Transposing emblem by Gennady Bondarenko
“When the white smoke is seen in the Vatican, it means that Catholics are about to have a new Pope. When black smoke belches from Moscow, it’s a sure sign that Ukrainians are about to establish their new Ukrainian church.” This ironical joke is now popular in Ukraine. The irony is that the newly formed Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not to expect a brotherly Christian embrace; instead it has become a target of bitterness and acrimony for those who watch the process from the eastern porebrik. Or, as one cleric of the Jerusalem Orthodox Church put it in a shrewd remark:
When I read those comments on the First Council of the Ukrainian Autocephalous (de facto) Church, which are written by members of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as some of the “churches of the Russian tradition” in Europe: bishops, clerics and laymen, I cannot help but recall the exorcism sessions that I was personally present at when I lived in the monastery. While reading exorcisms, the demons dwelling in the possessed began to brawl and shout with different voices, imitating animals. So, now, it seems to me that if those demons spoke, their speech would not be any different from that abusive language that comes from the lips of members of the “Russian church” mentioned above. Everything is forgotten: respect for the brethren of the hierarchy and clergy, their own Christian dignity, elementary propriety. It seems that these people have no relation to the Church with its history, traditions, canons, culture of relations between its members and everything else related to its “inner world.”
Such rejection, seen from the purely bureaucratic – or call it canonical – viewpoint may be understandable: the leaders of the so-called Russkiy Mir (Russian world) are indignant because the Ukrainian church received autocephaly not from the “mother church” that is located, in their opinion, in Moscow (or, again, as some like to joke on the Western side of the Russian-Ukrainian border, from the church-mother turned into the church-stepmother). Still, going into detail on who is actually a “mother” won’t add any clarity to understanding the reasons and sources of such heated emotions (fortunately, establishing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is proceeding without turmoil, let alone bloodshed, which is half-threatened, half-encouraged, by some parts of the Moscow Church hierarchy).
While writing this short essay, by virtue of some curious synchronicity, the media kept on reminding me of the timeless importance of this theme: whether the oppositions and polarities should be embraced or avoided. The following quote comes from a respected master of the Eastern martial arts:
Although the more extreme elements of cultivated practice are advised against by masters of the ancient traditions, it is true that many who are seriously engaged in the pursuit of a path have nevertheless experimented with such extremes. It is like a pendulum swinging from side to side until it eventually finds the equilibrium. But the big question remains: Are the extremes indeed useless or did the extremes contribute to the expert’s current place? A conundrum indeed…
To a certain extent, every human endeavor involving progress can be compared to the swing of a pendulum. Probably everything we as humans put our hands on evolve along the same line (or rather curve). It may well be true that swinging from one extreme to another helps us establish this very “royal path” which would bring us the fruit of our efforts, at least as far as human pursuits are concerned. The pendulum moves from one extreme point to another, from one peak – or polarity – to another peak. In its essence, such swinging seems to be the characteristic of a real progression that is only found in nature – and because of its practicality it is widely imitated by technology. Such a mode of movement from one minor extremity to another, for example, is typical – and even necessary – for aviation in flight to reach its destination point: yes, a plane flies from point A to point B, but the progression itself is not direct. The plane goes not so much “on” the course, as “along” the course, regularly deviating in one direction and then making the necessary corrections and turning to another. Periodically the autopilot aligns its movement in the way it needs to end up in the right place.
However, this is technology. Unfortunately, such alignment is not always present in relations between people, groups, communities or even larger societies. We strive for dialogue but find monologues and blind aversion; we want our views and our values to be respected, at the same time showing zero tolerance for those of others. The pendulum of nature often swings to extremes that are characterized by intolerance and enmity, which some see as the natural order of things.
This dissimilarity – or let’s call it asymmetry in everything that otherwise seems alike – is indeed present in our lives and is found everywhere, on any level, and even more so on the deepest ones. The author of the book “Even or Odd: The Asymmetry of the Brain and of Sign Systems,” published in 1978, became an intellectual bestseller in the Soviet era, arguing that the hemispheres of the human brain are similar and at the same time asymmetric. According to the author, the reason is that our brains seem to seek and anticipate discrepancy and dislike in everything that is perceived by human consciousness as its “antipode.” Welcome to the omnipresent, though notorious, “same but different” effect.
Asymmetry is indeed encoded in our body – it suffices to look at our two palms, which are alike but fully asymmetrical. Those DNA strands also come to mind, twisted into one, but each being an exact mirror copy of the other. Everything looks as if we are doomed to live in a world of opposites. Is it any wonder then that we are prone to identify ourselves, seeing the world as us and them. In real life it is not uncommon to perceive of something “in contrast” – or even (and sadly more common) to negate the opposite pole based on what you see: I am Russian, Orthodox… good, and in order for me/my Orthodoxy to be good, you/yours must be non-canonical, schismatic, abominable… bad?
So can it be the core issue of rejection, enmity and hatred? For me to be me, you must be you, the diametrical opposite of me? If I am to be good, then you must be bad? However…what happens if we dare to acknowledge that both polarities can be bad – or, even more promising, to admit that both can be acceptable and good? What if we dare to “turn the other cheek also”?
That’s when the paradox of the pendulum of humanity comes into play. As long as it keeps oscillating, from one pole to another, as long as our nature lurches from one extremity to the other, we are truly alive. When its amplitude shortens, this leads not to a certain “happy medium” but to a complete stop when the pendulum stands still and, hence, is void of any pulsation of life.
“You are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
Therefore let us rejoice that our pendulum is in motion, even if it is from hatred to fear to intolerance … because in this is found the promise that we, as well as our more Orthodox brethren with their wounded sensibilities are not yet embracing apathy, lethargy and death.