Monday, March 31, 2008

Metropolitan Laurus & the Bells of San Francisco

The following account, written by Mr David Jepson, Dean of the St John's Orthodox Academy in San Francisco, was forwarded to me by email:
On Saturday night (March 15th) I got home from choir practice rather late, and stayed up much later than normal as I had a very late dinner. I had finished eating and was reading a book at about 11:30 p.m. when my roommate came in and asked if I knew why the Cathedral bells were ringing. He had been in his bedroom, which like mine faces the street and has a view of the Cathedral a block away. In the kitchen, a couple of rooms away, I couldn't hear the bells, but I agreed that it seemed strange for them to be ringing at that time of night. I went to bed about a half hour later and thought nothing more about it. At church on Sunday, we were all shocked to hear that Metropolitan Laurus, the leader of the Russian Church Outside Russia, had reposed. Our priest got a telephone call from a former parishioner just before the service started at 9.00 a.m.

We heard about the chronology of events later on Sunday from the matushka of one of the Cathedral priests, whose son is at the Seminary in NY. Sometime on Sunday morning, when Metropolitan Laurus was noticed to be absent, someone went to his house and discovered that he had reposed in his sleep. The police were called etc., and people there began notifying the rest of the world. No one here in SF knew about it until 8.00 or so on Sunday morning (11.00 a.m. New York time). As the day went on, word about his death continued to spread. People here were discussing going to the funeral in NY on Friday.

As we talked about these events, the issue of the bells came up.! Others living near the Cathedral had heard the bells ringing late on Saturday night. When they came to the early service at the Cathedral (it starts at 7.30 a.m.), they found the bells tied up in the normal way, which seemed puzzling. Someone had to have gotten into the locked place where the bells are untied them, rung them (very beautifully, my roommate said), and tied them back up, all in the darkness of near midnight. No one in the group I was talking to, which included the wives of both Cathedral priests, knew who could have done it. But then as we were talking, we also learned that the NY police estimated that Metropolitan Laurus had died between 2.00 and 3.00 a.m. That's between 11.00 p.m. and 12.00 midnight here. And then everything seemed obvious.

"I attest that I had just begun reading the pre-communion canons when I heard bells....Orthodox Bells...ringing with the melodies familiar to us at the Cathedral. I first thought it was my CD player...when I checked, I found that it was off. David was reading in the kitchen and I went and asked him if he was playing music. We weren't. Others in the vicinity heard the bells at the same time, roughly the time when Vladyka Metropolitan passed away."

(Note the bells are behind two locked security gates and everyone who has access and who knows how to properly ring the bells have all sworn that they did not ring them).

His Eminence Archbishop Kyrill told us that the bells had been rung by the angels.
Eternal Memory!

UPDATE: A reader left the following comment:

I also live directly behind Holy Virgin Cathedral. I was about to go to bed at around 11: 40 or so and heard the bells ringing and thought, "wow, they're finishing up the vigil rather late tonight". Also, I was surprised to hear the bell ringing to be so accomplished, as if from a professional bell ringer. Only on the next day was I told of the Metropolitan's passing.

Fasting and Daily Nourishment

Those who have spent time in a monastery during Great Lent will recall that special works of the Fathers are read aloud during the daily services. Most often these works are The Ladder of Divine Ascent, The Lausiac History, and the Catecheses of St Theodore the Studite.

I was particularly struck by the following passage, from catechesis 55, which I heard read aloud last week:
Perhaps some one will say that to eat every day is a failure of perfection. Not at all! Otherwise our Lord would not have ordered us to ask each day for our daily bread; the prophet Elias would not have been nourished each day in the desert by a raven; Paul, who dwelt in the desert before the godly Antony, would have received bread from God every day; Antony the Great preferred as almost necessary eating daily to a fast of above a day or for a week. And this is how it seems to me; for since our body is physically exhausted through its toil for the whole day, like a racing colt, and needs its rest, so necessarily the creator of our nature has arranged for it to be strengthened by its daily nourishment so that it might run well for the future, but not be exhausted and fading, which what they suffer who drag out their fast over two, three and five days. Nor would they be able to prostrate more frequently, not to join more lustily in psalmody, nor to accomplish their other services easily, unless something truly extraordinary happens. And so daily nourishment is not simply for the imperfect, but very much for the perfect by the traditional definition and canon. And thank goodness these things have been laid down by the fathers. And may you be granted again and again both health of body and strength of spirit to serve the living and true God and to await the last day, in which may you shine out like the sun as heirs of the kingdom of heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and might, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and always and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Translated by Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash) of the Monastery of St Andrew the First Called, Manchester, England.

The Areopagite in 20th Century Orthodoxy, III

Continued from part two.

Fr John Meyendorff's interpretation of St Dionysius the Areopagite in A Study of Gregory Palamas was sharply challenged by the late Fr John Romanides in a two-part review essay. (33) Fr Romanides took issue with Fr Meyendorff's entire portrayal of St Gregory's thought, criticizing his "imaginative theories concerning Palamite monisitc prayer and anthropology, and Incarnational and sacramental heart mysticism." (34) Fr Meyendorff, according to Fr Romanides, was engaged in an "obsessed struggle to depict Palamas as an heroic Biblical theologian putting to the sword of Christological Correctives the last remnants of Greek Patristic Platonic Aphophaticism and its supposed linear descendants, the Byzantine Platonic-nominalistic humanists." (35) Romanides continues, in typically polemic fashion:
Since Dionysius the Areopagite is supposed to be the big bad boy of Patristic Platonism which produced Barlaamite nominalism, Father John is forced into a peculiar position by Palamas' obvious and, one may say, even unconditional acceptance of Pseudo-Dionysian authority. To counteract this difficulty, Meyendorff presents Palamas as constantly (whether consciously or unconsciously is not always clear) applying to the theology of St Dionysius Christological correctives, some of which we have already dealt with. In contrast to this, Meyendorff, strangely enough, does not point out those csaes in which Barlaam misinterprets the Areopagite. Nor does he even point out those instances in which Palamas interprets St Dionysius more accurately than Barlaam. For that matter, he never once demonstrates a single case in which Barlaam's interpretation of Dionysius is more accurate than that of Palamas. He merely presents us with an untested theory. (36)
Romanides further argues that, if Meyendorff is correct, he has provided the necessary presuppositions to conclude that if the Church had remained faithful to the thought of Dionysius, "Barlaam and not Palamas would now be a saint and Father of the Church. That this did not happen was apparently due to Meyendorff's fancy that St Gregory Palamas fooled everyone into thinking that this interpretation of Pseudo-Dionysius was the correct one." (37) Finally, Romanides concludes that in the dueling interpretations of Dionysius, Barlaam could not claim any single instance in which his interpretation was decisive, whereas Palamas demonstrates Barlaam's misinterpretation of Dionysius. (38)

Fr John Romanides offers a positive reading of the Dionysian corpus, criticizing Meyendorff for having "overlooked some of the most important features of a Greek Patristic approach to Dionysius and allowed himself to accept some of the usual opinions concerning the Areopagite common to the Latinized mind of the modern West," (39) a criticism later echoed by Fr Alexander Golitzin, though in much more irenic terms. Romanides insists that Dionysius and Palamas belong to one and the same spiritual and theological tradition, one that believes that one can be initiated into union with God by means of spiritual fathers who know by experience the ways of purification and themselves stand at higher levels of perfection and union with God. At all levels of spiritual progress toward union "there is real and immediate communion with God, so that in this sense there are no intermediaries between God and man, as Meyendorff thinks." (40) Rather, at every stage there are those that help those at lower stages ascend. There is nothing static, Romanides writes, in the hierarchy:
The Dionysian celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchy is not a closed system, as Fr Meyendorff thinks. The most amazing thing about it is the fact that perfection is an eternal process which never comes to an end, even for the highest orders, since there can be no expulsion of motion and change and history by the actualizing of every potentiality as happens with Neo-Platonic and Latin beatific visions. Had Meyendorff paid attention to these principles of Greek Patristic thought, he would have hit upon a real vindication of the eternal dimensions of history and motion. (41)

To be continued...

