Christos Yannaras:
The Ethos of Orthodox Liturgical Art


2. The asceticism of art and the art of ascesis

In the realm of worship, then, the crucial problem of modem life is summed up. How can life operate once again in the dynamic dimension of a communal use of the world? How can technology rediscover the ethos of art and serve the authenticity of life, the communal realization of man's personal distinctiveness and freedom through his use of the world? How can the eucharistic mode of existence even today reconcile the rationalism of technology with a reverence for the inner principle or reason in created things, and do away with the pollution and rape of nature, the debauchery of industry over the living body of the world?

There are certainly no answers to these questions which could serve as objective rules or formulae laying down how life should be organized. If there are answers, they will emerge organically once our life is worked out in the right way, and to this end eucharistic liturgy and art can guide us in a dynamic fashion. What must be made clear first and foremost is that the eucharist of the Church loses any ontological content and turns into a conventional outlet for religious feelings once the bread and wine of the mystery are turned into abstract symbols, and cease to sum up the cosmic dimensions of life as a communal event.

If we accept that man's relationship with God is not simply intellectual, nor in a legalistic sense "moral," but necessarily involves his use of the world, then the Gospel truth of salvation is being undermined by the way modern man is cut off from ascesis, from the practical study of natural reality and respect for it, and is isolated in the autonomous self-sufficiency of technology. Even from the earliest years, the Church has used every means to defend her truth against the danger of being turned into an abstract, intellectual system of metaphysics or a legal code of utilitarian deontology. In every heresy, she has perceived above all the primacy of an individual, intellectual understanding of her truth, and ignorance or neglect of the experiential immediacy with which the Church lives the event of salvation. The Christ of the heresies is a moral paradigm of the perfect man, or else an abstract idea of a disincarnate God. In both cases, man's life is not substantially changed in any way: his existence is condemned either to annihilation along with his body in the earth, or else to an immortality necessary by nature, while individual or collective "improvements" in human life turn out to be fraudulent and senseless, or else a naked deception.

In the period of the ecumenical councils, the Church stood out against the intellectual forms of the heresies in order to preserve the cosmic universality of her eucharistic hypostasis, the salvation embodied in the bread and wine of the eucharist. She stood for the salvation of man's body, not merely his "spirit," from the absurdity of death; she stood for the belief that it is possible for the humble material of the world– the flesh of the earth and of man– to be united with the divine life, and, corruptible though it is, to put on incorruption. It took centuries of striving before language was able to subdue the arbitrariness of individual logic and to express the dynamics of life as revealed by the incarnation of the Word. And, side by side with the language, there was the artist's struggle to speak the same truth with his brush, not schematically or allegorically, but imprinting in design and color the glory of man's flesh and the flesh of the world made incorruptible. Then there was also the formative song of the architect who makes stone and clay into "word," giving them reason and meaning; and in his building the One who is uncontainable is contained, He who is without flesh is made flesh, and the entire creation and the beauty of creation are justified. And, besides these, there was the hymn of the poet and the melody of the musician, an art which subjugates the senses instead of being subjugated by them, revealing in this subjection the secret of life which conquers death.

Thus man's separation from the asceticism of art and the art of ascesis– the practical encounter with the potentialities for salvation in the flesh of man and of the world– and his isolation in the individualistic self-sufficiency provided by technology leads to a "religious" alienation of the Church's truth, to the Christ of the heresies– a moral paradigm of perfect man, or an abstract idea of disincarnate God.

A eucharistic use of the world certainly does not preclude technology, the use of technical means; on the contrary, any form of ascetic art always requires highly developed technical skill. However much technology develops it does not altogether cease to be a "rational" use of the world, a use with reason and meaning. But the problem begins as soon as this "rationality" is restricted to man's individual intellectual capacity and ignores or violates the principle of the intrinsic beauty of the natural material; as soon as man's use of the world serves exclusively to make him existentially autonomous, and proudly to cut him off from the rhythm of the life of the world. What we now call technocracy is technology made absolute, or, better, the ethos which accompanies a certain technological use of the world. It does not aim to serve life as communion and personal relationship, and therefore ignores also the personal dimension of the world, the manifestation of God's personal energy in the world. It is geared towards man's greed as a consumer, his instinctive need to acquire possessions and to enjoy himself.2

If the autonomous operation of capital– of absolute individual or corporate interests– did not make human beings subject to the mechanized necessity for production, and if machines served the communal reality of life, the personal, responsible and creative participation of every worker in production, then their use could perhaps be as much a liturgical and eucharistic act as sowing, harvesting or gathering grapes. But anything of that kind requires a particular ethos in man, a definite attitude on man's part towards the material world and its use.

The eucharistic use of the world and its relationship with man's technical accomplishments find a complete communal model in the case of ecclesial or liturgical art. So perhaps the most substantial contribution that theological ethics can make to solving the problems created by modern technocracy should be to study the ethos of church art– or, more precisely, to study how the problem of technology is posed, and what ethos is expressed by the technology, the technique of liturgical art.

[Top | Home]


2 The ethos expressed by modern technocracy does not cease to be a derivative of human nature, of the existential adventure of man's freedom. So the ascetic knowledge of man, the empirical exploration of the mysterious depths of man's rebellion by the saints and wise men of the desert, has also described the ethos of technocracy with astounding clarity, at a time when the problem of that ethos could be posed only on a very small scale. St Isaac the Syrian writes, characteristically: "When knowledge follows the desire of the flesh, it brings with it these tendencies: wealth, vanity, adornment, rest for the body, and eagerness for the wisdom of that logic which is suitable for the administration of this world; it is constantly making new discoveries both in skills and in knowledge, and abounds also in everything else that is the crown of the body in this visible world. As a result of this, it comes to oppose faith... for it is stripped of any concern for God, and makes the mind irrational and powerless, because it is dominated by the body. Its concern is wholly confined to this world… It thinks that everything is in its own care, following those who say that the visible world is not subject to any direction. Yet it is unable to escape from continuing concern and fear for the body. So faintheartedness and sorrow and despair take hold of it... and worry about illnesses, and concerns about wants and lack of necessities, and fear of death... For it does not know how to cast its care onto God, in the assurance of faith in Him. It therefore engages in contrivances and trickery in all its affairs. When its contrivances are ineffectual for some reason, it does not see the secret providence, and fights the people who are obstructing and opposing it": Mystic Treatises 6, pp. 256-257.