History


Basil of Caesarea writes, in the conclusion of his Moral Rules, that the Christian’s specific identity consists in this vigilance directed towards Christ: ‘What is it that defines the Christian? Keeping watch every day and hour and being ready to carry out perfectly what pleases God, in the knowledge that the Lord will come at an hour we do not expect.’

Basil’s emphasis on the temporal dimension of vigilance is significant. A type of the vigilant man or woman is the prophet, who translates the gaze and the Word of God into the ‘today’ of time and history. Vigilance is inner lucidity, intelligence, the ability to think critically, awareness of and involvement in the world in which one lives, and freedom from distraction and dissipation. The vigilant person, who has achieved unification by listening to the Word of God and remaining inwardly attentive to the demands of the Word, becomes responsible – in other words radically not indifferent, aware of the need to pay attention to his or her surroundings, and in particular, capable of watching over others and taking care of them.

Enzo Bianchi, Words of Spirituality. (SPCK, 2002) 11.

It is interesting that both East and West admit the dependence of the Holy Spirit upon the Son on the level of historical mission. The differences arise only when the metahistorical or iconological approach to the divine mystery becomes predominant. The problem can be traced back to the fourth century: St Basil in his De Spiritu Sancto replaces the formula of the Alexandrian theologians “from the Father – through the Son – in the Spirit” with that of “The Father with the Son and with the Spirit” precisely because his argument is taken from the realm of worship and not from historical revelation. It is worth looking at the Filioque problem from the angle of the fate of the iconological approach to God – and to reality in general – in Western thought.

John D. Zizioulas. Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church. London, DLT, 1985 (2004). 179, fn. 30.

On Holy Family Sunday, having managed to exercise enough self-restraint to avoid posting half-formed thoughts and liturgical frustrations on my own blog, my resolve weakened and I went and made a rather wild if throwaway comment on Wei Hsien’s Torn Notebook. The trouble with making rash comments on somebody else’s blog is that you can’t immediately delete them (or if you can I haven’t worked out how) and Wei Hsien then proceeded to ask me to explain what I meant by my suggestion that the western Church had watered down our consciousness of the Incarnation.

It’s a fair enough question, just not all that easy to answer. To start with, I do not doubt that the western Church formally believes in the historic faith concerning the Incarnation. I deliberately used the word “consciousness,” but that is more difficult to pin down and is also dependent on subjective factors that vary from context to context – and some of the things that have made me aware of this are such that I do not want to mention them in public. However, such thoughts were going through my mind at the time because it was the feast of the Holy Family and I was conscious that it had originated in the late Medieval turn that emphasised historical detail, subjectivity, realistic art etc. It’s true the cult of the Holy Family came to prominence later in the industrial revolution, but its origins seem to lie with people like Jean Gerson (d. 1429) and Bernadine of Sienna (d. 1444) and in the attention that they paid to previously neglected Saint Joseph.  Gerson even referred to the Holy Family as the earthly trinity.

And I remembered the reactions of the Melkite sisters I had stayed with in Nazareth. When the Latin bishop (with whom they had good relations) suggested that they should paint icons of the Holy Family they reacted in horror and gave him a good telling off! From what I understood, given my limited French, their reactions were based on the understanding that icons of the Holy Family present an alternative, false Trinity. The whole point of the Incarnation is that there is no earthly father, and by presenting a familial image in which Saint Joseph functions as such, one is in effect undermining that very fact.

I mention this not knock the Holy Family but because it seems to point to a deeper dynamic than simply the legitimacy or otherwise of certain images. Rather it points to the extent to which another reality is able to break through into history. Zizioulas’ distinction between historical and metahistorical approaches is helpful here and I suspect that at least part of our problem in the West is the loss of the metahistorical or iconological approach. Yes, we believe in the reality of the Incarnation, of another world breaking into this world and into our history. But how do the stories that we tell, the images that we see, and the rituals that we celebrate help to imprint this on us as more than simply historical detail? How do we avoid the danger of turning revelation – and liturgy, and this is perhaps also relevant to my questions about the cult of the Blessed Sacrament – into a sort of positivism, something that we can measure and control, but which becomes simply a thing and ceases to break into our reality as both judgement and moment of grace?

