The Mass according to St Germanus of Paris: first apology

A friend of mine - a fellow lover of all things liturgical - asked me some months ago to share my thoughts once I had finally experienced the Divine Liturgy of St Germanus.  That experience eventually came three days ago, on Palm Sunday, at the monastery of St Michael and St Martin near Luzé, France.

I had been curious about this Liturgy for years, fascinated by the communities that used it and by the music composed for it, some of which I managed to acquire in recorded and sheet form, in French and English.  So I was very excited at the prospect of taking part in it.  Then the Liturgy began and the curious excitement simply disappeared as my heart took over from my head and I realised that I was at the Divine Liturgy, as I had been hundreds of times previously, and that a fascinated curiosity was not how I usually faced that situation.  It just felt like an Orthodox service, which of course, it is.

I must say that prayerful contemplation did not always replace the curiosity, as I had offered my services to the singers, and so found myself sight-reading music, much of which I had not seen before, while trying to read and correctly pronounce the French words.  Doing this for a full Mass was very exhausting but rewarding.

Still, a few things stood out as markedly different from the Byzantine liturgies in a way that they did not from merely reading the text and rubrics:

Clear meaning

The Byzantine liturgies to which I have been accustomed for over a decade have been in continuous use for about 1700 years and have developed significantly in that time.  As such, they have a great many elements that are accretions, and others that are obsolete remnants of a time when things were done very differently, obscuring the true meaning of various parts of the service.  The fact that the Mass of St Germanus is a modern reconstruction of an ancient rite invites much criticism but it does mean that it is largely free of these things, and the cumulative effect of these little differences makes for a Mass that is refreshingly clear in expressing the faith that it actualises.

1. The entrance of the clergy is genuinely the point where the clergy enter the sanctuary.  The entrance prayers and ceremonies in this context make so very much more sense in this context than they do when the clergy start the service already at the altar, only to go on a little perambulation out of one door and back in through another, as an homage to an entrance procession that has not existed for centuries.  I think that the revised Byzantine liturgies of New Skete contain a worthy attempt to correct this, but they are used hardly anywhere.

2. The dismissal of the catechumens has featured in some recensions of this neo-Gallican Liturgy so I was curious to notice that it was absent on Sunday.  I have since been unable to find it in the books used here at the monastery.  Whether this is because there were no catechumens to dismiss or because there is no longer any expectation for catechumens to leave, I do not know.  I do know that, either way, it avoids the oddity of giving instructions ("Catechumens, bow your heads", "Depart, catechumens") to people who at best are not present and at worst do not even exist.  I know that some Byzantine Rite parishes omit these elements when there are no catechumens present but this is generally not the case in my experience in the Russian Church.

3. The deacon performs his proper role of the Preparation of the Gifts and the transfer of them to the sanctuary.  Why and when the priest started to do this in Byzantine custom is something that I have never been able to find out.

4. The kiss of peace is something that really does happen among the faithful and is not reserved to the clergy alone.  The celebrant kisses the Altar, and then the deacons, who bring the kiss of peace to the faithful while they sing the responsory "Peace I leave with you".  Seeing it done, and seeming so natural and reverent, was very beautiful indeed.  It shows that the exchange of the peace needn't be the excuse for a good old chat that it often became in the Anglican and Catholic churches of my childhood and teenage years.

Many Orthodox Christians of Byzantine tradition do not even realise that their Divine Liturgy contains such a thing as the kiss of peace, and will tell you that this is an exclusively Catholic/Protestant thing to do.  In fact, I don't think that it was ever formally removed from the Liturgy as much as the practice simply fell into disuse.   At this time of year in particular, the ancient practice of omitting the kiss of peace on Maundy Thursday (given the very different significance that the gesture of kissing has on that day) becomes a very poignant marker of the Passion of the Lord in a way that it cannot if the Peace is never given at all.

The audible Anaphora

For good or for ill, the anaphora is chanted aloud, and the epiklesis is spoken audibly.  I know that the historical and spiritual merits of one practice over another have been the subject of Orthodox debate for years, and I do not intend to reproduce any of that here.  However, it is worth noting that, unlike the fixed Byzantine anaphoras the neo-Gallican (as indeed the ancient Gallican) anaphora is mostly variable according to the feast or season, and so has great catechetical benefit that would be lost if prayed quietly.  I mainly want to say that I was deafened by the silent reverence at the epiklesis in particular.  The sense of "God is here" really was astounding.


At Communion, the Body of the Saviour was placed in the communicants' hands, and the people drank directly from the chalice, as in ancient times.  When I was a catechumen, back in 2005, I was told to read the lectures of St Cyril of Jerusalem On the Christian Sacraments, where he describes just such a practice.  Those hands and lips have been sanctified with the waters of Baptism and sealed with the Holy Chrism: with proper catechesis I see no reason why Communion should not be given in this way.

"Homely" Orthodoxy

Perhaps the most important thing that struck me about this rite was that it just felt "lived in".  Much of the discussion of the rite that takes place online is by people - critics or enthusiasts - who have no direct intimate experience of it.  I don't mean an occasional visit to a parish that uses the rite but actual sustained Orthodox prayer and sacramental life with the Divine Office and Mass of St Germanus at the heart of it.

Yet here is a monastic community that has known nothing but that for decades.  Those Russian nuns who can tell you without consulting any books what is to be sung to which tone on any given day, and who will know when you are singing a text that should be omitted in that particular week - those nuns have counterparts in the Western Rite, and I got to see that on Sunday.

So I think that, what stood out to me most of all is that, for this community, the Divine Office and the Mass of St Germanus are not a matter of academic scrutiny or curiosity, they are not a subject for debate about the appropriateness or otherwise of their use; rather they are the channel through which they worship God, and how they form their Orthodox prayer life.  It's a bit like apostolic succession: we know we have it so we don't spend too much time worrying about how we came by it.  It just is.

I know that we Orthodox love the ancientness of our services, and the rich heritage that comes with them, but the simple truth is that, for most of us, regardless of the rite we use, once we have become steeped in that cycle of prayers, hymns, and bodily acts of reverence, in one sense it doesn't matter so much whether they have been in continuous use for over 1000 years, reconstructed from ancient manuscripts and blessed for use a half century ago, or composed by the bishop last year.  As long as the services are true expressions of our Faith and they "pray" in an Orthodox way we seem able - and very happy - to make them our own and incorporate them as part of our spiritual life.

Perhaps that is the Orthodox way.

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