Beauty and the Liturgy (Talk by Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green)

Uploaded by mauricecyril on 06.10.2012

Let me tell you something about the public speaker biz. Often you find yourself invited
to give a speak and to give the speech as a keynote speaker at an event and where you're
the one person in the room who knows the least about the organization, the ministry, or whatever
it is that's being honored. So I there was back at my house in Baltimore trying to think
through what I would say here having never visited St John Mission before yesterday.
I was scouring the website to get a sense of what it's all about and I listened to a
recording of an interview that was done with Father Roberto and Deacon Pawel and one of
the things that Deacon said struck me as interesting. He was talking about the Lived Theology School
where people can come and work here and learn here and read books and basically study and
equip themselves over the course of a year...for this sort of a ministry, for this particularly
distinctive kind of ministry and he said one of the four elements of the lived theology
year is Liturgy.
And thatís surprising because you donít often think of ministry to street people,
ministry to the poor and worship. These donít necessarily go together so I began thinking
about, what is it about worship that might be distinctive and what kept coming to mind
was the concept of beauty.
That beauty has power, has mysterious power, that we donít quite understand, but it has
a sort of a healing power and it is attractive, that it draws people. And Iím standing here
with my back to this very beautiful Chapel, we have the narthex so to speak here, this
gathering room which itself breathtaking when I first came in, when I saw all the icons
on the wall and the great care which it has been decorated and then sort of progressed
further into the chapel itself and to see the icons and the beauty of that room. So
then I thought maybe Iíll talk about liturgy and beauty, and the role of beauty so itís
very a breath of life to look at the brochure tonight and read: ìwe look beyond what the
poor lack and instead look to the unique gifts and beauty of each personî
And I am listening tonight, Presbytera Maria said, talked about this beautiful oasis the
first time she visited St. John Mission, this beautiful oasis. And Dr. Mary said it was
a combination, a juxtaposition grinding unglamorous poverty where it met the glory of God. And
this, which used to be a boarding house is now a home and it is a beautiful place so
I see some resonance there with this concept of beauty. And for Orthodox Christians of
course we lavish beauty on our worship, beauty is a very significant and important part of
our worship.
So why, what is the point of beauty? Obviously in a sense itís an add on, itís not a necessary
thing, itís that extra mile you go to make something more attractive than it otherwise
would be. And I thought about a story that Orthodox Christians love about St. Vladimir
the prince of Kiev who in the 10th century killed his brother, taken the throne, very
rough and tough character and he realized that if he was going to unite this kingdom
that everybody needed to have the same religion. Until that time they followed a sort of pagan
practice, they had many many idols and many different gods, so he thought it would be
strategically useful.
He was quite a character, he was the youngest son of his father, his mother was a concubine,
so he really didnít have a right to the throne, but he killed his brother, then he wanted
to marry a princess and she despised him because he wasnít high born, and so he killed her
father and kidnapped her. He lived like many asian princes did, he had seven wives and
eight hundred concubines, he built temples to his pagan gods and offered human sacrifices
including sacrificing Christians. So you think about this a person you might want to bring
the Gospel to...[laughter]....with the four spiritual laws right? Got your living Bible
on one hand and you ring the doorbell.
So he knew he was going to need to get a religion to unite everybody so he invited representatives
from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, alot of different religions to come and make a presentations
and explain what their religion was all about. And then he picked some envoys and sent them
out to visit different countries and see in a situation what is the faith like as it is
practiced. So the envoys went and visited the muslims and the Christians in Bulgaria
and when alot of different places, didnít see anything they particularly liked. And
this is why Orthodox Christians love this story...and then they told him about Hagia
Sophia the beautiful 6th century cathedral, extravagance of building in Constantinople,
and they said ìwe knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for on earth there
is no such splendor or beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it, we only know that
God dwells there among humans and worship is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations
and we cannot forget that beauty. Every man was partaken of sweetness will not afterword
accept bitterness and so we can no longer remain apart from it.î So they themselves
were converted and determined to become Orthodox Christians no matter what the prince decided
to do.
