Re-reading

Davit Gareji Sketch

I began (re)reading The Orthodox Church, by Bishop Kallistos Ware, which is the introductory text for the St Stephen’s Course, and got about 40 pages in, but stopped for a while because I’m not much good at re-reading books I only sort of cared for to begin with. Then I started The Eucharist, by Fr Alexander Schmemann, which I like much better, but am also at 4 pages with. And I sketched a Davit Gareji Icon with an iconographer from church. I’m going to try to meet with her every week and work on it (and another, when it’s done).

I’ve met people with a talent for re-reading and re-watching. Like the friend who re-reads Enchanted April every April she has time to do so — which is probably something like 10 times. Or the friends who re-read and re-watched LotR every time a new movie installment came out. Some people have books they love, and can read them time and time again. Then there are people like me. Give me a (good) book about stuff I’ve never considered or heard of before, and chances are I’ll read it in a week (or a month if I’m very distracted, like in August). But ask me to re-read a book I loved 5 years ago, and it’ll be though going. I’ll whine, I’ll fudge, I’ll skip large sections, and so on.

Meanwhile, I go to what may be the most iterative Christian church in existence. Our services are written, and have read the same prayers, hymns, and psalms every day or every week, for over a millennia. Evangelicals have remarked on how people in general, and most especially modern Western people who have been trained to expect novelty (I would imagine that many people of any time have been attracted by novelty, but we happen to have much greater access to it), tend to go rather quickly from iteration (where you say the same thing and mean it more each time) to vain repetition (where you say the same thing automatically, without engaging your heart and mind). We’re bad at re-reading, and trained to be quite good at processing novelty. The evangelical solution is usually to keep changing things up; change the music, the emphasis, the wording, and so on, in the hope that the novelty of form will allow people to better engage with a stability of content (that’s my most charitable interpretation).

Orthodox, meanwhile, embrace their iterative side. We might say “Lord have mercy!” 400 times in succession on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, hoping to mean it the entire time — or at least some of those times; and certainly more than if we had only said it once.

I respect and participate in that. At the same time, I’m not much good at, nor do I have much experience in, re-visiting subjects that I’ve learned “well enough” in the past. Well enough to be able to describe the key points and follow discussions that pre-suppose them, that is. That’s one of my challenges as a teacher: it requires so much re-visiting that I often fail to be thourough enough. So I suppose my first question, in participating in the St Stephen’s Course, is “how can I successfully re-visit these texts, ideas, and theological definitions.” To be clear, I haven’t literally read most of these books; but have read on the same topic and from the same perspective; for instance, I haven’t read The Eucharist by Schmemann, but have read his other book For the Life of the World, which is theologically identical, with a slightly different emphasis.

When I began reading about Orthodoxy, nearly 7 years ago, I was struck by how well it fills up what is missing in protestantism. For more about that, go here. There were a lot of aspects, such as history, liturgics, a church calendar, theology of the Atonement, and so on, which directly answered questions I had for some time wondered about in protestantism, and especially evangelicalism, in a way that was better than I had supposed possible. As a result, I paid most attention to those parts of Orthodoxy, and of these books, that answered those questions. Coming back now, I tend to a much greater degree to be struck by author’s experiential statements, responding with either yes, I’ve encountered that, or that sounds reasonable, but I haven’t encountered it that way. For instance, to a great extent Fr Alexander has “scholastic theology” in mind as that against which he contrasts true liturgical theology which grows out of the life of the Church as it is experienced and prayed in the Liturgy, but I haven’t come from a Scholastic background; I’ve read a little Thomas Aquinas, but not on that, and evangelicals don’t talk about the sacraments as sacraments; they have the radically impoverished understanding of symbolism that Schmemann argues against, but don’t present it in a coherent fashion. The symbolic part of that I’m interested in — the “scholastic” part I can’t engage with, because that would mean I would have to go read the very scholastics he’s warning against — which doesn’t seem like a very fruitful undertaking.

Schmemann’s understanding of symbolism has a lot in it, and deserves further consideration, but in simply reading through the first two chapters I am more forcefully struck by assertions like: “It is enough to have stood, be it only once, in the ‘temple of all temples,’ Hagia Sophia in Constantinople — even in its present devastated and kenotic state — to know with one’s whole being that the temple and the icon were born and nurtured in the living experience of heaven, in communion with the ‘peace and joy of the Holy Spirit.’” In short: I disagree. I don’t disagree with the theology embedded in that statement, or even with the claim that the Church’s liturgical ordo grew out of a lived experience of the coming of the Kingdom. I disagree because that wasn’t my experience of the Hagia Sophia at all, suggesting that, for whatever reason, it’s not the experience of everyone (even if it is for Fr Alexander). I was in Hagia Sophia twice, and spend a few days wandering around outside it, and it is, of course, impressive and beautiful. It’s not a church anymore, but even if it were, I don’t know that I would want to go there more than once if it were a church and I lived nearby. I don’t know that I can appreciate the Kingdom of God in the form of famous cathedrals; at best my feelings are conflicted, just as they are about crowded services. It’s good that people come to worship God, of course, but that doesn’t prevent the crowded, anonymous atmosphere from being somewhat oppressive.

In some ways, of course, this reaction is hardly surprising. Since my own experience of large, impressive Christian temples or other gatherings has always (without a single exception I can remember) been that of tension between an appreciation born of conviction and personal uneasiness, I have no particular reason (other than the expectations of people I admire) to expect that Hagia Sophia should be different, just because it’s even grander.

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