"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Nicholas Denysenko on The People's Faith

It is always a joy and delight to be able to talk to my friend Nicholas Denysenko, as I have on here several times over the years about his many books. Today we have a chance to hear from him about his new book The People's Faith: The Liturgy of the Faithful in Orthodoxy (Fortress Press, 2018), 240pp.

AAJD: Tell us about your background and what led to the writing of The People's Faith. 

ND: I’m trained in the sciences of liturgiology, having taken my Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America in 2008. I studied liturgy with Paul Meyendorff (as a student at St. Vladimir’s Seminary), Dominic Serra, Kevin Irwin, and Mark Morozowich. My doctoral coursework at CUA immersed me in liturgical history (esp. Serra and Morozowich), and liturgical theology (Serra, Morozowich, and esp. Irwin).

My interest in liturgical reform increased with the fiftieth anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium in 2013. Alexander Schmemann’s legacy among Western Christians piqued my interest, and I learned a lot about the contributions of liturgiology to liturgical practice during the course of researching and writing Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: The Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy (Fortress Press, 2015).

I reflected on the existence of numerous liturgical practices that are not recorded in official liturgical texts, a thought process that yielded new questions. Since liturgy is an event enacted by God and a local assembly, what is the real authority of official liturgical texts? Are official texts anything more than patterns communities should adopt – with the freedom to subtract and add, as needed, but without disrupting the essential ore of the ordo, to accommodate the particularities of parish life?

Acknowledging the gaps between official liturgical texts and local liturgical practices, are there also gaps between official liturgical theologies and the liturgical theology of the ordinary laity?

I consider the identification of the ordinary person in the pew as the true practitioner of theologia prima to be one of the great recoveries of twentieth-century sacramental theology. Aidan Kavanagh and David Fagerberg identified “Mrs. Murphy” as this theologian, but the idea hearkens back to a saying attributed to Evagrius Pontus – the theologian is the one who prays.

It’s not absurd to say that we’re all theologians, and the scholarship of sociologists of religion like Nancy Ammerman and experts in ritual studies like Nathan Mitchell remind us that the non-expert testimony on the encounter with God in and through prayer is no less real than oft-quoted sayings of the desert fathers. To paraphrase Mitchell – theological tradition is handed down from to grandchildren from the knees of their grandparents with great authority.

Having taken these lessons to heart, I sought to attempt to begin the process of recording a sampling of the liturgical theology of ordinary laity in this study, and then to bring that theology into dialogue with official liturgical theology.

AAJD: Are there connections between this new book and your 2015 book Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: The Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy?

ND: Yes. My study of liturgical reform in Orthodoxy yielded dozens of questions that are not easily answered. The process of introducing reform is the fundamental issue here. Scholars have contributed to the codification of a process of liturgical reform that has become a popular myth in the academy and the Church. The basic idea is that a group of experts studies liturgical history and writes a paper proposing a change or modification on the basis of research. At some point, a synod will hear the committee’s report and make a decision to be implemented through a revision to the liturgical books. All of this sounds clean, and good, and quite bureaucratic, but it is often incompatible with reality. Parishes introduce liturgical reforms on a regular basis, to meet the needs of their people. Some of these are so modest that one would have to observe a local parish liturgy with meticulous attention to detail to notice a change. But some changes to the official pattern of liturgy printed in liturgical texts are substantial. I have served in parishes where an official liturgical book is replaced by a local publication, especially if there is a preference for another translation of a text circulating among clergy.

Other changes are even more noticeable. Some parishes have applied the principle of which Fr. Taft (of blessed memory) reminds us: “the Eucharist is a gift to be received,” meaning that everyone received communion from the hand of another – including the presider. Taft’s principle was based on his research, so this is not surprising, but what catches my attention is the innate ecclesiology of the rite – the true presider is Christ, and the rite forms the leader – a bishop or priest – into a recipient of communion, like everyone else. (Now we should also consider the next step by re-introducing the reception of communion in both kinds by first eating and then drinking – but that is a topic for another time).

