Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Portuguese Parrot

My Aunt Sis died yesterday, November 9th, at age 93.  She was the last of her generation, having outlived all her siblings and cousins.  With her passing, I lost my last living link with a world that now exists only in my mind.

Stuck away in the mountains of northern Arkansas, for many years it has been my habit to make an annual trek to visit Aunt Sis.  Kind, gracious, and hospitable to a fault, we would sit around the kitchen table, drinking coffee and sharing the old stories.  She kept her mind until the end.  She became forgetful, and prone to repeat herself, to be sure.  But this was the little stuff.  On the big items, her mind remained clear.  She always knew exactly who she was, who you were, and where she was.  On my last visit, she recognized me immediately, and we became teary-eyed before any words were spoken.  Towards the end, her mind become more focused on the times of her youth, with events 80 years past more real to her than the events of the day.  I believe that to be a great blessing.

On this last visit, she shared a new story, and I think I heard it a half dozen times before I left.  For some reason, her memory had focused in on an incident from over 75 years ago, involving her uncle and a parrot that “spoke” Portuguese.  A little background is necessary.

My grandfather and his two sisters--all born within 4 years of one another--were always close.  The sisters called him Brother.   Due to advantageous family connections, all three were able to attend Wedemeyer’s Academy in Bell County, Texas.  The girls went on to graduate from Mary Hardin Baylor College.  The sisters were true Edwardian ladies--prim, proper, and polite.  They were easily scandalized, and my good-natured granddad took especial pleasure in shocking them, to which they would gasp, “Oh, Brother!”

The sisters lived their entire lives in tandem.  They went to college together, became teachers and taught together, and eventually married brothers.  The older aunt married last, and even after marriage maintained much of the air of an old maid about her.  The two couples lived just outside of Fort Worth.

After the great tragedy that befell my grandparent’s family, the aunts stepped in to help as they could.  The older aunt offered to adopt my youngest uncle, then an infant.  My grandfather, a proud man, refused.  (I wonder how my uncle’s life would have been different, had he grown up in this aunt’s stable environment.  But while his path might have been easier in life, he might not have become the quirky, funny, happy-go-lucky man we loved so much).   Aunt Sis and her baby brother, nevertheless, did spend extended periods of time living with their aunts.

When they moved out to Lake Worth, the youngest aunt and her husband purchased their place from an elderly Portuguese immigrant.  They bought the place, lock, stock, and parrot.  The old man’s bird “spoke” in Portuguese.  Up until the last two years, my Aunt Sis could, remarkably, remember and repeat what the parrot would say, though she had no idea of what it meant.  The large parrot and its cage was her responsibility.  

Her aunt’s husband would sometime tease the parrot.  Once he even gave Polly a cigarette.  The bird bided its time.  Finally one day, as my uncle was walking through the house, the parrot flew onto his back and clawed little vees into the back of his shirt.  He hollered for Aunt Sis to get that bird off his back.  She found a handy broomstick and lifted the parrot off of him.

What happened next is the thing that stuck in her mind.  The parrot got down on the floor and on its side, squawking and twisting in circles.  In Aunt Sis’s eyes, the bird exacted its revenge and was now laughing at our flustered uncle.  My aunt described in great detail how the parrot’s eyes looked, and how they pivoted around.

Our memories are funny things.  At the end of a long and well-lived life, it fills me with wonder that it was this little thing that filled her consciousness, the eyes of a happy parrot from almost 80 years ago.       

Monday, November 07, 2016

A Melancholy Tuesday

A Melancholy Tuesday

As things stand now, Tuesdays are my “day off.”  I plan to make good use of it.  If the weather permits, I will cut some wood.  If not, I can immerse myself in genealogy, or some other form of escapism, such as re-reading something from Trollope.  This may keep my mind off the events of the day.  For at the end of it, the American people will have elected either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as President.  That does not say anything particularly uplifting about our nation.

I have always taken a keep interest in current events, and I do not expect that to change.  Normally, election days are characterized by high-flown and self-congratulatory rhetoric about freedom, democracy, the American Way, etc., and it is easy to get swept up in all that.  This year, however, I’m just not feeling it.  Frankly, I am exhausted from the eternal campaigning, but more so by the hyper partisanship and the general craziness, of the bat-sh*t variety.  I would be better served to step away from Facebook, but I’m not going to do that any more than you are.

For example, I recently suggested to someone on Facebook that their projection of Trump carrying all the swing states plus PA, MI, NH and ME might display a bit of hopeful thinking on his part.  He told me I was rude, to “scram,” and then blocked me.  And I thought I was thin-skinned.  But this is typical of what passes for political discourse these days.

