Maxime Egger continues this biographical introduction to Father Boris Bobrinskoy’s The Compassion of the Father by turning to Father Boris’ theological vision, where he detects the paradoxes of light-darkness and descent-ascent that run through several themes.
Central to Father Boris’ theology is the theme of the vision of God which is summed up in the words: “To see heaven open.”
The opening of the heavens by Christ is fundamental and irrevocable because it is of an ontological order; through it we are already in the mystery of the Trinity and in the Church. However, who of us can boast about the vision of God. As for the apostles, it can only be provisional because our eyes are still covered with scales, darkened by our passions. ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overtake it,’ St John said” (Jn 1:5). (32)
However, darkness has not only a negative, but also a positive connotation.
When I speak of darkness, I often think of Christ carried in the tomb and descending to Hades, and of these Gospel words: ‘Except a grain of wheat fall in the ground and die, it abides alone, but if it die, it brings forth much fruit’ (Jn 12:24). This is a deep spiritual reality that appears very well in icons, particularly those of the Nativity and of the Resurrection: before being illumined, the darkness must become the place of germination of the Light, in silence, in expectation, like some type of secret becoming. Our entire being, all our intelligence, must penetrate into the inner darkness to meet Christ and be changed there; must carry out the turning of conversion, the baptismal rebirth, and reemerge thus into the Light. The entire old man must die, must surrender to the Lord, in order to be reborn and live again. No being can reach the Light without passing through such darkness. (32-33)
We see a similar movement in the Cross and the Ascension.
The Crucifixion occurred at a precise moment of history; even so, we have the feeling that it lasts forever in the Church, on account of our sins which continue to make the Lord suffer. But Christ was lifted up from earth in His glory on the day of His Ascension, and since then He draws us toward Him in an unceasing, irrepressible movement. We are carried along by a new force of attraction, which does not act towards below but toward the heights. And thus our entire life is defined, constructed, constituted by the life in Christ, through the power of attraction, of transformation, of benediction of the Holy Spirit who uplifts us and makes us ‘one’ with Christ. (33)
The locus of this double movement of descent and ascent is the human heart. This prayer of the heart has an ecclesial, Trinitarian and biblical character, and, far from being something new that was introduced at Sinai or on Mount Athos, belongs to the earliest tradition of Christian prayer of which the Kyrie eleisonof the liturgical offices is a continuation.
The bulk of Father Boris’ strictly theological work has focussed on an elucidation of the mystery of the Trinity, but his perspective is existential rather than speculative. To speak of the Trinity is to speak of the work of God in our life, of the work of the Spirit, who makes us more like Christ.
The heart of the Christian life consists of “the concrete living discovery, at the same time personal and ecclesial, of the mystery of the Trinity; we should enter into it with the Holy Spirit Himself who turns us away from our earthly gravity and introduces us into the heart of Christ, and through Him into the heart of the Father. All this requires of us an effort, necessitates a long apprenticeship with a spiritual father, just as the acquisition of the art of the icon implies a long apprenticeship with a master. In this manner, we ourselves become images of Christ; we become a temple and a dwelling place of the Holy Trinity. The light of Christ shines in us.” (36)
A central theme in Father Boris’ work on the Trinity has been that of the repose of the Holy Spirit on the Son, which he has explored in the context of discussions on the filioque.
If there certainly is a relationship of Christ imparting the Spirit, it does not exhaust the richness of the relationship between Christ and the Spirit. To limit oneself to this unilateral relationship, to this simple formulation of Christ as the source of the Spirit is to impoverish the mystery. For we must not forget that Christ Himself is formed by the Spirit, is the bearer of the Spirit, is sent by the Spirit into the desert, and is acting in the Spirit. (37)
However, this does not mean that the filioque controversy should be underestimated, but rather that it should be made relativistic and overcome. It would not be enough for the Catholic Church to simply omit the filioque from the Creed, for “The regulation of what is contentious in the filioque cannot be separated from what is contentious in ecclesiology, that is, the question of the Roman primacy facing Orthodox conciliarity.” (38)
In reflecting on the Holy Trinity, Father Boris finds himself more and more drawn to the mystery of the Father, which he senses inscribed and buried in the mystery of Christ.
It is the mystery of silence of the one who utters the Word and who transcends all words; the mystery of tenderness of the one who is infinite mercy and compassion, who never tires of receiving his prodigal son. “This mystery remains the greatest of all. Indeed it is easier to speak of the mystery of Christ or even of the mystery of the Holy Spirit than that of the Father, so high does the Father dwell beyond all words. (38)
Following the tradition of the Church Fathers, Father Boris roots his theological reflection in Scripture, in the Old Testament as well as the New. While typology and ecclesial interpretation are important, they need to start from a living context. He sees the Old Testament in particular as the paradoxical place of the presence of God and the expectation of the Spirit.
Having surveyed some of his theological preoccupations, Egger turns to the subtle dialectic between unity and diversity, entrenchment and openness, that runs through Father Boris’ work.
Notably rooted in the Orthodox tradition – particularly the Russian tradition – yet possessing an openness to “the other,” he transcends the tradition from within, assimilating the riches of others and returning to what is essential. Olivier Clément correctly noted this latter movement as “a preoccupation with a renewed language inseparable from an ecclesial way of life and open simultaneously – well beyond the fears and polemics – to the anxieties and intuitions of modernity.” (40-41)
Aware of the danger of the very richness of the tradition masking the pearl of great price, Father Boris warns that
We should be careful not to confound the mystery with this external vestment linked to various times and places. For the presence of Jesus is a reality that is simple, pure, and unique, which is not in need of many words. We should move beyond words, figures, and symbols to contemplate the face of Jesus and, in Him, that of the Father. If we are not able to do this, our very richness condemns us. (41-42)
For me, the Church must be at the same time totally transparent to the grace of God – of which it is the channel and the reflection – and totally transparent to the world – of which it is the spokesperson and the prayer-bearer before the face of God – while not being of the world. (42)
This transparency to that which is essential – a living relationship of love with Christ fed by the Gospel – means keeping two poles of the mystery together.
On the one hand, the mystery of Jesus which is sufficient unto itself and speaks for itself. On the other, the mystery of the profusion of riches accumulated by the Church in the Holy Spirit. For it is in it that we will live the gospel more fully and will have access, beyond words, to the full riches of the Father.
This ability to be able to speak of what is most essential is important for engagement in ecumenical dialogue and in engaging a de-christianised world.
When we speak to others, we do not have to thrust at them the truths of Orthodoxy. We should speak to them of the simplest things, which are true, immediate, and fundamental: the mystery of Christ who has come to help us, love and save us. For this, there is no need to burden our language, our words, with an entire theological jargon, with all the formulations of the ecumenical councils. A long apprenticeship is necessary before our language reaches the transparency of the icon and of the gaze of the saints. But this transparency of language to the gospel message, to the presence and the words of the Lord, is evidently only possible through the holiness and purity of our own lives, a passionate love of the truth, and the humble love for our brothers. (45-46)