"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, November 25, 2014

Ines Angeli Murzaku on Grottaferrata and East-West Monasticism

Quite unexpectedly within about a week of each other, two books, both devoted to the monastic community of Grottaferrata, showed up on my desk. The first was  The Greek Abbey at Grottaferrata, published a number of years ago now (and seemingly out of print). It is a short book with plenty of pictures, giving a general overview of the community. Then a new scholarly collection showed up, and I was able to interview its editor, Ines Angeli Murzaku, about her recent collection,  Monastic Tradition in Eastern Christianity and the Outside World: A Call for Dialogue (Peeters, 2013), 302pp. Here are her thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background: 
IAM: I am a professor of Ecclesiastical History and Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies, Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. My research focuses on Ecclesiastical History, and particular, Byzantine and Catholic Church History. I have been awarded several grants for my work, including the Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers - Germany, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Grant – Harvard University, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Grant (SSHRC) - Canada, and have been awarded three times Fulbright Research Scholar Grants. 

My other publications include Returning to Rome: The Basilian Monks of Grottaferrata in Albania, Quo Vadis Eastern Europe? Religion, State and Society after Communism (2009), and Catholicism, Culture and Conversion: The History of the Jesuits in Albania (1841-1946), published by Orientalia Christiana Analecta Series (2006). Currently, I am co-authoring a translation and critical edition of the Life of St. Neilos of Rossano (1004) for Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard University (2014). Also, I am working on two projects: Monasticism in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Former Soviet Republics for Routledge (2015) and Italo-Greek Monasticism, from St. Neilos to Bessarion for Ashgate (2015). I was the vice-president of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) (2007-2013) and a United Nations (NGO) Christians Associated for Relationships with Eastern Europe accredited representative.

AD: What led to putting this collection together?
Fascination with and love of monasticism Eastern and Western; the history of monasticism; exchanges and interactions between Eastern and Western monks their dialogue and ecumenism. I am most interested in Italo-Greek or Italiot monasticism, which is probably the least known form of monasticism, a monasticism with which I am very well acquainted. Southern Italy/Magna Graecia of the Occident is a real treasure in providing a home and “accommodations” to Italo-Greek hermits, the cenobites, those living in-between the cenobitic and hermetic.

AD: Give us a sense of the significance of Grottaferrata in both monastic and ecumenical terms.

Grottaferrata is a “survivor” (p. 118); as my colleague, Enrico Morini pointed out in his contribution, Italy had a tremendous number of Italo-Greek monasteries and Italo-Greek saints whose lives have come down to us through the ages.  Grottaferrata is one of the last of these monasteries, and has such a distinctive relationship with the papacy in Rome and has borne witness to these Western Christians of the importance and vibrancy of the Eastern Monastic life.  Much of this tradition has been lost over the centuries in the rest of Italy, or at least severely diminished, but at Grottaferrata, there is both the old tradition of Italo-Greek practice and the new tradition of being on the forefront of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. 

One particularly important element that is distinctive to Grottaferrata, which I tried to give a sense of in my chapter, is its willingness to help both the Italo-Greek monks and the Western monks feel comfortable at the monastery, feel a sense of belonging and Grottaferrata’s incredible hospitality, a kind of hospitability that only monks can provide.  From the time of its founder, Neilos of Rossano from Calabria, until the present day there has been a comfort with communicating with both traditions, particularly in using rituals that incorporate Greek, Latin, Italian and on special occasions Arbëresh – the language and ritual of the Italo-Greeks or Italo-Albanians who since the fifteenth century have been living in Southern Italy: Calabria and Sicily. A good number of the monks of Grottaferrata have come from these Byzantine communities.

AD: Your introduction mentions Hubert van Zellers idea that both the monk and the man in the world are on the same path, seeking grace and a rule of life. This strikes me as similar to Paul Evdokimovs idea of “interiorized monasticism.” What can those living “in the world” learn today from some of the monastic communities surveyed in the book?  

