Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Bounce Houses for Jesus

I recently had the great pleasure of taking a road trip with a favorite cousin.  We drove eight hours each way, and I can honestly say that the conversation never lagged on any leg of that journey.  We talked and talked and talked, about anything and everything.  Cowans require black coffee, but we are otherwise self-starters when it comes to the conversational arts.

Of course, we found our way to discussing matters of faith.  My cousin is a serious Catholic.  I use the word “serious” rather than devout because we are either blessed or cursed with an arid, acerbic wit that more or less precludes any of us from ever being categorized as “devout”.  I will just say that she takes her faith quite seriously, and has admirably raised two seriously Catholic offspring to boot.

In the course of her career, my cousin has been thrown much together with mainstream Protestant and/or Evangelical co-workers.    We discussed some interesting situations and conversations that arose from her often being the lone Catholic outlier.  And in the course of this discussion, she expressed curiosity about my own particularly gloomy outlook in regards to general American Christianity.
My cousin has perhaps not followed developments on this subject as I have (and is no doubt better off for it).  And so, I went off on one of my religious harangues.  As there were only the two of us in the car, I inflicted it on no one but my cousin.  I outlined what I saw as the sloughing-away of our broad Christianity, all across the board—from the demographic implosion of the mainline churches (primarily Episcopalians, Disciples and Presbyterians), to the ever-leavening influences within Evangelicalism. 

To avoid any taint of triumphalism, I posited that the same factors would also decimate Catholic and Orthodox numbers.  The only difference, I believe, is that the apostolic churches have the historical legs to weather the storm and come out on the other side.  I envision no dystopian apocalypse.  The country will hum right along nicely, with people pursuing the same things they are pursuing now, only more so.  They just won’t be particularly Christian, and probably will not even feel the loss.  Of course, many of the other churches will still be around.  But in this country, you can apparently be something simply by saying that you are—the final triumph of the Will over Reason.  So, while many will no doubt still claim the name, they may not be recognizably Christian in any historical sense of the word.

This accelerating declension is harder to spot down here in East Texas and Dallas, where church is still big business.  But if you look around, the signs are clearly there.  The pool of adherents is diminishing.  Christianity is increasingly seen as something quaint and peripheral, and not even generally expected among people you know.  And if all anyone knew of the faith was the public face of it in this country, then who could blame them? (Think Joel Osteen’s smiley-face on the Barnes and Noble shelf, Mike Huckabee’s grandstanding with Kim Davis in Kentucky, or Robert Jeffress’ cringe-inducing public prayer at the Trump rally in Dallas).  If I didn’t know better myself and thought this was all there was to it, then my attitude would be that of Flannery O’’Connor--“then to hell with it!”

To bolster this view, one need look no further than a recent article in our local paper’s Religion section.  If I did not know that it was on the up and up, I would take it for a parody.  A young preacher has been called as the new pastor for a sizable Methodist church in our city.
To be honest about it, I have long harbored an illogical prejudice against this particular congregation.  Many years ago I did a job for the church’s long-time pastor.  He never made the slightest pretense of paying my invoice for the service I provided him—not a dime.  And so, when I would see him quoted in the newspaper through the decades, this is what I remembered!  And then about 30 years ago, I bumped into an acquaintance at the coffee shop one morning.  He is about 20 years my senior and is a member of this congregation.  After talking about a play or something they were hosting at this Methodist church, he asked me where I attended.  After I told him, he proceeded to take me to task for my church’s negligence when it came to women’s rights and the role of women in the church.  I was a bit taken-aback by it and fortunately did not respond as I was inclined to do.  Let’s just say that my personal knowledge of his background led me to discount any advice he would give on this particular subject.  So, there they are—my ingrained prejudices!

That said, I certainly wish them no ill will.  The fresh young preacher from SMU’s Perkins School of Theology desires “to lead the church in the direction it wants to go,” and states that “the grand plan is to reach out beyond the church walls to strengthen the community…[by] sponsoring soccer and softball teams, putting on block parties, partnering with local ministries and developing more relationships with local schools.  In addition…there are plans to provide community workshops about issues such as bullying, identity theft, financial planning and debt reduction….As part of reaching out to the community, the church wants to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations and minister to people in their 20s and 30s.  Some of the plans to do this include having free family movie nights with popcorn and drinks and a barbeque and bounce house night for the neighborhood.”

The new pastor obviously felt a need to tag something at least vaguely spiritual in all this community outreach.  He expressed a desire to “really connect with people and help them grow in their relationship with Christ…. ‘It’s what Jesus did…Jesus went out and met with anyone and everyone.  We need to do the same.’”

The services themselves ought to be fun, noting that “he tries to make the services interactive and incorporate multiple senses.  Some examples include using flash paper for a Bible story that involved fire and passing out Fig Newtons for a story that involved a fig tree.”  No doubt he had to dig deep for that one.

You get the picture.  I have a prediction for the young pastor—none of this is going to work.  One thing that jumped out at me from the story was the fact that they had canvassed the neighborhood in a one-mile radius, finding that one half of the residents were unaffiliated with any church and saw no need to be.  A few years from now, this thoroughly upper middle-class neighborhood’s statistics will be even worse.  Nobody will be brought in by these tricks.

In my conversation with my cousin, I remembered commenting that I had never not believed in God.  I had always believed and never gone through a period of doubt.  Mind you, I have rarely lived as if I believed, but that is a topic for another post.  What I did not mention to my cousin was that for as long as I can remember I have also been convicted of my own need for repentance.  I am blessed beyond measure to be in a place (a Church) where I can work all that out.  But for the life of me, I do not see any room for it in the community center masquerading as a church outlined above.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Travels with St. Panteleimon

Icon of St. Panteleimon and relics, Abustamani
I am now securely back at home and in my regular routine, consisting mainly of long talks with my wife while sipping coffee in the sun room, teaching my college classes and going to the office a little, weekly lunches with my oldest friend, the occasional visit with my hard-to-catch nephew, and finally, working my way back into the comfortable and necessary cycle at church.  I am truly glad to be home, for this is and will be my home.  For better or worse, I am rooted to a very particular place.  But as I am wont to do, whenever I am here, my mind returns there, and by there I mean the Caucasus.  I will always be just a visitor when in Georgia, but at least I am one who feels at home.  In some ways, I am more comfortable in my own skin over there than I am in Texas.  No doubt I will return as often as I can, and for as long as I am able to do so.

In thinking back over recent Georgian travels, it has given me no little pleasure to realize that I have an increasing connection with St. Panteleimon.  I was heretofore only vaguely familiar with this 4th-century saint, and not at all in the habit of invoking him in my intercessory prayers.  In short, I was not primed in any way to expect any interaction with this particular saint.  He has now become, however, a touchstone for me in Georgia.  I will explain.

