CLOUD OF WITNESSES
Sanctity and Modernity Practices of Veneration Visualizing Holiness
ISSUE 7 | FALL 2016
ISSUE 7 | FALL 2016
CLOUD OF WITNESSES 5 Sanctity and Saints Denis Kostomarov
9 The Lives and Afterlives of St. John of Kronstadt Nadieszda Kizenko
17 Tanqilria Tanqilrianun / Holy Things for the Holy: Society and Sanctity among the Yup’ik People Christopher Sprecher
23 When the Saints Go Marching In Stavros Winner
THE CHURCH ACROSS TIME 30 Byzantine Studies, Iconoclasm, and the Rise of Islam Aristeides Papadakis
EARS TO HEAR, EYES TO SEE 35 Kythira’s Byzantine Heritage: The Church of St. Demetrius in Pourko Sergei Brun
IN THE NINTH TONE 43 The Tale of the Wayward Priest Ryan McDaniel
FROM THE ARCHIVES 44 Mother Maria Skobtsova Elisabeth Behr-Sigel
OUT OF CRETE 53 Discerning the Mystery of the Church: Reflections on a Document of the Council of Crete Dragoş Andrei Giulea
POETRY DESK 58 St. Gregory Nazianzen John McGuckin
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Editorial Board Inga Leonova Michael Berrigan Clark Timothy Scott Clark Joseph Clarke Gregory Tucker
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Graphic Designer Anastasia Semash
Visit us at www.wheeljournal.com or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cover image: Dome of the Chapel of St. Demetrios, Church of St. Demetrios, Pourko, Greece. Photo by Sergei Brun
Fractio Panis (сelebratiion of the Eucharist), second century, the catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy.
CLOUD OF WITNESSES
Sanctity and Saints Denis Kostomarov Every day of the church year is marked by the memory of saints. We come across references to the saints in the pages of Scripture. We celebrate the memory of the apostles, the martyrs, the righteous reverend, holy bishops, pious rulers, and so on. Local churches themselves perform canonizations with various frequency. But, as often happens in the history of theology, the meaning of holiness, of what is meant by “you are a holy nation,” has been transformed since the apostolic era. In this short theological reflection, I want to explore the reshaping of this term across the life of the Church and in Christian practice in order to come to a better appreciation of how to apply the concept of holiness in our contemporary lives. Holiness, first of all, is an attempt to understand the reality of death for a Christian. Today, we feel a tragic line between the world of the living and the spiritual world of the dead, where The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
we have the saints as our “patrons” and seek their prayers for ourselves. But is this the same understanding of death as in early Christianity, which was marked by a living memory of the risen Christ? Among the early Christians, who still had a vivid recollection of their risen Lord, death was not comprehended this way.
1 Cf. Alexander Schmemann, Литургия смерти и современная культура (Moscow: Granat, 2014).
Attitudes toward death in the New Testament and in the early Christian literature and culture bear the impression of Easter. In the graves of catacombs we encounter numerous inscriptions reading, “he is alive,” or “she is alive.”1 “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” exclaims Paul (Phil. 1:21). The martyr Ignatius of Antioch implores his readers, “Do not interrupt me; let me become the food of the wild beasts, through which I will find my God. I am the Lord’s wheat, and the teeth of the beasts will cut me into pieces to become the pure bread of Christ.”2 This understanding of death was common in 5
the early Church. Death had been consumed and overcome by Jesus Christ; hell was destroyed. Death was not the end of a life, but the connection with life in Christ. This connection began at the moment of baptism, when a person shed his shabby clothes and died with Jesus to be resurrected with him.
Great martyr Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians. http://aleteia.narod. ru/ignat/efes.htm.
Cf. Hegumen Andronik Trubachev, “Канонизация святых в Русской Православной Церкви” in Orthodox Encyclopedia (Moscow: Православная энциклопедия, 2000).
In subsequent years, the Church took a momentous step backward, returning death once again to the defeated devil. Christianity had transformed the funeral sob into a triumphant “Alleluia,” but could not endure the contrast between this transformational aspiration and a sad and difficult world. In response, an infinite and incomprehensible discussion of “posthumous fate” and of the “other world” began. Step by step, the basic motive of Christian prayers for the dead became obsessive and fearful requests for indulgence, mercy, and forgiveness, as though a cup of human love would be more complete than the depthless eucharistic cup of Christ’s love. Christians of the early Church commonly used variations of the word saints for themselves not as an honorific, but as descriptive of their reality as a community that had been set apart by God. For example, Christians are labeled as a “holy nation” in 1 Peter 2:9, not because of their inherent impeccability but owing to their belonging to Christ and their commission to demonstrate God’s designs for the world. Paul begins many of his letters with a reference to “holy brothers” in Rome, Colossae, Ephesus, Philippi, or Corinth. Knowing that Paul’s letters were often occasioned by conflicts and troubles in young communities, we can confidently say that his attribution of “holiness” to these “brothers and sisters” did not mean that they were
extraordinary or unusual people. The understanding which Paul and the young Church brought to the term holy becomes clear if we open the Old Testament and look at its meaning there. The Hebrew word qadosh stands for “separate,” or “detached,” denoting a person or thing that either belongs to God or is able to withstand close proximity to God. Although there were “not many wise, not many powerful, not many noble” (1 Cor. 1:26) among the members of the young communities, they still belonged to Christ, and were consequently set apart from their surroundings, even if this was not visibly obvious to the non-Christians around them. Because of this belonging and the community’s unique understanding of death, an unusual comprehension of life and holiness becomes clear. Christians may be imperfect and commit sins, but their inseparability from God’s love leaves them unalterably holy. As becomes painfully evident in the further history of Christian theology, this understanding was gradually eclipsed, and it has guided us to the modern condition where it is difficult to imagine using the endonym “holy” in relation to ourselves without being indicted for either pride, delusion, or both. In order to really comprehend this, we have to consider the phenomenon known as canonization. In the current practice of the Orthodox Church, personal canonization is preceded by a comprehensive study of the life of an ascetic and can reveal a number of facts relevant to a person’s elevation to sainthood.3 Saints may be widely venerated by at least local Christian communities, be certified to have performed miracles, or have left behind incorruptible relics (incorruptibility of remains is not a prerequisite to the canonization in all of the local Churches; for example, in monastic communities of Mount Athos
The myrrh-bearing women and the angel on the tomb. Byzantine miniature.
Yevgeny Golubinskiy, История канонизации святых в Русской Церкви, 2nd edition (Moscow, 1903), 13.
the attitude toward incorruptibility is very cautious). In the Roman Catholic Church the canonization process is even more complicated and takes place in two stages: canonization is preceded by translation to the ranks of the beatified (from the Latin beatus, meaning “happy” or “blessed”), and only after that does the Church advance a person to canonization. Canonization was not always so complex. Universal veneration of the apostles and other apostolic figures encompassed a broad range of cities and communities. Old Testament patriarchs and prophets were commemorated as forerunners of the Savior. The Eucharist was celebrated on the graves of Christians, emphasizing the paradox of the life of the dead and the continuation of their involvement in the practice of serving their communities. But with the beginning of the persecutions, a new attitude took root regarding Christians who remained loyal to their Lord in the face of threats to their lives and well-being. They received the name witnesses (“martyrs,” from the Greek martys). Such veneration was recorded in writing in the The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
fourth century by composing lists of recognized martyrs; in these lists, the date of a martyr’s death was also the date of her birth in Christ. At that time, the veneration of ascetics was a matter for a local community and its bishop, and was understood to concern the Eucharistic life of the Church and the unity of all Christians in Christ. An issue that seems very important to us today—canonization as the assurance of Christian salvation—was not central for early Christian communities. In time, this situation changed. After the Edict of Milan began the process of converting Christianity into the favored religion of the Roman Empire, the Church was filled by many people who wished to be part of the new religious order, yet clearly only a small minority were personally interested in pursuing a Christian path. The great expansion of formal Christianity altered attitudes toward death and holiness; the practice of Christian life in the new legal regime often stood in sharp contradiction with the teachings of the Church and with the ethical maxims of the New Testament. Nominal Christians could hardly be called “saints,” 7
even by the logic of the Apostle Paul, as they were no longer separated from the fallen world. In many cases, Christians now differed from non-Christians merely by having been baptized. In fact, many new Church members did not show their faith in their deeds, opting simply to make it formal, observing the required rituals and following the necessary traditions. The belief that the victory of Christ over death and hell was gifted even to these Christians disappeared from practical theology. The attention of apologists and hierarchs was diverted from intellectual opposition to the pagan world to critique of the internal theological and disciplinary problems of the institutional church.
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These developments notwithstanding, it should be noted that the joyful attitude to death still persisted for a long time. We can look at a remarkable figure given by Professor E. E. Golubinski: of the seventy-four hierarchs of the see of Constantinople between 315 and 1340, only twenty-five are known not to have been canonized (and eighteen of these were, in fact, heretical).4 Golubinski’s statistic demonstrates that, during the first millennium, those who died within the walls of Church were regularly venerated as “saints,” even if the expression
of this veneration was reoriented away from regular individual Christians to the highest Church authorities. The theological postulate of Christ’s victory over death and hell causes an Easter light to radiate from the pages of the New Testament, the theology of the apostolic fathers, and the liturgical worship and quotidian practices of the early Christian communities. This belief framed the death of any of the brothers and sisters as an entrance to a quiet and joyful life in Christ and stemmed naturally from their life in the Church. Canonization was not understood, at first, in relation to arguments about “post-mortem” salvation, but as a natural veneration of Christians whose lives were particularly exemplary and edifying for Church members. This veneration was directly related to the Eucharist: the letters of the apostles were read as Holy Scripture and the Liturgy was often celebrated in the catacombs on the graves of the dead members of the communities or on the graves of the martyrs. The changing of this attitude toward death and sanctity coincided with the beginning of numerous other crises in the life of the Church: its worldliness, dipping into speculative theology, decline of liturgical life, and clericalization.
The Rev. Denis Kostomarov is a 2010 graduate of the Belgorod Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has taught as professor of religious history in the Oryol State Institute of Economics and Commerce and served as rector and director of diocesan youth ministries at St. Matrona’s Church in Oryol, Russia. He is currently vice director of the Youth Department of the Oryol Metropolitan District.
Cross procession at Sura, Archangelsk, 2015.
CLOUD OF WITNESSES
The Lives and Afterlives of St. John of Kronstadt Nadiеszda Kizenko That saints are products of not only the societies that they lived in but also the ones they continue to engage, is by now a truism. It is not only a matter of making it into the menaia and once in, always in. Servicebooks can be altered. To use the metaphor of a modern museum, just as it is possible to enter the collection, so it is possible to be deaccessioned or put in storage, rarely to see the light of day. It is not simply a matter of pursuing historical accuracy, although that can play a role. In the early seventeenth century, the Bollandists worked to identify the most reliable sources on Roman Catholic saints in the process of compiling the Acta Sanctorum. In the process, they began noting points The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
of difficulty. One result of that historical impulse came much later, in 1969, when ninety-three saints—including St. Christopher—were removed from the universal calendar. The issue that St. John of Kronstadt (1829–1908) raises is of a different nature. He was extraordinarily tied to the imperial Russian society in which he lived. Born into a poor sacristan’s family in the remote village of Sura in the northern province of Arkhangelsk, he managed to enter the elite Theological Academy in St. Petersburg. His 1855 ordination happened to coincide with Alexander II’s Great Reforms, which sought to modernize Russia and engage more of society. Father John was part of this turning outward, which 9
ment, however, St. John allied himself with the politics of the far right. He called for the killing of revolutionaries (“as Moses did with the rebels at Mount Sinai”) and blessed the banners of the Union of the Russian People.1 Political neutrality about Father John was no longer possible: liberals squirmed, rightists hailed him as a prophet, and radicals branded him as representing everything they hated about the Orthodox Church. How one felt about him became a simple way to gauge where one stood on relations between church and state, Tsar and revolution, priests and people, men and women.
John of Kronstadt’s portrait in his St. Petersburg apartment.
1 The Union of Russian People (URP) (Russian: Союз Русского Народа, translit. Soyuz Russkogo Naroda (СРН/ SRN) was a loyalist extreme right nationalist political party, the most important among Black-Hundredist monarchist political organizations in the Russian Empire between 1905 and 1917. - Ed. 2 I explore St. John in historical context at greater length in A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000). 3 Sergei Chapnin, “They Never Met: Church and Civil Society in PresentDay Russia,” The Wheel 1 (Spring 2015): 13–21; Церковь в постсоветской России: возрождение, качество веры, диалог с обществом (Moscow: Arefa, 2009).
included creating shelters, developing employment programs, and encouraging the temperance movement. Yet he went beyond these practical measures. He served ecstatically, exhorting the faithful to partake of the Eucharist more often. So many people sought to take communion from him that the Church hierarchy allowed him to hold mass public confessions. His reputation for healing brought him national fame and established Kronstadt as one of the leading pilgrimage sites in the Russian empire. He became the first modern Russian religious celebrity, with his image on souvenir scarves, mugs, placards, and postcards. In 1894, when he was asked to minister to the dying emperor Alexander III, his fame became international, attracting correspondents from Europe and the United States. To this point, Father John’s successful combination of social service, liturgical revival, charismatic prayer, and healing, seemed to embody the answer of the Russian Orthodox Church to the challenges of secularism, urbanism, and sectarianism. With the rise of terrorism and the revolutionary move-
This “barometric” quality only continued to grow after Father John’s death at the end of 1908. The revolutions of 1917, the Soviet policy of official atheism, the émigré experience and Father John’s 1964 canonization by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, perestroika, the 1988 millennial anniversary of Christianity in Rus’, his canonization in Russia in 1990—all of these forces created new versions of St. John that corresponded to new social and political conditions. Although the practice of altering vitae to suit historical circumstances is nearly as old as hagiography itself, the pace of change in Russia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries makes his case unique.2 It is therefore instructive to reflect on how St. John of Kronstadt’s veneration has evolved in Russia since his canonization in 1990. Russia has changed significantly in the past twenty-five years. So has the Russian Orthodox Church. Sergei Chapnin has described that process, in this journal and elsewhere.3 What, if anything, have these changes meant for the posthumous career of a supremely Russian saint? Some of these developments were predictable. Since St. John’s 1990 canon-
ization more than sixty new churches or altars have been dedicated to him in Russia alone. In 1999, the Kronstadt flat in which St. John lived from 1855 to 1908, and which had been turned into a communal apartment in the Soviet period, was partially restored and officially registered as a memorial museum.4 St. John has joined the roster of the biographical book series Lives of Remarkable People.5 Two things are particularly telling, however. First is the extensive activity of the so-called “John Family” headed by Archpriest Nikolai Beliaev, priest of the parish linked to the Karpovka Convent in St. Petersburg founded by St. John in 1900.6 Second is the elaborate 2015 commemoration of the twentyfith anniversary of the saint’s canonization, which included a pilgrimage by rail from the Karpovka convent to St. John’s birthplace in the village of Sura. Taken together, the “Family” and the commemorative pilgrimage embody the mixed legacy of the saint in present-day Russia.
