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


Friday, September 6, 2013

William Mills on Michael Plekon

I have in the past interviewed two Orthodox priests and theologians on here several times: Michael Plekon and William Mills. Both have talked about recent publications of great interest. Both are friends--with each other and with me. I hope it is not therefore seen as too much "inside baseball" if I interview the latter about the former and the Festschrift Mills has recently edited and published about Plekon:  Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon.  I myself contributed a chapter to the book, and was both pleased and honored to be asked to do so.

AD: Tell us about what led you to put this collection together 

WCM: It is a common practice in the academy to honor or show one's gratitude to one's teachers and mentors. I have been longtime friends with Michael and knew that the 2013-14 academic year was a milestone for two major reasons: his thirty-fifth year teaching at Baruch College (CUNY) and his sixty-fifth birthday this past April. In late 2012 I sent out a note to some of his friends and colleagues telling them about my thoughts on a future essay collection and voilà, Church and World was born! 

AD: Tell us a bit about the diverse contents: 

This is a hard question to answer. On the one hand I was pleasantly surprised at how nicely the various essays fit together. I knew that the contributors came from very diverse ecclesial and academic backgrounds: clergy, lay, and monastic; male and female; Eastern Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran. There is even a former archbishop included as well! Some of us are parish priests and others are full-time academics. I tried to cover as many bases as possible reflecting Michael’s interest in diversity and ecumenism. Therefore I wanted the essays to reflect that ecumenical flavor and I think it worked out well.

When I sent out my original letter I did not assign specific topics for contributors: I just requested that the topics be ones that were of interest to both them and to Michael. Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon includes, inter alia, two essays on the life and work of Elizabeth Behr Sigel, one dealing with Michael’s recent trilology on sanctity and holiness, two essays on pastoral and liturgical reform, one on the ecumenical thought of Sergius Bulgakov, one on the spirituality of presence, one on the nature of the academy and theology, one on mentorship, and then a very nice essay by Rowan Williams on the life and work of the Romanian Orthodox priest theologian Dumitru Staniloae and the Episcopal lay activist and theologian William Stringfellow. I was very pleased with the offerings and am thrilled with how the essays were formed and shaped into a book.

AD: Festschriften honour people who have achieved a certain point and influence in their career. Tell us a bit about the career of Michael Plekon and his influence on your own life. 

I really cannot do justice to Michael’s theological and pastoral career in a brief interview as this. I’d point the reader to his wonderful chapter titled, “You want to be happy? My Carmelite Years” in his recent book Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time as well as his extensive and formidable curriculum vitae in the back of Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon for more information about his essays, articles, books, and life work. As I mention in the introduction to the Festschrift, Michael and his family have been a very important influence in my life starting back in 1995 when I first met them. I was assigned to St. Gregory the Theologian in
Bright Monday (from the parish's Facebook page)
Wappingers Falls, NY for my parish assignment and Michael and Jeanne and their children Paul and Hannah had just started attending there a few years earlier. I never forgot my first impression of seeing him in his navy blue cassock and beige Birkenstocks in the altar, a.k.a his “Jesus shoes”! After that first meeting I knew that he was different and he certainly did not fit into the typical priestly and pastoral mold which I experienced at seminary. The Plekons were extremely hospitable, inviting me over for Sunday brunch where the food, coffee, and discussions were abundant. Our conversations were very natural, never forced, never cajoled: they exhibited pure freedom in Christ, which was refreshing. No topic was taboo or off limits. When Taisia, my then fiancée, now wife, came with me to church they all welcomed her with open arms. 

The Plekon Family
Looking back at our friendship though the years Michael has been extremely influential both in my scholarly and pastoral work. He introduced me to the Paris Theologians, first with the writings of Mother Maria Skobtsova then with others. I was amazed at their sense of freedom and openness, their devotion to ecumenical dialogue and unity, as well as their creativity. Over the following months he gave me several of his published articles on them as well as their own writings. I devoured them as a child devours cookies. I was introduced to Nikolai Berdiav, Sergius Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, Lev Gillet, Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, and Kyprian Kern among others. I read their own works as well as articles about them. If it wasn’t for Michael I would not have known these great 20th century luminaries not to mention their fresh vision of theology and life. I guess my own work also fits within this same vision as I have trolled and mined the writings of both Alexander Schmemann as well as his mentor Kyprian Kern, publishing several books and essays on their writings. So I guess in many ways my own scholarly work and ministry fits into the same vein as does Michael and the Paris School of Theology as well, and what a wonderful legacy to follow! 

