"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).


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Michael Plekon on Saints in Our Time

Earlier this month, in New England, I sat down one late afternoon and didn't move for the rest of the day until I had finished reading Michael Plekon's most recent book Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time (UND Press, 2012), 288pp. In reading it, I was put in mind of a reflection of John Henry Newman's which was greatly consoling many years ago when I first discovered it: in his 1856 discourse "A Short Road to Perfection," the silver-tongued genius of nineteenth-century letters wrote that 
it is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well.....We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings.... By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound....He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day.
Plekon's is a splendid book of insights into what Newman would perhaps call "ordinary holiness." His work is jam-packed with so many great insights into, and reflections on, history, biography (and, in one chapter, some autobiography), psychology, spirituality, North American culture, and of course "hagiography." I very warmly recommend it to anyone interested in the above topics, which are here explored with great cogency, sensitivity to the sociological data, and a wonderfully "ecumenical" approach that does not close Orthodoxy off but appreciates the wisdom of other Christian scholars as well. I've had a chance to interview the author (having done so previously here), a professor at Baruch College in the City University of New York, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us why much of your recent writing has focused, broadly speaking, on "hagiography"

MP: First of all, thanks so much for having me talk to you again! Yes, I have now spent over 800 pages in three books and other articles on saints—who they are, what they think, feel, what they say, and what sense we make out of them. Holy women and men are where God meets humanity, where the divine and social worlds intersect. The God part is, well, up to God, but the human dimension of this is all about us, all about who were are and how we live. Since, like most, I am a voyeur about things human, I am immensely intrigued and fascinated at the same time. I want to know what makes saints laugh, cry and get excited—not just the canonized ones of the past, but also those around me,“saints-in-the-making.”

AD: You give clear emphasis on saints "in our time." Have you discerned ways in which holy people today are significantly different from those of past ages? Or are there aspects of holiness that transcend time and culture?

It’s interesting that when a guest lecturer at a theological school class, I found myself and the theologian Paul Evdokimov attacked for allegedly belittling or discarding the saints of the past for holy people of today. What was good for the 3rd or 12th or 18th century should be good enough for us—the categories of martyr, teacher, confessor, ascetic and so on as well as the ways those in the past thought, acted, even wrote. It made me, a historian and social scientist as well as theologian wonder where the critics’ sense of time and place had gone? Was I really the same as someone in the time of Benedict or Pachomius or Seraphim of Sarov, Teresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich, or even Theres of Lisieux? Surely our being created by God, made part of the kingdom by our baptism, wanting to live the Gospel and follow Christ transcends historical periods and different cultures. But exactly how we are and do all that varies a great deal. The challenges we live with and must face are not the same as in the waning days of the Roman or Byzantine empires. The technologies and other advances give us much but also demand much of us. Actually, the ancient monastic rules lay out basic elements and guidelines that then have to be made more specific in particular climates, locations, cultures and for persons in different ages and health conditions. If those authors recognized the need to adapt and change, why shouldn’t we see that in the details of searching for God and living God’s life?

AD: You begin by quoting Dorothy Day that people are "naturally...filled with repulsion at the idea of holiness." Do you think it's the idea per se, or the usual associations (stereotypes) people have with the idea? In other words is holiness itself the problem, or the way in which it seems typically to be thought of--plaster saints and treacly piety?

Dorothy had in mind precisely the overly sensational, often also romanticized and unreal accounts of saints doing weird and unusual things—these fascinate a few but are a major turnoff to most. After all if starving or being propelled through the air or drifting off into spiritual coma-like states are what it takes, maybe I don’t want that kind of existence. It’s also the case that the preponderance of canonized saints fall into just a few categories, are martyrs, celibates, monastics or members of the clergy. I mean, is there then any room for more ordinary married people with kids, people with training and professions, more ordinary folk? Evdokimov—and to be accurate many others in our time including the Second Vatican Council—recovered the scriptural tradition of the call to holiness being universal. All baptized into Christ are to be kings, prophets and priests. Here and there we are seeing mothers and fathers, teachers and other more ordinary people being recognized even in the official canonization process of the Roman Catholic, the Anglican and Lutheran churches. Dorothy Day herself is a “venerable” and in the Catholic process towards canonization. We in the Eastern Churches have a way to go yet.

