You really should subscribe to Micah Mattix’s daily e-mail digest Prufrock. There’s always something worth reading. Today there are two related pieces. The first is a New Yorker review of Laurus, a new novel about medieval Russia. Excerpt:
A new novel by the Russian medievalist Eugene Vodolazkin, “Laurus,” recreates this fervent landscape and suggests why the era, its holy men, and the forests and fields of Muscovy retain such a grip on the Russian imagination. Vodolazkin’s hero-mystic Arseny is a protagonist extrapolated from the little that is known about the lives and deeds of the famous holy men. Born in 1440, he’s raised by his herbalist grandfather Christofer near the grounds of the Kirillov Monastery, about three hundred miles north of Moscow. He becomes a renowned medicine man, faith healer, and prophet who “pelted demons with stones and conversed with angels.” He makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He takes on new names, depending on how he will next serve God. The people venerate his humble spirituality. In “Laurus,” Vodolazkin aims directly at the heart of the Russian religious experience and perhaps even at that maddeningly elusive concept that is cherished to the point of cliché: the Russian soul.
So much of that soul seems to be wrapped up in Russia’s relationship with the natural world: intimate but wary, occult but practical. Arseny’s initial renown comes from his success as an herbalist and healer as he employs what he learned from his beloved grandfather. For wart removal, the best treatment is a sprinkling of ground cornflower seeds. For burns, apply linen with ground cabbage and egg white. The white root of a plant called hare’s ear cures erectile dysfunction. (“The drawback to this method was that the white root had to be held in the mouth at the crucial moment.”) At least some of Arseny’s remedies are suspect. (Translator Lisa C. Hayden warns, “Please don’t try these at home.”)
The remedies invoke an idea of nature as essentially friendly, or at least potentially helpful. Folk medicine remains popular in Russia to this day. Whether or not it’s effective, it connects an overwhelmingly urbanized population to the scythed fields and profound, spirit-dwelling forests of its antiquity. And Vodolazkin takes his holy fools seriously, offering a view of medieval Christianity that goes well beyond the appropriation of home remedies for religious purposes. Although Arseny cherishes Christofer’s birch-bark pharmaceutical texts, he doesn’t believe the herbs are responsible when the ill recover. (Often, they don’t.) The keys are prayer and faith. He bows to icons on a shelf. Incense burns. A vitalizing current runs from his hands into the core of the patient’s suffering. In “Laurus,” the depiction of faith is presented entirely without irony—a strategy that has become unusual among literary writers, but which is central to Vodolazkin’s effort to excavate what was meaningful from Russia’s distant past.
Read more about this novel here. I have just ordered it. Before I comment further, let me draw your attention to this short Atlantic piece about the revival of paganism in Iceland, which I also found through Prufrock. Excerpt:
Next year, for the first time in a millennium, a pagan temple will welcome Reykjavik’s faithful. The heathen house of worship, vaguely resembling a misshapen meringue, will be aligned with the sun’s path and burrowed into a hill near the city’s airport. There, like the Vikings of old, members of Iceland’s neo-pagan Ásatrú movement will be able to feast on horse meat, swig from goblets of mead, and praise deities such as Thor, the god of thunder, and Freyja, the goddess of love.
At first glance, the scene might appear bizarrely anachronistic. But although Iceland officially adopted Christianity around a.d. 1000, paganism never really disappeared from the Nordic island. The religious traditions of the Norsemen lived on—in mythology and poetry, in popular Icelandic names like Thorstein, in widespread belief in invisible elves and nature spirits. Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, an Icelandic journalist and a self-described atheist who has attended Ásatrú ceremonies, told me, “Icelanders have never really been strictly Christian,” noting that when they accepted Christianity, they did so under the condition that they be permitted to quietly practice paganism. “It’s not that people necessarily believe in the old Norse gods or have secret ceremonies in their basement,” she said. Instead, she explained, pagan values are “ingrained into our culture.”
You see in the piece that the neo-pagans have conformed to contemporary liberal mores on gay marriage (an Icelandic journalist concedes that she is “not sure” that their Viking pagan ancestors celebrated diversity). The interesting point to me is that paganism is an embodied religion, and a religion of story, and of mysticism — all things that we Westerners have pushed aside in modernity. Our faith has become cerebral, de-ritualized, disembodied, rationalistic. When the mystical does reassert itself, as in Pentecostalism, it is wild and untamed, like a river bursting its narrow, man-made levees in flood.