My own particular political beliefs do not fit into the boxes we’ve been assigned.  The terms liberal and conservative, as currently understood in the American context, have little real meaning anymore, and I would resist being labeled as either one.  I am most comfortable with the designation of “traditionalist.”  I value order, stability, peace through humility, continuity, conservation, and preservation.  I have no faith in, or love for, unfettered free market capitalism.  In recent years the real evolution of my thinking has been the growing awareness of just how destructive this has been to the human condition.  At the same time, doctrinaire socialism leaves me cold, as well.  I am mostly attracted to Distributism, to the extent that I understand it.  It will never have a chance here, however, unless of course, after we start over.  

I have conservative friends who still believe, I suppose, in Movement Conservatism, who believe that there are political solutions to our problems, and that only one political option exists for right-thinking Christians to support.  For these people, my ideas are so around-the-bend that they characterize me as a wild-eyed Leftist.   I get a chuckle out of this, for I have friends who are truly Leftists and they know me well enough to know that, while sympathetic, I am not totally in their camp.  I have no stomach for storming the barricades and burning everything down.  Revolutions always destroy much more than they intend to do, and the ends never justify the means.  

I have tried to be even-handed in my criticisms this election cycle.  Not being a supporter of either major party candidate, my interest has largely been analytical--charting the polls and their accuracy.  Also, whenever I have dumped on Trump, I feel compelled to post an article criticizing Clinton.  I have learned that you get no credit for this, however.  In our hyper-partisan age, any criticism of Trump is seen as an endorsement of Clinton, and visa-versa.  Apparently the only thing that matters is your partisan slant.

So here, the day before the election, I want to come clean about the major candidates.  First, Trump.  The man is a colossal fraud, on nearly every level.  He lies--not stealthily like Clinton, but compulsively and pathologically.  He is a narcissist, seeing every issue and every subject as being ultimately about himself.  He is petty, refusing to let anything go.  He is bombastic, speaking almost totally in exaggeration and hyperbole.  He is uninformed, and the worst of it is that he is proudly so.  And finally, he is a dangerous demagogue, one like we’ve not seen since Huey Long.  I can’t say that I oppose him on policies, because he has none.  All is going to be Great, just trust him.   We have elected little, petty men to the Oval Office before.  But in every case, I believe they recognized that they had ascended to something greater than themselves, and set about to make themselves worthy of the honor.  With Trump, I don’t believe he understands that there is anything greater than himself.

I tend to agree with a recent article by Damon Linker, who suggested a small part of him would take a perverse satisfaction if Trump were elected.  He lists 4 reasons:
  1. To destroy the knowingness of the poll-watchers (not unlike myself)
  2. To teach Progressives that “history is not on their side” (yes,yes, yes!)
  3. To humble the smugness of the Establishment Republicans
  4. To humiliate hubristic Democratic elites
I have to admit that while this would be deeply satisfying, is that enough reason to vote for Trump?  No, no, a thousand times no!

Clearly Trump has tapped-into the legitimate concerns, fears and anger (if unfocused) of a significant segment of Americans.  But again, his skillful exploitation of these issues does not warrant a vote for him.  In fact, the only reason I can see that anyone would want to do so would be if they believe Hillary Rodham Clinton is far worse.  I lived through the 90s and voted both for and against them along the way.  I have never really understood the visceral hatred they engender among the GOP.  It has been my observation that the Republicans lose every time they go up against her.  I believe that it is because they always run against the Witch Woman of Chappaqua, rather than against Clinton the political animal.  Believe me, there is enough ammunition to use on the latter without resorting to portraying her as a cartoon villain.  Two examples:  when it comes to “Benghazi,” or the emails, Republicans ought to be screaming to high heaven about Judgment.  Instead, they go for Criminality, with chants of “Lock her up,” or questioning how she could even be allowed to run.  These narratives are reinforced by the Epistemic Bubble of the Right’s social media, from which Republicans refuse to venture outside.  They will believe anything and everything, no matter how outrageous.  Congressional Republicans have signaled that they are ready to start impeachment proceedings now, as well as declaring that they will refuse to consider any of her Supreme Court appointments.  This explains why they always lose up against her.  Like the Bourbons of old, they have forgotten nothing, and they have learned nothing.

