Perhaps it was naïve of me, but one of the things that has surprised me about this blog is that it seems to have landed me in generally eastern or Orthodox Christian circles, if I am to judge by the people who link to it. In fact I was quite taken aback, and regarded it as rather a joke, when it got nominated for the Eastern Christian blog awards earlier in the year. When I mentioned this to my abbess a while back she responded by saying: “Well you are reading Zizioulas and Louth, that probably accounts for it.” That’s true of course, but, as I pointed out, Father Louth was still an Anglican when he wrote Discerning the Mystery, and, well, Zizioulas is hardly unknown in western theological circles (although I do sometimes wonder how seriously his arguments are really taken). Perhaps a more fundamental reason for the convergence is that as a monastic following the Rule of Saint Benedict, I find my roots and the sources that I am most interested in interacting with in the era in which East and West still shared a common tradition. (I’ll bracket the question of where the Cistercians fit into this for now).
But the question of how western Christians interact with eastern Christianity is one that it is worth reflecting on and which has been going through my mind for some years now. There is, at least in some parts of the world, a considerable interest in both “Eastern Christianity” and “Orthodoxy” (the two often being used interchangeably although such an identification is indeed problematic) in a way that is quite superficial and reduces it to being simply one more product in the religious marketplace which we can appropriate selectively and synchretistically, hence the popularity of icons, Byzantine chant and other “eastern” paraphernalia.
While it is understandable that western Christians, traumatised by the sorry state of much western liturgy and Church life, should look to the East for resources, there are clearly dangers involved in this that can lead to rather contradictory situations. For example, a friend of mine once lived in an Eastern Catholic community (made up entirely of westerners) and he commented that when they celebrated the Byzantine liturgy they did so with great reverence and care, but that when they – occasionally – celebrated a Latin-rite Mass they did so in a slap-dash manner with crumbs all over the table, which made him think that their Byzantine celebrations were more play-acting than anything else. If the Eucharistic sacrifice should be treated with the utmost reverence in an “eastern” liturgy, then surely the same should apply in a “western” liturgy. Another, slightly different example, is that of certain new monastic communities which have incorporated large parts of the Byzantine liturgy and Slavonic chant into their liturgical life, but whose prayer life remains centred around adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. They seem to have incorporated the trappings of the East without probing the underlying liturgical theology involved.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that western Christians shouldn’t learn from the East, and I have certainly had more than my fair share of doing so. But negotiating this process is not always easy and we should avoid appropriating aspects of a tradition in such a way that they lose their voice as part of a broader theological and liturgical tradition, isolating the part from the whole and from the underlying meaning that it conveys. Moreover, it does not make much sense wanting to appropriate eastern traditions into western Church life if we have rejected or neglected the core beliefs, rites and symbols that both East and West share. Thus instead of being too quick to introduce icons into western liturgy, it might more appropriate to first revisit how we relate to the fundamental liturgical symbolism that is common to both East and West.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that learning from the East should go deeper than simply the trappings, to the deeper levels of life that are embodied in the tradition. And, even more fundamentally, this should not be about “East” or “West” (or anywhere else) but about seeking to encounter the Christian tradition that is common to both, about seeking to understand how we have departed from this tradition, and allowing ourselves – more fundamentally yet – to be evangelised by it.