"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Sunday 31 July 2016


In the website CONCILIARITY AND ECCLESIAL LOVE we put together all the posts that are in my blog "Monks and Mermaids" about the two synods on the family and added material to make the presentation more complete.  This article forms part of the Introduction to SOBORNOST AND ECCLESIAL LOVE on the "Holy and Great Council" that was held at Pentecost 2016 in Crete; and it is my intention to put all the posts in my blog about this Orthodox council together with other articles and documents, almost entirely from Orthodox sources, on this other website.   This article is my contribution.  I hope the new website will be ready in about a month. 
 I was first introduced to Orthodoxy in the early sixties - Vatican II was in full spin - when I met Father Barnabas in a Paris street.  We were both in Benedictine habits, he because he was taking part in an Orthodox experiment in western Orthodoxy, I because I am a Benedictine.   We became friends for life.   He invited me to his monastery in Paris, and I have never forgotten the experience.

Most impressive of all were the old Russian monks.  They were gnarled and misshapen like ancient trees that have withstood strong winds ever since their planting.   They wore wide black trousers tucked into heavy boots, a black knee-length smock with a leather belt, and round black caps, their faces lined like contour maps: they looked the very personification of Holy Russia, and looked on them with reverence.  (I was already a fan of "The Brothers Karamazov.")

Father Barnabas introduced me to another guest, a Bishop Alexis van der Mensbrugghe.   He was an ex-monk of Amay (now Chevetogne) who converted to Orthodoxy and later became an Orthodox bishop and a lecturer in Church History at Oxford University.  He had an interesting theory.

He told me that one surprising fact about Orthodox and Catholic history seems to corroborate Pope John XXIII's dictum that our divisions do not extend to heaven.   He said it is a surprising thing that, in spite of the great differences between East and West, there have been movements down the ages which correspond to one another across the divide, even when there is no contact between them and no evidence that one is copying the other.   He gave two instances, but said there were others.   The first was the tendency to express spirituality in long and sumptuous liturgies, that the Byzantine liturgy reached its maturity during the time of Cluny which also went in for the same but without copying Byzantium. The other instance is the Hesychast movement that was exactly contemporaneous with the Rhineland and English mystics.  Of course they were different in theology, vocabulary and style, belonging as they did to two different religious cultures; but they were expressions of the same faith and had the same inspiration.

Of course, unlike so many Orthodox critics of Catholicism nowadays, he knew both Orthodox and Catholic spiritualities from the inside.   Like Father Lev Gillet, he had no patience with those Orthodox xenophobes who make sweeping superficial condemnations of a Catholicism they don't really know.   "Why is it that so many Russians condemn the Catholic Church in a way that only shows their ignorance!" exclaimed an Orthodox deacon to me in Minsk a few years ago,  "They often don't know any Catholics, while many of us in Belarus have Catholic relatives and all of us have Catholic neighbours.   We are looking forward to Christian unity."

Bishop Alexis died in 1980; but, if he had lived until now, I am sure he would have recognised parallels between the two synods on the family that were called by Pope Francis  and the "Holy and Great Council" called by the Patriarch of Constantinople.   I am not saying that the Catholics and Orthodox copied each other; nor did they take advice from each other; and the Catholic synods reflected the  concerns of recent Catholic history, and the Orthodox council reflected Orthodox history; and their historical experience is very different the one from the other. Nevertheless, the similarities are all the more startling when they are found, even if we have to dig deep to find them.   Here are a few:

  1. Both Pope Francis and many Orthodox commentators said that their respective church are synodal by nature.  "Conciliarity is in our DNA," wrote one Orthodox priest.  Yet there was no universally accepted way of conducting a synod or council; and both Catholics and Orthodox gave the impression that they were experimenting.
  2. Both the procedure and the documents that issued from the discussions have been subject to a lot of controversy and there is deeply felt disagreement in both churches.
  3. Those who called and supported the meetings are enthusiastic about the  results and look forward to future synods at regular intervals so that they may become the  normal expression of universal church unity, thus lowering the status of the Vatican in the Catholic Church and of the  autocephalous patriarchates in the Orthodox Church.

  4. In both churches, the tension has arisen between those who are happy with the model of the Church as they have inherited it from Christendom and who believe that it is the best model for the modern world, and those who go back to the sources to find radical - rooted in Tradition - but new answers to the problem of the Church's relationship to the modern world, a world that is without Christendom.  
  5. As the history of Christendom in the West was so different from its history in the East, so the classical Vatican position is very different from that of the Moscow patriarchate; yet both represent and champion the way of doing things of their respective churches during the time of Christendom.  One favours Roman centralisation, and the other favours the autocephalous churches that work in synergy with the basileus (civil power) so that they jointly rule over the christian people; and  the latter cooperation is impossible in secular or Moslem countries.
  6. In contrast to those who favour a continuation of the Christendom model, those who seek new answers and even ask new questions from Tradition, represented here by Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Constantinople, look very similar and are coming to ever closer solutions. Both pope and patriarch live in the secular world.
  7. However, it would be wrong to think that Rome and Constantinople can go one way, leaving behind the opposition; and it would be equally wrong for the "conservatives" to go their own way, leaving behind the pope and the patriarch.   As Archbishop Justin Welby said a little time ago, "You can choose your friends, but you are stuck with your relatives."   The Patriarch of Moscow and the Patriarch of Constantinople are brothers; and neither can go anywhere without the other.   Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke are brothers; and they too can't go anywhere without the other. to do so would be to repeat the error of 1054! And this leads us to another lesson we can learn from both the Holy and Great Council and from our own Synods on the Family.
  8. There is the faith, which is that which we all agree to be the teaching of the Church: there is a consensus.   There are, however, within the context of this shared faith, differences of perspective, of priorities, and opinions about how we believe this common faith is to be implemented in different situations.  We cannot impose a solution by force.   We must humbly beg to differ and try to resolve differences if this is required or tolerate them when this is appropriate, all within a context of ecclesial love.
  9.   Before reciting the Creed in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the priest says we should give a sign of peace so that we may love one another in such a way that we can say with one heart and one mind, "I believe..."  By the love we share in the Eucharist - the Fathers sometimes called the Eucharist "Love" -  we must say with St Paul, "The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

Ecclesial love is not a romantic feeling: it is the kenosis of God by which the world is created and redeemed; It is the Father's love which we share through Christ in the Holy Spirit. It demands from us humility of heart, readiness to forgive, and respect for the other, even when we differ.  The Church asks for it at Mass in the epiclesis so that we can together find Christ in communion, his love working in synergy with ours, transforming it and leading us to true knowledge.  Christ does the rest.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church may well re-create Christendom in Russia, working in synergy with the civil power.  Holy Russia is flourishing once again; even though the ignorance of the general population about the basic tenets of Christianity, the number of abortions etc, the weight of the effects of the long years of Communism, do not make the result a foregone conclusion.  The Russians must learn that Orthodoxy in a pluralistic world has its own needs and its own insights, while th whole of Christendom must await what Divine Providence has in store for Russia.

  • Friday 15 July 2016


    Christ and Nothing by David Bentley Hart
    source: Athenaeum

    First Things, October 2003
    The main points of the article can be summarized as follows:
     For contemporary culture there is no value higher than choice and contrary to pre-Christian religions,
    modern religion commands neither reverence, nor dread, nor love, nor belief. So how do you make war
    on nothingness?
     The author’s thesis is that Christianity, with its cry of “no other god,” is in part responsible for the
    nihilism of our culture. The gospel shook the ancient world to its foundations, so how did Christianity
    bring us to the ruin of the present moment?
     The word “nihilism” has a complex history in modern philosophy. Nietzsche and Heidegger identified
    modernity as nihilism and accused Christianity as complicit in its genesis.
     Christian theology assimilated elements of the metaphysics, ethics or method of ancient philosophy and
    improved them in the process. It integrated pagan philosophy into a vision of reality more complete than
    philosophy could attain apart from theology.
     The Church claimed for herself all spheres of social, religious and intellectual life and much of the
    grandeur and beauty of antiquity were preserved in a radically altered form in Christian civilization.
     How did Christianity then assist in bringing along the nihilism of modernity? The contemporary drama is
    that with the withdrawal of Christian culture, all the glories of the ancient world that it baptized and
    redeemed have perished. Christianity is the midwife of nihilism: not because it is itself nihilistic but
    because to reject Christianity now is to reject everything except modern subjectivity.
     Modern philosophy established itself as a discipline independent from theology by insisting on the
    autonomy of the self. It did not return to the Ancient wonder of being or to the perfections of the world,
    for to do so would be to slip again into a sphere long colonized by theology. The new point of departure
    for modern reason had to be the perceiving subject rather than the world perceived.
     So the question persists: which is the spiritual warfare to be waged against nothingness? The failure of
    Christian culture to live up to its victory over the old gods, left room for the prevailing cult of the self, of
    the impulses of the will, of nothingness.
     Christians need to recover and understand the meaning of the command to have “no other god” and
    make an ever more concerted effort to recall and recover the wisdom and centrality of the ascetic
    tradition as self-abnegation, contrarianism and a willingness to refuse secularization.
     Christian asceticism is the cultivation of the pure heart and pure eye, which allows one to receive the
    world, and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the
    gift of God.
     It also involves the painful acknowledgement that modern persons will never find rest for their restless
    hearts without Christ, for our society has become aesthetically arid, culturally worthless, and spiritually
     In this age marked by the absence of faith in Christ, the modern soul lacks repose, piety, peace, or
    nobility, and should find the world outside the Church barren of spiritual rapture or mystery.
     The only choice that remains for the children of post-Christian culture is not whom to serve, but whether

    to serve Him whom Christ has revealed or to serve nothing — the nothing.

