The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Saturday, May 27, 2006


Ontological, Spiritual, Liturgical

"Each man attends to his sacrifice according to what he is, not according to what he is not; therefore the sacrifice should not surpass the proper measure of the one who performs the worship." -Iamblichus, De Mysteriis

I stopped attending daily Mass as a teenager when our priest wanted us to start making a circle around the altar during the service. For me, this just didn't seem right. I did not have any knowledge of ancient Christian worship, but something in me just clicked and said: "This doesn't seem very reverent." To this day, I wince whenever I go to Catholic service and see the sanctuary (if there is still such a thing) bombarded with people casually moving about.

If we can put our finger on one of the major problems with Christian liturgy and practice today, it is the abandoning of the concept of hierarchy. With the new "People of God" theology so in vogue with many theologians, the "priesthood of the faithful" has become the juggernaut that has revolutionized everything in Christian life from how we worship to how we think about creation. To say that someone is more ontologically fit to do something is the greatest heresy of all: witness the on-going debates on women's "ordination" (if such a thing is even possible). Even among traditional Christians now , it can seem that all of the bows, hand-kissing, genuflections, and other acts of reverence are quaint gestures from a backward era that still for some reason give us a sense of comfort. In other words, they are nice, but have no real meaning anymore. If that is indeed the case, then we would do best to abandon them as soon as possible.

I tend to think that it is the mysterious figure known as St. Dionysius the Areopagite who is greatly responsible for the traditional Christian concept of liturgy. This is interesting, since he was obviously not St. Paul's interlocutor in the Book of Acts, but more likely a fifth century convert from the Neoplatonism of Proclus, and Proclus was influenced greatly by Iamblichus. In Dionysius' universe, all lower things are moved by higher things: this is the principle behind his great book on the celestial hierarchies from which Christendom gets much of its beliefs on angels. Even in the angelic choirs, higher spheres (the Cherubim and Seraphim) move the lower angelic choirs, but always through mediation. That is, they move even the lowest spheres by moving the spheres directly below them, never directly.

In Dionysius' work on the ecclesiatical hierarchies, the same principle is found. The bishop is he who is in the highest state of union with God, and moves the priests who are in a state of illumination. Through the priest, the deacon, who is on the path to purification, moves the people in prayer. (This is still seen very much in the Byzantine liturgy, where the deacon actively leads the people in the litanies.) In other words, for Dionysius, these grades of ecclesiastical offices were not just functions that could be performed by anyone, but rather grades of initiation into the life of God. It was the responsibility of the higher grades to move the grades immediately below them into greater union with the Trinity.

Of course, we know that history has not always proven this to be the case. As one Romanian priest once said, "Hell must be a very colorful place with all of those mitres moving about." This is very much an ideal of how the Church should work, but it is nevertheless an ideal for which we must continue to strive. I being an ordinary Christian gives me a very important function in the worship of the liturgical assembly, but it also means that there are things that I cannot do. In the fundamentals, we are all equal in our prayers, but as to who offers the sacrifice, who is leading us to God from the altar, that is not me. I need the priest there, and he alone is allowed to do some things, to say some prayers, and to him is due a great deal of reverence because of this. To paraphrase Iamblichus again, there is something profoundly self-emptying in this, but it is only through the recognition of this fact that I can ascend spiritually.

I think the best figure of this in the Western Church is during the Solemn Roman High Mass, where the priest, deacon, and subdeacon stand in a line facing the altar. When the priest moves, they all move in unison, in a line, and on different descending grades of the altar. The faithful in a sense move as well in their hearts when this occurs. When I first saw this, then I understood why I refused to swarm the altar as a teenager. My business is down here, watching and praying.

(to be continued....)


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