Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi Again…

The Theology of Ritual and the Russian Old Rite: The Art of Christian Living


Ever since I first tried to make sense of the radical changes within Roman Catholicism in the last 60 some odd years I’ve been drawn to try and understand how the externals–the signs, symbols,rituals and gestures of a religion–literally help prop up and imbue ones life with the content of the Faith. I guess I’ve always had almost an intuitive sense that externals matter a great deal, and that to change them is quite literally to change the religion. This was the instinct of the much maligned Old Believers and is the instinct behind the most staunch supporters of the Traditionalist movement within Catholicism. Even if they cannot articulate their disquiet in terms of Lex Orandi,Lex Credendi in the same thorough and academic fashion as the author of the paper I linked to, many Catholics still know intuitively that what they see at at old Latin Mass in a pre Vatican II chapel and what they see at the average Pauline Mass in a suburban parish built in the 1970’s is quite possibly a different religion and not just two different expressions of the same thing.

In a discussion with someone who told me that I’m wrong because there are devout Catholics who attend the New Mass at these surburban parishes doesn’t convince me of anything other than these devout Catholics have the Faith from praying traditional devotions like the rosary or after having read traditional Catholic books or having prayed extensively in traditional ways. In short, it is in spite of the new religion taught through the radically different signs, symbols, prayers, gestures and architecture of the post Vatican II Church.  I feel the same way about many traditionalists. They hole up in chapels where the architecture, signs, symbols, rituals and gestures in use are no longer in vogue in the mainstream church, and so they literally hold to Catholicism as it was and not as it is. The cognitive dissonance this engenders is because intuitively they know that they practice a religion that no longer exists among the mainstream of their Church.

Let’s quote a few things from the document I linked to in order to flesh out just what Old Believers mean by ritual, signs and symbols and what the average modern means.



In modern understanding, particularly under the influence of enlightenment rationalism, the general tendency is to perceive a ritual act as an outward expression of an inner disposition, the form, as it were, that is given to a particular content; the objectified expression of a subjective -‘spiritual’meaning or disposition, the ‘symbol’ or ‘sign’ which represents a meaning or


There may well be a correct doctrinal form for a given ritual, but this form
is nevertheless detached from the doctrine it expresses in the sense that it
operates as a mode of expression for that doctrine. Thus, in semiotic terms, ritual
actions constitute signs which express but are nevertheless distanced from that which they signify. The connection is indeed present and clear, but it is a
connection of expression, the sign or signifier expresses and represents the signified. It then follows, at least by implication, that the same meaning, subject or content can be expressed in a plethora of forms, objects and symbols: the
stamp of authenticity is the subjective disposition rather than the ritual expression–the whole issue being understood in a rather dualistic fashion. Pages 81-82
Old Believer View:
According to the worldview of the Old Belief, the distinction between inner and
outer, content and form, subject and object, the signified and the signifier, or the
symbol, is not as clear cut as dualist conceptual distinctions would make it seem. A ritual act like the Sign of the Cross for example, is not simply the outward

expression of a particular meaning or devotional disposition, the physical sign as it were, of a spiritual content, but is an integral devotional-theological act thoroughly permeated by meaning: an act which embodies rather than expresses meaning and which therefore is inherently and integrally meaningful. In this act there is a kind of identity between the signified and the signifier, not to be sure an absolute equality, an absolute or literal identity, but a kind of interpenetration, as it were–like a sponge soaked in water. The sponge is at once substantially different to the water and when it is soaked it does not become the water or the water the sponge, but it is nevertheless integrally permeated by the water. There is of course no question of ‘transubstantiation’ here as in the Eucharistic change (an issue we will return to shortly) but there is a mode of semiotic identity. The ritual gesture does not then simply represent or express some doctrine, meaning or spiritual content but is a meaningfulact: literally, an act full of, imbued with,

inherent meaning. Page 82


Is ritual really all that important? Do architecture, icons, gestures and old prayers really matter? I would answer a wholehearted “yes” to all of these questions; all of these things matter much more than many would like to imagine.


I actually like to think that the Old Believers were onto something when they clung tenaciously to the rituals and gestures themselves as being integral to the Faith.

What do you think about this?