The Family has its origins in St. John’s own House of Industry. The parish formed around the St. Petersburg convent where St. John is buried, and the group that organized the anniversary jubilee follows its founder’s tradition of social work. With over thirty separate charitable groups, its activity spans everything from coordinating prayer to elder care, medical assistance, legal support, childcare, Sunday school, finding work, car service, computer consultation, and home repair. This kind of large-scale grassroots activity and initiative, impossible under communism, is something new for Russian parishes. In the reach of its activity and in its success, the Family would seem to be a socially active, vibrant parish, a contemporary version of St. John’s own House of Industry. It would seem to offer a promising model to other parishes in Russia seeking to revive the tradition of Christian mutual aid. But Father Nikolai’s situation is unique. He is able to operate as freely as he does because, unlike most parish priests, he
4 www.leushino/ kvartira (this and all other links cited here last accessed August 10, 2016). 5
Mikhail Odintsov, Иоанн Кронштадтский (Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 2014).
The Family website is pravprihod.ru
Confession at Sura pilgrimage.
The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
does not have go to through the usual hierarchy of dean, archbishop, synod. He answers directly to the Patriarch, who fully supports his initiatives. It is thus perhaps fitting that the body most closely reflecting the community outreach and spiritual sustenance of St. John himself is as unique, and as uniquely privileged, as was the saint for whom it is named. The 2015 pilgrimage organized by the “Big John Family” to commemorate the canonization of their hero, by contrast, makes clear the differences between Orthodox piety and commemoration in imperial Russia and the Russia of the present. During St. John’s lifetime, Kronstadt was a leading pilgrimage site. Pilgrimages to Kronstadt were mass occasions, especially during Great Lent. The pilgrimage of June 2015 was different. For two years, the parish raised over twelve million rubles to fund a pilgrimage by rail for anyone connected to St. John parishes or causes to Sura, the village where St. John was born. They successfully competed for Mini kliros in chapel car on John of Kronstadt’s pilgrimage train.
a major grant given annually to projects boosting Russian patriotism. They made a movie about their hero. They printed icons, brochures, bookmarks, and briefcases. They got the support of the mayor of St. Petersburg, the mayor of Kronstadt, the governor of Arkhangelsk, and Patriarch Kirill himself. Priests as far afield as Pakistan, Indonesia,and Nebraska, teachers raised as orphans in Chile, archimandrites and abbesses from war-torn Ukraine—all rode in the chartered train like Chaucer’s pilgrims, praying together and sharing their stories. As on all good pilgrimages, we had plenty of time for both. We woke to a loudspeaker reading morning prayers and either went to sleep or to the café car after hearing evening prayers. In between, each wagon took turns going to akathist services in the church car, which, with its altar and icon-stands and swinging oil lamps, could hold only fifty people. Every few hours the train made a whistle-stop to be greeted by Russian locals bringing the traditional gift of bread and salt. Pretty girls in kerchiefs held placards and banners with images of their saintly hero, brass bands played patriotic tunes, local notables made speeches of welcome, and more pretty young women in national costume danced as older women sang. Then the 250 clerics and hierarchs led the faithful in a short prayer before hopping back on the train. Besides the prayers, in between cups of tea and vegan meals, there were conversations lasting till two or three in the morning. The white nights were in full swing, and the sky over Arkhangelsk never went dark. In the daytime people talked in all the languages they knew about turning points in their lives, and what had brought them to the saint they had come to honor. At night the more daring monastic millennials crept out
Restored Dormition Cathedral, Sura, 2015.
of their sleeping cars, shed their black robes and stiff hats, brought out their Jameson’s Irish whiskey, Soviet champagne and smoked fish, sang songs, and remembered riotous days before tonsure at age twenty-three. (“So I make my decision to become monk, and then this girl I barely know posts on social networks that I’m ‘looking for a relationship.’”) The pilgrims then drove over dirt roads and pontoons to the village of Sura, St. John’s birthplace, where Patriarch Kirill, who flew in by helicopter, joined them Sunday morning for Liturgy followed by fairs and folk-singing. The dirt roads, the absence of running water, and the tent city of individual pilgrims evoked both the conditions of St. John’s early life and the timeless aspect of every pilgrimage. But there were some differences. The first was numbers. If in St. John’s lifetime both he and Orthodox Christianity drew millions of Russians, and if at his 1990 canonization it seemed as if they might again, the number of pracThe Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
ticing faithful is now minuscule. The pilgrimage organizers acknowledged as much, calling their pilgrimage a missionary effort seeking to remind Russia that St. John existed.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997). See also God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002).
In this way, the commemorative pilgrimage expressed the position Pope Benedict articulated in interviews with the German journalist Peter Seewald. In those conversations, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger mused that, “Perhaps we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world.”7 The discrepancy between the scale of the veneration Father John received at the height of his fame in his lifetime and the sort he receives now is a Russian version of such “remnant” theology. With a few exceptions, like papal visits, the era of mass appeal, of large numbers, whether Roman Catholic or 13
then find, sometimes to their own surprise, that saints and sites offer more than they thought possible. They want to experience again, or experience in more depth, what Stella Rock calls the “unexpected pull of the holy.”8
Stella Rock, “Seeking out the Sacred: Grace and Place in Contemporary Russian Pilgrimage,” Modern Greek Studies Yearbook 28/9 (2012/13): 193–218. Compare this perspective to that of Jeanne Kormina, “Abtobusniki: Russian Orthodox Pilgrims’ Longing for Authenticity,” in Eastern Christians in Anthropological Perspective, ed. Chris Harris and Hermann Goltz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 287–86, and Christine D. Worobec, “Commentary: The Coming of Age of Eastern Orthodox Pilgrimage Studies,” Modern Greek Studies Yearbook 28/9 (2012/13): 219–236.
Post-communion at Sura pilgrimage.
Russian Orthodox, is gone. In its place, people create different pilgrimage practices. On the one hand, the commemorative 2015 pilgrimage to St. John seemed a well-funded, well-crafted, socially-networked opportunity for small numbers of dedicated faithful to celebrate their devotion to the saint and to reach out to Russian society. But, as in other variants of contemporary Russian pilgrimage, it had some less well-crafted results. First-time pilgrims might be motivated by imagined heritage tourism or help during personal crisis—and
What role does the Eucharist play in these pilgrimages? Perhaps the most telling difference between the pilgrimages to Kronstadt in Father John’s lifetime and the one from St. Petersburg to Sura in 2015 is the approach to Eucharistic theology and to confession and communion. In Father John’s lifetime, despite his desire for more frequent communion on the part of his flock, pilgrimages to Kronstadt remained clustered during the Lenten periods when Russians traditionally went to communion, and in Great Lent in particular. The mass confessions he introduced were the one of the few solutions he could devise in response to the conundrum of having govienie— the combination of a minimum of three days of fasting, church attendance, and confession—be a necessary prelude to the Eucharist. (Written confessions and blessing his spiritual children to go to communion without confession were among the other, more unusual ones.)
The 2015 pilgrimage found a different solution. When the pilgrims reached their final destination in Sura and almost all wished to partake of the Eucharist, priests heard individual confessions not only in church during services, but also in the open air throughout the streets of the village, between the convent church and the cathedral. There were special confession tents, confession booths, confessions in front of wooden huts, confessional conversations. But there was no communion without confession, and all of the confessions were individual, “auricular.” For, in contemporary Russian practice, as in the days of St. John, one cannot partake of the Eucharist without having first gone to confession, read lengthy prayer rules, fasted for several days, and abstained from food and drink from midnight. Although there may be exceptions—for devout, truly “enchurched” parishioners at the discretion of their father-confessor, or for others during the week after Pascha— still, “confession is an inextricable part of preparation for communion.”9 By providing all these conditions as well as providing access to a shrine, Russian pilgrimages offer a unique temporal space to take part in the sacraments. But they are also an occasion to ponder on Eucharistic theology inside and outside Russia, and on St. John’s own Eucharistic legacy. St. John found his own sustenance in the Eucharist, and sought to have his flock do the same. When he—daringly— turned to face the flock saying, “Come, drink ye all of it,” this reminded those present that they, too, were expected to take part in the eucharistic celebration.10 In his sermons, he linked spiritual health to the reception of the Eucharist. He broke with contemporary practice, occasionally permitting menstruating The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
women and both men and women he knew with little formal preparation. A more frequent participation in communion was perhaps St. John’s most important contribution to Russian piety. Both the change in standards of “proper” reception, which had previously discouraged frequent communion as potentially leading to diminished reverence for the sacrament, and the revival of Eucharistic theology in the Russian tradition, may be traced to this quiet revolution. Indeed, with respect to both their intimate personal journals and their emphasis on more frequent communion, one might even argue that St. John of Kronstadt was the forefather of the late Father Alexander Schmemann.11 But St. John left another legacy, one that has come to the forefront more in the last few years than it did when he was canonized in Russia twenty-six years ago. This is the political aspect of Orthodoxy in Russia. In this sense, the 2015 pilgrimage had more in common with the revolutionary last years of St. John’s life than it did with the early years of perestroika when he was canonized. If in 1990 the hymns to St. John emphasized his social service and his local roots, some of messages in the film produced by the “Big John Family” for the commemoration of his canonization were as political as any the saint preached in his last years.12 Of the four refrigerator magnets for sale in St. John’s former apartment, one features a quotation that mentions Jesus; three mention Russia. In his sermon at the canonization commemoration, Patriarch Kirill told the thousands in attendance that St. John saw “the decline of morals, the dissolution of the elites, the departure from the faith of those who should protect it, including those in the entourage of the autocrat. . . . We must pray to him to avert the dangers facing our Fatherland.”
K. Glizhinskii, Из объятий умирающей бурсы в горнило жизни (Ekaterinburg, 1912), 68. Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (Crestwood: St. Vladimir Press, 2003). For the tradition of priests’ diaries in imperial Russia, see Laurie Manchester, “The Diary of a Priest,” in Heather J. Coleman, ed., Orthodox Christianity in Imperial Russia: A Source Book on Lived Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 85–94.
“Именем Иоанна Кронштадтского,” www.youtube.com/ watch?v=Vo9477JYA_A.
Shrine at Sura.
Priest walking home from a service in a midsummer village in Russia.
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The tension in St. John’s legacy for Russia emerges with particular clarity in the film produced by the Big John Family. The film begins by emphasizing St. John’s universality: the voiceover informs the viewer that “St. John is known everywhere, celebrated in every language. . . . He is known on every continent. . . . He showed us that life in Christ is open to everyone.” But the last scenes of the film take place in Crimea after its annexation by Russia. Priest Sergii Khaliuta in Sevastopol and Chersones is shown declaring that Crimea, where Prince Vladimir was baptized into Orthodox Christianity, is “our common font: there are not three fonts, one in Moscow, one in Kiev, and one in Minsk: our one people cannot be separated into three parts.” The nar-
rator declares that the new St. John of Kronstadt Church in Crimea is a symbol of unity. St. John is likened to Admiral Makarov as “endlessly dedicated to the task of serving Russia.” As cruisers from the Russian Black Sea fleet sail across the screen, a voice reads: “I foresee the restoration of a mighty Russia, ever more mighty and powerful.” This message is not inconsistent with some of St. John’s own sermons in his last years. It is certainly consistent with many Russian political decisions in the past three years. Still, those seeking a more universal celebration of St. John’s legacy may be glad that the film made to celebrate his commemoration ends with a series of icons of the saint, showing him holding a chalice with one hand and pointing to it with the other.
Nadieszda Kizenko is Chair of the History Department at the University at Albany. Her first book, A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People, won the Heldt Prize and was published in Russian as Sviatoi nashego vremeni. Otets Ioann Kronshtadtskii i Russkii Narod (NLO, 2006). She is currently completing a history of confession in the Russian empire from the 17th century to the present.
