The Orthodox Leader

I Will Not Speak of Thy Mysteries

“For I will not speak of thy Mysteries to thine enemies…”
–From the Communion hymn for the liturgy for Holy Thursday,
and one of the prayers before communion

Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!

This past Holy Week has given me many points to consider in a topic I’ve been ruminating on for some time: the issue of photos and videos of Orthodox sacramental rites being placed on the internet in an unrestricted fashion. I am encouraged by the growing use of media technology by Orthodox parishes for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. Technological advances in the past decade have made this possible, with good-quality digital still and video cameras available at bargain prices. For those eager to share the Orthodox Faith (which should be all of us), this has been turned into a real opportunity to make Orthodox worship more visible to all.

However, I admit to some unease with the way this is being done in practice. I have benefited greatly from the ready availability of photos and videos (particularly on YouTube, to help a young choir learn new settings by hearing others sing them), but I am not sure this justifies the unrestricted disclosure of “family affairs” to the world. Consider some photos easily found online (all open in a new window/tab), available for anyone to view:

Of Holy Communion
Of Baptisms
Of Ordinations

There are many others that can be found, on Google and Bing Images, YouTube, Vimeo, and more.

Why am I uneasy? My concern is that making these images available to all leads to either scorn or indifference to the Holy Mysteries (to include all the sacraments of the Church). The risk of the former is still very real, even from people calling themselves Christians. Consider this greatest hit (admittedly, an extreme example) from Chick Tracts. Does showing someone with a hostile perspective the details of what we do in the Eucharist accomplish anything, or does it just give them more ammunition? (“See! They worship that bread!”)

As for indifference, our entire culture has been desensitized to sexual innuendo and varying degrees of public nudity simply by putting more and more of it into the public sphere. We now hear talk at the office that would have made sailors of another era blush. If the special thing is put out there often enough, its perception as special is bound to decrease. (See what St. Basil has to say about this, below.) What previously required one to visit an Orthodox church to see is now available to anyone at any time.

It seems to me to be a form of spiritual promiscuity. We speak about the intimacy of our participation in the Holy Mysteries, particularly the Eucharist, but then readily display not only the Body and Blood of Christ, but also those who, in piety and faith, draw near to receive them. In most cases, their permission for such photos is never asked, as if attendance at the Divine Liturgy includes an implicit photographic release. Anonymity in unattributed photos will not last, either. It’s only a matter of time until faces are searchable by name, with that technology already available in consumer products like Apple’s iPhoto. I wonder how well that will work out for those who renounce, say, Islam in favor of Christ.

Further, many of our larger services (like the ones from Holy Week and Pascha, plus the liturgies at gatherings such as the OCA All-American Councils) have been transformed into media events, with the audiovisual cacophony of flashes, shutters, beeps, and the paparazzo-style camera-raised-above-the-crowd shooting effect all working against those who would like to pray in peace. We generally discourage, if not prohibit, this behavior at weddings, but it’s tolerated all the time at other big services. I’ve had photographers shooting over my shoulder while I commune the faithful. It’s rude. Not every aspect of every event need be recorded for posterity. [NB: Courtesy calls for most photography undertaken in a religious service to be unobtrusive. Ask permission first. Turn off the flash. Turn off the beeps. Turn off the autofocus assist lamp. Use a camera with a quiet shutter. Remember to pray.]

Lest this sound too cranky (and, please bear with me, for I want your input), I should say that I am not opposed to all church photography. I wonder, though, whether we would be better served by having fewer publicly-available recordings of sacramental services and individuals in intimate moments of participation in the grace of God therein. In place of this, we could make the emphasis of our photo- and videography the salvation available in Christ Jesus. Good relationships begin with introductory discussions, not with full family details. We Orthodox are justifiably enamored of the beauty of our worship, but it seems that photographs of the faithful partaking of the Body and Blood of their Lord, or being immersed in the waters of Holy Baptism, etc. are of minimal evangelistic value, at least for those viewing them on the web. (That is, who would become an Orthodox Christian because he saw a baptism on the internet?) For those images and videos of interest to the communal family, such as baptisms, weddings, and so on, perhaps they could be protected and accessible only to the members of the parish. We could let sermons and material for the unchurched predominate on the public areas of church websites.

So, my questions for you are:

  1. What do you think about my concerns? Is there too much or too little being made accessible everywhere? Is what I’ve said much ado about nothing?
  2. What, if anything, should be done?
  3. What should drive our use of photographs and other media? Is the current use helping or hurting?
  4. In many ways, “the horse is already out of the barn” on this issue. Is there a basis for trying to undo this, at least in the future?

In the interest of discussion, I give a couple of other patristic citations. This first one is from St. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 313-386), in his introductory address to the newly baptized. His lectures introduced these new Christians, most of whom hadn’t even heard the Lord’s Prayer prior to their entry, to the fullness of life in the Church. He cautions them to guard what they learn:

When, therefore, the Lecture is delivered, if a Catechumen ask thee what the teachers have said, tell nothing to him that is without. …  So too the sick ask for wine; but if it be given at a wrong time it causes delirium, and two evils arise; the sick man dies, and the physician is blamed.  Thus is it also with the Catechumen, if he hear anything from the believer:  both the Catechumen becomes delirious (for he understands not what he has heard, and finds fault with the thing, and scoffs at what is said), and the believer is condemned as a traitor. But thou art now standing on the border:  take heed, pray, to tell nothing out; not that the things spoken are not worthy to be told, but because his ear is unworthy to receive. -St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Prologue to the Catechetical Lectures, 12.

Then there’s St. Basil (AD 330-379), who, in defending the divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit, makes reference to the propriety of speaking of those things maintained in pious silence. Read this carefully:

And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels?  Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation?  Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence.  What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents.  What was the meaning of the mighty Moses in not making all the parts of the tabernacle open to every one?  The profane he stationed without the sacred barriers; the first courts he conceded to the purer; the Levites alone he judged worthy of being servants of the Deity; sacrifices and burnt offerings and the rest of the priestly functions he allotted to the priests; one chosen out of all he admitted to the shrine, and even this one not always but on only one day in the year, and of this one day a time was fixed for his entry so that he might gaze on the Holy of Holies amazed at the strangeness and novelty of the sight.  Moses was wise enough to know that contempt stretches to the trite and to the obvious, while a keen interest is naturally associated with the unusual and the unfamiliar.  In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad random among the common folk is no mystery at all. -St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, XXVII.66.

And then there’s always the prayer we pray (or should pray) before our participation in the Eucharist: “Of thy mystical supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant. For I will not speak of thy Mysteries to thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give thee a kiss, but like the thief will I confess thee. Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom.”

3 comments (click to add your own)

Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

April 25th, 2011 at 12:17 am

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