In the early 1980's I met a brilliant young woman. She introduced me to the Christian Orthodox faith. Before that time, I had varying levels of acquaintance with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and various animistic religions of the Orient. That other kind of Christianity, the one from Eastern Europe, had never really crossed my path. Over a lot of coffee and cigarettes, she taught me more and more about the mystical side of mainline Christianity. It is the side most people never know. It is the side of Christianity that was not
dominated by Augustine of Hippo and his acolytes, by hyper-rationality, by the pretense that spirituality is logical according to how the world judges. Rarely in Western Christianity do we have the courage to drop logic, rules and regulations in favor of lived mystical experience.
From my friend, I learned that she grew up in a background where mysticism was simply expected. It was the norm. If we discussed it, I can't recall, but I have often wondered if it was something in the water—or the wars—that caused such vast differences in the spiritualities of the people of Eastern and Western Christianity. Was it that Eastern Christianity was subject to the emperors while Roman bishops evolved into emperors? Was it the desert, mountains and constant invasions from all directions that caused the people of the East to develop a spirituality which led them up the steps to heaven while still on earth? Was it the fertile lands, the relative calm that led the West to develop its legalistic spirituality?
From observing my friend and other Eastern Christians I came to the conclusion that, outside of monastery and convent life, it is almost impossible to develop a similar mystical spirituality in the West, much less receive it as a birthright.
After walking inside the door of an Orthodox Church, I almost did not come out again.
There I found like-minded women, men and children who believe that the primary purpose for our existence is to become divinized. In some of the most basic and ancient of all spiritual developments humans realized that Our Creator wishes us to become like Itself. We may not become the Divine, but we can become more like the Divine.
In the Eastern Orthodox churches I first attended I found many converts from Catholicism and Lutheranism. The converts had simply become disgusted with what they considered an ever-increasing loss of spirituality—of the mystical roots of our lives—in the American churches. In their conversions to Eastern Orthodoxy, they found their souls filled. It wasn't the incense, bells and singing that filled them. For that they could have watched an old Hollywood movie. It was how those things, along with the fundamental beliefs in being led into the mysteries of their unity with Divine, led them ever closer to the ultimate goal of their lives.
Divinization with the Creator.
Some of the people I met had been through hell. Their families had been wealthy, nobles, peasants or merchants before they had come to America. Some of their families had come in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. They had become a part of the fabric of American life. Others had been persecuted by the Bolsheviks and the spread of the twentieth century dictatorships in Europe. They had lost more than lands or money. They had seen friends and family murdered. They survived concentration camps. Things happened to them that they could never tell their best friends or children, much less a priest.
Who would understand?
But in those small churches they had found communion with people like themselves. They were with people who had struggled to come to America, to stay alive. Food and clothing were never enough. They would show me their icons, their most valuable possessions. This, they said, kept me alive. It would be an icon of Christ or one of the Theotokas, the Mother of God. It was the knowledge that God and Mary would take care of them that kept them alive in the camps of the Soviet Union and the Nazis.
Those mystics had survived so that their children might thrive, just as mystics have done for their biological and spiritual children since the beginning of time.
Months ago I met a young man who very much reminds me of the mystics I met half a lifetime ago. Nobody could even guess who he really is. He works as a waiter to pay the bills. In his real life he has a deep and holy belief in the Sacred. It came as a total surprise to discover my new friend is an artist. His passion is sacred geometry.
Holy men and women have used all sorts of arts since the beginning of time. Whether it is the healing arts, music, painting or chiseling the Moses from a hunk of marble, mystics have sought to express their love and hope through what they can do best.
When I listen to the Voice of God, I hope I hear my young friend's painting.
Painting by Valentin Arrellin