A much more controversial local tradition takes place when the Liturgy of Holy Saturday (Paschal Vigil) is celebrated on the shroud (epitaphios, plashchanitsa). I do not know how widespread this practice is, but I understand its DNA, driven by popular piety surrounding Christ’s shroud, a piety that influenced the historical development of the Divine Liturgy itself. The parishes that introduced this practice were responding to a local, community-driven phenomenon, and it caused controversy when multiple bishops issued edicts prohibiting the practice.

All of this leads to a fundamental question we should engage: do we sell liturgical theology short when we limit it to the musings of experts and official texts? I’m not calling for the dismissal of the official, not at all, because the official texts provide a pattern rooted in a traditional ordo. Nevertheless, we need to seriously consider the depth of meaning one can glean from non-expert, unofficial practices and observations. We learn a lot from official sources, authoritative teachings, homilies from bishops, hymns composed by famous saints. But all of these are not ‘the’ Church. Everyone constitutes the Church, and we have a lot to learn by consulting non-experts, popular practices, and interpretations of liturgy. I have tried to capture a sampling of this unofficial, non-expert reflection on liturgy in this study to get a sense of what we might learn if we consider the testimony of the whole body of Christ. 

AAJD: As you know, a lot of work in Byzantine liturgiology has been driven by history and texts and written by experts. But here you adopt a very different approach, reading and listening to the responses of people in selected parishes. Tell us about your methods of field research in this book.

ND: My objective was to gain insights into ordinary lay perspectives on the liturgy. A number of extant studies influenced my approach. From the perspective of the larger field of religion and sociology, Nancy Ammerman’s studies were influential, and really set the pace and the bar for ethnographic research into religious and devotional practices of communities and individuals. Ricky Manalo’s study that brings prayer and devotional practices into dialogue with Vatican II’s teaching on the liturgy was likewise inspiring. Amy Slagle is one of the best researchers on North American Orthodoxy, and I suspect that her study of converts to the Eastern Church will remain the seminal work in this field for decades to come (together with D. Oliver Herbel’s).

I drew from the principles articulated by these researchers and decided to organize focus groups of volunteers from diverse parishes who would be willing to share their perspectives on the liturgy. I received permission from the Institutional Review Board at Loyola Marymount University (my employer at the time), and organized focus groups with laity from four Orthodox parishes. The focus group sessions required discipline and restraint. In all instances, some of the participants asked me to share my thoughts on the questions I posed, so it took effort and energy to remain still, listen and record dispassionately, and reflect on the sessions afterwards. It’s essential to note the limits of the methodology, especially since I did not have the resources to devote time and space to frequent meetings over a period of time in these communities. Despite this limitation, the sessions themselves were eye-opening. On the one hand, one might glean more in a private meeting. On the other hand, the focus group environment stimulated responses – participants often spoke to one another and elaborated their thoughts on my questions, occasionally even forgetting that I was in the room. I recorded the sessions and studied them repeatedly as I developed the project. I also interviewed the pastors of each parish to obtain a sense of the parish’s history and liturgical practices.

AAJD: How did you select the four parishes you worked with?

ND: My objectives included regional and jurisdictional diversity, and I wanted to have one small parish included in the study. Three of the four parishes are in urban environments, and one is in the desert. I selected two Greek parishes because the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese constitutes about 50% of Orthodox Christianity in America. Ideally, I would have included Antiochian, ROCOR, and Serbian parishes, too. But obstacles presented themselves – the Antiochian focus group was cancelled because of a scheduling issue, and I was unable to connect with the Serbian and ROCOR parishes I had in mind. So, there is room for more research in this area, and there is a need for it as well. It would be of great benefit to include Eastern Catholic and Oriental Orthodox communities in such studies. I’m pleased with the outcome, though, because the four parish focus groups provided a plethora of material for this study – more than enough for a solid monograph.

AAJD: You note in your conclusion to chapter two that "parish liturgy is constantly evolving and changing." Tell us a bit more about that because it seems to run counter to certain narratives one sometimes hears about how "conservative" the East is, and how resistant to liturgical change it is imagined to be.

