Byzantine Orthodox Ethos: A threat to Our Liturgical Theology? – Fr. Mat Alexander
There are many reasons why I do not deserve to be a priest in God’s Holy Church, but ‘graduating from a Byzantine Seminary’ is not one of those reasons. I am really confused, it’s not just Fr. Shebaly (reference his editorial on Orthodox herald), but many others from India have told me that we in America who are educated at Byzantine seminaries are Byzantine influenced and lack the Malankara Syrian ethos. Let’s leave the world of theoreticals and be specific. What is it that we “do” that is so Byzantine and seems to upset so many people?
Is it because some of us wear black cassocks? When I was ordained, I was given a black cassock, that is what I wear. From now on, just think of it as, we who are from America are greater sinners than those from India and so we need to wear black. (this is manifested most especially in my lack of skill in getting fish curry stains out of a white cassock ;).
Is it because we prefer meaningful icons to protestant or catholic style portrait paintings? Icons are deeply rooted in the Syriac tradition as well.
Also, I’ve seen the same movement back to icons in Kottayam and Bombay Diocese. So, perhaps Kottayam diocese lacks this Malankara ethos too.
Is it because many of the American students prefer not to use the keyboard during worship? Or they enjoy using the traditional 8 tones instead of the
modern western tunes used all over India?
Is it because we teach the Jesus Prayer? The Philokalia and its teachings is also appreciated and taught by His Holiness Didymus I and His Grace Mar Ivanios. I guess His Holiness is Byzantine influenced as well.
Dn. Shaun mentioned something about interpreting Denaha the Syriac way versus the Byzantine way and an article by Varghese Achen. I have not read that article, perhaps you could send it to me. But, I first read St Ephrem, St Severus, and VC Samuel at a Byzantine seminary. In addition, I never understood why we put the cross in the baptismal font during Denaha until I saw what the Byzantines do in their tradition. (and no, I’m not going to share, to find out everyone will have to do the ghastly act of researching another Orthodox experience)
Our exposure to other Orthodox traditions is not a threat, it’s a blessing and helps us understand ourselves better. In seminary I got to learn about Russian, Antiochene, Greek, Ethiopian, and even Armenian traditions. It was an amazing experience. We will not lose our Malankara ethos (whatever you define that as) by opening ourselves to experience the way the Holy Spirit has worked through a people and a culture different than ours. If anything, the Byzantines have learned from us too. Several Byzantine students studied Syriac with us at the Armenian seminary.
Something I’ve noticed is that when a priest or bishop from India studies from a Catholic or Protestant school, it is to their credit. When someone from America studies at an Orthodox institution, it is our handicap. Why? Is that something in the Malankara ethos that I can’t understand?
Let me be clear, none of my comments are to demean the experience of those who go to Kottayam Seminary, a wonderful and historic institution of our Church. The worship in the chapel at Old Seminary is truly amazing. I rejoice because God is doing great things there and also here. I’ll even take it a step further and completely agree that a graduate of Kottayam Seminary will be a much better priest than me. But that’s not because I’m Byzantine influenced.
Fr. Mat Alexander
Youth Minister for the churches in Dallas, Texas