is very likely that this symbol of a Church without a sanctuary is often reflected in human souls.

While losing the living spirit of Christianity, the Church of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has not been able to extirpate within itself that Moscow spirit of ritual correctness: what is prescribed, what is permitted, what is to be preserved. Moreover, the human soul, frequently stifled in the official, cold, State-sanctioned Synodal Church and not finding any way to some kind of living source of faith, would flee from the Synodal understanding of piety into the arms of ritual correctness, placing this in opposition to official conventionality. Ritual correctness has something in common with ecclesiastical aesthetics and asceticism, but in its essence it is something different. It is simply that the stress is not placed there.

What is the moral temper of the strict ritualist? What is his spiritual make-up? His greatest desire is for absolute spiritual order, the complete subordination of the inner life to an external rhythm which has been elaborately worked out in the minutest detail. This external rhythm encompasses everything within itself. Outside the Church he knows the spiritual significance of every detail of life. He keeps the fast. He lives day in and day out following the Church’s cycle of services. He lights vigil lamps at prescribed times. He makes the sign of the Cross correctly. In Church he likewise stifles any impulse, permits no deviation from the established gestures. He kneels at the proper moment during services, he bows and crosses himself at the proper time. He knows for certain that it is a crime to kneel from Pascha to Pentecost, he knows how many times he will go to Confession during the year and, above all, he has mastered the Order of Services to the minutest detail. He is angry and indignant if anything is omitted during Church services, because that is not to be done. Yet at the same time he is completely indifferent when what is being read is incomprehensible or when it is being read too rapidly. This is not the person who prefers memorial services, services of intercession and akathists over others. No, his most loved services are the rarest ones, above all those of Great Lent. He especially delights in the complexity of services when a fixed feast coincides with a movable one; for example, when the Annunciation falls during the last days of Holy Week.

For him the form and structure of the service frequently overshadows the inner content of individual prayers. He most certainly is a fanatical champion of Church Slavonic. For him the use of Russian in Church is almost blasphemy. He loves Slavonic because he is used to it, and does not want to change even the obviously unsatisfactory, ungrammatical and inaccurate translations from the Greek. The lengthy readings by the psalomshchik immerse him in a particular atmosphere of piety, giving a specific rhythm to his spiritual life. This is what is important, what he really wants. The content does not really interest him. His prayers are lengthy, and he has an established and unchanging ‘rule’ for them. This rule frequently requires the repetition of the same prayers, and always in the same place.

The Gospel and the Lord’s Prayer are not singled out within the general structure of his rule: they are merely a part of a harmonious whole established once and for all.

If you tell him that you don’t understand something, either in essence or because the psalomshchik is reading too rapidly, he will answer that it isn’t necessary to understand, it is only necessary to achieve a particular atmosphere of piety during which occasional words come through clearly which are understandable and necessary for you.

Such a person’s spiritual life is worked out in the smallest detail. He knows the special technique for bringing oneself to a particular spiritual state. He is able to teach you how to breathe, in what position to maintain your body during prayer, and whether the legs should be near a warm or near a cool place.

If one analyzes this special phenomenon, it becomes clear that basically it does not depend on Eastern Christianity, for one senses here the distinctive forms of Dervishism and echoes of Hinduism and, more significantly, a passionate belief in the magic of the word and of combinations of words, of gestures and sequences of gestures. There is no doubt but that this belief in magic has beneath it very real roots. Much can be achieved with this method: a very great degree of self-discipline, a large measure of control over oneself and over all the chaos of the human soul, even control over others, a complete structuring of one’s inner and outer life — even a certain kind of inspiration under the law.

But one thing which this way of life does not achieve is, of course, love. One can “speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love” (1 Cor. 13:1). To be sure, acts of love and benevolence enter into the rhythm of the strict ritualist’s life. The strict ritualist knows that he must help the poor, especially during Great Lent. In his time he has sent kalachi [wheatmeal loaves] to those confined in prison. He might even organize a benefit, build almshouses and put on dinners for his poorer brethren. But the basic motive for such activity is that it is prescribed, that it enters into the general rhythm of his life, that it has become part of his ritualist concept of things. In this sense he has a greatly developed feeling of obligation and obedience. Thus his relationship to others is determined by a self-imposed obligation and not on a spontaneous feeling of love toward them.