A panikhida is sung at the grave of Matushka Olga (Arrsamquq) in Kwethluk, Alaska, on the 35th anniversary of her repose. (oca.org)
CLOUD OF WITNESSES
Tanqilria Tanqilrianun/ Holy Things for the Holy: Society and Sanctity Among the Yup’ik People Christopher Sprecher Unlike the regions of “Old World” Orthodoxy—that is, the parts of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and India where Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches have long existed—the lands of the New World do not yet have many local saints to laud on their calendars. The great heroes of the faith—the Apostles, the Myrrhbearing Women, the early martyrs and confessors, the great missionaries and healers—find honor and praise around the world wherever the Divine Liturgy is served and wherever the faithful call upon their intercession. True, here in North America, there are some saints who have devoted their labors to this land. St. Herman of Alaska cared for the peoples around him, Russian and indigenous, on Kodiak Island; St. Innocent came from Siberia and worked tirelessly among the Unangan (Aleut) and Lingít (Tlingit) peoples; St. Jacob travelled from his native land in the Aleutian Chain to work with the Yup’ik and Athabaskan peoples The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
inland; further south, Saint Alexis of Wilkes-Barre and Saint Nikolaj (Velimirović) did much to reunite the splinter immigrant groups with canonical Orthodoxy. All of these saints, however, were foreign missionaries, transplants in this New World soil. But what of that soil? Is there any native holiness? Are there any saints to whom one can look that have sprung up on this continent? A hardy stock bearing such fruits in the North American vineyard can be found among the Yup’ik peoples of Western Alaska. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend part of the winter, and to experience the deep darkness and bitter cold of the tundra, among some Yup’ik Orthodox Christians in the villages of Kwethluk (Kuiggluk), Bethel (Mamterilleq), and Napaskiak along the Kuskokwim River. These villages are located about 400 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska, as the crow flies. Living here, worshipping with the villagers in their churches, and seeing their 17
faith in action showed me a different angle on holiness and what sainthood can mean for the Church today.
1 The native Yup’ik name for this village, Kuiggluk, means “fake or false river,” alluding to its location on a side channel of the Kuskokwim.
The main road in the village of Kwethluk in autumn. (Karol Raszkiewicz)
To begin exploring this perspective on what it means to be a saint, it can help to look at the word saint itself and what it means. In both Ancient Greek (hagios) and Latin (sanctus), the word for “saint” or “holy” refers literally to something set apart or set aside from everyday use. The thing that is holy or saintly is on one level nonordinary, not like everything else around it. For this reason, the inner areas of ancient pagan temples, as well as the innermost rooms of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, were strictly separated and off-limits to regular worshippers. Indeed, we read in the Book of Hebrews how only the High Priest of the Temple, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement, carrying the blood of sacrifice, entered the Holy of Holies, the innermost room of the Temple (Heb. 9:7). The holy place was not for everyone; it was not a place of everyday activity and life. It was separated, different, other. From my experiences in Yupiit nuniit, the land of the Yup’ik people, I could see that saintliness—holiness—was also marked in a way by isolation, but isolation was not the end or goal of such holiness. This focus on the self and knowing the self was the starting point, from which the particularized
and individualized holiness could spread and find action and response in the community. This twofold nature of holiness—its isolation and interaction—can be understood via three windows of insight: the importance and nature of knowledge and cognition in Yup’ik culture and language, the celebration of Christmas in Orthodox Yup’ik culture, and the example of the life of the popularly venerated Yup’ik saint, Blessed Matushka Olga (Arrsamquq).
Ellangellemni / When I Became Aware: Knowledge and Identity among the Yupiit In the village of Kwethluk, I stayed at the house of the priest and his family, and through them became acquainted with some of the other villagers in this small—about 700 strong—settlement on a side channel of the Kuskokwim River.1 Learning the Yup’ik language and culture, I tried to spend as much time as I could with the elders in the village, which still uses Yup’ik as its language and where children grow up with it as their mother tongue. Often stories would start with the phrase ak’a tamaani, “a long time ago”; but sometimes they would relate tales from their own life, and would say ellangellemni. A culturally appropriate translation into English might be “when I was younger” or “when I was a little kid” or “when I was growing up” The literal meaning, however, is, “when I came to awareness.” The moment of self-awareness is so prized, I was told, that a family would celebrate this with neighbors and relatives when they could see that their child could distinguish itself from other human beings and from its own reflection. Coming to self-awareness is therefore the beginning of one’s own story, the real starting point in life: awareness that is keenly necessary to
survive and thrive in the harsh climate of the Alaskan tundra, and also vitally important in one’s spiritual life. How knowledge is reported in the Yup’ik language is also worth mentioning in this context. In English and many other languages there is often a base verb meaning “to know,” which then must be negated to indicate the opposite, “not to know.” In Yup’ik, the reverse holds true. The base verb is one of ignorance or lack of knowledge. Nalluaqa would mean “I do not know him/her/it.” To say the positive, the Yup’ik verb must be negated: nallunritaqa (literally, “I am not unknowing of him/her/it”).2 The presupposed starting point for cognition is one of ignorance. By the same token, Yup’ik verbs must be marked for experiential knowledge of the action described (in linguistics called evidentiality). If I were to say tangellrua angun, it would mean “he saw the man,” and I would be assuring the hearer that I knew this from firsthand experience—that I saw the one man see the other. If my news is reported or otherwise indirectly observed, I must mark this overtly on the verb with a special postbase, -llini-. Hence tangellrullinia angun, “he saw the man (but I did not observe this directly).” Omitting this verbal postbase of evidentiality, when one did not in fact witness the event mentioned, would be interpreted as a lie by Yup’ik speakers. In this way, the correct observation of oneself and one’s actions, as well as those of others, is grammatically encoded in the language.
Naruyakluta Anagciqukut / By Sharing We Will Survive: Self and Society in Celebrating Selaviq The movement of holiness from self-awareness and internalization of virtue and knowledge into action geared toward building up the comThe Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
munity was driven home to me in my time in Yupiit nuniit in the dark but delightful days between the feasts of the Nativity of Christ and Theophany. This season of feasting is called Selaviq in Yup’ik, a borrowing and relexicalization of the Russian word slavy, meaning “praises.” During Selaviq, in the evenings—which fall very early on the tundra—the window curtains would be pulled back and candles placed on windowsills to welcome all and to symbolize the light of Christ in the darkness. On a given night, one family or household from the village would throw a feast and host the entire village. The first one I saw was at the priest’s house where I was staying. The whole day was spent preparing food: cooking moose soup and duck soup, thawing dried salmon strips saved from the summer hunt, fishing out reserves of seal oil, making akutaq (literally, “mixture”: a dessert of seal or moose fat mixed with tundra berries or dried meat), and preparing gifts of items like candy and clothing. Then young boys from the village came, together with other villagers, with a massive hand-spun star; Christmas carols in Yup’ik and Slavonic were sung. Everyone sat down on the floor of the house, save the elders who were granted seats of honor on the few chairs, and the priest gave a short homily in Yup’ik about the season and why we celebrate Selaviq. Then the feasting began!
These verbal ending here, -qa, means that the verb is transitive, with a first-person singular subject and a third-person singular object. The direct object would be translated as “him”, “her”, or it depending on the context, since there is no grammatical gender (even in pronouns!) in all the Eskimo-Aleut languages, including Central Alaskan Yup’ik.
Everyone joyously partook of the food and conversation. As the guests departed, they were laden with gifts of food and clothing to take home. The cabinets were gradually emptied out. At this point I was getting a bit worried, thinking that my hosts and I would soon have no food left. By the end of the evening, with all the guests gone, I turned around and saw the cupboards bare, with hardly any food left in the 19
Icon of Matushka Olga (Arrsamquq), painted by Matushka Ann Margitich.
port and giving that led to real, tangible survival. Reflecting later during my stay in the village of Kwethluk on this communal act of love and giving, I was told of one of the great exemplars of such holiness in our times, a simple village woman and priest’s wife from Kwethluk now widely venerated in Alaska and throughout North America: Blessed Matushka Olga, also known in Yupiit nuniit by her Yup’ik name, Arrsamquq.
Iirumalria Ikayurta / The Hidden Helper: Blessed Matushka Olga (Arrsamquq)
house. I was confused and concerned, but didn’t want to embarrass my hosts and said nothing that night. The next day, another house in the village held a festal meal of similar proportions, and the pattern repeated itself: the spinning of the Star of Bethlehem; people singing with candles in the background; a joyous meal. I was handed bags of salmon meat and socks to take home. This time, crossing the threshold of his house, the priest saw my confusion and smiled, and said: “Naruyakluta anagciqukut. By sharing our food with each other, we will survive. The only way to get through the winter in the tundra is as a community. So after Selaviq, none of the meat or fish in my house is what I caught or hunted or fished. My family and I only survive the winter on account of the food and gifts of others. And they survive on our gifts. And Christ is the greatest gift.” Having spoken simply and succinctly, he nodded and entered the house. My heart and mind continued for hours to absorb this lesson in holiness, of self-understanding and awareness of one’s life in a harsh land that opened up into mutual sup20
Olga Arrsamquq was born in Kwethluk on February 3, 1916. The man she married, Nikolai Michael, was renowned as a good hunter, and was eventually ordained to the priesthood. Having a large family herself— raising eight children to adulthood— Olga also worked as a midwife in her village, tending to the needs of many other women and families in the area. She became known in time for her quiet generosity, sewing clothing for poorer families and spending time with women who were victims of abuse in the maqivik or steamhouse, where neither physical nor emotional wounds could be hidden and where she was able to offer compassion and words of healing and love. This Yup’ik woman had lived through massive cultural changes with a spirit and mind fixed firmly on Christ, which helped her family and fellow villagers negotiate this transition. In the early twentieth century, much of Alaska still had little contact with the outside world or with Europeans or white Americans. Many Yupiit women and children still lived in traditional sod houses (nepiat), while men lived in their own communal houses (qasgit) in the villages. The diet was still utterly traditional, consisting of hunted fish
and game, tundra berries, and several herbs and roots that could be foraged. The twentieth century saw the influx into Yupiit nuniit not only of white people speaking English, but also of white American culture, the values and priorities of a global capitalist economy, and prepared foodstuffs with preservatives and carbohydrates, as well as alcohol, the consumption of which has led to high rates of obesity and alcoholism in many Native communities in the Yup’ik region, Alaska more broadly speaking, and in Native American and First Nations communities throughout North America. Matushka Olga was born into a world that was wholly Yup’ik: linguistically, culturally, nutritionally. By the end of her life, this world had entered the global stage and struggled to keep its place when confronted with alternative diets and influences. But throughout these changes, she provided a firm anchor for her family and community, remaining rooted in her faith and the traditions of community care and support. Thus, after many years of this ministry of love and compassionate presence to others, Matushka Olga reposed on November 8, 1979, following a struggle with cancer.
After her death, it was reported that a strong southern wind blew the whole night, which allowed for the ice and snow on the tundra to melt: mourners could travel across land and by river to attend the funeral, and the earth warmed enough for her body to be buried with unusual ease for that time of year. In the decades since her repose, more and more people have experienced miracles of healing through her intercession, and visions of her appearing to people were related to me by various Yup’ik Orthodox believers I met, hailing from several different villages in Yupiit nuniit. The intense personal life of prayer and faith led by Matushka Olga followed the pattern I had seen in the Yup’ik world: the individual, isolated experience of the believer issued forth with fruits for the surrounding community—in the case of Matushka Olga, fruits that have continued to this day for believers in the tundra and beyond. Many people have begun to paint icons of her; an Akathist hymn has been written in her honor; and more and more voices from among the faithful in Alaska and elsewhere are interceding for her official canonization by the Orthodox Church in America.3
More details on the life of Matushka Olga, as well as the text of the Akathist hymn to her, may be found at: http:// orthodoxcanada.ca/ Saint_Matushka_ Olga_Michael_of_ Alaska (accessed August 4, 2016).
Villagers singing and starring at a home during Selaviq.
The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
Ciuliamta Qanruyutait Iinruugut / The Saying of Our Elders Are Medicine: The Tradition of Holiness The experiences and encounters I had during my brief sojourn in Yupiit nuniit and afterwards through my continuing contact and relationship with the Yup’ik people transformed both how I understood and experienced holiness and how I think I might implement such an understanding in my own life. In our contemporary Western world, driven by greed and ego, the pursuit of riches and fame and bodily perfection, one can see a clear focus on the individual apart from the others. Yup’ik culture, too, has a focus on the individual: the need to be self-aware, the need to clearly observe one’s environment, the need to be correct in speech, the need to hunt and gather well to survive. Yet unlike an egocentric self-focus, which often results only in transient fruits for the self with no
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Matushka Olga with one of her grandchildren. (stnicholasnarol.com)
regard for, and often to the detriment of, the surrounding community or culture, the self-focus exhibited in the Yup’ik world was one I often found imbued with prayer and an expansive openness to the other. The fruits of this experience were to be shared and scattered abroad liberally. Like the food gifts at Selaviq or the steamhouse conversations with Matushka Olga, the encounter with the other is the very context, the very meeting place of the everyday with the extraordinary, the “thin place” where profane and sacred, holy and humdrum collide and are made whole. In my last days on the tundra, I marveled at the attentiveness of some of the young persons to an elder speaking to them, explaining how to hunt properly on the river when it was frozen. One of the adults said in Yup’ik: Ciuliamta qanruyutait iinruugut. “The sayings of our elders are medicine.” The Yup’ik people believe in passing forward not only culture, but also an understanding of holiness as at once intensely intimate and personally and wholly community-centered. This awareness of tradition as something medicinal and healing holds true, I would say, no matter where we find ourselves: in the Old World markets of Athens or Jerusalem, in the contemporary cosmopolitan hubs of Moscow or New York, or in the small fishing villages of Alaska or Alabama. And once healed by this example, like the mother-in-law of the apostle Peter, we too can rise up to meet the other and let that healing shine forth in holy acts of love and service to the world.
Christopher Sprecher is a linguist, translator, and editor living in New York City and working on texts primarily in German, French, Latin, and Ancient Greek. He prepared the English translation of Jean-Claude Larchet, Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses (2012). His current poetic interests are the crafting of a collection of sonnets and researching the development of Christian figures and themes in Arabic literature.
North wall, Church of Holy Wisdom, New Skete Monastery, NY. Photo by Inga Leonova.