Back in 2014, I spent two nights in the Black Sea resort of Batumi, Georgia’s showcase to the rest of the world.  The city combines a bit of New Orleans-like charm and Miami beach appeal, with a too generous dose of Las Vegas glitz.  There’s enough here to enchant or offend most any sensibility.  I love the place.  The fact that Donald Trump would probably love it too ought to concern me more than it does.  But on this particular Sunday morning, I accompanied my friends Jay, Poti, Soso and Misha up into the semi-tropical hills behind the city.  We attended Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Transfiguration--built in 1912 by the city’s Greek community, closed during the Soviet period, and reopened in 1995.  The
Fr. Vaseli and friends, Batumi
iconography was about 60% complete at that time, now being done in the Georgian style.  For those who are interested in such things, about 125 worshippers were in attendance, of which about 55% were women and 45% men, about 10% were elderly, 30% were middle-aged, and 60% were young adults and their children.  After the service, Poti introduced me to Fr. Vaseli, and we had a nice visit considering the not-insubstantial language barrier.  He gave me the following blessing:  “As this is the Church of the Transfiguration, may Christ transfigure your life.”  I had forgotten that until I reread my journal, and was a bit ashamed that I had neglected to remember perhaps the most important thing I could take away from there.  Fr. Vaseli also gave me two icons and a plastic jug of wine.  Later that day, I found myself walking down a Batumi street carrying said jug of wine and two icons.  How Orthodox is that?  The first icon was of Sts. Gabriel, Ioanne, and Giorgi-Ioanne.   This is not surprising, as these 20th-century saints—one a “Fool for Christ” on the streets of Tbilisi, and the other two beloved monks at nearby Betania monastery-- are among the most popular in Georgia today.  The other icon was a small painted wooden block of St. Panteleimon.  At the time, I thought this an odd choice, as I would have expected one of the Georgian saints, or perhaps St. George.  I was quite pleased with it, nonetheless.  At that time,  I intended to give it as a gift to one of my godsons, who had chosen St. Panteleimon as his patron saint.  But I never followed through with that.  I grew attached to it and found something else for my godson, keeping this icon for myself. 

The ossuary at Zarzma Monastery
Later on that same trip, I made a return trip to Zarzma Monastery, in remote Samtskhe-Javakheti.  This very active monastic complex is one of my favorites, and one I now try to visit every trip.  The monastery dates from the 8th century.  The oldest extant church was built in the 10th century, complete with a inscription over the entrance commending the Georgians who helped Basil II put down the revolt of Bardas Phokas in 979.  The main church—the Church of the Transfiguration—is the newest, constructed in the 14th century.  The iconography within is exquisite,
having never been whitewashed during the tsarist years.  I particularly appreciate the murals depicting the donors—rather sly-looking Chorchanelis and/or Jaqelis who do not appear at all reverent.  The monks open a small chamber to the right of the altar and show the uncorrupted remains of an unknown 9th century monk from Atskuri.  Somewhat obscured behind the main church is the ossuary, containing the bones of countless monks, staked neat as cord wood.  To top it off, the courtyard contains—along with the garden and bee hives—several ancient animalistic stone sculptures, which may in truth be pre-Christian. 
Old Abustamani
In researching Zarzma’s history, I became acquainted with the story of Grand Duke George Alexandrovich.  I am generally well-disposed towards monarchy (except, of course, for the last three centuries of its English manifestation).  That said, royalty in particular often disappoints, leaving my sympathies stranded much more in the theoretical realm, than in the actual.  But Grand Duke George, son of Alexander III of Russia, and younger brother of Nicholas II, is a classic case of “poor little rich boy”—and in this particular instance, I mean the richest family in the world at that time.  Witty and outgoing, George was considered the most intelligent of the Tsar’s children.
  Unfortunately, he developed tuberculosis at age 20 while on a diplomatic mission to Japan, and his health remained touch and go until his death at age 28.  The Romanovs maintained a small palace—Likani—just outside the resort town of Borjomi, and young George was dispatched there to recuperate.  Like many visitors before him, the young man immediately took to the region, and as they say “went native,” or as much as it is possible for a grand duke of Russia to do so.  He preferred to remain in Georgia and resolutely refused to leave, being lured from his adopted country only rarely, and then only at the command of his mother, the Dowager Empress.  Grand Duke George constructed a modest hunting lodge at Abustamani, located at the base of the forested mountains that divides Kartli and Kakheti from western Georgia.  The village is remote--or as my friend Dato would say "remoted"--located quite some distance south and west of Likani—though much closer to Akhaltsikhe and Zarzma Monastery.  Here George was free from even the limited protocol at Likani.
George Alexandrovich in Georgian attire
  He enjoyed the lodge, his Georgian companions, and frequent visits to the monks at Zarzma.  Grand Duke George oversaw the cleaning of the iconography within the Church of the Transfiguration at the monastery.  The impression it makes today is due in large part to the work he authorized in the 1890s.  In fact, he decided to build a replica of Zarzma at Abustamani, and started construction of same, though it was only finished after his death.  Because of his presence there, the village shortly developed as a resort area in the last years of the tsarist regime, and would continue as such during much of the Soviet era.  All that ended by the fall of Communism, if not long before, and from what I could gather, the village was now largely derelict, the old sanatoriums and resort facilities crumbling with neglect.  Even the hunting lodge was no more—or at least partially so.  A fire had broken out and consumed most of the building.  I learned that there was some interest in rebuilding, but no one had any clear idea about how that would ever be done, or paid for.  A women's monastery came to occupy the grounds after the fall of Communism.  I also read a brief reference to a 9th-century chapel on the grounds as well.  Clearly, Abustamani appealed to my curiosity and warranted a detour to check it out.
The hunting lodge before the fire

My excursion turned out to be well worth the time.  The old resort town in the forested foothills is tumble-down to be sure.  But the decaying gingerbreaded pavilions and summer houses, and extensive galleried sanatoriums attested to its former glory.  The church of “New Zarzma” was in fact, the Church of Alexander Nevsky.  From the outside it was indeed an exact replica of Zarma.  But the similarities ended once one stepped inside.  The iconography was unlike any I have ever seen, the epitome of the romanticized 19th century Russian style.  These murals were in fact the work of the famous Mikhail Nestorov.  To my untrained eye, the saints and angels looked as if they could have been copied from what one would expect to see in illustrated fairy tale books.  Though not my preference, the iconography is certainly unique, and in its own way, a bit stunning.  

In the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky
Leaving the church, we ventured up to the far end of the village, finding the monastic complex, including the ruins of the old hunting lodge and the small 9th century chapel.  The gate was locked shut, however, and there was no way for us to enter the grounds.  And so, we turned around and left without having visited the monastery, though I had every intention of returning one day.

This year, I did that very thing.  I was traveling with friends Michael, Adam and Dato.  Frankly, I was doing a bit of apologizing in advance to Michael and Adam, as Abustamani seemed an obscure destination in an introductory trip to Georgia.  As it turned out, there was no need for apologies.  They got it.  We visited the ruined pavilion, and the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky, which impressed my friends as much as it did me the previous year.  We were pleased to discover that the gates to the monastery were now open.  Dato started conversing with a novice nun who came out to be our escort.  I did not know before, but now learned that this was in fact the Monastery of St. Panteleimon.  A few rooms of Grand Duke George Alexandrovich’s old hunting lodge remain, with much of the burned out sections exposed to the elements, and the occasional pecking chickens.  The nuns have constructed a new annex onto the back of the house.  We were told that they wish to rebuild the lodge, but there is no money to do so.
Our guide at the Monastery of St. Panteleimon

The young novice escorted us to the 9th century chapel, accessed by a footbridge that spanned a fast-flowing mountain stream.  Dato conversed with her all along the way, and made occasional translations.  As it turned out, he was telling her about us.  Georgians are surprised to learn that there are actually American Orthodox Christians, and it gives them great pleasure to hear of us.  She was probably no older than 25, and had a radiant smile—something I have noticed time and again in the presence of Georgian nuns.  

At first, I was a little disappointed in the small chapel.  I had mistakenly thought that some old iconography remained inside.  This was not the case.  The old chapel had been newly plastered on the inside.  Except for the large icon of St. Panteleimon on the stand in the center of the church, the only other iconography consisted of a few framed prints hanging on the walls.  We all took our turns venerating the icon of St. Panteleimon.  The young novice continued to beam and talk at length with Dato.  He would occasionally translate to us the gist of their conversation.  She then went to the icon stand and carefully opened the cover, removing a small rounded capsule.  Dato explained that this contained an actual relic of St. Panteleimon—a small piece of his skull (I understand the main relic is on Mount Athos.)  She held it her palm and each of us had the opportunity to come forward and venerate it.  Simply writing these words cannot convey the emotion that was running through us all at that time.  I turned my face to the wall for a while and struggled to retain my composure.  I realize that this is incomprehensible to those who are not Orthodox--this connection with the saints and their relics.  But they are real and vital to us, and wherever I encounter them--whether in Abustamani, Georgia, or in Macon, Georgia—I feel connected to the Faith of the Ages, and deeply humbled by its saints and martyrs.
All that remains of the hunting lodge

We walked back outside and the young novice had us linger while she retrieved some gifts from the Abbess.  We stood in the courtyard of the old hunting lodge, and after a while she returned, still smiling, and gave us each bags with holy oil and large candles made personally by the Abbess.  She even prepared a separate package for my godson back in the U.S. who took the name Panteleimon.  We took our leave, with the four of us—Dato, Michael, Adam and myself—all on something of a spiritual high.  On the drive down from Abustamani, we each tried to give voice to that which we had just experienced.  We knew that something quite special had come our way, and that it would be hard to explain, as my grasping for words here clearly demonstrates.

After I had been home for a couple of weeks, I enjoyed a quiet lunch with two of my best and oldest friends.  We have a favorite restaurant, and always opt for a quiet table near the bar.  One of my friends wanted to hear a story about Georgia.  With some misgivings, I decided to tell about my visit to the Monastery of St. Panteleimon, for this made as lasting an impression on me as anything I experienced while there.  I had doubts about my audience, however.  I could easily relate the experience to other Orthodox ,while sitting around at coffee hour after Liturgy, but I was afraid it would not translate well in Protestant circles.  One friend was an old-school Anglican, now refugeed out to the Reformed Episcopal Church or some such; the other a staunch Calvinist.  When I got to the part about venerating the relics of St. Panteleimon, the latter almost snorted in derision.  I halfway expected this, and made some lame attempt at a clever reply.  I felt like saying that he could hang with John Calvin if he wanted, but I would take my stand with the likes of St. Panteleimon.  Not only did he not recognize the name, but was proud that he knew him not.  Despite this brief brush with replaying the Reformation, the conversation soon moved on into more familiar territory.  I can’t fault my friend without condemning myself.  For there was a time in my life when I would have been equally derisive and dismissive.    

Months later in 2015, I found myself in Tbilisi again on two separate occasions.  I have been to Tbilisi any number of times, and have visited at least a dozen churches in the center of the city.  Each has a special attraction to me, but over time I have become especially drawn to Mamadaviti church (Church of St. David).  The church was originally founded by St. Davit Gareji, one of the thirteen Syrian Fathers of the 6th century.  The current church, however, is much newer.  The iconography is largely from the Russian period of the 19th century.  But the church has an impressive vantage point, perched on a slope of Mtatsminda, with Tbilisi spread out below.  The National Pantheon is located in the churchyard as well.  This began in 1829, with the murder of Alexander Griboyedov and his subsequent entombment here.  His grave and that of his Georgian wife, Nino Chavchavadze, are in a special crypt in front of the church.  The tomb of St. Ilia the Righteous is hard up against the side of the hill, close to the church.  I enjoy walking through the cemetery and seeing how many people I can identify by reading the Georgian script.  This visit I was able to pinpoint the graves of both Lado Gudiashvili and Otar Chiladze. 
In the crypt for Alexander Griboyedov

From the writings I share here and elsewhere, I present myself as something of an even-tempered sort, not wildly excitable, nor subject to deep depressions.  But I am subject to flashes of anger, and can tumble into the depths of despair in short order. I tend not to write about those times.  A particular recent Saturday in Tbilisi was as dark a day as I ever remember having.  These touchstones remain alive in my memory, if not the exact day, then certain the month and year:  July 2005, November 2011, and now July 2015.  I didn’t exactly wander the streets that day, but I wasn’t far from it.  I felt a need to keep moving, however, and so it is no surprise that I eventually found my way to Mamadaviti church.  I wandered among the graves for a while, and viewed the city from the railing next to the retaining wall.  I heard chanting, and realized that this was Saturday afternoon and vespers were beginning.  My friend Soso chants here, but was not in town this particular Saturday.  I quietly entered the sanctuary, and eyed the small group of worshippers that was beginning to form.  I was the oldest person there.  When it was my turn, I went forward and venerated the icons of Jesus Christ and the Theotokos in front of the iconostasis, and then found a quiet dark place to stand near the southwest corner.  I felt much better for being there, of course.  Just listening to the Georgian chant and letting my eyes wander to the various icons in the sanctuary calmed my soul and soothed my weariness.
In the Mtatsminda Pantheon
  In time, I came around to noticing the icons in my back corner, and went around to each one to venerate.  One thing you notice about Georgian iconography is their attention to contemporary saints.  Mamadaviti Church was no exception, with an icon of St. Ekvtime just behind me, and a large icon to Ilia Chavchavadze—“St. Ilia the Righteous” to my right.  To my right and slightly in front was another large icon, but to one of the early saints.  He was, of course, St. Panteleimon.  I was half beginning to expect him, and it gave me great comfort to venerate his icon and ask his intercession.  I knew I was in good company, and there was no cause for despair.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

I recently finished Artemis Cooper's Patrick Leigh Fermor:  An Adventure.  You simply can't find a better travel-writer than Fermor who died in 2011 at age 96 (see my comments on The Broken Road here and here.)  Cooper is an accomplished author in her own right, but as the granddaughter of Lady Diana Cooper--a great friend of Fermor's--she had unique insight into his life.

Her portrayal does not disappoint, though I am afraid it has disabused me of any idol worship I may have held for Fermor.  He was, simply put, a bit much.  A self-educated man of no fortune, from his teenage years Paddy Fermor made his way in the world on charm and a well-earned reputation as a brilliant and ebullient conversationalist.  He was just the sort of guest that the upper-classes liked to have hanging around, for entertainment I suppose.  Even on his initial and memorable walk across Europe in 1933-1934, the doors of the great houses of central Europe opened wide for him.  Following his exploits in Crete during the war, he was something of a minor celebrity and moved easily among the drawing rooms and bedrooms of all the "right people": languid holidays at Chatsworth, the Black and White Ball at Longleat, along the Amalfi coast on the Niarchos yacht, etc.  The Independent placed him "in the pantheon of literary liggers, a consummate lifelong freeloader, a prince among sponge-artists, which he paid for with his unique energy, talent and enthusiasm for song, dance, talk, memorised verse, drink and other men's wives."  You get the picture.  His charm did not work on everyone, however.  After wrangling an invitation to Somerset Maugham's villa at Cap Ferrat, he was quite literally thrown out of the house by the owner, who dismissed him as a "middle-class gigolo for upper-class women."  But Fermor was not a class-conscious English twit.  While he certainly knew how to work that crowd, Paddy was just as likely to be found in some waterfront taverna, or sitting around a campfire with shepherds, or in the back of a hay wagon with the proverbial farmer's daughter.

If the Second World War had not developed as it did, Fermor would have probably lived out his life in obscurity in Rumania.  From about age 20, he had been the lover of Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, 16 years his senior.  They lived together on a remote and decaying family estate in Bessarabia.  She and Paddy were picking mushrooms in the woods when word came of Britain's declaration of war against Nazi Germany.  Paddy immediately returned home to enlist.  His knowledge of Greek and other languages got him a posting in Athens, which led to his later fame in the Cretan resistance, including the actual capture of a German general.  He met Joan Raynor in Cairo during the war, and she became his great companion.  They spent decades more or less together, and eventually married.  But theirs was a casual and open relationship--on both sides.  Neither bothered much about whom the other was sleeping with. I suppose the lack of deceit is something...though not much.

While Fermor was interested and conversant in most everything, he would be the first to admit that he was not particularly introspective.  He had a habit of visiting Catholic monasteries in France, for the solitude he needed in order to write.  He spent many years in Orthodox Rumania and Greece and certainly appreciated the aesthetics of it all.  But there seemed no engagement with the transcendent, past a boyhood infatuation with Catholicism.  For a 20th-Century English author, this is almost to be expected, the Faith having been more or less bred out of the land.  At the end of his long life, Fermor seemed almost puzzled by the falling-away of his peers and his own looming mortality.  Yes, his life was an adventure like few others--but at the end of the day, I can't help feeling it was all a bit sad.  Still, Paddy was good-humored to the end, as evidenced by a note found at his bedside after his death:  "Love to all and kindness to all friends, and thank you all for a life of great happiness."

Monday, July 13, 2015

Detachment, Not Withdrawal--My Take on the Benedict Option

The so-called Benedict Option is much in discussion these days, at least in certain circles.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, it references the last sentence in Alisdair MacIntyre’s 1981 classic, After Virtue, in which the author suggests the need for a contemporary version of St. Benedict.  This presumes, of course, that one views our own era with alarm--if not exactly a new Dark Age, then certainly a darkening one.  For those, however, who still hold to the promise of Progress, this entire discussion must seem absurd, and they should not trouble themselves with notions of the Benedict Option.  Rod Dreher has been writing about this for some time now, and his spot at The American Conservative website has become the clearinghouse of record for this subject.  The dialogue Dreher has initiated is resonating with many, and seems to be gaining traction on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Recent Dreher posts here and here are as good an introduction as any, as well as good summaries of the criticism it has engendered.  If interested, one can just follow Rod’s writings (and the many links) back for quite a few months and gain a fuller appreciation for the ongoing discussion.  The objections (and there are many) seem to fall into two broad categories:  a) that the Benedict Option advocates a quasi-monastic withdrawal from the world, and b) that the Benedict Option remains too vague and undefined.  I do not sympathize with those who posit the first criticism, for it seems that they are reacting instinctively and not really engaging with what Dreher has actually written.  A strategic retreat is not the same thing as a withdrawal.  The second criticism has some validity, however.  Eventually, there will need to be more clarity about what the Benedict Option actually entails—some summation of the principles that unite its adherents.  At present, the Option assumes whatever shape one pours into it, as my comments below illustrate. 

How I envision the application of the Option probably differs from that of many others, and would certainly be at variance with how it is characterized by opponents.  I just do not see large numbers of future Benedict-opters setting up farm coops or flocking to communes and/or monastic institutions—although such things will definitely be part of the mix.  (It would not hurt like-minded folk, however, to begin taking a few small, if symbolic, steps away from our consumerist culture.  This could begin with something as simple as tomato plants on the patio, or a few chickens in the backyard, etc.)  But the simple fact of the matter is that most of us will continue to go about working in the world, much as we do now.  So, there will be no absolute withdrawal, as such, or at least not one that those around us can easily detect. 

