"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).


Monday, September 17, 2018

The Presence and Absence of Images

I am regularly asked to give presentations on the history and theology of images, especially to Roman Catholic crowds desirous of learning more about this much-neglected part of the tradition. Usually these are very general introductions in which I point out, inter alia, that the permission given by Nicaea II for the use of icons is a very conservative one. As Bulgakov asked, where is an actual theology of images in the council? He concluded that there isn't one, and it remains to be developed. Some recent studies previously noted on here have gone some way to aid that development.

Now a new book looks like it will raise some deep and fascinating questions in grappling with a theology of images and all that it entails: Natalie Carnes, Image and Presence: a Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford UP, 2018), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Images increasingly saturate our world, making present to us what is distant or obscure. Yet the power of images also arises from what they do not make present—from a type of absence they do not dispel. Joining a growing multidisciplinary conversation that rejects an understanding of images as lifeless objects, this book offers a theological meditation on the ways images convey presence into our world. Just as Christ negates himself in order to manifest the invisible God, images, Natalie Carnes contends, negate themselves to give more than they literally or materially are. Her Christological reflections bring iconoclasm and iconophilia into productive relation, suggesting that they need not oppose one another. Investigating such images as the biblical golden calf and paintings of the Virgin Mary, Carnes explores how to distinguish between iconoclasms that maintain fidelity to their theological intentions and those that lead to visual temptation. Offering ecumenical reflections on issues that have long divided Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, Image and Presence provokes a fundamental reconsideration of images and of the global image crises of our time.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Handbook of Ecclesiology

My 2011 book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy was steeped in the ecclesiological insights of both East and West of the 20th century, a century that some have called the century of the Church. By that is commonly meant that other "branches" of theology--Christology, say, or Triadology--have had hundreds of years of reflection, going back deep into the first millennium, but systematic reflection on the Church was not common until the twentieth century. Since then we have of course seen an explosion of books in ecclesiology. My chapter on The Church, in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies gives a good overview of these ecclesiological developments ecumenically understood.

For those who really want to get into the details here, then I direct your attention to the hefty and impressive Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiologyed. Paul Avis (Oxford UP, 2018), 672pp.

About this handbook the publisher tells us the following:
The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology is a unique scholarly resource for the study of the Christian Church as we find it in the Bible, in history and today. As the scholarly study of how we understand the Christian Church's identity and mission, ecclesiology is at the centre of today's theological research, reflection, and debate. Ecclesiology is the theological driver of the ecumenical movement. The main focus of the intense ecumenical engagement and dialogue of the past half-century has been ecclesiological and this is the area where the most intractable differences remain to be tackled Ecclesiology investigates the Church's manifold self-understanding in relation to a number of areas: the origins, structures, authority, doctrine, ministry, sacraments, unity, diversity, and mission of the Church, including its relation to the state and to society and culture. The sources of ecclesiological reflection are the Bible (interpreted in the light of scholarly research), Church history and the wealth of the Christian theological tradition, together with the information and insights that emerge from other relevant academic disciplines. This Handbook considers the biblical resources, historical development, and contemporary initiatives in ecclesiology. It offers invaluable and comprehensive guide to understanding the Church.
We also have a detailed table of contents:

List of contributors
1. Introduction to Ecclesiology, Paul Avis

Part I: Biblical Foundations
2. The Ecclesiology of Israel's Scriptures, R. W. L. Moberly
3. The Church in the Synoptic Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, Loveday Alexander
4. The Johannine vision of the Church, Andrew T. Lincoln
5. The Shape of the Pauline Churches, Edward Adams
6. The Church in the General Epistles, Gerald O'Collins, SJ

Part II: Resources from the Tradition
7. Early Ecclesiology in the West, Mark Edwards
8. The Eastern Orthodox Tradition, Andrew Louth
9. Medieval Ecclesiology and the Conciliar Movement, Norman Tanner, SJ
10. The Church in the Magisterial Reformers, Dorothea Wendebourg
11. Anglican Ecclesiology, Paul Avis
12. Roman Catholic Ecclesiology from the Council of Trent to Vatican II and Beyond, Ormond Rush
13. Baptist Concepts of the Church and their Antecedents, Paul S. Fiddes
14. Methodism and the Church, David M. Chapman
15. Pentecostal Ecclesiologies, Amos Yong

Part III: Major Modern Ecclesiologists
16. Karl Barth, Kimlyn J. Bender
17. Yves Congar, Gabriel Flynn
18. Henri de Lubac, Gabriel Flynn
19. Karl Rahner, Richard Lennan
20. Joseph Ratzinger, Theodor Dieter
21. John Zizioulas, Paul McPartlan
22. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Friedericke Nussel
23. Rowan Williams, Mike Higton

Part IV: Contemporary Movements in Ecclesiology
24. Feminist Critiques, Visions, and Models of the Church, Elaine Graham
5. Social Science and Ideological Critiques of Ecclesiology, Neil Ormerod
26. Liberationist Ecclesiologies with Special Reference to Latin America, Michelle A. Gonzalez
27. Asian Ecclesiologies, Simon Chan
27. African Ecclesiologies, Stan Chu Ilo

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Russian Modernism and Byzantine Iconography

The more we study the immediate ante-revolutionary period in Russia the more we are coming to see that there was a fascinating fermentation of ideas for serious social reform. Russia was not nearly so monolithic as some have portrayed, nor so reactionary. A new book helps us to see how widespread some of these ideas were, touching many spheres: The Icon and the Square: Russian Modernism and the Russo-Byzantine Revival by Maria Taroutina (Penn State, 2018), 288pp.

About this book the publisher informs us thus:
In The Icon and the Square, Maria Taroutina examines how the traditional interests of institutions such as the crown, the church, and the Imperial Academy of Arts temporarily aligned with the radical, leftist, and revolutionary avant-garde at the turn of the twentieth century through a shared interest in the Byzantine past, offering a counter-narrative to prevailing notions of Russian modernism.
Focusing on the works of four different artists—Mikhail Vrubel, Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin—Taroutina shows how engagement with medieval pictorial traditions drove each artist to transform his own practice, pushing beyond the established boundaries of his respective artistic and intellectual milieu. She also contextualizes and complements her study of the work of these artists with an examination of the activities of a number of important cultural associations and institutions over the course of several decades. As a result, The Icon and the Square gives a more complete picture of Russian modernism: one that attends to the dialogue between generations of artists, curators, collectors, critics, and theorists.
The Icon and the Square retrieves a neglected but vital history that was deliberately suppressed by the atheist Soviet regime and subsequently ignored in favor of the secular formalism of mainstream modernist criticism. Taroutina’s timely study, which coincides with the centennial reassessments of Russian and Soviet modernism, is sure to invigorate conversation among scholars of art history, modernism, and Russian culture.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

John O'Malley on Vatican I

When it's published at Catholic World Report, I'll post a link to my review of John O'Malley's superlative new study, Vatican I: the Council and the Making of an Ultramontane Church (Harvard University Press, 2018). (Here's a link to my review there of John Quinn's last book on the same council.) In the meantime, let me most warmly recommend it to you.

