East / West


Father Gabriel (Bunge)’s points about spirituality in my second last post highlight a theme that I have been very conscious of in recent months, namely the widespread contemporary interest in “spirituality” but also the vagueness and ambiguity of this concept. I had been aware of a growing interest in “spirituality” and “mysticism” in the Netherlands and had had problems with it. And I had been aware that similar trends were at work elsewhere in the West, including in South Africa. But coming back here I have encountered this in a particularly marked way which has sometimes left me wondering how to respond. Whereas interest in “spirituality” tended to be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion twenty-five years ago as detracting people from the earthly struggle, it now seems to be all the rage. And whereas I had been eagerly looking for more resources in “spirituality” – albeit an engaged one – twenty-five years ago, I have now become decidedly hesitant, if not rather hostile, towards much that passes for this genre. And yet I do rather wonder how to respond to people engaged with it. I do not want to discourage people who are actively seeking a life of prayer, and a way of uniting faith and life. But the underlying assumptions of what is often presented as “spirituality” are often, well, decidedly problematic.

This was highlighted for me by a recent interview with Charles Villa-Vicencio. He is (or was) a leading South African theologian, a Methodist, who has worked in a liberationist mode and is now arguing for the importance of “spirituality.” He states:

For me, spirituality has to do with having an openness towards life and towards truth. It means wanting to move beyond any closed ideological, dogmatic system. It also means a willingness—and, in fact, a desire—to discover what lies beyond the material. I’ve often said to myself that the question of God and the question of the divine are more important than the answers. It’s a very, very arrogant thing to begin to describe who God is or what the divine is. Yet these questions range from the relationship between religion and the sciences to ethical inquiry, and certainly to political justice, reconciliation, and coexistence. In that sense I regard myself as a very spiritual person. But I find myself resisting institutional forms of religion that try to impose upon me and everyone else a definition of the divine. It’s openness that I think is really important.

I am highlighting this not to attack Villa-Vicencio or to engage in polemics about liberal Protestantism or liberation theology – and conservative Catholics and Orthodox finding common ground in demonizing such people is another one of the things that I find quite distasteful about some online interactions. I have never met Villa-Vicencio, but I do know several people with a similar background to his who would espouse similar sentiments. These are well meaning, good people who sincerely believe in what they are doing and who often display real Christian concerns, often at great personal cost. In fact, his comments in this interview struck me precisely because they made concrete the sort of attitudes that I often encounter and which I nevertheless find it difficult to pin down so that I sometimes wonder if I’m imagining things.

There are of course a cluster of ideas associated with such developments which I suspect have deeper roots in the development of western theology. Thus we find a reaction to “institutional religion” which points to a total loss of consciousness of the Mystery of the Church which is reduced to simply being an institution. (In fairness to Protestants, I have also found this attitude among Catholics and suspect that it is rooted in the transformation of western understandings of the Church in the second millennium). And, allied to this, we find a rejection of dogma in favour of “openness” and a refusal to draw boundaries (something that I hope to return to again). At which point I suppose that one does have to start asking whether this whole phenomenon can really be considered Christian.

However, what has sometimes struck me in such discussions is the appeal that some make to apophatic theology that is reflected in Villa-Vicencio’s comment about theological arrogance. I remember being in a WCC meeting where Protestant theologians responded to Orthodox concerns about their use of gender-inclusive language for God on the basis that “we cannot know what God is.” At a superficial level apophaticism can simply lead to a speculative nihilism or to an “anything goes” approach, and Villa-Vicencio is certainly not the first whom I have heard invoking it in such a way as to lead to outright relativism. But such an appeal to “the apophatic tradition” is all-too-often unaware of the dogmatic rootedness of this “tradition.”

I was struck by this while reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s introduction to the Selected Writings of Saint Maximus the Confessor. For Maximus, as I dare say for other Fathers, our supreme ignorance of God is combined with a comprehensive knowledge of Him which is made possible through the Incarnation of Christ.

