While we were in Kiev last week, another place we visited was the monastery of the caves, a warren of cells deep underground. The active monastery above ground is Russian Orthodox, and the holy things below constitute one of the most unholy things I have ever seen. But there are some Western Christians who think of Orthodoxy as this beautiful thing, as the next big shiny object ecclesiastically speaking, and they really need to get an eyeful of the unvarnished version, and then sit down and think for a bit.
The paths through the caves were just over six feet tall, and maybe a yard wide. There were little alcoves along the sides, where dead bodies of monks were laid out in glass cases. These paths were crowded with devout women, kissing the cases, praying and singing. The bodies of the monks were doing their silent service as icons, communicating divine energies.
Along the way were little holes in the walls, about the size of a cantaloupe. These were the places where particularly pious monks had had themselves bricked in, buried alive underground, because that was something that somebody, at some point, had decided would impress God. Food would be passed into them through their little hole, and their waste could be passed out. Eventually, after their years of vain glory in the dark, they would die in there, and nobody had to mess with a burial. They had been buried years before. All of this for Jesus—the demands of Jesus are total, and somebody thought that this obviously must include the concept of the total waste.
The monastery had been founded long ago, in the eleventh century, and some Western Christians, enamored of an East they do not understand, might be tempted to think that this is a form of devotion that we scarcely see anymore, since it is obviously such an old timey thing. Sure, you can find all kinds of weird things in the antique pages of the history books. Right?
Except this devotion and macabre worship was being offered up in the year of our Lord 2017. And the place was crowded.
Someone else might object that every church, every theological tradition, has dirty deeds in their past to be ashamed of. What is the sense in hauling out some tawdry object from someone else’s past? Why not concentrate on our own? Since I am a Calvinist, wouldn’t it be more edifying if I focused on something like the Salem witch trials?
Okay, this need not detain us long. Two things about that. First, that hysteria broke out during a time when the royal charter of Massachusetts had lapsed, and the colony as a whole had no lawful mechanism for dealing with the Salem monstrosity. As soon as someone got back from England with a renewed charter, the local insanity was suppressed by the governor at the request of the Puritan ministers at large. I dare say that you have never heard about how the Puritans opposed the witch trials? So I do reject the idea that the Salem trials were in any way representative of the Puritans as a whole.
But it was a filthy business, nevertheless, and it was something that called for the deepest repentance—something that the judges from the witch trials themselves came to understand, all but one. That one was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ancestor, by the way. And to whatever extent it does represent us, to that same extent modern Calvinists are heartily ashamed of the whole thing, and repudiate it utterly. Here were professed Christians admitting spectral evidence, centuries before people learned how to handle such evidence on the Internet.
And so what would we make of some modern sophomoric Christians, bedazzled by the psalm singing, say, who joined themselves to a little microbrewery Calvinist denomination, one that met annually in Salem in order to leave wreaths on the grave of that one unrepentant judge? We might ask such purblind Christians to give some modest account of themselves. We might stare at them in that baleful Parkeresque “what fresh hell is this?” kind of way.
And that is the same kind of stink eye we should be using when other Christians adopt something ugly because they read a beautiful passage in a book by Alexander Schmemann. Rather than getting a new groove, it might be better to get a grip.
So let us be honest here. The idea that piety could ever be displayed through being walled up in a voluntary dungeon, in what should be described as a literal and ultimate prison of will worship, is an idea that is demented, pathological, demonic.
And there is more. There was icing on this particular will worship cake. When we were entering the caves, my companion Bubu, who was wearing shorts, was given an apron to tie around his waist in order to cover up his bare legs. I have never seen such a striking example of straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel in all my born days.
Down below, we had people praying through carcasses, and we had dried out bones lying on the floors behind the silent walls, and up top we had people policing bare knees, and also making sure all the women had head coverings before going down below to witness, hopefully with admiration in their hearts, the remnants of what can only be described as a spiritual insanity.
In the West, Orthodoxy can be seen as just another denomination, with a liturgy that is merely a bit gaudier than most. And it can be seen that way because it is functioning in a largely Protestantized culture. Nobody can see what happens when it has had a dominant influence on a culture for centuries. But that kind of thing is visible in principle—there are places in the world where it can still be witnessed, out in the open, and where nobody is embarrassed by it.
They lay the wreath on the grave of that one valiant witch trial judge who never backed down. What a man of God! Or perhaps we can make him a man of God if we light enough candles in front of his bones. Or if we kiss his casket enough. That might do it.