Tuesday, April 27, 2010

'This Holy Man': Impressions of Meteropolitan Anthony

This is a complicated and conflicted book, just as its subject, Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, was a complicated and conflicted man. In her introduction the author, Gillian Crow, writes:
Incipiently holy he may have been. He most certainly was not a pious man. Unlike some, he was not hung up on attending every service. By choice he did not say grace before meals. He did not affect a pious voice or vocabulary, or give anything other than totally practical spiritual advice.
Despite this acknowledgment, however, Crow, vows to overlook the Metropolitan’s failings:
As for his sins and shortcomings -- the smallness he never conquered, in common with most people -- they were his own concerns, and should largely remain so.
Largely, but not entirely, for ‘This Holy Man’ -- note the quotation marks around the title – rarely misses an opportunity to point out Metropolitan Anthony’s sins and shortcomings, most often following a recitation of his nobler and holier characteristics. The crescendo account of his reposes and funeral, for instance, is followed by an epilogue beginning with the words “‘You could have called me a pig, which is also true.’” Throughout we are told of the Metropolitan’s occasional obstinacy, thoughtlessness, heavy-handedness, and depression.Suffice it to say, this is not a white-washed portrait. One is left wondering what to make of this approach. On the one hand, it's satisfying to get something like a true portrait, and not a one sided-one (I recently read a mammoth biography of Hiermonk Seraphim (Rose) which was so one-sidedly positive that it twice noted that he had a wonderful set of cavity-free teeth); but on the other, one doesn't want to be accused of the sin of Ham in revealing his father Noah's nakedness. But this is a biography, and follows the rules of that genre; the book on Fr Seraphim is largely hagiography disguised as modern biography.

The overall portrait of Metropolitan Anthony that emerges is, however, a genuinely inspiring one. From his youth spent in Persia and Russia, to his Dickensian schooldays in Paris, to his dramatic conversion and work as a doctor, soldier, and Resistance worker, to his monasticism and priesthood, and finally to his long years in the episcopacy, we witness a man indeed aflame with love for God and neighbor. One does sometimes wonder what sources Crow is working with; one gets the impression that she's working largely from the Metropolitan's own anecdotes, which, as she remarks, were not always not for their strict adherence to fact.

His conversion experience is especially striking. Disgusted by a saccharine talk for youth given by Fr Sergius Bulgakov (of all people!), he rushed home to verify for himself what the priest had been saying. He asked for a Gospel, turned to the Gospel of St Mark, and began to read. What happened next was something he was to relate again and again throughout his life:
The feeling I had occurs sometimes when you are walking along in the street, and suddenly you turn around because you feel someone is looking at you. While I was reading, before I reached the beginning of the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a Presence.

This was so striking that I had to stop reading and look up. I looked for a long time. I saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing with the senses. But even when I looked straight in front of me a the place where there was no one visible, I had the same intense knowledge: Christ is standing here, without doubt.

I realized immediately: if Christ is standing her alive, that means he is the risen Christ. I know from my own personal experience that Christ is risen and that therefore everything that is said about him in the Gospel is true.
This certitude in the reality of God and of His love for us will go on to permeate Metropolitan Anthony’s life, making him a much sought after speaker, spiritual father, and confessor. It is this quality which outshines by far the small pettiness we are shown.

Yet Metropolitan Anthony, even at his most pious and holy, remained something of a controversialist. Asked in one interview to discuss the importance of the ordination of women as an issue dividing Anglicanism and Orthodoxy, he had this to say:
For one thing, I do not believe that the Orthodox are right when they simply, without giving a moment’s though and doing any research about it, affirm that the ordination of women is impossible – I’m speaking of the hierarchy and the conferences. A great deal of thought should be put into it, and I personally see no reason why women should not be ordained. And I’m not the only one in the Orthodox Church who thinks that, but I seem to be the only one who is prepared to say so and to put it in writing.
Gillian Crow is not one to brush this comment under the rug. She writes:
When the article was published a number of people suggested that Metropolitan Anthony could never have said quite what was printed. He must sure have said, ‘I see no theological reason why women should not be ordained.’ They were wrong.
All in all, a fascinating and very well-written biography. Recommended for anyone with an interest in Metropolitan Anthony or in the Russian ecclesiastical emigration more generally.


Sasha said...

Very strange, one-sided approach indeed...

orrologion said...

Agreed, I thought this book very well-written and helpful. I think it provides a more realistic example of the spiritual life, and leadership in the Church. It also highlights the way in which it is possible to disagree within the Church, to wrestle with teachings or practices, etc.

I, too, finished the book thinking, "The overall portrait of Metropolitan Anthony that emerges is, however, a genuinely inspiring one."

It actually reminds me of A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People by Nadieszda Kizenko, though Crow is better able to balance the biographical and historical with the 'holiness' and saintliness of her subject - Kizenko left me turned off by St. John, unfortunately (e.g., forcing celibacy on his wife).

Anonymous said...

It seems the Church in her wisdom remembers some for their sins and others for their sublimity.

Jon Marc said...

I appreciated this book very much for its honesty about Metropolitan Anthony. All the saints had their flaws and we shouldn't whitewash them for the sake of having perfect saints - that all too often destroys the faith of the weak when the truth is told.