Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A golden bell and a pomegranate: Beauty and apologetics

A wonderful column by Orthodox theologian Frederica Mattewes-Green.

"What does it take to be a missionary? You need to know your stuff, and you need to have a tender heart toward the people you are trying to reach. But there is one more thing that Orthodox Christianity would contribute to the ministry of evangelism: beauty." It's a great article, starting with the story of how St. Vladimir of Kiev (a violent and brutal man, with a harem of concubines and numerous wives) embraced the Orthodox faith, after hearing reports of the beauty of the Hagia Sophia (Aside: Didn't the Emperor Basil II also try to recruit his aid against the Muslims, and despite his womanizing ways, offer his sister to him in marriage?), and going on to the captivating beauty of Eastern liturgy.
People who visit an Orthodox service are immediately struck by the visual beauty, but that's not the only sense affected. The whole service is sung and chanted, so the words of our prayers are framed with music. Incense rises from golden pots of incense. We taste the Eucharistic bread and wine, venerate icons, touch the hem of the priest's vestment, and greet each other with a holy kiss. This is a very rich sensory experience, touching every one of the five senses. It's very similar to what Prince Vladimir's envoys saw at Hagia Sophia, because we are members of that very same world-wide, timeless church.
I couldn't agree more about the power of the Eastern liturgy. As I never tire of repeating, we in the West could learn much.

Yet, I also suspect that even a beautiful service such as this can become "just ritual," or something that the priests and clergy do, while the people sit through idly, or worse, something that the priests and clergy do vicariously for the people, so that they don't have to their own call to holiness seriously. This is hardly true of Eastern Christianity, but I hear about such attitudes often, especially in the "home countries." At the Melkite parish I attended last year, a visiting priest once said, "the people here sing the liturgy so beautifully! Sometimes in the home countries, we don't find that!"

Ms. Mathewes Green herself has written about the challenges of having a missionary spirit among the Orthodox. And, the good folks at the Siena Blog have also talked about the challenges that some Orthodox priests have reported in this area: see here and here.

These are issues that are hardly unique to the Orthodox, of course. And I'm certainly not knocking the important point about beauty that Dr. Mathewes-Green is making about the evangelical power of beauty.

Necessary, but not sufficient, might be another way of putting it perhaps?


Fr. Gregory Jensen said...

I agree with you--beauty is necessary, essential even, but not sufficient. And I say this as an Orthodox priest and missionary.

So thank you for your post.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

p.s., Frederica is not a Dr.

Gashwin said...

Fr. Gregory, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. You're quite welcome ... and I think we in the West could learn a thing or two about beauty in the liturgy from y'all! :)

Sherry W said...


Did you get my e-mail about teaching? Drop me a line.