    This is one of Professor Hart's finest pieces. First published in First Things magazine, it has now become a important and controversial scholarly touchstone, and it is often used in apologetics and in the classroom. Here it is in its entirety:

    As modern men and women—to the degree that we are modern—we believe in nothing. This is not to say, I hasten to add, that we do not believe in anything; I mean, rather, that we hold an unshakable, if often unconscious, faith in the nothing, or in nothingness as such. It is this in which we place our trust, upon which we venture our souls, and onto which we project the values by which we measure the meaningfulness of our lives. Or, to phrase the matter more simply and starkly, our religion is one of very comfortable nihilism.

    This may seem a somewhat apocalyptic note to sound, at least without any warning or emollient prelude, but I believe I am saying nothing not almost tediously obvious. We live in an age whose chief moral value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the absolute liberty of personal volition, the power of each of us to choose what he or she believes, wants, needs, or must possess; our culturally most persuasive models of human freedom are unambiguously voluntarist and, in a rather debased and degraded way, Promethean; the will, we believe, is sovereign because unpremised, free because spontaneous, and this is the highest good. And a society that believes this must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular moral metaphysics: the unreality of any “value” higher than choice, or of any transcendent Good ordering desire towards a higher end. Desire is free to propose, seize, accept or reject, want or not want—but not to obey. Society must thus be secured against the intrusions of the Good, or of God, so that its citizens may determine their own lives by the choices they make from a universe of morally indifferent but variably desirable ends, unencumbered by any prior grammar of obligation or value (in America, we call this the “wall of separation”). Hence the liberties that permit one to purchase lavender bed clothes, to gaze fervently at pornography, to become a Unitarian, to market popular celebrations of brutal violence, or to destroy one’s unborn child are all equally intrinsically “good” because all are expressions of an inalienable freedom of choice. But, of course, if the will determines itself only in and through such choices, free from any prevenient natural order, then it too is in itself nothing. And so, at the end of modernity, each of us who is true to the times stands facing not God, or the gods, or the Good beyond beings, but an abyss, over which presides the empty, inviolable authority of the individual will, whose impulses and decisions are their own moral index.

    This is not to say that—sentimental barbarians that we are—we do not still invite moral and religious constraints upon our actions; none but the most demonic, demented, or adolescent among us genuinely desires to live in a world purged of visible boundaries and hospitable shelters. Thus this man may elect not to buy a particular vehicle because he considers himself an environmentalist; or this woman may choose not to have an abortion midway through her second trimester, because the fetus, at that point in its gestation, seems to her too fully formed, and she—personally—would feel wrong about terminating “it.” But this merely illustrates my point: we take as given the individual’s right not merely to obey or defy the moral law, but to choose which moral standards to adopt, which values to uphold, which fashion of piety to wear and with what accessories.

    Even our ethics are achievements of will. And the same is true of those custom-fitted spiritualities—“New Age,” occult, pantheist, “Wiccan,” or what have you—by which many of us now divert ourselves from the quotidien dreariness of our lives. These gods of the boutique can come from anywhere—native North American religion, the Indian subcontinent, some Pre-Raphaelite grove shrouded in Celtic twilight, cunning purveyors of otherwise worthless quartz, pages drawn at random from Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, or that redoubtable old Aryan, Joseph Campbell—but where such gods inevitably come to rest are not so much divine hierarchies as ornamental étagères, where their principal office is to provide symbolic representations of the dreamier sides of their votaries’ personalities. The triviality of this sort of devotion, its want of dogma or discipline, its tendency to find its divinities not in glades and grottoes but in gift shops make it obvious that this is no reversion to pre-Christian polytheism. It is, rather, a thoroughly modern religion, whose burlesque gods command neither reverence, nor dread, nor love, nor belief; they are no more than the masks worn by that same spontaneity of will that is the one unrivalled demiurge who rules this age and alone bids its spirits come and go.

    Which brings me at last to my topic. “I am the Lord thy God,” says the First Commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” For Israel this was first and foremost a demand of fidelity, by which God bound His people to Himself, even if in later years it became also a proclamation to the nations. To Christians, however, the commandment came through—and so was indissolubly bound to—Christ. As such, it was not simply a prohibition of foreign cults, but a call to arms, an assault upon the antique order of the heavens—a declaration of war upon the gods. All the world was to be evangelized and baptized, all idols torn down, all worship given over to the one God who, in these latter days, had sent His Son into the world for our salvation. It was a long and sometimes terrible conflict, occasionally exacting a fearful price in martyrs’ blood, but it was, by any just estimate, a victory: the temples of Zeus and Isis alike were finally deserted, both the paean and the dithyramb ceased to be sung, altars were bereft of their sacrifices, the sibyls fell silent, and ultimately all the glory, nobility, and cruelty of the ancient world lay supine at the feet of Christ the conqueror.

    Nor, for early Christians, was this mere metaphor. When a gentile convert stood in the baptistery on Eas-ter’s eve and, before descending naked into the waters, turned to the West to renounce the devil and the devil’s ministers, he was rejecting, and in fact reviling, the gods in bondage to whom he had languished all his life; and when he turned to the East to confess Christ, he was entrusting himself to the invincible hero who had plundered hell of its captives, overthrown death, subdued the powers of the air, and been raised the Lord of history. Life, for the early Church, was spiritual warfare; and no baptized Christian could doubt how great a transformation—of the self and the world—it was to consent to serve no other god than Him whom Christ revealed.

    We are still at war, of course, but the situation of the Church has materially altered, and I suspect that, by comparison to the burden the First Commandment lays upon us today, the defeat of the ancient pantheon, and the elemental spirits, and the demons lurking behind them will prove to have been sublimely easy. For, as I say, we moderns believe in nothing: the nothingness of the will miraculously giving itself form by mastering the nothingness of the world. The gods, at least, were real, if distorted, intimations of the mysterium tremendum, and so could inspire something like holy dread or, occasionally, holy love. They were brutes, obviously, but often also benign despots, and all of us I think, in those secret corners of our souls where we are all monarchists, can appreciate a good despot, if he is sufficiently dashing and mysterious, and able to strike an attractive balance between capricious wrath and serene benevolence. Certainly the Olympians had panache, and a terrible beauty whose disappearance from the world was a bereavement to obdurately devout pagans. Moreover, in their very objectivity and supremacy over their worshipers, the gods gave the Church enemies with whom it could come to grips. Perhaps they were just so many gaudy veils and ornate brocades drawn across the abyss of night, death, and nature, but they had distinct shapes and established cults, and when their mysteries were abandoned, so were they.

    How, though, to make war on nothingness, on the abyss itself, denuded of its mythic allure? It seems to me much easier to convince a man that he is in thrall to demons and offer him manumission than to convince him that he is a slave to himself and prisoner to his own will. Here is a god more elusive, protean, and indomitable than either Apollo or Dionysus; and whether he manifests himself in some demonic titanism of the will, like the mass delirium of the Third Reich, or simply in the mesmeric banality of consumer culture, his throne has been set in the very hearts of those he enslaves. And it is this god, I think, against whom the First Commandment calls us now to struggle.

    There is, however, a complication even to this. As Christians, we are glad to assert that the commandment to have no other god, when allied to the gospel, liberated us from the divine ancien régime; or that this same commandment must be proclaimed again if modern persons are to be rescued from the superstitions of our age. But there is another, more uncomfortable assertion we should also be willing to make: that humanity could not have passed from the devotions of antiquity to those of modernity but for the force of Christianity in history, and so—as a matter of historical fact—Christianity, with its cry of “no other god,” is in part responsible for the nihilism of our culture. The gospel shook the ancient world to its foundations, indeed tore down the heavens, and so helped to bring us to the ruin of the present moment.

