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.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

(4) In the Northumbrian Kingdoms

Looking north from Hadrian's Wall (with ever-present clouds)
I was intent on including the north of England--the old Northumbrian kingdoms--in my itinerary, primarily for two reasons:  a) Northumbrian history is characterized by a certain rough romanticism, for this is the land of Kings Edwin, Oswald and Oswin, as well as Saints Aidan, Cuthbert,  Bede, Cedd and Hild; and b) it is the land of my forebears.  For a time, Northumbria could be said to be the leading light in Britain, the most literate and civilized place in western Europe (though at that period, the bar was not set particularly high).  In my view, the synthesis of Saxon culture grafted onto Britain reached its peak in Northumbria, only later to be overshadowed by Mercia, and eventually incorporated into a Wessexian "England."  But Northumbria's story is one of valor and tragedy, of nobility and treachery, of courage and deception.  I intended to see the crosses of Ruthwell, Bewcastle, and Lilla, the the Holy Island of Lindesfarne, Yeavering Bell--the Holy Mountain of the Saxons, the battlefield of Heavenfield, the cathedrals at Hexham and Durham, the churches at Escomb, St. Gregory's Minster and Pickering, as well as Edington on the Whiteadder Water, the very spot where my ancestors lived for at least 160 years.  My story begins here, with my own Northumbrian kin.  The tale is of interest, not so much for its particulars, but rather for how it all came together.  (If this sort of thing bores you, it will not hurt my feelings for you to skip over the following five italicized paragraphs.)

In 1719, my 7th great-grandfather David Cowan(e) and his grown sons arrived in the Pequea Valley of now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  The sons worked adjoining farms totaling 900 acres and prospered quickly, suggesting that they arrived with some wherewithal.  By 1750, large numbers of the growing family (including my William Cowan, a grandson of the emigrant David) starting peeling-off to the frontier, primarily the Piedmont of North Carolina.  There, they built 2-story stone houses facing south, like they had done in Pennsylvania and in Scotland before.  The particulars of their immigrant history were quickly shed, other than the knowledge that the family was "Scottish" in origin.  Many years ago, I let myself be swept-up into the Victorian myth-making of Scottish clans and tartans, trying to link my family to the Clan Colquhoun of Loch Lomond.  Over time, however, realism trumped romanticism, as the real history of my family began to come into sharper focus.

Edington Mains (my ancestors lived in cottages opposite)

Some of the family remained in the Pequea Valley.  The youngest son of my emigrant brother John Cowan inherited his father's farm and the stone farmhouse.  He married a first cousin from an uncle's neighboring farm.  I don't much hold to any notion of "progress" and discount triumphalism in the narratives of both families and nations.  Family stories are necessarily ones of decline, and salvaging, and rebuilding, just as it is in nations.  The tales that ascend from height to greater height are as false as the lies nations tell themselves.  And so, this family's stewardship of the land was troubled, and by the early years of the 19th century, their only surviving son lived on only 26 acres of the original farm.  His 11 children, however, all grew up within sight of their ancestor's 1720s stone farmhouse.  One of these children became a doctor, who lived a long life and practiced in an adjoining county.  He never married.  When quite old (in the 1880s), Dr. William Lightner Cowan wrote down in brief form the family history.  He sent one copy to a niece in Ashville, North Carolina and another to a nephew in San Francisco.  The unmarried niece assumed the mantle of  family historian of the next generation, adding to his chronicle the oral tradition that this Scottish family specifically came from the Cheviot Hills.  About 120 years later, copies of the letters fell into my hands.  I noted that the Cheviot Hills are not actually in Scotland, but in Northumberland, adjoining the Scottish Borders region.  But this clue told me that I should probably focus my search on the Scottish Lowlands.  
Parish church, Chirnside