End of Bright Week

Bright Week is coming to a close and this year it’s been one of minimal prayer unlike in previous years. Since the Hours are basically the short Paschal Hours I have sort of fallen off the Horologion and stuck to the Jesus Prayer. I have not really paid attention to who is on the calendar this week, as I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to commemorate any saints during the week long celebration of the Holy Resurrection. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I can tell me whether in the East saints are commmorated during Bright Week. I’m kind of curious.

My interest in Islam is still high, but only on an intelectual level. My Christianity is too strong for me to repudiate Jesus as the Son of God;give up the Jesus Prayer and the Horologion; hide or destroy my icons and take up Islam. I remain an admirer of aspects of the Quran and even the character of Muhammad, but as a Christian I cannot and do not believe that he was a prophet.  I believe he was sincere, but IF he spoke the unadulterated truth and Islam IS the final religion than us Christians must get rid of our icons, our prayers and venerable traditions and accept only a human Jesus bereft of the mystery of Chalcedon. I cannot do that. I don’t know if at my age and my deep level of commitment to Christ in the Eastern Tradition I could ever really walk away from my Faith.


One strange thing i thought of when wrestling with Islam is that I got a glimpse of what Jews must feel like when dealing with Christians throughout history, that is to say, I felt like Islam was trying to say that us Christians are liars with corrupted scriptures and erroneous beliefs that are only rectified in the light of the Quran. Jews must feel similar when Christians tell them God is Trinitarian, that Jesus was the Messiah and God, and that despite their thousands of years of Tradition and exegesis it’s all bogus and superseded in the light of Christ and the Church.  If anything this gives me a different slant on things.


You know, this week I even almost went to Mass and Confession, but I’m not ready for it, I’m not ready to put myself back into intentional communion with the Papacy, the Vatican and the deformed externals of post conciliar Catholicism. Maybe some day, but not now, not yet.


Topsy Turvy



What started as a genuine desire to learn about Islam actually brought me to a place where I started to seriously like and appreciate Islam and even toyed with the idea of trying to pray the Muslim salat for a week or two just to see what it was like. The journey into Islam also made me seek deeply to understand the Trinity, as compared to the relative simplicity of the Muslim understanding of God the Christian one is quite honestly ineffable, extremely difficult and quite frankly beyond reason altogether. This doesn’t mean that I as a Christian don’t believe in the Trinity, but I do not understand it, nor do I think it’s possible to understand it other than by faith and to appeal to Tradition and Mystery.


I was brought to a point where i tried to put myself in the shoes of a devout Muslim and thought that honestly Islam is pretty straightforward, much more so than Christianity, especially the more sacramental and mystical traditions with Christianity. I imagine it is easy to believe in God, in one God, but it is NOT easy to believe in a Trinitarian God. It’s not intuitive or easily graspable. I can also see how it’s possible to believe that a man received a message from God, but it’s NOT easy to believe or understand that God became man and that Jesus Christ is somehow both True God, true man and the Second Person of the Trinity.


Until I studied Islam I took for granted Christian teaching as pretty much self evident, a part of the air we breathe in even nominally Christian cultures. Seriously delving into Islam shattered that, and made me somehow go through what could only be called a crisis of Faith and understanding– something I smugly felt could never happen.

I am now at the point where I always was, faced with fideism, unable to really make sense of stuff like the Trinity or the Incarnation other than to appeals to Tradition, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi and the witness of the Church through the centuries. I find everything I’ve read from the Fathers and the Councils on the subjects to be academic, abtuse and beyond my ability to really grasp. I suppose all I can do is cling to faith, to continue to take that leap into the dark like Peter walking on water when he kept his eyes on the Lord.


I didn’t expect to be so shaken by my studies of Islam but I was, and somehow remain shaken. There are many things I don’t accept about Islam as a Christian:Muhammad as exemplar; polygamy; the fact that if Islam is true all I thought about religion was false…Christianity fundamentally getting wrong who Jesus was…it would be a mess to accept.

I’ve ALWAYS made it through these sort of tops turvy times so I know I will get past that this. It was just…unexpected!

Strangely about the ONLY thing that I have clung to throughout this topsy turvy and disorienting time has been the Jesus Prayer. It’s as if when the whole world is upside down that’s about the only lifeline I have and it seems to work.


