A Christmas poem

December 28, 2007

Christ is born! come, glorify him
Along with wise men from afar.
In a manger there you’ll espy him,
As indicated by a star.
Shepherds in their shepherding
Have heard a host of angels sing,
And have come to seek the light
Upon this blessed, holy night.

“Glory be to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, good will toward men!
Glory be to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, good will toward men!”
So the angels came to earth
And did announce the Savior’s birth,
Making hills and fields to resound
With an angelic, heavenly sound.

Ring the bells of jubilation,
And let the earth and sea proclaim
That the Lord of all creation
Has taken on a human frame.
What was not has now occurred —
The incarnation of the Word.
He who was before time began
Has now become the Son of man.


Why read Bekkos?

December 20, 2007

Note: The following is some writing from August 2006 that I came across this evening while looking through old notes. It resembles in some ways a posting from September of this year, titled “Why ‘De unione ecclesiarum’?” Both essays begin with similar questions, trying to justify the idea of taking John Bekkos seriously. Both essays note Bekkos’s influence upon the Council of Florence; in different ways, both essays acknowledge that that influence ends up being problematic for contemporary ecumenism. Anyway, although they may sound like a repetition of a previous posting, I hope some readers will find these old notes worthwhile.

* * *

Why read Bekkos? One can think of several reasons: a desire to know something about Byzantine history and theology; an unconscious desire to be accounted a Latinophrone by one’s friends; a longing to stir up medieval polemics over the procession of the Holy Ghost. The question, Why read Bekkos, recalls the old question about the chicken crossing the road. Why read Bekkos? To hear what he has to say.

That is perhaps not as inane a reply as it at first sounds. Bekkos makes a case for something that never really happened, and that some people would still very much like to see happen, viz., the union and peace of the Churches of Old and New Rome. To put it in more contemporary terms, he argues in favor of a restoration of communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. In the years immediately following the Second Council of Lyons, a state of communion, however unstable and perhaps ill-founded it may have been, officially existed between these two Churches; John Bekkos, who was patriarch of Constantinople for most of those years, presents in his writings a theological rationale for it. One reads Bekkos to know what his arguments are.

Bekkos’s analyses of the theological and historical causes of the division between the Churches have a continuing importance; the issues he raises remain surprisingly contemporary. This alone would justify the appearance of some of his writings in English translation. Bekkos, I would claim, should be required reading for anyone concerned about Christian unity.

Reading Bekkos’s own words should dispel the idea that he is somehow a man with a Christian veneer and a secularist core. The claim is sometimes made in Byzantine historical scholarship that those writers of the Palaeologan era who supported union with Rome, or opposed the Palamite doctrine, were at heart more sympathetic to Aristotle and Plato than to the Gospels, that they worshiped “the God of the philosophers” rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Bekkos’s case at least, that claim is patently false.

Another claim sometimes made about Bekkos is that his readings of the Greek fathers are shallow, that he does not plumb the mystical depths of their thought the way his anti-Western contemporaries (e.g., Gregory of Cyprus) allegedly do, that he is an “anthologist” who, while gathering together texts of the fathers, utterly misrepresents their sense. It seems to me that such claims about Bekkos can be fairly evaluated only on the basis of a close reading of his arguments, something that his critics, by and large, do not provide. By translating Bekkos, I hope to make such an evaluation possible.

Another reason for reading Bekkos is that what has come to be Orthodox dogmatic theology regarding the Latin doctrine of the Trinity, and even regarding issues such as the essence and energies of God, took shape in opposition to him, to an extent that has seldom been acknowledged. Bekkos, in some sense, made Palamism possible. By his detailed criticisms of Photian monopatrism, Bekkos forced his contemporaries, or the more intelligent of them, to acknowledge that the statements of the Fathers that speak of the Spirit proceeding from the Father through the Son cannot all be dismissed as referring merely to a temporal mission: at least some of these texts very clearly speak of this procession through the Son as something eternal and substantial. Gregory of Cyprus sought to get around the difficulty Bekkos had raised by differentiating between the eternal being or existence of the Spirit, which is from the Father alone, and an eternal manifestation of the Spirit, which is from the Father through the Son, or from the Father and the Son. Virtually all scholars now agree that this distinction between God’s eternal being and God’s eternal manifestation was taken up, in the next generation, by Gregory Palamas in his defense of the ascetic practices of the hesychast monks: what the monks saw when they had visions of divine light, Palamas claimed, was not the eternal being of God but the eternal manifestation of God, the uncreated divine energies. In some sense, Bekkos forced Orthodox dogmatic theology into positing a real distinction between essence and energies in God; it was the only way theologians could get around his arguments.