CLOUD OF WITNESSES
When the Saints Go Marching In Stavros Winner The landmark recording of the American gospel hymn “When the Saints Go Marching In” was produced in 1938 by Louis Armstrong and his orchestra. Undoubtedly, Americans over the age of thirty can immediately hear the tune in their heads: “Oh, when the saints go marching in…Lord, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.” But what most people do not know is that the lyrics were inspired by the biblical book of Revelation and other parts of Scripture. The vision of the Son of Man in Revelation 4, which draws on Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Daniel for its imagery of the one enthroned, was often interpreted in Byzantium as the Pantocrator and linked with the parable of the Last Judgment (Matt. 25), which describes the Son of Man as he takes his seat on a throne of glory. According to Revelation, “all nations will be assembled” (25:32), referring to every human beThe Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
ing from the span of human history. The assembly of saints being vast, divine scrutiny is meted out not according to a creed or profession of correct dogma, but on the basis of our behavior toward one another: did we feed the poor? give drink to the thirsty? extent hospitality to the stranger? clothe the naked? visit the imprisoned? The vision portrayed in “When the Saints Go Marching In,” drawing on the New Testament, includes details depicted in the icons of some very ancient Christian churches. I have experienced the visual impact of this imagery as a worshipper in such diverse churches as Santa Maria Assunta on the isle of Torcello, northeast of Venice; Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna; the katholikon of Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos; San Mineato al Monte in Florence; and the Abbey Church of Saint Foy in Conques, France. It is also the inspiration for the 23
scheme employed in the design and decoration of the katholikon at New Skete, Cambridge, New York—my own community.
1 Nicholas Denysenko, “Retrieving a Theology of Belonging: Eucharist and Church in Postmodernity, Part 2,” Worship 89 (2015): 36.
New Skete’s katholikon (main church), dedicated to Holy Wisdom, has two windows at the east end and three at the west end. They admit the special light of sunrise and sunset that dramatizes a cosmic subtext with the daily reappearance of the sun—the archetypical sign of Christ who is our light and our life. In the rectangular liturgical space, set along an east-west axis as in earlier basilica-patterned churches, the very rising of the sun symbolically orients us to the Lord’s coming and reinforces our custom of facing east to pray. As in the golden era of early Byzantine architecture, the altar or holy place is not walled off by a solid iconostasis, but is demarcated by an angular U-shaped templon screen, which allows clergy and people to see and hear one another and to remain one worshiping body. In both churches at New Skete (the smaller one erected in 1970 and dedicated to the Transfiguration and the larger one completed in 1983 in honor of Holy Wisdom), the east end is marked by a large image of the Pantocrator at the center of the deisis. This icon scheme focuses the prophetic expectation of the Son of Man in Jesus, conceived and given birth by Mary and baptized by John. Above the oak wainscoting on the long north and south walls in the Holy Wisdom temple are two lines which extend the deisis, and nod to the verse from Matthew 25, “all nations will be assembled.” Our iconographic scheme is directly modeled on that of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, which dates from the sixth century—imitating the sym-
bolism, not the form, since the Ravenna iconography is in mosaic, and the style is very classical and rather stiff, with men on the south side and women on the north. New Skete’s unhurried procession focuses on Christ over the synthronon, the raised seats behind the Holy Table that lined the apses of ancient churches. On its wall behind the Holy Table are depicted bishops, chosen to represent the Church across history and geography, including SS Clement and Ignatius, disciples of the apostles, and St. Innocent of Alaska, with a fur-trimmed miter. The head of the line of saints at the east, at clerestory level, features the apostles and equals-to-the-apostles, the faithful female disciples. At the west end of the line are four prophets: Moses, David, Isaiah, and Elijah. We made a reasoned choice to make the rest of the depicted assembly as diverse as possible, allowing for more women and for individuals of both Eastern and Western Churches. In this way, we emphasized a point made by Nicholas Denysenko, to which we shall return later—that “the Church [has] elastic borders designed to include all.”1 In the center of the procession, on both sides of the temple, we inserted contemporary figures, not indicated as “saints” by title or the conventional halo, who are nonetheless holy and worthy of joining in this heavenly pilgrimage. Mother Maria of Paris, whose sanctity was officially recognized by the Church of Constantinople sometime after we erected her image, stands in the south tier, along with Dorothy Day of our own country, whose cause for canonization is open at the Vatican, and Mother (now Saint) Teresa of Calcutta, who was recently canonized by Pope Francis—these are all women who lived gospel-centered lives.
Altar, Church of Holy Wisdom, New Skete Monastery, NY. Photo by Inga Leonova.
Our times are so afflicted by multifarious divisions, many stoked by politicians and religious theocrats sowing fear and hatred and thereby engendering suffering and death. These divisions have resulted in the colossal displacement of Middle East populations; in persecutions; and in the deaths of countless men, women, and children emerging from the schisms within Islam, in a land where, in the conciliar era, the Christian Church experienced similarly serious theological rifts. Ecumenism is a movement that seeks to heal divisions with love and understanding and to build on the enormous patrimony we have in common, and so we chose to include three fathers of the ecumenical movement that achieved its apogee in the 1960s and 70s: Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, Pope Paul VI, and Archbishop Michael Ramsey. The inclusion of these champions of ecumenism disturbed a few people who had not seen them in context, much less taken account of the overall theology this article espouses. Their unease mirrored the concern expressed by some people in past times to see, The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
in depictions of the Last Judgement such as at Torcello, monks, nuns, bishops, princes, and rich merchants consigned to the flames at the left. But just as sacred Scripture should challenge us and provoke metanoia (repentance, change of mind), so should sacred art. We might also have included on our nave walls Matushka Olga Michael of Kwethluk, Alaska, healer and counselor, or the educator Sophie Koulumzin; and Father John Meyendorff, theologian and historian, deserves a place at the side of Father Alexander Schmemann. Given our means and ability at the time, however, there was only limited space. The inclusion of images of Christians who were not formally members of the Orthodox Church might be problematic for some. Perhaps it relates to how one would treat living Roman Catholics or Anglicans. The approach varies greatly throughout Orthodoxy. The late Bishop Basil Rodzianko of San Francisco (1980â€“84), on a visit to New Skete, was delighted to find an icon of St. Francis of Assisi, which was 25
2 Michael Plekon, Hidden Holiness (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) and Living Icons (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004).
Ancient Greek philosophers, katholikon narthex, Monastery of Great Meteoron, Meteora, Greece. Photo credit www.diakonima.gr.
subsequently presented to the Hosanna Community in Moscow. When the bishop was told that our community had encountered a few Orthodox who were not so pleased by its presence, he retorted, “When they get to heaven, perhaps there will be partitions, lest they notice that Orthodox are not the only ones there!” Brother Luke, our former prior, also offered a rationale for our iconographic choices in a Palm Sunday homily several years ago: We also find sanctity in modern martyrs of prejudice, such as two individuals of Jewish background who committed themselves to Christ and still died because of their faith and their race: St. Benedicta (Edith Stein) killed by the Nazis, and Father Alexander Men, axed to death on his way to church in 1990. Then there is Maximos the Greek, a refugee from Constantinople who fled to Florence, became a Dominican,
then returned to Orthodoxy and was invited to Russia to help in liturgical reform, for which he was ultimately imprisoned. Or what of St. Nektarios, who died in 1920 and was the last Orthodox hierarch to have the courage to ordain a woman deacon? Does anyone doubt that these saintly individuals stand side by side in heaven, where God sees no division between his children? They remind us that holiness is not to be found exclusively in the comfortable safety of the familiar, but in those who challenged the status quo of the status seekers, who spoke the uncomfortable truth in the face of criticism and death, who lived the gospel message and, for many, paid the ultimate price, as did Christ. As we enter into the week of Christ’s Saving Passion, when he offered forgiveness to his executioners, entry into paradise to the thief, and the unspeakable joy of resurrec-
tion to all humanity, may these models of sanctity help focus our minds and hearts ever more firmly on the message of Christ: love your neighbor. Praying in a church where you can rub shoulders with saints works on your psyche. They become as familiar as family. They dispel the sense that I am alone on this journey to my true homeland. As we learn from hearing the genealogy from the first chapter of Matthew on the Sunday before Christmas, the family tree of the Incarnate Word is full of characters. Some may be more or less savory than others, but together we make up the People of God, a Holy Nation, a Royal Priesthood. It is crucial, in this new era of spiritual deracination, for ordinary people to appreciate that “saint” is not a forbidding designation for someone whose life was so exotic or reclusive that she could never model a life for our own day. Michael Plekon has expressed this in his writings on the feasibility of a life of genuine holiness in the twenty-first century—its resonance, roots, and ramifications.2 Yet we have a linguistic difficulty in English, insofar as the words holy and saint sound different. The latter now has a narrower connotation, implying official recognition. We have long lost the sense of saint as an ordinary, striving member of the family of God. In the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of the New Testament, it is simply the ordinary work for a Christian. This meaning is reinforced by the text of the Liturgy itself. We know that, before the fall of Constantinople in 1204 and the eclipse of the form of the offices of Hagia Sophia, what is now known as the Little Entrance was, in fact, the entrance of the entire assembly into the The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
temple—the Church into the church— as indicated by the entry prayer in the oldest codex of the Byzantine euchologion (Barberini Gr. 336): “Receive your Church which approaches you.” We make such an entry into our Holy Wisdom temple for the beginning of the Synaxis of the Word, or Enarxis. It is no accident that the blessing assigned for this occasion, and still said by every bishop or priest who presides over the assembly, is “Blessed be the entrance of your saints”—that is, us.
Absidian mosaic, San Miniato Al Monte, Florence, Italy. Photo by Luca Volpi.
The space, texture, and iconography of our katholikon reminds us of the purpose of the church and of our gathering within it. The Sunday Eucharist is its primary raison d’être, and the text of the Eucharistic Liturgy teaches us why this is so. For this reason, the clergy should always proclaim these texts, so all can hear, and reception of the Eucharist should be the norm, as is our practice at New Skete. Does not Christ say to his friends at table when he passes them the cup, “Drink of this, all of you” (Matt. 26:27)—words 27
tacit acknowledgment that everyone invoked can belong to the divine fellowship; the breadth of people invoked in this prayer is infinite, and the prayer does not provide checkpoints that exclude sinners; the Church’s recitation of this prayer is potentially formative. Participating in the prayer by hearing it and affirming it with the “Amen” has the capacity to form the consciousness of the participants so that they would view the Church as having elastic borders designed to include all.3
Santa Maria Assunta, 639 A.D. West wall. Veneto-Byzantine basilica on the island of Torcello predates San Marco in Venice. Photo by Remi Mathis. 3
Denysenko, “Theology of Belonging,” 34–36.
repeated at every Divine Liturgy in every Christian tradition? In the gospels, Jesus does not exclude Judas, even though moments earlier his betrayal was confirmed. Denysenko, commenting on the anamnesis which follows the epiclesis in the Anaphora of Saint Basil the Great, writes: Who, then, are these people that the Church commits to God’s divine memory? Basil’s prayer presents an almost inexhaustible list of different others that reveal the Church as an elastic cosmic tent, with room to expand. The genius of the intercessions lies in the apparent attempt to include everyone. . . . The Church asks God to remember each category of person, a
The many signposts in this essay each point in the same direction. Sacred art and architecture, liturgical renewal, and the lineage of saints all call us to an awareness of oneness as a divine imperative that warrants inclusivity, if we believe the Body of Christ is a mystic reality. These symbols speak to us over and over, through the centuries, across geography and cultures, from New Orleans to Conques, from Valamo to Skete. This is not the only age beset by vicious wars and colossal suffering, nor the only time in which the fabric of society has seemed so threadbare and our future so opaque. Nonetheless, we have the means to make sense of it all, perhaps best understood through an analogy from music, provided here by Peter Bouteneff in his recent book on the Orthodox composer Arvo Pärt: The arts and the sacred traditions alike, where they are true to life as we know it, will often reflect this interweaving of sorrow and consolation, brokenness and wholeness. . . . [Pärt’s] music says that there is no joy that is not tinged with grief, and no suffering beyond redemption. His compositions are never simplistic, however simply they may be structured. They are faithful both to
South wall, Church of Holy Wisdom, New Skete Monastery, NY. Photo by Inga Leonova.
Peter C. Bouteneff, Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence (Yonkers: SVS Press, 2015).
the brokenness of the world and to our hopes for its transfiguration.4
have travelled, and our support for new music. It is all of a piece.
This past feast of Transfiguration, August 6, marked half a century of our monastic witness at New Skete. The Divine Liturgy, which crowned the celebration, gathered pilgrims from neighboring states and from distant places, like Alaska and British Columbia. What enabled us to reach this milestone was our inner spirit and unified vision, our daily struggle, and our nagging askesis not to lose heart, not to fear change, and not to have the status quo in a death grip. This vision governs the architecture of our Holy Wisdom temple and its iconography. It also engendered the long road of liturgical renewal, of textual balance and inclusivity, which we
The striving is the same, whoever and wherever we are as beings in relationship with God and each other. For a genuine relationship, inclusivity is imperative, if not indispensable, and it extends to all creation. New Skete’s setting in the mountain wilderness is a daily reminder that we are all part of the goodness of creation and that this planet is our only home. Disrespect for it through greed and waste, pollution and poaching, dishonors our communion with God and contradicts the very idea of transfiguration, where Christ shows us the true beauty and goodness of all that is by its very “is-ness.”
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Brother Stavros, one of the founding brothers of New Skete, oversees the liturgy and general order of the community’s churches. His education at Georgetown and the Catholic University of America concentrated on the origins and evolution of Eastern Orthodox liturgical traditions and helped facilitate the community’s renewal of their own liturgies. He has written and lectured internationally on this subject, and recently contributed to Fossil or Leaven: The Church We Hand Down, a collection of essays commemorating the monastery’s fiftieth anniversary, to be released in Fall 2016.
