Scattered Thoughts on Liturgy, Saints, and Postmodern Discourse

1. (With props to Ft. Stephen who initiated this idea for me): The Liturgy is pretty jarring. There are all sorts of things happening at once, there is an abundance of strange language (things we do not hear in our day-to-day lives), strange concepts, people standing about at odd angles, children making noise and running about, plus the abundance of icons that attract the eye and carry their own particular discourse (but more on that later God willing). We do not immediately fit into this construction, into all this language about the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, of forgiveness, of angels and archangels: the disjunction of imagery and sounds, the challenges and declarations (the mystery of the Holy Trinity is continually set before us). The “discourse” of the Liturgy clashes with our normal discourses, with our normal way of speaking, thinking, and acting in the world. We- our bodies, our words, our senses- are raised into Heaven, are moved onto a different level of discourse and being. This movement has the potential- if we embrace it and move with/within it, if you will- of opening up our “everyday” discourses, our everyday existence, to the radical new possibilities that are found within the discourse of the Liturgy. Of course, there is a danger that we allow the strangeness and radicalness of the Liturgy to become “normalized” so that we no longer notice it: instead of it challenging us and opening us and our ways of speaking/living up to God, we domesticate the Liturgy (or we simply drift off into our own mental world and act through the Liturgy without noticing it…), we domesticate the whole divine action and discourse that we are confronted with.

Rather, the “otherness” of the Liturgy should break into our language, into our ways of thinking in/about the world. For example, the language of loving one’s enemies, of forgiveness, is continually brought before us, clashing with our normal (unfortunately) discourse, in which forgiveness and love of the enemy is a foreign concept, an unsettling one, along with all those weird troparion abour martyrs and ascetics. What are we to do with this? If we simply “domesticate” it, if we do not accept it as a radical intrusion and opening up of our speech and our very lives, then that language, the Liturgy itself, becomes just an antiquarian artefact.

2. My web browser opens to the OCA daily calender of saints and festivals. Today’s saints struck me as particularly demonstrating the radical nature of not just the Liturgy, but of the whole of the faith. Today St. John the Merciful is commemorated: a saint who does violence to our conceptions of what charity should look like; his actions break through our bourgeouis sentiments and ethics and overturns them. How can you possibly keep giving money to a beggar you know is tricking you? My experience of St. John is similar to that which I experienced the first time I read Yoder’s Politics of Jesus: I hate what you’re saying because I know it is true and truly Christological, and it clashes so much with my assumptions, with the discourses I have assimilated and that keep me comfortable. Yet I cannot reject what he is saying (acting/doing): I see Christ in his actions, I hear the- radical and “breaking-in”- voice of Christ, reconfigured and redeployed in the saint. We need saints to speak into our lives, into our discourses, because we are always taking the Gospel and “normalizing” it, domesticating it, overlaying the words with our own comfortable assumptions. Saints like St. John overthrow this domestication.

Today the Fool-for-Christ St. John of Rostov (the Hairy!) is also commemorated. In the holy fool we find one of the supreme examples of God breaking into our “normalness” and disrupting pretty much every element of our discourse and self-image. What do you do with holy foolishness? What can we possibly do with it? By honouring the holy fool as a saint, the Church canonizes- declares to be canonical, a rule against which to measure our lives- his “crazy” life, his foolishness. Added up, the variety of “canons” declares an incredible plurality of possibilities of being-in-the-world-in-Christ, and this plurality clashes with our sensibilities of what is “respectable” and “allowable.” Again, our attempts at coopting Christ into our non-Christological modes of living are confronted and challenged. Our language of “normality,” of “sanity,” is shown to be inadequate, to be in need of a radical opening to the reality of the life of Christ. For in fact our “sanity” is so often revealed to be true craziness, to be even satanic “normality.” Our language is shown up, so to speak, for its disconnection to reality, to the inner truth of the world. The holy fool asks: who’s really crazy? Your hair is nicely trimmed and your discourse follows the expected parameters, corresponds- so you think!- to what is “real.” Yet- the holy fool in his humility (humility before the true Word) sees the world as it is, and his language is ultimately “truer” than yours.

3. Hopefully the reason I included the nebulous word “postmodernism” in the title of this post is by now clear. Orthodoxy reveals itself to have long been “postmodern” in the sense that it has always sought to confront and open up received discourse. Orthodoxy- in Liturgy, prayer, saints, icons, etc- destabilizes our language, destabilizes our view of ourselves and the world, and inserts the supra-reality of Christ: He who comes with a sword, a sword that cuts and divides and in so doing allows us to move beyond what are so often false constructions. And whereas structuralism and poststructuralism tend to move the reader towards a point of no reality, of nothing beyond constructions and their deconstruction, Christ posits reality and life beyond the ruins of our inadequate and falsifying language. Yes, our words fail (witness apothetic theology). Yes, our language is a mode of power, of coercion and falsification: but it is possible to break through that, into the true Word “spoken in silence” Who breaks up and re-assembles our discourse in the light of His Gospel and saints and in prayer and so on. Where deconstructionism proper can lead to nihilism or irrationalism, the “deconstructing” of Christ leads into the Resurrected Life, from the “death” of language (and author and subject!) into the true life of the Word.

4 thoughts on “Scattered Thoughts on Liturgy, Saints, and Postmodern Discourse

  1. Pingback: Liturgy, saints, and postmodern discourse « Khanya

  2. Pingback: Must-read post on Liturgy, Saints and Postmodern Discourse « A vow of conversation

  3. Seraphim

    Dear in Christ Jonathan,

    A couple of years ago I heard Fr. Thomas Hopko speaking in aside on the subject of postmodernism. He had been in converstation with another priest who said that postmodernism says, “I’ll affirm you in your thing and you affirm me in my thing.” Fr. Thomas enlarged that description with, “and you had better affirm me in my thing.”

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