(31) Meyendorff, Study, 191.
(32) Ibid., 191.
(33) "Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 6.2, (Winter 1960-61); "Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics – II," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 9.2 (Winter 1963-64): 225-270.
(34) Romanides, Notes II, 249-250.
(35) Ibid., 250.
(36) Ibid., 250.
(37) Ibid., 253.
(38) Ibid., 254.
(39) Ibid., 256.
(40) Ibid., 257.
(35) Ibid., 257.

Trapeza

Anyone who has had the good fortune of eating with monks or nuns at a common trapeza (refectory) will immediately recognize this scene:
Dinner was protracted for nearly an hour, but not by reason of any great profusion of variety of food. It was rather a bad dinner; scarcely better than he would have got at Lord Cooper's infamous table; greatly inferior to the daintily garnished little dishes which he enjoyed at home. In course of time each member of the Boot family had evolved a little store of seasonings and delicacies, all marked with their owner's initials – onion salt, Bombay duck, gherkins, garlic vinegar, Dijon mustard, pea-nut butter, icing sugar, varieties of biscuit from Bath and Tunbridge Wells, Parmesan cheese, and a dozen other jars and bottles and tins mingled incongruously with the heavy, Georgian silver; Uncle Theodore had a little spirit lamp and chafing dish with which he concocted a sauce. The dishes as sent in from the kitchen were rather the elementary materials of dinner than the dinner itself.
From Evelyn Waugh's darkly comic novel, Scoop.

The Areopagite in 20th Century Orthodoxy, II

Continued from part one.

My reading of Fr John Meyendorff's treatment of St Dionysius is based primarily on two works: his Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (7), which contains his most prolonged engagement with Dionysius, and A Study of Gregory Palamas (8), in which we first find his theory of "Christological correctives" allegedly applied to Dionysius by subsequent authors. (9)

In his chapter on Pseudo-Dionysius in Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, Fr Meyendorff views Dionysius as essentially an apologist, his preoccupation being "to integrate within a Christian system the hierarchical world of neo-Platonism," believing (mistakenly) that he had "safeguarded the essentials of Christian revelation in brining the neo-Platonic system which he had adopted the correctives of the doctrine of God's absolute transcendence." (10) Fr Meyendorff's interest in this work is to place Dionysius "in the context of the Byzantine doctrine of salvation," giving special attention to two aspects of Dionysius' thought: "the Dionysian conception of God, 'theology' properly so-called" on the one hand and "the doctrine of the hierarchies," which has to do with ecclesiology and liturgical piety, on the other. (11) Fr Meyendorff considers Dionysius to be within the Greek Patristic tradition in the former aspect (theology) while being largely neo-Platonic in the latter (the hierarchies). "On the level of theology in the strict sense," writes Fr Meyendorff, "Pseudo-Dionysius continues and develops this patristic thought. While he adopts the language and the conceptual system of the neo-Platonists, he separates himself from them very clearly when he speaks of transcendence as belonging properly to the divine essence." (12) If, however, he was "successful" in theology proper, "his success was much more questionable in the realms of cosmology and ecclesiology, in which the absence of common Christological references makes illusory his efforts to bridge completely the gap between the Gospel and neo-Platonsim." (13)

Meyendorff considers it impossible within the realm of ecclesiology "to maintain rigorously, in the order prescribed by Dionysius, the relationship of initiator to initiated between the various degrees of the ecclesiastical hierarchy." (14) This is the case particularly when the original role of each ranks within the hierarchy is "isolated from their original context and serve merely as an artificial form for a pre-conceived hierarchical system." (15) The episcopate within such a hierarchy, Meyendorff argues, "is defined not as an element of the inner structure of the church-community, a function of the Body of Christ, but as a personal state." (16). Indeed, the very conception of a church-community with the bishop at its head "is absent from the Dionysian perspective." (17) Within this rigid hierarchy the role of the sacraments is reduced "to the transmission from one individual to another of special illumination" and even the Eucharist, in Fr Meyendorff's reading, "has only a symbolic and moral significance." (18)

Meyendorff argues that the hierarchies in two ways: dynamically and concretely. Concretely they function as a "scale of intermediaries, destined above all to incorporate into the system the Neo-Platonist triads." (19) This concrete conception of hierarchies presents salvation and the sacraments in "complete separation from the central mystery of Christianity, the incarnation." (20) Fr Meyendorff asserts that: "Undoubtedly Dionysius, who probably belonged to the Severian Monophysite party (hence the mono-energetic formula he used once), mentions the name of Jesus Christ and professes his belief in the incarnation, but the structure of his system is perfectly independent of his profession of faith." (21) That is, Fr Meyendorff sees the idea of the Head of the hierarchy descending to become man and unite Himself to us as being irreconcilable with the idea of the concrete and immovable nature of the hierarchies. While on the dynamic level of the hierarchies, related to God, there is room for personal encounter and personal holiness, on the level of the concrete or individual level, the sacraments are "reduced to the role of initiating symbols." (22) The result, on an ecclesiological level, can lead to a "sort of magical clericalism." (23)

Granted the problems Fr Meyendorff sees in the Dionysian texts, it is his burden to explain why and how it was that subsequent Fathers considered them authoritative and quoted them positively. Fr Meyendorff's solution is to argue that, although Saints Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, and Gregory Palamas obviously drew heavily from Dionysius, they did so by "integrating him into a system of thoughts fundamentally independent of him." (24) These later Fathers, chief among them St Gregory Palamas, applied "correctives" to Dionysius in the realm of pure theology. In the realm of liturgical piety, however, Meyendorff claims that Dionysius' influence was entirely negative, and stood uncorrected:
Only by ascending the steps of the hierarchy by way of initiation does one reach the mystery that remains always essentially hidden. In the absence of an initiation, one possesses only an indirect knowledge through hierarchical intermediaries and symbols. For Dionysius, this was essentially the role of the liturgy and of the sacraments, whose corporate, Christological, and eschatological sense was left obscure. The necessary correctives to Dionysius were fairly rapidly incorporated in the realm of pure theology, but his symbolic and hierarchical conception of the liturgy marked forever Byzantine piety: hence the conception of a symbolic drama that the assembly attend as spectators, the mystery of which can only be penetrated by initiated individuals.
With these sweeping words, Fr Meyendorff makes essentially the same claim as Fr Schmemann in the diary entry with which this essay began: Dionysius is responsible for the reduction of the Church to a mysterious piety; the liturgical crises that both men saw is laid largely at the feet of St Dionysius.