One peculiar characteristic of my particular Cowan family is that they were not Presbyterian, or at least not until they had to be.  David Cowan and one of his sons helped organize the St. John's Pequea Church in 1729, where family members were very active in this parish for a number of generations.  They lived in an area that was predominately Scots-Irish Presbyterian, with many local Calvinist churches.  The Anglicans were much thinner on the ground.  In other words, it would have been easy to be Presbyterian, whereas it took real effort to be Anglican in their part of Pennsylvania.  Family members in North Carolina attempted to establish a diocese there, as well.  Fierce opposition by their Scots-Irish Presbyterian neighbors prevented that from happening.  Eventually, the family somewhat grudgingly settled-in to Presbyterianism in the South, although some of the lines (not mine) reverted to Episcopalianism once they had attained a certain level of affluence.  This is significant, because as adherents of the established church, it implies that the family could be traced in British parish records, whereas as if they had been Scots-Irish Covenanters, no records would exist.  Every extant birth, death and marriage record is available, and searchable online.  
Statue of Joseph Cowen, Newcastle

A search of the records for the U.K. revealed only one match--the parish of Chirnside, a few miles north of the English border, in the foothills of the Cheviot Hills, in old Berwickshire.  The church records only went back to the 1650s, but that was enough to find my particular family.  Research in the Latin archives in Edinburgh, as well as in the private archives at Duns Castle, fleshed out the bare bones of the parish records.  The family first appeared in area records in 1562, with my 11th-great grandfather.  They were small yeoman farmers who owned their own land.  In the late 1500s and early 1600s, they, along with other area families, were squeezed out by the landed gentry, in this case the family of Ramsay and Dalhoussie. They still lived in the same place, but now they were tenants of Lord and Lady Edington.  The Cowans seemed to have some standing with the residents of Duns Castle, however.  My ancestors often acted as agents for the family, and sometimes served as constables for the parish.  Other family members, however, blanketed the official records with typical Scottish litigiousness.  

In recent years, advances in genetic science have revolutionized what many families can know about their ancestry.  For whatever reason, Cowan family members have been eager participants in the project.  Ours is not a particularly common name, so most everyone thought that we were all related one way or another.  YDNA samplings prove this not to be the case at all, and my particular Cowan family is no more related to others of the name than any two people would be who meet on the street.  Interestingly, we share a genetic link to a family from the town of Ryton, in Durham, just west of Newcastle.  They spell their name as either Cowen or Cowings.  But the genetic markers indicate that we shared a common ancestor in the early to mid 1500s.  This family produced a famous British politician from the Victorian era, Joseph Cowen (1829-1900).  His roots were thoroughly working class and two generations were spokesmen for the workers movement in Newcastle.  But the father also built a successful brick-making factory, which allowed Joseph Cowen the younger to pursue a career as a Liberal politician in Parliament, and as a newspaper owner.  A grateful city of Newcastle erected a statue to him shortly after his death.  In his biography, his particular family story is outlined.  The family believed that they emigrated to Ryton from Lindesfarne after the dissolution of the monasteries (ca. 1539).  They came there, as Catholics, because of the protection they would receive from the Catholic Tempest family.  And so, if there is truth to this tale, then it is my story as well.  It would seem that the Cowans left Lindesfarne after Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s.  One branch moved south to Ryton in Durham.  Another, apparently moved about 20 miles northwest into Berwickshire.  I also note that the parish church in Chirnside was non-juror during the "Glorious Revolution," which means that they refused to renounce their oath to James II.  The bottom line seems to be that my heritage is not so very Scottish at all, with my roots more accurately anchored in Saxonish Northumbria. (Of course, I do have plenty of Scottish ancestry if I want to claim it:  my ancestors went three times to the same Stewart well in marriage.)  

