Miscellanea: Keeping to the Form
In the previous quote from Plutarch’s “Life of Aemilius Paulus”, we reflected a bit on the transitory nature of everything “under the Sun” and on the delusion behind the notion of progress. We offer one more excerpt from the same life, this time on a different topic.
Namely, Aemilius Paulus held at one time the office Aedile of Rome and, as part of this office, was also one of the augurs, that is he was responsible with the divinatory art which sought to determine the omens of future events or tasks that had to be undertaken from the flight of birds. Preliminary rituals had to be undertaken before the actual divination (observation and interpretation) took place. Plutarch relates at this point that Aemilius was more conscientious than his colleagues when it comes to correctly performing these preliminary rituals and that he saw to it that not a single detail of the prescribed ritual was left out. He motivated this great care as follows:
“[…] even though one can believe that the divinity is lenient and does not mind the neglecting of some minutiae it is, however, dangerous for the city when such things are overlooked, because no one attacks the state from the beginning with a glaring breaking of the law; but those who overlook small details [will come] to also neglect the observance of things which are of great significance”.
Let us pause a little and think about the motivation given by this Roman official who was also a pagan priest. So he does not think that the gods are somehow influenced by the fact that one forgets one or two details in the ritual- but that this is dangerous for the human side of this affair and that those who are easy-going regarding some details of lesser importance will, with time, manifest this superficial attitude regarding things of greater importance.
At this point I cannot but think of the saying in the Gospel that says: “He who is unfaithful in little things will be unfaithful in larger ones and he who is unjust in little things is also unjust in larger ones”. (Luke 16:10)
Transposing this topic from ancient paganism to contemporary Church life, we see that there are a lot of advocates who call (I’m talking here from an Eastern Orthodox perspective) for the modernizing of the Church, the giving up of all those “long and boring” services, the shortening of the Divine Liturgy and so on. These modernists can either be those who only set their foot in a church when there’s a wedding or a funeral, otherwise they don’t even walk near one and embody the type of theologian who cites this or that historical evidence to prove that in such and such a century things were done differently, so we can safely simplify the liturgical life- thus proving that for all their erudition they still have trouble distinguishing Orthodoxy from Protestantism, with latter’s pursuit of a “pure, historical Christianity”.
Now, for someone born in modernity, this question may be regarded as valid- namely: who needs ritual?
The answer is: we do.
By ritual, we do not mean, of course, magical ritual – a sort of occult technology through which we attempt to determine the spiritual realm and even God to act in such and such a way through “sympathetic means”. By ritual we simply mean an action which is according to the nature of things – according, that is, to the way they are created and their purpose.
Ritual must not be conflated with the ceremony, which is an outer garment of the ritual; indeed, something as simple as turning towards East or crossing oneself is a ritual.
Now all the above is very difficult to explain in words and may involve losing oneself in needless technical language, so an illustration is better. As I already described to some extent elsewhere, liturgical life is intertwined with the natural cycles – with the moments of the day and the moments of the year, with the seasons and the movement of celestial bodies. The church building, as well as the liturgy and the paraphernalia used therein are filled with geometrical symbolism, the movements during the services are performed in a circular manner and in a prescribed direction and, in general, everything is done according to a meticulously prescribed tradition which has been unchanged for centuries.
In the age when essence and meaning are replaced by originality and spontaneity, this all seems like dead ritual, devoid of any “living faith”- a dead letter which kills the living “spirit”. So we go back to the original question. Who needs ritual? The answer, once again, is: we do. Of course, God does not need it, He cannot in any way be compelled by it, nor does He have a checklist which He keeps an eye on to determine if every small minutiae has been observed.
But we are finite, created beings who live in the finite, created cosmos. We and the cosmos, as well as every living being in it, are created in a certain way, according to the proper order. The energy (meaning the ability to act outside of itself) of every created being springs from its very essence which is one and the same thing as its finality, its purpose. From this purpose (or finality) springs a specific action – meaning a certain modality of acting, and a passion – in this case meaning a certain way it can receive an action performed by another being, passion here not bearing any of its usual negative connotations (in this sense passion would be active potency, i.e. adequacy of certain being to be acted upon in a certain way. For example, if man wouldn’t be able to understand intelligible reality of things, that is understand them, he would be bereft of specific possibility we call intellectuality which can be called passive towards that which is higher from it, i.e. it is able to be acted upon by higher intelligence, such as angelic, KT).
