The World as Grand Opera


Towards the left-hand side of the FM dial (yes, I’m so old I think of radios as having dials and linearity) there have always been one or two “classical” stations in the places I have lived. Often, they provide a welcome relief from the noise and bump of the neighboring stations to the right. I like most classical music, unless the composer forgets that melody and harmony are useful parts of the tradition. For many years, an exception to my listening rule has come on Saturday afternoons when the Metropolitan Opera is broadcast. Somehow, the thrill of opera passed me by. Often the presentation is accompanied by near breathless introductions in which the plot of a soap-opera is relayed as though it were sacred text. As radio goes, it is less than satisfying.

And so, it was with a bit of trepidation that I quietly accepted my first invitation to actually attend a live opera (back in the 90’s). Knoxville, TN, is not exactly the cultural center of the world, but it does have a symphony and an opera company. Thus it was that my wife and I dressed up and plunged into the high-society of East Tennessee opera fans. For an evening, if you squinted your eyes (and ears), you could imagine yourself to be in New York, Vienna, Milan, or wherever this show was incarnate.

To my surprise, I liked it. I love live orchestras, and the singing (with English subtitles displayed for the audience) held my attention. However, my favorite experience came with certain moments when at least four singers were belting out competing melodies (and conversation) with the chorus throwing in yet another motif. It is an experience of the world that cannot take place with mere conversation. Were an opera reduced to a play, the lines would inevitably be reduced to a linear performance (only one speech at a time).

That same linearity is a hallmark of modern liturgical practice: one thing at a time, one theme at a time, it’s all about the message and the message is about one thing.

Orthodox liturgy, unreformed and unmarked by modern sentiment, is much more like grand opera. There can be three voices (priest, deacon, choir) interacting, overlapping, rising up together. More than that, there are frequently overlapping themes to a single day. Every day of the week has a theme (Sunday: resurrection; Monday: angels; Tuesday: John the Baptist, etc.). The week may have a theme (such as the season – like Lent). Then there are saints’ days (and sometimes the saints are “stacked,” with more than one being commemorated on the day. Lastly, there are feast days (Nativity, Pascha, Annunciation, etc.). And, unlike the linearity of the modern world, all of these things may have their “voice” on any given single day.

I have thought about this today, in particular, the feast of the Annunciation. It has the peculiar distinction of sometimes (if you’re using the Old Calendar) falling on the same day as Pascha. When this happens, the feast is not “bumped” (moved aside to make room for the Queen of Feasts (Pascha). Instead, the two are combined in what is known as a “Kyriopascha.” In Orthodox reckoning, it is considered the most holy possible combination. In most years as Annunciation does not fall on Pascha, I tend to bring Pascha in (in my mind) to the feast, simply because I know that on rare occasions it is actually possible.

Orthodox theology is often described as “mystical.” I suspect that what is actually going on is that Orthodox theology is not “linear.” Rather, it is “everything at once.” This is actually how the world is. Things do not take place in a linear fashion, but together, and at once. History is not so polite as to “take turns,” waiting for one thing to lead to another. It is, undoubtedly the reason that all human plans fail in the end: we never “see coming” the train that hits us because we are too busy monitoring the linearity of our own expectations.

The Orthodox insight is that theology is “everything at once.” Although events may be described in a linear fashion, they are yet more fully understood when they are allowed to inform one another. The Annunciation is Pascha, if you have ears to hear. It is the descent of God into the depths of our humanity, in His self-emptying act of Incarnation. Orthodoxy struggles with this, often coining phrases such as “joyful sorrow” to describe the conjunction of God’s saving action in the world. St. Paul captures till somewhat in his statement that “all things work together for good.” It is not something that can be described in a linear fashion, but something that seeks to give voice to the full reality of God’s saving action. God has come among us not just some select people can go to heaven. He has come among us that He might “gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus.” That ingathering is everywhere, always, and at once.

Human beings are actually capable of experiencing “everything” at once. It requires us to be “watchful,” however. Those who have married themselves to linear expectations choose a vastly reduced version of the universe and miss the grand opera that is taking place everywhere and always. Apparently angels sing in choirs, where they can give voice to everything under heaven. The solo is left to God Himself.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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17 responses to “The World as Grand Opera”

  1. Jim Tilson Avatar
    Jim Tilson

    I knew you’d enjoy it, if you just went!

  2. Dino Avatar

    a wonderful ‘stacking’ of many voices together, intentionally reminiscent of busy ‘clouds’ of angels coming to you from all sides, occurs in Orthodox Liturgical practice in monasteries’ great feasts.
    It is an exhilarating experience.
    The culmination is when the two choirs sing off each other while the ‘canonarch’ simultaneously juxtaposes (only slightly ahead of each choir) the same words -in a more spoken (single note) manner-, running from one to the other, and meanwhile, the candelabres are all swung around (all of them) and a wonderful holy confusion of sensory overload (a rare occurrence in Orthodox practices, but, in this case, a “holy” sensory overload) takes place. Extremely didactic, even for those who do not understand all the words, tones, “typika” etc!