So thatís how Russia became a Christian country and an Orthodox country, prince Vladimir was
baptized in the Crimea, all the Pagan idols were dragged down from the temples and thrown
in the river, there was a wooden idol and he had them drag it through the streets and
had people chase it and hit it with sticks just to show that this wooden god was not
even strong enough to resist people hitting it with pieces of wood.
So he had a very dramatic conversion there and the faith that spread all through Russia
did go very deep and became very strong. We see the fruit of it in the life of St. Maria
of Paris whoís such a representative figure at this Church and a dearly beloved patron
saint. It sustained the Russian people so well that they lived through seventy years
of relentless atheism which twenty-million Christians died but as soon as the Iron Curtain
fell the churches were filled with worshipers again. Seventy years of teaching that explicitly
tried to deny Christianity really had no effect when it was possible for people to worship
So thereís something about the beauty in this worship that I think is not an insignificant
factor. Love has something to do with beauty, that beauty opens the heart and disposes the
heart to reach forward in love. I donít know how exactly this happens but it is something
that does seem to happen, itís one of the effects of beauty. As I traveled and I speak
about Orthodox worship and beauty before different audiences, thereís some Christians of course,
and some people in general who are very wary of beauty. They see it as seductive and possibly
leading to idolatry or to worship of beauty. I was being interviewed on NPR a few years
ago and a woman who was the host of the program asked me ìbut you Orthodox people in your
churches you do all this fancy stuff with the incense and the icons, does that get in
the way? doesnít that block you from having communion with God? is it a distraction?î
And I said ìif it was your anniversary and your husband took you out to a fine restaurant
and there was a wedding cloth the table, and a glass of wine and violin music and roses...would
that distract you from feeling romantic?î [Laughter]
Beauty has this power and it is possible of course that we have all this beauty and just
take it for granted. You can go to Church every Sunday and just yawn your way through
it and not pay attention, itís possible but itís not fault of the Church of course. Just
as easily you can read the Bible without paying attention and say that the Bible is boring,
thereís nothing in there. You have to make yourself present to it if youíre going to
get anything from it. That same married couple could go out to a fancy restaurant but their
mad at each other so they never make eye contact and they just struggle with the food, well
itís not the fault of the restaurant.
So itís a matter of what you bring to it.
Beauty is not the goal, beauty in itself, Love is the goal. Beauty is a delightful and
effective way to escort us toward that goal. Even people who resist beauty in worship understand
that instinctively when theyíre planning a wedding even if they donít particularly
find worship beautiful on a typical Sunday, everybody seems to know that a woman is just
getting married she should be surrounded with beauty, as much beauty as her family can afford.
The newly weds deserve to be framed in great beauty, we just get this instinctively. Iíve
heard that thereís some mega-churches that are building wedding chapels because women
want to be married in a beautiful setting and a very very plain auditorium like church
just isnít where she always dreamed of getting married.
And yet some people assume that when it comes just to church having beauty goes along with
being very stiff and formal and unreal in a sense, and self-conscious about your behaviour.
But notice that at a wedding reception as at this meal tonight we donít have stiff
and formal, even with the nice napkins and white cloth and this elegant meal, people
relax, laugh and enjoy themselves weíre not self conscious or critical whether or not
the other person is hold their fork correctly, weíre not self conscious here. We behave
naturally and we enjoy ourselves. And that would be true even a meal or a wedding reception
was traditional and plastic and very formal in an old sense. If anything that would make
our joy that much more profound. You would say the same thing about a Christmas dinner,
if itís your turn in the family to host the Christmas dinner then you get out the fancy
plates and silverware and cook elaborate dishes, but everybody who attends feels joyous and
at ease. That going the extra mile for beauty that adorns our Christmas celebrations doesnít
hinder or distract the guests from enjoying themselves, if anything that extra beauty
makes it seem more significant, makes us savor the day even more and recognize the importance
of it, it isnít just an ordinary day. Itís the day we go a little bit extra.