Like O'Malley's previous books, especially on Trent and Vatican II, this one is superb. It treats a wide-ranging history of the one council in the West to give more trouble to Eastern Christians than any other. The First Vatican Council's treatment of papal pretensions to universal jurisdiction remain a considerable ecumenical problem, though my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy proposed one way around that.

In this endless season of sexual depravity and episcopal malfeasance, cowardice, and cover-up, O'Malley's new book will also be of great interest to Catholics looking to reform the Church. Perhaps the most encouraging feature of the long and wide-ranging history O'Malley tells is how much of the modern papacy is a creation (often not directly intended, but without doubt intentionally exploited by the papacy) of diverse populist movements. If populism made the pope into this international celebrity of endless volubility and catastrophic incompetence, then there is hope that what populism has wrought, populism can remove through relentless and ruthless demands for reform. Vive l'Eglise libre!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Some Background to the Ukrainian Situation

I have said privately to friends for some time now that I never expected to see movement on the Ukrainian Orthodox situation, least of all in the form of the clear direction now emanating from Constantinople towards the granting of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. For those who want some background into what autocephaly is, and what the historical basis is for Constantinople's claims today, you could do worse than see my review of the literature in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, pp. 86-87 and 195-97.

Having reviewed that literature, as well as the Russian claims (which, though reiterated recently in far more violent and apocalyptic terms than in the recent past, are totally unchanged for the Russians are perpetual broken records that never advance any creative arguments: they just endlessly repeat their claims, all of which are the clearest examples I have seen of what Vamik Volkan calls "chosen trauma"), it is clear, and has been for a long time, to reputable historians that the historical claims and canons Russia musters in Metropolitan Hilarious's statement are totally tendentious and cannot be seen as anything other than self-serving.

For those who want the most comprehensive, fair-minded, detailed, and theologically literate treatment full of good pastoral sense, they will only have to wait a few more weeks until my dear friend, the Orthodox scholar Nicholas Denysenko, publishes his newest book, The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018), 316pp.

In the meantime, you may find some of his wisdom distilled into this post, which I warmly commend to your attention.


Friday, September 7, 2018

Bethlehem's Syriac Christians

For those who keep an eye on the plight of the Christian minorities in the Middle East, including those in Israel, a book released last December by the formidable Gorgias Press (whose lists, as I frequently say, are among the most impressive when it comes to such populations, as also to Muslim-Christian relations, inter alia) will be of considerable interest: Bethlehem's Syriac Christians: Self, Nation and Church in Dialogue and Practice by Mark D Calder (Gorgias, 2017), 318pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
An anthropological study of Syriac Orthodox Christian identity in a time of displacement, upheaval, and conflict. For some Syriac Orthodox Christians in Bethlehem, their self-articulation - the means by which they connect themselves to others, things, places and symbols - is decisively influenced by their eucharistic ritual. This ritual connects being siryāni to a redeemed community or 'body', and derives its identity in large part from the Incarnation of God as an Aramaic-speaking Bethlehemite.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Theology and Trauma

I've been doing a lot of reading over the past three years in the study of trauma widely understood. Part of this has been motivated by trying to understand how Eastern Christians have reacted to and suffered the effects of such things as, inter alia, the Armenian genocide and other massacres by Ottoman Muslims, Ukrainian Greek-Catholic repression at the hands of Stalin from 1946 onwards--to say nothing of earlier divisions and events in the Church often thought to require some "healing of memories."

The study of trauma has really exploded in the last several years, and I have previously noted on here some of the scholars I have found especially useful--Jeffrey Prager, Charles Strozier, Vamik Volkan, and others.  But books linking reflections on trauma to Christianity are rather rare. Notably there is Marcus Pound's book from 2008, Theology, Psychoanalysis, and Trauma, which is useful though rather narrowly focused on Lacan.

Now, however, released just a couple of weeks ago, we have a new collection, wide-ranging in scope, but with several essays devoted to theology and trauma: Trauma and Transcendence: Suffering and the Limits of Theory, eds. Eric Boynton and Peter Capretto (Fordham UP, 2018), 344pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Trauma theory has become a burgeoning site of research in recent decades, often demanding interdisciplinary reflections on trauma as a phenomenon that defies disciplinary ownership. While this research has always been challenged by the temporal, affective, and corporeal dimensions of trauma itself, trauma theory now faces theoretical and methodological obstacles given its growing interdisciplinarity. Trauma and Transcendence gathers scholars in philosophy, theology, psychoanalysis, and social theory to engage the limits and prospects of trauma’s transcendence. This volume draws attention to the increasing challenge of deciding whether trauma’s unassimilable quality can be wielded as a defense of traumatic experience against reductionism, or whether it succumbs to a form of obscurantism.
Contributors: Eric Boynton, Peter Capretto, Tina Chanter, Vincenzo Di Nicola, Ronald Eyerman, Donna Orange, Shelly Rambo, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Hilary Jerome Scarsella, Eric Severson, Marcia Mount Shoop, Robert D. Stolorow, George Yancy.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The End of the World in the Carpathians: Story and Pictures to Follow!

The hardcover version has been out for a few years, but helpfully a more affordable paperback version will appear this month of John-Paul Himka's unique and important study Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians (University of Toronto Press, 2018), 368pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:

Few subjects in Christianity have inspired artists as much as the last judgment. Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians examines images of the last judgment from the fifteenth century to the present in the Carpathian mountain region of Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania, as a way to consider history free from the traditional frameworks and narratives of nations. Over ten years, John-Paul Himka studied last-judgment images throughout the Carpathians and found a distinctive and transnational blending of Gothic, Byzantine, and Novgorodian art in the region.
Piecing together the story of how these images were produced and how they developed, Himka traces their origins on linden boards and their evolution on canvas and church walls. Tracing their origins with monks, he follows these images' increased popularity as they were commissioned by peasants and shepherds whose tastes so shocked bishops that they ordered the destruction of depictions of sexual themes and grotesque forms of torture. A richly illustrated and detailed account of history through a style of art, Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians will find a receptive audience with art historians, religious scholars, and slavists.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Deification in the Latin Fathers

As I have often noted on here over the years, the theme of deification/divinization/theosis has become wildly popular over the last two decades. I can immediately think of at least eight  major studies, from Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic authors, since the turn of the century. Like iconography, theosis has suddenly become something Western Christians seem to have woken up one day and "invented" (in the Waughian sense). As they have done so, many have had to move past not just initial ignorance but also hostility to and suspicion of this misunderstood notion. Others have had to overcome ideas that the Western traditions are somehow bereft of any ideas of theosis--an overcoming aided, in part, by the recent collection edited by Carl Olson, whom I interviewed here. Once more, then, we realize how much bad history has allowed Christians to assume things about each other's tradition, and their own, that are later shown to be if not entirely baseless then certainly wildly exaggerated and misunderstood.