Liturgiologists have delivered profound gifts to the academy and Church with the historical studies produced over the last 100-plus years. We continue to learn more about our history, and the method of comparative liturgy – one thriving in large part because of the pioneering work of scholars like Juan Mateos, S.J., Robert Taft (S.J.), and sustained by the likes of Gabriele Winkler and Michael Zheltov – this method is not limited to presenting the history of a rite, but it also shows us what is possible. During the course of the IOTA conference in Iasi, Symeon Stig Froyshov presented a paper suggesting that the Horologion – our Liturgy of the Hours – has cathedral roots. His paper exemplified the relevance of good liturgical history since he is essentially challenging the longstanding assumption of monastic dominance in the “fusion” of cathedral and monastic liturgy.

In our scrupulous attention to liturgical texts, one can involuntarily neglect a fundamental fact about liturgy: it is a local rite, enacted by people together with God, in a community. Let us not assume that we have diocese or eparchy in mind when we say “local.” Certainly, there is a common core of Byzantine liturgy that unites all local celebrations. We all sing the Cherubikon, receive communion with a spoon from a chalice, and know that Holy Week and Pascha will be a veritable feast of Scripture with seemingly endless prostrations and venerations of the epitaphios (or plashchanitsa).

Local, parish traditions create some healthy variation in the liturgy. I have been in two parishes where a censing occurs during the Trisagion hymn – in one case, the presider censed at this point because it was part of his particular Serbian legacy. In two parishes I know of, the resurrection hymns recited by the deacon as he places the Lord’s body into the cup before consumption are instead sung by the people. These local practices accentuate Sunday as the day of resurrection.

I could describe dozens of examples in this space of local variations of liturgy, along with abbreviations, rites, customs, censing patterns, melodies, and even translations of the liturgy. These examples verify liturgy as an event of encounter between God and the community, and it’s important for us to honor these variations because liturgy itself originated as observance of rituals that were not dependent on codified texts. The late antique evidence of the extemporaneous orations of the Eucharistic prayer reminds us that Liturgy is filled with the Holy Spirit and is therefore not circumscribed – even to texts we would like to define as canonical. It has to be this way, to respect the fact that a single culture does not hold privilege over all the others in the rites, gestures, and words we use for worship. The Church is always a Church in a specific place and location, hence the local or particular quality of the Church – our unity comes from our one Lord, and our one baptism.

Throughout history, certain clergy have attempted to impose uniformity through the liturgy. To this day, you will hear clergy complain that father so-and-so doesn’t celebrate the Liturgy “correctly,” or that the Greeks “innovated” in their nineteenth century revisions. If corrections that come from Church authorities are designed to correct errors that are leading people away from Christ, then they are needed. But if these corrections and directives are motivated by the demands of a compliance seeking to eradicate local differences, they are more often than not actually attempts to assert authority and establish control of clergy and people through the liturgy. Appeals to authorities like this one are misapplications of authority because they do not honor the tradition of the local community.

They also attempt to circumscribe liturgy – you can’t control it, because liturgy is not a text, nor is it merely human: God is the presider at each assembly. A serious examination of parish liturgical practice would illustrate that the vast majority of parishes observe the common liturgical core quite faithfully. The tendency to opt for variation here and there is a necessity. It is a well-established tradition of both East and West that was compromised by the invention of the printing press that enabled authorities to distribute a single liturgy and define it as the only correct one. We shouldn’t mess with local parish variations unless they are creating divisions in the parish or leading people away from Christ. I honestly believe that those who seek to eradicate healthy local practices that are not printed in the service books have way too much time on their hands and should find something more useful to do.

AAJD: Your third chapter notes some generational shifts in both preparation to receive the Eucharist, and the frequency of doing so. Did your research uncover any commonalities here in the 21st century? E.g., I've often heard it said that since Schmemann's work on liturgy, a lot more people receive a lot more frequently than they once did. Is that a generalization your research could support?

Yes, at least in the parishes of my study. I was particularly intrigued by the stories shared by people who were raised with rigorous preparation for Communion and continue to feel self-conscious about frequently receiving communion now, even if they have been receiving more often for a number of years. Many older respondents of my study wondered if other parishioners were observing them with disapproval. It is certainly normal, and healthy to take stock of one’s readiness and worthiness to receive Christ.

