"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Friday, July 21, 2017

Theologies of Retrieval

Last week, when I was at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota at a fantastic conference, discussed here, I met the editor of a forthcoming collection of great interest: Theologies of Retrieval: An Exploration and Appraisal, Darren Sarisky, ed. (T&T Clark, 2017), 368pp.

About this collection, which features an impressive array of some of the most prominent names in theology today--East and West--the publisher tells us the following:

One of the most significant trends in academic theology today, which cuts across thinking from Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox points of view, is the growing interest in theologies of retrieval. Theology of retrieval is a mode of thinking that puts a special stress on giving classic theological texts a close reading, with a view toward using the resources that they provide to understand and address contemporary theological issues.

This volume offers an understanding of what theologies of retrieval are, what their rationale is, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. The contributors to this volume are all well established theologians, who answer important questions that existing work raises, expand on suggestions that have not already been developed fully, summarize ideas in order to highlight themes that are relevant to the topics of this volume, and air new critiques that should spur further debate.

We are also given the table of contents:

Introduction, Darren Sarisky (University of Oxford, UK)

I. Genealogies of Modernity: The Role of Intellectual-Historical Judgments

1. 'There's Always One Day Which Isn't The Same As The Day Before': Christianity and History in the Writings of Charles Péguy, John Milbank (University of Nottingham, UK)
2. The Past Matters Theologically: Thinking Tradition, Stanley Hauerwas (Duke University, USA)

II. Different Inflections to Retrieval: Confessional Approaches

3. Orthodoxy, Andrew Louth (Durham University, UK)
4. Reformed Retrieval, Michael Allen (Reformed Theological Seminary, USA)
5. "Only what is rooted is living" A Roman Catholic Theology of Ressourcement, Jennifer Newsome Martin (University of Notre Dame, USA)

III. Twentieth-Century Figures

6. Georges Florovsky, Paul Gavrilyuk (University of St. Thomas, USA)
7. Karl Barth, Kenneth Oakes (University of Notre Dame, USA)
8. Henri de Lubac, David Grumett (University of Edinburgh, UK)

IV. Theological Sources

9. Scripture: Three Modes of Retrieval, Michael Legaspi (Penn State University, USA)
10. Tradition I: Tradition in Congar, de Lubac and Blondel, Gabriel Flynn (Dublin City University, Ireland)
11. Tradition II: Thinking With Historical Texts - Reflections on Theologies of Retrieval, Darren Sarisky (University of Oxford, UK)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Cyril Hovorun on the Church's Scaffolds

At the end of May I noted some initial thoughts on Fr Cyril Hovorun's new book, Scaffolds of the Church, which I was then half-way through reading. I have since not only finished the book, but publicly recommended it in two very different contexts, including to a class of Catholic teachers from the local Latin diocese who were taking a summer course with me in ecclesiology. As I said to them, if you buy and read no other book in ecclesiology this year, let it be this one. It is very much worth your while.

I will finish that review later this week, but in the meantime, I wanted to let you hear from the author himself, and so I e-mailed some questions to Fr. Cyril. Here are this thoughts.

AD: Tell us about the background to Scaffolds of the Church.

CH: My motivation to write this book was to give answers to the questions, which I asked myself at different administrative positions at the Moscow Patriarchate, and in the frame of various ecumenical dialogues, where I participated on behalf of my church. During my numerous journeys through the Eastern Christian oecumene, I observed many fascinating and sometimes strange phenomena in theology and church life. I did not find a satisfactory explanation for these phenomena in the existing literature. So I decided to explain them myself and to give them a theological sense, when there is a theological sense, of course. Even when I did not see any theological sense in what I observed in the Christian East, I tried to give a theological explanation why this sense is missing in the real life of the church.

AD: When we last spoke on here, it was about your book Meta-Ecclesiology. What links these two books?

CH: There is an intrinsic link between the two books. Actually, in the beginning they were supposed to constitute a single book. However, the manuscript I produced was too long for any publisher. Publishers suggested I cut it into two works. So I redrafted the manuscript to make two different books. They are indeed different, even though they deal with the same phenomenon of the church.

The approach of the first book, Meta-ecclesiology, is epistemological. I consider the church as a stream of consciousness, or as self-awareness of the church as church. I explore the church through various metaphors and ecclesiological theories, and in the end I apply to the church the epistemological methods of phenomenology and analytic philosophy.

By contrast, Scaffolds has a different approach to the church: through structuralism and poststructuralism. This approach is more analytic and relies on the traditional theological patterns of Aristotelian-Porphyrian logic. Unlike God and Incarnation, the church in the classical theological period was not described in the terms of nature, hypostasis, accidents, etc. I try to fill in this lacuna and to present the church through the juxtaposition, and sometimes counterposition, of its nature and structures.

AD: One of the main arguments you make is that sometimes ecclesial structures can act against the nature of the Church. Tell us a bit more about that, and give us an example.

In my earlier book, Meta-ecclesiology, I identified a chasm between the church as we believe in it, and the church we observe in our everyday life. The differentiation between the nature and structures of the church helps explain why this chasm exists. Indeed, what we believe about the church, that it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, belongs to its nature. What we criticize in the church--in most cases--goes to its structures. The structures have been developed in the course of the history of the church to serve its mission. However, when the structures demand that the church serves them instead of serving the church, they deviate from their original rationale. Let us take, for instance, community, which I consider as church’s hypostasis, and hierarchy. Hierarchy was introduced to the church for the sake of the well-being of communities. When hierarchy makes communities an instrument of its own well-being, it goes against the nature of the church and betrays its own purpose.

AD: Alasdair MacIntyre's latest book, noted here, talks about how deeply hidden structures in neoliberal capitalist societies are so that we often don't even think to question them. In that light, I'm wondering if, like a lot of political structures, ecclesial structures do their work invisibly, and thus, when they act against the nature of the Church, we don't see them clearly enough to question them?

CH: I agree with this insight. In my book, I try to disclose some structures of the church, which mimic its nature. A number of Orthodox and other theologians identify the structures of the church with the church proper. We can call their approach ontotheology - the word coined by Kant and then used by Heidegger and Derrida. When I talk about ontotheology, I mean something different. I mean sacralisation of those services in the church, whose origin is profane, not divine. Their provenance is from the Greco-Roman world, not from the gospel. Hierarchy and primacy are some of these services.

AD: You argue in several places that hierarchy is useful in the Church but not necessary. Tell us a bit more about that.

CH: Hierarchy is useful, but not necessary as any instrument that the church has adopted in the course of its history. As with any such instrument, hierarchy is vulnerable to abuses, and indeed it often abuses the church and contradicts the church's nature.

In my book, I have scrutinized two sources from which hierarchy was borrowed to the church. These sources are not divine, but quite profane: Roman political culture and Neoplatonism. Even the word “hierarchy” is Neoplatonic and was introduced to the Christian theological lexicon in the 5th century. That hierarchy is not divine, however, does not mean it should be rejected altogether, as an alien element. It should be used in the church, and when necessary, repaired and restored to its original function.

The final chapter of the book is “From structuralism to poststructuralism and beyond.” The “beyond” is very important here. It means that my task is not just to deconstruct the ecclesial structures, something that structuralism and especially poststructuralism would do, but to suggest a way of re-construction of these structures - in accordance with their original meaning and with the nature of the church, which they are supposed to serve.

AD: Notions of autocephaly and canonical territory, so often invoked especially in Russian and Ukrainian contexts, are, you say, not really ecclesiological but nationalist in nature. Tell us a bit more about that.

CH: These notions were adopted by the church from the political culture very early, even before nationalism was invented in early modern Europe. "Canonical territory" brought about a transition from the original meaning of the church as particular to the local church. The earliest structures of the church were measured by communities. After the Roman empire embraced Christianity, they became measured by territories. The territorial principle of administration was appropriated by the church as a principle of canonical territory.