    The word “nihilism” has a complex history in modern philosophy, but I use it in a sense largely determined by Nietzsche and Heidegger, both of whom not only diagnosed modernity as nihilism, but saw Christianity as complicit in its genesis; both it seems to me were penetratingly correct in some respects, if disastrously wrong in most, and both raised questions that we Christians ignore at our peril. Nietzsche’s case is the cruder of the two, if in some ways the more perspicacious; for him, modernity is simply the final phase of the disease called Christianity. Whereas the genius of the Greeks—so his story goes—was to gaze without illusion into the chaos and terror of the world, and respond not with fear or resignation but with affirmation and supreme artistry, they were able to do this only on account of their nobility, which means their ruthless willingness to discriminate between the “good”—that is, the strength, exuberance, bravery, generosity, and harshness of the aristocratic spirit—and the “bad”—the weakness, debility, timorousness, and vindictive resentfulness of the slavish mind. And this same standard—“noble wisdom,” for want of a better term—was the foundation and mortar of Roman civilization.

    Christianity, however, was a slave revolt in morality: the cunning of the weak triumphed over the nobility of the strong, the resentment of the many converted the pride of the few into self-torturing guilt, the higher man’s distinction between the good and the bad was replaced by the lesser man’s spiteful distinction between good and “evil,” and the tragic wisdom of the Greeks sank beneath the flood of Christianity’s pity and pusillanimity. This revolt, joined to an ascetic and sterile devotion to positive fact, would ultimately slay even God. And, as a result, we have now entered the age of the Last Men, whom Nietzsche depicts in terms too close for comfort to the banality, conformity, and self-indulgence of modern mass culture.

    Heidegger’s tale is not as catastrophist, and so emphasizes less Christianity’s novelty than its continuity with a nihilism implicit in all Western thought, from at least the time of Plato (which Nietzsche, in his way, also acknowledged). Nihilism, says Heidegger, is born in a forgetfulness of the mystery of being, and in the attempt to capture and master being in artifacts of reason (the chief example—and indeed the prototype of every subsequent apostasy from true “ontology”—being Plato’s ideas). Scandalously to oversimplify his argument, it is, says Heidegger, the history of this nihilistic impulse to reduce being to an object of the intellect, subject to the will, that has brought us at last to the age of technology, for which reality is just so many quanta of power, the world a representation of consciousness, and the earth a mere reserve awaiting exploitation; technological mastery has become our highest ideal, and our only real model of truth. Christianity, for its part, is not so much a new thing as a prolonged episode within the greater history of nihilism, notable chiefly for having brought part of this history’s logic to its consummation by having invented the metaphysical God, the form of all forms, who grounds all of being in himself as absolute efficient cause, and who personifies that cause as total power and will. From this God, in the fullness of time, would be born the modern subject who has usurped God’s place.

    I hope I will be excused both for so cursory a précis and for the mild perversity that causes me to see some merit in both of these stories. Heidegger seems to me obviously correct in regarding modernity’s nihilism as the fruition of seeds sown in pagan soil; and Nietzsche also correct to call attention to Christianity’s shocking—and, for the antique order of noble values, irreparably catastrophic—novelty; but neither grasped why he was correct. For indeed Christianity was complicit in the death of antiquity and in the birth of modernity, not because it was an accomplice of the latter, but because it alone, in the history of the West, was a rejection of and alternative to nihilism’s despair, violence, and idolatry of power; as such, Christianity shattered the imposing and enchanting façade behind which nihilism once hid, and thereby, inadvertently, called it forth into the open.

    I am speaking (impressionistically, I grant) of something pervasive in the ethos of European antiquity, which I would call a kind of glorious sadness. The great Indo-European mythos, from which Western culture sprang, was chiefly one of sacrifice: it understood the cosmos as a closed system, a finite totality, within which gods and mortals alike occupied places determined by fate. And this totality was, of necessity, an economy, a cycle of creation and destruction, oscillating between order and chaos, form and indeterminacy: a great circle of feeding, preserving life through a system of transactions with death. This is the myth of “cosmos”—of the universe as a precarious equilibrium of contrary forces—which undergirded a sacral practice whose aim was to contain nature’s promiscuous violence within religion’s orderly violence. The terrible dynamism of nature had to be both resisted and controlled by rites at once apotropaic—appeasing chaos and rationalizing it within the stability of cult—and economic—recuperating its sacrificial expenditures in the form of divine favor, a numinous power reinforcing the regime that sacrifice served. And this regime was, naturally, a fixed hierarchy of social power, atop which stood the gods, a little lower kings and nobles, and at the bottom slaves; the order of society, both divine and natural in provenance, was a fixed and yet somehow fragile “hierarchy within totality” that had to be preserved against the forces that surrounded it, while yet drawing on those forces for its spiritual sustenance. Gods and mortals were bound together by necessity; we fed the gods, who required our sacrifices, and they preserved us from the forces they personified and granted us some measure of their power. There was, surely, an ineradicable nihilism in such an economy: a tragic resignation before fate, followed by a prudential act of cultic salvage, for the sake of social and cosmic stability.

    As it happens, the word “tragic” is especially apt here. A sacrificial mythos need not always express itself in slaughter, after all. Attic tragedy, for instance, began as a sacrificial rite. It was performed during the festival of Dionysus, which was a fertility festival, of course, but only because it was also an apotropaic celebration of delirium and death: the Dionysia was a sacred negotiation with the wild, antinomian cruelty of the god whose violent orgiastic cult had once, so it was believed, gravely imperiled the city; and the hope that prompted the feast was that, if this devastating force could be contained within bright Apollonian forms and propitiated through a ritual carnival of controlled disorder, the polis could survive for another year, its precarious peace intact.

    The religious vision from which Attic tragedy emerged was one of the human community as a kind of besieged citadel preserving itself through the tribute it paid to the powers that both threatened and enlivened it. I can think of no better example of this than that of Antigone, in which the tragic crisis is the result of an insoluble moral conflict between familial piety (a sacred obligation) and the civil duties of kingship (a holy office): Antigone, as a woman, is bound to the chthonian gods (gods of the dead, so of family and household), and Creon, as king, is bound to Apollo (god of the city), and so both are adhering to sacred obligations. The conflict between them, then, far from involving a tension between the profane and the holy, is a conflict within the divine itself, whose only possible resolution is the death—the sacrifice—of the protagonist. Other examples, however, are legion. Necessity’s cruel intransigence rules the gods no less than us; tragedy’s great power is simply to reconcile us to this truth, to what must be, and to the violences of the city that keep at bay the greater violence of cosmic or social disorder.

    Nor does one require extraordinarily penetrating insight to see how the shadow of this mythos falls across the philosophical schools of antiquity. To risk a generalization even more reckless than those I have already made: from the time of the pre-Socratics, all the great speculative and moral systems of the pagan world were, in varying degrees, confined to this totality, to either its innermost mechanisms or outermost boundaries; rarely did any of them catch even a glimpse of what might lie beyond such a world; and none could conceive of reality except as a kind of strife between order and disorder, within which a sacrificial economy held all forces in tension. This is true even of Platonism, with its inextirpable dualism, its dialectic of change and the changeless (or of limit and the infinite), and its equation of truth with eidetic abstraction; the world, for all its beauty, is the realm of fallen vision, separated by a great chorismos from the realm of immutable reality.

    It is true of Aristotle too: the dialectic of act and potency that, for sublunary beings, is inseparable from decay and death, or the scale of essences by which all things—especially various classes of persons—are assigned their places in the natural and social order. Stoicism offers an obvious example: a vision of the universe as a fated, eternally repeated divine and cosmic history, a world in which finite forms must constantly perish simply in order to make room for others, and which in its entirety is always consumed in a final ecpyrosis (which makes a sacrificial pyre, so to speak, of the whole universe). And Neoplatonism furnishes the most poignant example, inasmuch as its monism merely inverts earlier Platonism’s dualism and only magnifies the melancholy. Not only is the mutable world separated from its divine principle—the One—by intervals of emanation that descend in ever greater alienation from their source, but because the highest truth is the secret identity between the human mind and the One, the labor of philosophy is one of escape: all multiplicity, change, particularity, every feature of the living world, is not only accidental to this formless identity, but a kind of falsehood, and to recover the truth that dwells within, one must detach oneself from what lies without, including the sundry incidentals of one’s individual existence; truth is oblivion of the flesh, a pure nothingness, to attain which one must sacrifice the world.

    In any event, the purpose behind these indefensibly broad pronouncements—however elliptically pursued—is to aid in recalling how shatteringly subversive Christianity was of so many of the certitudes of the world it entered, and how profoundly its exclusive fidelity to the God of Christ transformed that world. This is, of course, no more than we should expect, if we take the New Testament’s Paschal triumphalism to heart: “Now is the judgment of this world, now will the prince of this world be cast out” (John 12:31); “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33); he is “far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion” and all things are put “under his feet” (Ephesians 1:21-2); “having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15); “he led captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8); and so on. Still, we can largely absorb Scripture’s talk of the defeat of the devil, the angels of the nations, and the powers of the air, and yet fail to recognize how radically the Gospels reinterpreted (or, as Nietzsche would say, “transvalued”) everything in the light of Easter.

