Fr Paul Abernathy’s new book, The Prayer of a Broken Heart, is a splendidly multifaceted exploration—from a perspective rooted in the Orthodox Christian tradition—of the religious history and spiritual character of African slaves in America and their descendants. Speaking as a white American Orthodox Christian, I’m sure that what I got out of it would be very different than what a black American would get out of it. And I’m sure that a ‘cradle’ Orthodox Christian from within one of the traditionally-religious immigrant communities that came here after slavery had been abolished would get something else entirely out of it. However, the fact that The Prayer of a Broken Heart has something to say to each of these groups is a mark of its strengths. Although it is an adaptation of his seminary master’s thesis, precisely as a work of religious history it stands firmly on its own merits.
The Prayer of a Broken Heart may be said to have three strands. The first strand is an apologia of African-American Christianity as an, if not the, authentic and valid expression of African-American culture (as opposed to being a ‘white man’s religion’ or a ‘slaveowner creed’ foisted upon the slaves by their masters). The second strand is a portrait of African-American spirituality as it was formed through and the experiences of slavery, race-based terrorism, segregation and informal discrimination. And the third strand is an exploration of the commonalities between the African-American religious experience and the historical witness of the Orthodox Church. Interspersed through all of these strands are the accounts of pastoral experiences Fr Paul himself has had, working as a priest in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The men and women whom he encounters have lives shaped by profound grief and loss. But that same suffering leads them, just as it has led many generations of their ancestors, before the Cross.
The historical aspect of the book is logically presented and carefully argued from primary source materials—slave narratives in particular. Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Charles Ball, Josiah Henson, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown and others are given space to speak in their own words from their own experiences. If Fr Paul’s authorial voice is somewhat more distant in these passages, that is all to his credit, as these narratives have their own power. The picture he draws out of these narratives is one which complicates and deflates both triumphalist-panglossian white accounts of slavery as a ‘civilising mission’, and anti-Christian tendencies in black-nationalist thought that portray Christianity as a ‘white man’s religion’. It becomes quite clear in these accounts that slave-owners had no interest whatsoever in edifying their slaves or leading them to Christianity. Their sole interest in their slaves was as productive property. In fact: slave-owners feared slaves’ expressions of religiosity, as the prayers of slaves were a powerful implicit witness to their spiritual equality before God.
Slave-owners were known to hold dances and parties with music and secular entertainments for their slaves to keep them ‘happy’. But religious gatherings were feared and forbidden. It was common for slave-owners to have slaves beaten cruelly or even killed for praying. Slaves would therefore organise prayer meetings in ‘hush harbours’: backwoods or basement locations hidden from the eyes of masters and overseers. For two hundred years, African-American Christianity was by necessity an ‘invisible institution’—a phrase borrowed from the religious historian Albert J Raboteau, whom Fr Paul Abernathy quotes at length. The message that he draws from this is clear: African-American Christianity, far from being received by slaves from masters, was attained and held in spite of the suppression of Christianity by their masters. Fr Paul tells us outright that the first records we have of slaves converting in any significant number to Christianity occurred during the first Great Awakening, when ‘New Light’ itinerant preachers would draw mixed-race crowds to revival meetings… often over the strenuous objections of the supine ‘Old Light’ pastors who were the representatives of the slave-owners’ religion.
This leads Fr Paul to open a descriptive account of the character of the Christianity of black America. Because it was an ‘invisible institution’—a church of the catacombs, shaped by the ever-present reality of persecution—it quickly became characterised by a radical trust in the will of God; an extended hope of justice however long deferred; a reliance upon the power of prayer; deference to the witness of elders who had experienced God’s action in their own lives; and an emphasis on salvific suffering and the openness of a ‘broken heart’ to God.
This provides an opening for Fr Paul Abernathy to explore the parallels between the African-American religious experience and Orthodox theology. To a certain extent, he counts on the Orthodox Christian section of his audience to have a great enough familiarity with the rudiments of hesychasm and the words of Psalm 50 to make certain connexions on their own. But he deftly illustrates how the sublative, broken-hearted and penitential character of African-American Christianity shares fundamental similarities with Orthodoxy—drawing upon numerous Patristic writings from Saint Isaac of Nineveh through Saint Gregory Palamas to Saints Silouan of Athos and Sophrony of Essex for demonstration.
Here Fr Paul Abernathy has a much clearer and direct case to make for a connexion than does, say, Hieromonk Damascene Christensen in Christ the Eternal Tao. Fr Paul has enough respect for the tradition he examines to acknowledge the clear differences between it and the Orthodox tradition. At the same time, though, he makes an honest appeal for the Orthodox ‘case’ with African-Americans. He notices in the remnants of African religion which were carried over into Christianity still more similarities with Orthodoxy: communality, the person as a web of relationships, the closeness of the human world to the Divine. And he notes in the tradition of African-American Christianity certain unmet needs and expectations in itself, most notably: a desire for self-denial, for discipline (explaining the appeal of the Nation of Islam), for mystical communion with God. And he argues that the Orthodox Church is capable of meeting these needs and expectations, as Protestant churches are quickly finding themselves deficient of these things.
Ultimately, though, this book is a labour of love. I use that term advisedly. Fr Paul Abernathy is not a nationalist of any sort: indeed, he considers pride (including national pride) to be the very source of many of the ills which the love of Christ must heal. For him, the most salient and salvific features of African-American Christianity are its insistence on forgiveness and on love of enemies: both insistences which are shared by the best aspects of Orthodox Christianity. And it is clear that he himself speaks from a position of love, even when he issues criticism.
His analysis is not without its critical dimension. Although he has nothing but words of praise for the musical tradition of the black spiritual (that true cry from the bottom of a broken heart, expressed in a cappella harmony!), he waxes particularly critical of modern African-American culture when it comes to popular music and consumption habits. He considers much of modern black musical and popular culture to be a form of propaganda which weakens the spirit—in much the same way as the secular dances and parties held by the slave-owners kept their slaves docile. I was rather surprised and a bit dismayed to read the harsh words he had even for blues and rock-‘n’-roll music, both of which (instrument-driven, individualistic, disillusioned and worldly) he views as a qualitative falling-away from the otherworldly hope and communal fellow-suffering epitomised by the spirituals.
Many thanks to Fr Paul Abernathy for publishing this work in a form which makes it available to a broad audience outside the academy. The Prayer of a Broken Heart is very much worth the time taken to read. For American Orthodox Christians in particular (and anyone interested in the history of American religion and constructive modern approaches to race relations generally), it is an excellent source to ingest, to ponder, and to begin conversations from.