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15.10.35, Krueger, Liturgical Subjects

The Medieval Review

15.10.35, Krueger, Liturgical Subjects

Derek Krueger has written a rich and engaging study of the role played by Byzantine composers of liturgical texts in the formation of the "self," that is, "how Byzantine Christians came to view themselves through the liturgy" (3). He does well to remind us, of course, that the "self" was and is constructed, and in his introduction Krueger wisely offers theoretical reflections on how scholars have understood its formation, especially in the pre-modern world. Surprisingly, the Byzantine self that emerges in the pages that follow is spiritually broken and deeply remorseful over sin, but also hopeful, that through introspection and devotion, the scrutinized subject could experience forgiveness, moral growth, and a righteous standing in the presence of God. Indeed, the Augustinian West can no longer claim a monopoly on the remorseful sinner; the Byzantine Christian, it seems, had an equally guilty conscience, albeit molded by a different theological framework and different modes of piety. The rhythms of the liturgical calendar--expressed in poems, hymns, sermons, and prayers--were intricately tied together with biblical lections and narratives populated by saintly exemplars that allowed Byzantine worshippers to listen to, recite, and perform the rituals needed to become collectively this imagined and idealistic self.

After the introductory chapter, the book continues with six chapters in which Krueger carefully unpacks the writings of four major authors--Romanos the Melodist, Andrew of Crete, Theodore the Stoudite, and Symeon the New Theologian, following a rough chronological schema that takes us from the sixth through eleventh centuries. The broad scope allows us to see both continuity and innovation in Byzantine liturgical practices, largely centered in the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but influenced deeply by developments in other parts of the Byzantine empire, especially Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Krueger has taken a set of texts that traditionally have inspired scholarly inquiry more into questions of theology and the mechanisms of Byzantine worship, and he has demonstrated how these writings were intended to permeate and shape the innermost minds and hearts of worshippers in both monastic and lay contexts. Indeed, this is in and of itself an important achievement and indicative of the tremendous potential the study of such texts has for our understanding of Byzantine culture and the role Orthodoxy played in its development.

Chapter 2 examines the sixth-century work of Romanos the Melodist, who set in motion the exploration and formation of the Byzantine self vis-à-vis the liturgy that would unfold in subsequent centuries. He composed many of his hymns in the first-person, which, through recitation by chanters and audience members alike, facilitated interior reflections on the lyrical content. Romanos’s compositions antiphonally sing with biblical narratives, Old and New Testament alike, and intertextually explore the innermost thoughts of scriptural exemplars who exhibit idealized remorse, repentance, and total dependence on God for redemption. The lines of distinction between biblical characters and the individuals participating in the liturgy blur such that singer and subject become one and the same. Krueger argues that this is a form of biblical exegesis by which Romanos encourages both self-recognition and conformity to ideal types with the hope of forming a collective Byzantine self. Chapter 3 continues to explore the formation of Byzantine identity in the foundational sixth century, and here Krueger studies the intersection of liturgy and images, fixed in the festal celebrations of the liturgical calendar. We find that through the efforts of Romanos and others, biblical time and the present become collapsed, in an almost timeless state, such that again, the liturgical participants, through the biblical exemplars they sing about and see, are moved toward inward reflection where they contemplate their place, along with their forebears, in the grand narrative of salvation.

Chapter 4 focuses on the prayers of the Eucharist, in particular the Anaphora, the prayer of oblation recited over the bread and wine, and, as Krueger demonstrates, recited aloud for the congregation to hear, which in turn offered yet another opportunity for a liturgical text to shape the interior self. The Anaphora also became a locus of biblical narration that recapitulated salvation history and stirred the listener to compunction over sin. While the Anaphora eventually became a silent recitation, its audible form in the early Byzantine period framed the Eucharist as a penitential rite, as the gathered sinners reflected on their fallen state and need for a Savior. In chapter 5, we read about Andrew of Crete’s Great Kanon, a series of nine odes that provide a survey of biblical characters who presented themselves as models of contrition. In Andrew’s hands, the Bible itself, filtered through these songs, becomes a mechanism for self-accusation, which in turn should lead to repentance.

Chapter 6 shifts to the ninth century and considers Theodore the Stoudite who, with his brother Joseph, assembled a new hymnal known as the Triodion, for use during Lent. As a sort of liturgical anthology, the Triodion was an evolving collection of hymns that reflected a markedly Stoudite vision of the Lenten season but soon found popularity in other monastic communities. The voices of Adam and the Prodigal Son vocalized by the liturgical participants were reflective of a particular rhetorical technique of ethopoeia, that is, "speech-in-character," which, in the hymns of the Triodion and the traditions which it compiled and collated, "explore Christian interiorities and endorse specific patterns of self-regard" (191). The ethos created by these texts, again, encouraged reflection on and identification with the idealized biblical characters and their exemplary remorse over sin. As Krueger astutely concludes, "Indeed, within a Christian rhetoric, the ethopoeia constructed and enacted the liturgical subject" (195).

In chapter 7, Krueger brings us into the next millennium, with an examination of the preaching of Symeon the New Theologian, whose sermons offer the most complete picture of how monastic leaders tried to shape the interior lives of the monks over whom they presided. Again, recitation of speech was the means to mold the monastic self, but in Symeon we also witness the added dimension of physicality to the training of the monk. And so the postures of the body and its subjugation work hand-in-hand with the torturous inner dialogue provided by biblical exemplars, all of which lead to the penitent self, nearly crippled by self-accusation but moved by compunction and the hope for pardon.

The book's conclusion recapitulates the role liturgical texts and their authors played in the formation of the Byzantine self. What we have found is perhaps unexpected, a self that was deeply moved by remorse over sin but redeemed by a merciful God. As Krueger concludes: "By historicizing Byzantine Orthodox concepts of guilt, our inquiry has articulated the cultural construction of self-blame and penance as a method for resolving the potential effects and apparent consequences of sin" (218). We have seen this process unfold in this very interesting and erudite study. My only criticism of Krueger's work is that over the course of the book's three-hundred plus pages, the analysis tends to become a bit repetitive. This is ultimately not the fault of the author, but rather of the recurrent nature of the contents of the texts he has examined. Byzantine liturgical writers, it seems, wanted their fellow worshippers to feel really guilty, for a really long time. Derek Krueger has given us a fascinating and perhaps surprising look into the interior of the Byzantine Christian self, and this monograph will be of particular interest to scholars of Byzantine history and religious studies. This book is indeed a model for the critical engagement of texts that otherwise serve as fodder for theological and liturgical studies, and it has deepened our understanding of not only of Byzantine history and culture but also how Byzantine Orthodox Christians imagined themselves.