Mike Aquilina

The Other Side of Ancient Liturgy

Wednesday October 04th 2006, 3:09 am

If you’ve read anything by Jesuit Father Robert Taft — or, better, if you’ve ever heard him speak — you know it can be a wild ride. He’s brilliant. He seems to have read all the ancient sources and committed them to memory, in the original languages. A longtime professor of liturgy and patristics at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, he served the early years of his priesthood in Baghdad. During civil unrest in the late 1950s, he traveled the Iraqi countryside observing the liturgies of the Syriac-speaking villages and monasteries. And there he got hooked on liturgics. Since then, he’s written about three dozen books and several hundred articles on the ancient liturgies and the Fathers. He is a Catholic priest of both the Latin and Byzantine rites.

It would be an understatement to say that Father Taft is outspoken. He has a first-rate mind, and he speaks it with force and wit. If you don’t believe me, read his 2004 interview with John Allen. It is the very image of the loose cannon rolling down the tilting deck of the barque of Peter. I’m sure it sent several dozen ecumenists into damage-control mode for weeks afterward.

His academic work has been a little more restrained in expression, but no less certain in its conclusions.

But his most recent book — Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It — now that’s another story.

This is a book that combines the academic rigor of the published Father Taft with the frankness of his live lectures. Indeed, the book is made up of edited transcripts of his 2005 Paul G. Manolis Distinguished Lectures at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, California.

It’s a book by turns moving and entertaining. Father Taft sets out to give us a “bottom-up” view of the Byzantine liturgy, as it was experienced by the congregations of late antiquity, rather than explicated by the mystagogues. The situation was, as he points out, “not all incense and icons.”

Citing the Great Fathers, he evokes free-ranging congregations where young men and women trolled the crowd for romance. Chrysostom complained that the women at church were no different from courtesans, and the men like “frantic stallions.” Chrysostom also noted that people were talking throughout the liturgy, and “their talk is filthier than excrement.” Old Golden Mouth went on to report that the rush for Communion proceeded by way of “kicking, striking, filled with anger, shoving our neighbors, full of disorder.”

It almost makes today’s American parishes look reverent.

Taft walks us through the liturgy, from introit to dismissal, in a kind of reverse mystagogy. Traditional mystagogy begins with the outward signs and proceeds to their hidden meaning. Taft, however, begins with the assumption that the liturgy is heavenly, and then shows us the very incarnational, very earthly (and earthy) details of the scene where heaven touches down. At each stage of the rites, he quotes from contemporary accounts of what was going on in the assembly. We learn about the vigorous singing, the popularity of the Psalms, and the entertainment value of a sonorous homily, even if it’s in an archaic language that no one understands.

Liturgy was central to life in the big city. Entire populations turned out for icon processions and for the translation of relics. Sometimes, these mass liturgical rallies turned into mob scenes as the herd stampeded toward the center of grace. He brings up the fourth-century pilgrim Egeria’s story about the man who bit off a piece of the true cross to take home as a souvenir.

And yet, for all that, “the Church’s earthly song of praise is but an icon, the reflection — in the Pauline sense of mysterion, a visible appearance that is bearer of the reality it represents — of the heavenly liturgy of the Risen Lord before the throne of God. As such, it is an ever-present, vibrant participation in the heavenly worship of God’s Son.”

“Byzantine art and ritual,” he says as he brings his final lecture to its conclusion, “far from being all ethereal and spiritual and transcendent and symbolic, was in fact a very concrete attempt at portrayal, at opening a window onto the sacred, of bridging the gap.”

And that’s what we must never forget. Even the best dressed and best behaved folks among us are oafs and waifs pressing dirty noses against the window. If we spend our hour of worship worrying about the comportment of the Joneses in the next pew, we’re probably missing the point of liturgical worship.

Taft’s book is probably a good counter-balance for those of us who spend hours feeding off the liturgical works of Ambrose, Cyril, and Theodore (though we do get a hint of the underside in Augustine, too). Father Taft confesses that he himself has written books romanticizing the ancient liturgies. Maybe Through Their Own Eyes is his act of reparation. In any event, it’s our gain.

This book will inflame passions all around. But, in the illustrious career of Robert Taft, what else is new? The lectures include the transcripts of the question-and-answer periods afterward. And there the erudite father does not mince words as he asserts the appropriateness of the vernacular, the “stupidity” of the mania for liturgical variety, and so on.

Google points me to a Taft work available free online, and it’s my pleasure to pass it on to you: Eastern-Rite Catholicism: Its Heritage and Vocation. I know he’s published another, more controversial (and entertaining) treatment of the same theme somewhere; but I can’t seem to track it down at the moment. Meantime, enjoy the Taft you have at hand. And buy the new book. It’s a time-machine trip — and a joy ride.