It helps to remember how Ideology works. This helps us understand why some ideologically possessed persons will respond in shock and disgust that people would even have an issue with the gillette advert. And why they might be patronising and act as if this only proves the point; ”They don’t like their provilege being checked”, ”patriarchy gets upset at problem (toxic masculinity) created by patriarchy”, etc. They no longer see people as individuals but are filtering the world throught these pungent ahistorical and ideological goggles. See Kevin K’s review of Kenneth Minogue’s book again for the matrix we’re situated in here: ”First a note on terminology: In Alien Powers Minogue uses the term “pure ideology” (or “ideology” for short) as a technical term for theories of oppression. The nature of these theories will become clearer as we proceed, but—generally speaking—ideology claims that the “freedom” of modern society is a facade; in reality there is a hidden, oppressive social structure, and a divide between two classes: oppressors and oppressed. Ideology reveals the hard truth the sheeple aren’t supposed to see, i.e., everything in the modern world is a form of domination: ordinary language, institutions, manners, ways of life. All practices benefit an alien other (the “alien powers” of the book’s title). Minogue sees this as a dominant idiom of our time, a “creative art form” used by all sorts of activists to build their own theories/movements. The original template is Marx. As Minogue observes: “Whitehead exaggerated when he said that philosophy was but a series of footnotes to Plato; but there is hardly any exaggeration at all in saying that ideology is a footnote to Marx” (P. 38).

For Marx the oppressors were the bourgeoisie, and the oppressed were the proletariat. In retrospect, we know this old-fashioned strain of ideology suffered a long decline, but the underlying framework has flourished. Over time, it has evolved into an ever-growing array of imitators and new “proletariats.” A classic example (often cited by Minogue) is feminism, and its claim that men oppress women through an all-pervasive system called the patriarchy. Other examples include: white people oppressing minorities, imperialists oppressing natives, humans oppressing animals, a hidden Jewish cabal oppressing non-Jews, attractive people oppressing the homely (lookism), religious people oppressing atheists, age-ism, able-ism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity etc. Ideology is so protean that today even religions (part of the regime of oppression according to Marx) make claims to being oppressed by a hostile “system.” In part, Alien Powers is interesting because it looks at ideologies as a general type rather than individual doctrines, thereby offering a bird’s eye view of this strange phenomenon. This helps one to see patterns, and get some much-needed objectivity.

As a system of thought, ideology has a strong emotional (even vituperative) component, and it may seem harsh to doubt the prima facie reality of oppression. (Indeed reflexive concern for the oppressed accounts for much of ideology’s persuasive power.) Of course there’s no doubt that some oppression is real. However ideology is a slippery and dangerous thing. Consider the well-known horrors of Communism. Gulags, show trials and mass killings have been driven by ideology, and justified (quite sincerely, I believe) by concern for the oppressed. Or consider an example that Minogue raises: the radical feminist doctrine that sexual intercourse is “occupation of the oppressed by the oppressor” (P. 47). Should that view be uncritically accepted (particularly since it is being expressed by a member of the oppressed class)? What about the ideology of anti-Semitism, according to which non-Jews are oppressed by a hidden structure of Jewish media and financial control? Surely that shouldn’t be taken at face value. These issues obviously can’t be sorted out here. My point is simply that a skeptical attitude is warranted toward ideologies (and claims of oppression).

One of the basic motifs of ideology is the idea of brainwashing (what Marxists call “false consciousness”). Ideology claims that, under the veneer, society is an ugly, all-pervasive system of oppression. It’s oddly reminiscent of the ancient Gnostic idea that the material world is dominated by the Devil. But if that’s the case, why don’t the proles notice the oppression and spontaneously revolt? The answer is that people are brainwashed by the system to actually enjoy and assist in their own oppression. Suppose, for argument’s sake, that 90% of the women in a certain country prefer being housewives. The ideological response would be that these women have been brainwashed by the patriarchy, and need to be educated. They aren’t facing reality. Minogue raises some important points about such brainwashing claims. First, they show the conflict between ideology and democracy. Surely brainwashed fools should not be allowed to determine their own destiny or affect policy? A related principle is what Minogue calls Talmon’s Fork: “Either a democratic vote elects the enlightened to power, or it does not. If so, it is unnecessary. If not it is pernicious” (P. 238). Second, the doctrine of mass-brainwashing is ironic: ideology, despite its pretense of egalitarianism, requires an elite to tell the deluded masses what is actually going on. Third, the brainwashing charge is convenient from a rhetorical standpoint. If a woman disagrees with feminism, that simply proves she’s been brainwashed, and is a tool of the oppressors. Indeed, a housewife’s stubborn claims of not being oppressed are damning evidence that she actually is oppressed.

Ideology has an unstable hybrid nature. On one hand, it aspires to be scientific, and enjoy the prestige of the academy. Marx himself made the grandiose (and obviously false) claim that he had discovered a science of history. (Vestiges of this strain of thought are still evident today, e.g., in talk about irreversible progress, and the “right side of history” or—to use Trotsky’s phrase—the “dustbin of history.”) On the other hand, ideology has an impatience for action which conflicts with the dispassionate standards of the academy. This is what gives ideology its melodramatic, Manichaean tone. You can’t motivate people to revolt based on an objective picture of The Other. Even a trace of sympathy or positive understanding will sap the will to act. As the communist Rubashov puts it in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon: “It is necessary to hammer every sentence into the head of the masses by repetition and simplification. What is presented as right must shine like gold; what is presented as wrong must be black as pitch.” Or in the words of Minogue: “Politics is impossible between oppressor and oppressed. There can only be total war.”

This highlights another feature of ideology: its rigid, didactic certainty. Minogue compares it to religious revelation. As he points out, the academy is generally a low-key place concerned with workaday facts, and scholars are unperturbed (or even thrilled) if their field gets turned upside-down by new findings or theories. Detached scientific thinking of this sort is anathema to ideology. Basic ideological “truths”—like the identification of the oppressor/oppressed, or the existence of the hidden oppressive system—are simply not on the table, and must never be subjected to dispassionate questioning. Skepticism about ideology insults the oppressed, and gives succor to the oppressor. Rejection of the imperative to cause change results in mere “fact-grubbing.” Bourgeois science. This means ideology can only be criticized on its own terms. It does not allow for the existence of any “neutral” position, where facts might be objectively assessed. Critics are derisively labeled and forced into roles within the ideologist’s melodrama. At the extreme, this ramifies into ideas like “the academy is a tool of the bourgeois” or “logic and science are the creation of white males, and part of the oppressive structure.” In short, ideologists rule academics out of court. All thought reflects interests, and anyone not fully on board with ideological certainties (i.e., an oppressor) doesn’t have standing to respond.

Here I’ve sketched a few of the most interesting themes of Alien Powers. It’s a very stimulating book, but does have a number of problems. First it was written in 1985, during the Cold War, and is too focused on Marxism proper. Minogue wrote in the early phase of today’s “ideology explosion,” and though he was well ahead of the curve, he missed some of its most salient elements. For example, Marxism was concerned with eliminating individualism/egoism and strengthening community/solidarity; whereas today’s ideologies encourage individualism. Gender-identity, for example, has fragmented into a kaleidoscopic variety of types. In a similar vein, Communist states tended to resist cosmopolitanism (e.g., the isolation of the USSR), whereas modern ideologies embrace it. This struck me as the biggest disconnect between Minogue’s analysis and current conditions.

But it raises an interesting, indeed ideological, question: Is 21st century ideology focused on individualism/cosmopolitanism because those trends serve the interests of the era’s dominant powers, e.g., large corporations and governments? One could make a good case along those lines. Classic Marxism was fixated on economic and political power; it was a genuine threat to wealth and the status quo. Today’s ideologies, on the other hand, are focused on culture and lifestyle — “cultural Marxism” as the phrase goes. Isn’t that exactly the sort of “revolution” that the status quo would prefer people channel their energies into? Could it be that ideology itself has been (paradoxically) turned into a tool of domination?

Minogue mentions an interesting political strategy: a central government may ally itself with ordinary citizens, and advocate for their rights, as a way to break the power of the mid-level nobility which stands in the way of greater central power. Consider the Solidarity trade union movement of the 1980s, and its fight against the communist party in Poland. The revolt was driven by mid-level organizations like trade unions and the Catholic church. Groups like unions, religions, nations and ethnicities have the size and inclination to resist centralized power, so it serves the interest of a central power to ally with individuals and fragment these blocks. If the strategy works, intermediate groups are dissolved leaving only two layers: powerful states/corporations, and easily-controlled atomized individuals. “Happiness” and “individuality” can be the bait/reward component of this strategy. Compare this with Classic Marxism, which flatly rejected happiness as a goal. It was the ultimate no-nonsense ideology, with a laser-like focus on seizing the levers of power.” This zero-sum game directly contradicts The Scriptures, which wants the glory of God to be human beings fully alive, men and women living and loving in harmony.


Go With The Flow?

