It’s pretty hard to pass up a good homecoming story, and the writer Paul Kingsnorth unspooled a particularly potent one in the pages of the Roman Catholic magazine First Things recently. Kingsnorth tells the story of his conversion to Christianity over the past year – he was baptized in the freezing waters of the River Shannon, into the Romanian Orthodox Church, in January. Before that, he’d been on quite the journey, in terms of metaphysical affiliation, trading radical environmentalism for Zen Buddhism, and then for Wicca, before discovering that “the abyss inside” him could only be truly inhabited, and indeed filled, by Jesus.
I’ve been blessedly haunted by his piece since I read it a couple months ago. It is at once hopeful and elegiac, assertively prophetic, yet suffused with a humble repose and surrender. You should read it.
It also captures, I think, something about how Christians ought to live in time. As he closes his reflection on his conversion, Kingsnorth writes:
“How can I feel I have arrived home in something that is in many ways so foreign to me? And yet beneath the surface it is not foreign at all, but a reversion to the sacred order of things. I sit in a monastery chapel before dawn. There is snow on the ground outside. The priest murmurs the liturgy by the light of the lampadas, the dark silhouettes of two nuns chant the antiphon. There is incense in the air. The icons glow in the half light. This could be a thousand years in the past or the future, for in here, there is no time. Home is beyond time, I think now. I can’t explain any of it, and it is best that I do not try.”
I don’t know how well I can explain it either, but I do find it to be a rather enchanting collection of images. It could be that I’m just craving a haunting, ancient liturgy, which has been hard to come by over the course of this pandemic. Zoom worship doesn’t exactly hum with mystery, you know? In fact it often seems to do the opposite, hewing more closely to the rest of my life, which is one that’s lived by the laptop, and all the urgencies that come along with it.
The beauty of liturgy
But I’m after more than just aesthetics of icons glowing in the half light. I’m after the experience of the world made possible by rituals such as these. An experience of the world where time isn’t just a flat, relentless tick and tock that measures out one thing after another. We’re encouraged, these days, to make our home in an ever-anxious now, layering urgency onto every moment, allowing ourselves to be provoked by every political crisis, by every salvo in a never-ending culture war. We are relentlessly present, and so are our preoccupations.
Allowing ourselves to be drawn out of that would do us much good, both spiritually and psychologically. I suppose that might sound kind of escapist. I’d say it’s just the opposite. As I understand it, these old liturgies seek to draw us out of time as we typically experience it, so that we might learn to live more appropriately within it. A brush with eternity lends us a kind of temporal heft, a sturdiness that’s resistant to the frantic pace of life that we can so often mistake for reality. The Bible tells us people will know we are Christians by our love for each other, but I like to think they’ll know we are Christians by our equanimity, too.
Here’s hoping that as things open up again, and the times become more typical, we might not just revert back to the way things were, but instead seek that “reversion to the sacred order of things.” That each moment, as it passes, might point beyond itself to that reality that is from age to age the same.
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