Thursday, March 13, 2008

How Orthodox Saints Assessed Western Spirituality

Those who have encountered a certain kind of polemical Orthodox (or the yet-more polemical Pseudodox) know it takes but little for them to rail against Western paraliturgical devotions — the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, etc., in any form — and indeed the sum total of the post-1054 West with pronounced asperity. It appears it is as easy as asking if anything occurred after the all-important date of 1054 A.D. If so, like an overzealous Orthodox version of Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi," they scream, "No grace for you!"

Of course, squeezing an unrepresentative, ill-informed reading of Orthodoxy through a hyper-polemical framework necessarily creates distortions, not only of charity, but of fact. Many do not realize, in their actions, they are also condemning a number Orthodox saints and holy fathers (and mothers). His Grace Bp. HILARION (Alfeyev), the Russian Orthodox bishop of Vienna and Austria for the Moscow Patriarchate, presented a more balanced portrait of how Eastern Orthodox saints dealt with post-Schism Western spirituality in his excellent paper, "The Patristic Heritage and Modernity."

The opinion of St Ignatius Brianchaninov that all works by Catholic mystics after the Great Schism have been written in a state of spiritual “drunkenness” and delusion is well known. Since Bishop Ignatius has been canonized, some value his opinion as “patristic”. Yet we also know a different approach by other — equally canonized — church writers with a somewhat less cautious and categorical attitude towards Catholic spirituality. [31] Some Orthodox Fathers are known for the direct influence Catholic spirituality exercised upon them. St Dimitri of Rostov was under this influence for his entire life: his homilies as well as other works, including the Reading Compendium of Saint’s lives, based primarily on Latin sources, [32] have a distinctly “Westernizing” character; St Dimitri’s library held books by Bonaventure, Thomas a Kempis, Peter Canisius and other Catholic authors, and in his spirituality such elements as the devotion of the passions of Christ, the five wounds of Christ and the heart of Christ may be traced.[33] The influence of Catholic spirituality on St Tikhon of Zadonsk [34] can equally be sensed.

How can such different approaches towards Catholic spirituality and mysticism between St Ignatius on the one side, and St Dimitri of Rostov and St Tikhon of Zadonsk on the other, be explained? It seems to me that much is accounted for by the differences between the contexts in which each of them lived. St Ignatius lived at the time of Tsar Nicolas the First (second quarter of the 19th century), when a systematic struggle with Western mysticism was underway. The time of Alexander I (first quarter of the 19th century) had witnessed a nearly unanimous passion for “inner Christianity” among high society, the Russian aristocracy devoured the works of Thomas a Kempis, Francis de Sales and Fenelon, noblemen en masse joined Masonic lodges and the Jesuits opened their schools in many towns and villages; and a healthy reaction against these Western influences had set in during the reign of Tsar Nicholas. The same period witnessed the beginnings of the so-called “patristic revival”: the systematic work of translating and studying the Fathers of the church, something of no small significance for the gradual liberation of Russian theology from its “Western captivity”. As a child of his times, St Ignatius could not remain entirely a stranger to these processes.

St Dimitri and St Tikhon, however, lived in an altogether different historical context. Contrary to St Ignatius (who had never studied theology in an ecclesiastical school), both were graduates of Latin schools which had shaped their thought; both had been reading Western authors all their lives. The inevitable influence of the Catholic spirituality which St Dimitri and St Tikhon experienced in the 18th century did not, however, undermine their deep rootedness in the Orthodox tradition.

Of course, everything must not be reduced to context, to someone’s historical period, church-political circumstances or education. Differences between church writers’ taste, views or attitudes towards the same phenomenon can, and may, appear without being conditioned by education or the “spirit of the day”. St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain , who translated the work of a Latin Theatine monk, Invisible Warfare, into Greek, had not been educated in a Latin school and was by no means influenced by Catholic mysticism. (The book is known in English as Unseen Warfare. - BJ.) The same can be said about K.P. Pobedonostsev, who translated Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ into Russian. All the same, both considered it profitable to familiarize Orthodox readers with certain works of Catholic authors (be it in a slightly adapted form, and brought into closer agreement with the Orthodox context).

