Bishop Dr. Jovan Purić: Saint John Chrysostom - Liturgical Ethos and Modernity
Modernity confronts us with many dilemmas. Man must answer challenges, and not only those for which his teachers in his educational-upbringing process prepared him, but also totally new and different problems that life places before us. And it has always been so. Still, sociologists, pedagogues and culturologists generally agree that today’s world is changing at a significantly faster pace than before. The technological progress and social innovations of the 20th century have transformed the world much faster than, for instance, the entire process of technological development during medieval times. This tempo of development has continued to this day.
This process is characterized by a loss of values. Today’s world functions as a marketplace, meaning that the market economy principle is seeking to impose itself as the general norm. Everything is subject to the laws of supply and demand – or at least that is the standpoint that is being imposed upon us by the global economic elite. Nevertheless, even inside that world there is a hunger for truth, for something that will not bow to the said marketplace logic. Modern man needs something he cannot buy.
What is that? It is life in truth. And where is it possible to find life in truth? Only in the place where truth resides – in Christ’s Church, in its dogmas and its worldview that is, before all – liturgical. Truly, as a cosmic event, the liturgy cannot “fail” to witness to the world its true designation in communion with God. It is, thus, no wonder that the Church’s most eminent liturgists have always been those that concern themselves with the problem of the relationship between the contemporary and the supertemporal, the cultural milieu and eternal truths. In line with these considerations, we shall strive to show how, through their pastoral sensibility, two glorious Church theologians and liturgists, St. John Chrysostom and Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, grasped the problem of the relationship between the Church and the world, between transformed and untransformed creation. It should be immediately pointed out that there is a strong congruence between the historical and cultural circumstances of later antique and modern civilization, and this congruence may most readily seen in the task of building a Christian identity in an environment that challenges it. However, we shall not concern ourselves here with historical details as such but shall, rather, attempt to posit the Church Liturgy (which rightly bears the name of St. Chrysostom) as the answer to the problems of modernity.
Liturgy, personality and some problems of modernity
The person is the central axiological notion of Christianity, as well as the most important problem of contemporary pedagogy. To be more exact: the person is the measure of all values because it expresses the very designation of the human being, its possibility and its goal to be in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26). To be sure, the concept of the person is not only a Christian category: more precisely, it is possible to also find it in other philosophical and theological conceptions. Nevertheless, only Christianity has produced an integral ontology of personality and established a corresponding personal pedagogy on its basis. It would be wrong to see this personal pedagogy as a theoretical principle; it should be, rather, seen as the living experience of the Church, founded before all in Christ’s Theandric personality. If we bear in mind that the mystery of Christ’s person, as a Church mystery, is realized in the Holy Mysteries (before all in the Holy Eucharist – as St. Nicholas Cabasilas puts it), then it becomes clear to us that the Holy Eucharist is, in fact, of essential significance to personal upbringing – in all temporal frameworks and culturological environments, since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever (Heb 13:8). In that way – through a Christological steadfastness of being and faith - as partakers in the new salvational existence of Redemption and Integration we can meet the challenges of modernity.
Before all, Chrysostom lived his soteriological ontology but, in no lesser degree, witnessed it in his divinely inspired writings. Today, the basics of the ontology of personality in contemporary Orthodox theology are identified with the work and deeds of the Cappadocian Fathers (primarily the great ones, although the significance of St. Peter of Cappadocia and St. Amphilochius of Iconium as collaborators of St. Basil and the two Gregories is undoubted). This should be understood in the sense that it was the Cappadocians who theoretically most clearly explained, terminologically specified and theologically integrated the concept of personality that had already been present in the reality of ecclesial life through the ETHOS OF PERSONALITY even before them. Only if we bear this in mind may we clearly understand Chrysostom’s concept of personality. Namely, we can make a distinction between two planes that are mutually oriented: the first LEVEL OF TERMINOLOGICAL USE of the terms “hypostasis” and “personality” for the purpose of clarifying then current, primarily Triadological and Christological dilemmas in accordance with the theological attainments of the Cappadocian Fathers. This plane is primarily expressed in Chrysostom’s theological writings, before all in his SERMONS ON THE CONSUBSTANTIALITY AND INEFFABILITY OF GOD, which does not mean that Chrysostom’s exegetical works are not inwrought with the Cappadocian theory of personality. Still, we are interested in another level, the LEVEL OF THE LITURGICAL ETHOS OF PERSONALITY that can also be found in practical-pastoral works of the Great Saint, in which he touched upon everyday topics and challenges of the time. This level is not of a speculative but, rather, of a pastoral character, that is, it is possible to reconstruct and interpret the understanding of personality at this level on the basis of Chrysostom’s pastoral sermons in which his sanctified-in-Grace pedagogical experience is expressed, before all through the text of Chrysostom’s Holy Liturgy and Chrysostom’s interpretations of divine service practice and Church texts.
