My first exposure to the Divine Liturgy was a rather abbreviated version, minus many of the traditional litanies. Later, I started attending a Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic parish that celebrated a somewhat fuller version of the Liturgy. I well remember when our parish was to have Fr. Peter Knowles, a Russian Byzantine Catholic monk of blessed memory from Australia, celebrate the Divine Liturgy in Old Church Slavonic. Fr. Peter, a wonderful priest, prayed the WHOLE liturgy in Slavonic. Our cantors, who had been pining to sing Slavonic for many years, were taken aback by all the litanies he included. To be honest, so was I.
It was actually some comments by Pope John Paul II that helped me re-think my resistance to litanies.
Within this framework, liturgical prayer in the East shows a great aptitude for involving the human person in his or her totality: the mystery is sung in the loftiness of its content, but also in the warmth of the sentiments it awakens in the heart of redeemed humanity. In the sacred act, even bodiliness is summoned to praise, and beauty, which in the East is one of the best loved names expressing the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured, appears everywhere: in the shape of the church, in the sounds, in the colors, in the lights, in the scents. The lengthy duration of the celebrations, the repeated invocations, everything expresses gradual identification with the mystery celebrated with one’s whole person. Thus the prayer of the Church already becomes participation in the heavenly liturgy, an anticipation of the final beatitude.
Still, I was locked into the “church should not last more than an hour” syndrome. As I’d visit various other parishes, some Eastern Catholic and some Orthodox, I’d see a variety of practices regarding taking litanies. Some take less than others. Generally speaking, Orthodox Liturgies (and litanies) were on the longer side. Whenever I’d encounter the “repeated invocations,” I’d chafe. I remember once being at a Sunday Liturgy at Holy Resurrection Byzantine Catholic Monastery (when it was near Barstow, California) and looking at my watch to check on how long Liturgy had been going on. I’d have similar anxiety visiting most Orthodox parishes.
Even though I struggled with the idea of a longer service, I was dismayed with some of the revisions of the Divine Liturgy in the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church. While some of the revisions have merit, the spirit of abbreviation permeates the Ruthenian Revised Divine Liturgy. The revisers mandated some litanies to be truncated or eliminated — they cannot even be sung by a parish that has a greater tolerance for a longer Liturgy. The “Little Litany” (integral in all Byzantine Orthodox celebrations) has almost disappeared from the liturgical life of the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church. Beyond that, some litanies are made optional which often means in the parish setting they fall into disuse. (One of my greater concerns with Byzantine Catholic abbreviations is the use of pre-cut prosphora in many parishes, which saves a lot of time for the priest before Liturgy but destroys the rich symbolism of the one communion loaf. But, that’s a story I’ll save for a future post.)
When I began attending Liturgy at an Orthodox parish this past September, I had to deal with a longer service. Our parish’s Divine Liturgy goes about 75-85 minutes, depending on the homily. We also include the Litany of the Catechumens and conclude with the Prayers of Thanksgiving after Communion (most stay for that, but some go set up the coffee hour then).
Initially, this required an adjustment on my part. On a recent Sunday, however, the wisdom of the repeated invocations was made plain to me. Perhaps I’m mellowing in my old age. Or, maybe I’m beginning to understand what John Paul was getting at in the passage cited above. In the morning rush to get to Liturgy, I had arrived just minutes before the service began. I venerated the festal icons, I lit my candles and settled in my place just as Father began “Blessed is the Kingdom…” This day, however, the “repeated invocations” made sense:
I needed that time to center myself into the mystery being celebrated and the call to prayer.
As I heard and sang response to what is called the “Little Litany”:
Priest: In peace let us again pray to the Lord.
People: Lord, have mercy.
Priest: Help us, save us, have mercy upon us, and protect us, O God, by Your grace.
People: Lord, have mercy.
Priest: Remembering our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.
People: To You, O Lord.
I no longer chafed. I understood what Jason Barker at Ancient Faith Radio said about such litanies: “rather than being redundant they instead serve a wonderful purpose: drawing us closer to God, and to each other.”
This “repeated invocation” from the Little Litany sums up the essence of what I consider true spirituality:
It’s not me. It’s God and His grace.
We also remember and honor the Theotokos, and with all the saints we “commit ourselves and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.”
That’s enough for this sinner.