trinity knot Hint… We’re Marlin.                                                                                                                                                                So, I recently read Fr Richard Rohr’s book on The Trinity: The Divine Dance… and for all it’s faults, a whole lot fell into place. Often, my mother will say to me in an attempt to assuage anxiety or combat compulsiveness, ”Life finds a way!” To be honest, I’ve found it hard to get what she meant entirely. Fr Rohr’s book has helped me here. I have read criticisms of Rohr’s notion of ‘the flow’ etc and perichoresis as dancing. I was aware whilst reading that they way he describes the Trinity is not sufficient; underminging the Personhood of The Three Divine Persons and this does massively undermine his conclusions. I was also wary of his tendency to blur the distinction between Creator and creation.*1 I’ve composed a review and some notes on how it may be viewed in light of more scholarly and orthodox works: Fr Rohr gets a lot of heat for heterodox elements to his work and that’s justified in places but he witnesses to much that is beautifully orthodox and is a fine, engaging writer. Rich in metaphor and Incarnate images which speak to us in language we can imbibe. His ‘third way’ approach, often offered as a both/and to a conservative-liberal dichotomy is good and speaks to something real. However, he doesn’t apply it consistently and makes silly distinctions between those with some kind of ‘higher consciousness’ and others who apparently are just stuck in ‘dualistic thinking’. This is fine sometimes, others it is not and fails to take seriously real difference and fidelity. The framework he’s using is not always Biblical and tiered binaries do exist, with different roles for different persons and things that cannot be collapsed into language drawn from critical theory, feminism and modern other modern sophistries. See Dr Alice Linsley’s pieces about such Biblical binaries. Commitment to things like commandments, believe it or not, is integral all through the spiritual life; if I read the scriptures correctly. They’re not something to be cast aside at ‘higher levels of the spiritual life’, which Fr Richard at times seems to imply. By focusing too much on a chronological and Wilber-esque perennialist approach to the spiritual life. In this way, he lapses into chaos and fails to walk the Christian tightrope of chaos and order. This is particularly problematic when dealing with evil and his ‘therapeutic’ approach is not the Bible’s whole story on that matter. There’s a spiritual semblance of confusing equality of opportunity with equality of outcome and lack of discernment; dare I say. His placing of things like sin in adverted commas, and trying to psychologise it, while I get what he’s trying to do; still isn’t right- theologically or morally. It doesn’t respect the role of evil, the demons, our freedom, etc. Another failure to balance restorative and retributive. The same basic pattern on other points undermines an otherwise excellent book. At times, it seems to be chasing after the winds of fashion- universalism, liberation theology etc and reeks of ideology more than revelation. (*See Bauckham on Universalism and Minogue’s Alien Powers on ideology.) Rohr also appears to contradict himself by, first rightfully respecting creation, the body and the material that God uses but then referring to ‘just external rituals’, etc… Sure, he’s likely referring to those who perform rituals without the spirit but he doesn’t make the distinction clear enough or admit that the rituals, commandments, etc need to be transformed themselves and integrated into the holistic vision at multiple levels rather than his preferred imagery of them being transcended at higher levels. He undermines the particular and personal in a quest to get to the Cosmic. This is iportant because a Christian liturgy can’t be substituted by one from another ‘religion’. Schmemann and Vonoth Ramachandra make this clear! Ironically, his own ‘rule of three’ supposes both. These little things matter as much at the end as they do early on. Similarly, he fails to balance the paradoxical descriptions of God- it’s all Lamb and no Lion of Judah for him. This is a fashion in much wishy-washy theology today. Most of the book is great though and there are a great many gems, as well as practical suggestions drawn from deep experiences over many years and study. Even when we disagree he’s interesting and makes you think and feel and consider God’s presence in penetrating ways. See this beauty for example: ”In Rublev’s icon there are three primary colors, which illustrate facets of the Holy One, all contained in the Three.
Rublev considered gold the color of “the Father”—perfection, fullness, wholeness, the ultimate Source.
He considered blue the color of “the Human”—both sea and sky mirroring one another—and therefore God in Christ taking on the world, taking on humanity. Thus, Rublev pictures the Christ as blue, displaying his two fingers to tell us that he has put spirit and matter, divinity and humanity, together within himself—and for us!
And then there’s green, easily representative of “the Spirit.” Hildegard of Bingen, the German Benedictine abbess, musical composer, writer, philosopher, mystic, and overall visionary, living three centuries before Rublev, called the Spirit’s endless fertility and fecundity veriditas—a quality of divine aliveness that makes everything blossom and bloom in endless shades of green.
Hildegard was likely inspired by the lushness of her surroundings at her Rhineland monastery, which I was recently able to visit. Rublev, in similar reverence for the natural world, chose green to represent, as it were, the divine photosynthesis that grows everything from within by transforming light into itself—precisely the work of the Holy Spirit.
Is that good or what?
The Holy One in the form of Three—eating and drinking, in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment between themselves. If we take the depiction of God in The Trinity seriously, we have to say, “In the beginning was the Relationship.”
This icon yields more fruits the more you gaze on it.” Amen brother.
                               So, when not taken too literally, the basic thrust of what he’s saying causes you to meditate on God’s Presence in a more dynamic fashion and can be recapitulated for good. The outpouting life of The Trinity and our call to involvement in that divine life is the life she’s talking about. Life guided by Persons worth trusting. And a life that follows patterns. Centrally, a pattern of life, death and resurrection and recurring symbols; often startling in their depth and simple complexity. (See Rohr, Behr, Paul E Miller  on the life, death and rebirth pattern. Also see Logos Made Flesh on the patterns of reality and Jonathan Pageau.) This cosmic drama is to be experienced in the here and now.1.5 Shamefully, I’ve found and still find it hard to trust the Person behind this but reality really is personal. It becomes easier to consider this when we focus with on our meaningful relationships with other people, who we know and long to know personally; beyond concepts and abstractions. How much more so with the Persons of God if that’s where we reach our fulfillment? This is all a part of the scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks of The Gospel.*2                                                                                                                                              Certain themes and motifs in many marvellous books I’ve read on the divine life keep flowing into my consciousness now and begin to incarnate in my imagination. I’m starting to reconsider what I thought was mundane or trite. For example, when I think of my landlady and her prayer group praying for hours on end in a cold winter night over two thousand years after The Christ, when you’ll hardly find a believer in this grand cosmopolis, it’s clearer that this is not nonsense. There is a real meaning to what they’re doing and God is present. Despite all the artifices we create to deceive ourselves. Fr Rohr describes this reality even beyond our conscious get -togethers with others. Witness how he describes this existential ‘Primal Prayer‘- What prayer becomes, in this divine rest, is experiential knowledge of the flow. Prayer is not primarily the spoken or read word. That might be a second or third level of prayer, but not the primary one. Primal prayer is where you can in truth pray always, where you can live in conscious communion with the divine indwelling, with the Spirit who was poured out so universally and graciously upon all creation, upon all nations and languages. Primal prayer does not mean waiting for some mythical, projected future “spiritual” state, but waking up inside your life, right now, in the present moment.”                                                                                                                                                                 Fr Henri Nouwen has called our attention to shibboleths of mundane distraction and how to overcome them; writing about our false self-rejection and true belovedness: Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.*3
                                                                                                                                                             This is the case all over the world and has been throughout time. It begs of wonder. Attention which is standing above and inclusive of doubt but rooted in the openess of wonder that sits at the table with The Trinity. It makes more sense of the whole of life if we begin in wonder rather than doubt. Abraham Joshua Heschel was right about this.*4

Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge. Doubt comes in the wake of knowledge as a state of vacillation between two contrary or contradictory views, as a state in which a belief we had embraced begins to totter. It challenges the mind’s accounts about reality and calls for an examination and verification of that which is deposited in the mind. In other words, the business of doubt is one of auditing the mind’s accounts about reality rather than a concern with reality itself; it deals with the content of perception rather than with perception itself.

“Doubt is not applied to that which we have an immediate awareness of. We do not doubt that we exist or that we see; we merely question whether we know what we see or whether that which we see is a true reflection of what exists in reality. Thus, it is after perception has been crystallized in a conception that doubt springs up.

“Doubt, then, is an interdepartmental activity of the mind. First we see; next we judge and form an opinion and thereafter we doubt. In other words, to doubt is to question that which we have accepted as possibly true a moment ago. Doubt is an act of appeal, a proceeding by which a logical judgment is brought from the memory to the critical faculty of the mind for re-examination. Accordingly, we must first judge and cling to a belief in our judgment before we are able to doubt. But if we must know in order to question, if we must entertain a belief in order to cast doubt upon it, then doubt cannot be the beginning of knowledge.

“Wonder goes beyond knowledge. We do not doubt that we doubt, but we are amazed at our ability to doubt, amazed at our ability to wonder. He who is sluggish will berate doubt; he who is blind will berate wonder. Doubt may come to an end; wonder lasts forever. Wonder is a state of mind in which we do not look at reality through the latticework of our memorized knowledge, in which nothing is taken for granted. Spiritually we cannot live by merely reiterating borrowed or inherited knowledge. Inquire of your soul what does it know, what does it take for granted. It will tell you only no-thing is taken for granted; each thing is a surprise; being is unbelievable. We are amazed at seeing anything at all, amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all.”
Man Is Not Alone

The supposed antinomic relationships between the spiritual and the real, the public and the private and ‘faith and reason’ are suffocatingly restrictive fictions. Rabbi Sacks’ marvellous book on Meaning made manifest throughout the grand scales of human history demonstrates this point amply:*5

“So meaning is made, not just discovered. That is what religion for the most part is: the constant making and remaking of meaning, by the stories we tell, the rituals we perform and the prayers we say. The stories are sacred, the rituals divine commands, and prayer a genuine dialogue with the divine. Religion is an authentic response to a real Presence, but it is also a way of making that presence real by constantly living in response to it. It is truth translated into deed.”

Likewise, Fr Alexander Men who has taught me just what we mean by Divine Service.*6For “to serve” meant to serve a meal, as when it is said that a woman “serves at table” when feeding her guests. When pagans conducted their ceremonial meal they believed that the deity was present, and that they entertained him not merely to feed him, but to make him a brother, someone dear, and so that he would take his place among them. ”                                                                                                                                                               We prepare a table for God in return of His call to us*7,

The Call and Response

”I think it is safe to say that there is nothing more basic to human existence than the call and response structure. It is, quite simply, the very structure of our lives.

If you’ve never read Scripture in terms of call and response, you may not have noticed just how frequently it occurs. It’s virtually everywhere. Consider how the world comes into being: God says, “‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). So the very beginning of the world is the result of a call—God calls, and the world suddenly comes into existence.[10] The pattern does not end there: it continues in all of God’s dealings with the world. God calls to Adam and Eve in the garden (his call to them after partaking of the fruit is particularly poignant, for now they are reluctant to respond). Then, in the midst of a broken humanity, God calls Abraham to go to a foreign land where he will make Abraham’s descendants into a new nation (Gen. 12).

In Gen. 22, we get both the call and the classic form of the response. God calls out: “Abraham!” And Abraham responds: “Here I am” (Gen. 22:1). Abraham gives what turns out to be the standard biblical reply, saying (in Hebrew) hinneni. But what does hinneni mean? In effect, Abraham humbly says, “Here I am, your servant. I am at your disposal. Tell me what you want me to do!” This is a particularly moving passage, for God goes on to say, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Gen. 22:2).

To say that Abraham must have been surprised would be a huge understatement: God is asking him to sacrifice the very son through whom God has promised to build a great nation. But Abraham does exactly what God tells him to do, and the book of Hebrews celebrates him for his faith and trust in God (Heb. 11:17).

This structure of call and response continues in Scripture. When God calls to Moses from the burning bush, God says: “Moses, Moses!” To that call, Moses replies: “Here I am” (Exod. 3:4). Similarly, God calls to Samuel who responds: “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10). Indeed, Mary says to the angel that visits her: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Perhaps the ultimate call in the Hebrew Bible is: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut. 6:4).[11] In any case, we are constantly being called by God to give the reply “here I am,” which signals our utter openness to God’s command. Again, once one notes this structure, one sees it throughout all of Scripture. And it soon becomes clear that call and response is the most fundamental structure to our lives.

Consider the classic spiritual:

Hush! Hush! Somebody’s calling my name

Hush! Hush! Somebody’s calling my name

Hush! Hush! Somebody’s calling my name

O my Lord, O my Lord, what shall I do?

Isn’t this always the case? Somebody’s calling my name. I hear the call and I’m faced with questions such as: What shall I do? What shall I do? What shall I do? Who is this I who is being called? And what happens to this I in being called?

Even though this pattern of call and response goes back at least as far as creation, there is no one call, even in the creation narrative. Instead, there are multiple calls—calls upon calls—and thus responses upon responses, an intricate web that is ever being improvised, resulting in a ceaseless reverberation of call and response. Since this is such an important theme, we will consider it at length in chapter 1.

Presenting Ourselves as Art

In light of this most basic call—God’s call to us to be at his disposal—I turn to another call, one that has to do with artistic creation. One of Saint Paul’s best-known exhortations is that we present ourselves as a sacrifice to God. He writes:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Rom. 12:1)

What if we were to read this verse with this small change of wording: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your

bodies as a living, sacrificial work of art”? True, we don’t usually think of ourselves as works of art. But why not? Are we not among the greatest works of art that God—the ultimate artist—has created? Without doubt, God’s agency is what brings us into being; as the psalmist reminds us, “it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps. 100:3 KJV). However, Paul goes on in verse 2 to say, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). People will certainly disagree as to the extent of God’s agency in shaping us, but clearly Paul is indicating that we are very much involved in this process. That is, God has created each of us and now calls us to help shape and mold what he has created.

One way of putting this call is as follows: God has created us in his image. Thus, if God is a creator, we are likewise intended by God to be creators. Of course, we are not “creators” in the strong sense that God is: only God can bring forth creation from nothing. Indeed, as I argue in chapters 2 and 3, we are likely to go wrong in our thinking about ourselves as artists when we see ourselves as “like” God. But, still, we have the God-given ability to “create”—or, better yet, improvise—which is both a great honor and a mandate from God. Just as we are called to “be fruitful and multiply,” so we are called to be creative in all

that we do. After all, one of our most creative acts is precisely that of creating sons and daughters. As creators, we are called to a wonderfully meaningful life. We are not called to live in rote obedience to God; we are called to be creative in all that we do—as opposed to living a life of sheer industrial labor.

So God calls us to be artists, not in some specialized sense, but in our very being. It is this sense of being an artist that is most fundamental: all other senses are derivative from it. The idea that we should view ourselves as works of art becomes even clearer when we consider what Paul says in Eph. 2:10 (RSV): “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The word translated as “workmanship” could quite easily—and very literally—be translated as “work of art.” For the Greek term is ποίημα (poiēma), which happens to be a form of the term ποίησις (poiēsis). Poiēsis is used to denote the kind of knowledge involved in making art. So Paul quite explicitly says that we are God’s works of art, a meaning that the English term “workmanship” fails to capture adequately. As God’s artworks, we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” and we fulfill God’s intentions for us when we “walk” in those good works. Paul reminds us that we “have been saved through faith” and that this is “the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Indeed, our very being is a gift!”

