Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Interview with A. I. Sidorov (2 of 2)

Continued from yesterday:
– Tell us, please, which works of the Fathers are closest to you?

– I can name St Athanasius: his On the Incarnation of the Word of God is not only a classic but is, in my view, a masterpiece. Or the Life of St Anthony by the same saint. In general, each Father has a work that is especially dear to me. Take St Maximus. Certain of his works made it into the Philokalia, that is, into an anthology of patristic ascesis, for example, his Chapters on Love, where the spiritual experience of this great ascetic and no less great Orthodox thinker is found in concentrated form. It also gives me real pleasure to read such crystal clear works as, for example, the Ancient Paterikon. But the problem for me is that I continually feel the absence in myself of an equal spiritual experience, which would allow me fully to accept the patristic work.

– Are the questions considered by the Holy Fathers of the epoch of earliest Christianity still relevant?

– And how! Even as a young man I came to the conclusion that the thoughts expressed by us and seeming to us fairly original, actually in principle already existed and were expressed early, only in different words. One can probably say that the number of authentic principle questions, as with their answers, are not very many. What are the main ones for an Orthodox person? The first and most important question is: how is one saved? And the Holy Fathers answered it, and their answers are as relevant for us, as they were relevant many centuries ago.

It’s sometimes said that the Fathers did not always raise, for example, the question of social service. But what is social service? This is an expression of our faith, for faith without works is dead. Therefore social service remains one of the tertiary moments of the main question: how is one saved? If you try to realize this salvation, helping people, looking after the sick or going to a prison, then in this way you are striving towards the goal of Christian life. And here it behoves us to remember that the acquisition of this goal is not possible without placing priority of the inner over the external. And the internal is prayerful podvig, spiritual progress, and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Without these social service and other external activities are unthinkable. This is an axiom of Orthodox life.

– Why do clergy now appeal to the authority of Fathers of the twentieth century, and not to the ancient Fathers?

– That’s far from the case. I often hear how priests in their sermons appeal to Fathers of the distant ecclesiastical past. And how could it be without this? After all, the Church lives in eternity. And St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) and St John of Kronstadt are, along with St Maximus the Confessor, our contemporaries. Contemporaries not in the sense that they live at the same time as us, but in that they live in eternity, to which we seek constantly to commune with. It’s possible that contemporary priests appeal more often to the spiritual writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century because the Fathers of these times speak a language more understandable for us. However, I repeat that I’ve met many priests who continually cite St John Chrysostom, and St Basil the Great, and so forth. Therefore I wouldn’t say that they appeal only to Fathers of the twentieth century.

– Students write term paper and dissertations in patrology. Do the seminarians make reach conclusions which can be called essential and interesting?
– Of course they do. There are a number of works which become for the seminarians themselves essential and interesting, because such strata of seeing the world immediately open to them, about which they either thought superficially or not completely in that light. There are, of course, empty papers, but there are very serious works.

It’s well known that patrology is also part of the academic syllabus in the theological academy. How, in principle, do the seminary and academy courses differ?

– I happen to teach both in seminary and in the academy, for which reason I have chosen the following principle: in the academy we cover that patristic heritage which was not covered in seminary. But, unfortunately, one specific point arises: people come to the academy from different seminaries, where patrology is taught differently. Although there is basic course, much depends on local resources, teachers, and the like. Sometimes that which is taught in the Moscow or Sretensky Seminaries is unknown in other places. Therefore a very difficult problem faces a teacher in the academy: is it worth it or not to cover material which in principle should have been covered in the seminary.

In my opinion, in the academy there should be a specialized class which would cover certain defined material of a specific period, such as, for example, the growth of monastic writing of the “golden age,” or ecclesiastical writers of the sixth century, where these periods are studied more carefully an deeply. In the academy there should be specialization. But now the level of preparation of students from various seminaries is different, and this causes difficulties. Therefore the teacher has to all the time manoeuvre between a specialized course and general themes. So I’ll read you a lecture, for instance, about St Dionysius of Alexandria, and it happens that students from some provincial seminary won’t have heard of him. So one’s obliged to repeat oneself.

Moreover, it’s often forgotten that the preparation of lectures is a very laborious process, taking up several years – and all the more so for specialized courses. We evaluate the work of a teacher according to an entirely primitive schema: according to lecture hours; but these hours represent just the tip of an enormous iceberg of the work of a teacher. By the way, I may say that I always strive beforehand to repeat and renew even a course I have been teaching for several years – and this always takes a defined amount of time.

– Is patrology taught in secular institutions?

– As far as I know, in secular institutions patristics are taught as the history of Christian writing or as a part of philosophy.

– Are students offered today quality textbooks of patrology?

– There are plenty of textbooks. Fr John Meyendorff’s Introduction to Patristic Theology is well known. Not long ago appeared among us the book of Rassaphore-monk Vsevolod (Philipev), The Way of the Holy Fathers: Patrology. The books of Konstantin Efimovich Skurat are very valuable. A more fundamental textbook is N. I. Sagrada’s Lectures in Patrology. But there is a great failure from the point of view of textbooks in church writing and theology for the period after the “golden age” in Byzantium. Here one needs to prepare a special course (or, better, courses.)

– You often warn seminarians about the use of improperly translated patristic texts. Whose translations do you consider successful and adequate?

– As I understand it, the question is about contemporary translators? Again I repeat that any translation is just a translation. Every translator, consciously or unconsciously, makes mistakes. There are no translators who never make mistakes, and this is connected with many purely subjective things.

Undoubtedly, there are good translators. Among us I can name Alesksei Georgievich Dunaev who, as a philologist, translates very well. In particular, the newly discovered works of St Mavarius of Egpyt are translated not at all badly. But, unfortunately, his perspective on the patristic heritage is deeply, in my mind, incorrect. And here arises the question: what is a good translation?

