Book Review: Clark, Why Angles Fall. Reviewed by Tom Gallagher
- Balkan Academic Book Review 18/2000
Victoria Clark, Why Angels Fall: A Journey Through Orthodox Europe From Byzantium to Kosovo. London: Macmillan, 2000. xviii + 460 Price 18.99 (GBP) (Hardcover) ISBN 0333 75185 X.
Reviewed by Tom Gallagher (Bradford University). Email: t.g.gallagher@...
After two years of talking to monks, nuns, priests and archbishops, British journalist Victoria Clark has produced a portrait of Eastern Orthodoxy from Croatia and Kosovo to Siberia and Cyprus.
She shows herself to be an intrepid journalist, enthusiastic and talented travel writer, and no means historian, one capable of measuring the growing gulf between western and eastern Christianity. The 1054 schism which ended Christian unity caused a separation whose effects she believes are dangerously underrated. The sacking of Constantinople by the 4th Crusaders in 1204, an 'orgy of rape and pillage*the like of which the medieval world had not seen since the barbarian invasions', turned the schism into an acrimonious divorce. It was 'a centuries-long public relations disaster for the west'.
What most Westerners are unable to remember, many in the Orthodox world cannot easily forget. It is probably only in an Orthodox country like Greece that a terrorist group November 17 could 'draw a parallel between a fifteenth-century Catholic pope's demand that Byzantium submit to Rome, and America's arrogant assumption of supremacy today'. Clark warns that historical wounds like that one, as well as history coloured by myth and prejudice, are in danger of putting Orthodoxy on a collision course with the west.
Orthodox distrust of the west is usually expressed by anti-Americanism. Archimandrite Benedict, interviewed in the Bosnian town of Bijelina, sees Washington's post-1995 intervention in Bosnia as a step on the way towards world domination and 'the extermination of orthodoxy'. Fr Emilian, living on an island outside the Romanian town of Snagov, believes 'the whore of Babylon in the Book of revelation is obviously America - a country without traditions, without history, without anything'. For Fr Symion, a young monk on the Greek island of Patmos, it is New York City which is the Whore of Babylon.
Would it come as a surprise to these clerics to know that many well-placed American churchmen of a fundamentalist disposition, used such anathemas against the modernising and secular trends in their own society for several generations as the USA was transiting from being a rural to an industrial society? Or that Hindu activists in India and Muslims in parts of the Islamic world deploy similar invective, often in a bid to promote the cultural and economic nationalism in which traditional religion thrives?
Clark's Yankee-hating clergymen seem to have forgotten that the USA has one of the highest percentages of regular churchgoers anywhere on Earth and that religion pervades society in ways it is impossible to imagine will happen in Russia in anyone's lifetime. For that matter, Eastern Orthodoxy is also in better shape in the USA than in parts of South Eastern Europe.
Archimandrite Benedict's warning that 'the Orthodox Church loses by every inch of western progress - telephones, roads, the internet, whatever is foolish. Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of the Greek church, is more sensible. He has set up a Greek Orthodox internet site and radio station and he is enthusing Greek youth with a catchy new slogan: 'Orthodoxy is cool'.
But Christodoulos is second to none in his opposition to the US intervention in Kosovo. The heavy-handed American interference in Cyprus during the Cold War which contributed to the division of the island has created wounds that have yet to heal. But, in a selective reading of history, the Greek Orthodox establishment seems to forget that, but for American assistance to Greece after 1947, little stood in the way of the country falling into the hands of pro-Soviet forces deeply hostile to institutional religion.
Clark does meet more restrained clergy such as Fr Krstan in Sarajevo ready to absolve the USA*and Germany of profound wrong-doing in the Yugoslav conflict:
'In this war Germany took in three hundred thousand refugees and has been
feeding them for five years. All our traditional allies did not do as much. As far as
America and NATO go, we may grouse and try to find scapegoats, but at some
point we have to say thank you because they have stopped the war here'.
Patriarch Bartholomaios, the most eminent orthodox churchman, rejected Clark's view that the war in Yugoslavia was reactivating old European divisions, believing instead that they 'resulted from typical, small human causes'.