Early next year another very welcome contribution to this burgeoning literature will appear: Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition, ed. Jared Ortiz (Catholic University of America Press, 2019). 336pp.

About this collection the publisher tells us the following:
It has become a commonplace to say that the Latin Fathers did not really hold a doctrine of deification. Indeed, it is often asserted that Western theologians have neglected this teaching, that their occasional references to it are borrowed from the Greeks, and that the Latins have generally reduced the rich biblical and Greek Patristic understanding of salvation to a narrow view of redemption. The essays in this volume challenge this common interpretation by exploring, often for the first time, the role this doctrine plays in a range of Latin Patristic authors. 
The introductory essay on the Latin liturgy shows the wide-ranging use of deification themes in Latin worship, while the last one comparing the Greek and Latin Fathers provides the first serious study of the East and West's understanding of deification in light of substantial evidence. The essays in between explore the theology of deification in Perpetua and Felicity, Tertullian, Cyprian, Novatian, Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Peter Chrysologus, Leo the Great, Boethius, Benedict and Gregory. Together, these essays demonstrate that deification is a native part of early Latin theology which was consistently and creatively employed. 
This volume on deification in the Latin Patristic tradition will be the beginning of a long-overdue conversation. It promises to stimulate further inquiry into the place deification holds in the grammar of Latin Patristic thought and its relation to the Greek tradition.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Sex on Earth as in Heaven?

Desire seems to have become a topic of increasing interest on the part of theologians recently. I have read several new books and interesting articles recently, and will say more about them later this month. But for now I wanted to draw your attention to a new book I just received: Patricia Beattie Jung, Sex on Earth as It Is in Heaven: A Christian Eschatology of Desire (SUNY Press, 2018), 298pp.

About this book, the publisher provides the following summary:
Offers a new theology of desire and delight based on the Christian hope for bodily resurrection.
This work is part of a growing chorus of theological voices raised in support of erotic desire. Although most theologians have concluded that there will be no experience of sexual desire and delight in the world to come, Patricia Beattie Jung critically examines the historical traditions and biblical rationales for this teaching. She defends an alternative claim that there will be a healed and glorified experience of sex in heaven based on a compelling account of the Christian hope for bodily resurrection. The first half of the work focuses on Christian foundations for the notion of sex in heaven, while the second goes on to discuss some of the implications of those convictions for sex on earth. Jung concludes with discussions of how best to nurture sexual delight on earth and how and why internet pornography fails in that regard.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Belief after Freud

I just got this in the mail, and I'm simultaneously excited and worried. It's written by a Spanish Jesuit who has both theological and psychoanalytic training and practice, and has gone through multiple editions in Spain before finally appearing just this week in English in North America. I am myself at work on a similar book, so I'll have to see if he's stolen my thunder, as it were, or if there's room for my book which looks to take a similar approach. In the meantime, I commend to your interest, and will presently have more to say about:

Carlos Dominguez-Morano, Belief after Freud: Religious Faith through the Crucible of Psychoanalysis, trans. Franciso Javier Montero (Routledge, 2018), 278pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Belief after Freud confronts the psychoanalytic experience and the experience of faith. A purified vision of faith, so many times disfigured by infantile or neurotic dynamics, can emerge through the crucible of psychoanalysis. The work contributes to the dialogue between psychoanalysis and faith, based on the respective lived experiences, rather than from theoretical positions only. The book is divided into three parts:
Part I centres on Freud’s position on religion. After an introductory chapter assessing Freud’s present validity, the following chapters critically examine Freud’s position and interpretation of religion.
Part II examines how people of faith experience psychoanalysis, including the role played by unconscious feelings of guilt, and the ideas of sin and salvation.
Part III explores ideas of sexuality, power, and obedience, including the unconscious and pathological roots of the relation with money, and the sense of evangelical poverty.
Now in its fifth edition in Spain, Belief after Freud has also been published in Argentina and Brazil. Many readers say the book has opened a new form of belief for them. The book has also been of great interest to non-believing psychologists.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Dostoevsky, Percy, and Suicide

It seems that very frequently in class, when I reach for a literary example to use in some discussion or other with my students, I am very often drawn to a small circle of outstanding figures--Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O'Connor, Dostoevsky, and sometimes Walker Percy. These latter two are treated in a forthcoming book set for release early in 2019: John F. Desmond, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, and the Age of Suicide (Catholic University of America Press, 2019), 320pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, and the Age of Suicide is a study of the phenomenon of suicide in modern and post-modern society as represented in the major fictional works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Walker Percy. In his study, suicide is understood in both a literal and spiritual sense as referring to both the actual suicides in their works and to the broader social malaise of spiritual suicide, or despair. In the 19th century Dostoevsky called suicide "the terrible question of our age". For his part, Percy understood 20th century Western culture as "suicidal" in both its social, political and military behavior and in the deeper sense that its citizenry had suffered an ontological "loss of self" or "deformation" of being. Likewise, Thomas Merton called the 20th century an "age of suicide".
John Desmond examines the cultural ethos of suicide as it is developed in eleven major works of fiction―Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov; and Percy's The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins, Lancelot, The Second Coming and The Thanatos Syndrome. His study is analogical and progressive in that it demonstrates how Percy "furthered" Dostoevsky's prophetic insights and intuitions about suicide as they evolved in modern Western culture. It reveals how the spiritual, moral and ideological conditions that Dostoevsky analyzed in the latter 19th century came to prophetic―and dire―fulfillment in the 20th century, as Percy observed. The study develops its argument through a close analysis of themes, characters, actions and images that reveal both correspondence between and development from Dostoevsky to Percy. In the Epilogue, Desmond offers a Christian counter-vision to the suicidal ethos of the age.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Ukrainian-American Bishop Constantine Bohachevsky

For more than five years now, since working with a grad student who was doing field research in Sugarloaf, PA, home of the Byzantine Carmelite sisters, I have thought that Eastern Catholics are exceptionally bad at telling our own history, and such defects must be remedied wherever possible. I am therefore delighted to see this biography forthcoming in November of this year: Ukrainian Bishop, American Church: Constantine Bohachevsky and the Ukrainian Catholic Church Hardcover by Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak (Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 544pp.

