The Orthodox Chameleon

March 4, 2010 Length: 11:51

They say "Clothes make the man"... Steve gives up his Hawaiian shirt and learns a hard lesson.





Last night I had to go to a somewhat formal meeting that was not Church related. I can’t remember the last time I did that. My basic life’s wardrobe these days consists of three things. A cassock or a gold dress. Work jeans and t-shirt. OK, four things… I have my flannel Grinch pajamas that I wear around the house. Actually, five things… For special occassions I have a Hawaiian shirt.

This was a “special occassion” so I was about to put on my CLEAN jeans and my Hawaiian shirt. My wife said, “I think this event is beyond the Hawaiian shirt stage.” Dang. NOTHING is beyond a Hawaiian shirt. But I knew what she meant.

I trudged down to the basement and opened the door of the storage closet. I inhaled the smell of dry cleaner’s plastic, dust and the musty cloth. I flipped the switch and the single dim bulb lit the racks of clothes that haven’t been moved for literally years. Way, way back in the 80’s, in my protestant days, when my construction company was booming, I bought “really nice” clothes. 180 bucks for wool pants? Sure. 80 bucks for a cool tie? Why not? I wasn’t into “labels”, just “really nice”.  But I didn’t always have nice stuff. In fact there was a time I looked on suits and people who wore them with contempt.

But here I was staring at my racks of dry clean only clothing. Now, the listener has to understand who THIS guy who bought these clothes was.  I was a hippie art major, anti-establishment, you name the 60’s cliche… I was it. The problem with being a former art major is that I had developed an eye for “nice”.  I would walk into the men’s department and see something that caught my eye. It was always ungodly expensive. But after I laid aside my embroidered overalls and became a successful businessman, I had the money, and more often than not, I bought what caught my eye. So, what happened to me (besides having more money) in the intervening 15 years between thrift store tie dyed T-shirts and silk blend sport coats from Goldwaters? Well, dear listener, really…  Nothing.

You see, I was still the same person, just wearing different costumes. I was a poser, a chameleon blending with my surroundings. In the 60’s the accoutrements of hippiedom were cheap. Even with no job, I could afford to be one. Thrift store clothing, a little RIT dye and some embroidery and you were indistinguishable from a real Dead Head.  Because I was an art major I could even make cooler clothes than some people could buy at “Clothes for Beautiful People”. That subculture was the particular Renaissance Festival of humanity I chose to join. I wore the costume, assumed the posture, spoke the language, I did it well enough to impress people with the act, and I belonged.

I gave up just barely enough of that to get through a really conservative Bible college in Lubbock Texas. They had a “no hair touching your collar policy” so I cut my hair when Crosby, Stills and Nash were singing about almost cutting theirs. But my closet was still full of my overalls and T-shirts, and I kept a lot of language and mannerisms.  It was cool to be a member of the “hippie club” at a Texas Christian College.

Later, I got a job as a minister. In a meeting once, one of the elders at the Church told me, the senior pastor and youth minister that we would not get raises because we should be glad that we even have jobs. He said ministers are a necessary evil in order to have a church and the only reason a man becomes a minister is that he can’t do anything else, and if we COULD be something else we certainly wouldn’t be preachers. The gauntlet was thrown.  I eventually got fired.

For a lot of reasons, I stayed at the Church after I was fired. I believe most of the reasons were good even to this day, mainly I didn’t want to cause another schism by leaving in a self-righteous huff. But that elder’s words still rang in my ears.

I fell into the construction industry and did well, very well. And I taught a Sunday morning adult Bible class and eventually was drawing 80% of the adults of the congregation. I was a successful preacher… AND I was also now a “successful businessman”. I changed my costume, spoke a new language, had a new attitude. My literal posture, even how I walked changed. I had joined a different Festival. By ‘85 the hippie thing was old anyway, and I didn’t run in that circle anymore, there was no one in my life from that Festival left to impress. And, I was proving a point to that elder, which is always good motivation ... Anyway, that is where all the stuff I was staring at in my closet came from…remember the closet?...  but more on that in a minute.