“Who knows,” Maximus asked, “how God is made flesh and yet remains God?” And he answered his own question: “This only faith understands, adoring the Logos in silence.” It was, then, a genuine understanding, but one that appropriately expressed itself “in silence” rather than in words. Not even the words of the orthodox dogma, for which Maximus contended and suffered all his life, could adequately encompass the mystery of faith. “Theological mystagogy” transcended the dogmas formulated by the councils of the Church. A spirituality shaped by Orthodox apophaticism, therefore, was one that gratefully acknowledged those dogmas and was ready to defend them to the death against those who sought to distort them, but that, at the same time, willingly – in fact, worshipfully – acknowledged the limitations that had been placed on all knowledge and all affirmation, be it human or angelic. (9)

In Orthodox theology, apophaticism cannot be separated either from dogma or from worship which are so closely intertwined as to form one whole. I once commented on the irony that it is those traditions, whether liturgical, iconographic or theological, that pay most attention to correct detail, that are best  able to lead us beyond the limitations of human expression.

Indeed, it is the uniting of the polarity between knowing and unknowing that is the heart of faith, and those who insist on the limitation of human language to speak of God, are the first to lay down their lives to defend its expressions. For faith has a name, and a concrete history. It is the revelation of God in Christ and His continued presence in His Body the Church.

The question of authority has stood for centuries in the very center of the issues between East and West. Writing in the middle of the last century the Russian lay theologian A. S. Khomiakov defined the issue in the form of a somewhat romantic overstatement, which, however, remains quite suggestive today. ‘The Church is not an authority, just as God is not an authority and Christ is not an authority, since authority is something external to us. The Church is not an authority, I say, but the Truth, and at the same time the inner life of the Christian, since God, Christ, the Church, live with him with a life more real than the heart which is beating in his breast and the blood flowing in his veins. But they are alive in him only insofar as he himself is living by the ecumenical life of love and unity, i.e., by the life of the Church.’ Khomiakov’s main reproach to the West is that it has transformed authority into external power: the magisterium in Roman Catholicism, Scripture in Protestantism. In both cases, he concludes ‘the premises are identical.’

Khomiakov’s notion of an ‘internal’ knowledge of the Truth, independent of ‘external’ criteria and authorities, would appear to be pure romantic subjectivism if it were read outside the context of the Greek patristic understanding of God and man. For the Greek Fathers knowledge of God is based on the idea of communion, transfiguration, and deification of man. It implies the theory of the ‘spiritual senses,’ i.e. an utterly personal experience of the Living God, made accessible through the sacramental, communal life in the Body of Christ. This gnosiology does not suppress ‘authorities’ and ‘criteria,’ but it conceives them as clearly internal to the Christian experience. They furnish an authenticity which is incomprehensible to anyone who has not first personally accepted the validity and tasted to the reality of the experience.

The experience is that of Truth itself, not simply of a means for attaining the Truth. It involves the ‘uncreated’ and divine presence of God in man through the Holy Spirit. It is the Truth therefore that authenticates authority, and not vice versa. It is precisely this understanding of authority which made the East resist so stubbornly against accepting the institution of papacy as the criterion of Truth. Because of this the Orthodox reaffirm consistently that it is the faith of Peter which conditions primacy, while primacy itself is not a guarantee of infallibility. Here, in fact is the traditional issue between Rome and Orthodoxy.

Father John Meyendorff, Living Tradition: Orthodox Witness in the Contemporary World(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 76-78.

I haven’t actually read this book but found this quote saved by a friend and thought that it expressed better than I can some of the things that I’ve been feeling but not quite getting to articulating. Something else to put on the “to-be-read” list!

A reader has alerted me to the death of Dom André Louf, ocso. I hadn’t checked the website of the Order recently, but they only had a short death notice here, which was a bit surprising given his stature. He died on Monday and was buried on Wednesday in the abbey of  Mont des Cats in France. He was abbot of Mont des Cats for several decades, having become abbot in his thirties, and there are fascinating references in Thomas Merton’s journals about his correspondence with this young abbot. For decades he longed for the eremitical life, but his pleas to the General Chapter of the his Order to be allowed to step down as abbot in order to pursue this were consistently refused. Finally in the 1990s he was able to step down and retreat to a hermitage in the south of France where he applied himself to the Syrian Fathers, translating the second series of Saint Isaac’s treatises into French, among other things.