 How interesting that we re-member this all in Church, focusing on passionate sacrificial love, centrally in the form of an altar; which is a family dinner table of sorts. Imagine coming home to share everything you’ve done that day and opening yourself up to the adventures and experiences others at the table have had. We live in joyful expectation of even fuller forms of this kind of total-living and prepare for The Marriage Supper of The Lamb; which will have singing and dancing and all life’s goods things in their right place.*7.5 The significance of this end, as-in the point, adds more meaning to life now and not less and fills the cosmos with God’s presence.*8 This is how we get the whole house in order and goes beyond Peterson’s advice to clean our rooms. Fr Richard Rohr has a new book coming out on this cosmic element that sits comfortably alongside the personal and has spoken about it passionately on a number of occasions.*9

He is Jesus and Christ, Transcendent and Imminent. ”The first and cosmic incarnation of the Eternal Christ, the perfect co-inherence of matter and Spirit (Ephesians 1:3-11), happened at the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the human incarnation of that same Mystery a mere 2,000 years ago, when we were perhaps ready for this revelation. Christ is not Jesus’ last name, but the title of his historical and cosmic purpose. Jesus presents himself as the “Anointed” or Christened One who was human and divine united in one human body—as our model and exemplar. Peter seems to get this, at least once (Matthew 16:16), but like most of the church, he also seems to regress. Christ is our shortcut word for “The Body of God” or “God materialized.” [2] This Christ is much bigger and older than either Jesus of Nazareth or the Christian religion, because the Christ is whenever the material and the divine co-exist—which is always and everywhere.

Ilia Delio writes, “The conventional visualization of the physical world was changed by Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which showed that matter itself was a form of energy. . . . For all practical purposes, energy is the ‘real world.’” [3] There it is: science revealing that everything is both matter and energy/spirit co-inhering as one; this is a Christocentric world. This realization changes everything. Matter has become a holy thing and the material world is the place where we can comfortably worship God just by walking on matter, by loving it, by respecting it. The Christ is God’s active power inside of the physical world. [4]*9.5

Again Fr Rohr, in The Divine Dance, makes a wonderful point that we need to present a cosmic hope and not just pictures of an apocalypse. Real life takes on new significance when we open ourselves to this flow of time and eternity and when we don’t become too ossified in ‘the flesh’. This requires time and contemplation! Another area in which the fine Friar Fr Richard guides us.*10 Fr Thomas Merton also.*11

“Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self..We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves. (34) Contemplation is not and cannot be a function of this external self. There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular.(7) Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness….We can rise above this unreality and recover our hidden reality….(281) God Himself begins to live in me not only as my Creator but as my other and true self. (41)”
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

We fail to perceive God’ presence because we don’t take time. Our real life is cast away in our anxious attempts to grasp the day.*12 *13

“When time is reduced to linear progress, it is emptied of presence.”
John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Similarly, we don’t appreciate the people we are with unless we are attentive to them and allow a sabbath rhythm to inform our actions. A God-centred time.*14

“In a culture where busyness is a fetish and stillness is laziness, rest is sloth. But without rest, we miss the rest of God: the rest he invites us to enter more fully so that we might know him more deeply. “Be still, and know that I am God.” Some knowing is never pursued, only received. And for that, you need to be still. Sabbath is both a day and an attitude to nurture such stillness. It is both time on a calendar and a disposition of the heart. It is a day we enter, but just as much a way we see. Sabbath imparts the rest of God—actual physical, mental, spiritual rest, but also the rest of God— the things of God’s nature and presence we miss in our busyness.”
Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath

We are childish in the spiritual life and the church is probably like a child too, as Fr Men and Fr Rohr both persuasively suggest it might be. Perhaps, we are the early church.*15  Fr Rohr, like many of the great spiritual guides, re-minds (metanoia) us to be like children, open and full of wonder. Believing in this Person of God, like a parent, we recall that we are beloved. Remember, our own parents are only a small sample of who God is too us. Unless we realise this we are living like orphans in our spiritual life.                                                                                                                                                                                               In a fascinating segment of the book, Fr Richard points out that dogs and children are even more effective in advertising than sex. ”Marketing experts say children (and dogs) are even more effective than sex in advertising. Why? Because children and dogs are still filled with a natural hope and expectation that their smile will be returned. They tend to make direct eye contact, looking right into you, just grinning away (unless, of course, they have been abused). This is pure being. This is uninhibited flow. Surely, this is why Jesus told us to be like children. There is nothing stopping the pure flow in a child or a dog, and that’s why any of us who have an ounce of eros, humanity, or love in us are defenseless against such unguarded presence. You can only with great effort resist kissing a wide-eyed baby or petting an earnest dog.”15.5 Looking at this in light of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory*16 suggests that we yearn for the innonence and wonder that they live out, a vulnerable existence in imitation of Christ Himself who put everything on the line and who has ‘skin in the game’.*17 In His Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection. Also, The Trinity has ‘skin in the game’, taking a risk in creating us because we may turn against God and say no, just as Judas did. And he knew God personally too.*18 That’s the extent of our freedom and how much God loves us and wants us to love Him.                                                          God even restricted Himself in creation, in an act of Kenosis, according to Fr Alexander Men.*19 This is profound and, I believe, intuitively right.                                                                                                                                                     My aim now is to live more in this flow, slow down and be attentive to persons and the personal, nay, interpersonal meaning of it all. Following ‘the law of three’ and the binaries of The Bible*19.5,*19.75 which takes us out of the dualistic thinking that Fr Richard and Rabbi Sacks both propehtically rail against.*20                                                                                                                                                We are also called to create and improvise, as I’ve been reading in Bruce Ellis Benson’s good books*21; so we must make meaning manifest in our daily lives. Incarnate it. I hope to do this better as I stumble in spiritual childishness, seeking childlike wonder and God-like Theosis.*22 The fact this this can be done in our time and place has been brought home to me not just in the examples given above but also most impressively in Paul E Miller’s masterful work on prayer*23, “Prayer is asking God to incarnate, to get dirty in your life. Yes, the eternal God scrubs floors. For sure we know he washes feet. So take Jesus at his word. Ask him. Tell him what you want. Get dirty. Write out your prayer requests; don’t mindlessly drift through life on the American narcotic of busyness. If you try to seize the day, the day will eventually break you. Seize the corner of his garment and don’t let go until he blesses you. He will reshape the day.”
“Everything you do is connected to who you are as a person and, in turn, creates the person you are becoming. Everything you do affects those you love. All of life is covenant.
Imbedded in the idea of prayer is a richly textured view of the world where all of life is organized around invisible bonds or covenants that knit us together. Instead of a fixed world, we live in our Father’s world, a world built for divine relationships between people where, because of the Good News, tragedies become comedies and hope is born.”
Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World and his focus on Hesed Love.*24

“When you realize that death is at the center of love, it is quietly liberating. Instead of fighting the death that comes with love, you embrace what your Father has given you. A tiny resurrection begins…”
Paul E. Miller, A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships

Frederick Buechner brings it all to life in his work too: ”The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.” and these modern spiritual masters’ abilities to speak meaningfully to you and I from afar only deepens the mystery of our close relationships in Christ further. How wonderful is this Cosmic Jesus Christ, that we share? This Logos.*25 *25.5                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Fr Richard’s spiritual direction is signed with beautiful metpahors and evocative imagery. Like the late Eugene H Peterson*26, he writes with the most endearing metaphors and has showed us God at work in memorable pictures. ”Most of existence is invisible and inaudible. How do we make a connection with this huge world? By metaphor. The Bible is lavish with metaphor, but metaphors can very easily become clichés. The poet is a defense against clichés.”26.5 This use of metaphors and physical images is the bread and butter of good teaching and leaves indelible impressions in our minds and hearts that overly technical language cannot. Branding us with hot iron.                                                                                                                                                  In an unusual spin on this, let us segway to Scott Adams; who mentions the power of this in referring to Trump’s choice of ‘the wall’ as something for people to hook onto and suggests it’s power to influence as well as inspire.*27                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       This is why books like Fr Richard’s stick with us and elicit more action in our lives most often, like this very blog post, than tracts like John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory*28 or William Desmond’s grand but heavy metaphysics*29. They don’t have the glue that sticks because they don’t speak to us in memorable ways like Peterson, Rohr, etc and it’s no wonder Jesus chose parables.*30 Fr Schmemann reminds us of the role and importance of memory in the spiritual life, in all it’s Incarnate glory, and disembodied words wont do.*31 richardrohrdivinedance

Voronet Blue voronet_mural The Voronet Monastery The beautiful Icons on the outside of The Monastery provokes me into meditating on the meaning and role of the creation itself-the outside, the inside and the walls themselves. Their particular roles in the eschaton. Let us recall what George Kordis said: ”Painting deals with the surface (epiphaneia) of objects. The surface, however, is not just a surface, nor is it a vacuum or empty space that does not correspond to the very essence of the object. The epiphaneia is the manifestation of the essence (hypostasis) of the object which is revealed and hidden simultaneously – the existence is revealed while the essence is hidden.” This coming together of beauty- God’s Presence and ours together- points to the ultimate place and reality of the beautiful trees and flowers outside, the warm spaces inside, the walls between them and the people persons on, in and around them. “What meaning can we attach to the sanctification of water, this apparently inanimate and dead element? But it is not such for the Lord, since for him nothing is dead. God did not create death, and creation has become dead only for man who has subjected it to his own sin. Does not the Psalmist summon even inanimate nature to praise the Lord (Ps. 148)? The sanctification of the waters is a mysterious anticipation of the life of the future age, when God will be all in all. This is the water of the future age, the source of the water of life (Rev. 21:6), from the river of living water, radiant as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb … there is no boundary that separates man from the cosmic elements, and all of them form, as it were, his external, extended body. Man himself is sanctified by the sanctification of the waters, for it was for human salvation that the Son of God became incarnate and unalterably became man, the Son of God who was baptized in the Jordan, and it is for the sake of man that the sanctification of the waters is accomplished.” ~ Sergius Bulgakov

“The world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through.
Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication. … Every separation is a link.”― Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

Rublev and The Divine Dance

In Rublev’s icon there are three primary colors, which illustrate facets of the Holy One, all contained in the Three.
Rublev considered gold the color of “the Father”—perfection, fullness, wholeness, the ultimate Source.
He considered blue the color of “the Human”—both sea and sky mirroring one another—and therefore God in Christ taking on the world, taking on humanity. Thus, Rublev pictures the Christ as blue, displaying his two fingers to tell us that he has put spirit and matter, divinity and humanity, together within himself—and for us!
And then there’s green, easily representative of “the Spirit.” Hildegard of Bingen, the German Benedictine abbess, musical composer, writer, philosopher, mystic, and overall visionary, living three centuries before Rublev, called the Spirit’s endless fertility and fecundity veriditas—a quality of divine aliveness that makes everything blossom and bloom in endless shades of green.
Hildegard was likely inspired by the lushness of her surroundings at her Rhineland monastery, which I was recently able to visit. Rublev, in similar reverence for the natural world, chose green to represent, as it were, the divine photosynthesis that grows everything from within by transforming light into itself—precisely the work of the Holy Spirit.
Is that good or what?
The Holy One in the form of Three—eating and drinking, in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment between themselves. If we take the depiction of God in The Trinity seriously, we have to say, “In the beginning was the Relationship.”
This icon yields more fruits the more you gaze on it. Every part of it was obviously meditated on with great
care: the gaze between the Three; the deep respect between them as they all share from a common bowl. And note the hand of the Spirit pointing toward the open and fourth place at the table! Is the Holy Spirit inviting, offering, and clearing space? If so, for what?’‘ -Fr Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance Amen! Now, see Fr Alexander Men’s article on The Divine Service will make more sense and a pattern will start to emerge in your mind: (                                                                                                                                                             We can also see this clearly in the work of American writer Frederick Buechner, a clergyman in The Prespbyterian Church, who reminds us ”The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”- Frederick Buechner                                                                                                                                        Orthodox logic means that God speaks to us through The Church and to be properly logical therefore we must be Theo-logical; deriving from the Ancient Greek words Theos (Θεός), which means God and ‘Logos’… Although this has been translated as ‘word’, it is more than that. (Lexis would have been used to describe word as we often use that term today.) Logos and lexis derive from the same verb légō (λέγω), meaning “(I) count, tell, say, speak.” All this reveals to us that God is a singing, dancing, writing, drawing and whatever-else kind of God and we’re invited to His party. 1200px-angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410 trinity

American Salvation. The place of Christianity in public life by Albert J. Raboteau.

G.K. Chesterton once called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” He was referring, in part, to the habitual tendency of Americans to cast political and social events as scenes in the drama of salvation. From the start America’s story was a religious story. In the 1630s English Puritans represented their journey across the Atlantic to America as the exodus of a New Israel out of Old World slavery into a promised land of milk and honey. And through the centuries, the story of the American Israel would serve as our nation’s most powerful and long-lasting myth.

