Sunday, 1/22/23

I (Still) Don’t Mind Singing in an Empty Church

I am well aware that over my almost 13 years of blogging, I’ve more or less exhausted many of my ideas, and have become something of an aggregator or curator instead of someone expressing his own thoughts.

So I’ve begun — tentatively, at least — going back to my early blogging days for inspiration. In so doing, I found this from March of 2010. The title was I Don’t Mind Singing in an Empty Church. It still holds true:

Well, technically, I’m not sure the Church is ever really empty. There’s always that great cloud of witnesses.

But apart from them, the Church is sometimes empty except for Priest and Cantor (me). We rarely have more than the “clergy” (Priest, Deacon, Cantor and maybe another Reader) at the very beginning  of Matins. Occasionally that will happen in a weekday service, too. Usually one or two will arrive soon after the start, though. The inspired doodle above is (from Steve Robinson at Pithless Thoughts, shall we say, reality-based.

But it doesn’t bother me, at least not in the sense of “why do I bother?” I may regret that many who could be present don’t bother, and miss out (missing out on what is the point of this posting – read on). But many really can’t come, and that’s okay. We’re a small Parish, with lots of young families with children. I’d think there was something seriously wrong if those families dragged their young ones to Matins, which combined with Liturgy routinely runs almost 3 hours. Others commute as much as an hour each way. So I don’t expect them to come.

But by coming and singing, I myself – hard of hearing and heart – steep in the teaching and mind of the Church. Slowly, I’m absorbing it. That counts for quite a lot since I’m serious about my faith but have nearly 5 decades of baggage from other Christian traditions, each misguided about many things, to unload.

One of those pieces of baggage is how to approach scripture. I had already begun to write this when Father Stephen posted on “the hearing of the word.” It illustrates beautifully how the Church approaches scripture:

I am convinced after years of preaching and listening to preaching that the bulk of Scripture has become lost to our ears. We hear it, but fail to “hear” it ….

Much of my conviction on this matter has come in the last 12 years or more and my immersion into the services of the Orthodox Church. These services, long and with ample “hymnography” that is but a poetic commentary on the Scriptures and doctrines that surround any particular feast, are probably the richest surviving engagement with the Word of God to be found in a 21st century Church. Here no Reformation has occurred and reduced all Scripture to a “riff” on Justification by Faith, or a subset of Calvin’s paradigms. Here no Enlightenment has shown with its darkness of doubt and obfuscation.

Instead, there is a constant wonderment at the Scriptures themselves, as if the hymnographer were discovering something for the first time or had found a rare gem to share to any willing to listen – and all in the form of praise and thanksgiving to God.

It is true to say that in Orthodoxy, “Theology sings.” ….

…In our modern context most people have either been shaped by fundamentalist literalism; by modernist historical criticism; or by nearly nothing at all. In each case the Scriptures will not sing – they will not yield up their treasures.

I was struck by a particular case this evening – at the Vigil for  Palm Sunday. The gospel account in question was the Matthean version of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem:

“And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If any one says anything to you, you shall say, `The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon.”

Modern historical criticism hears in this only the “foolishness” of Matthew. Matthew has cited the prophecy in Zechariah that “your king is coming to you…mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass,” and has crafted his story in precisely that manner, placing Jesus astride two animals. The same critics will note that in other gospel accounts Christ is only on a “foal of an ass,” i.e., one animal. Historical Critics have a field day with such problems (I was first confronted with this “discrepancy” in my sophomore year of college – it was presented as if the professor had noticed something no one had ever seen before). Modern fundamentalists will rush to defend the integrity of the gospel accounts, “Two different eye-witnesses reported on the same thing and one emphasized one thing and the other emphasized another.”

