Thursday, November 12, 2015

Aidan's Fine Horse and the Loss of Memory

Icon by Marchela Dimitrova
I am given to historical enthusiasms. I become fascinated with a particular era and then go deep into the subject, absorbing all that I can along the way.  I am not fickle with my interests, however, for I do not lose curiosity in one area just because my attention moves to a new obsession.  [Of course some historical subjects interest me not at all: French history after the 12th-century, the Enlightenment and its devotees, Japanese history, and to uphold my contrarian reputation in these parts, I would certainly add military history in general and the American Civil War and World War II in particular.]  My current attraction seems to be focused on Saxon England, or more broadly the entire British Isles, pre-1066.

As one would probably guess, the written record is thin; but what there is is absolutely extraordinary.  I am talking about the Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People, written in the 8th-century.  This is no dry and ponderous ecclesiastical chronicle, but a lively history of both the Saxon church and state in its formative years. One of my favorite stories dates to about 650 AD and involves St. Aidan and St. Oswin, then Bishop of Lindesfarne and King of Deira (Northumbria) respectively.  Bede relates the story as follows:

He had given Bishop Aidan a very fine horse, in order that he could ride whenever he had to cross a river or undertake any difficult or urgent journey, although the bishop ordinarily travelled on foot.  Not long afterwards, when a poor man met the bishop and asked for alms, the bishop immediately dismounted and ordered the horse with all its royal trappings to be given to the beggar; for he was most compassionate, a protector of the poor and a father to the wretched.  When this action came to the king’s ears, he asked the bishop as they were going in to dine: ‘My lord bishop, why did you give away the royal horse which was necessary for your own use?  Have we not many less valuable horses or other belongings which would have been good enough for beggars, without giving away a horse that I had specially selected for your personal use?  The bishop at once answered, ‘What are you saying, Your Majesty?  Is this child of a mare more valuable to you this child of God?’  At this they went into dinner and the bishop sat down in his place, but the king, who had come in from hunting stood warming himself by the fire with his attendants.  As he stood by the fire, the king turned over in his mind what the bishop had said, then suddenly unbuckling his sword and handing it to a servant, he impulsively knelt at the bishop’s feet and begged his forgiveness, saying: ‘I will not refer to this matter again, nor will I enquire how much of our bounty you give away to God’s children.’  The bishop was moved and immediately stood up and raised him to his feet, assuring him of his high regard and begging him to sit to his food without regrets.  At the bishop’s urgent request, the king sat down and began to be merry; but Aidan on the contrary grew so sad that he began to shed tears.  His  chaplain asked him in his own language, which the king and his servants did not understand, why he wept.  Aidan replied: ‘I know that the king will not live very long; for I have never before seen a humble king.  I feel that he will soon be taken from us, because this nation is not worthy of such a king.’

The story is an understandable morality tale, simply told:

  1. The king gave the priest a horse.
  2. The priest gave the horse to a beggar.
  3. The king questioned this action.
  4. The priest upbraids the king, reminding him that the beggar was a child of God.
  5. The king earnestly repents.
  6. The priest is moved by the king’s humility.

Such a tale would not be confined to pastoral homilies, but would more naturally be told around the family hearths of the Northumbrians and Mercians and their descendants. Simple stories like this helped mold and bind oncoming generations to the real faith of their elders.  And it is a story I should have heard myself, that is if there is any substance to the remote mists of my own family lore which places my forebears in Lindesfarne itself. But no such tales of faith ever came within many hundreds of years of filtering down to my generation.  This is a shame, I think.

It would be easy to blame our loss of historical and/or religious memory on the English Reformation, for truly so much fault does indeed lie there.  Conventional wisdom has always viewed the English Reformation as an altogether Good Thing, indeed the very headwaters that gave rise to the refreshing torrents of Enlightenment and Progress.  In this telling, the pious and godly Englishman threw off the oppressive yoke of the Pope of Rome, rejected the superstitions and foolery, turned their backs on the intercession of the saints, and for the first time, truly embraced the word of God.  Or not.  A parallel narrative does exist, one less self-serving and triumphalistic, as it is considerably more rooted in fact and less dependent upon propaganda. In this telling, the English were largely satisfied with their Church, that Henry VIII’s mad obsession with obtaining his divorce drove all other considerations, that the Reformation was a decidedly top-down affair that was preoccupied with the dismantling of the monasteries and their considerable influence, the confiscation of church properties and treasures to reward political supporters, and bailing-out an English government bankrupted by Henry's wars. I recommend, of course, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars on this subject.  I also highly recommend by the same author The Voices of Morebath, which examines how the English Reformation ripped through the fabric of life in a small Devon village.  For better or for worse, England was changed forever. Perhaps this set them on the road to empire, but much was discarded and lost in the process. Indeed, the Reformation was "a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past..." The ramifications of this, I think, have been immense.

Rod Dreher's blog, and particularly his Benedict Option project has become a clearing-house for those of a traditionalist bent who concern themselves with the preservation of both faith and civilization (and the two cannot be separated). This loss of collective memory about who we are and what we have held to be true is a recurring topic in his posts, including recent articles here and here.  From these posts, I have assembled a collection of quotes, but I encourage you to read the full articles.

Rod Dreher: 

 those that think that the faith will always be here are extremely naive, because it does not take into account the fragility of historical memory in modernity.

We need to bring the narratives of the lives of theese Christian heroes of ages past into our imaginations today...We need to remember...Christians who do not collectively remember their stories will lose their identity…

Jane Jacobs:

[our time as the beginning of a] Dark Age...characterized by mass forgetting.  We have deliberately cut ourselves off from our own history; the past has no hold on us.  We have maximalized our own freedom by minimalizing any narrative that tells us who we are and what we must do...There is no ‘Great Chain of Being.’

Rod Dreher:

To be an American is to live in the seems to me that we don’t seriously
plan for the future now, as in projecting ourselves imaginatively forward into the next generations and allowing our present choices to be guided by a consideration of the effects they are likely to have on our children, their children, and their children’s children.  To do so would limit the Self, and that is one thing we cannot have.

Octavio Paz:  

The real evil of liberal capitalist societies is the predominate nihilism, not a nihilism which seeks the critical negation of established values, but a passive indifference to values.


The eye of the nihilist is unfaithful to his memories; it allows them to drop, to lose their leaves.

Rod Dreher:  

What kind of condition do we enter when our religion embraces wholeheartedly the modern refusal to remember?  Can a religious sense so construed be an effective bulwark against nihilism?  I do not think it can.  Piety that is based on Moral Therapeutic Deism is worse than no protection at all...they’re giving them armor made out of paper and past, and a sword forged from Play-doh.

Robert Louis Wilken: 

Christ entered history as a community, a society, not simply as a message...the community’s life is Christ within society.  The Church is a culture in its own right.  Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture, Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life.

Rod Dreher:

Resistance requires remembrance...If we Christians in the West do not lay claim to the past, and make it a living, vital part of our present, we are not going to have a future.

Who knows, one of these days I may be blessed to have grandchildren. If I do, and if I still have my wits about me, I plan to sit them on my knee and tell them (among many other things) the story of Aidan and the beggar and Oswin and the fine horse.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Bounce Houses for Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 31, 2015

Travels with St. Panteleimon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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