The hymn of Kassiani

April 19, 2011

Troparion in the 8th tone, sung on Tuesday evening of Holy Week.

O Lord, the woman who fell into many sins,
when she perceives your divinity
takes on the role of a myrrhbearer,
and, in sorrow, provides you myrrh before your burial.
Alas! she says,
for night is what exists for me,
a mad rage of unchastity,
the gloomy, moonless love of sin.
Accept the fountains of my tears,
you who, by clouds, draw forth the water from the seas.
Bend down to the groanings of my heart,
you who incline the heavens by your
ineffable self-emptying.
I will warmly kiss your spotless feet,
and, again, with the tresses of my head
I will wipe them,
those feet whose dreaded sound
Eve heard with her ears in paradise
so that she hid herself for fear.
Who shall trace out the multitude of my sins
and who shall trace out the depths of your judgments,
O my Savior, the soul’s deliverer?
Do not disregard me, your handmaiden,
for with you there is immeasurable mercy.

Τὸ τροπάριον τῆς Κασσιανῆς

Κύριε, ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁμαρτίαις περιπεσοῦσα γυνή,
τὴν σὴν αἰσθομένη θεότητα,
μυροφόρου ἀναλαβοῦσα τάξιν,
ὀδυρομένη μῦρά σοι πρὸ τοῦ ἐνταφιασμοῦ κομίζει,
Οἴμοι, λέγουσα,
ὅτι νύξ μοι ὑπάρχει,
οἶστρος ἀκολασίας,
ζοφώδης τε καὶ ἀσέληνος ἔρως τῆς ἁμαρτίας.
Δέξαι μου τὰς πηγὰς τῶν δακρύων,
ὁ νεφέλαις διεξάγων τῆς θαλάσσης τὸ ὕδωρ.
Κάμφθητί μοι πρὸς τοὺς στεναγμοὺς τῆς καρδίας,
ὁ κλίνας τοὺς οὐρανοὺς τῇ ἀφάτῳ σου κενώσει.
Καταφιλήσω τοὺς ἀχράντους σου πόδας,
ἀποσμήξω τούτους δὲ πάλιν
τοῖς τῆς κεφαλῆς μου βοστρύχοις,
ὧν ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ
Εὔα τὸ δειλινὸν κρότον τοῖς ὠσὶν ἠχηθεῖσα,
τῷ φόβῳ ἐκρύβη.
Ἁμαρτιῶν μου τὰ πλήθη
καὶ κριμάτων σου ἀβύσσους
τίς ἐξιχνιάσει, ψυχοσῶστα Σωτήρ μου;
Μή με τὴν σὴν δούλην παρίδῃς,
ὁ ἀμέτρητον ἔχων τὸ ἔλεος.

Axios!

January 25, 2011

I learned early this morning that longtime St. John’s College tutor David Starr was ordained to the priesthood on January 18, 2011 (January 5th, Old Calendar) by His Eminence Kyrill, Archbishop of San Francisco and Western America, at Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco. Fr. David will be serving as assistant priest at St. Juliana of Lazarevo Russian Orthodox Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Axios!

The second day of the conference, Tuesday, June 29th, fell upon the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Before the conference, I had written to one of the organizers to ask if there were plans to celebrate an Orthodox liturgy on campus on that day, and offering to help with the singing if necessary; I was told that, because the Orthodox chaplain of Fordham would be out of town, there would be no liturgy. Nevertheless, because Fr. Paul, who was staying at my house, wanted to attend mass that morning, I drove in early, and arrived at the Fordham campus about a half an hour before the conference was to begin. As it turned out, the 8:30 mass did not take place where I had assumed it would (namely, in the University Chapel), so neither of us attended liturgy that morning. Given the coinciding of the conference with the feast day of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and the importance of those apostles for the theme of Orthodoxy’s relationship with the West, it seems a little odd that more was not done to give the conference a liturgical setting; it suggests that scholarship and piety are, in the minds of some, things best kept in separate boxes. Fortunately, the presentations themselves did not encourage the idea of such a separation.


(3) Symposium II: Russian Thinkers of the 19th and 20th Centuries

The morning’s proceedings got underway promptly at 9 a.m., moderated by Dr. Mary-Jane Rubenstein of Wesleyan University, who introduced the first speaker, Dr. Vera Shevzov of Smith College. Dr. Shevzov’s lecture was titled “The Burdens of Tradition: Russia’s Orthodox Academic Theologians and ‘the West’ (late XIX-early XX cc).” As I do not read Russian, and am not particularly well versed in Russian Orthodox theology, much of the morning’s discussions concerned matters with which I am relatively unfamiliar. This was especially true of the first presentation, which dealt with the Slavophile movement and with Russian academic theology in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Dr. Shevzov began her presentation by noting that a negative view of the West was inculcated in Russia from very early times. She cited the account of Great Prince Vladimir’s baptism from the twelfth century Russian primary chronicle: the priest who baptized Vladimir is there represented as telling him: “Do not accept the teachings of the Latins, whose instruction is vicious. Avoid their doctrine. God guard you from this evil, O Prince!” (Of course, the baptism of Rus’ occurred in the year 988, at a time when the churches of Rome and Constantinople were still nominally in communion, so the historicity of this narrative may be doubted.) This inheritance of Byzantine distrust was noted in 1906 by the religious thinker Vassily Roznov: “It was as if decaying and dying Byzantium whispered to Russia all of its vexations and bequeathed [them to] Russia to guard them. Russia, at the bedside of the departing one, gave its word, mortal enmity towards the Western tribes.”

But, Dr. Shevzov pointed out, Russian attitudes towards the West were complicated; religious enmity was not the whole story. At least from the time of Peter the Great, another attitude had also been fostered, that of admiration for the West’s material accomplishments. Nineteenth century Russian religious thinkers knew that the West was a fact that had to be faced if they were to give an account of Christian Orthodoxy that related it to the realities of modern life. Their various assessments of the West, in keeping with their commitment to Orthodox faith, constituted the theme of Dr. Shevzov’s presentation. “How,” she asked, “did Russia’s academic theologians conceptualize the West during these critical decades before Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik revolution?”

From 1855, during a period of “glasnost” that occurred during the reign of Tsar Alexander II, “many Orthodox academics embarked on a conscious mission to make Orthodoxy relevant to the modern world.” In this attempt, much use was made of the writings of Aleksei Khomiakov. Some nineteenth century writers credited him with framing the subject of Orthodoxy’s relationship with the West in new terms. Shevzov summed up Khomiakov’s teaching in the following way:

“Khomiakov conceived of the religious West, not as two separate and opposed confessions of faith, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but as a single phenomenon that, culturally and historically, could be traced to the civilization of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church through the Germanic tribes and the appearance of Protestants and beyond to the emergence of the modern culture of unbelief.”

Unlike previous writers, Shevzov noted, Khomiakov did not see doctrinal issues as the primary grounds for the split, but traced it back to “relational, dispositional, and ultimately experiential” causes, to a fundamentally different way of understanding ecclesial communion.

“‘Romanism began,’ wrote Khomiakov, ‘at the moment when Christians in the West placed personal independence and regional opinions over and above a universal unity of faith.’ By its act of unilaterally changing the Creed, the Roman world, he argued, implicitly declared that in its eyes the entire East was nothing but a world of bondsmen in matters of faith and teaching. And, with it, the ecclesial life ended for an entire half of the Church. The act of inserting the Filioque into the Creed, for Khomiakov, therefore, was more significant than the meaning of that clause. Its insertion was no less than what he called ‘an act of moral fratricide in the life of the Church.’”

“The propensity for unilateral thinking and action” resulted in what Khomiakov saw as “the unavoidable decline of faith in the West.” It “deprived faith of its moral foundation, thereby making authentic faith impossible.”

Even for Khomiakov, however, this characterization of the West as the scene of a religious decline does not tell the whole story. It is significant that Khomiakov’s most influential work, the essay “The Church is One,” had to be translated into Russian out of French.

In the latter part of her lecture, Dr. Shevzov surveyed some of the responses to Khomiakov among Russian academic theologians, responses which feature as one aspect of the nineteenth century Russian debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers. Not all academic theologians agreed with Khomiakov’s account of the West and of Orthodox Christianity. While some criticized his views about the Orthodox Church, many of them criticized his identification of Christianity with “national or cultural types.” A certain Professor Tsernovsky, from Kiev, argued against drawing sharp lines between Western and Eastern spiritual dispositions. He pointed out that many religious stereotypes (the organic, spiritual-minded East; the fragmented, legal-minded West) do not hold up upon close scrutiny; he asked why, if Russia represents a spiritually higher type, is the West so successful? In 1885, one Aleksandr Lupokhin wrote of Petrine, Pauline, and Johannine types; he thought only the Johannine type fully captured the essence of Christianity. (This motif was later taken up by Vladimir Soloviev, who drew from it a somewhat different conclusion.)

