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Larry Chapp’s Life As Liturgy

A Georgian Orthodox Christian chants the 'Our Father' in Aramaic for Pope Francis (screengrab)

Larry Chapp, a retired Catholic theologian, sent me the following letter, which I post with his permission:

Your essay on your blog dealing with the loss of the sacred is, I think, one of the more important things you have written about of late.  And not because I think the priest sex abuse scandal to be unimportant or overhyped.  Quite to the contrary, I think these two issues are deeply and directly linked.  I am sure you are often sent emails from people who complain about your focus on the Catholic sex scandals.  But I would like to see even more writing about this issue, but with a deeper focus on how the scandal of sexual abuse is directly linked to the issue of secularization within the Catholic Church.  The issue of liquid modernity is THE key to understanding this crisis since it is the result of secularism’s destruction of anything remotely resembling, what the sociologists of religion call, a “binding address” in our development as moral and spiritual beings.

Here I think Orthodoxy has something important to teach the West.  The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, in his wonderful little book For the Life of the Worlddefines secularism as the negation of man as a “worshipping being”.  He correctly points out that many secularists “believe in God” (heck, as I often tell my students, “even Satan believes in God”), and that they may even have a sense of the spiritual and a semblance of a prayer life.  Overt, full-blown, ideological  atheism is still a minority position in America.  But what makes these believers in God “secular” is their denial of the important of man as “homo adorans”.  They deny that the very essence of what it means to be human involves giving “true worship” to God or that such worship constitutes the very perfection of who we are.  Liturgy is thus robbed of any divine meaning or significance (for good reason do we call it “the Divine Liturgy”) and it is reduced in stature to a mere ritualized projection of our own subjective “tastes” in matters religious, on an equal footing with my preferences for Bourbon over Scotch, and Quarter Pounders over Big Macs:  de gustibus non est disputandum.

But this further entails, as Schmemann points out, some consequences as well for how we view the world.  The cosmos in general and the natural terrestrial world we inhabit are now viewed as non-sacramental.  The world is not an epiphany of God, where we can encounter His Revelation, or power or presence.  Many people today continue to feel that they can get a sense of the sacred in nature, but almost always in a vague way that highlights aesthetic feelings of being moved by beauty or just the sense of calm one gets by removing mental clutter and relaxing in the pool of nature’s serenity.  But here we see something very telling.  In such modern secular spiritualities it is almost as if God lurks “behind” nature as an anonymous “ground of being” or “energy” or “power”, but rarely as a God of communion who speaks to us in and through nature and who seeks to be spoken to by us in return in acts of worship.

Thus, despite much bluster about finding God in nature among modern secular types, it is actually a veiled agnosticism that denies the epiphanic sacramentality of nature, and, by implication of man as well.  Schmemann goes on to point out that viewed as the direct denial of our liturgical role as the “apex worshipper” of creation, secularism represents the very negation of the only reason for Christianity’s existence.  Seen in this light, he excoriates those Christians who seek to accommodate Christian worship to the modern secular spirit as naïve at best, and as sinful collaborators at worst.  There can be no rapprochement between secularism and Christianity since the former entails the very negation of the latter.

At this point you might think that what I am saying is that liberal Christians in particular are at fault here.  Nope.  Way back in the ’80s when I was in Catholic seminary, my fellow conservative friends and I often claimed that almost all of the modern problems of the Church could be laid at the feet of liberals — including the sexual stuff.  We looked to dioceses like Lincoln and Wichita and Arlington as shining examples of how orthodox belief is a bulwark against secularization and thus of the loss of faith that leads to scandal.  But as I have grown older, and as the sex scandal shows us, I have come to see that ideological orthodoxy is no barrier to sexual abuse by priests.  And that is because orthodoxy alone (viewed simply as having a correct theology) can still be imbued with a secular spirit.

I have known many seminarians and priests, for example, who are drawn to the old Latin Mass and who talk a good game about orthodoxy, but who are really just play-acting a role rather than desiring true worship of God.  There is a certain kind of man who enjoys ritualized pomp and ceremony, with himself at the center, and for whom the pomp is merely a projection of certain tastes, rather than an attempt at true liturgical praise of God.  The Divine Liturgy, in other words can, on a psychological and moral level, be rendered hollow (despite its ex opera operato efficaciousness on a deeper ontic level) and actually turned into a highly secular enterprise wherein certain worldly things are celebrated and with little internal orientation to God.

