"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).

Monday, November 6, 2017

In Praise of Robert F. Taft, S.J.

Taft wearing the rarely bestowed double pectoral insignia,
the second one from the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Word has reached me that the great Byzantine Jesuit historian Robert Taft is declining rapidly, being now past his 85th birthday and in retirement in Boston for several years now. It seems he will very soon stand before the "awesome tribunal of Christ," as the litany of the Byzantine liturgy, which Taft single-handedly has done so much to help us understand, puts it.

I last saw him when we were on a panel together at the Orientale Lumen conference in Washington, DC in June 2011. (The talks were recorded here.) He was still quite vigorous then, but clearly slowing down.

When I came on board with Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2002, we were at work on an issue that was published in tribute to Taft on what was then his 70th birthday. That issue included his blockbuster article "The Problem of 'Uniatism' and the 'Healing of Memories': Anamnesis, not Amnesia" as well as a shorter article "Remembrance and Hope."

In the editorial introduction to that volume, Fr Peter Galadza (pictured below at left, with his son Daniel on the other side of Taft: Peter having studied with Taft at Notre Dame in the 1980s, and Daniel in the last decade at the PIO in Rome, where he wrote the dissertation to be published next year, as I noted here) recognized that Taft was such a giant of Byzantine liturgical history that there would be no single successor to him, but there could only be many building on the legacy of "one who has given so much."

That is no exaggeration, either. Taft has written scores of articles (this bibliography, dated to 2011, is a good place to start) over the years, and many books. In the former category, I would especially draw attention to the Uniatism article just mentioned; and then three others I have often returned to and directed others to for lucid discussion of crucial historiographical issues: “Ecumenical Scholarship and the Catholic-Orthodox Epiclesis Dispute,” Ostkirchlische Studien 45 (1996): 204-226. I used that as the basis for an article I wrote in 2012 about the historiographical issues facing the telling of Eastern Christian-Muslim encounters.

And then, published in Antiphon in 2000 (and periodically popping up on various internet sites), “Eastern Presuppositions and Western Liturgical Renewal.” This latter article is especially useful in understanding how and why liturgical reforms in the Latin Church happened after Vatican II. A good bit of the game was already up before the reforms were implemented as people plundered Eastern traditions to justify what they had decided in advance to do to the Latin liturgy--albeit in often twisted and distorted fashion.

In 2003 he published a synopsis of an ecumenically vital process he was involved in behind the scenes: the recognition of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari.

When I began reading Taft nearly two decades ago now, part of what I greatly admired was his blunt speech. There is no greater illustration of this than his infamous interview with John Allen from 2004, which many of us read with almost horrified glee. Less notoriously and controversially, and more recently, here is another interview from 2014.

In this more recent interview, Taft, asked about books he wishes he might have written, picks two non-liturgical historians: Robert Louis Wilken (The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity) and Klaus Schatz (Papal Primacy: From Its Origins to the Present, a book I drew on a great deal in writing my own Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy).

In addition to these interviews and to his articles, there are of course the books, and in the 2014 interview Taft talks a bit about the bibliographical history of some of those studies.

For what it's worth, I begin by admitting I have not read all of Taft's books. Of those that I have, I think the first book I read was the collection of articles published under the title Beyond East and West. Problems in Liturgical Understanding, published in 2001 by the Pontifical Oriental Institute, where Taft was a professor for nearly half a century. There are many gems in that book, including an autobiographical chapter in which Taft recounts some of his early formation.

With my students over the years, I have often assigned Taft's The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West (Liturgical Press, 1986). It's a dense book, and by Taft's own admission focused much more on the East than the West, but that detracts nothing from its value.

For those coming to the Byzantine tradition with no background whatsoever, Taft's  1992 book The Byzantine Rite: A Short History is a good place to start.

For those, by contrast, ready for an in-depth history, then there is of course Taft's magnum opus, the multi-volume history of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. I have not read all volumes, but those that I have are vintage Taft: an amassing of sources in a variety of languages, judiciously sifted to tell a history with all the best virtues of the academy: objectivity, fairness, discernment, and comprehensiveness. These are the virtues which are hallmarks of Taft's scholarship, marking him out as a scholar's scholar and an historian whose works we shall be drawing on for many years to come. Rightly has he been recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Catholicos of the Armenian Church, Harvard University's Dumbarton Oaks Centre, and the British Academy, inter alia.

Rather later in life Taft seemed to me to move somewhat towards a different way of doing history as suggested in his short 2006 book Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It. There he recognized how much history, including that which he had done, was largely textual history, which is understandable and useful but also limited. What he said we needed more of was history through the eyes not of the scholars or clerics writing the books, but of those in the churches--more a social history of ritual enactment and engagement by the (to quote the always acerbic and droll Fr. John Hunwicke) "plebs sancta Dei, God's common ordinary folk, not of chaps with clever ideas who write learned papers about Inculturation but treat Liturgy like a gamesboard on which they and their chums are entitled to move the counters around."

Lest it be thought that I am here writing a hagiography before the man is dead, let me note that I disagreed, and disagree, with Taft's 2008 article lauding (uncritically, it seems to me) the Latin liturgical reforms of Vatican II which, with Ratzinger, I regard as having caused undeniably grave damage to the Latin church based, as Pickstock has memorably said, upon an entirely sinister conservative worldview of the fathers and reformers of the council that failed to challenge the pathologies of modernity (a point which, I think, owes not a few things to Mary Douglas's short, difficult but vital book Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology).

But unlike those whom Taft criticizes there in his 2008 America essay, I am in all other respects a staunch defender of Vatican II, especially for its ecclesiological and ecumenical advances, as I make abundantly clear in my chapter published this year in The Reception of Vatican II, edited by Matthew Levering and Matthew Lamb and published by Oxford University Press.

With Taft, in fact--not least in his 2011 Orientale Lumen lecture--I ardently wish for further implementation of the council's reforms to the Catholic Church's structures and ecumenical outreach, as I have argued, and continue to argue, in numerous places, not least my 2011 book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy

Taft's own ideas about Orthodox-Catholic rapprochement are contained in several places, but see in particular his chapter in Orthodox Constructions of the West, that invaluable collection edited by George E. Demacopoulos  and Aristotle Papanikolaou which I lavished some time on here, here (quoting Taft extensively), and here.

Let me end, as Taft's life is coming to its end, with his book on prayer, which he says in his 2014 interview is one he himself returns to with some regularity. For those of us who only knew and know Taft as this formidable scholar of gruff, uncompromisingly blunt demeanor, this book comes as something of a surprise. For here we see that he is after all a priest with a tender (if unsentimental) care for souls. (I've heard over the years from some of his former students such as Daniel Galadza and Sr Vassa Larin that Taft would surprise people, including students, with pastoral visits to them in hospital.)

For such tenderness, as well as his fierceness in investigating sources, inveighing against bad history that propagates Christian division, and pushing Eastern and Western Christians alike to face up to our history in all its messiness, may the Lord count it all unto him as righteousness! And may his memory, when that time comes, be eternal.

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