Fr Meyendorff's theory of Christological correctives added to the Dionysian corpus by subsequent Fathers was developed at much greater length in his first major work, A Study of Gregory Palamas. He contends that "the problem of the exegesis of Dionysius was at the centre of the argument in the Byzantine controversies of the fourteenth century," (26) and presents Barlaam and Palamas as dueling exegetes of Dionysius, both trying to redeem his work by correcting properly. Palamas' opponents, according to Fr Meyendorff, employed Dionysius' negative theology to "justify their negation of real deification; it allowed them to give a nominal or symbolical meaning to Scriptural or Patristic passages – especially those of Dionysius himself – which speak of the participation of men in the 'divine nature.'" (27) The result of Barlaam's use of Dionysius was that "the system of the Areopagite neutralized itself, and at the same time neutralized Revelation." (28)

St Gregory Palamas, on the other hand, following St Maximus' lead, salvaged Dionysius' authority by applying Christological correctives to the Dionysian hierarchies. St Gregory "himself made constant use of the Areopagite, applying, as St Maximus had done, a Christocentric corrective to his thought; nonetheless he came into such clear opposition to Dionysius that he had to resort to a forced and artificial exegesis of his thought, in order to avoid a direct attack on so venerable an authority: actually Palamas' Christological corrective completely changes the structure of Dionysius' thought." (29) This complete change can be seen in Palamas' relegation of Dionysius' hierarchical universe to the "field of 'natural' cosmology' anterior to the Incarnation." (30) St Gregory, significantly, did this "without being fully conscious of the Neo-Platonic character of Dionysius' system." (31) In St Gregory's revision of Dionysius' system, the hierarchies belong to the domain of nature, a domain which "was utterly overthrown by the intervention of a historical and essentially new fact, the Incarnation of the Word." (32) As such, although in the natural order angels are superior to men, following the Incarnation man is higher than the angels.

Thus we see, in summary, that Barlaam, according to Meyendorff, used Dionysius to insist on God's imparticipability, the impossibility of real deification, and to ascribe a nominal or symbolic meaning to Scriptural and Patristic passages, all the while neutralizing both the Dionysian corpus itself and even Divine Revelation. St Gregory Palamas, on the other hand, applied Christological correctives to Dionysius, making the hierarchies part of the fallen order overcome by the Incarnation.

To be continued...

(7) John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1975).
(8) John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, tr. George Lawrence, (London: The Faith Press, 1964).
(9) A succinct example of Fr Meyendorff's view of Dionysius can also be found in Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1979), esp. pp. 27-29.
(10) Meyendorff, Christ, 92.
(11) Ibid., 92-93.
(12) Ibid., 93.
(13) Ibid., 100.
(14) Ibid., 104.
(15) Ibid., 104.
(16) Ibid., 104.
(17) Ibid., 105.
(18) Ibid., 105.
(19) Ibid., 107.
(20) Ibid., 108.
(21) Ibid., 108.
(22) Ibid., 109.
(23) Ibid., 109.
(24) Ibid., 110.
(25) Ibid., 111.
(26) Meyendorff, Study, 204.
(27) Ibid., 205.
(28) Ibid., 205.
(29) Ibid., 189.
(30) Ibid., 191.
(31) Ibid., 191.
(32) Ibid., 191.

The Areopagite in 20th Century Orthodoxy, I

On Wednesday, March 10, 1982, Fr Alexander Schmemann made the following entry into his diary:
Yesterday I read the Church Hierarchy of Psuedo-Dionysius the Areopagite. What can it mean in our contemporary world? What could it have meant in a world where it was written? What does the success of this corpus mean in Byzantium? If one would apply the Gospel's basic principle, "for the tree is known by its fruit" (Matthew 12:33), to the history of the Church, one would see that what happened was the reduction of the Church to a mysterious piety, the dying of its eschatological essence and mission, and, finally, the de-Christianization of this world and its secularization. But, it seems that there is an impulse precisely to return to this very legacy. (1)
This is a very harsh judgment, yet one that is by no means unrepresentative of Dionysius' reception by Orthodox scholars in the twentieth century. The goal of this essay is to analyze the basis for such a reading of the Dionysian corpus. I will attempt to realize this goal by analyzing the work of one of Dionysius' harshest critic's, Fr John Meyendorff, and then reviewing the work of two other Orthodox scholars who have responded to him, the late Fr John Romanides and Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin). Following a summary consideration of the conversation among these three outstanding scholars, I will offer my own critique of the work of each and conclude with a consideration of the nature of patristic scholarship within the contemporary Orthodox Church and Dionysius' place within it.

Before turning to a review of the works of Meyendorff, Romanides, and Golitizin on Dionysius, I should explain what I mean by the term "problematization" and how this applies to the Corpus Dionysiacum. I submit that at least until modern times the works of St Dionysius the Areopagite – whatever the historical identity of the author – enjoyed full reception within the Orthodox Church. The Dionysian corpus was accepted largely uncritically by Fathers of such unquestionable Orthodoxy as St Maximus the Confessor, St John of Damascus, St Photius the Great, St Germanus of Constantinople, St Gregory Palamas, and St Symeon of Thessaloniki (though, as we shall see, Meyendorff argues that some applied "correctives" to his theology). His scheme of the angelic hierarchies has become, largely thanks to their use by St John of Damascus, standard Orthodox doctrine. St Dionysius the Areopagite has an annual liturgical commemoration in the Orthodox calendar. (2) In the early and middle half of the twentieth century the two most outstanding theologians of the Russian diaspora, Vladimir Lossky and Fr Georges Florovsky, both endorsed the Orthodoxy of the Dionysian corpus. (3)

This traditional reading, however, has been sharply challenged in the Orthodox world by Fr John Meyendorff and those who have followed his reading. Meyendorff's Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, with its highly negative assessment of Dionysius, has found a wide readership and is considered an authoritative treatment of Eastern Christology. Fr Kenneth Paul Wesche, for instance, refers directly to Meyendorff's work when stating that "the center of Dionysius' 'theoria' is not the christological confession of the Church, but 'gnosis' " (4) and, later, that "gnosis, which is the content of salvation and communion, is mediated by Christ through the hierarchies so that the hierarchies stand between God and the individual." (5) Wesche goes so far as to write that 'Dionysius' vision finally renders superfluous the Incarnation of Christ. Most certainly, the necessity of the Cross becomes difficult to explain. If gnosis is the chief function and goal of the Church, then why must Jesus become fully man and die on the Cross?" (6) If this were indeed the case, not only the Orthodoxy but the very Christianity of Dionysius would be up for question.

With such criticism in mind, the average educated reader will approach the Dionysian corpus with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Why the pseudonym? Who was the author, really? Was he a Christian impersonating a Neo-Platonist or a Neo-Platonist impersonating a Christian? Was he a Chalcedonian or a non-Chalcedonian? Is he in fact responsible for magical clericalism, rigid hierarchalism, and ultimately the de-Christianization of the world? This problem becomes even more acute with an exposure to the strangeness of the Dionysian writings themselves, which come from a theological landscape vastly different from our own. Approaching the texts with such problems in mind naturally results in a reading quite different from that of previous generations, who accepted the Corpus Dionysiacum as an integral element of the patristic corpus. In short, the works of Dionysius have been "problematized," and it is the intention of this essay to explore why and how this is.

To be continued...

