Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more; si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi.
“If you are at Rome, live in the Roman manner; if elsewhere, live as they do there.”
When St. Augustine arrived in Milan, c. 387 A.D., he observed that the Church did not fast on Saturday as did the Church at Rome. He consulted St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who replied:
“When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the Church where you are.”
I would like to argue that we live in the West, in “Rome” as it were, and should follow the customs of the ancient Christian West, of Rome.
We are all very familiar with the fact that the Church worldwide before the Thirteenth Century enjoyed a great variety of customs and traditions from place to place. We should also be very familiar with the fact that these differences caused no concern. For the great majority of people, who never travelled anywhere, this variety was largely unknown. Only for those who travelled for business or for diplomacy was this an accepted experience.
In border lands between great nations, of course, people would be aware of these varieties. There one might see two or three different customs being followed by people from different areas, all living in the same town or city.
Southern Italy was always such a place, where Romans and Greeks and various types of barbarians were living and mixing together. Interesting liturgical experiments went on there during these early centuries, experiments which might have seemed quite exotic to people in the centers of their nations, or even to us, today.
North America has become one of those types of places in our world today. We have people from all kinds of countries and cultures, all living together in cities and towns all over North America.
In many cases they have tried, with varying levels of success, to maintain the customs of their homelands. The ultra- orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe, for instance, have managed to maintain really well the entire civilization of Eastern European Jewry of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries in the middle of some of our largest urban centers, like Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
The Chinese have had similar success, also in the center of our largest urban centers. With somewhat less success, the Amish and the Mennonites have tried to maintain their seventeenth-century rural culture all across the vast rural areas of America and Canada.
Russian “Old Believers” have had some success in Canada and Alaska. Elsewhere we find “little Italys,” “little Polands,” “little Germanys,” “little Azores,” and so on, in many of our cities. The maintenance of their cultures, however, seems to be really superficial: a lot of restaurants and markets and little else. The prevailing “American” culture is actually the cultural matrix in these communities.
This is especially true of the grand-children and later generations beyond the immigrant generation. The great “melting pot” much spoken and written about at the turn of the Twentieth Century is indeed a real thing. Public schooling, the English language, the media, especially entertainment, does its job and creates a standard, an expectation of standardization, which brings all of these people into one cohesive cultural expression. By the third generation, we all speak the same English, we all went to the same schools, we all eat the same food (except maybe on holidays), we all see the same movies and we all listen to the same music. We all go to Disney or Six Flags on vacation. We have all become “Americans” or “Canadians.” And that is without the hyphen: “German- Americans,” “Polish-Americans,” “Italian-Americans” – all that is a thing of the past. It goes away immediately as the immigrant generation passes away.
Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?
That entirely depends. How we, as American Orthodox are to proceed, depends on the answer we come up with. Is it possible to be truly, completely Orthodox and truly, completely American or Canadian at the same time? We see an entire variety of answers all across the Orthodox jurisdictional divide. Certainly the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) has institutionally answered Yes: use of the English language, at least, and some kind of adaption to American culture, as they understand it.
Our Antiochian Archdiocese has also answered Yes, if in a somewhat more qualified way. We pioneered English language liturgy and outreach to non-Orthodox Americans. Do you know that by the 1950s, over half of our clergy were converts?
Other jurisdictions have also said Yes, if perhaps more softly and in an even more qualified way. I don’t think that anyone has answered No. Even if there are isolated communities in Chicago or the Bronx, in which it seems that America does not exist at all, their larger jurisdictions do not expect everyone to live like that.
Our people came to this continent in almost all cases for economic opportunity. They wanted what America or Canada had to offer in terms of the “American Dream.” They did not want to re-create the conditions from which they came. An awful lot of them never looked back.
So what is “America” or “Canada,” culturally? These nations were created by Great Britain. There; like it or not, it is so. Sure, there were French all over the place, and Spanish here or there, but it is the British who created the framework of politics, culture, and language in which all of us live, work, and play, even if we happen to be in Acadia, or Gulf-coast Louisiana, or California, or Arizona, or Southern Florida. The remains of the French or Spanish past are decidedly secondary.
This means that we are cultural heirs to a very specific civilization. The roots of this civilization are in Europe of the fourth to seventh centuries.
Europe was a collection of various tribes: Celtic, Gothic or Germanic or Frank, and other kinds of barbarians.
