Monday, April 25, 2011

An American Pascha Basket

Christ is Risen!

Living my life within a liturgical year is still fresh and new to me, this my 6th Orthodox Pascha. And I suppose I enjoy the feast in the hall afterwards as much as anyone. I find that after 4 years of doing this, our mission is falling into its own rhythm, with small traditions taking shape.

American convert Orthodox remain a self-conscious and self-absorbed bunch--at least we of the online variety, where we often fret about many things, become angst-ridden, and issue dire prognostications about the impossibility of American converts ever really becoming Orthodox (it's all hopeless play-acting, don't you know, etc. etc. etc.) And I'll be the first to admit, we have a ways to go. We will know we will have arrived once we stop thinking and talking about it so dang much.

With the ethnic Orthodox, the preparation of a Pascha basket was no haphazard accumulation of meat, cheese and egg dishes. Every item was prepared in a way to symbolize, in some manner, a truth of the Resurrection. Well, we American converts are not there yet. From my study of Church history, it seems apparent that Orthodoxy takes a long time to gel with a particular culture. Before discounting where we are now, I would suggest checking back in 200 years, to see if we've made any progress or not. That is not a particularly long span in Orthodox time.

The preparation of my own Pascha basket was not carefully planned-out, to be sure. And yet, I found the contents interesting--containing something of a nod to the older traditions, but incorporating foods of my native South, as well. The contents (following) may say as much as anything about the adaptability of an Orthodox ethos in this strange clime.

1. Georgian wine, specifically Khvanchkara. The Georgians claim they invented wine--and I won't argue the point with them. I am not a wine connoisseur, but simply enjoy a smooth, modestly-priced red wine that goes down well with a meal. Khavanchkara is a winner on all three counts, and each year I make new disciples. Having the Khvanchkara at our post-Pascha feast has now become a tradition at our mission. In the weeks leading up, different ones will inquire whether I have ordered the Georgian wine yet. There's a liquor store in D.C. that has the American distributorship, I suppose. I send them an email, and in a few days time, a case of this wonderful stuff arrives at my door.

2. Tsoureki. This is Greek Pascha bread. The recipe, attached to an email I received from an Orthodox friend, stated that it dated back to "Byzantine times." Truth be told, I am something of a Byzantine nut. Attach the word to most anything, and I'm a buyer. If Detroit came out with a new sports car called the "Byzantine," I would somehow convince myself that I needed one. This love of Byzantine history is separate and apart from my being Orthodox--in fact, it came first. Perhaps someday I may tell of my humiliating episode with the "Byzantine" coins at the archaeological site in Syria. Maybe. But back to the bread--once the recipe mentioned the B-word, I knew I had to give it a try. The theological symbolism is not hard to figure out in this bread, with the yeast "rising again," the eggs, and each loaf consisting of 3 intertwined braids. But I also see why it is generally baked only once a year. The process takes the better part of a day, as well as taking-over the entire kitchen. The two loaves could have fed a small Byzantine city through an extended siege. To add another Orthodox element, I stirred the mixture with the hand-carved wooden spoon I picked up at a stall right outside the Bachkovo Monastery in Bulgaria. But I chose not to put the decorative dyed eggs atop the bread. My Protestant wife kept walking through--not a little skeptical of the whole thing and a bit alarmed at the usurpation of her kitchen--with barbed questions as to why I was doing this or that, and why didn't I do it this other way, etc. I figured putting the eggs atop the bread would have exceeded her level of allowable foolishness. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and the Greek gentleman sitting next to me at the feast said that I got the taste just right.

3. Salami and cheese. Our city has a new frou-frou grocery store determined to out-do Whole Foods at that game. The establishment is certainly impressive, but perhaps not the place for everyday shopping and everyday budgets. But I did spring for a bit of higher-grade salami. The butcher with the fake Italian accent tried to sell me on the really expensive stuff, assuring me that it would "melt in my mouth." I did not say it, but I didn't want it to melt in my mouth. I wanted to chew it up. Anyway, I settled for salami I could afford. I chose a Gouda cheese to go with, but one that was made in Granbury, Texas.

4. Natchitoches meat pies. I think every agrarian culture develops some variation of a meat pie. In this part of the South, the meat pies became identified with this old French town on the Cane River. Meat pies and hash browns are my favorite Saturday breakfast, so I always include some to break the fast after Pascha.

5. Buttermilk pie. This is a Southern staple that tastes oh so much better than it sounds. I make the pie and the crust from scratch, and it is one of the easiest pies to throw together. My buttermilk pies have come to be expected at these gatherings.

