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3.18.11 A Reflection

Imaginal Orthodoxy

and the Hope of the Future
by Fr. Isaac Skidmore, Ashland, OR

I have recently begun visiting the works of Orthodox "sophiologists," who have largely been peripheralized and disregarded. While it is not my intention to rehabilitate them (though I think the future may do so), I find in them an insight germane to the turmoil we face as the Orthodox Church in America, as well as to the seeming incapacity of worldwide Orthodoxy to pull together in a cohesive witness to the world. The insight is captured in several statements: one, by Dostoevsky, who by at least some accounts stands within the sophiological lineage, says, "Beauty will save the world"; others, by Nikolai Berdyaev, saying, "For God's purposes in the world the genius of Pushkin is as necessary as the sainthood of Seraphim" and, also, "Revelation demands a creative act."

These statements call attention to an aspect of the Church which receives little notice these days: the role of the aesthetic in embodying and conveying truth. Counter to the notion of ecclesiology that has developed in the West, the Orthodox church does not experience authority primarily as a structural force that hangs, in hierarchical fashion, from a chief potentate. We know this, and delight in describing our conciliar self-understanding, in which authority is expressed as mutual agreement and indwelling, affirmed and renewed by each council's immersion into the elements of holy tradition, resulting in a united, doxological articulation of our faith. We are mistaken though, if we believe this distinction of our ecclesiology, or even the omission of the filioque, is sufficient to bring about Orthodox life in a way that is meaningful to members and onlookers. It seems obvious that we, in our modern efforts to be Orthodox and transmit Orthodoxy, are missing "something." Try as we might, coherency escapes us. Our endeavors rarely congeal into a whole that resembles the image of the Church we hold in our hearts. No matter how much we work the recipe, some critical ingredient seems lacking.

Looking for this missing element, we grasp at most-obvious possibilities. Surely, we think, the desired harmony will appear if we have leaders who are responsible and accountable. At other times, we look to structural dynamics themselves, wondering whether our form of governance should be more hierarchical, more congregational, more (or less) democratic, or more synodal. We focus on questions about autocephaly, autonomy and "maximal autonomy." We wonder about the implications, if any, of the transition from SCOBA to the new Episcopal Assemblies. We eye the development, and the failure in development, of committees that promise to bring about a pan-Orthodox consolidation of resources and that vaguely point towards an administrative consummation of that unity in the future. We seem to be yearning for a kind of reform–a return to one or another of periods in which integrity prevailed. Or, we long for a future which feels itself free to shake off the past as though it were dust. All of this is well and good, as these are questions–each one and many more–that eventually have to be answered. In all of this, though, the missing ingredient remains missing. The more we seek the manifestation of the Church's divine pedigree, mandate and hope, the more we encounter our human inability to see it to terms. This is no minor crisis, as it seems our whole spiritual effort, is consumed by these questions.

It also evokes other questions: 1) While the future may resolve these issues, can we get there by way of the road we are on now? Doesn't it seem as though the solution, at some point, must involve ceasing to push forward in the direction we are going, and turning onto a different path altogether? 2) Until these matters are set in order, are we destined to put our Orthodox lives on a kind of "hold"? (In practice, it sometimes seems we are doing just that.) 3) Also, if and when these issues begin to resolve, will we be in a state to then start living the life we claim to be seeking, or will we merely continue to focus on the imperfections of our churchly condition?

I have come to believe we are failing, not because we are not expending effort in good and necessary ways; nor because we are overwhelmed by the historically unprecedented transparency with which we now observe operations of our church administration and life; nor because debate, deliberation and even sometimes careless remarks have crossed a line on internet; nor because there is not often a sincere desire to repent. I believe we are failing because alongside all of our present activities, which no doubt will continue, we are not simultaneously sustained by a creative vision of Orthodoxy that is capable of encompassing and transcending the present morass.