AD: In reading Day's line, I contrasted it in my mind with statements like those of the current pope that Christianity has really only two moving "apologias": her iconography and her saints. These two are able, he suggests, to get past our rationalistic defenses and move us to consider the truth of the gospel. What are your thoughts? 

Benedict XVI is quite right. This is part of what the church’s tradition offers us—the faces of Christ, his mother and the saints and their lives, as visible gospel, as “living icons” of the life of the kingdom, as Mother Maria Skobtsova, herself now canonized, called them. We can look to holy men and women as models—admire their courage and strength. This has always been why local churches needed no official process of canonization. They simply continued to name members of their communities they wanted to remember—for a witness in suffering and death, but also the witness of their words and lives. The critical issue as I see it is we do not need to look to founders of religious orders or schools, to missionaries in foreign lands or those doing extraordinaty works of faith and love. Yes we look up to them, but we should be able to see also the holiness of care for families, reaching out to those suffering in our neighborhoods, those caught up in persecution, wars’ terror, the miseries of emigration and of economic crisis. We have been able to do this with respect to first responders say on 9/11 and to catastrophes like hurricane Katrina. If so, we ought to be able to discern very ordinary, thus less flashy, maybe more “hidden” holy people around us.

AD: In your discussion about how most canons of "official" saints are heavily tilted towards male clerics and the "official ideal of holiness," I thought of something Robert Taft says in his most recent book Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It: most of what we know about liturgy does not come "from below," from the experience of the proverbial person in the pew, but from official books and rubrical texts. Am I right in thinking that this is also a problem you see with those whom we consider saints--we don't have enough of them "from below" and instead have many from the upper levels of ecclesial hierarchy?

As I said already, so too have Robert Ellsberg, Kenneth Woodward, James Martin, Elizabeth Johnson among others, the recognition of holy people started very locally and included not only martyrs of suffering and death but also ascetics, teachers and others who gave witness to Christ in their lives as parents, community leaders and the like. In time, the more institutionalized the church and the process of recognizing saints became, the more it became a “top down” reality. With the recovery of the universal call to holiness, the priesthood of all and thus call of all to follow the Gospel, we are indeed being able to to see more diverse forms of holiness, many different holy women and men. Robert Ellsberg catalogued a year’s worth in All Saints

The “dancing saints” freso icons at St. Gregory Nyssa Church in San Franciso has also gathered a rich and diverse assembly of saints. If, in my church, a wife, mother, grandmother and healer such as the Yupik woman, Olga Arsamquaq Michael from Kwethluk, Alaska were canonized, it would be a step in the direction of recognizing more “from below.” But in the poetry of Mary Oliver, in the memoirs of Mary Karr, Patricia Hampl, Darcey Steinke, Barbar Brown Taylor and many others, I believe we have accounts from our contemporaries, from sisters ands brothers in the faith, of the effort to lead holy lives.

AD: In recent years, I've come to realize how much Christian division turns on debates about history, and how often that history, especially in Eastern Christian hands, is either romanticized or demonized. But your writing manages to avoid both temptations, especially in the fascinating chapter on your history with the Carmelites. How did you manage such a marvelous balance--to narrate the past realistically and honestly? Is there a special "askesis" that authors need to avoid the romanticizing and demonizing traps? 

There has been a line of very fine historians—George Fedotov, 
Elisabeth Behr-SigelYves Congar, Edward SchillebeeckxEamon DuffyDiarmaid Maccullochto name just a few from different churches—who have tried to be honest about what the documents and other materials from other centuries actually tell us—this in contrast to either glorifying or demonizing the record. I find it telling that many of these great scholars were immediately attacked for putting forward inconvenient truth! Nicholas Afanasiev once said that ignoring what history told us turned us into Nestorians who wanted only the divine side of things. Fr. Robert Taft has marvelously reminded us of what our forbearers really said and did, liturgically and otherwise. Why should we be afraid of the real historical record? We might actually be encouraged and consoled by the failings as well as accomplishments of the past. My years in the Carmelies were ones of joy but also some frustration, difficulties, disappointment, anger and sadness. Anyone who gets close to me would know that is the same mix I live in and with today—most of us!

