ursusanglicanus (ursusanglicanus) wrote,

Paganism and Russian Orthodoxy

I looked out of my bedroom window last week in the Russian city where I was staying. In front of me was a large, square building, recognizable as a church by its union cupola and some traditional ornamentation, and the people going in and out on for radonitsa, celebrating the first time prayers for the dead are permitted liturgically after Easter, and including visits to cemeteries. On this occasion, and on other occasions during my stay in Russia, the dividing line between Christianity and pre-Christian paganism, seemed particularly thin. The Slavs, like many ancient peoples, had a tradition of visiting family members' graves during the springtime and feasting together with them, and I sensed that this was a direct follow-on.

There is a lot of the ‘pagan’ in Russian Orthodoxy,
in particular among the less well-educated. Chanting in half-understood (‘mystical’) languages, walking around in complex configurations in coloured vestments, with incense and candles in dark churches plays to a sense of the numinous, as does the sense of ‘particularly holy space’ accorded to the sanctuary, often hidden from the common people and accessible only to a selected few. Certain icons, especially of the Mother of God, seem to reach back into pagan idol practice. Priests can become slightly magical figures, the continuation of the ‘shaman’. In ritual, message and medium become inextricably entangled.

I hesitate to condemn this: increasingly I suspect that Russian Orthodoxy, at least in its public worship aspect, is about 80% general religion (allgemeinreligiöses), about man’s inherent sense of the numinous and of the interplay of our tangible world with other, less tangible ones. As a celebrant, especially in country/small-town settings, I sensed that what I was doing rooted well back before the conversion of Russia in the 10th century. Pagan, if you like, but something that one shuts out of one’s public and private life to one’s peril.

These are roots that we need to keep. Protestantism has done itself a disservice by cutting them away, and is it no accident that psychotherapy started largely in Protestant countries and in Judaism where these roots are absent. Roman Catholicism after Vatican II, pruned too hard, and had to backtrack, finally reintroducing the more ‘ritualist’ Latin Mass.

But at the same time Christianity has to be more than this. Paganism unites to the world around, but it lacks forward movement towards any sense of perfection or higher goal. It has no telos.
Tags: allgemeinreligiöses, russian orthodoxy
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