I reported on two conferences that he gave at a colloquium on the Syrian Fathers two years ago: a conference on Simeon of Taibouthèh and a presentation on the Liturgy of the Heart. This was the only time that I met him and although he didn’t seem particularly frail to me, people who had known him earlier commented that he had aged. Which, I suppose, he had every right to have done.

Dom André certainly had a great influence both within the Cistercian Order and beyond. He belonged to that generation of post-conciliar Catholic leaders who were involved in a genuine renewal and was also someone deeply influenced by Eastern Christianity. Several of his books have been translated into English, including  The Cistercian Way , Grace Can Do More: Spiritual Accompaniment & Spiritual Growth  and Teach Us to Pray . The most recent work of his that I read was a paper on humility, and the problems that contemporary westerners have with it, that he gave in Bose and that has been published as The Way of Humility . I don’t have it with me at the moment or else I would quote something from it – will do so again.

I was going to entitle this post “Rest in peace” and then realised that I had better get used to saying “Memory eternal.” I don’t know if there’s a theological difference, but it reminded me of the chapter that I have just read of Father Schmemann, and which I shall post on more fully soon, in which he speaks memory:

The remembrance of Christ is the entry into his love, making us brothers and neighbours, “brethren” in his ministry. His life and presence in us and “among” us is certified only by our love for each other and for all whom God has sent into, has included in our life, and this means above all in the remembrance of each other and in the commemoration of each other in Christ. Therefore, in bringing his sacrifice to the altar, we create the memory of each other, we identify each other as living in Christ and being united with him and in him.

In this commemoration there is no distinction between those who live and those who have fallen asleep, for God “is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mt 22:32). …

Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988) 130.

Update:  In a comment Martin has drawn attention to a more extensive obituary on the Bose website.

Last night I had a less-than-pleasant encounter with the Dutch railways, in which there seemed to be delayed trains all over the country, resulting in chaos in stations and on trains. Standing in a coach, and slightly frazzled after chaos at the station, I was not really inclined to read the book I had brought with me. So I pulled out my little MP3 player which, given the disrupted state of my life in the last year, has not been connected to a computer for more than a year. I have some patristic texts on it – thanks to Maria Lectrix – and a few old lectures. One of these, David Fagerberg’s paper at last year’s Liturgical Symposium at St Vladimir’s Seminary on “The cost of understanding Schmemann in the West” had particularly resonated with me then, so I listened to it again. There is much that is quotable, but I should really find the printed article before doing more, but here is a taste…

The West tends to think of theology as a mental activity. Probably this is because the people to whom the West gives the name theologian live in the academy. Theology is a science practised in the hall of sciences, and even if an individual theologian is also urged to have faith commitments in his or her heart, and to be active in service to the poor, the only reason for calling these people theologians is because of what they think about. Worship is taken to be either an expression of believe, or an instrument for the creation of belief. And only if that believing requires a tune-up clarification does theology enter the picture. Liturgy is a place to stage the theological content we have deduced and believe. But theology’s origin is not in liturgy, it is in texts and its output is more texts for the next generation of theologians to critique and surpass. As Schmemann says in an early essay:

It is indeed the original sin of the entire western theological development that it made texts the only loci theologica, the extrinsic authorities of theology, disconnecting theology from its living source, liturgy and spirituality.

Schmemann is capable of understanding the term theology in this cognitive way. Of course, you can speak more than one language game. He does so in a definition in his first work Introduction to Liturgical Theology, where he writes: “Theology is above all explanation, the search for words appropriate to the nature of God. That is, for a system of concepts corresponding as much as possible to the faith and experience of the Church.”

