Monday, 23 July 2012

Isn't that Muslim?

Although my limited language abilities have precluded me from undertaking serious study of it on an academic level (my Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Ge’ez, Georgian, and Slavonic are sadly not up to scratch!), I have always been very interested in liturgics. In addition to the very important liturgical elements that form the centre of our spiritual life, such as our understanding of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the study of liturgics also gives attention to smaller details, which, although of seemingly little significance when viewed in isolation, come together to form a rich practical tapestry of words and actions that point us toward Christ.

In this post I wanted specifically to make mention of a few such ancient practices which have partly or wholly fallen out of use among many Orthodox, and have instead come to be viewed, not only by outsiders but even many Orthodox ignorant of their own tradition, as hallmarks of Islamic ritual. It is not my aim here to argue for the importance, or lack thereof, of any of these practices – the subject of a future post perhaps – nor do I intend to undertake any detailed analysis of their significance or history. What follows is just a simple list (by no means exhaustive) of what many mistakenly regard as quintessentially Islamic practices, accompanied by a few explanatory sentences concerning their place in the Orthodox tradition.

Removing ones shoes before entering a church
Most will be familiar with God’s words to Moses as he approached the Burning Bush: “Loose the sandal from your feet! For the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5). Again in the book of Joshua we read that “the commander-in-chief of the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Loosen the sandal from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” (5:15) While this practice has all but disappeared from the Eastern Orthodox Church with the exception of a limited number of monasteries and certain Old Believer parishes, it has been in continuous use among many other Eastern Christians, most notably in the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

Because Orthodox anthropology understands that man is a psychosomatic being, composed both of body and soul, and that the body exerts great influence over the state of our soul, the body has always played an important role in prayer: standing attentively, lifting up our hands in supplication, bowing reverently, prostrating ourselves to the ground in awe and humility, and so on. We find a beautiful example of all the different postures of prayer in the book of Nehemia (6:8), when "Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground." Prostrations are generally still commonplace in churches following the Slavic tradition, but are much less often seen in Greek and Arab churches. Many even omit the prostrations at the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian during Lent, replacing them instead with simple bows, despite the fact that earlier rubrics do not even call for a prayer, but specifically for prostrations (in other words, the prayer is there to supplement the prostrations, not the other way around). The most probable explanation for this is the relatively recent introduction of seating into the churches, a borrowing from post-Reformation Europe, which restrict movement and make prostrating a near impossibility. Another reason, this one applicable to the whole Church, is that many attend church only on Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, in honour of which we do not prostrate but remain standing (see canon 20 of the 1st Ecumenical Council, which forbids prayer on “bended knee”) – this is true also of the great feasts. Thus even in parishes where prostrations are the norm, this will not be apparent to someone who attends only once a week.

Ablution before prayer
You have seen then the Deacon who gives to the Priest water to wash, and to the Presbyters who stand round God's altar. He gave it not at all because of bodily defilement; it is not that; for we did not enter the Church at first with defiled bodies. But the washing of hands is a symbol that you ought to be pure from all sinful and unlawful deeds; for since the hands are a symbol of action, by washing them, it is evident, we represent the purity and blamelessness of our conduct. Did you not hear the blessed David opening this very mystery, and saying, “I will wash my hands in innocency, and so will compass Your Altar, O Lord?” The washing therefore of hands is a symbol of immunity from sin. (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 5th Mystagogical Catechesis)
St. Cyril’s description of ablution in the mid-fourth century corresponds more or less exactly to the practice of the Orthodox Church today, even the Psalm verse he cites is the one uttered by our clergy as they wash their hands in the sanctuary. What few realise, though, is that in the early Church this form of ablution was also universally practiced among the laity. The small basins of holy water you will typically see at the entrance to Catholic churches, into which people dip their hands before making the sign of the cross, are vestiges of this practice in the early Church, where large basins of water were placed at the entrance to every church so that the people could perform ablution before entering.