    The example of this I find most striking is the account John’s Gospel gives of the dialogue between Christ and Pilate (John 18:28-19:12). Nietzsche, the quixotic champion of the old standards, thought jesting Pilate’s “What is truth?” to be the only moment of actual nobility in the New Testament, the wry taunt of an acerbic ironist unimpressed by the pathetic fantasies of a deranged peasant. But one need not share Nietzsche’s sympathies to take his point; one can certainly see what is at stake when Christ, scourged and mocked, is brought before Pilate a second time: the latter’s “Whence art thou?” has about it something of a demand for a pedigree, which might at least lend some credibility to the claims Christ makes for himself; for want of which, Pilate can do little other than pronounce his truth: “I have power to crucify thee” (which, to be fair, would under most circumstances be an incontrovertible argument).

    It is worth asking ourselves what this tableau, viewed from the vantage of pagan antiquity, would have meant. A man of noble birth, representing the power of Rome, endowed with authority over life and death, confronted by a barbarous colonial of no name or estate, a slave of the empire, beaten, robed in purple, crowned with thorns, insanely invoking an otherworldly kingdom and some esoteric truth, unaware of either his absurdity or his judge’s eminence. Who could have doubted where, between these two, the truth of things was to be found? But the Gospel is written in the light of the resurrection, which reverses the meaning of this scene entirely. If God’s truth is in fact to be found where Christ stands, the mockery visited on him redounds instead upon the emperor, all of whose regal finery, when set beside the majesty of the servile shape in which God reveals Himself, shows itself to be just so many rags and briars.

    This slave is the Father’s eternal Word, whom God has vindicated, and so ten thousand immemorial certainties are unveiled as lies: the first become last, the mighty are put down from their seats and the lowly exalted, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent empty away. Nietzsche was quite right to be appalled. Almost as striking, for me, is the tale of Peter, at the cock’s crow, going apart to weep. Nowhere in the literature of pagan antiquity, I assure you, had the tears of a rustic been regarded as worthy of anything but ridicule; to treat them with reverence, as meaningful expressions of real human sorrow, would have seemed grotesque from the perspective of all the classical canons of good taste. Those wretchedly subversive tears, and the dangerous philistinism of a narrator so incorrigibly vulgar as to treat them with anything but contempt, were most definitely signs of a slave revolt in morality, if not quite the one against which Nietzsche inveighed—a revolt, moreover, that all the ancient powers proved impotent to resist.

    In a narrow sense, then, one might say that the chief offense of the Gospels is their defiance of the insights of tragedy—and not only because Christ does not fit the model of the well-born tragic hero. More important is the incontestable truth that, in the Gospels, the destruction of the protagonist emphatically does not restore or affirm the order of city or cosmos. Were the Gospels to end with Christ’s sepulture, in good tragic style, it would exculpate all parties, including Pilate and the Sanhedrin, whose judgments would be shown to have been fated by the exigencies of the crisis and the burdens of their offices; the story would then reconcile us to the tragic necessity of all such judgments. But instead comes Easter, which rudely interrupts all the minatory and sententious moralisms of the tragic chorus, just as they are about to be uttered to full effect, and which cavalierly violates the central tenet of sound economics: rather than trading the sacrificial victim for some supernatural benefit, and so the particular for the universal, Easter restores the slain hero in his particularity again, as the only truth the Gospels have to offer. This is more than a dramatic peripety. The empty tomb overturns all the “responsible” and “necessary” verdicts of Christ’s judges, and so grants them neither legitimacy nor pardon.

    In a larger sense, then, the entire sacrificial logic of a culture was subverted in the Gospels. I cannot attempt here a treatment of the biblical language of sacrifice, but I think I can safely assert that Christ’s death does not, in the logic of the New Testament sources, fit the pattern of sacrifice I have just described. The word “sacrifice” is almost inexhaustible in its polysemy, particularly in the Old Testament, but the only sacrificial model explicitly invoked in the New Testament is that of the Atonement offering of Israel, which certainly belongs to no cosmic cycle of prudent expenditure and indemnity. It is, rather, a qurban, literally a “drawing nigh” into the life-giving presence of God’s glory. Israel’s God requires nothing; He creates, elects, and sanctifies without need—and so the Atonement offering can in no way contribute to any sort of economy. It is instead a penitent approach to a God who gives life freely, and who not only does not profit from the holocaust of the particular, but who in fact fulfils the “sacrifice” simply by giving his gift again. This giving again is itself, in fact, a kind of “sacrificial” motif in Hebrew Scripture, achieving its most powerful early expression in the story of Isaac’s aqedah, and arriving at its consummation, perhaps, in Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of dry bones. After all, a people overly burdened by the dolorous superstitions of tragic wisdom could never have come to embrace the doctrine of resurrection.

    I am tempted to say, then, that the cross of Christ is not simply a sacrifice, but the place where two opposed understandings of sacrifice clashed. Christ’s whole life was a reconciling qurban: an approach to the Father, a real indwelling of God’s glory in the temple of Christ’s body, and an atonement made for a people enslaved to death. In pouring himself out in the form of a servant, and in living his humanity as an offering up of everything to God in love, the shape of the eternal Son’s life was already sacrificial in this special sense; and it was this absolute giving, as God and man, that was made complete on Golgotha. While, from a pagan perspective, the crucifixion itself could be viewed as a sacrifice in the most proper sense—destruction of the agent of social instability for the sake of peace, which is always a profitable exchange—Christ’s life of charity, service, forgiveness, and righteous judgment could not; indeed, it would have to seem the very opposite of sacrifice, an aneconomic and indiscriminate inversion of rank and order. Yet, at Easter, it is the latter that God accepts and the former He rejects; what, then, of all the hard-won tragic wisdom of the ages?

    Naturally, also, with the death of the old mythos, metaphysics too was transformed. For one thing, while every ancient system of philosophy had to presume an economy of necessity binding the world of becoming to its inmost or highest principles, Christian theology taught from the first that the world was God’s creature in the most radically ontological sense: that it is called from nothingness, not out of any need on God’s part, but by grace. The world adds nothing to the being of God, and so nothing need be sacrificed for His glory or sustenance. In a sense, God and world alike were liberated from the fetters of necessity; God could be accorded His true transcendence and the world its true character as divine gift. The full implications of this probably became visible to Christian philosophers only with the resolution of the fourth-century trinitarian controversies, when the subordinationist schemes of Alexandrian trinitarianism were abandoned, and with them the last residue within theology of late Platonism’s vision of a descending scale of divinity mediating between God and world—the both of them comprised in a single totality.

    In any event, developed Christian theology rejected nothing good in the metaphysics, ethics, or method of ancient philosophy, but—with a kind of omnivorous glee—assimilated such elements as served its ends, and always improved them in the process. Stoic morality, Plato’s language of the Good, Aristotle’s metaphysics of act and potency—all became richer and more coherent when emancipated from the morbid myths of sacrificial economy and tragic necessity. In truth, Christian theology nowhere more wantonly celebrated its triumph over the old gods than in the use it made of the so-called spolia Aegyptorum; and, by despoiling pagan philosophy of its most splendid achievements and integrating them into a vision of reality more complete than philosophy could attain on its own, theology took to itself irrevocably all the intellectual glories of antiquity. The temples were stripped of their gold and precious ornaments, the sacred vessels were carried away into the precincts of the Church and turned to better uses, and nothing was left behind but a few grim, gaunt ruins to lure back the occasional disenchanted Christian and shelter a few atavistic ghosts.

    This last observation returns me at last to my earlier contention: that Christianity assisted in bringing the nihilism of modernity to pass. The command to have no other god but Him whom Christ revealed was never for Christians simply an invitation to forsake an old cult for a new, but was an announcement that the shape of the world had changed, from the depths of hell to the heaven of heavens, and all nations were called to submit to Jesus as Lord. In the great “transvaluation” that followed, there was no sphere of social, religious, or intellectual life that the Church did not claim for itself; much was abolished, and much of the grandeur and beauty of antiquity was preserved in a radically altered form, and Christian civilization—with its new synthesis and new creativity—was born.

    But what is the consequence, then, when Christianity, as a living historical force, recedes? We have no need to speculate, as it happens; modernity speaks for itself: with the withdrawal of Christian culture, all the glories of the ancient world that it baptized and redeemed have perished with it in the general cataclysm. Christianity is the midwife of nihilism, not because it is itself nihilistic, but because it is too powerful in its embrace of the world and all of the world’s mystery and beauty; and so to reject Christianity now is, of necessity, to reject everything except the barren anonymity of spontaneous subjectivity. As Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, the freedom that the gospel brings is too terrible to be borne indefinitely. Our sin makes us feeble and craven, and we long to flee from the liberty of the sons of God; but where now can we go? Everything is Christ’s.