What I am driving at is this:  for the past century (if not longer) the spirit of modernity, which is a spirit of secularism, has been eroding the Church from within.  But what Schmemann’s theology allows us to see is what, specifically, is detrimental to the faith in secularism.  And it is the denial of our proper orientation as beings who must adore God, who must orient ourselves in every way to God, in all that we do, in order for us to get our humanity right.  The priestly sex abuse crisis is therefore merely a symptom, albeit a gross one, of this deeper pathology that has been in the Church.  And it shows up in a lot of other ways as well.  It shows up, most acutely, in the spiritual acedia of the bishops who act as if there is no God.  They have not governed the Church as men who seek to orient us all to our proper end as worshippers of God first and foremost “in Spirit and in Truth”.  And the results are catastrophic, as we can all see.

Thus to the issue of celibacy.  Is celibacy the cause of all of this?  Will the Church purge itself of this scourge if it gets rid of celibacy? Perhaps.  But I do not think that celibacy, per se, is the cause of this.  It is celibacy mixed with secularism that is the cause of this.  And the secular ethos cuts across all ideological spectrums in the Church and deep into her soul.  Celibacy only makes sense in an eschatological landscape where our nature is elevated by grace into an all together new form of “fruitfulness” — the fecundity of God himself, gifted to us in the Sacraments and in our proper worship of Him.  But once robbed of that landscape, and in an environment where even “High Liturgy” is imbued with a false secular spirit, celibacy becomes almost impossible.

Finally, I think all of this has implications for the Benedict Option as well.  I run a small, Catholic Worker Farm in the spirit of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day.  My wife and I are also Benedictine Oblates and we make sure that we make the praying of the Divine Office the center of our day here.  We even have a small chapel on our grounds for that purpose.  In the course of our ministry here we do often encounter people who are intrigued by our “back to the land” lifestyle, but not this liturgical element.  And we are polite, but firm, in our response:  hippie communes always fail due to the fact that our sinful entropy is always stronger than cannabis fueled free love.  The liturgical aspect, wherein we offer praise to God, is not a “lifestyle choice” or some kind of spiritual ornamentation on top of the core of our ministry.  It is our ministry, and what we do on the farm is the ornamentation if you will.

That is why I think the Ben Op can only be done with an orientation to monastic values, with “monastic” defined as the radical pursuit of the three evangelical counsels within the overarching rhythm of a life oriented to proper worship of God.

I know you agree with all I have written.  So, all of this long rambling email is merely my way of encouraging you to do three things Rod:

  1.  Keep at this issue of priestly sex abuse and episcopal collusion like a pit bull.  For better or for worse, you have become the “go to” blog for getting true reporting on this issue.  So many things would not have come to light without your blogging about them.  So keep at it.

  2.  Link this crisis more and more directly to the issue of secularism and liquid modernity as these things have deformed the Church.

  3. Emphasize that those who wish to follow the Benedict Option must place true Liturgical Worship of the triune God of Jesus Christ at the center of that option.

What a great letter. Thank you, Larry. By the way, readers, a Kindle version of Father Schmemann’s profound little book is on sale for only $2.99 today. 

Larry’s letter inspires so many thoughts. I’m writing this late at night on Wednesday, and will schedule it for posting on Thursday morning, because I’m going to be out of town and won’t return till early afternoon. I tell you this because I’m only going to say a little bit below about Larry’s letter, knowing that if I gave it the response it deserves, I would be up all night. I’ll come back to it in an update.

Larry touches on what I want my next book to be about: the loss of a sense of the sacred, and means for recovering it. I’ve been thinking about this for some months, but haven’t been able to put it into a book proposal that’s quite right. As longtime readers know, this is what draws me to the novels of Michel Houellebecq, a crude but brilliant diagnostician of our malaise. The scholar Louis Betty, in his wonderful book about the religious dimension of Houellebecq’s work, says that the French writer’s novels

suggest that once religion becomes definable as religion that is, once its symbols no longer address themselves to society at large as representative of discipline and moral authority, but rather address only the individual as motivators of religious ‘moods and motivations’ – is it already doomed. Religion must do more than provide a space for the individual to enter, a la Geertz, into the ‘religious perspective.’ This is simply not enough for modern people; the symbols therein are too weak, too uncoupled from ordinary existence to give serious motivation. Religion must set a disciplinary canopy over the head of human kind, must order its acts and its oral commitments, must furnish ultimate explanations capable of determining the remainder of social life; otherwise, religions loses itself in the morass of competing perspectives (scientific, commonsense, political, etc.). This is precisely what has happened in the West…

It is certainly not the case that sexual abuse and corruption did not exist in the Church in pre-modern times, when Western man lived under a sacred canopy. You only have to read Dante to encounter the licentiousness within the medieval church — but then, the great lesson of the Divine Comedy is that when men lose sight of the living God, they make idols of everything else. Even good things can become means of our damnation if we prefer them to God, or understand them as somehow apart from God.