6. Red-dyed eggs. I was the logical one to supply the dyed eggs this year, as my chickens and guinea hens are now laying big-time. This turned into more trouble than I thought, as I discovered at this late date that I really do not know how to boil an egg properly. At age 56, I can't recall ever having done it before. But by the last batch, I about had it down. For the egg-cracking game, those in the know would reach for the smaller guinea eggs, whose shells are much harder than the chicken eggs.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Martyrs of the Kvabtakhevi Monastery

Commemorated on April 10

In the 14th century, during the reign of King Bagrat V (1360–1394), Timur (Tamerlane) invaded Georgia seven times. His troops inflicted irreparable damage on the country, seizing centuries-old treasures and razing ancient churches and monasteries. Timur’s armies ravaged Kartli, then took the king, queen, and the entire royal court captive and sent them to Karabakh (in present-day Azerbaijan). Later Timur attempted to entice King Bagrat to renounce the Christian Faith in exchange for permission to return to the throne and for the release of the other Georgian prisoners. For some time Timur was unable to subjugate King Bagrat, but in the end, being powerless and isolated from his kinsmen, the king began to falter. He devised a sly scheme: to confess Islam before the enemy, but to remain a Christian at heart. Satisfied with King Bagrat’s decision to “convert to Islam,” Timur permitted the king to return to the throne of Kartli. At the request of King Bagrat, Timur sent twelve thousand troops with him to complete Georgia’s forcible conversion to Islam. When they were approaching the village of Khunani in southeastern Georgia, Bagrat secretly informed his son Giorgi of everything that had happened and called upon him and his army to massacre the invaders. The news of Bagrat’s betrayal and the ruin of his army infuriated Timur, and he called for immediate revenge. At their leader’s command, his followers destroyed everything in their path, set fire to cities and villages, devastated churches, and thus forced their way through to Kvabtakhevi Monastery. Monastics and laymen alike were gathered in Kvabtakhevi when the enemy came thundering in. Having forced open the gate, the attackers burst into the monastery, then plundered and seized all its treasures. They captured the young and strong, carrying them away. The old and infirm were put to the sword. As the greatest humiliation, they mocked the clergy and monastics by strapping them with sleigh bells and jumping and dancing around them. Already drunk on the blood they had shed, the barbarians posed an ultimatum to those who remained: to renounce Christ and live or to be driven into the church and burned alive. Faced with these terms, the faithful cried out: “Go ahead and burn our flesh—in the Heavenly Kingdom our souls will burn with a divine flame more radiant than the sun!” And in their exceeding humility, the martyrs requested that their martyrdom not be put on display: “We ask only that you not commit this sin before the eyes of men and angels. The Lord alone knows the sincerity of our will and comforts us in our righteous afflictions!” Having been driven like beasts into the church, the martyrs raised up a final prayer to God: “In the multitude of Thy mercy shall I go into Thy house; I shall worship toward Thy holy temple in fear of Thee. O Lord, guide me in the way of Thy righteousness; because of mine enemies, make straight my way before Thee (Ps. 5:6–7) that with a pure mind I may glorify Thee forever….” The executioners hauled in more and more wood, until the flames enveloping the church blazed as high as the heavens and the echo of crackling timber resounded through the mountains. Ensnared in a ring of fire, the blissful martyrs chanted psalms as they gave up their spirits to the Lord. The massacre at Kvabtakhevi took place in 1386. The imprints of the martyrs’ charred bodies remain on the floor of the church to this day.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Michael Scheuer on Looking Ahead to Next Year in the Middle East

The current issue of the American Conservative contains an important and cogent article by Michael Scheuer, former CIA operative now Georgetown University professor and noted author, writer and lecturer on the Middle East. I first become acquainted with his scholarship while reading Imperial Hubris back in 2005. I find Scheuer to be one of the clearest-headed analysists of our predicament in that part of the world. There is little danger that American political leaders--of either faction--will pay much attention to what Sheuer has to say. But it is important that it be said as much as possible. A few selections for the article, below:

A year from now, we will find that most Arab Muslims have neither embraced nor installed what they have long regarded as an irreligious and even pagan ideology—secular democracy. They will have instead adhered even more closely to the faith that has graced, ordered, and regulated their lives for more than 1400 years, and which helped them endure the oppressive rule of Western-supported tyrants and kleptocrats.

As new Arab regimes develop, Westerners also are likely to find that their own deep sense of superiority over devout Muslims—which is especially strong among the secular left, Christian evangelicals, and neoconservatives—is unwarranted. The nearly universal assumption in the West is that Islamic governance could not possibly satisfy the aspirations of Muslims for greater freedom and increased economic opportunity—this even though Iran has a more representative political system than that of any state in the region presided over by a Western-backed dictator. No regime run by the Muslim Brotherhood would look like Canada, but it would be significantly less oppressive than those run by the al-Sauds and Mubarak. This is not to say it would be similar to or more friendly toward the West—neither will be the case—but in terms of respecting and addressing basic human concerns they will be less monstrous.

The West’s biggest surprise a year out may well lie in being forced to learn that Westernization, secularization, and modernization are not synonyms. The postwar West’s arrogance—dare I say hubris?—has long held as an article of its increasingly pagan faith that these concepts are identical, inseparable, and the proudest achievement of superior Western culture. Well, not so. Muslims make an absolute distinction among the concepts.

At day’s end, the success of the United States and its allies in concluding their war with the Islamist movement depends on an adult assessment of the Muslim world. The basis of this analysis must be a realization that modernization, Westernization, and secularization are not interchangeable terms….We must begin to recognize that while America’s neoconservative and progressive thinkers fallaciously prattle on about the Islamists being on the verge of Islamicizing the West, it is the West’s half-century campaign to impose and then maintain secularist tyrants on Muslim states that has supplied the main motivation for the growing number of Muslims who believe themselves and their faith to be at war against the West. Continued failure to make this simple and clear semantic distinction will bring the late Professor Huntington’s concept of a clash of civilizations much closer to fruition.