    This is illustrated with striking clarity by the history of modern philosophy, at least in its continental (and, so to speak, proper) form. It is fashionable at present, among some theologians, to attempt precise genealogies of modernity, which in general I would rather avoid doing; but it does seem clear to me that the special preoccupations and perversities of modern philosophy were incubated in the age of late Scholasticism, with the rise of nominalism and voluntarism. Whereas earlier theology spoke of God as Goodness as such, whose every act (by virtue of divine simplicity) expresses His nature, the spectre that haunts late Scholastic thought is a God whose will precedes His nature, and whose acts then are feats of pure spontaneity. It is a logically incoherent way of conceiving of God, as it happens (though I cannot argue that here), but it is a powerful idea, elevating as it does will over all else and redefining freedom—for God and, by extension, for us—not as the unhindered realization of a nature (the liberty to “become what you are”), but as the absolute liberty of the will in determining even what its nature is.

    Thus when modern philosophy established itself anew as a discipline autonomous from theology, it did so naturally by falling back upon an ever more abyssal subjectivity. Real autonomy could not be gained by turning back to the wonder of being or to the transcendental perfections of the world, for to do so would be to slip again into a sphere long colonized by theology. And so the new point of departure for reason had to be the perceiving subject rather than the world perceived. Descartes, for instance, explicitly forbade himself any recourse to the world’s testimony of itself; in his third Meditation, he seals all his senses against nature, so that he can undertake his rational reconstruction of reality from a position pure of any certitude save that of the ego’s own existence. The world is recovered thereafter only insofar as it is “posited,” as an act of will. And while God appears in that reconstruction, He does so only as a logical postulate following from the idea of the infinite.

    From there, it is a short step to Kant’s transcendental ego, for whom the world is the representation of its own irreducible “I think,” and which (inasmuch as it is its own infinity) requires God as a postulate only in the realm of ethics, and merely as a regulative idea in the realm of epistemology. And the passage from transcendental idealism to absolute idealism, however much it involved an attempt to escape egoistic subjectivity, had no world to which to return. Even Hegel’s system, for all that it sought to have done with petty subjectivism, could do so only by way of a massive metaphysical myth of the self-positing of the Concept, and of a more terrible economy of necessity than any pagan antiquity had imagined. This project was, in every sense, incredible, and its collapse inevitably brought philosophy, by way of Nietzsche and Heidegger, to its “postmodern condition”—a “heap of broken images.” If Heidegger was right—and he was—in saying that there was always a nihilistic core to the Western philosophical tradition, the withdrawal of Christianity leaves nothing but that core behind, for the gospel long ago stripped away both the deceits and the glories that had concealed it; and so philosophy becomes, almost by force of habit, explicit nihilism.

    Modern philosophy, however, merely reflects the state of modern culture and modern cult; and it is to this sphere that I should turn now, as it is here that spiritual warfare is principally to be waged.

    I should admit that I, for one, feel considerable sympathy for Nietzsche’s plaint, “Nearly two-thousand years and no new god”—and for Heidegger intoning his mournful oracle: “Only a god can save us.” But of course none will come. The Christian God has taken up everything into Himself; all the treasures of ancient wisdom, all the splendor of creation, every good thing has been assumed into the story of the incarnate God, and every stirring towards transcendence is soon recognized by the modern mind—weary of God—as leading back towards faith. Antique pieties cannot be restored, for we moderns know that the hungers they excite can be sated only by the gospel of Christ and him crucified. To be a Stoic today, for instance, is simply to be a soul in via to the Church; a Platonist, most of us understand, is only a Christian manqué; and a polytheist is merely a truant from the one God he hates and loves.

    The only cult that can truly thrive in the aftermath of Christianity is a sordid service of the self, of the impulses of the will, of the nothingness that is all that the withdrawal of Christianity leaves behind. The only futures open to post-Christian culture are conscious nihilism, with its inevitable devotion to death, or the narcotic banality of the Last Men, which may be little better than death. Surveying the desert of modernity, we would be, I think, morally derelict not to acknowledge that Nietzsche was right in holding Christianity responsible for the catastrophe around us (even if he misunderstood why); we should confess that the failure of Christian culture to live up to its victory over the old gods has allowed the dark power that once hid behind them to step forward in propria persona. And we should certainly dread whatever rough beast it is that is being bred in our ever coarser, crueler, more inarticulate, more vacuous popular culture; because, cloaked in its anodyne insipience, lies a world increasingly devoid of merit, wit, kindness, imagination, or charity.

    These are, I admit, extreme formulations. But, while I may delight in provocation, I do not wish on this point to be misunderstood. When recently I made these very remarks from a speaker’s podium, two theologians (neither of whom I would consider a champion of modernity) raised objections. From one quarter, I was chided for forgetting the selflessness of which modern persons are capable. September 11, 2001, I was reminded, demonstrated the truth of this, surely; and those of us who teach undergraduates must be aware that, for all the cultural privations they suffer, they are often decent and admirable. From the other quarter I was cautioned that so starkly stated an alternative as “Christianity or nihilism” amounted to a denial of the goodness of natural wisdom and virtue, and seemed to suggest that gratia non perficit, sed destruit naturam. As fair as such remarks may be, however, they are not apposite to my argument.

    In regard to the first objection, I would wish to reply by making clear that I do not intend to suggest that, because modernity has lost the organic integrity of Christianity’s moral grammar, every person living in modern society must therefore become heartless, violent, or unprincipled. My observations are directed at the dominant language and ethos of a culture, not at the souls of individuals. Many among us retain some loyalty to ancient principles, most of us are in some degree premodern, and there are always and everywhere to be found examples of natural virtue, innate nobility, congenital charity, and so on, for the light of God is ubiquitous and the image of God is impressed upon our nature. The issue for me is whether, within the moral grammar of modernity, any of these good souls could give an account of his or her virtue.

    I wish, that is, to make a point not conspicuously different from Alasdair MacIntyre’s in the first chapter of his After Virtue: in the wake of a morality of the Good, ethics has become a kind of incoherent bricolage. As far as I can tell, homo nihilisticus may often be in several notable respects a far more amiable rogue than homo religiosus, exhibiting a far smaller propensity for breaking the crockery, destroying sacred statuary, or slaying the nearest available infidel. But, love, let us be true to one another: even when all of this is granted, it would be a willful and culpable blindness for us to refuse to recognize how aesthetically arid, culturally worthless, and spiritually depraved our society has become. That this is not hyperbole a dispassionate appraisal of the artifacts of popular culture—of the imaginative coarseness and cruelty informing them—will quickly confirm. For me, it is enough to consider that, in America alone, more than forty million babies have been aborted since the Supreme Court invented the “right” that allows for this, and that there are many for whom this is viewed not even as a tragic “necessity,” but as a triumph of moral truth. When the Carthaginians were prevailed upon to cease sacrificing their babies, at least the place vacated by Baal reminded them that they should seek the divine above themselves; we offer up our babies to “my” freedom of choice, to “me.” No society’s moral vision has ever, surely, been more degenerate than that.

    And to the second objection, I would begin by noting that my remarks here do not concern the entirety of human experience, nature, or culture; they concern one particular location in time and space: late Western modernity. Nor have I anything to say about cultures or peoples who have not suffered the history of faith and disenchantment we have, or who do not share our particular relation to European antiquity or the heritage of ancient Christendom. “Nihilism” is simply a name for post-Christian sensibility and conviction (and not even an especially opprobrious one). Moreover, the alternative between Christianity and nihilism is never, in actual practice, a kind of Kierkegaardian either/or posed between two absolute antinomies, incapable of alloy or medium; it is an antagonism that occurs along a continuum, whose extremes are rarely perfectly expressed in any single life (else the world were all saints and satanists).

    Most importantly, though, my observations do not concern nature at all, which is inextinguishable and which, at some level, always longs for God; they concern culture, which has the power to purge itself of the natural in some considerable degree. Indeed, much of the discourse of late modernity—speculative, critical, moral, and political—consists precisely in an attempt to deny the authority, or even the reality, of any general order of nature or natures. Nature is good, I readily affirm, and is itself the first gift of grace. But that is rather the point at issue: for modernity is unnatural, is indeed anti-nature, or even anti-Christ (and so goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom it may devour).

    Which is why I repeat that our age is not one in danger of reverting to paganism (would that we were so fortunate). If we turn from Christ today, we turn only towards the god of absolute will, and embrace him under either his most monstrous or his most vapid aspect. A somewhat more ennobling retreat to the old gods is not possible for us; we can find no shelter there, nor can we sink away gently into those old illusions and tragic consolations that Christ has exposed as falsehoods. To love or be nourished by the gods, we would have to fear them; but the ruin of their glory is so complete that they have been reduced—like everything else—to commodities.

