Cult of Personality

Cult of Personality

Published: May 4, 2010 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

The devotion quoted below (from “First Radio Parish Church of America”) has been circulating the internet in the days since it was posted, particularly among the Orthodox.  It is, frankly, quite nice to have such sympathetic attention drawn to Orthodox liturgical practice.  I suspect much of its popularity is precisely because of such sympathetic attention on an otherwise quite Protestant website.  In addition, it highlights a number of aspects of Orthodoxy which are true, or, more honestly, which some of us would like to be true.  So while I appreciate elements of its characterization of Orthodoxy, and certainly resonate with the danger inherent in cults of personality, there is quite a bit here that is disingenuous.  I wouldn’t think the more disingenuous elements worthy of comment except that they are rhetorical descriptions which are voiced by many Orthodox, and I am not at all sure they are true.  They feed into a construction of ourselves, and a construction of us by others, which seems more about how we want to portray ourselves (or be portrayed) than about how we really are.

We could take a cue from Orthodoxy, whose priests stand with their backs to their congregation, leading a liturgy that is neither clever nor impassioned, but simply beautiful, like stone smoothed by centuries of rhythmic tides. It’s an austere ritual, in the sense of - there’s nothing new here; it’s sublime, in the sense of - creating a clearer view into Heaven. The priest can be any priest. Who he is, what he looks like, how he speaks, and what he thinks matter little. He hasn’t written the service that he officiates. It isn’t about him or his prowess. He’s an interchangeable functionary draped in brocaded robes, obscured by incense, and, as such, never points to himself, a flawed human, pointing ever and only to the Perfection of the Mysterious Divine. That is the role of every priest or preacher - invisibility, while making God seen.

Cults of Personality

As I said, I agree that cults of personality can be dangerous.  But Orthodoxy is hardly protected from this danger by its liturgical practice.  Take for instance, John Chrysostom.  It seems probably that the packed ecclesias was due more to the eloquence of this golden-tongued preacher of Constantinople (and Antioch) than any draw inherent in the liturgy.  Chrysostom himself comments with disapproval at the all-too-frequent departure of the faithful before the Eucharist, though after his preaching.  While the disturbingly early rise of infrequent communion in the East has complicated roots, what is clear is that people flocked to his preaching not the Eucharist or its liturgical setting.  He was dynamic, controversial, a rhetor among rhetors.  Upon his exile and death, his flock refused to follow his successor.  This was certainly in part due to their approval of his critique of their Empress.  But there is no question that his personality, expressed through his preaching, drew people in.  Please don’t misunderstand me, I love his sermons.  But Chrysostom was not an “interchangeable functionary,” and his theology of the priesthood argues quite vehemently that Orthodox priests should be preachers of both theological knowledge and rhetorical skill.  He bemoans, among other things such as corruption, dishonesty and favoritism, incompetence.  The inability to teach with truth and persuasive power was seen by Chrysostom as a disqualification from the priesthood.  I might want to modify his rhetorical passion here, but Orthodoxy has (perhaps until recently) valued the interpretive skills of its best preachers.

Simply Beautiful

No one can deny the beauty of Orthodoxy.  How many times has the experience of Prince Vladimir of Kiev’s representatives to Constantinople been cited, “we did not know if we were on heaven or on earth,” to underscore the importance of beauty in the Orthodox liturgy?  But to say “austere”?  How is the Orthodox liturgy austere?  Our churches are covered in gold-flecked icons, candles abound, the brocaded garments of those in the alter are ornate, lavish, rich (and quite expensive!).  As a Protestant friend of mine once commented, we have more “liturgical props” than she thought possible.  We have turned simply fans to keep away flies into ornate, gold-rayed icons.  We have taken a very pragmatic transfer of bread and wine from the entrance of a Church to the alter and turned it into a dramatic procession in which virtually every body in the altar participates.  The only services that in my experience are remotely austere might be Vigil and Matins services.  In the Liturgy, all stops are removed.  Our current rite reflects not the rite of small village churches, but the rite of the great cities of the empire, with all the attendant pomp and circumstance, all the trappings of the royal functionaries that Byzantium could bestow.  Individual congregations may be able to pull of the pomp to more or less degrees, and certain cultures use more or less gold, but our liturgy is lavish, not austere.

