February 1st, 2018
I found a flyer at our church about a class at the Siena Retreat Center in Racine. The topic was “Slavic Spirituality”. That title intrigued me for a couple reasons. First, I had never before heard of of anyone discussing that topic. Second, being a descendant of Slavs myself, I wanted to know just what Slavic spirituality is in comparison to other types of spirituality. What would make the Slavic version unique?
I signed up for the class, and I showed up at the retreat center the next morning. The seminar lasted most of the day. I went into the class without expectations. I didn’t know what it would be like. I wanted to be surprised, and I was.
Claire Anderson was the group facilitator. I had a chance to speak to her before the program started. She has a ready smile, and she listens well. Despite her surname, Claire is of Polish ancestry. She’s lived in Poland, and has made frequent visits to the country. She has a doctorate in ministry, and she is the executive director of the retreat center. Generally, I am not impressed by degrees or by titles. I was impressed by Claire’s openness and her passion for the topic. She has very personal interest in Slavic culture and how that affects religious practice. I could feel the enthusiasm when I talked with her.
Claire started in the program in the usual manner: she had us sitting in a circle, and she asked each person to introduce themselves. Most of the group was made up of older women. There were only two men there. Most of the people were of Slavic descent, primarily Polish. We had two outliers: one woman was an artist, and her background was Dutch and Danish; the other was Sister Jaye, who has been painting Ukrainian Easter eggs for fifty years.
When it was my turn to speak, I told the members of the group that my people originally came from Slovenia. I joked that Slovenians are best know for feeling sorry for themselves. Slovenians have a kind of edgy moodiness that straddles the boundary between melancholy and clinical depression. Obviously, this is a gross generalization, but others in the group, including Claire, confirmed my assertion from their own experiences with Slovenians.
Slovenes may be an extreme example, but it seems to me that Slavs, overall, tend to go to the dark side. Slavs often dwell on the passion and suffering Christ. We spend a lot of time on Good Friday. Slavic literature, art, and music all have shades of sadness. Is there any Slavic music that is not in a minor key? There is always a sense of loss.
Why is that?
Claire categorized Slavic spirituality under the umbrella of “indigenous spiritualities”. That struck me as odd, but then she explained what she meant. “Indigenous spirituality draws from the cultural wisdom of a people”. That’s what she said. She also implied that this wisdom is ancient and somehow connected to a particular place. She commented that there are considerable academic resources available concerning Celtic spirituality, African spirituality, Native American traditions, or the East Asian versions. However, there is almost nothing about the Slavs. In many cases, an indigenous spirituality is something that has at some point in history been repressed because the indigenous culture was dominated by another, stronger society. In short, an indigenous culture has had its ass kicked by somebody else for long period of time.
Were the Slavs oppressed? Yes, quite often. I heard a joke once that said that all German symphonies are in major keys, and all Russian symphonies are in minor keys. The Germans are always invading, and Russians get invaded. Could there be a connection? Different Slavic nations have spent centuries under the heels of Germans, Magyars, Turks, and Mongols. Yeah, the Slavs qualify as indigenous.
Claire’s presentation skimmed over the surface of a lot of different topics. This was necessary. There was simply too much material to cover in depth. Claire came up with some basic characteristics of Slavic spirituality. It is nature-based. There is a sense of cosmic harmony and order. Solidarity is more important to the Slavs than the exaggerated individualism of the West. Ritual is omnipresent. Life is viewed in terms of the cycle of the seasons. There is a strong feminine aspect. Ancestors are considered part of the present, as well as part of the past. Everything is interconnected.
Claire had set up eight stations throughout the room in order to give concrete meaning to the spiritual aspects of daily life. She assigned each station to a certain point in the year: a station for each equinox and each solstice, and a station for each midpoint between a solstice and an equinox. There was a station concerning rituals and celebrations at the spring equinox (Easter eggs, flowers, that sort of thing). Christmas rituals were part of the station for the winter solstice. A harvest motif was set up for the autumn equinox. Each time of the year has its own particular meaning, its own message for the human soul.
The pattern of the stations reminded me of my time with the Waldorf School. The people there made a great effort to incorporate the cycle of the seasons into the life of the students. There were different festivals and events during the year. I remember the May Pole on May Day (a day equidistant between he spring equinox and the summer solstice). We celebrated Michelmas, the feast of St. Michael, which happens to near the fall equinox. We carried homemade lanterns on Martinmas, the feast of St. Martin, which is at the beginning of November, equidistant between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. All these events keep a person in tune with the earth and the cosmos. These things keep a person grounded in reality.
Ir struck me, as made our tour of Claire’s stations, that Slavic spirituality is intuitive. There isn’t a lot of logic or reasoning involved. It is a heart spirituality, as opposed to being all in the head. It is experiential: rituals, devotions, pilgrimages, special meals, and visits to shrines. There are blatant superstitions involved, but sometimes superstitions are truths that can only be understood in a non-verbal, symbolic level. I was deeply touched by some of what we saw and said, and I don’t know why. Somehow it resonated.
At the end of the seminar, we all had a chance to say what we thought and felt about it. I had more questions at the end of the day than I had at the beginning. That’s probably a good thing. I guess the basic questions are: “What am I?” Why am I who I am?”
What gives me my piece of a Slavic spirituality? Is it the culture, the language, the climate, or is it part of my DNA? How deep does it all go? How much of this history do I pass on to our children? How much of it do we know? How much can we know?
Claire needs to have another class.