What is called for, however, is a detachment from the dominant culture.  I see that as a great and needed good.  Far from fleeing to protective enclaves, driven by desperation or despair, Benedict-opters will stand apart from all the noise; sober, clear-eyed, and hopeful in the face of the ruin around us.  For too long we have drifted along in the broad currents of our Age, all the time thinking we are somehow in command of the situation, when actually we are being swept right along with everybody and everything else, while steadily losing our grips on the precious things that matter.  So, we must make our way to one shore or the other, pull ourselves out of the current, and take inventory of that which remains.  At this point, it seems more a matter of saving and securing whatever can be saved.  The rebuilding can come later.

It might be helpful to look at peoples throughout history who have done this very thing.  In this country, we have the quirky example of the Amish, but I do not think that is the model for us.  Certainly that is instinctively how opponents to the Benedict Option would jump to characterize the movement.  Ours is not a rejection of contact with the modern world, but rather a refusal to believe any longer in the promises of modernity.  What I have in mind are those peoples who have lived as aliens for centuries and have emerged largely intact:  the Jews throughout much of history, and the Armenians in the Near East come to mind.

I am hesitant to use battlefield metaphors and/or analogies.  They are too easy and too susceptible to simplistic and widespread abuse and demagoguery (i.e. “Take Our Country Back!”).  Many activists still resort to this sort of thing, however.  I find it sad to see them floundering and lashing-out in the old ways, thinking that political engagement and a tight grip on Americanism will turn the tide.  In this context, Rod and others have used the terminology of “the battle is lost.”  Yes, there is that, but I think it goes much deeper.  Maybe I am too given to considering the longue duree, but I do not believe the battle was ever winnable in the first place. 

One has to look no further than the paroxysms of outrage over  recent legislation and/or Supreme Court decisions—the belief that our country has suddenly been sent into a moral and existential tailspin.  (And let’s be clear, for many Americans, this new-found concern for our “national crisis” only took shape when they looked up from their dogged pursuit of the American Dream to notice that the country had elected its first black President.)  Nostalgic longings for the Reagan era (and he was as much a part of the problem as anyone) displays historical naiveté and shortsightedness. No, our problems are deeper-rooted and we must go back to our very founding, I would think.  A wise priest-friend once said to me that it was not in the nature of Americans to be Orthodox.  We were discussing something very specific, but the larger point holds. 

I may well agree with particular concerns of the Right (or not).  But where they see a precipitous sloughing-away of traditional values and ideals, I see as the natural progression our nation has been on all along, built as it is upon a foundation of individual rights.  The unique atomized person is exalted over all, at the expense of any larger sense of community, not to mention any sense of the transcendent.  And so, Americans who seriously contemplate the Benedict Option must realize that it will necessarily entail being both counter-cultural and indeed, radical.  I noticed a sign outside a nearby Methodist Church that got it just.exactly.wrong:  “A radical is someone with both feet firmly planted in the air.”  This is the broad accomodationism of the day, and such thinking will not appeal to Benedict-opters.  A radical is more likely someone who faces the world head-on, clear-eyed and with both feet planted firmly on the ground.  So if they are serious about it, Benedict-opters will definitely be tagged as radical.  The decision will have to go far beyond reactions to the usual red-button issues of our day, but will also require acknowledging the implicit economic implications of the decision. 

The American Way of Life is--in every real sense of the word--a religion all its own.  We are its willing disciples, our altar is the Free Market System, and we worship the trinity of consumerism, nationalism and democratization.  A False God to be sure, but nevertheless one with its own unique rituals and sacraments.  The American Dream is but a replacement religion, not a complimentary “lifestyle.”  If one is contemplating the Benedict Option, I think the idea of being a “good American,” as that term is commonly understood, will have to be jettisoned.  In fact, one may well have to be a decidedly bad American.

The Benedict Option is rightfully perceived as a Christian undertaking.  I would think that Catholic and Orthodox believers will be better prepared, theologically and institutionally, to nuture and equip the Option.  I would extend this to include some Lutheran and dissident Anglican churches, as well.  That said, we must know that we have no immunity from the forces that affect everyone else around us.  In coming decades our numbers will be absolutely decimated.  Catholic and now Orthodox believers have often bought into the Americanist heresy every bit as much as their Protestant neighbors.  So there is no room for smugness or self-satisfaction.  And on a side-note, this would be a good time for Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox theologians and church leaders to spend more time soberly assessing our commonality of purpose in light of the challenges we face, and less time on protecting jurisdictional turf.

Mainline churches have already made their bargain with the Spirit of the Age.  This will not serve them well in the long run, and the familiar theme of their precipitous and inevitable decline does not need to be elaborated upon here.  And so, individual Christians within many such churches—Disciples of Christ, the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and soon-to-be Methodists—might well decide to go with the Benedict Option, but it will be in spite of their church affiliation, not because of it.

The jury is still out on many Evangelicals.  One occasionally hears encouraging things from their spokespeople (Russell D. Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example), but I wonder if any of it is filtering down to the local congregational level.  From what I see, the rank and file remains too cozily attached to American civil religion.  Evangelicals will need to digest the hard truth (for them) that the flag, patriotism and valorizing “our troops” are not part of the Gospel.  They have been sold a bill of goods, though they have not yet realized it, I think.  Despite the very obvious commitment of many Evangelicals (and their ranks are simply too broad and varied to cover with a blanket characterization), I am left with the impression that they are still too tightly wrapped in an embrace of our American Way of Life.  I hope that I am wrong on this.  I recognize that I too quickly and instinctively agree with the broad-but-shallow characterization of their Protestant underpinnings.  Apostolic churches do have a history of endurance and survival (but not everywhere and at all times).  One simply doesn’t know what Evangelicals will do.  At this point, I am not sure about how appealing a Benedict Option would be for Evangelicals.  When Baptist churches start removing their American flags from their podiums, then I will start taking notice. 

Unlike many, I do not harbor apocalyptical visions of America’s future.  I think our country will go along much as it is now, only more so.  The rich will get richer, popular “culture” will get even crasser, and we will continue to throw our weight around in the world.  (When there are global conflicts where the only good option is to choose “none of the above” rather than any of the bad choices, we will invariably continue to choose the worst of the bad choices.)  And the military-industrial complex Ike warned us about will hum right along.  Income disparity will widen.  There will be the gated comfortable, flush with income (if not real financial security) who will continue to build and to buy and keep the consumerist economy ginning, who will still marry and more or less stay married and who will go along with the casual cultural Christianity for a while longer, who will provide good educations to their children who will get decent jobs and marry others in similar circumstances.  And then there will be those on the other end of the spectrum, what could be called Tattooed America, who will not marry, who will have not done church in generations, and who are financially vulnerable.  Both extremes are more similar than they could ever imagine, having become unmoored from any real connection with the Christian faith.  Neither will believe there should be any restraints on what an individual should be allowed to do.  I realize that this is painting with the broadest of broad brushes, but that middle ground most everyone thought they occupied is shrinking and most are edging closer and closer to the tattooed set. 