But there is another dimension to this question, and that concerns the formative aspect of ritual and how that affects the introduction of a major change. Receiving communion more frequently requires a permanent change of habit, adopting a whole new perspective on the meaning of Communion, and learning a new way of preparing for it. The respondents’ sustained questioning of their worthiness and their sensitivity to the way others perceived them demonstrates that receiving liturgical change and establishing it as a permanent new practice is a complicated process that requires time, patience, and continued instruction. Scholars and students of the Church should consider how the process of reception works outside of the Liturgy as well – it tells us a lot about how much sustained ministry is required to implement any process, even if it is designed to do good in the Church. 

AAJD: You note (p.91) that a "primary objective" of your work is to strengthen the connection between "academic liturgical theology" and people's experience of liturgy. Are there particular areas where that connection is very attenuated? Are there areas where it may be relatively strong?

There are both gaps and areas of intense relationship between academic liturgical theology and the people’s experience of liturgy. One of the gaps is somewhat paradoxical, as many of the people expressed gratitude for the liturgical experience of sharing in a journey. I remain somewhat awestruck by the people’s gratitude for being a part of a community that receives communion together, a sense that one is not alone in this journey of receiving divine grace through communion, despite being unworthy. Without prompting, a number of adults idealized their view of the children who line up to drink from the fountain of immortality. They admire the children’s gravitas in simply obeying the command to approach, to draw near, without overanalyzing all of the social, spiritual, and theological dimensions.

Certainly, Orthodox academics have a lot of work to do in deconstructing the hierarchy that has been idealized and falsely affixed as an ecclesial structure. A view of an assembly of all receiving the same communion, together, from the ages of a few months up to one-hundred, is truly unique, an authentic representation of what we pray – the communion of the Holy Spirit, including all, without discrimination. Again, because it is worth repeating – the youngest infant and the highest ranking patriarch are all recipients of the same gift of our Lord. My sense was the people were deeply grateful for this experience of the fullness of community, in the ritual of receiving God’s gift. The next step for us Byzantines is to revise the ritual in such a way so that all truly receive in the same way – by eating the bread and drinking from the cup, and receiving from the hands of another (which will require bishops – yes, even bishops! – to actually receive communion from the hands of another, to which I referred earlier in this interview).

Let me refer to communion as a portal through which to view an attenuated connection between academic theology and the people’s perception. Many of the same people who expressed gratitude for experiencing communion together also lamented the exclusivity of the liturgical event, shedding tears over those who would like to partake of the cup but cannot because of ecclesial divisions.

No patriarch will hasten to restore Eucharistic communion with non-Orthodox Christians because some people are sad that other Christians cannot partake.

But the study reminds us that the privilege of partaking of the Eucharist is one that was originally open to all. I view the perceptions of the people here as a reminder that excluding other Christians after inviting all to “approach” is scandalous, and that the Eucharist should be the source of renewing the urgency to heal divisions, not to enhance them. This is an invitation for the academics to revisit the Eucharist as a symbol of true unity – not of exclusivity and division.

AAJD: You note how many participants in your study commented on a "fissure between the Lenten cycle and the rest of the year on account of the sheer weight and demand of the requirement for Orthodox Lenten worship" (p.111). You also note how often the topic of fatigue is raised by participants during Lent. Did your participants have any thoughts as to how to overcome these challenges? Do you?

Most of the parishioners in the study viewed the rigors of Holy Week and Pascha as ideals laity should attempt to meet, to the best of one’s ability. Many respondents expressed admiration for clergy who participate in the entirety of Holy Week and Pascha. One elderly respondent noted the repetition of Gospel passages throughout the Holy Week offices and suggested that the clergy could review the lectionary for Holy Week and revise it to eliminate repetition. The lectionary is an amalgamation of Constantinopolitan and hagiopolite traditions, so the respondent’s observation is true, and it would be healthy for the Church to examine the lectionary, and also the times appointed for the services to suggest a revised pattern that eliminates at least some of the repetition and makes the transition from Holy Saturday to Pascha more sensible.

The explanations for the existing Holy Week pattern are spurious, at best. For example, the obsession with Judas as the antagonist throughout the week displaces Jesus as the suffering servant – Jesus should be our focus, not Judas. And the most glaring thematic problem is the continued appointment of anti-Semitic texts in the hymnography of Good Friday Matins (and elsewhere). The most popular pastoral justification for retaining these texts is that we need to learn how to hear them correctly. Similarly, many pastors try to diminish the paschal character of the Vigil (Holy Saturday Vesperal liturgy) by reducing it to a “breaking through” of the resurrection, in “anticipation” of the real vigil to come at midnight.

