In this posting I’m going to leave the subject of music and talk about brakes. You know, those things that help us slow down and stop.
I’ve become convinced over the years that Orthodox liturgical worship is very healthy and contemporary. For about 30+ years an ecumenical movement has been alive in the western Christian world centered on an ecumenical monastic place called Taizé in France. I’ve not had the opportunity to visit but as a teen I listened to an album (yes, a record!) of some of their music A LOT. So did my sister. I still would. In fact, I’ve adapted a couple of their chants for our local parish use, to good effect.
A basic focus of the Taize community/experience, beyond ecumenism (By the way, this is ecumenism that developed in the wake of the last world war, so European healing was very much at the heart of it.), was a more contemplative style of worship and prayer that keyed off of traditional Christian phrases (Kyrie eleison; Jesus, remember me…; Alleluia; Maranatha; etc.) and the psalms. Candlelight, icons and gentle repetition figures prominently. Taizé services have spread throughout the protestant (mainline and even evangelical as well as Anglican) and Roman Catholic world.
I’ve not attended many, but I’m familiar with the music – much of which is good – and its ethos. And I’ve often wondered, since it clearly meets a need in the Western Christian world, if there was a way in which Orthodox worship could be performed with this more contemplative style in mind. (I often find that Orthodox leaders of worship – especially lay Readers and Cantors — aren’t very good at it, and often “perform” it in a rather hurried, get-to-the-end style.) I’ve become convinced that it’s not necessary. Rather, that we Orthodox need to perform — and that’s the correct word — our worship more mindfully and with more truthfulness to our own tradition and to the values that that tradition is trying to communicate.
I want to focus on one thing that lies outside the order of worship itself. It’s customary for churches to place icons out on stands (analogia) for the veneration of the Faithful as they enter and exit the church building. I’ve come to experience these as “brakes.” And I think that, just as important as what icons and their veneration proclaim concerning the Gospel (There is so much written on that!), they are an integral means to our preparation for worship and prayer and divine encounter.
These brakes, these strategically-placed icons slow us down. Unless we rudely barge into the church in goal-oriented fashion, we have to stop and greet the Lord, His Mother and the Saints depicted in them. If we do it properly, we make the sign of the Cross, bow and kiss the icon. Whether we bow once or thrice, we must stop to do it. Therein lays an invitation – an invitation to come out of the World into the place of prayer, into the Kingdom. To not do so is, first, simply to be rude – rude in that old sense of neglecting to kiss your Mother goodbye or not saying “Thank-you”.
But to not take time at the icon – and here I must opine that one mindful bow is much more healthful than three distracted ones! – is to put off the time of our recollection, re-centering, gathering together of our hurried, busy and distracted self.
“Martha, Martha, you are busy with very many things!”, said the Lord.
I often get impatient with my church singers because they arrive for a service or a rehearsal and, of course, take time to greet the icons. But then they are late! However, I’m grateful that they take time to do this, even if they are late. They will sing the service with more attentiveness.
And that’s always a good thing. Indeed, it’s necessary. Jeremiah 48:10