‘Keep Christianity Weird’: Rod Dreher on St. Mary of Egypt

Rod Dreher wrote an excellent piece on his blog over at The American Conservative yesterday. The piece begins:

Today is the Sunday in the Orthodox liturgical year when we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt, an extraordinary ascetical penitent of fifth century Palestine. If you’ve never heard of her, don’t worry — I didn’t know a thing about her until I became Orthodox. But she is so beloved in the Eastern church that the second Sunday before Pascha (Easter) is devoted to her. She is revered for her repentance.

Last week, a reader wrote me to say that she had been raised fundamentalist, but left Christianity altogether as a young adult. She lost her faith entirely, but lately, in this pandemic crisis, she has felt the call back. She said that the only thing she learned about other forms of Christianity came through her own church tradition explaining what was wrong with them. She said she knows very little of pre-Protestant Christianity, and said that the fundamentalist sect of her childhood pretty much taught that the early church was exactly like them.

I shared with her the story about how my own return to Christianity as an adult began when I discovered that the breadth and depth of Christianity was much, much greater than I had imagined, growing up in small-town America in the late twentieth century. As a Catholic, I learned a lot about medieval Christianity, and fell in love with it. As an Orthodox Christian, the world of faith expanded to include not only Byzantine and Russian Christianity, but also the patristic era. (Though Catholicism also takes in the patristic era, and reveres its saints, Orthodoxy does so in a more emphatic way.) For me as a modern person, the sheer weirdness of Orthodoxy is one of its great strengths. There are few stories more illustrative of that than the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. It’s a story of a wild woman — wild in her worldliness, and then wild in holiness. There is the seaminess of a Mediterranean port town, there is whoring, there is nakedness … and there is salvation, and extreme penitence, and the making of an Egyptian saint whose life and name is celebrated in all the Orthodox churches of the world on this day.

I like when Dreher says, “For me as a modern person, the sheer weirdness of Orthodoxy is one of its great strengths.” This remains a vital, if appropriately small, reason why I love Orthodoxy so much. This perceived “weirdness” is a product of Orthodoxy’s ancient heritage, naturally, but it’s also a product of the remarkable cultural diversity within Orthodoxy that exists today. We often emphasize how Orthodoxy emerges from deep time; we don’t say enough about how it exists across such a wide space, representing so many cultures and nationalities! Each of these cultures and nationalities contribute in all their unique particularities to the larger, catholic faith.

(To be clear, neither I nor Dreher are saying that other cultures are intrinsically “weird.” The weirdness Dreher describes is intrinsic in the experience that white Christians will inevitably have when they enter into communion with Christians from other cultures and nations. It’s the experience of your own faith being defamiliarized. I believe this experience should be celebrated!)

On his Twitter, Dreher writes, “If your Christianity cannot accommodate the story of this wild 5th century desert woman, it is too narrow.” I remember realizing that my conception of Christianity was much, much too narrow—that it excluded much of African-American Christianity, Latin American Christianity, Eastern European Christianity, Asian Christianity, and African Christianity. My sudden awareness of all these different Christianities (including so many that fell under the umbrella of Orthodoxy) completely reinvigorated my faith.

I pray that more American Evangelicals will come to expand their conception of Christianity, that they can free their minds from the cultural narrowness of their particular traditions and see Christianity in all its wonder and diversity. I’m not praying that they leave their own tradition, only that they come to understand the breadth and depth of Christianity, both throughout history and across the globe today.

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