Clark meets, and is duly impressed by, ascetic churchmen inspired by luminous Orthodoxy and uncontaminated by religious aggression or worldly ambition. These belong to the hesychast church tradition which is seen as at variance with the heresy of phyletism that assumes forms such as religious sectarianism and exaggerated nationalism. Goran, Clark's travelling companion in ex-Yugoslavia, believes that tensions between the sublime and the profane are normal ones in parts of the Orthodox world 'where people stoop very low in the moral sense but also rise very high, unlike the West where differences are not so great thanks to the legacy of the French revolution and democratic regimes'.
An undoubted revival in Orthodox belief has occurred among the young in some countries. 600 new monks have joined the communities on Holy Mountain' Mt Athos in the 1990s, reverting the decline that reached a nadir in 1970 when there were only just over a thousand'. Most are Greeks, many drawn by an especially charismatic generation of spiritual fathers who have buried the old licentious image of orthodoxy's holiest spot. In Romania, by contrast, knowledgeable Orthodox figures reckoned that the vast majority of young people flocking top monasteries were 'economic refugees' seeking a lifetime's meal ticket.
National rivalries in the world of Orthodoxy continue to block the rise of an inclusive and universal church which might act as a true counterweight to Catholicism and Islam. Victoria Clark found too many echoes of the sorry situation H.N. Brailsford was confronted with in Macedonia a century ago. This Balkan specialist noted that the preoccupation of rival bishops was with an 'incessant round of intrigues and violence by which each church in Macedonia retained its place against its rivals. Their trade is intolerance and their business propaganda'. Clark recollects the redoubtable Germanos, archbishop of Kastoria , commemorated now by a statue in Thessaloniki and the visit made by Brailsford to his palace: 'There above my head, on the wall in a conspicuous place, hung the photograph of a ghastly head, severed at the neck, with a bullet through the jaw, dripping blood'. Clark relates that '[t]he head had belonged to a Bulgarian chief whom the Bishop had murdered*'
Clark soon concluded that the nationalism was not all one-sided when, upon visiting Archbishop Mihail, head of the schismatic Macedonian orthodox Church, she was disturbed to see a clock in 'the instantly recognisable shape of Greater Macedonia'. Memories of attempts by 19th century clerics to use education as a means of control and expansion can still be stirred. Clark quotes a Greek religious refrain from that era:
'Albanians, Wallachians, Bulgarians,
speakers of other tongues, rejoice!
And ready yourselves all to become Greeks
Abandoning your barbaric tongue, speech, customs
So that to your descendants they may appear as myths'
Today nationalist sensibilities threaten to undermine the peace of the Holy Mountain. Clark relates:
'The Greek foreign ministry has been striving to ensure that a revival of the
Serb, Russian, Bulgarian and Romanian monasteries does not begin to rival
that of the Greek monasteries. Requests for monks' and visitors' visas for
citizens of those countries have simply been ignored*The demise of Communism
in eastern Europe followed by the bloody dissolution of former Yugoslavia
has only fuelled the Greek authorities' terror of Mount Athos being invaded by
thousands of Romanian, Serb and Russian economic refugees all masquerading
as novice monks, all planning to gain Greek citizenship before disrobing and
quitting the Holy Mountain to seek their worldly fortunes in Greece'.
Abbot Tikhon of Verkhoturye disparaged Greek claims to lead the world's Orthodox churches:
'Greece, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia are all itsy-bitsy little
countries! You have to understand only one thing: Russia alone is great
enough to bear God!'
The concept of a Russia restored to Orthodox Christianity feeling itself to be the Third Rome certainly appears to have plenty of life in it. Romania fears both Russian designs on its territory and used to fear the Greek desire to exercise cultural and religious hegemony. Before independence, a quarter of Wallachia and almost a third of Moldavia were in the hands of monasteries run by Greeks, these provinces becoming renowned as 'the Peru of the Greeks' on account of the wealth they provided. Perhaps it explains why moderate Romanian church voices, seeking a modus vivendi with the West, appear more numerous than elsewhere and why Romania was the first Orthodox country to which the present Pope paid a visit. Metropolitan Daniel of Moldavia warned Clark about taking Samuel Huntington's theory of clashing civilizations too seriously. He said that 'the Russians love Huntington's book because they see a role for themselves as the boss of this so-called Orthodox bloc'. 'The point ', Daniel insisted, is that East and west are complementary and MUST NOT become isolated from each other again'.
