Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

By Michael Plekon
University of Notre Dame Press, 336 pages, $18
Edited by Michael Plekon
Rwoman & Littlefield, 272 pages, $30
The Golden Age of Russian Orthodoxy

Reviewed by JERRY RYAN

The Russian religious renaissance, which began to take shape during the latter part of the 19th century, culminated in the Great Council of the Russian Church in 1917 and 1918. There were great hopes of a profound revitalization, of the transformation of a bureaucratic, static and subservient institution into a living and dynamic witness to the world of the power and beauty of the Gospel.

Other forces, however, were also at work. The Bolshevist revolution made the council irrelevant. Many of the participants in the spiritual renewal regrouped in France where they founded the St. Sergius Institute in order to keep alive what could be saved from the ashes of their hopes. This new, unwanted situation presented them with challenges and surprises that no one could have anticipated. They found themselves poor, often desperately poor, and often humiliated -- but also free from any dependence on the state. They had dreamed of a Russian church open to the world and in dialogue with it, but the world in which they found themselves was not Holy Mother Russia; it was the Western world.

The result of all this was a mutual enrichment. Without forsaking their own tradition, these exiles strove to adapt to their new situation and the religious pluralism that surrounded them. They discovered the riches of other traditions, experienced the kindness and help of non-Orthodox Christians, gradually emerged from their ghetto mentality and shared their particular wisdom with others. This was true ecumenism at its very best. The great theological renewal in the Catholic church that terminated in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) owes much to the fresh insights that the Russian theologians brought to Europe. Congar, Chenu, Danielou, de Lubac, Tillard -- to name just a few -- drew inspiration from the ecclesiology elaborated by these Orthodox thinkers. Perhaps even more important still, their theology was in the context of a spirituality refined by suffering and persecution and channeling an acute sensitivity to certain aspects of the Gospel mysteries that had long lain dormant in the Western world.

Two complementary books by Michael Plekon revisit this “golden age” of dialogue and renewal. Living Icons consists of profiles of 10 Orthodox personalities who were influential in this renewal and an overview of their works (Seraphim of Sarov, Sergius Bulgakov, Maria Skobtsova, Lev Gillet, Paul Evdokimov, Gregory Krug, Nicolas Afanasiev, Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, Alexander Man). Tradition Alive is made up of extracts from the writings of many of these figures plus a few others.

Near the end of Tradition Alive, Alexander Schmemann has a piece titled “Concerning the Personal Nature of Faith”: “Only when one or another teaching of the church, one or another dogma -- that is the affirmation of a certain truth -- becomes my faith, my experience and, consequently, the very context of my life, only then does this faith truly live. … If one considers the question of the transmission of faith from one person to another, it is clear that the only convincing and inspiring experience is the personal one. … Each discreet faith, the faith of each one, although rooted in a common faith, is at the same time unique.”

Realities of faith

This simple but not always evident truth is what links Plekon’s two books. Each one of the essays in Tradition Alive has an “edge,” an original way of focusing on the realities of faith, and this freshness is rooted in the lived experience of the authors. Living Icons indicates the sources from which a living tradition flows. These were theologians who studied on their knees and theologized with love, who were mystics and often poets, who found their inspiration in prayer and liturgy. Although they occasionally disagreed among themselves, they more frequently built upon one another’s intuitions, developing latent implications, correcting short sights. Wonderful things came forth which call out for further elaboration.

In one of his catechetical instructions, Alexander Man -- the charismatic Russian priest assassinated in 1990 -- talks of the problem of unworthy priests. Is the sacrament still accomplished? “The great teaching of the church [is] that the sacrament … is performed by you, by the entire church. You perform it according to your faith. God responds to the voice of the church and not to the -- may we call it -- arbitrary word of the priest. … It is the community that performs the sacrament although, indeed, by the priest’s hands.”

In the Byzantine liturgy this is made palpable by the “amen” of the congregation to the words of institution and a triple “amen” at the epiclesis. This is what the royal priesthood of the faithful means, this is the church, you and I, making the Eucharist. In all our talk about the empowerment of the laity has thought been given to this sacramental power rooted in the antique tradition and constant practice of the church?

Unity in Eucharist

If the church makes the Eucharist, the Eucharist makes the church. This is the great truth that Nicolas Afanasiev explores. The Eucharist is one in time and space and cannot be divided because the Body of Christ is indivisible. Thus, where the Eucharist is, there is the church in its plentitude. This radically changes the whole context of ecumenism and Catholic-Orthodox relations. Whatever might be the juridical and doctrinal conflicts between the churches, these are powerless to destroy the efficacy of the sacraments. There is a fundamental unity in the Eucharist that exists as a fact and needs only to be realized. This gives a whole new seriousness to the term “sister churches.”

The above are simply a few examples that illustrate the depth and breadth of the visions of these “prophets.” For them, tradition was a sacred heritage, enriched by all the saints who have preceded us -- but it is a living heritage, continually searching and learning, constantly adapting itself to times and circumstances. There is no place for sectarianism or banalities in such a vision.

One of the background themes of Plekon’s books is that these figures are being ignored by contemporary Orthodoxy: Their freedom and mold-breaking audacity are considered by many to be dangerous and disruptive. Plekon feels strongly that they deserve a better fate. His project hopes to revive their memory and intuitions. This is a very worthy and important project -- not only for Orthodoxy but for the universal church. The theological renewal of the last century cut across confessional lines and produced the momentum that led to Vatican II and the great hope of a proximate reunification of East and West. This momentum has also been lost in the Catholic church. The groundbreaking theologians of the past who shaped the council are seldom evoked and those who tried to build on their intuitions have been questioned -- if not stifled. Instead, we have the sad spectacle of a church obsessed with birth control and same-sex marriages, with damage control and micromanagement of consciences as though it had nothing better to do, as though the grandiose hope of a new Pentecost was irrelevant.

For Plekon his “icons” are, indeed, very much alive and their tradition must be kept alive. They are not relics of the past but instruments of a Presence who is constantly revealing all that Jesus has said and done and renewing the face of the earth. The spirit of prophecy is always offered to the church but there must be a predisposition to receive it.

Jerry Ryan is a freelance writer who has worked for many years at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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