AD: In your chapter on your experience with the Carmelites, you note that your intent was not to "write a full memoir of my life in the church or, better, churches." Will we see more of that down the road--please??

Thanks you for the compliment and request. I had to be nudged quite a bit by my daughter Hannah to write the chapter you mention in the first place. I was also moved by Andrew Krivak’s gorgeous memoir A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life and Barbara Brown Taylor’s most courageous Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith as well as several other memoirs. 

Part of the aim of both Hidden Holiness and Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time (as well as Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Churchhas been to listen to and hopefully attract readers to a wonderful group of writers sharing their spiritual searches. I hope to add some more of my own since I have been distinctly blessed to have been is several churches in my life, finding Christ in them all.

AD: In discussing Francis of Assisi, you quote Patricia Hampl that his "temperament was mystic, anarchic--individual." After reading your fifth chapter, I wonder if this perhaps functions as something of a self-description for you? 

Now you’re making me really uncomfortable, not maliciously of course. What Patricia Hampl learned about Francis on her truly hilarious pilgrimage in Assisi, along with quite a company of Franciscan friar and sister fellow pilgrims, is that the real Francis—not that of the statues, frescoes and pious biographies—was a wild man, unwilling and unable to keep with safe social or ecclesiatical boundaries. It shouldn’t be surprising that the more we know of the actual situations and personalities of the saints we venerate, the more amazingly, even disturbingly human they reveal themselves to have been. While I am not sure about the “mystic” part, those who know me are well aware that I am somewhat anarchic, rebellious, and on the outspoken side, to say just a little of what six decades of self-knowledge have taught me. Look, I have spent my adult life both in the university and the church—is it any surprise that I find there to be a great deal of nonsense and comedy therin?

AD: That description puts me in mind of something Hans Urs von Balthasar says somewhere (I think it's in his biography of Georges Bernanos) about saints: that they can be a real pain in the ass for the bishop, that is, for the official church because they do not easily or mindlessly conform but instead often upset the comfortable arrangements and expectations about "proper" or "pious" behavior": the classic tension between charismatic and institutional authority. But instead of lamenting such disruptions, should we not instead see them as the work of the Spirit who comes to "make all things new"?

I take it as Gospel that God creates each of us in God’s own image and likeness—uniquely, to be sure, no one of us the same as another. Over and over in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures we find God utilizing not so noble kinds, prostitutes, wild preachers, headstrong intellectuals, as well as both really miserable and quite ordinary people to speak God’s message and do the work. It is actually more the exception than the rule that the real servant of God fits the model of pious religiosity. Yves Congar’s remarkable journal of his years at Vatican II include his naming of “imbeciles” and “idiots” among other church officials. Yet he was able to give credit where credit was due, even to those who’s supported his being silenced, prohibited from writing, teaching and preaching. This unweildy “mix” of souls somehow did a great work of renewal and reform in the church, in his view.Yet we seem to be stuck with the dichotomy of “good” versus “bad” girls and boys when it comes to holiness. As I understand, God uses whoever God chooses and uses all kinds of people to do the word and the work, and God does choose some doozies. This would be a working definition of sainthood for me.

AD: I was greatly heartened to see your mention (p. 201) about how socioeconomic class often plays a significant role in parish life. This is something I think that has not really been acknowledged or well studied at all--or are there works out there I don't know about treating this question?

