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

Friday, September 16, 2011

On Lev Gillet's Lasting Significance

I have been fascinated with the figure of Lev Gillet for many years now--since even before Peter Galadza and I collaborated on Unité en division: Les lettres de Lev Gillet (“Un moine de l’Eglise d’Orient”) à Andrei Cheptytsky – 1921-1929 (Paris/Ottawa: 2009).

What is this book about? Here is an English translation of part of the description of our publisher, Parole et Silence:
Andrei Sheptytsky (Cheptytsky, Szeptyckyj) (1865-1944), Greco-Catholic bishop of Western Ukraine, and Lev Gillet (1893-1980), “the monk of the Eastern Church,” were two of 20th century Eastern Christianity’s more important, yet underappreciated, figures. 

The book, Unité en division: Les lettres de Lev Gillet (“Un moine de l’Eglise d’Orient”) à Andrei Cheptytsky – 1921-1929, is the annotated transcription of almost 100 letters of Lev Gillet to Archbishop Sheptytsky. The letters remained inaccessible for almost 50 years in the Soviet archives of Western Ukraine. They cover the period when Gillet went from being a Benedictine novice in England, to Greco-Catholic (“Uniate”) Studite in Ukraine, to Orthodox priest in France. During this same period, Sheptytsky went from being the “darling” of those hoping to “convert Russia,” to a giant “imprisoned in his own diocese.” The letters shed light on key elements of the biographies of these two celebrities. They also clarify various aspects of interwar Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church history.... All of these events and ideas are explained in copious annotations, which make the book an excellent source for micro-history.
Gillet, of course, was a well-known author, especially in the area of Christian spirituality. He wrote many books in this area.

But perhaps one of the works of most lasting significance of Gillet was his study of Jewish-Christian relations, a work that was published during the Holocaust in 1942 and therefore antedates many other post-war works that attempted to ask "How can one theologize in the aftermath of Auschwitz?" That work of his has remained in print ever since as Communion in the Messiah: Studies in the Relationship between Judaism and Christianity. John Jillions had a long discussion of it in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2006.

About this book we are told:
Without compromising the Christian position, Gillet sets out to show how much Christians have to learn from Jews before they can hope to communicate their own faith that Jesus is the Christ. After a historical analysis of the intellectual relations between Christianity and Judaism, the author eruditely draws out the common elements of the two traditions, challenging and correcting misconceptions about Rabbinism and Jewish life and teaching generally, misconceptions which overlook the two millennia of Jewish thought between the Old Testament and modern times. He shows how close is this connection, and how deeply spiritual is much of Jewish theology. There is, he claims, nothing in Jewish belief that a Jew become Christian ought to reject, while Christianity is the completion and fulfillment of Judaism.
The table of contents, preface, and an extract from the text may be consulted here.

Gillet's life is, as I noted at the outset, of longstanding fascination to me and many, including his close friend Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, whose own life is at least as fascinating and has been recently wonderfully told. Behr-Sigel, in her 80s, undertook the research to be able to write Gillet's biography: Lev Gillet, "un moine de l'Eglise d'Orient": Un libre croyant universaliste, evangelique et mystique (Paris: Cerf, 1993).

 An English translation of this was made available in 1999 from England's Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. Additionally, for those who wish a shorter study of him, see the chapter on Gillet in Michael Plekon's justly acclaimed Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church

What is it about Gillet's life that continues to fascinate? Doubtless there are many things for many people, but what is especially important to consider is (if I may be forgiven the infelicitous academic jargon) how he "problematizes" Orthodox-Catholic relations by his deliberate "transgressing" of the apparent boundary between the two. I say "apparent" because, following David Bentley Hart, I am not convinced that, at least de jure, there is any real boundary. There is, of course, the problem of the papacy, on which I have had a few things to say.
But following Hart, and the Russian Orthodox scholar Antoine Arjakovsky, as well as several modern Greek and Armenian theologians, inter alia, I am no longer convinced that any of this is sufficient to justify Catholics and Orthodox from refusing the Eucharist to one another. As Robert Taft noted at Orientale Lumen in June, it is necessary for restoration of communion only that we have identity of apostolic faith, not of historic memory.

Remarkably, Gillet in his own day seems to have thought likewise, at least as far as his own life went. This is all the more remarkable when one considers his context: in the early years of what we would come to call the "ecumenical movement" and especially in the period before Vatican II when, at least on the Catholic side, ecclesial boundaries were strictly drawn and policed, and the only permissible understanding of ecumenism was that of "return": the "schismatics" (=Orthodox) and the "heretics" (= Protestants) had to abandon their contumacy by returning to Rome to make their submission to the Roman pontiff. Thus the problem of Christian disunity would be solved. That model, thankfully, was abandoned at Vatican II, and officially reprobated in the 1990s by Edward Cardinal Cassidy, then president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and more authoritatively still by Pope Benedict XVI who, in Cologne in 2005, said that "unity does not mean what could be called ecumenism of the return: that is, to deny and to reject one's own faith history. Absolutely not! It does not mean uniformity in all expressions of theology and spirituality, in liturgical forms and in disciplines."

If there is no longer a "return," then what are we seeking? Here Gillet's life was prescient in showing us a model we are only beginning to appreciate: an ecumenism of communion in which he boundary between East and West simply disappears into the background. Gillet sought out this communion by simply doing it, and so he remains a forerunner of those who, impatient with the plodding pace of official dialogues, want to push East and West closer together faster. For Gillet, his moving from Catholicism to Orthodoxy was a move undertaken "without denying the Catholic faith" and "without breaking spiritual ties" to the man he regarded, Behr-Sigel says, not merely as his spiritual father until the end, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptysky, but also as a saint.

When Gillet was received into Orthodoxy in Paris by Metropolitan Evlogii, Gillet simply recited with him the Nicene Creed (sans filioque of course): "no abjuration of faith had been imposed on him" and "nothing more had been required." Thus, his biographer tells us, "any act which might have implied a break was avoided." Moreover, and more astonishing still, Gillet, in a letter to his mother, said that "I have not been asked to subscribe to any formula or to make any profession of faith, and I have been formally invited to continue to mention Metropolitan Andrei in the liturgy"! Later in this letter to his mother he tries to calm her by saying that "nothing separates us. The same Saviour and the same sacraments unite us. So be calm. Do not distress yourself." His reception into Orthodoxy, he would later tell a friend, was not a conversion or renunciation, but simply a case of perceiving in Orthodoxy that "the light of Christ...is a fraction brighter, but it is the same light, and not another which also shines in the Western Church." Would that there was such a generosity of vision on the part of more Orthodox--and Catholics--today! Through the prayerful intercession of this "monk of the Eastern Church," may we all hasten to that day when we are one around the Lord's table.

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