So, would all this suggest a vote for Clinton?  Well, not for me, at least.  We have multiple avenues to not vote for Trump that do not require voting for Clinton.   For let’s face it, she represents nearly everything that is wrong with our system, as well as everything that people despise about our governing elites.  After being in the political arena for so long, it is almost sad that her main selling point is that she is NOT Donald Trump.  She may well get us into a war with Russia.  But if she does, it will be because of her ideological worldview, one who remains wedded to a dangerous, confrontive, and increasingly outdated and discredited foreign policy.  But Trump could just as easily get us in a war with Russia, as well.  All Putin would have to do is to publicly repeat the comment many have made before--that Trump’s hair looks like a wolverine crawled up on top of his head and died.  Again, with Trump everything is personal.  I would prefer to take my chances with the first scenario.

If Trump were to win, I believe things would start to come apart, probably starting with a stock market crash.  That would not be good.  If Clinton wins, things will stay as they are.  And that is not very good, either.  To look beyond this particular election, our Great Experiment may be winding down.  Winston Churchill, I believe, once quipped that democracy was the worst system of government in the world....except for all the others.  The applicability of this axiom may be nearing the end of its lifespan.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

In Praise of Declinism

I consider myself a thorough-going declinist, which is easier than saying hell-in-a-handbasketist.  And I am quite comfortable in that worldview. To be clear, this is not at all the same thing as doom-and-gloom pessimism.  For us, the situation is hopeless, but not serious.  For them, everything is forever hopeless and serious.  The cramped and self-pitying view of these dour and sour pessimists is not for me.  Avoid such people at parties, if you can.  Dispassion and/or realism in the face of the overall fallenness of our world does not fit neatly into a binary choice between optimism and pessimism.  It does not take a particularly perceptive person to note the weariness in our sagging old Western civilization.  In the meanwhile, small kindnesses abound.  If not exactly happiness, then certainly joy can be had, which is, anyway, far better and more lasting.  Laughter, food and drink can still be shared and enjoyed around the table.  Think “Love in the Ruins.”    
The confused bright-and-sunny optimists miss out on all of this, doomed as they are to live lives of perpetual disappointment.  The declinist is rarely disappointed, and certainly not when things go amiss.  He is, however, pleasantly appreciative when events (often) do not turn out as grim as was expected.  And he savors this experience to the fullest, knowing it will not last long.  
The realist generally looks to the peripheral edges of both Leftist and Rightist thought for support.  We look askance at all utopian schemes--the progressive technological/capitalist fantasies of the Right, as well as the progressive social constructions on the Left.  A pox on both their houses.  The very idea of “decline” is anathema to American progressives, whether liberal or conservative, for the Left and the Right both worship at the altar of Progress; just on different days and observing different liturgies.
The Left usually rejects declinism out of hand, and when the Right does engage our civilizational collapse, it is usually some variation of the “We are Rome” argument, or the apocalyptical histrionics of the “God and Country” crowd.  Both fall far short of any meaningful assessment of our situation.
I’ve heard the “We are Rome” argument for decades, but I never really bought into the “we are just like Rome” argument.  Sure, some broad comparisons can be made between the breakdown of society in the West during late antiquity, and the fraying of Western civilization in late modernity.  Decadence is not hard to spot.  But as a historian, I was always aware of the vast dissimilarities between Rome and America.  And then again, Rome did not really “fall” in 476 A.D. did it?  As one who now often approaches things from a Byzantine perspective, I know that “Rome” lived on and prospered for almost another 1,000 years.   
Maureen Mullarkey has an interesting take on this in a recent article here.  She too warns about the danger of reading ourselves into the past.  The quote sometimes attributed to Albert Schweitzer is appropriate here--”looking into the well of history and seeing only ourselves in the reflection.”  Mullarkey warns that to say “that conditions today are ‘shockingly similar’ to those in Rome at the advent of Christianity is to confuse symptoms with causes."  Nor, she says, should we “bend history to fit homiletics.”  Her conclusion is well worth noting.  Mullarkey posits that pagan Rome was, in fact, deeply religious, committed to ritual, if not dogma.  “The pagan temperament was not nihilist.  By contrast, modern man has put God out of mind...What we face today is not paganism.  It is the desolate freedom of the nihilist.”  

