So as I said, the monk, who has facilitated our monastic tour, has earned his sermon. He asks us in Romanian, translated by our host, a simple question: What is the point of our learning about key moments in the history of Byzantium or modern Orthodoxy, if we aren’t going to be transformed by these truths ourselves? And we, all of us with Ph.D.s in some aspect of Orthodox history, smile politely, because modern academia does not have an answer to that question, inasmuch as academia is premised upon a tacit agreement never to ask it at all.
That is such an Orthodox question, what the monk asked. I will return to it momentarily. But read on:
As we drive from site to site, the earth is awakening from winter as if to illustrate this resurgence. Between site visits, I am reading Laurus, the oft-discussed recent novel by Eugene Vodolazkin about Arseny, a fifteenth-century Holy Fool. Arseny can see into the future. Somehow, despite living in the Late Middle Ages, he steps on a plastic bottle, as if foreseeing the terribly littered landscape around me that still suffers from the communist years. As I’m reading, our academic host gets up on the bus to explain at last a story so many of us have been asking about. Who is this modern saint whose picture we see in every parish church and corner market? Like the protagonist of the novel, his name too is Arseny—Arsenie Boca (1910-1989). An artist and persecuted priest, he helped with the Philokalia translation into modern Romanian, and was well established as an Abbot when communism arrived. We learn of the miracles, bilocation among them, unwittingly documented by communist authorities. For a moment, Vodolazkin’s enchanting novel does not seem so bizarre.
He’s right. I can no longer imagine what it’s like to read Laurus through non-Orthodox eyes — but here’s the point where I should say that two Orthodox friends of mine who read it after I urged it on them told me they didn’t get it. Anyway, reading Laurus, even the parts that we would call “magical realism,” I kept nodding and thinking, “Yes, that’s how it is. That’s how it is in our religion.” Orthodox believers (in general) expect miracle and wonder with a naturalness that I have never seen outside of Pentecostals. More:
The Romanian Christians I meet do not see their Orthodoxy through rose-colored glasses. Politically speaking, all of them are concerned about the territorial ambitions of Putin’s Russia. Among the clerics, many worry that similar ambitions by the Russian church might overwhelm the long-awaited pan-Orthodox council to be held this summer. Within the Romanian Orthodox Church itself, troubles of nationalism, phyletism, and complicity between church and state remain sources of concern. But its faithful also have recourse to the great cloud of witnesses that awaits them on every church wall, and the humble resilience that—alongside non-Orthodox Christians like the Reformed pastor László Tőkés—proved a match for Communism.
But at each of the places we visit, the question comes up again, from scholars, from monks, and finally—on the eve of Lent—from a bishop: Why, we are asked, are you interested in the history of Orthodoxy if you are not transformed by it yourself?
Milliner’s piece prompted me to muse here on a thought that occurred to me this past Sunday, standing on the side of the nave of the Clear Creek Abbey crypt church, watching a solemn high mass celebrated with austere reverence by the Benedictine monks who live there. It was beautiful, it was holy, and I was privileged to witness it, and to pray with my Catholic brothers and sisters.
But at the same time, I thought: I guess I really am Orthodox now. As beautiful as this is, Orthodoxy is who I am now, and I am grateful to God for it.
Notice that I didn’t say, “Orthodoxy is what I believe now.” It’s much deeper than that. The difference is that I have been marinating in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom for so long that it has soaked in and, to use social anthropologist Paul Connerton’s phrase, “sedimented into my bones.”
You might remember my writing last year about Connerton’s dense but powerful book How Societies Remember. Here is an excerpt:
Connerton discusses three types of memories — personal (something in the past that the individual experienced), cognitive (something in the past that the individual knows from having learned it second hand), and habit-memory, which he defines as “our having the capacity to reproduce a certain performance.” It’s like muscle memory: we may not remember how we learned the thing, but we can recall it when necessary. Reading this, I recalled the experience of Father George Calciu, a Romanian Orthodox priest, who was able to celebrate the Divine Liturgy while in a Communist prison because he had committed it to memory. The liturgy reminded him of who he was and what was true, in a time and place in which the authorities brutally tried to force him to forget. Connerton calls this third kind of remembering “habit-memory.”
When a society really wants to remember something as a society — e.g., mythical, religious, or historic stories that tell a people who they are and what they must do — it invents commemorative ceremonies around those stories. It is not enough to tell a particular story; the story has to be “a cult enacted.” That is, the story must convey a metaphysical truth, and thus has to be granted sacred status as an event that is taken out of the past and in some mystical way re-presented in the present. This is, of course, what the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and the Catholic Mass do. Rites are ways that societies maintain a living connection with their past, and enter mystically into it. Connerton says that “performative utterances are as it were the place in which the community is constituted and recalls to itself the fact of its constitution.”
In simpler language, this means that the words spoken in a rite both bind its participants together and remind the people who they are, as a people. Further, the most effective rituals involve the body. Connerton:
To kneel in subordination is not to state subordination, nor is it just to communicate a message of submission. To kneel in subordination is to display it through the visible, present substance of one’s body. Kneelers identify the disposition of their body with their disposition of subordination. Such performative doings are particularly effective, because unequivocal and materially substantial , ways of ‘saying’; and the elementariness of the repertoire from which such ‘sayings’ are drawn makes possible at once their performative power and their effectiveness as mnemonic systems.
The most effective rituals do not vary, and are removed in the form of speech and song from everyday life. And:
Finally, ritualised posture, gesture and movement, instead of flexibly combining to impart a variety and ambiguity of information as in what we conventionally describe as everyday situations, is restrictive in pattern, and hence easily predictable and easily repeatable, from one act to the next and from one ritual occasion to the next.