AD: You speak (p.127) about reinventing notions of autocephaly. Can you give us some indication of what you mean by that?

CH: The evolution of autocephaly was more complicated than the evolution of other ecclesial structures. It was invented in the Late Antiquity as an instrument that helped the church to resist its assimilation in the Roman state. It was countercultural, as it were. In the Middle Ages, from a counter-political phenomenon it turned to a means of further politicisation of the church. Autocephaly became an instrument of transitio imperii for the medieval Balkan and Moscovite states. In the nineteenth century, it was adjusted to the national awakening of the Orthodox peoples and facilitated their emancipation from the empires of that time. In our days, it is an instrument of decolonization for the states that emerged from the Soviet Union, particularly in Ukraine. This, I believe, is the latest version of autocephaly.

AD: In calling for its reinvention here, as in other places, you very commendably note the importance not of just dismantling structures or dismissing them, but of seeing their worth and revising them where necessary and possible, noting that there is no once and forever solution. From this, and from your book as a whole, I gather a clear sense that the Church and her structures really needs to be a lot more "portable" or "flexible" in many ways, a "field hospital" (to use Pope Francis's well-known image) that has some stability and structure but is not necessarily a permanent and fixed feature of the landscape. Is that a fair read?

CH: I think you have grasped the main idea of the book very well. I argue that to prevent the ecclesial structures from turning to simulacra, they need to be kept open. To remain useful, and not harmful, for the church, they have to be permanently readjusted, always with their original meaning as blueprint. I think the famous “ecclesia semper reformanda” should apply not so much to the church per se as to its structures.

AD: You and I seem to meet about once a year at ecumenical conferences--June 2016 in Vienna, June 2017 in San Felice del Benaco. From those conferences, your other travels, and your new position at the Huffington Ecumenical Institute, do you have an overall or global sense of where the search for Orthodox-Catholic unity is today?

CH: I have participated in many official and unofficial dialogues, and had many chances to see their power and limitations. I concluded that the most important issue on the plate of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is primacy. In my ecclesiological books, I always try to tackle this issue, and thus to contribute to the dialogues. I believe that equally, if not more, important for the Orthodox-Catholic rapprochement are all sorts of relations and networking between the two churches on all levels. I argue in my books that the nature of the church is relational. Therefore, the more there will be different relations between us, the closer we will get to sharing in the same nature of the church. I consider my new role at the Huffington Ecumenical Institute in fostering these relations.

AD: Having finished Scaffolds of the Church, what are you working on now?

CH: I am finishing a new manuscript for the Fortress Press. Its tentative title is “Unorthodox Orthodoxies.” This book will continue my previous ecclesiological studies. This time, I will consider some particular cases, when the idea of the church, and Christianity in general, get distorted in the Orthodox world. I will study the issue of nationalism, collaboration of the churches with the totalitarian regimes, their participation in modern culture wars and obsession with ideologies. I will pay a special attention to the issue of antisemitism among the Orthodox, and will argue that it is close to the classical Christological heresies.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Other Welsh Wizard

On a lark I picked up a copy of Brenda Maddox's Freud's Wizard: Ernest Jones and the Transformation of Psychoanalysis (De Capo, 2008), 372pp. at Hyde Brothers, a wonderful used book store here in Ft. Wayne. Neither the book nor my comments have anything to do with Eastern Christianity directly but it arises out of my ongoing interest in seeing what use psychoanalytic thought still offers us today 100 years after Freud's most popular work, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis were completed, and 90 years after his rather silly but nonetheless influential Future of an Illusion was published. That latter work was, of course, his broadside against religious belief, which is held to be nothing more then a species of wish-fulfillment and an illusory wish for a powerful father-figure to protect us from the vagaries and violence of a nature thought by Freud to be terrifyingly red in tooth and claw. I will have more to say about both in public lectures I've been asked to give later this year.

But back to Maddox's book, which was a wonderfully fun book to read and so I want to draw attention to it for those who may be interested, not merely for what it reveals about the politics of the first generation around Freud, but also for some interesting, and often amusing, potted histories of, e.g., the early Canadian medical establishment and the arrival of psychoanalysis to Toronto, and then especially of Wales. He felt that the Welsh were far more open about sex, and far less preoccupied with capitalist pursuits, than either the English or the North Americans.

Jones was Welsh, and while he lived for a time in Canada (in exile, it seems, after charges of sexual harassment began piling up in London) and England, he returned to Wales and kept a house there, and saw that Welsh history could be useful in resisting some of the imperial depredations of the English.

As non-Americans, both he and Freud shared a kind of envious disdain of the newly emerging great power, which in their correspondence they both mocked for its sexual prudery. Jones was very much someone who saw himself as spreading Freud's greatness in North America, and so he arranged the famous 1909 trip for the great man from Vienna to give a series of lectures at Clark University. After this, when safely back in Vienna, Freud did not look fondly on America for its obsession with money, its fast-pace, its food, its attitudes towards sex and drink, writing to Jones: "Yes, America is gigantic. A gigantic mistake"!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Remembering, Repeating, Reconciling, Reuniting, and........Forgetting?

I'm at a conference this week at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, organized in part by Paul Gavrilyuk, whose book on Florovsky I discussed extensively here.

The conference is bringing together Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant scholars on the themes of remembering, reconciling, reuniting, ressourcement, and--as I'm adding in my paper--forgetting also. The respondent to my paper, "Some Salutary Theses on Oubliance," is Sarah Coakley of the University of Cambridge and author, inter alia, of the fascinating God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity'.

It looks to be a fascinating conference and I'm looking forward to seeing old friends and making some new ones.

Among some of those who will be there, my friend Nick Denysenko, whom I have interviewed here, here, and here about some of his books, will be among them.

Will Cohen, whose book on Orthodoxy and Catholicism and the notion of sister churches is a splendid one, was interviewed here; he will also be at the conference. I assigned his book to a graduating student this past semester and he found it invaluable in writing his undergraduate honours thesis.

Edith Humphrey will be there, giving a paper on Orthodox biblical scholarship. I interviewed here here about her book on Scripture and tradition.

The indefatigable and prolific Matthew Levering will be giving a fascinating paper on remembering and eyewitness testimony in the gospels and the fate of the latter in modern biblical scholarship. Discussions of several of his books, and an interview about one of them, may be found starting here.

George Demacopoulos, author of a number of important books on the early papacy and popes, will be there. I interviewed him here about his book on Gregory the Great. He is also editor, with Aristotle Papanikalaou, of the very valuable collection Orthodox Constructions of the West, which I discussed in several parts.

Marcus Plested will also be there. He's the author of the utterly invaluable and fascinating Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, about which he was interviewed here.

Hans Boersma, whose Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry I have used for several years now in classes, will also be there. I interviewed him here about that book.

There are numerous others, not known to me, and mostly Protestants, who will also be there. I have read the papers and they are a fascinating, eclectic lot. I'm quite sure the discussion will be very rewarding indeed.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Crusades, Part MMCCXVIII

The local Catholic radio station, Redeemer Radio, is interviewing me later this morning (tune in at 7am!) about my article last month in the Catholic Herald about ISIS propaganda and Crusades history.

So, for those who are seeking some places to begin in reading Crusades history, I suggest you start here with the works of Jonathan Riley-Smith, arguably the pioneer in contemporary Crusades scholarship until his death last year. Of his many books noted in that review essay, I would, if you pressed me to recommend only one, suggest--because it is both accessible and short, but with enough detail to point you onward to other sources if you wish--his The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam, from 2008.

One of Riley-Smith's students, now teaching and well respected in North America, is Thomas Madden, and his book, The Concise History of the Crusadesnoted here, is also a good place to begin, though it does not focus on the contemporary historiographical issues as much as Riley-Smith. Madden also authored this short but useful article.

For those wanting an introduction to Arab views of the Crusades, which are fascinating and highly counter-intuitive, go here. For more generally Islamic views of the Crusades, go here.

For much more specialized scholarship, follow the links here.