But to black Americans the nation was not a New Israel but the old Egypt, condemned to sure destruction unless she let God’s people go. The existence of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and racism contradicted the mythic identity of Americans as a chosen people.

African-American Christianity has continuously confronted the nation with troubling questions about American exceptionalism. Perhaps the most troubling was this: “If Christ came as the Suffering Servant, who resembled Him more, the master or the slave?” Suffering-slave Christianity stood as a prophetic condemnation of America’s obsession with power, status, and possessions. African-American Christians perceived in American exceptionalism a dangerous tendency to turn the nation into an idol and Christianity into a clan religion. Divine election brings not preeminence, elevation, and glory, but—as black Christians know all too well—humiliation, suffering, and rejection. Chosenness, as reflected in the life of Jesus, led to a cross. The lives of his disciples have been signed with that cross. To be chosen, in this perspective, means joining company not with the powerful and the rich but with those who suffer: the outcast, the poor, and the despised.

Out of this prophetic tradition the civil-rights movement emerged in the 1960s to offer one of the most powerful critiques of American society, including not only Jim Crow in the South but eventually what Martin Luther King Jr. would call the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” King, the most eloquent spokesman of the movement, clearly drew upon the resources of black religious protest, but he also drew upon the critical thought and action of a variety of figures from other traditions, such as Thoreau, Gandhi, Rauschenbusch, and of course the Hebrew prophets. The prominent presence of such figures as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, and Roman Catholic priests and nuns in the front lines of civil-rights marches demonstrated the deep moral resonance that moved peoples of different faiths to protest injustice, based upon the age-old call of their traditions to seek justice and show mercy. Religions throughout history have motivated some to stand on the margins of society as critics of the dominant cultural and religious values.

The American experiment offered these traditions a special role. Freedom of religion, despite the long-lasting cultural hegemony of evangelical Protestantism, gave leeway to various religious groups to fight discrimination and establish public worship and public institutions. And by so doing, they made politically viable in this nation the principle of freedom of conscience and resisted the age-old tendency of governments to absorb religion into systems of state ideology.

The principle of religious freedom provided a powerful opportunity for religious-based dissent. In addition to democracy’s inherent capacity for self-criticism and renewal, the mobilization of the prophetic role of religion in the political life of the country has served as a critique of national ambition and hubris, from the Puritan Jeremiad to the Abolitionist Movement to Lincoln’s Second InauguralSpeech to the anti–Vietnam War protests. In the current political climate of American exceptionalism, as promoted by the Bush administration, it is easy to forget that rhetorical assertions tying salvation to our nation’s destiny have a long history, and have stirred strong criticism from evangelical Protestants, past and present, for verging too close to state idolatry. Christianity, even as the dominant religion, has always had strains that cut against the mainstream, while still being rooted in and influenced by the culture and society of a particular time and place. This perennial tension is succinctly captured by the instruction in John’s Gospel that Jesus’ disciples should be in the world but “not of the world.”

* * *

In the world, but not of the world. These words capture the antinomical relationship of the Church to human society and culture. On the one hand, the incarnational character of the Church establishes her in history, in this particular time and place and culture. On the other, the sacramental character of the Church transcends time and space, making present another world, the kingdom of God, which is both here and now and yet still to come. Throughout the history of Christianity, the temptation to relax this antinomy has led Christians to represent the Church as an ethereal transcendent mystery unrelated and antithetical to human society and culture. Or, alternatively, it has prompted Christians to so identify the Church with a particular society, culture, or ethnicity as to turn Christianity into a religious ideology. Because we are “not of the world,” Christians stand against culture when the values and behaviors of the culture contradict the living tradition of the Church.

Take one early and famous example: the refusal of early Christians to honor the emperor by offering a pinch of incense before his image. Being in the world, the Christian acts within the culture as a leaven, trying to transform it by communicating to others the redemption brought by Christ. The early Christian apologists stood within culture as they attempted to explain the faith in the philosophical and cultural terms of their times and recognized within the culture foreshadowings or adumbrations of Christian truth waiting to be fulfilled. Notice the reciprocal tension between Christianity and culture as eloquently stated in a second-century document, the “Letter to Diognetus”: Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike . . . and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land . . . They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.

It is this perennial tension of being in the world but not of the world with which Christians continue to wrestle in 21st-century America.

This tension is central to my own faith tradition, Christian Orthodoxy, familiar to most as Greek or Russian. Historically, Orthodoxy refers to the Christianity of the eastern Roman Empire, centered on Constantinople or Byzantium, as distinct from that in the West, centered on Rome, hence Roman Catholicism. The two gradually drifted apart and officially broke in the year 1054, due to changes unilaterally made to the creed by the West and the East’s rejection of the Roman pontiff’s claims of primacy. Orthodoxy first came to America with Russianmissionaries in Alaska in the 18th century and was established in the continental United States by migration in the 19th and 20th centuries from Greece, Russia, and the Balkans. I was born Roman Catholic but became Orthodox ten years ago, drawn by a series of experiences that constituted for me a spiritual renewal. I was drawn in part by a sense of profound similarity between Orthodoxy and the ethos of African-American Christianity. In both there is a quality of sad joyfulness, a sense that life in a minor key is life as it is; an emphasis on the importance of suffering as a mark of the authenticity of faith. Both African-American and Orthodox Christianity view the person as embodied spirit and inspirited body. Both understand matter and spirit to be related, not antithetical—hence the use of material and bodily gesture to reveal the presence of the spiritual to our bodily eyes. Both hold a profound trust in the healing power of ritual, which opens the door to the other world, revealing its presence within this world. Both understand the interpersonal nature of the self as shaped by a web of relationships stretching into the past and the future. Both criticize individual aggrandizement as destructive of the person. Notice that these beliefs, common to both Orthodox and African-American religious tradition, clash with dominant cultural attitudes and values.

Orthodoxy in particular offers, I believe, a distinctive view of the human person that can serve as an important critique of the definition of the core American value, freedom, the principle upon which Americans are most likely to agree.

The American idea of freedom is centered on the rights of the individual person, but with the premise—more strongly observed at some times than others—that the respect due to the individual makes possible his participation in common, public, civic life. Freedom of conscience and freedom of choice enable individuals to participate in civil institutions, which exist to serve the commonweal.

The democratic tradition defines authority as public service. It encourages participation and treasures the voice of each because you never know when it might be the voice of a prophet. This tradition is profoundly antithetical to status and power based on inherited aristocracy. (Democracy itself has something of value to say by way of criticizing clericalism, which reduces priesthood to a managerial profession. Respect for the common man may reinforce the Pauline insistence on the gifts distributed throughout the community for building up the body of Christ. The democratic definition of authority as service is certainly consonant with the gospels and is important for anyone in religious authority to constantly bring to mind.)

At its best, democracy balances the rights of the individual with the responsibility to participate in the public conversations and tasks that make civic community possible. However, the possibility of so stressing rights that we forget responsibility is a perennial threat to American liberty. The choice of privileging one over the other comes down to a simple, but profound question: “What is freedom for?” When Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence he copied from John Locke the famous list of inalienable rights endowed upon us by the Creator—with one significant difference. Jefferson substituted for Locke’s life, liberty, and property, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Tragically, Americans ever since have found it too easy to reverse Jefferson by turning the pursuit of happiness into the pursuit of property. Precisely at this juncture, Orthodox Christianity levels a powerful critique of Americans’ addiction to consumerism, the dangerous collective illusion that reduces persons to objects and turns the interpersonal relationship into one of manipulation and exploitation.

Orthodoxy offers a radically different vision of the person. We are created in the image of God. We are redeemed so that we may become more and more like the image in which we were made.In this process of theosis or divinization, we become by grace what God is by nature. A striking symbol of Orthodoxy’s opposition to the self-aggrandizement endemic to our society is our liturgical calendar, in which roughly half the year consists of days of fasting. Self-emptying, not self-fulfillment, is the purpose of Orthodox ascetical practice: “He must increase, but I must decrease,” we say with St. John the Forerunner. Or “Now I no longer live, but Christ lives in me,” with St. Paul. This is a very countercultural prescription in a society that promotes getting your fill. Individual rights have been turned into self-gratification. A cycle of ever-expanding need, gratification, need, drives our consumer society.

It is easy to criticize the vulgar consumerism of mass-media advertising; religion alone does not necessarily defend us against it. Religion itself can be another form of ego gratification—a kind of spiritual consumerism that focuses on having spiritual experiences to aggrandize the self, spiritual hedonism, but hedonism nonetheless. Behind the drive for self-aggrandizement, whether material or spiritual, is a distorted sense of the person as an individualized ego—the self as the source of freedom and value. To the contrary, Orthodoxy views the person as ineluctably interpersonal. The very purpose of our being is to commune with others—to commune with the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to commune with our fellow human persons. We stand not alone, as solitary individual selves, but in compassionate solidarity with others, the saints, who have gone before, our ancestors in the faith, whose icons surround us at church and at home—a cloud of living witnesses. And we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the present, especially with those who suffer. In the words of St. Isaac the Syrian, a 7th-century ascetic and theologian, our compassion should extend to “the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing: and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a compassionate man pour forth abundant tears.”

This sense of interpersonal solidarity leads Orthodoxy to reverse the privileging of rights over responsibilities. In the words of Father Zosima, the monastic staretz, or elder, in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, “the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.” These mysterious words, echoing the offering of the Holy Gifts to God in the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy, allude to Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross, in which “He who was without sin became sin for us.” Father Zosima is saying that Christ’s sacrificial way is ours. This same sense of responsibility “on behalf of all and for all” also illuminates the lives of the monastic elders, who in their isolation become profoundly aware of the hidden connectedness of us all. The way to true freedom and recognition of our interpersonal responsibility, they taught, is through obedience, fasting, prayer, and humility, which, with God’s help, liberate the spirit from the tyranny of habit and desire, from a slavery to a hyper-individualism that leads eventually to isolation and despair.

* * *

For Orthodox Christians, as for all people of faith, beliefs about the nature of the individual and society shape a political agenda; integrity requires that we argue not just with words, but with our lives as well. But those beliefs must make their case within the pluralistic agora of American society. The freedom of exercise clause of the First Amendment offers religion the freedom to live and express its values, and the non-establishment clause guarantees that each has to do so in the midst of supporting and conflicting claims.

If American democracy offers religion an opportunity, American pluralism offers it a challenge. Pluralism challenges us to experience religion as more than a cultural identity. Pluralism means encountering the values and attitudes and beliefs of others with respect for those who hold them. Pluralism, when taken seriously as respect for difference, rejects relativism for avoiding the hard truth that we do indeed differ. It is the difficult road we walk to achieve a mature understanding of the truth and the opportunity to share that truth with others who are seeking it. It challenges us to appropriate, internalize, and live out the religious identity passed to us by family and society. It creates an opportunity to discuss and to argue for one’s own position.

Consider the issue of abortion. When considered in the context of Orthodoxy’s holistic vision of the person within society, a whole web of moral issues emerges that does not necessarily align with any particular political party’s agenda.

Abortion is clearly a paramount issue for many Orthodox (as well as many Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants). The number of abortions performed today is horrendous. A large percentage of our fellow citizens, even those who think that too many abortions are being performed or that abortion should be to some extent restricted, have come to the conclusion that abortion is a matter of a woman’s choice. The Republican promise, implicit or explicit, is to take steps to reverse Roe v. Wade. Given the widespread division of public opinion and the even division of the Senate (which approves Supreme Court nominees), is this a credible promise? It would seem that the possibility of making abortion illegal anytime soon is remote.

Those of us who believe that human life begins with conception and that life is a sacred gift have a huge task in convincing others of our vision of the person. It will not be enough to condemn abortion. Our position needs the credibility of a Mother Teresa, who could say, “Do not kill the children; give them to us and we will raise them.” We will need the hard, long, and beautiful work of counseling pregnant women, of giving our help to those who are poor and abandoned, of offering to adopt the babies brought to term. We need to support a fabric of social welfare that will support women (particularly young and poor women) facing unwanted pregnancies. It is interesting that Holland and Belgium, countries where abortion is legal, have relatively low abortion rates (due in part to an extensive social-service network), whereas Latin America, where abortion is generally illegal and social services scant, has a relatively high rate. In the United States the abortion rate went up during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and down under Bill Clinton. The idea that a Republican presidency is going to effect a shift in national attitudes or result in the overturning of Roe v. Wade seems to me a chimera. The concept of the sacredness of life must first extend to those our society devalues: the imprisoned, the impoverished, the disabled, the mentally ill, the alien, the enemy.

