Do the Orthodox Hygge?

Cafe Kohvicum 2007

When I studied abroad in Estonia ten years ago, one of the fondest memories of my entire five-month stay was an opportunity to have coffee with my friends at a basement cafe near the Old Town section of Tallinn. It was a very dimly lit cafe, where candlelight illumined the rooms as we drank our lattes and talked with one another.

In spite of visiting some major cities and landmarks throughout Northern Europe, that cafe visit is still a really profound memory in my mind, and when people ask where to go, I will sometimes tell them about it.

What makes it such a profound space is that it really fostered a sense of hygge: the Danish cultural phenomenon that is defined as being ““a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” This concept has been a major trend in other parts of world, spanning from books to hygge-inspired cafes, and even a new museum exhibit at the Museum of Danish America, located a few hours from my home in Cedar Rapids.

As we put up our Christmas tree at home right next to our icon corner, I looked at the juxtaposition of the two: the lights of the candles, reflecting upon our icons, standing next to a tree filled with lights, ornaments and the occasional icon. The image of hygge entered my mind quickly, and I started to ponder the question: is there an Orthodox way to hygge?

(Side note: hygge is also a verb; hygger means “to hygge” in Danish)

According to Louisa Thomsen Britts, the author of The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection, light is a really big part of hygge-building. You don’t see a lot of flourescent lights so much as you see high-quality lamps, and a lot of candlelight. Britts describes the power of a candle’s flame, especially in a nation of long periods of winter darkness:

The Danish expression levende lys (living light) describes the comfort of a dancing flame–something warm, alive, authentic, and linked to the spreading of hygge. Throughout Scandinavia, candles are lit on windowsills through the darkest months of the year. The sight of living light in a place ignites the assumption that hygge abides there. 

For Orthodox, candle light is a significant part of our faith practice, whether in lighting a candle in our narthex before Divine Liturgy, keeping a small tea light going in front of a favorite saint’s icon, or in the candlelight of our services- especially during Holy Week. Vespers each week is a place where candlelight illumines the church in preparation for the next week. This is something that is part of Orthodox culture from a very young age; even children’s books such as Elizabeth Crispina Johnson’s In the Candle’s Glow focus on how the act of candle-lighting, as well as the processes of harvesting beeswax and making candles at a monastery, are sacred processes full of deep meaning. According to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, candles

…are lit before icons as a sign of one’s faith and hope in God’s help that is always sent to all who turn to Him and His Saints with faith and prayers. In practice, when lighting a candle in Church the faithful usually make a small offering to the Church. By lighting a candle and offering a prayer, one enters into closer contact with the Church and her ministry to the faithful, invisibly warming the soul by the visible light of the candle.

Warm, alive, authentic and connected are all ways to describe the process of candle-lighting in the Orthodox faith. The light is alive with prayers of those who light them, and the public space for candle-lighting means that the prayers of the community are connected to one another, inviting others to come and offer their prayers and warmth for others.

Though the lighting of a candle is a simple act of prayer, it fits well within the concept of hygge, not only through its simplicity, but also as a reaction to the frenzy and chaos of contemporary life. According to Britts, a simple act like candle-lighting

…is both an inner and outer condition of simplicity; a clarity of presence and intention, and an honest, uncomplicated practice. In our overstimulated lives with so much to distract our attention and pull us in opposing directions, we can turn to hygge as a conscious and appreciative approach to living. Hygge is a timeless practice, an everyday mindfulness that comes from a wholehearted participation in life.

The sense of everyday timeless practice, and participation in something that pulls away from overstimulation, also brings the Divine Liturgy to mind. In celebrating a 5th-century liturgy in community (and communion) with fellow Orthodox, there are many moments for community, joy, and intention. Liturgy is never celebrated alone, but also as part of a group. Liturgy is celebrated, rather than practiced. As Fr. Thomas Hopko wrote in The Orthodox Faith series, the intention of the Divine Liturgy is always constant, and there is one reason for its practice:

…the Divine Liturgy exists for no other reason than to be the official all-inclusive act of prayer, worship, teaching, and communion of the entire Church in heaven and on earth, it may not be considered merely as one devotion among many, not even the highest or the greatest. The Divine Liturgy is not an act of personal piety. It is not a prayer service. It is not merely one of the sacraments. The Divine Liturgy is the one common sacrament of the very being of the Church itself. 