Such justifications are both unfortunate and absurd. The liturgical scholar Bert Groen has published an essay exposing the anti-Semitic tropes throughout Byzantine Holy Week, and has stated the problem directly: no one wants to reform the ordo of Holy Week on their own because of its solemnity. This is the reason we retain the multiple overlaps of Gospels and popularize the false teaching that the Paschal Vigil is not really Pascha, at least not yet.

I would not call for a complete overhaul of Holy Week, in deference to the reception issue I mentioned above. As a Church, we have the responsibility to fine-tune it, though. The solution will come from a bolder initiative: to invite poets, linguists, artists, theologians, and musicians to engage the creative process and compose new hymns, new music, and new art that could be adopted for the services. Holy Week is an invitation to enter into the bridal chamber of Christ, to die and rise with him. Our services should proclaim this invitation in word, rite, and gesture. And they make this proclamation with unfathomable profundity! But the proclamation is often paused by the obsession with Judas, the condemnation of the Jews, the schizophrenic celebration of resurrection only to resume lamentation at the tomb.

A more general comment from a number of respondents will break open the larger point here, one with serious consequences for liturgical vitality: too much of the liturgy is concealed from the people because the clergy are performing it in private. A plea for the clergy to make their prayers the people’s prayers was a refrain among respondents. A desire for assurance that the living God is truly with them as they journey through the rigors of life was another refrain.

We appeal to the antiquity of our liturgical tradition to demonstrate our connection with the apostles. But we tend to forget that all of the prayers, rites, and songs we cling to with such fervor were once quite new and innovative. Our collective refusal to compose new hymns, prayers, and to rethink our order violates the spirit of the Byzantine tradition. We should be alarmed by our aversion to the brilliant creativity in liturgical composition that was the very hallmark of the patristic tradition we claim. The time for us to reclaim that creative energy of the Holy Spirit is now.   

AAJD: You note the dangers of "the canonization of a particular theological interpretation of a rite" as leading in part to rigidity (p.135) and this brings me back to your admirable opening comment about your "ascetical" approach in the interviews to being the one who listens rather than the expert correcting every idea and answering every question. How strong was the urge among people you talked to for there to be a "correct" or, dare one say, "orthodox" view of what liturgy is and does? Or were people more generally comfortable with a certain polyvalence here?

For the most part, respondents approached the sessions with openness. On several occasions, they asked me to elaborate an issue, and I declined, reminding them that my task was to take account of their observations. I was struck by their hunger to learn more, though. When Christians have questions, they do what everyone else does in the attempt to find a quick answer: perform an Internet search. My exchanges with the respondents heightened my own awareness of the information illiteracy afflicting the general public. We have a golden opportunity to identify opportunities to teach people the meaning of the various liturgies. Considering the shifting demographics of the Byzantine Churches, a more earthy, hands-on approach to teaching the Liturgy would be suitable for our times, alongside the creation of updated catechetical texts that present the fundamentals of the Liturgy. For example, it could be beneficial to spend some time reflecting on the Eucharistic Prayers in small groups in an extraliturgical context to consider the deeper meanings of offering, anamnesis, epiclesis, and commemoration.

AAJD: Your participants having raised, often in painful terms, the problem of eucharistic hospitality with their family and friends who are not Orthodox, you later return to this issue in the context of "the anti-ecumenical turn in Orthodoxy" (pp.147-49), noting that it's not even possible to have a "public discussion on allowing non-Orthodox to receive Communion" (151). What lies behind all this do you think? Why is even a discussion of the problem--never mind a change in practice--off limits?

I think, my friend, that your recent scholarship on the Catholic sexual abuse crisis discloses what lies behind all of this. It is psychological, a mindset cultivated by the continuous formation of communities on the basis of what distinguishes us from other Christians as opposed to how we are all one in Christ.