Communion of Saints

This morning I woke before the sun broke across the horizon next to my friends rambunctious black puppy in bed with me, my beagle basset mix in a heap on the floor and my cat pawing at my face. It was a typical morning. I got up, made coffee, took the boys outside in that predawn splendor and attempted to settle my mind with the Jesus Prayer while I did my best at holding two leashes.  Somehow I got to thinking of animals and the spiritual life, or animals in the lives of saints and religious figures. Just the other day it was the feast of St Gerasimos who lived in the Egyptian desert and kept a lion as company. In my mind I made a note to buy an icon of him as a patron for my cat. image

One year awhile back I lost my cat and she ended up returning on the feast of St. Paul of Obnora, a Russian Saint known for being surrounded by animals, like Adam in Paradise. I felt close to him from the moment I first picked up Seraphim Rose’s The Northern Thebaid years and years ago, but having my cat return on his feast brought home to me in a way that perhaps this business about the communion of saints is real in ways more mysterious than we can imagine. image

One of my favorite of the Optina Elders is Barsanuphius, a man of regal bearing and deep intellectual ability who was in Optina quite close to the beginning of the Revolution. One thing I remember from the book about him is how he was always careful to note which Saint was commemorated each day, and to consider the ways in which certain saints seem to intervene in ones daily affairs. In the Orthodox tradition there are several saints on the calendar for each day, so there is a real variety of characters to get to know, from all over the Orthodox world, from the earliest apostles to the modern day, folks like the new martyrs and confessors of Russia.

If we start to pray the Office, keep a prayer rule and pay attention to the saints and seasons it’s as if we start to enter mystically into the eternal mysteries of Christ and the Church. God’s timelessness irrupts into our world, the veil becomes thinner, and there are little things here and there that bring us to believe that somehow our Faith is not just pious imaginings. It’s hard to really explain, but you must enter into it for a period of time to intuit it. Perhaps William James was right in that some truths are things you just have to live. Religious beliefs are like that. I could say much more about many things, but for now I’ve got a few things to attend to.


Luminous Darkness

This is another really old reflection but I wanted to share….

 There is a hidden sense of God both being near and yet far, palpable and yet invisible, radiant light and yet luminous darkness, as close as our own heartbeat yet only a distant echo.In the spirit of both Zen and the Eastern Fathers apophatic approach to the spiritual life I have been contemplating this verse ever since I prayed it this morning in the pre dawn candlelight. What we see in this verse is someone who is aflame with longing to see the risen Christ, and yet in his seeking he cannot find Him. In this moment it’s the flame of Faith and Hope, two of the three theological virtues,that keep him going in his groping and seeking. 

It seems to me that this is someone who has already seen the Lord at some point in the past, someone who knew Him in the flesh, yet seeks Him in those twilight hours on Easter morning amongst the empty tomb. His heart is still aflame with that intimate knowledge of Christ even in the darkness– the radiant darkness if you will– of the Easter sepulcher. 

Does the man in the verse not mystically represent our ourselves in our own spiritual lives in that we too have met Christ at some point in our lives, really met Him, be it in prayer, in Holy Communion or in some mysterious yet palpable way.

In Zen, like in the Christian East and in St. John of the Cross, God is luminous darkness, mystery, and yet radiant. None of our concepts about Him are anything more than, to use the zen saying, fingers pointing to the moon. They are helpful–necessary even– and yet no more than rungs on a ladder climbing to heaven.  
We desire Him with all our hearts and yet this side of eternity He is a mystery that sets our hearts aflame with ardent Hope and yet remains hidden. 
And are not these tremendous mysteries of our faith– the Trinity– the Incarnation–the Hypostatic Union– the mystery of how Mary could be the Mother of God— not unlike zen koans? Are they not ideas and concepts that, while partially accessible to reason,still ultimately mystery, beyond man’s ability to know this side of eternity? 


Early Lenten Thoughts

I stand on the edge of the first Sunday of Great Lent, the so called “Triumph of Orthodoxy”, and I still feel the crush of acedia but I try to stay with it and ride it out because, when push comes to shove I don’t believe I could ever truly walk away from Christianity no matter what.  Despite all my intellectual wanderings into the riches of Islam or Zen Buddhism the reality on the ground is that something happened that sultry summer day so many years ago that shattered my Buddhism and brought me face to face with Jesus Christ that cannot be erased or covered over with anything else. I have often told people (and quite sincerely) that while I may doubt Roman Catholicism and walk away I could never doubt Christ. This is still how I feel even when in my imagination I can find myself praying towards Mecca 5 times a day as a devout Muslim in some Moroccan oasis or sitting Zazen with a shaven head in some some picturesque setting right out of a Basho or Ryokan Haiku. I have that ability to appreciate and learn from others, and even to entertain certain ideas in my mind without actually taking them up. This is a bit dangerous for some, in fact, I don’t recommend it at all to those who aren’t prepared to suffer for it in some way.

