"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 1, 2021

Mark Roosien on Bulgakov and the Eucharist

Just a month ago now, I was able to interview an author about his newly translated collection of Sergius Bulgakov's works. You may read that wonderfully fascinating interview with Roberto de la Noval here

Now we have another translation of another work of Bulgakov: The Eucharistic Sacrifice, trans. Mark Roosien (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021). 140pp. I wrote to Mark to ask about his work, and his thoughts follow. 

AD: Tell us about your background

MR: I was born and raised in West Michigan and attended North Park University in Chicago where I majored in philosophy. After studying Russian for a year in the city of Cheboksary, Russia, I attended the University of Notre Dame where I received an MTS and PhD in theology, focusing on liturgical studies and early Christianity. I was ordained as a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America in 2018. I am currently Lecturer in liturgical studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.

AD: How did you get into the world of theological translation, and specifically the Russian tradition?

MR: I’ve had an interest in Russian literature since making an extended visit to Moscow in 1999 when I was 12 years old. Those were interesting times in Russia, to say the least. In college I acquired an interest in Russian religious thought, and when I studied Russian intensively between college and grad school I would spend evenings reading Berdyaev with a dictionary.

The Eucharistic Sacrifice is my first published foray into translation. I discovered the book somewhat by accident (I had never seen anyone write about it—it was published in Russian only in 2005), as I was doing research for a question on Bulgakov for my doctoral candidacy exams. The translation project began simply as a way to keep up my Russian, but I soon realized that it was an important text that deserved wide readership.

AD: Interest in Bulgakov has been on a steady upward trajectory for the better part of two decades now. What lies behind this do you think?

MR: The “material cause” for this, I suppose, is the steady stream of English translations that have appeared since the turn of the century, especially by Boris Jakim, Thomas Allan Smith and Catherine Evtuhov, and more lately Stephen Churchyard and Roberto De La Noval

But more importantly, I think Bulgakov was simply ahead of his time. I have a few (debatable) pet theories as to why it is only now that he has acquired such status. I may as well lay them out here. The world needed to pass through the gauntlet of World War II, the stagnation of the American and European empires, and the fall of the Soviet Union to appreciate his prophetic critique of modernity in its capitalist and communist incarnations. 

The theological academy needed to wrestle for some time with the likes of Barth, Rahner and von Balthasar, especially on the question of the relationship between nature and grace, to appreciate the originality of Bulgakov’s theological interventions. Western culture needed to exhaust the possibilities of modern art to see Sophiology as more than just another version of romanticism. 

Finally, as Celia Deane-Drummond has shown, rising awareness of climate change has proved Bulgakov to be an important conversation partner in eco-theology, a relatively recent subfield in theology. 

AD: Let's get right to the title and focus: eucharistic sacrifice. Here I am taken back immediately to my Anglican childhood, reading the Thirty Nine Articles, and being sternly lectured that "Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits." Bulgakov would obviously have a different take on this, so give us a brief overview of his ideas.

MR: As is typical of Bulgakov on many theological questions, he would say, “yes and no.” As my dear friend and fellow Bulgakov translator Roberto De La Noval likes to say, never has a thinker wanted so much to have it both ways. 

Bulgakov would say this: There is danger in a narrow focus on the eucharist as sacrifice, which is evident in certain liturgical abuses. He sees such an abuse in the practice of votive masses, where, at least in the Western Middle Ages, one could pay a priest to say a mass for someone—to make a sacrifice on their behalf—and not even show up for the mass oneself. Bulgakov would certainly agree that Christ is not sacrificed “again” in the liturgy in the way that might be implied by this practice, since Christ cannot be crucified more than once. 