Dr. Shevzov ended her lecture by noting that, by the early twentieth century, Khomiakov and his views on the West were already coming to be regarded as “tradition,” and that this “tradition,” although never accepted completely uncritically (Fr. Pavel Florensky was cited as one author who saw it as raising a host of problems), continues to pose important challenges for us at the present time.

At the risk of sounding overly critical, I will add one further word. The impression was occasionally given, in the course of Dr. Shevzov’s lecture, that the necessity for her to read her paper within the allotted time overruled, in her own mind, the necessity for her audience to understand what she was saying. If (as is most unlikely) she should ever read this account of her lecture, I would urge her, in future presentations, to make a greater concession to human frailty, and speak more slowly.

* * *

Next, Professor Antoine Arjakovsky, a Russian Orthodox Christian who is Director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University at Lviv, spoke on “The Russian Religious Thinkers of the 20th Century and the Rediscovery of the West.” Dr. Rubenstein, the moderator, noted that Dr. Arjakovsky is a leader in ecumenical discussions, someone who has consistently advocated closer contacts and cooperation between Orthodox living in the West and Eastern-rite Catholics living in the East. A book of his essays has been translated into English, Church, Culture, and Identity: Reflections on Orthodoxy in the Modern World.

Dr. Arjakovsky stated at the outset of his lecture that this conference is important, not only for Orthodox identity, but for Christian identity as such. Orthodox have come to define themselves against the West; in response, Westerners have come to define themselves as not Orthodox. “But, if the consciousness of the universal Church succeeded in not opposing these two notions of West and Christian Orthodoxy, a new world,” he said, “would be outlined.” This remark was echoed again at the very end of his lecture, where he mentioned his hope for seeing the beginnings of “a post-secular world.”

Most of Dr. Arjakovsky’s lecture was organized into two parts. The first part treated of “critics of the West among Russian philosophers”; the second, longer part examined “the reversal of this criticism.”

Dr. Arjakovsky pointed out that, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, many members of the Russian emigration viewed the West as responsible for the human disaster that had just taken place. Men like Florovsky, Berdyaev, Zinkovsky, Trubetskoi, Bulgakov and others were vocal in their criticisms of the West, with its rationalism and individualism; some of them shared Oswald Spengler’s views about an inevitable decline in the civilization of Europe. Berdyaev, in an essay written in 1926 about Konstantin Leontiev, acknowledged Leontiev as one of the first to recognize the multifarious nature of Western bourgeois culture and agreed with him in looking towards the Russian soul as a source of revival for all humanity. The linguist Nikolai Trubetskoi, who had settled in Berlin in 1925, wrote of the Russian soul’s having become contaminated by the Western enlightenment, and needing to look eastward towards the Mongolian tribes of Ural and Altai; his theories became the source of something called “the Eurasian movement,” which, before this conference, I had never heard of, but which, apparently, is the source of some important currents of political thought in contemporary Russia; mention was made of a certain Aleksandr Dugin, a contemporary writer of this school who has been influential on Vladimir Putin. In the 1920’s, members of the Eurasian movement included the writers Bitsili, Savitsky, Florovsky, Zuvchinsky, and Zinkovsky (note: this is from audio transcription; it is quite possible that some of these names are misspelled).

“For these thinkers, the crisis of the West was bound to a metaphysical problem,” a problem traced to a deviation from Orthodox faith. Like the later Yannaras, Sergei Bulgakov wrote at this time of Thomas Aquinas as beginning, not from the personal, trihypostatic God, but from Aristotle’s impersonal divinity. This metaphysical analysis led, in the second generation of the Russian Orthodox diaspora, to a new self-definition as Orthodox (rather than as Russian, Serb, etc.) among men like Lossky, Schmemann, Meyendorff, and Evdokimov. An insistence upon Orthodoxy as the heart of their Christian identity, which they defined in a universal, not nationalistic, way.

At this point, Dr. Arjakovsky moved on to the second part of his lecture, his consideration of the reversal of the criticism of the West. He first pointed out that Russian thought in the twentieth century was not static or monolithic. Through their bonds of friendship with Western Christians in Germany, France, and Great Britain, many members of the Russian diaspora, in the 1920’s and 30’s, came to a new discovery of the complexity of the West, and, with that, came to reexamine certain ways of understanding the Christian East. Notions of a “Holy Russia” (Sviataya Rus’) opposed to a heretical West were seen as partaking of a certain mythologizing tendency, bordering on Manichaeism. Fedotov wrote, in 1926 in the journal Put’ (“the Way”), of his friendship with Benedictines; Bulgakov wrote in his memoir of his friendship with a Greek Catholic priest from Lithuania; likewise, there was his friendship with Bp. Gore, in connection with the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. One landmark discussion at this time was a conference held in Paris on May 27, 1930, on the subject of East and West, attended by such men as Malraux, Maritain, Berdyaev; the “East,” for the French at that time, meant, more particularly, Germany. Berdyaev was convinced that notions of “East” and “West” are “myths”: we are always to the East of somebody else. At this conference Berdyaev asserted, carelessly, that “Russia is the country of revelation; Russia will one day save the West.” To which a friend of Malraux’s, Jean Absence [?], replied: “That Christianity comes from Jerusalem does not mean that the West was not baptized.” (I would note, in passing, that this reply recalls the response given by St. Gregory the Theologian in the fourth century to those, at the Second Ecumenical Council, who were claiming that the East enjoys primacy or spiritual seniority, because that is where Christ was made man, and that is where the sun rises; St. Gregory replied that, if Christ became incarnate in the East, it was very possibly because he knew that, to work human salvation, he had also to die, and it was easier for him to get killed there.)

These contacts and experiences of life in the West, Dr. Arjakovsky noted, led some of these Russian thinkers to rethink Orthodox history, a rethinking that was connected with their involvement in the ecumenical movement. He gave three concrete examples:

  1. Berdyaev’s critique of Florovsky’s voluntarist historiography;
  2. Bulgakov’s critique of the Orthodox historiography of the Council of Florence; and
  3. Nikolai Zernov’s and Mira Lot-Borodine’s criticism of the myth of Holy Rus’.

I will speak mostly about the first two of these. Berdyaev, in an article that appeared in the journal Put’ in 1937, criticized Florovsky’s Ways of Russian Theology, with its story of the fall of Russian theology from the standards of Byzantine perfection, as romanticized nostalgia for a mythical, lost paradise. Florovsky, Berdyaev wrote, “does not admit that Byzantinism either fell into decline or died by virtue of its own actions.” He saw him as uncritically accepting anti-Western Slavophile theories. According to Berdyaev, Florovsky’s failure to engage with philosophical categories of thought prevented him from appreciating many Russian authors, including Tolstoy. (Dr. Arjakovsky noted that, in a recent book on Orthodoxy, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev tries to rehabilitate Tolstoy, but he doesn’t address Tolstoy’s reasons for being dissatisfied with the Russian Orthodox culture of his day.) Moreover, Florovsky rejects Peter Moghila as a latinizer, although he can find in his works not one theological proposition that he can positively dismiss as unorthodox; in a similar vein, the Council of Jassy, which accepted Moghila’s statement of faith, was accepted by the four Eastern patriarchates, yet Christos Yannaras describes it as a “Latin council.”

In moving on to his second point, Bulgakov’s critique of the Orthodox historiography of the Council of Florence, Dr. Arjakovsky noted that, although Bulgakov later rejected “the temptation to accept papal infallibility,” he never went back on his acceptance of the ecumenicity of the Council of Florence, an acceptance first stated in 1922; even in his memoir, Quiet Thoughts, written late in his life, he still maintains this point. Bulgakov thinks that many of the problems faced by the Russian Church in its history could have been avoided if the Council of Florence had been accepted by the Orthodox people. (Among these problems: its paralysis, its support for Caesaropapism, its incapacity to set up a doctrinal authority that protects the truth of the faith….) He throws out the historiography that rejects Florence as a “pseudo-council.” All the local Churches participated in this council; all approved it. The Patriarch, the Emperor, sixteen metropolitans, signed the Decree of Union. True, Mark of Ephesus refused to sign. But never, at any previous ecumenical council, had there been total unanimity. Bulgakov did not accept the claim that “pressures” on the Greek delgation to accept union constitute sufficient grounds for rejecting the council as invalid. No previous council had allowed its delegates so much time to make up their minds (that they were not forced to stay is shown by the fact that some of the Greeks left of their own free will). No previous council had occasioned greater expenses than the pope had incurred at this council to maintain the large Greek delegation. Bulgakov questions whether a local council (Constantinople 1484) has the right to revoke the decisions of what he calls “the Eighth Ecumenical Council.” Only a new ecumenical council would possess such a right, and a new ecumenical council hasn’t occurred.