Those who step aside, the detached Benedict-opters, will realize that they have no home in either camp.  And this should lead to the recognition of who exactly are our compatriots in detachment--those share commonality of purpose.  We may well find that things do not neatly sort out between Christians and the Other.  Our observant Muslim neighbors may be more simpatico to our view of the world than our members of our own tribe with their motorboat in the driveway, golf clubs in the garage and the pool in the backyard.

So what would the Benedict Option look like in actual practice and implementation? In true American style, I believe it would probably be quite “diverse.”  It might be confined to a single home, or perhaps a close neighborhood.  Some might opt for commune, farmstead or some sort of farm coop.  I can see it taking root and flourishing in the heart of our cities.  Monasteries would naturally be an element of the Benedict Option.  And of course, it might be a parish—I will say that it should be a parish.   Our suburbs will be the most sterile ground for the Option, as they are for most things of any permanence.

But Benedict-opters would probably be in the workplace along with everyone else.  They would participate in the political process, though they would fully realize that there is no safe harbor in either party.  The GOP will continue to use religious voters as long they will allow themselves to be so used.  If you still hold to the view that political activism is a legitimate approach to our problems, then you are probably not ready for the Benedict Option.  Voting will be to head-off the worst of the alternatives we face, certainly not to “effect change.” 

Benedict-opters would closely oversee the education of their children, whether home-schooled or not.  I know that home-schooling is an article of faith with many.  It is not with me.  I know that it can be done well, I just have not seen many examples of it.  My concern lies more with the motivation behind home-schooling that it does with the actual teaching that takes place.  All Benedict-opters will instinctively know, however, that true education will come at home.

Again, detachment does not mean withdrawal.  Adherents should be noted for their open-handed generosity—to all.  Our homes (and porches!) and institutions should be safe harbors of calm and civility—places of genuine, welcoming hospitality.  Speaking of our homes, Benedict-opters may have to eschew our vaunted American propensity towards mobility.  Perhaps we need to find a place and stick to it, allowing time for true community to build from the ground up.  This mobility is a perennial problem in many parishes, with families coming, but also going.  The Option will require adherents to seriously weigh community against professional advancement. 

A Benedict Option household or institution will be, almost by definition, a place of learning, of the passing along of eternal verities.  Opters will have to begin to think generationally again.  We must build spiritually, intellectually and even physically with an eye to our grandchildren, or better yet, our great-grandchildren.  As our forebears had always done, so must we.   The gratification of today must be postponed for the good of our posterity.  This seems jarringly Old World to our ears, but so much the better.  Who knows, maybe parents will even return to becoming involved in the marriage arrangements for their children.  Dowries worked for a long, long time.  Maybe I am getting carried-away, but we must take the long view of things, seeing past the current darkness, all the while realizing that there will be no permanent victory this side of the grave.  But life has to be lived, and it should be done so intentionally and courageously.

In the getting from here to there, Benedict-opters will no doubt begin to form webs of mutual friendship, support and connectivity.  This has to be based on something more substantial than social media, but the role this plays should not be discounted.  In the meantime, many online forums present sanity and clarity to those of a traditionalist bent:  The American Conservative (a name not without irony, for the magazine is anything but in contemporary understanding of the word), Solidarity Hall, and Front Porch Republic come to mind.  If you don't mind a little dystopianism,  then James Kunstler is a good read.  Exactly how do we get there?  I do not know, other than for people of good will and courage to begin to make small steps in that direction.

Some have said that the Benedict Option is nothing more than the Church being the Church, and as such there is no real need for designating it otherwise.  Certainly for me, a Benedict Option would be little more than traditional Christians acting and living as if they really believed it.  

Friday, July 03, 2015

Tribe Trumps Treatise

If you understand your own place and its intricacy and the possibility of affection and good care of it, then imaginatively you recognize that possibility for other places and other people, so that if you wish well to your own place, and you recognize that your own place is a part of the world, then this requires a well-wishing toward the whole world. 

In return you hope for the world’s well-wishing toward your place.

And this is a different impulse from the impulse of nationalism. This is what I would call patriotism: the love of a home country that’s usually much smaller than a nation. 

Wendell Berry

(Note:  Please ignore this post if you are intend to have a happy-clappy Fourth of July)

It seems I am a poor patriot, or at least in the modern understanding of the word.  Of all our civic holidays, this one leaves me the most ambivalent:  no flags flying, no fireworks, no hot dogs.  Nada.
I’m afraid mon confreres around here concluded long ago that I’ve probably read too much, traveled too far, and have consequently become--as an in-law once succinctly (and accurately) put it--“so strange.”   But really, my Fourth of July skepticism goes all the way back.
July 4th was one of the three holidays during the year when my dad would shut down the office, the others being Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.  But this hardly meant that we took the day off.  Rather, it gave my dad free rein to schedule a full day of farm work.  He was no gentleman rancher, but a true Texas cowboy.  He had every intention of being a rancher, though fate and the Depression temporarily derailed that ambition.  As it turned out, Dad lived his working life not in cattle country, but within the confines of the Old South.   To the extent that he saw himself as successful professionally, it was only in that it allowed him to become what he always meant to be, a cattleman.  And so, on the Fourth, we usually had some kind of big round-up planned, or moving cattle, or penning cattle, or vaccinating cattle, or cutting cattle.  None of this took with me.  I had rather been off somewhere with my head in a book.  Why couldn’t we just leave the cows alone to eat their grass in peace?
If not that, then there was often hay on the ground during this day.  Invariably the hay-haulers would be a no-show or a partial-show, or there would be a threat of rain, meaning that everyone had to jump in and get the hay in the barn.  And we bailed a lot of hay.  I actually grew to enjoy the camaraderie with the hay-hauling, and could stack hay better than my brother.

