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This article was published 3/12/2010 (3362 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A Journey to Byzantium
By Myrna Kostash
University of Alberta Press, 329 pages, $35
Edmonton-based Myrna Kostash's "journey to Byzantium," as she subtitles this impressive outing, is simultaneously a travelogue and a historical account enveloped in personal journals and deep spiritual reflection.
It begins in the summer of 2000 at St. Peter's Abbey, near Muenster, Sask., where the veteran journalist and author of several well-regarded non-fiction books, is attending an annual writer's colony.
While glancing through some of the monastery's big art books, she unexpectedly finds herself drawn into a book of iconography featuring the art of the Eastern Church.
"It's been some time," she writes, "since I was impressed by the fact that images that once had been wholly 'privatized' within the church of my childhood had become objects of serious scholarship."
Kostash is transfixed on one particular icon: St. Demetrius of Thessalonica. She feels an instant, powerful and inescapable affinity with the saint.
This launches her into an all-encompassing study of Demetrius. She learns that he miraculously defended and saved the city of Thessalonica for Greece in the early 4th century.
He died in 306 AD, martyred for defending Christianity against pagan Slavs.
Initially, Kostash is perturbed to discover that Demetrius fought against the Slavs, "Demetrius has protected Thessalonians... from those who have come pouring down into the Balkans — the barbarians, which is to say the Slavs, which is to say me."
As she relentlessly pursues fact and legend about St. Demetrius, she reconciles that the pagan Slavs of Demetrius's Thessalonica were later converted to the Eastern Church.
She untangles the complex history of the Balkans by waging a knowledge campaign worthy of the Ottoman empire she is dogging.
She makes her way methodically to churches bearing the name or icons of St. Demetrius. Over thick coffees and around amiable dinner tables, she siphons stories, opinion and speculation about the life of St. Demetrius from local scholars, professors, curators, archivists and priests.
From each encounter she injects Prodigal Daughter with personal anecdotes and insights into the post-Communist political aura of the region.
She heaps on multiple views and perspectives of St. Demetrius, delving into where, how and when he is remembered, feasted, prayed over, venerated and honoured.
Kostash also writes extensively about being awakened to the origins of her own complex heritage, a jumble of Ukrainian, Slavic, Balkan, and Greek Orthodox. She reattaches emotionally to the ethnicity and culture she had tucked away when leaving childhood to become "a secular humanist in the arts."
In noticeable contrast, Kostash does not use words to amplify reattaching to her Orthodox faith. Instead she offers a confession that speaks an even louder volume.
"Now that I was becoming seriously interested in the tradition of worship in the Orthodox Church, which prided itself on its roots in Christian antiquity, I would, I feared, shock friends and family."
There is no shock in the fact that the Kostash's talent and 10 years of effort have combined to produce an excellent book.
Winnipegger Joanne Thibault studies iconography, the sacred art of the Orthodox Church.