  3. Ceci Blomberg Avatar
    Ceci Blomberg

    I brought two yogi friends to a Divine Liturgy, the Sunday of Orthodoxy last year (2021). They remarked that it felt like a musical to God! They fully participated – bowing, crossing, and lifting their hearts. I’ve used that analogy a couple of times since then.

    I met you, Fr, Stephen, briefly at the end of your Lenten retreat at St. Spyridon! That was a joy.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My love to your beautiful community (St. Spyridon). It was a joy to be there!

  5. Esmée La Fleur Avatar
    Esmée La Fleur

    Fascinating analogy and insight!

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In the movie ‘Amedeus’ the Emperor Joseph criticizes Mozart’s latest opera by saying “too many notes”. A perfect example of linear thinking.
    Folks with brain anomalies that force them into linear thinking often have trouble with the Orthodox approach life and God with us.
    Then there is modernity which which rejoices in an increasingly flat universe, constricting the one storey even further.

    There is a great deal of criticism of “linear thinking” in our culture but little real attempt to face the reality of how The Nicene Creed describes the work of God in His creation.

    Even the mathematics of quantum mechanics retains a certain linearity compared to the total interconnectedness of Life.

    The mystery of Incarnation and Sacrament is that it allows we created beings to go beyond what we can experience with our physical senses.

    I once had a priest warn me, appropriately, that the intensity of spiritual experience seldom lasts. That is true in a limited sense, but, if the experience is based in reality, not fantasy, the actuality of the experience does not fade. Often it is sin that rises up to interfere. That is why we are told “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

    Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  7. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I am not a huge opera fan but one thing I’ve noticed is that radio broadcasts ruin it, at least for the uninitiated. When actually present at an opera, there is a certain excitement or energy in the cacophony of sounds that recording cannot capture. Instead, it may just sound like noise that soon becomes boring if not irritating..

    I suppose, compared to Orthodox liturgy, the RC liturgy may seem linear and perhaps even boring, especially if one doesn’t know or believe what is going on. I remember a high school assignment I had decades ago where a friend and I had to interview a priest. In those days, priests were mysterious and rather scary creatures that children seldom conversed with outside of confession.

    I recall asking this devout Irish priest, with all the cheekiness of a post Vatican II adolescent, whether he got bored saying Mass day after day. He seemed a little perturbed that anyone could think this, for each Liturgy for him was “a new encounter with Christ”. I remember this because it reminds me of what it means to truly believe. The truth of his words makes the Liturgy anything but a linear experience, regardless of the number of voices. Some of my most profound encounters with Christ occurred when only a few people were present on an ordinary week day.

    During the pandemic, most churches have live streamed Liturgy, first when the churches were closed, then for those too ill or otherwise unable to attend. When there was no other option, I partook of this but I’m afraid it was much like opera on the radio, a flat, almost lifeless imitation of reality.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think when I was serving the Western Rite (as an Anglican), I would never have thought of the service as particularly “linear,” much less, boring. I certainly encountered Christ in that context and continue to value that experience.

    There is, however, the reality of the Eastern liturgies that is simply unlike what is done in the West (for whatever reason). Many of the arguments of the Protestant Reformation unwittingly “pushed” a linearity – very reason-oriented approach to everything. In some ways, the Counter-Reformation and later Catholic Reforms have continued to be very “sensitive” to those critiques. It’s particularly the case that the Reformation came to shape and dominate the modern, Western world.

    As such, Eastern liturgies continue to embody a very different way of seeing and doing. I think that aspects of that can be found in bits and pieces of the West. I didn’t intend to make a comparison in a triumphalist manner. Indeed, I think that many among the Orthodox tend to tune out the “everything at once” aspect and find some way of reducing things to a kind of linearity. It’s a cultural habit.

    It is the case, I think, that the universe is one very large Liturgy, in which we all participate. God give us all an increasing awareness of that reality and the hearts to hear it.

  9. sgage Avatar

    I never ‘got’ opera, myself, though I suspect that, like Fr. Stephen, if I actually attended a live performance, I might enjoy it. I, too, love a live orchestra. And I have performed enough on stage to appreciate vocal artistry.

    A funny opera story: My grandfather, back in the day, managed several famous opera stars, including Enrico Caruso and Lily Pons. One day I was sitting around with Grampa and one of my older brothers, who had recently found opera ‘religion’. This must have been near 50 years ago, and I but a callow youth. When asked what I thought about opera, I said “well, to be honest, it sounds like so many bellows and shrieks to me”.

