Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Georgia and Patmos

I couldn't pass up the chance to honor someone as eccentric (to our ears) as St. Dodo of Georgia. A good opportunity to lighten up. Click the name for his vita.

Finished reading A Place of Healing for the Soul: Patmos by Peter France, a BBC religion columnist for several years who, after spending extensive time on the island of Patmos as a skeptic and secularist, eventually joined the Church of which his wife had already been a member for some years in a way I imagine would make many of the read-and-reason-your-way-in converts squirm (in spite of his reception at the hands of Archimandrite KALLISTOS (Ware)). God takes us where we are, to be sure, and thank God He does.

From the book:

"I have described the ceremonies of initiation. Although he photographs record that I emerged from the experience flushed and excited, I did not see any blinding lights during or after my total immersion. No certainties were revealed. I emerged still agnostic, but with a difference. A part of me was opened that had been shut. I heard no messages, but felt ready to receive them. If I had received grace, it had come in the form of an increase not in conviction, but in awareness, in receptivity.

"Very soon, after my second or third communion, I realized that I was beginning to experience as realities what I had taken to be colorful imagery. The divine energies present in the mystery of the Eucharist open within us a capacity to see, or to sense, spiritual realities to which we were insensible. That sentence is a myth for those without the experience; a reality for those who have it.

"I realized that during the long years I had spent studying Christianity to see whether or not I found it credible, I was missing the point. The creeds of the Church do not contain the Christian truth that Christ said would set us free. They were formalized and written down in response to challenges from outside, when the Church was forced to defend itself by using the language of philosophy to define its dogma. But that language belonged to the world of concepts against which the Church was attempting to defend itself. Most important, the Greek philosophers were building systems of thought by using terms that became part of the vocabulary of individuals whether or not they were bale to experience the realities those terms expressed.

"The full doctrine of the Church was made available only to baptized Christians. It still is. Much of it is written and so accessible to all, but the most important aspects are passed on orally and symbolically because they can only be transmitted to someone who is ready to receive them. And by their very nature they cannot be written. But taking the first step, by being baptized into the Orthodox Church, I had not experienced any new convictions but had opened myself to an evolving mystery which the Church has preserved and which exists to communicate to its members.

"And, on Patmos, I had become normal" (pp. 152-3).

Lest the reader think that this is merely a pietistic read about theology, rest assured that much of it deals with nothing other than the beauty and the slow pace associated invariably with this gorgeous island. Their hassles (most of them humorous, but only in hindsight) in finagling through the refreshingly infuriating social mores of Patmian real estate in order to secure themselves not one, but two different homes on the island (the second one being a shack with no lack of challenges endured simply for love of isolation and the need to eschew the busy ports) make this a travelogue in much the same vein as Markides' Mountain of Silence. The antics of a ξενος simply trying (unsuccessfully) to bribe a building inspector, the history behind the British scholar Dr. Edward Daniel Clarke's raid of a Patmian monastery library (allegedly with the aid of its own abbot) -- all this makes for a fascinating cultural and historical read. The aspect of the island which the book makes most immediate to the reader, however, is that of light, in what could be considered both literal and metaphorical senses...though it would seem that Patmos would have it one way--a μία φύσις φωτός--which illuminates all at once:

"Patmos is the place to read St. John's Gospel, and not just because he once walked here. His imagery is full of light, and although the special quality of light on the island seemed to me one of clarity, Felicia pointed out one morning as we looked across the sunlit valley that here the light does not seem to simply fall on objects--it infuses them and makes them radiant: as if it were giving them life; as if the life and the light were one.

"But there is a danger in reading St. John on Patmos. It is that the surroundings, the atmosphere and finally the people might come to persuade you that he speaks the truth...when you live amongst people who have not rejected the spiritual dimension in their lives, his words are sharper: they point not to fantasy but to reality. Every day there is the risk of coming across a situation that reminds you of this. I remember one of the first" (pp. 87-8).

Following a description of his fear of "church festivals...with women in the finest of their finery--an unnerving sight on Patmos, where the finery takes the form of jackets with shoulders like Al Capone's, handbags with yards of brass chain attached and black high-heeled shoes with enormous bright buckles," he and Felicia ducked into the Monastery of Diasozousa on August 14th and found what I think Arturo might have been alluding to:

"A long queue of local people was waiting to kiss the wonder-working icon...I chatted with people I knew--the electrician, the grocer, the carpenter, the plumber--I was struck by the fact that these people, practical workingmen with no very obvious religious slant to their lives, were doing something extremely odd. They were all patiently standing there in their best suits waiting to kiss a painting. What was really going on?

"I remembered something that Philip Sherrard...had written about Western society's having lost is way. Materialism had become the creed of the majority, and it was opposed not by the churches but by those who claimed a vague spiritual allegiance or inkling which they insisted had nothing to do with 'organized religion.' But Sherrard pointed out that any genuine religious tradition provided for some formal discipline as a means of spiritual realization. He wrote that people who attached themselves to these modern, rather gaseous trends of New Worldism were spiritually inferior to the simple believers who practiced a faith sincerely but with only the slightest knowledge of the metaphysical principles on which it was based.

"...these people, by the simple act of kissing the icon, were rejecting the closed system of materialism in which most people of the West are living today. Even if the act is a formal one, done because everybody does it, to revere an icon is to perform an action which proclaims that the material world is not the end--that there is a spiritual dimension to life which we may not understand and which we may ignore in our daily business of living but which on occasions such as this we can come together and publicly acknowledge. To kiss an icon, to cross oneself, to say 'Αν θέλει ο Θεός' ('God willing'), however perfunctorily or unthinkingly these actions are performed, is to strike a blow at the closed universe of the materialist.

