Incantations and purple prose? No thanks

Laurus alexii signingI realize, of course, that Eastern Orthodox Christians can be very picky and precise when it comes to matters of doctrine and liturgy. I mean, there’s a reason that we are called the Orthodox.

So with that in mind, let’s turn to the Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary for some input on a very edgy religious word:

incantation

Main Entry: in*can*ta*tion …
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English incantacioun, from Middle French incantation, from Late Latin incantation-, incantatio, from Latin incantare to enchant …
Date: 14th century

: a use of spells or verbal charms spoken or sung as a part of a ritual of magic; also : a written or recited formula of words designed to produce a particular effect

I bring this up because of an Associated Press report by Jessica M. Pasko that ran the other day in Newsday, and I am sure lots of other places. It concerned the funeral rites for a little known, but very important figure, in the modern history of Eastern Orthodoxy in Europe and North America — the 80-year-old Metropolitan Laurus, head of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

The story gets lots of details right, when it comes to explaining the role that Metropolitan Laurus played in healing the tragic rift between the Soviet-era Russian church and a strong splinter church in the West. Here are a few of the background paragraphs:

A rift in the Russian Orthodox Church came after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, an offshoot set up abroad, cut off all ties in 1927 after Moscow Patriarch Sergiy declared loyalty to the Communist government. Reunification talks began after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Laurus and Moscow Patriarch Alexy II signed a reunification pact in May 2007 (photo) at a televised ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin and a throng of worshippers in Moscow’s vast Christ the Savior Cathedral.

This is not the section of the report that raised red flags for several Orthodox readers who dropped me notes seeking commentary here at GetReligion. Here’s the section that raised eyebrows:

Dozens of priests and bishops packed the candlelit front room of the cathedral at the Holy Trinity Monastery for the divine liturgy and funeral service, dressed in ornate purple vestments to symbolize mourning.

Members of clergy read from sacred texts and recited numerous incantations in a nearly four-hour traditional Russian Orthodox ceremony conducted mainly in old church Slavonic, the Eastern Orthodox Church’s liturgical language that incorporates singing, chanting and call-and-response. The lavish ceremony on the holy day of Good Friday was held around an open casket in the center of the incense-filled room.

There are several problems there. The most obvious is that, according to the ancient Julian calendar used by the Orthodox, Easter was more than a month away at the time of this funeral Divine Liturgy (upper case, like the Catholic term “Mass”). Pascha this year falls on April 27, which means that Good Friday will be on April 25.

Also, the clergy were dressed in purple because that is the color of Lent. If the patriarch had died during “Bright Week” following Pascha, they would have been dressed in celebratory white and gold. The season determines the liturgical color of the vestments. Also, old church Slavonic is one of the many languages used by Orthodox Christians around the world and it is the rite, not the language, that blends singing, chanting, hymns, preaching and the reading of lots and lots of scripture.

Then there is the matter of that loaded word — “incantations.” Did the reporter mean “invocations”? How about a nice simple term like “prayers”? I guess one could say that a liturgy is a form of ritual speech intended to produce a “particular effect,” but this is still a mighty strange, and rather tone deaf, word to use in this context.

Don’t you think? Has anyone seen a correction from the Associated Press, on the “Good Friday” reference at the very least?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    One man’s invocation is a reporter’s incantation?

  • Kyralessa

    Maybe the journalist meant “imprecations.” After all, there were some people who didn’t agree with the reunification. Maybe they were given anathemas. :)

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Anathemas? Is that the bread with yeast?

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  • Maureen

    I blame society… er, spellchecker programs.

  • Martha

    Ouch.

    No, definitely “incantations” is not the word to use here. The thesaurus is your friend :-)

    I’m just wondering if the reporter really needs an explanation as to why no Virginia, ‘incantations’ is not a good word for what you mean? (Yeah, I realise it was probably an honest error when you’re struggling for the right word and a similiar sounding one pops into your head).

  • Stephen A.

    I think the reporter has seen too many Harry Potter movies.

  • Jonathon

    I think that the choice of the word “incantations” was probably not deliberate, used by a reporter who was probably not familiar with the rituals of the Orthodox church. While some may see the word as a pejorative, I think that it is a reasonable choice to describe the ceremony.

    What is the purpose of an incantation? It is to use special words and phrases and movements to bring about some action or outcome. Harry Potter may use an incantation to turn a radish into a newt, for example. But aren’t the Orthodox priests (and really all religious practictioners) doing something similar? The liturgy and songs have a purpose; at the very least they help to create a “sacred space”. They are used to bring about some outcome, perhaps not transmutation, but there is a purpose to it.

    How would a priest saying a blessing over water to make it “holy water” be any different than Harry Potter and his radish-cum-newt? Both use a ritualized incantation. Both are using words to bring about some sort of change or action. Why is it inappropriate to use “incantation” in relation to any religious practice of this nature?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    One of Mark Steyn’s columns in National Review had Asatrauar reciting “imprecations” of their gods.

    This would never have happened while Buckley was editor.

  • Martha

    It is inappropriate because the common or accepted use of “incantation” is in the working of a spell or for magic.

    It is inappropriate because religious ceremonies are not magic (which relies upon the will, knowledge, strength and intention of the operator, invoking forces to perform the desired action).

    It is inappropriate because the difference between turning a radish into a newt (magic) is not the same as blessing holy water (asking God to bless the creature).

    It is inappropriate because magia or goetia is not the same as miracle: God cannot be compelled or forced.

    It is inappropriate because what was described as incantation was prayer.

