What have I been reduced to!? Living in suburbia is awesome for having a family, but man, I’m dying here for good coffee! Alas, I wrote this most recent post at a Peet’s Coffee near our new house in Castro Valley. Reliable and dependable, yes, but I apologize profusely to coffee snobs and artsy San Franciscans. I will find something worthy of my blogging one day soon, I promise!!
“So how’s it going?”
These were the first words spoken by my parish priest the first time I can recall going to confession, probably at about ten years old. He had just concluded saying the initial prayers in front of an icon of Christ, and we had sat down in two chairs facing each other. How’s it going?? For such an incredibly profound mystery, that is, the loosing and remission of sins which the Lord gave to His disciples, it seemed like a pretty, well… casual way to begin.
“How’s school?” and “How’s your family doing?” followed.
I was immediately at ease. Father Steve and I talked as normally as anyone would with another person. He gave me some great advice, assured me that God loved me, said a final prayer and that was that.
I don’t recall the setting or the circumstances, perhaps during Western Lent, but around that same time in Catholic school, I had a confession experience which was a bit different. At that time all students were being encouraged to participate in a form of confession whether Catholic or not. I’m inclined to think it was just meeting with the priest to give each student an opportunity to get some guilt off their chest and maybe receive some advice.
In any case, I remember going to an area behind the altar of the church that looked a little like a living room but with two chairs side by side on the same wall and a screen separating them. Father Angelovic was already sitting in one, I went and sat in the other. I never saw his face, nor was the conversation ever less than formal. I said a few words, he gave maybe a tidbit of advice, said a prayer, and I left. I confess (ha!) it felt a bit strange, but maybe because it was so different from what I was used to.
In the past I’ve written about how much I admire and respect the Catholic Church, and love stories that take place within a traditionally Catholic setting. I really do. I think there’s tremendous beauty to be found there. I’ve also talked a bit about how the Western world’s perception of Christianity and religion in general has been shaped by the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages and the conflicts which took place within it- church vs. state, religion vs. science, inquisitions, and later Protestantism vs. Catholicism in all its many forms, which resulted in the thousands of branches of Christianity we have today, sadly.
One aftereffect of all these events which I did not mention last month and affects Orthodox Christians in the West is a tendency of Protestantism to automatically disregard aspects of Christianity that resemble Catholicism, or to simply lump everything in with Catholicism as the “right wing of the Catholic Church,” which I recently heard someone say. Vestments? Check. Sacraments? Check. Confession? Check. Liturgical worship? Check. As a friend of mine in college put it after I told her I was an Orthodox Christian, “I thought if you weren’t Catholic you were Protestant?”
A part of me wonders what would have become of those early reformers, and thus the rest of Western society, had Orthodoxy been given a chance to be presented to them. At that time, of course, the Eastern Christians were very much under the yolk of the Ottoman Empire, and although correspondence did take place between Augsburg and Constantinople, did it ever really have a chance to be probed, explored, and thoroughly tried out? What would the West’s reaction have been had it known a church existed in the East in which church vs. state and science vs. religion were never issues? Or that inquisitions and forced conversions never took place?
When it comes to pop culture references to this form of church- the checklist I referred to earlier- often the audience is at the mercy of these pre-existing stereotypes, grounded in truth or not. Matt Murdock is a fascinating character and Daredevil is one of the greatest comic book concepts of all time, to be sure. But whenever there is a dream sequence in which Matt or any character visualizes his fears of failure or the good vs. evil struggle he tries to live through, I wonder if writers know there’s an alternative to the fire and brimstone, Dante’s Inferno imagery which is used and overused so often.
Not everything involves seven circles and pitchforks, folks.
I understand that this is mostly just artistic choice, an embellishment to liven the story up a bit, especially since the characters in the story are larger than life. After all, I don’t know how many Catholics actually visualize Dante’s works when considering their own spiritual life. Even so, in comic books and other works of fiction I wonder if these stories don’t contribute to a small, almost imperceptible erosion of people’s perceptions of Christianity.
I also understand that we Orthodox, less than 1% of the population of the United States collectively, aren’t active enough on our end to make our voice heard, to apply ointment to the world’s wounds. I was asked a few months ago if there were any Orthodox characters in comic books nowadays. I couldn’t think of one! And let us state again that we Orthodox, while not having followed the same course of history as our Western brethren, are very human and far from perfect, as well. Even so, I believe that there is a great deal of good that can be offered the world by our Church if given the chance.
Our branch of Christianity developed and grew out of the same part of the world that Jesus walked and that Paul traveled. In its essence there is something that is fundamentally different about the Orthodox Church that most of the world (including many Orthodox!) aren’t even aware of. There is a synthesis of the solemnity and meditation of the Far East with the theology found within the truth of the Gospel. There is structure and yet vast amounts of wiggle room to allow for completely differing opinions on the same issue!
Are people aware of this? Are our own people aware of this?
I should also note, and can’t underscore it enough, that of course the Catholic Church of today is a vastly different one than that of the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church does an incredible amount of good in the world that is not stated enough! In many ways, the Vatican has been apologizing for the various human shortcomings in its history right down to the present day. And I must, must, must be clear that in no way, shape, or form am I saying that the sacrament of confession in the West is not valid or a cleansing experience. We battle against stigma, which in most cases is different from reality.
Comic book legend and current Hollywood filmmaker Frank Miller said when he began writing Daredevil that any character who was a superhero and also a lawyer “needed to be Catholic.” Ever since, writers such as Ann Nocenti, Brian Michael Bendis and Kevin Smith have taken this dichotomy and run with it, often crafting brilliant stories in the process. But I ask the question of myself, “Will anyone in pop culture ever understand that this isn’t all there is?”
Cool stories, certainly. But what would be really cool is if I turned on Netflix one day and saw Matt Murdock walk into a confessional to hear the words, “So how’s it going?”
“Seek God, not where God lives.” – Abba Sisoes