"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).

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Louis Bouyer's Memoirs (II): the Christian East

When we were last gathered together, I mentioned some of the works of Louis Bouyer I had read over the years and gave a bit of context for his Memoirs of Louis Bouyer: From Youth and Conversion to Vatican II, the Liturgical Reform, and After, to which we now turn in some detail.

It is striking how quickly the Christian East immediately factors into Bouyer's life in ways I had either not known about or else forgotten. Already in the early pages of the Preface to this English edition (much of whose material, we are told in a footnote, is borrowed from the "Postface" in Jean Duchesne's French original published in Paris in 2014 by Cerf), we are told of Bouyer's friendship with the great Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov (about whom more later), and in particular his even deeper relationship with "A Monk of the Eastern Church," that is, Lev Gillet.

Gillet is of course a fascinating figure himself, and Peter Galadza and I collaborated on editing his correspondence with Met. Andrey Sheptytsky in a book also published in Paris in 2009. In Bouyer's long move out of Protestantism, it seems that for a time he contemplated becoming Orthodox, and thus we are told that from Gillet he received the sacraments of Chrismation, Confession, and the Eucharist at one point notwithstanding his doubts about doing so. He would continue to receive the Eucharist from Gillet, though with decreasing frequency and increasing worry about the propriety of what he was doing.

All this was, of course, during a period when such boundaries were much more strictly policed by most Catholics and Orthodox than they are today, at least on the Catholic side. As I have written on here and elsewhere several times, part of what I admire most about Gillet is precisely his almost impish (some would, of course, say impious) willingness deliberately to blur those boundaries in a recognition that the Catholic and Orthodox Church is at heart one, appearances and ideologies of division notwithstanding. Gillet began as a French Roman Catholic, became Eastern Catholic under Sheptytsky (to whom, for the rest of his life, even in Orthodoxy, he referred as "my spiritual father"), and then finally Orthodox. (See the winsome biography of him written by another equally fascinating figure, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Lev Gillet: A Monk of the Eastern Church.)

Gillet deploys all these arguments to work on Bouyer for a time, telling him that all Bouyer need do is believe the faith of the "undivided Church," the "faith of the Ecumenical Councils" in order to receive the sacraments from Gillet. Bouyer is suspicious of these arguments, but goes along for a time, later regretting that he doubted his doubts. He would eventually come to find Gillet's arguments a bridge too far.

Bouyer's journey thereafter would be more straightforward: he would be received into the Roman Catholic Church and go on to become one of her most prolific theologians. But during his more uncertain phase, when he encounters Gillet, Bouyer gets pulled into the interesting and messy inter- and intra-Orthodox squabbles of the inter-war period, many of them provoked by the divisions following on from the Bolshevik revolution.

What I found prescient about his comments on peoples and their projects from this period is how early and easily he sees right through the fraudulent attempt, especially in France, to gin up some kind of "hazy Occidental Orthodoxy," as he puts it, complete with "its dress-up costume clergy." As an historian, Bouyer knew too much to be taken in by such transparently tendentious projects as pretending there was a "Gallic Orthodox Church" in the first millennium or other such fantasies. That, however, has not stopped many later proponents from attempting to invent such things right down to our own day.

Though skeptical of some of Gillet's arguments, and aware of the problems in Orthodoxy, Bouyer in his Catholic period is not grudging when he comes to recognize the spiritual genius of the East precisely in not breaking or undermining the link between theology and spirituality, which Bouyer regards as so fundamental but so often weakened in the West. Here Bouyer explicitly cites the genius of Vladimir Lossky ("one of the most solid minds it has ever been granted me to come near to") in the modern period, and before him Sts. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Gregory Palamas.

The other figure of prominence singled out for high praise is Sergius Bulgakov, whom Bouyer calls "the unquestionable genius that he was--an intellectual genius above all, to be sure, but whose intellectualism was shot through with the most unquestionably Christian, if not Christic, religion." Here again, however, Bouyer knows too much and is aware of the controversy surrounding Bulgakov, to which he seems to refer off-handedly by noting "ill-exorcized gnosticism...in Bulgakov's and his group's synthesis."

Finally, the other Orthodox figure who comes in for more critical discussion late in the book is Aleksei Khomyakov and his ecclesiology, especially his notion of sobornost found in The Orthodox Doctrine On the Church. Bouyer notes that he early on found Khomyakov's vision compelling but his experience at Vatican II disabused him of this positive assesment.

In addition to his knowledge of the major contemporaries of Orthodoxy in France, Bouyer seems to have known everybody who was anybody in Catholicism, having met many of the most prominent theologians of the 20th century, but also not a few Anglican and Orthodox hierarchs and of course several popes, including John XXIII who asked Bouyer to be involved in one of the commissions at Vatican II (the one on seminaries, headed by Cardinal Pizzardo, of whose idiocy Bouyer has not a doubt, as he makes clear in comments almost as scathing as Congar's).

But it was in taking on the assignments given him by Pope Paul VI that Bouyer would find himself pulled into what was the Great Swindle and the Great Catastrophe of 20th-century Catholicism: the vandalistic "reform" of the Latin liturgy. In the next installment, we shall see what Bouyer thought of that.

To be continued. 

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