We would come home to a large meal that my mother had been preparing all day, mostly from our own beef or chickens, and our own garden produce.  There’d be a couple of pies, a pound cake, and glory of glories—my mother’s homemade rolls.  She would’ve heaped scorn on the idea of hot dogs and chips.  My dad might bust a watermelon or, even make some homemade ice cream.  At the end of the day, we would finally lounge-around a bit, and then my dad would tell stories.  He was a natural at this sort of thing.  We listened to his tales that we had often heard many times before; of the days of his youth, or anecdotes he overheard from his elders, etc.  My mom was not much of a story-teller, but was there to insert a dose of reality if his tale-telling became too expansive.
And so, that was it:  no flag-flying and no fireworks (I faintly recall once holding a sparkler in my hand as a small child, but this sort of thing fell within that broad category that my mother characterized as “foolishness.”  The lesson stuck, because I do not ever recall buying any as an adult.)  There were no hot dogs, nor goings-on about freedom and liberty, nor references to “our troops.”  Nope, none of that.  My memory and understanding of “patriotism,” was little more than an allegiance to very particular people, and to very particular places, both experienced and in memory—our family “myth,” if you will.  Any larger understanding of Patriotism with a capital “P” probably went no farther than an appreciation for a country that allowed my people to live out their lives in the manner that they did.  I was very much at home with Wendell Berry’s definition of patriotism for three or four decades before I ever heard of the man.

I remember a conversation from almost 50 years ago between my mother and one of my favorite uncles.  He was a career Navy man and somehow he had made a casual reference to the flag, in the context of patriotism.  My mother, ever the literalist, shocked her brother-in-law by matter-of-factly stating that it was nothing more than a piece of cloth.  I was sympathetic to my uncle, of course, but it was my mother’s attitude that stuck with me.  It is has been many years since I have said the Pledge of Allegiance.  Oh, I’ll go through the motions—I’ll stand and put my hand over my heart, but the words do not come out of my mouth.  I just don’t feel right about it.  Patriotism is one thing, nationalism something altogether different.

For the last two years, I’ve been in the Republic of Georgia during their Independence Day celebrations.  I found it all great fun, this comic-opera militaristic display of bravado, with housewives foundling bazookas and children clambering about upon tanks and hum-vees parked on the city plaza.  Upon reflection, however, such nationalistic fervor is as unsettling in the Georgian context as it is here or anywhere else.

I do enjoy the Georgian flag, however.  This is a flag one can be enthusiastic about:  a blood red cross on a field of white, with four smaller red crosses, each located in the quadrants formed by the larger cross.  I intended to buy one while there, but my son (in an acorn-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree episode) quizzed me pointedly about it.  Why was I buying a flag and what did I intend to do with it?  His larger point (retained from Scouting) is that flags are not to be treated casually.  If you are going to deal with a flag, then know that there is a tradition and protocol for doing so, and then follow it.  In this, he came down on the side of his great-uncle, rather than his grandmother.  And, as it turned out, all the flags I saw for sale on the day before Independence Day, were nowhere to be found the day after.

I can deal with most of the silliness on the Fourth.  I have earplugs if they turn up the Lee Greenwood or Toby Keith.  I guess it is the rhetoric that gets to me.  Sometimes, we actually need to stop and think about the words that come out of our mouths.  I love our history.  I really do.  I've spent a lifetime studying it.  We are truly unique in so many ways--but this is due to many factors, not the least of which is the simple accident of geography.  What it is not dependent upon, however, is any intrinsic superiority of our own.    

And that is where I part company with the civic observance of the Fourth.  We often seem incapable of praising our unique American-ness without using language that characterizes it in terms of superiority.  Unique is not the same thing as exceptional.  American Exceptionalism--the child of Wilsonian Democracy and the grandchild of Manifest Destiny--is our besetting sin.  The last time I checked, Pride was still a vice.  And we all know what it goeth before.  Let me know if you ever see a bumper sticker that says "Humble to be an American."    

In this morning's local paper (the reading of which is a bad habit that I can't seem to shake, for it is truly toxic), a columnist wrote of talking with members of her "small group" from church who had just returned from a 10-day mission trip to Russia, where they had been teaching English using the Bible.  She asked their impressions of the country and heard about how thankful they were to get back here where there were fully-stocked shelves in the stores.  The main quote, however, was that the people were hungry for "God, freedom, and anything American."  There you have it--the way we look at ourselves and at the rest of the world.  If this quote strikes you as anything other than self-serving crap, then my entire post will likely be incomprehensible. 

I also wish Americans knew more about the Revolution we celebrate.  I think someone once said something to the effect that a revolution is only a rebellion until it is successful.  And so, our “Revolution” was only such after Yorktown--before that it was a rebellion.  I am not just playing with words here.  On the Fourth, one will hear politicians and other unlearned types wax eloquently about the struggle for our “freedoms,” and “liberty,” and the sacrifices of “our troops”, etc.  Just for good measure, they may also throw in a line about fighting to be able to worship the way that we please.  It won’t matter—no one in their audiences will likely know the difference.  That is our Founding Myth.  

There are myths and then there are myths--most have an element of truth, but some are truer than others.  The hard fact of the matter, however, is this:  our rebellion cum revolution was fought over economic considerations; tax policies, if you will.  Americans did not, nor do they yet, like to pay taxes.  From the beginning, we have demonized those we oppose, so as to cast the particular war in moralistic terms.  And so, George III becomes a tyrant, an evil oppressor in our telling.  I will just say this, the "oppression" was relatively benign, and as "ruthless tyrants" go, George III is way down the list.  I am not saying that the war could have been avoided, for there was a certain inevitability about it all.  England had kept us on such a loose rein for so long that we forgot that the rope was even there.  I am simply saying that the war was not exactly what it is broadly perceived to have been.

And finally, there is the Declaration of Independence itself, a document that has quite literally changed the course of world history.  The language soars.  Jefferson had a way with the written word, to be sure.  My skepticism, however, comes right at the very first:  those “unalienable rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I no more believe in unalienable rights than I believe in the concept of progress.  They are not made true simply because Locke and Jefferson say so.  One finds no basis for them in the Christian Scriptures, which, if anything, promise suffering, death and alienation from the world.  They are indeed worthy goals for any society, but come about only after the hard work of citizenship to first create, and then secure them.

These concepts are the underpinnings of Americanism.  Traditionally, all it took to become an American was to land on these shores, buy into these ideals, and learn a bit of English. In America today, however, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can mean anything and everything. And many worry that historic understandings of the concepts behind the words have been stretched and twisted almost beyond all recognition.  One can gather much more evidence supporting the view that America is fracturing than one can to support any coalescence.  So my very real concern--taking the long view--is whether a document and the beliefs it extols are enough to create and mold "a people."  Is it enough and will it be enough in the future?  We are 239 years along—nothing much at all, taking the long view of history.  I am not an apochalypsticist, for to paraphrase Adam Smith, “there’s a lot of ruin” left in us.   At this point, it is not a matter of “will the center hold,” for there is no real center that I can detect.  Maybe the fringes will hold.  Either way, it will be interesting to see how the experiment plays out.  Unlike most Americans, however, I just know that it is neither foreordained nor assured that it will do so.  I also know that most every time, when all is said and done, that tribe trumps treatise.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Little Re-remembering

     For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unexpected; so that, before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careening unconsciously down the slippery avenues of eternity.  (Anthony Powell, The Buyers Market, page 274.)

