As I indicated before, The Compassion of the Father by Father Boris Bobrinskoy is a book that resonated deeply with me. That may say as much about me as it does about the book, but I think that it is worth blogging about, for I suspect that it could also be helpful to others and there are in any case things that I need to return to. The book consists of a collection of essays that have been arranged around three themes. The first is that of facing evil and suffering, the second that of the Liturgy of the heart, and the third is that of the knowledge of God. This is no cheap Gospel that is presented but a challenging and authentic interpretation of what it means to be a Christian today.

The book starts with a biographical essay by Maxime Egger that introduces one to the author and to themes that recur in the rest of the book, and which contains quotes from an extensive interview and from his writings, especially his homilies. Egger makes the point that while Father Boris has written and spoken much, much of his writing has been in response to requests and his published works have been largely collections of articles or theology courses. While we may certainly regret that he did not write more books, this does indicate the pastoral nature of his life’s work.

Egger begins this introduction by describing Father Boris’ childhood in the Russian emigration in Paris, his Jesuit schooling (of which he retains fond memories) and his studies the Saint Sergius Institute. During the cold and poverty stricken post-war years (“As I preferred buying books instead of food with the little money I had received as a grant, I fell ill and lost a year”) the intellectual climate of Saint Sergius was inspiring – Father Bulgakov had just died, Vladimir Lossky was a persona non grata at Saint Sergius but Father Boris nevertheless became friends with him, and Father Schmemann had just started teaching and stimulating discussion! This was also the time of Catholic and Anglican biblical, patristic and liturgical renewals that influenced him deeply.

While thinking about it again, it was indeed a quite extraordinary time, a unique moment of renewal, a convergence between biblical, liturgical and patristic theology, with a truly ecumenical openness, a search to overcome the divisions between Christians by going back as far as possible to rediscover the common trunk of the one Church of the East and the West. (12)

Saint Sergius was followed by post-graduate work in Greece, which included an extended stay on Mount Athos, marriage, ordination, ecumenical engagement and doctoral work in Neuchâtel where he forged links with the Protestant sisters of Grandchamp, and a return to a teaching post at Saint Sergius. This was soon augmented by responsibilities as a parish priest in the francophone parish of the Holy Trinity in Paris. His ecumenical work, which decreased due to responsibilities at Saint Sergius where he became dean in 1993, included work on the filioque and the current crisis of ecumenism is a source of suffering to him.

There is a great crisis of conscience with respect to ecumenism, which makes the space for action more and more limited and difficult. In several countries, the noteworthy and encouraging ecclesial renewal is accompanied by a religious and confessional contraction in various circles, monastic or other, within the parameters of an Orthodoxy in search of its identity and which often knows nothing except that it is against: against the other churches, the Catholics, the Protestants, and the Uniates. …

The Orthodox Church can only appeal to unity and for a return of the separated churches only if it searches beforehand to authenticate and actualize its own collegial, eucharistic, and sacramental life as well as its organization because it is threatened by grave dangers: dogmatic hardening, ritualism, conservatism, intolerance towards communities that o outside, and aestheticism. Consequently, the primacy of love expresses infinite respect for the other and therefore passes through a shared repentance for the weight of the past. (20)

After focusing on Father Boris’ charisms as a liturgist, preacher, spiritual father and theologian, Egger turns to the unity of life and thought that characterises his work and which seeks to hold together the right praise of God, the purification of the heart, and the biblical and patristic theological tradition. He (Egger) writes:

The human being, on a quest for union with the Holy Trinity and for inner unity between the heart and the mind, cannot dissociate the Eucharist, prayer, asceticism, and mental labor. Purification of the mind and thoughts, through the invocation of the Name of Jesus Christ and the sacramental life, are indispensable in approaching and describing the mystery – by essence inaccessible and unfathomable – of Christ and the Trinity. Purification prevents the reduction of this mystery to a mere theological doctrine or a scholastic speculation, to its enclosure in a language that inevitably is inadequate, because it is human. (25-26)

Likewise, this unity consists in refusing to separate the spiritual life from ordinary life. He quotes Father Boris who says:

There is, in the ultimate reality of things, no nonspiritual life, that is, a domain that is closed to the Holy Spirit. Nothing can subsist, either in the creaturely world or in the angelic world, without this hope and this binding and loving breath of the Spirit. The world that is called profane is in reality a profaned world. And man is responsible for this profanation. We have expelled God from this world; we do it every day. We chase him from the public life by a Machiavellian form of separation between our private lives – pious and good – and the domains of politics, commerce, science, technology, love, culture, and work, where everything is allowed. All these domains of human activity depend upon the creative work of man, seized, modelled, and inspired by the Spirit of God. (28)

This unity of life is manifested in “the liturgy beyond the Liturgy,” or what Saint John Chrysostom called “the sacrament of the poor or of the brother.”

There is a ‘before’ of worship and an ‘after.’ The ‘before’ is the preparation, the march to the altar which implies an asceticism of preparation, of repentance, of work, of self-forgetfulness, of fasting, of expectation, of a growing love of Christ, which is inscribed in the week. The ‘after’ is the return to the world when, after partaking of the Eucharist, we are filled with the true light which we have ‘seen’; we have become vessels of the Holy Spirit, of his joy and his peace which we have to preserve and shine forth in our home, our work, our life in the world. (29)

… to be continued.