Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Prodigal Saint (1 of 2)

To one accustomed to the “canonical” portrait of Father John of Kronstadt painted in the iconographic, hymnographic, and hagiological arts of the Russian Orthodox émigré community, Nadieszda Kizenko’s study A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People comes as both a shock and a revelation. Reading Kizenko’s book, the reader’s iconic mental image of Father John acquires dimension and shading as his personal struggles and political and cultural context come into view, turning what was an icon into a richly detailed life portrait; Saint John of Kronstadt is revealed to be Father John Ill’ich Sergiev, a parish priest struggling with the often grim realities of late Imperial Russia. Much that is passed over in the canonical icon of Father John of Kronstadt, perhaps because his biographers considered it not of universal and timeless edifying value, is here considered at great length: his relation to contemporary currents in ecclesiastical policy and his contributions thereto; his seemingly unique pattern of sanctity; his role in contemporary society and politics; his response to modernity; and the ways in which his legacy have been interpreted and reinterpreted. Of these questions I will devote the bulk of my attention to considering Kizenko’s arguments, which seek to identify “the notions of holiness that preceded him to see how much he fulfilled them, using his career to identify patterns – such as the importance of class and gender – in Russian religiosity.”

Father John was first and foremost a priest. His priesthood was at the very center of his personality and his holiness: it allowed him both to serve the Divine Liturgy nearly daily and to invite others to partake of Holy Communion more frequently than was then common, to preach with authority and conviction, and to engage in a pastoral ministry that included first the poor and dispossessed of Kronstadt and later all of Russia. It is quiet impossible to imagine Father John outside the reality and power of his priesthood. Given the centrality of the priesthood to Father John’s life, it follows that any study of his life would focus on his priesthood, as indeed Kizenko does, each thematic chapter having Father John’s priesthood at its center: Father John’s youth and education are viewed in terms of priestly formation; his role as liturgical celebrant, charity provider, and supplicant for the needy makes sense only as different manifestations of his priestly authority; finally, the abuse of his veneration came about largely as a result of the overzealous and the ignorant attributing Father John’s miraculous powers to something Divine inherent in him rather than to the Divine working through his priesthood as a human conduit.

Central to Kizenko’s is an adaptation of Ernst Kantorowicz notion of the king’s two bodies applied to the priesthood: “the body private, dealing with personal salvation and the relation between saint and God; and the body public, dealing with Father John’s sacramental role as a priest and his responsibility to his parish.” Kizenko contends that “the two bodies clashed almost as often as they complemented one another”: Father John as private individual chose the unusual path of celibate marriage, much to his wife’s dismay, with a monastic emphasis on ascetic restraint; Father John as popular pastor was at the center of a very modern cult of celebrity, with all the loss of privacy that entails. Kizenko presents this image most starkly in these lines: “As a saint, Father John’s goal was his own salvation, with his primary responsibility to his own soul. As a priest, his goal was the salvation of his flock, with his primary responsibility to his own soul.”

As useful as this notion is in separating Father John the individual from Father John the religious celebrity, I would argue that, if taken to an extreme, it could lead to a mistaken notion of the priesthood and its relation to sanctity. Within the practice of Orthodox Christianity there is no such thing as “private spirituality” or “private religiosity”; if the Church is conceived as the Body of Christ, then no single member can claim a religious life that is cut off from that of from that of other members, as all are nourished by the same Blood. It is difficult to conceive of “making a fetish of one’s own salvation at the possible expense of others” or to imagine a “potential tension between the two salvations.” This is especially true of the priest: can any conscientious pastor begin to conceive of his own salvation apart from that of his flock? This is especially true when it concerns liturgical celebration: which of the priest’s two bodies offers the Eucharist? Kizenko implicitly acknowledges the weakness of the "two body" model when she writes that Father John conceived of "his salvation largely in terms of himself and his relation to his flock,” however difficult it could be for him at times to meet the demands first of his own flock and then of all of Russian society. Kizenko writes “[a]fter less than five years in the priesthood, he began to identify his spiritual life with responsibility for that of his flock, so much that he wanted them to share in the benefits he felt himself.” One wonders if indeed sharing the “Eucharist with his flock was the supreme expression of the priest’s public body.” Given the corporate nature of the Christian spiritual life and Father John’s own identification of his salvation with that of his flock, one wonders if the celebration of the Liturgy is not in fact the supreme expression of the priest’s private body or if, indeed, any such dichotomy can in fact be drawn. In fact, Kizenko herself dissolves the distinction between the two bodies: “The priest’s two bodies were in fact one and the same. His religiosity was not independent of his flock’s: his apostolic, sacerdotal identity depended on how well he succeeded in converting the world around him. It was a symbiotic relation rather than one of two independent parties.” Given this admission, one wonders why the two-body model figures so predominantly in the first chapter, unless to emphasize that as Father John matured he overcame this potential dichotomy.