Fast forward to Orthodoxy. By that time I’d gone bankrupt, left the protestant Church and had no one to impress. I’d gone back to jeans and t-shirts and retired my coats, ties and Florsheims. When I encountered Orthodoxy, it was a whole new Festival. The cool thing was it talked about “the goodness of the material world” and the sacramental role of the material changing the “person”. It spoke to me because it was counter-cultural. Long hair and beards were in again. Sandals and peasant clothing were OK again. And within its culture there were multiple levels and layer upon layer of new costumes and personas and attitudes to be adopted. There was even a new language that, if you mastered it and spoke it with the proper inflections you’d look smart, spiritual AND humble. It all validated the life of a chameleon… and no one could accuse me of being a poser because, well, I was “being Orthodox” and for them to suggest that was being judgmental, which the Fathers condemn. Only your nous knows for sure.

Because of the emphasis on the material world in Orthodoxy, the evidence of personal transformation (or assistance toward it) for the individual is often judged and viewed by their attire, mannerisms and personal grooming. (I am getting to the point of my dark, dusty closet here… trust me.) They say “clothes makes the man”. I’d say yes and no. Yes, it influences how I act, and no, that’s not always good because if I’m honest with myself, what I wear is usually more about what I already am than what I think I’m becoming. I don’t know of any male convert who, when they first encountered Orthodoxy, didn’t experience a twinge of “cassock lust” or envy. There’s no two ways about it, there’s just something plain cool about looking like Neo stepping out of the Matrix.

So almost back to the point of the closet.  I was getting close to graduating from Bible college and I went to visit my friend Harry (the person I talked about in “Dining Out Like a Christian). Harry was an old hippie drummer heroin addict who, by 60’s standards, had “sold out” to the establishment, but was (and still is) the most Christian person I think I’ve ever known. We were sitting in his living room talking, and I was in my jeans and t-shirt uniform as usual.  In mid sentence Harry jumped out of his chair and went to his closet.  He pulled out a long burgundy cape. I think it was his wife’s actually. He said, here, put this on. I looked at him like he was nuts… He said, no, really, put it on. And he pushed me in front of the full length mirror on the door. I remember looking in the mirror…I grinned, and my posture changed, I stood up straight and lifted my chin as if I was royalty. Harry, said, “See? See what happened?” I knew what happened. Clothes made the man. The change of costume changed me. I knew what he was saying. I was a poser. My jeans and t-shirt hippie costume was dictated by my weakness of person, not conviction. It was me playing a role, dressing a part. I had no true sense of my self. I chose a costume and whatever I was dressed in became who I am, “I” filled the clothes, the clothes did not adorn who I “am”. That was 1975.

So, finally, back to my basement storage closet…

I pushed aside some of the old coats and suits and found a sport coat I haven’t worn in probably 15 years. Yes, it still fit. I put it on and…

Nothing happened.

So was it ” GQ-Steve”? “Bearded Orthodox Subdeacon Steven Paul dressing up in a worldly clown suit”?  No. It was just Steve going to a meeting and dressing appropriately for the occasion.

That is the point. It wasn’t a badge. It wasn’t a statement. It wasn’t a trial or a selling out. It was what was fitting for the occasion at hand. I didn’t change. I didn’t react. I was still, “Me”.

Well, it’s been 35 years since Harry’s object lesson.  Eight years after I first experienced “Orthodox cassock envy” that I was tonsured to wear one. But even after four years, I freely admit there is still a bit of “cool to be Neo” aspect to it.  I hope some day Orthodoxy won’t be a self conscious masquerade for me, no glancing sideways in the mirror while dressing up for a Sunday morning Renaissance Festival and playing a role. Maybe some day Orthodoxy won’t be about me looking for something to affirm my 60’s counter cultural leanings. I take a little comfort that I’m not alone in my ego and clothing struggles from what one of the Desert Fathers said when he encountered a monk dressed in a ragged robe: “Father, your pride is showing through the holes in your cassock…”

So, some day I’d like to be like the old Yia-yia or Babushka who comes to Church and just “is”. No “statements”, no self conciousness, no awareness of what others see or might be thinking. Maybe in another 35 years my faith will just be my life in Christ and whatever I am dressed in and however I speak and whatever my mannerisms are, nothing will happen in my head or my ego, and everything truly important will happen in my heart.