The contextual method may help in studying Catholic mysticism itself as well. Not infrequently, Orthodox readers are shocked by recipes in books of Western Renaissance mystics prescribing the use of the human imagination to visualize the passions of Christ, or other events of the gospel. It is correct to point out that traditional Orthodox mysticism demands control of the imagination, and warns about the dangers of imaginative representations in prayer. But in considering Western Renaissance mysticism, the cultural specificity of the times cannot be ignored: mediaeval theocentric culture was being replaced by a totally different, anthropocentric culture where imagination was given a near-central role. The task facing spiritual teachers of the time, then, was not to force people to renounce their imagination altogether, but to teach them how to direct their imagination towards matters from which spiritual benefit could be gained, in particular towards the events of sacred history. It is evident that, were the criterion of Byzantine ascetic literature to be applied to such mysticism, it would not meet its requirements. But, to repeat John Meyendorff’s question, is the Byzantine criterion the only just criterion according to which non-Byzantine phenomena are to be judged, or are other approaches possible? I shall state once again my belief that the universal Orthodox tradition is wider than Byzantinism, that not all that lies outside is either heresy or spiritual delusion. Otherwise not only Western mystics should be declared to have fallen in spiritual delusion, but also Dimitri of Rostov, Tikhon of Zadonsk and many other pious Russian ascetics of the period of the “Western captivity” (that is, the 17th and 18th centuries) when access to the works of the Eastern Fathers was extremely difficult.

Please do not attempt to find in my words any effort to “justify” Catholic mysticism. I am by no means an “Eastern admirer of Western spirituality” and have no personal sympathy whatsoever for Catholic mysticism, since I have been raised on totally different examples: the writings of the Fathers of the Eastern church, in particular Greek and Syriac. I have not mentioned Catholic mysticism in order to debate its content, but to present and illustrate a method that, in my view, should be applied to any phenomena whatsoever, be in within or without the framework of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.


[31] Let me remark in passing that that question to which degree the personal holiness of a church author, as well as his official canonization, may be considered a warranty for the infallibility of their theological views deserves detailed research. Does the canonization of a person who has been magnified for the holiness of his life or his suffering for the sake of Christ automatically imply the elevation of all their writings to the rank of patristic writings? This question has become particularly pressing with the canonization of many Russian new martyrs and confessors who have left behind a literary heritage.

[32] Cf. Fr Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology, p.82.

[33] Cf. Hieromonk John (Kologrivov), Essays on the History of Russian Sanctity, Brussels , 1961, pp.296-302 (in Russian).

[34] Cf. Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology, op. cit., p.157.

One could note, St. Dimitri of Rostov also prayed the Rosary, said a Hail Mary at every hour, and "had a great devotion to the 'Joys and Sorrows' of the Most Holy Virgin Mary." (This last, some note, was long included in ROCOR's Jordanville Prayer Book as "The Tale of the Five Prayers.") Many Orthodox of both rites are familiar with his Menologion (lives of the saints).

Without laying down any clear-cut (and overly simplistic) course of action, Bp. HILARION's work notes that "the universal Orthodox tradition is wider than Byzantinism." His more balanced view of the post-Schism West should serve as a corrective to those who confuse Orthodoxy with Byzantinism (whether they consider themselves Eastern or Western Rite) and an eloquent rejoinder to those who accuse the Russian Orthodox Church of "an inability to face the challenges of the modern world."

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Blogger David said...

Dang, that was good..... One difficult aspect for me and my family when approaching Orthodoxy was the near demand in some jurisdictions that conversion to Orthodoxy goes hand in hand to a conversion to Byzantinism and Helenic Culture. I see that Orthodox catholic thought as part of the reason some sought to try and bring the West back to what was a distant memory, Orthodoxy. What ended up happening was the reformation, i.e. the unfinished effort to return to pre-schism Christianity.

9:56 PM  

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