In order to be able to say how this other level (the liturgical ethos level) meets the challenges of modernity, we are obliged to identify certain problems that modern man is facing in his striving to realize himself as a person, in the fullness of his being.
One of the most basic and most difficult challenges of modernity is the culture of egotism. In the domain of our home upbringing, we can all testify to the fact that up to 30 or 40 years ago the culture of patriarchal consideration prevailed, in which man as an individual, but also as a person, was encouraged not to advertise his qualities but, rather, to seek certain social confirmation, firstly within the confines of a smaller, basic social environment – the family, and then on a more general plane. Today, on the contrary, man is expected to advertise all his real or unreal qualities and to engage in the “marketing of his abilities.” There are a number of reasons for this change, which was the most evident during the 1950s and 1960s (the “sexual revolution,” “secularization,” and the ATHEIZATION OF EUROPEAN society). Among the basic causes for this is the already quite rich history of Western individualism and rationalism. The legacy of psychoanalysis is also not uninfluential, having opened up new perspectives for understanding human social life but, at the same time, strongly affirming the human ego and self, that is, man’s sense of self-sufficiency and individuality. All this is being manifested today through the said culture of egotism, which compels the individual to offer his intellectual and physical potentials in order to survive on the “employment marketplace” and the “social ladder,” regardless of the degree to which he is prepared to do so. The other side of egotism, as andragogic-psychological – as well as pedagogic – practice teach us, is chronic depression as the “disease of modern society.” Man feels attacked by the society that is supposedly affirming him and powerless to meet the constant challenges of the increasingly harsh and rigorous setting of conditions that he is supposed to fulfill. This leads him to a spiritual dead end, filled with a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness, as the social pace does not leave him enough space for living. Of course, it should not be forgotten that the efficiency of this “culture of egotism” is great precisely because man himself is prone to the sin of pride, i.e., prone to ascribe to himself powers and abilities that he does not possess. This susceptibility of egotism in the field of motivation, however, cannot free man from the disappointments that await him, caused by his powerlessness to establish and explain in real life the self-image he has formed, and which he has also offered to others.
How can man avoid this trap of egotism, in accordance with the God-bearing and life-bearing experience of the Holy Fathers, before all Father Saint John Chrysostom, to whom the Church’s central divine service is tied? Before all, we must point out that the social situation during Chrysostom’s time was in many ways similar to that of the present, except that the PAGAN HUMANISM of his time was somewhat more open to religious and other, not solely ephemeral questions than today’s atheistic humanism. Egotism was quite prominent in pagan culture. On the other hand, although the pagan of that time did not necessarily have to believe in a god or gods, even the lowest social religiousness was oriented toward a belief in the immortality of each individual’s soul. The pagan believed in his own immortality, even if he did not believe in gods. Of course, Christian theology did not take an a priori negative stance toward the entire Hellenic legacy, and one of the best representatives of this synthesis is Chrysostom himself. Still, it was not easy even for him to fit the anthropocentric mentality of classical humanism into Christian Theandric realism, in which both God and man are important and, by which, accordingly, both Plato and Protagoras are wrong when they say that either only God or only man is the measure of all things. Truly: who other than the inspired-by-the-Holy Spirit Holy Fathers could perform such a thing?