The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
THE CHURCH ACROSS TIME
Byzantine Studies, Iconoclasm, and the Rise of Islam Aristeides Papadakis While the history of the iconoclastic controversy has long occupied center stage in the currently flourishing discipline of Byzantine Studies—and has recently attracted the attention of some of the original and most seasoned scholars in the field—an authoritative survey of iconoclasm does not yet exist. Still, our knowledge of this reassessed landscape is much improved, and consensus on key aspects is often possible. Earlier studies on the damage caused by the movement were often conflicted in their findings. Given its emotionally divisive character, the destruction to both churches and public places was generally thought to have been extensive. But a closer examination of the available documentation reveals that this was not always the case. Archaeological evidence from Constantinople, for example, is relatively modest. Apart from the patriarch’s private rooms off the gallery of the Hagia Sophia, where figural mosaics were finally removed in 769, little was destroyed. In Thessaloniki, by contrast, the apse of Hosios David, with its well-known beardless Christ (sixth century), was preserved by being carefully concealed, indicating that people were clearly aware of the government’s agenda but were willing to circumvent its ban if they could. Crucially, some figures in the city’s Cathedral of St. Demetrios and 30
in the Rotunda of Galerius were also left undisturbed. Religious figurative art certainly did not vanish during the iconoclast period, and evidence for persecution and for the cessation of image manufacture is circumstantial as well. There is, for instance, almost no proof of martyrdom under Leo III, and the production of images, which the ban would also have proscribed, did not cease outright. If the state’s iconoclastic campaign— both in the capital and beyond—was rarely well-organized, then iconoclasm in practice would seem for the most part to have been intermittent, if not fitfully thrown together. Revisionist scholarship has offered evidence that both the persecution and the resulting damage were exaggerated, suggesting that pro-image apologists were in part to blame for the severity of historical reporting. Since members of the iconodule faction were the authors of much of the surviving historical record, it is likely that they could have been tempted to magnify their enemies’ vandalism and ability to persecute. The fact that the “editors” of these texts have been roundly criticized for their attempt to rewrite history is not surprising. Still, we should also admit that iconoclast sympathizers were inclined to do the same. The hostility characterizing both sides was intense and real, and setting it aside would be a mistake.
The intellectual identification of figural art with idolatry was a critical component of the iconoclast controversy, a fact that is generally wellknown. Even so, modern research demonstrates that the historical and theological narratives essential to both supporters and detractors of image veneration were neither isolated from other contemporary events nor a sufficient cause of the controversy. Of greater importance was the parlous geopolitical situation of the Byzantine Empire. In plain English, the greatest issue of the day was neither iconoclasm nor theology but the very survival of the Byzantine polity. The backdrop to this Byzantine crisis was the sudden rise of Islam. Thanks to swift Muslim conquests, the empire managed to lose half of its territory by the 650s. The contraction of frontiers, population, and tax revenue, together with overall violent demographic changes, soon proved irreversible; even the Byzantine capital became an object of frequent blockade. These attacks continued well into the eighth century, pointedly underlining the danger facing the empire. Arab armies also launched annual incursions into Anatolia, and even challenged Byzantine power at sea. Equally unsettling were contemporary Slavic migrations and settlements in the Balkans. Furthermore, the empire was forced to contend with major natural disasters, including an astonishing volcanic eruption on the island of Thera in 726. Byzantium’s network of cities, which had provided the empire with its extraordinary economic power and resiliency, also began to suffer slow, erratic modifications, and many of its ancient urban centers were gradually transformed into villages and fortresses. For the Byzantine world, the instability triggered by the swift ascension of the rival Arab realm The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
was an uncommonly traumatic challenge, leaving the empire practically destroyed to the point of extinction before beginning a stabilization and recovery in the ninth century. Given these facts, reducing the importance of iconoclastic theology to a minimum is not surprising. Overall, the age was a historical watershed, whereas the image-breaking quarrel was only a peripheral turning point. According to this view, the decree against images issued by the state in 730 should be placed primarily within the broader historical context of the Arab victories. The emperors were doubtless convinced that the popular devotion to images was to blame for the empire’s military defeats and natural disasters. God was effectively punishing Christians by favoring the
An illuminated Psalter depicts the iconoclasts, with their pots of whitewash, as the equivalent of the soldiers who tormented and crucified Christ. Chludov Psalter (c. 850–75), Moscow, Hist. Mus. MS. D.29 folio 67r.
The Emperor Leo (seated) debates iconoclasm with his clergy, while iconoclasts whitewash an image of Christ: meanwhile, two bishops venerate a sacred image. Theodore Psalter, British Library, B.M. Add. 19.352.
enemy’s armies. The issue for the empire was never truly a theological concern; the imperial ban proscribing images had more to do with the empire’s survival strategy and the grave political situation of the time. Some historians have even argued that iconoclasm began to recede just as the Arab danger began to wane. With the decrease of the strategic threat posed by expansive Islamic conquests, the state ban against images was no longer politically necessary. In brief, the stage was set for the restoration of the holy images that took place on the first Sunday of Lent in 843. In this formulation, the classic position—that iconoclasm was a commanding issue of the day, divorced from issues of statecraft—no longer seems compelling. Yet it might be better to recognize that this subject has both strictly theological and historical importance. For starters, the scholarly conviction that a religious frame of reference was foisted on the entire iconoclastic period should be qualified. How exactly religious questions supposedly dimmed the lights on the entire Byzantine historical landscape, as it is increasingly cheerfully claimed, is rarely explained. Jaroslav Pelikan’s suggestion that historians also need to be theologically responsible has never been more to the point. 32
A brief look at some of the older secondary literature, with its broader emphasis (for example, scholarship from George Ostrogorsky) provides a good demonstration supporting Pelikan’s admonition. To begin with, the use of the visual arts in the Church and the admissibility of graphically portraying God had been a subject of debate long before iconoclasm became established state policy. Iconoclasm was not an unknown theological question: “Thou shall not make graven images” is, after all, one of the Decalogue commandments. Questions about graphically depicting the divine had roots deep within Christianity since before the rise of Islam. As the discussion of this issue at the Council in Trullo in 692 pointedly alerts us, concerns over whether it was appropriate to depict Christ in any particular way were clearly still on the table. Crucially, in the end, the council approved of the figurative portrait of Christ in preference to symbolic representation, a position codified in Canon 82. Significantly, this decision was not solely an ecclesial matter. The emperor Justinian II also approved it, and shortly after the council adjourned, he decided to depart from the state’s
prevailing numismatic tradition by issuing the first image of Christ on Byzantine coinage. The obverse, or front side, of gold coins was henceforth to be used for Christ’s image, while the imperial portrait was consigned to the reverse, or back side. As a clear departure from established practice, the change was a genuine iconographic innovation. Its effective substitution of Christ’s portrait in place of the imperial image was nothing short of revolutionary. But so was its implication: namely, that the source of the emperor’s authority was Christ himself. Quite possibly, the imperial ruling was also meant to provoke. The depiction of the divine on the gold nomisma would have been theologically unacceptable to Muslims, and it presumably would have been noticed. Less revolutionary, perhaps, but no less important was the subsequent implicit approval of Canon 82 by Patriarch Germanos I. His decision to embrace this decree—in opposition to the Byzantine state’s polemic against images at the time—pointedly shifted the emphasis to the historic Christ. Germanos’ stance, it is widely agreed, meant that future debate on this question would focus on the enduring reality of Christ’s humanity. This Christological approach, crucially, also linked up with controversies that had loomed large in the early history of the Church, and which were above all Christologically driven. As the patriarch aptly put it, Christ must be portrayed in his “visible theophany,” which is to say in his human form, and not by symbols. The fact that some of these developments took place before the broad outbreak of iconoclasm is important; it demonstrates that iconoclasm was never solely an eighth-century phenomenon. If anything, the issue formally approved in 692 was an anticipation of the later, more impassioned quarrel. The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
Given Islam’s hesitant approach to portraiture, did Islamic theology or faith have significant relevance to the Council in Trullo or the later question of iconoclasm itself? The claim that it did has not vanished entirely from the secondary literature. Yet on purely historical grounds, the premise is largely speculation. The synodal debate of the 690s preceded the influence of the new religion on the Byzantine Church, as the issue was not a new one. The conciliar resolution was endorsed within Orthodoxy’s own backyard; the young monotheistic faith and culture of Islam was not directly involved. Christian opposition to images, quite simply, was not in its origin a reaction to Islam. The same could be argued (rightly) about the political anti-image strategy later adopted by the emperors, even if they were often derided as “Saracenminded” by contemporaries. Finally, the contemporaneous theological defenses of images should not be minimized with the usual faint praise. While the detractors of images were plentiful during the long iconoclastic age, as theologians, few were really gifted. On the other hand, iconodules such as Theodore of Studios, John of Damascus, and Patriarchs Germanos and Nikephoros mounted sophisticated apologies for images that were rich in their depth and detail. At its most fundamental level, their main contention was that if the Word of God assumed human nature and entered history as a historic, visible human being, then he was by definition able to receive an artistic depiction. The theological function of the icon is to be a permanent witness to and affirmation of the reality of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God. Christian iconography is a possibility because it is founded on God’s manifestation in the flesh—on God’s 33
self-disclosure. In Vladimir Lossky’s apt formulation, it is the Incarnational mystery that justifies Christ’s visible representation in paint. In Byzantine Christianity, art became inseparable from christology. During a visit to Russia, Henri Matisse once mentioned that Orthodox icons were “really great art,” and were for him even closer and more dear than Fra Angelico. “It is from them,” he perceptively emphasized, “that we ought to learn how to understand art.” Orthodox theologians would surely agree, though they might also insist that a holy image is more than a work of art or a mere teaching aid. Its deepest meaning—that which defines it—lies elsewhere. Ultimately it is all about the primacy of the Incarnation and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, on which it is firmly based. The theological component of the question of images should not be minimized, and he skeptical approach with which it has at times been scrutinized is unjustified. As any impartial assessment of the evidence demonstrates, the final liquidation of iconoclasm was primarily a theological victory rather than a political one. The theological battle was won by the Church and its monasteries, not by the state.
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The above provides a suitable summary note on which to give the final word to John Meyendorff. He once suggested that the most important of the historical consequences of the
Arab conquest of the Middle East was that it kept Byzantine Christianity on the defensive for centuries. By the end of the Middle Ages, he insisted, “Islam obliged Christians to live in a tiny enclosed world, which necessarily focused on the liturgical cult, and made them feel that it was normal. The Byzantine instinct for conservatism, which is both the main force and the principal weakness of Eastern Christianity, became the last refuge which could ensure its survival in the face of Islam.” By any account, an important communal objective of Islam in its early years was to promote God’s purpose by conquest, an inflexibly provocative stand that naturally brought it into incessant conflict with the Byzantine polity. But Orthodoxy’s confrontation with its Islamic rival was simultaneously theological and military. At the core of Islamic theology was the claim that it was the latest, highest, and purest revelation of God. To say that this constituted a rejection of basic elements of Christian faith, including image veneration and Trinitarian theology, would be redundant. According to Muslim theology, God was not only invisible but was also completely unitary, having no partners whatsoever. If we are to place this survey in its true perspective, although Islam and Orthodoxy— universalistic world religions both— first met on the battlefield, distinct theological postulates were crucial to the organization and definition of both societies.
Dr. Aristeides Papadakis is professor of history (emeritus) at the University of Maryland. He is the author, with John Meyendorff, of Crisis in Byzantium: The Filioque Controversy in the Patriarchate of Gregory II of Cyprus and The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy, which has been translated into French, Greek, and Russian. He was also a contributor and consultant to The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium and is a frequent participant in international conferences addressing the history, theology, and current state of the Orthodox Church.
St. Demetrius church.
EARS TO HEAR, EYES TO SEE
Kythira’s Byzantine Heritage: The Church of St. Demetrius in Pourko Sergei P. Brun Just a few miles to the south of Peloponnesus, washed by waters of the Aegean Sea, lies the isle of Kythira, the southernmost of the Ionian islands. It doesn’t attract as many tourists as better known destinations, such as Corfu or Zakynthos; it is a quiet (thus a bit rugged) resort popular among the Greeks, with very few foreigners—mainly Australians, since many Greek immigrants embarked from this particular island in the late nineteenthth century to seek a better life Down Under. Yet the island is a wonderful place—not only because of the clean, sky-blue beaches, the friendly people, the great local wines—but also because it retains beautiful monuments of Byzantine art—most notably twelfth–fourteenth-century churches and frescoes. Here are a few photos taken this summer at the Church of St. Demetrius, perhaps The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
the most unique and exquisite of Kythira’s Byzantine era shrines. The Church of St. Demetrius lies in the village of Pourko, in the southwestern part of the island. A thirteenth century building, it consists of several vaulted chambers and two domes, fused into a single temple complex. The first and largest church—built in the early thirteenth century was consecrated in honor of St. Demetrius. To the north of that another chamber and apse with an altar dedicated to the Theotokos was soon added. In the following decades two more adjoining churches were built, awkwardly facing north, not east. These were consecrated in honor of St. Nicholas and St. Basil the Great. This unparalleled deviation from the canon, and a rare example of a four-church cluster, finds only one close analogy—the Church of Panagia Drossiani on the 35
island of Naxos. Another canonical deviation—unique to Kythira—is the tradition of decorating the conch of the altar apse not with the images of Christ or the Theotokos (which traditionally evoke either the eschatological or Old Testament themes), but with depictions of the patron saint of that particular church or altar. For example in the island’s Byzantine Museum in Kato Livadi (an incredible collection and a “must see” for anyone visiting Kythira) one may find a preserved conch with a thirteenth century fresco of St. Andrew, transferred to the museum from St. Andrew’s church in the nearby town of Livadi. Andrew’s brother—St. Peter —is similarly depicted in a thirteenth century church dedicated to him in the village of Arei. In the Church at
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Pourko such depictions still exist in the apses of St. Demetrius’s altar and the side altar of St. Nicholas—representing the warrior saint and the Archbishop of Myra respectively. The Church of St. Demetrius preserves four layers of frescoes, from the early thirteenth to the sixteenth century. The earlier layers have been uncovered by restoration artists in the past years. The thirteenth century murals in the side altar of St. Nicholas preserve the iconographer’s autograph, naming a certain deacon Demetrios. Hagios Demetrios in indeed one of the most striking Byzantine churches in the Ionian Islands. And like the island of Kythira itself, it deserves far more attention than it has so far received. These photographs were taken in September of 2016.
(left) Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple
Chapel of St. Demetrios
Chapel of St. Demetrios, details of the Crucifixion
The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
Chapel of St. Nicholas.
Chapel of the Theotokos.- general view.
Chapel of St. Demetrios.
Chapel of the Theotokos.
Chapel of St. Demetrios, Apostle Paul.
Chapel of St. Demetrios.
The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
Chapel of St. Nicholas.
Apse of the Chapel of St. Demetrios.
Church of St. Demetrios: chapels of St. Basil and St. Nicholas.
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Sergei P. Brun is a Russian historian specializing in the history of the Latin East and the author of several articles, papers, and translations, as well as the two-volume monograph The Byzantines and the Franks in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Moscow, 2015). Currently he is a research fellow and lecturer at the Museum of the Russian Icon in Moscow.
IN THE NINTH TONE
The Tale of the Wayward Priest Ryan McDaniel I once met a monk on the Holy Mountain. No one knew how old he was, but he would speak of the crowning of that heretic Charlemagne as if it happened in his middle-aged years. He told a story of a priest from “the world” who visited Mount Athos some 200 years ago—within recent memory for the monk. He said he witnessed this priest levitate with his own eyes. After this priest from the world had spoken the epiclesis in the Divine Liturgy in one of the cave chapels, the Mysteries thereafter appeared as if freshly butchered beef on the discos and pure blood in the cup, glowing nonetheless with uncreated light, but, though as raw as flesh, they attracted no flies and smelt of an unearthly sweetness. This priest lived as one of the holiest men from the world this monk had ever met. He consumed only the Mysteries for food and drink, taking nothing else, except on Pascha when he would eat a bit of egg that had been colored red and blessed for the Resurrection, and a bit of koliva that was blessed during the annual memorial on the anniversary of the repose of his spiritual father. The priest worked miracles of healing, and, the monk recounted, once healed another monk who had lost his arm in an accident. He grasped the monk’s stump at his
shoulder and pulled a new arm out of his body. Still not satisfied, he pulled a new hand out of the arm and new fingers out of the hand. The monk I met shared many similar stories about this priest from the world. But then, as he continued his story, the monk’s face became grave in aspect. One day the priest was asked about that Western monk Bruno, founder of the Carthusians in union with Rome. The priest rashly commented that Bruno had lived before the Great Schism, and he seemed to live a life of ascetic devotion to Christ. The monk recounted that at once an angel of the Dark One appeared to all present saying, “Aha! Now we have you, priest!” For although Bruno was born in 1030, and thus before the Schism, he died in 1101, as a heretic in union with Rome. “We have waited all these years for this moment. The grace of your priesthood is now ours, and though we cannot keep it, we consign it to vanish from you forthwith!” And then the unclean spirit fled for fear of being present among the relics of so many saints on the Holy Mountain. Thus it was told by that ancient monk how easy it is to lose the grace of the priesthood by consorting with heretics from the West!
The Rev. Sebastian Ryan McDaniel is an Orthodox priest and rector of St. Bede the Venerable Orthodox Church in Charleston, Illinois. He is blessed to serve both Western and Eastern Rites. He has served as a member of the faculty in the Department of Communication Studies at Eastern Illinois University since 2007, and as a Chaplain in the Indiana Air National Guard since 2014.
The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891–1945) Elisabeth Behr-Sigel
Note: Elisabeth Behr-Sigel knew Mother Maria and most of her inner circle of friends in Paris. Her article, slightly abridged in this translation, was published in Le Messager orthodoxe, issue 111 (November 1989). Behr-Sigel lived to see Mother Maria’s formal glorification by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2004 and died the following year at age 98.
Avant-garde poet in the sophisticated intellectual milieu of Saint Petersburg, member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in Russia, twice married and divorced, mother of three children, later a devoted nun of the Russian Church in exile, and finally a member of the resistance in occupied France who was deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she died shortly before the liberation: such was the path of Mother Maria Skobtsova’s life.
Childhood and Family Background Elisabeth Pilenko was born on December 8, 1891. Her family belonged to the Ukrainian landed aristocracy. One of her eighteenth-century ancestors married Proskovia Romanova, sister of Empress Anna. Her father created a model vineyard operation near the town of Anapa on the shore of the Black Sea. There Elisabeth experienced a happy childhood that ended, however, with a tragic event: the premature death of her father. This event tormented the adolescent girl. Mother Maria, writing later, referred back to the crisis: The only thing that tormented me, the one question that required an answer was this: Do I believe in God? Does God exist? Then came the answer: my father was dead. The thoughts that jostled together in my head were quite simple: this is an unjust death. Therefore there is no justice. And if there is
no justice, there is no just God. If there is no just God, there is no God at all. I had broken through to the adult secret: God does not exist. The world is full of misery, evil, and injustice. And so my childhood came to an end.
Saint Petersburg At that time, Elisabeth was fourteen years old. Shortly after her father’s death, her mother decided to settle in St. Petersburg, where the family had connections among those close to the imperial court. But the young girl, whose talent as a poet was already evident, spent her time in avant-garde literary circles. The Russian imperial capital was then a major center of the Russian religious renaissance of the beginning of the 20th century. Elisabeth forged ties with the symbolist poet Alexander Blok. At eighteen, she married Dmitri Kouzmin-Karavayev, a young lawyer and member of the Social Democratic Party. The young couple made frequent appearances among the refined elite that gathered around the writer Vyacheslav Ivanov. . . . Eventually she grew weary of the hollowness of the discussions in this social milieu. She reproached the progressive intelligentsia for interminably discussing revolution without ever being willing to act or to sacrifice their lives for it. She was evolving toward a mystical populism, a messianic idea of the Rus-
sian people and land. She wrote in 1913, “I am for the land, for the simple people of Russia. . . . I reject the uprooted, soulless cultural elite.” For Elisabeth, as for Dostoyevsky, the “fertile motherland,” source of life, was sacred. Christ, however, remained on her horizon. . . . “The people need Christ,” she wrote. At this time she also experienced the desire to deepen her knowledge of the Orthodox Christian religion. She became one of the first women, if not the very first, to take courses (as non-resident day student) at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. Her marriage, meanwhile, had come apart. A divorce made the rupture final.
Revolution and Civil War When the Russian Revolution broke out, Elisabeth was an adherent of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, an idealistic movement that combined, not without some confusion, Russian populism—with its aspirations for pravda (“truth-justice”)—with the ideals of Western democracy. Everyone knows the outcome of these efforts, how the cynical realism of Lenin’s Bolshevik party triumphed in Russia, eliminating the Socialist Revolutionary majority democratically elected to the first constituent assembly. Fleeing from Bolshevism, Elisabeth went to the family estate in Anapa in January of 1918. Elected to the municipal council of the town, she performed the duties of mayor. This she managed under the difficult and dangerous circumstances of the Civil War following the seizure of power by the soviets. In August 1918, a group from the White Army occupied Anapa. An independent government was set up in the province. Accused of collaboration with the local soviet, the young woman was brought before a military tribunal. In the end, the tribunal imThe Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
posed only a symbolic penalty; one of the judges was a young officer Daniel Skobtsov. Having fallen in love with Elisabeth, he soon married her. Two children, Yuri and Anastasia, would be born from this union.
Elizaveta Skobtsova with the children. (www.pravmir.com/ the-challenge-of-a20th-century-saintmaria-skobtsova)
Without renouncing her socialist-revolutionary ideal—perhaps even because of it—Elisabeth took part in her husband’s struggle against Bolshevism. Daniel Skobtsov became a member of the ephemeral Ukrainian government, but the vagaries of the Civil War ended up separating the couple. After the defeat of the White Army forces and the evacuation from Crimea, exile became the only option. A pregnant Elisabeth embarked at Novorossysk with her mother and her eldest daughter, Gaïana (born from her first marriage), on the last boat leaving for Georgia. After a nightmare of a sea voyage, Yuri was born, safe and sound, in Tblisi. Elisabeth’s husband managed to join them at Constantinople, where, one year later, Anastasia was born. Following the flood of Russian émigrés, in 1922 the entire family settled in Paris, now the capital of “Russia in exile.”
Death of a Child In Paris, the Skobtsov family experienced poverty and total insecurity, the difficult fate of those officially designated as stateless. All of these 45
material hardships were completely overshadowed, however, by the tragic illness and death of Anastasia during the winter of 1923–1924. Following a diagnosis of meningitis that came too late, the young child was carried away in a slow and painful death. The death of the child whose name meant “Resurrection” broke her mother’s heart. But paradoxically, the Living God, this God in whom Elisabeth had ceased to believe after the death of her father, reentered her life through the same emotional breach. She experienced the catastrophe as a mysterious divine “visitation,” but also as an anticipation of the Last Judgment. As she sat near her dead child, the mother wrote these lines: I never understood what repentance meant, but now I see with horror how contemptible I am. Throughout my life, I have been wandering along pathways with no exit. Now I want to commit to the clear way, the purified path. Not that I believe in this life, but in order to justify, understand, and accept death. Nothing is greater than the commandment, “Love one another.” To follow love to its end; to love without exception. Then everything becomes clear, and this life, which otherwise would be nothing more than an abominable burden, is justified. “The death of a loved one is a door that opens suddenly onto eternity,” wrote Mother Maria later. “By visiting us, the Lord reveals the true nature of things: on the one hand, the dead skeleton of a human being and of all creation, mortal; on the other, the spirit of fire, the giver of life. The consoler who consumes and fills all things.” From that moment on everything was different. Elisabeth’s entire existence 46
was dominated and penetrated by an intuition, both terrifying and joyful, of the eschaton. “The old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Elisabeth felt called to be witness in the here and now of the new reality of “love without limits”: Of holiness, of works, of dignity Nothing can be found in me. Why have I been chosen? . . . I can only raise up my arms; I could not say Who knocked at my door, nor when . . . Calling me to struggle against every evil. Against Death itself. O my heart, know your emblem. That it might shine bright on the flags! Inscribe on your banner: “We will exult in the Lord!” Then your canticle will resound in the blaze of the flames, Then, my heart, you will receive Grace.
A Diaconal Ministry Concretely, the life of Elisabeth Skobtsova took a new direction. The ties between husband and wife became strained, and they separated in 1927, though maintaining a friendly relationship. Elisabeth committed herself fully to the organization Russian Student Christian Action [Action Chrétienne des Étudiants Russes or ACER], a youth movement born spontaneously in the heart of the Russian émigré community. ACER saw itself as a movement in the Orthodox Church. Its activity found strength in the celebration of the eucharistic mystery. But the movement also benefited from the impetus of the Russian religious renaissance at the beginning of the century, which had renewed the dialogue between the intelligentsia and the Orthodox
Church. Some prominent intellectuals, such as the Marxist economist Sergius Bulgakov and the libertarian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, experienced genuine conversions. These “major converts,” whose faith had passed through the test of doubt, inspired a youth movement that aspired, in exile, to “ecclesialize life” (to use an expression invented by the young believers themselves)—in other words, to penetrate all of life, in its social and personal dimensions, with the light of Christ. In this way, culture [culture] would become worship [culte] “in spirit and in truth.” Ordained a priest in 1918, Sergius Bulgakov taught dogmatic theology at the St. Sergius Institute of Orthodox Theology in Paris, founded in 1925. He became Elisabeth’s confessor and spiritual father. She established close ties with other members of this new Christian intelligentsia, such as Berdyaev, church historian Georgy Fedotov, and Konstantin Mochulsky, who wrote biographies of Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A special place in her relationships was reserved for Ilya Fundaminsky-Bunakov, a Socialist revolutionary like Elisabeth . . . of Jewish origins, but as later events would show, of Christian sympathies.1 In 1928, Elisabeth Skobtsova became ACER’s itinerant secretary, charged with visiting groups of Russian students in various university cities around France. She traveled throughout the country, giving lectures in Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, and Strasbourg. But she could not allow herself to be restricted to the university setting. With increasing frequency, she visited housing developments in industrial regions as well, where Russian émigrés, newly reduced to working class status, had found work in mines, foundries, and chemical The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
factories. In the course of her peregrinations, she discovered among her fellow exiles the chronically ill; the tubercular, the alcoholics, those no one wanted; Russians interned in psychiatric hospitals where no one could care for them because, for lack of a common language, communication had proved impossible. Her vocation as she began to understand it was not only to deliver brilliant lectures, but to bring consolation, to listen to confidences, and sometimes, when possible, to offer concrete help. One of her poems from this period speaks to the discovery of this vocation: What use to me clever intelligence what use bookish words when everywhere I see the dead face of despair, of nostalgia, of suicide.
At the camp in Compiègne, shortly before the deportation to Germany, Fundaminsky-Bunakov was baptized by Fr. Dmitri Klepinin.
O God, why is there no refuge? Why are there so many orphans and abandoned ones? Why the wandering of your bitter people in the immense, eternal desert of the world? I want to know only the joy of giving. Oh to console with all one’s being the suffering of the world. Oh that the fire, the cries of bloody dawns might be drowned in tears of compassion. Without bearing the title, Elisabeth was in fact exercising the ministry of a deaconess or, better, of a “spiritual mother.” After her lectures, people would press forward to speak with her in person. A line might form in front of the room where she had spoken, as if in front of a confessional. Forlorn men and women would tell her of their lives and share with her their intimate dramas. From these experiences there 47
arose in her the desire to obtain an official ecclesial ministry. Later, after she had taken religious vows, she obtained authorization from her bishop to preach after the Liturgy when she visited provincial parishes. But she was thinking especially of a total gift of herself to God and to her fellow man— to God through her fellow man—when she asked to take monastic vows. This desire, however, would come up against several obstacles. For many traditional Orthodox Christians, Elisabeth’s past, her political commitments, and especially her two marriages were incompatible with entry into monastic life. There is, however, a canon from the era of Justinian (sixth century), which allows for divorce when one of the spouses, with the agreement of the other, desires to embrace the monastic life. With considerable generosity, Daniel Skobtsov accepted the ecclesiastical divorce. On the basis of this agreement and Justinian’s canon, Metropolitan Evlogy, spiritual head of the Russian Orthodox parishes in Western Europe, was able to accede to Elisabeth’s wishes. The ceremony of monastic profession took place in March 1932 in the church of the St. Sergius Institute. The metropolitan himself presided and gave to the new nun the name of Maria, in remembrance of the great penitent St. Mary of Egypt. Perhaps the metropolitan saw in this new Maria a restorer of traditional feminine monasticism, the absence of which he so deplored in the ecclesial entity he directed. Others, like Berdyaev and Fr. Lev Gillet, feared that the monastic habit she adopted might prevent the new Mother Maria from fulfilling her true vocation.