I greatly look forward to reading this, and I hope to be able to arrange an interview on here with the author.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Constantine Bohachevsky was not a typical bishop. On the eve of his unexpected nomination as bishop to the Ukrainian Catholics in America, in March 1924, the Vatican secretly whisked him from Warsaw to Rome to be ordained. He arrived in America that August to a bankrupt church and a hostile clergy. He stood his ground, and chose to live simple missionary life. He eschewed public pomp, as did his immigrant congregations. He regularly visited his scattered churches. He fought a bitter fight for the independence of the church from outside interference – a kind of struggle between the Church and the state, absent both. He refashioned a failing immigrant church in America into a self-sustaining institution that half a century after his death could help resurrect the underground Catholic Church in Ukraine, which became the largest Eastern Catholic church today.
This trailblazing biography, based on recently opened sources from the Vatican, Ukraine and the United States, brings the reader from the placid life of the married Catholic Ukrainian clergy in the Habsburg Empire to industrial America.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church, formalized in 1595, melds Eastern religious practices with Western hierarchic structure, thus healing the 1054 Christian divide. While there is doctrinal unity, Eastern Catholic practice differs so markedly from that of the Latin Rite that Ukrainian immigrants in the US created their own churches. The death of the first bishop in 1916 and the long hiatus in naming a replacement led to widespread unrest. Yet, under Bohachevsky's forceful leadership, within a decade, the church developed a network of parishes, schools, colleges, and eventually a seminary, cultivating its clergy and its understanding of Eastern Catholicism. In 1958, the Pope erected the Ukrainian Catholic Archbishopric of Philadelphia and appointed Bohachevsky its Metropolitan/Archbishop.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Cyril of Alexandria's Glaphyra

In its long-standing and prestigious series The Fathers of the Church, Catholic University of America press is bringing out, this December, the latest edition: Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra on the Pentateuch, Vol. I: Genesis, trans.Nicholas P. Lunn (2018), 400pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:

Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 376–444) is best known for his defense of orthodoxy at the time of the Nestorian controversy over the nature of Christ. However, by far the larger part of Cyril's literary output consisted of commentaries on books of both Old and New Testaments, written before the Christological debate was sparked off in 428. One of these works, of major proportions, was the so-called Glaphyra ("elegant comments") on the Pentateuch. This comprises a total of thirteen separate "books," or volumes: seven on Genesis, three on Exodus, and one each on Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The comments primarily concern the narrative portions of the Pentateuch, hence the greater space given to Genesis, though a number of the legal prescriptions are also treated. This present volume, containing all seven books on Genesis, is the first of a projected two-volume set which will offer a translation of the whole Glaphyra for the first time in English. Cyril's aims within the commentary are both theological and pastoral. His chosen method begins with a consideration of the historia. Here the Alexandrian patriarch deals with the text at the literal level. At this stage he explains any historical, cultural, and at times even linguistic and textual issues presented within the passage, which is then followed by some theological instruction or lessons of a more practical nature based upon the literal interpretation. The exposition then moves on to the theoria. This is Cyril's preferred term for the contemplation of the spiritual sense, that is to say, the mystery of Christ which he firmly held lay hidden beneath the surface of the Old Testament text. With great adeptness and consistency Cyril identifies elements within the ancient narratives as figures, or "types and shadows," of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Church, and the teachings of the gospel.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Mourning and Melancholia, Sex and Capitalism: Two New Books

I have, on here and elsewhere, been testing out certain psychoanalytic ideas over the past few years in the context of considering both Eastern Christian and Islamic historiographical abuses. What I am increasingly coming to wonder in both cases--but especially the latter--is how much unacknowledged romanticized nostalgia is mixed up with a strange sort of unrecognized mourning for past glories.

Moreover, I have been returning to the whole category of "lament" to see how and where it has largely disappeared from contemporary Christian experience--e.g., the bowdlerizing or outright censorship, in contemporary lectionaries, of the psalms of lament, of Job, etc. And within a contemporary Islamic context, I am wondering if their developing of a literature of lament would not be useful in grappling with Western imperialism and its century of damage in the region, beginning with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after 1918 and continuing through the Gulf War of 1991 and, above all, the utter disaster of the 2003 Iraq war which has destroyed so many lives, Muslim and Christian alike, across the entire region.

Finally, I have been watching with fascination as several recent critical theorists--starting with Todd McGowan--have begun the process of bringing Freud's theory of the death drive back in from the cold where it has been consigned by analysts and others alike for almost a century now.

All of these themes--mourning, lament, and the death drive--are on prominent display in two news books I've just finished, starting with Madelon Sprengnether's Mourning Freud (Bloomsbury, 2018), 288pp. (For a third book along these lines, see my discussion of Christopher Bollas's new Meaning and Melancholia: Life in an Age of Bewilderment here. For a fourth, see Freud, Psychoanalysis, and Death, which makes some good if at times over-obvious points about the neglect, both clinical and theoretical, on death as such in the Freudian tradition.)

Hers is a very insightful and important book, movingly written in places and offering important additions to and new directions for psychoanalytic thinking after Freud, with whom she is rightly not afraid to differ on certain points. I have never once understood the refusal of certain people--most of them now dead, I should think--to differ from Freud, or to treat such differences as some kind of treason. No human figure deserves unquestioned loyalty; but it seems especially ironic to treat Freud in such terms given the insights and tools he bequeathed to us precisely to see through both the demand for such loyalty and the urge to give it.

Moreover, the idea that psychoanalysis is somehow fixed for all time in Freudian theory has also never made sense to me. The developments after Freud--especially in the British middle or independent tradition--have been invaluable. There is, rightly, a variety of approaches and theories; and as Sprengnether later puts it in her book, "psychoanalysis as Freud conceived it does not come down to us as a fixed and internally consistent body of theory. Freud's texts interact with one another in myriad ways, repeating, revising, and commenting on one another as if to represent an ongoing internal conversation rather than a logically ordered set of ideas" (164).

In addition, she is further right in moving past that silly and protracted distraction of scientism which has been too conveniently used by both Freudians and his haters for too long to distract us from some of his key insights. Claims to psychoanalysis (and much else) being a "science" have never made sense for those with a modicum of understanding of the philosophy of science and its history. What the average person means by "science" (and even, alas, what too many so-called scientists mean) is a fantastical ideological construct used to ward off politically inconvenient questions. In this light, Freud was himself too hung up on some late-Enlightenment "scientific" claims as a way of securing for his "Jewish science" a certain kind of stability and respectability that minorities in Habsburg Europe needed to find for their own security. As Sprengnether puts it, "what Freud invented, in my view, is not an objective science of mind but rather a new form of subjective self-inquiry. The power of his discovery is in no way diminished by its lack of 'scientific' status" (183).

I found the most useful part of her book to be the one that might make strict orthodox Freudians (are there any left?) unhappy: her argument that Freud unhelpfully side-tracked himself (beginning in the self-analysis of his own life) down an Oedipal alley and in so doing missed the role of mourning, thinking instead that the "trauma" of childhood was about sex rather than loss. (Another point I've never understood: those who want to make, as Freud himself seems to do, the tale of Oedipus into something to be taken literally. That we have complicated libidinal-erotic-sexual feelings, understood very broadly, towards others, including family, seems unremarkable. But to go beyond that and posit anything further seems de trop.) As she puts it bluntly right at the outset, "the subject that Freud most clearly failed to confront in his life and his work, I maintain, is mourning" (1). As she later elaborates on this point, "oedipal theory performs the function of acknowledging anger toward the deceased (murderous wishes directed towards the father) while enshrining an idealized memory of maternal love" (55). He does this, she continues, because "he chose to theorize from a text that offered him more consoling images. Out of the tragic material of Oedipus Rex, Freud forged a hopeful, if sober, psychic construct" (85).