Notes:
(1) The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2000), 316-317.
(2) The Church's hymnody for this feast clearly equates the first-century Hieromartyr Dionysius of Athens with the author of the Corpus Dionysiacum. Even if we separate the two for historical reasons, the liturgical "canonization" of the author of the corpus remains.
(3) In The Vision of God, tr. Asheleigh Moorhouse (Bedfordshire, 1963), Lossky writes (incorrectly, as it turns out) that the "orthodoxy of the Areopagite writings will never be questioned" (p. 99). Lossky characterizes Dionysius as "a Christian thinker disguised as a neo-Platonist, a theologian very much aware of his task, which was to conquer the ground held by neo-Platonism by becoming a master of its philosophical method" (pp. 99-100). Florovsky is somewhat more reserved, characterizing Dionysius as "not so much a theologian as a contemplative observer and a liturgist" in The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers (Belmont, MA, 1974), 210).
(4) "Christological Doctrine and Liturgical Interpretation in Pseudo-Dionysius," St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Quarterly, 33:1, p. 54.
(5) Ibid., 64
(6) Ibid., 63-4.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Aubrey de Vere's "Sorrow"

When I was young, I said to Sorrow,
"Come I will play with thee" –
He is near me now all day;
And at night returns to say,
"I will come again to-morrow,
I will come and stay with thee."

Through the woods we walk together;
His soft footsteps rustle nigh me.
To shield an unregarded head,
He hath built a wintry shed;
And all night in rainy weather,
I hear his gentle breathings by me.

Two Poems for the World-Weary

Here are two short poems, both entitled "On the Precariousness of Human Nature," by St Gregory the Theologian (or, Gregory of Nazianzus, as he's also known):

I. Poem 1.2.12, De naturae humanae fragilitate (PG 37, 754).
Dear world, though not so very dear, why like a rolling wheel
do you bear down on me, who trudge wheezing
like a tiny ant distressed at his sore burden?
But you who are so huge, on the other hand, bear so much.
I know, in fact, that you are from God, proclaiming Him. But likewise, formed
by Christ's own hand, you were woven of things
both heavenly and earthly. The body was fashioned down here,
while soul, again, is a breath of the great Mind.
Nevertheless, like all the others, I am driven to and fro
by my miseries, miseries from an enemy.
And like a seagoing dolphin upon a land, in the thin air I die.
World, my time is done; bring the people on unwounded.
II. Poem 1.2.13, De naturae humanae fragilitate (PG 37, 764-755).
Myself and time, like birds
or ships at sea, slip past each other,
with nothing that stays put;
but what I've done amiss does not skip by,
but stays: this is life's cruelest pain.
Nor can I tell what to pray for, to live on, or be done:
it's fearful either way. Come, think with me.
Through sins my life's become an aching mess. But if I die,
ai! ai! there's no cure then for your old passions!
It this is what life appoints for you, its anguish is so great
that even when ended it holds no end of troubles,
but on both sides there's a precipice. What's there to say?
This then is what's best,
to look towards You along, and Your kindheartedness.
Everyone should own this little volume, translated by Peter Gilbert (St John's College, Santa Fe). And if the people in our various Orthodox youth committees had any sense, they'd use this little book in their work with adolescents.

OSB Review Roundup (so far)

I have thus far judged the OSB only by its cover, but I will actually open the book very soon. In the meantime, I'd suggest you avail yourself of some of the excellent commentary I've come across, all of it written by people deeply read in Holy Scripture:
  • Theron Mathis, who himself participated in parts of the production of the OSB, offers his thoughts here.
  • And, once again, Fr Ephrem Lash's review of the original (1993) version of the OSB bears reading and rereading. The new version of the OSB includes the very same New Testament and notes, with only very minor revision, as that reviewed by Fr Ephrem fifteen years ago. Indeed, Fr Ephrem's review can be used as a standard to measure the success of the 2008 version of the OSB. Were the editors able to incorporate constructive criticism, or were they not?
While Mr Edgecomb, for reasons of sanity, has rescind himself from further extended comment, I will continue to comment on the OSB in installments, as time permits. Esteban, hopefully, will be soon joining the fray. I invite readers to submit other serious reviews they may have come across – or, for that matter, to write their own! Reflections and reactions are always welcome in the comment boxes, and I'd be happy to lend out this space for guest reviews for people without an internet soapbox of their own. Send me an email (see profile page), and I'll take your review into consideration. I'd be happy to feature any genuinely thoughtful and constructive review regardless of whether I endorse its contents.

Sunday of the Cross

Today is the third Sunday in Lent, on which we celebrate the Veneration (or Adoration) of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.

Although this Sunday has much in common with the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross (September 14), it is in fact more directly associated with Pascha, that is, the Feast of the Resurrection. Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection are never treated within the Orthodox Tradition as two discrete events: they form two parts of one single action, which together we can call the Passion. Recall that, in the very earliest centuries, the Crucifixion and Resurrection were celebrated as one event; it was only later that the two were in some sense separated, receiving their own liturgical commemorations on different days. This joint veneration is perhaps most concisely expressed in the words we sing today, on the Sunday of the Cross: “We venerate Thy Cross, O Master, and we glorify Thy Holy Resurrection.” From an Orthodox perspective, then, to speak of the Passion of Christ is to speak of both the Cross and the Resurrection as a single event marking the victory over death. The Cross is a symbol of victory, not of defeat.

Metropolitan Kallistos, introducing today's commemoration, says this in his introduction to The Triodion:
The dominant note on this Sunday, as on the two Sundays preceding, is one of joy and triumph. In the Canon at Matins, the irmoi are the same as at Easter midnight, 'This is the day of Resurrection...', and the troparia are in part a paraphrase of the Paschal Canon by St John of Damascus. No separation is made between Christ's death and His Resurrection, but the Cross is regarded as an emblem of victory and Calvary is seen in the light of the Empty Tomb.
Christ's Incarnation and Passion are together woven from the fabric of Scripture, as St Hippolytus of Rome puts it so poetically in his treatise, On the Christ and the Antichrist (4):
For the Word of God, being fleshless, put on the holy flesh from the holy Virign, as a bridegroom a garment, having woven it for himself in the sufferings of the Cross, so that having mixed our mortal body with His own power, and having mingled the corruptible into the incorruptible, and the weak with the strong, He might save perishing man.

The web-beam, therefore, is the Passion of the Lord upon the Cross;

and the warp on it is the power of the Holy Spirit;

and the wolf is the holy flesh worn by the Spirit;

and the thread is the grace which by the love of Christ binds and unites the two in one;

and the rods are the Word;

and the workers and the patriarchs and prophets who weave the fair, long, perfect tunic for Christ;

and the Word passing through these, like the combs (or rods), completes through them that which His Father wills.
To unravel this metaphor is to discern the mystery of the Cross, which can but only but lead to veneration and adoration.

Some links for the Sunday of the Cross:
  • A valuable selection of thirty-four short texts by the Holy Fathers on the Holy Cross.
  • Reflections on the Sunday of the Cross by His Eminence, Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas and the South.
  • Sermon by Fr George Niozisin on the Veneration of the Precious Cross.
We venerate Thy Cross, O Master, and we glorify Thy Holy Resurrection!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Orthodox Study Bible: My Turn, I

I've never subscribed to the fiction that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover. The cover, after all, contains such useful information as the book's title and author. Sometimes it also provides a summary of its contents and endorsements from people in the know. I have acquired the OSB (The Orthodox Study Bible, not the Order of St Benedict), and intend to judge the book by its cover.

