"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).


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Authorial Interview: Fr. Michael Plekon

The priest and theologian Michael Plekon, whom it was my delight to meet last summer at the Sheptytsky Institute Study Days, is a very prolific fellow of whose work we have taken notice previously on here. As I have said before, anglophones in particular owe him a considerable debt for, inter alia, his on-going efforts, in conjunction with the University of Notre Dame Press, to make francophone Orthodoxy available in English. But he has written much else besides that, and on a wide array of topics.

I interviewed him about his research and scholarship, and here are his thoughts.

Please provide a brief biographical sketch:

MP: I have been teaching at Baruch College of the City University of New York since 1977. We have 18,000 students, with over 110 language groups represented in the academic community, so it’s a very diverse community! I love teaching there—the students are often the first in their families to attend college. They work alongside their courses, many  full time. When you discuss the New Testament, for example, it is usual that there will be students from all the world's religious traditions in the class, some hearing the words of Jesus for the first time, all bringing fresh perspectives. We also have a high standard for scholarship and I am always working on one or another publications. I am also a priest in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and am associate at St. Gregory the Theologian Church, Wappingers Falls, NY, alongside my very good friend, the rector, Fr.Alexis Vinogradov, himself a trained and still-practicing architect. I have been at the parish 16 years and had almost 15 years of parish experience before that.

Tell us why you wrote these books:

MP: I am finished with the third in a series of books about holiness in our time. The one yet to be published (forthcoming from UND Press in 2012) is Saints As They Really Are, the title taken from Dorothy Day. This started with Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (U Notre Dame Press, 2002).

There I profiled a number of contemporary holy people, only one of whom has been canonized, viz., Mother Maria Skobtsova--the other being St Seraphim of Sarov, whom I included because of the many characteristics he possessed common to out time. The others—Sergius Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, Nicholas Afanasiev, Lev Gillet, Alexander Men,  Gregory Krug, while renowned for their scholarship, teaching, spiritual insight, and iconographic gifts, do not fit the traditional categories of sainthood. And this is precisely why I wrote about them, generously using quotes from their writings as well as photos of them. The book got rave reviews and an award, but there was more to be said.

Moreover, I did not want to give the impression that only Eastern Orthodox women and men can be saints. Thus, in the sequel, Hidden Holiness (UND Press, 2009),

I used as a point of departure Paul Evdokimov’s comment that in our time, holy people would be both more ordinary and diverse in their holiness; hence their holiness would be less flamboyant or noticeable. Here I also wanted to listen to a much more diverse set of voices about living the holy life, not just those from my own church. Among those generously cited (and pictured) were Thomas Merton, Etty Hillesum, Simone Weil, Mother Teresa, Charles DeFoucauld, Rowan Williams, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Kathleen Norris, Sara Miles, Darcey Steinke, Dorothy Day, as well as lesser known individuals like Paul Anderson, Joanna Reitlinger and Olga Arsumqaq Michael. One good thing leads to another, though, and there were issues that I should have but could not address in Hidden Holiness. I did question the obsession with “heroic” holiness or the “cult of celebrity,” likewise the formal processes and requirements for canonization. Perhaps the theme stressed most was the universal call to holiness, and closely related, the everyday qualities and possibilities for holy living in our time. Yet there were many issues I did not address such as the destructive potential of institutional religion, the toxic mess we can turn our spiritual lives into, harming others as well as ourselves. In Saints As They Really Are, I tried to address these, again listening to a diverse chorus of voices—Barbara Brown Taylor, Nora Gallagher, Peter Berger, Matthew Kelty, Lauren Winner, Diana Butler Bass, Andrew Krivak, as well as some from the earlier two books and some Carmelites from my own ten years’ experience in that order.

Will you continue writing on these themes or are there other interests?

MP: I am not sure if there will be more writing about holiness and those struggling to live it in the 21st century, but all three volumes as well as my own pastoral experience (and that of colleagues and seminarian interns serving in our parish) have nudged me toward a related project. I am calling it “The Church Has Left the Building,” borrowing a phrase I saw on Religious News Service (RNS). I have asked colleagues and former interns to reflect, in essays, on their experience of parish life and pastoral ministry in the first decade or more of this new century. I think of those who may write, there is well over a hundred years of pastoral experience upon which to reflect, and all have encountered the complex collection of demographic, cultural and social factors challenging the churches now. For example, through no fault of dedicated clergy and laity, there are numerous “redundant” parishes across the churches: parishes in small towns now only a few minutes away from the next parish, also parishes where the economic and social bases have long since disappeared: mills, factories, mines to which immigrants flocked a century or more ago. Also the communities of ethnicity/language have now moved into the third or even fourth generation, with many, actually most “marrying out” of ethnic and denominational roots. Quite contrary to the myth that we continue to suffer from a “priest shortage,” the actual situation of basic church life, that is, parish life, is crying out for clear, insightful commentary. This is what the project hopes to provide through a handful of experienced pastors. It is not going to offer “recipes” for improvement, though clearly the conditions in which many parishes of all church backgrounds are finding themselves do signal a need to return to simplicity of life and the basics of prayer, sacraments, fellowship and service—precisely the characteristics Diana Butler Bass found in a study a decade ago.

Have you been involved in other projects?

MP: Yes, I have. Alongside these books, I have been involved in editing translations of some important studies in ecclesiology and church reform. Last year there was Jerry Ryan’s translation of Toward the Endless Day: The Life of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (UND Press, 2010).