    My grandfather started laughing so hard I thought he might hurt himself. When he got ahold of himself I said “Grampa, what’s so funny?” He said “Steve, I’m going to have some business cards made up, and the name of the firm is going to be Bellows & Shrieks.” Good old Gramps!

  10. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Hi Fr. Stephen,
    I didn’t take your post as an effort to compare; just my musings about my own liturgical experiences. I’m old enough to remember well the pre-Vatican Mass which had a very different feel to it that the “modern” Liturgy, with a great solemnity and a certain mystery that came with the Latin. They are different kinds of beauty.

    I fully agree that “the universe is one very large Liturgy” and that everything is happening at once in a glorious manner, if only we could see it. I sometimes catch a glimpse of this reality when standing in a field that is teeming with life. The grass both growing and dying, the flowers both blooming and withering, the creatures flying and hopping and being very still. At first, it seems so quiet compared to my urban neighborhood, but when I listen carefully, I hear the sounds of life and they are a holy orchestra of sorts.

    In the sacred Liturgy, Jesus is both dying and rising. It is all happening at once in the timelessness of His outpouring. During these very difficult times in our world it is so critical that we know this. Otherwise, all we would see would the dying all around us and lose hope, failing to recognize the rising.

    Not sure if I’m making sense. Please disregard and forgive me if I’m not.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. You make good sense.

    In the Liturgy of creation, I find that I’m most aware of it when I “lose myself” within it – allow myself to be as small as a blade of grass or an insect. Small enough to become part of the whole thing. Often, we are so self-aware, or aware of ourselves as observers, that we block out the view of creation itself. I suppose that is a kind of linearity.

    Tolkien’s imagery of God singing creation into being is useful. St. Gregory of Nyssa said that “man is a musical creation” – though he never read Tolkien 🙂

  12. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    I remember one time at a Good Friday RC liturgy, the Passion narrative being sung. It was the the only time I have experienced that. Very different experience.

  13. Dean Avatar

    Often there is no opera, no music. Simply peace, quiet, solitude. I had the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon twice last year, to stand in silence before it. Yes, no photo can capture its grandeur, strength, expansiveness, beauty. I only stood in awe and wonder before the shimmer of creation.
    There is stillness and beauty without. There is stillness and beauty within. I think of the prophet Isaiah’s words, “In repentance and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Music and beauty without can lead us to that peace and stillness within.
    “Be still and know that I am God.”
    Thank you Mary and Fr. Stephen for your dialog.

  14. Ken Seigneurie Avatar
    Ken Seigneurie

    What a beautiful insight. It pulls together so much that one experiences in Church. I pray to be able to see the Liturgy increasingly and from now on as ingathering everywhere, always, and at once.
    In gratitude,

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    This discussion helped me clarify why I cannot watch the streamed Liturgies. When I am in a Liturgy, I participate in it as “the work of the people”.

    That option is beyond me in the streamed Liturgy. I am watching as an observer. Judging almost as I would any entertainment.

    Now that may because of a shallowness of soul and a lack on my part, but I did not want to think in those terms about the Divine Liturgy so I only did it once early on.

    TV is notorious for being a 2 dimensional medium. That certainly contributes to my difficulty. When I am in the Liturgy, all of my senses and perceptive abilities are, potentially, active. Especially those beyond the normal three.

    The experience of being with everybody, the saints and angels, as well as my fellow parishoners and Jesus is impossible to ignore, most of the time.

    The iconography depicting each aspect of the Creed is one example of many.

    The sense of being a part of a body in which I am drawn into the heart to be “oxygenated” so to speak, then sent forth to share that spark of life with everyone.

    May the Joy of the Lord be with all here.

  16. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    The only thing better than attending opera is being in opera. I just had the indescribable pleasure of being in the chorus of the Knoxville Opera Company’s production of Boito’s Mefistofele. I hope you and Matushka were able to attend.

  17. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I totally agree with your article. The universe is indeed one large, teaming orchestra/Liturgy/grand opera.
    But it seems important to add that our ability to process this and interact with it is very limited. You referenced this in passing when you replied to Mary:

    “Often, we are so self-aware, or aware of ourselves as observers, that we block out the view of creation itself. I suppose that is a kind of linearity.”

    I’ve heard many people – you included – talk about how they always experience something different from the Liturgy, but never anywhere close to all that is there.

    I find that we are the “people of the one thing”. We can only truly look at or listen to one thing at a time. Mindfulness is all about collecting our scattered self and being in the one present moment. We can really only live one life and be married to one wife. Our five senses may in fact pick up much of what is there to be perceived, but we have to let most of it go in one ear and out the other and just be content with one.

    Should the universe become linear so that I can absorb it all? That thought itself is an abomination. I am the one in need of repair. Let the universe continue to play its score and may I one day rise to meet it. I suspect that as we mature into the people God made us to be, we will be able to properly perceive more and more, but for now we see and hear as if in a mirror dimly – and only one thing at a time.

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