It is not only Bulgakov, among Orthodox theologians, who saw Florence as a true and canonically-valid council. Arjakovsky notes that Olivier Clément also shared this view.

Clément wrote an essay on Francis of Assisi, which, said Dr. Arjakovsky, is about to appear in print in about a month; he read a rather lengthy passage from it. The passage noted that, whereas Western (Franciscan) spirituality is commonly thought to stress the stigmata and Good Friday, Orthodox spirituality, by contrast, is seen as stressing the Taboric Light and the resurrection. But Francis’s stigmata are a reply to the glorified Lord, who, in his resurrected body, retains the marks of his crucifixion. For Clément, the holiness of St. Francis is a revelation of the Church. If Francis is a saint, it is because “the eucharist (in the West, after 1054) kept all its power of life.” This presence of holiness means, for Clément, that, in the East and in the West, there is one single eucharist, hence, one single Church. In responding to the lives of the saints, who reveal the divine-human reality of Christ in both East and West, we must not be confined to the surface level of things, but dig towards the center.

Professor Arjakovsky concluded his lecture by asking whether, if Orthodoxy is in fact, as Florovsky and Yannaras have stated, a “life-style,” and not a religion (“the transformation of the mortal individuality into the personal relation,” as Yannaras says), it is genuinely possible to confine this experience within the boundaries of Hellenic and Russian civilization. As Sergei Bulgakov wrote in 1932, “Orthodoxy is not an institution. Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on the Earth. It is the New Life, with and in the Christ, moved by the Holy Spirit.” Thanks to this definition, Arjakovsky said, “Eastern Churches can open to Western Churches in a new and more reconciled way, and vice versa. This is, for me, the beginning of a post-secular world.”

* * *

The third lecturer that morning was Dr. Paul Gavrilyuk, associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas and an author whose recent works include The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought (Oxford 2004) and Histoire du catéchuménat dans l’Église ancienne [A history of the catechumenate in the ancient Church] (Paris: Cerf, 2007). He spoke on the theme, “The Case of ‘Westernization’ vs. Hellenization: the Methodological Limitations of Georges Florovsky’s ‘Neopatristic Synthesis.’”

Dr. Gavrilyuk wished participants at the conference a happy feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul, thanked Professors Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou for organizing the event, and noted his sense that, at this conference, “we are witnessing something new, perhaps a new trend, perhaps a new school of Orthodox theology” (the “Fordham school”?).

He added, “it is very common among us Orthodox to use the category of the West as a blanket for everything that is wrong with the world in general, and with theology in particular.” He expressed his hope that the main contribution of this conference would be to deconstruct and question “this rather facile, cavalier, and rather obviously false assertion,” together with his hope that the results of this conference (and of recent, similar conferences at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and the Volos Academy in Greece) would be disseminated among the Orthodox faithful, that we would not merely be talking amongst ourselves.

After these preliminaries, Dr. Gavrilyuk summed up the approach he would be taking to his subject. Having reminded his audience that the late Archpriest Georges Florovsky is credited with initiating a “return to the fathers” in twentieth century Orthodox theology, that Florovsky viewed Christian Hellenism as “the norm by which all modern theological proposals were to be judged,” believed Western influences had led to the “Babylonian captivity” of Eastern Orthodox thought, and offered a “Neo-Patristic synthesis” as a reform program, Dr. Gavrilyuk stated three things that he proposed to do:

”In this paper, I will discuss the polemical motivations and the constructive aspirations of Florovsky’s retrieval of the fathers.

“I will discuss how his engagement with the Eurasian movement influenced his thinking about the Ways of Russian Theology….

“I will also consider the methodological parallels between Adolph von Harnack’s view of the ‘Hellenization’ of early Christian theology and Florovsky’s account of the ‘Westernization’ of Russian theology.”

On the whole, that was a very accurate synopsis of what Dr. Gavrilyuk proceeded to speak about in the course of his lecture. Rather than recount in detail what was said in it (which would carry this already-long blog post to extraordinary lengths), I will content myself here with noting some of the main things I learned.

As a young man, Florovsky lived through a time of political crisis (a world war, two Russian revolutions, the exiling of the religious intelligentsia, the rise of Hitler in Germany), and the sense of crisis never left him. One of the ways the Russian emigrés responded to their new immersion in a foreign society was to turn their attention towards the nineteenth century Russian debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles. In the early 1920’s, Florovsky (whose family left Russia in 1920) participated in the “Eurasian movement,” a kind of updated Slavophilism, about which something already was said above. It was a movement which aimed at becoming the ideological future of Russia (and which, Dr. Gavrilyuk noted, now appears to be succeeding in the persons of Putin and Medvedev). Between the years 1921 and 1923, the Eurasians produced three volumes of collected essays, The Exodus to the East (1921), The Ways [?] (1922), and Russia and Latinity (1923); Florovsky was one of the contributors to these volumes. The Eurasians were relentless critics of “the rotten, decaying West” (an expression borrowed from the Slavophile Nikolai Danievski, later to be echoed by Nikita Khrushchev). Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West had begun to appear in the year 1918, and was read by the Eurasians and other Russian emigrés; it is from this work that Florovsky borrows his term “pseudomorphosis.”

The Eurasians were strongly critical of Roman Catholicism, to which they referred using the term “Latinity.” The harshest statements occur in their third volume of essays, Russia and Latinity, in the introduction to which it is claimed that, “for a Russian Orthodox believer in France to be converted to Roman Catholicism is worse than to be killed by the Bolsheviks in Communist Russia: the former leads to the eternal perdition of the soul, the latter, merely to the temporal destruction of the body.” When this assertion was criticized by Prince Trubetskoi in the pages of the journal Put’, the Eurasians promptly responded by publishing an open letter in defense of their comparison of Bolshevism and Catholicism, an open letter which Florovsky signed. Although Florovsky later claimed that he had never completely shared in the Eurasians’ political agenda, it seems fairly clear that, at this stage in his career, he must have shared to some extent in their anti-Western, anti-Catholic sentiments. (The charge came rather quickly from Berdyaev that the Eurasian movement had fascist tendencies.)

In 1926, Florovsky began to distance himself from the other Eurasians, and his final break with the movement came with his publication of an article, “The Eurasian Delusion” (1928). It seems that it was the political side of the movement with which he chiefly disagreed.

Dr. Gavrilyuk believes that “there is a connection between the anti-Western impulse of Eurasianism and the fundamental methodological assumption of The Ways of Russian Theology.” Any rapprochement with the West, the Eurasians held, would distort Russia’s historical destiny. Similarly, in his preface to The Ways of Russian Theology, Florovsky expressed his conviction that “all interruptions and spiritual failures in Russian development” had occurred on account of Russia’s “intellectual separation from Patristics and Byzantinism,” and his intention to narrate the history of those failures in that volume.

Prof. Gavrilyuk described Florovsky’s Ways of Russian Theology as a drama in three acts, with a significant prelude. The prelude is Medieval Russia’s fateful decision to embrace Byzantine Christianity, but, together with this, its inadequate appropriation of the Byzantine heritage. Liturgy, iconography, and asceticism were taken on; theology, as such, was not. The enormous richness of cultural material was, Florovsky stated, a heritage “too heavy and too perfect” to be absorbed.

The first act of the drama shows a Latin pseudomorphosis. It is the period of the Kievan academy, under Peter Moghila. Florovsky acknowledges that, under Moghila, the Russian Church emerged from the disorganization it had experienced in the aftermath of the Synod of Brest-Litovsk (1596). But, he said, “everything was suffused with an alien spirit,” a Latin spirit. “The very soul of the people comes to be latinized.” Gavrilyuk noted the connection of this description with the rhetoric of the Eurasian pamphlets, and the use made by Florovsky of Spengler’s notion of “pseudomorphosis.”

The second act showed a Protestantizing pseudomorphosis. It was the period of Peter the Great’s reforms, his abrogating of the Patriarchate, his instituting of the office of Prokurator in the person of Theophan Prokopovich. Everything was to be fitted to Protestant standards. The theological effect of this was a divorce between school theology and popular piety, a divorce not overcome until the nineteenth century.

