Thursday, December 10, 2009

Authentic Orthodoxy(tm)

So, I am reading Brothers Karamozov. I withheld reading Russian literature until now (my 40s), feeling, well, inadequate to the task. I have also not read A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Proust) for the same reasons, and am reluctant to dive in even yet to that work. Maybe when I'm 50.

It so happens that I also came to the Orthodox Christian faith, which is fortunate for I'm afraid much would be lost in not having been exposed to the living Orthodox faith prior to picking up Dostoyevsky's great work.

Being in the midst of this reading, and watching from the sidelines the various skirmishes on the internet about what is, and what is not, appropriately Orthodox (something those of us on the North American continent particularly struggle with, I think, for we have few, if any, inherent Orthodox reference cultures of our own unless brought with us recently from foreign lands; moreover, we tend to be navel gazers like the rest of our society ["and how does that make you feel, Mr. X?"]), I have been thinking about some of the things we North American Orthodox take for granted as "Authentically Orthodox(tm)" that hardly more than a century ago might have been quite open to debate.

In the Bros. K., for example, there is a recurring theme about the then-current debate among monastics and other Russians about the idea of an "Elder" or Staretz even being properly Orthodox:

"Authorities on the subject assert that the institution of 'elders' is of recent date, not more than a hundred years old in our monasteries, though in the [O]rthodox East, especially in Sinai and Athos, it has existed over a thousand years. It is maintained that it existed in ancient times in Russia also, but through the calamaties which overtook Russia--the Tartars, civil war, the interruption of relations with the East after the destruction of Constantinople--this institution fell into oblivion. It was revived among us towards the end of the last century by one of the great 'ascetics,' as they called him, Paissy Velitchkovsky, and his disciples. But to this day it exists in few monasteries only, and has sometimes been almost persecuted as an innovation in Russia.

. . .

"Meantime the elders immediately began to be highly esteemed among the people. Masses of the ignorant people as well as men of distinction flocked, for instance, to the elders of our monastery to confess their doubts, their sins, and their sufferings, and ask for counsel and admonition. Seeing this, the opponents of the elders declared that the sacrament of confession was being arbitrarily and frivolously degraded, though the continual opening of the heart tot he elder by the monk or the layman had nothing of the character of the sacrament."

- Bros. K., in Chapter Entitled: Elders (Garrett Trans.)

". . . several different causes were simultaneously at work, one of which was the deeply rooted hostility to the institution of elders as a pernicious innovation, an antipathy hidden deep in the heart of many of the monks."

- Bros. K., in Chapter Entitled: The Breath of Corruption (Garrett Trans.)

Clearly Dostoyevsky sought to describe life in Russia, and the political and social milieu in approximately his own time, and one could posit that these views on the authenticity of Elders were, in fact, in debate in the mid- to late-1800s in Russia, whatever the provenance in Athos, Antioch, and North Africa.

C.S. Lewis, in his introduction to St. Athanasius' great work On the Incarnation, notes that one of the values of reading history and paying attention to our elders is that (I highly paraphrase here) probably those we tend to agree with and those on whom history has adjudged profoundly evil or wrong, shared certain assumptions and worldview about a great many things that they would simply not debate, for all their differences.

Thus, one might argue that the Orthodox do not take an Augustinian view (modified by scholastics, or not - not germane here) of original sin; but nevertheless, probably all of the Orthodox of Augustine of Hippo's time, and St. Augustine himself, likely shared more common opinion together about most things and would stand on their side of history against a great many things we take for granted now as "established" about both doctrinal, worship and ethical and moral matters in the Church.

[As an aside, this is one reason why I ultimately had to abandon my childhood denomination's views about 'believer's baptism.' If this was such an important issue, surely it would have caused as great a battle as the Arian schism over the use of, essentially, one very carefully worded statement. The fact that there is silence coupled with long-standing practice of baptizing infants suggests that the historic Church never saw this as a particularly troubling issue.]

We now, here in North America, take the role of Elders as "Authentic Orthodoxy(tm)" with almost no questions. Some, particularly in the Slavic traditions, will often opine from sayings of the Elders almost to a point of ignoring the original statements of our Lord in the Gospels or the teachings of the Apostles, early Saints, or Desert Fathers of the first centuries. There is a certain fashionability, I suppose, to quoting the later elders.

I am not challenging the institution of Elders, or their work (a tree shall be known by its fruit). I have a quote by Elder Pasios on the masthead. But what Bros. K. makes me consider is, what other things that we, in North America, take as "Authentically Orthodox(tm)," whether choral styles, or prayers, etc., would be seen by our forebears as potentially dangerous and questionable innovation?