Egotism encourages us to view the world as an opportunity for acquisition and enjoyment: at every liturgy Chrysostom reminds us to “commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.” The man who is a captive of egotism is not able to build the right relationship either with God or with other people: “when there is a feeling of higher worth, it does not only damage relations between people, it also clouds the relationship with God… egotism undermines all life, which is why it is worth applying oneself towards its eradication.” That is why the entire Liturgy is one great reminder to firstly overcome our own “I” in order be achieve communion in the life of the New Creation, in the future Kingdom. The mystery of offering one’s own “I” in the Holy Eucharist is not a consequence of some sudden and strange altruism, but of the Christian ontology of personality, according to which a person receives an identity only in communion with other persons. St. Chrysostom splendidly explains this theory of personal relationship as the basis of the event of the Church through the relationship of personal and liturgical prayer: “You may, of course, pray in your own home, but you cannot pray in your own home the way you can in the temple, where there is such a multitude of fathers, where prayer to God is offered with one accord. When you pray to God by yourself, your prayer is not answered in the same way as it is when you pray with your brothers. FOR HERE IN THE CHURCH THERE IS SOMETHING ELSE ABOVE ALL: THE CONCORDANCE AND HARMONY OF THE FAITHFUL, A FIRM TIE OF LOVE AND THE PRIESTS’ PRAYERS.” Thus, even this principle of church life (“I” in relation to “thou” makes our ecclesial “we”) is not a simple theory of identity; rather, it appears in the ethos of Chrysostom’s Liturgy as a reminder that “commending oneself to Christ” is in fact only an offering for God-Man’s act of redemption. “We do not come to Church FOR OUR OWN SAKE and not to seek our own in it, but for the sake of serving Christ’s work in the world. For there is no other path for one’s own salvation than to commend one’s life to Christ, WHO CAME TO LOVE US AND WASHED OFF OUR SINS WITH HIS BLOOD, MAKING US KINGS AND PRIESTS OF HIS GOD AND FATHER.” Therefore, the liturgical ethos of personality represents a walk along the path of Death on the Cross and burial, in order to arrive to resurrection. The presence of the faithful is, thus, their inclusion in the mystery of Christ’s death. That is why the Liturgy is the true Table of the Last Supper, as a vestibule of the Kingdom of God. The Eucharist is a double reminder of our existence: a reminder of the Cross and the Resurrection, suffering and celebration, the necessity to leave our “ego” in order to make our being whole. The Liturgy is a HISTORICAL EVENT (Chrysostom quite often compared it to the Jews’ Crossing of the Red Sea), but of an ESCHATOLOGICAL character. That is precisely what makes it wholly different from the dynamics of social egotism. Namely, while modernity stimulates us to live in constant frustration between the goals that are constantly placed before us as unattainable, setting newer and newer criteria in the mastering of “skills and abilities,” the Eucharist as a FORETASTE represents participation, an anticipation of the Kingdom, with only one precondition: pure love and self-sacrifice for others. Modern man will never be able to meet all the demands that society places before him, or achieve and enjoy all the blessings it makes available to him. He is always torn between the work ethic, a multitude of information and constant offers to make his life easier and more pleasant and, thus, easily loses his identity. Although stimulated to create the illusion that he is master of his own life, he becomes a servant of his desire for comfort and information technologies (which can distort the natural desire for communication in the sense of creating a feeling of a non-existent, virtual reality). All that, however, is unfamiliar to the Liturgy, its immediacy and call to “set aside all the cares of life.” For, “if you turn all your cares toward the Kingdom of God, says the Lord, I will not deny you that which satisfies the needs of visible nature and everything will be given to you with the rest, for I will never leave you to fend for yourselves.” Thus, in order for man to meet the problems presented to him by modernity, he firstly has to discover this perspective of the Kingdom of God, which is attainable only in the Liturgy by the Holy Spirit. That is why the Eucharist is not a mere “religious custom” or a ritual act, but a “congregation of the Kingdom.” Its “purpose” is not merely to fill the “spiritual desert” that modern man feels around himself – although the Eucharist indeed gives fullness to our existence. On the contrary, the Eucharist does not serve so that we might “feel better” on the spiritual plane: rather, it represents the very possibility of transforming our entire being and elevating it into eschatological existence. The Liturgy is the “destination to which we aspire,” it is a “liberation of the spiritual paralysis brought unto us by life’s cares,” however not on the psychological but, rather, on the ontological plane, for the Eucharist is the “Eighth eveningless day.” Modern man has become accustomed to such temporary solutions, to psychiatric cures that are, nevertheless, unable to save his being from the root of all problems, which is always on the plane of existence. That is why modern day man has acquired the habit of thinking even about the Liturgy as an “instant solution,” of viewing it as momentary relief, a reflection of his “intimate religious needs,” which is why he sees it in totally wrong cult-related and psychological categories.
The Liturgy’s therapeutic character, thus, is not of a psychological but of an ontological character and, as St. Chrysostom emphasizes, in order for a man to be able to set off on the path of salvation in the first place, he must take the path of purification. It is here that the patristic experience of graceful pedagogy once again encounters the challenge of modernity. Namely, modern man’s upbringing does not teach him to distinguish between passion and virtue, as both of these categories have been categorized under “psychological motives” or “affects”. Of course, patristic psychology was well familiar with the fact that the same human urges can be, depending on whether they are appropriately used or abused, either good or bad – but that does not mean that one should not battle against the negative aspects of psychological motives, as modern popular psychology often suggests. On the contrary, PURIFICATION FROM PASSIONS is implicit in Chrysostom’s liturgical ethos. “Do not allow any of the slavish and viperous passions,” says Chrysostom, “to appear together with you at the place of Holy Elevation… let nothing stand in your way at that hour.” The path of liturgy is the path of liberation, and man is not truly free until he frees himself from passion, i.e., until he acquires the fruits of virtue.