The “God and Country” crowd erroneously believe they own the “decline” argument.  Their solutions are nostalgically simple, usually involving decisions made at the ballot box or on the battlefield: If only we could go back to the Reagan years; If only we could elect a President who will appoint conservative judges; If only we could reverse Roe v. Wade.  If only. These arguments are often cast in apocalyptical terms, with the U.S. cast in the role of God's chosen people, who will face His judgment raining down on us, as in Sodom and Gomorrah, if we do not repent.  This forlorn hope, a nostalgic, nationalistic fantasized idealization of a recent past, is not realism at all, but simply utopianism of the conservative stripe.
Michael del Sapio, in a recent article has something interesting things to say about our decline.  I took note of the article because of his reference to Jacob Burckhardt, a historian I first read twenty-five years ago. Burckhardt:
I have no hope at all for the future.  I am tired of the modern world. I want to escape them all, the radicals, the communists, the industrialists, the overeducated, the fastidious…the -ists and -ers of every kind.
The author notes that “a sick, worn-out mood dominated intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century, a feeling that the Western cultural tradition was going to seed. This is in contradiction to our often rosy view of the nineteenth century as a time of progress, relative peace, and self-confidence.”  He sees several explanations of the West’s cultural atrophy:  loss of a spiritual core, simple exhaustion from striving after progress and change--in time, “all the possibilities are exhausted,” and creativity being drained away by material comfort and opulence.  
The main point of del Sapio’s article is that our decline has been in place for far longer than those who see only recent developments. And I would add that the roots of decay run so deep that they transcend traditional political remedies.

Since the late nineteenth century, each generation has managed to put enough gas in the vehicle of Western culture to keep it going. But in any decline, one eventually reaches rock bottom. The question facing us is, have we now reached it? The jadedness, ennui, and mind-numbed distraction of many modern people—a tableau of decadence mimicking The Romans of the Decadence—seems to suggest that we have. The only response to such a situation is what Jacob Burckhardt did: rediscover, hoard, and cherish the cultural treasures of our past.
As John Lukacs observed, living at the end of an age is not such a bad thing, if you are aware of it.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Boyhood of Cyrus

"A Dance to the Music of Time," Nicholas Poussin
For well over 30 years, I have been a fan of the English novelist Anthony Powell.  A prolific writer, he is best known for the twelve novels he wrote between 1951 and 1975, known collectively as A Dance to the Music of Time.  I have read through them at least three times, or perhaps four, and hope to do so at least one more time.  My son is slowly working his way through the Dance while in Tbilisi.  He is about halfway through.  I have a complete collection of first editions, as well as a Folio set, but the copies I read from are four thickish volumes, each containing three of the novels.  They were my introduction to Powell back in the early 1980s.  I am a founding member of the Anthony Powell Society, as well.  So you could well say that I am a serious Powellian.

The series takes its name from the painting by Nicholas Poussin, and indeed art plays a prominent role in the weaving of Powell's narrative.  The opening passage describes a street scene evoking images of Poussin's Dance, and the ultimate passage in the twelfth volume is a conversation within a London art gallery.  In between, there are countless encounters with, and allusions to art and artists, both real and fictional.  Charles Stringham's Modigliani appears regularly in the narrative, but my favorite has to be The Boyhood of Cyrus by Edgar Bosworth Deacon.  The work appears early in the narrative, and the irascible Deacon is a recurring character in some of the earlier novels.  He is somewhat at war with the modernists and paints in a classical and realistic style, falling somewhere between Alma-Tadema and Burne-Jones.  By the 1920s, this sort of thing was long out of favor, having lost out to modernism.  But by the end of the series--in the early 1970s--Deacon's work had undergone a reappraisal, was being snatched-up by collectors, and the subject of "retrospective" exhibits.  As The Boyhood of Cyrus was the fictional work of a fictional artist, I could only picture it in my mind's eye.

I suppose I have always enjoyed art, if in a casual way.  From my earliest childhood, I remember visits to my great-aunt's house.  Each of my parents, on their own schedules, were in the habit of dropping by for a quick visit there on trips between our house and the farm.  The aunt's house was the simplest of four-room affairs, with no running water.  A quilt frame hang over the bed in my great-aunt's mother's room.  This was where we visited.  My attention was always drawn to an oval picture hanging in the back corner--a sentimentalized pastoral scene depicting two swans gliding across a reed-enclosed glade.  No doubt it was only an inexpensive print, but to me it was a thing of beauty, and I knew that we had noting to compare with it in my home.
"The Beheading of St. John the Baptist," by Puvis de Chavannes

I have been very fortunate in life to have visited a number of great art museums.  Only in recent years, however, have I been able to intelligently categorize the type of painting I appreciate.  My wife and I were at the Met in New York City back in 2015.  A snowstorm had blown in, which delayed our arrival and necessitated leaving in a timely manner.  And so, I spent my limited time upstairs with the Great Masters.  Then earlier this year, when in New Haven, I took the train into the City and returned to the Met.  I went directly to the wing housing the work of the European artists of the 18th and 19th century.  This might not be to everyone's taste, but I realized that I had found my artistic home.  I was introduced to new artists--Gustave Moreau, Edward Burne-Jones, and most of all, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.  The Met owns four of this latter artist's work--The Shepherd's Song, Allegory, Cider, and Sleep.  I stood, almost in amazement, at these paintings.  Once I returned home, I began to familiarize myself with Puvis de Chavannes' body of work.  Then in May of this year, when in England, I made a special trip to Birmingham to the Barber Institute.  Without this museum, I can assure you that there would have been no reason for a detour to this city.  I did so because the Barber Institute contains, among other excellent paintings, Puvis de Chavannes' The Beheading of John the Baptist.