And yet when it comes to Sunday morning many, many of our fellow Christians around the land,
donít think about beauty as one of the things as necessary. The main thing they want in
a church building is functionality and that it not fall down and that it not leak, and
be big enough. They are thinking is those sorts of terms. Thereís the high church tradition
where things are elaborate icons, candles and all of that and since the long term traditions
where things are often very simple. I often wondered why did we originate these two strengths
are regular, why are there two differences styles? I think it may well go back to whether
your church believes that the eucharist is really the body and blood of Christ because
if you do believe that then nothing is too much to give, if you really believe that Christ
is really going to be given to you, not only held up for adoration, but actually given
to you to chew and eat and shallow and incorporate to your own body then that is such an alarming
thing. If you really believe that is going to happen then you would almost instinctively
think church needs to be as beautiful as we can make it. And if you donít believe that
then you donít need to be, you need something more like an auditorium because what you are
looking for on a Sunday morning is for people to learn more. They will learn more about
how to follow Christ or how to apply their scripture in their lives, live more effective
lives, or how to witness, for example. I think that this distinction helps us understand
us identify that there is such a wide range of differences in worshipers among Christian
A difference in our view and valuing of beauty. the danger with ritual worship, with fancy
worship is of course it can become an empty dead ritual to those who are participating
in it. Even worse, it can become something to think about as magical, that if you go
through and say all the right words, something magical happens, rather than participating
with their whole hearts. So that is a danger in that its in the heart of the worshiper,
whether or not real worship is really happens or that tragedy occurs where they donít take
it for what it really is. There is a reason why in our orthodox worship that deacons are
so frequently saying let us attempt, pay attention. There is a danger on the other side as well,
i think that if you donít there is any reason for elaborate beauty, the focus can become
on the facilitating worship rather than worshiping, and falling on your face.
First time my husband went to an orthodox service, it was during lent, and he saw people
get out of their pews, and get down on their knees, and put the palms in the hands and
their foreheads on the floor and make a full prostration before the Lord. he came home
and he said, ìthats how we should be before God. If God is who we say he is, then we should
be on our faces before him.î So that was a very moving moment for him. The question
would be on Sunday morning, ìhow do you know that worship is successful?î Well if it successful,
people understood the bible better, you donít particularly need beauty; but if its this
whole body experience of confronting the mystery of God, beauty does serve an important purpose,
liturgy is at work. I recently heard a priest say he tells his people, donít bring your
prayer robe to church on Sunday morning, you donít come to church to pray, you come to
church to work. That all of us participate and the work of the people, we all work together
and this beautiful liturgy is the result. This beauty is part of our tradition going
back, of course to the worship of the Jews and the temple and in the tabernacle, and
the synagogue. Even at the time of Moses, our Sunday time worship is actually based
on synagogue work and the temple service put together. So we having the liturgy of the
word, and the table. God gave Moses very detailed instructions for how beautiful it has to be.
For example in Exodus 25, God told Moses he should make a box to hold the tablets of the
law. So, imagine you have these stone tablets, and you think about it and measure them, then
get into the car and go to Wal-Mart, and look for a plastic box that's going to hold them.
Thatís all this box has to do, just has to hold the tablets of the law. God told Moses
a box of acacia wood that was overlaid with gold on the outside and the inside, even though
nobody would ever see the inside, but that is where these holy things would be. That
only God would see the inside, so it had to be gold on the inside as well. The ranks and
the poles of this arc were also to be made of gold, be commanding a mercy seat to be
placed on top, two cherubs facing each other with their wings touching, hammered gold.
Itís a lot of effort to extend on storage container, and in the church again, there's
something about this mystery of beauty, that it is necessary for us to understand God,
and each other, valuing one another.
Everybody needs beauty, everybody deserves beauty. Itís even more extraordinary when
you consider that these Jews were refuge Jews and they were fleeing and they had left with
just the things they could carry, in a desperate state, wandering in the wilderness for four
years and nevertheless upset, making the table, tabernacle, make the vale, make it alter,
all of these things were going to require so much of their resources and time to make
around the extravagant details, around the priestís garments, embroidered pomegranates
and bells. A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate around about
on the skirt of the robe of the priestís dressings. Even though they were wandering
the desert, God commanded Moses to employ extravagant resources in making worship beautiful.
And they had to make it portable so that this impoverished people could carry it wherever
we go.
Beauty must mean something and that is why in our chapel here and in this meeting as
well where meals are served twice a day, that is why we reach for glory, we try to provide
glory. Itís not enough to just give paper plates, Styrofoam plates and paper towels
and napkins. We need to provide for those we serve. Beauty is something that theyíre
about and so their hearts might open and they will be drawn toward it as well.