    Nor will the ululations and lugubrious platitudes and pious fatalism of the tragic chorus ever again have the power to recall us to sobriety. The gospel of a God found in broken flesh, humility, and measureless charity has defeated all the old lies, rendered the ancient order visibly insufficient and even slightly absurd, and instilled in us a longing for transcendent love so deep that—if once yielded to—it will never grant us rest anywhere but in Christ. And there is a real sadness in this, because the consequences of so great a joy rejected are a sorrow, bewilderment, and anxiety for which there is no precedent. If the nonsensical religious fascinations of today are not, in any classical or Christian sense, genuine pieties, they are nevertheless genuine—if deluded—expressions of grief, encomia for a forsaken and half-forgotten home, the prisoner’s lament over a lost freedom. For Christians, then, to recover and understand the meaning of the command to have “no other god,” it is necessary first to recognize that the victory of the Church in history was not only incomplete, but indeed set free a force that the old sacral order had at least been able to contain; and it is against this more formless and invincible enemy that we take up the standard of the commandment today.

    Moreover, we need to recognize, in the light of this history, that this commandment is a hard discipline: it destroys, it breaks in order to bind; like a cautery, it wounds in order to heal; and now, in order to heal the damage it has in part inflicted, it must be applied again. In practical terms, I suspect that this means that Christians must make an ever more concerted effort to recall and recover the wisdom and centrality of the ascetic tradition. It takes formidable faith and devotion to resist the evils of one’s age, and it is to the history of Christian asceticism—especially, perhaps, the apophthegms of the Desert Fathers—that all Christians, whether married or not, should turn for guidance. To have no god but the God of Christ, after all, means today that we must endure the lenten privations of what is most certainly a dark age, and strive to resist the bland solace, inane charms, brute viciousness, and dazed passivity of post-Christian culture—all of which are so tempting precisely because they enjoin us to believe in and adore ourselves.

    It means also to remain aloof from many of the moral languages of our time, which are—even at their most sentimental, tender, and tolerant—usually as decadent and egoistic as the currently most fashionable vices. It means, in short, self-abnegation, contrarianism, a willingness not only to welcome but to condemn, and a refusal of secularization as fierce as the refusal of our Christian ancestors to burn incense to the genius of the emperor. This is not an especially grim prescription, I should add: Christian asceticism is not, after all, a cruel disfigurement of the will, contaminated by the world-weariness or malice towards creation that one can justly ascribe to many other varieties of religious detachment. It is, rather, the cultivation of the pure heart and pure eye, which allows one to receive the world, and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the good gift of God. It is, so to speak, a kind of “Marian” waiting upon the Word of God and its fruitfulness. This is why it has the power to heal us of our modern derangements: because, paradoxical as it may seem to modern temperaments, Christian asceticism is the practice of love, what Maximus the Confessor calls learning to see the logos of each thing within the Logos of God, and it eventuates most properly in the grateful reverence of a Bonaventure or the lyrical ecstasy of a Thomas Traherne.

    Still, it is a discipline for all that; and for us today it must involve the painful acknowledgement that neither we nor our distant progeny will live to see a new Christian culture rise in the Western world, and to accept this with both charity and faith. We must, after all, grant that, in the mystery of God’s providence, all of this has followed from the work of the Holy Spirit in time. Modern persons will never find rest for their restless hearts without Christ, for modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myths of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair.

    But we Christians—while not ignoring how appalling such a condition is—should yet rejoice that modernity offers no religious comforts to those who would seek them. In this time of waiting, in this age marked only by the absence of faith in Christ, it is well that the modern soul should lack repose, piety, peace, or nobility, and should find the world outside the Church barren of spiritual rapture or mystery, and should discover no beautiful or terrible or merciful gods upon which to cast itself. With Christ came judgment into the world, a light of discrimination from which there is neither retreat nor sanctuary. And this means that, as a quite concrete historical condition, the only choice that remains for the children of post-Christian culture is not whom to serve, but whether to serve Him whom Christ has revealed or to serve nothing—the nothing. No third way lies open for us now, because—as all of us now know, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not—all things have been made subject to Him, all the thrones and dominions of the high places have been put beneath His feet, until the very end of the world, and—simply said—there is no other god.

    Copyright (c) 2003 First Things 136 (October 2003): 47-57.

    Wednesday 13 July 2016


    An interview with Abbess of St.Elisabeth Convent, Euphrosinia  

    Abbess Euphrosinia, the Mother Superior of St Elisabeth Convent, was tonsured in honor of St Euphrosinia of Polotsk, the heavenly patroness of Belarusian land whose name means «joy». St Euphrosinia is one of the most highly venerated saints in Belarus, considered to be the patroness of arts and sciences. It may be for this reason that the most creative people of this country come to this convent in order to serve God with their talents in the numerous workshops of the Convent. Other people whom the Convent helps to return to the right track come here for rehabilitation. In an interview with our magazine, The Monastic Herald, Abbess Euphrosinia speaks about her path to becoming an abbess; about her obedience in the mental clinic; about some distinct features of her community, which has been oriented towards helping people since the very beginning of its existence; as well as about freedom and creativity in a monastery, false Christianity, various faces of monasticism, and true culture.

    St Euphrosyne of Polotsk

    Noah's Ark in Minsk

    The Russians have always perceived monasteries as beacons of salvation or as Noah's Arks. In this respect, St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk is a real shelter for people who suffer because they lack proper guidance in life. However, can the Convent help everybody?
    We're going through hard times when unemployment rates are soaring and people do not have jobs to support their families. This is why they come to work in our Convent. We provide jobs for about 1,500 people. It's surprising how the Lord finds something to do for everyone. More often than not, these people are very far from the Church. After they begin to work in the Convent, they gradually become practising Christians, confess, and take communion.
    When the government allocated a plot of land with a demolished farm, a rotten-through cowshed and a ruined horse stable for us in early 2000s, we were shocked: the Convent was being built, and we feared we wouldn't be able to manage a farm in addition to it. My obedience at that time consisted of visiting drug addicts in the psychiatric hospital. Many of them had nowhere to go after the course of treatment. That was how our farm turned into a shelter for drug addicts, and some time later, homeless people or former prisoners started to come there.
    In other words, there is a place for everyone in your Convent, isn't there?
    There are many mansions in our Father's house (smiles). The Lord says, «Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out». (John 6:37). On the other hand, people are corrupt nowadays: they cannot tolerate any criticism and retort immediately, "Where's your love you used to boast of?" That is the hardest thing to bear.
    Take, for instance, the brothers from the rehab. A person may have spent years on the street but as soon as he comes to the Convent and gets plenty of food and sleep, he begins to feel and behave like a hero. I'm guilty of that, too, I have to admit. It seems that if you have come to the Convent, you should serve God and wash everyone's feet, but we aren't satisfied: this sister said this, that sister looked at me like that, and so forth.
    The older generation is different. Those people lived in scarcity and were grateful for every penny. On the contrary, we have everything we need, like new and comfortable dormitories. This is an enormous disadvantage: we've got spoiled by abundance, and this is where all our problems begin. I read that in a convent in Moscow in the past people would bring bags of potato and hang them on the doors of nuns' cells, so the nuns ate only as much food as they had donated. Compare this with us who have everything at hand. This is why our efforts today should be aimed at spiritual practice.
    Yes, we present-day Orthodox are spoiled by the splendor of our churches and by the comfort, typical of many monasteries today. Many monastics admit it.
    The beauty of our churches is a sermon. When an individual comes to a monastery and sees this beauty, he can't but be impressed by it, and so he gets attracted to the Church and to God.
    Your Convent is open to the world. In Russia, we are used to monasteries that are isolated from lay people, but your Convent is different. Doesn't this openness harm the monastic sisters, what do you think? How can they combine active help to other people and prayer? How do you find the balance?
    The Lord gives everyone their own ministry. I feel that our Convent is what it is thanks to God's Providence about us. We have nuns, lay sisters, mentally challenged people, and socially vulnerable brothers and sisters who stay in our rehabilitation centers. The Lord brought us together, so this must have been his will.
    You don't need to become a recluse in order to fight the sin inside you. The beast that sits inside you is expressed in conversation through conflicts and disagreements. At the same time, when we serve people, we receive God's grace. When your life is limited to your church and your cell, all passions rise up inside your soul. Not everyone is able to stand up against such spiritual struggle.