What he means is that to remember who we are, our Story must be ritualized in some public ceremony, or ceremonies. Those rituals must not be simply commemorative; there has to be something more going on — “a cult enacted,” which is to say, an idea taking material form. And it must be not simply something we carry in our heads, but something that is in our bodies. It must be a “habitual memory” — something we carry with us without thinking about it. “In habitual memory the past is, as it were, sedimented into the body,” writes Connerton.
How does this work? Connerton’s explanation is complex, and hard to summarize. The essence of it, however, is that the Word must be made Flesh. We must live out the ideas in the Story so deeply that they become second nature to us — not ideas, but practices. The beginning pianist knows how to read music, but he cannot really play the piano if is conscious that he’s reading the notes. He becomes a pianist when he can play fluidly, without thinking about it. He has become habituated to music.
This has happened to me with Orthodoxy, to a degree that took me by surprise on Sunday. After I had been Catholic for a few years, Protestant worship (on the occasion I had to experience it) seemed so thin to me. Let me be clear: I am not making a judgment on the moral or spiritual qualities of the worshipers, only on the aesthetic quality of the worship, and the way it affected my response to it. Now, having been Orthodox for a decade, I have the same reaction to Catholic worship. Again, this is not to claim that Orthodox Christianity is more true than Catholic or Protestant Christianity (though I believe it is), but rather to observe that aesthetics matter when it comes to imprinting a particular way of thinking, of being, of experiencing a world.
It genuinely startled me how much the Orthodoxy liturgical life, as well as the modes of prayer, the fasts, and so forth, has formed me internally. Lex orandi, lex credendi. And, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have been able to say that until we started our little Orthodox mission here in Starhill three years ago, which required me to engage with Orthodoxy on a level I had previously resisted.
The question the Orthodox monk in Romania asked Milliner and his group — What’s the point of learning about Orthodoxy if you aren’t going to be transformed by these truths? — reveals a frame of mind that I recognize immediately as Orthodox, a mindset that has made an enormous difference to me personally. Of course one can study Orthodoxy from the point of view of an academic, and many do. The naive question the monk asked, though, tells you that Orthodoxy doesn’t really care if you know about Orthodoxy in your head; it wants you to know Orthodoxy in your heart, and to live it. Truth is not a proposition, not essentially; truth is a Person, and an experience of that Person. For the Orthodox, it’s wonderful to study theology, but if that study doesn’t lead you to a more direct, real, and transformative encounter with the living God, then it is a poor thing. Or at least a thing that is far less than it could be. It’s like living in a house isolated by a snowdrift, and having a shovel in your garage, but being so taken by the object of the shovel itself that you don’t pick it up and use it to dig your way out.
In my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, I talk about how the daily, hour-long practice of the Jesus Prayer, following the monastic tradition, was key to my healing, even though I didn’t quite see the point of it all when my priest told me to do it. Later, when I was healed, I asked him why he had assigned me that intense prayer rule.
“I had to get you out of your head,” he said.
Which is itself a very Orthodox answer. My priest could see that my knee-jerk tendency to abstract things, to separate myself from them and hold them up as objects of contemplation from a distance, was at the heart of my inner illness. As long as I bracketed the things of God off intellectually, no matter how strongly I affirmed them with my reason, I would always be on the margins, tormented by the analytical mindset. Father saw that it was far more important for me to experience God in prayer, and not prayer composed of a series of stated propositions, but simply being still in the presence of the All-Holy.
This is how Orthodoxy is. Or at least as I have found it to be. And I love it.
A couple of Catholics separately came up to me last weekend at Clear Creek, having heard me say that I am an ex-Catholic, and tried to engage me in a conversation that they plainly wanted to end in my return to Rome. Unless Catholics are hostile and persistent (these folks weren’t), I’m not bothered by these conversations. These people want the best for me, and to them, that means returning to Catholicism. I usually say, “Please pray for me,” and I mean it, because I do need prayers. But I don’t have the slightest interest in returning to Catholicism — and I’m not angry about it.
To the contrary, my extremely painful experience of losing my Catholic faith and being rebuilt, slowly, in Orthodoxy, has made me grateful to see folks thriving in Christianity as Catholics or Protestants. I would make a terrible Orthodox evangelist, because even though I would love for them to discover Orthodoxy and its joyful depths, I am incapable of engaging in apologetic arguments. It’s not that I believe apologetics are unimportant. Of course they are important! But I have no credibility to do them, given my erratic faith history, and besides, I don’t really want to get into it. Living a faithful, small-o orthodox Christian life is hard, no matter which tradition you do it in. I feel that I can better help folks by encouraging them, genuinely, in their own tradition, rather than get all up in their business and telling them how and why they’re getting and doing it wrong. That kind of intellectual arrogance led to my spiritual near-death experience as a Catholic. I was so full of pride in being Catholic, and so willing to talk about Catholicism as an intellectual matter, that I did not see how fragile I had left myself.
God broke me, or rather, allowed me to break myself on the rocks of my own rage and pride and arrogance. And He rebuilt me as an Orthodox Christian which, I suspect, has made me a better mere Christian. Why? Mostly because I have been delivered from the chronic intellectualism that made experiencing God more difficult. It will always be there, because it’s in my nature, but it controls me far less than it once did. Orthodox Christianity showed me the way, and not only showed me the way, but led me. I hope that all people will come and see what we have in Orthodoxy (though a single visit alone probably won’t be enough; I’d say come every Sunday for a month). But even if you don’t, or won’t, I would strongly suggest to every intellectually-oriented Christian of all traditions, including those who are nominally Orthodox, to think about the Romanian monk’s question in context of your own tradition: Why do you ask questions of Christianity if you don’t want to be transformed by Christianity yourself? In other words, what is the point of your intellectual inquiry? Having all the facts and arguments in your head will not help you when you are put to the test.