I am troubled that there is no political home for my consistent ethic of life, but I also take comfort in the knowledge that electoral politics is not all there is to politics. If Chesterton’s idea of an America with the soul of a church has any validity, I believe it lies in our tradition of voluntary activity, through which faith can mobilize people to participate in the long and difficult grassroots struggle to transform our communities into a more just and peaceful society.

Orthodox voices occasionally warn us of the danger of reducing the church to a social-service agency, but that warning should not displace the tradition of compassion calling us to act for those in need. St. John Chrysostom preaching on Matthew 25: Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. . . . Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. . . . What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs?

Or, to quote a modern Orthodox witness,The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says “I”: “I was hungry, and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.” To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.

The same passage from St. Matthew inspired these words of Mother Maria Skobotsova; it led her to found Orthodox Action in Paris in the 1930s to carry out this Gospel imperative, and it led ultimately to her death in Ravensbruck for protecting French Jews during the Nazi occupation. Houses of hospitality, hospice care centers, communities of caring that welcome the disabled, the orphan, the mentally ill, and the abused, can be sites of sanctity in the modern desert of need, as the life of Nun Gavrilia, an “ascetic of love” who worked among the poor in India and elsewhere, testifies.

* * *

Such heroic action in the world “but not of the world” was made possible by a vision of the kingdom of God, the reign of God, in the here and now, made possible by his disciples following the precedent of Christ’s life, but never fully actualized until Heaven. It is for this kingdom that the Christian prays in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come; thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” It is for the arrival of this kingdom of peace and justice that the Christian community, as the ongoing body of Christ in time and space, continually waits and acts. In this dynamic vision Christ is the transformer of culture because he makes present among us the kingdom of God. The concept of the kingdom of God was central to the theology of Father Alexander Schmemann, a leading figure in the American Orthodox Church, as it was for H. Richard Niebuhr, the eminent Protestant theologian, who wrote the classic texts Christ and Culture and The Kingdom of God in America. According to Schmemann and Niebuhr, it is crucial for Christians to realize that the kingdom is both here and now and still to come.

The kingdom of God—announced, inaugurated, and given by and in Christ—stands at the heart of the early Christian faith, and not only as something yet to come but as that which has come, is present now, and shall come at the end. It has come in Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and in the fruit of all this—the descent of the Holy Spirit on the “last and great” day of Pentecost. It comes now and is present in the Church, the “ecclesia” of those who having died through Christ in baptism can now “walk in the newness of life,” partake now of the “joy and peace of the Holy Spirit,” eat and drink at Christ’s table in his kingdom. And it shall come at the end, when, having fulfilled all his dispensation, Christ will “fill all things with Himself.”

To keep Christianity from being reduced to religion—just one more isolated compartment among the many that occupy the modern person’s life (this, for Father Schmemann, was the meaning of secularism)—it is essential to hold sight of the reality of the kingdom as present and as future. Secularism is not antireligious. It approves of religion by turning it into what Niebuhr called an “idol,” one among others suited to our self-gratification. Secularism, in this sense, robs the Church of its eschatological dimension. It is no longer the primary community for us, the source of our life and our joy, but one more activity in a busy week, competing with work, social life, and entertainment.

When the Church loses its awareness of the kingdom of God and its essential sacramentality, there develops (as Father Schmemann writes) “a peculiar divorce of the forms of the Church’s life from their content, from that reality whose presence, power and meaning they are meant to express and, as a consequence the transformation of those forms into an end in itself so that the very task of the Church is seen as the preservation of the ‘ancient,’ ‘venerable,’ and ‘beautiful’ forms, regardless of the ‘reality’ to which they refer.” The Church, in effect, becomes a museum of archaic artifacts and rituals, beautiful but inert. What is lost, and lost not through persecution but through our own inattention and inertia, is the “very deep and essentially Orthodox experience of the Church as truly an epiphany: the revelation of, the participation in, a reality which because it is not ‘of this world’ is given to us—‘in this world’—in symbols. Hence the crucial importance of symbols in which we experience the reality of the Divine presence and action.”

The primary symbol of God’s transforming action in the world is the Eucharist. We offer the gifts of bread and wine, wheat and grapes transformed by human hands, to God, who returns them to us transformed by the Holy Spirit into the body and blood of our lord Jesus Christ. Here is the sacrament of the transformation of the entire world.

Now, we are perhaps closer to understanding the meaning of the antinomy with which I began. The antinomy of Christians being in the world but not of the world is for the sake of the transformation of the world and its return as Eucharistic offering to God, the source of all. In Father Schmemann’s words,The Church is left in this world, in its time, space and history with a specific task or mission: “To walk in the same way in which He walked” (1 John 2:6). The Church is fullness and its home is in heaven. But this fullness is given to the world . . . as its salvation and redemption. The eschatological nature of the Church is not the negation of the world, but, on the contrary, its affirmation and acceptance as the object of divine love . . . the entire “other worldliness” of the Church is nothing but the sign and the reality of the love of God for this world, the very condition of the Church’s mission to the world. The Church thus is not a “self-centered” community but precisely a missionary community, whose purpose is salvation not from, but of, the world. (Picture taken from the Jesus Mafa collection of cartoons from Cameroon. jesus mafa cameroon

Alexander Men: A Modern Martyr, Free in the Faith, Open to the World. By Fr Michael Plekon.

This, with thanks to Fr Michael Plekon is the chapter on Fr Men from his study of central Orthodox spiritual figures of the last century “Living Icons”.

Fire and Freedom

Christ calls people to bring the divine ideal to reality. Only shortsighted people imagine that Christianity has already happened, that it took place, say, in the thirteenth century, or the fourth, or some other time. I would say that it has only made the first hesitant steps in the history of the human race. Many words of Christ are incomprehensible to us even now, because we are still Neanderthals in spirit and morals; because the arrow of the Gospels is aimed at eternity; because the history of Christianity is only beginning. What has happened already, what we now call the history of Christianity, are the first half-clumsy, unsuccessful attempts to make it a reality…

Not all of the connections among the figures profiled here are direct ones. In some cases, such as the relationship of Fr. Alexander Men to others, it was one of reading, and then citation and most importantly alignment with their perspectives. On May 5, 1998, according to local newspaper and television reporting, the burning of books written by a number of significant contemporary Orthodox theologians took place with the approval and quite possibly in the presence of Bishop Nikon of Ekaterinburg, (now resigned at the urging of the Russian synod of bishops). The books were burned, their reading by seminary students, clergy and laity banned and a recently ordained priest, Fr. Oleg Vokhmianin, was suspended from priestly duties (an action since reversed, it appears, through direct intervention of Patriarch Alexis of Moscow, primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.) The books were committed to the flames because, though written by the Orthodox priest-theologians Nicolas Afanasiev, Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff and Alexander Men, they were felt to contain “Western contaminated” ideas, even “heresy.” A friend and follower of Fr. Men, Fr. George Kochtekov, formerly rector of Sts. Cosmas and Damian parish in Moscow and a leader in liturgical and catechetical renewal, was suspended on baseless charges and only reinstated, though not in a parish, in spring of 2000.

Since these are figures of some repute, the outcry and protest was considerable. There were letters to the Patriarch of Moscow from Fr. Schmemann’s widow and Pulitzer-prize winning journalist son, Serge, letters from Metropolitan Theodosius, primate of the Orthodox Church in America and from other concerned clergy and laity here and abroad. An extremely critical assessment of the situation appeared in Le Monde on June 10 by the eminent French Orthodox lay theologian, Olivier Clément, “Difficulties and indispositions of the Russian Church.” Likewise, Professor Nicholas Lossky of the University of Paris and son of theologian Vladimir Lossky, expressed sharp reaction in the summer number of Service Orthodoxe du Presse (SOP). Lossky himself was the target of harassment and charges of heresy from an audience of monastics and clergy while lecturing at Moscow Theological Academy in February along with Dr. Konrad Raiser, secretary and other officials of the World Council of Churches.

It is becoming clear that internationally, across the Orthodox churches and not solely in Russia, there is a growing conflict between two perspectives and those who adhere to these. Although some decry the use of such descriptions, it is not inaccurate to call the first of these perspectives, as several in France have, integristes, traditionalists who oppose any development in liturgy or theology as “innovation,” and who are against participation in ecumenical activity, particularly membership in the World Council of Churches. It is not clear what the other perspective should be labeled. Their opponents call them “liberals,” “innovators,” “Western-contaminated,” “Protestants,” “ecumenists,” and generally “heretics.” These are Orthodox clergy and laity convinced of the enormous freedom within the Great Tradition of the Church, the scriptures, Fathers, councils, the liturgical services and the whole heritage of the faith in various places and times. These Orthodox are open to, even fraternally disposed to other Christian confessions, committed to the goal of healing the schisms which divide Christianity. They point back to the undivided Church of the first millennium, and to the great litany’s petition for the “union of all,” and to even more recent actions such as the embrace of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I and the mutual lifting of anathemas as signs that then and now that Christ and the Holy Spirit are “present everywhere, filling all things,” as the liturgical prayer to the Spirit and the New Testament say. In a recent book, lay theologian Olivier Clément admits that this cleavage is characteristic of many places, not only Russia. He also recognizes that these characterizations do not fully capture the complexity, either of the circumstances or the experiences of the Orthodox Christians in these locations. That believers often manifest extremes of both inclusivity and exclusivity is not so rare. Tendencies toward rigid conformity to tradition are often met with more moderate leanings toward adaptation and openness.

As we saw, Fr. John Meyendorff confronted this very issue throughout his life and in his writing. Consistently he argued that authentic tradition is living, always changing, while in its truth, remaining the same. Fr. Alexander Men himself understood this tension, especially in the history of his own Russian Church, reflecting upon them through the figures of the monks Ferapont and Zossima from Dostoievski’s The Brothers Karamazov. Both tendencies are present, and Fr. Men goes so far as to say, are necessary checks or better, complements to each other. In many ways, this tension exists as a backdrop to virtually every one of the “living icons,” the persons of faith we are examining here.

Fr. Alexander Men, still dismissed today, a decade after his death, as too ecumenical, too liberal, not traditionally Orthodox enough, was in fact, very much devoted to the tradition of the Church, the scriptures especially, the liturgy and the Eucharist in particular, but equally to the many smaller details of churchly piety. The primer he prepared on prayer and worship describes and explain the details of Orthodox liturgical practice, how to prepare for communion, how to observe Lent, how to follow a daily discipline of prayer, among many other things. Always the teacher, he explains the meaning and points out where a particular observance has been obscured or even undone in historical practice, as well as where and how it could be restored and renewed. The frequent reception of communion, the opening of the royal doors and praying aloud of various parts of the liturgy aloud would be examples of these. However, in his deep love for the tradition of the Church, Fr. Alexander, much like his conferees in this book, is driven by an equal love for the people who enact this tradition and make it living, also for those who have yet to discover it. From faithfulness to Christianity comes a rich and fearless openness to the the diversity of Christian churches, to other communities of faith and to the culture of our complex modern world. Fr. Men very much embodies the renewed and creative spirituality of the Eastern Church we have also traced in the other “living icons,” the persons of faith profiled here. In his life and teaching and ministry we will encounter a radical but faithful openness of Christ to the world. In him we see yet another example of holiness in our time, a living out of the Gospel in very difficult circumstances in Soviet Russia. Tragically, we will also see the conflict among Christians of the East colliding, perhaps even eventuating in his death. Yet we will also come to recognize that Fr. Men’s legacy is not only for those in the Church of the East but is one for all Christians.