Both explanations lack imagination and are precisely the sort of blindness that afflicts so much modern reading of Scripture. Listening to the hymnody for the Vigil of Palm Sunday, the hymnographer, without apology for the discrepancy, races to it and declares:

“O gracious Lord, who ridest upon the cherubim, who art praised by the seraphim, now Thou dost ride like David on the foal of an ass, The children sing hymns worthy of God, while the priests and scribes blaspheme against Thee. By riding an untamed colt, Thou hast prefigured the salvation of the Gentiles, those wild beasts, who will be brought from unbelief to faith! Glory to Thee, O merciful Christ. Our King and the Lover of man!”

the ancient hymnographer has come closer to the heart of Scripture than either the modern sceptic or the modern literalist will ever know.

… The writers of the New Testament believed that everything in the Old, when read rightly would yield insight into the Messiah and the mystery of our salvation. But their creative insight (again, I believe it is inspired) is far removed from the flat-footed nonsense that we hear out of modern fundamentalist “prophetic” scholars, whose reading of the Old Testament is almost as poorly constructed as the 19th century false prophecies of the book of Mormon! Neither bear any resemblance to the treatment of prophecy found in the New Testament.

And thus I return to my original point. We have become deaf. We listen with ears either hardened by modernist scepticism, or by a false literalism that has substituted Darbyite nonsense for the Apostolic faith, or reduced Scripture to delicate harmonizations. None of them have the boldness and audacity of the patristic hymnographers who stood in the proper line of succession, proclaiming the faith as it had been taught and received and continuing to expound its mysteries. Thank God that somewhere in this modern world, you can still stand and listen to the wonders of our salvation, sung and unraveled before the unbelieving heart of man. Glory to God who has so loved mankind!

So, whether there’s a single soul besides me in church, I’m singing theology. I’m singing poetry. I’m expounding the mysteries of the faith. I’m unraveling the wonders of our salvation before my own unbelieving heart, made dull by 48 years of desperate harmonizations – “flat-footed nonsense.”

[If this sampling from Father Stephen has whetted your appetite, probably the most target-rich zone of audacious expounding of the Old Testament is the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, sung in segments during the first week of Lent and then sung in its entirety Thursday of the 5th week. Download and savor.]

And in a sense that I’m slowly and dimly beginning to apprehend, we are doing the reconciling work of God. This gets into a sacramental view of the world, which I am unqualified to address and would surely botch if I tried. Perhaps another day.

Although I’m occasionally bone-weary when I go to sing, it’s always a very great privilege, and I benefit as much as anyone.

Published March 27, 2010

This recent post from Father Stephen expands on why I benefit from singing even in an empty church, particularly when I wrote that I “steep in the teaching and mind of the Church”:

What is often experienced at first as “boredom” (the sameness of the liturgy or the interminable character of the Psalms or Canon in some services) is nothing more than a description of something that exists for the nurture of the nous rather than the emotions and reasoning. Imagine walking with someone through a Redwood forest, or along a quiet beach and being told, “I’m bored.” In truth, the forest and the beach are quite common examples of noetic experiences that have yet to be eradicated or destroyed by our culture. It is not surprising that many people report an awareness of God in such settings.

The One Mediator – And the Sacraments (emphasis added).

I really should at least provide a hyperlink for nous, which is more than the first person plural French pronoun.

The Desire of the Nations

It is a strange yet incontrovertible fact that, when God did take flesh, He in many ways (though certainly not all) revealed himself to be closer in spirit to the Tao of Lao Tzu then to God as conceived by the Hebrews at that time, even though the Hebrews had the revelation of Moses. This might be difficult to accept by those who are accustomed to thinking of Christ as the fulfillment of the expectation specifically of the Hebrews. Ancient Christian tradition, however, holds that Christ satisfied the longing of all the nations.

Hieromonk Damascene, Christ the Eternal Tao

The whiff of an empty bottle

Alasdair MacIntyre famously suggested that modernity is like the late Roman Empire, living on fragments of old ideas and practices that made sense only within a context that is now largely lost. Christian institutions, such as parishes, schools, hospitals, and aged-care and welfare agencies, might seem quite healthy. But they can easily lose their souls and become Christian “zombies” indistinguishable from secular NGOs.