At the present time this type of piety has rather a tendency to grow and spread. This expansion can easily be explained if we take into account all the misfortune, abandonment, neglect and exhaustion of the contemporary human soul. This soul is not looking for a challenge: it is afraid any challenge will be a burden beyond its strength; it can no longer either seek for anything or accept the possibility of being disenchanted. The austere and rarefied air of sacrificial love is beyond its strength. If life has passed it by and given it no external well-being, no external stability, then it turns with special zeal toward internal well-being, toward the utter determinacy and legitimacy of its inner world. It throws over the chaos a solid cover of what is prescribed, what is permitted, and the chaos ceases to torment it. It knows the effectiveness of magical incantations, often expressed in incomprehensible syllables. Like the dervish, it knows the power of a gesture or a pose. It feels protected and tranquil. All these particularities of the strict ritualist path determine its growth in our times. In all likelihood a long period of development awaits it.

It must be noted here that from another point of view also our era may expect to see the further development of strict ritualism. We can see today an almost universal thirst for definite, concrete directives of some kind: how to believe, what to fight for, how to behave oneself, how to speak, how to think. We see that the world has a thirst for authoritative leaders who can lead a blind and loyal mass behind them.

We know of the existence of the most frightful dictatorship that ever existed, a tyranny over ideas. The infallible center — the Party, for example, or the Leader, the F├╝hrer — wills that we think and act in one way, and the individual, who believes in the infallibility of the directive, easily, with astounding and incomprehensible ease, restructures his inner world to correspond with this directive. We know of the presence of State-imposed philosophies and world-views. If we grant that somewhere the Church might become, if not supportive then at least tolerant of this, it will then be inundated with new cadres of people who have been brought up on mandatory directives, and strict ritualism will immediately teach them which path they must follow, where there is less doubt, where the directives are more precise and better regulate one’s whole life, where finally, the entire chaos of the human soul is tamed and driven into the allotted cages. Here the success of ritualism is absolutely foreordained.

But at the same time it is impossible to speak of its creative possibilities. Its very principle, a constant repetition of rules, words and gestures, excludes any possibility of creative tension. From ancient times strict ritualism has been opposed to prophesy and creativity. Its task was to preserve and to repeat, and not to tear down and rebuild. If it does, in fact, come out on top, then this will mean the extinction of the creative spirit and freedom in the Church for many decades.

The main question, however, which should be addressed to strict ritualism is this: how does it respond to Christ’s commandments concerning love for God and love for other people. Does it have a place for them? Where within it is the person to whom Christ came down? If it can be granted that very often there is expressed in it its own kind of love for God, it is difficult to see in what way it expresses itself in love for people.

Christ, who turned away from scribes and Pharisees, Christ, who approached prostitutes, publicans and sinners, can hardly be the Teacher of those who are afraid to soil their pristine garments, who are completely devoted to the letter, who live only by the rules, and who govern their whole life according to the rules. Such people consider themselves in good spiritual health because they observe everything that is prescribed by spiritual hygiene. But Christ told us, it is not the healthy who are in need of a physician, but the sick. In fact, we have today two citadels of such an Orthodoxy — traditional, canon-based, patristic and paternal Orthodoxy: Athos and Valaam. A world of people far removed from our bustle and our sins, a world of faithful servants of Christ, a world of knowledge of God and contemplation.

And what do you suppose most upsets this world of sanctity? How does it regard the present calamities which are tearing us apart, the new teachings, heresies perhaps, the destitution, the destruction and the persecution of the Church, the martyrs in Russia, the trampling down of belief throughout the whole world, the lack of love? Is this what most alarms these islands of the elect, these pinnacles of the Orthodox spirit? Not at all. What strikes them as the most important, the most vital, the most burning issue of the day, is the question of the use of the Old or New Style Calendar in divine services. It is this that splits them into factions, this that leads them to condemn those who think other than they do, this that defines their measure of things.

It is difficult to speak about love against this background, since love somehow falls outside both the New and the Old Style. We can, of course, state that the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath, and that he violated that Sabbath precisely in the name of love. But where they do not violate it, where they cannot violate it, this is because there is no “in the name” nor is there love. Strict ritualism reveals itself here to be a slave of the Sabbath and not the way of the Son of Man. And truly there is something threatening and ominous here, precisely because in Athos and Valaam, the ancient centers of traditional Orthodox spirituality, a person can find an answer to only one question out of all those which are raised by life: whether the Church must live according to the Old Style or the New. Instead of the Living God, instead of Christ crucified and risen, do we not have to do here with a new idol, a new form of paganism, which is manifested in arguments over calendars, rubrics, rules and prohibitions — a Sabbath which triumphs over the Son of Man? Idolatry in the world is frightening when it betrays Christ in the name of the State, the nation, a social idea, or petty bourgeois comfort and well-being. Still more frightening, however, is idolatry within the Church, when it replaces Christ’s love with the preservation of the Sabbath.

Taken From: http://incommunion.org/articles/st-maria-skobtsova/types-of-religious-lives-2-ritualism

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this observation concerning ritualim and the emphasis on externals.
    So very popular as an expression of Orthodoxy in America.

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