A Modern Martyr

Frs. Afanasiev, Schmemann and Meyendorff were condemned, one might say, in absentia, after their deaths. The same was also true for one more author, whose books were committed to the flames in the courtyard of the Ekaterinburg seminary. He was a priest and educator who through reading the books of the other three had himself not only been educated but spurred on to the renewal of the life of the Church in his country, Russia. For the last of those whose books were burned however, the least known here in the West, condemnation took a more decisive form, the witness or martyria of death. In commenting on his roots in the faith and the Church in a letter once, Fr. Alexander Men was able to pinpoint his sources:

Fr. Seraphim (Batiukov) was a disciple of the startsy (elders) of Optina… He baptized my mother and me, and for many years undertook the spiritual direction of the whole family… my mother, who is now dead… had a great deal to do with determining my spiritual life and orientation. She lived an ascetic and prayerful life, completely free of hypocrisy, bigotry, and narrowness; traits often present in people in her state. She was always filled with paschal joy, a deep dedication to the will of God, and a feeling of closeness to the spiritual world, in a certain way, like St. Seraphim or St. Francis of Assisi…She had a trait similar to the character of the startsy of Optina, a trait so dear to them: openness to people, to their problems, and to their searching; openness to the world. It is precisely this quality that drew the best representatives of Russian culture to Optina. After a long rupture, Optina did in fact renew the dialogue between the Church and society. It was an undertaking of great, exceptional importance, despite the lack of confidence and opposition of the authorities… This idea of dialogue with the world has stuck with me all my life; it should never be interrupted. I have always felt I should participate in that conversation with whatever meager force I have.

Alexander Men was born in the midst of the Stalinist era, on January 22, 1935, in Moscow. His mother was from Kharkov, Elena Semenovna Zupersein, was a Jew. She married Vladimir Grigorevich Men, an engineer and also Jewish, in 1934, and they had two sons, Alexander and Pavel, born in 1938. Through her sister, Vera Yakovlevna Vasilevskaya, Elena came to know the underground or “catacomb” church, networks of clergy and laity who went underground not only because of the systematic persecution by the Bolshevik regime, but also because they refused to recognize the authority of the bishop who presided over the Russian Church since the death of Patriarch Tikhon in 1925, Metropolitan Sergius Stragodorsky. When several diocesan bishops broke with him, after his public declaration of loyalty to the Bolshevik government, the underground movement, which consisted of worshipping communities, clergy and even groupd of secret monastics, began to form. It would not be until Sergius’ death in 1945 and the election of Patriarch Alexis I, accepted as legitimate by them, that the underground church would surface and at the insistence of several of its bishops and many of its priest, would assimilate into the still embattled but public Church.

Especially important in the underground communties were gifted spiritual fathers such as Fr. Seraphim Batiukov, mentioned in the quote just above. He had been pastor of one of the most active parishes in Moscow before the Revolution, that of Sts Kir and John, a gathering place for many young intellectuals who had returned to Christian faith and life. Himself a disciple and spiritual child of one of the last great elder or startsi of the Optina monastery, the monk now canonized Nektary. Fr. Batiukov was a gifted confessor and counselor and he became the center of a catacomb web of monastics and laity, among whom was Vera, the aunt of Alexander Men, who had gotten to know him through a colleague. However, it was Elena Men and her firstborn “Alik,” who were first baptized by Fr. Seraphim in September of 1935, and Vera herself a bit later. Fr. Seraphim lived in a small house in Zagorsk, not far from the famous Holy Trinity-St. Sergius monastery founded by the great Russian saint of the same name in the 13th century. Several nuns of the monastery founded by St. Seraphim of Sarov himself, Diveyevo, lived with Fr. Batiukov and after his death Mother Maria would lead the community on a regular basis.

It was the spirit of the elders of Optino and of the priests of Moscow parishes like that of Fr. Batiukov and the famous Maroseika Street St. Nicholas parish, with the father and son priests Sergius and Alexis Metchev, that became the atmosphere in which Alexander Men grew up. In the same letter quoted above he cites the lack of hatred for others in the faith, something rare in those days, and a radical openness and compassion to people, to the world, that characterized their spirituality. The fathers of the monastery there at Optino in the 19th century, had made it a home for troubled and inquiring souls, in particular the intellectuals and professionals struggling to regain faith and to put Christ and the Gospel into contact with modern life. Dostoevski was but one of the notables who went to Optino for counsel and prayer.

Alexander lived with his family in a cramped Moscow apartment, excelled in his schoolwork and read voraciously at home. Encouraged in his own study by Mother Maria of Zagork, former catacomb priest Boris Vasilev, and by lay theologians Nicolas Pestov and Analoy Vedernikov, director of the reopened theological school at the Trinity-Sergoius monastery, he read widely, not only in the scriptures, Fathers, and Orthodox writers but in Western Christianity as well. He began a life-long attachment to the figures of the “Russian religious renaissance” of the 20th century as well as their 19th century predecessors such as Khomiakov, Soloviev, Bukharev and Fedorov. Barred from university studies because of his Jewish background, in the mid 1950s he took an alternative path in biological science at the Fur Institute, first in Moscow and then after its relocation in Irkutsk. There he became active in the cathedral parish in a number of capacities, involvment which later cost him his final exams and graduation from the institiute. He and Natalya Grigorenko had married in 1956, and upon leaving the institute his spiritual father, Fr. Nicolas Golubtsov and Professor Vedernikov convinced one of the vicar bishops of the Moscow diocese, Makary, to ordain Alexander a deacon. This was on Pentecost, June 1, 1958 and he was attached to a parish in Odintsovo. He served there for two years in great poverty and with a most difficult rector. On September 1, 1960 he was ordained priest by Bishop Stepan, another vicar in the Moscow diocese and assigned as assistant at the parish in Alabino. For a few years there he began a kind of ministry which would come into full bloom only years later, toward the end of his life, at Novaya Derevnia parish. He would not only restore the iconostasis and wall paintings, but begin to preach and teach the faith at every possible opportunity. He ingeniously asked the renewal of the then necessary permit to hold a funeral service for a civil servant over 200 times, thus preaching at many cemetary memorial service on anniversaries of deaths as well as services in peoples’ homes. He preached at every service in church, every celebration of a sacrament and of course the Sunday Liturgy. He used some space in an attached church building to have regular hours for visiting by any who wished to talk. The parish had a car, a rare thing at the time, and he was able himself to visit parishoners unable to come to church. In short, he revived a form of pastoral ministry that had flourished before the revolution in such places as the Moscow parishes and Optino monastery earlier mentioned, a ministry of openness to all and of teaching.

At Alabino, nicknamed “the abbey,” Fr. Alexander’s efforts resulted in the parish becoming a locus of renewed faith, not only among parishioners but also those who came from other places to listen, ask questions, learn.There Fr. Men had his first encounters with the Soviet regime, his home and library searched for allegedly stolen books from abroad, himself interrogated for suspicious activities, namely all the preaching and teaching so unusual for a priest of that era. Also during this time Fr.Men became part of a group of clergy who not only gathered for regular collegial conversation but who eventually became notorious for their efforts at protest in renewal in the then still harassed and subservient Moscow Patriarchate. There was Fr. Dmitri Dudko, who boldly held question-and-answer sessions, not allowed under punitive Soviet religion laws at this time. He was later arrested, imprisoned and eventually recanted his “errors” in a pathetic display of enforced loyalty. In the group as well were the two young priests Nicolas Eschlimann and Gleb Yakunin, whose open letter to the Patriarch protesting the Church’s passivity and the bishops’ lack of leadership earned them only reprimand, though it stimulated the beginning of more public criticism of the regime by intellectuals, a wave that would crest in the 70s and 80s and lead to the Glasnost policies of Gorbachav in the 90s. Others who came to know and rely upon Fr. Alexander in these Brezhnev years included Anatoly Levitin, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, as well as other samizdat writers and dissidents. (Samizdat refers to the underground “self-publishing” dissident press.) It is of interest to note that throughout the decades in question, Fr. Men studiously avoided direct confrontation with either the Church or the regime. Not only did he begin to regularly publish articles in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, with assistance from his old supporter Professor Vednerikov, he also began a kind of tamizdat (“published over there,” i.e. abroad) career of his own. From the late 1960s on to Glasnost, through the instigation and connections of Assia Douroff, he published a series of his books with the Brussels Christian publishing house La vie avec Dieu. From his first book, The Son of Man to his catechetical handbook on liturgy, the church year, and prayer, Heaven on Earth to his series on the world’s religious traditions and biblical studies, In Search of the Way, the Truth and the Life all first appeared abroad under pseudonyms such as A. Bogolyubov (literally “Theophilus”: “lover of God”) and E. Svetlov (“light-bearer”) from the Brussels press.

Later in the 60s Fr. Men was transferred to the parish of Taraskova, just north of Moscow, again as assistant priest, and finally in 1970 he was sent to the parish of Novaya Derevnya. He would be assistant there until 1989, and the rector until his death in 1990. Throughout the last 20 years of his life, Fr. Alexander continued the pastoral ministry he had initiated in his earlier parishes. He very carefully sought to restore more frequent communion and to renew liturgical life along the lines Fr. Schmemann would be urging in America. Most especially his ministry was marked by the same emphasis on preaching and teaching the faith to Christians and nonbelivers alike, for in the Soviet era any kind of learning about religious, even the most basic of handbooks was unavailable. While the growth of dissident protest grew and multiplied in the 70s and 80s, Fr. Men was for the most part not directly involved. He was close to many of the voices of dissent because in these years intellectuals, young professionals, persons seriously inquiring about Christianity began to flock to his parish, to the room he had for pastoral meetings. More and more in these years Fr. Alexander was called to peoples’ homes for baptisms, conversations, blessings of civil marriages, memorial services. In the summertime, people would take vacations in the region around Novaya Derevnya to attend Liturgy and other services at the parish, to visit and be counseled by him. Gradually he encouraged the formation of small groups especially throughout Moscow, who would gather each week over tea and cake, for bible study, prayer and discussions. Tape recordings, transcriptions and now translations of these “house conversation” were made as well as video tapes of baptisms and other liturgical celebrations at the parish. These now serve as both records and witnesses to the dynamic personality and warmth of Fr. Alexander.

Even against the backdrop of the ever-growing dissent movement, Fr.Men’s highly unusual ministry could not help but evoke comment and criticism. He experienced regular KGB interrogations, house searches and surveillance for the rest of his life. Some fellow clergy denounced his approach as “not Orthodox,” his respect for other faith traditions, particularly his warmth for the Roman Catholic Church vilified. In print as well as in anonymous letters, his Jewish background was reviled. That he was Jewish also became the explanation for his heretical innovations in church work. As recently as spring of 1999, almost 10 years after his death, the very same pastoral activities of bible study, prayer and discussion in peoples’ home was denounced by an archpriest in the diocese of Alama-Alta and in spring of 2000 several clergy who were accused of engaging in such “innovations” were removed from ministry,their pectoral crosses ripped from their necks. One of Fr. Men’s followers, Fr. George Kochetkov, was suspended for over two years and his efforts at catechetical work, liturgical renewal and pastoral ministry in the footsteps of Fr. Men likewise denounced.

However, with the ascendancy of Gorbachev, a thaw or opening began to appear, and especially during the 1988 celebration of Russia’s millennium of Christianization. Beginning in spring of that year, Fr. Alexander went public in an unprecedented way for a Russian priest. Church school was openly held along with adult classes at his parish. Visits to hospitals, particularly the childrens’ hospital in Moscow started, before banned. From spring of 1988 until his death in Sptember, 1990, Fr. Men would present over 200 public talks, some on television, most in schools and other accessible locales. Many of these are available now in transcription and translation in the anthologies of his writings. He covered much of the material on which he had published abroad, the world religious traditions leading up to Christianity, liturgy, prayer, the creed and the teachings of the Fathers, the Bible and how to read it, also the religious and cultural heritage of Russia. Friends and parishioners alike often wondered whether he would give out under the amazing pace of parish services, counseling, meetings and public lectures. He claimed to have more energy in his 50s than he had in his 20s. Yet he also had some sense that time was rapidly passing for him. Some claim he even spoke with clairvoyance of imminent death. He was in good health, excellent spirits, never more joyful. This still is most apparent in the videotapes, not only his great sense of humor but something else, the same peace and light that others found in the faces of Fr. Bulgakov, Fr. Schmemann, Paul Evdokimov and the rest we have met here. There were no stereotypical elements that appear in hagiography, these only now emerging a decade after his passing. What people remembered was the feeling that he was completely present for them, totally at home with the saints as well as with the one in front of him.