Here, I think that Gregory Glazov’s very personal and intimate account is really helpful.  His family, living in such close proximity with the monks and sharing in their communal life, is an example of Evdkimov’s interiorized monasticism. Here is a family that is really living with monks and whose family life is a kind of monasticism — which seems to be what Evdokimov is advocating in Struggling With God.

AD: Your introduction mentions the importance of hospitality in monastic life. Tell us more about that.
In terms of how the monks themselves understand hospitality and generosity, it is nothing less than a Biblical virtue that figures prominently throughout Scripture — in the story of Lot and the angels that became central to the famous Holy Trinity Icon by Andrei Rublev, Christ first appearing as a stranger who dined with the apostles at Emmaus, and in many other important moments in Acts, Genesis, and elsewhere. That is why it figures so heavily in the monastic rules — both East and West.  In terms of historical practice, hospitality functioned as a way of maintaining strong networks among monastic communities and cultivating bonds with the broader society. It also functioned as a major way of doing outreach and charity — something which we see today.  All of these characteristics of monastic hospitality have continued to the present day, though now the community is much broader and more global, and the communities face many new challenges. 

Presently, monastic hospitality — particularly at Grottaferrata, but also in other monastic communities I have visited — is functioning in a missionary and ecumenical way. It is still a way of building networks and forging relationships, but it is also an invitation to gather together and share; this invitation goes out to other Catholics from the Western rite, Protestants, and especially the Greek-Orthodox, with whom Grottaferrata has an inherent connection.  As you can see in John Radano’s contribution to this volume, monastic communities have done tremendous work in terms of opening up dialogue with other Christian groups.  The publications that they have put out, like Irenikon and Eastern Churches Quarterly, are the fruits of monastic hospitality — the monks, freely and hospitably giving their time and sponsorship to these publications, are in a sense inviting their readership communities into their monastic life and sharing their patrimony with them.  It is even more explicit in the case of liturgical movements like the Taize communities in the Western Christian tradition.

At Grottaferrata in particular, hospitality also takes on a more directly educational function; when I have taken my Seton Hall students there, they have not only had the opportunity to experience the historical practice of Eastern monasticism, but they also have come to meet the Abbot Emiliano Fabbricatore and monks-members of the community and see them as people whose lives and concerns are not that different from their own, even though they had a different vocation. My students had the opportunity to sense the warmth of monastic practice and the monastic lifestyle, even if they did not always understand everything that was going on! The service was in Italiote-Greek!!!

AD: You note (p.11) that a “monastic community is an eschatological community.” What do you mean by that, and what is the significance of its eschatological focus?

Frequently, the monks saw their lifestyle as the fulfillment of Matthew 19’s commandments to give up all that they had in order to fulfill Christ’s will, and as a foretaste of what Christ told his followers in Mathew 22:30 about the way that they will live in heaven at the end of time — as people who neither marry nor are given in marriage.  We are also told that in the life of Christ — that is to say the resurrected life — the things that divide us, the barriers and walls, like nationality, language, and even confessional differences, cease to exist.

More theologically, Eastern monastics saw their practice as part of how they became people who could participate in theosis.  As Athanasius of Alexandria explained the Incarnation, “God was Incarnate so that we might be made god.” That process, theosis or divinization, required that the monks become as Christlike as possible in order to participate in this understanding of the bodily resurrection. Monasticism for these Eastern monks emphasizes this paradigm of becoming like Christ and also welcoming Christ in the form of the visitor, the outsider, and the stranger.  The practice also emphasizes being like Christ in perfection and representing with fidelity the doctrine that they have received, and communicating that doctrine to others.

