HE EMINENT Russian Orthodox bishop (and composer of sacred music) Hilarion Alfeyev once spoke of the relationship between the lex orandi and the lex credendi, the law of believing and the law of worshiping, as follows:
“Another divorce which needs to be mentioned is that between theology and liturgy. For an Orthodox theologian, liturgical texts are not simply the works of outstanding theologians and poets, but also the fruits of the prayerful experience of those who have attained sanctity and theosis. The theological authority of liturgical texts is, in my opinion, higher than that of the works of the Fathers of the Church, for not everything in the works of the latter is of equal theological value and not everything has been accepted by the fullness of the Church. Liturgical texts, on the contrary, have been accepted by the whole Church as a ‘rule of faith’ (kanon pisteos), for they have been read and sung everywhere in Orthodox churches over many centuries.”
In this connection we might consider the penetrating words of Pope Benedict XVI who in a General Audience of May 21, 2008 on Saint Romanus the Melodist said:
“Palpitating humanity, arduous faith, and profound humility pervade the songs of Romanus the Melodist. This great poet and composer reminds us of the entire treasure of Christian culture, born of faith, born of the heart that has found Christ, the Son of God. From this contact of the heart with the truth that is love, culture is born, the entire great Christian culture. And if the faith continues to live, this cultural inheritance will not die, but rather it will continue to live and be current. Icons continue to speak to the hearts of believers to this day, they are not things of the past. The cathedrals are not medieval monuments; rather they are houses of life, where we feel ‘at home,’ where we find God and each other. Neither is great music—Gregorian chant, Bach or Mozart—something of the past, rather it lives in the vitality of the liturgy and our faith. If faith is alive, Christian culture will never be ‘outdated,’ but rather will remain alive and current.”
As if echoing both the eminent bishop and the emeritus pope, Cardinal Marc Ouellet once noted that music and the figurative arts amplify the hearing and seeing of Sacred Scripture, and maintained that this amplification is alive and well in the Eastern rite Churches, in comparison with the musical and iconic impoverishment that impairs much of the Latin rite Church today.
The fundamental truth to which all of these churchmen are drawing our attention is that we not only pray as we believe (in the sense that the content of our faith informs our public worship), but we also believe as, and what, we pray. And this is rather more frightening if we consider that significantly changing the music, the art forms and architecture, the liturgical texts and rituals and ceremonies, the ethos and atmosphere of worship, the complex amalgamation of word and sign and silence, cannot but have the effect, over time, of changing the very content of the faith—or at very least, changing our understanding of its parts and their relative balance in the whole of the revealed mystery.
Put simply, the liturgy is the embodiment and expression of our theology. If our Catholic theology is sound and profound, the liturgy will be sacred and utterly consistent with the Word of God—and in turn, our practice of the liturgy will confirm and enrich and elevate our theology, our prayerful understanding and surrender to God. If our theology is weak, fragmented, or compromised, the liturgical expression of it will be similarly weak in its power to evangelize, fragmented in its message, compromised in its power to create a culture of divine life and undermine the culture of death.
What we need above all in our liturgies is an image of eternity. As Pope Benedict XVI said to the Monks of Heiligenkreuz, in comments that we can readily adapt to ourselves, whatever our state in life:
“The interior disposition of each priest, and of each consecrated person, must be that of ‘putting nothing before the Work of God.’ The beauty of this inner attitude will find expression in the beauty of the liturgy, so that wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshipping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth. Truly it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centered on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity. Otherwise, how could our forefathers, hundreds of years ago, have built a sacred edifice as solemn as this? Here the architecture itself draws all our senses upwards, towards ‘what eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined: what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9).”