Given that so much of Orthodox dogmatic theology has in fact taken shape in conscious opposition to Bekkos’s thought, can an examination of that thought now serve any irenic purpose, or only a polemical one? If a restoration of communion between Catholics and Orthodox is to be achieved, it would hardly appear to be possible now upon the theological grounds on which Bekkos would have established it. That was attempted at the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century; Bekkos’s writings in fact played a major role there in persuading men like Bessarion of Nicaea and Isidore of Kiev that the Latins were not heretics. Yet most people would now acknowledge that the Council of Florence, in some important sense, failed to do what it set out to do: it did not end the schism (leaving aside, for the time being, the assignation of blame). Since most of the Christian East has rejected the Council of Florence, some other theological basis needs to be found, it would seem, if communion between the Churches is to be restored. Why then read Bekkos, if his thought is so tied to a theology that the Churches are trying to get beyond?

First of all, any attempt to get beyond something has to be very careful; it is always possible that what one seeks to get beyond is something one never quite understood correctly in the first place. That, I suspect, is the case with at least some of the criticisms of Bekkos’s thought. And even if those who read Bekkos continue to wish to get beyond him, I would hope that at least, by reading him, people who make it their business to criticize the West would learn to be a little more charitable towards this much-maligned Greek of the thirteenth century, who had the audacity to hope for a world in which Christians would not hate each other, and who sought with all the resources of his faith and intellect to bring that world into being. Is it too much to hope that such a world might still come about?

Perhaps one reads Bekkos to reawaken the notion of that possibility.

Palamas in Italian

December 15, 2007

An Italian translation of the complete works of Gregory Palamas has appeared. The translation, in three thick volumes with the original Greek text on facing pages, advertises itself as the first complete translation of Palamas into a modern Western language. Its general editor is Ettore Perrella; according to his home page, Perrella was born in Gallipoli (near Constantinople) in 1952, studied psychoanalysis under Jacques Lacan, taught for some years at Padua where he currently lives, and has published a number of works on psychoanalysis and its philosophical and scientific significance. He describes his work on Palamas in the following way (if I have translated him correctly):

“From 2003 to 2006 he published, in three volumes, at l’Editore Bompiani in Milan, a complete translation of the works of the Greek theologian Gregory Palamas, a writer whose contribution appears to him unavoidable if one wants to confront the problem of the ethical status of the sciences.”

The three volumes are:

  • Gregorio Palamas: Atto e luce divina – Gli scritti filosofici e teologici (2003) (1500 pp.; € 35.00) [Gregory Palamas: Act and divine light: philosophical and theological writings]
  • Gregorio Palamas: Dal sovraessenziale all’essenza (2005) (cxxxv + 1570 pp.; € 36.00) [Gregory Palamas: From the superessential to the essence]
  • Gregorio Palamas: Che cos’e’ l’ortodossia (2006) (lvi + 1816 pp.; € 37.00) [Gregory Palamas: What is Orthodoxy?]
  • I purchased the second of these fat, hefty volumes a year or so ago, thinking that it was the whole of Palamas’s works; only later did I realize that I had gotten only volume two of a three-part work. Anyway, if one has any interest at all in Palamas or in Byzantine theology and can read a bit of Italian, or if one simply wants a handy edition of the Greek text, these books are worth acquiring. They are advertised on-line at the following URL: http://www.liberonweb.com/asp/lista.asp?D1=Autore&T1=Palamas&B1=+++Cerca+++&I1=1

    I confess that I have not yet worked through Perrella’s lengthy introduction. In general, it seems to present a view of Palamas very much like what one finds over at the Energies of the Trinity weblog: unless one fully understands what it means for God to be beyond essence — and, with that, accepts the real distinction in God between essence and energies — one falls into all kinds of deadly contradictions and ends up with a sterile abstraction in place of the living God of the Scriptures. At the present time, I would prefer not to enter into that discussion. I sometimes find that debates over “essence” and “energy,” like certain faculty discussions about matters of finance, make my head feel light and the room begin to disappear, as though the rarified nature of the subject matter had an immediate, rarifying influence upon the oxygen in my blood. Since I frequently need to operate a motor vehicle, it would not be safe for me to discuss Palamism at this time.

    Still, others may have hardier constitutions; therefore I am passing on to readers the information about these books. Consider your own frailties, and do not blame me if you become light-headed.

