The bizarre religious tapestry that runs from behind in my familys background
by Samer al-Batal
Foreword from me: Here he, I, Arturo, and the Russians and second-generation Italian-Americans and Ruthenian-Americans (Slavs closely related to the Russians) I know, understand each other. Like I say, my mailing address in the Catholic cosmos is north of Arturos folk religion and south of the SSPX but not Novus Ordo.
I joined up the old-fashioned way: it was my neighborhood parish. (Remember those days when you went to the nearest church, lol!? Theyve been mostly dead and buried since the 1970s.)
Now thats old-school, more historically and culturally Catholic (like an Irish or Italian union Democrat) than many a shrine-church spike. Youve outfogeyed me. Good for you.
Now heres where I tell you about the bizarre religious tapestry that runs from behind in my familys background, and that features what you are calling the old-school habit here which has contributed to the strange mosaic Ill be describing.
(Ill fire off here first with two present-day examples: my cousin, Melchite and not particularly religious, and who will undoubtedly marry in a Melchite church and likely in the old country, lives in the US and without the need to think about it, is a member solely of an Antiochian Orthodox parish over there its simply the closest Arabic church. Beirut; a neighbourhood with a weak and dilapidated Melchite parish [since many of its original members left to other areas during the civil war the church is decades old and still lacks an iconostasis] and a strong and healthy Orthodox parish; Orthodox Metropolitan comes every Feast of the Dormition and at the conclusion of church services a bonfire is lit outside as per the custom and refreshments served; members of the Melchite parish will instinctively come down and attend everything with the Orthodox.)
My mothers side of the family here deserves mention. That side is Jordanian rather than Syrian, and in Jordan the Eastern Catholic denominations are whittled away to nothing, barely detectable, and with little significance or influence being carried by them in the religious sphere and arena. The two big boys on the block in that country are the Roman Catholic Arabic-Novus Ordo Latins (a Catholic majority of Latins within a Syrian environment would be a most bizarre thing to fathom, not so much so however in Lebanon where the Latin and Novus Ordo monopoly is in a way operative through a Maronite proxy, the Maronites being the kings of the hill in the Lebanese Catholic world) and the Jerusalemite Roum Orthodox with a Greek episcopal leadership whose mentality and approach towards other factions (but best they get their house in order and sort out their sour relationship with their own flock before we presume to criticise them on their attitude towards others) do not run in the same fraternal vein of rapprochement as those of the Church of Antioch, long salvaged back and wrested from Greek control. My maternal grandparents: both Greek Orthodox (although to add to the crazy mix, my grandmother had some exposure to the Scandinavian Lutherans (Danish I think) through their school in her village yes, Lutherans setting up shop in a mountain village rather than the city as you might expect!). My mother however was baptised, raised, and had her formation in the Latin Church (but in marriage to my father had became de facto Melchite, worshipping in a Greek Catholic environment, but keeping the Latin habits of prayer acquired from a Latin childhood); she tells me it was simply the nearest church and thats all there was to it. Another factor I believe for people would have been the schools and not only the situation of church proximity in the neighbourhood, and one cannot forget either that involvement in a parish church meant involvement in a parish family, in church scout activities, in a genuine neighbourhood community and unit, not in a special-members club. And for whatever reason, my mothers aunt, from an Orthodox family and baptised Orthodox, someway somehow became a full-fledged Roman Catholic Latin nun starting from all the way back in her teen-age years. For the life of me, I cant say how exactly such a thing happened, though I suppose it was simply the schooling (no conversion mentality involved or anything, for I would say she did not care for these things the Latins for her somehow whether through school or whatever must have just been her local thing, what was in close proximity to her in one way or another). And to this day I do not quite know which of my maternal uncles and aunts, and for that matter which of their individual children my cousins (the seesawing can carry across to another generation) are baptised and/or raised/formed as Latins or Orthodox. (Talk about a casual mixture of two extremes: Latin and Jerusalemite Orthodox.) Incidentally, humorous though I really do find it sad in a way, there is a method for me to tell indirectly at times whether someone was baptised this way or that: it isnt unusual for those casually chosen to be baptised in a Latin church not to have this followed up with a confirmation years later since the idea of chrismation and baptism being separated isnt one with which Easterners seem to be familiar; you might have someone remaining without the sacrament until his or her wedding day when the priest examining the baptismal papers investigates and finds out the person must be annointed with the oil before the marriage can take place, to the puzzlement of the person who hadnt until now known he was missing something essential all this time.