I’ve kept up the use of the Julian Calendar and Old Orthodox Prayerbook along with the Jesus Prayer and I’ve found a rhythm that works. Sometimes there’s a part of me that misses the Benedictine Office, but I was warned by someone I trust not to jump around haphazardly, but instead to stick to something over time. Heck this is usually the advice I myself give; I better live up to it!

On another note I finally picked up Father Peter Alban Heers book The Ecclesiological Renovation of Vatican II, a book I’ve been dying to read for a long time but as of yet have not made time for it. Thus far it is a tour de force, a seemingly devastating critique  of modern Roman Catholic Ecclesiology and more confirmation for me of just how far Rome fell over the centuries. I don’t like to think that my baptism was not grace filled but after reading this I can entertain the possibility that it might not have been, even though it was triple immersion. Thank God I have that ability that I mentioned above where I can hold certain ideas without necessarily fully assenting to them! I’m not totally convinced Father Heers reading is correct yet but I’m open to it, and thus far it’s pretty convincing.

I’m also slowly wending my way through the Study Koran, and thoroughly  enjoying it for it’s spiritual depth and sheer breadth of information. I like how pretty much every verse is filled up with mostly spiritual commentary, giving the non Muslim or Muslim reader a glimpse into how various practicing Muslims interpret the given verse. It’s kind of like the Islamic version of the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, that is to say the commentary is less academic than it is spiritual. As a guy who enjoys learning about how a given community understands things, as in “lex orandi, lex credendi”, this is refreshing. It actually allows me to really get an appreciation for the richness of the Muslim tradition outside the headlines and beyond the polemics.

I really enjoyed reading the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden and how profoundly different and fascinating that narrative is from the Christian. Iblis (Satan) is thought to be a Jinn, that is to say another race of beings not exactly human nor angelic, and all of man was said to have made a covenant with God somehow before being born, making Islam a sort of primordial religion. It’s thought provoking.

As a final note, reading about Islam has really made me want to dive into what we Christians actually mean by the Trinity. What IS our Trinitarian Theology? Obviously I believe that God is Trinity, but I have always struggled with how, and what that means. I am trying to read more about it, mostly from the Eastern perspective.. Maybe, just maybe it’s all just a mystery, and we can do no better than to simply accept it on Faith, and meditate on it the way St. Andrei Rublev meditated on it when he painted his famous icon.  I’ve always been a bit leery of those who think that our powers of reason can accurately set down in writing exactly how God operates. So much of ANY religion is downright mysterious when it all comes down to it.


New Appreciation

In a strange and mysterious way I’ve been drawn to study Islam in depth as of late, and in order to do that I purchased the majestic Study Koran, a few books on Islamic history and a guidebook on Muslim prayer and piety. What I’ve found out thus far is that in many ways my former prejudices have been shattered by what I’ve read. For years I can honestly say I had an almost irrational hatred of Islam and Muslims, not exactly based on any real sustained understanding outside reading about terrorism or the latest exploits of various fundamentalist groups.  I still feel uncomfortable with some things in the Koran and some of the schools within Islam but I have a broader view and find myself softening towards the religion as a whole.

Islam is much deeper and richer than I had ever imagined, and truth be told there is a kind of beauty to it, as its an all encompassing worldview that, aside from the fact that there are three basic groups ( Shiite, Sunni and Sufi) and a handful of schools of interpretation the Muslim way of prayer and life is largely unchanged since the time of Mohammed and his Companions. It’s a profoundly, dare I say, liturgical religion that has spoken to the hearts of millions globally for the last 14 centuries.

The law of praying truly is the law of believing, and Islam is a strong proof of that, and one that liturgical Christians ought to take note of.

I marvel that outside Orthodoxy, Islam is probably the only other religion on the planet that still takes serious the necessity to keep to traditions and form the entirety of society based on the reality of Gods existence. I find it fascinating really.

In a strange way after reading all this stuff on Islam I’ve come to have a deeper appreciation for my own Orthodox Tradition. The treasure that is our prayers, rites, traditions and way of life should never be taken for granted.