More precisely: purification is not a matter of therapeutic treatment of negative affects, but an integrated process of ATTAINING VIRTUE, which the glorious Shepherd of Antioch and Constantinople often addresses: “The one that seeks to hasten on the path of virtue and to ascend from the earth to heaven, leaves aside all that is visible and strives with all his powers to overcome everything that stands in that path, does not stop and nothing deflects his attention, until he is on a clear path to Heaven’s very pinnacle.” To be sure, the concept of “virtue” itself is today subject to the relativism of social norms and no longer stands at the center of modern man’s interest, for which partial blame can be laid at the door of the moralistic consciousness, which equalized virtue with the attainment of norms and not the achievement of our final designation – the Kingdom of God. Here, thus, we must reemphasize that only the LITURGICAL VIEW of virtue represents an answer to modern man’s lack of a clear ethical basis of support.
We would like to point out two additional important aspects of man’s graceful realization of liturgical consciousness: the integration of man’s being and the finding of spiritual peace. Namely, although traditional dichotomous (and trichotomous) anthropology has long since ceased to be current, modern popular views pose no less a challenge to the wholeness of man’s being. Today\s man is mainly faced with two cults: the CULT OF THE BODY and the CULT OF INTELLECTUAL-PSYCHOLOGICAL ENTERTAINMENT, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive but which are dominant through their imposed prototypes. The dichotomy of these two dominant social models, which represents a true challenge for modern pedagogy, is based on a shallow insistence and one-sided unification of only a single aspect of the diune human being. Once again, it is the liturgical ethos that offers the possibility of overcoming this division, i.e., the Holy Liturgy as a “mystery of union” also restores the wholeness of the human being. First of all, the liturgy is an event in which the entire man participates, with his soul and body, with everything that he is, should be and can be. With all his senses, transformed, in every way, into the likeness of God-Man. “Think about the fact, my dear, that you are touching this with your hand and, hence, never raise it to strike anyone… Be conscious of the fact that you do not touch Christ solely with your hand but that you also draw nearer to him with your mouth and, hence, do keep your tongue pure, do not utter shameless and rude words, slander and curses… And when you once again recall that it is your heart that receives that terrible mystery, you will see that you must never cultivate within it conspiracies against your neighbor, but must keep your heart pure from all malevolence. That will allow you to keep secure both your eyes and ears… You have been invited to a wedding feast, my dear!” A man can truly be what he eats but, along the lines of Father A. Schmemann’s convincing use of Feuerbach’s ironic observation, that does not mean that man is condemned to be a banal slave of his own natural urges. A man is both what he hears and what he sees, which does not mean that he is inevitably a slave to what is presented to him. For man always has that one possibility of integrating his being, by participating in the joy of the Kingdom and freeing himself from death, the greatest enemy of the wholeness and existence of our being. And that is the Holy Eucharist.
Let us conclude this brief review of what the liturgical ethos of the Orthodox Church, expressed through the mouth of the Golden-Mouthed theologian and pastor, can offer to man’s person by emphasizing that, before all, the liturgy offers peace and Christ’s peace. Through his very life’s path and spiritual experience, Chrysostom often had the opportunity to feel disturbed due to the malice of evil spirits and evil people. Still, his last words were, “Glory to God for all things!” This is not a matter of stoical humility, or of apathy before the inexorability of the kind of life that is quite often propagated today as the sole solution for the problems of life’s vortex, but of Chrysostom’s rootedness in the divine service of the Church, his realization that Christ and His Coming Kingdom are the only new things under the sun. Chrysostom knew that man’s disturbed state comes from his mind and is indeed “a sickness of our mind, for if we are to be disturbed by what is happening (i.e., if events rather than we ourselves were the cause of our disturbance), then all people should be disturbed, for we are all sailing on the same sea (of life).” Nevertheless, Chrysostom ceaselessly speaks of “serenity of mind and soul,” of course, “if we prepare our mind to bear all troubles easily.” Still, this is not a matter of simple psychological accommodation, such as that found in today’s psychiatric practice, nor of ignoring the real scope of human disorientation in this world. On the contrary, Chrysostom is aware of the fact that “we all have the sickness,” which is precisely why we should all approach the communion cup, for “if those that merely touched his clothing were cured, how cured shall become those that take all of Him inside?” Thus, the peace that we receive from Christ in the Holy Eucharist wholly corresponds to the cure that we receive from Him there, and is indeed an integral, ontological peace, peace as a new way of being. “For nothing brings peace to your soul like the knowledge of God and the attainment of virtue.” To be sure, this path of virtue seems terminologically and conceptually obsolete today, for we have grown accustomed to the path of immediate cures for our “complexes” and “difficulties.” However, only an all-encompassing immersion in the mystery of purification, integration and peace, which we have in the liturgical ethos, can represent a lasting answer to the problems of man as a godlike and God-desiring being, of a man as a person.