However, as should be apparent, I am once more thinking aloud and my thoughts are half (or perhaps less than half) formed!

I was recently dipping into a new history of our Order in the twentieth century* and came across an interesting account about a certain Dom Alexis Presse, abbot of Tamié in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a reforming abbot and an expert on early Cistercian history and liturgy. “But he was not merely a historian, and dreamed of bringing his Order back to its original practices by sweeping aside all that had been added since then, especially since Rancé and Lestrange.” (200) As abbot he got into trouble for suppressing practices such as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in his own community, even forbidding his novices to make “visits” to the Blessed Sacrament. A gifted and visionary person, it appears that he was less than diplomatic and that he became increasingly arrogant and unstable, resulting in rebukes even from sympathetic friends such as the great Dom Anselme Le Bail of Scourmont. The sad outcome of an extended conflict was that he ended up being secularised and, supported by some of the French bishops, went on to form a community outside the Order.

That is an interesting titbit of history, the details of which I won’t go into. But I raise it here because of the comment of the authors of this history who judge his approach “overly archaeological” and ask “Had the Holy Spirit inspired nothing good in the Church since the sixth century?” (206-207) I am interested in this because the shift in Eucharistic understanding and practice in the late Middle Ages, and the persistence in emphasis on the Holy Gifts outside the Eucharist, is something that also concerns me. The authors of this history, like vast majority of Latin Catholics, seem to accept that this development was a good thing. And to simply object to it on the grounds of “archaeology” does indeed seem problematic. There have, after all, been many developments in the history of the Church; the question is how we discern which of them are genuine developments and which involved a shift in meaning that represent a departure from the tradition. Do such innovations really matter?

I have previously noted Father Louth’s discussion of the reversal in understanding concerning the mystical Body of Christ in the twelfth century, based on Cardinal De Lubac’s work Corpus Mysticum. A few months ago a friend sent me an article entitled “The Eucharist in the West” by the Irish Jesuit Michael McGuckian (New Blackfriars, March 2007), which also draws on De Lubac’s work which had showed that prior to 1050 the term Body of Christ had referred to the Church and that the Eucharist had been referred to as the Mystical Body, but that that after this the Eucharist became the Body of Christ and the Church came to be referred to as the Mystical Body. Father Mc Guckian comments:

De Lubac opines that the change can be considered ‘good because it was normal’, but it seems to me that the change in terminology betokens a most profound change in mentality, and it is from this shift that I take my cue as to what is going on here. I suggest that the change results from the loss, among Western Christians, of the sense of the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Church. (146)

McGuckian traces this loss of consciousness of Christ’s presence in the Church back to Saint Augustine, who in his conflict with the Pelagians conceded that “the bride without spot or stain” will only be revealed in heaven, and to the emphasis on the institution that resulted from the Gregorian reform and was further strengthened in reaction to the Protestant Reformation. He writes:

The suggestion I am making is that this loss of the sense of the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Church encouraged our concentration on his presence in the Blessed Sacrament. The Church, for us, has been a focus of disunity, and failing to find our consolation in the presence of Christ through his Holy Spirit in the Church we sought our peace in the Blessed Sacrament, and this has led to an imbalance in our spirituality. St Paul simply said ‘You are the body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12.27), and the concentration on the Eucharistic body must not be allowed to distract us from that primary mystery, to which the phrase, the Body of Christ, should spontaneously refer. Sacrosanctum concilium 7 teaches that Christ is present in different parts of the liturgy, but especially in the Eucharistic species. Pope Paul VI, in Mysterium fidei 38, teaches that the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species is a presence ‘surpassing all others’. It seems to me that the considerations presented here call for a review of these affirmations. On the simple principle that the whole is greater than the part, one must affirm that the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic liturgy as a whole surpasses the presence in the Eucharistic species alone. The mystery of transubstantiation and the miraculous presence of Christ’s body is more accessible to our imaginations than the mystery of his presence in the people, in the presiding Bishop and in the proclaimed word. However, those other presences surpass the presence in the elements in their personal quality, their dynamic force and their effects on our spirits, and are not to be undervalued. And surely we must affirm that the presence of Christ through the action of his Holy Spirit in the Church, which includes all the rest, is the most important, the most fundamental, presence of Christ on earth. There is need, it is being suggested, for a contextualisation of the Eucharistic presence in the larger whole, and the proper recognition of the absolute priority of the presence of Christ in the Church. (148)

While this touches on themes that require considerably more background, reflection and working out, it seems to me that being concerned at certain developments in the western Church in second millennium is not simply about “archaeology”. It is not simply about a romantic desire to return to the old because it is old, but rather because the changes that have occurred have impoverished our consciousness of the fundamental Christian mysteries. Of course, I cannot comment on Dom Alexis’ motivation in these things, but that is where my interest lies.