Following the Epistle to the Hebrews, he holds that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the sole sacrifice for sins, made “once and for all.” But he takes it a step further–and this is the main thrust of The Eucharistic Sacrifice. The crucifixion of Christ, his sacrificial offering on the cross, is but the pinnacle of a larger, all-encompassing sacrifice: the eternal, sacrificial love that is God. The cross, which sums up Christ’s entire cruciform life, is the manifestation in time of an eternal reality. That reality is the sacrificial love of God in the Trinity which is poured out in the creation of the world and the Incarnation of the Word (including His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, etc.)

This threefold exitus—trinitarian kenosis, the creation, and the Incarnation–is the sacrificial work of Divine love and salvation. The eucharist is Jacob’s Ladder, the means for the world’s reditus up into the divine life of the Trinity. The eucharist is how that salvation is made real for us, how human beings participate in the divine-human sacrifice. The eucharist manifests the eternal sacrifice of God through God’s kenosis made available to human beings on any altar at any time and any place. In other words, it is a “repetition”—but not a “re-crucifixion.” It is the endless sacramental presence in time of one single, salvific reality of sacrifice that is both temporal and eternal, heavenly and earthly.

AD: More recently, Terry Eagleton has taken up the topic of sacrifice, and argues that we misunderstand it if we only see it as self-renunciation and self-denial. How might Bulgakov respond to this?

MR: Bulgakov would agree. For him, sacrifice is above all life-giving, not life-abnegating. It is an act of creativity—as every artist knows. It is inevitable that in humanity’s fallen state we cannot help but see sacrifice in terms of denial of the good and beautiful. What, after all, is uglier than blood sacrifice? 

In the Eucharistic Sacrifice, however, Bulgakov takes apart the act of sacrifice and unveils the ways in which, in its essence, it is about the gift of life. For him, the ultimate meaning of sacrifice is found in God’s kenotic, creative love, which is revealed on the cross. While the crucifixion is indeed ugly and terrifying, it is also, in a profound sense, beautiful. As one of the texts for Sunday Vespers in the Byzantine reads, “When you appeared, O Christ, nailed upon the cross, you altered the beauty of created things.” Through the “life-giving cross” (as we say often in Byzantine liturgy), we see the beautiful, creative nature of sacrifice.

AD: You note in your introduction that Bulgakov's 1930 essay "The Eucharistic Dogma" grew out of his "love affair with Roman Catholicism a decade earlier." Tell us more about this.

Bulgakov was ordained a priest in 1918, just in time to witness firsthand what he perceived as the collapse of the Russian Orthodox Church under Bolshevik pressure. By 1921 or so (as revealed in his letters and diaries), he had concluded that the reason the Russian Church collapsed so quickly was because of its rotten ecclesiology. In order to restore the church and stand firm against the winds of modernity, the Orthodox Church needed to unite with the Roman papacy

To make a long story short, he abandoned this position by 1924 for both personal and theological reasons, but was forever grateful that he passed through what he later called the “fires” of Catholicism, because it purified his own ideas. In the “The Eucharistic Dogma,” he lays out his case against the Thomistic formulation of transubstantiation and in so doing levels a critique against the metaphysics and method of scholasticism that he had earlier so admired (and in many ways continued to admire, but from greater critical distance). 

AD: You mention a 1933 essay on the connection between the Eucharist and social problems and its ecumenical application to the Orthodox-Anglican relationship. Tell us how and why, as you say, Bulgakov "advocated for (limited) eucharistic intercommunion  between Anglicans and Orthodox." Did he also hold such views with regard to Catholics?

MR: Bulgakov’s failed attempt at reunion with Rome in the early 1920’s soured him somewhat on Catholicism. Many of the Roman Catholics with whom he shared his ideas on church reunion met them with bewilderment and, as he tells it, simply tried to convert him to Roman Catholicism. He resented this. It is perhaps for this reason he didn’t pursue Orthodox-Catholic reunion again. But Bulgakov always appreciated Western Christianity a great deal. He simply found the Roman papacy in its post-Vatican I form to be too great a theological obstacle for church reunion. Yet he saw an opening for ecumenical relations with the Anglicans in the early 1930’s, especially because they did not have a papacy and thus in theory might have fewer obstacles to church reunion. Unfortunately, the talks failed and intercommunion was not established.

