>Fashion and the Inner Life


When I opened the fall copy of AGAIN Magazine, a subsidiary of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, to which my parish in Memphis belongs, I was intrigued by the theme, “Orthodox and American.” Although Orthodox Christianity was introduced to America over a thousand years ago, it’s seen slow growth, for many reasons. One of those reasons, I believe, is the cultural trappings each jurisdiction has brought with its faith—Russian, Greek, Arab, and others. Sometimes it takes a while for a casual visitor, or even a serious seeker, to sort through what is cultural and what is theological and spiritual in an American Orthodox Church, from any tradition. Especially in parishes where the liturgy isn’t in English.

I always turn first to Fr. Michael Oleksa’s column, “From Up Here… in Alaska,” when AGAIN arrives in my mailbox. In this issue’s article, “The Essence of Orthodox Mission,” he says:

“Our task is to love America. You cannot save what you do not love…. But America cannot hear our message as long as we present it in alien and unintelligible languages, enshroud it in ethnic customs or politics, or withdraw from modern society in disdain or disgust.”

As converts to Orthodox Christianity, some of us—myself included—have at times gone to extremes in our response to certain manifestations of this ancient faith. Like monasticism, asceticism, and even clothing. For several years (my “nun years”) I tried to withdraw from society, reading only Orthodox literature, not watching TV or movies or listening to secular music. And I radically changed my appearance—wearing only long skirts and blouses, covering my head with a scarf in church, and not wearing makeup or jewelry. (That’s me, above, with a group of nuns at a monastery in Pennsylvania in the early 1990s.)

It wasn’t all superficial… I really did try to pray during those years. But my inner life became so insular, as I removed myself more and more from the people around me, that the experience only lasted a few years. I began to hunger for the things I had denied myself, including close friendships. I realized that some elements of my spiritual journey at that point were very selfish, and I began to seek a way “back” to center…. to find balance.

Writing is helping. My memoir-in-progress, Dressing the Part: What I Wore for Love, deals with the outer expression of the inner journey, as it uses clothing as the narrative frame for each era of my life. So when I saw Father Stephen Freeman’s article (guest columnist for “Meditate On These Things”) in this issue of AGAIN, “Fashion and the Inner Life,” I was intrigued.

Father Stephen lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and he grew up in the South, like me, but in what he calls “relative poverty.”

“There were very definable social groups within the public schools beyond the elementary level, generally defined by what was worn. There were groups and subgroups. What was most interesting in those years was that nothing distinguished the poor except for the lack of a cohesive group. We were individuals who could not afford clothing that would mark us as “belonging”…. Much of my youth and adult life has seen fashion used to define.”

He’s setting the stage, sociologically, for my book. A difference in our backgrounds is that the area I grew up in was the “rich part of town”… although my family was on the lower end of that spetrum. I didn’t have name brand clothes and shoes until high school, when I was old enough to get part time jobs and buy those things myself. Father Stephen’s description of the part that clothing played, and plays, is right on point.

Father Stephen goes on to call this “the secularization of clothing.” He says this secularization plays a big part in the neglect of the inner life, and “It also explains the fascination the newly Orthodox have with some of the ‘outward trappings’ found in the culture of the Church. The inner life takes much longer to acquire; the outward things come easily.”

I love the parallels he draws between the inner and outer lives… and his acknowledgement of the significance of clothing—of what it speaks about our journeys.

You can hear Fr. Stephen’s podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio here.

Now it’s time for me to get back to work on the book… I’ve drafted 7 of the 18 chapters so far, including “Girl Scouts and Training Bras,” Flower Child Bride,” and “Jesus Freak Hippie.” I’m really looking forward to writing the next chapters, especially “Spandex and Leg Warmers,” and “Church Women and Nuns.” Who would have thought I’d find inspiration for my memoir from AGAIN Magazine? Thanks, Father Stephen!
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