My first stop in the north of England and the Border regions was the magnificent Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire.  With the remaining section standing over 17 ft. in height, the Saxon stone dates to about 700 AD, as they were consolidating their control over the area.  The cross does not commemorate an individual or event, but is rather a preaching cross.  The east and west panels depict a great number of scenes from the life of Christ, with accompanying Scripture in Latin.  The north and south panels, however, are covered with the decorative Saxon vines and branches, filled with animal life.  Around them are runes, a selection from the Germanic epic, "The Dream of the Rood."  From G. Ronald Murphy, in "Tree of Salvation:  Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North"--"The tree on which Christ was crucified was the tree of life, but, not so much the tree of life from the Garden of Eden, of which we have no poetic description and only the briefest mention in Genesis, nor even Eden's tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but rather the magic and rune-bearing cosmic tree of Northern poetry."  And, "a more startlingly emotional contrast to the sobriety of the Latin panel descriptions could scarcely be imagined.  Do living people not recognize what was done on the wooden pole for their lives?  Yggdrasil recognized him.  The animals realized who he was.  The eagle above the Tree is looking down, and sees...And so we come to a joint theme that binds the whole sculpture together:  recognition, realization."  The section of the "Dream of the Rood" included on the cross is, as follows:
The Ruthwell Cross

Almighty God took off his gear and clothes
When He wanted to climb onto the gallows,
Courageous in the sight of all men.
I did not dare bow,
I had to stand fast.
I lifted up the powerful king,
Heaven's lord.  I did not dare bend or bow.
People mocked the tow of us together.
I was drenched with the blood
that poured out of this Man's side when he sent off his spirit.
Christ was on the pole;
Even so, noblemen were hurrying there from far away,
to the One alone.  I beheld it all.
I was sorely troubled with sorrows.
To these men I bowed down, to their hands.
Wounded with arrowheads
They laid Him down, weary in limb.
They stood for HIm at the head of his corpse;
They beheld there Heaven's Chieftain.  And he rested himself
there a while.

I found it hard not to be moved by the Ruthwell Cross--a 1,300 year old statement of faith and loyalty to "Heaven's Chieftain," and a bold testament of the intertwining of Christian belief into native cultures.  But this sublime work of art had no place in the hard, dour dogmatism of Calvinistic Scotland.  Their Assembly, meeting in 1640 passed an "Act anent to demolishing of Idolatrous Monuments," decreeing that in divers parts of the same, many Idolatrous Monuments, erected and made for Religious Worship, are yet extant--such as crucifixes, Images of Christ, Mary and the saints departed--ordaines the said monuments to be taken down, demolished, and destroyed, and that with all convenient diligence...   And so, the Cross--then approached 1,000 years old--was to be destroyed.  The parish vicar held off destruction for two years, but was finally forced to oversee the process.  He insured, however, that the cross was carefully broken and laid to rest in the clay floor of the parish church.  In the somewhat less severe year of 1823, the Ruthwell Cross was rediscovered and eventually returned to its place within the church.  The vicar of that day found a way around the still-virulent British anti-Catholicism, reckoning that it wasn't really idolatrous since it was erected under the auspices of the "Celtic" Church and not that of the Roman Church.  Such mental gymnastics allowed for the re-erecting of the Ruthwell Cross as we see it today.  
Artist's depiction of Bewcastle Cross
Remains of the Bewcastle Cross

The Ruthwell parish church is noted as the oldest church still being used as such in the south of Scotland today.  The way things are going, it may be the only one used for such purposes before long.  By this time, I had visited a great number of churches in the U.K., a few of which I found to be quite memorable (Brookwood, the Church of St. Cadog, the Church at Pennant Melangel, for example).  But after eleven years as an Orthodox believer, I am still struck by that which was once commonplace to me, namely, the lack of any sense of a "sacred space."  Ruthwell is decidedly low-church Presbyterian in tone.  The table--where it seems communion is served--is in the center of the church, near the Ruthwell Cross.  But there is nothing particular to set it apart in much of any way, and the back side of the table is visible while viewing the Cross, and one could clearly see the cleanser and other cleaning supplies stored underneath.  It was almost as if they were trying to underscore the utilitarianism of it all, and to impress the fact that there was "nothing irrational or supernatural going on here."  
Literally or figuratively, Scotland is far from Rome