There are several accounts of Fr. Men’s death, really at best hypothetical reconstructions of what must have happened, since there were no eye-witnesses to the event. On his way to celebrate Sunday Liturgy in his parish church early on the morning of September 9, 1990, he took the route to the nearby commuter rail station to get from Semkhoz where he and his family lived to Novaya Derevnya. On the path most likely turned to someone who called him. From behind his head was torn open by a sharp instrument, probably an axe. He managed to stumble, after rising and crawl back to the gate of his house. Several people did see him walking with great difficulty back home. His wife was the one to discover him. Hearing groans she saw a severely injured person by her gate, called the ambulance service and only upon their arrival and inability to save the man, was able to recognize that it was indeed her husband, so disfigured his appearance was by the attack. Fr. Men’s attackers have never been apprehended and brought to trial. Their identity and motivation remain matters of speculation. As with numerous other assassinations in the chaos of Yeltsin’s Russia, the logic would point to the political-cultural and religious extreme right-wing, partisans of the group Pamiat (“Remembrance”) and like traditionalist factions, for whom his writing and speaking was anathema, precisely the perspective of those who would eventually burn his books.

In the last few years, Fr. Men’s life and a selection of his preaching, teaching and writing has been translated and published. First came Yves Hamant’s biographical study. Then Oakwood issued a collection of Fr. Men’s sermons from Lent through Paschal time. Continuum issued Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman’s excellent anthology of articles, selections from his books, interviews and transcriptions of lectures. Fr. Alexis Vinogradov has translated a selection of Fr. Men’s “house conversations,” again transcriptions of his extemporaneous responses to questions at home gatherings. And Oakwood has also published a translation of perhaps the best known of Fr. Men’s books, The Son of Man, first published over thirty years ago and revised before his death.

Christian communities are only beginning to become acquainted with this charismatic man and his work and the early reaction is telling. An unsigned, negative review of his “house conversations” in one diocesan periodical summarily dismisses him within the first three paragraphs as one who “wandered from the Orthodox Church’s teaching on several subjects.” Readers of this publication are informed that Fr. Men did not have the mind of the Fathers and was mistaken in his notion that the Apostle Paul would recognize something of the early Church’s dynamism in the contemporary liturgical assemblies of the non-Orthodox Christians. Fr. Men, it is claimed, succumbed to ecclesiological relativism, this last deficiency evidenced by his favorable mentioning of Savonarola, Hus, and Eckhardt among those “renewing the Church,” his criticism of ascetical exaggerations and Orthodox hostility toward those of other religious traditions, including other Christians. Fr. Men is revealed to be guilty of being an “ecumenist” for his appreciation of certain constructive aspects of the papal office and also is castigated for alleged, though improvable dismissal of monasticism as “out-dated,” “rooted in pagan cults” and as non-evangelical in its renunciation of the world. Those who would be interested in the topics Fr. Men treats, Christ, the Bible, Liturgy, prayer, the Church, among others, are advised to turn rather to the numerous publications of the Orthodox seminary presses for the truth. This judgment would appear to have been made without inspection of the rather traditional “primer” on liturgy, faith and prayer, Orthodox Worship: Sacrament, Word, Image, originally published in 1980. Another unfavorable review of the Men anthology, in an Orthodox periodical from the UK, similarly perceives Fr. Alexander as lacking balance in the Tradition, too Christological and not Trinitarian enough, and veering too far in criticizing the ecclesial past and too close in encountering the culture and society of our time.

Orthodoxy and Openness

It would be a fascinating endeavor to track those thinkers who have been and more recently are becoming the targets of conservative criticism from within the Orthodox churches. Fr. Alexander Men joins a select group, including, already noted, Frs. Bulgakov, Afanasiev, Schmemann and Meyendorff. To be thorough, those desiring to rid themselves of the “Western pollution” of Orthodox truth would have to add to their bonfire all of the figures profiled in this book and many others we have named, all of whom could be accused of one or another deficiency, exaggeration or deviation. Fr. Men explicitly acknowledges Bulgakov, Schmemann and Berdiaev, among others, as shapers of his thinking. Even before the recent book-burning, yet after Fr. Men’s death, there has been relatively little written or said positively about him by Orthodox scholars and clergy. One finds more critical commentary than anything else, although a recent (Summer, 1999) conference on him and his work at Drew University, Madison NJ attracted over a hundred participants. A group of translators continues to bring out Fr. Men’s writings, and a documentary film is in progress. On the tenth anniversary of his death, a number of articles appeared, raising again the lack of closure in the investigation of his murder, the question of his on-going legacy in Russia and the very basic issue of his stature there.

It is premature to attempt a thorough assessment of Fr. Men’s work. Though the publication of his writings continues, much is still not available. Thus we have but a partial version of his thought. It may also be the case that it is too soon to attempt a meticulous biographical study, with family, associates and disciples located in the present ecclesiastical, social and political turbulence in Russia. Efforts at examining him thus far better achieve an appreciation of the backdrop of the Church’s struggle under the Soviet regime and the sources of his spiritual development than a dispassionate biographical and intellectual study. Fr. Men’s situation is further complicated by the context and genre of his work. He was not part of the Russian academic theological establishment, never having held an advanced degree or faculty appointment. Yet he was a teacher of the faith in most direct and creative ways. It is said that he used every opprtunity, every medium to teach and preach. Beyond the bibliography provided in the anthology, consisting of his world religion series, several short books on prayer, liturgy, iconography and the Scriptures, it is not clear how much of his correspondence, notebooks and journals survives and might be published. Neither do we know how many transcriptions there are of the numerous talks, lectures and interviews of his last years. Even the transcriptions of his talks that we do have are distinctive, in the spontaneous, “live” style of his delivery and of his thinking. Some very basic bibliographic inventory and organization appears to be necessary, then editing, translating and publication. Given the dismal economic conditions for such in Russia as well as the open hostility of much of the Russian clergy and hierarchy to his person and work, it is hard to say when this work will be accomplished.

Much of Fr. Alexander’s writing, his preaching, lecturing and interviews as well, was very practical in motivation and in construction. He was attempting to provide what we in the West would consider elementary education in world religions, in the Scriptures and finally in the basics of Orthodoxy. For most of his life as a priest he functioned in a Soviet atmosphere explicitly hostile to any religious education except anti-religious propaganda. It was only in the last years of his life that he could publish under his own name, and not pseudonymously or anonymously from abroad, preach, lecture and teach openly, all this in the wake of the Gorbachev “thaw.”

What we have of his work spans several genres: transcribed lectures, interviews, discussions and sermons, many in a conversational, extemporaneous style. There are the books and essays he published for a general readership, not academic specialists, efforts at basic religious education rather than original scholarship. This is not to say, though, that nothing fresh or original is to be found in his work. Fr. Men contributed, not only to the rebuilding of faith in his own Russia, but to our deeper understanding of Christianity today. Finally a decade after his death, some more objective and probing assessments of his life and work are beginning to appear. He was fond of saying, in different ways, that Christianity, historically speaking, both in Russia and world-wide, was still in its infancy, still just beginning to live. The editors of the anthology cited above are not wrong in employing the title of his last lecture, the night before his murder September 8, 1990 as the title of the collection and a characterization of his thinking: “Christianity for the Twenty-First Century.” Does this imply that Fr. Alexander was a theological futurist, intent on streamlining sacred tradition for modern, post-modern and future consumption? Such a stereotype would grossly misinterpret his actual theological perspectives. Fr. Men’s vision of the Gospel and the Church is one of radical openness to the world, of an irenic but determined ecumenical outreach to the other Christian churches, one of commitment to the service of the poor and the suffering, and finally a way of life in which one’s faith is constantly enacted in one’s life. He explicitly credits this vision to a line of clergy and faithful who formed his own Christianity, a line stretching back to the remarkable monastery of Optino and the monks there, the startsi or elders who since the 19th century had welcomed all sorts of people, especially those estranged from the Church and troubled in their hearts. Fr. Men thus holds out a dynamic model of holiness for our time, a pattern all the more striking for its crafting in the repressive last decades of the Soviet era.

The Church and the World

The leading feature of his theological writing, and, as it turned out, of his pastoral work, was the legacy of Optina, further embodied in the witness of the Russian “renaissance,” particularly in the emigration in the West. Much of this book has focused on leading figures of at least two generations of this emigration Theirs was a vision of the Church at once catholic and missionary, a confidence in the fullness of the tradition within Orthodoxy with an openness to other Christians and to those outside the Church. Such an ecclesial consciousness was expressed in the passionate desire to bring the Church and the world into dialogue, to foster the encounter between the Church of the East and those of the West. It would be correct to say that intense awareness of the Incarnation, the “God-become-man” (Bogotchelovetchestve) led these Orthodox thinkers to be committed to the meeting of God and mankind in every context. This is an aim strikingly evangelical and evangelistic. Yet it is by no means idiosyncratic for Fr. Men. The desire to establish dialogue between the East and the West, to bring theology and modern society together, to live out “the liturgy after the liturgy” can be found in such disparate and disagreeing thinkers as those of the immigration we have already noted. Both Frs. Bulgakov and Georges Florovsky, the latter an important Orthodox figure here in the US after W.W.II, were theoretically most opposed, but both were integral to the beginning of the Russian Christian Students Association, in the foundation of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius and in the work of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. Mother Maria Skobtsova was intent on a form of monastic life for our time, in the world, for the service of the suffering. Paul Evdokimov spent the first half of his adult life directing ecumenically sponsored hostels for refugees and immigrants. “The Monk of the Eastern Church,” Fr. Lev Gillet, constantly moved across ecclesial lines in a ministry of writing, preaching, teaching and counseling, as we have seen. We already surveyed Fr. Nicolas Afanasiev’s contribution. He and Fr. Kiprian Kern, as we have seen, inspired the “liturgical theology” and renewal of the Eucharist in their student, Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Fr. Alexander Men then stands in a formidable and admirable procession of Orthodox whose “return to the sources” opened them to other Christian communities and the world. Though cut off from them in Soviet Russia, he came to share their larger vision of the Church as sacrament in and to the world, and their sense of the “churching” of all of life, hardly innovations but treasure of the tradition to shares.

If we follow Fr. Men’s thinking about the Church, we find a dynamic vision, open, and hopeful. This ecclesial view is catholic and classical, rooted in the Scriptures and the Fathers, centered in the Eucharist, framed by liturgical and personal prayer, fellowship and service to others. It also contains a perspective on holiness for our times, but exactly like the view of Paul Evdokimov the past is not frozen but constantly appropriated to our world, without abandoning the tradition. From the renaissance of Russian religious thought, Fr. Alexander inherited an incarnational and ecclesiological sense of the Church which extended beyond the religious realm to politics and history, to culture and society. Overall, the strongest impression his writing leaves is that of a challenging, I would say sacramental dialogue: between Christianity and the world, between liturgy and life. The imprint of a long line of Russian authors is most noticeable, and the most basic sense is that so powerfully expressed by the 14th century Byzantine lay theologian Nicolas Cabasilas, echoed recently by another remarkable lay theologian, Paul Evdokimov. Both have a vision rooted in St. Paul: God’s love for creation, particularly for humanity is so strong, so relentless yet so self-abasing as to be absurd, foolish. (erōs manikos) Such divine philanthropy is enacted in the Incarnation, ultimately in the emptying and humiliation of the suffering, crucified Christ (kenōsis). The image of a God of boundless love dramatically determines the rest of one’s theological outlook. And this vision of the great Lover of mankind, undeniably strong in the Fathers, also shapes one’s understanding of and response to the world.

Throughout Fr. Men’s work, I would argue, it is precisely this theology which impels his consistent effort to meet even the most difficult terrain of Soviet society with openness and compassion, without the judgment and harshness so understandable for a Church greatly oppressed. It is my opinion that such an attitude is precisely that most faithful to the tradition and most like the heart of God, called so often in the liturgy of the Eastern Church “the Lover of mankind.” (Philanthropos). Such an attitude is also an enormous challenge to contemporary Orthodoxy, so easily tempted to accentuate differences, condemns contemporary excess in our culture and pretend to have the perfect, complete way out. Over against such impulses, Fr. Men’s way is full of the Kingdom’s freedom and joy. Thus, it is threatening and liable to continue to evoke criticism and rejection more from conservative Orthodox than from any other quarter.