Monasticism Open to the World In the summer that followed her monastic profession, Mother Maria vis48
ited several communities of women in Latvia and Estonia, former provinces of the Russian Empire where a regular and traditional monastic life had been retained. She returned from her travels persuaded more than ever that those traditional forms of monasticism were poorly adapted to the situation of Russian emigrés in Western Europe. They appeared to her obsolete and, moreover, contaminated by a “bourgeois” spirit, the polar opposite of the authentic radicalism of the monastic vocation. For many women, she seemed to notice, monasticism corresponded to a desire for a reassuring spiritual family. The monastery was viewed as a refuge, the monastic community as a family where one felt comfortable among one’s own, snugly “protected by the high walls from the ugliness and the misery of the world.” This conception, she thought, might perhaps have been appropriate for other times. But this was an apocalyptic time, a sort of end of the world. Her premonition, we must not forget, was situated in the context of the 30s in Europe: the rise of fascism and la Bête immonde (the Great Beast). But it went beyond that. Under the influence of Lev Gillet, Mother Maria rediscovered the eschatological dynamism of primitive Christianity. She dreamed of a creative monasticism renewed in response to the call deciphered in the “signs of the times”: a monasticism lived not in the desert or behind protective walls but in the world—fire and hearth ablaze in the middle of the city, as the great though neglected Russian theologian Alexander Bukharev envisioned it. Mother Maria sent monks and nuns everywhere a new challenge: Open your doors to the homeless thieves. . . . Let the whole world enter. Let the world destroy your magnificent liturgical edifices. Lower
yourselves, empty yourselves—an abasement that will be nothing in comparison to that of our God. Assume the vow of poverty in all its devastating rigor. Reject all comfort, even monastic comfort. May your choirs be purified through fire, so that they reject every comfort. Then you will be able to say: My heart is ready, my heart is ready. . . . For everyone, the only thing that matters is taking seriously the Gospel parable of the Last Judgment. Mother Maria exhorts: The path to God passes through the love of neighbor. There is no other way. At the Last Judgment, I will not be asked whether I have succeeded in my ascetical exercises. I will not be questioned about the number of my prostrations during prayer. I will be asked if I have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoner. With regard to every poor person, all the hungry, the imprisoned, the Savior said: It was I. I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sick and in prison.
A House Open to All The beginning of the 1930s in France was marked by a severe economic crisis. Russian émigrés were often its first victims. Mother Maria decided to open a house where all who arrived, as long as there remained even a little room, would be welcomed as brothers and sisters, whatever their condition. She had no money, but thought, like the Apostle Peter with his eyes fixed on Jesus, that one had to learn to walk on water. Thanks to some gifts (she was often helped by some Anglican friends), she managed to acquire a first house at 9 Villa de Saxe, in the seventh arrondissement. This first house soon proved too small, so she bought a diThe Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
lapidated apartment building on the rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth. There the Russian nun with the broad smile and unruly appearance, whose dress often bore traces of her most recent efforts in the kitchen or painting studio, became a popular fixture. At “the rue de Lourmel”—the familiar designation for her project—lived two or three nuns; a priest who served as chaplain for the house butwas also a professor of theology at St. Sergius; several unemployed persons without other resources; some Russian delinquents who, after their incarceration, had no place else to go; and several patients who had been locked away as mentally ill, but whom Mother Maria had managed to free from the psychiatric hospital after judging them to be of sound mind or only minimally dangerous. Also occasionally in residence were some young women whom she had attempted to remove from a life of prostitution, various artists and dancers from the Russian opera, and members of a Catholic Gregorian choir. Such was the “pandemonium”—the expression is from one of the chaplains of the rue de Lourmel. A chapel was set up in the courtyard and decorated with icons painted or embroidered by Mother Maria’s nimble hands. There the priest attached to the house regularly celebrated the Liturgy and the hours. Fr. Lev Gillet provided this ministry for several years. Fr. Lev, a monk of French origin, who loved and supported Mother Maria, was also at times a source of inspiration for her. He was replaced, when he left France in 1938, by a young married priest, Fr. Dmitri Klepinin. Mother Maria had decorated her chapel with love. But she barely tolerated the long Byzantine prayer offices (during which she admitted to boredom) and which she attended only 49
2 Then a large openair market, now an urban shopping mall (—trans.).
irregularly. She had so many things to do! She cooked meals and shopped at the markets. At dawn she could be found at Les Halles,2 where the merchants knew her well and offered her the best prices or gave away perishable products before they went bad. Occasionally she would spend the night at the cafés or bistros near Les Halles, where beggars and the homeless would doze hunched over the tables. She would speak to them, particularly to the Russians abandoned by everyone, and invite them to come see her in an attempt to address their problems. Fr. Lev Gillet, who often accompanied her on these excursions, spoke of the special charism of Mother Maria during a recorded conversation devoted to her memory. Mother Maria possessed a special gift for listening, immense compassion for sinners, and respect for the poor and humble. The Lord had said to her, “Go live among the vagabonds and the poor; between them and you, between the world and me, tie a knot that nothing will break.” A deaconess without the title, Mother Maria was nonetheless a typical Russian intellectual. Wearing her religious habit, she still smoked in public, shocking not a few observers and drawing upon herself severe criticism. An authentic social activist, she still adored discussion of theological and philosophical problems, often until late at night. The religious philosophical academy founded by Berdyaev met in her house and she took part in its meetings. In 1935, together with a few of her friends, she created Orthodox Action, an organization charged with directing and coordinating her ever-expanding social activities, a free spiritual fraternity of Orthodox Christian inspiration, and a society of inquiry and thought. She edited its journal, Novii Grad [The New City], which dealt with religious themes but
also social problems and politics, in a spirit of ecumenical openness. . . . In those years, Mother Maria experienced another great sorrow: the death of her eldest daughter, Gaïana, in Russia. She had returned to the land of her birth on the advice of André Gide. At the same time, the atmosphere in the house on the rue de Lourmel was often tense. Two opposing parties vied with each other more and more openly. The first consisted of Mother Maria and her friends associated with Orthodox Action. The second was associated with another nun, Mother Eudoxia, a woman of considerable virtue who, unlike Mother Maria, aspired to a traditional religious life centered on the opus dei, the celebration of the liturgical offices. The conflict was further poisoned by the presence of an archimandrite, pious and knowledgeable, but who lacked any sympathy for Mother Maria and did not understand her aspirations. Father Cyprian Kern supported Mother Eudoxia but instead of appeasing her threw gas on the fire. Mother Maria suffered from incomprehension of these tensions, but managed to overcome her bitterness, as she expressed in one of her poems of the time: I know the fire will be lit By the calm hand of a sister, And my brothers will look for the wood, And even the gentlest On my road all of sin Will say cruel words. My stake will burn —songs of my sisters, peaceful ringing of bells— in the Kremlin on the square for executions, or even here, in a foreign land, everywhere weighted down with piety.
From dead branches rises insubstantial smoke, the fire appears at my feet, the funeral song, louder. But the shadow neither dead nor empty, in it appears the Cross. My end, my final end.
Holy martyrs Ilya Fundaminsky, Mother Maria (Skobtsova), priest Dmitri (Klepinin), and Yuri (Skobtsov). Icon by Maria Struve.
The End The Second World War, so long anticipated by Mother Maria, broke out in 1939. After the debacle of 1940 came the German occupation, food shortages that struck the poor with special force, and soon the hunt for Jews, beginning with Jews of foreign origin. Mother Maria, who counted among her best friends the Russian Jew Eli (Ilya) Fundaminsky, did not hesitate for a moment in deciding what path to follow. Her house quickly became known as a place of refuge. Those who felt threatened by the danger could go there to be hidden, and efforts would be made to move them to safety in the Free Zone. Fr. Dmitri Klepinin delivered baptismal certificates to any who desired them. These things were common knowledge. It is said that Mother Maria was betrayed by someone who ate at her table. . . . On February 8, 1943, the Gestapo came in her absence and arrested her son Yuri, a student at the time; Fr. Dmitri; and the administrator of Orthodox Action, Feodor Pianov. Mother Maria was told that they would be liberated if she presented herself to the German police. When she did so, she was herself arrested, but neither her son nor her friends were released. All four were deported, the men to Buchenwald and Mother Maria to Ravensbrück. Of the four, only Pianov would return. On Mother Maria’s attitude during her captivity we possess the testimony The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
of several of her co-detainees. Particularly precious for me was that of a niece of General de Gaulle, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, who felt a profound friendship and great admiration for Mother Maria. Blessed with exceptional vitality, supported by an unshakable faith, Mother Maria was well equipped to resist the terrible ordeal of the concentration camp. “Everyone in the block knew her,” remembered one of her companions. “She got along with young and old, with those with progressive ideas, with believers and unbelievers alike. . . . In the evening, gathered around her miserable pallet, we would listen to her. . . . She spoke to us of her work in Paris, of her hope to see one day the reunion of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. . . . Thanks to her, we rediscovered a little courage whenever, crushed by the ever increasing weight of terror, we felt faint.” On the sly, obtaining some thread in exchange for a ration of bread, Mother Maria continued to embroider icons, and even to paint a little symbolic 51
fresco representing the landing of the Normans in Great Britain. But the last months before the Liberation were terrible. Sick with dysentery, Mother Maria saw her strength fail her. She scribbled a message on a sheet of paper, addressed to Metropolitan Evlogy and her spiritual father, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov. “Here is my status: I fully accept my suffering . . . and I accept death, if it comes, as a grace from on high.” 3
Father Lev Gillet.
She who had so often comforted others then fell silent, as if plunged deep in an interior dialogue, of which one of her poems speaks: Here is my soul riveted to its solitude, Only You and I. Your light, my sin. Here I am arrived at the limit. Your sun points to the East.
© 2016 The Wheel. May be distributed for noncommercial use. www.wheeljournal.com
Nothing is known for sure concerning Mother Maria’s end. Separated from her companions, transferred to the Jugendlager (youth camp) where the sick and the wounded were left to starve to death, she must have expired, according to Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, in utter destitution and solitude. Some believe they saw her name on a list of female prisoners gassed the 31st of March, 1945. Some said that she had taken the place of a young Polish woman among those condemned to the gas chamber. A few days later, in
the beginning of April, the camp was liquidated before the advancing Russian army. . . . The fate of Mother Maria Skobtsova might appear to be a complete failure. Her two marriages fell apart and her children died prematurely. She may have considered herself responsible for the arrest of her son. She never saw the victory over Nazi barbarism, a victory she never ceased to hope for. Orthodox Action barely survived her. Within Orthodox monasticism she had no disciples. Yet she remains alive. Her passionate appeals never cease to challenge and awaken us. Perhaps her influence after her death is comparable in the Orthodox world to that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Protestant world. Like him, she aspired to a “secularized” Christianity. Above all, she calls us to move beyond paralyzing structures of all kinds, toward him who is to come. One of her friends said that in a dream he saw her walking through a wheat field. He cried out to her: “What’s this? Mother Maria, someone told me you were dead!” Then, looking at him gently, she answered: “People tell so many stories. . . . You can see that I am quite alive!” The “monk of the Eastern Church”3 who reported this dream to me said of Mother Maria that she is “a modern Orthodox saint.”
Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (1907–2005) was possibly the most significant female Orthodox theologian of the twentieth century. As a young Lutheran, she studied philosophy in Strasbourg alongside Emmanuel Levinas. She joined the Orthodox Church in 1929, after attending Paschal Matins celebrated by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov in Paris and meeting Paul Evdokimov, Vladimir Lossky, and Fr. Lev Gillet. She subsequently became an active participant in the Parisian Orthodox theological circle, and in 1976 completed a doctoral thesis at the University of Nancy on the theologian Alexander Bukharev. She was the author of many books and articles on Orthodox theology and spirituality.
Orthros and the Synodal Divine Liturgy at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Crete (www.flic.kr/s/aHskD78ESx).
Out of Crete
Discerning the Mystery of the Church: Reflections on a Document of the Council of Crete Dragoş Andrei Giulea In the aftermath of the recent council held in Crete, the waters of the Orthodox world are still troubled by several disputes concerning both administrative and theological issues. Here I would like to tackle one of the theological matters: the distinction between the Orthodox Church and non-Orthodox Churches made in the document “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World.” The topic ignited some discussions before the council, when the draft did not include this distinction but simply applied the term church to Christian communities other than the Orthodox Church. For this reason, among others, the Patriarchate of Georgia refused to attend the synod, while voices such as those of the Greek bishops Hierotheos The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
Vlachos and Athanasios of Limassol, two synodal fathers who did not sign the document, continue to oppose the new formula.1 Against the background of this troubled setting, I will argue here that the distinction between “Orthodox” and “non-Orthodox” churches proposed in Crete is actually one of the most elegant ecclesiological expressions to date, and might be a starting point for future Orthodox ecclesiological elaboration.