AD: "One of these things is not like the other" as they used to sing on Sesame Street: one of the contributors is a former archbishop of Canterbury. How did he come to be in the book and why?

Years ago Michael turned me onto the writings of Roman Williams, especially his books on spirituality such Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert. When reading Williams I got the sense that while he is a highly regarded scholar and thinker, he has a pastor’s heart which is  evident when reading his sermons and essays. Furthermore, both Michael and Rowan Williams served on Brandon Gallaher’s doctoral committee at Oxford University, so it was a no brainer that I should invite Williams to contribute to the Festschrift. When I asked Williams to contribute an essay to the collection I was also aware that he was winding down his archpastoral ministry.  I thought he would be too busy to reply to my email request, but not only did he reply within 48 hours, he also sent me a lovely essay. I was very grateful for his contribution. 

AD: Michael Plekon does not often fall into the usual categories of what many expect an Orthodox priest and scholar to do. E.g., he has never taught full-time in an Orthodox seminary, and he writes appreciatively about non-Orthodox in his books. What lessons can Orthodox thought draw from such a diverse and unique career?

Michael, like many of the contributors in Church and World can’t be pigeonholed into one “thing” or “area” too, so we’re in good company! Years ago Jaroslav Pelikan said that one of the reasons he left seminary teaching was that he could not continue as a historical theologian in an ecclesiastical setting since his role was to continually push the theological horizons and say what he truly wanted to say so he took up a post at Yale University. Most institutional thinking is often very limited and narrow, everyone trying to conform or at least “look alike” in word and deed. It is very doubtful that Michael would ever feel comfortable or happy at an Orthodox-sponsored institution: he simply asks too many questions! I think one reason why Michael has stayed so productive over the years and that he continues to read, learn, and grow as a scholar/professor, is that he teaches at a very diverse, open, and free environment. Baruch College is at the crossroads of everything: big government and capitalism, liberalism and free thinking, diversity and culture, it's all there in one place. His students come from not only the different boroughs in New York City but from across the world. Michael has survived because he stands the corner of the Church and the world, the sacred and the profane, and culture and society. He is well aware of the many challenges, choices, trials, and temptations of both the academy and the Church. Simply put, Michael wouldn’t be Michael if he taught at an ecclesiastically sponsored institution.

AD: And yet, there is something deeply Orthodox about his approach insofar as he's not just an academic but a priest active in his parish. You yourself have said that we need to bridge the gap between the academy and the parish today, to have the 'pastoral scholars' and 'scholarly pastors' like so many of the Fathers were. Does Plekon's life contain lessons for how to do that? 

In my book on Alexander Schmemann's pastoral theology I critique a major problem within theological education, a critique which Schmemann alludes to in his writings (as did the late Aidan Kavanaugh as well), but which I make more clear, is the great chasm or rift between the academic study of theology (theologia) and its practical and pastoral application and implication in the parish (praxis). I find that theologians and seminary professors tend to write and speak to one another at their annual conferences and read one another’s articles in theological journals but this wonderful theology never gets incarnated in parish life. Likewise many of the problems, pains, issues, and questions among parish clergy and parishioners hardly get addressed in seminary training. There is a large gap in communication between the parish and the seminary, between the front lines and the training centers. This is not a particular problem among the Orthodox either, but among all Christian denominations. 

Since Michael was both a pastor, first in the Lutheran Church (ELCA) as well as a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church (OCA) he knows the trials, temptations, choices, challenges, pains, and problems of pastors, their families and their parishioners. Likewise since he has been a full-time scholar, professor, and speaker he is fully aware of the same problems in the academy, specifically pertaining to the academic study of religion and its incarnation in daily life. It is one thing for example to study the Qu'ran or the Torah or the New Testament but quite another to see how these texts are “lived” and “thrive” today. So I think in many ways Michael’s writings, but also his own personal life, serve as a bridge between the Church and the world, between liturgy and life, between Christ and culture. The title of the essay collection was quite easy for me because when I think of Michael I immediately think of the Church and the world.  

The very colorful icon of the Ascension, taken from an Armenian illuminated manuscript, was appropriate for the cover art because this feast reminds us that on the one hand Jesus ascends to his Father in heaven yet at the same he promises that he will send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter into the world to guide, lead, and remind us that Christ will come again, emphasizing Church and world, heaven and earth together. 