The third act was seen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a pseudomorphic transformation of Orthodox theology under the influence of German philosophical idealism. In this case, Florovsky’s polemics were directed chiefly against the Orthodox Sophiologists: Soloviev, Florensky, Bulgakov, and others. He considered them as exhibiting an even greater estrangement from patristic theology than the previous aberrations — a claim which Dr. Gavrilyuk stated was quite unfair.

Later in his lecture, Prof. Gavrilyuk drew a detailed comparison between the functional role played by the idea of “westernization” in Florovsky’s thought and the idea of “hellenization” as found in the writings of the historian Adoph von Harnack (1851-1930). Both authors see an originally pure Christian state to have been corrupted: Harnack sees “hellenization” as having corrupted the primitive Christian message; Florovsky sees “westernization,” in its various manifestations, as the recurrent bane of Russian Christianity, and that from which it must be cured by a heavy dose of the fathers — for Florovsky, indeed, Russian Christianity needs to be “re-hellenized.” Although Florovsky strongly disagrees with Harnack in his assessment of the appropriateness of Greek, ontological modes of thought as applied to the Christian Gospel, he resembles him in terms of his methodology; Gavrilyuk describes him as Harnack’s “theological antidote.”

Some of the most interesting reflections in the lecture occurred towards the end, when Professor Gavrilyuk raised questions about how far Florovsky’s attitudes towards Western Christianity may have been modified by the fact of his living in the West for most of his life. He was certainly not unsensible of the virtues of the Christians among whom he lived. In a speech given at the opening of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, at a time when he had become a notable and respected figure in the ecumenical movement, Florovsky said the following:

“Orthodoxy theology has, in recent decades, been speedily recovering from the unhappy pseudomorphosis by which it was paralyzed for too long. But to regain once more its own Eastern style and temper must mean for Orthodox theology no detachment from the rest of the Christian world. What is to be rejected and repudiated, in the Westernizing school of Orthodox theology, is its blind subservience to the foreign traditions of the schools, and not its response to the challenges of other traditions, not the fraternal appreciation of what has been achieved by others. All riches of the Orthodox tradition can be disclosed and consummated only in a standing intercourse with the whole of the Christian world. The East must face and meet the challenge of the West, and the West, perhaps, has to pay more attention to the legacy of the East….”

Professor Gavrilyuk concluded his lecture with a theological meditation, which I hope I may be allowed to quote:

“The difference of the theological grammars of East and West is not a sufficient ground for guarding our theology forever against all Western influences. The distinctly Western theological beliefs are often assumed to be false merely on the grounds that they are Western. This genetic fallacy has poisoned our theological thinking for too long. Yet it is precisely the staunchly anti-Western Orthodox thinkers who end up being utterly dependent upon the West, even if this dependence is expressed in the form of a reflective rejection. If we reject the Western Other, without making an effort to understand the Other, paradoxically we are letting ourselves be more dependent on the Other. The search for truth cannot be limited by geography. It is not the cultural uniqueness of Eastern Orthodoxy, but the divine revelation, appropriated by the mind of the Church, that should serve as the main criterion of Orthodoxy. Thus, in order to fulfill Florovsky’s inspiring vision, we need to move beyond the limitations of his historiography.”

All in all, a remarkable lecture, and a remarkable session of the conference, one that I am grateful that I was able to attend.

Last week I attended a conference at Fordham University on the theme of “Orthodox Constructions of the West.” The conference took place at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx, and lasted for three days, Monday through Wednesday, June 28-30. I drove in each day from my home in Northern New Jersey, and acted as a driver for two other scholars, one of whom lives in New Jersey, another of whom was visiting from Greece and stayed at my home during the conference. Because I woke up around 5:00-5:30 a.m. on the days of the conference, and nevertheless went to bed at my usual hour (midnight – 1:00), by the end of it I was thoroughly exhausted. But the conference was well worth the effort made to attend it.

The organizers, Drs. Aristotle Papanikolaou and George Demacopoulos, professors of theology at Fordham University, have managed to turn Fordham into a thriving center for Orthodox studies. Both of them are relatively young, probably not much past their mid-30’s. They are a dynamic pair of scholars, all evidence suggests that they strongly support Orthodox-Catholic ecumenism, and one can only expect further good things from them in the years to come. The themes of the two conferences they have hosted so far — Orthodox Readings of Augustine in 2007 and Orthodox Constructions of the West this year — point to a settled desire to foster a more positive Orthodox reception of the West and its theology, or at least, a more critical stance toward standard Orthodox portrayals of the West as irredeemably Other.

I took many notes at the conference, and made use of a small digital recording device, which will allow me to provide some extended, verbatim quotations. (I hope that that will not involve me in any legal difficulties.) At present, I expect to follow up this present post with at least one or two more on the conference’s proceedings.

(1) Fr. Taft’s address

The tone of the conference was ably set by the first speaker, Fr. Robert F. Taft, SJ, the world’s foremost living scholar on the Byzantine liturgy. (Dr. Demacopoulos, in introducing him, noted with amazement that he has over 800 publications to his name.) His keynote address, delivered on Monday morning, was titled, “Perceptions and Realities in Orthodox-Catholic Relations Today: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future.” The title, phrased in such general terms, does not do his talk justice. It was, in fact, a passionately argued plea to both sides for historical objectivity and fairness when dealing with the problem of the continuing breach of communion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Near the beginning of his talk, Fr. Taft stated the following:

I have on more than one occasion made clear in print the positions I am happy to repeat here: that I consider the Orthodox Churches the historic, apostolic Christianity of the East, and sister Churches of the Catholic Church; that I recognize and rejoice in the fact that Orthodox peoples remain Orthodox, that the Catholic Church should support and collaborate with the Orthodox Churches in every way, foster the most cordial relations with them, earnestly work to restore communion with them, recognize their legitimate interests, especially on their own ground, avoid all proselytism among their flocks there or elsewhere, not seek in any way to undercut them, nor rejoice in or exploit their weaknesses, nor fish in their pond, nor seek to convert their faithful to the Catholic Church. But I espouse with equal explicitness the view that it is counterproductive for the cause of Christian unity and ecumenism to roll over and play dead in the face of any Catholic or Orthodox misbehavior, misinformation, or outright lying with regard to our dolorous past or to the problems that exist between us in the present. On these issues I speak from a lifetime of personal experience and proven love for Orthodoxy and its tradition, as clearly demonstrated by over half a century of studies, scholarship, and innumerable publications, both scholarly and popular.

A large portion of Fr. Taft’s talk was devoted to showing that “misbehavior” in the dolorous past — the use of secular force in support of religious objectives, the suppression of ancient Christian traditions foreign to one’s own — had been a practice common to all sides, and no one, certainly not the Jesuits, and certainly not the Orthodox, could pretend that their own Church had not engaged in it. From listening to him, one gets the sense that Fr. Taft, in his long and distinguished academic and ecumenical career, has had considerable experience of Orthodox selective memory — the sort of mentality that recalls the Fourth Crusade as though it had happened yesterday, but completely blocks out other significant historical facts, e.g., the fact that, not many years before the Fourth Crusade, some thousands of Latins were slaughtered in Constantinople in cold blood, and the papal delegate’s severed head was tied to a dog’s tail and dragged through the streets. For Fr. Taft, the lies we tell about our own and each other’s histories are a more important source of estrangement than theological ideas as such. By uncovering those lies, genuine scholarship forces us to question our demonizing of the Other, our self-representation as mere victims of history and persons needing no repentance.