Us against Them

The reason I find descriptions of Orthodoxy as “austere,” not “impassioned”, and simple is because such phrases tend, in my reading, to pop up with disturbing regularity when we describe ourselves in opposition to something else, most often “the West” (whatever that is).  Eugene Trubetskoĭ a Russian politician, philosopher and commentator on icons, constantly contrasts the “spiritual stillness” typified in Russian icons to the maudlin emotion of supposedly “Christian” Renaissance art.  He is equally dismissive of the Byzantine style of iconography, from which the Russian style sprang but, of course, improved upon.  Ouspensky and Lossky take similar tacts, condemning the “emotionalism” of the West in favor of the two-dimensional, other-worldly, obviously-closer-to-the-things-of-God icons of Russia (okay, they are slightly less Russophile).2  Yet as I stood before an icon (Gregory of Nyssa?  The Apostle John? Shame on me that I can’t remember now…) at the Met, at the Byzantium: Faith and Power exhibit, I was overwhelmed at the three-dimensional, emotive dynamism of this full length portrait.3  It was the first time in my life as an Orthodox (that would be my whole life) that I suddenly, viscerally understood how an icon is the presence of a person, not simply a portrayal of them.  This may be a comment on the quality of icons in our local churches (sorry…), or perhaps it is a comment on my aesthetic sensibilities.

Yet isn’t this aesthetic sensibility, or lack thereof, part of the problem?  I do not believe there is a simple, universal aesthetic. Though there is a large overlap regarding what is considered beautiful, much of what is considered beautiful is culturally contingent and taught.  Our icons and texts are interpreted.  Perhaps we can interpret our liturgy as austere despite its evident drama, emotive musical settings (both Russian music and Byzantine chant are emotive!  This is what “word-painting” is!) only in a context where we are confronted with an aesthetic and emotive sensibility other than our own.  Perhaps this is why Trubetskoĭ and others can so freely glorify Russian iconography and music over its Byzantine sources (no worries folks, there is plenty of equally dubious Byzantine push-back to this trend), because the Russian aesthetic is different than the Byzantine, and so an Orthodoxy matured in Russia will look different than one matured in Byzantium, or Greece (which is no longer Byzantium), or, someday North America.  If we Orthodox can characterize our ritual as austere and our icons as “still” and our music as non-emotive, it is because our sensibilities are confused.  We have actually lost (or for those of us who never were Byzantine, never had) our Byzantine aesthetic sensibilities which understood the emotive content of our ritual and icons.  Of course, the Byzantines understood the emotive content because they wrote it for themselves.  The liturgy we have today was for their culture, built upon their aesthetic sensibilities.  To be Orthodox in North America at least, is to participate in a culture other than one’s own (not necessarily a bad thing, but not a virtue in and of itself).

What I find most disturbing is that underlying these mischaracterizations is a sometimes not-so-subtle religious and cultural imperialism or pervasive inferiority complex (you decide).  It is an insistence of superiority without attempting to ask, much less respect, how variant rituals, visual portrayals or musical settings enable their participants to move further towards divine-human communion.  I am not saying that any way is a good way.  I am however, disturbed at the ease with which we mischaracterize ourselves and others in order to elevate our practice and exclude the other.  The problem is not that we are dismissing culture in some horribly intolerant manner.  The problem is that we might be blinding ourselves to the work of God through the materials of the world because they are shaped by hands other than our own.  We might be missing the presence of God in the matter of the world.  We might be missing our sacrament.  How can we participate in the work of God if we cannot (or are unwilling to) see it?

Having said this, and perhaps undermining the tidy bit of rhetoric above, I have to say: I certainly wish that we Orthodox could remember that the priest does not point to himself but to “the Perfection of the Mysterious Divine.”  If we did, perhaps we would be scandalized at our continued insistence that only males can point to the divine.

  • 1. Daily Devotions, First Radio Parish Church of America:
  • 2. Ouspensky, Léonide, and Vladimir Lossky. The Meaning of Icons. 2nd ed. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982.
  • 3. Interesting to note, according to an iconographer friend who heard it in a lecture, that Ouspensky never saw the Sinai icons, and so developed a theology of icons that perhaps unintentionally emphasized a regional style.