The following text is featured on the front cover:
ANCIENT CHRISTIANITY SPEAKS TO TODAY'S WORLD
  • Become more conversant about the ancient roots of Christianity
  • Expand your Bible knowledge with commentary from Christian teachers of the first millennium
Now, of course, the first question that arises in the mind of the reader is: Who edited this? Do we really want to become "more conversant about" the ancient roots of Christianity? This doesn't bode well for what will follow. The next question is: Why such emphasis on antiquity? Is Orthodoxy simply a relic of the past whose only purpose is to be relevant to the present? And why include commentary exclusively from the first millennium ? Is it because "Orthodoxy" is synonymous with "antiquity"? Or is it perhaps a new cut-off date for the myth of the "Patristic era"?

Perhaps the back cover will help. Here's what we read:
The FIRST EVER Orthodox Study Bible presents the Bible of the early church and the church of the early Bible.
What, precisely, is "the early Bible"? Is the Septuagint (nowhere mentioned on the front and back covers) also an ancient relic of the past? And haven't we seen an Orthodox Study Bible before, say, in about 1993? The text continues:
Believers of the Orthodox Christian faith now have a clear and compelling study resource enabling them to delve into the riches of Holy Scripture. Prepared by a pan-orthodox team of scholars and pastors, The Orthodox Study Bible brings to one volume the words of Scripture and the understanding of those words from the earliest days of the Christian era. More importantly, this Bible is a treasury of Christian commentary for all Christians of the twenty-first century.
So believers of the Orthodox Christian faith previously lacked resources for the study of the Scriptures? And what's up with "pan-orthodox"? It's bad enough that the words "Orthodox Church" do not appear in all this, but it adds insult to injury not even to capitalize the very name we hold so dear. Moreover, if this is indeed a Bible prepared by Orthodox for Orthodox, why and how is it more important for all Christians than for the Orthodox themselves? Who is the intended audience of this volume? The text continues:
With this Bible...
  • Become a more informed Christian
  • Strengthen your personal commitment to Christ through Bible reading and prayer
  • Hear the voice of Christians from the first ten centuries after Christ
  • Unite your intellect and heart of faith, for a richer Christian experience
Putting aside the lousy syntax throughout, where did "Orthodox" go in all this? Why are we being asked to strengthen our "personal commitment to Christ through Bible reading and prayer"? Wouldn't it be more appropriate for an Orthodox Bible – as if there were any other kind, incidentally – to strengthen our mind in the catholic consciousness of the Church through liturgical worship and the reading of the Holy Scriptures in and through the Church? Perhaps the most telling point on the back cover is hidden in the bar-code box: "NKJV/STUDY/GENERAL." Is this a new translation, or is it not?

Below the text are a few sample pages, with two rather poorly executed icons printed poorly amongst a couple of not especially attractive pages of texts.

On to the front flap. The first paragraph begins as follows:
Prior to the Reformation of the 16th century, the great voices of the historic Church were such luminaries as Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Hippolytus, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Nicholas of Myra, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, John Cassian, John of Damascus, and Maximus the Confessor.
Prior to the Reformation? Did the Reformation somehow overtake the great voices of the historic Church at that point? Again, if this is a Bible prepared by Orthodox for Orthodox, why not show sufficient respect for the Fathers mentioned by allowing them the title of "saint"? It's also curious that they should include Nicholas of Myra – known in the Church as St Nicholas the Wonderworker – given that we have none of his writings. The rest of the inner flap is essentially an extended advertisement, telling us that the OSB is the "first-of-its-kind study Bible" using "sources that shine with heavenly insight" and will provide Christians of all varieties with "an invaluable roadmap for their spiritual journey."
On to the back flap:
The last decade of the twentieth century saw an historic event. In 1993 The Orthodox Study Bible: New Testament and Psalms was released, the first English Bible with study material reflecting how the early Christians interpreted and applied the Bible to their lives. Christians from both the eastern and western traditions found a source of Bible study that provided light for their spiritual journeys. English-speaking Orthodox Christians – whether converts or from Greek, Russian, Arab, Serbian, Bulgarian, Coptic or any other Eastern Orthodox parentage – found the biblical roots of their faith in words fresh and powerful. Christians from non-Orthodox traditions glimpsed a faith experience that rang true and enriched their own Christian experience.
Well, at least they're modest in their claims! There's a very good reason why the first OSB was unique: "study Bibles" are a purely Protestant invention, unknown to "ancient Christianity." I also wonder how the people of Coptic parentage like being mixed in with the "Eastern Orthodox." Last I knew, they were busy – in a striking parallel with proponents of race politics – inventing new and better names for themselves: Non-Chalcedonians, Pre-Chalcedonians, Miaphysites, etc., adopting any name that came to mind, with the exception of "Monophysite" and "Eastern Orthodox."

The text continues:
The necessity of answering popular demand pressed upon the editors of the New Testament edition the task of preparing an edition of the Orthodox Study Bible with both the Old and the New Testaments. So they undertook the task of preparing a biblical text suitable for the purpose. The decision was made that the notes and commentary which address the biblical text would emphasize the major themes of the Christian faith.
Thus, the notes give primary attention to:
  1. The Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  2. The Incarnation: The Divine Son of God becoming Man
  3. The Centrality of the Church, the "dwelling place of God in the Spirit" (Eph 2:22)
  4. The Virtues: God's call to His people to live righteous and holy lives in Christ
Judging by some of the reactions to the first version (see, for instance, here and here), I wouldn't have expected a popular uprising demanding a sequel. The four points to which the notes give primary attention are a bit odd, at least in order. How can attention be given to the Holy Trinity before that of Christ? And why should only the Incarnation be considered, and not Christology – the starting point for any theological reflection. The text continues:
To attain these goals, specific attention was given to the biblical interpretation of the fathers of the ancient and undivided Church, and to the consensus of the Seven Ecumenical or Church-wide Councils of Christendom, held from the fourth to eighth centuries. Other helps were added to provide the Bible reader every opportunity to employ the Bible not only in study, but also in contemplative Bible reading and prayer.
It's interesting that they would employ the old falsehood of the "ancient and undivided Church." Speaking from an ecclesiological perspective, the Church has always been one and undivided, and not just in antiquity. Moreover, from an historical perspective, there never was an undivided Church, in that there were breaks and schisms and heresies from the very time of the Apostles. In other words, the Church has always been One, but that doesn't mean that any number of large groups of Christians did not fall away from it, creating what today we would call their own denominations. While we're grateful that the editors would provide everything deemed necessary for the study and contemplation of the Bible, one wonders why they would have taken little to no interest in preparing a Bible that could used, at least to some extent, liturgically. The text continues:
The prayer of the editors and contributors of The Orthodox Study Bible is that it presents an understandable Bible text and commentary to (1) English-speaking Orthodox Christians the world over and to (2) non-Orthodox readers interested in learning more about the faith of the historic Orthodox Church.
These are fine and noble aims. But are they in fact compatible? Who, really, is the intended audience: Orthodox Christians or non-Orthodox Christians? From the language and tone of the cover, I suspect that it is the latter.