My fathers side of the family is much more stable (vis à vis church affiliation) and uniform (all Byzantine, either Orthodox or Melchite the church rite is the cement here in the relationships between families of different communions, other church traditions did not really register in our experience or local consciousness [hence the word Katoleek with no qualifiers over there automatically meaning Melchite], and where it did, Im guessing the Suryanis [Syriacs] would have been familiar to us as the identity of the other Christians from villages elsewhere [the Syriac monastery of St. Moses lay in the general area]), a village family enjoying good prestige and a reputation, carrying with it a more prominent tribal identity, and a part of a more strongly knit network of several Christian families of strong repute in a village (now having become a large town) with a Muslim majority, its Christian families being mostly Orthodox with the Melchite families as the minority and of course, with intermarriages being a constant normality. To tell the truth, the Batal family was originally Orthodox not too many generations back I understand the switch to Greek Catholicism occurred with a simple sneeze when one of our great (however many times) grandfather up the line, of an Orthodox father but a Melchite mother, somehow lost his parents early in life and was taken in by his maternal uncle. From this line descends most of the Batal clan with a fewer number of descendents from the original Orthodox line remaining, but the lines of intermarriage make much of the extended family from my fathers side Orthodox. My paternal grandparents were one Melchite grandfather and an Orthodox grandmother. My father of course followed the fathers family line in religious identification (and so do I by the same principle of descent from the paternal line, although baptised Orthodox*). However, as another example of the principle of whatever church is available goes, my fathers youth spent in the village was mostly an Orthodox experience. As the Melchites were less in number than the Orthodox, the Melchite priest would only come somwhere around once a month from the neighbouring village to celebrate the Divine Liturgy for the Melchite families, and the rest of the time my father grew up part of an Orthodox parish life. And even the more amusing, the man cant for the life of him remember for certain whether his baptism was one that was Orthodox or Greek Catholic.
Finally, my case and that of my sister have their own stories: she was baptised in the Latin parish church (why? yet again, because we all just happened to be in Jordan at the time, and our nearest church there as it always has been was they) and was influenced by her mother so that even not being religious she will by instinct cross in the Latin manner, and the few prayers that are in her memory are Latin-rite prayers. A man Byzantine in prayer and religious manner, I on the other hand was baptised an Orthodox in an old monastery on the wishes of my Orthodox grandmother who through a personal vow had me consecrated there, and, to the likely horror and dismay of the community of Orthodox converts online, she cared not at all for making the boy Orthodox, but was simply aiming to offer the Mother of God a dedication in her own monastery.
Ones experience becomes all the more interesting with there being such an eclectic side to a large family, particularly in non-secularist countries with a religious pulse and within societies, even if diverse, not based on artificial melting-pot models of modern societies where the existence of such kalaeidiscopic backgrounds is normally expected. Having such a family background can make for a beneficial situation and in a case like the one already illustrated offers a chance at becoming fortunate and receiving enough of a healthy cosmopolitan exposure and familiarity with the Western side and world of religious/ritual culture to understand it (with further Lucianic curiosity you chance to learn of the existence of its broad traditionalist camp and what the traditional liturgical Roman heritage in fact is, hopefully taking care not to turn into an ass in the process a simple heart-felt salute to the suffering soldiers and a courteous tip of the...thing will do nicely, then continuing on but in doing my part, I bequeath to them the best of martial anthems for that day when they will finally exit the catacombs, do battle, and take it all back) and to be able to fit, should you choose to, into its environment and language for a temporary while (the while in Rome... adage), and also ideally bereft of a Chimerean mix-and-match mentality, still in the role of a cosmopolitan momentarily integrating with and accessing it from the side when the proper situation arises whilst remaining entrenched and grounded firmly in your own ground and soil, avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of getting lost in an assimilatory pool or becoming a schizoid bi/multi-ritualistic/theological dual citizen. (It is probably similar to the differences in identity perception between the hypothetical old-country individual born and raised there and turned cosmopolitan traveller on the one hand, rooted to where he is as opposed, on the other hand, to the hypothetical second-generation son of immigrants who is confusingly torn between two worlds. I shall guess that the former will see the best in both worlds and still know and identify with essentially what he is without confusion, whilst still being able to visit, engage, and access the other world with comfortable familiarity, whereas the latter is torn between two sides vying for a place in his inner being and on that seat upon which sits the core of his identity.)
