Fr Michael Plekon’s fifth chapter is devoted to Fr Lev Gillet, “The Monk in the City, a Pilgrim in Many Worlds.” His reception into the Orthodox Church from the Catholic Church was an odd one, to put it lightly: having been ordained by the Uniate Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, he was received into the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Evlogy by concelebration alone. A longtime colleague, Helle Giorgiadias, would later go so far as to claim that Fr Lev had never in fact left the Catholic Church, and Fr Lev considered himself “a catholic priest in full communion with the Slavic Orthodox Church.”
Fr Lev’s ideas were as eccentric as his ecclesial status. Fr Michael writes:
Speaking to retreatants during the “death of God” era, he observes that perhaps the very word “God” has become overburdened with false meanings. “GOd” is also all too abstract, too empty a term for many. Why not simply identify him with what is the supreme reality for us, love, and speak of and to the “Lord of Love” or “Lord Love.”Fr Lev also had a curious idea that one must “recognize the presence of God in the very sin that the sinner commits.” He suggests we see, like St Peter in the Book of Acts, “a great sheet unrolled before us with all sorts of creatures and things that, to our conventional religious and moral sensibilities appear ‘unclean.’” Specifically mentioned among these things that are now apparently made clean, like St Peter’s creatures, are drug addiction, homosexuality, and abortion. This I find simply astonishing.
The chapter ends with another unfortunate diatribe against traditional practice:
At the beginning of a new millennium and century, many of the ecumenical hopes of Father Lev’s youth and mature years, of those now seemingly golden years of contact and cooperative work especially after World War II, are in tatters. At best there appears well-intentioned but ineffective and unconnected gestures. Pope John Paul II’s consistent appeals are for the most part ignored or fiercely rejected by many Orthodox bishops, theologians, and clergy just as theirs are apparently ignored by the Vatican. Several Orthodox churches, notably those of Georgia and Bulgaria, have left the WCC, and the participation of others such as that of Russia is suspended for the duration of negotiations and changes in the body’s makeup and structure. The voice of the exclusivist or traditionalist perspective within Orthodoxy, that which recognizes nothing, no sacraments, priesthood, church, no grace whatsoever outside its own boundaries, is aggressive and loud, on Mount Athos, in other monastic centers such as Trinity-St Sergius and Valaam. Any prayer with non-Orthodox Christians is condemned by appeal to the canons’ prohibition against worship with heretics. Rebaptism of converts is required, as well as a range of other divisive and isolationist strategies such as use of the old calendar, use of Greek and Slavonic in liturgical services, and a host of other practices many of which are of relatively recent origin or are cultural rather than theological in nature. Sadly the response to such aggressive defining of what is authentic Orthodox belief and practice has recently been weak, overly cautious, or nonexistent.What strikes me the most in these paragraphs are the little words “as if”: “speaking and acting as if the schism had never been.” The sad fact is that the Great Schism has taken place, and the separation of East and West is real and absolute, and cannot be healed by well-meaning gestures and declarations. There also strikes me as something close to elitism here: the great masses of Orthodox, the monks of Athos and the Trinity-Sergius Lavra are all mistaken, and relatively isolated intelligentsia like Gillet and Evdokimov are right. This is an odd appreciation of the catholic consciousness of the Church.
Fr Michael concludes by contrasting such “divisive and isolationist” strategies with that of Fr Lev:
Father Lev is not alone in witnessing otherwise. His closest friends and comrades, to a person, embodied the freedom of the Eastern Church: fidelity together with great love and openness to the world and the churches, speaking and acting as if the schism had never been or was by the very gestures being healed by the Holy Spirit. Many have been mentioned in this chapter, still more fall outside out view here.
However, we find in Father Lev’s deep faith, persistence, and creativity, despite his discouragement and counterproductive ecclesiastical functioning, a sign of hope for ourselves. Despite all the personal weaknesses and failures, despite even the grand chaos, what Evdokimov termed “ecclesiastical anarchy,” Father Lev (and his comrades) loved Christ and the Church and nurtured that love in whatever ways were possible. He remains a sign of what can be said and done, under the most trying circumstances.