My overall thesis is quite simple. Contrary to what one might think, the main problem we Catholics and Orthodox face in our ecumenical dialogue is not doctrine, but behavior. The issue is not that Catholics and Orthodox do not know how to pray and believe and live Christianity in the right and true apostolic way; the problem is that we do not know how to act. Learning to do so will mean adopting what I call “ecumenical scholarship and theology.” Ecumenical scholarship is not content with the purely natural virtues of honesty and fairness, virtues one should be able to expect from any true scholar. Ecumenical scholarship is a new and specifically Christian way of studying Christian tradition in order to reconcile and unite, rather than to confute and dominate. Its deliberate intention is to emphasize the common tradition underlying our differences, which, though real, are usually the accidental product of history, culture, language, rather than essential differences in the doctrine of the common, apostolic faith. Of course, to remain scholarly this effort must be carried out realistically, without glossing over real differences. But even in recognizing differences, this ecumenical effort must remain a two-way street, with each side judging itself and its tradition by the exact same criteria and standards with which it judges the other. Eschewing all scapegoating and a double-standard, ecumenical scholarship seeks to describe the beliefs, traditions, and usages of other confessions in ways their own, objective spokespersons recognize as reliable and fair. So ecumenical scholarship seeks not confrontation, but agreement and understanding; it tries to enter into the other’s point of view, to understand it, in so far as possible, with sympathy and agreement. It takes seriously the other’s critique of one’s own tradition, seeking to incorporate its positive contributions into one’s own thinking. It is a contest in reverse, a contest of Christian love, one in which the parties seek to understand and justify not their own point of view, but that of their interlocutors. Such an effort and method is not baseless romanticism; its theological foundation is our common faith, and God’s Holy Spirit is always with his Church, protecting the integrity of its witness, especially in the millennium of its undivided unity. Since some of the issues that divide us go right back to the first millennium, one must ineluctably conclude that these differences do not affect the substance of the apostolic faith, for, if they did, then, contrary to Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16, the gates of hell would indeed have prevailed against his Church.

As for myself, I am not sure that I agree with Fr. Taft’s assessment, that behavior and not doctrine is the chief impediment to Christian unity. But I accept his fundamental claim, that a conversion of hearts is necessary, and that ecumenical scholarship, in the sense that he uses the term, must play an important role in any such a conversion. I hope that my own work on John Bekkos will eventually deserve to be seen as one manifestation of what he calls “a contest of Christian love.”


(2) Symposium I: Byzantium and Beyond

Before going on, I should mention that much of my own interest in the conference centered upon meeting various of the participants. One of them was an Englishman, a Catholic priest, who goes by the internet name of “Fr. Paul,” with whom I had in fact corresponded for two or three years, since both of us are currently working on John Bekkos. He was the scholar, mentioned above, who was visiting from Greece and who stayed at my house in New Jersey for the duration of the conference. I met him for the first time last Monday, after Fr. Taft’s address, and had lunch with him. On Thursday, after the conference was over, I brought him into New York City, and, after taking him to see the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the World Trade Center site, and the Strand Bookstore, put him onto a subway train headed for Grand Central Station. As I have not heard back from him yet, I hope he reached his intended destination.

When the conference reconvened after lunch, Aristotle Papanikolaou introduced Dr. Demetrios Katos of Hellenic College, who chaired the first symposium, devoted to readings of the West in Byzantium and afterwards.

Dr. Tia M. Kolbaba of Rutgers gave the first lecture of the symposium, titled “The Tenth Century: Orthodox Constructions of the West in the Golden Age of Byzantium.” She noted that she approaches this subject of Byzantium primarily as a historian, not as a theologian, and that her lecture would be chiefly historical in nature. The chief things I learned from hearing it are, first, that a concern with the question of “azymes” (i.e., the use of unleavened bread in the eucharist) formed no part of the Byzantine critique of the West prior to the eleventh century, and that it first occurred in polemics, not against the West, but against the Armenian Church. Secondly, I learned that certain scholars now believe that the quarrel on the Mount of Olives in the early ninth century between Greek and Latin monks that is usually seen as a significant milestone in the history of the Filioque controversy actually never took place, that it is the fabrication of a later Latin author. I asked Dr. Kolbaba about this later, and she referred me to two works:

  • Claudia Sode, Jerusalem, Konstantinopel, Rom. Die Viten des Michael Synkellos und der Brüder Theodoros und Theophanes Graptoi (Stuttgart 2001), esp. pp. 171-187, “Excursus: Der sogenante Jerusalem Filioquestreit.”
  • Daniel Callahan, “The Problem of the ‘Filioque’ and the letter from the Pilgrim Monks of the Mount of Olives to Pope Leo III and Charlemagne. Is the Letter another Forgery by Adhemar of Chabannes?” Revue bénédictine 102 (1992), 75-134.

Thirdly, I learned that Dr. Kolbaba thinks that the Mystagogy of St. Photius is not one work, and that at least part of it, or perhaps even the whole of it, is not by St. Photius himself. She argues this point in a new book of hers, Inventing Latin Heretics: Byzantines and the Filioque in the Ninth Century, which I have not yet seen. I am interested to read the book and assess her argument, but I confess that, until I am persuaded by evidence, I remain skeptical.

* * *

The next lecturer was Dr. Marcus Plested, Vice Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies at Cambridge University, who will be spending the next year at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton here in New Jersey; he gave a talk titled, “‘Light from the West’: Byzantine Readings of Aquinas.” As a Greek Orthodox Christian who, in my undergraduate work and afterwards, has spent much time reading St. Thomas and who has a real admiration for him, I was predisposed to hear the lecture with great interest.

Perhaps the high point of the lecture, for me, was when Dr. Plested quoted, in translation, a Byzantine canon in honor of Aquinas, written by one Joseph of Methone. (Dr. Plested unfortunately neglected to mention that Joseph of Methone was a fifteenth-century Greek bishop who supported the Union of Florence.) The passage went something like this:

As a light from the West, he has illumined the Church of Christ,
the musical swan and subtle teacher, Thomas the All-Blessed,
Aquinas by name (Ἀκῖνος τῇ κλήσει), to whom, gathered together, we cry,
“Hail, O universal Teacher!”

If I were to sum up the theme of Dr. Plested’s lecture, it would be that the usual assumption that East and West operate with fundamentally different theological methodologies is “an assumption of relatively recent provenance”; it was by no means taken for granted in the late Byzantine empire that the kind of systematic analysis of theological questions displayed by Thomas in his writings is a form of theological reasoning that should be off-limits to Greek theologians. Not only was it emulated by the Kydones brothers, Demetrios and Prochoros, who translated numerous of Aquinas’s works into Greek, but it was also emulated by such Palamite, anti-unionist writers as Nilos Kabasilas and, later, George Gennadios Scholarios.

If I have a criticism of Dr. Plested’s lecture, it would chiefly be that his account of Thomas’s influence on the East was confined almost exclusively to questions of methodology, leaving out most questions of theological substance. It is all very well that a writer like Nilos Kabasilas (not to be confused with his nephew, Nicholas Kabasilas, who, though also a Palamite, eschewed theological controversy) uses scholastic method to undermine Thomas’s own postulates. From my own point of view, it is equally important to note that some Byzantines, like Manuel Kalekas and John Kyparissiotes, thought that Kabasilas was wrong, and they thought he was wrong, not on the basis of some abstract philosophical principles, but on the grounds that his theological postulates (e.g., the existence of four really existent “natures” in God) disagreed with the unanimous testimony of the fathers. In other words, a case could be made that Aquinas is himself a patristic theologian, and that that is how at least some of the Byzantines read him.

* * *

The next speaker was Dr. Norman Russell, now of London University. He gave a talk titled, “From the Shield of Orthodoxy to the Tome of Joy: the Anti-Western Stance of Dositheos II of Jerusalem (1641-1707).”

I had some slight acquaintance with Dr. Russell many years ago when I was a student at Oxford and he was living nearby at Campion Hall, and I confess that my first impressions centered less on the substance of his talk than on his marked change in appearance. His hair has gone mostly white, he now wears a close-cropped white beard that reminded me of someone I couldn’t quite place, probably some major literary figure from the late nineteenth century. But what most impressed me was his distinctly Orthodox appearance, Orthodox of a certain definite school or type. It would not surprise one, seeing him for the first time, to learn that this was a man who had written a major contemporary study of deification in the Greek fathers. When, at length, I spoke with him, he was very gracious to me; and, throughout the conference, he carried himself with a certain quiet dignity.

Near the beginning of his talk, Dr. Russell summed up the chief point of his argument in the following words:

What I wish to do in this paper is to suggest reasons why we should see Dositheos, not merely as an accomplished apologist, bound by the confessional mentality that characterized so many of his contemporaries, but as a man fired by a vision of Orthodoxy’s ecumenicity.