Studies like Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites UsMark Chaves’ American Religion: Contemporary Trends and Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith and Christianity After Religion all consider variables
such as socioeconomic class, race, gender, region/location, ethnicity among others in looking at contemporary religious existence and church life. Though in Christ none of these ought to be meaningful distinctions, they nevertheless have been and still are. Why is it, for example, that most of the creative efforts among the emerging church communities today not to mention the megachurch foundations back in the 80s and 90s were among well educated, professional people? Why is it that the voice of prophecy, both to condemn and heal, has come from the poor, the marginalized, the discriminated? Why is it that religious women have been the leaders of the struggle for social outreach, service and justice, both now and for the past several centuries?

AD: You quote Diana Butler Bass (p.204) about "a faith with no lines," doctrinal lines, moral lines, behavioral lines, etc. Is that really possible or even desirable? 

I think Butler Bass is not trying to do away with doctrine or for that matter, doctrinal divisions or disagreements we see and we have on ethical and other matters. Recently David Bentley Hart has rightfully exposed some of the doctrinal bickering to be intellectually dishonest. Along with Putnam and Campbell, many Pew surveys, the work of the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, she is arguing that the zeal for drawing lines and then demonizing those on the other sides has done enormous damage to religion in the general population. 

Consider the epithets hurled at those who support civil unions or marriage for same sex partners by “orthodox” Christians, likewise other “culture war” issues and the corrosive nature of proponents and opponents whether pro-life or pro-choice, for or against affordable health care, in the matter of “religious freedom” and alleged attacks on it and on particular denominations, the role and place of women in church and society—the list goes on and on. Butler Bass found intentional and spiritually healthy parishes in which the “red” and “blue” constituencies found it possible to be brothers and sisters in Christ despite political differences. Read Commonweal and America, for example, and you will find Catholic commentators anguishing over the politicization of the American church by some of its bishops. Being socially and politically engaged in the churches is one thing—Barth said to read the Bible and the newpapers together. From his joiurnals, Alexander Schmemann apparently also did this. Telling the faithful which is the party and candidates they must support, often on the basis of one or two issues, is in my mind unchurchly, and destructive. The religious right left a path of estrangement from the 70s onward.

AD: Is it possible that perhaps we misunderstand what "lines" mean in faith? I'm thinking here of both John Zizioulas and G.K. Chesterton, who, in similar ways, both insist that such dogmatic lines as the Church has had to draw (chiefly through the first seven ecumenical councils) should not be seen as restrictions or impositions, but instead as the "fence" marking out the "playground" within which we are free to roam? Lines, in other words, liberate rather than limit. What do you think?

Who was it--Fr. Sergius Bulgakov maybe--who said that there is a providential dogmatic minimalism in the tradition of the Church, and by this he was suggesting that if the historical record were carefully inspected, the documents read critically, we’d see what you propose, along with Zizioulas and Chesterton—that there is a lot of room for debate, opinion, commentary. Fundamentalist-oriented souls are freaked out by this, whether in the Eastern churches or in the West--legalists too. That there was the gospel, the eucharist and baptism before any recorded creed, before the evolution of the clerical caste, before the decisions of most ecumenical councils, before the writings of the Fathers—Gary Wills, Diarmaid Macculloch, Nicholas Afanasiev and plenty of other scholars point this out.

AD: Sergius Bulgakov says, of the Christological lines drawn by the Council of Chalcedon, that we know what the four famous "no's" are, but not the yeses: do we in the East focus on the negative lines (to exclude) rather than seeing them as helping us to say yes to God, to welcome all into His Commonwealth?

Fr. Bulgakov paid heavily for his theological creativity, faithfulness and courage. Today still he’s condemned by fellow Eastern Orthodox as a heretic, a modernist, an ecumenist, an innovationist and more. Western Christians, interestingly, from Aidan Nichols to John Milbank, among others, know better. Bulgakov and his colleagues in Paris at the St. Sergius Theological Institute, had been well trained in history, philosophy, literature, economics and knew that the Christian tradition was a “living” one, in the sense I just described above. Of course doctrine “developed,” contrary to what official teachers often claim in the Eastern church. Of course the Christological “solution” at Chalcedon was stated in the negative and needs elaboration in the positive. Like Soloviev, Bukharev, and others, Bulgakov in his studies sought to explore this, for example, what the “humanity of God” in the Incarnation meant, not only for us humans but for God! All of Bulgakov’s much maligned “sophiology” was an effort to reflect on the effects of God’s entering time and place in the Incarnation, God’s becoming part of creation. The best efforts in modern theology I think, have been along the same lines though not always employing the figure of Sophia/Divine Wisdom as Bulgakov did.