When Evdokimov was writing his essay "Eschatology: On Death, the Afterlife, and the Kingdom: 'The Last Things'” (found in the collection Michael Plekon edited, In the World, of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader) one of the themes that he addresses is the idea of healing as salvation— not as a bodily healing or a full restoration, but rather as a deliverance from disturbance into a feeling of ease or peace.  The monks embody this in some important ways: the rules laid out in the Typikon of the monastery reduce strife and conflict, the management of a wise elder or abbot helps individual monks to deal with temptations and support the group to adjust to new situations, and the prayer practices foster metanoia or repentance which helps heal the wounds from sin.  Essentially, the monks are working to put themselves into a state of equilibrium, like Evdokimov describes, so that they can provide an example of that equilibrium to the world.  Are these communities perfect? Of course not. But they are doing their best to serve as an example of what the afterlife is going to look like, or as my good friend and colleague Dr. James McGlone would say, “a little piece of heaven on earth.”

AD: Your chapter as well as a couple others focus on “holy silence” and its importance in monastic life. But arguably silence is important for everyone, yes? It seems to me a particularly acute struggle today for many of us, tethered as we are to devices (phones, tablets, etc.) that never leave us alone, never give us opportunities for silence. Why does the monastic tradition so emphasize the importance of silence, and what can we learn from that today?

For monks, silence was about apathy, being without passions that could distract you from God.  It was a state of prayer and a state of perfect practice.  It also was hard to achieve, which is why there was so much literature.  However, it is important to note that there were two kinds of silence that fell under the title of hesychia — the first was the freedom to be able to withdraw from worldly affairs for reflection and the second was the state of reaching passionlessness through prayer and reflection (which is what we conventionally associate with the word).  Not all of us can withdraw to the extent that a monk can — as laypersons we are often called to have jobs in the secular realm and to raise families, but all of us can find ways of withdrawing from technology at certain points during our day and using that withdrawal as a time to be in relation with God and each other and as a time to reflect.  One thing that we can learn from the lives of the saints is that you do not wait to be given an opportunity to withdraw from the world — you create that opportunity, or better, seize that opportunity. This peaceful space can be created.

AD: Many of the chapters in the book focus on the role of monastic communities as places of encounter and dialogue—between Eastern and Western Christians, and between Christians and monks. Is Grottaferrata still playing that role today? What other communities do you see as especially adept at such dialogue?

Yes, I think so. Grottaferrata and its monks are at the vanguard of dialogue. The newly appointed Abbot Michel van Parys is a scholar and man of prayer and dialogue. Besides Grottaferrata is the Monastère de Chevetogne, Niederaltaich Benedictine Abbey, Abbey of Gethsemani in the USA  and several others.

AD: Sum up your hopes for this book and who should read it.

This book is part of a much broader project, which is to make Eastern monasticism a much bigger part of our scholarly conversation in the West — where it is often overlooked.  For instance, the book I am currently editing and contributing to addresses the history of Eastern monasticism in Eastern bloc countries and the former Soviet Union. The suppression of religion in these countries has created a gap in scholarship, and all of these countries had a rich history and very much to offer in monastic practice before the state shut down religious institutions and ended religious practice. It is my hope that this particular book inspires students, fellow researchers, and interested laypersons and clergy members to explore a heritage that has been highly influential in our civilization, or better, has laid the foundations of our civilization.  These articles are great starting points for further investigations, in addition to being unique contributions to this broader conversation.

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

Currently, I am working on a translation and critical edition of the Life of St. Neilos, and I will be pursuing another contract for a translation of the Life of St. Elias the Younger otherwise known as St. Elias of Enna.  These two Italo-Greek saints’ lives are interesting because they describe real people and important historical situations at a time when Sicily and Calabria were being transformed by their interactions with the Arabs, the Byzantines, and the West.  By putting these important primary sources into English and into the hands of new scholars who have been impeded by a lack of English-language resources, I am hoping to inspire future generations of scholars in the field.  There is also the collection I mentioned earlier, Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics, which will be published by Routledge in 2015. Additionally, I am working on an edited volume entitled Italo-Greek Monasticism, from St. Neilos to Bessarion for Ashgate which is scheduled to appear in December 2015. My projects on Italo-Greek monasticism are long overdue projects and will do much justice to a forgotten page of Byzantine history: Suum Cuique Tribuere, Ea Demum Summa Justitia Est.

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