I will have to listen to the lecture again, to see if I can discern that point as emerging out of Dr. Russell’s narrative. Most of the actual notes I jotted down were more pedestrian in nature; I had known very little about Patriarch Dositheos II of Jerusalem before hearing this lecture, and so I wrote down whatever intriguing facts seemed to me worth remembering. I learned, for instance, that Dositheos wrote against one of my favorite authors, Leo Allatius, the original editor of most of Bekkos’s works, depicting him as someone who “uttered extreme blasphemies against the Eastern Church.” I learned that Dositheos’s Tome of Reconciliation was written against the Council of Florence, that his Tome of Love was written against Baronius, Bellarmine, and others, and that his Tome of Joy took a yet “more shrill” tone, in inveighing against Uniatism as the supreme danger for the Orthodox Church (this at a time when the Ottoman Turks had finally been turned back at the Battle of Vienna, and Western forces, having managed to take back some of Southeastern Europe, were imposing Western ecclesiastical jurisdiction in these territories, e.g., in Transylvania). He wrote a work against papal primacy, which was rebutted by the historian Le Quien (best known as the author of the work Oriens Christianus). He published a number of Palamite texts for the first time. He was pro-Russian, but disapproved of Peter the Great’s ecclesiastical policy. He was ordained a deacon at the age of eleven, and was raised to the office of Patriarch of Jerusalem at the age of 28. Finally, Dr. Russell said, Dositheos should be seen as standing in continuity with the Palamite, anti-unionist writers of the last Byzantine centuries. I suppose that that is a recommendation, though I cannot help thinking that the assessment given by Gerhard Podskalsky, cited by Dr. Russell early in his lecture, remains accurate: “Dositheos is remembered chiefly as a church politician of a high order, and an organizer and patron of Orthodox apologetics against the West.”


Because this is the hottest day New Jersey has seen in nearly a decade, with temperatures approaching 100º Fahrenheit, and there is no air conditioner in my home, I will now leave off reporting the proceedings from last week’s Fordham Conference, and will go seek shelter from the heat wave at the public library.

This Saturday, April 24th, a special program will be aired on WBAI, New York, 99.5 FM, from 2:30 to 5:00 p.m., commemorating the Armenian Genocide. According to the brief notice posted on the WBAI website, the producers of the program are Heidi Boghosian and Zaum Der Taulian. I plan to listen to this show on the radio, and, most likely, record it; for those not in the New York City area, the program can be heard over the Internet on live streaming audio at http://stream.wbai.org/. For those unable to hear it live, the program should be available afterwards at http://archive.wbai.org/.

Is “general confession” a sacrament? If so, when did it become one?

For those who may have no notion of what I am talking about, I refer to the practice wherein a congregation approaches a priest for absolution after the priest has read aloud a general statement of sins and the parishioners have replied with a general acknowledgment of their repentance, couched in the first-person singular. I have never encountered this practice in the Greek Church proper, but it is fairly common in parishes of the OCA, that is, the Orthodox Church in America, the former Russian Metropolia, including the parish which I attend in New Jersey.

This past Sunday, knowing that there would be a large crowd of people, I arrived at church about a half hour before liturgy. At a quarter to the hour, the priest came out from behind the altar and began to read the “Examination of Conscience”: Have I stolen anything, have I lied, have I cheated anyone, have I been negligent in my work, etc. Somewhat half-heartedly, I went downstairs from the choir loft and stood amongst the congregation, hearing the litany of sins and thinking to myself which of them did or did not apply in my own case. I read the prayer of repentance along with everyone else, and got into the line for absolution, although feeling a little uneasy about the whole process, partly because the question with which I began this essay was present in the back of my mind. As usually occurs when there is a general confession, many people simply get into the line when they stroll into the church; on this occasion, a woman I know, a Russian woman who I guess is in her late 50’s, came into the church and, seeing the line, asked if it was a line for communion or for confession; she clearly found the whole thing a bit odd, although, like me, she also got onto the line. The feeling persisted that perhaps I should not be standing in this line, since “whatsoever is not of faith is sin”; but I also felt that to step out of the line would be interpreted as insulting to the priest, and perhaps as meaning that I felt I needed no repentance; so I went through the procedure. I later received communion, did not feel particularly joyous, and, by the end of the liturgy, had fallen into a minor altercation with another member of the choir over some completely trivial matter, which left me feeling depressed and which I shall probably bring up at an actual, auricular confession sometime later this week.

I have to say that I have never felt entirely happy about this practice of general confession. I have never found it to deliver much in the way of a healing of the conscience, if there is something particular weighing upon it; and if there is no particular sin that weighs upon the conscience, what is the point of going through this receiving line? If the point of it is a general acknowledgment of our sinfulness, there is certainly enough of that in the liturgy itself. Although all of us in general are sinners, sin is always a particular phenomenon, and its healing depends upon an acknowledgment of what we have done in our particularity. We sin as persons, not as an anonymous crowd; the practice of general confession, as I have mostly experienced it, far from encouraging genuine repentance, seems rather to encourage a kind of herd mentality: we’ll get into this line because a line is forming, and because not to get onto this line would be to go against what everyone else is doing.

Apparently, the practice of general confession originated in the late nineteenth century, in the ministry of St. John of Kronstadt. The introduction to The Spiritual Counsels of Father John of Kronstadt, edited by W. Jardine Grisbrooke (Cambridge, England and Crestwood, NY, 1967), pp. xxiii f., relates the following:

“This insistence on giving the sacraments their proper place was Father John’s greatest legacy to the Orthodox Church, and to the Russian Church in particular, and it was manifest not only in his teaching, but also in his pastoral practice. I have already remarked upon his daily celebration of the liturgy; he himself said that not to celebrate the liturgy was to him as death. Moreover, in sharp contrast with the prevailing custom of very infrequent communion, he insisted that all who worshipped with him should communicate with him also, and since he could not possibly hear the confessions of the thousands who flocked to his church, he substituted for auricular confession a form of public confession, his congregation confessing their sins one to another—a daring innovation which, however, received divine sanction in a vision granted to a layman present one day in the church, of our Lord stretching his hands out over all the people as Father John gave the general absolution.”

Now, I would point out that, however legitimate the practice of a public confession of sins may have been in the pastoral work of St. John of Kronstadt, “general confession,” as commonly practiced in the OCA, bears little resemblance with this picture: the members of the congregation, present at most general confessions, do not confess their sins to one another; they confess their sins silently to God, and go to receive absolution from the priest individually. Moreover, in most cases the practice is not necessitated by “thousands” flocking to the church (although it may indeed be that considerations of practical expediency have weighed heavily in favor of the adoption of the practice). What the above-cited passage does make clear is that, if a mass form of absolution was deemed necessary in the Russian Church and has not been deemed necessary elsewhere, it is because, in the Russian Church, the common assumption was that a Christian layman was required to go to confession before every reception of holy communion. Such an assumption made frequent reception of holy communion by the whole congregation a practical impossibility, unless some such a mode of “mass confession” were adopted. It seems to me self-evident that that is the original premise for this peculiar custom.

I looked on the Orthodox Wiki this morning to see if I could find an article devoted to the subject of general confession. There isn’t one, but there are links to two very interesting papers by the late Archpriest Alexander Schmemann. One of them is a paper titled “Some reflections on Confession” that was published in the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly in 1961 (vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 38-44); the other is a report by Fr. Schmemann to the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, titled “Confession and Communion,” which was accepted and approved by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America on February 17, 1972. The Holy Synod’s formal statement of approval of Fr. Schmemann’s recommendations is worth citing here:

The Dean of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary and professor of liturgical theology, Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann presented a report on Confession and Communion. The report is attached.

Resolved: 1) That the report of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann is received with gratitude and approbation. 2) That the idea of a renewal in the Eucharistic life in the Church is not only desirable but indispensable. Therefore, practice of more frequent Communion is encouraged in all parishes of our Church. In this connection, and for the purpose of deepening the spirit of repentance among the laity, in addition to individual Confession, practice of General Confessions is also blessed based on the following principles:

  1. As a rule, General Confession takes place in the evening following the evening service. The person wishing to receive Holy Communion must be in Church at least on the eve of Communion. The common practice of Confession just prior to Liturgy is harmful and should be permitted only in very special cases.
  2. General Confession begins with the reading of the “Prayers Before Confession” which in current practice are generally omitted but which, nevertheless, form an organic part of the Sacrament of Confession.
  3. Following the prayers, the priest invites the penitents to pray for a spirit of repentance in order that they might see their own sins without which the formal Confession cannot produce spiritual benefit.
  4. Then follows Confession proper in which the priest enumerates those sins by which in thought and desire we offend God, our neighbor, and ourselves. Since the priest, as all men standing before God, knows sin, and sees his own sinfulness, his enumeration of sins, therefore, is not formal but sincere coming from a humble and contrite spirit. Rather than being a confession of “you” his enumeration of sins comes from “us,” everyone realizing the sin as his own and all are able to repent. The more the priest is able to examine his own conscience the more full will be the confession and the spirit of repentance for all participants.
  5. The priest invites the penitents to direct their spiritual gaze toward the Lord’s banquet which awaits us and which is given to us in spite of our unworthiness.
  6. The priest then invites those who find need for further expression of their sins to stand aside while the remainder approach for the Prayer of Absolution and adoration of the Crucifix.
  7. Finally, after the Prayer of Absolution has been read over each penitent, the prayers in preparation for Holy Communion are read while those wishing to add to their confession approach the Confessional.