'In his book about clashing civilizations', Daniel insisted, Huntington 'is talking about blocs and ideology, not about realities*Look at Britain today - you have I don't know how many Asians and Africans living there'.
The subject of multi-cultural Britain was also raised by Bishop Kacavenda of Tuzla. He warned that the English would wake up too late to find that their land had been overrun by Asian Muslims. He implied to Clark that 'they would only have themselves to blame for not having embarked a little sooner on their own orgy of ethnic cleansing'. (Tuzla one of the few Bosnian cities to preserve its multi-faith character had rejected this militant prelate). But Fr Mihail, encountered by Clark in Pristina on the eve of the Kosovo war, assumed that the English were learning already from their Balkan cousins: Princess Diana, he insisted 'was killed on the orders of your Queen*that was her punishment for fucking a Muslim'.
This is one of the few places in the book where a woman is accorded any serious role by the clergymen encountered by Clark, not a few of whom advise her to enter a nunnery or else take an Orthodox husband in order to become closer to their faith.
The most dispiriting part of the book is undoubtedly the ease with which Clark was able to find clerics prepared to exonerate or praise blood-stained despots, some of whom visited terrible suffering on the church.
In 1994 the Greek Church saw fit to decorate Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader indicted by the UN war Crimes Tribunal, with the 900-year-old order of St Dionysius of Xanthe and hail him as 'one of the most prominent sons of our Lord Jesus Christ working for peace'. Anti-Americanism has proven to be a bridge on which the authoritarian left and right in Greece have found common ground. Panayote Dimitras, a fearless human rights watchdog in Greece, has noticed the emergence of 'a disparate alliance between the KKE (Communist Party), the fanatic Orthodox*and the nationalist circles in the main parties'.(Note 1) Virtually forgotten now is the key supporting role the Orthodox hierarchy played during the 1967-73 colonel's dictatorship. By the early 1990s, Andreas Papandreou, Premier for most of the 1980s and head of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, was visiting monasteries to make his peace with the church.
But it is Russia where the Orthodox Church was pulverised by communism, where the accommodation between atheistic communism and he Russian Orthodox Church is so striking. The pillars of Tsarist state ideology - Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationhood - are appealing to many clergy, young and old. The communists toppled the first but preserved the other two. The Orthodox and communist camps believe a strong leader and a quarantine from the contaminating West would set Russia to rights. Presumably Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries and NATO's eastward advance are seen as part of the same insidious process by radicals on the right and left.
Archimandrite Tikhon was convinced that 'Russia can't be run in a vulgar democratic way. It can only be a huge country run by a mighty hand'. He told Clark that the gulag had been a Jewish invention, the Russian mentality not being capable of conceiving such a thing. Clark 'knew for a fact that sons of clergymen were at least as well represented as Jews in the upper echelons of the Bolshevik Party, in much the same way as former Communist activists are well represented among Russian clergy today'. But she decided it was pointless to argue with this young media-conscious Orthodox priest. She was even more dismayed upon encountering Fr Dmitri Dudko, a dissident priest who spent 8 years in Brezhnev's jails when he wrote:
'Stalin was given us by God. He created such a powerful state that no matter how
hard they tried to destroy it, it couldn't be finished off*If we look at Stalin
from God's point of view, he was really a special person, given by God and
saved by God*That's why I, being an Orthodox Christian and a Russian patriot,
am bowing low to Stalin'.
It would have been illuminating if Clark had devoted more space to charting the secular influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia and less on accounting her own, sometimes prosaic, travel experiences. She might also have sought deeper explanations as to why the Orthodox church has been so accommodating towards political tyranny even when it has received so few favours in return. Sabrina Ramet's work on Orthodoxy and politics, 'Nihil Obstat' (Duke University Press 1998) is not listed in an otherwise comprehensive bibliography and might have prompted a stimulating appraisal of religion and politics in the Orthodox context.