But in a journal entry a dozen years’ later, Schmemann uses a different language game:

Pascha, Holy Week, essentially bright days, such as are needed. And truly, that is all that is needed. I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of theology is here. All that is needed for one’s spirit, heart, mind and soul. How could people spend centuries discussing justification and redemption? It’s all in these services. Not only is it revealed, it simply flows in one’s heart and mind.

I think it would be wrong to use this as a brush to paint Schmemann or Orthodoxy as anti-intellectual. Instead, there are two things going on here. First, Schmemann is identifying theology’s home, its native habitat. Theology is more a vision than a cognition. And all that theology would speak to explain in words is here in act, in the liturgical act of the Church celebrating Christ’s Paschal Mystery. Schmemann is not opposed to theological discussion; he is opposed to letting theological discussion ever break free from a vision of the Trinity in action. …

The second thing going on in this quotation is the connection of theology with theosis. The beginning of theology is not the card catalogue, but doing battle with the passions. And the end of theology is not becoming a professor, but becoming a saint. The image of God grows more into the likeness of God. And although Schmemann writes little about asceticism explicitly, he stands in a tradition for which theologia is at the end of an ascetical journey.

There was recently some rather stimulating discussion at Koinonia on the different place that asceticism has in Orthodox and Catholic life. A guest post by Chrys (see also the follow-up post by Father Gregory) argued that asceticism is a foundational element in Orthodox discipleship and that since “this understanding tends to be absent, forgotten, misunderstood or diminished in the West” it can therefore be difficult for Catholics and Protestants to understand. Ascetical discipline is “an integral part of the path to theosis” and the means by which we come to the self-knowledge that is necessary for “the ever-deepening conversion necessary for theosis.”

While I would like to think that the older monastic traditions in the West have more in common with the Orthodox perspective here, I could not help thinking that Chrys’ analysis was incisive and that it had important implications. This touches on various themes that I keep thinking that I want to come back to, some of which I hope to post more on although this will probably be in a less than entirely systematic way. As I stated in a comment,  while the reasons for this falling apart of the ascetical tradition in the West are complex, they include the loss of the body’s role as bearer of meaning, a juridically orientated understanding of salvation, the divorce between “mysticism” and ecclesial life and an increasingly institutional understanding of the Church, and probably also others. In any case, I have the impression that the penitential practices of the last few centuries had lost their connection with transformation and theosis, leading to a reaction that has made asceticism a dirty word in many Catholic circles. This is obviously wide-ranging terrain that requires further reflection.

For now I thought that it might be worth highlighting the foundational role that asceticism plays in the ontology of personhood that Zizioulas developed in the first chapter of  Being as Communion.  (See here for a detailed summary). This implies a radical denial of the tragic nature of death which must of necessity be rooted in God. While biological offspring can ensure the survival of the species they cannot ensure the continuation of the concrete person. This eternal survival of the person as a unique, unrepeatable ‘hypostasis’ constitutes the quintessence of salvation and theosis means coming to participate in God’s personal existence.

The goal of salvation is that the personal life which is realized in God should also be realized on the level of human existence. (50)

Zizioulas sees Christian life as conditioned by both the biological and the ecclesial hypostasis. The biological hypostasis is constituted by conception and birth. While not unrelated to love, eros and the body have a tragic aspect because they are interwoven with individuality and death and are therefore tied to an ontological necessity implied by natural instinct. To be freed from such necessity means not the destruction of eros and the body, but rather that they should be freed by receiving a new hypostasis, namely, the new birth of baptism. It is precisely this possibility that is offered to us in Christ, namely the realization in history of the very reality of the person.

Christology consequently is the proclamation to man that his nature can be ‘assumed’ and hypostasized in a manner free from the ontological necessity of his biological hypostasis… (56)

While it is precisely this new reality that is brought to birth in the Church and in the new relationships that it implies, the biological hypostasis does not cease to exist but continues to exist in a paradoxical relationship with the ecclesial hypostasis. The ecclesial hypostasis has a certain eschatological nature and this is seen especially in the celebration of the Eucharist “which has as its object man’s transcendence of his biological hypostasis and his becoming an authentic person.” (61)

This ecclesial hypostasis is therefore necessarily ascetical. This means that eros and the body are not to be denied, but rather to be hypostasised in such a way that they become freed from ontological necessity. While taking the tragic aspect of the biological hypostasis seriously, the eucharistic hypostasis is rooted ontologically in the future and receives its pledge from the resurrection of Christ.

