Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Living Icons, Introduction

I’d like to think that my credentials as a “traditionalist” or “conservative” Orthodox are impeccable: I was raised in a ROCOR mission parish, then spent five years in the HOCNA schism before returning to ROCOR in 1992. I have spent exactly half my life, and my entire adult life, in ROCOR monasteries. My father is a priest in an Old Calendarist Greek jurisdiction in the US, and one of my sisters is a Schema-nun in a convent in Greece under that same jurisdiction (not HOCNA). I taught for four years at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville. I dress, act, think (mostly) like a traditional monastic and clergyman. I’m never one to let myself grow overly complacent, however, and enjoy being challenged by those who take a different approach to Church life. I’ve just read, and very much enjoyed, a biography of Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), a moderately liberal figure, at least by Orthodox standards.

What I intend to do now -- perhaps foolheartedly -- is further to challenge myself by reading and commenting on a book entitled Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church, a copy of which was kindly sent to me by the author, Fr Michael Plekon. The book is made up of biographical essays on ten modern figures within the Orthodox Church: St Seraphim of Sarov, Fr Sergius Bulgakov, Mother Maria Skobtsova, Fr Lev Gillet, Paul Evdokimov, Fr Gregory Krug, Fr Nicholas Afanasiev, Fr Alexander Schmemann, Fr John Meyendorff, and Fr Alexander Men. Each of these figures, with the notable exception of St Seraphim, might well be considered a “liberal” figure within Orthodoxy. All but St Seraphim and Fr Men were part of the Paris emigration, and nearly all were connected in one way or another with the St Sergius Institute. Notable in their absence are other, more conservative figures who were part of the same Paris scene: Fr Georges Florovksy, Vladimir Lossky, Leonid Ouspensky, and Fr Sophrony Sakharov. The author is clearly intent on presenting a certain “type” of personality.

What I hope to do in the coming days, God willing, is daily to post a reflection on one chapter, thereby getting through the book in about a week and a half. I intend to go in with a genuinely open mind; I’m prepared to be surprised.

For today I’ll post on the Introduction, entitled “Finding ‘Living Icons.’” Fr Michael writes that this book is an invitation to encounters with Christians of our time. We are all part of a community of saints by whom we are surrounded. Here, when Fr Plekon lists such saints, I admit that I had my first moments of difficulty. He writes:
On stained-glass windows, on frescoes, and in statutes and icons we encountered Francis of Assisi, Nicholas of Myra and Joseph.
Well, not if we were in an Orthodox church we wouldn’t have. Nor we would count Francis Xavier among the missionaries, or Anthony of Padua among the saints with special ministries. Nor would we count Elisabeth Seton or Katherine Drexel as missionaries alongside St Herman of Alaska. The same goes for Dorothy Day, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, Paul Schneider, Dag Hammarskjold, Albert Schweitzer, Pope John XXIII, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Charles de Foucauld, Karl Barth, Simone Weil, and Flannery O’Connor. While I have the utmost respect for each of these figures, I can not see how they could be spoken of as saints in the same breath as St Seraphim and others.

More interestingly, though, how does Fr Plekon view me and those like me (which probably would include the bulk of the readers of this blog)? He writes:
Among the Orthodox there is also a reactionary movement, one that sees the West as corrupt and in particular the Western churches as “heretical” bodies, in which there is no grace, no real sacramental life, no authentic Christianity. This exclusivist tendency has been present among the Orthodox in one form or another for a long time. In the past ethnic hatreds and political tensions were strong factors. Today, they are manifest in outright condemnation of all exchange and interaction passing under the rubric of ecumenical dialogue. While there is deep self-scrutiny under way in ecumenical organizations, the WCC in particular, and while there is much to be challenged or criticized about the content and drift of ecumenical activity, it is quite another matter for all that is ‘ecumenical‘ to be defined as ‘heresy.‘ All contact with the non-Orthodox and in particular any sharing of prayer has been condemned, on the basis of third- and fourth- century canons that forbid prayer with those who explicitly deny the basic dogmas. The use of the Julian calendar as opposed to the ‘new,‘ or worse, ‘Papist‘ and ‘heretical,‘ Gregorian calendar has become a defining mark of authentic Orthodox Christianity, along with the baptizing again of all non-Orthodox Christians who seek to enter the Orthodox Church.