The Romans were not culturally ascendant at the time. The revolution which created Europe out of these warring chaotic tribes was the preaching of Christianity. St. Martin, St. Boniface, St. Patrick, St. David, and the others are all credited openly and plainly with creating the nations which they evangelized.
There is no continuity between the pagan tribes and the Christian nations which they became. Their history ended, so to speak, and something brand new began.
The event of Baptism fundamentally changed who they were and how they lived. Even in Italy, the barbarian invasions and their subsequent adoption of “civilization” effected the same fundamental change. Besides the preach- ing, teaching, and organization of the great missionary bishops, the influence of Benedictine monasticism was incredibly important. All of these bishop-saints brought with them St. Benedict’s Rule, and armies of black-robed monks praying and singing in Latin. This means that there was a great deal of commonality and identity between all of these new “nations” of Christian Europe. They were brought and given “civilization,” along with their brand new Christianity.
It is impossible to overstate the huge influence of the towering figures of St. Gregory the Great (Dialogos) and St. Benedict of Nursia. They are the holy authors of the civilization which was carried all over Europe by the great missionary bishops. And it was Roman in the ecclesiastical sense. The differences between Rome, Milan, and Toledo in custom and tradition did not travel throughout Europe.
It was Rome that sent out the missionaries, and Rome that sent out her Christian culture. The brief experiment of the Celts at the very edge of the world was extinguished with the council of Whitby (663–664) and the success of the Saxons in the area.
The bishops and the abbots were constantly traveling to Rome to procure books, music, and teachers, as they enlarged and spread the civilization among the people and created a Christian culture which for the next five hundred or so years was completely Orthodox, but completely Western at the same time. The height of all of this is the Romanesque period (from the Fourth or Seventh or Ninth Century, to the Thirteenth); art, architecture, literature, music, all of it deeply Christian and somehow Roman.
I think that the case can be made that the Romanesque is a discreet culture in and of itself, one which unified all of Europe up to the Thirteenth Century. Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in his Journal that “Christianity is not about culture, but it cannot avoid giving birth to culture, inasmuch as culture is a holistic vision of God, man and the world.” This “holistic vision” is beautifully represented in the Romanesque manifestation in Europe at the time of the “split” between East and West.
I need to mention here the historical fact that the Western Church – Rome – and all of Europe and North Africa were fully and completely understood to be Orthodox at this time. It also needs to be understood that the Church of Rome, including North Africa, was using the historical Western Liturgy both for the hours and for the Mass. Since the time of St. Gregory the Great (Dialogus) (590–604) the Roman Rite remained almost exactly the same until the 1970s. The Roman Rite before St. Gregory was hardly different, either. St. Gregory made only small changes in the form of the services. What he did was to compose and organize the changeable propers for various feasts and seasons. Even the two other Western liturgies, that of Milan and Toledo, are essentially Roman in their outward form and structure.
I say these things because some of us, especially some of our Eastern, Byzantine brethren, imagine that the West used the same services as the East before the split. This misunderstanding is encouraged by the strange and anachronistic icons of ancient Western Saints dressed as modern Byzantines.
In fact, it was the Byzantines who changed radically how they worship. St. John Chrysostom never heard “Only Begotten Son…” or the Cherubim hymn. He never wore a Sakkos or a “Byzantine Mitre” either. If he saw a modern Byzantine Heirarchical Liturgy, he would not recognize what it was at all.
If St. Gregory the Great (Dialogos) or St. Benedict, or St. Leo visited one of our Western Rite parishes, they would be quite at home, know exactly where they were, and might even sing along with the chants.
The people who colonized North America, and who bequeathed to us the institutions and world-view which are “American,” came from this Europe, albeit after the Protestant Deformation and the Thirty Year’s War (1618 – 1648), which had caused 8 million deaths throughout Europe. America and Canada were colonized and organized as part of Christian civilization. Some came here specifically to preserve their religious culture, such as the Puritans, Quakers, Moravians, Amish, Mennonites and Roman Catholics, while others came for economic freedoms, but completely com- mitted to the religious traditions which they brought with them.
The “English” expressions of Christianity became the normative: Church of England/Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist are still the mainline churches of America. Lutheran and Church Reformed (Church of Christ) represent the large number of Germans who came from the beginning. The Roman Catholics were originally English, then German, then Irish mirroring the development of American culture through the early immigration. (The French and Spanish Catholics were there all along, but did not appreciably affect our common culture.)