Translation is either the clear transfer of the original from a purely philological point of view, or instead it’s a vision of deep layers. I often deal with old translations, and I like them more than some new translations, although they don’t lack their own mistakes. But in them is the culture of translation, closely related not only with the culture of the language, but also with the culture of a Church worldview and outlook. A patristic text – these are texts of Homer or Shakespeare, which, by the way, has been repeatedly translated, and each translator translated them in his own way. Church translations are that which lives and works in the catholic consciousness of the Church. Old translations of the Holy Fathers differ from new ones in that in them is present a deep ecclesiastical culture. On the level of this culture, today’s generation of translators can not be compared with them. Personally, I am already thirty years in the Church and feel with every fiber of my soul just how long and difficult is the process of absorbing an ecclesiastical language and ecclesiastical way of life. In the old translations there are mistakes, are errors, but they bear within themselves a remarkable ecclesiastical elegance. It seems to me that contemporary translations sometimes suffer superficiality, a planeness, and do not raise the spiritual depths of the original

– Aleksei Ivanovich, what plans do you have for the future? Is there a translation of a patristic work that you would like to accomplish?

– Plans for the future – well, that’s as the Lord will give, I have practically finished the Question and Answers to Thalassius of St Maximos the Confessor, and I would like to publish the full text of this translation, the first part of which appeared almost twenty years ago. Now I’ll be working on it. And further I have plans to publish the works of St Theoleptus of Philadelphia, the translation of which is also nearing to an end. I hope, with God’s help, to finish it. I hope that God will give me time and strength for this, for usually there’s not enough of them. And I would still like to translate more!

– And what is the interest of these translations upon which you’re working?

– The Question and Answers to Thalassius by St Maximus the Confessor is interesting in that, in the given work, there is a sort of “masterpiece” of patristic theology and asceticism. This is a living synthesis of spiritual experience and elevated divine contemplation. Therefore one must go deeply into the difficult thought of the father, in his difficult language – here, by the way, is where my commentaries are born. Because sometimes it’s unclear to me what this Father is saying. I try to explain the places that are incomprehensible to me, to find patristic parallels. That’s how the commentaries arise, which, so I hope, may be useful to others and especially to thoughtful readers. I am consequently translating very slowly. Problems also arise when, understanding the Greek text, I’m unable to put them into Russian. Therefore it becomes necessary to divide phrases and invent some sort of insertions so that it will sound adequate in Russian. But the work by itself is definitely one of the heights of patristic thought.

St Theoleptos is interesting in that he was the teacher of St Gregory Palamas and an outstanding Hesychast, who is known to us only by one incorrect translation of one work in the Philokalia. In the twentieth century new manuscripts were found, including more than twenty works by the saint. We began the translation of these works with my former student – now he’s already Fr Alexander Przhegorlinsky. We had wanted to publish them quickly, but it turned out that the finalization of the translations took up much time, which, as always there isn’t enough of.

St Theoleptos of Philadelphia is a unique author. He demonstrates that hesychasm is not so much an argument about essence and energy in God, as it is a unique spiritual experience, gained by many generations of Orthodox monks. Saint Theoliptos was not touched by these disputes, but his work shows the deep foundation of all of hesychasm as a predominantly inner activity. Without St Theoleptos the entire tradition of Orthodox spirituality in its best expression is incomprehensible.

Besides the above, I am also interested in studying St Anastasius of Sinai, several translations of whose works have already published. Right now I am working on his remarkable work under the title Questions and Answers. There are many plans, and which of them will come to fruition – God alone knows.

– What store of knowledge should a seminarian have who has completed a course of patrology?

–It’s desirable, of course, to have as great amount of baggage as possible, but dragging large baggage is often heavy. When you get on a plane, one can take only a certain number of pounds to avoid overloading. In the same way, the baggage of a seminarian must include a given amount of knowledge. I would like that they would have at least an approximate knowledge of who a certain Father was, and when he lived.

For example, at the Liturgy we are constantly commemorating the great universal teachers. But who was St Basil the Great? He was, after all, a living man, who lived a short but rich and vivid life, wrote works, many of them of a surprising freshness of a grace-filled mind, in which is reflected his unique spiritual visage. And this visage differed from the visage of his friend, St Gregory the Theologian. And seminarians, in my opinion, should save in their souls the spiritual visage of one or another Father of the Church, which is like an “icon” inside our souls.

In conclusion I’d like to express the wish that seminarians read both the Holy Fathers and works about the Holy Fathers. Without such reading it is not possible to attain the full of spiritual experience and knowledge.


Maximus Daniel said...

Fr John Meyendorff’s Introduction to Patristic Theology

Is this the russian version of his byzantine theology book?

Felix Culpa said...

No, it's something that exists in Russian only. From what I can make out, it's a transcription and translation of Fr John's lectures in patristics at SVOTS. It is translated into Russian, incidentally, by Larissa Volokhonsky, the same person who has done so many translations with her husband, Richard Pevear. She's an alumna of St Vladimir's.

Matthew said...

I have a similar question about what he calls the Ancient Paterikon. Would that be the Sayings of the Desert fathers? Or maybe the Kiev Caves Patericon? Or something else?

Also, thank you for this wonderful translation.

Felix Culpa said...

I think he has in mind some version of the lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers, so I couldn't say which specifically.

Taylor said...

Thank you, Father, for this translation! When I read this, I realize how provincial our American academy is in regards to theological studies. The Russian (and also the Greek) world is totally out of the American view, perhaps because of the non-interest in Slavic and Byzantine Studies.

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