Vol. 2 No. 1 - Pascha 2007
Death of the DQ:
Nostalgia isn't Faith
Orthodoxy is the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living. - Jaroslav Pelican
I remember the stifling day in 1977 my mother took me to our favourite ice cream place during baseball season, to savour a sundae in a promotional plastic baseball cap. The cap was in miniature, of course, and inverted, to keep all the frozen cream inside. We were not sure if it was in fact real cream (it never did seem to melt), nor did I care about which team colours held my butterscotch beauty. The only thing that mattered was that I had discovered something like an earthly paradise, to which I yearned to return again and again.
Dairy Queen soon gained a special place in my heart - part of the nostalgia we carry with us from childhood. Our pilgrimages there were seasonal, to be sure, which added to the mystery and the wonder of the place, with freezers full of ice cream cakes constructed through some kind of arcane wisdom unknown to the masses in the simpler times of the 1970s. We would never have the chance during childhood to actually taste these cakes: the cost was prohibitive. Yet the knowledge that they existed, like this wondrous place itself, reassured us that we could always return, year after year, now and unto ages of ages.
Sadly, the Dairy Queen is now gone, closed down to make way for a more lucrative commercial venture. It will never be possible to relive those sweet early days, or to share them with children or grandchildren, in that place which holds such a special place in the heart. And it is not just this location: one by one, these tiny destinations of summertime fun are disappearing, and although the whole thing seems terribly wrong to the nostalgic mind, the fading history of this treasure makes logical sense.
Annual, or biannual, pilgrimages to the place we claim to love are simply not enough to keep something alive. It is very nice to yearn to relive childhood moments, and to share them with our children, but on a deeper level, this nostalgia without concrete expression is empty and meaningless. No one will stand weeping outside the wrecking site of a nostalgic memory, if that memory goes no deeper than nostalgia. The yearly delectation of butterscotch may be a wonderful thing, but it is not enough to bring one back in the middle of February, in the midst of the work week, or in the racing years that together form our lives. It is certainly not enough for which to protest, or for which to die.
In a strange sort of way, this saccharine nostalgia (no pun intended) closely parallels the spiritual life so rampant in our country, and in the West in general. An acquaintance once opined, "I may never attend church, but I'm glad it's there for the important times." The same saccharine nostalgia that passes for the love of the past also masquerades as faith - but it is not faith. Faith that does not penetrate the moments of our days, which does not shape the decisions of our lives, our spouse, our job, the raising of our children and the ordering of our daily routine - such faith is a false faith, nostalgia at its worst.
Each Pascha, the Festal Oration of Saint John Chrysostom reminds Orthodox faithful that the joy of the Resurrection is opened to everyone - including those who come at the eleventh hour. This hope encompasses even the death bed repentance, the rare church attender, and the materialist immersed in the fallen world. Christ's Resurrection is such mighty spiritual medicine, that all sin, all brokenness, can be healed and is healed as it is joined to Christ.
But herein lies the key: our healing is found in joining ourselves to Christ, just as a husband is joined to a wife. The bond is effective because it is ongoing. It brings us support throughout our life not because we stop in to check on the kids occasionally, but because we stay up with them, night after night, we argue and forgive, sharing the fullness of life as part of a family.
Those who are left - or rather, those who choose to leave themselves - on the outside looking in on the Orthodox spiritual life, may be dazzled by the annual nostalgic tickle of peering into the freezer of sweet memories, but they cannot really taste the fullness of unknown delights. It is weeping for the celebrity we never knew, the friend or relative we never visited. Crocodile tears are not tears of repentance. The joy of the Resurrection is only as full as the commitment of our hearts throughout the days and years of our lives.
The gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church - ever. Should the time come (again) when the Church must retreat to the catacombs, She will still be alive, as She has been since the foundation of the world. Yet whether She is in public view or in hiding, it will matter little for the faithful, or for the nostalgic. The faithful will draw near to Christ's Body, the Church, because She is our Life; the nostalgic will arrive as annual tourists, grab a sample, and go, ever wondering why the annual pilgrimage does not seem to impact on daily life.
Those who love childhood memories by making them a living part of their lives know what real life is, even if such knowledge is found in the loss of precious places and people. Loss may not be the preferred flavour of reality, but it is still reality. Childhood memories - and the Tradition of the Church - do not turn to dust for those who live them daily, since they are, as Jaroslav Pelican said, the living faith of the dead. This is the reason Orthodoxy transcends the destruction of churches, and grows with the deaths of Her martyrs. If the faith of the martyrs, the prayers of the Church, the life of the Apostles, lives in me each day, as it does in the saints, we will share in Her joy always.
The annual pilgrimage, the exercise of nostalgia without faith, or faith that fails to penetrate daily life, is simply the dead faith of the living - available even in butterscotch.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Pascha, 2007)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.