The possibility cannot be overlooked that somewhere in the Orthodox world, a religious figure may acquire overwhelming secular power. In the Byzantine empire the church-state relationship was one of relative harmony and synthesis. Peter the Great established the model of Caesaropapism in the 18th century whereby the Orthodox Church became one of the main branches of the state administration with the Tsar as its supreme overlord. What if the roles were reversed and Russia or Greece became a theocratic state in which unconvincing parties were marginalized and religious authority enveloped the secular sphere. On current trends it is unlikely that clerical rule would be liberal or outward-looking. Cyprus's Archbishop Makarios, the most famous Orthodox churchman ever, was political as well as spiritual leader of his flock from 1950 to 1977. The hostility Makarios faced from the British, the Americans and from Turkey as he promoted union with Greece will be remembered by many Greek Cypriots but it is largely forgotten that those who tried to kill him in 1974 and opened the way for the partition of the island were fellow Greek Orthodox believers aligned to the Colonels regime in Athens.
Greece would appear to be the country where the Orthodox church and the nationalist and religious values it stands for are in healthiest shape. The media represents different shades of nationalism and it is reluctant to report any news that reflects badly on the church. Strong defenders of the secular state based on respect of the individual and minority rights are thin on the ground. The Church is able to generate mass opposition to the Schengen Agreement on the basis that the bar-code allocated to the Greeks under it, includes the number 666. In the Book of Revelation, the mark of the Beast is 666 and many superstitious Greeks are convinced that it heralds the end of the world. Similar outbursts of mass anxiety have gripped societies like the USA and Northern Ireland, usually when, as with Greece, they have been going through a painful process of modernisation.
But there are signs of hope. Most new monastic recruits are 'not only spiritually motivated but also highly educated' and less concerned with the material world than their predecessors. A church enjoying a spiritual renaissance might not feel the need to take excursions to the wilder shores of nationalism in order to prove its relevance.
At least the Greek church is in no danger of becoming a compliant arm of the state as happened in Russia under Peter the Great. Clark shows how the docility of the Russian Orthodox Church and its refusal even to allow a printed translation of the Bible into Russian to appear until 1876 had a disastrous effect on Russian historical development. By the 1900s there was 'an empty space in the heart of Russia's new urban masses and educational intelligentsia' that would be filled by communism and 'its man-centred universe'.
Inevitably, a number of things are absent whose inclusion would have been welcomed. The absence of a theology critical of temporal power might have been examined. Perhaps more of a search might have been undertaken to find clergymen and indeed nuns engaged in projects of social renewal and rehabilitation in countries were millions have been psychologically and physically wrecked by the effects of communism. Certainly the growth in Orthodox vocations and the revival in spirituality must lead to the emergence of church social reformers sympathetic to the Augustinian idea of realizing the Kingdom of God on Earth. In many ways, North American evangelical missionaries have already shown the way in helping to revive moribund communities in a number of orthodox countries and, while bemoaning their presence, Orthodox churches may slowly learn from their example.
The role of women, or the lack of it, in Orthodox churches deserved more attention. Women show far greater enterprise and capacity for self-sacrifice than men in the Orthodox world and perhaps one reason for the continuing debility of Orthodoxy is the failure of the church to make more use of them.
Finally, the lack of a chapter on Bulgaria is to be regretted since it is one of the few Orthodox countries relatively untroubled by secessionism, burning minority disputes or conflicts with its neighbours. Perhaps a different kind of Orthodox church, less embattled than those in Russia, Greece, and Yugoslavia has emerged there.
These criticisms aside, Victoria Clark is to be congratulated for producing a pioneering and fascinating exploration of Eastern Orthodoxy which is a great accomplishment.
1. Panayote Elias Dimitras, 'The Greeks' Persistent Anti-Americanism', Greek Helsinki Monitor, Athens 2 December 1999.
(c) 2000 Balkan Academic News.
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