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