To return to Anthony Powell, when pursuing the odd Powelliana online, I recently came across this site.  The writer muses on the fictitious The Boyhood of Cyrus, and which real life painter and painting could have served as Powell's inspiration for Deacon and his work.  Perhaps it should not have surprised me, but he suggested Pierre de Chavannes and his Ludes Pro Patria.  In some way, I found this satisfying, the way things had come full circle.
"Ludes Pro Patria," by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Cultus

A typical Romanian wagon
During my recent travels around Romania, I was reminded of the Orthodox custom of crossing oneself whenever passing a church. I know this is not unique to Romania, for Georgians have the same practice.  I observed this throughout the country--from Bucharest to Curtea de Arges, to Siniai, to Brasov, to Sighisoara, to Suceava, to Iasi, and back to Bucharest.  I detected no discernible difference between urban and rural areas.  To be sure, not everyone does it, but enough people do it that it is noticeable to the casual observer.

This custom does not come naturally to Orthodox Americans, and the reason is pretty obvious.  While one might pass several Orthodox churches in a small Romanian village, and in many of these locales, everything is strung out along one main road.  In the U.S., you can easily drive 100 miles between churches, and even so, the Orthodox churches would have to be sought out.  In this context, crossing yourself while passing churches is a hard habit to form.  When in Romania, at least, I assumed the custom and enjoyed being able to do so.

While driving through Romania, you quickly become accustomed to the ubiquitous Romanian wagons on the roads--long, almost canoe or dug-out shaped carts, open-ended on the rear.  Romania is rich agriculturally, but I saw little in the way of mechanized farming.  I observed lots of hay and grain being cut by scythes and gathered by hand.  Only in Moldova--south of Iasi--did I really see anything in the way of tractors and harvesters and hay bailers.  And I did not see a single pickup truck in the country.  So these wagons are absolutely necessary for hauling any number of things down the road: hay, equipment, small livestock, children, or mothers-in-law.  The sheer number of these one-horse carts does not necessarily imply backwardness.  Many of the riders were as modern looking as anyone, perhaps talking on their cell phone as they clip-clop down the road.  I did not take advantage of the countless opportunities to snap a photograph of these carts on the back roads of Romania.  I have always refused to treat people as if they were quaint photographic props.

I visited seven monasteries in Bucovina alone.  The neglected and down-at-its-heels Arbore Monastery was the only one that was not a going concern, with monastics in residence.  I pulled off the road and was locking the car before going through the gate.  Two carts approached me, each with two adults in the driver's seat and a wagon load of children behind.  These Romanians were clearly what we call "country people," a bit poorer in dress than many I saw.  As they drew even with the abandoned monastery, all of them--and there were ten to twelve altogether--started crossing themselves.  As each of them did it three times, it was a bit hard to miss!

No doubt, some readers will shake their heads over this, dismissing it as a silly superstition, if not an outright cultish practice.  Well, I will reject the superstition argument out of hand, but I fully embrace the accusation of cultishness.  Christopher Dawson, one of the greatest historians of the last century (or any other century, for that matter), always maintained that the "cultus" (the cult, or religion, if you will) came first.  From this foundation, a culture emerged.  Given enough time and favorable condition, the culture could blossom into an actual civilization.  But then something very interesting sometimes happens.  The civilization, in its hubris, thinks that it was self-creating, and its verities self-evident.  Having no more need for the cult, it kicks it away.  Of course, what happens next is what always happens when a foundation is destroyed--the superstructure begins to crumble and fragment.  This fragmentation is where we are now as a country--albeit with the appearance of a myriad of new cults.  But they are all cults of Self, and offer no foundation with any real permanence.
Romania has lots of problems.  Four millions of its citizens live elsewhere, in order to simply survive.  The country needs good governance, jobs and security--and of course, by this I mean jobs offering a livable wage.  But as long as their citizens still cross themselves while passing their churches, I wonder if they don't have strengths that elude us in our bracing age.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