So, if you (like all of us) ever wondered at certain times, why does God not speak to you in a clear manner about what you need to do in a given situation, the answer (I’m sure you found it out by yourself already) is that the proper organs that would receive such a clear answer are either underdeveloped or completely submerged by the noise of the passions. So how does the Father speak to the kid who, on purpose, puts his headphones on and turns the volume at maximum – and in the process may have even become deaf as of late?
The only thing He can do is direct one through the shadows in one’s environment – the giving of hints through external circumstances.
What does this have to do with rituals and written prayers? Well, all these Church services, written prayers and rituals, in general, serve precisely to re-introduce us into the sacred rhythms of the creation, to teach us the language of prayer and, finally, the language of inner stillness which is the gateway towards true prayer.
Indeed, true prayer is something which transcends not only words, but all mental images and concepts. Yet, even though mere external images and auxiliary means, those enumerated above are designed to prepare us, to mold our souls in such a way and shape as to become suitable instruments for the music of the Holy Spirit. They are like seals that imprint on us the patterns and cycles of the cosmos, taking us out of the dark and mechanical chaos which our lives have become and introducing us back into the organic life of creation – as it is In the beginning. We can say that symbolism is the language of the transcendent, the way you communicate with transcendent realities. Besides this, they are an excellent teacher of theology and Scriptures, because they contextualize and somewhat oblige one to participate actively, with one’s whole being, in the Tradition and not merely remain at the mental level by simply studying it outside of any context or sequence.
This can yield us but one conclusion: we, modern people, need the liturgical life not less, but more than our ancestors. We hear today, from the academical “theologian” type, arguments such as: in this day and age of accelerated speed, it is preposterous to ask people to attend a service which lasts 2-3 hours. As if our goal is to conform to the spirit of the age which is mindless agitation and senseless haste, and not to the Holy Spirit, which is stillness and patience – acting according to His own “schedule”.
So especially in our contemporary context of extreme alienation from ourselves and from all natural cycles, where each day is the same as any other, where night, day, seasons etc have ceased having any palpable meaning in our lives, especially in such a context is the structure of the liturgical life most desperately needed.
Now it is very true that the outward is not what ultimately matters, but the inward workings of the heart. Yet, when the outer structure is removed, the inner life will disappear without anyone noticing. The kernel needs the outer shell before it can germinate and develop into the tree. It is also very true that an excessive ritualism will develop into a dead and legalistic phariseism. However, it is one thing to observe a service or a ritual out of a self-righteous attitude and quite another to do so out of genuine obedience and love and reverence for the Tradition and the venerable Elders and Saints who developed it.
Of course, the liturgical life endured many modifications throughout the centuries, being changed according to the needs of time and place. But those who effected this interventions were not some outsiders or new comers who bragged about devouring whole truckloads of books, but holy people who lived and breathed the Tradition and so could see most clearly where adjustments needed to take place, where something was lacking or no longer relevant. So before coming in with all sorts of modernistic suggestions, you should take the time first of all to live that which has been handed down to you and only after you understood it inwardly are you in a position to say what needs to be modified and where. But then you may find out that the initial problem was with you, not with the Tradition that came down to you.
So, let’s conclude.
Aemilius thought that not following the prescribed rituals may not influence the divine at all, but it will certainly have dangerous effects on the city and the people living in it – a city which, as we saw in the previous article – he rightly regarded as also a transitory being destined to collapse one day.
From our perspective, it is the inner city of the soul which is most endangered by such an attitude – the soul having infinitely greater significance than any earthly city or empire. Being unfaithful in little things hides a superficiality that cannot but extend to that which is essential. It also suggests a presumption of knowledge on behalf of the one doing it – the presumption that he “knows” what is essential. Besides, if you cannot do less, how do you expect to do much? If you cannot follow a simple prayer rule or you regard it as boring, I don’t really think that mystical prayer and higher states of being will descend upon you any time soon.
As for “originality and spontaneity”, plus “personal relationships with Jesus”, the way we see it in the revival, born-again movements of the Neo-Protestant world (which they oppose to “dead religion” and “dogma”), this is simply a refusal to get out of one’s own imagination and sentimentality. The fact that you have intense feelings does not take you out of your own subjectivity. True spontaneity and grace is something usually attained at the higher end of the spectrum, which is beyond the externals and proceeds from inside-out.
Spontaneity in the modern sense, which is something entirely external, without any root in the core of one’s being, is simply an imitation which takes place not beyond, but before or beneath the external arrangements.
Kali Tribune runs on reader’s support. If you found the above informative and/or enlightening, consider supporting us.