Essay | Reaching Heavenward

GREECE & TURKEY, Student Essays, Theology

By Benjamin Straley, MM ’10, MDiv ’12. 

I remember the opening banquet of my first year at the ISM, in the fall of 2008.  Martin Jean read the following passage from Augustine’s Confessions:

But when I love you, what do I love?  It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odour of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God.  Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God – a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is a sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part.  That is what I love when I love my God.

Oddly enough, this distant memory from my first months at the ISM revived in my final weeks during the spring 2012 study trip, as we watched a sema ritual performed by whirling dervishes in Istanbul.  It was so foreign to anything liturgical I had ever known, and as a meditative practice it was at the other end of the spectrum from the quiet, contemplative traditions I normally think of.  And yet, as I saw the seemingly blank stare behind the eyes of a dervish as he whirled, I was moved profoundly, because I saw in that expression a complete self-offering to God – a total submission.  When I read of the mental ascent and descent that happens in the course of the sema ritual, I thought immediately of the Western Christian mystics who emphasized this ascent – the desire to reach a transcendent, liminal state, poised between this life and the life to come: that eternal quest for that place where, as Augustine said, “my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is a sound that time cannot seize … and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part.”  Watching the dervishes in their spinning, we were all acutely aware that we were gazing upon individuals engaged in that quest, and it was something we understood, and could relate to.

This was one of the few moments on the trip where I honestly “got it” – where my understanding crossed cultural and religious lines, and I could understand what they were “about.”  To be sure, the music played during the sema ceremony was beautiful, but it did not evoke a particularly religious feeling within me.  In fact, during the entirety of the trip, I was constantly encountering music which I recognized as being religious, and as sounding religious, yet which I nonetheless failed to connect with the same way I might a Byrd mass or a Duruflé motet.  It was a Duruflé motet, “Ubi caritas et amor,” which the ISM sang as a offering of thanks in several locations (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, to name a few!).  But every time we finished, I kept wondering if our Eastern hosts heard it the way we did.  After all, if after a week of Greek Orthodox chant I still could not distinguish the differing modes, then I could not possibly be appreciating the music the way someone familiar with it would.  No;  the notion of music as a universal language I decided on this trip to be a fallacy, but that grasping, that reaching for something heavenward – that I could understand despite all the linguistic, cultural, liturgical, and theological differences which might otherwise come between.

These strong differences – for me most strongly musical and liturgical – between East and West (and leaving aside differences between Christianity and Islam), were a powerful reminder that no one group of people has a monopoly on truth or the expression of truth: liturgical, doctrinal, musical, or otherwise.  The poets, the composers, the theologians, the artists we study at Yale are often giants of the western European academic tradition, but we do well to remember that these are still only one part of the sea of humanity.  In an era where ecumenism among the Christian churches has been a major goal, I was reminded of the ways in which the churches of the East and West have developed quite differently over the centuries, and often for good reason.  Nevertheless, in a day when ecumenical dialogue is more prevalent than ever among the Christian churches, they stand to learn much from each other.

The five senses Augustine engages in the opening excerpt, which he then develops into spiritual senses, are continuously engaged in Orthodox liturgy.  How the Western Reformed traditions, despite a heavy dependence on Augustine in Calvinist theology, arrived at such a polarity which rendered any art suspect, and images as idolatrous, is baffling.  In the Greek churches we entered, we were constantly enveloped in the smell of incense and burning beeswax candles, the warm glow of candlelight playing upon dazzling mosaics and icons, and the sounds of Byzantine chant heard during the liturgy.  Even the sense of touch is engaged, with the faithful venerating icons of Christ, his Mother, and countless other saints with kisses, heartfelt devotion, and touching intimacy.

In their striving for the Divine, I daresay the Orthodox have done a better job of reinforcing the idea of the church building as a gate between heaven and earth, and a reflection of the heavenly liturgy that occurs above.  During Vespers at the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, for a split second – surrounded by the company of saints, visually depicted in icons; accompanied by the sound of Byzantine chant, handed down through the centuries; standing in the very land which saw Christianity’s first appearance in Europe –  I glimpsed the timelessness of Orthodox worship. And in that vast expanse of timelessness I also perceived the wonderfully small part, the uniqueness of which renders our part all the more precious,  we all play in it, in all our striving and our reaching.  In art, in song, in hymns of praise, in poetry, in preaching, in teaching, in practicing, in studying, and even occasionally whirling – we strive and we reach.”