Christos Yannaras

The Ethos of Liturgical Art

Chapter 12 of The Freedom of Morality
(St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY: 1984),
pp. 231-264.


1. Worship, art and technology

When the eucharistic community becomes once again the axis of the Church's life, this leads to a rediscovery of the communal character and ethos of liturgical art. The ontological content of the eucharist– eucharistic communion as a mode of existence– assumes that the communal reality of life has a cosmological dimension: it presupposes matter and the use of matter, which is to say art, as the creative transformation of matter into a fact of relationship and communion.1 Man's art, the way he takes up the world and uses it, is a basic element in life, whether it brings about the alienation of life, or makes it incorruptible and raises it to an existential fulness of personal distinctiveness and freedom.

An idealistic ethic, unrelated to matter and art, is incapable of expressing the ontological ethos of ecclesial. communion. We understand this when we look at the organic identification of art with worship in the context of the eucharist. The worship of the Church is art: it is the work of a communal use of material reality, building and shaping the earth's material so as to render it capable of serving life, that existential fulness of life which is communion and relationship. And the Church's art is worship; it is not merely decorative, but manifests and highlights the "rational" potentialities of matter, the harmony of praise formed by the "words" or inner principles of created things when they are serving the eucharistic event of communion. The "true life" of the eucharist operates and is celebrated within the given realities of nature. The Church's liturgical time– the daily, weekly and annual festive cycles– and her liturgical space– the way the church as a dimensional entity is articulated through architecture and painting– are elements as essential for the operation of the eucharist as the bread and wine of the mystery; they are the direct link between the salvation of life and the function of eating and drinking.

For the man of the modern technological age, however, use of the world, that is to say, life as art and the construction of the personal event of communion, has altogether lost the immediacy of a relationship. Technology now comes between man and the world, replacing the personal attainment of art with the impersonal product of the machine. Of course, the organic cord connecting man with the world, the function of eating and drinking, has not been lost. But food has ceased to sum up man's participation in the life of the world, to sum up man's art or skill, his direct relationship with the materials of life and the way he creatively transforms them into a potential for life. In a rural society, the craftsman and tradesman as well as the peasant would earn their living by their art or skill, by the way in which they encountered the natural or social potentialities of life, the potentialities for serving life in natural matter itself. In that society, man knew the demands, the resistances, the behavior of the material; and to say that he knew nature means that he respected it. His life and his art were a study of the world, an expression of respect for the world. With his body and his art he studied the life of the world, not doing it violence but taking part in it, in harmony with the natural rhythm of life– birth, growth, fruition, decay and death, the changing seasons and the whole working of creation.

Today the majority of people in "developed" societies partake only indirectly in the life of the world. In a large modern city life is organically severed from the reality of nature, completely isolated in a rhythm of its own which is unrelated, even contrary to the natural flow of life and subject to the conditions imposed on it by the rationalistic organization of corporate life. Man knows how to use machines but not how to use the world; he earns his bread by technology, not by his art. This is why it is impossible for bread and wine to represent for urban man the summing up of life, the life and work of a whole year with four seasons, a year of sowing and harvest, subject to weather and winds. The church texts bring him images from a different experience of life: "And as this bread was scattered over the mountains, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy Kingdom." For modern man these are all beautiful poetic images, but they are not his life. His own bread is hygienically packaged and displayed in the supermarket windows be e the jams and the packets of frozen vegetables. Bread is no longer of central importance for his life; other foods have taken first place. And the consumption of food connects man's life not with the productive principle in nature as it is revealed within the relationship created by an art or craft, but with the way in which the "relations of production" become a matter of purely human rival claims. Consumption makes life subject to impersonal networks of economic, trade union or political mechanisms, autonomous and unrelated to any reverence for the principle or reason in natural reality.

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1 The Greek word techne, "art," is "the science of fashioning anything," "the fashioning of the work" and "concerned with making, involving a true course of reasoning," according to Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics 6, 4). it comes from the word teucho which means to build, to be the builder of a work, to create, to give "reason" to matter. See Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire Etymologiqae de la langue grecque, vol. IV, part 1 (Paris, 1877), p. 1111. Cornelius Castoriadis, Les carrefours du labyrinthe (Paris, 1978), pp. 222-223: "The Greek word techne goes back to a very ancient verb, teucho (attested exclusively but innumerable times by the poets...) whose central meaning in Homer is 'to make,' 'to produce,' 'to construct'; teuchos– 'tool,' 'implement'– is also the implement par excellence: arms. Already in Homer the shift was accomplished from this meaning to that of causing, of making something to be, of bringing into existence, often detached from the idea of material fabrication, but never from that of the suitable and effective act."