Friday, May 7, 2010

Living Icons, Chapter 10

Fr Michael Plekon’s tenth chapter is devoted to Fr John Meyendorff, “Defender of Living Tradition.” What is perhaps most curious about the chapter is that it is given over almost inits entirety to Fr Meyendorff’s ecumenical work, with only passing reference to his theological and academic labors. His pioneering work on St Gregory Palamas is mentioned, but otherwise such works as Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, Byzantine Theology, Byzantine Hesychasm, Byzanium and the Rise of Russia, among others, are mentioned only in a single footnote.

There is certainly much that is attractive in Fr John Meyendorff’s personality – one only wishes one saw more of it in this essay and fewer attacks on his perceived opponents: ROCOR is singled out three times for criticism:

He was especially critical of the divisive and destructive activities of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, the synodal church descended from the Karlovtsy synod of bishops who held themselves to be the true Russian church, over against the allegedly Bolshevik-compromised Moscow patriarchate. He also took on the Mount Athos monastics and various adherents to the old calendar for their theological definitions of ecumenical work as “heresy.”

We are also told that “he did not employ much diplomacy in his critique of the attitudes and tactics of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, perhaps historically one of the most consistent proponents of the “traditionalist” stance described here.

I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that OCA/ROCOR dynamics have changed a great deal since the time of Frs Schmemann and Meyendorff. The OCA has grown more “traditionalist” (its current Primate was the abbot of a monastery dedicated to St John of San Francisco and Shanghai!), while ROCOR has made amends with the Church in Russia. While eucharistic concelebration between ROCOR and the OCA remains limited, it will likely soon be fully resolved. One wonder what Frs Schmeman and Meyendorff would have made of this dynamic.


protov said...

Like Evdokimov, Fr. Meyendorff was "circulated" among dissidents in Romania dabbling in Yoga, Sufism e.a. Especially his study on St. Gregory Palamas (Hesychasm=Yoga of the Occident!). It was also coming from France and Romanians were at the time in awe for whatever "French" (and even more if the "French" was a Russian aristocrate!).
But St. Gregory was a great topic in Romania among the "peasant" normally Church goers, who were still assailing the monasteries for spiritual guidance from the monastic Fathers.
Fr. Dumitru Staniloae was a pioneer in the restitution of Palamas. His "Life and teaching of St. Gregory Palamas with three treatises translated" of 1938 had an immense influence upon the spiritual life in Romania. The three treatises translated for the first time, have been discovered by himself in Paris in 1932-33, time when he was in relations with St.Serge. Meyendorff would refer rather perfunctorily to the work of Fr. Staniloae. It is right that "The Life..." was available only in Romanian, but during the decade 35-45 of the past century, the relation of the Romanian Church with "French-(Russian) Orthodoxy" were at their peak, severed by the installation of the communist regime in Romania. Father Staniloae spent four years in jail (1958-1963). In 1959 Meyendorff published his "Introduction a l'etude de Gregoire Palamas", which propelled him as the outstanding authority on Palamas (notwithstanding the acerbic criticism of Fr. John Romanides). Fortunately the authority of Fr. Staniloae prevailed.
And that is why the lurid "eucharistic ecclesiolgy", "liturgical theology" of Affanasiev- Schmemann-Vatican II and occidental Yoga persuasion, had no echo in Romania, except for the many Doctors from western Universities who clog the higher and middle ranks of the Romanian Orthodox Church hierarchy, fervid proponents of ecumenism and enlightened bashers of "fanatical anti-ecumenist" monks (who still have, for the worst of reasons, the ears of the "uneducated populace").
I remain "mal a l'aise" with the legacy of the "Paris School", notwithstanding the personal appeal of a personality like Fr. A. Schmemann. "Amicus Plato, sed magis amica Veritas".

Fr. Michael C. said...

Dear Felix Culpa,

Thanks very much for the service you provide in this always interesting, edifying and informative blog.

The discussion of Fr. Plekon's book has been very informative, though I wonder if it tells more about the lens through which he sees some of these folks than about the subjects themselves.

Fr. John Meyendorff, in particular, was a complex and gifted man whose life was spent in service to the Church. His lifelong concern with the Mystery of the Church is reflected in most if not all of his books and was a prominent part of his lectures as a seminary professor.

I don't doubt that his works were circulated among yoga enthusiasts in Romania; one can find The Way of the Pilgrim in New Age bookshops here.

Fr. John's impatience (and that is a soft word)with the Church Abroad was proverbial. This contrasted with his tolerant attitude to Arianizing Christians of the early Church. (Note: not to Arius himself, but to his victims!) 'After all', he would tell his students, 'the issues were not simple, Arius himself was a clever rhetorician... and he wrote such catchy songs!'

He did not extend such charity to the Synod. Some of his students suspected that this was because, while there were no Arian Meyendorffs, Fr. John had more than a few relatives nearby who were staunch advocates of the "circle the wagons" camp so prevalent in the Church Abroad in those days.

Perhaps there was a rather understandable disappointment as well: Fr. John shared much more culturally with the Russian emigre community than he did with the Carpatho-Russians and Episcopalian converts who made up so much of the student body and faculty at St. Vladimir's. The church politics of the time made for strange bedfellows.

It was while I was a student in the early 80s that Fr. John brought Fr. Dumitru Staniloae to school to address the students. Discreetly, before Fr. Dumitru arrived, he told us ignoramuses of Fr. D.'s status as a confessor as well as a theologian and even hesychast. Fr. D. was not at all well known among non-Romanians in the West at the time. I suspect that both he and Fr. J. would be astonished and saddened to hear of themselves as representing competing theologies or camps. ("I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, of Dumitru, of John...")

Some day,perhaps, someone will write a fitting biography of this great man to match Andrew Blane's biography of his mentor Fr. Georges Florovsky. It doesn't sound as if Fr. Plekon's book will inspire anyone to do so, more's the pity.

Thanks again for this ongoing review.

protov said...

Fr Michael C.,

I can vouch for the opinion of Fr. Staniloae about Meyendorff. Not very high and that was in 1976. He told me: read Losski, he is the only serious man there (Paris).

Fr. Michael C. said...

Dear Protov,

Perhaps Fr. Staniloae was right about Lossky being the only serious man in Paris in 1976.

But Fr. John had been in New York since the 1960s.

Peace, brother!

protov said...

Fr Michael,

Meyendorff was nevertheless a product of the Paris School. That was the point of Fr. Staniloae.