"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).

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Barbara Crostini and Ines Murzaku on Greek Monasticism in Southern Italy

It is always a pleasure to be able to interview Ines Murzaku, as I have a few times now, most recently here. Today we are joined by her co-editor, Barbara Crostini, as both of them talk about their recent publication, Greek Monasticism in Southern Italy: the Life of Neilos in Context (Routledge, 2017).

AD: Tell us about your background

Barbara Crostini: As an Italian, I have always been interested in the intersection of Greek and Latin cultures on the peninsula. This combination was ongoing in Southern Italy, and it was also reflected in the Abbey of Grottaferrata near Rome, that celebrated 1000 years from its foundation in 2004. It is important for me to keep such memories alive both from a religious point of view and from a secular one. In both cases, the Greek presence underscores variety and openness to other ways of doing things, such as the liturgy, or simply offers more through its language and literature. We need to keep such openness in today's world.

Ines Murzaku: I am a professor of ecclesiastical history and Director of Catholic Studies Program at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. I guess this is a fancier way of saying that I am a Church historian, focusing on Church history and theology—especially Byzantine and Catholic Church history—and how this history has impacted and still impacts modern Church history and the Church’s thinking and theology. I earned a doctorate in Eastern Ecclesiastical History from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and have held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany.

I have investigated Church history as this has unfolded on the borders and frontiers of empires, including the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman empires; in places where the Byzantine East and the Latin West have met but also collided; how the West has reacted; and how the East has influenced Western thinking, including Western theology and ecclesiology. I am fascinated with borders and peripheries, with saints of the peripheries like Italo-Greek saints of southern Italy and with Church history as it has developed in the peripheries. I have done and am still doing a lot of archival work in Italy, Germany, and other countries. Writing Church history from the archives is difficult as many colleagues in the guild will admit, but also rewarding--in hearing the voice of those who in a sense have lost their voice. As Chesterton famously wrote in Orthodoxy, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead. It means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors.”

I am a practicing Byzantine-Greek Catholic with deep reverence for my tradition and think that Byzantine Catholics of Italy and elsewhere are a bridge between East and West and the medieval and premodern Byzantine-Catholic Church in southern Italy can provide some models of dialogue and co-existence for contemporary ecclesiology, theology, and ecumenism. St. Neilos and the Greek Monastery of the Mother of God of Grottaferrata, the Italo-Greeks-Albanians or Arbëresh of Southern Italy and their particular and unique histories of Easterners in the West are very rich and resourceful. A critical and dispassionate exploration of the history, ecclesiology, and theology of these Byzantine realities can be helpful in contemporary ecumenical dialogue between East and West, especially in understanding synodality and how this played out in a local Byzantine Church which was transplanted into a Latin context, as was the case of the Arbëresh or Italo-Albanian Church of Southern Italy – Calabria and Sicily.

AD: When we spoke last August, it was about your newly co-edited and co-translated Life of St Neilos of Rossano. His life is also the focus of this new collection, Greek Monasticism in Southern Italy: the Life of Neilos in Context. What has led to such riches pouring forth now on Neilos, as it were? In other words, give us a sense of how your own scholarly labors and that of the fourteen others in this book converged.

Ines Murzaku: I think common scholarly interest and passion for monasticism and the monastic ideal brought us together. Moreover, our work was also a work of “recovery” bringing attention to an almost forgotten monasticism i.e. Italo-Greek monasticism of Southern Italy. These are good enough reasons to bring scholars together, no? Those holy monks must have been praying really hard for this volume to happen!

The broader argument is that monasticism and the ascetic ideal unite. The monk is one who is separated from all and united harmoniously to all. This might appear contradictory at first sight, but what monasticism repudiates is not the world and its citizens, but the mundane, temporary and selfish love which stands in the way of the monk’s spiritual ascent. “In gradual detachment from those worldly things which stand in the way of communion with the Lord, the monk finds the world a place where the beauty of the Creator and the love of the Redeemer are reflected” (John Paul II 1995).