Clearly, Bulgakov, believed in the necessity of the eventually reunion of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Here’s what Bulgakov wrote about Catholicism in the 1940s, toward the end of his life: “The time for a relationship based on mutual recognition and respect for one another’s individual character has not yet come for Eastern and Western Christianity…It is the task of love which is the life of the church to bridge the chasm by working together, and thus prepare the ground for the reunion of the churches”(Autobiographical Notes, [Russian edition], YMCA Press, 1946, pp. 48-49). 

I wonder what he would say today. Have we gotten any closer to such a relationship based on mutual recognition that could form a groundwork for reunion? While I find some hope in the mutual appreciation and, it seems, genuine affection between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, there are also many reasons for pessimism. 

AD: At the end of your introduction you very briefly discuss the interaction between, and only partial influence of Bulgakov on Schmemann as these two differed in some important respects. Describe where they differed.

MR: For one thing, Schmemann was not very interested in metaphysics and definitely not in theological systems. He was basically averse to Bulgakov’s Sophiology, though perhaps more in form than in content. Schmemann, in my reading, attempted to communicate plainly and almost artlessly the experience of the Kingdom that Bulgakov expressed using the more abstract language of Sophiology. 

I suspect that the passages in Bulgakov’s books that Schmemann liked best were the autobiographical ones in which his former teacher painted lyrical, vivid pictures of the experience of God in the here and now. This is precisely what Schmemann was trying to do in his books on liturgical theology. So, I tend to see them in continuity more than others do, at least in terms of content, even though their style and theological mood is very different. 

AD: Having finished this translation, what are you at work on now?

I mentioned my brilliant friend Roberto above—he and I are working together on a translation of Bulgakov’s Spiritual Diary written in 1924-5 while he was in Prague, just before he moved to Paris to found and lead the St Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute. I know that Rob described the book already on this blog, but I will just add this. I believe that it was in these years that Bulgakov became the Bulgakov that we know from his great trilogies, which were all written after this time. What is revealing, and perhaps surprising, about the Spiritual Diary is that it shows that Bulgakov did not see his calling as fundamentally a theological or academic one. The many personal and professional tragedies that he had experienced until that point humbled him in some of his grand ideas for church reunion or theological renewal. Rather, by this time, he saw his mission primarily as a pastoral one. How might it change the way we read Bulgakov’s theology when we keep in mind this fundamental orientation? Although we tend to see Bulgakov’s theology as highly complex and abstract, he was, I believe, getting at something that resides at the core of the life of faith in its concrete experience. To me, that is why Bulgakov still speaks. 

I’m also plugging away at the endless project of turning my dissertation into a book. The book will be on theological and liturgical responses to natural disasters—especially earthquakes—in Byzantine Constantinople. It is a historical/theological study that unites liturgical and environmental history. In addition to being a contribution to the field of liturgical studies, I hope that it will also be a resource for those (like myself) who are interested in critically wrestling with the tradition as the church finds ways to boldly and faithfully respond to climate change.

AD: Sum up your hopes for the book, and who especially would benefit from reading it. 

MR: At roughly 120 pages, this book is a great short introduction to Bulgakov’s thought. As one of his final writings, it touches on and summarizes nearly every major aspect of his ideas in their most mature form. I hope that it will serve as an entry-point for those who are interested in Bulgakov but don’t know where to start. 

It’s also an important text for 20th century sacramental theology, in that, more than any other thinker that I know of, Bulgakov articulates the connection between the eucharist and the Trinity. So this book will certainly appeal to anyone who is interested in sacramental theology, systematic theology, and Orthodox theology. 

Finally, I hope this book will help make some headway in ecumenical discussions on the fraught notion of the eucharistic as sacrifice, which has been divisive issue among the churches since the Reformation.

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