Finally, for those interested in the very challenging and ever-changing historiography of the Crusades, then Giles Constable's article is very valuable indeed.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

On Political and Sexual Epistemological Crises

I have several times previously drawn attention to Adam Phillips, the English literary scholar and psychoanalyst, certainly the most prolific and quite likely also the most interesting analytic writer today. There is, I have suggested, a clear "apophatic" theme and impulse in much of his writing, and that is perhaps nowhere so clear as in one of his early, short books I have just finished: Terrors and Experts (Harvard University Press, 1997), 128pp. I hope to develop this apophatic connection in more detail elsewhere, showing how much in Phillips is very sympathetic to, and thus useful for dialogue with, Eastern Christian spirituality.

It is sometimes a cheap trick to claim that a book or an idea from decades or centuries ago is directly "relevant" in light of the headlines of today. But I would suggest that this book is not so much relevant now as superfluous, but in a good way, that is, as having fulfilled its purpose, albeit belatedly: the very thing it calls for is now to be found in abundance. Thus, with ongoing eruptions of "fake news," the uses and abuses of propaganda of all sorts--whether from Russia, ISIS, or others--and the widespread scorn for, and collapse of the authority of, "experts" (whether in politics, the media, Church, climate change science, and elsewhere), we seem more than ever to live in an age where "experts" are treated with skepticism at best, and scorn at worst.

This is precisely the sort of thing Phillips would seem to encourage: "psychoanalysis...radically revises our versions of competence." Here, as in his many other books, he sees the usefulness of psychoanalysis precisely insofar as it undermines unhealthy (neurotic) certainties and loosens things up, allowing people new thoughts and new freedom, including the freedom to forget about themselves. To the extent that psychoanalysis itself becomes an ideology enforcing various lines of authority and various forms of orthodoxy, it has, Phillips says, lost its usefulness and deserves to be ignored: "Psychoanalysts run the risk of believing that there is a King's English of the psyche and everybody is, or should be, speaking it." Psychoanalysis is, rather, at its best when it ranges itself "against the enemies of ambiguity" and gives free reign to its capacity "to both comfort and unsettle."

We have recently seen several attempts at understanding Western politics and politicians via psychoanalytic categories, including this very interesting article, as well as regular, and by now tedious, discussions of Donald Trump's "vulgarity" and his "id." Regardless of what one thinks of all this, Phillips argues that once one accepts the reality of an unconscious mind, all attempts at certainty and "dignity," at acting authoritatively or expertly or "presidentially," at speaking unequivocally, are perpetually undermined: "the unconscious, at least as Freud described it, is another word for the death of the guru." A guru claims to offer us a solution to a problem he has himself largely invented, and further claims there is only one solution, his, which will solve the problem. But the unconscious, Phillips reminds us by quoting Freud's The Claims of Psycho-Analysis to Scientific Interest, "'speaks more than one dialect'." It is an unruly cacophony, and it mocks all gurus and bourgeois mandarins and prissy etiquette experts with their notions of what constitutes "appropriate tone" or "appearing presidential" rather than "vulgar."

Radically unsettling and undermining notions of competence, expertise, and authority are not things that most of us encourage others to do: "politicians in Western democracies do not get elected on the basis of their capacity for hesitation, or their willingness to sustain contradictory points of view, or their ability to change their minds, or their impassioned support for the opposition's point of view," Phillips notes. That is greatly to be pitied, for as Alasdair MacIntyre has often noted, the greatest need today is precisely the ability radically to put to the question all the claims of Western politicians on behalf of the structures of neoliberal capitalism, which too often largely remain hidden from us, offering us only a chimera of choice between alternatives that are, on closer examination, the same: conservative liberalism, liberal liberalism, or radical liberalism.

In such a context, the role of both a moral philosopher such as MacIntyre and an analyst such as Phillips (who both come out of the British left, and know each other's work) is to become, ironically, an "expert on the truths of uncertainty" and to resist the tendency, much in evidence in this country since 9/11, to defer to "experts" in the name of what I think has become the most pernicious American idol today, viz., "security." For part of the problem here is that, at least sometimes, "the expert constructs the terror, and then the terror makes the expert."

If Phillips, here and in other books (especially his Unforbidden Pleasures:Rethinking Authority, Power, and Vitality, which I reviewed here) offers much that is useful to undermining contemporary politicians and politics, with their bogus claims to certainty and authority, then in the latter parts of Terrors and Experts he offers much to put to the question the politics and ideologies of sexuality, not least in the grotesques of "gender ideology." Too much of what passes for discussion of these issues today is a cheap amalgam of essentialism, romanticism, and nostalgia; too much nonsense is spread about by those unwilling to recognize the legitimate differences between culturally conditioned and contingent gender roles on the one hand, and the sexual differentiation given by the Creator on the other. Here there is plenty of fault to go round: those demanding that nobody be permitted to deviate from preferred pronouns and nomenclature, and those resisting that with equal hostility and certainty. When it comes to sex and gender, most people, it seems, are, as Phillips might put it, themselves both terrors and experts! In a slightly different idiom, found in his book On Balance, when it comes to things we are most passionate about, including our sexual identities, we become unbalanced and instead emerge as intolerant fanatics.

As I have argued elsewhere, Catholic and Orthodox Christians are guilty of making the tradition say what it has not, of pulling the fabric too far to patch holes of their own making, when they attempt to argue that, from the premise "God created us male and female," certain prescriptive conclusions for how men and women are to act and think must inexorably follow. (It's the same slippery and over-hasty procedure used by those who assume that from a few vague buzzwords in Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I, the pope can do whatever he wants in any and all matters. Not so. Not in a month of Sundays.)

This is not to cast doubt on historic Christian teaching about sexual morality, which I support, but only to suggest that much of the contemporary theological debate on these issues is often unconsciously bound up with many other issues, especially those of social class, economic standing, and cultural conditioning, almost all of which go unrecognized. Moreover, it pretends to a certainty that I think few of us have, and then it attempts to enforce that certainty on others. From the Creator's "is" we are over-hasty in trying to draw our own "oughts." What and whom does that really serve well?

Instead of racing to unsustainable and intellectually vacuous "answers" about sexual differentiation, we need to be much more careful here about getting some of the questions right. My friend the Orthodox biblical scholar Edith Humphrey, whom I look forward to seeing next week at a conference in Minnesota, has recently done some of that here in a piece I commend to your attention.

Phillips will be radically unsettling to those who like their sexual roles and regulations highly detailed and prescriptive. Good luck with that. As he repeatedly notes, "there is nothing like sexuality...for making a mockery of our self-knowledge. In our erotic lives, at least, our preferences do not always accord with our standards." Moreover, Phillips rescues Freud's original insight into human bisexuality, and reintroduces Ferenczi's idea of "ambisexuality."

The result of all this is to note that "from a psychoanalytic point of view, nobody can know about sexuality" in part because "we are never one thing or another, but a miscellany. (For how long in any given day is one homosexual or heterosexual, and can you always tell the difference?)" We seek to be one thing and never another, and certainly Christians try to prescribe this, but that, at the very least, is, Phillips suggests, merely an expression of our "wish to be defined [which] is complicit with the wish to be controlled."

Rather than always and everywhere seeking control and certainty, seeking refuge from the terrors of the world and of love (including God's love, perhaps the most terrifying of all, though Phillips does not suggest this) in the shadow of the expert, the healthy mind is one that is free to forget, free not to focus on itself, free to avoid making a "fetish of memory," and free to kick out its own resident "enraged bureaucrat" who is always trying to organize, structure, and control thoughts. In the end, Phillips says that psychoanalysis, theology, politics, and anything else has to resist the descent into what he calls "Cartesianism," that is, into highly and tightly structured systems of thought in which we think we have thought everything there is to be thought, and no new or free thoughts are to be had. Psychoanalysis, like Christianity, works best when it reminds us that "too much definition leaves too much out."