She goes on to show how this is not only the case in his own incomplete mourning for childhood figures, but is then projected onto the famous story he recounts--in Beyond the Pleasure Principle--of his own grandson's reactions to the death of his mother, Freud's daughter Sophie, who died of the Spanish flu. Freud's own reaction, and what he records of his grandson, both point to a man steeped in a kind of stiff-upper-lip stoicism that would not allow for open grieving--and this he projects onto his grandson.

A few final critical thoughts to end with: Sprengnether: to my enormous surprise she seems not to have read, or at least never cites anywhere, three contemporary theorists whose work overlaps considerably with her own, and who, in at least one case, would have strengthened her own case considerably. I speak here, firstly, of Adam Phillips (especially his discussions on the links between psychoanalysis and literature as seen in, e.g., Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature). Also nowhere to be found is Christopher Bollas. But finally Ana-Maria Rizzuto, whose work on Freud's mourning of his father in Why Did Freud Reject God 

+++++++++++++++++++++++

Now on to Benjamin Fong's fascinating book, Death and Mastery: Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism (Columbia UP, 2018). There is a lot of wisdom here, but I'm not sure how well this holds together as a book. Nevertheless, there are many great insights scattered throughout this book. 

Fong begins not unlike Sprengnether: wanting to think with Freud, but also to develop certain of his ideas, to see how others after him (especially Lacan) have grappled with these problems, and in some cases to go beyond Freud.

After Freud, the other major interlocutors in this book are those of the Frankfurt school, above all Theodor Adorno, whose work on The Culture Industry is discussed with great intelligence and insight.

Marx plays a role, but very much in the background. Max Horkeimer is also featured prominently. Herbert Marcuse comes in for considerable, and highly critical, discussion. (I've never been able to take Marcuse seriously since MacIntyre so thoroughly trashed him decades ago.)

Hans Loewald comes in for extensive discussion. René Girard is also discussed here, and rather critically in such works as Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Fong is especially hard on John Milbank and others who have picked up ideas about violence and rivalry to trumpet a supposed Christian offer of peace.

Fong begins by noting that the death drive, to the extent that it is considered at all, often overshadows what he sees as a co-relative drive, viz., to mastery. Indeed, as he puts it early on, "the death drive becomes its own counter-drive, a drive to mastery" (18). This can manifest itself in many ways, and no drive is ever going to be totally contained; but, he says, they can at least be understood. One key example of this process, he says, is that of the drive to intellectual mastery, which is often a drive to overcome the destructive death-dealing effects of past trauma.

So too is the compulsion to repeat, as McGowan so abundantly illustrated in his book, as I showed in my discussion of it. We often repeat things that are very clearly destructive and death-dealing because in doing so we are seeking some lost or misplaced or inaccessible good. There is a logic here, though on the surface it may look perverse and self-defeating--thereby illustrating, of course, the importance of Freud's hermeneutic in The Interpretation of Dreams of looking not just at manifest but especially at latent content and meaning.

Fong's book is worth it if only for this central insight, which comes almost exactly half-way through: "there is perhaps no more confused assertion, for a critical theorist, than that capitalist society is becoming increasingly 'secular'." Why churchmen and others insist on using this term or its even more fatuous variants ("secular humanism") has never made sense to me--except, of course, to flog their hideous books.

Rather, capitalism is itself not just an ideology and substitute "religion." More to the point, as the final parts of Fong's book argue, it is "a committed psychic investment" and an "insidious....internalized social structure" whose "comfortable obviousness" makes it all the harder to distance oneself from and to think about with "self-reflective reason." As a result, "late capitalism is defined not only by a reorganization of production, radically heightened capacities of distribution, and a new ideology of consumption but also by a sea change in what Judith Butler calls 'the psychic life of power'" (86).

Such psychic effects, to be clear, have not totally robbed most people of the capacity for some critical thought. But too much of that capacity in too many people has been anesthetized by capitalism, and most recently and most especially by the technology that so consumes our life today. As a result Fong is quite right to say, as others recently have, that any dreams of any sort of "revolution" are never going to come to pass; for capitalism is extremely adept at using all its commodities to inculcate in people a "remarkably stubborn adherence to the status quo" (98). Such technology gains its power, he asserts, from first gratifying "a psychic need before it does material ones" (110).

Using classic Freudian terminology, Fong explains how this works: the culture industry works both sides of the ego, giving satisfaction to the id in various ways (that is, satisfying many basic material desires and wants) so as to blunt the force of the superego's critical capacities. If you doubt this, just think how often, in conversation with a defender of capitalism, you have immediately been met with the tedious rejoinder "Yes, but think how many people today own their own home" or "How many more have joined the middle class from poverty."

Nobody doubts that moving from poverty is a good thing, but that is not why such utterances are made. They are made to close down discussion because the apologists for capitalism know what a weak case they have in the face of massive psychic and spiritual costs--to say nothing of real, material costs, too, to lives devastated by its myriad social pathologies. As MacIntyre memorably put it in his most recent book, advanced capitalism today has “destroyed…traditional ways of life, created gross and sometimes grotesque inequalities of income and wealth, lurched through crisis after crisis, creating recurrent mass unemployment and left those areas and those communities that it was not profitable to develop permanently impoverished and deprived.”

In the end, Fong's very insightful book does not give us a lot of detailed directives on how to overcome these problems--which is, of course, a classical instance of Freudian "abstinence." Freud himself made it clear that an analyst should usually hold him/herself abstinent from the analysand insofar as the latter wanted the former to tell him what to do, how to live, and how to decide certain matters. It is up to us to begin to think much more critically about all this, and then to figure out what is to be done. We are in Fong's debt insofar as he has helped us to see all this more clearly and to realize the nature of the challenges we face. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Aquinas and the Greek Fathers

I spy many good things in the catalogue just sent to me by the Catholic University of America Press.The one that lept out at me in a particular way will be published this November: Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fatherseds. Michael Dauphinais, Andrew Hoffer, and Roger Nutt (CUAP, 2018), 384pp.