Practice reveals that those who participate in this type of General Confession learn to make better private confession. The General Confession is not a replacement of private confession, but is rather for those who commune frequently and who regularly make their private confessions, who realize the need in our times for a regular examination and cleansing of conscience and repentance. This decision of the Holy Synod is intended as a norm and regulation for the performance of General Confession and not simply as a suggestion, recommendation, or advice. Those clergy who ignore this norm and regulation are subject to Canonical Sanctions.

Resolved: To remind the clergy of the instructions previously prepared by the Liturgical Commission and confirmed by the Holy Synod that serving the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom during Great Lent with the exception of Saturdays and Palm Sunday and the serving of Requiem Liturgies on Holy Thursday and Saturday are forbidden.

Resolved: That the report prepared by Fr. Schmemann be reproduced in both Russian and English and be distributed.

Without wanting to be contentious, I would note that what the Synod describes here as “harmful” and as permissible “only in very special cases” is the standard, routine practice at my own parish, that is to say, the practice of holding a general confession just prior to Sunday liturgy. I would also note that the bishops’ injunction, that, if you want to receive communion in the morning, you must attend the service of preparation on the evening before, is not generally observed or even mentioned, either at my own parish or most other places.

I would also note that Fr. Schmemann rejects the premise on which general confession was based in the first place, the premise, namely, that says that confession and absolution is obligatory before every reception of holy communion. In his 1972 essay “Confession and Communion,” approved by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, he wrote the following:

“This practice, and I repeat once more, a natural and self-evident one in the case of infrequent, once-a-year, communion, led to the appearance in the Church of a theory according to which the communion of laity, different in this from the communion of clergy, is impossible without the sacrament of penance, so that confession is an obligatory condition — always and in all cases — for communion. I dare to affirm that this theory (which spread mainly in the Russian Church) not only has no foundation in Tradition, but openly contradicts the Orthodox doctrine of the Church, of the Sacrament of Communion and of that of Penance.”

So, although the view of confession as an obligatory condition for communion is rejected, the practice of general confession, which originally arose in order to allow that obligation to be fulfilled by vast crowds of people, is retained, but with a new justification: the point of general confession is now seen to consist in its serving as a kind of school for the examination of conscience for secularized American Christians who are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as sinners. Its aim is to improve examination of conscience in the private confession itself. As the memo of the Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America states:

“Practice reveals that those who participate in this type of General Confession learn to make better private confession. The General Confession is not a replacement of private confession, but is rather for those who commune frequently and who regularly make their private confessions, who realize the need in our times for a regular examination and cleansing of conscience and repentance.”

But this leaves me still with my original question. If general confession is conceived of as a kind of teaching tool, aimed at educating Christian consciences concerning the reality of sin, and if there is a kind of tacit acknowledgment that, if there are any serious moral and spiritual issues burdening a Christian’s conscience, such issues need to be brought up in a private, auricular confession and not be covered over with this general, all-purpose blanket, can the general, all-purpose blanket really be said to be the same sacrament as the sacrament of confession? Is it, indeed, a sacrament at all? I am not questioning the usefulness and value of getting people to examine their consciences—although I am convinced that, in most cases, the ritual of general confession fails miserably at doing that. I am questioning whether such self-examination, lacking an explicit acknowledgment of particular sins, is a sacrament. If it is, what makes it to be such?

On Physiognomy

March 17, 2010

Aristotle says that thinking does not occur without images (De Anima III.7, 431a17). In support of this observation, I would note my own curious habit, when reading, to form mental pictures of persons whom I have never seen and of whose appearance I actually have no notion. Often these mental pictures are later found to bear little resemblance to reality. Orthodox iconography appeals to this natural human tendency by presenting standard ways of representing people: St. Paul is always represented as balding and dark-haired, with a dark beard, a somewhat thin man, as befits a scholar; St. Peter is usually shown with a full head of greying, curly hair and a short, curly beard, a stocky, muscular man, as befits a fisherman. The Three Great Hierarchs have their own recognizable physiognomies; no one familiar with Orthodox iconography would confuse an image of St. Basil the Great with an image of St. Gregory the Theologian, or, again, an image of either of them with one of St. John Chrysostom. It is possible that these iconographic traditions go back to portraits drawn from life; it is also possible that, in some cases, they are imaginary representations. Whether the iconographic tradition of representing female saints is as well developed as this, I would not venture to say; I can recognize an image of St. Xenia of St. Petersburg from afar and can differentiate it from, say, an image of St. Mary of Egypt or from an icon of St. Macrina, more however because of their respective manners of dress than from their physiognomies as such.

So what do I imagine people like John Bekkos, Gregory of Cyprus, George Metochites, Constantine Meliteniotes, George Moschabar, the Emperor Michael Palaiologos, and all the rest of the characters I am engaged in studying looked like?

I used to think that Gregory of Cyprus looked like Vice President Dick Cheney with a beard. That is to say, someone with an ingrained scowl, someone whose long experience in secret dealings behind other’s backs to overthrow political and personal enemies had left recognizable traces upon the face that God gave him, leaving a kind of public testimony to a life shaped by arrogance and resentment. I have no way of demonstrating the truth of this intuition, and probably if I were better versed in the Cypriot’s own writings I would have to revise this picture in various ways, but I am simply stating for the record how I have imagined his appearance.

Is it not a remarkable thing how the mind shapes the body? If one looks at a picture of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy and compares it to a picture of Rush Limbaugh, does one not detect a certain spiritual resemblance: the pudginess of the face, the beadiness of the eyes? One would think that holding certain political views for long periods of time effected changes in one’s bodily structure: the eyes and brain shrink from lack of use, the jowls expand….

What about Bekkos? I am not sure. There is a representation of him made by an anonymous artist in the seventeenth century to accompany Jacques Goar’s Euchologion; some months ago I scanned this image and added it to the Wikipedia article on Bekkos. The image shows a medieval Greek bishop, holding the wide-brimmed hat then in use, leaning slightly backward on his episcopal staff, as if poised either to declaim against some injustice or perhaps to hurl the said episcopal staff down on the ground in a fit, as Bekkos once did in the presence of the Emperor Michael when the latter refused to pardon a man. The expression on his face is somewhat ambiguous, and might even be read as a smile, but more likely it is an expression of defiance in response to some affront or to some egregious statement of untruth. The dramatic poise suggests that the artist was acquainted with the acting conventions of seventeenth-century Italian opera.

I have no idea if this image looks anything like Bekkos’s actual appearance. It conveys a certain type: an image of a Greek bishop, forthrightly glaring at his foes, passionately rejecting the perpetuation of Christian division. In some ways, that is all that an image of a person one has never seen can be expected to do: to give a visual representation of the fundamental idea that shaped the person’s life. The image serves as a kind of play actor. One does not have to see a production of the play King Lear to know that the leading role has to be performed by a man who can convey both authority and instability at the same time. An image of King Lear is already present in our minds before we see Richard Burton or whoever else performs the role on stage take it upon himself for a certain season. And few people can actually perform this role convincingly because, quite simply, few of us have the internal resources of character to represent greatness. There are few things more pathetic than to see a convention of Lincoln impersonators, men who think that, by merely donning a beard and a stovepipe hat, they can cover the mediocrity of their own lives and represent this man to other people. One cannot put on a love of justice and truth quite so easily as a hat and a beard; without that, the external representation rings hollow.

