Recovering Our Heritage
Office of Educational Services
Melkite Eparchy of Newton
1710 Surf Avenue – Belmar, NJ 07719
Voice 732-556-6917 – Cell 201-417-3804
Recovering our Heritage — We’ve Only Just Begun
For a number of years, Eastern Christian writers in this country have been calling for the development of a style of church life which reflects what they call the distinctive “fronema” of Eastern Christianity. A “fronema”, a patristic term, is an attitude, position and/or posture which reflects a particular spirit, theological sentiment or frame of mind. The distinctive fronema of Eastern Christianity would be that which is reflected and realized in the personal and liturgical prayer tradition of our Church. This tradition embodies the scriptural, theological and historic spirit we know as Orthodoxy.
Eastern Christians on first coming to the West tried to adapt themselves as much as possible to the culture in which they were now living, including the religious culture. Church design was modified to look more like Western churches. Pews, stained-glass windows and organs appeared in both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches. In our parishes, as confessionals and holy water fonts were added, Eastern elements were minimized or eliminated. Even Western vestments and altar breads were adopted by some priests, who were isolated from any structure of their own Church. Beards were shaved, icon screens forgotten and icons were replaced by statues. In some communities, stations of the cross and novenas were substituted for the proper divine services of our Church. At best the entire liturgical and spiritual life of the community was reduced to an often bare-bones celebration of the Divine Liturgy. As a result, most of our distinctive fronema was lost in the attempt to ensure the survival of our communities through “Americanization.”
Due to the efforts of the late Archbishop Joseph Tawil, the most glaring examples of this movement have been eliminated, and replaced by a more properly Eastern approach. We passed from a pre-teen compulsion to fit in and reached a point of maturity in which it was OK to admit that we are different. Some parishes have rediscovered part of this “fronema” in the restoration of liturgical services which have fallen into disuse. The revival of vespers, orthros, the Presanctified Liturgy and other lenten services is now fairly widespread in the eparchy. For this we can credit Archbishop Tawil who continually stressed a greater familiarity with our liturgical traditions. The hundreds of people chanting vespers at his retirement observance gave the greatest unspoken tribute to his achievement in this regard.
Yet it must be said that there are still a number of our parishes that have yet to achieve anything but the most basic observance of our tradition. As recently as 1999, it has been observed that many of the candidates currently accepted in our deacon program have no experience of vespers or orthros, much less of any lesser service. Have we made any progress in the past twenty years? Can we deny that the majority of our communities are still Western parishes where the Sunday Mass happens to be the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom?
Clearly, Western church furnishings have been replaced with the latest from Greece, but this is only the beginning. The rediscovery of our Eastern fronema demands more than changing these externals. It means adopting a mindset very different from that found in many parishes, where worship and learning consistently take a back seat to ethnic food and music, social activities or fundraisers. Archbishop Tawil expressed this need in a 1978 message to catechists:
“My first recommendation, if we wish to make ready the way for the overflowing of the Divine in hearts, is to restore the spirit of piety among our people — piety wrought from Faith in the Divine Presence, as with Moses before the burning bush — faith nourished in hope, by speaking to God as to our Father with filial confidence, faith lived in charity and by good works which glorify our heavenly Father. It is quite a long while since piety was restored, and consequently, the spirit of prayer, and we moan and lament in vain at the desolate spectacle of our empty churches and the diminution of religious practices. Piety feeds on prayer as plants do on the sap which comes from the roots.
“All this presupposes on our part a true love of prayer, which must not be presented as a boring obligation, but rather as a natural need, like plants turning towards the sun. God is our only source of life and it is towards Him that we must turn in order to fill ourselves with Him. The daily contact we have with holy things is, after all, only contact with the Living God who is a devouring flame consuming sin and calling to greater holiness. Theology, liturgy and spirituality are different approaches to the same Mystery of Faith. Prayer is the glorification of Mystery, the song of humanity responding to divine love with love and manifesting its remorse for the offense against the Father’s love. The prayer of repentance which becomes, according to St. Isaac the Syrian, ‘the trembling of the soul before the Gates of Paradise.’ While waiting for the Lord, the Church prays.
“It is astonishing to see the spread of certain movements entirely centered on Christ or the Holy Spirit, which witness in their own way that the world, which is said to be indifferent to religion, is more athirst than ever for what is Divine. There is room for every one of us to examine our consciences. The youth are summoning us: what have we offered them? Stones, instead of bread? Or have we simply allowed them to die of spiritual starvation when they come to religion class because we have nothing to offer them while we possess the ‘riches of Christ?’ How sad should we not be, as true teachers and educators, at such apostasy?”
The experience of the past twenty-five years in our diocese has shown that one of the most instrumental ways of reviving a more comprehensive liturgical life has been the restoration of the cantor’s liturgical role in our parishes. It is impossible to serve even the Divine Liturgy to the fullest (with all the changeable parts and hymns of the day) without a cantor who is intimately familiar with the liturgical books and can lead the singing of the people in a dignified way. Yet this is not yet a priority in most of our parishes. We have paid secretaries, cooks, housekeepers, janitors, bingo operators, even organists. Is there one parish in the eparchy with a paid staff that employs a cantor? Contrast this with the situation in many Slav parishes, which have two and sometimes three cantors. Our priorities are showing.
Restoring the spirit of piety, to use Archbishop Tawil’s phrase, is connected with the state of parish liturgical life. The flowering of liturgical life in our parishes hinges to a great degree on the restoration of this office. This restoration in turn demands that priests and parish councils take the need seriously and seek out suitable men in their communities to fill this office. The Office of Educational Services has prepared a training program for cantors placed totally on cassettes so that each priest may train his singers locally. This program does not simply teach songs or even the eight tones, but our whole understanding of liturgical worship and spirituality as well.
A fuller liturgical life is only one area contributing to an Eastern fronema which we have yet to fully realize. Familiarity with the Scriptures, commitment to personal prayer, fasting, and almsgiving along with a host of other aspects of Eastern Christian lifestyle have yet to become fully part of our church life in America. These and more are necessary parts of our fronema and stand ahead of us as goals on the road of rediscovering and living our Eastern heritage.