Monday, June 26, 2017

15th Century Crusades

As I have been arguing on here, as well as here, and in other places for years now, the propaganda of ISIS about the Crusades traffics in, inter alia, general Western ignorance, and blatant Western political abuse of, Crusading history. A recently published collection, edited by a sometime student of Jonathan Riley-Smith, looks at The Crusade in the Fifteenth Century: Converging and Competing Cultures, ed. Norman Housley (Routledge, 2016), 220pp.

Housley is the author of a number of other studies on the Crusades, including Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land (2008) and Contesting the Crusades, which is a good place to begin for those new to Crusading history. 

About this new collection we are told:
Increasingly, historians acknowledge the significance of crusading activity in the fifteenth century, and they have started to explore the different ways in which it shaped contemporary European society. Just as important, however, was the range of interactions which took place between the three faith communities which were most affected by crusade, namely the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, and the adherents of Islam. Discussion of these interactions forms the theme of this book. Two essays consider the impact of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 on the conquering Ottomans and the conquered Byzantines. The next group of essays reviews different aspects of the crusading response to the Turks, ranging from Emperor Sigismund to Papal legates. The third set of contributions considers diplomatic and cultural interactions between Islam and Christianity, including attempts made to forge alliances of Christian and Muslim powers against the Ottomans. Last, a set of essays looks at what was arguably the most complex region of all for inter-faith relations, the Balkans, exploring the influence of crusading ideas in the eastern Adriatic, Bosnia and Romania. Viewed overall, this collection of essays makes a powerful contribution to breaking down the old and discredited view of monolithic and mutually exclusive "fortresses of faith". Nobody would question the extent and intensity of religious violence in fifteenth-century Europe, but this volume demonstrates that it was played out within a setting of turbulent diversity. Religious and ethnic identities were volatile, allegiances negotiable, and diplomacy, ideological exchange and human contact were constantly in operation between the period's major religious groupings.
And we are given the Table of Contents:

List of figures and maps

List of abbreviations
Notes on contributors

Maps

Preface

1 Introduction: Norman Housley

Conquerors and conquered

2 Crusading in the fifteenth century and its relation to the development of Ottoman dynastic legitimacy, self-image, and the Ottoman consolidation of authority: Nikolay Antov

3 Byzantine refugees as crusade propagandists: the travels of Nicholas Agallon: Jonathan Harris

The crusading response: expressions, dynamics and constraints

4 Dances, dragons and a pagan queen: Sigismund of Luxemburg and the publicizing of the Ottoman Turkish threat: Mark Whelan

5 Alfonso V and the anti-Turkish crusade:Mark Aloisio

6 Papal legates and crusading activity in central Europe: the Hussites and the Ottoman Turks: Antonin Kalous

7 Switching the tracks: Baltic crusades against Russia in the fifteenth century: Anti Selart

Diplomatic and cultural interactions

8 Tīmūr and the ‘Frankish’ powers: Michele Bernardini

9 Venetian attempts at forging an alliance with Persia and the crusade in the fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries: Giorgio Rota

10 Quattrocento Genoa and the legacies of crusading: Steven Epstein

Frontier zones: the Balkans and the Adriatic

11 The key to the gate of Christendom? The strategic importance of Bosnia in the struggle against the Ottomans: Emir Filippović

12 Between two worlds or a world of its own? The eastern Adriatic in the fifteenth century: Oliver Jens Schmitt

13 The Romanian concept of crusade in the fifteenth century: Sergiu Iosipescu

14 Conclusion: transformations of crusading in the long fifteenth century: Alan V. Murray

Index

Housley, a busy man, has another even newer collection released just this spring: Reconfiguring the 15th-Century Crusade (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 344pp.

About this book we are told:
This collection of essays by eight leading scholars is a landmark event in the study of crusading in the late middle ages. It is the outcome of an international network funded by the Leverhulme Trust whose members examined the persistence of crusading activity in the fifteenth century from three viewpoints, goals, agencies and resonances. The crusading fronts considered include the conflict with the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean and western Balkans, the Teutonic Order’s activities in the Baltic region, and the Hussite crusades. The authors review criticism of crusading propaganda on behalf of the crusade, the influence on crusading of demands for Church reform, the impact of printing, expanding knowledge of the world beyond the Christian lands, and new sensibilities about the sufferings of non-combatants.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Lost Kingdom of Russian Nationalism

A new book from Serhii Plokhii always commands attention, and rightly so. Author of various and well-received studies on the history of Ukraine, of Cossack history, of the Yalta conference of 1945, and many other works, he has a new book forthcoming this fall which could not be more timely: Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin. That is the title given the book by its European publisher, while, most curiously, the North American version is to be titled Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation (Basic Books, October 2017), 416pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimea and attempted to seize a portion of Ukraine. While the world watched in outrage, this blatant violation of national sovereignty was only the latest iteration of a centuries-long effort to expand Russian boundaries and create a pan-Russian nation.
In Lost Kingdom, award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy argues that we can only understand the confluence of Russian imperialism and nationalism today by delving into the nation's history. Spanning over 500 years, from the end of the Mongol rule to the present day, Plokhy shows how leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin exploited existing forms of identity, warfare, and territorial expansion to achieve imperial supremacy.
An authoritative and masterful account of Russian nationalism, Lost Kingdom chronicles the story behind Russia's belligerent empire-building quest.
I was gratified to learn just this week of the forthcoming advent of this book for the topic of Russian nationalism has been much on my mind. I was in Italy last week, in the wonderful Alpine town of San Felice del Benaco, half-way between Brescia and Verona, attending the congress of the Russian Greek Catholic Church, where I was keynote lecturer. Organized by the splendid Fr. Lawrence Cross of Australia, it was an important gathering whose resolutions you may read here.

Russian nationalism came up insofar as it plays a role in Rome-Moscow relations over the vexed question of Eastern Catholics ("uniates") in both Russia and Ukraine. But much more than that was discussed at the congress, and in the coming days I shall have more to say about it at Catholic World Report. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

In Search of Catholic Propaganda

Having spent the better part of two years analyzing, lecturing on, and writing about ISIS propaganda, it has become clear to me that what is needed now is Catholic, and more generally Christian counter-propaganda about the Crusades, as I argued in a new piece in the Catholic Herald of London, which you may read here.

For those who want to do more reading on the Crusades, I direct your attention to dozens of discussions of them on here. You may want to begin here with Jonathan Riley-Smith's works. The other books are linked here.

The Church in Iraq

The recent and appalling news that certain Chaldean Christians from Iraq may be deported from the United States is an outrage of the first order. But it is not a surprise. The foreign policy of this country, as with most other historically identified "Christian" countries, has rarely if ever given two hoots about the plight of Eastern Christians. That was as true during, e.g., the Crimean War of the 19th century through any of the conflicts of the 20th, and now 21st, centuries.

The Christian communities in Iraq have, for a very long time now, been living under less than ideal circumstances, but since the 2003 war, which the Catholic Church rightly opposed, their plight has been almost unbelievable. But prior to the recent violence, Christianity in Iraq has a long and noble history, some of which is told in a book set for release this coming September: The Church in Iraq by Fernando Cardinal Filoni, trans. Edward Condon (Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 216pp.

