I have been long fascinated by capital-O Orthodoxy, going back to my undergraduate Slavophilia. There is a mystery, and a depth, and a powerful beauty to the Eastern manifestation of the faith that does not exist in Western Christianity. This is very well exemplified by the central liturgy of the Eastern Church, that of St. John Chrysostom, which is set so often in such wonderful ways. This setting of the opening ektenia, by the Ukrainian men’s choir Dudaryk, from the medieval city of Lviv, rivals anything in the Western musical canon in terms of sheer artistic transcendence:
I’ve also recently come across two incredibly moving videos depicting the lives of Orthodox monks. The first features a sizeable discussion with an anchorite, in which he makes several assertions that should give all we moderns, with our love of noise and self, pause.
The second is an hour-ish long documentary about an village, and its orphanage, built by monks, that should be instructive to us all, believer and unbelievers alike, about how we understand community, our neighbors, love, and duty.
And then, of course, there is the incredible existence of the ikons, for which I will dedicate a “beautiful things” gallery soon.
What is the point of all of this rambling about the beauty of the faith of some mysterious other by a Westerner who does a piss poor job of understanding and living his own creed? Isn’t this just mere orientalism, a fascination with otherness that I, as a man struggling with faith, am feeling as a way of interacting with something intriguing and challenging, much in the same way my undergraduate Slavophilia was a fascination with otherness that I, as a youth struggling with unfaith and poorly-understood personal politics, sought to gain something that could free me to go adrift in ways that would be intriguing, rewarding, and edifying? Isn’t this the same thing?
Perhaps it very well is. No, it almost certainly is this. I am reminded by this piece from the London Review of Books to which I linked recently, recounting the difficulties and joys of not being able to go home. Perhaps my youthful Slavophilia, and my recent Orthodoxophilia, are symptomatic of a recognition that I can’t go home, that none of us can ever go home, and that most useful way to think of home is often through looking at something that is both so similar to and so immensely foreign from the home we once knew. This is maybe at the root of the uncanny uneasiness that exists between the West and the nations and peoples of the former Soviet Union, something at the core of the continuing conflicts we see as the old Cold War never ends. It is like this: we each remind the other of something so comfortable and familiar–we pray to the same God, we live in similar ecological spheres (mountains, plains, and arboreal forests), we look the same (in that we are both white), we both have, at the basis of our cultures, a fundamentally similar peasant economy. Yet, at the same time, we look freakishly strange the other. We are, then, each reminders to the other of who we are, who we are not, where we are not but might be, where we are not but once were, and where we can never be. We are familiar in a way that frightens, that even threatens.
I am left here thinking about Orthodoxy, and its beautiful mystery, its familiar otherness, and how it calls me toward a home I do not know, way too late at night. I am tired, but I can’t get this out of my mind. There is a truth to uncomfortable, strange familiarity, a sense of deja-vu that points toward profundity, and meaning, by shattering ourselves, and our prejudices, but that doesn’t displace the broken pieces to somewhere completely unknown. Perhaps this feeling is where real knowledge comes from. And it is what I am feeling this night, meditating on Orthodoxy.