By Brent Kostyniuk
A Byzantine primer in the richness of the tradition
Byzantine — excessively complicated, and typically involving a great deal of administrative detail; characterized by deviousness or underhand procedure
To the outsider, this definition might seem to apply to the Byzantine Christian tradition, as professed by the Ukrainian Catholic Church, amongst others. I once took a friend to a Ukrainian Catholic divine liturgy, convinced she would be overwhelmed and instantly appreciate its beauty. Her only comment was that “Lord have mercy” was repeated a lot. I was shattered. Indeed, compared with the stark simplicity of the Latin mass, which she knew, the divine liturgy of St. John Chrysostom might, indeed, seem “excessively complicated.”
Both Lungs is about East and West. It is about unity in diversity; the need to appreciate each other, and as a result, grow in our own faith. However, it is difficult to appreciate something we don’t understand. That applies equally to those from the West and from the East.
I have to confess to coming to love the Byzantine tradition rather late in life. Growing up in Edmonton, even with its large Ukrainian population, it really wasn’t cool to go to a church where there were no guitars. I stayed true to my faith, but it was begrudgingly. But then something happened. I wasn’t knocked off my horse like St. Paul, but rather gradually came to understand what Byzantine Christianity was all about. Richness. If any one word could be used to identify the Byzantine tradition, that would be the word. Richness.
In every facet of our worship and spiritual lives, there is beautiful richness. Richness of ceremony, richness of liturgy, richness of art and architecture.
As I came to appreciate the Byzantine traditions, I also realized there was something lacking. Even as the pioneer missionaries and faithful worked so hard to preserve their religion, some of the Byzantine richness was lost as the missionary church struggled to exist in the New World. The reasons are complex. However, it was an existence largely without contact with the mother church. Indeed, for much of the 20th century, the Ukrainian Catholic Church in its homeland managed to survive only through an underground network of clergy, churches and even seminaries. The great faith and endurance through the years of communist oppression led to a multitude of martyrs, many of whom have been officially recognized by the church. Today, communication, freedom to travel, and education are bringing about a revitalization of the Byzantine tradition in the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada.
That is not to say that everything Byzantine was lost in the early years of the pioneer church. Modelled on the great Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the domes of Ukrainian churches became a familiar sight across the “borsch belt” of the Canadian prairies. But why domes? There was richness here, but I didn’t understand it. So, as St. John Paul II has admonished all Catholics to do, I started to learn more about the East, the other lung of the church. Even in the shape of the church there is richness in the Byzantine tradition. The dome is the dome of heaven. In the church, that dome of heaven has come down to earth. The faithful stand under the dome, indicating they are already in the realm of heaven.
Then there are icons, those visual depictions of sacred Scripture and tradition. Written, not painted, they are more like scribal copies of the Bible. Through icons we learn elements of our faith. They show a cosmic reality. So when we see a saint, it is as he or she exists in heaven. Moreover, icons depict only that which human eyes have seen. Thus, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are never depicted in icons. Rather, we may see a hand pointing down from heaven or a dove flying in the sky.
In the same sense, the Byzantine Christian accepts that much is unknowable. That same notion leads to apophatic prayer; speaking in terms of what something is not, rather than what it is. Apophatic prayer is a characteristic of Byzantine theology and worship. Just prior to the consecration, the priest prays, “It is right and just to sing of you, to bless you, to praise you, to thank you, to worship you everywhere in your domain; for you are God — ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing and ever the same — you and your only-begotten son and your Holy Spirit.”
Ritual and symbolism are part of the richness of Byzantine Christianity. Worship is a very sensual thing. Incense is burned and with it our sense of smell reminds us our prayers are meant to rise to heaven. Icons cover the interior of our churches, so our eyes might have a glimpse of heaven. So too, we pray with our bodies, taking different postures depending on the season and intent of our prayer. Ritual and symbolism begin from the time we become members of the church. During the mysteries (sacraments) of initiation is the baby is “churched,” as the priest carries the child around the altar three times.
Having come to understand and appreciate the richness of the East, I have also come to love it. These days most people take pride in being PC — politically correct. However, I am happier to be known as being BC — Byzantine Christian.
The richness of the Byzantine tradition can be seen in ceremony, liturgy, art and architecture, writes Brent Kostyniuk. Here, Father Peter is seen with baby Charlotte in the churching ritual. (Kostyniuk photo)
Kostyniuk, who lives in Edmonton, has a bachelor of theology from Newman and is a freelance writer. He and his wife Bev have been married for 36 years and have eight grandchildren.