Philip Rieff, though an agnostic Jew, said that our age had lost what he called “holy terror,” which Rusty Reno defined, in a review of Rieff’s posthumous book Charisma, as a sense “which installs the power of divine command so deeply in the soul that we can bear the thought ‘of evil in oneself and in the world.'” It’s what we mean when we say “the fear of the Lord.” It is not simply fear of being punished, but more broadly, an overwhelming sense of God’s reality, such that we regard evil not simply as wrong, but as in some sense unreal, as cut off from Being itself.

Life is a struggle to keep before us the fact that God exists and we are His. In Dante’s Commedia, the poet depicts this mortal life as a difficult journey up a mountain. We move by God’s grace alone (symbolized by the fact that the pilgrims can only travel in sunlight), aided by the fellowship of other pilgrims. The journey itself is purgatorial: making progress requires the painful shedding of tendencies toward particular sins, as the pilgrim is made capable of bearing the glory of God in the next life. This is Dante’s imaginative construct, but it conveys to us the spiritual truth of our condition.

It is not enough — not nearly enough — to hold correct doctrine in our minds. We have to construct our lives — build our habitus — in such a way that we keep ourselves oriented towards God, and in constant motion towards ultimate unity with him.

In my life, Orthodox Christianity has been a tremendous gift towards this goal. I am strongly motivated by beauty, so the Orthodox Divine Liturgy does wonders for me weekly in keeping my eyes focused on God. As a Catholic, I quickly fell into the habit of experiencing the banal liturgy as the thing one has to endure to get to the main event, which is Holy Communion. In Orthodoxy, perhaps because the Orthodox never endured traumatic liturgical reform of the sort Catholics endured via the Second Vatican Council, the liturgy feels like a mystical preparation for communion in the Eucharist, not just the preliminaries.

Without a doubt it’s possible to go too far in this. In his journals, Father Schmemann lamented the tendency among Russians (his family went into exile to escape Bolshevism) to lose themselves so completely in the liturgy that they ceased to observe the real world. In a review of Schmemann’s collected journals, Richard John Neuhaus writes about the priest’s hostility to the “Let’s Pretend” world of ultra-churchiness, which he thought was a particular curse of Orthodoxy’s in our time.


I haven’t seen that at all in the parishes where I’ve worshiped, perhaps because they have been populated mostly with converts, who have no cultural memories for which to be nostalgic. Still, it’s important to recognize that the potential for this kind of error is there. There is no escape from the human condition. There is formula for achieving holiness that does not require dying to self so that we can live in God — and that is painful, as dying always is. I can say that for me, living as an Orthodox Christian keeps me constantly aware of the truth that Larry Chapp proclaims in the final line of his letter:

Emphasize that those who wish to follow the Benedict Option must place true Liturgical Worship of the triune God of Jesus Christ at the center of that option.

Liturgical worship is not simply the Divine Liturgy, but a way of life: a way of conceiving one’s entire life as a work in progress, a gift to God. This passage from The Benedict Option speaks to that point:

The Apostle Paul told the church in Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Benedictines consider their entire lives to be an attempt to fulfill this command. Strictly speaking, prayer is communication, either privately or in community, with God. More broadly, prayer is maintaining an unfailing awareness of the divine presence and doing all things with Him in mind. In the Benedictine life, regular prayer is at the center of the community’s existence.

To pray is to engage in contemplation. The word has a particular meaning to monastics. It refers to what they believe is the highest state of the Christian life: to free oneself from the cares of the flesh to adore and praise God and to reflect on His truth. This is in opposition to the active life, which is to do good works in the world.

Think of the Gospel story of the sisters Martha and Mary. When Jesus came to their house, Martha busied herself with preparation, but Mary sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to what He had to say. When Martha complained to Jesus that Mary wasn’t helping her, the Lord responded that Mary had chosen the better path.

Why? Because as Jesus said when he rebuked Satan, “Man shall not live by bread lone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). It is important to do things for the Lord, but it is more important to know him with your heart and your mind. And that is why contemplation takes priority.

“Prayer is the life of the soul, it’s the life of each individual monk. It’s the reason why we’ve come to live here,” said Father Basil. “The goal of our life as monks is to deepen the life of prayer, to grow in prayer. Everything we do is structured to help favor that, to be conducive for that. Prayer puts us in communication with God.”

Benedictine monks have a lot of time with God. Seven times each day they gather around the altar in the basilica to chant the appointed prayers for the Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours. These are specific prayers that Catholic monks (and others) have recited for centuries to mark off the hours of the day. These consist of psalms, hymns, Scripture readings, and prayers.

For the monks, prayer is not simply words they speak. Each monk spends several hours daily doing lectio divina, a Benedictine method of Scripture study that involves reading, meditating on it, praying about it, meditating on it, and finally contemplating its meaning for the soul.

The idea is not to study the Bible as a scholar would but rather to encounter it as God speaking directly to the individual. In this sense, a monk immersing himself in Scripture, as directed by the Rule, is carrying out a form of prayer.

