Driving To Heaven
Kh. Krista West · July 2, 2008
Kh. Krista imagines an Orthodox world where our priorities favor the beauty of our Temples rather than the beauty of our cars.
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. Before I began on today’s topic, I wanted to thank everyone who sent me such kind messages via email on my recent move. Moving is always stressful and to see little words of encouragement in my inbox every few days really warmed my heart. Thank you!
We recently finished major iconography in our parish. Our domes which were blank for seven years have now come to life with the presence of the Theotokos, the Resurrection, the Theophany of Christ and all the attendant figures. Our church feels fuller, richer, and uncannily more ancient now that we have our icons. It is virtually impossible to rest your gaze anywhere in the church now without seeing the presence of Christ, which is a loving, terrifying, humbling, and moving experience. The children gaze up at the icons and talk about “Jesus in the water” or notice Abel holding his lamb in the Resurrection icon, the adults are visibly moved, and all in all, our communal worship seems deeper—almost as if it’s easier to come close to God when you’ve got so many saints cheering you on.
But it’s got me to thinking about all of the little mission parishes which meet in strip malls or borrowed buildings. The tiny communities with second-hand vestments, icon reproductions, and all of the requisite setting up and taking down. These small outposts of Orthodox Christianity are very important because they bring the faith to an area where there is usually no Orthodox church for miles around. And they’re in a tricky spot, because at the same time that they should be our most beautiful and powerful evangelistic settings (however small), they often don’t have the funds necessary to have hand-painted icons or an majestic building or wonderful vestments. It also brings to mind those older church buildings, in which everything was purchased many years ago and is starting to look a little tired, but, “Well, it’s OK, it seems foolish to spend money on these kind of things.”
In our current society, we live with a lot of ugliness on a daily basis. We have strip malls, throw-away clothing, and thousands of bits of visual and noise pollution surrounding us. Imagine all of this and then imagine stepping into your church. Imagine the peace and the beauty that surround you there and how it changes and uplifts your soul. The Orthodox Church has a great evangelistic tool, the beauty of the Church, that has the power to draw people to her and through her, to God. If you’ve lived in this sometimes crazy-ugly modern world, then the Church comes as more than just a breath of fresh air—it is like your first air you breathe after almost drowning. It is the best kind of beauty—what the famous Greek iconographer, Fotios Kontoglou, calls spiritual beauty and what Plato referred to as “true” art. It is heavenly, harmonic, simple yet complex, and ultimately humble—the whole aim of spiritual beauty is to draw the soul to God and to heaven. Not being worldly or superficial, it is both inspiring and a true delight to our souls.
Well, at least it should be. But to be frank, I’ve often had the experience of going to a little mission or even an established parish and the thought pops into my head before I can stop it, “Boy, I hope heaven looks better than this!”. Everything’s tawdry and second-hand, not to mention the architecture. I know this sounds critical and elitist, but it’s not intended to be harsh—I know that every person involved in these communities is giving their all and that outfitting an Orthodox Church is a costly business. The price of icons, the expensive vestments, not to mention a decent building—who could possibly afford all of this? But the alternative is that instead of lifting us up to the heavenly heights, we’re left smack-dab in the middle of the world.
As I leave this kind of church or mission, I’m often struck by the number of new cars in the parking lot. A long time ago, my husband and I decided that new cars were just not going to be a part of our budget, so I’ve never owned a new car. I was surprised when I discovered recently that the average monthly car payment of a middle-class family is $390. And of course, not every family does have a car payment and even those who do, don’t pay this high of a payment. But judging from my parish’s parking lot and just about every parish parking lot I’ve ever seen, at least 25% of the people in the parish can and do. So, this got me to thinking.
If I were to extrapolate and use conservative numbers; say, if 250,000 Orthodox Christians were to give up their monthly car payment of $390, that would free up nearly $1 billion in funds for beautifying churches every year. That’s not per decade or just during someone’s lifetime, that’s 1 billion dollars EVERY YEAR. Wow—can you imagine now what Orthodox Christianity would look like in America? Of course, I recognize that this is a dramatic overstatement to make a point—people would still need to purchase new and used cars and have maintenance costs, but given that I’ve calculated 1 billion dollars A YEAR in an extreme example, I think in reality we could manage with a slightly lesser amount. And even if some gave up new cars and some switched to less expensive cars and donated those funds to beautifying their churches, the Orthodox Church’s interior scape would be revolutionized and changed overnight.