    When our Convent was in the very beginning, there was a question if the nuns should visit the psychiatric hospital or not, and our spiritual father Archpriest Andrew stated, «If you have to sit in your cells, you will hit the ceiling». It doesn't mean we should abandon the cell, you know. It seems to me that there is no contradiction.
    Father Andrew often quotes an episode from a well-known biography of a holy hierarch, when bishops met a beautiful prostitute on the street one day. That holy hierarch gazed at her for so long that other bishops were embarrassed. After a while, the holy hierarch said, «If only we put as much effort into the embellishment of our souls as she does to make her body look appealing!» He prayed for that whore, and later she became a holy nun.
    You know, I read letters by Father John Krestyankin where he says that nuns and monks nowadays should not confine themselves to the cells. So many people today need spiritual help! It was the Lord who entrusted this ministry to us: we did not look for it. So we cannot isolate our Convent from the people. If they come here, we have to accept them.
    Yes, you're right, we may lose something important. However, I would like to point out that when the sisters, who travel with products made in our workshops and take part in various exhibitions, return to the convent, their faces are bright and happy, as it they never left their cells: they're filled with life and God's grace.
    And vice versa, a sister who is in the Convent all the time, may be gloomy and hard to please.
    The spiritual father of your Convent repeatedly emphasizes the need for unity, the communion of the nuns, the «white», i.e. lay sisters, and the Orthodox in general. Was it the original plan for the Convent?
    It developed naturally because the Convent was born of the Sisterhood. There was no special order or edict that a convent was to be built on this place. There were some sisters of mercy who had their obediences in the mental hospital, and in the meantime they decided that they wanted to live together. When we started building St Elisabeth Church, no one even thought about establishing a convent, but one year later, in August 1999, we performed our first tonsure. This day is considered to be our Convent's birthday.
    «The Blessing of Your Parents Shall Always Be With You»

    Mother, how did you find yourself in the Sisterhood? What brought you there?
    By that time I worked as an aide in the operation theatre at the Institute of Oncology. I liked my job very much and studied to become a nurse. One of the nurses at the Institute of Oncology was a churchgoer and invited me to go with her. That was how I started going to church.
    Unlike today, there were few easily accessible spiritual books in the 1990s, so I remember how I copied the prayers by hand. The first church books I read were The Mystery of Faith by the Rt Rev Hilarion (Alfeyev) and writings of St Silouan the Athonite. I read a book about St Sergius of Radonezh for the first time in Church Slavonic, as if I already knew this language. I understood everything.
    I took communion for the first time in 1994, on Pascha Sunday, in the Church in honour of Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. Father Andrew served the Akathist to the Holy Martyr Elisabeth Fyodorovna in that church on Sundays, followed by meetings of the Sisterhood in the parish office. Coming to church for the Akathist, I looked at the sisters of mercy with awe: there were about ten of them by that time, and they were very different from other parishioners.
    After the first meeting that I attended together with Sister Tatiana (currently Nun Tamara), Father Andrew blessed me to wear the white vestment of a sister and told me that they needed nurses in the boarding home. That was how I started working in the boarding home and visiting drug addicts in the psychiatric hospital as a sister of mercy. I was 26 at the time.
    Do your family members go to church often? How did your parents react to the path you chose to take in life?
    My mum wrote a letter to me, saying that, «Whatever you chose, your parents' blessing will always be with you». My parents weren't observant Christians at that time.
    The mental hospital is near the Convent, the patients attend services in the churches, and the sisters take care of them. Living side by side with such people must call for a certain kind of personality, full of patience, doesn't it? How do the nuns get used to it? Do some sisters have issues with this or they deliberately choose your convent out of the desire to serve people?
    First of all, yes, sisters know where they come. Secondly, almost all nuns used to be sisters of mercy who came to the Convent from the Sisterhood. «White» sisters continue to become nuns but today there are other sisters who come directly to the Convent, and even from other countries: we have sisters from Montenegro, Serbia, and Poland. It is a natural process for us; we don't pay too much attention to it. Of course, things may be tough for the sisters at times. However, we have monastic meetings in our Convent on a weekly basis. These meetings are an immense help for the sisters.
    Unity That Gives Birth to Salvation

    Speaking of meetings, your Convent has a very popular website with lots of useful information, including recordings of meetings of the Sisterhood since 2008, where sisters sometimes share their personal discoveries on their road to God. These recordings are very useful and edifying, I must admit.
    We have had the meetings of the Sisterhood since the beginning of its existence, and we added meetings of monastic sisters as soon as the Convent was founded. Nuns attend both kinds of meetings. Additionally, we hold meetings of the Monastic Council every week. The meetings of the «white» sisters and the nuns focus on dealing with everyday problems, discussions, sharing opinions and personal insights. These meetings are essential for us: they are a continuation of worship where we all gather around the Chalice.
    Three years ago, a book titled How We Live and How We Should Live: A Dialogue of Contemporary Christians, which contains excerpts from the meetings held in 2006-2011, was published by the Publishing House of the Convent. The spiritual father of the Convent, nuns and lay sisters share their experiences and spiritual knowledge. They discuss questions that are relevant for every Christian. Again, unity is the central point of these meetings because it is thanks to unity that the great salvation is born, as Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) used to say.
    We appreciate Father Sophrony very much. That's right, it is for the sake of unity that we come together.
    I'm not aware of any other way to remain close, kind and thoughtful of each other. It is easier to understand a person who expresses his thoughts.
    I recall monastic conferences for abbots and abbesses in Moscow. The Most Rev Theognost keeps calling upon and invoking the audience to ask questions and not be silent. We have similar situations when Father Andrew has to ask us, «Sisters, why are you silent? Don't you have anything to worry about?» (smiles)
    Have you been to SS Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy, established by Grand Princess Elisabeth Fyodorovna, during your trips to Moscow?
    I happened to visit this convent during the Nativity conference in January of this year. It goes without saying that the presence and the love of the Holy Martyr Elisabeth, whose name our Convent also bears, is visible there. By the way, there is an icon of St Sergius (Serebryansky), the confessor of SS Martha and Mary Convent, in our St Elisabeth Church.
    Mother Euphrosinia, have you and your sisters found the answer to the question «How should we live?» on the cover of that book?
    We are looking for the answer. You have to spend your entire life searching for the answer, it seems.
    Freedom and False Piety

    Do you have a strict charter in your convent?
    I don't think it is strict. In my opinion, having freedom and learning how to use that freedom is the hardest thing to do. We don't have limitations on where you can or cannot go. There is a good tradition in many convents for the abbess to assign daily chores to the sisters every morning. We can't do that because our daily schedules are imposed on us by the very nature of our obediences. For example, how can I order a sister who works in the legal department? They have specific work to do and fixed business hours. Or take the House of Love of Labour, where they have certain special schedules, too.
    What do you take into account when you assign duties? Do you ask the sisters what they would like to do?
    Naturally, I factor in everything: their talents, inclination, and wishes. This is, again, a sign of our time. People in the past used to do what they were told to do without much consideration. Today, you ask a sister, «Where would you like to work?» Perhaps, we have no other option, at least, that's what many people say…
    This is one of the reasons why we have regular meetings. It is during these meetings that we are able to discuss not just our daily issues but also deal with conflicts and disagreements, like you would expect from a family. You see, there is nothing worse than false piety, rigidity, and stubbornness. I mean, when one says «Forgive me», «Bless me» but secretly despises everyone.
    It is not a secret that lack of shared vision is a real problem for many monasteries. Why do people come to us? Because we have a spiritual father, and there is no conflict between the abbess and the spiritual father, which is very important. In fact, this is the most important thing. When people in a monastery start to take sides — one is for the abbess, another one is for the spiritual father — it's tragic.
    How to prevent it? Who is to blame?
    Everyone is to blame. Nevertheless, the abbess and the spiritual father are to blame first of all.
    Can the sisters of your Convent approach you directly with their problems?
    Sure! We have a simple, family-like way of doing things. At least, we would like it to be that way and do our best to ensure it.
    How do the sisters contact the spiritual father of the Convent?
    Father Andrew is in the Convent every day, except Thursday. He spends more time here with us than at home with his family. That's why, apart from his own children (who are adult already), he has 111 children-nuns. He is like a father for us.
    One of the sisters likened Father Andrew to a monk.
    He even has a cell in the Convent. He serves in the Convent on an almost daily basis; he hears the confessions of all sisters and many parishioners twice a week; he has meetings with «white» sisters, nuns, parishioners, and people who undergo treatment in our rehabilitation centres.
    The «Least Interesting» Person