In contextualizing Father John’s priesthood both within the context of late Imperial Russia and the tradition of Orthodox hagiography, Kizenko argues for Father John’s novelty. She writes that “his concentration on God and self-improvement extended to all aspects of his life in ways that went beyond patristic and ascetic teachings,” that his “having both virginity and marriage was an unusual blurring of distinct categories of Orthodox religious life,” and that “in his chastity, Father John stood the hagiographic tradition on its head.” While it is undoubtedly true that Father John, as a celibate married priest serving a parish “in the world” represents a peculiar combination of attributes and as such does not fit neatly into any of the usual category of saints, I would argue that his essential sanctity is fully keeping with the tradition of holiness in the Orthodox Church. While it is true that Father John neither fit neatly into any of the categories of sainthood which had become standard in the Russian Church nor fit into the pattern of piety prevalent in late Imperial Russia, each individual element of his sanctity – his preoccupation with fasting, chastity, liturgical celebration, and active charity – falls entirely within canonical patterns of sanctity. I will consider two aspects of Father John’s seeming novelty: his chastity and his liturgical practice.

While it is undoubtedly true that there is little precedent for a married priest unilaterally to refuse to consummate his marriage, it could equally well be seen as a variation of a constant theme in hagiographical literature. Collections of lives of married saints show that the vast majority was, in fact, celibate. It would, in fact, have been a much more significant departure from the hagiographic norm had Father John had marital relations with his wife and had children. Kizenko’s explanation of the reasons for Father John’s choice of chastity, moreover, misrepresents the Patristic witness. Kizenko writes: “The Fathers of the Church argued that sexuality was antithetical to the true state of human nature. Before the Fall, the original, perfect created beings had no trace of sexuality. Even was meant to be Adam’s companion and helper; their relation consisted only of spiritual love. Sexuality entered the world because of sin and was inextricably connected to sin.” Moreover, it is simply wrong to state, “sexual activity was considered inherently tainted, even in marriage.” Such a puritanical presentation reflects the view propagated by Augustine, who believe that man fell from a perfect state to that of sin through lust, and this “original sin” is passed on from generation to generation through concupiscence.

The view of the Greek Fathers, whose thought is characteristic of the Orthodox Church, was much more optimistic and allowed for the reality of gender in the original creation. The Orthodox Church has always viewed marriage, and with it sexuality, as the natural state of man, following Christ’s words: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Matt. 19: 4-6). Unlike Augustine, who taught that man was created perfect, St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes that our first parents were “innocent and childlike” and, because they were pure, “were not ashamed as they kissed each other and embraced with the innocence of childhood.” Marriage and, consequently, sexuality, therefore, while not present in their “carnal” form in Paradise, are in fact the normal and sinless state of man. Indeed, Khomiakov wrote that marriage “is not a contract, not an obligation, and not legal slavery, but the reproduction of the image of Christ and the Church established by divine law.” The choice of celibacy, then, is not a rejection of marriage and sexuality as being inherently sinful, but an eschatological choice to live in anticipation with the spiritual Bridegroom. Father John himself, in a passage quoted by Kizenko, writes that God, by means of the priesthood, “marries people and makes marriage honorable and the nuptial bed pure.” I would suggest, therefore, that the reasons for Father John’s celibacy be regarded in this light rather than in an inherent Puritanism or misogyny in the Russian Orthodox Church.


David.R said...

"I would argue that his essential sanctity is fully keeping with the tradition of holiness in the Orthodox Church" I agree. St John of Kronstadt is very much loved by us here in Yakima, WA USA.
We have a school for children (Kindergarden to 6th grade) and it bears his name.

protov said...

Saint John celebrated Liturgy daily. A celebrant priest should not have sexual intercourse the day before. This was understood by everybody. Recent studies of parish records (baptism certificates) for 19th century Russia by American researchers (who wanted to illustrate the level of observance by the Russian populace) came up with no little surprise. The pattern of birth dates showed a regular clustering nine months after the four major Fasts. The populace at large was very scrupulous in its observance!
The book of Kizenko pays tribute to the Western audience (which actually sponsored it). It tries to explain how a nearly "revolutionary" priest could have sink into the most "reactionary" politics and how he found such an audience with a populace supposed to be "revolutionary". The same quandary as with Dostoevsky.