Byzantine Catholic Church in Slovakia

Rite and Spirituality


      Church as the Mystical Body of Christ has many different limbs and each of them is irreplaceable and inevitably necessary. Therefore there are many rites in Catholic Church: Armenian, Byzantine, Etiopian, Coptic, Latin, Maronite Chaldean and Syro-Antiochian. Rite is a spiritual journey, it is a method of certain community (local church), how it lives, walks with God and towards God, it is a language by which this community expresses its relationship to God.

      Rite, says Professor R. Taft SJ, “is not only a study of liturgy but more importantly it is a complex tradition, an exceptional way of understanding religious people by certain communities, expressing and living their life within the Mystical body of Christ. It is also includes canonic discipline, monasticism, art, architecture, sacred music, and what needs to be emphasized on – specific spirit, which has formed this tradition and is essential for it.”

      Rite is also a gift (charisma) that helps a local community to serve the entire Church. The Byzantine Catholic Church in Slovakia also undertakes its Cyrill and Methodius tradition and the Byzantine rite with its spirituality as charisma, helping to enrich the whole Catholic Church. And according to that, being a Byzantine Catholic means to have a special vocation – to live and enlarge this charisma. Spirituality is very closely related to the rite. It is a way of spiritual life, way of understanding and experiencing the spiritual truths. We can also say, that spirituality is a person’s life with God and in God. It is strongly linked with mentality and culture of people and nations. We will try to highlight on the differences of the Byzantine rite in comparison with the Latin rite and clarify their reasons. The most significant differences are married priests, longer ceremonies in which also everything is sung an often repeated, stricter fast, people cross themselves and kneel down great deal, etc.

      The East in general has a more complex view on man – there are body, soul and spirit. This is highly expressive, especially in connection with body, which was, particularly in the West, regarded as something less important, something that needed to be restricted. The East, however, tries to involve the whole person into the spiritual life and to the prayers. As the body participates in a prayer of a soul, so the soul prays in the body and through the body, which is the temple of the soul. That is why there are so many bows, crossings, and stricter fast. The entire body is involved in penance; the aim of the fasting is the recovery, conversion, and deification (theosis) of the whole person – including the body.

      There are many aspects in worshipping that clearly influence the senses and this is very important for a better understanding of the eastern spirituality, e.g. icons and plenteous decoration affect our eyesight, singing our hearing, scent of incense and candles, touching and kissing icons and relics our sense of touch and the Communion (The Holy Communion is always given away as both the Body and the Blood of Christ) and the consecrated bread (antidoron) or fruits at the end of the Liturgy our taste. (This is the commemoration of the first Christian’s feast of love - agape). The intent of all this is an intensive experience of God, experience of meeting Him, that is less rational, and does not stand on words and persuasion (as it is in the West), but it is a matter of heart.

      This, on the other hand, does not mean that this experience is sensual. We could say that it is as analogical as in sacraments – the extern signs point at exactly the same thing as they invisibly put into life. Senses are a gateway through which the heavenly reality enters a person. Such experience is a pretaste of the eternal life. This way each liturgy is a representation and at the same time participation on the heavenly liturgy. Therefore the main aspect of the liturgy is celebration and thanksgiving. On the outside it’s expressed by singing (recited liturgy does not exist), plenteous decorations, and loftiness of the religious services. There are no skips on the ceremonies, (comp. Mk 14, 3-9) because beauty is one of the God’s symbols, and “Christ Himself is an embodied Beauty” (P. Evdomikov).

Iconostasis in the Church of Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Bratislava

      A typical element of the Byzantine rite is iconostasis – a wall with icons (sacred pictures), which divides the sanctuary from the nave of the church. The icon is God’s word written by paints on a wood; tradition has even some “iconographic language”. The main aim of the icon is contemplation of God through the portrayed mystery. An icon represents a person or event portrayed on it, and thus bowing in front of the icon (or kissing it), does not refer to the wood but to the person portrayed on it. We can say that icons are windows into the world of spiritual realities and therefore the iconostasis can not be regarded as an obstruction. It helps to see what is happening in the sanctuary, and it clearly shows what is going on invisibly in the Eucharist.

      The Byzantine rite does not know statues, only two-dimensional illustrations. The reason of this is a very strong influence of the Old Testament and also an effort to capture not the earthly reality but that of heaven’s (eternal one).The fact that there are statues in some churches is only a consequence of latinization.

      Spiritual life of eastern Christians is very strong connected with the prayer of the church – horologion (breviary - the liturgy of the hours); private prayers are not as important as it is in the Latin rite. The reason of this might be a strong influence and importance of the monasticism. The peak of the spiritual life is the divine liturgy (the holy mass), and we distinguish its three main forms: the one of St. John Chrysostomos (most commonly used), St. Basil the Great’s (celebrated only 10 times a year), and the Liturgy of presanctified gifts (this liturgy is celebrated in the Great Lent and has not the transubstantiation of eucharist). On Sundays the worshippers pray together vespers and matins in the church.

      Long religious services are not so based on understanding and offer more freedom for private experience. Their private purpose is to be with God, to experience the heaven and identify oneself with the celebrated mystery. Repeating some prayers is distinctive and helps to appreciate and experience some truths more intensively. This is very typical for an individual prayer, better known as Jesus’s prayer. The aim of a Christian’s life is deification (theosis) – an absolute transformation of oneself, participation on God’s genuity, taking part in Holy Trinity’s life and essential unification with God. The best model of this transformation is Mary – the Mother of God, and that is why she is so worshipped among the eastern Christians. On her intercession, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.

Andrej Skoviera

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