William Barlow. But she never gets to grips with crucial questions of theology
Why Angels Fall: A Journey Through Orthodox Europe From Byzantium to Kosovo by Victoria Clark, Macmillan £19
J1IST BEFORE I set out for Greece to study the Orthodox Church on its own ground, Archbishop Michael Ramsey invited me to tea at Lambeth Palace to brief me on what to expect. He recalled telling the Patriarch of Alexandria of the Anglican Church's respect for the Orthodox Church's sense of history. The Patriarch, a venerable figure, after a long silence took Archbishop Ramsey completely aback by complaining that "your Fleet has been shelling Alexandria" as though this 19th century event had just occurred.
A similarly bizarre quality pervades the whole of Victoria Clark's immensely readable account of her travels amongst Orthodox Christians in Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, Greece, Cyprus and Istanbul. They come across as a most peculiar lot, having persecution complexes, a yearning for martyrdom and holding apocalyptic views of history with a tendency to see Jewish plots and Western deviousness everywhere. The clergy especially seem quite mad.
Her aim is to throw light on the nature and history of Orthodox culture by focussing on what she sees as two its prevalent features: phyletism, or religious nationalism, for which she discovers much evidence, and hesychasm, or prayer of the heart, which is not so easily detected but which she thinks can be seen in the eyes.
The starting point is Byzantium, which sets the standard through its harmonious relationship between Church and State inspired by an exalted Christian vision. Her contention is that this idyllic situation was forfeited through pride, caused by historical events which threatened the Orthodox world, unleashing an acute national awareness, unbalanced and fanatical, and leaving hesychasm as the only redeeming and enduring feature.
Unhappily, it is the fanaticism and lack of balance which is most in evidence, and the writer describes it vividly against an informative and historically sound backcloth to each of the
countries she visits. We learn much from this, not least how answerable the West is, through its arrogant dealings with the Orthodox, whom it never really understood and was always intent on bringing to heel or converting, as well as in the minds of people for whom the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 might as well have happened yesterday. She recognises also that the Christian East and West developed acutely different spiritual stances long before the Great Schism of 1054. Not surprisingly, her book calls for greater mutual understanding.
A certain bizarreness, however. also characterises the writer's approach to her subject. One bishop put his finger on it by saying that "you seem awfully interested in politics for someone writ, ing about Orthodoxy". She would argue that her atheism prevented her from meeting Orthodoxy head on. Gogol, however, believed that those most vulnerable to the Orthodox liturgy are unbelievers. What is true, as she realises. is that a Western religious upbringing can be an obstacle to understanding Orthodoxy. Yet she stands apart, not in her atheism, but
in her not having experienced, seemingly, the problems which have made Western Christians look eastward. The absence of icons in the Christian West goes unremarked. a significant omission for anyone trying to understand Eastern Orthodoxy. She misses the mark also in thinking that what attracts most Westerners is hesychasm, and she is altogether mistaken in seeing hesychasm as the guardian of Orthodox spiritual vitality.What is being sought is a better way of worshipping and the Liturgy, which is the true repository of Orthodox spirituality, provides it. It makes no sense therefore to speak of hesychast bishops. The test is Orthodoxy.
To seek out hesychasts, moreover, whilst avoiding theological discourse with believers because "they live on the mountain tops of dogma" is foolhardy, since hesychasm is incomprehensible apart from right belief and, as Evagrius the Monk famously said, "a theologian is one who prays". Hesychasm, furthermore, demolishes the myth, here confidently asserted. that "the West has lost its heart, the East its head". Prayer of the heart, in fact, implies a centredness where the intellect finds its proper place and this is where the difference lies.
TI-IE MISTAKES made here are perhaps symptomatic of the writer's approach to her subject, and it is curious that someone writing about Orthodoxy should begin with Mount Athos, from which. being female, she is barred. It gives a parabolic significance to a story, very well told, in which the writer sees a very great deal. But to see is not to perceive, whilst seeing too much can be a form of blindness. The encounter with Orthodoxy comes very quickly to those who seek it for the right reason. But if you believe, like the writer, that Orthodoxy is derivative and that "without Byzantium there would have been no Orthodoxy" you make a fundamental error which will consign you to the periphery of your subject so that you skirt around it, as here, although not without purpose. The truth is that Orthodoxy proceeds from the Gospel and that is why not history, nor even the gates of hell, have prevailed against it.