    An article on Greek Catholics

    December 14, 2007

    The following article was published last month in The Tablet; I thought it was worth reprinting here. The Archbishop of Corfu, Yannis Spiteris, has published a couple of articles on John Bekkos (“Giovanni Beccos: Un convinto sostinetore dell’unità tra la chiesa greca e quella latina. A sette secoli dalla sua morte (1297-1997),” Studi Ecumenici 16:4 [1998], 459-491; also, “Il Patriarca Giovanni Beccos, Un Uomo ‘Ecumenista’ (+1297) : Demetro Cidone: Un teologo Bizantino ‘Tomist’ (+1398), Lateranum 65 [1999]), as well as a number of books, on Palamism, ecclesiology, and other things, in Greek and in Italian. Someone proficient in Italian ought to set about translating some of them into English.

    * * *


    Feature Article, 3 November 2007

    Outsiders in their own land

    Marcus Tanner

    What the tourists don’t see on the idyllic holiday island of Corfu is a divide, typical of all of Greece, between the minority Catholic population and the Greek Orthodox, for to be Orthodox is seen as a mark of national identity. Now, migration from abroad will challenge this prejudice

    In the church of St Spiridon, in Corfu town, a crowd of tourists, instantly recognisable by their pale skins and brightly coloured shorts, wander around the dark interior, some queuing to peer at the relic of the miracle-working saint lying in his ornate silver casket.

    A bus halts in the street outside and disgorges a different crowd – leathery-skinned country folk, the women all in headscarves, headed by two purposeful Orthodox clerics swathed in black. They sweep in, scattering the tourists, for some voluptuous relic-kissing. The tourists are delighted. At last, “authentic” Greece, the lost world of Gerald Durrell and Captain Corelli, has sliced across the bows of their package tour. And what can be more truly Greek than this? To be Greek is to be Orthodox.

    However, that’s just the kind of talk that makes Ioannis Spiteris, seated yards away in his small office above a clothes store, roll his eyes. While the Archbishop of Corfu looks, sounds and is as Greek as anyone else, he is the Catholic – not the Orthodox – archbishop of the Ionian island and, mild-mannered as he is, both he and his brother bishops have had enough. After years of silence, they have begun to speak out against a culture of exclusion that threatens the very survival of Catholicism in its ancient heartlands on the Greek islands.

    “It’s difficult to understand if you’re not from here,” the archbishop says, pointing to the nearby tower of the ruined Augustinian abbey, where Mass was first said in the fourteenth century. “We are here in Greece, we feel Greek, are Greek, but among other Greeks there is this strong identification of Greek and Orthodox. As a result, when I take part in official ceremonies, they say ‘He’s not a bishop! He is not Orthodox.’ ”

    This isn’t merely a question of bruised feelings over precedence at public festivals. According to the archbishop, “It has created a bad psychological situation among Catholics. Often, they don’t even want to baptise their children as Catholics. They say, ‘When he grows up, I don’t want him to have problems’.”

    One problem is a kind of casual, thoughtless discrimination that young men face in particular during military service, when they are obliged to take an oath of allegiance. Greece’s Catholic bishops were irritated recently when two Catholic recruits were told to take their oaths over a copy of the Qur’an – the Bible being reserved for those of the Orthodox faith. “They felt really terrible,” the archbishop maintains. “It’s not really the Government, it’s a culture that starts in schools, and in history books that speak badly about the Catholics.”

    If Greek history books speak roughly about Catholics, it is not surprising, of course, as Spiros Gaoutsis, an active lay Catholic Corfiot and historian, freely admits. “We were always a foreign body,” he says, strolling past the Cathedral of St James and pointing out the imposing white stucco portals of the national bank, which once served as the grandiose palace of the Catholic archbishops.

    The position of the former palace at the heart of the city tells its own story about the former position of the Catholic Church on Corfu, as well as on other islands, which has left behind it a legacy of bitterness. It was seized by the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. Even the common term in Greece for a Catholic – “Frangos”, or “Frank” – is suggestive.

    For Catholicism was a religion of conquest in Greece, arriving on the backs of the Fourth Crusade. “And that’s still an issue here with the Orthodox,” Mr Gaoutsis confirms.

    The Orthodox – the bishops, at any rate – have not forgotten how the mainly Frankish and German crusaders desecrated and occupied the Orthodox mother city of Constantinople in 1204, driving out their clergy and establishing a necklace of Latin bishoprics there and across the Greek Cyclades.