About this collection the publisher tells us the following:
Scholars have often been quick to acknowledge Thomas Aquinas's distinctive retrieval of Aristotle's Greek philosophical heritage. Often lagging, however, has been a proper appreciation of both his originality and indebtedness in appropriating the great theological insights of the Greek Fathers of the Church. In a similar way to his integration of the Aristotelian philosophical corpus, Aquinas successfully interwove the often newly received and translated Greek patristic sources into a thirteenth-century theological framework, one dominated by the Latin Fathers. His use of the Greek Fathers definitively shaped his exposition of sacra doctrina in the fundamental areas of God and creation, Trinitarian theology, the moral life, and Christ and the Sacraments.
Aquinas is one of the three great A-Team Bogey Men (the others being Augustine and Anselm, none of whom are ever read in the originals of course) of the tiresome and puerile Orthodox apologetics one finds on line and in various tawdry books written by people who couldn't conjugate a Latin verb if their life depended on it. But for people who've read him, it's long been obvious that he is deeply immersed in Greek patristic, especially Cappadocian, literature. This was superlatively documented and discussed in Marcus Plested's invaluable book Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, about which I interviewed him here. That book would make a suitable accompaniment for this new collection.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Acts of Nicaea II

I have for years quoted Joseph Ratzinger's demonstrable claim, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, that part of the explanation for periodic outbreaks of iconoclasm in the West, including after Vatican II, stems from the fact that the West never adequately received the acts of Nicaea II, and has therefore never seriously integrated its insights into the life of the Western Church. This rather messy history of reception is told in Alain Besançon's invaluable The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm; and more recently in T.F.X. Noble's book Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians.

But whatever excuses about inadequate, incomplete, or inaccessible texts the West may have had in the past are gone in the face of a newly published book, translated by Richard Price, who also supplies a commentary to The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) (Liverpool University Press, 2018), 688pp.

Part of Liverpool's ongoing and very important series, Translated Texts for Historians LUP, this hefty book, the publisher tells us, treats
The Second Council of Nicaea (787), which decreed that religious images were to set up in churches and venerated. It thereby established the cult of icons as a central element in the piety of the Orthodox churches, as it has remained ever since. In the West its decrees received a new emphasis in the Counter-Reformation, in the defence of the role of art in religion. It is a text of prime importance for the iconoclast controversy of eighth-century Byzantium, one of the most explored and contested topics in Byzantine history. But it has also a more general significance - in the history of culture and the history of art. This edition offers the first translation that is based on the new critical edition of this text in the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum series, and the first full commentary of this work that has ever been written. It will be of interest to a wide range of readers from a variety of disciplines.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Three Most Interesting Parts of Late Medieval History

For those interested in late-medieval history, this new book, just released from Amsterdam University Press, captures three of the most interesting phenomena of that period: Papacy, Crusade, and Christian-Muslim Relations, ed. Jessalynn Bird (AUP, 2018), 276pp.

About this book we are told the following by the publisher (which gives further inside glimpses here):
This book examines the role of the papacy and the crusade in the religious life of the late twelfth through late thirteenth centuries and beyond. Throughout the book, the contributors ask several important questions. Was Innocent III more theologian than lawyer-pope and how did his personal experience of earlier crusade campaigns inform his own vigorous promotion of the crusades? How did the outlook and policy of Honorius III differ from that of Innocent III in crucial areas including the promotion of multiple crusades (including the Fifth Crusade and the crusade of William of Montferrat) and how were both pope’s mindsets manifested in writings associated with them? What kind of men did Honorius III and Innocent III select to promote their plans for reform and crusade? How did the laity make their own mark on the crusade through participation in the peace movements which were so crucial to the stability in Europe essential for enabling crusaders to fulfill their vows abroad and through joining in the liturgical processions and prayers deemed essential for divine favor at home and abroad? Further essays explore the commemoration of crusade campaigns through the deliberate construction of physical and literary paths of remembrance. Yet while the enemy was often constructed in a deliberately polarizing fashion, did confessional differences really determine the way in which Latin crusaders and their descendants interacted with the Muslim world or did a more pragmatic position of ‘rough tolerance’ shape mundane activities including trade agreements and treaties?

Friday, August 10, 2018

Neilos of Rossano: Betwixt East and West

If the name Neilos of Rossano does not immediately ring a bell, then a new book will remedy that most splendidly: The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, ed. and trans. by Raymond L. Capra, Ines A. Murzaku, and Douglas J. Milewski (Dumbarton Oaks/Harvard University Press, 2018), 388pp.

In the past, I've interviewed one of the editors and translators, Ines Murzaku, here. She graciously agreed to an interview about this new book, and also brought in one of her colleagues, Douglas Milewski, to answer a few of the questions, as you'll see below. I began with Ines.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background, including your recent work in Europe and your most recent Fulbright award.

I am a professor of ecclesiastical history and Director of Catholic Studies Program at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. I guess this is a fancier way of saying that I am a Church historian, focusing on Church history and theology—especially Byzantine and Catholic Church history—and how this history has impacted and still impacts modern Church history and the Church’s thinking and theology. I earned a doctorate in Eastern Ecclesiastical History from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and have held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany.

I have investigated Church history as this has unfolded on the borders and frontiers of empires, including the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman empires; in places where the Byzantine East and the Latin West have met but also collided; how the West has reacted; and how the East has influenced Western thinking, including Western theology and ecclesiology. I am fascinated with borders and peripheries, with saints of the peripheries like Italo-Greek Saints of southern Italy and with Church history as it has developed in the peripheries. I have done and am still doing a lot of archival work in Italy, Germany, and other countries. Writing Church history from the archives is difficult as many colleagues in the guild will admit, but also rewarding--in hearing the voice of those who in a sense have lost their voice. As Chesterton famously wrote in Orthodoxy, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead. It means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors.”

I am a practicing Byzantine-Greek Catholic with deep reverence for my tradition and think that Byzantine Catholics of Italy and elsewhere are a bridge between East and West and the medieval and premodern Byzantine-Catholic Church in southern Italy can provide some models of dialogue and co-existence for contemporary ecclesiology, theology, and ecumenism. St. Neilos and the Greek Monastery of the Mother of God of Grottaferrata, the Italo-Greeks-Albanians or Arbëresh of Southern Italy and their particular and unique histories of Easterners in the West are very rich and resourceful. A critical and dispassionate exploration of the history, ecclesiology, and theology of these Byzantine realities can be gems in contemporary ecumenical dialogue between East and West, especially in understanding synodality and how this played out in a local Byzantine Church which was transplanted into a Latin context, as was the case of the Arbëresh or Italo-Albanian Church of Southern Italy – Calabria and Sicily.

Yes, I spent a good part of this summer in Italy (Rome) on a Fulbright Specialist grant at Università degli studi Roma Tre in Rome, teaching and researching the religious history of the Italian periphery – Southern Italy and its extensions to Eastern Europe. What is the role religion can play in Eastern Europe? It was a fruitful exchange between political scientists—my colleagues of Università degli studi Roma Tre—and myself. The new areas of thinking and the new approaches other disciplines open up are incredible thinking exercises. I am grateful to Fulbright for grating me the opportunity to be in Rome. Some of my political science colleagues at Università degli studi Roma Tre often joked, saying “What does a Southern-Italian-Greek Saint of the early 11th century have to do with Rome and Western politics?” whenever I talked passionately about St. Neilos. Well, if one reads the life of the St. Neilos, it’s clear that the answer is: a great deal.