About this book we are told:
The persecution of the church in Iraq is one of the great tragedies of the twenty-first century. In this short, yet sweeping account, Cardinal Filoni, the former Papal Nuncio to Iraq, shows us the people and the faith in the land of Abraham and Babylon, a region that has been home to Persians, Parthians, Byzantines, Mongols, Ottomans, and more. This is the compelling and rich history of the Christian communities in a land that was once the frontier between Rome and Persia, for centuries the crossroads of East and West for armies of invaders and merchants, and the cradle of all human civilization. Its unique cultural legacy has, in the past few years, been all but obliterated.
The Church in Iraq is both a diligent record and loving testimonial to a community that is struggling desperately to exist. Filoni guides the reader through almost two thousand years of history, telling the story of a people who trace their faith back to the Apostle Thomas. The diversity of peoples and churches is brought deftly into focus through the lens of their interactions with the papacy, but The Church in Iraq does not shy away from discussing the local political, ethnic, and theological tensions that have resulted in centuries of communion and schism. Never losing his focus on the people to whom this book is so clearly dedicated, Cardinal Filoni has produced a personal and engaging history of the relationship between Rome and the Eastern Churches. This book has much to teach its reader about the church in the near East. Perhaps its most brutal lesson is the ease with which such a depth of history and culture can be wiped away in a few short decades.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Early Pavel Florensky

Eerdmans yesterday put into my hands a book so new Amazon lists its official release only later this month: Pavel Florensky, Early Religious Writings 1903-1909, trans. Boris Jakim, 240pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

Profound writings by one of the twentieth century's greatest polymaths

"Perhaps the most remarkable person devoured by the Gulag" is how Alexandr Solzhenitsyn described Pavel Florensky, a Russian Orthodox mathematician, scientist, linguist, art historian, philosopher, theologian, and priest who was martyred during the Bolshevik purges of the 1930s.
This volume contains eight important religious works written by Florensky in the first decade of the twentieth century, now translated into English—most of them for the first time. Splendidly interweaving religious, scientific, and literary themes, these essays showcase the diversity of Florensky's broad learning and interests. Including reflections on the sacraments and explorations of Russian monastic culture, the volume concludes with "The Salt of the Earth," arguably Florensky's most spiritually moving work.
For those new to the genius that was Florensky, you could do well to start with Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia's Unknown da Vinci by Avril Pyman (Bloomsbury, 2010).

One of the earliest studies in English by one of the most perceptive scholars of the Slavophile and Silver Age scene in Russia remains Robert Slesinski's Pavel Florensky: A Metaphysics of Love, published in 1984 by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, and still widely available.

Jakim has translated several other works of Florensky, some of which you may find here.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

All the Saints of God

Apologies for the gap in posting: I was in San Felice del Benaco last week to give a paper at a Russian Catholic congress, and working simultaneously to finish another paper at another conference next month. I will, in several places, have much more to say about this congress and the plight of Russian Byzantine Catholics today, whose treatment by Rome is, and has for decades been, an absolute scandal and utter disgrace. They, more than any other Eastern Catholic Church, illustrate the truth of Flannery O'Connor's observation that one is called upon to suffer ever so much more from the Church than for her.

But on this All Saints day, I pause to record a few thoughts by way of introducing a new book that arrived on my desk some weeks back:

I confess to a rather pronounced dislike of most of what passes for popular hagiography, that is, story-telling about those called saints. For too much of that literature has rendered too many men and women into little more than what Cardinal Newman called “clothes racks for virtues.” They seem, improbably, to be dripping with all the right attitudes and behaviors; they have primly checked all the proper boxes; they seem not even so much as to have sworn at stubbing their toe, never mind to have violated a single moral precept. They do not, as it were, have a single hair out of place on their perfectly sculpted, halo-bedecked heads. They are bloodless portraits of humourless and tedious bores. If you were seated beside one such as this at a dinner party or on a bus, you would curse your bad luck and move as fast as possible.

But the vision in the letter to the Hebrews used in the Byzantine lectionary on today's feast is much livelier and more exciting: “so great a cloud of witnesses.” Here I think immediately and vividly of a great crowd of the most diverse people, all pressing around, huddling in ever closer and cheering ever more boisterously at the finish line of a race on a bright, sunny, warm day as each of us—some huffing and puffing, most walking awkwardly and lamely in some pain, and only a very few racing smartly across the finish line—makes it to the end. That cloud of witnesses is filled with liveliness, with hope, with great good cheer, and above all with a love that overflows: they love us enough to want us to finish the race set before us so that we can join them in their endless feasting. They love us and so do not laugh at our funny walk, or strange running style, or badly misshapen bodies. They love us and so only want us to win the crowns of eternal life spoken of in today’s gospel.

How do we run this race? Some may be called to heroic achievement, to spiritual Olympics, as it were. But most of us are not--and we have, inter alia, Michael Plekon most recently to thank for his tireless reminders of ordinary and hidden holiness, and for showing us saints as they really are.

Beyond Plekon, the greatest figure of 19th-century English Christianity, John Henry Cardinal Newman, in a short meditation from 1856, argues that “it is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well.” That, Newman says, is  “a short road to perfection—short” but not always easy. For sometimes daily work seems like drudgery and we crave excitement. But Newman, with the whole weight of the desert fathers and mothers behind him, reminds us to resist those desires for adventure, saying instead:
If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.
All of which is just a homiletical introduction to the book I mentioned by Leonard J. DeLorenzo: Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 362pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The saints are good company. They are the heroes of the faith who blazed new and creative paths to holiness; they are the witnesses whose testimonies echo throughout the ages in the memory of the Church. Most Christians, and particularly Catholics, are likely to have their own favorite saints, those who inspire and “speak” to believers as they pray and struggle through the challenges of their own lives. Leonard DeLorenzo’s book addresses the idea of the communion of saints, rather than individual saints, with the conviction that what makes the saints holy and what forms them into a communion is one and the same. Work of Love investigates the issue of communication within the communio sanctorum and the fullness of Christian hope in the face of the meaning—or meaninglessness—of death. In an effort to revitalize a theological topic that for much of Catholic history has been an indelible part of the Catholic imaginary, DeLorenzo invokes the ideas of not only many theological figures (Rahner, Ratzinger, Balathasar, and de Lubac, among others) but also historians, philosophers (notably Heidegger and Nietzsche), and literary figures (Rilke and Dante) to create a rich tableau. By working across several disciplines, DeLorenzo argues for a vigorous renewal in the Christian imagination of the theological concept of the communion of saints. He concludes that the embodied witness of the saints themselves, as well as the liturgical and devotional movements of the Church at prayer, testifies to the central importance of the communion of saints as the eschatological hope and fulfillment of the promises of Christ.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia

I have long been fascinated by all aspects of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia--her vibrant and uniquely colourful iconography, her singular liturgical traditions, her close proximity to Judaism in certain disciplinary aspects, and her relations, not always amicable, between her mother-church of Egypt and her daughter (sister?) church of Eritrea.

But good, reliable studies in English of Ethiopian Christianity have been relatively few and far between--until quite recently. Now John Binns, a respected scholar and author of the study (which was favourably reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christianity), An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches (Cambridge UP, 2002) has published earlier this year a major new work, The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia: A History (IB Tauris, 2017), 320pp.

About this book the publisher tells us
Surrounded by steep escarpments to the north, south, and east, Ethiopia has always been geographically and culturally set apart. It has the longest archaeological record of any country in the world. Indeed, this precipitous mountain land was where the human race began. It is also home to an ancient church with a remarkable legacy. The Ethiopian Church forms the southern branch of historic Christianity. It is the only pre-colonial church in sub-Saharan Africa, originating in one of the earliest Christian kingdoms-with its king Ezana (supposedly descended from the biblical Solomon) converting around 340 CE. Since then it has maintained its long Christian witness in a region dominated by Islam; today it has a membership of around forty million and is rapidly growing. Yet, despite its importance, there has been no comprehensive study available in English of its theology and history. This is a large gap which this authoritative and engagingly written book seeks to fill.
The Church of Ethiopia (or formally, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) has a recognized place in worldwide Christianity as one of five non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches. As Dr. Binns shows, it has developed a distinctive approach which makes it different from all other churches. His book explains why this happened and how these special features have shaped the life of the Christian people of Ethiopia. He discusses the famous rock-hewn churches; the Ark of the Covenant (claimed by the Church and housed in Aksum); the medieval monastic tradition; relations with the Coptic Church; co-existence with Islam; missionary activity; and the Church's venerable oral traditions, especially the discipline of qene-a kind of theological reflection couched in a unique style of improvised allegorical poetry. There is also a sustained exploration of how the Church has been forced to re-think its identity and mission as a result of political changes and upheaval following the overthrow of Haile Selassie (who ruled as Regent, 1916-1930, and then as Emperor, 1930-74) and beyond.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Incorruptible Jesus

Every Ascensiontide, the question arises: where is Jesus' body? If in heaven, as one is inclined to answer with irritated alacrity, how is that possible given what is claimed about the nature of heaven? Is this, in fact, a question that admits of so ready an answer as we may wish to supply with indecent haste? Or is it a question to which we cannot come to a final answer with total certainty now?

