Beauty and splendour

In Andrew Louth's first article of four he introduces the Russian Orthodox Church

Russian Orthodoxy was born towards the end of the first Christian millennium.

According to the chronicle, Vladimir (or Volodimer) Prince of Kiev - whose conversion inaugurated Russian Orthodoxy - sent envoys to his neighbouring nations which embraced some form of monotheism such as Judaism, Islam, Western and Eastern Christianity. What convinced these nations of the superiority of the Eastern Orthodoxy of Constantinople was their worship: ‘we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth... We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer that the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.’

The Russian Orthodox Church is one of the family of Eastern Orthodox Churches—Greeks, Slavs, Romanians, mostly. Tthese Churches owe their faith to the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern part of the Christian Roman Empire. Today they are all national churches with their own hierarchies who worship in their own languages each sharing the same faith which is defined by the seven ‘worldwide’ (or Œcumenical) Synods convoked between the fourth and the eight centuries. The Churches also share the same pattern of liturgical worship; they are as it were, different dialects of a commonly shared language.

It was the beauty of Byzantine worship that struck the envoys and came to mark Russian Orthodoxy. Particularly the splendour of our worship and the solemnity with which Russians perform their liturgical actions, for example making the sign of the cross, bows and prostrations.

When Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin thought that ‘beauty will save the world’, he expressed an authentically Orthodox insight, one that is a fundamental conviction about the nature of God. God is not thought of, first of all, as a final metaphysical principle, nor as an ultimate moral sanction but rather as the ‘God, before whom we stand in awe’ (as one of our prayers puts it). He is the One whom we worship and to whom we pray, because he is the source of all brought into being in love, and cares for everything he has created.

The church buildings in which we worship are not just utilitarian structures, but places of beauty. They are symbolic structures that represent the created order, the cosmos. From the dome of the church, Christ the Pantokrator the ruler of all, gazes down in mercy and love.

In our human prayer we embrace the whole cosmos, because we have been created by God in his image. We have been created as miniature versions of the cosmos (‘microcosms’), on the frontier between spiritual and material realms.

Our role, placed as we are in God’s cosmos, is to fulfil the role of priest of nature (the shepherd of being) and interpret the mysteries of the divine meaning of the cosmos. The amazing discoveries of modern science can only be welcomed by such an interpretation of humans in relation to the cosmos.

But the world, as we know it, is also marred by ugliness. Its beauty is torn by cruelty. Prince Myshkin spoke of beauty saving the world from ugliness, distortion and brokenness. He talked about saving it from a mystery of iniquity that we hardly understand, but which we see reflected all too clearly in our human failings, those of greed, pride, lust for power and all the ways in which we fall short of being human.

This beauty that will save the world is the beauty of God, perceived by the human, in the human and in the human face of Christ which looks down in compassion from the domes of our churches.

Andrew Louth was ordained a priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Diocese of Sourozh four years ago and serves a parish in Durham. He is also Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in Durham University.
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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution