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Liturgy, saints, and postmodern discourse

13 November 2008

Jonathan writes in Thicket and thorp

the “otherness” of the Liturgy should break into our language, into our ways of thinking in/about the world. For example, the language of loving one’s enemies, of forgiveness, is continually brought before us, clashing with our normal (unfortunately) discourse, in which forgiveness and love of the enemy is a foreign concept, an unsettling one, along with all those weird troparion abour martyrs and ascetics. What are we to do with this? If we simply “domesticate” it, if we do not accept it as a radical intrusion and opening up of our speech and our very lives, then that language, the Liturgy itself, becomes just an antiquarian artefact.

And Jonathan goes on to say

Today St. John the Merciful is commemorated: a saint who does violence to our conceptions of what charity should look like; his actions break through our bourgeouis sentiments and ethics and overturns them. How can you possibly keep giving money to a beggar you know is tricking you? My experience of St. John is similar to that which I experienced the first time I read Yoder’s Politics of Jesus: I hate what you’re saying because I know it is true and truly Christological, and it clashes so much with my assumptions, with the discourses I have assimilated and that keep me comfortable. Yet I cannot reject what he is saying (acting/doing): I see Christ in his actions, I hear the- radical and “breaking-in”- voice of Christ, reconfigured and redeployed in the saint. We need saints to speak into our lives, into our discourses, because we are always taking the Gospel and “normalizing” it, domesticating it, overlaying the words with our own comfortable assumptions. Saints like St. John overthrow this domestication.

Wisdom! Let us attend!

And when he mentions John Yoder, it reminds me that among all my Protestant friends, the ones I feel closest to spiritually are Mennonites. A few years ago I went to a conference in Botswana, organised by Mennonites. I was the only Orthodox Christian there. The Mennonites, mostly from North America had sent missionaries to Botswana, not to plant Mennonite churches, but to help leaders of African independent churches, mostly Zionists, to learn more about the Bible. The meeting was between the Mennonites and the Zionists to evaluate 25 years of such mission. And though one can point to many differences between Zionists, Mennonites and Orthodox, in both theology and practice, there is something about the dynamics of it that resonates.[1] Similarly, when I was involved in drawing up standards for theological education for the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), the one I found it easiest to work with was a Zionist bishop, Mshengu Tshabalala. We were somehow on the same wavelength.

But Jonathan goes on about the saints who make us uncomfortable

the Fool-for-Christ St. John of Rostov (the Hairy!) is also commemorated. In the holy fool we find one of the supreme examples of God breaking into our “normalness” and disrupting pretty much every element of our discourse and self-image. What do you do with holy foolishness? What can we possibly do with it? By honouring the holy fool as a saint, the Church canonizes- declares to be canonical, a rule against which to measure our lives- his “crazy” life, his foolishness. Added up, the variety of “canons” declares an incredible plurality of possibilities of being-in-the-world-in-Christ, and this plurality clashes with our sensibilities of what is “respectable” and “allowable.” Again, our attempts at coopting Christ into our non-Christological modes of living are confronted and challenged. Our language of “normality,” of “sanity,” is shown to be inadequate, to be in need of a radical opening to the reality of the life of Christ. For in fact our “sanity” is so often revealed to be true craziness, to be even satanic “normality.” Our language is shown up, so to speak, for its disconnection to reality, to the inner truth of the world. The holy fool asks: who’s really crazy? Your hair is nicely trimmed and your discourse follows the expected parameters, corresponds- so you think!- to what is “real.” Yet- the holy fool in his humility (humility before the true Word) sees the world as it is, and his language is ultimately “truer” than yours.

The Fool

The Fool

And that reminds me of Charles Williams’s novel The Greater Trumps, which deals with Tarot cards, and dancing figures that represent the dance of the universe. But only one character, the serene and hesychastic Sybil, can see the Fool taking part in the dance.

When I visited Simonos Petra Monastery on the Holy Mountain, I asked one of the monks why, at certain points in the services, they would swing the chandeliers, and he told me two reasons — first because it gave the candles more oxygen, so they would burn more brightly, but secondly that it represented the dance of the angels.

With worldly eyes we cannot see the dance of the Fool, we cannot see the role of fools for Christ like St John the Hairy. The bourgeois world would tell him to cut his hair and join the army, travel to far-off places, meet interesting people, and kill them.

But go and read the rest of what Jonathan wrote; he puts it far better than I can.


[1] For anyone interested, my report on the AIC-Mennonite consultation is here.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 November 2008 6:35 pm

    Wow – this makes me want to go sit and reflect. Thanks!

  2. 13 November 2008 8:28 pm

    I live in Saskatchewan’s “Bible belt” – mostly populated by Mennonites (I’m Lutheran). Yes – I prefer mennonites to other anabaptists, they make good neighbours. But they can be quite irksome too – depending on which variety of Mennonite they are. Some get into the extreme forms of legalism etc etc. But so have we all our peculiar bretheren in our denominations….

    Reminds me of the old joke – which a Mennonite told me, nonetheless: How did they invent copper wire? By throwing a copper penny into a bunch of Mennonites!

  3. 14 November 2008 8:19 am


    That story reminds me of something else. I was at the Mennonite-Zionist consultation as a kind of missiological consultant, neutral with a different background.

    One of the things they discussed was whether, after 25 years, the time had not come for them to pull out, and rather fund a local person to do the teaching instead of sending missionaries from North America.

    My advice to them was that that was the last thing they should do. Their mission was a success precisely because they were neutral — they were not planting Mennonite churches, so they were not seen as rivals by any of the Zionist ones. But if they funded someone local, neutrality would fall away, and there would be an unholy power struggle over who had access to the foreign funds, and Bible teaching would fall by the wayside.

    Throwing money at problems is not usually the best way of solving them, and not necessarily the best way of doing mission — a lesson I wish Orthodox bishops would learn. They have an obsession with offering to build clinics for communities, without a thought of whether they are needed. They can be standing right next to a fully-equipped hospital, and will offer to build a clinic for the local community.


  1. Must-read post on Liturgy, Saints and Postmodern Discourse « A vow of conversation

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