As a young man, backpacking around Europe while deciding my vocation, I spent a fortnight in Florence. Two young guys from Seattle arrived at my youth hostel with only a day for Florence and asked me whether there was much to see! Though no expert, I offered to take them around. Engraved in my memory is an incident in the Uffizi Gallery. One of them turned to me and asked, “Who is the woman with the baby in so many of the pictures?”

Anthony Fisher, The West: Post- or Pre-Christian?

Peace in our time

[I]t came as something of a surprise that the Anglican bishops voted this week to stand firm on gay marriage. The result is somewhat qualified—the bishops also voted to permit blessings and prayers for same-sex civil partnerships and to issue a forthcoming apology about past sins against LGBTQ+ people. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, however, is apparently delighted:

This response reflects the diversity of views in the Church of England on questions of sexuality, relationships and marriage. I rejoice in that diversity and I welcome this way of reflecting it in the life of our church. I hope it can offer a way for the Church of England, publicly and unequivocally, to say to all Christians and especially LGBTQI+ people, that you are welcome and a valued and precious part of the body of Christ.

Or, to put it more concisely in the words of Neville Chamberlain, “Peace in our time.”

Carl Trueman

Half-Converted Christians

There is no point in converting people to Christ if they do not convert their vision of the world and of life, since Christ then becomes merely a symbol for all that we love and want already – without Him. This kind of Christianity is more terrifying than agnosticism or hedonism.

Rod Dreher, Schmemann and Social Justice. I suspect that Dreher was quoting or closely paraphrasing Fr. Schmemann, a towering figure in American Orthodoxy.

I don’t want my Sunday posts to turn political, but it seems to me that this may be relevant to the Donald Trump supporters who began calling themselves “Evangelical” without darkening the door of even the Trumpiest “church.”

Steve Robinson returns!

To my delight, I stumbled onto one of my favorite sporadic podcasters and doodlers, who apparently disappeared partly because of cancer, but it now back with the Pithless Thoughts II.

(2023 Resolutions)

It appears that “sporadic” no longer fits, which is a good thing if I’m going to pay-to-read.

Do not subscribe expecting any political commentary.

More from Steve:

The internet gives us an omniscience about, and a platform to address the world in ways that were previously available only to God.

The problem is, we are not equipped to be God. Adam and Eve had one thing to control and could not deal with the temptation attached to it. They failed as “gods” in a near-perfect world in which only one thing in their world demanded a consequential choice. One thing. In one small place. With one clear instruction. No other people. No “big picture”. No big deal. Their world was as limited as their humanity. And yet they failed to be even as human as they could have been.

I don’t know if the world is bigger and more complicated because of the Fall, or if we have just not been able to keep up with it because of the Fall. Either way, we are not created with the capacity to deal with omniscience. Our finite humanness is created to obey God and let God be God and judge and control all things (to not “be God”). It is not created to “be God” and judge, control and respond to the entire world’s issues. Because we are not God and we live in a fallen world, we can only take in so much pain, evil and dissolution (on top of what is already in our own hearts and lives) before we break.

I’ve watched the internet for over 20 years now and I see the same thing happening. We are in a cultural and personal “psychotic break”.

The “break” is this: We are overwhelmed with an ungodly amount of information, we are tempted and called on to be “gods”, but we, by nature, incapable of omniscience. The world is big, out of control, gray and complex. We, on the other hand are small, relatively powerless and simple. At the intersection of the vast world and our limited humanity is the potential for “psychosis”. And it is ultimately a spiritual issue.

The hardest spiritual discipline, from the beginning, is to “stay in our human lane” and not fall for the First Temptation to “be like God, knowing good from evil”. All the evils in the world were brought about by that simple appeal to our human ego and the news of the world, no matter how intimate or global that news is, has tempted humanity since.

You Will Be Like God


Her mysteries are but the expressions in human language of truths to which the human mind is unequal.

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua

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