Whatever the external lineaments of John Bekkos’s face, it is clear to me that a love of justice and truth formed part of the internal lineaments of his mind and heart; given the nature of things, these internal lineaments probably manifested themselves upon his countenance in some way eventually. It is also fairly clear that the man had his limitations: at the show trial of early 1283, he consented to sign a document condemning his own teaching, and much of the final years of his life are marked by an unmistakable sense of bitterness towards the man who succeeded him as Patriarch of Constantinople. For myself, I do not make Bekkos my “idol,” as one reader of this blog charged earlier this year. I see Bekkos as someone, first of all, whose thought I would like to understand, since the fundamental problem which he confronted, the problem of Christian division, has not gone away; I presume to think that, as he analyzed the causes of this problem carefully and at great length, I might learn something from him. I altogether doubt that the solution for all the problems faced by Christianity in the present world, or even for the specific problem of Christian disunion, is to be found in a reenactment of the Union of Lyons. And I similarly doubt that, for many of the spiritual issues that confront me personally, John Bekkos has all that much to say; anyone who thinks that one can receive adequate spiritual nourishment by reading a steady diet of polemics over the Filioque issue surely has some self-examination to do. But I believe that Bekkos was an honest man, and an intelligent reader of the fathers, who rightly, I think, pointed out that the position of most of the early Greek fathers of the Church on the subject of the Holy Spirit’s procession was not as absolutely inimical to the Latin Church’s position on this subject as Photius and his followers represented it, and continue to represent it. And I also think that the debate between Bekkos and his opponents had important implications for the direction Byzantine theology would take in the next generation; questions of how the divine presence and activity in us are to be understood were already being argued over by Bekkos, Melitentiotes, and Metochites, on the one hand, and men like George Moschabar and Gregory of Cyprus, on the other. Both as an historian and as a Christian, I would like to understand the terms of that debate, and see how it unfolded.

So, in brief, while I do not have in my mind a clear picture of what Bekkos looked like, a photographic image is not the point of my reading him. One reads authors in order to perceive the truth that they perceived, and to be shaped internally by it. It would of course help me in my studies if I had a clearer mental picture of the streets of Constantinople in the late thirteenth century, of daily life, of the ritual of the imperial court, of what it was like to attend a liturgy in Hagia Sophia in the days before it became a mosque. My understanding of these things is necessarily limited, in part by the fact that I live seven hundred years later. But perhaps it is just as well that we don’t see the past with perfect vision; perhaps it would cause us to forget that life is actually lived in the present, and one emulates the life of the righteous, not by wearing the same clothes, but by serving the same God, who is the ever-living source of life to all.

Ware lecture postponed

February 12, 2010

I drove down to Maryland on Monday, meaning to attend a lecture that was to be given on Tuesday, February 9th at the Catholic University of America by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware titled “An Insider’s View: Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue Today.” As it turned out, because of the blizzard which hit the Northeast this week, the lecture did not take place; it has been rescheduled for Tuesday, February 16th, at 6:30 p.m. in Caldwell Auditorium, after a prayer service and a reception in the same building (4:30 and 5:30 respectively). Since snow is again forecast for Washington, D.C. next Monday, I would advise anyone who plans to attend the event to call Eastern Christian Publications beforehand to make sure that the lecture is still going to be held (703-691-8862). As to whether I shall drive down a second time to attend it, I remain undecided.

By the Still Waters

January 21, 2010

The Spirit of Orthodoxy Choir, in which I have been singing, as a bass/barytone, for the past year and a half, has come out with a double CD, titled By the Still Waters. CDs can be ordered at the Spirit of Orthodoxy website, for $21 till the end of March 2010, and for $24.95 thereafter.

Chains of St. Peter

January 16, 2010

The story of St. Peter’s deliverance from the prison in Jerusalem, where he was held bound with two chains between two soldiers, is told in the Book of Acts, ch. 12. It is said that an angel came by, whacked him on his side while he was sleeping, told him to be quiet and to follow him, and led him out of his cell, past the prison guards and through the prison gates; passing a corner, the angel left Peter alone; only then, when he was out on the street by himself, did he realize that all this was real and not a dream. He headed directly for the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where the disciples were gathered and were praying for him; there he stood and knocked on the outside gate. Every time I read this story I am reminded of the home that belonged to Fr. Martin Ritsi, now the director of the Orthodox Missions Center in St. Augustine, Florida, when he and his family lived in Tirana, Albania in the 1990’s, and I was an Orthodox missionary there; like all the homes in that dusty neighborhood, his small front yard was enclosed with a fence and metal gate, and, when visiting his home, one had to ring the doorbell at the gate and hope that someone inside would hear it. Since the doorbell, like most things in Albania in those days, did not always work properly, one had to be very persistent in pressing the button, and sometimes, abandoning technology, one had to bang loudly on the gate until someone inside would hear. I often think about that gate when I read about St. Peter and the little girl Rhoda, who was so thrilled to learn that Peter was standing out in the street that she forgot to open the door.

The time of Peter’s arrest can be determined fairly closely; it must be placed between the years 41 and 44 A.D.: that is, between the return of Herod Agrippa to Judaea from Rome following the death of the Emperor Caligula, and Herod’s own death a few years later. (Luke states that this arrest occurred in the days leading up to Passover; perhaps it would make sense to place this scene in February or March of the year 42.) The immediate political background to the persecution of the Church that took place during these years is succinctly described by W.H.C. Frend in his book The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia 1984), p. 90:

“In 41-42 other significant events occurred. While the Christians were expanding their influence, Palestine had experienced a series of incidents that foreshadowed the breakdown of relations between Jews and Romans that took place a quarter of a century later. During the winter of 39-40 the Jews in Jamnia destroyed an altar erected by the pagan Greek minority in the town. News of this event reached the emperor Caligula, and as a punishment he ordered that a gilded statue of himself should be set up in the Temple. Rome was moving away from the Jewish alliance, but for the Jews this step, reminiscent of a similar move by the Seleucid Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was intolerable. Very many (Philo suggests ‘thousands’) were prepared to commit suicide or allow themselves to be killed by the Romans rather than acquiesce in this ‘abomination of desolation.’ They found a sympathetic advocate in Publius Petronius, the legate of Syria, who managed to postpone carrying out the order at some personal risk. At Rome, Herod Agrippa, a grandson of Herod I, who in 37 had been appointed tetrarch of the dominions of Philip and Lysanias (Upper Galilee, Abilene, and parts of Lebanon) managed to get the order rescinded. Caligula’s murder on 24 January 41 prevented its renewal. Agrippa returned to Palestine determined to represent his people to the uttermost within the bounds of client-kingship. His territories had been enlarged to include Jerusalem and Judea and he had been granted the title of king. Jerusalem became his capital and the Sadducean high priesthood his allies. ‘No day passed for him without the prescribed sacrifice,’ commented Josephus. He appointed a new high priest, ordered those who had taken a Nazarite vow to display this by having their heads shorn, and turned on the Christians. ‘He killed James the brother of John with the sword; and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also’ (Acts 12:2-3). The first organized persecution of the church had broken out.”

In other words, as political tensions began to rise between Judea and Rome, and as the newly appointed governor of Judea, King Herod Agrippa, sought to win favor with his subjects, he encouraged religious uniformity; dissident groups like the Christians, who were critical of the Sadducean high priesthood, were an easy target for persecution.

I sometimes wonder why there is no traditional Orthodox icon commemorating St. Peter’s escape from prison, although the feast of the Chains of St. Peter is celebrated on January 16th, in the East as in the West. For that matter, traditional iconography seems to neglect a whole range of biblical material. The only scenes in the Book of Acts commonly represented in traditional Eastern Christian art are the ascension of Christ into heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles at Pentecost. (Perhaps occasionally one sees images of St. Paul being let down outside the walls of Damascus in a basket.) Even the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus is depicted only infrequently. And as for depictions of events in the Old Testament, they are even rarer. Why is this?

In the case of the feast of the Chains of St. Peter, I recall reading that it began to be celebrated in the Eastern Church in the sixth century, after the healing of the Acacian Schism in 519. It may simply be that the feast never had a very important place in the Byzantine calendar, whereas, in Rome, Peter’s chains are housed in a basilica (San Pietro in Vincoli, first built in the fifth century), so it is not surprising that the feast should have a more important place there.

This still does not explain, however, why other scenes from the lives of the apostles are not represented more often in Orthodox iconography. It makes me wonder: is it that they are simply too pedestrian? There is nothing terribly awe-inspiring about Peter standing out in a cold street in the small hours of the morning, waiting for a little girl to open the door; it is hard to envision such a scene in hieratic poses, against an atemporal background of uncreated light.

In other words, the icon is, perhaps, misunderstood if it is viewed as primarily a historical image. It is, one may say, primarily a theological image, something whose function is to teach a theological truth. But, does theological truth ignore history? If so, why not throw out most of the Acts of the Apostles and the Old Testament?

But perhaps my view of Byzantine art is skewed by the fact that I am looking at it from the vantage point of an American in the early twenty-first century; I am, perforce, given a certain idea of it by the things that I have seen in churches that I have been to and in books that I have read. If I were living in the eighth or tenth or fourteenth century, and had other icons or illuminated texts in front of me, perhaps I would have a significantly different picture of what Christians of those times saw as important and worth communicating by way of visual art.