One of the things I have grown to love about Orthodoxy is how profoundly embodied and mystical it is. You might say, well, how pagan it is — and this is something it had in common with old-fashioned Catholicism. No, we don’t have herbalists in our tiny mission parish, but we do celebrate the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is overwhelmingly mystical, and we do live in an imaginative world that’s markedly different from Western Christianity. The New Yorker reviewer Ken Kalfus captures some of this here:
We live in an age in which the pre-modern frequently
comes flush up against the modern and the post-. But Russia and Russian life seem to be especially prone to existing on several planes of time at once. Occasionally, certain Russians cry out that they can see the future. Others dwell in the Byzantine. They may pass you on a Moscow street, robed and bearded. On an autumn walk through the countryside, you may get five bars on your phone while a distant onion dome rises above a stand of birches, a kerchiefed woman on the side of the road sells a kilo of pickles, other women scout for mushrooms in the woods, and in the fields there is a humming swish!, accompanied by the quick gray blur of a long, curving blade on a stick.
I smiled at that, because that’s exactly the experience I have, living in the modern world but worshiping within the timelessness of Russian Orthodoxy. When I returned from my trip to the East Coast, I learned that our parish had obtained a relic, a bone fragment, of St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris. She was a fifth-century Gaul, a nun who was a wonderworker. I learned of her when I was in Paris three autumns ago, and went several times to her tomb inside a church atop a hill that bears her name, to venerate her relics, and to ask her prayers. Since then, I have had a private devotion to her, often asking her prayers. When I went to vespers on Saturday night, I stood by her relic, awed to think that a piece of the body of this holy woman of late antiquity, this sister in Christ, was at my right side, and had come to me across the ocean and the sea of time. We Orthodox believe in the communion of saints, which means we hold that every time we gather to worship, all the saints of heaven are mystically present with us (that’s why you see so many icons in our churches). Still, there is something extraordinary about having a piece of the holy woman’s bone present.
This only seems pagan, I think, to modern Christians, who find all of this superstitious, and a relic, so to speak, of our past. I think this is quite wrong. When I was back East last week, I startled myself by talking a lot about Orthodoxy, and the traditional Orthodox spiritual disciplines I have learned from my priest, Father Matthew. I didn’t mean to get on a soapbox for Orthodoxy, but when I had to give examples of the kinds of spiritually formative practices I’m talking about in the Benedict Option … there was Orthodoxy.
It really does work! By “work,” I mean that faithfully going to liturgy, doing the prayers, observing the fasts, and giving yourself over to the tradition truly does de-center yourself from your Self, and re-centers it around God — and it does this because it draws in the imagination and the body in ways that Western Christianity does not. That doesn’t make it true, of course, but I would encourage Catholics and Protestants to study Orthodox worship and learn what they can from it, about how to embody a sense of holiness and otherworldliness. Without that strong sense of God’s reality, and of God “everywhere present and filling all things,” as we pray, I don’t know how people withstand the world. I strongly feel, because I have lived it, that only Orthodoxy purifies my vision and my heart, and opens to me the experience that Dante describes in the Commedia. I could not have understood this outside of Orthodoxy, and I couldn’t have understood it in my first years as an Orthodox Christian. But you absorb the ritual, the colors, the smells, the bells, the bending of the knee and the crossing of the breast, and combined with prayer, confession, and the Eucharist, it all points you — it points all of you — to Him.
I cannot imagine today being anything but Orthodox, because for me, only Orthodoxy gives me the thickness required to stay rooted in historical Christianity, and to resist the disorders of modernity, especially my own disordered heart. When we enter our temple, we don’t find a seat to hear a lecture; we bow before the presence of the Almighty (and bow, and bow, and on certain high holy days, prostrate ourselves fully, head touching floor). This doesn’t symbolize submission to the All-Holy; this is submission to Him, and if we are doing it right, we take that disposition out of the temple with us and into the world.
I say “for me, only Orthodoxy gives me this,” but I really do think it’s true for everybody. It is not something that is easy to explain in print (though if you’d like to know more, my friend Frederica Mathewes-Green’s latest book, Welcome To the Orthodox Church, is a great introduction). You really do have to come and see, not expecting to understand it at first, or even at second. It is not something that you can contain in rationalistic, easily bounded categories. Here’s a short video clip in which Frederica takes you on a tour of her parish, explaining why Orthodox Christians organize their worship space as they do:
My point is that I have a strong sense that if it is going to survive, the Christianity of the future is going to have to be marked by a return to medievalism, in the sense of being strongly sacramental, marked by a sense of enchantment. The Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, nearly a century ago, called for a new medievalism — by which he means a time in which the spiritual life to precedence over the material life. I believe that Orthodoxy will grow in the West once Christians realize more completely the nature of our common predicament in post-Christianity, and if they investigate how Orthodox Christian spirituality and practice stands so powerfully against modernity, not only in what it teaches, but also — and even moreso — in what it does. All those prayers, all that incense, all those praises and prostrations — they are a progressive unveiling, a cleansing of the vision and purification of the heart. It’s hard, but it’s real. But you have to see this for yourself.