    A second wave of Latin “conquistadors” followed in the fourteenth century, when Venice seized Corfu and other islands. Again, where Venetians went, Latin bishops followed.

    The result was the same kind of religious standoff that prevailed in post-Reformation Ireland: a state Church with palaces and cathedrals but small congregations and a popular Church with no status but a great deal of prestige.

    On a few islands, especially Syros and Tinos, Catholics became the majority, thanks partly to Jesuit activity. On Corfu, Rhodes and elsewhere, the bulk of the population remained loyal to their former faith. The Catholic bishops were mainly absentees, too, drawing their handsome incomes while residing in Italy. According to Mr Gaoutsis, the Venetians positively obstructed the few archbishops who tried to minister in their diocese, seeing them as nuisances.

    Today the Catholic Church in Greece struggles to counter the ingrained prejudices that this long and tortuous struggle for religious supremacy left behind, especially among the hardline Orthodox monks on Mount Athos who have rejected all attempts by the Vatican to engage in ecumenical dialogue.

    As the Athens-based journalist Helena Smith wrote some years ago, many Greeks “still relate to the notorious declaration of the Byzantine commander Loukas Notaras (uttered days before the sacking of Constantinople in 1453) that it would be better to see the Turkish turban in the city than a cardinal’s mitre”. That mood, stiffened by the religious dimension to the Balkan wars of the 1990s, has hardly softened at all. Smith told me: “This is still a country that is very ethnocentric, where minorities are seen as a threat to the state and where to be 100 per cent Greek you must be Orthodox.”

    As Smith recalls, in return for past services as the guardian of Hellenism, the Orthodox Church remains privileged in the eyes of the state to a degree that would be unimaginable in western Europe. “Clerics are employed by the state, get state salaries and oversee the swearing-in of the Government.”

    The Catholics’ failure to shake off their alien tag has had other side effects. “Unlike the Orthodox Church we don’t exist as a juridical body in Greece,” Archbishop Spiteris explains. This lack of a corporate identity in the eyes of the Greek courts, the bishops feel, has encouraged people to encroach on Catholic property and triggered numerous lawsuits. The Church rarely won these cases until Bishop Papamanolis of Syros – fed up with litigation – took a landmark case involving some disputed property to the European Court of Human Rights in 1997 and won – a judgment that Catholics hope has injected a new spirit of caution into those who see Catholic property as fair game.

    The ruined Augustinian monastery lying over the road from the diocesan office in Corfu provides another example to the archbishop of how Catholics come last – or well behind the Orthodox – when it comes to obtaining state aid for restoration. The abbey was a casualty of a German bombing raid in 1943, not neglect. “We believe Cervantes stayed in this monastery,” the archbishop said, suddenly excited, unscrolling his restoration plans from a drawer. “We would like to turn it into a truly European monument. We have all the plans ready, too, but – no! There is no help from Athens. They once promised 300,000 euros (£210,000) but nothing ever happened.”

    That same apparent spirit of official reserve towards Catholic projects extends itself to the work of the island’s one Catholic convent. The Franciscan house, established a century ago on the edge of Corfu town, runs a popular and admirable project, looking after old people who don’t want to end their days in a hospital ward.

    For years, the sisters have sought funds to rebuild the home, so that the women can be put together on the same floor and at the same time enjoy more privacy.

    But Sr Monica says work has been painfully slow because the Catholic Church is small and poor and officialdom won’t give anything. “I don’t feel it’s fair,” she says, pointing at the concrete foundations of the new site. “It’s not as if we only look after Catholics. Of the 24 women here, 19 are Orthodox.”

    The sisters are hale and hearty but, like their archbishop, they are getting on. The Catholic Church is ageing and dying on all the islands. “We pray every day – ‘Send us some young sisters!'” laughs Sr Monica. Archbishop Spiteris and his brother bishops in Athens, Syros and Naxos must make the same prayer. In his sixties, he is a stripling: his vicar general is almost 80. There is no longer even a seminary in Greece, which means seminarians are sent to France or Italy and don’t always come back. Most dioceses already rely on foreign priests to keep things going – in Spiteris’ case, from Romania, Poland and the Philippines.

    With its old Greek element slowly fading, the future no longer lies with the ageing and scattered Greek-speaking island congregations that the archbishop tirelessly visits by boat and plane. It lies with foreign newcomers.