I think another element is that beauty partakes of mystery, what beauty represents is something
that canít be put into words, we sense it with our whole being though itís not something
we can define. And that is true of our worship as well as we approach God, there is something
that is so beyond our words, our ability to verbalize, that it requires the mystery of
beauty around it in order to enable us to come into it at all.
Again this is something that I think runs very contrary to the way the world looks at
things. That everything should be accessible, everything should be easy to understand. The
first time you walk up, you should be able to get it right away. But there are some mysteries
in building human relationships. When a new person comes into this room theyíre coming
into a community, in a community there are so many layers of relationships, so many histories
that itís a complex thing, itís not as simple as handing everybody a cup of coffee, an identical
cup of coffee and sending them back out again. The mystery and complexity of human relationships
are beautiful as well and that is what we invite people to partake of, to participate
in, and to become members of when they come through those doors.
So I think, I criticize, and I invite you to be skeptical of the impulse of our culture
to make everything simple and boiled down to three words and accessible. Make room for
mystery, allow there to be mystery. People donít have to understand everything all at
once. I think thatís especially appropriate in our worship. One of the most consistent
roles that religion has served throughout human history is guardian of and contact point
for mystery and I think we make a mistake in trying to make the worship experience as
approachable and comprehensible as possible.
I think itís a good thing for people to be mystified from time to time, especially when
they are encountering the God of ultimate mystery and awe. And even if they donít understand
what they see when they first come through the door, they can look at us, they can look
at the other worshipers and see that they are treating it with awe and with respect
and with love.
That is something, an analogy that I do think of from time to time, that we canít see something,
we look at something we donít understand it, what do you do? usually you look around
at the other people and you see what theyíre doing. I remember Tertullian said ìthey say
of the Christians, look at how they love one another.î Thatís how people knew the Christians
was their love for one another.
When I was a kid I was nearsighted, Iím still nearsighted, but my parents didn't know it
for a while and alot of my childhood was spent in frustrating experiences, like they would
say ìthereís a bird at the you see it? do you see the bird up there? look at
it, right where Iím pointing.î
And I would squint and try to see it and most of the time I never saw the bird, I would
either say ìforget about it, Iím just not going to see it,î or I would say ìoh yeah,
I see it now, ok can we move on?î but I never said ìI donít believe you, there is no bird
there.î I never said that. I trusted them, that if they said there was a bird that even
if I couldn't see it that they could see it and I would trust it on them, their word.
I think the same thing happens in worship, when people come through those doors, whether
theyíre coming for fellowship or for a meal or for help, for an ear that will listen to
them, a shoulder to cry on. Whether theyíre coming through to the next room of this mission
into the place of worship where they will see us bowing before the Lord, bowing with
our foreheads to the floor sometimes, crossing ourselves and raising our voices, they will
see things they donít understand they wonít know everybody all at once or how our relationships
link but by the mercy of God they will be able to say they are Christians look at how
they love one another. And in learning this family, this community, they see the love
that spreads among us, they will become initiates into that mystery and become bearers of that
love as well.
And as they venture into the next room to participate in worship at first they may just
look at us doing these weird things and singing these weird songs and having these...I didnít
like icons at all at first, these dower looking threatening pictures I think was a comment
once... one of the icons of the Virgin Mary. I didnít get it but I could look around and
I could see the ones who do get it...look at their faces, look at the awe, look at the
joy, look at their experience in something that is so deep. I trust them, I trust that
something real is going on here and it may take me awhile to get the hang of it but it
looks like something I want as well.
So I think itís no mistake that the word beauty appears in this little brochure and
it was in the words of both Dr Mary and Presbytera Maria. Not something that many people, if
you stop somebody on the street and say describe a mission to the poor in five words, what
five adjectives would you choose. Theyíd probably wouldnít say beautiful, or a place
of great beauty, but you have made this a place of beauty and it continues to be beautiful
day by day by the love you have shown each other and the love you show others who walk
through the door and in that way you reflect the beauty of Jesus Christ, Who is your Lord
and your Leader, the One Whom you serve, the One Whoís feet you wash every time you welcome
the poor. Thank you.