Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Prodigal Saint (2 of 2)

A second point of novelty concerns Father John’s liturgical practices, which amount primarily to his encouragement of the frequent participation in Holy Communion. Here, too, Kizenko repeats scholarly prejudices that, while they may be common in works of historiography, do not accurately depict Orthodox theology. It is untenable to argue, for example, that the laity’s infrequent reception of Communion stems back to “the language of dread in referring to the sacraments dating back to Cyril of Jerusalem,” granted, among other arguments, that such language has been part of liturgical piety from the first centuries of the Church, or that “the general Orthodox tendency in both art and liturgy – in contrast to the Roman Catholic approach, particularly after the devotio moderna – is to emphasize Christ’s divinity (and consequently His essential distance from human beings) rather than His humanity,” which, if true, would make the Orthodox into extreme Monophysites. I bring up both these points not to split hairs with the author, but to demonstrate the dangers of analyzing a religious figure using primarily historiographical rather than properly theological sources.

These relatively minor and exclusively theological points of contention aside, Kizenko has authored a groundbreaking study, based on extensive archival research, that marvelously illuminates both the person of Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian people. Turning from a theological to an historical perspective, it would have been especially interesting, given the frequent comparisons of Father John with Tolstoy to have compared their self-depictions in private diaries, given that both were consummate memoirists. It should also be mentioned, that those only familiar with Father John’s live through hagiographical accounts, should benefit greatly from this book, as it provides incredible historical insights usually not easily found in a canonical vita. Conventional depictions of the historical Father John usually only scratch the surface and frequently focus more on his political and ecclesiastical roles rather than concentrating on his activities within society as social activist and advocate, often at great odds with his immediate ecclesiastical authorities and, contrary to the popular notion of his great influence reaching through all spheres of Russian society, rather distant from the Imperial court (his visit to the ailing monarch Alexander III could be seen as a last resort of hope of the Court, while Rasputin managed to have a long-lasting influence over the Imperial family). Having read Kizenko’s account, I was able to discover for myself a new St. John of Kronstadt, one who was previously hidden in either canonical depictions on one hand or ideological labels on the other.


protov said...

Frequent communion is a "frequent" theme in Orthodoxy. At least from Nicholas Cabasilas to St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. It has nothing to do with the "eucharistic theology" of Schmemann (and, it goes without saying, with "devotio moderna"). That Fr.John sometimes turned to the congregation is to be attributed to the inclination of Russians to theatrical/operatic gimmicks. Of course, the priest must look in the same direction as the congregation when offering, for all the congregation, the oblats.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Thank you for this review. I've had the book for some time, but continually bumped it down the reading list because of various less thoughtful reviews that claimed it to be something of a revisionist knocking-down of Saint John. And who needs to waste precious reading time on something like that? Instead, it appears to be the biography that I expected it to be when I bought it, with a few misses (as is the case with every biography), but mostly hits. I look forward to reading it.

Nadia Kizenko said...

I am grateful to these thoughtful insights. If anyone would like to contact the author directly with more questions or issues, the email address is I have spent the last ten years researching confession in the Russian empire (from roughly 1666 to the present), have begun to write the book, and look forward to your comments once it is finished. Thank you!