Like Orthodox theology, hygge is a lived practice, and one that is best done in a non-self-conscious manner. It is something that is organic, and also something that, if forced and done on the surface, can be badly understood, as Britts notes in her book:

[Hygge] cannot be bought or engineered, no matter how artfully we arrange a scene or orchestrate an occasion. If we approach hygge from its perimeters by attempting to craft and capture perfect moments, it will elude us. We can clothe ourselves and our homes in the accouterments of a simple life but fail to reach the heart of the matter, that simplicity is a way of being, not having. It affords us space and clarity to address the very real, and often messy, business of living and caring for one another. Hygge is not allied to the carefully pared-down and controlled but to generosity, paying attention, and letting go. The pleasure is found in living hygge, not curating it, in the experience of the journey, not owning the map. 

The sense of letting go, being attentive, and focusing on lived simplicity (rather than purchased/curated simplicity) are not contemporary Nordic trends, but can actually be seen in ancient Church wisdom. A story from the Desert Fathers goes as such:

Abba Zosimos said, “In time, through neglect, we lose even the little fervor that we suppose we have in our ascetic renunciation. We become attached to useless, insignificant, and entirely worthless matters, substituting these for the love of God and neighbor, appropriating material things as if they were our own or as if we had not received them from God. ‘What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, then why do you boast as if it were not a gift?’” (1 Cor. 4:7).1

He also said, “For as I always like to say: ‘It is not possessing something that is harmful, but being attached to it.’”

Beyond the Divine Liturgy, we have a lot of opportunities in our faith to hygge. Our coffee hour conversations are not unlike those moments of what the Danes call kaffehygge, which often uses the quote “Live life today like there is no coffee tomorrow.” (According to hygge expert and CEO of the Happiness Research Institute Meik Wiking, 86 percent of Danes associate hot beverages with hygge.) There is something incredibly joyful about that first cup of PLC (post-liturgical coffee). Seasonal gatherings, such as summer camp sessions, are the perfect opportunity for hygge; Wiking, in her book, The Little Book of Hygge, says this about summertime:

It is reading in the shadow of a tree, enjoying the long summer nights, and standing around the barbecue with your friends. Summer doesn’t mean you have to turn down the hygge. It is just a different kind of hygge from that of autumn or winter. It involves making use of the sun and the warmth and nature, but summer hygge still builds on the key elements of togetherness and good food. 

While barbecues and fire pits are not sacraments, the sense of community that comes from such events plays an important role in bringing people together, and the Orthodox are no exception. In my personal experience, much of the community I built as an inquirer and catechumen was based on being surrounded by other Orthodox in community and fellowship. There is a sense of safety that comes with it; Wiking notes that hygge

…is about feeling safe…hygge is an indication that you trust the ones you are with and where you are. […] So hygge can be tasted, heard, smelled, touched and seen. But most important, hygge is felt. 

As Orthodox, we engage all of the senses in our faith lives. (It’s hard to not think about Kh. Gigi Shadid‘s song, “It’s Time to Go to Church,” as I write this.) But even though we cannot see God’s presence, we can feel that presence, and because of that nonstop love and caring, we are in permanent hygge with God, even if we are not physically close to other people at all times.

Hygge is a way to bring ordinary life and see how it can become something beyond ordinary. Britts, at one point, connects moments of hygge to prayer beads, saying that,

“Through hygge, we create extraordinary moments in our ordinary lives strung like prayer beads that summon happy associations to reach for in difficult times.” 

Danes deal with a bitter winter, and even as the world’s happiest nation, Danes are not always happy. There are struggles for every person. A lot of Danish literature and culture reflects that, with authentic, difficult situations prominently featured in famous authors such as Hans Christian Andersen and Isak Dinesen, as well as Danish film directors like Thomas Vinterberg.

However, rather than make that struggle into an idol, there are ways that hygge works to turn struggle into something beautiful and extraordinary. Our prayer ropes do just that; we turn the hardest of times into moments of joy and divine connectivity. Saints such as St. Paisios the Athonite have commented that prayers with a prayer rope had the ability to take down negative forces. As I mentioned in my discussion of Father Arseny, prayer turned a frigid gulag cell into a warm space of worship, lit by the love of God and His divine grace.

icon corner Tucson

So with that in mind, the questions to ponder this week are:

How does the practice of hygge build our lives, especially our faith lives?

How can we find warmth in times of darkness, cold and struggle?

How can those practices serve as reminders to be mindful and prayerful?

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