Russian Prison Tattoos

22 04 2009

Recently, I watched the documentary film, The Mark of Cain, on the tattoos and life in Russia’s harshest prisons. It was interesting to see how symbols of Orthodox Christianity were used by criminals to symbolize their biography of crime. Cupolas on a church, for example, symbolize how many crimes they have committed in their criminal history. A Golgotha scene represents murder, while thieves have their own symbols, and so forth. I highly recommend this documentary, but it is not for the faint of heart.

It reminded me quite a bit of the phenomena in Mexico of criminals tattooing Santa Muerte on themselves as a promise to her, though the tattoos of the Russian inmates seemed to be far less significant in terms of their religious interpretation.





Finding Folk Orthodoxy

26 03 2009

evil-eye

A couple of years ago, I wrote a provocative piece on my experiences with Eastern Orthodoxy in this country. In it, I wrote that in my past encounters with Orthodoxy, what I usually found was a boutique religion for the white middle class, or alternatively, an ethnic church closed off from the rest of society, and not much else in between. In terms of the former, the most likely suspect to convert to Orthodoxy is a (usually white) religious maverick who wants to re-discover the “New Testament Church” as founded by Jesus Christ without the “popish” baggage that Roman Catholicism has to offer. Compared to the suburban white-washed suburban mega-parishes and the “supersitious” masses of the Latino barrio parish, Orthodoxy seems to have all of it i’s dotted and t’s crossed. There is, of course, the presence of the ethnic Orthodox, who often don’t come to Divine Liturgy on time or only grace the shadow of the church for a baptism or wedding, but they are a small price to pay for being in a church that doesn’t have “idolatrous” statues or the “Filioque” (that sum of all errors). The convert can thus enjoy his “true religion” detached from all of the cultural baggage of the “old country”. He may even seek refuge in an old, long fogotten past, being nostalgic for an “Orthodox Western Europe” that never was.

My own religious project since I wrote that polemical essay two years ago has changed substantially. It is very easy to find out what the Church says about itself. One only need look at such books as Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma or a similar book to find out what you should believe. That is the religious center of the Faith; the safe region, the core of what the clergy say is to believed by all. But what role, if any, does the periphery hold; what is the role of belief that grows spontaneously outside of the control of the “official Church”? And what relation, if any, does the official Church have with these beliefs? Living in the 21st century, and having passed through the paradigm shifts of early modernity, it is very easy to dismiss half of the things that our grandparents believed in as superstition or remnants of a pagan past. My nagging suspicion, however, is that without these things that were at the periphery ( or underground, unofficial, or quasi-forbidden), the center cannot hold. The death of the religious imagination of our forefathers is leading to the death of religion itself.
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Traditional Christianity as Magic

22 10 2008

Fearsome Pirate gives us some food for thought:

I first noticed this when he talked about the monasteries in Russia. The first word he used to describe monks was “powerful.” The fastidious life of monks allows them to tap into great power and profoundly shape invisible realities–it really sounds a bit Star Wars the way he talks about it–and they basically live on a higher plane than the rest of us. At one particular monastery, they have saved bread cooked by a particularly powerful monk hundreds of years ago and bake it into new loaves in order to distribute the holy energy to others. Icons work a similar way–by being painted the right way, blessed with the right words, and anointed with the right reagents, they too are imbued with great power, many of them with miraculous healing power.

He has read my mind. Stay tuned for next week…





More from the Mailbox

17 09 2008

A continuation of a previous conversation:

Of course the liturgy of the Byzantine Church is infinitely better than the Latin Church. Why do you think I had anything to do with it? Just because I “liked it” or that it made me “feel closer to God!” There are many reasons for why it is better.

The Latin Church has always been rather primitive. It tends far more towards the “mystical” and direct “feeling” approach because it is so far behind the eight ball when it comes to brains. They (Latins) never really got into the big theological debates of the first 7 councils. They have always promoted a Jesus-centric, (not even Christo-centric) spirituality. They have never really come to terms with the role of the Mother of God. All the major liturgical feasts of the BVM were imported from the East and the Reformation never had a clue what it was all about. Of course you could start on the Holy Spirit and the ease with which they stuck the Filioque in the Creed and screwed up the order of the sacraments of Initiation.

I went to the local Jesuit Church the other day as it was the anniversary of my Mother’s death. Sometimes that Church commemorates members of my family (that day they didn’t.) Anyway it was a Vietnamese priest in a very small “Lady Chapel” with a congregation of 20 with a cumulative age of 2,000 years. Anyway, it was clear form the way that the priest was “carrying on” that he thought that the Mass was a “re-enactment” of the Last Supper. He was playing the role of Jesus and we the apostles. This Latin tradition goes way back. Why did they change the bread to look more like mazza? Why could they get on for so long with out an epiklesis. It’s because their liturgy has only 2 dimensions, past (may be Jesus) and present (may be the re-enactment and sacrifice to the Father). The eschatological dimension is very weak (I’m being charitable).

The Spirit, is the “active principle” who carries the liturgy forward and brings it into the perfection of the kingdom. It is only in the light of the future life that the liturgy makes sense. Therefore it is “mysterious” because we do not know what the future life will be like, all we know is that it will be “like” the liturgy.

This may be why the question of the “real presence” were never very big in the East. The present status of the “bread” is determined not only by past (what Jesus said) or present (what the bread “is”) but more importantly how the whole thing is a foretaste of reality. Reality for us is mysterious -hidden and covered. Only when reality finally breaks through into our world will the Eucharist and the liturgical life not be “mysterious”.

It’s the “open window” of the physicality of the Byzantine Liturgy that makes its so much superior for us to the Latin liturgy. It is the product of a sophisticated, intellectual world – a world that had inherited the Greek language from the classical world, as well as all the permutations that Greek philosophy had undergone. And the Byzantine world knew this perfectly well. It was all judged in the light of the Gospel but certainly not rejected.

The Latin Church is the result of a Church struggling with the collapse of a political entity who had had a “borrowed” culture. It has battle for its physical and intellectual existence from its earliest days. When persecution ended the first thing the Church did was to abandon the West and move East. The Eastern Emperor often paid off the barbarians to go and sack the West and leave the East in peace. I think you can get a feel for what is going on by looking at the Latin translation of the Bible. It is so cloth-eared and country bumpkin. And they love it. Look what happened with Pius XII’s attempt to clean up the psalms. Everyone hated it.

Anyway never fear Mr V. Eternity is long and one day the Latin Church will feel at home in its own shoes. Just look how “un-scriptural” the Church became after the Reformation. The Bible was something for the Protestants! Bouyer somewhere says an interesting thing…It was the classical revival that did for the Bible in the West. Classical mythology and values became the currency of literature. People could tell you who “Shining Athena” was but had no idea who Ruth was!

Anyway the Church is struggling to “re-capture” the Bible…Will it work? I don’t know. It hasn’t worked so far…

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There are lots of things in here that I don’t agree with, but they deserve to be brought up anyway. I will address them later. It is interesting to note that the man who wrote this is an Eastern Catholic.