Recent cries for a return to the Greek language regarding celebration of the Divine Liturgy, in an English-speaking country, remind me of people who continually confuse the medium with the message. Fact is, we’ve never abandoned the Greek language in America. That’s been the problem! Except for a few progressive churches where English is the dominant language, the Greek Orthodox churches in America continue to deliver the Liturgy primarily in Greek. Most of them prolong the service with dreadful English repetitions to satisfy “the misguided yearning for understanding” from younger faithful.
Like modern hierarchs, Mr. Basil Zafiriou insists that understanding Liturgical Greek is not essential in drawing Christ into your life. If this is true, why did the missionaries Cyril and Methodius of the 9th Century take great pains to create the Cyrillic alphabet and translate all the sacred Orthodox writings for the Slavic people? Fortunately, they saw fit to deliver the message of Orthodoxy in the language of the people.
Barely 100 years later, a Russian delegation under Prince Vladmir, arrived in Constantinople to bear witness to the Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia Cathedral. History tells that they were so impressed by the smells, pageantry, sights and sounds of the ritual that Russia adopted the Orthodox faith as the state religion of the Empire. Again, the common vernacular was used. Today, Russia boasts of its 50 million Orthodox Christians while the United States can barely produce 200,000 practicing Greeks from the 450,000 claimed.
The sainted missionaries could have explained that the original Greek could not be tampered with, (like many still believe in America). But they didn’t! They could not rely just on a sensual approach to Theosis: a combination of chanting, incense and iconography with prayer to magically trigger a mystical experience that nourishes the soul and draws us closer to God. This model may work for trained monastics who know the language, pray and meditate 24/7. But what about the rest of us who lack the capacity for this spiritual feat and require understandable language to bridge the cognitive gap? So, is it not reasonable to expect that language is the delivery mechanism of the message which, when combined with the sensual, can open the window to spiritual growth?
Steven P. Stamatis was born in Greece but grew up in Chicago during the 1960s. Following a 35-year business career, he began a 12-year teaching career at nearby colleges with a focus on English and Humanities. Stamatis has been writing poems for over 50 years and has published his work in a dozen anthologies. His first volume of poems, Handful of Sand and Other Poems, was published in 2015. He resides with his wife in Addison, IL.