In our ongoing blog-versation about Orthodox culture, Jonathan Kotinek asked what ”fracture lines” I see in the American Orthodox scene. He noted that in his experience, the lines tend to be political lines, which in America usually means either liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican.
I have certainly seen those lines also, especially here in Washington state where the same-sex marriage law is causing no end of acrimony and rhetoric on all sides, in and out of church.
But when I look at what I’ve seen of Orthodoxy (and I don’t pretend to be an expert), I see lines that are much deeper and more powerful than politics. The marriage law will be in the news for a while, and then it will be replaced by some other hot-button issue, and that issue will sink under another, and another. In some ways, politics are temporary. The beliefs underpinning the politics are not temporary.
Several people in this conversation have suggested that the culture problem will solve itself if each Orthodox person simply does his or her best to follow God and the teachings of the church in daily life. I believe that is a powerful antidote to almost anything, but I’m not sure that it’s culture.
Theology is theology, and the teachings of the church have been handed down for thousands of years. No matter what patriarchate you belong to, you partake of the Eucharist at Divine Liturgy on Sunday, and you do so with the same hope and for the same reasons. I see that as our center, in Orthodoxy, and it is where we are most united. It is only as you move out from that center into the concentric rings of our traditions and practices that differences begin to emerge.
And when the differences come, they are all linked (in my experience) to ethnicity. There was a Facebook discussion in which one participant announced that no Orthodox person would wear his or her cross outside the clothing, where it could be seen, because a cross is not fashion. This person attends either a ROCOR or OCA church–I’m not sure which. At the Greek church I attend, our priest told us during the homily a month ago that we should all be wearing our crosses, that we should never be ashamed to display the cross or forgetful of the importance of keeping it present and visible in our lives. So in our church, wearing it under the clothes would be the concession to fashion. Both men were sincere, the man on Facebook and our priest. And both had honorable and Christian intentions. And the practices they endorsed were exact opposites.
And the feelings attached to those practices are strong.
These are the lines I see. They are lines of love. At my church, the yiayias make koulourakia every year for Pascha. We come to the church a few days before Palm Sunday, and some of us help mix the dough in the kitchen, and some of us sit at long tables in the fellowship hall, rolling the dough and twisting it into cookies, and talking. I love to look around the room, to see their faces, their bright eyes, their expressions changing as they talk, their hands moving quickly, almost unconsciously, doing what they have always done as long as they can remember.
Koulourakia is not in the Bible, and it is not Holy Tradition. But to make it like this, as an offering for a most sacred and beloved Celebration, is a good thing. It’s like a stitch in a quilt. It’s not the quilt. It’s just a stitch. But all those little stitches keep the parts of the quilt attached. Ritual is almost always man-made, but it is so often a response to what is sacred and divine. It is our little human way of trying to hold hands with what we love.
But because these acts of love are handed down through villages and families and memories, they are familiar and beloved to specific groups of people. And not to others.
When all these groups come into one place, as they did when the Orthodox church in all its forms gradually came to America, you have the potential for the pastiche culture that Jonathan describes. But its creation requires each group to be willing to participate in only part of their own original culture. It means the yiayias must be willing to make Russian or Serbian cookies for Pascha sometimes. Perhaps in addition to koulourakia, perhaps instead of koulourakia.
And that is the line itself. If we are combining, we can’t take ALL of anyone’s culture because each culture has a separate practice for the same events of church life. Who is willing to give up their own loved traditions for the sake of someone else’s? And if we all worship in different archdioceses (which are constructed along ethnic lines), why do we need to? Who says?
I think the reality is that only some people want a universal Orthodoxy in America. Many, many people are perfectly content for it to remain the collection of similar but separate worlds we now have.
I haven’t decided yet if I think that’s a problem. I’m a person like other people. I like to make the same cookies every year. Especially as a convert, I have come to value familiar things. When you give up your entire religion, you lose a hundred tiny things you counted on. On some days, I can’t replace them soon enough. I want this new world I chose to become an old world, habitual and beloved. And in that case, there is not much difference between me and the yiayias.