Saturday, 23 April 2011

Without shared rituals

I know it's a bit pointless to keep raving on about Antonio Munoz Molina, when his articles and blog are in Spanish. On the other hand, so much of his writing is interesting and beautiful enough to be worth sharing even at second hand. Today he writes of the great processions of Holy Week in Spain; of how alienated he felt, as an awkward, questioning youngster, from these obligatory public manifestations - obligatory like so much of the stifling conformity of life under dictatorship and therefore inextricable for him from state oppression. He pleads eloquently for the right to not take part, whether your motive is profound dissent or just not being in the mood.

Munoz Molina's is a sensibility that resonates deeply with me. I can imagine sharing these feelings if, like him, I'd grown up in a provincial city in the long decades of Franco's Spain. And yet, and yet... don't collective, universal rituals exist, haven't they always existed, because they express a deep need to lose ourselves in something bigger, for catharsis? Isn't there a great psychic cost to a life without them? And doesn't the Easter ritual, happening over several days and explicitly passing through horror, mourning, contemplation and deliverance, express and help to hold some great truths of life?

Antonio Munoz Molina has recently become part of my near-daily reading. Beth Adams' blog, the cassandra pages, has long been part of it and I've been following her account of Easter services in the Anglican Christchurch Cathedral in Montreal, where she sings in the choir. She's the blogger par excellence, sharing through music, sketches and photographs as well as words - a gentle, informal drawing into her daily reality. I have found myself riveted and ambivalent. Brought up Anglican, I was not much engaged and often bored by services and, by adolescence, increasingly alienated by the working-class Protestant ethic (work and cleanliness are next to godliness; we don't have much and that's what we deserve, but we're more deserving than they are). Not hard, then, to identify with the young Spanish boy's alienation from his church and its cooption by a repressive ideology. But also, there's a deep pleasure in hymns and readings familiar so early they can never be forgotten, and the sheltering space and light of a church is something I learned to love as an adult seeking respite from the crowded chaos of the world outside. So there's considerable allure in what Beth recounts, and the subtle, thoughtful interpretations of which she speaks, of which Anglican writer Esther de Waal speaks, are vastly different from those which affronted me as a child.

I have a yen to experience a Greek Orthodox Easter, and one of these years will make sure I'm there for it. The disturbing and wonderful Orthodox singing, the whole village in church for candles lit at midnight and the cry of Christ is Risen! - my heart longs for this, for a ritual of renewal that clearly goes back further than Christianity.

My own slow yearning in middle age for a recognition of the spiritual has led me to Buddhism. The minimalism of the Vipassana and Zen traditions have been, and remain, compelling and have led in their own way to huge, surging feelings and an experience as collective as it is individual. But the more extroverted kind of public religious expression is not part of these, and I yearn for that too, even though, like Antonio Munoz Molina, I dissented from it so early and so thoroughly I can never take part without reservation. If I get to Greece for Easter one day, I will only be a tourist. 

6 comments:

Peter said...

Such a beautiful post. I was talking with some Episcopalians yesterday about the drama of their Maundy Thursday service. At its end, the celebrants, having removed their surplices, remove everything from the altar except the cross, which they drape with a black veil. The recessional is entirely silent, as is everyone as they leave the building. I remember being positively shocked by it as a child.

You're quite right about shared rituals. You're also quite right about Beth's blog!

Beth said...

You're both too kind.

(I love the Maundy Thursday ritual now, Peter! The sheep scatter...)

Jean, my friend M., raised in the Catholic church of old Quebec, came on Good Friday and expressed some of the same feelings you do here. I think it's quite common - both the desire and the resistance,and sense it's too late to ever return to unselfconscious participation. Maybe it is - I don't know. I dont' think it matters how we access that side of ourselves. And I deeply appreciate your honesty.

Vivien said...

I miss shared rituals - I'd like to belong to a church or faith group but find their beliefs aren't that of my cast of mind (though I'm not against them at all). If I go to a Christian service I love the music but haven't much of a clue what they're talking about ("God was made man", "The meek shall inherit the earth", etc).

Have written more in a comment on Beth's blog.

Have been twice to the Easter Russian Orthodox service in the cathedral in Ennismore Gardens, SW7 - the music is wonderful.
At midnight the lights are dimmed and all the people light their own candles, to the cry of "Christ is risen". The silver frames of the icons glimmer in the candlelight.

I do hope it still happens like this - maybe Elf and Safety have got wind of it! When I was last there someone's hair got slightly singed by the candle of the person behind - they didn't mind at all.

It's a very conventional service, not as moving in a way as those in smaller churches. But the music is magnificent.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Jean, I much prefer the Greek or Russian Orthodox services (especially at Easter) to the Catholic ones, even though I was brought up in the latter. But I can't really connect to the Anglican tradition, it feels foreign to me.
I can well understand your and Munoz's dissidence and I think I would only be able to return to some regular religious rituals if they were held in some remote island monastery, probably Greek.

Lucy said...

So much here that resonates and gives pause for thought. In truth I really don't like congregations, at least not on a regular basis, and visiting for special occasions I will inevitably, and happily, be an outsider, a tourist.

When we lived in Devon, near Totnes, (which by and large we disliked because of the pressure be part of an alternative but also quite conformist community, it wasn't any easier than the old kind in the end...) the vicar there, whom I respected quite a lot in any contact I had with him, was interested in the Orthodox church. He conducted a Good Friday tenebrae(?) service, with a special group of singers. It was extraordinary, deep and moving, and very contemplative. It's the galloping exctroversion of so much active religion now which puts me off, in part. It seems it should possible to have shared experience of ritual without feeling personally invaded... again though, it was really a kind of tourism, I suppose.

Anyway, I am very grateful for the Easter holidays if they are giving you time to write like this!

liliannattel said...

I also resonate, from a Jewish perspective. We (h, me, kids) celebrate them in a minimalist way (mainly for kids). I miss the larger congregation and yet I don't. The old liturgy, scriptures and practices are too exclusive in so many ways, that twisting myself into a pretzel to reinterpret them gets old. It doesn't fit my direct spiritual experience. And yet, what replaces it? The attempts to new-age it or to renew it don't have the old resonance. But it's the old resonance that has all the problems I mentioned above.