Posted by: mattcolvin | August 15, 2013

Rebecca West on the Eastern and Western Churches


Rebecca West’s wit jumps from one turn of phrase to another, often delighting, seldom fair or objective, but always terribly revealing. Here, she caricatures Latin Christianity and Eastern Christianity, but also beautifully describes the liturgy:

Here was a unique accomplishment of the Eastern Church. It was the child of Byzantium, a civilization which had preferred the visual arts to literature, and had been divided from the intellectualized West by a widening gulf for fifteen hundred years. It was therefore not tempted to use the doctrines of the primitive Church as the foundation of a philosophical and ethical system unbridled in its claim to read the thoughts of God; and it devoted all its forces to the achievement of the mass, the communal form of art which might enable man from time to time to apprehend why it is believed that there may be a God. (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p. 505-506)

We Christians would insist that the liturgy (we might not like to call it a “mass”) is more than a “communal form of art”; we might insist that God works on us through it. Yet it is also what West says: her description might be adequate if only she did have not too thin and weak an idea of “art”. The purpose of liturgy is not only to “enable men to believe”, for art forms and shapes and habituates and storifies. God is an artist, and the Church is His supreme artwork; an artwork that is itself a congregation of artists: He made beauty; so must we. Yet for all this, West is right: If our liturgy is ugly, why should anyone believe in our God?


Responses

  1. It’s often taken as a truism that the Orthodox services are the most beautiful. And that may be true today, in this diminished age. But I doubt anything in the church has ever produced in the last 2000 years would rival the beauty of worship at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig between 1723 and 1750.

    • That’s the truth.


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