And, last but not least, the endorsement by Bradley Nassif:
"At last! A study Bible that integrates the Old Testament with the worshipping life of the Church! Among the servarel approaches to the biblical text which Orthodoxy has manifested and permitted over the centuries – literal, symbolic or a mix of both – this one follows the more symbolic tradition. It's the only resources I know of that relates the Old Testament to the theology, liturgy, lectionary and fathers of Christian antiquity. Christians of all backgrounds – Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants – will see Christ as the key that unites the whole of Christian tradition through an integrated understanding of its parts."
I find this simply astonishing. Are we really to believe that in two thousand years of theological reflection and scholarship, the Orthodox Church has not found a means to relate the Old Testament to other parts of Orthodox practice? Has he never been to Church? Has he never noted the number of Psalms read throughout every service? Has he never paid attention to the church hymns, canons, and prayers, all of which are deeply rooted in Scripture? Has he ever studied a single ode of St Andrew of Crete's canon? Moreover, I'm a bit uneasy about his distinction between "literal" and "symbolic." Yes, the Fathers employed a "literal" approach, but it must immediately be stated that their "literal" approach and our "literal" approach are two entirely different matters. I suspect that he follows the latter approach, since he choses to pair it up with the "symbolic," rather than the allegorical. But this is a relatively fine point, and you can read my thoughts on the distinction here.

My judgment of the book based on its cover: What we have here is a Bible produced to attract Protestants to the Orthodox Church by providing them with a large ream of proof texts bound between two hard (really, cardboard) covers. Perhaps it really will serve that purpose, which would undoubtedly be a good thing. But what about the rest of us, whose use of Scripture doesn't hinge on strengthening our personal commitment to Christ through Bible reading and prayer, who are not embarrassed to speak the language of the Church, and who prefer to replace personal devotion with the communal experience of the worshiping Church, whose love for Orthodoxy has little to do with its antiquity, and who are not ashamed of venerating the memory of its saints – indeed, praying to them – not only from the first millennium, but from the Apostles to our own days?

More to come in the days that follow. Comments are, of course, welcome.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fasting Fattens the Soul

St Ephraim the Syrian, in his Homily on Our Lord, chapter 15, writes:
For it was not for the dainties of the Pharisees that our Lord hungered, but for the tears of the sinful woman He was an hungered. For when He was satisfied and refreshed by the tears for which He hungered, He turned and rebuked him who had bidden Him to the food that passes away, that He might show that it was not for the sake of food for the body that He had become a guest, but for the sake of help to the soul. For it was not for the sake of pleasure that our Lord mingled with gluttonous men and winebibbers, as the Pharisee supposed; but that in their food as mortals He might mingle for them His teaching as the medicine of life. For even as it was in the matter of eating that the Evil One gave his deadly counsel to Adam and his helpmeet, so in the matter of eating the Good Lord gave His life-giving counsel to the sons of Adam. For He was the fisherman Who came down to fish for the lives of the lost. He saw the publicans and harlots rushing into prodigality and drunkenness; and He hastened to spread His nets amongst their places of assembly, that He might capture them from food that fattens bodies, to fasting that fattens souls.
How the Lord subverts our expectations, using the occasions of sin to save us! Invited to a sumptuous banquet, He hungered only for tears of repentance; given rich food, He mixed into it the medicine of life, thereby making the source of Adam's sin a food for salvation. He indeed is the Fisherman who uses an earthly bate to pull us out of the depths, and who spreads dragnets into bars and brothels to capture sinners for Himself.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Email as Mental Illness

Humanity has a really remarkable capacity for invention, especially when it comes to sin. If you suffer from any of the following symptoms, contact your spiritual father immediately:
As more people leave the office computer, only to log on as soon as they get home, the American Journal of Psychiatry has found addiction to text messaging and emailing could be another form of mental illness.

The article, by Dr Jerald Block, said there were four symptoms: suffering from feelings of withdrawal when a computer cannot be accessed; an increased need for better equipment; need for more time to use it; and experiencing the negative repercussions of their addiction.

Read the full article here, and then repent!

St Symeon the New Theologian

Today the Church celebrates the memory of one of the great proto-Hesychasts, St Symeon the New Theologian (life). I'm not sure if I'll have time today to write anything myself about this great saint, so I'll leave you with enough online resources to keep you busy for the day:
  • St Symeon, a few short excerpts from his writings in both Greek and English.
  • Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin), review of the above book.
Now go READ!

The Hagioritic Tome

The clearest short statement of the teachings of St Gregory Palamas and the Hesychasts can be found in "The Declaration of the Holy Mountain in Defence of Those who Devoutly Practise a life of Stillness," otherwise known as the "Hagiortic Tome." An English translation can be found in the fourth volume of the Philokalia, pp. 418-425.

St Gregory Palamas wrote the Declaration in 1340 during the latter stage of his dispute with Barlaam, though the Calabrian is nowhere mentioned by name. The issues raised in the Declaration should therefore be considered in the light of St Gregory Palamas' ongoing dispute with Barlaam, though it should be noted that there is no mention of their earlier disagreement concerning the use of apodictic reasoning as a theological method, as was raised in their exchange on the Latin teaching on the procession of the Holy Spirit. Nor is there any mention of somatopsychic practice, though the role of the body in prayer is emphasized. It appears their earlier disputes over these issues were not of sufficient importance to necessitate a conciliar, doctrinal refutation. Rather, the Declaration focuses on the Hesychasts' claim of the reality of man's participation in God's uncreated, deifying energies.

The structure of the Declaration is as follows: first a Prologue in which the key issues are set forth; then a series of six statements, each condemning a doctrinal assertion while offering a positive teaching; then a statement by the Athonite monks declaring the uniformity of these teachings with Holy Tradition and explicitly supporting the work of Palamas; a series of signatures endorsing the text; and finally the signature of the local bishop, declaring a break in communion with those not in agreement with the Declaration.

At the risk of oversimplification, we could summarize the argument as follows: The Hesychasts, exercising a prophetic role, have been initiated by experience into mysteries of God that may appear impious to those without such experience. This experience of deifying Grace is communicated by means of a vision of Divine Light. This deifying Grace 1) is uncreated; 2) is brought about by supernatural illumination; 3) is experienced by an embodied intellect (nous); 4) is manifest in a Light that has real being and surpasses comprehension; 5) "issues" from God as Energies having uncreated reality; 6) is participated in by the body as an eschatological foretaste.

St Gregory Palamas is defending the reality of the revelation of the mysteries of the Spirit to those purified through virtue and deified by the uncreated Energies or Grace revealed in the vision of the Uncreated Light and participated in by both intellect (nous) and the senses and communicated to the body.

But the heart of the Declaration is not so much an abstract doctrinal assertion as it is a defense of the experience of the Hesychasts. Throughout the document we see that the true source and demonstration of the doctrinal assertions is the prophetic, mystical revelation that is actually experienced by mystical initiation. Those who have not had this experience should at least trust those who have. Those who object to the teachings of the Hesychasts lack proper revarance, have not been purified by virtue, and are stuck in ignorance. Like the Jews of old, they will accuse the new prophets of blasphemy. Those Athonites who signed the Declaration were convinced of its truth not only from its conformity to Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers, but from their own experience as well.

