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Growing Up With Sensual Religion

Last night we had one of the longest services of the year in the Orthodox Church: the ritualized Holy Thursday reading of these 12 Passion narratives from the Gospels. It takes about three hours, with all the accompanying prayers, chants, Psalms, candle-lighting, and ceremonials. Holy Week in the Orthodox Church is pretty close to overwhelming. It’s grueling — I’m putting in a five-hour shift from midnight till five a.m. on Saturday, reading the Psalms aloud in church — but it’s also transcendentally beautiful.

Reading this Image Journal interview with the novelist and short story writer George Saunders late last night made me wonder how … well, see this excerpt first then I’ll tell you what it made me wonder:

For a couple of years when I was quite young, the Mass was still done in Latin, and my mom tells me I could say it from memory, beginning to end. Artistic things were going on there. Every day the altar would be decorated differently, in different colors, for different holy days and so on, and I remember being really interested in that—in the care that was taken in the visual display. And there were things about the Mass itself that were powerful training for a would-be artist. The Mass is a beautiful, big metaphor, and one thing a kid could learn by going to Mass over and over was that meaning can be conveyed in various ways, including sublingually and subconceptually, through metaphor and repetition and what is not said. That’s great training for an artist—the idea that even if you can’t articulate a certain effect, it can still be happening. Once that notion gets into you, you’re hungry for it the rest of your life. I’m grateful for all those things: For the idea that you can be more than you think you are. …

That’s really great. It made me think about how the only thing my kids know is the Orthodox form of Christianity. The younger two kids only remember Orthodoxy. Matthew was seven when we became Orthodox, so he might have some memories of Catholicism, but surely most of his sense memories of churchgoing are in Orthodoxy. And that means a far more elaborate mystical and aesthetic experience of Christian worship than he would have gotten anywhere else.

Orthodoxy has it’s problems, Lord knows, but one thing the Orthodox Church knows how to do better than everybody else is celebrate liturgy (Many Eastern Rite Catholics use the same liturgy, so I mean them too.) The colors of the icons and the vestments, the liberal use of incense, candles everywhere and the aroma of beeswax; the frequent crossing, bowing, kissing, blessing, and ritual gestures that tell a story; and the fact that nearly all the liturgy is sung, sometimes in ancient melodies that simply stun — I’m wondering how this kind of thing stands to affect the artistic imagination of children raised in it. We know how having something similar in preconciliar Catholicism affected George Saunders. I wonder how it’s going to affect my own children, especially if any of them become artists, but if not, then simply their own imaginations.

I’m not making a theological claim here, but an aesthetic one linked to theology. Will the fact that their experience of Christianity as children has been so sensually vivid make a difference in how they think about the faith as adults? In how they think about the world?

I grew up in a low-church Protestant tradition that did not emphasize liturgical worship, or sacramentals. I think God heard our prayers just as well as he heard the prayers of anybody else. But as longtime readers know, when I walked into a medieval cathedral in France for the first time, I didn’t know what hit me. There was something about my own personality and sensibility that resonated so deeply with the rich colors in the stained glass, and the vaulting architecture. Beauty made God more accessible to me, more real. It’s not that way with everybody, granted. But reading the Saunders interview tonight made me wonder how my own sensibility as a writer, and a Christian writer, would have been different had I grown up in a more aesthetically complex tradition.

There’s no way to know, of course, and in any case I’m grateful for what I was given. It no doubt shaped me in ways that aren’t clear to me now, and perhaps had I been raised in a more liturgical, sacramental church, I would have taken it all for granted. Who’s to say? This later passage in the Saunders interview offered me a clue:

Image: But for a reader, the presence of ghosts and prayer and so on seems to suggest that life is more than just what is evident in the material realm. Is this something you are thinking about when you’re writing?

GS: Well, as I mentioned, my sense is that we live in an incredibly material time. We like stuff, yes, but we are also inclined to think that whatever is, is all there is. Whatever we feel is sufficient. Whatever we habitually think is right. That’s a weird contemporary trait, that we could be so arrogant as to think that it just so happens that in this generation we are fully equipped to know all that there is, and that we can know it logically and via the senses, period. And this inclination leads us to be very rational and data-reliant and pragmatic and mystery-denying—and yet mystery is real. We have no satisfactory answers for any of the biggest questions.

