Monday, September 13, 2004

The downward pull of the Cross

September 14: Feast of the Holy Cross

Henri Nouwen describes the Cross as being symbolic of the "downward pull" of divine compassion, of God's willingness to enter into solidarity with our weakness and suffering.

Strange indeed, then, that in the modern Orthodox Church the cross has become symbolic of the "upward pull" of competition and advancement. For a priest to wear a cross is a sign that he is advancing through the ranks, moving up in the world of the clergy. The more ornate the cross, the more golden and bejeweled, the higher the ranking of the priest.

This is a sign of a deep spiritual sickness. Some of our priests and bishops seem to be possessed of a kind of rhinestone fetish, an obsession with jewel-encrusted crosses and medallia. As a possible antidote, let me offer the following words of St. Basil:

Why do you find gold so alluring? Gold is, after all, merely a kind of mineral, as is silver or pearl. Chrysolite, beryl, agate, hyacinth, amethyst and jasper: they are all nothing but stones. These indeed comprise the rainbow hues of wealth. Some you hoard for yourself, concealing them and covering their luminous facets with darkness, while the more precious ones you carry with you, filled with conceit by their sight of their luster. Tell me, what benefit do you acquire by whirling your hand about resplendent with gems? Should you not rather blush for shame, having this strange craving for pebbles, like the cravings of pregnant women? Expectant mothers sometimes gnaw pebbles, and you have a similarly greedy appetite for brightly colored stones: sardonyx, jasper, and amethyst.

St. Basil the Great, "To the Rich"

All the diamonds in this world
That mean anything to me
Are conjured up by wind and sunlight
Sparkling on the sea

Bruce Cockburn


Stacy said...

Do you advocate for barren Church walls, too?

Please don't think of my quesions as antagonistic but simply trying to understand.

"This is a sign of a deep spiritual sickness."

I understand your point, and indeed if there is competition, I concur, but at the same time the point seems very Puritanical.

The ornateness of the cross is also a way for people to identify with the symbolism of the role. In the Old Testament God gave the people ritual sacrifices as a way to return to Him in repentence (I'm not particularly fond of my wording there, but I can't think of another way to put it right now) and yet we also learned that the sacrifice God wants is a broken and contrite heart. (The Psalms: King David's Blog -- ha ha). My point is to not throw the baby out with the bath water. Coming out of a very austere tradition, the ornateness of the Orthodox Church helped me to gain a context and sense of the theology of the Church.

As with all things... it seems that humility is key.

Sampson said...

Dear Stacy,

Beauty in the Church can serve an important purpose, but it is not an absolute. It can also become a form of abuse, when it crowds out other things: justice, mercy, and faith. And for this reason there have always been saints of the Church who have seen fit to dispense with the Church's beautiful ornaments in order to create a higher form of beauty. Many of the saints sold the sacred vessels and ornamentations of the Church in order to feed and care for the poor. St. Acacius of Amida sold the sacred vessels from the altar in order to redeem Persian prisoners of war who were starving to death. St. Ambrose of Milan did the same. And St. Rabbula of Edessa stripped the Church of adornment in order that it might be adorned with the beauty of the poor. He was discovered when a wealthy donor recognized the fabric of the altar cloth he had donated as part of an actress's costume. And there were many others, so many, in fact, that this became a major problem within the Church in the 5th-7th centuries.

The beauty of the Church in Byzantine times, unfortunately, was not the result of the gifts of the people of God. It was rather the result, in most cases, of lavish benefactions by wealthy patrons, sometimes even the Emperor himself, whose portraits are included among the haloed icons of the saints. These beautiful churches of antiquity are imperial churches, not churches of the people, Stacy. Unfortunately, in the post-imperial era we have modeled our expectations of what a church should look like on these imperial churches, with the result that we spend exorbitant amounts of money on beautiful architecture and iconography, but almost nothing on the poor, on missions, or on ministry to our seniors.

I've been to Mount Athos. The monasteries there are fortresses, with six-foot-thick walls and foot-thick doors of solid iron-banded oak. Why? Because they possessed incredible wealth, gifts and benefations from wealthy patrons, which they had to protect against pirates and thieves. Sometimes they fought and killed to protect the wealth of the monastery. Piracy was the single most influential factor in monastic architecture of the 11th-15th centuries. I look at these medieval castles posing as houses of prayer, and I ask myself, "Is this the Gospel of Christ? Build fortresses to protect your immense wealth from those who would steal it from you?"

I wonder.