AD: Based on your research, and that of Diana Butler Bass, give us some idea of parish communities that "work," that are healthy and not toxic. What are some of their common characteristics?

It is no surprise that Butler Bass found that work, that are healthy and not toxic are one is which there is good liturgy, fellowship, study and outreach to those in need. You cannot turn these into programs because they are in fact like organs in our bodies that feed, cleanse, grow, and sustain—i.e. this is the breathing and work of the Spirit. The New Testament, often obliquely but nonetheless certainly tells us this was the life of the earliest Christian communities. Nicholas Afanasiev brilliantly depicts this in The Church of the Holy Spirit as well as in The Lord’s Supper that we are still working to publish in translation.) Kenneth Stevenson, Aidan Kavanagh, John Baldovin and Gordon Lathrop and Frank Senn are among others who also have done so. 

The organic analogy stands up, I think. You have a cohesive community when people want to be there, and they want to be together not just for the furth “sacrament of the coffee hour and for suppers and social gatherings but also for prayer, communion, singing, discussion, and for ministering to each other, to their neighbors and others around them in need. Most of my pastoral experience has been in suburban or ex-urban “regional parishes,” in which no one lives near the church building, everyone commutes, where members come from several counties and communities, ethnic and other church backgrounds. Liturgy is the primary reason for gathering but from this flow fellowship and all the rest including service to those in need. Take any one of these aspects of community life in isolation and you get some kind of mutation. But all of them together make for real community, the desire to learn and pray and serve.

AD: "The Church has left the building": tell us more about where you are going with this research into the demographic, geographic, and social changes in Christianity in North America now and in the years ahead. If you had a crystal ball and could describe the church here 50 years or 100 years hence, what do you think will be gone? What will be different? What will remain?

This has been quite a chat already but simply, while the church will remain among us, the buildings and other arrangements of parish life are centuries old, based on small villages, factory or mining towns, as well as homogenous ethnic groups and various social class locations. These and other demographic realities are vastly changed from what they were even as recently as the end of WWII. Simply, who we are, whom we marry, where we live because of where we work, and how we’ve been educated—all these have changed enormously—but our church buildings and attendant structures, our ability to completely sustain a pastor—we continue to act as though we can keep operating as we have for centuries. 


Because of our “Rust Bowl” location and history of Eastern European immigrant foundation and location near factories and mills, of the 60 or so parishes in my diocese of the OCA, a quarter, 15 have 100 members or more, 12 have 50-100 and 23 parishes have less than 50 members. We’ve always been a small church body, but data from other, much larger mainline denominations reflect the same trends—shrinking parishes, aging members, parishes becomes redundant or unsustainable. By “redundant.” I mean there are too many parishes of the same church body in now close traveling proximity—formerly each hamlet needed its own Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist or Catholic parish. Add to this the duplication of parishes for ethnic belonging, especially true for Catholics and Lutherans. 

The basic elements of parish life will remain in the future, but we may need pastors who have fulltime occupations alongside their pastoral roles. We may need smaller, simpler buildings. We likely will have small congregations with people from different places of residence, different ethnic and church backgrounds, bound together by their desire to pray, be with each other, study and work. Church membership as a “social” requirement or a familial obligation seems to be fading. There is a slow but steady rise in those with no belonging to a religious body, and in patterns of attendance at services we see that contributions have declined. Less than 20% of American worship each Sunday. Here and there you see where necessity has led a parish community into a different way of existing—with a part-time pastor or one with a fulltime job, with simplified council and activity schedules. Churches have adapted in the past, and were in homes long before basilicas. We need to trust the Spirit and not fear change.


Many thanks for your excellent questions and mostly for your patience in listening to my answers!

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