Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | August 19, 2010

Psalm 136 as a Lament for East and West

Our own words often seem inadequate to describe the convergence of understanding and response. For it seems to me that others care less for our insights than for our response. And maybe that’s what matters most anyway. As Fr. Seraphim Rose offered of St. Augustine, it wasn’t his thought – which by even his own admission often erred in its speculations, but his Orthodox pastoral responses and instincts that led his contemporaries to acknowledge his thorough Orthodoxy.

So struggling with Ouspensky’s “Theology of the Icon” – it’s history and role in separating christian peoples, our different liturgies (“East” and “West”), as well as beginning to focus on the differences in character and tone (as well as the similarities) in the scriptures of St. Peter, St. Paul and St. John, I find words helpful in description and perhaps understanding, but incomplete. More than understanding, these seem to call more for response.

Naturally, when one’s own words fail, turning to the psalms is helpful. The heart is drawn to those favorite psalms of thanksgiving (134 and 135), yet here it seems that given how the matters that plowed the schism still divides us, a lament seems more on track… something like Psalm 136:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Sion.”

And as the psalmist continues with the stilling of the songs, the silencing of the music… it seems to me that no matter how much I love this church, there is something we miss in separation with the rest of christendom that is a stilling of the song of our worship. Yes, I know this sounds like some sort of sap, because the image of eastern worship indeed are so poetic and powerful in their draw. And so what once was seemed to round out a fullness once given more broadly is increasingly accepted as all there is, seen through unfamiliarity and strangeness of the centuries of sundered wandering, and taken as the whole of the fullness of our faith… and the other as only naturally unnecessary.

Forgotten is the memory that this was not always the case. And just as Paul needed Peter, as Mary needed Martha, and just as the directness of Peter adds an economy to our language, and there is a complement between worship that mystically represents the on-going worship of heaven and that worship that is merely offered, so I think there is something within us and among us… where there is a virtue and completeness in the joining of these that  is not just that which once we understood, but which while not completing an already complete circle, perhaps fills it into something more of a sphere.

So I wonder. And the ending of this psalm which has always puzzled me seems less obtuse.

“Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash thine infants against the rock.”

As I’ve written, infants are one of the greatest joys and gifts God has given us. And this passage has long been a struggle… and continues to be a struggle for me. Yes, it is about the interruption of a race of man that fails to grasp the life and beauty of Sion. I think it is meant to be jarring, not justifying; threatening, not comforting. And surely there is something iconoclastic in this image, and indeed the iconoclastic struggles mirrored this sort of violence. But for my part, simple and Thickheaded as I am, I wonder that in dividing our church, in tolerating its continued separation (whether this is in our separate synods, our parish and family quarrels, or more broadly in an embrace  of ecumenical separation)… whether we have not smashed our own infants against the rock… and robbed ourselves of  a self-understanding that comes only from watching and glorifying in the flowering of one’s offspring. And as we contemplate an American Orthodoxy… will we manage this “better”, or will we continue our iconoclasms? Only our children in the faith will know these answers… if we should be so fortunate to have them.

In the end, perhaps our faith, though it endures until the end, is fragile in our hands, and there maybe something worthy in keeping this in mind whenever we witness those amongst us who would wrestle as our/its champions in a war of cultures rather than a war upon our old selves.


  1. I read this a couple times. It is a worthy meditation on what the dangers of the role of “convert zealots” in America will have on the future of global Orthodoxy. I know the internet is but a small slice of the pie, there’s not a lot of lamenting of Zion by the waters of the Babylon… and the “laments” being offered up are not weeping, but war cries to dash someone’s child it seems.

    • Definitely there. More specifically what I focused on is Ouspensky’s scattered footnotes and comments in Volume I with respect to the disconnect between the East and West in the 7th century in the lead up to the 7th Council. Seems we all focus on the filioque bit. Ouspensky makes clear that before the filioque bit there was the disconnect over icons… in large part due to the East’s squabbles making the West reluctant to engage with the East, and that during this period, Louis the Pious needed help protecting the Pope from the Lombards. Did he appeal to an iconoclastic emperor on the throne in Constantinople. Nope. And so the papal states were set up. Seems to me much extends from this. Yes Rome left the faith (if we must), but perhaps we left them no option. They were left on their own. Seems to me that East-West dialogue, instead of beginning with arguments, differences… or sappy peace-love-dove-Bobby-Sherman-and-tie-dye… perhaps they might begin with laments. Look what we did to each other. Look how we left each other alone… and how so separated … even abandoned… look at the evils that transpired. Look how we have suffered, and continue to suffer. Look how we seem to be insensitive to each other. And so the image of destruction of the seed of the Church… the future of the faith… was dashed. How many infants… whose faith might have had the fullness of the undivided church… instead suffered a sundering and distortion. Do we not each have blood on our hands?

      I have to gather the material Ouspensky has on this. Been pulling it together, but it chops around in the course of his narrative. And of course his bent is focused on iconography. There is another story if you put it together. I think he intended to leave it there, but buried it so as not to disturb by making it to blatant. And yet it is clear. There is a lot more that could be added to our laments. And yes, you can see that the Assemblies could do well to begin here as well.

      Hope this helps somewhat. I think it may be more clear when I have a chance to pull this together. Just thought I’d make my response clear at the outset… or at least on record. This has been lingering in my brain for months… and now going back to the material… it seems worth trying to get clear. But more than clarification, as I said, I think it demands thinking through a response. I think that’s our call. What seems to have happened mostly without this is that we call up the data, and then allow it’s misuse in arguments… or as you put it, ‘war cries”. Let us lament first.

      So I am hopeful. I am optimistic. The “signs are positive” (as my Eight Ball / Fortune Ball ) now tells me.

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