(5) In Mercia

Mercia was one of the kingdoms of the old Saxon Heptarchy.  Their boundaries were fluid, but roughly corresponded with the region known today as the Midlands.  The Mercians played the role of spoilers in the history of Dark Age Britain.  Late-comers to Christianity, they warred against all their neighbors, though it seems the Welsh kingdoms benefited from having them as buffers against the other Saxons and Scandinavian invaders.  The Mercians brought down the nascent Northumbrian civilization, and were for a couple of generations, the preeminent power on the island, before themselves succumbing to ascendant House of Wessex.  Mercian history does not elicit much sympathy, having neither the chroniclers of old Northumbria, nor the romance of the House of Alfred.  I would have liked to have visited sites associated with Aethelflaed "Maid of Mercia, the extraordinary daughter of Alfred the Great.  Those sites, such as they are, presented too much of a logistical stretch, though I did visit the early Norman church at Kilpeck, and the Saxon churches at Deerhurst, Repton, Breedon and Brixworth, as well as the Cathedral of St. Alban's.

In addition, to my Saxon sites, I also made one of only two forays into urban areas (the other being in Newcastle).  I drove into Birmingham, and visited the Barbour Institute on the University of Birmingham campus.  The museum is of modest size, free, and absolutely exquisite.  I like nothing better than visiting art museums.  I am not an art scholar, but I know what I like--and what I do not.  Although I am very fond of impressionism, I have no taste for modernism, nor its early antecedents.  What I appreciate, I now know, is referred to as the "realist" school, to contrast them with modernism.  The latter won out, unfortunately, for a 100 years or so, and the realists of the 19th-century were largely overlooked or discounted.  They are coming back into their own now, however, and the Barbour Institute has them in droves, as well as many by the Old Masters.  My favorites, below:

"The Crucifixion" by Cima da Conegliano

"The Beheading of St. John the Baptist" by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

"The Blue Bower" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

"Paolo and Francesca" by J. A. D. Ingres
"The Visitation" by Veronese

"Ecce Homo" by Anthony van Dyck

"The Marriage at Cana" by Bartholme Esteban Murillo

"Isaac Blessing Jacob" by Matthias Stom

The Parish Church of St. Mary and St. David at Kilpeck lies just across the border from Wales into Herefordshire.  The church is noted for its unique outer stone carvings.  The Church of St. Mary and St. David dates to the year 1143, during the "Time of Troubles."  The interior, of course, has been stripped bare and scrubbed, so that it is as stark as most any other Anglican church you would visit.  The allure of Kilpeck, however, is in its exterior carvings--particularly framing the south door, and along the roof line all around the building.  The artistry is an intriguing mixture of Christian, Celtic, and animalistic imagery.  There is even a Sheela-na-gog.  Visitors end up walking around the outside of the church, their eyes craned to make out the sculptures high above.  The site itself is idyll, adjacent to a ruined castle and a small cluster of houses, surrounded by fields and meadows.  But like I say, the attraction here is all on the outside of the church.

The Church of St. Mary's at Deerhurst is one of the larger churches from the Saxon era.  The church appears to be the center of active parish life.  The structure has been the subject of quite a bit of archaeological investigation through the years.  For example, researchers using advanced technology have shown that St. Mary's was awash in color during the Middle Ages--dramatically at variance with the drap interior today.  There seems to be a growing realization of just how much was destroyed and lost during the English Reformation.  One of the treasures of the church is an immense, intricately carved Saxon font from the mid 8th-century.  I also noted that an Orthodox iconographer had donated an icon of St. Alphege to the church (as he was connected to it).  It seemed to me that they didn't know what to do with it, exactly, but they did have it on a stand in one of the back corners.
"Peasants Bundling Faggots" by Pieter Breughel the Younger

Repton is a Norman church, but it is built over a Saxon crypt dating back to the early 8th century and only rediscovered in 1779.  The crypt served as the burial vault for Mercian royalty, including St. Wystan, murdered in 849.  The stairway going down into the crypt was not lighted, so I had to feel my way down.  Once into the crypt proper, I lit a candle on the candle stand that illuminated the room.  Sir John Betjeman described the space as "holy air encased in stone."  The crypt with its graceful columns and alcoves does not fail to impress.  I wandered around a bit, said a prayer to St. Wystan, and started to ascend the stone steps to the ground floor.  I was startled and briefly alarmed to see that the pathway was shut tight.  I went back into the crypt, looked around for an explanation, and then realized that I had descended from a stairwell on the other side of the crypt.  I quickly scurried up into the daylight.