We may then conclude that St Gregory Palamas, in the "Hagioritic Tome," is first and foremost defending the experience of the Hesychasts, for the specific theological claim he is defending – the reality of the deifying vision of the Uncreated Light by both body and intellect (nous) – is experiential.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Path to Spiritual Unity

Archpriest David Moser of the St Seraphim Orthodox Church in Boise, ID, offered a very touching sermon on the late Metropolitan Laurus this past Sunday. Excerpt:
Metropolitan Laurus embodied the qualities of a true and loving pastor, not just for his monks at Holy Trinity Monastery, where he was abbot; nor just for the Eastern American Diocese of which he was ruling hierarch; but for the whole Church Abroad, and even in many ways for those in the Russian homeland. Vladyka Metropolitan was a quiet man, not given to epistles and speeches and the writing of books, but a man who lived the Christian life and by living it showed us how to do so as well. Metropolitan Laurus will be remembered most as the man responsible for bringing to an end the rift between the Russian Church inside Russia and the Russian Church Outside Russia. This, however, is only the outer example of way that he led the Church in compassion and humility. First and foremost, the Metropolitan loved God so much so that from the age of 5 he lived and worked within the monastic brotherhood of St Job of Pochaev, first in Ladimirovo and finally in Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY. He was a monk, that is one who has dedicated his whole life to Christ, forsaking even the world. Because of his burning love of our Lord Jesus Christ, Metropolitan Laurus grew in the spiritual graces and concurrently advanced in the grace of ordination. He lived through many stormy years in the life of the Church and yet he remained a strong and solid rock in the midst of that storm. He was able to do this because he had a deep and solid trust in God, and he also had a vision, a deep conviction of where God would lead His flock. Throughout his years as abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery, Vladyka Laurus worked to mitigate the extremes that had found their way into Church life. One always knew that Holy Trinity was a place were love and compassion ruled, not extremism and judgment. In this role he shaped generations of clergy who passed through the seminary there and who today fill the Church as pastors, some even as his fellow bishops. When Metropolitan Vitaly retired, Vladyka Laurus, although the senior of the bishops, sought to avoid being selected as First Hierarch, even suggesting that one of his juniors take that role, but that was not to be. All his life, Metropolitan Laurus had been prepared by God to be in that place at that time. Thus it was that he became First Hierarch of the Russian Church Outside Russia.
An insightful profile by Andrei Zolotov, Jr., has been making the rounds of the internet. I cite his concluding paragraph, largely because it is made up almost entirely of Vladyka's own words:
Working on this obituary, I spent a lot of time trying to find among Metropolitan Laurus’ published speeches some eloquent quote which describes the national, public and historical meaning of the Russian Church unification. And I did not find it. He spoke of unity in a different kind of language, which we are not used to. “We ought to save our souls in love toward each other and in unity,” he said less than a month ago, receiving from Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov the Compatriot of the Year award. “And it takes colossal labor, patience, humility and indulgence. Let us actively strive for these virtues in order to develop and strengthen the unity and peace in the Church, which we achieved, with God’s help. So that the divisions which befell the Russian Orthodox Church and the peoples of our fatherland in the tragic 20th century would never repeat. Let everybody begin to care about the peace within, about the peace with one’s conscience – that is about personal peace and accord in life with God. Striving for this peace and achieving it, we will thus be striving for achieving peace and unity in the life of the society. Without this – no matter how much we’d try – divisions and enmities will continue. [The 6th century saint] Abba Dorotheus used to draw a circle. In the center of the circle is God. Around the circle are we, the people. How can we become closer? Everyone has to go from his place towards the center, to God. The closer we are to the center – to God – the closer we become toward each other. That is how I see the path toward a spiritual unity of the peoples of our fatherland. Going along this path, we will actively participate in the great cause of uniting all. Amen.”
Read the full profile here.

Lev Ivanovich

Those who know Jordanville well will immediately recognize the significance of this photograph. The elderly man gazing upon the late Metropolitan Laurus is Lev Ivanovich (or Lyova, as he's known by everyone). He is, besides Archimandrite Flor, the last remaining person to have come to Jordanville from Ladomirovo. Depending on whom you ask, Lyova is either the local village idiot or a true fool-for-Christ (or, quite possibly, both). In either case, he's a true Jordanville institution, the monastery's faithful court-jester. Seeing him part with Vladyka, whom he knew and lived with nearly his entire life, is quite simply heart-breaking.

A Slight Haze in the Head

From Tolstoy's Anna Karenina:
Stepan Arkadyich subscribed to and read a liberal newspaper, not an extreme one, but one with the tendency to which the majority held. And though neither science, nor art, nor politics itself interested him, he firmly held the same views on all these subjects as the majority and his newspaper did, and changed them only when the majority did, or, rather, he did not change them, but they themselves changed imperceptibly in him.

Stepan Arkadyich chose neither his tendency nor his views, but these tendencies and views came to him themselves, just as he did not choose the shape of a hat or a frock coat, but bought those that were in fashion. And for him, who lived in a certain circle, and who required some mental activity such as usually develops with maturity, having views was as necessary as having a hat. If there was a reason why he preferred the liberal tendency to the conservative one (also held to by many in his circle), it was not because he found the liberal tendency more sensible, but because it more closely suited his manner of life. The liberal party said that marriage was an obsolete institution and was in need of reform, and indeed family life gave Stepan Arkadyich little pleasure and forced him to lie and pretend, which was so contrary to his nature. The liberal party said, or, rather, implied that religion with just a bridle for the barbarous part of the population, and indeed Stepan Arkadyich could not even stand through a short prayer service without aching feet and could not grasp the point of all these fearsome and high-flown words about the other world, when life in this one could be so merry. At the same time, Stepan Arkadyich, who liked a merry joke, sometimes took pleasure in startling some simple soul by saying that if you want pride yourself in your lineage, why stop at Rurik and renounce your first progenitor – the ape? And so the liberal tendency became a habit with Stepan Arkadyich, and he liked his newspaper, as he like a cigar after dinner, for the slight haze it produced in his head.
These words were written over 130 years ago. The more things change...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sunday of St Gregory Palamas

Today, the second Sunday of Great Lent, is dedicated to the memory of St Gregory Palamas, whose life and teachings are held in such high esteem that they qualify as a second Triumph of Orthodoxy. There is so much that could be said that, for the moment, I'll direct you to others who can write about St Gregory Palmas much better than I'd ever be able:
  • Works of St Gregory Palamas in Greek from the Patrologia Graeca.
  • Excerpt from the original life of St Gregory, by Patriarch Philotheos of Constantinople; short life; longer life.
  • Fr John Romanides, Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Other Topics: Part 1, Part 2.
Troparion, tone eight:
O Gregory the Wonderworker, light of Orthodoxy, support and teacher of the Church, glory of monks and invincible protector of theologians, pride of Thssalonica and preacher of grace, pray without ceasing for the salvation of our souls.
Kontakion, tone eight:
Holy and divine instrument of wisdom, joyful trumpet of theology, with one accord we sing thy praises, O Gregory inspired by God. But since thou standest now in mind and spirit before the Original Mind, guide our minds to Him, O father, that we may cry to thee: Hail, preacher of grace.
Time permitting, I will put down some humble thoughts of my own later in the day.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Painless, Blameless, Peaceful

Yesterday His Eminence, Metropolitan Laurus, was laid to rest in a crypt underneath the southeast side of the church at Holy Trinity Monastery, where he joins Metropolitans Anastassy and Philaret, Archimandrite Kiprian (his spiritual father), and others who have gone before him. There his earthly remains will await the resurrection of the dead, while his soul lives in anticipation of Paradise.