Further badges of difference or means of isolation include the length of services, terminology, clothing styles, and observance of rules regarding fasting, liturgical posture, and prayer. In short, it is impossible to avoid seeing the creation of a total lifestyle and consciousness that sets the Orthodox apart from the rest of society, like Hasidic Jews and the Amish. While many of these specific lifestyle elements may not be crucial for the faith, their elevation to necessity status for ‘true‘ Orthodox is another matter entirely. The mind-set behind them contains positions that are not just dubious and debatable but erroneous.
Now, am I missing something or does one either recognize Dorothy Day as a saint or become an Orthodox Hasidic Amish fundamentalist?

All irony aside, I do look forward to reading Fr Michael’s portraits of his ten “living icons,” with the hope that his ideal of the renewal of tradition become clear.


Reader John said...

I look forward to your series.

Athanasia said...

Your blessing.

I look forward to receiving your thoughts on this book. I recall Fr. Averky, a monk at Jordanville, who reposed a number of years ago, who was right on target with many issues related to ecumenism and the like.

At this point I come down on the side of trying to embody Christ's love to all and not get nit-picky. Of course, my life is challenging being a new convert married to a protestant.

How are we to live in a country that is largely protestant?

John said...

Thanks for reading this book--so we don't have to! I look forward to the upcoming posts.


Thanks for sharing your background in the Orthodox world.

I was chrismated into the Antiochian Church from protestantism without re-baptism. I'm curious about your opinion of this, given your conservative Orthodox background. It can be a bit scary for those of us who are new to Orthodoxy to read of the schism between the old and new calenderists...with accusations from some of the "old" that we "new" are not receiving valid sacraments.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Felix Culpa said...

It would take some time to rehearse all the arguments on both sides about the correct means of reception into the Orthodox Church. But I hope we can agree that different practices have been and are used. I would say to you that my church would likely have received by baptism, but that it would certainly recognize your reception as perfectly acceptable, and your Orthodoxy would never be questioned -- even if we would have done things differently.


Thank you. That is encouraging to hear.

aaronandbrighid said...

I too look forward to this series, Father. Frankly, I find attempts at description of 'traditionalism' such as Fr Plekon's here to be profoundly alienating & disturbing. I know Orthodox that I would consider 'traditionalist' from many different churches & jurisdictions in a few different countries, & none of them match Fr Plekon's description. Indeed, most of the Orthodox that I know fall entirely outside of his false dichotomy as you've so nicely summarised it. It's as though his conception of 'Orthodoxy' is entirely different from that of everyone else I know--bishops, priests, monks, nuns, & laypeople. Wouldn't the Fathers rend their garments to read an Orthodox priest referring to Catholics & Protestants as Saints? Even among the Orthodox subjects of his book, where could St Seraphim possibly fit in? As I recently quoted Ruth Coates, concerning Fedotov's expression of the Russian religious renaissance's appropriation of St Seraphim, 'Fedotov’s description of the reception of Seraphim by the religious intelligentsia rings true, and betrays the arrogance and ignorance of that generation: so far from being the forerunner of a new form of spirituality, Seraphim was in his time the latest representative of an ancient tradition of Eastern Christian spirituality...'

Apophatically Speaking said...

"I am tolerant of your opinion, as long as you agree with me" - this appears to be the stance of many in the ecumenical circles. So much for being "open minded". Odd.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Ah, but the straw men burn so much more easily than real ones! And it appears he so wants to burn something....

I echo John. Thank you for reading this so that I needn't.

Jim and Nancy Forest said...

"Does anyone recognize Dorothy Day as a saint?" As she was not Orthodox, certainly not as an Orthodox saint. But in the Catholic Church, at the request of the Archdiocese of New York, she is being considered for formal canonization and meanwhile has been given the title "Servant of God Dorothy Day." But if we mean by "saint" someone who is not necessarily on the Church calendar but inspires many to live a more Christ-revealing life, many people -- some of the Orthodox -- would regard name of Dorothy Day with great reverence, as they do, for example, the name of Mother Theresa.

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