Basil did not compose the Asceticon in a vacuum. He was not the founder of monasticism in Cappadocia and Pontus but rather inserted himself into a tradition of Christian asceticism. It was his reform of that tradition and his subsequent fame as a champion of orthodoxy that elevated him into the most prominent place in Anatolian monasticism, pushing those who had preceded him into the shade. …

When the spotlight is taken off him [Basil] and a softer lamp illuminates the ascetic landscape of Asia Minor, one can begin to understand the background to the Asceticon. Although this may seem to diminish Basil, a new appreciation of his greatness emerges when we see what he does with the tradition he inherited. There is a unity in Basil’s espousal of both the theological and ascetic views of Eustathius. Basil’s favoured word ‘eusebeia’ – piety – which we will find used again and again in his writings to describe the ascetic life, also means ‘orthodoxy, right belief’ in patristic usage. The knowledge that he was originally a Eustathian enables one to have a better understanding of Basil’s Asceticon.

Augustine Holmes OSB. A Life Pleasing to God. The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil. London, DLT, 2000. 25, 31. 

To ask who founded Cappadocian monasticism is of course the wrong question, for it presupposes a view of monastic origins – centred around well-known “founders” – that sees it as a radical departure from earlier forms of Christian asceticism that can be traced to the very beginnings of the Church. Nevertheless, the question points to a fascinating kaleidoscope of figures behind the tradition that would eventually become associated with Saint Basil.

When I first read Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Saint Macrina, it did not require a particularly well-formed feminist hermeneutic of suspicion to make me wonder at the later identification of Cappadocian monasticism with Saint Basil, given that Gregory portrays Macrina as both a monastic founder and as a crucial influence on Basil. This interpretation is echoed by Verna Harrison when she says: “Basil became a leading organiser of this new society in Cappadocia, but he was introduced  into it by his sister Macrina, who thus appears to be the true founder of what is sometimes called ‘Basilian’ monasticism.” (“Male and Female in Cappadocian Theology” in Journal of Theological Studies, 41.2, October 1990, 444-445)

However, behind both Basil and Macrina there is the figure of Eustathius. Father Holmes suggests that Saint Gregory’s silence on Eustathius’ influence on Basil – and his emphasis therefore on Macrina’s influence – was due to the later attempts to edit out accounts of Basil’s association with someone whom history remembers as a heretic. What remains puzzling, however, is the absence of any reference to Macrina in Basil’s works.

From his own writings, it would appear that Basil was originally a disciple of Eustathius, the radical ascetical leader who became bishop of Sebaste in 356. His group, which was condemned by the Council of Gangra, was associated with a social radicalism that condemned slavery and insisted on the equality of men and women, had mixed communities, appeared to condemn marriage and insist on vegetarianism for all Christians, and were involved in caring for the poor and the sick. It would appear that Macrina was also influenced by Eustathius, an influence congruent with the social radicalism in her own ascetical programme in which noblewomen and slaves shared the same lifestyle.

The Eustathian ascetics were generally part of the homoiousian circles with whom Basil tried to find common ground and with whom he was united in their opposition to the Arian teaching of Eunomius. However, they increasingly moved apart over the divinity of the Holy Spirit and Basil’s publication of On the Holy Spirit in 373 marked the definitive break with his former teacher. He remained in many respects indebted to Eustathius whose influence continues in the Asceticon, but as Holmes comments,

At the same time, while preserving the radical nature of their commitment, he aimed to bring this way of living the Gospel firmly within the Church. Thus he does follow in the footsteps of his old master, but the definite and lasting achievement is Basil’s. (43)

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).

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