God alone, of course, is Judge. But He has left us signs that Vladyka Laurus has found God's favor. A very few among these signs are the folowing:
  • The Lord took Metropolitan Laurus on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, perhaps as confirmation that Vladyka's martyric efforts in restoring unity to the Russian Orthodox Church were God-pleasing.
  • The Lord took Metropolitan Laurus peacefully in his sleep, two days after he had celebrated his last Liturgy on earth. Thereby was fulfilled the liturgical petition which Vladyka heard nearly every day of his life: A Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless, peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask.
  • The Lord took Metropolitan Laurus at the age of eighty, fulfilling the words of the Psalmist: As for the days of our years, in their span they be threescore years and ten. And if we be in strength, mayhap fourscore years; and what is more than these is toil and travail (Ps. 89:10-11).
It is our hope that those who have left the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in the last year or two in protest against the reconciliation with the Church in Russia will see this as a sign that the late Metropolitan's martyric efforts have met with God's blessing.

His memory will, indeed, be eternal!

Photograph: The funeral of Metropolitan Laurus, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY, March 21, 2008. (Click on the photo to see it larger.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Such is the Kingdom of God

And they brought unto Him also infants, that He would touch them: but when His disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.
(Lk 18: 15-17)

Photograph: Vladyka Laurus suffering a little child.

Recollections of Metropolitan Laurus, II

Our English word "tradition," as is well known, comes from the Latin tradere, meaning to hand over or deliver. The Greek paradosis and the Slavonic predanie have precisely the same meaning: tradition is that which is passed on, delivered. Recall, for instance, I Corinthians 15: 3-4: "For I delivered [paredoka, literally "traditioned"] unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures." As we see from St Paul's words, our entire faith is based on the Tradition we have received from the Apostles, which has since been passed down from generation to generation, gaining further expression and articulation along the way. Of essential importance to those of us in the West is that Tradition can only be inherited, not invented. We can't make ourselves Orthodox, we have to be made Orthodox.

The late Metropolitan Laurus was someone who lived entirely within Tradition: he was made Orthodox by generations now long gone, and has made several generations of clergy, monastics, and faithful Orthodox by passing on to them the Tradition he himself had inherited. The future Metropolitan, since he was raised in the monastery in Ladomirovo from childhood, was one of the last living contemporaries of the generation of clergy and faithful formed by the Russian Church before the Revolution: he knew every notable figure in the Russian Church emigration from Metropolitan Anastassy onwards, and inherited from them an extraordinary wealth of wisdom.

Vladyka Laurus always remembered his indebtedness to those who had formed him spiritually. On every anniversary of the repose of a notable figure he had known, he would make an announcement at the noon meal in trapeza, relaying what he remembered of them and, most importantly, what he had learned for them. The monastic brotherhood and seminarians would then sing Eternal Memory in their honor. By this means, new generations were able to inherit at least some part of the Tradition the Metropolitan embodied. It was always especially touching to watch Vladyka look at old photographs: he could nearly always identify and share anecdotes about everyone pictured. The past was, for him, as alive as the present.

As is often repeated, Tradition is living and regenerative, and Vladyka Laurus was in no way lost in the past. He kept a diary every day, recording the day's events and noting whom he had met – and he was not likely to forget any of it. He was able to recognize and remember people after a single meeting, and was able to ask them about details of their lives. Whenever he spoke with me, he asked how my father (whom he had ordained) was doing, how the rest of my family was (even remembering the utterly obscure city in which they live), and how my studies were progressing. Although I didn't even register as a footnote in his life, he knew everything essential there is to know about me. Indeed, he valued and praised each person's individual talents, whatever they were, so long as they were used for God's glory.
What makes Vladyka's passing so difficult is that he was one of the last remaining bridges connecting us to a past that is otherwise largely inaccessible. Yet we can remain comforted that Tradition continues to live in the Church, that God will never abandon us, and that He can raise children of Abraham from our generation of the stone-hearted. As Kevin P. Edgecomb put it so perfectly in a comment: "He merely rests in the Lord and awaits us in Paradise! When Elijah left, a double portion was given to Elishah. Be comforted that we can look for wonders to come."

Once again: May his memory be eternal!

Photograph, from left to right: Archbishop Alypy of Chicago, Archimandrite Flor, Archimandrite Kirprian (Vladyka's spiritual father), Metropolitan Laurus, unknown (to me at least). Jordanville, 1940s.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Neither Sickness, Nor Sorrow, Nor Sighing

With the saints grant rest,
O Christ,
to the soul of Thy servant,
where there is neither sickness,
nor sorrow,
nor sighing,
but life everlasting.

Recollections of Metropolitan Laurus, I

I can't claim to have known the late Metropolitan Laurus any better than the hundreds who have had the great privilege of living and praying with him at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY. Many will offer better and more thorough memorials, but I thought I could at least add my widow's mite to the growing wealth of tributes.

One didn't have to spend long in Jordanville to understand that Vladyka Laurus was not simply a monk, but a deeply cenobitic monk. Every morning, without fail, Vladyka attended Midnight Office, which began at 5:00 am, and then the Divine Liturgy. He attended every meal in the trapeza (refectory) every day, eating the same humble food as did the monks and seminarians. After each meal he would walk the length of the trapeza, through the entry area, and then through the print-shop before reaching the elevator that would take him to his modest office on the third floor. Anyone could approach him during this relaxed walk, to receive a blessing, ask a question, or simply exchange a few words with him. He never walked past anyone who wanted his attention. He was equally accessible in his office: one only had to knock. His "skete" a few hundred yards from the main monastery buildings was a simple, very small cottage – hardly larger than a cabin in a grove of trees. He always dressed as a simple monk, wearing a simple gray or light blue cassock, a black monastic belt, and a simply black skufia (cap). An outsider, seeing him walking around the monastery, would never have guessed that he was a bishop. Indeed, when he made his first trips to Russia in the early 1990s, he traveled wearing a simple priestly cross, and appeared for all the world a simple Carpatho-Russian batiushka.

Vladyka Laurus always spoke simply and clearly, often seasoning his words with a gentle and playful humor. All the words he spoke publicly were his own: he wrote all his sermons and addresses himself, never relegating this task to secretaries or helpers. Under this simplicity of manner, however, lay a great wealth of knowledge: Vladyka was deeply read in the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers (he had particular affection for the works of St John Chrysostom and St John of Kronstadt); he had a mastery of every detail of the liturgical services; he was at home in any epoch of Christian history; he had a "pan-Orthodox" view of the Church, having traveled widely throughout the Orthodox world; and he knew the lives of the saints backwards and forwards. Indeed, along with being Rector of Holy Trinity Seminary for several decades, he taught classes every year until the early- to mid-nineties, when his strength began to lessen and his responsibilities to increase. His was a wisdom that he did his best to conceal, but which always shown through.

I'll continue to put down my thoughts piecemeal over the next few days, but I'm sure much better tributes will be appearing all over the press and Internet.

Once again: May his memory be eternal!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why Fast? II

The late Vladyka Laurus, with deacons, after the Paschal Liturgy, 2007.

For photographs of the late Metropolitan in repose, taken the day of his departure from this earthly life, see here.