In any event, such questions are not new, and not uncontroversial, as a recent publication reminds us: Yonatan Moss, Incorruptible BodiesChristology, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity (U Cal Press, 2016), 264pp.

About this book we are told:
In the early sixth-century eastern Roman empire, anti-Chalcedonian leaders Severus of Antioch and Julian of Halicarnassus debated the nature of Jesus's body: Was it corruptible prior to its resurrection from the dead? Viewing the controversy in light of late antiquity’s multiple images of the ‘body of Christ,’ Yonatan Moss reveals the underlying political, ritual, and cultural stakes and the long-lasting effects of this fateful theological debate. Incorruptible Bodies combines sophisticated historical methods with philological rigor and theological precision, bringing to light an important chapter in the history of Christianity.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

We Have Here No Lasting City.....or Church (I)

I'm about half-way through Cyril Hovorun's welcome new book, Scaffolds of the Church: Towards Poststructural Ecclesiology (Cascade, 2017), 276pp. I will post more thoughts when I have finished it. It shows vast reading and reflection, but all of it is worn lightly. The author suggests but never bludgeons.

For now I can say that it is a fascinating book that sheds a great deal of important historical light on the changing nature of ecclesial structures, showing up all their pretenses to permanence (usually disguised by a lot of gas about the Church's "divine nature") and instead asking anew the question: what is this structure for? And if it has ceased to serve that purpose, can we change the structure so that it will again serve the purpose for which it was designed?

While coming from, and primarily directed at, the structures of the Christian East, the book cannot, of course, fail to deal with comparable situations in the West with the development of the papacy and the mono-episcopacy and all the questions about primacy thereby entailed.

This new book clearly continues work begun in his earlier book, Meta-Ecclesiology: Chronicles on Church Awareness about which I interviewed him here.

Both books, I have no hesitation in saying, deserve a place in every course on ecclesiology. Both books offer much to those interested not just in ecclesiology but also church history as well as the sociology of institutions.

I'm told that I may be seeing Fr. Cyril at a conference we are both likely attending next month in Bergamo (having met up almost a year ago now in Vienna at another conference). If so, I shall see about interviewing him about this new book also.

Continues. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Icon Hunter

I watched the movie Monuments Men some time back, and thoughts of it came to mind in hearing of this new book by the Tasoula Hadjitofi, The Icon Hunter: A Refugee's Quest to Reclaim Her Nation's Stolen Heritage by Tasoula Georgiou Hadjitofi (Pegasus Books, 2017), 400pp. The author is a Cypriot, and I have fond memories of visiting Cyprus in the fall of 1993 to see some of its monasteries.

About this book the publisher tells us:

In this powerful memoir, Tasoula Hadjitofi reveals her perilous journey orchestrating “The Munich Case”―one of the largest European art trafficking stings since WWII. With the Bavarian police in place, the Cypriots on their way, seventy under-cover agents bust into the Munich apartment of a notorious Turkish smuggler suspected of holding looted antiquities. Tasoula places everything on the line to repatriate her country’s sacred treasures, unaware that treachery lies in the shadow of her success.
The Icon Hunter is a story torn from the pages of Tasoula's life as she and her Greek Cypriot family lose everything during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Hundreds of ancient Cypriot churches are destroyed, their contents looted and all signs of her Greek Cypriot culture erased as if it never existed. As a refugee, she wants justice. And then fate intervenes in the form of an archbishop and a dubious art dealer in search of redemption.
Even as unspeakable personal tragedy strikes, she never gives up her search knowing the special place these antiquities hold in the hearts of Orthodox Christians. These icons are not just masterpieces―they are artistic manifestations of faith and a gate-way to the divine.
Using family and faith as her touchstones, Tasoula takes on these “merchants of God” as she navigates the underworld of art trafficking. Tasoula believes this to be her calling, and the Archbishop of Cyprus entrusts her―an ordinary woman, wife, and mother―with the mission. In order to succeed, however, she must place her trust in an art dealer known for his double-dealing.
Inspiring and empowering, The Icon Hunter is a gripping story by a remarkable woman that will captivate readers long after the final page.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The New Testament in Byzantium

Derek Krueger, some of whose previous books I have noted on here, has recently co-edited a noteworthy collection of interest not just to scholars of Byzantium and the New Testament, but also to lectionary and liturgical scholars: Id., and Robert S. Nelson, eds., The New Testament in Byzantium (Dumbarton Oaks, 2016), 336pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The New Testament lay at the center of Byzantine Christian thought and practice. But codices and rolls were neither the sole way―nor most important way―the Byzantines understood the New Testament. Lectionaries apportioned much of its contents over the course of the liturgical calendar; its narratives structured the experience of liturgical time and shaped the nature of Christian preaching, throughout Byzantine history. A successor to The Old Testament in Byzantium (2010), this book asks: What was the New Testament for Byzantine Christians? What of it was known, how, when, where, and by whom? How was this knowledge mediated through text, image, and rite? What was the place of these sacred texts in Byzantine arts, letters, and thought?
Authors draw upon the current state of textual scholarship and explore aspects of the New Testament, particularly as it was read, heard, imaged, and imagined in lectionaries, hymns, homilies, saints’ lives, and as it was illustrated in miniatures and monuments. Framing theological inquiry, ecclesiastical controversy, and political thought, the contributions here help develop our understanding of the New Testament and its varied reception over the long history of Byzantium.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Michael Plekon on the Sacramentality of the World

It has always been a pleasure to interview Michael Plekon over the years about his many books. Less than a year ago we were talking about his then-new book, Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience. In addition to books he has authored, he has also edited and translated a number of them, as I have noted on here over the years.

And now we have another one, just released in March: The World as Sacrament: An Ecumenical Path toward a Worldly Spirituality (Liturgical Press, 2017), 272pp. As in the past, I sent him some questions for an interview, and here are his thoughts.

AD: It's been less than a year since we last spoke on here about your award-winning book, Uncommon Prayer. Are there any connections between that book and The World as Sacrament?

MP: Yes, as I look back over what I have written, the threads and connections are clear to me, maybe more in hindsight. Both Uncommon Prayer and The World as Sacrament try to get us out of church buildings, out of the rites we revere, even out of the liturgical texts and scriptures and into the world of God’s creation and redemption. It is not at all a slight to the specifically religious contexts of prayer and of the spiritual life but a quest for these—as the scriptures and rites themselves intend—in the everyday lives we all know. As Barbara Brown Taylor put it in the title of her fine book, it’s a search for “an altar in the world.”

As I look back further, this was also the intent in looking at less than obvious “hidden” forms of holiness, also in the effort, as Dorothy Day said, to see “saints as they really are.” For me, the attempt to refocus ourselves on the ordinary, this-worldly life is to very much follow the lead of the New Testament: farmers, fishermen, shepherds, bakers, and tax collectors, along with cooks and weavers are where the treasures of the kingdom of heaven are found.

AD: As you know, the language of "the world" and "ecumenical" from your subtitle are red flags to some today in the Church, especially the Christian East. Were you at all concerned about that?

But both “world” and oikumene have solid histories in the Christian legacy. Even the anti-materialism of some strains of ascetic and philosophical thought cannot suffocate the world, and I mean the public world of work, politics, family, and friendships. In the Hebrew Bible and later in the NT, we are urged to welcome the stranger, to respect the one who is different—Samaritan, the immigrant, those in need, widows, orphans, the sick and imprisoned, the poor. We even are instructed to love the enemy.

