Some Sunday Paragraphs

A reader recently e-mailed me about an article that appears on the polemical (if not hyperbolic) website Orthodox Information Center (OIC) entitled, “A Comparison: Francis of Assisi and St. Seraphim of Sarov.” Those familiar with OIC can already guess the piece’s two-part conclusion: (1) Orthodox/Byzantine good; (2) Catholic/Latin bad. Instead of engaging in a thoroughgoing analysis of St. Francis’s life and teachings, the article’s author—the vagante bishop Chrysostomos of Etna, California—looks for “soundbites” with which to indict Francis for not being, well, “Byzantine enough” in his piety and spirituality. The East, as the story goes, is shot through with “pure mysticism” and “humility,” while the West is mired in “carnality” and “sensuality,” owing—of all things—to the “error of papalism” (or something). People can read this sort of stuff if they desire, but I find it much better to go to the writings of Francis himself (or any other saint or mystic) before drawing any strong conclusions. Yes, there are certain passages his writings which can be cryptic and some of his poetical flourishes may take some off guard, but that can probably be said for most spiritual writings. It would not take much effort to comb through the pages of St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent or St. Isaac the Syrian’s Ascetical Homilies to find passages which make both men appear deranged. In fact, a great deal of Athonite spiritual writing can leave that impression if not taken in the right context or read with discernment and guidance.

The reason I make mention of this is not to stage a meta-defense of Latin mysticism and asceticism, but to remind readers of something a certain Eastern Orthodox priest said to me on numerous occasions, namely to steer clear of “spiritual literature” if your takeaway is anything other than a desire for true repentance or a feeling of authentic consolation. I am not, and have never been, a big advocate of “spiritual reading” outside of the Bible, and even then I am inclined to read most Biblical books with the guidance of a well-grounded commentary (e.g., St. John Chrysostom on Romans, St. Ambrose of Milan on the Gospel of Luke, and so forth). Moreover, I believe a great deal of spiritual fruit can come from reading certain theological works, such as St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation or St. Augustine’s City of God, but to each their own. Perhaps some will accuse me of excess morbidity, but I am much more at home with St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Preparation for Death than I am with contemporary Eastern monastic literature that goes on about canes, getting stepped on by fellow monks, and whatnot. As important as it is to never believe oneself to be “advanced” or “ahead of others” in the spiritual life, the despair I have heard pour out of people’s mouths after they read stuff by Elder Joseph the Hesychast or his followers is positively ghastly.

If I may be so bold as to close these ephemeral thoughts with a recommendation for the Lenten season (which will be here quicker than we expect), let me strongly suggest sitting down with a book of meditations composed by St. Alphonsus, not because Redemptorist spirituality is the “best spirituality,” but because I find its emphasis on the Cross, the Crib, and Communion particularly important at a time of year when—to quote another Orthodox priest I knew—the devil rides us extra hard. There is such a thing as a healthy fear of damnation, though most of live with a sickened sense that such a possibility is no longer relevant to our lives. The Byzantine Rite still captures this healthy sense a tad bit better than the Latin Rite, which is perhaps why the Redemptorists had more than a bit of success adapting their simple but direct piety to the East a century ago. But that’s a topic for another day.

6 comments

  1. I think that may be an old article, I recall reading stuff like that 15 years ago. The equally hyperbolic Latin response would accuse the Easterners of navel gazing and self hypnosis. I think your recommended readings are right on.

    1. Right. I think any spiritual tradition/orientation — East or West — can be easily subjected to superficial scrutiny and armchair indictment if approached with an unsympathetic eye. I don’t see the use in engaging in that kind of nonsense, though.

      1. Caricature always builds in its own condemnation. Who or what can be transfigured into a cartoon and be faithfully represented? Real comparative work is _hard_ work, and most of what is produced online is produced by hacks who aren’t trained, and who want to champion their group more than uncover the truth. They don’t even know _how_ to do the hard work. By their fruits.

  2. I’m in the same boat as you regarding reading the biblical text, though I prefer to read good modern commentaries before diving into the fourth-century fathers. Knowing Greek is a huge help, and was one of the best decisions of my adult life.

    There really are few good online resources for Orthodoxy. Too bad. These sites like the OIC are really academically irresponsible. If that is the future of Orthodoxy, its target audience will be a particular kind of emotional unhealth.

    1. I think the OIC is a known quantity now, and people know to take its contents with a grain of salt. There are some good things housed on that site, but a lot of it is polemical and abrasive.

      I really don’t know of a lot of good English-language Orthodox online resources. I do listen to Ancient Faith Radio now and again, but mostly archived podcasts from the late Fr. Hopko or some academic conference and such. Otherwise, it’s basically a derivative, Eastern version of EWTN (for better or worse).

      1. It’s not surprising that there are so few online resources: as I think I mentioned, Orthodoxy has a major branding problem.

        There seem to be three (or four) kind of Orthodox: (1) the superstitious miracle-y folks, (2) the aesthetes, and (3) the I’m-into-my-confessional-identity Geeks. (There is also (4) the Orthodoxy-is-my-ethnic/national heritage sort, but this resolves into some species of (1)-(3).)

        (3) has several sub-species, and can cross-breed with (1) and (2). It can create cultural and religious archaeologists who are interested in the philosophical and historical dimensions of their confession’s (Orthodoxy’s) heritage, but it can also speciate into the misanthropic, rabid, confessionalistic sectarians one sees in certain quarters. It can breed nationalism, encourage one to become identified with an imaginary community (e.g., Americans who become angry that the Hagia Sophia is not in “our” hands), or prompt one to look for one’s heritage in a manner that is analogous to those of peoples from traditionally Orthodox lands — i.e., spitting people out into Catholicism or something else. It can also create people who are interested in narratives about Orthodox theology that amounts to bumper-sticker slogans and self-help, or Orthodox history that amounts to Young Adult historical fiction. It is impossible to find the unity in these sub-species that would allow one to market to them as a group.

        The people from (1) tend to not care about Orthodoxy as a heritage; it is most often merely the occasion for the miracle stories, and they care about it as a cache of miracle stories, _true_ miracle stories, they will likely tell you, as opposed to that other, likely phony (or demonic) stuff. This is a hard market to sell online resources for that aren’t simply accounts of wonder-working icons and miraculous events from certain relics or hermits or holy oils, etc. They don’t care if you point out that the implicit theology of icons behind their weeping icons goes quite counter to what St. John of Damascus taught in his works, and which the 7th Council ratified; miracles are brute facts, and can’t be spun together into some larger coherent thing (i.e., Theology is not a science, but a bunch of assertions). The nihilism lurking behind this, a God who contradicts himself and is unknowable in the end (there is no agreement possible behind the moved God of the miracle stories and the impassible Goodness of the fathers, &c., and so religious life becomes a bunch of marvels, a bundle of miracle stories to be accepted, a bunch of divine decisions that contradict one another, but it doesn’t matter, because miracles.) Branding is branding the miracle. OUR miracles are the real thing.

        (2), the Aesthetes, are all over the map. They can be low-brow sensualists who are all about the experiences of (1), and are more about the thrill than the wonder, or the middle-browers who are prone to (or long for) some type of imagined subjunctive experience during prayer or the Divine Liturgy (as opposed to just paying attention), or the upper-middle and upper-browers who like the aesthetics of icons and the transformative encounters one has with them in attentive contexts, or the aesthetic cultivation of a distinct lifestyle, etc. Within these sub-groups of (2), there is no single product that might be marketed to all of them, and each of them would reject much of what is aimed at the others. They range from basically like a seance with a saint to a cultured museum-artwork awakening.

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