We left after the homily to go back to the Orthodox parish. My wife and I both had tears in our eyes. I started to speak, but she said, “Don’t say it.” I didn’t say anything. Three years later, having relocated to Dallas, both of us crushed by the abuse scandal and the total loss of trust in Catholic authority, we took refuge in the Orthodox cathedral there. We were so raw and broken that neither of us knew if we would ever be able to trust the institutional church again. But we knew at least we could rest in the beauty and richness of the liturgy and the church interior itself. After a year, we converted, and never looked back.
There is a very American moralistic distrust of aesthetic beauty and ritual in worship. You see it even among Catholics, who ought to know better. We seem to have a suspicion that you can either have moral rigor and doctrinal seriousness, or you can have beauty, but not both. When you go to church in Europe, though, you discover how stupid that is. Of course all that beauty is going unseen and unloved by the masses that don’t go to church, so we have to be careful not to over-emphasize beauty. But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, said that best argument the Church has for the Christian faith is its saints and its art. His point was that goodness incarnate (the saints) and incarnate beauty (sacred art, music, and architecture) open the door for truth. That’s certainly what happened to me. I was incapable of taking seriously apologetic arguments for the Christian faith, but the majesty of Gothic cathedral architecture dramatically challenged my intellectual resistance to Christianity.
And so I think this is why a certain kind of person really is drawn to the older, ritualistic, aesthetic forms of Christian worship. It speaks to something deep inside us, and, I think, it is a kind of rebellion against the ugliness and barrenness of modernity, especially within the churches. Plus, an expression of Christianity that appeals to our whole body, and all our senses, not just to our head, and our abstract reason — that’s really powerful. I’ve been Orthodox for as long as I was Catholic — 13 years — and I’ve been struck too by how attractive Orthodoxy is to men. I finally figured out that unlike most Western churches, Orthodoxy emphasizes self-overcoming, with a strong emphasis on asceticism. Expecting people to master their passions, and learning to do so through ascetic exercises like fasting — you can’t imagine how liberating that is when contrasted to therapeutic Western modes of religion, which so often emphasize feminine traits and modes of expression. Don’t get me wrong — Orthodoxy is not “masculinist.” But it seems to me that it’s more balanced, and it gives men something to do, not just feel.
I have to say, though, that in America, I wonder about the class implications of all this. Here’s what I mean. If you are going to become an Orthodox Christian, or a liturgically traditional Catholic, you are probably going to be the kind of person who is a strong seeker, and willing to be thought weird for the sake of finding God. Ancient Christian weirdness is acceptable, somehow, to intellectuals and aesthetes, in a way that low-church Protestant weirdness is not. I’ve been at monasteries where I’ve kissed the skull of a long-dead Orthodox elder, and I’ve thrown wax facsimiles of body parts onto the bonfire outside of the Portuguese basilica at the Fatima apparition site. Most people outside my Orthodox and Catholic circles would find that sort of thing to be high-octane crackpottery. But you know what I would never, ever do? Go to a Pentecostal megachurch and raise my hands high in the air. I don’t look down on those who do — it’s just unthinkable for me. Way, way too weird. It kind of embarrasses me to admit this, but Christians like me prefer our religious self-marginalization to be, I don’t know, literary. So I think we have to be aware that there might be some snob appeal in all this. I don’t think it is a significant factor at all — taking the old religion straight, and espousing its reactionary social beliefs, as one must if one is not merely an aesthete playing church, is no way to advance socially. Still, I think for some of us, we have to be careful about a temptation to a particular sort of spiritual pride. Oh Lord, I thank Thee for making me a pious weirdo, but not like those fundagelicals.
That said, there is just so much depth and beauty in ancient liturgical Christianity that you feel that you could never touch bottom. It’s like being in the Burning Bush — you are on fire, but never consumed. In Orthodoxy, priests are always referencing the early church fathers in their homilies. Not only am I often amazed by the wisdom and poetry of these saints, but I love that in the Orthodox church, in the ritual prayers, in the icons on the wall, and in the homilies, the memory of 2,000 years of Christian life and worship is kept front to mind. This is true whether you are a professor or a peasant. That continuity is also a great blessing of Orthodox worship, in this world of constant flux. There’s a joke Orthodox people tell:
Q: How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: [heavy Slavic accent] Change? What is this ‘change’?
But it’s true! While everybody else is setting up smoke machines and strobe lights, or rewriting their hymns one more time to be ‘relevant,’ Orthodox priests are swinging the censers like they’ve done for many centuries, and the choirs are singing the same hymns that have been passed down for many, many generations. That is so comforting. It’s such a relief to not have to remake things in every generation, simply to receive what has been preserved for you. It’s a very un-modern, un-American thing, and that’s what makes it so attractive. I hasten to add that it’s not that Orthodox believers are holier than any other believer, but it’s that the Orthodox tradition, both liturgically and spiritually, has given us a reliable map and proven tools to help us along the pilgrim road to unity with Christ. Why would we not use them?