Saturday, December 4, 2010

Spaces and Symbols

Like Sydney Bristow, I often feel that I'm leading a double life. In Oxford, I'm an academic theologian, buried in notes on Hegel, Greek translations, postgrad applications, and articles printed from JSTOR. In Tbilisi, I'm a traveling adventuress-novelist, buried in Continental novels (right now, I'm reading Dictionary of the Khazars) and freelance writing work. But I'm happiest when the two sides of my life intersect, and nowhere is this more prominent than in Sioni Cathedral.

It is in the churches of Georgia that my academic life and my aesthetic life at last meet each other, each feeding into the other. When I first came to Georgia, one of the ways in which my outsider status became clearest to me was in my inability to penetrate beyond the rituals, the gestures, to discover what was really happening. Clifford Geertz writes of "thick description" - the way in which an action, say - the twitching of an eye - has meaning only within the context of a network of symbols (a wink? a flirtation? a mockery? a shared secret?). I am reminded of this every time I enter an Orthodox church. I may be able to tell you all about the Cappadocian Fathers (hopefully the subject of my master's thesis) and Nicene formulations, but I don't have the instinctive cultural understanding of orthodoxy that would allow me to internalize the theo-drama taking place behind the liturgy. I can't identify saints from icons, nor can I participate in the sacramental communion (in all senses of the word). I can cross myself in front of a Georgian church, but that doesn't mean I'm part of the body of the church. I can intellectualize a great deal of Eastern Christian thought - it's what I want to do a doctorate in, after all - but that doesn't necessarily translate into "belonging-ness"

Over this past Michaelmas Term, I've been attending an incredible seminar and text class covering Byzantium 1000-1453, a blend of theological and social history. Through our discussion of Byzantine icons, the cruciform layout of churches, and obscure patriarchs, the "codes" of orthodoxy have become clearer to me - I 'm getting closer to seeing what's really happening at a church service.

And it strikes me that this, this is why I study theology - the history of human thought, human experience, and the constant interplay between the two. I want to understand how and why people move through spaces, how they see themselves - how we got from Jerusalem to Jena, how the Haussmanian boulevards I used to walk down in Paris meant something altogether different when they were constructed to allow the police to shut down riots, how Medieval men were but a fraction the size of angels. How do I move through space; how is my own sense of reality constructed? How do I delineate time (cyclical? linear?)? How do I separate "us" from "not-us"? (Christian vs. non-Christian? East vs. West? Pork-eaters vs. non pork-eaters? Blondes or brunettes?)

In Tbilisi, intellectual history meets practice for me. One of my goals - in my return to Tbilisi - is to begin regularly attending Orthodox services, to combine my intellectual study of Eastern doctrine and tradition with an intuitive understanding of the meaning behind the symbol, and the story behind the signs.

(As for my own faith - I was raised "generally Episcopalian theist," have become gradually more religiously aware, and yet - while I would call myself a Christian - I'm wary of saying more than that until I've finished my degree and become able to articulate at least basic answers to my own questions of faith and belief, and am able to "stand for" my own faith - in the sense of explaining and defending it - however it comes to be identified.)


Trist said...


Fleur Flaneur said...

Hey, Tristian, at least I didn't have pink hair!
Oh, wait...

ConnieF said...

Hey Fleur, I'm blonde too and I loved your discourse. I also was raised Episcopalian and appreciate but don't understand all of the ritual of an Orthodox service. Maybe if we can meet in Tbilisi, we can go to a service together and discuss what it all means. :-)