I haven’t abandoned this series, and will hopefully conclude the summary of this article in the following post. I do intend to engage with it more as I am noticing all sorts of resonances. Once I’ve finished this article, I will return to the Florovsky blogging, and possibly return to the rest of this book at a later stage…

Having noted some Orthodox objections to the term “spirituality,” Father Alexander Golubov’s essay on “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective”* proceeds to consider western discussions of the term that emerged in the 1960s. He notes the work of Walter Principe and Ewert Cousins, before focusing on the contribution of Sandra Schneiders, which, he argues,

comes closest to Orthodox understanding – at least on the basis of ‘practical’ or ‘applied’ theology – and is useful to us precisely as a sounding board, as it were, for testing aspects of Christian spirituality understood specifically from the Orthodox perspective. (Kindle Location 190)

Schneiders summarizes Christian spirituality as:

personal participation in the mystery of Christ begun in faith, sealed by baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, nourished by the sharing of the Lord’s Supper [i.e., Eucharist], which the community celebrated regularly in memory of Him who was truly present wherever his followers gathered, and was expressed by a simple life of universal love that bore witness to life in the Spirit and attracted others to the faith. (201)

While it would appear that all the essentials are in place in this understanding, Father Golubov raises “a third major issue in a focused study of spirituality,” namely, that of “the theological context of the discussion, as well as the dangers of facile formulaic definitions taken out of such context.” (201) Spirituality is both formed and informed by theology, which raises the question of the theological meaning of Schneiders’ description. While she gives adequate explanations elsewhere, “in contexts wherein definitions of spirituality, such as the one given above, stand on their own merit, absent a larger framework of discussion, inevitable confusion arises about implicit theological assumptions standing behind such definitions.” (211)

This leads Golubov to argue that “The stark realization, ultimately, is that an externally descriptive approach to Christian spirituality is, at best, meaningless, absent the dimensions of theological definition and evaluation, appropriation and understanding of inner goals and purposes.” (211) Such a definition provides no clear answers to the question of Jesus Christ’s identity, nor does it clarify what “participation in the mystery of Christ” involves. Moreover, such a descriptive approach also lacks an understanding of human nature and the need for a transformational inner struggle.

Is spiritual metamorphosis, or transfiguration, a noteworthy component of Christian spirituality? Or is it that “a simple life of universal love” is somehow (how – magically?) to be attained without need for any internal striving or struggle (askesis) implicit in Christian living, without the necessity of self-denial and crucifixion of the self, as implicit in the injunction “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:23-25; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:23-26)? And is there, in fact, in “coming after,” or “following” Christ, a “way” to be travelled, a “spiritual journey” to be undertaken? Is there any movement, development, growth, direction on the way, or a goal that is to be achieved at the end of the journey? (230)

Finally, there is the question of the role of theology. Father Golubov argues that:

It is, in fact, theology, as intentionally engaged in the process of ongoing theological reflection, that directly imparts both meaning and direction to authentic spirituality, not only in the active categories of speaking or informing, but also in passive terms, as hearing and appropriating, or even in seeking deeper theological understanding.

From this perspective, then, beyond exhibiting the inherent weakness of a purely “descriptive” approach to spirituality, there is implicit in stand-alone definitions of Christian spirituality a certain theological naïveté that speaks, perhaps, to a larger failure of theological understanding; it is here, in fact, that we meet up, once again, with the difficult issues of Christian living that have been identified and raised by Evdokimov and Florovsky. (241)

To be continued…

* This forms the foreword to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality. My previous posts on it can be found here and here.

Just to note that I have re-launched my bookbinding shop on Etsy, where I am selling some rather uniquely-bound Bibles. I hope to standardise both the Bibles and Kindle covers available in the near future once I’ve got more leather, but in the meantime I really need to sell these, so please feel free to share if you know anyone interested…

b1a b5a b2b

 

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After a break of some years, I have decided to try and start selling prayer ropes again, and have opened a shop on Etsy. My life is still rather in transition, but I need to find ways of supporting myself (and the work of the mission) and I find making prayer ropes more conducive to a life of prayer than editing theses! I’m also planning to reopen my bookbinding shop (which has been closed since moving) in the near future.

This blog has continued to be neglected, but I hope to get on a more even keel before too long. In the meantime, if you know of people who are looking for prayer ropes, please direct them to my shop! (I’ve also put a link in the side bar).

P.S. On the topic of prayer ropes, I have discovered that there are very helpful resources on the Jesus Prayer here. (Actually, the whole site is very good).

 

Having noted the importance of context and the meaning of words in his preface to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality, Father Alexander Golubov turns his attention to the confusion around the word “spirituality” in the contemporary West. Quoting Paul Evdokimov, he notes that:

the word “spirituality” has nowadays acquired an almost faddish quality. It is glibly used in many different, almost contradictory, contexts to point to, or describe, certain aspects or modes of human “being,” as represented by beliefs and practices that are deemed to be of a “spiritual” nature, but which most often do not easily fall into the comfortable frameworks either of so-called “institutional religion” (as elements, properly, of religious belief or religious doctrine), or, alternatively, of an essentially secular-humanist, rational and empirical mindset that tends to negate religiosity on principle, as something vaguely old-fashioned and retrograde, thus inappropriate for modern public consumption, and tends to see the primary locus of spirituality as being somehow situated apart from, or in opposition to, religion. (Kindle Location 99)

Nevertheless, spirituality can include a curiosity about Christian and non-Christian ascetical and mystical traditions. This includes:

expressions of Orthodox culture as seen through the prisms of Orthodox liturgy, architecture, iconography or literature (i.e., the “writings of the fathers”) all of these, indeed, can easily fall into loosely construed denotative and connotative categories of this fuzzy and slippery word. (Kindle Location 109)

Given this, it is hardly surprising that some Orthodox theologians should be wary of the word “spirituality.” Golubov highlights the concerns of Father Stanley Harakas and Giorgios Mantzarides who reject the use of the word in an Orthodox context. Harakas argues that, in contrast to terms such as “spiritual life,” it has a “reified, objectified and ‘substance-like’ connotation” that he sees as related to western ideas about grace. He writes:

The parallel between ‘spirituality’ and grace understood as ‘created,’ an objective substance which is ‘conveyed’ by the sacraments, is too obvious to need documenting. It is no accident that a theological milieu accustomed to the understanding of divine grace as a created substance which was capable of being dispensed or withheld by the official Church, could in a quite analogous way, create the term ‘spirituality’ and live comfortably with it. (Kindle Location 120)

Mantzarides likewise argues that the term “spirituality” is unknown in the biblical and patristic tradition and derives from Western theology, contrasting the religious life of the faithful to that of the world, and being in danger of reducing Christianity to an ideology. He writes:

Spirituality is an abstract concept which has no place in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Spirituality is the mother of materialism, together with whatever distorts and dissolves the universality of the truth of Christianity. Therefore, the concept of ‘Orthodox spirituality’ must be abandoned. (Kindle Location 130)

While both Harakas and Mantzarides make claims that could be challenged, it nevertheless seems clear to me that much of the language of “spirituality” emerged out of a western Christian context that had lost the earlier unity between theology and a lived life of faith. And it is this unity that persists in an Orthodox understanding and that should make us cautious about adopting words that have a particular history. However, as Golubov notes, this concern is not unique to Orthodox Christians but has also been discussed among western scholars.

To be continued…

I have recently started reading Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality and it seems that it could be a book worth blogging on. Despite all appearances to the contrary, I do intend to resume blogging on Father Georges Florovsky. However, my copy of Bible, Church, Tradition has been in a box in Cape Town for the last few months (although it is now on its way here), while I have Orthodox Spirituality on my Kindle. Whether I do blog through the rest of this book remains to be seen (and for those who are interested Emma Cazabonne has reviewed it here).

However, it occurs to me that the foreword by Father Alexander Golubov addresses a topic that I have long been interested in, and that I have sometimes alluded to on this blog, namely, “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective.” “Spirituality” is a word that has become popular in many Christian and academic circles – in stark contrast to the suspicion with which it was viewed in my undergraduate days thirty-odd years ago. Yet in the meantime, I, who once devoured books on the “mystics” and persuaded my lecturers to allow me to shape courses around them, have become decidedly wary of it (and of its cousin “mysticism”).  But it is not that easy to articulate this wariness, or at least I have not yet got down to doing so. And, frankly, I sometimes wonder if I am just being impossibly pedantic objecting to it at all.

It was therefore rather a relief to realise that the publishers of a book with such a title considered that there was at least a question to be addressed, and Father Golubov’s essay resonated with me at several points. It therefore seems worth noting some of them.

The first point that Golubov makes is the relationship between the context in which theological language operates and the broader frame of reference in which it is heard. Christian truth is not meant to be preserved in some cultural ghetto, but preached to the whole world. The context in which Orthodox Spirituality was written was that of the confessing Orthodox Church in twentieth century Romania in which

the authentic ‘Orthodox spirituality’ of the Church, in a very real sense, stood in understated opposition to an all-encompassing pressure of a patently ‘false spirituality’ propagated by the social and religious doctrine of Marxist scientific atheism, a battle standard, as it were, that permitted not only resistance and survival in a hostile environment, but also inspired the inners struggle for victory. (Kindle Location 53)

Golubov argues that contemporary Western culture has much in common with this hostile environment. He quotes Father Georges Florovsky who writes:

It is precisely because we are already engaged in the apocalyptic struggle that we are called upon to do work as theologians. Our task is to oppose the atheistic and anti-God attitude, which surrounds us like a viscosity, with a responsible and conscious profession of Christian truth… Unbelieving knowledge of Christianity is not objective knowledge, but rather some kind of anti-theology. There is in it so much passion, at times blind, often obscure and malignant… Here again, theology is called not only to judge, but also to heal. It is necessary to enter into this world of doubt, illusion and lies, in order to answer doubt as well as reproach. But we must enter into this world with the sign of the Cross in our heart and the name of Jesus in our spirit, because this is a world of mystical wanderings, where everything is fragmentalized, decomposed and refracted as it were through a set of mirrors. (Kindle Location 72)

While Orthodoxy and the West share a common history, as Orthodox theology once more engages in a Western context, it faces the challenge of finding a comprehensible language in which to be faithful to the patristic tradition.

Here, too, spirituality as a concept acquires layers of meaning and significance not simply as descriptive terminology applied to the topography of Christian life, or as designating a particular field of academic inquiry and a formative goal of the seminary curriculum, but also as a significant commonality bridging the cultural fissure between Christian East and Christian West. (Kindle Location 79)

To be continued…

These are some thoughts that I’ve had going through my head for some years, and I was finally motivated to write them down a couple of months ago in the context of certain discussions I heard concerning the Great and Holy Council. I shared them on Facebook then, but am posting them here now in order to have them more readily accessible.

When I was a Cistercian novice many years ago, I learnt an important lesson about order in the Church that I have been reminded of recently and that I suspect may have broader relevance.

As some may recall, the Rule of Saint Benedict states that the rank of the monks in the monastery is dependent on their date of entrance, irrespective of their age or social standing. Therefore, “someone who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day must recognize that he is junior to someone who came at the first hour.” Likewise, when a priest enters the monastery, his rank is based on “the date of his entry into the community, and not that granted him out of respect for his priesthood.” This rank orders the daily life, so that “when the monks come for the kiss of peace and for Communion, when they lead psalms or stand in choir” they do so in order of their entry into the monastery. While the abbot may make changes to this rank based on the virtue of their lives, he cannot allow this to be based on worldly considerations.

All this talk of rank may sound alien to our supposedly egalitarian world, but there is something crucially important going on here. Saint Benedict acknowledges and insists that a healthy community needs order. But, by basing that order on something relatively arbitrary, such as the hour of entry into the community, he is also explicitly ruling out an ordering of the community based on age, social distinction, wealth, or other worldly means of exercising power.

I didn’t pay too much attention to any of this initially when I was a novice. Like anyone else who enters a community, I was last in rank for a while, with those ahead of me being both younger and less educated than I was, but I never really bothered about it. But then somebody entered after me who had previously been in another community and who had great difficulty in having to be last in rank. That, and the way she had to work through it, made me realize that there was actually something very significant going on. I realized that it is precisely the arbitrariness of the rank that is a great gift, for it asks us to lay aside all our other identities and power games and accept the truth of who we are in real humility. What matters is not our rank, but our willingness to obey and accept the place given to us – and it is precisely this willingness to obey that indicates spiritual maturity.

I have been reminded of this as I witness some of the rather distressing power play going on in the Orthodox world at present. Like the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Church also has an order that she has inherited from her formative years, in which the ancient patriarchates have a certain rank and are expected to follow a certain order. And yet we now hear voices arguing that certain patriarchates should no longer be accorded primacy because they no longer have worldly might, while others that boast great wealth and power should be accorded a greater rank.

There is no doubt a certain logic to this, but I suspect that it is the logic of my fellow-novice (who was perhaps only articulating what all of us feel in some way) and not the logic of the Gospel, or of the Rule, or of the Church’s order. For this logic is based, not on our achievements or worldly power, but on our willingness to lay aside our own agendas and accept the place that is given to us in real humility. And it is precisely the arbitrariness of that place that is the greatest gift. For it allows all to submit to an order that is already given, rather than one that expresses our own will to power that constantly seeks to reassert itself.

This post is much overdue, and I am afraid that I have not been very good at keeping in touch with all sorts of people, much less doing much on this blog. There are various reasons for this, which I won’t go into here, but it may be good to give a brief update on where I am now.

Just before Christmas last year, His Eminence Archbishop Sergios asked me to consider moving to Pietermaritzburg to take responsibility for Saint Mark’s Orthodox Mission in Edendale. This was totally unexpected to me (we had been discussing a possible move, but Pietermaritzburg had not crossed my mind), but the more I considered it, the more I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this was what God asking me, despite being aware that it would be quite a challenging situation.

This is an old photo from the Archbishopric website - I still need to take some good current photos...

This is an old photo of the mission from the Archbishopric website – I still need to take some good current photos…

I moved here at the beginning of May, and it has indeed proved rather challenging, but also hopeful. The original plan was that I should live at the mission, where there is a church and a house. However, that turned out to not really be viable and instead I have found a hermitage at the bottom of someone’s garden that overlooks a forest and is quite idyllic! I am continuing to support myself and hope to continue selling books (and possibly other things) on Etsy once I am more settled. And I have gradually been making contacts with people in the area. Lots of things are going to have to develop slowly, but there are hopeful signs and I have met some wonderful people. I’ll post more news about some developments in due course.

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I am planning to do a website that will give more information about the mission, provide a contact point for people around here who search for information about Orthodoxy, and also enable people to support us if they would like to do so. I am also seriously hoping to revive this blog, and possibly do some other things online, so watch this space. But I would also value your prayers for the whole situation – it is challenging, but it also has much potential.