"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).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Authorial Interview: Bp. Seraphim (Sigrist) on His Book

We are delighted to be able to try something new on here: interviews with authors. Eastern Christian authors of recently published (from 2008 onwards) books, or of forthcoming books, who wish to make themselves available for a brief interview along with the usual description and details about their book(s) are welcome to contact me (logoseasternchristianjournal@gmail.com). We can conduct the interview by e-mail and then post the results up here.

I was put in mind to do this after I was recently contacted on Facebook by Bishop Seraphim (Sigrist), retired of the Orthodox Church of America (but an active blogger here), about his new book: A Life Together: Wisdom of Community from the Christian East (Paraclete Press, 2011), 200pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
“What if humanity came together in the light and spirit poured out at Pentecost? Would it not be possible to become of one heart and mind and to discover a unity? Can we live together, and together touch the Divine?”
Written in the tradition of the Orthodox East’s “desert tradition” of short meditations on spiritual themes, Bishop Seraphim’s new book is the Eastern Church’s answer to Bonheoffer’s great reflection on similar themes. Here, Bishop Seraphim explores the Russian understanding of the term Sobornost, a word for “community” first introduced in the 19th century, which has taken shape as a key concept for exploring what community means and how unity between human beings is truly possible.This uniquely Eastern perspective on a topic of interest to people everywhere will appeal to anyone hungering for a new understanding of community that can inspire daily life. The book will also leave readers with the happy awareness that the history of the Church is not something closed and complete, nor is Christianity an exhausted creed which has run its course. Instead, Christianity is young and ever new, and the Church is just beginning to discover the inwardness that is implicit in the Gospels. 
John McGuckin, editor of The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity on which  I have written several times recently, offers this commendation: "Bishop Seraphim’s elegant and wise book is full of riches. He excavates the nature of love that builds up the mystery of the human being in and through community.”

I interviewed His Grace (whose biography you may read here) about the book and here are his thoughts:

1.Tell us why you wrote this book:

This book A Life Together: Wisdom of Community from the Christian East began with a talk in Moscow and with a British man from BP actually who was present asking if I would consider writing more on the idea of  'sobornost' because (himself a member of a renewal community in Britain) it seemed important to him... So began to write...in my way which is rather recursive...or perhaps it is as Ingmar Bergman says one throws a spear as far into the forest as one can and then goes and finds it. I tend to write in paragraphs circling the topic and then draw them together. This has analogy to the 'centuries' of St Maximus or of course the Temple of Thomas Traherne. But I have gotten into mechanics... as to why? It is my little offering to the Church, might be an answer...? To try to suggest ways forward...ways of elan and even a little romanticism (Chesterton and Merton and Lax were romantics werent they) to the extent that I could... ways of hope in the work of the Spirit...And of course what I might have to offer includes my being a Christian of the Eastern Orthodox tradition and my experience in life and so on...

2. What about your own background led you to the writing of this book?

Well the subject of sobornost is of a meditation of unity, sobornost being a Russian word whose root means 'gathering'. I am an American and for years I served in Japan and then returned to the United States where I live now. But my deepest experience of community perhaps came in visits to Russia beginning in 1994 and contact with disciples and spiritual heirs of Fr Alexander Men. Fr Men was a great leader of renewal of life and mission in the church at the end of the Soviet period, who baptized many thousands, wrote many books, and had an ever widening ministry through lectures and the media cut short by his assassination in 1990. However these works, including house meetings and all sorts of ministries to the poor,to prisoners, to youth and so on continue in the Church through those who learned from him...and with these people I felt a very deep sense of community and I have remained in contact with and sharing in this work until now...however paradoxical it may be, myself an American separated usually by many miles and also speaking little Russian and so on. But this experience and other experiences of community, and of what the theologian Antoine Arjakowsky calls 'the ecumenism of friendship' form a background for my feeling that the mystery of the church is indeed the mystery of community, and that the meditation of it and the opening out of the experience and reality of deep community and unity in Christ is ongoing in the Church and is something to which we are called...

3.For whom was the book written—was there a particular audience you had in mind?

I did not, and would not, conceive the appropriate readership to be narrowly limited. Of course the subject of community, or of sobornost, can be of particular interest to people interested in the Eastern Church, as to sobornost, or in the new communities. But also when we speak of unity we must start with inner unity, which is something which all people need, and all of us are involved with others in in the interweave of relationswhich is the ground of community. Certainly any Christian who takes seriously John 17 where the Lord says that the unity of the disciples can be and ought be of the order of that of the persons of the Trinity, will find it important to consider where we stand now, so many years after that high priestly prayer and after Pentecost and how this sort of depth of unity still comes to us as a call from the future...

4.Were there any surprises you discovered in the writing?

Well as I said earlier I started with discussing the meaning of the idea of sobornost, unity if you will, for the Russian thinkers of the 19th century. And then like the man throwing a spear into the woods and following to its place, I found many connections that opened out...For example to the idea of co-inherence developed quite independently by the novelist Charles Williams, and then beyond my initial intention there came the question of what spiritual disciplines can be ways of unity? The final three sections of the book propose a new discipline of attention, of 'watchfulness', not simply inwardly as in some monastic writing but to the world and to the times that are coming and to the coming Lord which we suggest recovers the original sense of the command to 'watch', secondly in complementarity the principle of opposites completing each other in physics associated with Nils Bohr we propose an important inner orientation also deeply related to unity and only beginning to be applied in religious thought, and thirdly that external mission which is dialogic, on the model of the conversation on the road to Emmaus, and is necessarily grounded in prayer...These are some of the ideas which came together as I worked with this theme.

5. Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different?

I am honored by comparisons to Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I do cite Bonhoeffer in one place, but I think for one thing my discussion is more broadly focused... and, apart from simmilarity of title, the books quite different. The only book I know on simply sobornost is Sobornost by Catherine de Hueck Doherty. It is an admirable little book but again its scope is really the spirituality of her Madonna House and it is part of a trilogy (Poustinia--hermitage--and Molchanie or silence being the other two.) It is rather surprising fact that there are really no books giving a broad consideration just to Sobornost, and this in spite of the importance of the word and its currency in Eastern Christian circles. The more I looked into the subject the more I felt that something further ought be said and in A Life Together I attempted to at least open the discussion in a new way...

6. Sum up briefly the main themes/ideas/insights of the book

That the Mystery of Unity our Lord spoke of, should appear as fresh and unheard of in the 19th century, shows how the history of the Church is not finished...rather it seems we are only beginning to enter the depth of the experience of Pentecost...

This unity is, as the Russians felt, the necessary way between the loss of the person in collectivism and on the other hand the loss of the human family and of the Church in individualism...

The journey into unity is a spiritual calling to the Church but also to persons and we can become,as we are called to be, men and women of unity... We can live the sign of unity. It is a deeper question than that of 'ecumenism' and yet it is also of course the way forward for external church unity.

Christianity is in its infancy, Fr Alexander Men said. This is opposite to the current feeling which even enters the churches that Christianity is played out, exhausted... but as we enter the way of community and inner and outer unity we see how deeply true it is that the journey is only begun.. This realization I think is deeply liberating and renewing...

In this renewed journey is there not also a renewal of spirit and elan and of the sense of boundless possibility which we and, if we may say so, the Church so need?

+Seraphim Joseph Sigrist
Bishop, Orthodox Church in America
formerly of Sendai and East Japan

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