I cut across country to see the Bewcastle Cross, which is considered to be the compliment of the Ruthwell Cross, erected to honor King Aldfrith, whose reign began in 685 AD.  The setting in the remote Bewcastle churchyard is spectacular, but a hard, driving rain made any in depth inspection of the Cross impossible.  At the end of my time in Northumbria, I had hoped to visit the Lilla Cross.  Lilla was a subject of King Edwin of Deira (southern Northumbria).  An assassin sought to stab Edwin, and Lilla jumped between them and took the deadly blow himself.  This act led the king to promise his Christian wife that he would convert to her faith.  He eventually did, but took his own sweet time in doing so.  This ancient stone cross commemorates that event in the life of Northumbria.  I spent considerable time spotting the cross on British topographical maps and aerials, as it is deep in the Yorkshire moors.  Again, weather conspired against me, and I had to mark this destination off my list.  

The next day, I ventured north into the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland and Durham, as well as the Scottish borders.  I drove along the top of what had been Hadrian's Wall for some time.  I had crossed the wall twice before, many years earlier, but was able for the first time to get a real sense of what the structure entailed.  I stopped off at the church of St. Oswald, built near the battlefield of Heavenfield, where King Oswald believed his prayer for divine assistance was answered.  The church sits is a shady churchyard, atop a hill amidst a pasture.  I parked on the road and walked across the meadow to the church.  The present structure is not ancient, though they are well aware of their historical associations with St. Oswald.  An Orthodox church in Norwich had given them an icon of St. Oswald, along with an explanation (which they had mounted) of what an icon was, exactly, in an Orthodox understanding.  The church had the icon on a stand, in a nook of the church, with a candle in front--trying to accommodate the occasional veneration of this Saxon saint within a decidedly Calvinistic venue.
Icon of St. Oswald in St. Oswald Kirk

Of course I visited Lindesfarne--the Holy Island--on my way up, as the incoming tides would cover the causeway and make it a true island about mid-afternoon.  This is a small place with just about enough room for the village.  A large car park handles the steady stream of tourists who descend on the island in the morning hours.  The island is truly historic, and with its associations with Sts. Aidan and Cuthbert, is definitely a place of pilgrimage.  And yet, perhaps because of the crowds, it did not rate high among my experiences in the U.K.  The priory (the ruins of the 13th-century church of St. Peter) is managed by English Heritage.  As it stands, however, I could see everything I needed to see by standing on the outside, without purchasing a ticket to view the inside of the ruins.  The more important stop, however, was the Church of St. Mary the Virgin.  The present structure dates to about the same time as the priory, but it was built on the ancient foundations of the church that St. Aidan founded.  This church seems to be more than just a historical way-station, with evidence of a real parish life, despite the steady inflow of tourists.  
Yeavering Bell

From Lindesfarne, it was just a little over 20 miles to the village of Edington, where my family lived hundreds of years ago.  I stood in the field that they tilled, and viewed the site of their former cottages.  I visited the churchyard where they are no doubt buried (though no monuments survive from that early a date).  I can now say that I have been there and have something of a feel for the region.  But perhaps it was the lousy weather, but I did not feel much of a connection with the area.  In fact, I felt very American, and not a little thankful that they boarded that ship in 1719.  On my return to Durham, I visited Yeavering Bell, the rounded hill in the Cheviots that the early Saxons considered holy.  One of their capitals lay at its base--so confident were they that they never fortified the site.  Again, weather prevented further exploration.
The Saxon Church at Escomb

I visited two cathedrals in the North country:  Hexham and Durham.  Cathedrals, as such, were not really on my itinerary as I did all that sort of thing back in 1994 and 1996.  And frankly, they do not impress me as they do some.  True, they are architectural wonders and should be appreciated on that level.  But in my mind, they are often cold and sterile, with their austere vaulted ceilings trying to reach to the heavens.  In my biased experience, even the largest Orthodox temple, with its domes and rounded ceilings, envelops you, aiming not for awe and grandeur, but for a real sense of intimacy, with the heavens laid out above and creation all around you.  This is, of course, only my simple layman's observation.  The two I visited were immense, particularly Durham.  They are so large, that there are often many things going on within at the same time.  They are forced to market themselves as half tourist site and half holy place simply due to the incredible cost of maintaining these piles.  In Hexham, I visited the Saxon crypt, the only remains of the Saxon era church of St. Wilfred, which predated the Norman cathedral. The crypt is a quiet refuge beneath the main sanctuary--in times past, a site of pilgrimage.
St. Wilfred's Crypt, Hexham