For me, spirituality is the more intelligent part of me asking, “What are the odds that you, a little created cellular creature, just happen to be ideally suited to understand all of this?” Smarter generations have known that we are just sensing little bits of whatever the ultimate reality is. They treasured those little bits, and they didn’t overanalyze them or discount them. The spiritual life acknowledges that those little glimpses are real. I can’t get back to them all the time, but I can at least not forget that they exist. That would basically be my definition of the sacred: those little traces of that greater knowledge that extend beyond our everyday ability to grasp it—and then the spiritual life is just that set of rituals or practices that serve to remind us of the reality of those glimpses.

Any moment in which you say to yourself, “All right, stop bullshitting, please,” or turn your mind to your actual fears, or are shaken out of your usual position of clinging to certain things for comfort (your success, your position, your unerring goodness)—that is a moment of prayer. Prayer is truth, or is steering oneself toward truth. Prayer is briefly getting free of our habit of denial, maybe. Sometimes I think it’s just taking a moment to ask, “Where am I?” and then answering that as honestly as you can. The convention is that we pray “to” God—but it reduces to the same thing, I think.

All my life — but especially when I was a kid — I have had this strong sense that there was much more going on than we could see in front of us. As a boy, I craved some validation of the sense of mystery that I carried within me but could neither articulate nor find articulated, or even represented. My father found that in nature, but I could not follow him there. For me, it came by stumbling into art and architecture. I remember being shown a Monet painting for the first time when I was in ninth grade. It was in a collection of plates in the center of our literature textbook. I kept staring at it, trying to figure out why the experience of this painting of the sea felt more like the sea than a more realistic reproduction of the same scene. After that, I started checking books of Impressionist art out of the library, trying to understand it. By the time I found my way into the Chartres cathedral at 17, and made the connection between beauty and religion, I was primed. Prior to that, in my ignorance and lack of experience, I had rejected Christianity because I thought it was mostly about sitting still and listening to a morally edifying talk. I had no idea, no idea at all, that it could be a portal into great mystery.

Maybe I’ve got it backwards. Maybe my latent aesthetic sense guided my religious belief. If I had never had the opportunity to experience a form of Christianity that was aesthetically rich, I wonder if I would have drifted away from religion, and become one of those people who say art is their religion. Hmm… .

OK, enough from me about this. I would love to hear from you readers about how your aesthetic experience of church as a child, or as a young adult, shaped the way you see the world — especially if you are an artist of some sort. I don’t think that only people who grew up in highly liturgical, or exuberant forms of Christianity (e.g., Pentecostalism), are the only ones who have something to say here. I have heard it said of Marilynne Robinson that her Calvinism shapes her aesthetic. I don’t know her work well enough to say (nor do I know Calvinism well enough to say), but here’s a bit from someone who does:

Robinson’s Calvinism, however, is not just a political theology. It is aesthetic as well—not just a matter of topics and themes, but something woven into her style: the luminosity of her carefully crafted sentences, the attentive attention to detail, the respect with which she describes the small movements of character and conversation. She touches on it in Gilead, where narrator John Ames, the Congregationalist minister, writes: “Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought to be aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. … I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us.”

In her autobiographical meditation on Psalm 8, Robinson amplifies this sense of a Protestant aesthetic: “So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us.”

What better description of the creative process—indeed, of her own finely wrought work—than this: “So it is possible to imagine that time was created in order that there might be narrative—event, sequence and causation, ignorance and error, retribution, atonement. A word, a phrase, a story falls on rich or stony ground and flourishes as it can, possibility in a sleeve of limitation.”

I need to think about that, and how what Robinson’s “Protestant aesthetic” differs from the way a Catholic or an Orthodox Christian would see the world. I welcome your comments, and even more, I welcome your stories.

And don’t miss the Image Journal interview with Saunders. I’ve never read his work, but it’s still a great interview.

[Note to readers: Today is Good Friday (or, to be precise, Holy Friday) for Orthodox Christians. I wrote this post on Thursday night, and have scheduled it to appear on my blog today. I will not be approving comments on this holy day, because I am staying offline. Please be patient; I will approve everything on Saturday. — RD]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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