Abandoned places of empire
What does it mean, and what does “empire” mean in that context?
I suppose the simplest thing might be to ask the people who created the “new monasticism” web site what they meant by it, and how they understood the phrase. But it might be more fun to let one’s imagination run loose, because it evokes all kinds of romantic images, for all sorts of people. For example, some people have a fascination with the abandoned places of the Soviet empire. I saw many such places in Albania a few years ago, most notably the abandoned steel works at Elbasan, and the hundreds of abandoned concrete bunkers on the hillsides, monuments to the war psychosis of Enver Hoxha, where it could be said that the Orthodox Church has indeed relocated to the abandoned places of empire.
Another image that it evokes is the book From the Holy Mountain: a journey in the shadow of Byzantium by William Dalrymple. Dalrymple is a journalist and travel writer, and his journey follows in the footsteps of two monastic pilgrims centuries earlier. Western Christians are fond of talking about “The Constantinian Era”, but often fail to realise that for many Christians the “Constantinian era” lasted less than 300 years, and ended in the 7th century. In AD 578 John Moschos and a companion set off on a similar journey, to monasteries of the Near and Middle East. Dalrymple follows them, but few of the monasteries they visited still exist. They are among the “abandoned places of empire”.
There is also a fictional recording of an attempt to relocate to the “abandoned places of empire” in Rose Macaulay’s novel The towers of Trebizond.
These are just a few of the images evoked by the phrase “abandoned places of empire”. And perhaps everyone will have their own images so that there can be many more.
When linked with monasticism, it might be given another twist, and it could be understood as being places outside the ekoumene — the wild and uninhabited places of the earth. The early monks left the cities and went to the deserts, and lived in caves and ruins, which could likewise be seen as abandoned places of empire. Could a neo-monastic community take root in the ruins of the steelworks at Elbasan?
But the phrase can also be seen to have a metaphorical sense. Abandoned places, not just in the sense of being uninhabited, but, from a Christian point of view, being culturally alienated from the Christian faith, and perhaps abandoned by the Church. At least one Christian writer sees it as referring to the inner city, which has often been abandoned by the Church. There is an example in Johannesburg, where the Orthodox Cathedral of SS Constantine and Helen (diagonally opposite the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King) has a congregation that has relocated to the outer suburbs, and commutes to the church on Sundays almost to a foreign country. Around the church are the inner-city suburbs of Joubert Park, Hillbrow, Doornfontein and Bertrams, cosmopolitan, with a high proportion of illegal immigrants, many of whom earn their living through crime, while others are poor and exploited. The church was built by immigrants of an earlier generation, whose grandchildren have prospered and moved to places of green lawns and swimming pools (and often gated communities, ghettoes surrounded by electric fences, like medieval castles).
Perhaps another book, written by another Orthodox priest (though before he was Orthodox), could give a hint of how to minister in such a situation. The book is A new way of living by Father Michael Harper, and describes how an Episcopalian parish in Houston, Texas developed urban Christian communities as members of the church began a reverse migration from the outer suburbs to the inner city to form urban communities. This too could be seen as relocating to the abandoned places of empire.
But if the Christian Church has physically abandoned geographical areas of cities, there is also a kind of cultural abandonment. A conservative blog for peace gives an example of reality TV shows, where sometimes the reality gets too real.
One of the first of these “reality” TV shows was Big Brother. There was a great deal of media hype about Big Brother before the first series here, and it struck me that the very concept was immoral. It was not “reality” — it was a public experiment on live human beings, encouraging manipulation of others for public entertainment.
I’d like to have seen the result of introducing a hesychast monk into that setup.
But even if one had applied they would probably have been rejected, because the producers of such shows are not looking for people who reject the values of the virtual reality they are trying to create for voyeurist entertainment. But why not?
In the ancient world, the equivalent of reality TV was the gladiatorial games, where gladiators fought wild animals or each other for the entertainment of the public. But they didn’t seem to object to having unarmed Christians facing the wild animals, on occasion.
Do reality TV shows create or reflect the values of our societies and cultures? And which aspects of culture constitute the abandoned places of empire?