The take-home lesson of the sophiologists, I believe, is that we can have correct dogma, ritual and even administration, yet still lack the substance, if we do not also have beauty. More than that, when beauty is present, we find that even the deficits our humanity inevitably introduces into the expression of dogma, ritual and administration are bearable, and do not suffice to sever us from hope, communion, and even joy. (Does anyone remember joy?) The upholding of beauty, and the refusal to refrain from celebratory participation in its development and forms–even in the midst of what appears to be its negation–is the strongest, most sustaining declaration we can make. Beauty is not empty. It contains the fulness of hope, and holds in secret all that hope anticipates.

The symptoms of our malady are apparent. Our language has become dominated by words that are foreign to the soul in its depths. We find ourselves tonguing words like "sexual misconduct policy," "central administration," and "special investigative committee" with all too-much seriousness. Nineteenth-century Russia saw conditions that exceed our own in intolerability; yet, faith flourished, being fed by a eucharist that could be consumed even outside the warmth of the churches. The spiritually sustaining food was an image of earthly-heavenly beauty that informed the aesthetic experience of the people who lived through hard events. They could not have pointed to structures of church administration that were less fraught with fallibility than our own; yet, at the same time, they had Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky. We, on the other hand, have become anemic, administrative, even puritanical in our conception of spiritual life. We find the room we stand in increasingly narrow and deprived of air.

Each year, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy, yet may be far from grasping its meaning. Orthodoxy has flourished, even under occupation by Tartars and Turks, owing to its ability to hold onto its image of glorified creation. This has provided it with a poetic sensibility that turns even bitter experiences into things that can be borne.

Much of our present dilemma comes from the fact that we seem to be waiting for external conditions to present this image to us before we will believe in it. I think the order needs to be reversed. We need to cultivate the image, sustain it, believe in it and celebrate it, even in the absence of external confirmation. We can survive years, even decades of ill-defined administrative structures. The church has done so before, embodying a spirit that evokes wonder. This church of the past, though, was not so soulless as we have become. They were capable of enduring much more than we, because they understood that their enduring took place in the context of beauty.

I am not suggesting that we turn to the past, as a way of escape. That would only confirm our despair. Nor am I suggesting that we put aside our internet banter, even in the name of Lent. I am suggesting that we take up the task of articulating, writing, and "writing," in the iconic sense, the vision on God's beauty in our present world.

We have failed in the OCA, with the exception of the holy joie de vivre of Fr. Schmemann and his now-maligned Parisian-American contemporaries, to articulate a story that captivates people in their craving for life. It's not that our words fall on deaf ears but that they are not words that enchant the heart. We have botched the task of telling people a story they can be inspired by. It is said the the icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev, in an ineffable, imagistic way, answered the tensions of dogmatic disputes regarding the nature of the divine persons and essence, and calmed the passions of feuding sects. Opposing parties dropped their disputes, finding themselves muttering "Amen," with trembling lips, before the breathtaking landscape of God's Holy Trinity that had been laid before them. In all our words, strategic plans and investigative committees, let us not overlook the scandalous possibility that a single icon, conveying unspeakable grace of the order of Rublev's Trinity, perhaps written tomorrow by some now-unkown hand, could turn the century around. And let us imagine that it not merely be such for the something-odd number of people who currently call themselves Orthodox, but for everyone who has capacity to be moved, to feel, to cry.

What will save the OCA? What will bring America towards Orthodox unity? Only in part does the answer consist of the administrative reforms we necessarily pursue. Only in part does it consist in the transformation of millenia-old sensibilities regarding jurisdiction and barbarian lands. More than that, it involves the bringing forth of a vision that renders the world breathless, telling a story that embraces every sinner in the birthright of a God whose name they don't yet know, spreading a canopy that covers the earth as lovingly and solemnly as though it were covering the holy gifts. Our autocephaly was born in just such a doxological vision, and will be sustained by nothing less. Then, they will come. “And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God" (Luke 13:29).

Beauty will save the world.


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