I am not an Orthodox Christian. (I am not an orthodox anything.) Among my immediate blood ancestors there is Scandinavian Lutheranism, Southern Baptism, and Mormonism (I am not just any Smith, either). I wound up in a private Catholic school, and as a strategy to make me fit in better socially I was caused to be baptized at the age of 13 (the strategy didn't work). My mother re-married into the reform Jewish world, and now on that side of the family bar mitzvahs and Passover are as important as any other dates on the calendar. My father, I take it, is a libre penseur, but often mentions how impressed he was by Thomas Aquinas's version of the cosmological argument (that there must be a first cause).
To this not totally atypical history of American mongrelism it should be added that I have spent significant portions of my life in the Orthodox Christian world, and have had many important life experiences within it, involving both love and death. These experiences have at times caused me to respond, at least aesthetically and perhaps even 'spiritually', to Orthodox symbols: to say inwardly, at the sight of a blackened icon, something like, 'I get it'.
If I may attempt to distill some sort of essence out of Orthodox Christianity in just a few words, it is the variety of Christianity that still takes love and death seriously, that continues to have its hand in the way these are lived by individual members of the church, and to actively and minutely prescribe the ritual forms through which they are to be lived. The Enlightenment never happened, there is nothing about sola fide, and religion remains deeply entrenched in, some might say confined by, ritual.
The ritual keeps the realities of human life --particularly death-- constantly in view. Think of the display of Father Zosima's body in The Brothers Karamazov, and how disappointed Alyosha is when it begins to smell: this means he is not a saint after all. A curious way of making such a determination, but what it entails, among other things, is that dead bodies, and not just Zosima's, are left exposed long enough to figure out their prospects for sainthood. Corpses are put out there to reckon with, not hidden away and euphemized. In at least the Romanian variety of Orthodoxy, dead bodies are traditionally dug up by family members after 7 years in order to wash the bones. I've been told the smell is something awful. Death gets in your nose.
To the right is a photograph of Vitaliy Dergachev. It is the only photo I have of him, and most certainly the only one of him online. It was taken in my dorm room in Leningrad in 1990. You will notice my hair-sculpting products on the nightstand, alongside a stack of audiocassettes. He is looking at my train ticket to Moscow.
This Saturday will be the 20th anniversary of Vitaliy's death. On my reckoning, roughly half of the blame for this goes to alcohol, and roughly half to the hardline communist generals who, between 19 and 21 August, 1991, staged a coup d'état against the Gorbachev regime and sent all of Russia into a few days of, let us say, more chaos than usual. The generals' failure marked Yeltsin's unfortunate rise to power (he stood on a tank and looked brave and defiant for a moment), but that's all just politics and that's not what I'm here to write about.
I was a few days late in getting to Russia, thanks to the generals and their tanks in the streets of Moscow and Leningrad. I was waiting at the Warsaw airport for LOT to resume its service to Russia, watching what I could of CNN but mostly making things out from the Polish media. My original ticket would have had me there one day before Vitaliy died; instead, I arrived one day after. Vitaliy fell off the roof of his highrise apartment block. Apparently, he had been drunk, and was amusing himself by balancing on the thin balustrade. Again, it is not as though the putschists killed him directly. They did not shoot him in the head. But if I may engage in some amateur counterfactual history, I suspect that had there not been a coup, Vitaliy would not have been drunk and balancing on the balustrade. Blame who you will.
Anyway, he fell, I was late in getting there, and the first several days of my return to Russia were spent in a vortex of Russian mourning: performative, tragic, tiring. There were a number of hangers-on at Vitaliy's mother's apartment, other Leningrad urchins who, like Vitaliy, loved the Beatles far more than I would have tolerated from Western friends at that point in my life, who had been in and out of jail over the course of the 1980s for trading in bootlegged Beatles albums. There was a self-styled American writer named Winston hanging around, who was probably just some college kid. Vitaliy's mother was up and down, now serving tea and sweets with an ecstatic smile, now face down on the couch, heaving.
After three days or so there was a funeral, and needless to say it was open-casket. Vitaliy had been entirely reconstructed after his fall, and his face was covered with foundation make-up, hastily brushed on to hide the damage. I don't recall much of the service, except that the incense was overwhelming and the women were all putting on a good show of wailing.
What I remember more clearly is the pilgrimage to the cemetery afterwards: the hunchbacked gravediggers; how we all had to line up and kiss Vitaliy just before the coffin was put in the ground (I kissed his forehead, though others, including his mother, went straight for the lips); how we threw little religious trinkets and packs of cigarettes and poured vodka and beer into the coffin just before the lid was closed for good; how we all helped to throw dirt on top of the coffin before the hunchbacks came and finished the job. Sometimes, as I'm walking down the aisle of Whole Foods or something stupid like that, I recall in a flash that I was once involved in such a thing, and it is hard like death to carry on.
Once I was married in the Romanian Orthodox church. While Catholics and at least neo-Protestants like to get married in big flashy palaces (whether of the cathedral or the mega-church variety), the Orthodox seek out the most humble places of workship they can find. Now I was allowed to be involved in all of this without converting to Orthodoxy because I was, so it was emphasized at the time, a Catholic, and in at least this region of the Orthodox world there was some ancient entente with the Catholics that enabled cross-marriage. So there I was getting married in what Californian mega-church-goers would consider a clapboard shack, would associate architecturally with the religion of their own hillbilly ancestors. And yet this shack was actively sought out, and it was deemed pure, and utterly Christian, because primitive. Perhaps the limit case of this primitiveness is a holy site near the Agapia Monastery in northeastern Romania. It is a cave, and it was once the dwelling place of the venerable Mother Theodora of Sihla, who lived there for decades, wrapping her hair around her body instead of wearing clothes, talking to the animals. You can go there today and pray before icons and light candles in the dim glow beneath two slabs of incalculably many tons of rock: slabs leaning against one another, maintaining a tall sliver between them that stands across the centuries. Depending on how the candles flicker, you can sometimes make out the dark faces (not so much chiaroscuro as oscuroscuro) of icons painted directly into the cave walls, much as at Lascaux some millennia earlier.
Once I arrived at the end of a service at a church in Athens. Communion had already been taken, and the priest was on his way out. Some underlings brought the leftover consecrated bread out to the entrance of the church and the beggars and cripples of Athens dug in like pigeons. This was transubstantiated bread, mind you, supposedly the body of Christ. Now it always seemed to me that in Western churches the communion wafer was not really bread any more than it was really Christ: to take it was not just to eat Christ symbolically, but also to eat symbolically (how many calories do you think an Anglican wafer has?). The Athenian poor were at least getting something out of this ceremony, I thought: bread. This was a proper, living mystery. There could be no doubt but that transubstantiation had occurred.