AD: Yes, that was a splendid biography, which I discussed briefly on here last fall. As soon as I read it, I wrote to the editor of Reviews in Religion and Theology telling her of the importance of the book and volunteering to review it, which I then did. The review was published earlier this year. EBS is such a fascinating figure that I wanted to spread the word, and also encourage further discussion of her challenging and important ideas on, e.g., gender.

MP: In addition, I edited Vitaly Permiakov's translation of an important classic in ecclesiology: Nicholas Afanasiev's The Church of the Holy Spirit (UND Press, 2007).

AD: I know it well, and have used it in my courses. My own book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity shows its indebtedness to that book of Afanasiev, especially my conclusion.

Future projects?

MP: One is Antoine Arjakovsky’s The Way:  Religious Thinkers of the Russian Emigration in Paris and their Journal, translated by Jerry Ryan, which I edited with John Jillions (UND Press, forthcoming, 2012).

And ahead lies the publication of Hyacinthe Destivelle, The Moscow Council of  1917-1918: The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church, also translated by Jerry Ryan with my editing.

For whom were the books written—did you have a particular audience in mind?

MP: The three books having to do with holiness in our time I aimed at the widest possible audience, trying hard to write accessibly, without jargon, also explaining wherever needed. The same would be true for the Elisabeth Behr-Sigel biography in translation. It’s a nominee for the ForeWord annual awards. I think both the Arjakovsky and Destivelle studies will attract those interested not just in Russian church history and theology but most importantly, in the efforts at renewal and reform in the Eastern Church in the modern era. The Moscow council of 1917-18, never really implemented there, did shape ecclesiastical statutes and structure here in the OCA, as well as in Finland, Japan, the Sourozh diocese in the UK and the Paris/western European archdiocese.

Nicholas Afanasiev’s The Church of the Holy Spirit (UND Press, 2007)

has had a much wider audience, involving theologians of the liturgy, ecclesiologists and ecumenists. Ecumenically minded readers would also have had a great deal to invite them in the three books on holiness, since the effort there was deliberately ecumenical in the writers selected and examined. Now I would hope that “The Church Has Left the Building” will be readable and accessible insofar as the reflections will be personal and based on everyday parish life.

What about your own background led you to the writing of these books?

MP: I think just as it goes with preaching and teaching, so too with scholarly research and writing—you work with what is of great interest and commitment to yourself. Surely, this is the case with every book I have mentioned here. As one who was always intrigued by saints, I wanted to respect and honor the past but look more carefully at the time we live in. Saints are not only for icons or statues or holy cards. Holiness is a gift of God, first and foremost, and only real people, flesh and blood women and men, can be saints! I have had quite a few years on my life deeply involved in the church. I went to minor seminary, gave monastic life a serious try. I have experienced both Eastern and Western church life from the inside, I have great love for the gospel but as with many, I have a lot of strong feelings about what the institutional church has done to distort it, not to mention other atrocities such as clericalism, abuse of those in pastoral care, or the fundamentalism pretending to be traditionalism--addressed in an essay of mine in this collection.

Were there any surprises you discovered in the writing?

More than anything else, research on contemporary holy people as well as those writing about their own efforts to find God keeps showing me that ecclesiastical differences and divisions do not quench the Spirit. God is not the building nor is God the rules or the “culture” of the ecclesiastical community to which we belong. God is beyond all of this yet closer to us than our hearts. God lives with us and gives us the gift of holiness, God’s own life. Let me give you an example. In an online course, I guide students through some of the nastiest, meanest anti-ecumenical writing—not because I honor or agree with any of it but because it is there and in some places and for some people enormously powerful. The rationale then was that students needs to understand how strongly some feel about other Christians having no grace, no church life, sacraments, not even being Christians really, just heretics. All this runs counter to the New Testament as well as what we know and what was written in the first five hundred years of the church’s history. If anything, I have been very pleasantly surprised at seeing what I have been writing about confirmed, for example, in Diarmaid Macculloch’s magisterial Christianity, The First Three Thousand Years (Viking, 2010).

I have also been encouraged to see the swell of support for theologian Elizabeth Johnson in the wake of the heavy-handed criticism and rejection of her recent book, Quest for the Living God.

Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different?

Publishers always ask about this in author’s questionnaires, mostly for marketing purposes. No good ideas are the monopoly of an author. Quite a few people have been writing about the same issues I have looked at, which is why I have listened to, quoted, even pictured so many of them in my books—James Martin, Elizabeth Johnson, Rowan Williams, Barbara Brown Taylor, Mary Karr, Elizabeth Strout, Mary Oliver-- to name just a few.

You’ve been very generous with your comments. Anything to add in closing?

This past spring 2011 semester, as I have done many times in the past, I used materials from my books in my classes at school. Specifically, we read together a number of memoir and autobiographical authors, some of which I had used, others not. The response, as usual, was very good but this time, far deeper, more moving, than I could have expected. Given the diversity of my students as well as the “street smarts” that usually make them personally very guarded, their sharing of their own searches for God, for identity and for meaning in their lives bowled me over—and I have been teaching for a long time! This assured me of something that the last years of working on and writing these books has revealed to me. The world around is ought not to be castigated as secular, immoral, materialistic, promiscuous, corrupting. Rather, it is filled with saints like the summer evening skies are with stars.

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