8th-cetury Saxon font, Deerhurst
The Church of St. Mary and St. Hardulph at Breedon on the Hill was a favorite of mine.  The church is perched atop a lone hill outside the village of Breedon.  A Saxon church existed here by the beginning of the 8th-century.  The present structure dates only to the 13th-century, but contains remarkable Saxon stone frieze carvings from the earlier church.  In all, there are 63 feet of these carvings, which have been called the equivalent of the Lindesfarne Gospels in stone.  A separate carving, known as the Breedon Angel, is considered to be one of he best examples of Saxon art, though unfortunately hidden away from view in the locked tower.  
St. Wystan, Repton

 All Saints Church at Brixworth has the distinction of being the largest surviving Saxon church.  The  structure has been little changed on the outside since its construction in the 8th-century.  Of course, the extensive monastic complex which the church once anchored is long gone.  There is nothing of particular interest in interior of the church, however.  All Saints is as bare and austere as any church I visited.  The church has a relic of St. Boniface, and Orthodox and Catholics make pilgrimages here because of that.  The church volunteers I encountered, however, really did not know about it, or where it had been tucked away.  They didn't know seem to know much about the historical significance of the church either.
In the Saxon crypt, Repton

I avoided cathedrals on this trip.  I made an exception with St. Alban's, as it retains the shrine to the British protomartyr.  I have mixed feelings about St. Albans.  If you enjoy cathedrals, then St. Albans should certainly be on your list.  It is reputed to be the longest in England, and the soaring interior is as impressive as any.  And prior to the Reformation, St. Alban's was the premier English Benedictine abbey.   By the 19th-century, the immense building was in near ruins.  Wealthy benefactors saved the church, though with some questionable restorations.  

These soaring Gothic cathedrals no longer impress me as they once did.  Even large Orthodox cathedrals (Sameba in Tbilisi, Alexsandr Nevsky in Sofia, for example) have an intimacy to them that is foreign to the cathedrals in the West.  The best explanation I have heard about this difference in sensation is that while the Gothic cathedral seeks to reach the heavens, the Orthodox cathedral seeks to contain the cosmos.  And so, I found the very size of St. Alban's to be off-putting.  There are a dozen things going on at once inside--multiple tours, plant sales, a gift shop, a cafe (off to the side), concerts, classes, masses, and lots and lots of pleas for contributions in a thinly-veiled and almost desperate attempt to raise fund to maintain this pile.  I found the shrine to St. Alban behind the main altar.  (Another nave and altar lay east of that.)  An organist was plying his trade in the easternmost nave.  I do not like organ music.  Not even a little bit.  I attempted to block out the noise while I venerated the relics of St. Alban, along with a Filipino woman and her small child.  
Saxon frieze-work, Breedon-on-the-Hill

One intriguing aspect of St. Alban's is the Nave Screen Martyrs Statues.  There's something here for just about everybody:  St. Alban, St. Amphibalus, George Tankerfield, St. Alban Roe, St. Elizabeth Romanova, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Blessed Oscar Romero.  

St. Alban
Shrine of St. Alban, St. Alban's Cathedral
In conclusion, I do not believe I experienced enough of Mercia to draw any noteworthy conclusions.  I dipped into the region from Wales, and then looped through it again coming from the North of England down into East Anglia.  The region was not the main focus of my travels, and I did not stay overnight there.  There are certainly some Saxon treasures in Mercia, but you have to look for them.
All Saints, Brixworth

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Observations on Romanian Orthodoxy

For the past 13 years or so, my travel preferences have largely been traditionally Orthodox countries, or at least lands that were formerly so.  Coming from a nation upon whose shores our faith arrived relatively recently, I enjoy observing how it is practiced in the “Old Countries.”  I was fortunate to spend 10 days in Romania earlier this month.  The following observations are merely that of a curious traveler and nothing more.  An in-depth critical analysis is definitely not intended, nor am I trying to gloss-over problems and situations within Romanian Orthodoxy.  I look to my Romanian friends to correct any erroneous conclusions contained below.

  1. For the most part, Romanian Orthodoxy appears alive and well.  I made a large, counter-clockwise loop through the eastern half of the country:  Bucharest to Curtea de Arges, Bran, Sinaia, Brasov, Sighisoara, Bucovina, Suceava, Iasi, Neamt, Focsani, and back to Bucharest.  Best I can figure, I visited 29 churches along the way, and saw countless others.  I had occasion to attend parts of several services--Divine Liturgy, some vespers services, and others the nature of which I could not exactly determine.  I would estimate worshippers to be divided about 60/40 between women and men, which is really not that bad at all.  More importantly, I noticed that no particular age demographic predominated--all age groups seemed to be well-represented.   I found this to be true in both urban and rural churches.  The vitality of the Romanian churches was in sharp contrast to what I experienced a few days earlier in Great Britain.  

