Christos Yannaras:
The Ethos of Orthodox Liturgical Art


7. The last hope

We started with the question: How does the problem of technical skill, of technology, present itself, and what ethos is expressed by technique or technology in the field of liturgical art? And we have tried to seek in church architecture and iconography the particular attitude of life or ethos which is capable of transforming the application of technology into a liturgical and eucharistic action, of making our relationship with matter once again a communion and a personal fulfilment. We cannot go further than a semantic description of the conditions of this attitude, this specific ethos, without a danger of producing a formal deontology.

There is no one theory to specify how the application of technology is to be transfigured into a communal event and a potential for man's existential fulfilment. There is, however a dynamic starting-point for this transformation of life Q use of the world. This is the eucharistic synaxis, the communal realization of life and art in the parish and the diocese. No political program, however "efficient," no social ethic however radical, and no method of organizing the populace into "nuclei" for revolutionary change, would ever be able to bring about that transformation of life which is dynamically accomplished by the eucharistic community, or to lead us to a solution of the extreme existential problems which technocracy today has created.

The danger of nuclear annihilation, the lunacy of armaments, the international growth of systems and mechanisms for oppressing and alienating man, the exhaustion of the planet's natural resources, pollution of the sea and the atmosphere, the attempt to repress or forget the thought of death in a hysteria of consumer greed and trade in pleasure– all these, and a host of other nightmarish syndromes, form the world which today greets every infant who becomes a godchild of the Church through holy baptism. And in the face of this world, all we Christians seem like complete infants, feeble and powerless to exert the slightest influence over the course of human history and the fate of our planet. This is perhaps because, through the historical vicissitudes of heretical distortions of our truth– distortions which lie at the root of the present cultural impasse– we seem to have lost our understanding of the manner in which our weakness and powerlessness "perfects" the transfiguring power of the Church. Our power is "hidden" in the grain of wheat and the tiny mustard seed, in the mysterious dynamism of the leaven lost in the dead lump of the world– in the eucharistic hypostasis of our communal body.

The eucharistic community, the resuscitation of our eucharistic self-awareness and identity, the nucleus of the parish and the diocese– these are our "revolutionary" organization, our radical "policy," our ethic of "overthrowing the establishment": these are our hope, the message of good tidings which we bring. And this hope will "overcome the world": it will move the mountains of technocracy which stifle us. The fact that the world is being stifled by technocracy today is the fated outcome of the great historical adventure of western Christianity, of the divisions, the heresies and the distortions of the Church's truth. So equally the way out of the impasse of technocracy is not unconnected with a return to the dynamic truth of the one and only Church. Men's thirst for life has its concrete historical answer in the incarnation of Christ, in the one catholic eucharist. And the one catholic eucharist means giving absolute priority to the ontological truth of the person, freeing life from the centralized totalitarianism of objective authority, and spelling out the truth of the world through the language and art of the icon. Even just these three triumphs over heresy are enough to move the stifling mountains of technocracy. The field in which this triumph takes place is the local eucharistic community, the parish or diocese; only there can we do battle with the impasse of technocracy. And the more sincere our search for life while the idols of life collapse around us, the more certain it is that we shall meet the incarnate answer to man's thirst– the eucharistic fulfilment of true life.

It has taken about nine centuries to move from the filioque, "primacy," "infallibility," and loss of the truth of the person to the present unconcealed and general impasse created by the western way of life. Time is very relative, and no one can say when and through what kinds of historical and cultural development people will perhaps realize that escape from this impasse is a possibility. When the words of these pages are wiped from human memory and all of us have disappeared under the earth, the succession of generations, "all the generations" who make up the Church, will still be continuing to bring about the coming of the Kingdom of God within the eucharistic "leaven." However far off in time, the escape from heresy is a contemporary event– not because the historical scope of western civilization in its impasse is even now limited, but because such is the present, eschatological truth of the Church, hidden within the eucharistic "leaven."

In a new age yet to come, the eucharistic realization of the Kingdom will. be embodied once again in dynamic forms of social and cultural life, without doing away with the adventure of freedom and sin, because this communal dynamism is the nature of the Church, the organic consequence of her life. This new age will spell out once again, in humility, the truth of the world, the reason in things and the meaning of history: it will once again fashion in the icon the transfigured face of man.

See additional note.

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Additional note: Given the limited possibilities of conceptual distinctions, it is difficult to give a clear explanation of the difference between the "transfiguration" of natural material and its "dematerialization." By the word "transfiguration" we are attempting to express the result of ascesis, of man's struggle to reveal the truth of matter, the potentiality in the created world for participation in true life– the possibility for the human body, and man's construction material and tools, to form a communion; to serve and manifest the "common reason" in ascetic experience, the experience of personal distinctiveness and freedom. On the other hand, by the term "dematerialization" we mean the impression matter gives us when it is tamed by the power of the mind and will; when the hypostatic reality of matter goes almost unnoticed, since the natural matter has been absolutely subjugated to the inspiration of the craftsman, to the meaning he wants the work to serve, and the impression it is meant to make on the spectator. Gothic architecture definitely gives a sense of dematerialized space, an impression of earth raised up to heaven. It is precisely the overpowering violence of the craftsman's frequently outstanding genius which takes the natural material and subjects it to the demands of the given aim and meaning. In a way that parallels this precisely, the whole of scholastic theology is a brilliant intellectual "dematerialization" of the truth of the Church; it subjugates the "common speech" of the experience of salvation to the interests of individual intellectual certainty and objective support for the truths of the Church. None of this is meant to belittle either the "scientific" genius of the scholastics or the artistic genius embodied in Gothic buildings. No one denies that creations such as Notre Dame in Paris and the Chartres Cathedral are supreme achievements of human art. But as we recognize the aesthetic feat, so we ought also to make a distinction between the ethos and attitude to the natural material expressed by this art on the one hand, and that expressed by other forms of art, which embody man's struggle for the truth of matter and the world, a struggle with the natural material in order to reveal its personal dimension a struggle and an ascetic effort to bring about the communal event of personal freedom and distinctiveness.

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