From the beginning, America was full of “religion.” Along with the early settlers came missionaries intent on Christianizing the natives. Some of our greatest universities were originally “Indian schools” of one religious bent or another.
In New England, the local parish church was the center of politics as well as religion. In Pennsylvania, Moravian and Lutheran pastors were leaders in the Revolution. Some seventy-five years later, various churches were very active in the debates on both sides of the American Civil War. It was in parish churches all over the North that people gathered to listen to activists speak about the issues.
Even today, when we are so used to talking about the decline and decay of American religious life, people in America are much, much more “religious” than their European counterparts.
One very important aspect of all of this is that American “religiosity” if you will, is Western in form.
The mainline churches are all directly descended from the Roman Catholic Church of the middle ages through the English and German reformation experience. Our art, music, and literature are all part of the development which begins with the Romanesque flowering in Europe and descends directly from there. The “authorized” or “King James” Bible has had the most profound effect on our language itself, as well as our literary forms; with Cranmer’s “Book of Common Prayer” right behind it. (You can look it up; there have been studies.)
Even if people today do not recognize the origin of so much of our everyday culture, they are intimately familiar with it, and it lives in our lives nevertheless. Does everyone who hears the Pete Seeger song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” know that it is an extended quote from Ecclesiastes? Probably not. But countless people can sing all of it. My wife, a high school his- tory teacher observes that no one can read most of the original documents of our history intelligently without a thorough knowledge of the Bible.
Does anyone know that the Andrew Lloyd Weber song “Pie Jesu” comes from the Requiem Mass? Probably not. But you can hear it everywhere – strangely, often at Christmastime. And speaking of the Requiem, the melody of the sequence: “Dies Irae…” is everywhere. A partial list, curtesy of Wikipedia is: Symphonie Fantastique – Berlioz, Totentanz-Liszt, Danse Macabre – Saint Saens, Symphony No 3 – Saint Saens, Isle of the Dead – Rachmaninoff, Symphon-ic Dances – Rachmaninoff, Metropolis Symphony – Daugherty, Stars and Stripes Forever – Sousa, Sweeney Todd – Sondheim, Hunchback of Notre Dame – Menken, Star Wars prequels – John Williams, Close Encounters of the Third Kind – John Williams, Home Alone – John Williams, Marie Ward – Elmer Bernstein, Nightmare Before Christmas – Danny Elfman.
Since we are thinking of the Requiem, does anyone wonder why the colors of Halloween are orange and black? Of course, there are a lot of sociological and psychological reasons why the Requiem would be a very, very powerful influence on individuals, and collectively on the culture as a whole.
One could go on at great length, finding and listing all sorts of images from art, music, poetry, language, and elsewhere, which come directly from the Western Church. It would be a lot of fun, and very, very informative, but it would take a lot longer than we have time for. You can just imagine that they are everywhere.
Another important feature of our culture is the Latin language. The Church made the Latin language universal. When one visits England, one can be immediately overwhelmed by the amount of Latin around. At one time it was the language of government, law, and education, as well as the Church – because of the Church. In the United States, eighteen of our State mottos are in Latin. Latin appears on the great Seal of the United States, and on many State flags and town and city seals. Many, many university seals feature Latin, and some still print their certificates all or partially in Latin. It is still a feature in law and medicine. Because Latin was the language of education for such a long time, the influence of the language itself imprinted itself on our ways of thinking, discussing, and understanding in ways we never notice.
There is an entire discipline which tries to understand the psychology of language. We Americans all carry the influences of the Latin language with us in the way we process and understand everything.
All of this means that North American culture bears the indelible print of the Western Church on it, under it, around it, and through it. Does that mean that North Americans are all immersed in the Church and Christian thought? No. In fact, hardly at all. Despite the fact that Americans are more “religious” than Europeans, their focus has been on individual experience and leaning strongly toward syncretism and the occult. (Again, there are plenty of studies to look at, if you like.) Fr. Alexander Schmemann was very strong when he wrote in his Journal:
“The West – secular, hedonistic, technological, etc., lives by its renunciation of Christianity. I emphasize, not by indifference to Christianity, but precisely renunciation. – The revolutionary West lives by its fight with Christianity, with the Christian man.”