    Paradoxically, as the Church dies on the islands, the number of Catholics has suddenly hugely increased in the mainland cities where once it was negligible. Overnight, the 50,000 or so Greek Catholics have become a minority in their own Church, outnumbered five or even six to one by a surge of immigrants from the Philippines, Poland, Africa and Albania, which has a large Catholic community in the north. There are echoes of the situation in early-nineteenth-century England here, where an old, small and indigenous Catholic community was transformed, not altogether harmoniously, by massive Irish immigration.

    Archbishop Spiteris’ new congregations in Thessaloniki comprise at least 59 nationalities, as of the last count. In Athens, the situation is more complex still. No wonder Bishop Papamanolis recently likened the Catholic Church in Greece to “a laboratory”.

    The influx poses hard questions about coherence and identity. At evening Mass in Corfu cathedral, the Greek-speaking priest struggled through one part of the service, rendered in English for the benefit of assorted tourists and possibly the Filipinos, while the latter fidgeted – and some walked out – when the service flipped back into Greek.

    But there is no way back to the old, tightly bound, very Greek, Church of the past. Spiros Gaoutsis is philosophical. “Most of us descend from immigrants who came here at some time or other,” he said, recalling his distant Maltese ancestors who came to Corfu in 1836.

    Back in his office, the archbishop concurred. “We have got to become really Catholic, meaning universal,” he said. “We were never really considered true Greeks anyway. Now we have to be brothers to all those coming from outside. It is the future of the Church – no Greek, no Jew, but all one in Christ. That could be something to be proud of.”

    A saying of Hillel’s

    December 13, 2007

    הוא היה אמור, אם אין אני לי מי לי. וכשאני לעצמי מה אני. ואם לא עכשו אימתי

    “He used to say,

    If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
    But, in being for my own self, what am I?
    And if not now, when?”

    Pirke Avoth (The Sayings of the Fathers), I.14.

    Prayers to St. Nicholas

    December 6, 2007

    Χαίροις, ὁ ἱερώτατος νοῦς, τὸ τῆς Τριάδος καθαρὸν ἐνδιαίτημα, ὁ στῦλος τῆς Ἐκκλησίας, ὁ τῶν πιστῶν στηριγμός, καταπονουμένων ἡ βοήθεια, ἀστὴρ ὁ ταῖς λάμψεσιν εὐπροσδέκτων δεήσεων διασκεδάζων πειρασμῶν τε καὶ θλίψεων σκότος πάντοτε, ἱεράρχα Νικόλαε· ὅρμος ὁ γαληνότατος, ἐν ᾧ καταφεύγοντες οἱ τρικυμίαις τοῦ βίου περιστατούμενοι σῴζονται. Χριστὸν ἐκδυσώπει ταῖς ψυχαῖς ἡμῶν δοθῆναι τὸ μέγα ἔλεος.

    Hail, most sacred mind, pure dwelling-place of the Trinity, pillar of the Church, support of the faithful, the help of those who are struggling, star which, by illumining with acceptable supplications, always scatters the darkness of temptations and afflictions, Hierarch Nicholas: when those who are beset by the billowy waves of life flee to you for refuge, as to a most peaceful haven, they are saved. Entreat Christ to grant our souls the great mercy.

    Ὤφθης Κωνσταντίνῳ βασιλεῖ σὺν τῷ Ἀβλαβίῳ κατ᾽ ὄναρ, καὶ τούτους φόβῳ βαλών, οὕτως αὐτοῖς εἴρηκας· Λύσατε δὴ ἐν σπουδῇ τῆς εἰρκτῆς οὓς κατέχετε δεσμίους ἀδίκως, ἀθώους τυγχάνοντας τῆς παρανόμου σφαγῆς· ὅμως, ἀλλ᾽ ἐὰν παρακούσῃς, ἔντευξιν ποιήσομαι, ἄναξ, κατὰ σοῦ πρὸς Κύριον δεόμενος.

    To the Emperor Constantine and to Ablabius you appeared in a dream, and, casting them into fear, you spoke to them thus: Release from jail at once those whom you unjustly hold prisoner, who are guiltless of iniquitous murder. But if you disobey, I will petition against you, O King, when praying before the Lord.

    Mea culpa

    December 6, 2007

    Briefly, I want to apologize for neglecting this blog for some weeks. There is not much to say, except that an occasional hiatus from this sort of writing might be necessary both for my sanity and for the good of my research. Also, I have come to think that it would be better not to pollute cyberspace by resurrecting ancient controversies over the doctrine of the Holy Spirit during the season of Advent. And, as for my political rantings, I think I could do without those, too, for awhile.

    To those who have prayed for my cousin Maureen: thank you. She is doing better than anticipated.