    I’ll leave it to our Pagan and Wiccan friends who occasionally comment on here to fill in the gaps for you :-)

  • http://www.saintnicholasroc.org Diakon Iona

    I agree with Martha’s comments…the use of incantations (or for that matter, even the use of the word “Mass”) is totally misleading (and, as we are describing journalism here…inappropriate and unprofessional). A decent analogy would be to describe the work of a scientist as “alchemy” or that of a chemist as being “cooking.” The terminology here is debasing precisely because it is presented to a wide audience that knows almost nothing about Orthodoxy…now, what they do know (i.e. “think they know”) leads them to associate Orthodox Christianity with the occult. This is ridiculous and to defend it is to care nothing for intellectual honesty and truth in journalism.

  • Jimmy Mac

    This is almost as interesting as the Latin Church’s infighting over inclusive language. Almost.

  • http://leitourgeia.wordpress.com Richard Barrett

    4 hours? Our bishop was there, and he said he had to leave nine hours into it (with sixteen pages to go) in order to catch a plane (for his pastoral visit at our little church, in fact).

    Richard

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Also, the clergy were dressed in purple because that is the color of Lent.

    As long as we’re dividing rabbits, is the correct term “purple?” If I recall my RCIA classes correctly, Catholic rubrics call for “violet” during Lent and Advent, whereas the color called “purple” is actually the deep red of a cardinal’s vestment. Do the Orthodox actually refer to violet as purple?

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    There are several problems there. The most obvious is that, according to the ancient Julian calendar used by the Orthodox, Easter was more than a month away at the time of this funeral Divine Liturgy (upper case, like the Catholic term “Mass”). Pascha this year falls on April 27, which means that Good Friday will be on April 25.

    There’s something about this that seems to be nit-picking but let me explain myself. The Western Easter calendar placed the Holy Week a great many Christians celebrate last week. But in the Gospels Jesus was in the Holy city for the Passover. I was about to drop a note to a friend of mine who had published a piece and wish them a blessed Passover when it occured to me to check the calendar. Yep, not yet for our Jewish friends. April is the month of their celebration this year.

    So am I stupid, unthinking or not respectful if I had added the sentiment in the note? Or just lacking an ecumenical multi-religious day keeper on my desktop?

  • http://mimisbooks.blogspot.com Mimi

    Do the Orthodox actually refer to violet as purple

    During Lent, the vestments worn by Orthodox clergy is a dark purple, not what I’d term violet.

    I’m confused about the purple/deep red comment, though, so I’ll leave that to someone more learned than I.

  • Dave

    Jonathon asks:

    How would a priest saying a blessing over water to make it “holy water” be any different than Harry Potter and his radish-cum-newt? Both use a ritualized incantation.

    The main difference is that the priest is practicing his religion, and Harry Potter is practicing his trade. Witchcraft is not religious in JK Rowling’s universe, which makes some real-life witches roll on the floor laughing when church types try to get Harry Potter off bookshelves.

  • Nicholas

    Richard,

    The funeral service took about four hours, not including the procession and burial, which were done after everyone had a chance to venerate the relics. The nine or so hours included the Midnight Office, Hours, Typika, and Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts, all of which preceded the Funeral Service and started at 5:00 A.M. If we include the procession and burial, the whole sequence of services lasted over twelve hours.

    Nicholas

    Richard Barrett says:
    March 25, 2008, at 4:43 pm
    4 hours? Our bishop was there, and he said he had to leave nine hours into it (with sixteen pages to go) in order to catch a plane (for his pastoral visit at our little church, in fact).

    Richard

  • Mr Cuckoo

    MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
    there are other more serious problems with most church practices, whether you’re flying East or West.

    ONE FLEW EAST…
    and returned puzzled over the substance, origin, and unscripturality of some eastern church practices (see the liturgical text for funeral services at http://www.goarch.org/en/chapel/text.asp).

    ONE FLEW WEST…
    and returned puzzled over the substance, origin, and unscripturality of some western church practices (e.g., the date of Easter (e.g., msg #15 above. no, brother ken. you’re not “stupid, unthinking or not respectful.” you’re just a thinking flyer).

    ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
    …and puzzled over the point of a word choice conversation. he noticed that “incantation” was but an obvious one-time error by a hurried reporter. rather he was concerned about some ongoing practices by an unhurried church.

    like a cuckoo with no nest to lay its eggs in, so is the church with no scripture to base its practices on.

    ah! but when the bird is gone, we worship the cage. and when the Spirit is gone, we treasure the ritual.

  • http://leitourgeia.wordpress.com Richard Barrett

    Anyone else get the impression that “Mr. Cuckoo” and “George K, Ex-Greek Orthodox” (whose post now seems to have been deleted) are the same guy, and that they have certain phrases programmed as hotkeys?

  • Margaret Mueller

    Jonathan! What an utterly ignorant admission you have made in public! You are defending as reasonable the use of a word that is unquestionably pejorative in this context. Diakona Iona is absolutely correct in everything said. This is an example of yet another ignorant journalist covering a story an not attempting to do any research so they can accurately describe what they’ve witnessed. In the process she has cast verbal manure on a venerable hierarch, his funeral, his faith and all of us who practice our Orthodox faith. I have to continuously defend my faith to others who question me after reading poorly written articles like this one. “But (fill in the blank with the publication of choice) said that the Orthodox use incantations, you aren’t Christian, you’re satan worshippers.” Thanks, Jessica. At least I can read the offending language here and be ready to defend my faith again. Ugly, ugly, ugly.


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