October 12, 2006

Past Into Present

"In reality, the past is preserved by itself automatically. In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside."

Henri Bergson
(from Creative Evolution)

If you don’t think that past is present, ask any native Southerner. Even better, ask an Orthodox Christian. Both are immersed in a culture saturated with reminders of heroes, villains and stories from a past sometimes made fuzzy by time and circumstance. A somewhat skewed analogy to be sure, but for both a basic premise holds; tradition is good, hidebound tradition is worse.

To that point, there is a lot of debate/discussion in the Orthodox-blogosphere lately about newcomers to the Orthodox faith, and a somewhat surprising conversation about the meaning/purpose of priestly garb and accoutrements.

I think at the heart of these discussions is the question of how will Orthodoxy incorporate the past into the present? How to make compatible the Orthodox emphasis on slow change within traditional boundaries with the influx of new things, new ideas, and new people? This is certainly not the first time the church has been forced to have this discussion. Perhaps it is different here because America is such a unique place. Perhaps it is our hubris that makes us think so.

I have not experienced any of the “us against them” mentality or any ethnic bias. The majority of the parishioners are, like myself, converts who came looking for a place that was stable, a tradition that held to tradition, not a tradition of shifting standards and flexible truth. We are glad to be on the ark of salvation and we are not really concerned with what the priest does or does not wear, or whether or not it is what they would have worn in the old country, or the minutiae of what the buttons may or may not mean. We know we have found the true faith and (hopefully) we spend our time growing as much as we can. We don’t want change for change’s sake. We want what only the Church has to offer. We want to immerse ourselves in the reminders of the past, the Divine Liturgy, icons, incense, prayer, confession, fasting. We do not want to reinvent the Protestant tradition within the Orthodox Church. We spent too much time getting away to look back.

It is much the same here in the South. Anyone who has spent any time here has seen the ubiquitous Confederate battle flags, the innumerable other references to the Lost Cause. William Faulkner, and most other Southern writers, have as an enduring motif the notion that the past is still with us, inextricably bound up, and with, the present and has a palpable influence on everyday life and decisions. For Faulkner it is the lost antebellum splendor, the ghost of slavery, the pain of defeat. The past is of course not all good, the specter of Jim Crow, poverty, the good ol’ boy system, the Dukes of Hazzard. But there are so many good things to embrace: fish grits, manners, an acceptance of strangers, a certain piety, collective memory, family. The best we can do is to be willing to let go of that which harms us individually and as a people. We can hold on to that which is good, that which is right, to the ties that bind. We recognize and reject those who would hold on to any notion of inequality, separation or bigotry. Sometimes the past is best left there.

It’s the same way in relationships. The past can be a source of great comfort or great discomfort. It is a great place to look for lessons about dealing with the future. Sometimes the past seems so real that we feel trapped in it. Sometimes the past can be very comfortable, too comfortable. Inevitably we all have to (or at least should) face the reality that change in inevitable. People change. Relationships change. Everything changes. We are all in the process of becoming. It is much better if we are becoming what God would have us to be. Corporately and individually we must learn from our mistakes, forgive each other, be compassionate.

On a lighter note, here is my best try at a faux-Faulkner sentence. It’s a transitional passage from a much longer work:

“The man who put Yoknapatawpha on the Mississippi map showed him how to stand on the threshold of today, using new forms and experimenting, while casting an eye always backward for the sources, eeking out the effluvium of a past long, long dead, ghosting with ghosts that would not leave, shackled to the story of a war lost and an honor kept, embittered beyond recompense, seeking the antebellum splendor of a civilization that thought itself noble, but really now, even though the past was equal to present for those raised in ancestral families and on land long reaped by dissembling captives, was only a people still on the edge and still in the dark.”


DebD said...

If you don’t think that past is present, ask any native Southerner. Even better, ask an Orthodox Christian.
Yes, ask anyone who grew up at the hands of an abusive or neglective parent. Oh yes, it is always there surrounding us and with a lot of hope and prayer it is spurring us to be better parents ourselves.


I think we also want the stability that comes with Orthodoxy. It is changless and remains the same. I am not looking for "new and improved" any longer. I don't want Orthodoxy to change, I want it to change me.

Thanks for these good, thoughtful words.


November In My Soul said...


You're absolutely right about the echoes of neglect staying with us. I also agree about the solidity of Orthodoxy. Oddly enough, for awhile I struggled with just that issue. But as you say, Orthodoxy didn't change, I did.

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.