Catherine Pickstock on the Liturgy
A member of a group who call themselves Radical Orthodoxy, the Anglican theologian Catherine Pickstock writes with profundity. My copy of her magnum opus, After Writing On the Liturgical Consumation of Philosophy, seems to have gone walkabout, as we say in Australia, but excerpts from a shorter piece give an idea of some of her thinking on liturgical matters. She mentions modern scholars’ criticism of the old Roman mass: ‘the medieval liturgy is haphazardly structured and contains many uneconomic repetitions and recommencements. However, rather than bearing witness to a debasement of “pure liturgy”, the features could be seen as signs of the oral provenance of the rite…In a similar fashion, one could account for the repeated requests for purification as signs of an underlying apophaticism which betokens our constitutive distance from God, rather than our sinfulness or humiliation. According to such a perspective, the haphazard structure of the rite can be seen as predicated upon the need for a constant re-beginning of liturgy, because the true eschatological liturgy is in time endlessly postponed; the liturgy is a never-ending work.’
These words give an idea of the level at which Pickstock writies, as well as a feeling for her somewhat bracing prose. Her topic is Western liturgy, but I’m struck by how applicable her words are to the Eastern Eucharistic Liturgy. Haphzard structure, repetitiveness and recommencements could well be seen as defining characteristics of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, which often seems to loop back to beginning another litany (it would be interesting to discuss the different ways in which Western and Eastern liturgies are structured; the latter can seem all over the place, but is this necessarily a weakness?); its repetitions could well point to oral provenance (as could some of the words of the deacon, which almost look like prompts to help a priest in danger of forgetting his lines); any sign of an underlying apophaticism rings bells for the Orthodox, and the postponement of true eschatological liturgy sits with an Eastern view that does not so much locate Eucharistic worship against the background of the Last Supper as see it as occupying a kind of intermediate zone between the worship of the Jewish Temple and the heavenly worship described in Revelation (Rev. 4 is oddly prophetic of some Orthodox practice.) Lumen ex oriente?