Thursday, September 13, 2007

The "Otherness" of Worship

Recently I was having a conversation with my wife and it came up that statistically, most people pray in their "native" or "cultural" tongue. This is curious since this may not even be their first and most fluent language, and yet they instinctively use it when they pray and also when they count.

Further reflecting on this, I instantly remember a statement that Frank Schaeffer made in his last book, "Letters to Fr. Aristotle." In it, he defends the traditional use of Greek in Orthodox liturgical services and cautions against the conversion to modern English or even modern Greek translations. Although he does cite the most common problems associated with such a switch (issues with translations and politically correct influences), he does make an additional point. He mentions that it is important to have a "sacred" language. By sacred, he means one that is set apart from everyday speech and reserved only for the worship of God.

Now, at first sight, this point may seem rather insignificant compared to the enormous benefits that would arise from adopting the vernacular in our liturgical services. However, I do believer that Schaeffer is on to something here. And this is where I connect the earlier statistic, that most people instinctively pray and count in their "native" tongues. Perhaps there is a connection between this phenomenon and Schaeffer's statement.

Some may say that the practice of using the "cultural" language is a result of familial and societal conditioning. I would have to agree with this theory. Our sense of ethnicity largely stems from a sense of family and belonging. For me, speaking Greek is very comforting because it unites me to a much larger community of "Greeks" who share the same culture, history, and mannerisms as I do. It fulfills a sense of belonging.

Now let us look at the church. It too is a family which has many members. Furthermore, it's membership crosses gender, cultural and even political lines. The demographic is much more diverse. This means that there arises a great need for a common church "culture" to unite all these different types of people. Some would say that this is the gospel, however we know that this is sometimes not enough. In an age where one can find a church on every street corner (and no two are alike), how is one to distinguish one community from the other? Furthermore, how is the church to be a true family if it does not possess it's own unique traditions which identifies and differentiates it from all the others? The issue of language is interwoven into this complex matrix of communal identity.

Statistics show that most youth in our generation actually want more ritual in their lives. They are seeking it in large numbers. This is due to the human need to experience the sacred, the divine. For most, this means that such an experience must be beyond that which they experience in their daily lives. This is why we see such an interest in eastern mysticism (Buddhism, Hinduism, Kabala, etc.) in our current generation. It is of paramount importance to create a form of worship that is sacred, something separated from the everyday, and something dedicated wholly to God. This is why the Orthodox Church has maintained its traditional outlook throughout the centuries and has remained quite impervious to outer influence and trends of the time. It is because the truth which it preaches is eternal, and is so emphasized in the consistent form of worship it employs.

Getting back to language. The tendency to use our "native"tongue in prayer testifies to this need for all people to experience the "otherness" of spirituality. They unconsciously reserve their native language as something "sacred" and "set apart." They believe that they have to do this in order to give the holy event of prayer the respect and reverence it deserves.

Furthermore, in step with Frank Schaeffer, worshipping in an language one does not fully understand, forces the faithful to engage their faith in new ways. It demands one to dig deeper into their worship and it requires effort on our part. It is not an "easy" faith. In an age of "burger king" parishes that are known for their new, hip services, it is easy to see how this sort of traditional worship would be very unpopular. It is because it does not cater to people's spiritual laziness, but demands higher thinking and greater effort. It forces the congregation to take interest in what it is doing and how it is expressing it's faith.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to advocate abolishing the use of English in our churches. What I am saying is that we should take very small steps when considering the use of liturgical language because it may have the adverse affect on our congregations. In the states, Greeks are 3rd and 4th generation Hellenes who barely speak a word of Greek. They mostly use English in their worship. However, their churches are not devoid of problems. In reality, they face the same problems we face here in Canada; poor attendance, lax participation, low spiritual education, etc etc. The Roman Catholic Church, with the advent of the second Vatican Council, changed all worship services to the vernacular and actually dropped in numbers!

What does this tell us?" Does it mean that we should only use Greek in our services? No. What it does do is serve as a caution as to how quickly we embrace the cultural and political trends of the time. It could be that through our quest to "modernize" the church, we may inadvertently lose that sense of "otherness" and experience of the "divine " and "sacred" that the Orthodox Church has maintained since the time of the Apostles. In essence, we risk turning the spiritual Body of Christ into just another night out at the theatre.

No comments: