I have recently read the account of Archimandrite Placide Deseille’s conversion to Orthodoxy. Well, “read” might not be the best word as it is in French and my French leaves much to be desired. But, although I didn’t have time to sit with a dictionary and read it all carefully, I understood enough to find it interesting. Father Placide was a Cistercian monk (of Bellefontaine in France) and one of the leading scholars of the Order and so I have always been rather curious about his story. While there are aspects to it with which I am less than entirely comfortable, notably his rebaptism on Mount Athos, I must admit that his tone is more irenic than I had been led to believe. It is also fascinating for the light that it sheds on Cistercian life in the middle decades of the twentieth centuries. He speaks with fondness and appreciation for his superiors and formators and the grounding that he received in the Fathers of the Church and the monastic tradition. But this appreciation for the Fathers was not shared by everyone: he tells of one superior who, while admitting that there were good things in the Fathers, argued that there was no true theology in the Church before Saint Thomas Aquinas and no mysticism before Saint Bernard, and even that had to wait until Saint John of the Cross before reaching maturity! Perhaps the less said about that the better.
What I find interesting though is his discussion of what happened to the preconciliar biblical, liturgical and patristic renewal. He writes:
I expected much of these efforts but two things disturbed me. On the one hand, they clearly had a limited audience and did not reach the majority of French diocesan clergy. On the other hand, a powerful and vital party in the Roman Church was engaged in the Catholic Action movement and in pastoral research emerging from the worker priest movement. I was moved by a real sympathy for the multitude of initiatives and the undeniable apostolic fervour that they expressed. But at the same time I was aware that, despite the partial convergence, the climate there was different to that of the biblical and patristic renewal. The praxis of Catholic Action implied an ecclesiology that was without doubt that of the Counter Reformation and which did not sit easily with that of the ancient Church. One also saw in this movement a tendency to the types of celebrations that were foreign to the spirit of the traditional liturgies. I encountered in all this a new incarnation of modern Catholicism rather than living return to the sources which would have demanded a radical renewal.
I did not sufficiently appreciate that it was the second current, rather than the first, that represented the real logic of modern Catholicism and which would in all likelihood neutralise and supplant the other tendencies. I was hoping that the dry bones would revive, that all that the traditional elements that the Roman Church had conserved in its institutions and liturgy would be rediscovered as a tonic to nourish modern humanity. I was hoping that everything of the Catholicism of the Counter Reformation that was alien to the great tradition of the Church would give way to a resurrection of the “Western Orthodoxy” of the first centuries as a result of the meeting of the ancient heritage and the living forces of the present.
While he welcomed the Council “with great joy,” he gradually realised the ambiguity of the various currents of ideas and his hopes for a return to the sources began to fade. The Council did not so much cause this as reveal what was going on. Much of the traditional institutions, and to a certain extent the liturgy, was able to survive because of strong central power. But people, especially the clergy, had to a large extent lost the deeper meaning and this would lead to a rebuilding on a new basis.
While the rapid disintegration of twentieth century Catholicism was troubling, Father Placide came to realise that it had deeper roots and was part of a certain logic of Catholicism itself.
This led me to reflect on the religious history of the West, and especially on the profound changes that one can identify in all areas between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. In this period one sees changes in the institutions of the Church (notably the understanding of the papacy in the Gregorian reform), the sacramental rites (abandoning baptism by emersion, communion under two species, the deprecative formula for absolution etc.), doctrine (introduction of the Filioque in the Symbol, development of the scholastic method in theology). At the same time one saw the appearance of a new religious art that was naturalistic and broke with the canons of traditional Christian art that were elaborated during the course of the patristic period.
(If anyone is interested, Aaron Taylor of Logismoi recently posted on an essay of Fr Placide Deseille on Orthodoxy and Catholicism).