  1. I noticed quite a bit of new church construction in the country, both in rural and urban locales.  This may not be on the same scale as what I have observed in Georgia, for example, but then there may not be the need for it.  Most villages have at least one Orthodox church, and often more.  The churches are relatively newer than their Georgian counterparts (maybe 16th-18th century as opposed to 8th-12th century in the latter).  In short, there appears to be no shortage of Orthodox churches in the parts of Romania that I visited (certainly thicker on the ground than the ubiquitous English parish churches).  In addition, many homes have small chapels in their front yards, and there is the occasional roadside chapel just for motorists.

  1. I saw several variations of what can be called a distinctly Romanian style, and the new churches under construction are holding true to those earlier patterns.  The churches are characterized by being long and narrow, and quite high, and usually with broad overhanging roofs.  

  1. In the older churches at least, the interior space is a bit different than other traditions.  The narthex is usually quite large.  A low doorway leads into a second chamber, which I once saw referred to as the “funeral room.”  If there are graves of saints or  notables, chances are they are in this room.  Another low doorway leads into the nave, and of course after that is the altar.  The iconostasis is nearly always soaring, quite elaborate, and usually gilded.  Standing in the narthex, one almost has the sense of looking down a long tunnel, through the doorways to the altar in the distance.  

  1. Romania is not uniformly Orthodox.  In Transylvania, the Orthodox churches quickly give way to German Evangelical or Hungarian Catholic churches between Brasov and Sighisoara.  The large Greek-looking Orthodox church in the latter looks almost out of place there.  Heading northeast from Sighisoara, I saw few signs of Orthodoxy until I reached the foothills of the Carpathians again, near Toplita.  In Bucovina, I noticed villages with all three groups represented--though invariably there might be 2 or 3 Orthodox churches, a neglected-looking Catholic church, and an abandoned Evangelical Church.  So, it appears that non-Orthodox adherents in this region might be declining, for whatever reason.  But then, the area east of Neamt and south of Iasi seems to be overwhelmingly Catholic.  Finally, there is no shortage of American-style sects:  Adventists, Jehovah Witnesses, and Pentecostals.  In short, there is more of an American-style religious pluralism in evidence in Romania, than say in Georgia, though Orthodoxy clearly predominates.

  1. I was initially disappointed in the iconography, though this quickly changed as I experienced more of the country.  The older iconography is among the best I’ve seen anywhere.  But I find that of the modern era--roughly corresponding to the Kingdom of Romania during the 19th and 20th centuries--to be just dreadful.  It reminds me very much of the natural, westernized, sweetly sentimentalized iconography that was so popular in Russia during the 19th century.  I am not an iconographic specialist, so that is the only way I can characterize it.  Sadly, the icons that are available for purchase are largely of this variety.  Romanian iconography of the post-Communist period, however, is truly exceptional.  From the reworking in old churches, to the soaring new temples, to the little roadside chapels for motorists, contemporary Romanian iconography is a wonder to behold.  I would hope that this will become more commonplace in small, individual icons as well.   Also, In the older tradition, the iconography--whether inside or out--is often not done in large
    scenes, but rather with dozens, if not hundreds of panels, each depicting a biblical scene.  The iconography is what draws me to these churches, wherever I’m traveling.  While in the Bucovina monasteries, I wondered if there was a single biblical story that had been omitted.

  1. In a number of churches with 19th and 20th century iconography, I was a little surprised to often see the royal family depicted on the west wall.  I am used to seeing medieval princely families--or in Romania’s case, the voivodes and their families--depicted, as they were often the original donors who endowed the monastery.  I thought it a little odd to see the modern era monarchs:  usually King Carol I and Queen Elisaveta and their daughter Maria, and sometimes accompanied by King Ferdinand and Queen Marie and possibly some of their children.  Those two couples were good sorts, and I suppose this is no different than the depiction of rulers of earlier centuries.  I know a bit about the Romanian royals, and I found it almost insulting, however, to have a large cameo of Carol II on the back wall, as is the case in Sighisoara.  

  1. Romanians burn lots of candles--just not in the church.  This was a difference I noticed right away.  There are no interior candles, but lots of people buying them.  All churches have metal boxes outside the church where one can light candles, always divided between commemorating the living on the right, and the deceased on the left.  I found this to always be the case, without exception.

  1. I did not see any pews in the 29 churches I visited around the country.  The grandmothers, however, made good use of the stasidia around the walls.

  1. Romanians kneel during parts of the Liturgy, which is not our normal custom, other than specified services.

11. Romanians have the habit of crossing themselves whenever they pass a church. Not everyone does it, and maybe not even a majority do it, but enough do so that it is noticeable. I found this to be the case in Bucharest and Iasi, as well as in the rural areas. I picked up the habit while I was over there.