[Another aside on choirs - I have a lovely record (yes folks, real vinyl 33 1/3rd LP!) of the Heirarchical Divine Liturgy recorded in the local Greek Orthodox parish in the 1960s, replete with organ accompaniment. I can attest that the music is VERY different from some more "modern" adoptions of a more "pre-1054 Byzantine chant" such as is in vogue now. What does that say about our pretensions and desire to get more "authentic" over and above the real point of our worship?]

I have no answers - but I think that we need to be careful in this age of rapid change, challenges to traditional life, and the like, that we neither embrace new ideas too quickly, nor rush to announce that we have found a "more authentic" historic way that we should "return to." Either has pitfalls in a society where authenticity is marketed to us as a thing to purchase, and to be desired above all else. We should listen to the collective voice of the Church from the past, and weigh carefully, in love, that which leads us soberly to our Lord, and that which is enthusiastic but misguided change (whether to the "old stuff" or to the "new stuff") that, in fact, leads us into pride and delusion.

Here, I am not speaking of rather straightforward things, such as abortion being wrong, or women's ordinations - these appear so settled in the life of the Church that to start announcing some new changes would (IMO) be a dangerous innovation. I am speaking about things like debates over translations of prayers, and texts, and the ordering of bishops among themselves, or whether we ought to rush to through the pews out of the 1930s church when 60% of the parish grew up that way, simply because it's "less Orthodox."

In the end, there is but One whom we seek, and He is not more authentic or less authentic, neither old nor new, but rather the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the Existing One.

I welcome any thoughts on this - for mine are poor enough.


Blogger Convenor said...

It would be very kind if you could let your readers know about the December issue of our twice-yearly journal 'CHRISTVS REGNAT':

You are most welcome to link to/follow/blogroll our blog:

Please pray for me!

God bless you!

St. Conleth's Catholic Heritage Association (Ireland)

3:17 AM  
Blogger Maxim said...

The thing about the situation in B.K. is that Eldership is one of the ancient spiritual traditions of the Church, but the People have become so divorced from the traditions that they think it's innovation. It reminds me of a situation one of my brother's priests was in; he was pastor of this ethnic Russian parish, and decided to start doing Vespers services. A lot of the people of the Church went up in arms over it, and one man called the Matriarch of his family and said, "Babushka, you have to talk to this crazy new priest; he's even inventing new services". Babushka said, "Calm down, it's the way they did it in the Old Country".

11:19 PM  
Blogger Maxim said...

As Fr. Seraphim Rose said, the Blessed Augustine is a great figure of authentic Orthodox piety. Those who react against his egregious errors to the extent that they come to regard every aspect of his life and teaching with suspicion effectually divorce themselves from the true spirituality, usually accepting in its stead some aspect or another of Modernist or even New Age spirituality, which becomes for them the "real" Orthodoxy, purged at last of the Augustinian accretions.

I agree that we need to pay more attention to the earlier Fathers; I have seen quotes from some highly revered contemporary figures that seem to me to be in direct opposition to what is pretty much the united testimony of the Teachers of the first centuries of the Church.

In a lot of ways, the drive to recreate ancient church music is done in the spirit of innovation; that is, a continuous quest for novelty. Anyone who thinks a thirst for novelty cannot be attached to ancient things has never closely observed the behavior of people in antique stores. I agree that great caution is needed both in shielding ourselves from innovation, and in the heedless and unnecessary attempt to revive old traditions, which can almost become a worse form of innovationism.

Pews are not, however, a tangential issue. The presence of pews in the Nave changes the nature of Orthodox worship essentially; it restricts liturgical movement, and separates the people of the Church from their ministers more effectively than any iconostasis. It also imposes an ampitheater mode on the congregation where they are plainly relegated to the role of observer, while the Priests are the actors. When I visit a church with pews I have to quell a strong impulse to applaud after the Great Entrance. There has never been an Orthodox people which has embraced pews as an example of the strength of their authentic piety; it is an innovation of those long separated from the living spirit of their Orthodox homelands, adopted in imitation of the Heterodox, and is an expression of our characteristic laxity, not of strength and pious spiritual endeavor.

1:48 AM  
Blogger Maxim said...

I am somewhat ambivalent about Dostoyevsky; on the one hand, some great religious themes and images, and he did effectively address the Nihilism he saw rising in the Russia of his day, on the other he is seen as one of the foundational influences of both Modern Literature and Existentialist Philosophy, both pretty poisonous trees in my view. Also when I read Dostoyevsky the World seems lit with such a lurid light, and his portrayals of madness seem so much more convincing than his portrayals of sanctity. I used to think no one would ever have behaved like a character in a Dostoyevsky novel, but I didn't know many Russians at that time. I would be interested in hearing a detailed account of your impressions of the book you are reading.

2:16 AM  

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