Please keep in mind that I am making very bold statements here to make a point. I certainly don’t expect everyone to give up new cars overnight and I understand that in our current economic situation, even talking about patronage is a bit inflammatory. My goal is to draw the picture so big, that we all see a small part of it and get to thinking about it.
So back, to our theoretical 1 billion dollars / per year being given to the Church, which in my vision would be monies above and beyond parishioner’s monthly tithe, special gifts designated specifically for church architecture and adornment.
First, there would be a thriving industry of Orthodox artisans. There would need to be—you’d have a 1 billion/year industry and demand would suddenly exceed supply. We’d need trained professional silversmiths, goldsmiths, iconographers, tailors, and architects. We’d have more education for chant. There might even be a university somewhere that would have an Orthodox Church architecture department and scholarships for willing students. And because you could actually earn a living as an Orthodox artisan (rather than working part-time as many of us do), there would be healthy competition which keep standards high. You might even drive down your street and see a little store front labeled “Orthodox Woodcarving”. What a witness to the world around us, we wouldn’t be just churches on the corner, we’d be businesses in your neighborhood and city. Imagine driving by your local Starbucks and seeing the man who owns the Orthodox woodcarving shop next door out sweeping his step as you pull up for your latte.
Second and most importantly, we would have churches filled with spiritual beauty, with the material objects transformed to draw us closer to God. You would enter a church and be awed by all that you saw. Our churches would last for generations and be a testament to our devotion and willingness to serve God. It would also bring this spiritual beauty to the forefront of our minds and put us in good company with saints like St. Erasmus, who after he gave all his worldly wealth to beautifying churches and then was condemned by his fellow monks, had the Theotokos appear to him and tell him, “The poor you have always with you, but my churches you do not.”
Does this start to sound like anywhere else in the world? Maybe Greece or Russia or the Middle East or Serbia? It should, since this is how this has happened in those countries and other countries where Orthodox Christianity thrives. It really wasn’t somehow easier for earlier generations to beautify their churches, especially when you consider that our current middle-class has a very large amount of disposable income compared to what the middle-class would working-class people would have had historically. A majority of us are the historical equivalent of small-time noblemen or noblewomen and are capable of giving more for the beauty of our Church. Here in America, we’re not just visiting, setting up temporary churches before we move onto something else. God-willing, we’re here to stay in America and as such, we need to be serious about our churches and their beautification.
So, it may not be your car payment that you give up, but you might see if there’s anywhere else you could find some extra in your budget and give it to the beauty of your Church. I know it’s hard right now, with gas prices up, and the economy not so robust. But, when there’s a significant event in your life, find some way to bring that joy into the Church permanently—give a new icon, or have a new altar cover made, or sponsor a chanter in your parish to attend a workshop. One of my clients had a close friend who lost her 9-year-old nephew to a tragic accident last year, and she was at a loss what to say or do. So, she ordered a new set of proskynitarion (icon-stand) covers as a memorial gift for the nephew. When the close friend first saw them, she began crying and told my client that now she felt as if her nephew was in church with her every week. This is one example of ways we can contribute to the beauty in our churches.
Notice the beauty in your church and how it draws you to the beauty of God. Not blessed with worldly goods? Then do something small or go in with a few other people. I certainly wouldn’t expect this every week or every month, but when the opportunity arrises, do what you can. Christ blessed the widow’s mite and He will certainly bless our desire to draw closer to Him. Most importantly, pray for what you need in your parishes. While I’m more comfortable praying, “Lord, have mercy” instead of telling God step-by-step what I need (ultimately, it seems inefficient since He knows my every need), I do believe in carefully and prayerfully requesting specific needs. Think of the old woman knocking on the door, repeatedly and faithfully. She was direct and clear in her request and in certain situations, so can we be.
A few years ago in Greece, my husband photographed a lovely little church by the side of one of the hiking trails on Mt. Athos. The photo has been his computer wallpaper for a number of months, so I’ve looked at it often as I pass by his office. The church is quite tiny—it almost looks like a child’s plaything, but it is perfect in every respect—the architecture is marvelous and, in standard Athonite fashion, I’m sure the inside is just as lovely. I was so struck by this little church and how something quite small and out-of-the-way can be a revelation of the Kingdom of God on earth. Just looking at this church reminds me of God’s ineffable beauty and of the untold joys and wonders of the Kingdom of Heaven. It takes my mind heavenward despite it’s small stature. It drives me to heaven.