In such a perspective asceticism is not simply a matter of spiritual discipline or individual penitential practice, but has a much more foundational role. It is the dynamic link, as it were, between what is and what is yet to come, a necessary ingredient in that which constitutes us as Church. And to disregard it raises questions not only about individual spiritual practice, but more fundamentally about our very understanding of life in Christ.

Perhaps it was naïve of me, but one of the things that has surprised me about this blog is that it seems to have landed me in generally eastern or Orthodox Christian circles, if I am to judge by the people who link to it. In fact I was quite taken aback, and regarded it as rather a joke, when it got nominated for the Eastern Christian blog awards earlier in the year. When I mentioned this to my abbess a while back she responded by saying: “Well you are reading Zizioulas and Louth, that probably accounts for it.” That’s true of course, but, as I pointed out, Father Louth was still an Anglican when he wrote Discerning the Mystery, and, well, Zizioulas is hardly unknown in western theological circles  (although I do sometimes wonder how seriously his arguments are really taken). Perhaps a more fundamental reason for the convergence is that as a monastic following the Rule of Saint Benedict, I find my roots and the sources that I am most interested in interacting with in the era in which East and West still shared a common tradition. (I’ll bracket the question of where the Cistercians fit into this for now).

But the question of how western Christians interact with eastern Christianity is one that it is worth reflecting on and which has been going through my mind for some years now. There is, at least in some parts of the world, a considerable interest in both “Eastern Christianity” and “Orthodoxy” (the two often being used interchangeably although such an identification is indeed problematic) in a way that is quite superficial and reduces it to being simply one more product in the religious marketplace which we can appropriate selectively and synchretistically, hence the popularity of icons, Byzantine chant and other “eastern” paraphernalia.

While it is understandable that western Christians, traumatised by the sorry state of much western liturgy and Church life, should look to the East for resources, there are clearly dangers involved in this that can lead to rather contradictory situations. For example, a friend of mine once lived in an Eastern Catholic community (made up entirely of westerners) and he commented that when they celebrated the Byzantine liturgy they did so with great reverence and care, but that when they – occasionally – celebrated a Latin-rite Mass they did so in a slap-dash manner with crumbs all over the table, which made him think that their Byzantine celebrations were more play-acting than anything else. If the Eucharistic sacrifice should be treated with the utmost reverence in an “eastern” liturgy, then surely the same should apply in a “western” liturgy. Another, slightly different example, is that of certain new monastic communities which have incorporated large parts of the Byzantine liturgy and Slavonic chant into their liturgical life, but whose prayer life remains centred around adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. They seem to have incorporated the trappings of the East without probing the underlying liturgical theology involved.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that western Christians shouldn’t learn from the East, and I have certainly had more than my fair share of doing so. But negotiating this process is not always easy and we should avoid appropriating aspects of a tradition in such a way that they lose their voice as part of a broader theological and liturgical tradition, isolating the part from the whole and from the underlying meaning that it conveys. Moreover, it does not make much sense wanting to appropriate eastern traditions into western Church life if we have rejected or neglected the core beliefs, rites and symbols that both East and West share.  Thus instead of being too quick to introduce icons into western liturgy, it might more appropriate to first revisit how we relate to the fundamental liturgical symbolism that is common to both East and West.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that learning from the East should go deeper than simply the trappings, to the deeper levels of life that are embodied in the tradition. And, even more fundamentally, this should not be about “East” or “West” (or anywhere else) but about seeking to encounter the Christian tradition that is common to both, about seeking to understand how we have departed from this tradition, and allowing ourselves – more fundamentally yet – to be evangelised by it.

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