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December 9, 2022

The impregnable fortress of Orthodoxy (I)

A teenage girl ran away from home and disappeared without a trace for several days. Authorities and the press granted an unexpected publicity to the case, mobilising investigative energies and sparking a high amount of interest among the public. If hundreds of policemen were used to search every missing person throughout the entire country, with support from intelligence services and with the involvement of a prime minister, if newspapers and TV news bulletins granted so much publicity to each case, with dozens of live reports, our social sensitivity would be different.
But this case is an exception, whose reasons pertain to its specificity. The girl was a winner of school olympiads, which caters to the public’s empathy with the “good children” that spend their youth studying, a guarantee for both a successful future career and for rejecting the promiscuous deviations specific to this age. Among so many teenagers who take drugs, have a premature sexual life, even slide into petty criminality, are disrespectful with their parents or are a prolonged financial burden for their families, the ‘well-behaving’ students are treated as a different species, a minority, almost angelical, rather the symbol of a secularised ideal of ‘seriousness’ (which evokes Max Weber’s ascetic capitalist). The perspective is certainly reductionist, because teenage psychologies are generally very contradictory. Proof stands the very protagonist of this case, driven not by a wish for social accomplishment, but by a ‘spiritual’ one. Pushed by various influences – more or less religious – she tried to give her life a different course, aspiring to become a nun. After almost two millennia of monastic life, we should not be surprised by such intent, even if today’s world is a strongly secular one.
Let’s cast aside, for a moment, the protagonist of this story (about which not much has been learned, despite the media hysteria) and look to the public and its reactions. The attitudes were divers, but let’s analyse the most significant of them. Some were worried by the psychological abuses to which a child/teenager can be exposed to by confessors/priests, religion professors. Others jumped to defend the Church in the name of the values of the traditional Christian values, justifying the confession of teenagers, the spiritual authority of priests and of religious education. An active supporter of supplementary secularisation (meant to further reduce the influence of the Church in the public space), deputy Remus Cernea proposed that religion classes are replaced with ethics.
On the other side of the barricade, it has been denounced a new campaign of discrediting the Church. Considered, of course, as unjust and perverted.
There are three key-issues in this otherwise mundane matter: the prestige of monastic life in the Orthodox culture, the decisive role of the priest-confessor in the life of lay people, the ethical crisis of the societies dominated by the Orthodox Church. Christian monastic life was born in the desert of Egypt, remote (in geographic, but especially symbolic terms) from a Roman society still hostile to the new belief, but also from a Church considered as too lax. But, through the centuries, it was integrated in the new Christian civilisation as essential part, with a decisive influence. Both in the West and East. Without getting into the details of this evolution, let’s notice the unique prestige acquired by the monastic life in the Byzantine world. A moral, but also an intellectual prestige. The monk was the embodiment of Christian perfection, a model worth to be followed by all others, the spearhead of a hierarchy of human typologies. His way of life, aspirations and mentality irradiated in all the layers of the Byzantine society, without real rivals in terms of symbolic prestige.
It is not by mere chance that Orthodox culture is massively dominated by monks: their ascetic life is glorified, their mystical revelations are envied, their words are invested with prophetic value, their relics are venerated in churches and icons popularise them from the heart of cities to the most remote hamlet. Contemporary Orthodoxy (especially in countries with millenary tradition) proudly assumes their Byzantine heritage. And in our postmodern times, monastic life enjoys a surprising prosperity and, especially, a unique prestige. Explanations combine several layers: spiritual withdrawal from postcommunism, expansion of religious charismaticism, defensive appeal to traditionalism under the pressure of globalisation, valuing of peripheral social cultures etc. Whatever the causes, the effect is surprising. From the pious peasant to the intellectual full of contradictions, from the politician that stands in the first rows of people at titular feasts to the young pilgrim they all frequent the monastic milieu.
Moreover, they regard monks as potentially charismatic persons and those who make a name among them as almost undisputable authorities. Well, in such a culture, what can be, if not more natural (because it is an exceptional gesture anyway), at least more praiseworthy than choosing the monastic life? A not so polished Orthodox, Gigi Becali, made a suitable commented of the event: “Happy the parents of that girl and happy Romania for still giving birth to saints. What can be more beautiful in the world than being the bride of Christ?” He hit the nail on the head: sanctity is mostly the attribute of monks and nuns. This preconceived idea is still very alive in the Orthodox world.

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