AD: As you know, Michael often writes about the Paris School and Mother Maria with her approach to being a monastic "in the city." He himself teaches in the very heart of THE city in North America at an enormous "secular" school. Is that where more Christians belong today, trying to influence things for the good, trying to find the "hidden holiness" in such places?

I couldn’t see Michael flourishing somewhere like Fargo, North Dakota or McAllen, Texas not that Fargo or McAllen aren’t nice places to live, but they are rather small in terms of culture, religion, and life. New York City is a major crossroads of peoples, places, and ideas. Since Michael’s own work focuses on the sociology of religion and its impact on society there is no better place than working in a city where differing opinions and ideas are the name of the game. We need to remember that early Christianity was an urban phenomenon as pointed out by Wayne Meeks in The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul.


Both Jesus and Paul were not strangers to cities. Jesus frequently traveled through urban areas like Capernaum as well as Jerusalem and Caeserea Philippi, a major pagan pilgrimage destination in the day. When reading the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters we know that Paul preached at the market in Athens and traveled widely to urban areas where a diverse audience would have heard him, Greek, Jew, Roman, as well as the rich and poor, free and slave, male and female. When reading the gospels and Paul’s letters one quickly realizes that we do not have to run off to a remote village or monastery to seek and live out a life of holiness, one can do it wherever one finds oneself--in the city, in the “burbs,” or in the far hinterlands such as Fargo. If one follows contemporary trends in pastoral practice one sees great works of faith and philanthropy accomplished in the urban areas. St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Fransisco, for example, supports a wonderful food pantry ministry right in the heart of the city as well as St. Lydia's new Lutheran mission in New York City. Likewise St. Raphael house in San Fransisco, an Orthodox Christian ministry to the homeless, has been around for a while as well as Emmaus House in New York. Across the country there are wonderful outlets for ministry, holiness, and sanctity, but one has to have eyes to see and ears to hear as Jesus says. 

AD: Who should read Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon and why?

First and foremost any of Michael’s friends and colleagues will want to read this book. Second, anyone who is interested in an essay collection that pushes some intellectual boundaries and asks some hard questions regarding pastoral and liturgical reform, the perennial issues of freedom and the academy, and the interplay between holiness and sanctity should read Church and World as well. There are some very provocative essays in this book that ask really hard questions, especially for those of us in the Eastern Orthodox Church. At a recent conference the famous liturgical historian of the East, Father Robert Taft, said that one of the major problems among the Orthodox today is not the lack of theological or liturgical resources, but the lack of sufficient self-criticism--that we tend to point fingers at other ecclesial bodies, ideas, and theologies before looking at ourselves first! I hope that readers of Church and World will find this book both informative as well as provocative, pointing out some places where we could be better witnesses to other Christian bodies in the 21st century. 

AD: What projects are you at work on next?

Recently I just completed a comprehensive article on the history and analysis of Schmemann’s classic  For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy which will be published in the fall issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. This year marks the 50th anniversary of For the Life of the World and in this essay I explore not only the origins of the book but also the conference held under the same title. It was a thrill using the archives at the Yale Divinity School Library too, a scholar's dream! 

Currently I am working on two book projects, Walking With God: Stories of Life and Faith and Paul the Pastor: Models of Ministry for the 21st Century. Walking with God is a collection of pastoral reflections on various gospel lessons such as my other books, Encountering Jesus in the Gospels and A 30 Day Retreat: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Renewal

The second project, Paul the Pastor, is a slightly different project for me. For the past few years I have been intrigued by the intersection and interplay of leadership and pastoral ministry. There are hundreds of theological books on this topic, but most of them are themes borrowed directly from the business world such as Jesus as CEO and so forth. As you can imagine many of these books are not theologically sound or lack a strong biblical foundation. I want to dig deep into Paul’s writings and look at how we, as pastors in the 21st century, can regain a biblical notion of what Christian leadership really means vis-à-vis Paul’s writings. I envision Paul the Pastor as a book for clergy and seminary students who want to learn more about pastoral ministry and how Paul viewed ministry as being cruciform and service- oriented. Paul identifies his own life and ministry with that of the crucified and risen Lord, as he says in Galatians, “It is not I who lives but Christ who lives in me.” I want to explore what a cruciform and servant leader looks like for the 21st century pastor through looking at key metaphors which Paul uses such as the pastor as sower, pastor as athlete, pastor as builder, pastor as preacher, and so forth. I am looking forward to digging deep into Paul’s world and writings and providing readers with something substantial for the years to come.

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