Father Patrick Reardon’s rant about a liturgical expert at a priests’ conference has buttressed my hope for the Church (not that my hope for the Church was flagging at the moment, but it never hurts to buttress).
In Touchstone Magazine – Mere Comments, he relates that the only annoying expert to speak at this particular conference was a liturgist from an Orthodox seminary, who posited that Orthodox laity, specifically high-school students, have no imagination (those aren’t the words either one used, but that’s what it came down to). Fr. Reardon wrote:
We clergy, three quarters of us adult converts to the Orthodox Church, sat in sackcloth and inwardly groaned like pelicans in the wilderness, while a life-long Orthodox liturgical expert explained to us at length that Orthodox worship “no longer speaks meaningfully to modern man” and suggested ways in which an established panel of his cronies and clones might bring their expertise to bear on this crushing problem of Orthodox irrelevance to American life. They would pull our worship up to date and make it more meaningful to the refined sensibilities of contemporary society.
Growls and low rumblings were audible in the assembly. The fact that there was not a sudden, violent rush at the speaker’s podium is chiefly to the credit of Orthodox restraint and ascetical discipline.
One example Fr. Reardon brought from the speech was the fact that a high-school student would be confused by the liturgical references to the four elements because he’s seen the periodic table of elements. Well, I managed to escape high school without chemistry, but I’ve seen the periodic table of elements, and frankly I can wrap my mind around earth, air, fire and water more easily than ununseptium or rutherfordium.
Fr. Reardon answers in terms of Lord of the Rings, where the four elements are part of the fabric of the culture. Our hypothetical high-school student must be a graduate of Thomas Gradgrind’s academy of Facts (perhaps a fellow-alumnus of the liturgist) if he can’t think of more than one way to organize the elements (so to speak) of life.
What I find hopeful about this is the reaction of the clergy: annoyance, perplexity, amusement and a sense that listening to the liturgist is part of the price of attending a good conference. It’s important for scholars to explore, to wander the dim paths of the mind, and it’s important for the rest of us to observe them indulgently and to point out, if only to each other, that a given dim path is wandering into the swamp. If the Church leadership knows when to laugh and ignore the “experts” and when their ideas are well enough developed to take them more seriously, then the scholars are more free to explore and the rest of us don’t have to follow them down every dead-end trail.