The current disdain for others who confess Jesus as Lord but who are not within our ecclesial orbit, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or evangelical, needs to be seriously challenged. I for one am appalled by fellow Christians who can only describe other Christians as “heretics” or “schismatics.” Besides, there is a great deal of evidence that great writers and saints, like Basil the Great, urged the “orthodox” to reach out and re-establish communion with the separated. Disunity was for him the greater scandal and sin. So I am glad to include in this new volume Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant writers, just as I included writers of no particular denomination or church home in Uncommon Prayer. What they all share is a love for God and deep longing to live according to God’s grace. Marilynne Robinson is especially powerful in bringing the parables of Jesus to life again in the small Iowa town of Gilead, in her trilogy of books about two clergy families in that hamlet.

AD: And yet, this language is not your own: you explicitly draw on "The World as Sacrament," an essay by one of the most beloved and widely respected Orthodox thinkers of the last century, Alexander Schmemann, published nearly 40 years ago now. Who are some of the other important Orthodox thinkers who feature in this book? 

MP: I think those I chose are only a small selection of wonderful figures. To most readers, they will not be familiar but it was the suggestion of Hans Christofferson, director at Liturgical Press, to listen to an ecumenical array of writers, allowing readers to learn about some who would be new. Thus I chose Lev Gillet, the Benedictine priest-monk who out of love for the Eastern Church moved first to the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Studite monastery, and who later was received into the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Evlogy of the Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe. Under his pen-name, “A monk of the Eastern Church,” he was widely read particularly in France, Great Britain and Lebanon back in the 50s and 60s. He was chaplain at Mother Maria Skobtsova’s hostel on rue de Lourmel in Paris, then later at St. Basil’s House in London, and a widely traveled retreat master, spiritual counselor, and street pastor.

I also included Mother Maria Skobtsova, canonized with her companions in 2004, for her efforts to save the targets of Nazi annihilation: Jews and Communists, members of the Resistance, and others.

Another modern martyr I picked was Father Alexander Men, probably the most well known TV religious personality in post-Soviet Russia. He became a victim of the religious right for his ecumenical openness and openness to the West.

To many a brilliant scholar but diminutive personality, Nicholas Afanasiev, the noted NT and canon law specialist, was another choice. His insistence on the original non-hierarchical but conciliar and eucharistic shape of the church makes him an especially important voice today. Vatican II listened to him!

Two other close friends of Fr. Lev Gillet, lay theologians Elisabeth Behr-Sigel and Paul Evdokimov, were the other Orthodox figures I selected. Elisabeth concerned herself with the status of women in the church, this part of a deeper concern for the life of holiness in every nook and cranny of everyday existence. Similarly, Evdokimov focused on marriage as the sacrament of love as well as the “interior monasticism,” his way of arguing that holiness was universal, all of us called to be saints. From Dostoevesky and existentialist literature he emphasized the path to God as one through all the beauty and mess of life in modern society.

AD: And the West? You draw on Catholic and Protestant figures as well. What are some of the things that unite some of these diverse figures in your view? 

MP: Whether we talk of renowned figures such as Thomas Merton or Marilynne Robinson, Richard Rohr or Joan Chittister, Kathleen Norris or Barbara Brown Taylor, all have become spiritual teachers because of their honesty and, I think, their realism in talking of the life with God. No convenient, trendy pieties from these writers! And they do not shy away from what is messy and painful in life. The life with God very much includes suffering and emptiness. What is more, they see the stage of everyday life as where God encounters us, and remains with us.

AD: One of those figures from the modern West is Thomas Merton. A student of mine this semester has been reading him for the first time and finding a great deal of wisdom before some of my student's friends tried to warn him off Merton, saying he was "unsound." Give us your sense of why Merton remains such an important figure nearly 50 years after his death.

MP: It’s sad that for such a recognized and substantial figure like Merton, disagreement with his stances on civil rights and war and the inability to accept his criticism of the church result in a verdict like “unsound,” a judgment he is not “authentically Catholic.” But then, consider the list of others who would deserve similar rejection: Dorothy Day, the Berrigans, Oscar Romero, Gustavo Gutiérrez, yes, and Papa Francesco himself, since he has been personally responsible for the rehabilitation of many. He mentioned Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton along with Abraham Lincoln as important American spiritual leaders when he addressed Congress a few years ago. You don’t need me to remind you that the “culture wars” conflict has found its way not only into debate on social issues but into liturgy and spirituality.

AD: Your introduction speaks of men and women "looking for God in everyday experience." And at the same time your epilogue notes the attractiveness to some of an "extreme world-denying vision" (p.250-51). This seems to be a difficult tension to negotiate--to be in the world but not of it. How do the figures in your book help negotiate this tension? 

MP: These two poles are there all the way through the history of the Christian tradition. Diarmaid MacCulloch documented that in his wonderful Christianity, The First 3000 Years not long ago. I think the experience of early Christians is telling, and this is the case whether one looks at the desert mothers and fathers or even the members of early communities. Their cultural roots, both in Judaism and in Hellenism, gave them respect for the need to stand against the culture, society, the empire even, while at the same time being active participants in the life of the community. As I see it, the real distortion comes when we are told that everything here in this world and life is merely a training ground, only distractions, with the afterlife, the other world, being our destiny, being what really counts. Nowhere, and I do mean nowhere, in either the Hebrew Bible or the NT can you find this vision!

Amy-Jill Levine, the Orthodox Jew who is a NT specialist at Vanderbilt, has emphasized this in many books, especially Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.  And this is why the NT is full of women baking, farmers plowing and seeding fields, others out fishing, craftspeople and tax collectors and teachers plying their trades in so many parables and metaphors. Jesus goes apart to commune with his Father but what he leaves his disciples is the everyday work of mercy, grace put into practice. If we really believe in the Incarnation, then our faith, our spiritual lives, are not like a spaceship evacuation to a better life on another planet. Detachment and distancing from what we do not like or agree with, as in Dreher’s “Benedict option,” is really not an option for followers of Jesus. Benedict of Norcia would agree, I am quite sure.

AD: Is it just my own take, or does it seem today that more and more people in the Church seem to think we have to go searching for God in an exotic monastery and not, say, in cleaning up after Grandma's colostomy bag broke, or going about my workaday routine? Do we disdain the quotidian and thus fail to see God at His most "mundane" as it were?

MP: Having some experience in monastic life—with the Carmelites—the motto of the friar orders rings true for me: contemplata aliis tradere. We are to share the gifts we receive in prayer and contemplation with others. We are to spread the mercy and the grace. It is attractive to retreat to a quiet monastic guest house, follow the prayer of the hours with the monastics, eat in silence in the refectory, stroll the grounds, smell the incense. But let me tell you, this is a selective experience, one which we control and which spares us sponge bathing an elderly monk or nun, battling a sink of greasy pots and pans—vessels which, it must be noted, Benedict said were as holy as the chalice and paten on the altar.

AD: Both your prologue and epilogue work in autobiographical perspectives, and being a great lover of biographical studies as well as memoirs and diaries, I naturally read these first. I'm especially taken by your epilogue, "Learning to be a Pastor." May and June are often traditionally ordination months, and so I'm wondering, after decades in pastoral ministry, first in the Lutheran and now the Orthodox Church, what would you tell upcoming ordinands to expect as they set out on pastoral ministry?

MP: I follow, in various venues, ongoing reporting on seminaries and the training of future pastors and then what happens to people newly ordained. After five years, three out of five new pastors have left parish ministry, or never entered it, choosing specialized ministries in chaplaincy, counseling, teaching. Many of the reflections in The Church Has Left the Building express the challenges, both the hope and frustrations, pastors experience today in parishes. There is no doubt—and the leaders of church bodies have to get real about it—that the model of parish life and thus of pastoral ministry that we’ve pursued for over a thousand years is gone. Only a few exceptions--urban parishes with substantial endowments, and some fascinating experiments in reinvention and redefinition--show vitality. I don’t mean to sound arrogant here. I have spent almost 35 years as a pastor in fairly ordinary parishes, all of which are challenged and shrinking because of demographic changes that have nothing whatsoever to do with belief. Any pastor who thinks that simply doing what he/she has done for the last millennium or more is in delusion. Reading the NT would be a first therapy.