     While recently rummaging around for something, I came across my commonplace book from many years ago.  Though undated, I was able to deduce that I started it in 1996.  The last entry was dated 10 January 2004.  These two dates bookend a number of noteworthy milestones in my life:  my mother's death (the last of my immediate family), the deaths of two much-beloved uncles, our son going off to college, my 2nd-6th trips overseas, the beginning of a side career of teaching, 9/11 and its aftermath, appointment to a position of responsibility at our local church (soon followed by a scandal/crisis), some sobering financial reverses, and most pivotal of all, my encounter with the Orthodox faith in June of 2003. 
     Of the 218 pages in this particular journal, only the last 50 pages or so fall after that aforementioned date.  Reading back over what I had recorded before then was an eye-opener, to say the least, for it raises doubt in my mind as to the self-narrative I have so carefully crafted.  In my telling of it, I have always emphasized the unforeseen nature of being confronted with Orthodoxy--I often say that I "stumbled" into it.  I found the whole "seeker" posture to be too affected, or self-deferential, or narcissistic, and ultimately mostly ridiculous.  In my case, I arrived in the Balkans only half-aware even of their Orthodoxy.  Yep, you might say the Faith blindsided me.
      And while I still believe this to be largely true, this narrative fails to acknowledge just how receptive I was to receiving Orthodoxy.  My jottings from 1996 through 2003 certainly indicate that something was going on.  To be sure, no discernable "Road to Orthodoxy" emerges from these early writings.  My readings were unfocused and undirected, and my writing was equally undisciplined.  But taken as a whole, the restlessness of my intellect during that time is almost palpable.  (I think restlessness is the right word.  I was not disappointed with my life, for I had--and have--a very good one.)  My writings betrayed, however, a gnawing realization that there simply had to be some larger and more significant drama playing-out, one of which I had not even begun to grasp the meaning.  So yes, when Orthodoxy "found" me, you might say that I was primed and ready for it.
     At some point during Holy Week, in the midst of one of those interminable services that run together in our memory, I was doing my regular bit as an altar server.  During one of the processions, in-between chanting and trying not to mess up, I clearly remember thinking to myself, "This is life."  That's all.  "This is life."  In this ritualized worship that is so strange to our region but so alive to me, I am being disciplined, my passions are being worn-down (albeit much too slowly), and yes, I am participating in that larger drama I half-sensed many years ago, the one that transcends time and space. 
     Anthony Powell's passage at the beginning of this post applies to a fictional character, a young man starting out in life.  His words resonate with me, though I was middle-aged even at that time.  No matter.  I have taken them to heart, as I careen--though consciously and intentionally--down the slippery avenues of eternity.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

More from Fermor: Finding Orthodoxy in Odd Places (1)

Nothing much beats the satisfaction of finishing a really good read.  Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, (of which I wrote earlier) is simply the best book I have read in quite a long time.  Always a keen observer of the human condition, Fermor’s open, generous spirit made wide allowances for the foibles of others.  The Broken Road takes him from Bulgaria, into Romania, back to Bulgaria, and then on to Mount Athos by way of Constantinople.  These Orthodox lands held a lasting fascination for Fermor, and indeed, he was to live the greater part of his long life there, first in Romania until the war, and then in Greece.

With an ear for languages, Fermor would--with seeming effortlessness--quickly immerse himself into local life.  I was curious to see how he would react to the pervasive Orthodoxy in his midst.  Fermor expressed interest in most anything, and the foreignness of Orthodoxy held an attraction for the inquisitive young man.  He remained appreciative, though not uncritical, of our Liturgy, the church’s iconography and the assortment of saints and scoundrels he met along the way.  He never addressed Orthodoxy systematically, but always as something of a backdrop to the story he was telling, which is the better course anyway.

One of my favorite episodes is the experience at the Savoi-Ritz in Bucharest, though the references to Orthodoxy here are so slight as to be easily missed.  After trudging north from Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the glittering Romanian capital proved to be an eye-opener for the nineteen-year old.  The pre-Ceausescu Bucharest was not known as the “Little Paris of the East” without good reason.  Fermor traveled on a shoestring, but in Buchares he did not try for a room in the disreputable outskirts, but instead chose a lodging just over the line into the barely reputable district.  A wooden sign over the door painted “Savoi-Ritz” attracted his attention.  Madame Tania, an elderly, hawk-nosed, French-speaking Bessarabian woman showed him to a surprising well-furnished room upstairs.  Fermor, “hell-bent on the bright lights of the town centre,” quickly washed and combed through his hair, then asked for directions.  The proprietress seemed hurt that he was leaving so soon, remonstrating “on s’amuse bien ici!”  Fermor insisted on attaining the Calea Victoriei, however, so she did not press the point. 

After a night on the town, Fermor returned to the Savoi-Ritz at 2:00 am.  Madame Tania let him in and invited him to join them in the kitchen for a glass of wine “as everyone was having supper.”  In the “cozy kitchen with an ikon in the corner and a chicken and potatoes in a dish,” Fermor found four “rather pretty girls” in dressing gowns or kimonos, setting around the table.  The young man suddenly realized his own naivete, as he had stumbled into a maison de passé instead of a regular hotel.  Madame Tania reassured him that they did, on occasion, take in regular travelers.  Her recounting of his error provoked good-hearted laughter all around the table, and Fermor ended-up spending the rest of the night listening to their relaxed after-work banter, and to the stories they had to tell.  After his arrival, a fifth girl “clattered down the steps on wooden patterns, shook hands, sat down, flung her dark shock of hair back, crossed herself and set to [eating].”  On the morrow, these good-hearted souls would mend and iron his best change of clothes so that he would be more presentable on the Calea Victoriei the following night.   

Fermor thought to ask them about the strange men who seemed to have a monopoly on Bucharest taxicabs.  The women howled with laughter.  Madame Tania explained. 

They belonged to a religious sect widespread in Bessarabia and southern Russia….After marriage and one or two children…the men castrated themselves, hence the beardlessness, the high voice and the expanse, and the general eunuch-like style….(One of their tenets…was the belief that Czar Paul, the murdered son of Catherine the Great, would one day return again as the Messiah.)  ‘They are bad-tempered men,’ Tania was saying, ‘always cross.  I’m not surprised.’  A smile hovered on her face.  ‘Of course, we don’t see much of them here…’