Thursday, May 12, 2005

I've put a new post up on Go take a look.

Here's a copy if you don't want to click through:

Beauty as Evangelization

I still remember the first times I experienced the Byzantine Liturgy. The first time was in Bethlehem, PA during my short time as a seminarian. I was overcome by the beauty of the music. Here was a parish without organist, without choir, where the liturgy was sung by the entire congregation in harmony. I was able to pick up the melodies pretty quickly, and sang along for two glorious hours hymns of overwhelming depth. I wasn't in tears after the liturgy, but my sentiments were something like those of Augustine:

``I wept at the beauty of your hymns and canticles, and was powerfully moved at the sweet sound of Your Church's singing. Those sounds flowed into my ears, and the truth streamed into my heart: so that my feeling of devotion overflowed, and the tears ran from my eyes, and I was happy in them.''

After seminary, I went to Marquette to get a doctorate in philosophy. Providentially, a Melkite parish (St. George) was just down the street. I walked in one Sunday, and again was profoundly affected. This time, what struck me first of all was the sound of bells coming from behind the iconostasis, sounding like sleigh bells. What could be happening? It was like a child hearing Santa on the roof. Soon, Something Important was going to happen! Then the priest and the altar servers processed out from behind the screen, and we sang the great doxology. Something important did happen: Christ came among us, and I was hooked. I've been worshiping in Byzantium ever since.

I don't bring up my experience because there's anything particularly special about me. I bring it up because I think it is typical of the reactions of the world to the liturgical traditions of the East. Our liturgy is missionary as Pope Benedict pointed out, by means of the very beauty present within it.

What impressed onlookers about the liturgy was precisely its utter lack of an ulterior purpose, the fact that it was celebrated for God and not for spectators, that its sole intent was to be before God and for God "euarestos euprosdektos" (Romans 12:1; 15:16): pleasing and acceptable to God, as the sacrifice of Abel had been pleasing to God.

Beauty draws us up to the transcendent God. Beauty is evangelical. In fact, in the postmodern world of today, where there is no general confidence in any sort of metaphysics, it might be that beauty becomes the way to evangelize. I think that it is possible to do metaphysics, but even so, I recognize that a proof for the existence of God is not a proof for Christianity. Such a thing cannot be offered. But Beauty, the beauty of Eastern Christian practice, can be persuasive. David Bentley Hart puts it thus: "[Christianity] stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity--and the rhetorical richness of its idiom." In other words, Christianity presents a vision of life that persuades through its beauty. Our music, liturgy, and iconography can be evangelical, as it was for the emissaries of Prince Vladimir, who said "When we came to the country of the Greeks, we were brought to where they celebrate the liturgy for their God... We do not know if we were in heaven or on earth... We experienced that there God dwells among men..."

It is my hope that Transfiguration College can contribute to the re=evangelization of the world through our emphasis on beauty. It is the reason that our curriculum will have seminars on the liturgy, that we will teach the chant of our churches, and that our students will have practical experience in iconography.

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