AD: Back in November 2014 we spoke about your then-new book, Monastic Tradition in Eastern Christianity and the Outside World: A Call for Dialogue. Are there any connections between that book and this new one, The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano? 

Yes, of course. The thread is monasticism, the monastic ideal, the cloister and its relevance in the 21st century. I have taught monastic theology and history during my entire academic career in the US and Europe. It has never let me down; it never becomes stale or old. The lives of the saints are fascinating to students. I find millennials to be thirsty for authenticity. I think, that our century might present an opportunity for monasticism to rebound. The thirst for authenticity, spirituality, cultivating the love of God and the love of neighbor, love of silence and meditation and the human longing for union with the divine: all these continue to be important to modern society, and retain their relevance.

Making predictions about the last generation of monks, the Desert Fathers reflected, “What have we ourselves done?” One of them, Abba Ischyrion replied, “We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.” The others replied, “And those who come after us, what will they do?” Ischyrion responded, “They will struggle to achieve half our works.” Then the brothers asked again, “And to those that come after them, what will happen?” Ischyrion answered, “The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will persevere in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers.” This is telling, especially in the very difficult situation the Catholic Church is currently facing with clergy abuse cases and cover up. Maybe monasticism is a cure to this cancer of the Church? I believe so.

AD: Tell us a bit about Saint Neilos. He strikes me—if I’m not wrong—as being a figure living very much on the threshold of major change—the Gregorian reforms to the papacy, the Crusades, the deepening break-down in East-West relations? 

Fr. Douglas Milewski:

Within less than 100 years of Neilos’ death the Great Schism between Rome and Constantinople began, the Gregorian Reforms of the Western Church were initiated, and the First Crusade was launched.  We still live with the enormous spiritual, theological, cultural, political and social transformations these events wrought.  Neilos stands at the brink of those changes, unaware of what is coming even while it is obvious to us in hindsight where history was trending.  So he is an important witness to the last generations of Mediterranean Christians conscious of being part of a single ekklesia, for all the strains that existed within it.

This is illustrated in numerous ways: by his ready acknowledgement of both Byzantine and Western imperial authority, his intellectual formation in Eastern patristic thought alongside a pious devotion to the Roman shrines of the Apostles, his capacity to interact with Eastern prelates and Roman pontiffs, his profound attachment to a distinct Calabrian/Byzantine expression of monasticism matched with a genuine veneration of Benedictine monasticism, his engagement in current affairs stretching from local Calabrian/Byzantine matters to the then-ongoing evangelization of Poland through his epistolary outreach to Saint Adalbert.  Neilos’ Bios offers us a rare glimpse into a tragically lost Christian unity and into a man who stands at the crosscurrents of his times, and whose life’s lone desire was to follow God.         

AD: One part of his vita made me wince: he married and fathered a daughter, but then around the age of 30, abandoned both to pursue monasticism. Was this commonly accepted practice in his day?

Ines Murzaku: Yes, St. Neilos, according to the Bios, was sacramentally married. He was not cohabitating, but legitimately married to one of the young girls from Rossano. This is how the hagiographer describes it in chapter 3.1: “Consequently, Neilos was not strong enough to escape their manifold snares, but just like a stag wounded in the heart, he was captured by one of them who surpassed the others in her comeliness and natural beauty, though she was born to a modest and ordinary family. He then entered the yoke of marriage with her, and their first-born child was a girl.”

How was that possible, legitimate, canonical? Neilos was not the first. The Byzantine civil and canonical laws of the empire and the Byzantine Church allowed the ending of marriage in order to enter monastic orders or to put on the angelic habit, as it is otherwise referred to. Was this the case for consummated and fruitful marriages, as was the case of St. Neilos? The answer is yes. Getting a consensual divorce from one’s spouse was common practice well before the time of St. Neilos.

Emperor Justinian’s (527-565) legislation prescribed specific causes for divorce and remarriage. Entering a monastery or religious life by reciprocal agreement between the spouses was considered a valid reason for dissolving the marriage, and this applied to men and women who, during marriage, chose a religious life and habitation in a monastery. Novella 117 of the year 542 prescribed “above all, when husbands and wives have, during marriage, chosen to adopt a holy life and reside in monasteries” the marriage could be dissolved. Additionally, husbands could divorce their wives in cases of treason against the emperor, committing adultery, plotting to kill their spouses, etc. Wives were also granted divorces if their husbands pressured them to commit adultery or if husbands accused them of adultery but failed to provide evidence.

Moreover, St. Basil the Great wrote that: “A woman is not allowed to dismiss her husband, even if he is a fornicator, unless perhaps, to enter a monastery.” “Divorce was considered legal as well in cases when the wife was willing to separate from her husband for the sake of his ordination as bishop, and for joint or separate entry of spouses into monastic life”: Canons 12 and 48 of Trullo.

One other fact to keep in mind, St. Neilos/Nilus of Rossano or St. Neilos/Nilus the Younger, took the name from St. Neilos/Nilus the Elder, or of Sinai who died c. 430 and was one of the disciples of St. John Chrysostom. According to tradition St. Neilos the Elder was a layman, married, with two sons. St. Neios the Younger took the monastic name from him and in a way followed his path to monastic life, dissolving the marriage.

In sum, if one of the spouses felt a calling tο monastic vocation,  Byzantine law did not prevent him or her from carrying it out, given that monastic life was considered a superior calling and a superior way of living compared to married life. Entering into monastic life meant separation from the world and was recognized as a fact that dissolved a lawful-sacramental marriage, as a natural death would do. Church law followed  Byzantine law here. St. Neilos’ Calabria was part of the Byzantine-Eastern Empire bordering the Western Empire so dissolution of marriage for a higher calling was legally and sociably acceptable.

AD: His geographical context also makes him a threshold figure: living in southern Italy under not Latin but Byzantine imperial jurisdiction. Tell us a bit about that Byzantine context.

The Byzantine civilization of pre-Norman southern Italy contained communities of Eastern Christians, Western Christians, Jews and Muslims, alongside pockets of Franks, Bulgars, Armenians, and people of other ethnicities. The Calabria of Neilos’ lifetime was a region caught between the competing ambitions, strategies, politics, and military adventures of its home Eastern Empire, the Western Empire to the north, and Saracen emirs in Sicily immediately to the west. It was an insecure territory that did not enjoy long periods of tranquility.