I like to say that the West has sought to evacuate the Christian meaning out of everything in our culture. We see this most especially at Christmas. Our Christmas feast is unlike anything that ever came before, precisely because Christianity – Christ Himself – is unlike anything that ever came before. The anti-Christians are forced to jump through hoops of their own making in order to try and reclaim Christmas for themselves without the Christian content. It never works very successfully because Christ comes and re-fills everything with Himself whenever no one is looking. One has to be very vigilant, very forceful, and very committed to be constantly on the watch, for creeping Christianity always finding its way back in.
So, we can see two clear choices regarding the way we can proceed. We can seek to differentiate ourselves in every way from modern, contemporary Western culture. We can dress strangely, maintain a different language, advocate for a radically different lifestyle, and keep ourselves in isolated communities, largely cut off from the mainstream society. It works for the Amish and the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and perhaps for the Old-Believer Russian Orthodox.
This was not our ancestor’s intent when they came over here, but we can say that they did not anticipate the radical anti-Christian takeover of the culture. I know that this option is being seriously considered by young Orthodox all over the country. I actually see it in practice somewhat in certain young communities of believers. I must say that I am not comfortable with it.
But then I am of a very different generation, and I had a very different formation at Seminary. Fr. Alexander Schmemann would not have been very much a fan.
There is a kind of moderate form of this, in which converts are asked to “renounce” their culture, at least symbolically. They take new names, they learn the exotic and foreign Byzantine liturgy, but they keep their language. They go to school and work in the wider world, but they might modify their appearance a bit in order to make it clear that they are not “of this world.”
Freely admitting that there might be other choices, I would like to explore a radically different direction. What if we were to refill, powerfully and even triumphalistically, our ancient Christian culture with Christian content, the same content around which it was originally formed?
We can do this. It would take serious preaching and teaching based around our own ancient Christian past. It would take a lot of work to disassociate ourselves from false impressions, misunderstandings and willful twisting of that content. So many people have written off traditional Christianity because they think that they know what it is, but in fact, have absolutely no real idea. So many of them are reacting to what they have been told by others, or what they misunderstood themselves, not having bothered to study seriously for themselves. This is a whole “rant” in and of itself, but it must seriously be dealt with. Of course, this presupposes that we would worship according to our Western Rite heritage, using the very forms which helped form the world in which we live.
We see a new interest in people finding their “roots.” It is even becoming quite a lucrative industry. Geneology and DNA research, reinforced by trendy TV series, seem really to be taking off. There is something really powerful here. When I think of my own ancestors being introduced to Christianity in the West-country of England or the Rhineland, and realize that they heard the same words, the same hymns, in the same melodies which we are using right here, it is always very moving to me.
This is my history, my heritage, my roots, and it moves me deeply. For how many others is this a reality as well? In a very, very real sense, the WR Vicariate turns back the clock on history. Metropolitan PHILIP always said that that is impossible. But we do!
We take our culture back to a time before the hideous protestant deformations, before the religious wars of the Seventeenth Century, to a time when the “world” was Christian and Orthodox, and all of culture was an expression of that Truth, of Christ Himself.
Maybe it is hard to get our minds around a time after and before inclusive pluralism, but there was such a time, and it was ours. There are some Roman Catholic conservatives who suggest that in order to do this we have to return to small agrarian communities and isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. I suppose that it would work, somehow, but I am not suggesting that.
I am suggesting living and working and witnessing in the world around us. I am suggesting that we be as secure and confident in our own culture – our ancient Christian culture – as is the culture around us. I am suggesting that we use the culture itself to preach, to manifest Christ as He once was manifest in all His Glory. Yes, the world is fallen. Yes, the world is mortal, and passes away. But once, Christian culture witnessed to the eternal Kingdom of Heaven in a way that surrounded and filled believer’s lives with the presence of that Kingdom of Heaven, even as they lived out their lives in this mortal world. I believe that anti-Christians will react strongly and even violently against us if we were to attempt this. I believe that a lot of people would ignore us, being secure in their unfounded rejection of Christianity.
Yet I believe that some people would find in the Church, in Christ Himself, a fulfillment of human potentiality, and an answer to their own unanswered longings.
As St. Augustine so poignantly pointed out at the very beginning of his Confessions:
“Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee, man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that Thou ‘resistest the proud,’ – yet man, this part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee. Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”– Book 1, Chapter 1