Church: One Common and Many Technical Meanings If we try to define the term church, it is hard to discover a unique and generally-applicable formula. Fr. Georges Florovsky made the now-
For Hierotheos Vlachos, see his interview posted on Pravmir.com on July 2, 2016. www. pravmir.com/ why-i-did-not-signthe-text-relations-ofthe-orthodox-churchwith-the-rest-of-thechristian-world/. For Athanasios of Limassol, see the statement posted on Pravmir.com on July 5, 2016. www.pravoslavie. ru/english/95018. htm.
Georges Florovsky, “The Church: Her Nature and Task,” in Man’s Disorder and God’s Design, vol. 1: Universal Church in God’s Design (London: SCM Press, 1948), 43.
3 St. Basil, Epistle 242. 4
St. John Chrysostom, Instructions to Catechumens, 1.4.
classic observation that the term ekklēsia (church) was never defined by the Church fathers or other theologians: It is impossible to start with a formal definition of the Church. For, strictly speaking, there is none which could claim any doctrinal authority. None can be found in the Fathers. No definition has been given by the Ecumenical Councils. In the doctrinal summaries, drafted on various occasions in the Eastern Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century and taken often (but wrongly) for the “symbolic books,” again no definition of the Church was given, except a reference to the relevant clause of the Creed, followed by some comments. This lack of formal definitions does not mean, however, a confusion of ideas or any obscurity of view. The Fathers did not care so much for the doctrine of the Church precisely because the glorious reality of the Church was open to their spiritual vision. One does not define what is self-evident.2 Nevertheless, I will continue this discussion following a different avenue of argumentation, and begin with the observation that the notion of church is ambivalent: it may denote either the community (the assembly of Christians) or the institution of the Church defined in the terms of technical theological idiom. The first meaning is the most common, being widely used, non-technical, and originating in the common ancient Greek meaning of ekklēsia, which may be rendered in English simply as “community,” “congregation,” or “assembly,” and need not designate one that is religious. We must note that this general and ordinary meaning is largely the one intended in the Bible and the writings of the Church fathers, as well as in our day, and in many contexts of everyday life, with the slightly more qualified meaning of a Christian
community or assembly. Every Christian person, Orthodox or Pentecostal, Catholic or Methodist, Lutheran or Anglican, knows that on Sunday morning, Christians go to church. Two other distinctive features are implied in this common meaning. First, it does not entail a dogmatic dimension, beyond its later reference to a Christian community. Second, the term church, understood in this sense, can be negatively qualified. In the New Testament, for instance, God reprehends seven churches of Asia Minor for some of their members’ behaviors and ideas. Certain people from the church in Pergamum “hold to the teaching of Balaam” (Rev. 2:14), while the church in Sardis as a whole is “dead” (Rev 3:1) and is enjoined to repent. Likewise, the church of Laodicea is addressed the following sharp words: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16). St. Basil of Caesarea, who lived in a period of tragic ecclesial division similar to that of our times, complained that Arians introduced wrong theological expressions, “and for this reason, the churches, having become rotten, like vessels made porous, received the heretical corruption that was streaming in.”3 Thus, while in patristic texts the term ekklēsia was indeed mostly used to denote the one Church, an orthodox community, one may also find the term associated several times with non -orthodox groups: historians such as Socrates and Sozomen employ the expressions “Arian church” and “Novatian church,” while in St. John Chrysostom, one may find the phrase “the church of the nations” (tēs ek tōn ethnōn ekklēsias).4 By contrast, the second meaning is more narrow, technical, and dogmatic,
with a history emerging already in the New Testament with the first apostolic attempts to identify the specific marks and attributes of the new Christian community. The dogmatic dimension can be fully encountered in this second meaning, which denotes the Church as Christ’s one and holy bride, and has never received a negative attribute in the Bible or the Church Fathers. Thus, the Church is portrayed as the “community of God,” or as a living organism, a unique “body” guided by its head, Jesus Christ.5 Developing a related point, St. Ignatius of Antioch proclaims in the second century that “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the universal church.”6 In his Letter to the Trallians, the Church is already envisioned as a congregation organized according to a hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons. Here, we should note that what constitutes the Church in an authentic way actually includes a certain tacit definition: the Church is the community in which Jesus Christ is present. Likewise, St. Irenaeus of Lyons avows that, “wherever the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and all the grace.” 7 Once again, this description encapsulates the idea that the Church cannot consist of any other human community than the one in which the Spirit of God is manifest. In contemporary terms, St. Ignatius’s definition is christological and St. Irenaeus’s is pneumatological. It has been observed that a concerted effort to articulate the defining elements of the Church emerged much later, in the fifteen century, when the Reformation ignited a real debate over the identifying characteristics of the ekklēsia and its nature: should this include the sacraments? If so, which ones, and performed under what conditions? These discussions triggered the beginning of a more systematic reflection on the nature of the Church, The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
and the emergence of a new theological discipline, ecclesiology. Later on, in the twentieth century, ecumenical dialogues gave new stimulus and stirred up more methodical inquires into this topic, and led ecclesiology to reach its age of maturity, and—hopefully!—of wisdom. In the history of Orthodox theology, we may encounter several distinct ecclesiological models and visions of the nature of the Church, as Fr. Cyril Hovorun has demonstrated: organic (St. Paul), christological (St. Ignatius), pneumatological (St. Irenaeus), incarnational (St. Athanatius, the Cappadocian Fathers, and St. Cyril of Alexandria), symphonic (medieval Byzantium), Sophiological (Solovyov and Bulgakov), “new reality” (Florovsky), eucharistic (Afanasiev), personalist (Zizioulas), and trinitarian (Stăniloae and Lossky).8 All of these factors lead us to a conclusion which slightly modifies Fr. Florovsky’s position: we are not able to reach a definition of the Church, not because there is none, but because there are too many.9
Apophatic Ecclesiology Moving one step beyond this observation, I would argue that a final and comprehensive definition of church will always be impossible, because the term will remain part of the ongoing evolution of theological reflection on the ekklēsia understood as a constant human collective dialogue with God. Thus, it will perpetually remain an open concept. Theology itself, as an area of human reflection, continuously enacts a relationship between God and humans. Ecclesiology is a theological endeavor to discern the mystery of God’s actions in his people. It will always provide a human—though hopefully inspired—perspective on this mystery. Any view on the Church con-
For the expression “community of God” (ekklēsia toū Theoū) see 1 Cor. 10:32; 11:16; 15:9; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4; for the Church as Christ’s body, see Eph. 4:11–16; 5:23.
6 Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8.2. 7
Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 3.24.1.
Cyril Hovorun, Meta-Ecclesiology: Chronicles on Church Awareness (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
This situation is not limited to the Orthodox world, but each Christian confession includes different theological opinions. Inter-confessional dissimilarities are sometimes very profound. See, for instance, VeliMatti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
stantly reflects the way in which we, as human beings, understand the relationship between God and us. Since the ekklēsia is a living and ongoing human existential relationship with God, the meaning of this term will always be open to a constant enrichment and deeper examination.
10 André Scrima, Apophatic Anthropology, trans. Octavian Gabor (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2016). 11
St. John Chrysostom states that the Church, similar to God, is described by many names, none of them presenting the whole truth but each a small part. See Two Homilies to Eutropius, 2.6.
In this way, the impossibility of reaching a final definition of the term church entails a surprisingly positive consequence: it shifts our attention from the linguistic dimension to the mystical one of discerning the meaning of ekklēsia by living and advancing into its mystery. Thus, we discover its apophatic dimension while realizing that a final definition will ever be an unattainable target, since we are fundamentally unable to grasp the essence of the Church. But we will always be able to advance in our understanding of its mystery in which language and contemplation intertwine and constantly send our minds to this ungraspable work of God in his people. As theologians such as Fr. André Scrima have argued, the human being, in a manner similar to God, implies an enthralling apophatic dimension.10 Since the Church is an assembly of humans, she will always include an unknown and ineffable dimension. Fr. Scrima’s line of reasoning suggests that one may elaborate an apophatic ecclesiology. I would even advance that the nature of the Church, like the nature of God and the nature of the human being, is fundamentally apophatic.11 By using this term I do not mean that the church should be defined exclusively through negative attributes, but that its essence is unfathomable, and its life, which is our relationship with God, will never be adequately expressed through human language. Consequently, it will be always impossible to reach a comprehensive
and ultimate definition of the concept of the Church. Any effort in ecclesiology would attempt to define the ekklēsia from a certain limited perspective. Beyond all our attempts to grasp the meaning of the church in some linguistic formula, an ineffable and apophatic facet will always characterize her, since she is our infinite relationship with God. As in the case of defining God, one phrase or another may describe a particular facet of this relationship, and therefore the Church, in positive terms; at the same time, however, an unknown, concealed, and actually infinite dimension will perpetually remain within the mystery of its existence.
The Distinction Proposed by the Synod of Crete From this theoretical background we may once again approach the term church as employed at the Council of Crete. In the reaction of its critics, we can discern an authentic concern for a key technical understanding of the Church: namely, the ekklēsia seen as the repository of revealed truth, as the channel of grace and of the Holy Spirit inherited through apostolic succession, and of the Spirit operating in the sacraments. We have to agree, on the one hand, that all these elements are fundamental constituent dimensions of the ekklēsia, and they should be included in any good definition of the notion of the Church. On the other hand, the critics’ understanding of the Church is restricted exclusively to this technical meaning. We may call it the “narrow sense only” position. This sense is neither comprehensive nor final, nor the best definition of the Church, but one articulated only from a liturgical-dogmatic perspective. This position cannot account for the negative connotations sometimes associated with the word ekklēsia in the
New Testament and in the writing of St. Basil. To the restricted view of the “narrow sense only” position, I would oppose the ecclesiological vision proposed by the Council of Crete and its terminological solution, which I appreciate as more congruent with the history of this term in the Orthodox tradition. Instead of distinguishing between Church and not-Church, the document of Crete posits a distinction between “the Orthodox Church” and “non-Orthodox Churches.” The key consequence is that it confers more flexibility on the concept of ekklēsia, which now is able to cover at the same time both the narrow, technical meaning, and also the common meaning used in the Bible, the writings of the Church Fathers, and our everyday language. Another key aspect of the conciliar definition is that the ancient term orthodox shines with new light in this context, encompassing all of the dogmatic qualifications of the notion of the Church, and in so doing answering the critics’ concerns. Once again, I submit that their real concerns about the definition of the term church are not about a word but a more profound theological idea, namely, the unique preservation of the truth and the unique validity of the sacraments of the Orthodox Church—in a word, its ortho-doxy. I suggest that, in accor-
dance with the distinction used by the Council of Crete, the term orthodox is associated to the word church, when it conveys the narrow, technical, and dogmatic aspect which identifies the Orthodox Church as the preeminent channel of grace and truth, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic ekklēsia in direct continuity with the Church which Christ initiated, fostered, and guided throughout the centuries to the present days through the Holy Spirit. As with all human formulations, the new definition may not be perfect or final, but it implies three aspects which mark a positive step forward from the “narrow sense only” position. First, the distinction offers a more elegant and efficient solution to the use of the word church, since it covers, simultaneously and without contradiction, the two vital facets of the notion, the common and the more technical. Second, while the common meaning is more faithful to biblical, patristic, and present everyday use in which the term church is simply understood as Christian community, the second sense covers the narrow, technical, and dogmatically necessary facets. Third, it is more open to other Christians who confess their faith in Christ and the Trinity. For these reasons, the Council of Crete’s use of the word church is a stimulating and appropriate starting point for any future articulation of an Orthodox ecclesiological vision.
© 2016 The Wheel. May be distributed for noncommercial use. www.wheeljournal.com
The Rev. Dragoş Andrei Giulea, Ph.D., is the rector of St. Benoîtde-Nursie parish (OCA) in Montreal and a part-time faculty member at Concordia University in the same city. He has published several books and articles in the fields of philosophy and patristics.
The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
St. Gregory Nazianzen John McGuckin Of all the ancients, You I think I could live with,
( some of the time)
comfortable in you like an old coat sagged and fraying at the back, (its pockets drooping with important nothings like string, and manuscripts of poems) perfect for watching you off your guard, rambling round your country garden, planting roses, not turnips,
contrary to the manual for a sensible monk; master of the maybe; anxious they might take you up all wrong; shaking your fist at an Emperor,
(once he had turned the corner
out of sight);
every foray into speech a costed regret.
Your heart was like a spider’s silk swinging wildly at the slightest breeze, too tender for this tumbling world of mountebanks, and quacks and gobs, but tuned to hear the distant voices of the singing stars
and marvel at the mercy of it all.
– April 1999
The Very Rev. Dr. John A. McGuckin is the Nielsen Professor of Early Church History at Union Theological Seminary and a professor of Byzantine Christian studies at Columbia University. He is the author of over 25 books on the early Christian Church, including St. Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (2001). The Path of Christianity, a history of the first millennium of the Church, will be published in March 2017. Three volumes of his Collected Studies in New Testament, patristic, and mystical theology will appear in April 2017. Fr. John is president of the Sophia Institute, a research foundation dedicated to Orthodox culture and history. He is the rector of St. Gregory’s Orthodox parish in New York City.
The Wheel 7 | Fall 2016
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Coming soon from The Wheel Fr. Georges Florovsky
The Body of the Living Christ: An Orthodox Interpretation of the Church Available this summer for pre-order and download from www.wheeljournal.com
Father Georges Florovsky (1893–1979) was one of the most influential Orthodox intellectuals of the twentieth century: a consummate philosopher and theologian, pioneer of the neopatristic synthesis, and devoted ecumenist. Part of the Russian emigration, he taught at Saint Sergius Institut in Paris, became Dean of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, and later taught at both Harvard and Princeton Universities. The Body of the Living Christ is Florovsky’s most extensive treatment of ecclesiology, and now appears complete in English for the first time. Translated with an introduction by Archpriest Robert Arida, this learned but accessible work will prove insightful to all those engaged in the task of imagining and understanding the Church today.