Orthodoxy. The word has always had a strange taste in my mouth, as if it were an arcane branch of medicine or an obscure and ancient legal state of affairs. Until this past year, when I moved naively to Istanbul on a vague and ill-defined search for an experience of the Other, my knowledge of Orthodoxy was almost purely academic. I’d read Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World in my first year of university (and probably missed the point), and I’d had a few conversations with a former Anglican of my acquaintance who had gone on to be baptized Orthodox in his late twenties, but in my limited understanding of the Orthodox I thought of them as a sort of eastern Catholic – all liturgy and incense and icons. I was to find out exactly how wrong I was, and how impoverished my understanding of global Christianity had been. I should first say one thing: this is not an academic essay. It is a reflection on some experiences I have had in the last year, experiences that have touched me intellectually as well as emotionally. But to say that is not to excuse error or sloppy thinking; I hope rather that it will be a kernel that stimulates an interest in this strange and ancient tradition that so many of us in the West know so little about.
In the weeks after I arrived in Istanbul I saw little evidence of the Orthodox presence. The Greek and Armenian churches were generally hidden behind high walls and stuck down small alleyways. Even the towering Agia Triada in Taksim Square was frustratingly difficult to gain entrance to anytime except Sunday morning. Like the Greek and Armenian populations themselves, the deep Orthodox roots of the city were not obliterated but were kept quietly and unobtrusively on the margins. It was in November, during the Islamic holiday of Kurban Bayram – the Feast of the Sacrifice – that I had my first great encounter with the Orthodox faith.
My decision to visit the famous monasteries of Mt. Athos was fairly spontaneous. In my mind it inhabited the general realm of places to visit while in Istanbul, but aside from some stories I’d been told by one of my English professors (who had visited the Holy Mountain some years before) I had little idea of what it would be like. I found myself on a sunny Tuesday morning on a ferry heading south along the peninsula’s green bulk, surrounded by lay people, monks, and priests from parishes across the eastern world. I was an obvious foreigner; not only to Greece but more importantly to the mysterious, ancient Orthodox world whose heartland was rising out of the water beside us.
It was late that evening by the time I walked exhausted through the gates of the Monastery of Agia Dionysou, only a few minutes before they were set to close for the night, but I was welcomed in by the monks whose business it was to deal with visiting pilgrims – I had walked from Dafni (a good seven hours or so along rugged coastline) and was starving. To my great surprise I was handed over to the care of a Canadian monk named Mike, a scruffy-looking fellow with a great nicotine stained beard who had lived in Toronto in earlier years. After eating my fill of beans and heavy monastery bread, Mike took me to the pilgrims quarters, filled with cheerful Greeks drinking coffee and smoking on the balcony overlooking a dizzying drop down sheer stone walls to the sea below.
I was surprised to see monks smoking – perhaps a reaction to my evangelical upbringing which lumped smoking in with any number of other sins, but more likely because smoking seemed to be such a fleshly pleasure; surely not something the sanctified monks of Mount Athos should be engaging in. But I slowly began to realize that Orthodox theology and practice is an odd mix of severity and freedom which defies my simple North American dualism which so eagerly divides everything along liberal/conservative lines; these monks were not the silent, otherworldly Holy Men that I had expected to encounter, and their communities were not the solemn houses of prayer I been preparing for. Like any other human community, the monasteries of Athos were places where people worked, disagreed, prayed, ate, joked, became annoyed, and argued about who would clean the toilets. It was strangely comforting to think that these were also the places where theosis, that most important monastic work, was carried out.
Mount Athos has been called the Garden of the Virgin Mary. At one point, while scrambling down a hillside covered in thorn bushes and creeping vines, filthy and sweating, I thought sardonically to myself that Mary hadn’t kept the place up particularly well. Though at the time I was rather embarrassed by the thought – I was doing my level protestant best, after all, to cultivate a proper sense of reverence – as I pondered the experience later on I began to understand a little more what had at first been mysterious to me. I was used to seeing the monastic life as one of renunciation: a monk gives up things of the flesh in order to focus on the spirit. This balance-sheet view made a sort of intuitive dualistic sense, and there may be some truth to it, but I began to realize renunciation was only the first step. If the body is not inherently evil (and the Orthodox have always maintained that it isn’t) then to give up the pleasures of the body, to punish the body, is not inherently good. Renunciation has value only if it leads us to something else.
As I became aware of the fact that for the Athonite monks monastic life did not signal any less of an engagement with the world (both the material world of rocks and thorn trees and the less immediate world of ideas, political bodies and people who are annoying) I also began to realize that the renunciation practised by the monks was not drawn out of a revulsion towards a stained, sinful material world but a discipline meant to form the material body and its material desires towards a properly-ordered engagement with the world. Renunciation allows one to appreciate, understand and respect the gifts they are given in a way that brings the gifts under their control rather than allowing them to become subject to a need or dependence. To practice and perfect such a life leads to a freedom of the richest and most subtle kind. The monk, ideally, is not constrained by his vows because he is in control of his own desires – sex is no evil thing, but it is something the monk recognizes he should not engage in given the life he seeks to lead; food is for the body, and the body for food, but the Lord shall destroy them both. In a world in which freedom is increasingly seen in terms of what one can demand in order to feed one’s appetites, such an inversion is radical indeed.
The most humbling element of this experience, however, came months later, when I was still in the process of sorting many of these strands of thought out. I was with an American Orthodox friend at a Starbucks in Nisantasi getting very excited indeed about this notion of freedom, when he gently interrupted me to point out that while the theology of such a notion of spirituality is all well and good, it is fundamentally a practical thing.
Intellectual mastery of the idea is a roadmap. Knowing how to get to Mt. Athos doesn’t mean you are there.
Andre Forget is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He recently completed a bachelor of arts at Canadian Mennonite University in English, and has spent the last year traveling and teaching in Istanbul, Turkey. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.