"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).

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Vita of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel

Fr. Michael Plekon, with whom I had lunch in Connecticut in July, very kindly gave me a copy of his most recent publication, the newly translated biography of the extraordinary Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

Toward the Endless Day: The Life of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel is a wonderful book written originally in French by Olga Lossky, great-granddaughter of the famous theologian Vladimir Lossky. It has been skillfully translated into English by Jerry Ryan and very smoothly edited by Michael Plekon, to whom all English readers owe an ever increasing debt for his ongoing labors to bring Francophone Orthodoxy to Anglophone audiences via the University of Notre Dame Press.

The book contains a foreword written by Olivier Clement before his death in January 2009. It covers Behr-Sigel's life, which ran from the beginning of one century to the beginning of another--98 years jam-packed with incredible activity, first as a Reformed pastor, then a wife and mother, and then an Orthodox theologian who late in life became so renowned as to acquire the epithet "the grand old dame of Orthodoxy." She knew, and was known by, anybody and everybody of any significance in 20th-century European Orthodoxy, and many Catholics and Protestants, too, thanks to her work with the World Council of Churches. An entire cast of characters passes through this book, which recounts a life that itself passed through all the major events of the last century--2 world wars, the Cold War, the rise of feminism, the ecumenical movement, Vatican II, etc.

Behr-Sigel was an embodiment of the Christian East's love of antinomy: an Alsatian of Jewish extraction who spoke German, a Reformed pastor (the first such one in France) who tended her parish after becoming Orthodox, a faithful and long-suffering wife and mother who had an emotionally intense--but physically chaste--relationship with the celebrated "Monk of the Eastern Church," viz., Lev Gillet: all these wonderful facets, and many others besides, are told in this splendid book.

She was at once loyally faithful to the Orthodox Church but also open to the world and to other Christians. Her experience of close collaboration with other Christians in wartime France impressed itself deeply upon her, and she sought to advance Christian unity, especially between Catholics and Orthodox, calling for limited eucharistic sharing to spur us on towards full communion.

Behr-Sigel died in 2005, but we have not yet begun in any serious way to unpack her thought, especially on the still-controverted topic of gender. This book, I hope, will encourage others to know her more deeply and take her work more seriously, giving it the critical analysis it deserves.

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