Some find a resistance and detachment on the part of Eastern Church clergy attractive, a negation of nasty secular, corrupt culture and society and adherence to paradisic liturgy: you know, all those icons glowing from the candles, the smoke of the incense, the “mystical” chant. Some even think if the chant were in languages one could not understand, it’s all the better. Close the holy doors, pull the curtain, lose yourself in the other-worldly. Well I know what Papa Francesco, whose Vatican basilicas are pretty smokey and bedecked with frescoes, would say. I also know what some of my beloved teacher and writers like Gillet, Evdokimov, Afansiev, Schmemann, Skobtsova--all faithful members of the Eastern Church-- would say. Afanasiev in particular said the tinkle of the bells on the bishop’s sakkos, the eagle rugs thrown on the floor for him to stand upon, the endless chants that he should live forever (or at least for "many years"): these are what remains of the Byzantine Empire and its court, imperial props that John Chrysostom and Basil the Great knew nothing of, and which are the most "this-worldly" conceivable!

Mother Maria said the people gathered for the Eucharist and also in line to get a bowl of soup and chunk of bread are the “living icons” just as much as those on the walls and screen incensed by the deacon in the services. Schmemann celebrated the conciliar shape of the church which has, as his teacher Afanasiev said, place for all, from bishop to small child. But he also called the obsession with ecclesiastical headwear and clothes a “vaudeville of klobuks,” a circus of obsession with trappings. And Paul Evdokimov’s son, Fr. Michel, an emeritus professor and pastor, once told me as we put our cassocks on, “This riassa can be worn too much and badly, and do much wrong,” though that was hardly the purpose of it. So if I were to say anything to newly ordained people, I would say bless me, pray for me, be merciful, be merciful, and be merciful some more. Listen to the people. Listen to the your neighborhood. Listen to the world of work and play going on around you everyday. Maybe you should be, like the apostles, a “worker pastor” with a “day job” like them and countless other pastors for centuries.

AD: You've seen many changes in your pastoral life, some of them discussed in another of your recent books, The Church Has Left the Building. Any prognostications about what changes are still to come in the life of parishes today in North America? 

MP: Ah, every wonderful question you ask leads to another. Funny you should ask about changes in parish life, for I have started work on a book I am tentatively calling Community as Church. By this I mean that I am looking for people outside the institutional churches looking for fellowship, sharing, meaning, God. I have met a couple whose potluck get-togethers are not just 30-somethings commiserating about drooling infants and exhausting toddlers and constant pressure at work but also in the exchange, discovering communion with each other, things to live for, support on the way.

As well, however, I have come across pastors trying new, different things. Right in my own backyard in the Hudson Valley, for example, a UMC pastor and friend, Wongee Joh, leads a cooperative of four parishes seeking to find new ways of being church in the future. All these were small-town congregations but now because cars have made the towns mere minutes away from each other, the duplication of Methodist parishes is redundant. The annual NY Conference—what we would call a diocese—is urging the parishes to find ways to pray and work together and use the resources they still have wisely. But for many, the heartbreak of no longer having Sunday services where Grandpa and Grandma once sang and prayed looms large.

Another friend, Presbyterian pastor David Frost, himself a PK, was asked by members of his dad’s former parish, an historic, 200+ year-old congregation, to try to keep it going, maybe revive it. The regional body, the presbytery, agreed, even accepting that this parish could not be expected to behave as ordinary ones do. They would share with the larger church financially as they were able, but also not be bailed out by them. Almost ten years later, miraculously, as David says, there still is a community, praying together on Sundays, staffing a thrift shop and food pantry, even being home to street folk from the village of Patterson NY.

One more example. A former parishioner from the first parish I served, also a former student in the diaconal training course we sponsored over 20 years ago, is now pastor of an old Swedish Lutheran parish, Gustavus Adolphus (GA), on 22nd Street in Manhattan, literally on the campus of my school Baruch Colllege-CUNY. The parish was about to close when he arrived, after a too-long pastorate of almost 50 years. Miraculously, as Chris Mietlowski also describes it, GA has become a “destination” parish. I was amazed when he told me that only he and his wife live in the neighborhood, in the rectory next door. All those who have come to the parish are from elsewhere, from all the boroughs, even a few from across the river in NJ. They come because of the liturgy, the preaching, his pastoral leadership and care, but as he notes, mostly because they find God and community with each other and then turn this into neighborhood outreach: early childhood education, food pantry, but also importantly, doing the works of mercy in their own neighborhoods and homes and jobs elsewhere! Yes, there is much to be concerned about as parish numbers shrink, and deaneries and dioceses decrease. Not a week goes by that I do not see and collect an article on a parish reinventing itself, a parish dying, closing only to rise again in a new congregational start in the same location. The church will remain, but not as we’ve known it.

AD: Your epilogue took me back to some part-time work I did in a nursing home in Ottawa in the 1990s as a volunteer in the pastoral care department where I learned, as you so winsomely describe, that some of the shut-ins you visited were unexpectedly "absolute gifts of grace to me." Isn't that one of the hidden paradoxes of such "work"--that far from being a tedious chore in which you minister to someone, they often end up ministering to you, offering you unexpected gifts?

MP: I get the sense, especially for the last few years now, that we are more the recipients of mercy and grace than we could imagine or hope for. Maybe it’s one of the many experiences of “aging” for me. Whether in my home parish or in others I visit when away, I am struck by how much more we are given within the community of faith, no matter how little or great our levels of contribution may be. Behind both Uncommon Prayer and The World as Sacrament is a realization many great spiritual teachers have had, from the first centuries on down. Weeding the garden, putting together a meal, cleaning up—all these seemingly mundane, meaningless tasks are opening to communion with God and with each other.

The prayers in our prayer/liturgy books are beautiful. Those that come in work, in happiness, in love, in being forgiven, are powerful prayers as well. This we hear from lots of voices. I hear it almost weekly from Papa Francesco. But as I worked through Kate Hennessey’s riveting memoir of her grandmother, Dorothy Day and Dorothy’s only child, Tama, Kate’s mom, I heard the gifts of mercy and grace given over and over again in the lives of those women. And, as I have said, I have heard it and tried to communicate it from Mary Oliver, Mary Karr, Barbara Brown Taylor, Merton and Rohr and Schmemann and Skobtsova and so many others.

AD: The prologue and epilogue build on some autobiographical material in other books. Now that you are about to retire from CUNY, can we expect a full-blown set of memoirs? If not, what might you be working on instead--any future projects we should keep an eye out for? 

MP: Years ago, my very brilliant and even more outspoken daughter Hannah tore into me for not telling my story in a chapter in Saints As They Really Are, about my years in the Carmelites. “You keep talking about other people, describing things like a professor, objectively, in the third person. This is about YOU, Dad! Where is your heart, your feelings, your voice.” Anyone with daughters will immediately get this. It made for a much better chapter and encouraged me to start putting autobiographical/memoir material in other chapters in my books.


But as master memoirists like Patricia Hampl and Mary Karr say, memoirs read easily but are very difficult to craft. I hear the anti-ecumenical buzz in my own church body. I see with pain no sensitivity to the reality of faith in other communities on the part of younger clergy—they’re all “heretics.” I think the account of how I was raised in the faith that I did in the prologue explains my ecumenical commitment. I know others have opened and grown from such ecumenical sharing and there is no future for us without it.

I have said plenty about what I was given and how much I learned years ago, as a young pastor. If what I saw and was gifted with can encourage a reader, then I have kept the giving going and alive.
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