Almost all my book projects began in a monastic setting: at the Greek Monastery of the Mother of God at Grottaferrata. I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to research within the monastery’s walls, constantly illumined by the wisdom of the monks. Long, insightful conversations and exchanges with Abbot Emiliano Fabbricatore (who returned to the Lord on the day of the Theophany 2019) to better understand the text in action — as lived by the monks of Grottaferrata — were very frequent. Padre Emiliano’s knowledge of Greek, which he had learned in Greece — a country he loved very deeply until his death — was superb. He understood the nuances of the Greek text, and pointed our attention to minuscule details, something only monks who live the monastic life in community would understand and appreciate. Fr. Emiliano wanted the Life of St. Neilos, Italo-Greek saint of the periphery, and the history of Italo-Greek monasticism, to be read in English, as he once told me when he was accompanying a group of Seton Hall students in a visit to the monastery: “these young people are curious how we monks live, work, study. I guess monasticism has a message to offer. The Life of St. Neilos would probably be a good read for them in things our society has forgotten.”

AD: In your introduction, Barbara, you note that this present volume was explicitly conceived as a companion to the Life. What does this collection offer to those wanting to understand Neilos more deeply?

Barbara Crostini: Undoubtedly, the essays in the volume provide the broader context in which to understand the phenomenon of the Southern Italian saints. The first part of the volume offers essays on the text of the Life that provide insights into specific passages or readings, or even words, in this rich text. The second part opens more broadly to the historic-cultural phenomenon of monasticism in Southern Italy.

AD: The theme of this book is also, of course, monasticism, on which you have published other studies. What are some of the outstanding features of Greek monasticism in southern Italy in this period?

Barbara Crostini: I would say resistance and austerity. Resistance to the ongoing Latinization of their region, through the cultivation of the Greek liturgy and contact with the East. This was always appreciated as a source of complementary wisdom. Austerity was the hallmark of this ascetic streak of monks, often hermits or solitaries, or living in cave-like dwellings in small groups. Their closeness to the natural world and the simple environment of the country was always admired and provides an edge of authenticity to their spiritual outlook.

AD: Some people sometimes assume that monasticism is an irrelevant pursuit of a tiny elite, and monastics of nearly a thousand years ago can have nothing to teach us today. But what lessons do you see in the life of Neilos and those of his brethren more generally?

Ines Murzaku: Probably an innovative and emerging monasticism is in the making in the 21st century, which will meet the spiritual demands of our modern time: a new monk prototype who works in the world and is not of the world; one who does not renounce the secular world but instead sanctifies it; a monk who will persevere and be greater and accomplish greater things than his forefathers. In the age of computers, I-phones, Twitter, Facebook and constant bombardment with information there is a deep need of spirituality, longing, and reflective silence. There is truthfulness and credibility in the monastic message that is attractive to the person who might not have a desire to join the monastery but is in search of authentic spirituality and simplicity. Through silence and prayer, the millennials will be able to control noise and distraction, and establish an intimate relation with God.

AD: Your own chapter in this volume talked about the long-lasting effects of Neilos on Grottaferrata and its identity. Tell us a bit more about those effects and about Grottaferrata’s unique place in the Church today.

Ines Murzaku: Neilos’s desire for Grottaferrata was that it be a meeting place of encounter and preservation i.e., continue in Neilos’s encountering enterprise and preserve and transmit what was left of the Italo-Greek monasticism. Thus, Grottaferrata, following in the founder’s footsteps, re-created her identity, showing a high level of originality and adaptability while building its stabilitas for the monastic community at the gates of the urbe--Rome. Neilos’s pilgrimage and later Grottaferrata’s pilgrimage made the monastic community reach new levels of self-understanding and self-knowledge while showing a high level of adaptability to new conditions.

AD: Having now published two books in one year on Neilos, what will 2019 bring? What projects are you at work on now?

Ines Murzaku: I am taking a little break from Neilos but not from the monastic ideal and asceticism. I am currently writing a book focusing on St. Mother Teresa entitled: Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries Who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece which will be published by Paulist Press in 2019. However, I find much of St. Neilos in St. Mother Teresa, their monastic ideal and love of Christ and the neighbor is the same. I am always impressed how relevant monasticism is for us moderns and millennials: for we who are thirsty for authenticity – well, monasticism has it.

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