For most of the history of Orthodoxy in North America, the institutional Church has exploited encouragement of cultural pluralism to show how we are different. Greek immigrants hosted food festivals to demonstrate their legitimacy as good citizens of this land, a symbol of émigré arrival. Communities emphasized sustenance of their core values to ensure multigenerational longevity. We believed that there were two keys to keeping young people in the Church: through the unique beauty of Orthodoxy, and by making it accessible through English-language liturgies. Since Eastern Churches have always emphasized the local nature of the Church, it was easy enough to pass on a sense of fidelity to the covenant – to remain within the covenant of an exclusive community, be it Greek, Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian. Orthodox ecclesiology was and is also exclusive – there is no “subsistit in” in our conciliar theology, we claim to be THE one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. (See paragraph no. 1 of “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” from the Holy and Great Council in Crete, 2016).

My sense is that Orthodoxy has turned inwards during the post-Soviet period in an effort to reclaim a legacy that was paused during the Soviet period and the Cold War. The raging of the cultural wars in the North American religious context eased the enhancement of an anti-ecumenical turn inwards among Orthodox here. All of these factors combined are like ingredients thrown into a pot for a dinner at which discussion of the possibility of healing divisions with other Christians is discouraged at best, and often prohibited. These factors have combined to form a collective mindset of sectarianism, a disposition in which communities are content with the status quo of mutual exclusivity – even if our children attend the same schools and the parents fraternize at basketball practices.

Ecumenical urgency resurfaces with global catastrophes, when the faces of victims of genocide beckon us to stop looking inwards. God forbid that a global human catastrophe is the only reason for re-igniting the sense of urgency for serious ecumenical dialogue among Christians. 

AAJD: The vast majority of your participants seem to have confined their reflections to Sunday Divine Liturgy--though many also spoke of the Lenten-Paschal cycle. Do you have any plans for more narrowly focused further research into, say, people's experience of funeral liturgies, or baptisms?

I think two studies are necessary, and I may or may not pursue them. First, a study of children’s perceptions of liturgy. A tightly-conceived and careful methodological approach to the study is needed. It would be particularly insightful to work with children in the same parishes. Such a study could teach us a lot about the process of learning through experience, of the whole community partaking of the liturgy together.

An appropriate follow-up would be a study of people’s engagement in all aspects of Church life – reading the Bible, daily prayer, confession, fasting, domestic observance of feasts, and personal behavior. Ammerman’s studies in particular demonstrate the value of non-expert observance of religious practices outside of official worship – and Manalo’s study, especially his engagement with Peter Phan, reminds us that the point of Liturgy is not its celebration, but communal union with God – an aspiration that is not exclusive to liturgy alone.

AAJD: Were there any big surprises in each of the parishes you worked with?

This is not so much a surprise, but an observation that deserves attention, reflection, and prayer. The people I interviewed viewed the Liturgy as an invitation that should not be taken for granted. They consistently expressed frustration at their failure to achieve the ideal established by the liturgy itself. Many of them expressed frustration at preoccupations with the details of life during Liturgy. This was the most important insight, that they were able to identify the Liturgy as a divine gift for us, and found diverse ways to express their desire to engage it as people at their very best, devoting full attention to laying aside the cares of everyday life and being present to God. The tension of confession of unworthiness and gratitude for God’s gift was thick – and beautiful in its thickness.

AAJD: Having finished this book, what are you at work on now?

Ever since the publication of The Orthodox Church in Ukraine last year, I have been cranking out essay after essay of in-depth analysis of the religious scene in Ukraine. I am in the slow process of developing a sequel. The sequel will discuss the tomos and the birth of the OCU, but there is a desperate need for a sophisticated look at the intersection of religion and politics in Ukraine, to cut through the unfortunate post-truth propaganda and regurgitation of Soviet-era narratives popularized by confessional media sites. To that end, the study will address the problem of political religion in Ukraine, and will also discuss the role of the media, both in Ukraine and elsewhere.

I am also developing essays on sacramental reconciliation, Eucharistic theology, iconography, and liturgical idolatry. Watch for information about a one-day symposium to be held at Valparaiso University on April 24, 2020: “Religion, State, and Nationalism: Problems and Possibilities.” We are honored to host a number of theologians and experts such as Antoine Arjakovsky, Dorian Llywelyn, and Atalia Omer.

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