Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Holiness or Democracy?

Kosovo is the heart of Serbia; Orthodoxy is the heart of Kosovo; and holiness is the heart of Orthodoxy. The recognition of the illegal declaration of Kosovo as a Muslim-dominated state is not only an act of geo-political suicide, but a further dismantling of what little remains of the Christian civilization of Europe. Not only is Christianity quickly disappearing from Europe, but even its silent monuments are being destroyed. To remind ourselves of why and how Christianity is at the heart of our civilization, we need only to look to the memory of the saints. Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of St Stevan Nemanja (Simeon in monasticism), the Myrrhgusher and Prince of Serbia. Bishop Nikolai (Velimirovic), himself a twentieth-century saint of the Serbian Orthodox Church, writes the following brief life of St Stevan:
Stevan Nemanja, the great ruler of the Serbian people, unifier of the Serbian lands, creator of an independent Serbian government, defender of Orthodoxy, driver-out of heresy, was first baptised in the Latin Church, but later became a member of the Orthodox Church. In its organisation, it was at first dependent on Greece, but later shook off this dependence and became completely autonomous. When he had strengthened the state and the Orthodox Church within the state he then, following the example of his son Sava, received the monastic habit at the monastery of Studenica in 1195, being given the name Simeon. His wife Anna also received the monastic habit and the name Anastasia, and retired to a women's monastery. After two years' monasticism at Studenica, Simeon went to the Holy Mountain. There he stayed at first in the monastery of Vatopedi, together with Sava. Father and son spent days and nights in prayer. They built there six chapels: to the Saviour, the Unmercenaries, St George, St Theodore, the Forerunner and St Nicolas. They bought the ruins of Hilandar and built a beautiful monastery, in which Simeon lived only eight months before his death. When he was at his last breath, Sava, according to his wish, placed him on a simple rush mat. With his eyes fixed on the icon of the Mother of God with the Saviour, the blessed elder pronounced these words: 'Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.' And he went to the Lord, on February 13th, 1200.
Bishop Nikolai then adds this reflection:
The great Stevan Nemanja, whose authoritative word was unreservedly heeded by all, at whom peoples and kings trembled, became a monk and served the monks of the Holy Mountain as a model example of meekness, humility, goodness and prayer. And his death was the death of a truly godly man and spiritual guide. He took to his bed on February 7th, called St Sava to him, placed his hands on him and blessed him, saying: 'My beloved child, light of my eyes, comfort and guardian of my old age, the time for us to part has come; the Lord is letting me go forth in peace. But do not grieve, my child, for our parting; this is common to all. Here we part; but we shall meet again hereafter, where there is no more parting.' On February 12th St Simeon told Sava to dress him in his burial habit, spread rushes for him on the ground, put a stone for his head and thus lay him there. Then he called together all the monks and asked their forgiveness. At dawn on the 13th, while the monks were singing the morning office in the church, their voices reached the dying man's cell, St Simeon's face lit up once more and he gave his soul to God.
Is this the sort of figure whose memory we wish to erase and whose churches we wish to destroy? Are the modern ideals of tolerance and democracy more important than preserving and defending monuments to such holiness? What sort of man does our society today wish to create? One need only turn to Socrates' description of the "democratic man" in The Republic (VIII: 561) for an answer:
Yes, I said, he lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on.
Whom is it that we should aspire to emulate: the man of holiness or the man of democracy? Which civilization should we defend: one that, at the very least, defends the Christian past; or one which reifies – and even deifies – the noble lie of democracy, even when it seeks to destroy the last remaining monuments of Christendom?

The above fresco depicts St Stevan as a monk.


Maximus Daniel said...

What a telling critique of democracy from Plato.

Which reminds me yet again that I need to read the Republic.

I am going to have the chance to hear some Serbians speak about Kosovo in Chicago in a few days. I am anxious to hear what they have to say.

Felix Culpa said...

A college degree without Plato's Republic?! You've been defrauded!

The best translation for some time has been Allan Bloom's, though Joe Sach's new translation also looks excellent.

Maximus Daniel said...