Catholic and Protestant readers, is there any sense in which you can be faithful to your own traditions, and still be “medieval” in the sense Berdyaev means? I know it can be done in Catholicism, though that form of Catholicism is thin on the ground here in America, in the modern era. Thoughts?
UPDATE: I want to ask you please not to read this post as proselytizing. I don’t do that here. If you don’t believe the truth claims of the Orthodox Church, then all the beautiful liturgy in the world doesn’t make it appealing. I would like the discussion thread to focus on the role that ritual and bodily practice plays in the experience of religion, and of Christianity in particular.
UPDATE.2: James C. says the American Catholic answer to this is found in Jody Bottum’s 2006 essay about the swallows and Capistrano. It starts like this:
The swallows would swirl through San Juan Capistrano, rising like a mist from the sea every March 19. Or so the legend goes. In fact, the blue-feathered birds sometimes reached California as early as mid-February, and when they arrived at the end of their long trek from Argentina, they would infest the place like happy locusts, plastering their gourd-shaped nests among the crossbeams and crannies, the nooks and corners—anywhere they could get their colonies to stick to the old stucco and adobe of the mission founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1776.
They were cliff swallows, Hirundo pyrrhonota, the woman from the local Audubon Society explained, speaking in the rapid, inflectionless voice of someone reading, for the sixth time that day, from a memo stuck to her desk with yellowing strips of cellophane tape. Lacking the deeply forked tail of the better-known barn swallow, Hirundo rustica, cliff swallows are known by their white forehead, buff rump, and short, squared-off tail feathers. They gather in large flocks, fluttering their wings above their heads in a characteristic motion while gathering mud for their nests. And they haven’t returned to the Mission San Juan Capistrano—darting past the old Serra Chapel and flitting through the ruins of the Great Stone Church—for nearly twenty years.
Not that the mission hasn’t tried to win them back. What’s Capistrano without its swallows? All the mission bells will ring, / The chapel choir will sing, / When the swallows come back to Capistrano, the most popular song of 1939 told the nation, and for years after the swallows disappeared, you could see the groundskeepers out making artificial mud puddles with their green plastic hoses. In the 1990s, someone had the notion of hiring a local potter to fool the birds, and the mission is still dotted with clay nests: ceramic lures that failed to bring the square-tailed nest builders, Hirundo pyrrhonota, back to hear the bells.
There’s a figure in all this—a metaphor, perhaps, or a synecdoche—for the condition of American Catholicism. Its long history, certainly, from the Spanish colonial beginnings on. But, most of all, San Juan Capistrano seems an image for recent decades—because sometime around 1970, the leaders of the Catholic Church in America took a stick and knocked down all the swallows’ nests.
They had their reasons. What was anyone to make of those endless 1950s sodalities and perpetual-adoration societies, the Mary Day processions, the distracting rosaries shouted out during the mumbled Latin Masses? The tangle and confusion of all the discalced, oblated, friar-minored, Salesianed, Benedictined, Cistercianed communities of monks and nuns?
The arcanery of decorations on albs and chasubles, the processions of Holy Water blessings, the grottos with their precarious rows of fire-hazard candles flickering away in little red cups, the colored seams and peculiar buttons that identified monsignors, the wimpled school sisters, the tiny Spanish grandmothers muttering prayers in their black mantillas, the First Communion girls wrapped up in white like prepubescent brides, the mumbled Irish prejudices, the loud Italian festivals, the Holy Door indulgences, the pocket guides to Thomistic philosophy, the Knights of Columbus with their cocked hats and comic-opera swords, the tinny mission bells, the melismatic chapel choirs—none of this was the Church, some of it actually obscured the Church, and the decision to clear out the mess was not unintelligent or uninformed or unintended.
It was merely insane. An entire culture nested in the crossbeams and crannies, the nooks and corners, of the Catholic Church. And it wasn’t until the swallows had been chased away that anyone seemed to realize how much the Church itself needed them, darting around the chapels and flitting through the cathedrals. They provided beauty, and eccentricity, and life. What they did, really, was provide Catholicism to the Catholic Church in America, and none of the multimedia Masses and liturgical extravaganzas in the years since—none of the decoy nests and artificial puddles—has managed to call them home. All the mission bells will ring, / The chapel choir will sing, / When the swallows come back to Capistrano.