    Currently, there are nine churches in the Convent, and yet another church is planned, the fourth church on the territory of the Convent. Is the main cathedral of the Convent — the Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God — not enough for everyone willing to take part in worship?
    When the Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God was being built, we thought that there would be enough space for everyone — it can accommodate 1,200 persons. However, many more people come to the Convent now, especially on feasts: people have to stand outdoors on Palm Sunday and Pascha, and there were about 1,500 people who took communion.
    Interior of the Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God
    This church is impressive, of course, just look at the mosaics!
    I read a story about SS Martha and Mary Convent in your magazine. There was a woman who criticised the sisters of this convent in the comments, saying that walls are easier to build than the spirit. The reporter invited that woman to come to the convent and see for herself how it is organised before criticising. People criticise us, too. They call us «merchants» or «Euronuns». You can take any exalted idea and distort and slander it.
    Our widespread activity and construction projects aren't goals in and of themselves. Do you remember how monks criticised St Moses of Optina when he decided to build a new guest house while the treasury was empty. He was doing it for the sake of visitors. It was thanks to this construction project that lay people could earn money and feed their families. We have the same situation, it's just that the world is different, circumstances are different, but in general, things aren't any different at all.
    His Beatitude Alexis II visited Minsk in 2008. It was him who consecrated the Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God. It was his last visit to Belarus and his last consecrated church. In order to commemorate this event, craftspeople who work in the Convent made a special «pencil», which His Beatitude used to put his name on a clay panel in that church. Mother Abbess, do you have some impressions of this visit to share with us?
    It was a historic event for our Convent. I recall it with great delight; I have only bright memories of that day. We all had been looking forward to seeing the Patriarch, so all our sisters were present in the Convent on that day. I remember how, when we were meeting the Patriarch, the nuns lined up outdoors, as usual, while the white sisters stood inside the church. It was truly beautiful and solemn. When Patriarch Alexis entered the church and saw the whole church occupied by sisters wearing white (there were about two hundred sisters of mercy at that time), he was struck with amazement: he had not expected it.
    Frankly speaking, we were pleasantly surprised to see so many people in the church on weekdays: the Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God is packed with people even on Friday night, during the Akathist. Are the majority of these people local to this neighbourhood?
    No, most of them come from other parts of the city or from other cities and towns.
    What do you think makes people come to the Convent?
    Perhaps, this is due to the fact that God's grace abides here. Beside that, they like our spiritual father, the Rev Andrew Lemeshonok, very much.
    Everything we have now is thanks exclusively to his inspiration. He sets everything in motion, and we follow his lead. Father Andrew keeps us awake and makes sure we don't sit idle.
    Yes, his vigour is something we can attest to. We have already experienced this «generous wash by Father Andrew»: he approached each person in the church after the Akathist and generously sprinkled them with holy water two or three times. We have never seen anything like this before. You wake up immediately, and that was great because we were sleepy after travelling by train…
    Yes, you're right (laughs)! Our spiritual father is a creative person. The sisters who come to the Convent are talented and creative, too. I'm the least interesting person in our Convent. I'm not sure you will be able to make an interview out of my answers.
    Anyway, the Lord has put you in charge of a convent with such an active social ministry. Abbess Sergia (Konkova), the Mother Superior of Diveevo St Seraphim Convent, told us in an interview that being an abbess is a cross. Based on your words, can we assume that it truly is a cross for you?
    Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:28: «And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not». I can only say that I have to humble myself down. Being an abbess is a straightjacket and a huge responsibility for me. You become as quiet as a lamb, even if you don't want to do so. In fact, I realise that another person should be the abbess instead of me but God knows best. I sometimes wish someone would let me out of this straightjacket and give it to somebody else (smiles).
    As far as I know, there was a different Mother Superior in this Convent at first. She didn't spend a long time in this capacity, did she?
    Yes, our first Mother Superior had been the Senior Sister of the Sisterhood, but they appointed me to this post in March 2000, a year after the Convent was founded. The previous Mother Superior was dreaming of an isolated cloister but it wasn't like that since the very beginning. There are several hospitals and a boarding home nearby, and our sisters visited the ill but many other people needed our help, too. Our first Mother Superior did not want the nuns to visit the ill. By the way, her dream of a quiet convent has come true: today she is in a isolated and quiet place.
    On the contrary, the Lord led me to becoming a nun via the Sisterhood, and I don't quite get it why a monastic cannot help the ill and tell them about Jesus. Sometimes people find it hard to ask a priest for advice with regard to their personal issues; they find it easier to tell a sister about them, and then the sister sends them to a priest, to church, and explains the need to confess and take communion.
    In a word, this is what I mean when I say «practical Orthodox mission».
    Mission, yes. I will even go so far as calling it an apostolate. Yes, we do spoil everything but the Lord acts through us for the sake of the people, you see? The sisters tell me how God teaches them during their obedience and helps them to say the right words.
    A Catholic saint Mother Theresa said that she was «a pencil in God's hands».
    It turns out that you need these people, not vice versa; it isn't you who helps them — it is they that help you. You simply can't comprehend how you lived in this world without it.
    One of your nuns remarked that if you didn't visit the ill on Pascha, you have missed something and your joy isn't full.
    Exactly. One needs to share joy with someone else. If you want to be happy, you shouldn't spare yourself, and God will grant you everything you need a hundredfold. You should try to notice your neighbour and share something with them because you can only be happy if you give something away.
    Mother Euphrosinia, you said that you had your first communion on a Pascha. Is the Paschal joy of a monastic different from that of a lay person, in your opinion? Do monastics have a unique experience of this main Orthodox holiday?
    Pascha is a transition. It seems to me that no one on Earth experiences it to the fullest — neither monastics, nor laypeople. However, even if you aren't happy on this holiday, your soul is still touched by the Resurrection.

    Click to learn more about St.Elisabeth Convent

    You Simply Have To… Die

    St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk is famous for its active educational and cultural outreach. The Three Parables film series and chants by the Festive Choir of the Convent, conducted by Nun Juliania (Denisova), the precentor-in-chief, have gained widespread popularity. When this choir came to Moscow for the first time, we, then students of the Orthodox university, were greatly impressed; later, spiritual songs by Nun Juliana were sung practically by the entire Orthodox world. Documentaries The Precentor and The Nun about her path to becoming a nun were a hit, although critical voices were also heard. There was a similar situation with Hieromonk Photius (Mochalov) who won at The Voice TV show. Mother Euphrosinia, what do you think about creative self-expression by monastics?

    It wouldn't happen if it weren't useful. No one treats Nun Juliania like a celebrity here. It is just a given to us. There was some negative feedback after The Nun, but mostly it was positive.
    Does she as a nun find it difficult to cope with increased attention? She woke up to become famous; people ask her for autographs. A book she had written prior to becoming a nun has seen the light recently.
    She definitely finds it a hard thing to deal with, and she admits it during our meetings. That's how I look at it: you can do nothing, sit in your cell, never express yourself in any way, hide from the world, but your pride won't disappear because you can consider yourself great even if you don't do anything. The less you do, the greater you imagine yourself to be. On the contrary, this situation reveals everything that is hidden, especially pride and vainglory.

    Order a copy of the DVD The Nun

    When someone takes the veil, she dies for the world. How do we understand these words correctly, if the monastic carries out her mission in this world? I don't mean dying for the world per se; I'm trying to infer that monastic living may be as diverse as it gets. Our perception of monastic life is often one-sided: a monk is thought to be a person who doesn't talk to anyone, doesn't smile, stares at the ground and sits in voluntary confinement.
    Of course one can read many books and find far-fetched quotations, but the truth is that monasticism has had various faces since the beginning. For example, St Joseph Volotsky and St Nil Sorsky had different callings but the same purpose, so they had no problem dealing with one another, they liked one another. There were three hospitals and a dedicated church for the mentally ill in the monastery of St Theodosius the Great who is considered to be the founder of coenobitic monasteries.
    If our Convent was established in a remote village or in the woods, we would live there praying and working with our hands. Nevertheless, the Lord founded this Convent here, where there are so many ill people in need of support and love.
    People are reluctant to forgive a monastic who has simple human weaknesses. They imagine that he should not be annoyed or get angry, as if he were dead. Ideally yes, that's how it should be. This is our goal but we haven't become Angels yet. Why is it so difficult for some people to understand it?
    You can't expect us to be like St Poemen the Great or St Sergius of Radonezh. St Ignatius (Bryanchaninov) said that monastics were superhuman in the ancient times, but the lay people were stronger in faith, too: they prayed and lived in piety [1].
    Where do I as an abbess find the necessary experience to be like them? I was a lazy and disobedient girl who came to church to be purified, cleansed, adorned by the Lord who blessed me to become a nun and then an abbess. You can’t learn everything at once. This is why we serve God to the best of our abilities and we learn all the time. We make many mistakes and surprisingly enough, given our unique ability to mess everything up, the Lord still manages to build something.

    You Simply Have to Love, this song by Nun Juliania (Denisova) that many people consider to be their favourite song, lists the virtues that lead to salvation. In fact, all of these virtues boil down to one: you simply have to... die. Is such genuine, authentic monasticism possible nowadays?

    Of course, it is. Everything depends on how the person responds to God’s calling.

    Monastyrskii Vestnik (The Monastic Herald)
    Interview by Christina Polyakova
    June 26, 2016

    [1] “What can you demand from monasteries if the world sends corrupt people to them, if they are surrounded by immorality, if immorality dominates them? This wound is healed only by death.”

    “Many people complain about monastics, and go searching for their flaws. However, monastics are a barometer that stands in a remote and isolated room and accurately shows the weather outdoors.” (St Ignatius Bryanchaninov. Letters to Various People, vol.7).

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