"These dawning realizations are among the risks to which anyone exposed to the influences of Patmos is vulnerable" (pp. 88-90).

Encounters are what persuade him. Fr. Amphilochios Tsoukos, their oftentimes guide and helper, helped him see, through a bit of pretense in expressing a desire to learn English, that Peter should "see things differently, but [Amphilochios] was discerning enough to realize that this could not be achieved through argument or discussion. Faith comes through grace; and grace operates most effectively through people--but always through what they are, and not what they say" (p. 85). When Peter asked how Fr. Amphilochios would approach mission work to Peter's secularized "tribe" in the West, Father replied that he "would not say anything...I would simply live with you. And I would love you" (p. 82).

He sees the "essence of humility" in the "complete absence of regard for the self in the way" a young nun in the Evangelismos convent lived: head down, face serious, she was the epitome of focused, monastic, regimented work. But the moment she noticed Peter and his empty, un-refilled sherry glass, her face brightened and she hurried, with a radiant smile, to serve him. "Either the work mattered or the person mattered...real not thinking yourself less than the dust. It is thinking of others so completely that you do not think about yourself at all" (p. 39).

I encourage all of you to read this very short, very joyous, book.


Darlene said...

Couple of questions/comments from this annoying Orthodox convert.

The BBC columnist speaks about his immersion, (baptism I take it), into the Orhtodox faith. Something that has disturbed me is that I have only been chrismated and not re-baptized into the Orthodox faith. Now one might say such a thing is rather nice for THE CHURCH to have accepted the baptism from your former tradition. However, I am still left with an uneasiness. No answers from various sources have sufficed to calm this uneasiness.

If indeed I was a heterodox person at best, and a pagan unbeliever at worst prior to becoming Orthodox, then why not dunk me three times to make sure I've received the AUTHENTIC baptism? All the good intentions of my previous tradition mean nothing, right? My first baptism was in an Independent Baptist Church, that only believed said baptism was symbolic, representing a public confession of a spiritual reality that already took place when I "walked the aisle" and then repeated "The Sinner's Prayer." My second baptism was performed in THE Jordan River in Israel with my husband on one side and a Messianic Jewish pastor on the other. Again, the understanding of said baptism was pretty much in alignment with the Independent Baptists.

So, why should the Orthodox Church accept such baptisms when said baptisms were done with a lack of understanding of the true teaching of baptism. I dare say, lack of understanding is being rather cordial. The folks who baptized me in both cases (as well as my understanding at the time) not only resisted, but openly preached against the Orthodox understanding of baptism.

So, at the present time I'm still left questioning if my entrance into the Orthodox Church shouldn't have included baptism.

BTW, was the baptism of your former tradition accepted by the Church, or were you re-baptized upon entering the EOC?

Darlene said...

One more feeble assessment regarding those humble working-class folk kissing the icon. My limited understanding of the Orthodox faith is that all the motions we go through, from icon-kissing, to crossing ourselves, to attending Divine Liturgy, even to receiving the Eucharist, are only meaningful if we are participating in the life of Christ. We can do all the above and be hypocrits in the truest sense of what our Lord defined as hypocrits.

IOW, those who were kissing the icon does not necessarily mean they had a deep faith. They could just be going through the motions without an inward devotion to Christ. And kissing the icon does not produce some magical feeling of religiosity or spiritual connection to Christ if one does not already have the proper spiritual disposition in the first place.

I saw lots of piety among the Wesleyan-Methodists...casting themselves upon the altar every week to repent of various sins. I've participated in many a outward religious act of piety prior to becomeing Orthodox. Nothing wrong with that in particular, except when it turns into a show of religiosity, which it could, and often did. Same went for various other practices as well. Get my drift here?

Would you agree with said assessment?

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Thank you for an excellent summation of a very interesting book!

I read the book several years ago, and you have inspired me to dust it off and re-read it.

I'm glad you enjoyed it too ...

David B said...

Darlene -

Don't fret yourself; "If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might be an annoying convert, I more..." ;)

I struggled with the issue of baptism, too, about five years ago. I met with Archbishop Dmitri about it--you can read about my thoughts before my meeting w/him HERE (along with links to two good articles), and my thoughts after the meeting HERE--as well as an answer to someone's question last year about the history of the two approaches to baptism HERE. I know it's a lot (more!) to read, but perhaps it will help. It's not a comfortable issue for many of us enamored with finding Christ's Church, but it need not be a stumbling block.

"My limited understanding of the Orthodox faith is that all the motions we go through, from icon-kissing, to crossing ourselves, to attending Divine Liturgy, even to receiving the Eucharist, are only meaningful if we are participating in the life of Christ."

"They could just be going through the motions without an inward devotion to Christ."

Those statements are true. I would add to the thought, though, that it is ultimately useless for any person or group of people to make it their business to try and label certain behaviors as indicative of whether x or y type of person is or is not "participating in the life of Christ" or "just...going through the motions." The concept is solid, but the application of it to real people in real life is where it gets thorny. "There's a wideness in God's mercy," after all, that may cut the Greek electrician who drinks too much and goes to work late (if at all) slack that the energetic, college-educated, type-A personality former Evangelical convert to Orthodoxy (not describing anyone in particular here) may not get. So his kissing the icon may be the only time God shows himself to him--and may make that to an ultimately greater effect in his life--whereas someone else might do it to condemnation. We're all limping. Doesn't mean we shouldn't at least "go through the motion" of "left foot...right foot..."

Holiness is absolutely the standard for Christians. How quickly or thoroughly an individual is expected to approach it in this life is unknown. I am not the electrician's Judge; I shall leave the unknown factor to Him.

James the Thickheaded said...

Thank you for pointing towards this book. Have started reading it. Peter France has a great sense of humor as well. Enjoying it very much!