Malcolm’s moving post on the Hagia Sophia reminded me of the story told in the Russian Primary Chronicle of how Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, wanted to know which was the true religion, and sent his followers to visit the various countries of the world in turn.
They went first to the Moslem Bulgars of the Volga , but observing that these when they prayed, gazed around them like men possessed, the Russians continued on their way dissatisfied. ‘There is no joy among them,’ they reported to Vladimir , ‘but mournfulness and a great smell; and there is nothing good about their system.’ Travelling next to Germany and Rome , they found the worship more satisfactory, but complained that here too it was without beauty. Finally they journeyed to Constantinople , and here at last, as they attended the Divine Liturgy in the great Church of the Holy Wisdom, they discovered what they desired:
‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.’
The Psalmist tells us to ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’. This is something which the Protestant tradition has tended to neglect at times. As a reaction against what it saw as undue emphasis on ceremonial and ritual, the Reformers came, in time, to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Prince Vladimir’s envoys saw something at the Hagia Sophia which convinced them that God dwelt in that place. We might respond that His presence in all around us, and we might, many of us, agree with some of Malcolm’s reflections about how we can find God in nature and the quiet places. As Christians we should think on – God is in nature and he is the beauty of the work consecrated to His Name.
There is nothing wrong with worshipping the Lord as the Psalmist advises. Yes, we can get distracted, and yes we can end up seeming to worship the objects whose purpose is to sing the praises on Him in whose name they were made. The fault is in us, not in the craftsmen.
I do not need a beautiful church and a sonorous liturgy in order to be with my Lord. He is with me everywhere. But I may well feel inspired to create something to channel the overflowing love for Him. I am grateful for those who, in the past, have done just that.
Like Malcolm, I have been to the great Hagia Sophia, and like the prophet, I wanted to name that place ‘Ichabod’ because ‘The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken’. But faded though the glory was, I could not stand there without thinking of those envoys from Rus and for a moment, I could understand their reaction.
Man does not live by bread alone, nor does he come to every word that comes from the mouth of God by reason alone. Malcolm has reminded us of the mercy of God, who provides His children with so many ways by which they may respond to His call. We might remember that when we care tempted to call others on their style of worship. In His house there are many mansions.