At Durham, I venerated the relics of St. Cuthbert, in a special chamber behind the main altar.  Despite the bustle of ticket booths and tours, and the meandering independent visitors, the tomb of St. Cuthbert is an oasis of secluded quietude.  Instinctively perhaps, tourists are silent and contemplative there, or like me, venerating this saint on the rugs laid out in front of the tomb.  I wanted to also visit the grave of the Venerable Bede, in another part of the church complex. A service was in progress,however, so I was unable to do so.  
Martyrdom of St. Edmund, Pickering

I also purposely skipped the ruins of Whitby Abbey.  While this location looms large in the history of Saxon Northumbria, the ruins are from a much later era.  Also, the entire site is managed by English Heritage, requiring an admission ticket--something I instinctively balk at if I am visiting a place of pilgrimage.  Their website plays up the Bram Stoker/Dracula connection as well, marketing the ability to "converse with people from Whitby's past such as Abbess Hild, a monk, and Bram Stoker, through entertaining and interactive touchscreens."  Thank you, no.
Come The Day, these will see it out of the corner of their eyes ;)

I had more fruitful engagement with some of the old Saxon churches in the area:  Bywell St. Andrews, St. Peter's at Monkwearmouth, the Saxon church as Escomb, Pickering, the Church of St. Mary at Lastingham and St. Gregory's Minster outside Kirbymoorside.  The small Saxon church at Escomb is perhaps the most perfectly preserved church from the Saxon era, dating to the late 600s.  St. Gregory's Minster, near Kirbymoorside, was another favorite.  I talked briefly--if it can be called that--with one of the volunteers.  He was clearly on the far side of 80 and as deaf as a post.  The church showed signs of an active parish life and he informed me that there were 18 members in the choir, though no doubt he had not actually heard them in years.  The churchyard was as neat and tidy as the church itself, with a newer graveyard across the road.  The stones were all facing east, awaiting the Resurrection, except in one corner, where the stones for those cremated were all facing north.  I know--it's a little thing, but not without, I think, some significance.  The Church at St. Mary's at Lastingham is on the site of an ancient Saxon monastery where St. Cedd, brother to St. Chad, labored.  His tomb and shrine is in the Saxon crypt below the somewhat newer church above.
Shrine of St. Cedd, St. Mary's Church, Lastingham

I went to the church at Pickering for a different reason.  The church only dates to the 13th-century or so.  Pickering is a larger town than you might think, and the church is wedged-in close in the old town.  It is a bit down-at-the-hills, obviously far larger than any need for it today.  Yet inside is one of the great unheralded treasures of England.  During the Reformation, admidst the general de-sanctification of the churches, interior walls were whitewashed to cover "idolatrous" wall paintings.  In an 1852 renovation of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, the artwork was uncovered.  The reverend of the parish was shocked.  "As a work of art [they are] fairly ridiculous, would excite feelings of curiosity, and distract the congregation."  He had them quickly re-covered in a thick yellow wash.  The discovery was not forgotten, however, and a subsequent vicar had more appreciation for what was underneath. The paintings were uncovered again and crudely "restored" by the mid 1890s.  The most famous scene is that of the Martyrdom of St. Edmund, but there are other extensive scenes, such as a treatment of the life of St. Catherine and the Beheading of John the Baptist. 
Beheading of John the Baptist, Pickering

 It is these upper walls of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Pickering, along with the recently discovered paintings on the Church of St. Cadog in Llancarfan, Wales, that offer a glimpse into medieval English worship spaces, and leave the viewer with a melancholy realization of all that was lost in the iconoclastic frenzy of the English Reformation and Civil War.  They are the poorer for it, and as this particular history has worked its way out and into modernity, I cannot help but place much blame there for the hollowness at the core of Britain (and we their former colony) today.