Moreover, the Life of Saint Neilos offers a snapshot of a cultural and ecclesial world that was soon to vanish on account of several decisive events: the schism between Rome and Constantinople in 1054, the start of the Gregorian Reforms in the latter half of the eleventh century which would transform the Western Church apart from the Eastern Church, and the beginning of the age of the Crusades in 1090. While clearly conscious of their distinctiveness, and at times quite contentiously so, the eastern and western halves of the Christian world in the tenth century still understood themselves as part of a single religious community. Statesmen from the respective realms at various times sought to extend that sense of spiritual commonality into political reality by linking the two empires through marriage.  The youthful Otto III, son of the remarkable Princess Theophano, aspired to become more Greek than Saxon and understandably looked up to Neilos as a spiritual father (for more on this see chapters 92-93 of our book). The Western world at the close of the first millennium was widely open to the spiritual and cultural influences of the Byzantine tradition, as the emergence of a great and confidently Western and Christian civilization in the High Middle Ages was two centuries distant in the future.

Additionally, the papacy was not in this period the dynamic force it would shortly become. Indeed, Neilos’ lifespan overlaps with the nadir of papal history, the tenth century witnessing the See of Rome reduced to a political pawn with several truly notorious occupants. Italo-Greek monasticism, which originated in the Christian East, and its wide enculturation in southern Italy testify to monasticism’s adaptability. Additionally, Italo-Greek monasticism highlights southern Italian region and culture, which was a locus of communication and in constant connection and exchange with the surrounding cultures and a suitable habitat accommodative to different monastic lifestyles, including the hermit lifestyle and communal monasticism.

AD: Your introduction notes that southern Italy came to be called the Terra dei Monaci or Land of Monks. What made this part of the world so attractive to the widespread flourishing of monastic life?

Yes, indeed it became The Land of Monks. Why? I will put Greek culture and civilization still visible in Southern Italy in the first place. Greekness was present in Southern Italy when the Eastern monks from Egypt and Syria arrived. The Magna Graecia of the Occident was there to welcome the Easterners. Southern Italy and her Greekness attracted the monks as it attracted Byzantine Italo-Albanians or Arbëreshes who settled in southern Italy in the 15th century. Culture and tradition was also attractive. If there was one place where these monks would have felt at home, Southern Italy was the place. Geography, climate and natural caves provided an excellent environment for solitary hermits. It is this abundance of hospitality—both cultural and environmental—that made Southern Italy and its coasts washed by two seas very attractive and hospitable to the Easterners.

AD: He is also, of course, part of and contributes to a very unique Italo-Greek monastic tradition. Tell us about the origins and nature of that. There are, if I’m not mistaken, still one or two such communities left today—e.g., Grottaferrata?

Italo-Greek monasticism is a unique form of monasticism. I have a new book just published on this type of monasticism. The only remnant of Italo-Greek monasticism is the Monastery of the Mother of God of Grottaferrata.

AD: The introduction mentions that, thanks to raids into Calabria from Muslim Sicily, Neilos and others fled north to the great Benedictine foundation at Monte Cassino, living there “for fifteen years, following the Greek rite.” Was such “bi-ritualism,” as it were, common then in monastic houses? Did it provoke any questions—about, say, differing fasting practices or liturgical traditions—or was it generally tolerated?

Fr. Douglas Milewski: The remarkable Monte Cassino episodes do not suggest to me “bi-ritualism”, which would be odd in a single monastery, as Neilos and his monks were given a separate foundation a few short miles from the main abbey.  Nevertheless, the hagiographer clearly depicts the two-fold awareness of differences between Greek and Latin practices along with the reception of Neilos as a spiritual master who straddles both traditions.  Anyone familiar with the topography of Monte Cassino will readily appreciate it was no small honor paid Neilos to be greeted by the entire community at the foot of the mountain in full liturgical trappings “as they would be on a feast day”!  Thus, the Benedictines are treated to the celebration of the office in Greek, which they had requested, and granted permission by their abbot to seek instruction from Neilos about monastic perfection, wisdom he imparts in Latin.  In all, it shows Neilos as a teacher of the universal Church in a pattern reminiscent of Saint Basil the Great’s monastic rules. 

AD: Our context, of course, is vastly different from that of Neilos, but yet this book was published in 2018 in one of the most prestigious translation series by one of the world’s most prominent academic publishers, so nobody can say he’s irrelevant. Tell us, if you can, what especial lessons he offers Catholic and Orthodox Christians—and others—today. 

Fr. Douglas Milewski:

First, there is the enduring legacy of Neilos, a son of the Greek/Byzantine Christian world who saw no disconnection with the Latin/Western Christian world, a legacy which carried on in the life of the community he founded at Grottaferrata.  This is perhaps the most immediate source of reflection for Catholics and Orthodox, a man who seems to have embodied ecumenism in the purest sense.  However, the Bios wants the reader to enter much more deeply into the significance of his life which transcends its historical particulars.  Neilos is presented as a Christian who achieved theosis, becoming alter Christus.  The account of his life is carefully presented with this object in mind – not for the sake of a reader to imitate the specific forms of Neilos’ ascetical practices, which are often quite beyond imitation, but to cultivate a similar awareness of the presence and direction of God in all life’s moments and variables, no matter how seemingly insignificant or catastrophic.

AD: Having finished The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, what are you working on next?

Ines Murzaku: In 2019 it will be the 100th anniversary foundation of the Eparchy of Lungro in Calabria for the Italo-Albanian-Byzantine Catholic Church of Italy. The Italo-Albanian-Byzantine Catholic Church is one of the surviving ecclesiastical realities of Southern Italy. Byzantine Albanians settled in southern Italy (Sicily and Calabria) in the 15th century, after the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. Rome accommodated the Byzantines by making specific jurisdictional arrangements with Constantinople, from the Council of Florence (1439) to the Council of Trent (1545–1563), when the Orthodox Bishop of Ohrid provided ecclesial jurisdiction which has no direct historical parallel in ecclesiastical history.

The history of a 1014-year-old-monastry of Grottaferrata and 556-year-old history of the Italo-Greek-Arbëresh church offer incredible insights into possible models for Church unity and contemporary East-West ecumenism. These small and authentic Byzantine communities offer a model of ecumenism of a monastic community and a church that managed to survive while preserving the inherited ritual, traditions, language and customs although they were in a unique ecclesial situation – under the Latin-local bishop and the jurisdiction of the Roman-Latin Church. The exploration of the Italo-Greek medieval model of enculturation and ecumenism presents a potential bridge to be used the current theological dialogue between East and West, which is exploring models of Church union in the first millennium, especially with regard to synodality and primacy.

What is the role of the bishop of Rome - his specific function as the bishop of the “first see” - in the Italo-Greek context, and how was this role lived in southern Italy? How is this role being played now? What can the Italo-Greek model of southern Italy offer to the revival of the consciousness of a united Christendom? How and why did this monasticism extend its influence in the West? Was it successful in implanting Eastern-Byzantine seeds in a Latin tapestry? What was left, and can monasticism continue to survive?

These are some of the key ecclesiological-theological-historical questions my book project on the Italo-Albanian-Byzantine Catholic Church of Italy will study and answer.


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