St. John Chrysostom, an important witness given his vehement opposition to the so-called 'judaizers', considers obvious the fact that we “immediately compose ourselves and wash our hands when we wish to pick up the Bible.” (Homily LIII on St. John) Elsewhere he tells us that “as you would not pray without washing your hands, so likewise, you should not pray without giving alms.” (Commentary on 1 Corinthians). Of course, he is careful, like St. Cyril, to point out that what is important is not the physical washing but freedom from sin:
So then, we wash our hands when we go into the Church, but not our hearts? Why, do our hands emit a voice? It is the soul that utters the words: that is what God looks at. Cleanness of the body is of no use, while the soul is defiled. What profit is there if you wipe clean your outward hands, while you have your inward hands impure? For the terrible thing and that which subverts all things is this, that while we are fearful about trivial matters, we disregard important ones. To pray with unwashed hands is morally neutral; but to do so with an unwashed mind, this is the extreme of all evils. (Homily LXXIII on St. John)
St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite attests to the practice still surviving in 18th century Greece:
“It was an ancient custom among Christians that anyone who would go to Church would first wash his hands and then go. This custom prevails even today among some Christians. Now, what does this washing of hands show? It shows that just as one washes his hands of bodily filth, so he should wash his mind and his conscience, which are, as it were, the hands of the soul, of sins, and thus go to Church.” (Christian Morality, p.472)
Prayer mats
Having washed their hands before entering the church, it was obviously important to keep them clean, particularly in the early centuries when believers received the Body of Christ in the hand rather than with a spoon. In order not to sully their hands during prostrations, the Russian Old Believers, whose practices are those of the pre-17th century Russian Orthodox Church, use a small mat (padruchnik), which is placed on the floor before each prostration. Presumably these were originally used in village churches or homes with mud-floors, and I don’t know of any other example of portable ‘prayer mats’. That they would probably not have been needed in churches with proper flooring, provided the practice of removing shoes before entry was kept, might account for their absence elsewhere.

Again, this is a tradition observed more or less universally among the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe, but which fell out of use among the Greeks and Arabs in the 20th century. While Greeks have come to look on it as an antiquated cultural practice, those in the Arab world have rejected the practice in a conscious effort to distinguish themselves from their Muslim compatriots. Whatever one thinks of its applicability today, that it is a Biblical rather than merely cultural tradition is obvious. St. Paul says in no uncertain terms that “every man praying or prophesying, having anything on his head, putteth to shame his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered putteth to shame her own head.” (1 Corinthians 11:4-5). Returning to the aforementioned passage of St. John Chrysostomos, he adds how a woman who wishes to read the Bible “if she is unveiled, immediately puts on a covering, displaying a token of her inner piety.” (Homily LIII on St. John) “If,” comments St. Nicodemos, “women should be veiled when reading sacred books, how much more so should they be covered when entering into the House of God to pray, since the external covering reveals the inner piety of their souls.” (Christian Morality, p.127.)

Segregation of the sexes
"And though the Church be shut, and all of you within it, yet let there be a distinction, of men with men and women with women." (St. Cyril of Jerualem, Protocatechesis 14). Note that he says "though the Church be shut" - i.e. even if no member of the general public can see you - indicating by this that the practice was not merely a way of conforming to the social norms of that time, but something to be observed regardless of social context. Traditionally, in Orthodox churches, men stand on the right and women on the left. On the iconostasis, the icon of the blessed Mother is always situated on the left - i.e. at the right hand of Christ - based on the words of the Psalmist: "The Queen stood at your right in gold-woven clothing" (Psalm 45:10). On the other side of the iconostasis, at Christ's left hand, we find St. John the Baptist, whom Christ declared to be the greatest man born of women. Thus, in the church, women stand at the right hand of Christ with His Mother - the greatest of all women - and men at the left hand of Christ with St. John - the greatest of all men. Note that we stand side by side with equal dignity, not one behind the other.

"Isn't that Muslim?" No, is the answer.

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