Neither liturgics nor church music nor the Church itself could exist without history, and it is impossible to have a real grasp of any of these without at least some knowledge of their historical development. Neither the Russian Orthodox Church nor her beautiful liturgy fell down from the sky on Pentecost, contrary to what some faithful may think. Priests and parishioners with such a deficient sense of history can easily do more damage than good, especially in complicated times requiring ecclesial consciousness and discernment. The recent divisions and further subdivisions of our Church sadly witness to this state of affairs in a considerable number of our parishes.
Mother Vassa Larin
4 May 2008
Orthodoxy is Not a Religion of Fear
Historical Studies of the Russian Church Abroad
Please do read the above article in its entirety FIRST. Much of what passes below presupposes an acquaintance with the arguments presented by Mother Vassa. In any case, a stimulating read! I do not agree totally with the conclusions reached… but, Mother’s arguments are literate and to the point. My disagreements are on certain points of her thesis, not her submission. No doubt, she would say likewise of me! THAT is how we should handle all honest and legitimate disagreements.
One of the most enduring myths about the Church is that it is a monolithic body, that it only has one opinion on everything and that the faithful must conform themselves to it in every possible way. I believe that such a construct is profoundly false. Indeed, the Church is the most intense epitome of freedom within its stated boundaries. Can’t you see the konvertsy jumping up and down and shouting, “What about the canons? What about the Fathers?” Yes… what about THEM? Let’s not confuse the actual canons and the real Fathers with the uncritical and illiterate interpretation of such by those without the educational tools to use them properly.
One of the things that I consider crucial in forming an Orthodox world-view is a profound sense of history. Knowledge of where the Church has been is crucial (that is why JP is such a disaster), for the knowledge of its road in the past shall tell us where she is wending her way now. Some think of this as an academic exercise; others oppose such an idea, relying on popular instincts and memory. In my view, both are deficient, and each needs the insights provided by the other. In addition to this, there is excellent material on history published by heretics (especially SVS or St Herman’s Press)… one is stupid not to use it. Of course, one rejects the heretical interpretation that one finds beside the facts… approach anything from SVS, New Skete, St Nektarios Press, or St Herman’s Press with caution (often, the facts are straight, but, it shall have a skewed interpretation). Of course, be doubly wary of anything with a heterodox (papist or Protestant) provenance.
However, once one understands the general caveat that one must apply, one should use all possible sources. If for no other reason, if you do not use “adversarial” sources, you shall not be aware of the opposition’s arguments and general intellectual weltanshauung. Your own work will suffer impoverishment as a result; it shall not be what it should. In Mother Vassa’s words, “Saints Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great took pride in having been educated in a pagan school at Athens. The great Chrysostom was taught by Livanius and Theodore of Mopsuestia… the one a pagan, the other a heretic. Although these Holy Fathers lived in times of rampant heresies and dogmatic confusion, they did not cultivate an Orthodoxy of fear. It was rather an Orthodoxy of responsibility and dogmatic awareness, inspired and fortified by a thirst for education”. In our day, Archbishop Kyrill Dmitrieff of San Francisco studied under Aleksandr Dmitrievich Schmemann at SVS… ADS was a consummate heretic and modernism and indifferentism infested SVS. Nevertheless, Vladyki Kyrill took what was good out of it all and he is one of the more grounded of Orthodox bishops as a result (this specific instance, I believe, proves Mother’s basic thesis… a very sound one in its generality).
However, one should supplement reading with experience… otherwise, the base of your conclusion is bloodless paper and ink and not life. If you wish to understand the history of the Mayfield PA church dispute, I would say that it is important to go there and pray at St John the Baptist Cathedral. I have… as a result, I have a deep understanding of why the people of Russian Hill fought so bitterly for their church-home. Trust me… it shouts at you from the very stones of the building! Yes… go to New Skete. See their little statue of “Saint” Francis… see their “icons” of ADS, Dorothy Day, and Edith Stein. Steel yourself and attend one of their hotchpotch services (I know… it’s hard… I stood it, so can you). Only then shall you realise how shockingly obscene the place is. Motor about northeastern Pennsylvania… look at Olyphant (my Nicky’s father is from there), Mayfield, Jermyn, Pittston, and Hazleton… this is where Russian Orthodoxy had its birth in “the lower-48”. It won’t hurt to go to Minneapolis MN… that is where the first parish (St Mary’s) to “come home” from the Unia to Russian Orthodoxy in 1892 (the true foundational date of the so-called Metropolia) is still located. You shall have a deep respect for the founders of our faith in this country consequently. Above all, go to Jordanville. Go to services there. Walk about the grounds, eat in the refectory, and talk with the monks and seminarians. After doing this, you realise that this is the beating heart of Russian Orthodoxy in America. Like all living things, it is not perfect… there are such things as false elders and sin… yes, Jordanville has had its fair share of both (Satan is twice as active in places where people seek after holiness). Yet, if any place is the “icon” of Russian Orthodoxy in our land, Jordanville is it, easily.