And it’s not the only one.

“We sing when we pray, we stand, we sit, we bow, we kneel, we prostrate,” said Father Cassian. “The body is very much involved in prayer. It’s not just some kind of intellectual meditation. That’s important.”

When one advances in prayer, said Father Basil, one comes to understand that prayer is not so much about asking God for things as about simply being in His presence.

I told the priest how, in response to a personal crisis, my own Orthodox priest back in Louisiana had assigned me a strict daily prayer rule, praying the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) for about an hour each day. It was dull and difficult at first, but I did it out of obedience. Every day, for a seemingly endless hour, silent prayer. In time, though, the hour seemed much shorter, and I discovered that the peace I had conspicuously lacked in my soul came forth.

After I was spiritually healed, my priest explained his reasoning for directing me to give myself over to that simple meditative prayer: “I had to get you out of your head.”

He meant that I was captive to an intellectual tendency to try to think my way out of my troubles—a strategy that always ended in failure for me. What I really needed to do was to quiet my mind and still my heart to open it to God’s grace. He was right.

“That’s it,” said Father Basil. “That’s what pure prayer is: being with God. That can come about in many different ways, but as you discovered with the Jesus Prayer, it takes time. You have to set aside time for it.”

Whether one is Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, this is how one has to live if one wants to be a Christian. There is no other way. The monks know this. We should learn from them.

Here’s a gift to you. This video below is from a visit Pope Francis made to a Georgian Orthodox cathedral a few years ago. Fast-forward to the 42:26 point to see and hear a choir perform the Our Father Psalm 51 (Psalm 50 in the Orthodox Bible) in Aramaic. It is a theophany — an inbreaking of the Divine into this life through chanted prayer:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNtpbjgl1Uk]

UPDATE: Really good comment from an Orthodox seminarian:

@Larry Chap and Rod,

My experience as a seminary student is that this secularization of the heart, mind and soul of even otherwise “traditional” Orthodox laypersons, clergy, and bishops is very little understood, and is often denied. The academic/theological intelligentsia of the Orthodox Church (i.e. my professors, “theologians” such as Met. Kallistos, etc.), at least in the English speaking west, do not know how to even address this large and important reality. It is not an accident that “The Benedict Option” was written by our host who is a layperson and is mostly an outsider to Orthodox intellectual, theological, and cultural landscape.

When I discuss this issue as I often do in seminary and with theologically minded clergy, it takes a herculean effort to just get past the usual tripes and misunderstandings, such that what Rod is proposing is a “retreat”, etc. When we actually do get to the underlying reality of secularization and our loss of our hearts as “worshiping beings” to a Cartesian/Kantian “religious” Self of modern secular man, well we never get any further. Even those few clergy and theologians who understand where we actually are, don’t know what to do. Most of the clergy have read Schmemann, but the truth is they are not really hearing the prophecy that his “Life of the World” is. Their answer is essentially, more of the same: go deeper into the parish sacramental life and all will be well, all will be well.

Will it? Is the normative sacramental and parish life of both the Eastern and Western Churches as formed and solidified post Constantine enough in this Secular Age? The evidence as Rod is always at pains to point out is not really. We are losing, our parishes are shrinking, the majority of our kids are thoroughly secularized, etc. etc.

What gives me hope however is the largely instinctive awareness many lay people have in the church. I taught an adult education class in my parish on Rod’s Benedict Option shortly after the book came out. About half of those in attendance “got it”. The intellectual and historical explication of what secularism is and how it is opposed to a “worshiping being”, a Christian anthropology, is frankly beyond most. However, the *suffering* of secularized “being” is an all to real and present reality for most of them. Those with children are particularly aware. The other half, which included all the present clergy and just about anyone with a college degree, was perplexity and denial. Modern “educated” man might be too invested in a secular world view to ever give up the idea that modernity and Christianity can be reconciled.

I say all this as an Orthodox Christian to disabuse anyone of the idea that Orthodoxy, at least as currently practiced in traditional western civilization, is doing “better” than Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Sure, through the accidents of history Orthodoxy’s encounter with secularism is relatively new (beginning in earnest only in the early 20th century) and thus the cancer is less advanced in several significant ways. However our intelligentsia is so thoroughly secularized they have great difficulty even gaining a *frame of reference* for which to understand secularism as a reality and “spirit” of most in the Church. Orthodoxy is simply not organized and centralized enough to ever pull off a cover-up like what is occurring within Roman Catholicism, but we are just as capable of it in our hearts because we are just as secularized. As always, if there is any hope at all, it is to be found in the poverty-of-spirit of the lay people. Can they, while withering the storm of modern secular life, find the *ascetical* life and way of *being* that leads the mind/heart (nous) back into the Reality of God’s Presence who is everywhere present and fills all things?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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