I have read sections that were deemed necessary.
And I agree with you, I have been defrauded. I wish I had gone to a school like St. John's or Thomas Aquinas, or something along those lines. But alas I did not. I spent two years at a small Bible college (I do have a deep grasp of the Bible) where I realized after writing a paper on Kierkegaard that my teachers did not know anything about philosophy. And then two and half years at a state school in Kentucky. And now I am working on the education I should have recieved.

Felix Culpa said...

You should consider the Graduate Institute at St John's College. It's four semesters, which don't have to be consecutive. That is, you can finish it by doing four in a row, taking about a year and a half, or you can do it two semester a year, in two years, or four summers, etc. It's the ideal remedial solution, allowing you to read both more widely and deeply than most colleges allow.

Joe Sachs, by the way, is a tutor at the Annapolis campus.

Check out the website: www.sjca.edu

Maximus Daniel said...

I have looked at that program. I have also looked @ University of Dallas' program (focusing on ancient philosophy) in order to aid me in further studies in the Fathers.

Thanks for the heads up though!

Felix Culpa said...

Once upon a time I seriously considered doing a degree at the U of D's Braniff College, since they have a Great Books based doctoral program. Its political philosophy section is dominated by Straussians, and its philosophy section by Thomists; I'm not sure about the literature section.

Personally I think the importance of studying ancient philosophy as a stepping stone to the Fathers tends to be vastly overemphasized. That particular prejudice springs in large part from the fact that many English patrologists received their training in Classics, and thus insisted on it as a prerequisite to theology.

Maximus Daniel said...

Interesting comment about ancient philosophy and understanding the Fathers. I hadn't really seriously contemplated spending too much time on Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus much until David Bradshaw (Aristotle East and West?, I'm sure you've heard of him) told me that he sees a lot of sloppy work done by theologians in trying to understand the philosophical language that some of the Fathers employ.

So that is where I got that influence from. I guess it kind of depends on what you are wanting to focus on in your studies in the Fathers?

Felix Culpa said...

Bradshaw's work, which I very much respect, has to do largely with tracing certain ideas (such as "energia") from its philosophical foundations through the Fathers. For that, naturally, one would need to have a solid grounding in Aristotle. Bradshaw's point is certainly a valid one.

One of the dangers, though, of reading the Fathers through the lenses of classical philosophy is that one risks reading them largely as continuations of philosophical schools, hence all the ink that's been spilled arguing whether one Father or another is a neo-Platonist or not. For instance, if one goes into Dionysius with Plotinus in mind, one can't help but read him with a significant bias.

I can only think of one important patristic text I've spent any time with for which a grasp of classical philosophy is essential, and that's St Basil's 'On the Holy Spirit,' which can't be understood without some knowledge of Aristotle's Four Causes -- although, even there a careful read of the relevant Wiki article would suffice.

I'm certainly all for an immersion in Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus (Homer, too, since he's the literary touchstone of many of the Fathers). Were there but time and world enough, I'd love to spend much more time with them. But, given our lack of both time and world, I think it reasonable to go directly to the Fathers, and learn as much classical philosophy as is needed to understand them along the way.

Felix Culpa said...

It also occurs to me that a knowledge of philosophy (from classical through post-modern) is essential for an understanding of western theology (say, beginning with Aquinas), but less so for eastern theology.

Incidentally, a really helpful primer is Diogenes Allen, "Philosophy for Students of Theology.' There is also a companion volume with a compilation of primary sources.

Maximus Daniel said...

thanks for the recommendation, I own Diogenes Allen's book. Splendid work too.

It is true as I have found how important it is for Western theology to understand philosophy (as my studies in Aquinas, Lonergan, and my sporadic readings in Protestant and Catholic theology shows me).

What about some of the "Parisian" school? The influence of German idealism on Bulgakov. (Which I do not agree with). But again I guess that is for specialists.

I know Aristotle's 4 causes, how could you read Thomistic theology without some knowledge of Aristotle. :)

Stephen Shenfield said...

Have any churches actually been destroyed in Kosovo? Or has anyone threatened to destroy them? If not, is it responsible to fuel such fears? It is a pity to place holiness in opposition to tolerance. Why can they not be reconciled? Are holy places not desecrated when people of different faiths fight over them? And why consider tolerance a purely modern virtue? Was religious tolerance not practiced in certain ancient civilizations (Khazaria, for instance)?