You can tell those who lack experience and only have reading as a foundation. Everything is a bit “off”. In fact, there is a reason for all of their posturing about the inflexible teaching of the Church. These people did not come into the Church because they loved Christ and His (Unique) Church. They came to us because they perceived lacks in their earlier confessions… they saw what they thought was mindless indifferentism in them. Therefore, they fastened upon those facets of Orthodox life, thought, and writing that appeared to contradict such. Ergo, they fail to see that the final authority in the Church is the living word of the bishops… not the sterile clauses of the canons… not the writings of the often-contradictory Fathers… and, certainly, not the vapouring of scatter-brained ivory-tower-bound contemporary “scholars”. Oikonomia is a life-giving principle… it covers over situations that the canons did not envision. I asked a real canonist (there are very few in the USA, none in the OCA) what his job consisted of. “I tell the bishop what the canons say on a given topic. Then, he makes up his mind”. THE CANONS ARE NOT A CHAIN WRAPPED AROUND OUR BISHOPS… THEY DO NOT IMPRISON THEM. They INFORM them. They GUIDE them. They show him what his brother bishops thought and did in the past. However, in the end, the bishop makes up his own mind. He may choose to follow the canons exactly or he may opt to forgo them (in disciplinary cases only… not dogmatic questions). This is his freedom as a bishop. If he oversteps the mark, what happens is that the other bishops, usually, bring a case up to the Holy Synod (itself composed of senior bishops) to resolve it (this is what occurred recently in regards to the case surrounding Diomid Dzyuban).
One can only pity those who straitjacket the Faith so. They are looking for a consistency that never was and one that we shall never have. Their quest shall lead them, I believe, out of the Church, for the Church’s very freedom is what is going to repel them. What they think is “canonical” is, all too often, only a non-binding theologumena of some theologian, or an “official statement” penned by a clerical bureaucrat (only the canons of a recognised General or Local Council are truly canonical according to my sources), or the personal opinion of this or that “scholar” or “expert”. In short, they assign a weight to such things that they should not have. In the end, they chase after a certainty that cannot be… one can only pity them.
I only have two quibbles with Mother Vassa’s article. Firstly, she appears to swallow the papist lie that the West is the Salvation of All… “The alternative to learning from the West was remaining uneducated” (God willing, the concise format of the article is what led to the distortion). She did not take her proposition far enough. Where did the West of Mogila’s time receive its education? When New Rome fell in 1453, Roman scholars fled to the West… THAT is why the West was so “educated”. In short, we owe NOTHING to the heterodox West. Secondly, she appears to accept the papist lies about a “Byzantine Church”, a “Byzantine liturgy”, a “Byzantine theology”, and a “Byzantine tradition”. Again… the very brief nature of the piece concerned may be the cause of this (or, it could show the bias of the interviewer… one can shape a reply by the questions one asks). We Orthodox are the proud heirs of ROME… New Rome… the papists always try to evade the fact that Constantinopolis Nea Romana (and the Orthodox Faith it embodied (albeit, imperfectly… it was no worse (and, probably, far better) than the Rome of the Borgia popes) was the most literate, most affluent, and most powerful centre of European civilisation from the fourth century to the eleventh (Old Rome was nothing but a provincial backwater… no doubt, its hayseed-hick backwardness and general illiteracy were reasons that the Popes of Rome developed such odd and conceited notions about themselves). If we are anything, we are Romaioi… ROMANS (or, one can say NEW ROMANS)… not (sneeringly, with a snarl) B-Y-Z-A-N-T-I-N-E-S. I, for one, refuse to use papist categories. I am against hatred or nastiness. However, Mr Taft is outside the Church (I believe that he is a Uniate Jesuit, of all things), and that affects how we should accept his utterances. He is, no doubt, a very nice and personable fellow… I would be nothing but polite and civil to him, trust me on that. Yet, if he speaks on Churchly topics, we must bear in mind that he is a convinced heretic and wishes to convert us to his heresy. Caveat auditor.
In the Church, a hundred different flowers blossom in Christ’s garden. It has always been such. God willing, let it always be so.
Wednesday 11 November 2009