In that regard, I reckon the editor of this blog and I are quite alike; religiously speaking he is clearly by tradition a Western Christian, but has understood the Orthodox East and accessed it (whereas his end was my opposite side of the fence), and analysed it fairly, yet nevertheless, though being as familiar as he is with the other side so as to give the impression that he is a double-sided composite of the two, he seems to me in fact to be rooted inside one tradition but still remaining warmly and diplomatically open, strongly familiar with, and holding onto special connexions with the other (as I remember him writing once, vis à vis ritual tradition a prayer rule should not be 50/50, but neither for a well-travelled fellow like he ought it necessarily be 100/0), ties greater than those which the average community-born-and-raised individual who doesnt take the initiative to venture out and explore has. One might well spy on the other hand amongst überdoxen converts some individuals who seem constantly tossed about by waves and unable to locate and plant themselves on stable foundational pillars. But being cosmopolitan also means understanding the unique identity whole and entire that forms something that possesses integrity as opposed to a glossy picture waiting to be pasted onto a collage (that odious perception behind mix-and-match liturgical sensibilities and behind the mainstream Novus Ordo-ised Eastern Catholic pastiche patriots) and it also means understanding and acknowledging the genuine differences between the different sides, which by weight of conscience and honesty requires adopting a sense of reality that sadly realises that something real and insurmountable stands in the way of well-intentioned Zoghby outlooks on church matters, and a sense that will shun the naive views and expectations of the reunion by tea time tomorrow crowd; however honesty also requires dismissing the more stupidly exaggerated differences that online pop Orthodoxys [and also of the distinct pockets of pop-trads existing as a group amongst healthier strains within the Roman traditionalist spectrum] polarised mindset bellows on about). I would hope that the position that this blog takes does indeed qualify as an honest and realistic, experienced and mature view of things as they really are, the view that the problems between the two Christian worlds (but what of the third, the Oriental non-Chalcedonians?; perhaps the worst mistake, ever convenient for the hotheads on both sides, has always been to polarise apostolic Christianity into two eternally inimical camps they would also be involved in the clash of ideas pertaining to this one issue, but are there other points of genuine contention that have to be addressed?) come down essentially to one, but insurmountable difference. Irrespective of the accuracy of that view, I think it will remain a credit to this blog that it holds onto those same cosmopolitan attitudes that it always had from the start: those of a seeker of warm, fond, and realistically and productively co-operative relationships (as opposed to the NO Kasperite diplomacy of feigned respect that isnt very useful) between the different sides on the ecclesiastical level and, where Catholic and Orthodox societies will permit (with countries like Syria already well ahead), on the grassroots level, leaving the final resolution of things in Gods hands.
* It has left its mark on me perhaps at an inopportune moment: one begins to feel more and more that we might be living in a time in the Melchite Churchs modern history where the idea of the High-Church, capital-O-Orthodox-oriented mentality represented by the late Maximos IV starts becoming something quaint. It shouldnt surprise anyone anymore, given the worldwide Catholic trends. I suppose to be truly of that old-school mind and persuasion today whilst also being conscious of the global Catholic situation will require arriving straightaway at a recognition that things have indeed gone batshit crazy in Rome (though thank God this Pope seems to be doing much more than his predecessor has ever done). I think however that that old Melchite sensibility (that would recognise that Maximos IV is likely turning in his grave) will have to give way and erode before the barrier to realising the serious geographically and institution-wide extent of the problems in the Catholic Church will. If you do not see the problem, you will neither counter the trends it creates nor stop following the pipers tune, even if at a slower pace than other ECs. The problem is that you cannot honestly expect of somebody even to think along lines so radical to the mind of an average person, of normal people who have better things to do in their lives than to keep or be aware of world church affairs and who as normal people tend to do, have a perfectly natural reaction of not giving credence to chicken-little stories that say something is horribly wrong on a large scale. (Beg pardon? The entire Western church effectively meaning the Catholic Church almost in its entirety as a communal body is suffering a full-blown almost global catastrophe, and were slowly imbibing what comes from there? Barmy that one.) How can they be expected to to behave and react therefore according to this supposition, whether on the grassroots level or the level of our hierarchs (who surely know better about the situation)? Since they cannot, and Big Sister is therefore not ill, they probably have no choice but to tell themselves all is well. There cannot be anything wrong with the road were treading right now, can there? Reply? You dont want to know.