Both from biographical details and his work, it is difficult to describe Fr. Men as anything but an “ecclesial being,” in Paul Evdokimov’s words. Surely this is to be seen in the majority of his life, when being associated with the Church at all was costly. His attachment to the bishop and cathedral in Irkutsk, where he had studied at the Fur Institute led to his being denied the final exams which would have allowed him certification and professional work. From his ordination as deacon through his early years as a priest, he was bounced from parish to parish, often subject to the whims of the parish’s rector, usually in difficult financial situations overcome by his wife’s full-time work as an accountant. In his first full post as pastor at Alabino, he displayed some of the traits which would characterize the rest of his ministry. He restored the church interior, began preaching and teaching the basics of the faith, the Creed, the liturgy, the scriptures. He also actively visited parishioners, continued adding to his library and writing, mostly articles for the journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. And as throughout the rest of his ministry, he was reported, interrogated by the KGB and his home searched.

Both the accounts of friends and parishioners and Fr. Men’s own writings confirm his priestly ministry as singular in its rooting in essentials. Rather than merely go through the motions of the weekend and other services, he constantly catechized, urged full participation in the liturgical life, particularly frequent reception of holy communion, and actively reached out to his flock. Later such elements would draw numerous Moscow intellectuals to him for pastoral counsel, for instruction and Baptism, his parish in Novaya Derevnya becoming a center of worship and gatherings for teaching. As with Fr. Dimitri Dudko, also harassed and later detained, Fr. Alexander made preaching a standard part of each liturgical service, and the “house conversations,” his responses to questions by those at such gatherings, grew out of his passion for teaching and the hunger of so many deprived of even basic education concerning Christianity and other world religious traditions. Over time, Fr. Men’s ministry, while always anchored in the Divine Liturgy and other liturgical services at his parish, branched out to include many others: intellectuals unchurched and searching, dissidents, Christians of other confessions.

Much of Fr. Men’s writing and work can be characterized as what theologians of the Russian “renaissance” called “churching” (votserkovenlie). This is the cosmic plan of salvation history, begun in the Old Covenant and fulfilled by Christ in the New through the Incarnation, the Fathers’ vision of all things being gathered and restored in Christ. By extension, it came to also mean the building up and renewal of authentic ecclesial consciousness and existence, either among those who knew nothing of the faith or among those for whom it had become “reduced” to a few ritualistic observances. The vision was of all of life being incorporated in the ecclesial assembly and liturgically offered in the Eucharist. But it was not merely a theoretical view. “Churching,” above all meant the dynamic connection of ecclesial faith with one’s existence, the enactment, in St. John Chysostom’s words, of a “liturgy after the liturgy,” the living out of liturgy at work, at home. Evdokimov put it best: “It is not enough to say prayers, one must become, be prayer, prayer incarnate.” Until the time of his death, Fr. Men’s targeted audience was almost completely within then Soviet Russia. With Fr. Schmemann, it is interesting to see that his target audience expanded to the Orthodox and Western Christian communities in the US as well as those he addressed on Radio Liberty in the USSR. Fr. Men’s widow, Natalya, has credited these broadcasts by Fr. Schmemann and by Archbishop John (Shahavskoy) with giving her husband the courage to write and teach about the faith, despite the strictures and dangers in the USSR of the 1960s and 70s.

As with Fr. Schmemann, in returning to the sources, Fr. Men’s ecclesial vision proved refreshing and threatening in its radical simplicity. While not denying the Orthodox preservation of the Church’s Tradition, there is a clear rejection of triumphalism, in fact the humility and freedom of being in the truth is constantly displayed. Thus, Fr. Men can recognize sanctity after the Schism, outside the ecclesiastical boundaries of the Orthodox Church. In a couple of sentences, he brings together a sobor or assembly of saints startling in ecumenical breadth, reminiscent of the assemblies noted in Fr. Lev Gillet’s Orthodox Spirituality and those depicted by Sister Joanna Reitlinger in frescoes at St. Basil’s House chapel, London. Fr. Men brings together Ambrose of Milan and John Chrysostom, Pope Martin and Maximus the Confessor, the Byzantine defenders opf the icons and the Russian monastic proponents of povert, the “non-possessors”. He connects Fra Savonarola and Jan Hus with Maxim the Greek and Philip of Moscow. He sees the communion in the faith shared by Saints Francis of Assisi, Sergius of Radonezh and Andrew Rublev the iconographer, despite the schism. Further, while recognizing the importance of traditional forms of piety: the lighting of candles, the sign of the cross, prayers for the dead, fasting, he also is quick to observe that these can become “reductions” of the faith, as Fr. Schmemann termed them, substitutes for living out love, almost superstitious practices divorced from the spirit and meaning intrinsic to them in actual Church Tradition.

Paganism is a primitive religion…is born of the human psyche–the human drive to establish a bond with prevalent mystical powers. Each one of us is a pagan. At difficult times we are always ready to have our fortunes told, to forecast. The pagan lives within us because in each one of us there are forty thousand years of paganism and only two thousand years of Christianity. Paganism is always easier for us. Primitive religion is always easiest. It is natural to people, and often what passes for Orthodoxy or another Christian confession is simply natural religiosity which, in its own right, is a kind of opium of the people. It functions as a sort of spiritual anesthetic, it helps a person adjust to his surrounding world, over which he can hang the slogan, “Blessed is the one who believes that it is cozy in the world.”…This is all wrong! Even if I were a Muslim and came to you, having read your Christian books I would have to say to you: “Folks, it’s not this way. Your religion does not consist in this at all. Your God is a consuming fire and not a warm hearth, and he is calling you to a place where all sorts of cold wind are blowing, so that what you imagine does not exist. You adapted and developed a completely different teaching to suit your own human needs. You transformed Christianity into a mediocre, popular religion.”

Fr. Men repeatedly summarizes the basic elements of Christian faith and life, lest one conclude from such statements that he is but another iconoclast deconstructor of Church Tradition. Daily prayer, reading of the Scriptures, common liturgical worship, particularly the Eucharist, fellowship, love and service of others–these have always been the crucial ingredients of the life of the Christian community, the Church, East and West, before and after the schisms. Still today they are the ways in which we “encounter” the Risen Christ. All of these have but one goal, to bring to birth in us the freedom of the children of God, the openness to God and to all he has made. But “people crave a freedomless Christianity.”

It is both exhilarating and disturbing, to some, to hear Fr. Men speak of atheism as a gift, to acknowledge the diversity and development within Orthodoxy, the need for renewal and those like Saints Tikhon of Zadonsk and Seraphim of Sarov, later Alexander Bukharev, Soloviev, Berdyaev and Bulgakov, among others, who recovered the vitality and the radical freedom of theology and of the life of the Church. Fr. Men proceeded with this conviction, that openness to the world meant no abdication to secularism but rather a “churching” of culture and society, a discovery of all that is good in divine creation, in humanity, in all that is an icon of God. Over against this is the sectarian fear of those different, the isolation within Tradition, the abhorrence of anything but the Fathers, a profound suspicion, even loathing, quite at odds with the Fathers, for marriage, children, literature, art “secular” culture, in short, the world, all of which is God’s creation.

“Two Understandings of Christianity”

In the lecture of this title, Fr. Men eloquently reflects on these seemingly opposing tendencies not only within Russian Orthodoxy but beyond, within Christianity generally. Drawing upon Dostoyevsky’s two figures from The Brothers Karamazov, the luminous elder Fr. Zossima and his counterpart, the rigid, ascetical and judgmental Fr. Ferapont, Men surprisingly does not condemn the latter’s flight from the world and repulsion for it to celebrate the latter’s openness. The world-affirming and world-denying instincts were not always so opposed in either the history of Israel or the Church, as the Scriptures but also the sayings of the desert fathers and the writings of many other fathers attest. In time, however, the worst kinds of polarization have indeed developed out of both orientations. The Church has withdrawn form society to turn in upon itself in the quest for salvation through ascetic struggle and denial. In such a quest it is easy then for the world, and certainly all those who would appear to believe incorrectly, to be condemned. In more recent times exactly the opposite has occurred, with the Church embracing anything and everything around as holy and good. The folly of this we are still grappling with, particularly in the West. It is easiest to want to rejoice in the Optina elders’ openness to the world and castigate the narrowness of conservatives, yet Fr. Men asserts, “neither of the two understandings…is wrong, but each as it were takes one side and wrongly develops it. Fullness of life lies in the synthesis of the two.”

It is not difficult to hear the echoes of Soloviev and Berdiaev in Fr. Men’s respect for differences, even in his insistence that such differences cannot categorically be condemned since they may well lead to the truth. He boldly, like them, pushes this with regard to schism-torn Christianity. As a student of history, he knew that there had always been diversity in Christianity, different languages used in worship, preaching and teaching, various forms of hymnody and iconography, ways of celebrating feasts. Without espousing any “branch” theory of the Church he challenges the Orthodox with the continued role of a chief pastor in Roman Catholicism:

As concerns the question of Peter’s preeminence among the Apostles, this problem belongs to the area of faith. If the Catholics believe God acts through the Vicar of Peter, then let it be. This is impossible to prove historically or scientifically. And if in our polemics against the Catholic structures we begin to posit the notion that previously such a power did not exist, then the Protestants can rebound with our own argument and say: “Previously there was no sacrament of marriage, there were no icons, there was none of this. So what does this mean? Let’s get rid of them and much else!”

Far from seeing the divided confessions of Christianity as just signs of decay and breakdown, Fr. Men preferred to understand them as signs of the unity that once was and again could be, even citing Patriarch Sergius (Stradogorsky) on the constant progression from pluralism to unity in the Church’s history. For him, the extreme conservatism of the Russian Orthodox Church, virtually isolationist and sectarian in some expressions, was not defensible. Such alleged means of survival under the Soviet regime neither served the best interests of the faith and believers then or now, when one could speak and act freely. Fr. Men, along with Fr. Schmemann and others, suggest that there are ways in which the Church’s tradition can be a creative source for outreach and mission to a complex, secularized modern world.

A Credo

Perhaps the most representative, revealing and for some, problematic aspects of Fr. Men’s ecclesial vision can be found in the selection entitled, “Credo for Today’s Christian,” in the Roberts-Shukman anthology. It should be noted that this collection was arranged from a number of his writings, interviews and lectures, and that he did not produce the integrated piece as such. In the Russian publication it was called, “Basic features of a Christian worldview: According to the teaching of the Bible and the tradition of the Church.” It constantly draws on the Scriptures for the very expression of faith. Hence Christianity is the “Good News,” not abstract doctrine, ideology, or system of rituals, a “Way” of life oriented toward the future coming of Christ and Kingdom of heaven.

In about fifty points, half a patristic “century” of comment, Fr. Men both affirms the content of the faith and denies its distortions. One will look in vain for arguments against divinity in Christology, or about inclusive language for the Trinity, or about the oppression and full recognition of particular interest groups, or to whom should ordination be extended, or the imperial absolutism of Christian doctrine. I think it was not just because Fr. Men was a Russian priest writing for Russian believers that the incendiary theological issues of the West are not to be found in his work. Rather he is so profoundly and unselfconsciously ecclesial, in the Fathers’ “mind,” that these controversies, of which he was well aware, do not enter his theological horizon.

But other matters do. He refuses to accept as normative a literalist interpretation which would, for example, find the scriptures’ or fathers’ statements about natural science valid for all time. Likewise he cautions against the desire for extraordinary happenings or miracles as the regular revelation and action of God. He sees no opposition between the God of the Old and New Covenants, no contradiction between the Bible as God’s word and the ability to learn about its history, archeology and anthropology.

Christ is confessed to be present and active everywhere in the Church, especially in the sacraments but in the simplest and more ordinary places too. Liturgical forms, rules, canon law, along with iconography and hymnody–all of these ecclesial elements are necessary and important, but always have been diverse, always have been changed and thus are not unalterable and should not be uniform everywhere. The mystery of the Incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit in history are pointed to as the foundations for such a view, in addition to the undeniable historical record of diversity and modification.

As crucial as the sacraments and other rites and devotions are, these cannot be said to exhaust the life of the Church or of the individual Christian. Sanctification of the world, teaching, the loving service of the neighbor cannot be subordinated or neglected.

Despite the saving presence and power of God in the Church, there have always been sinful and inhuman excesses: authoritarianism, paternalism, fanaticism, mistreatment of those judged not to believe correctly, abusive mixing of political power seeking and maintenance with the sacred, misunderstanding of national character and culture for the faith. The Church and the Christian must constantly recognize these tendencies, confess and turn from them.

However, the overwhelming spirit of these commentaries is positive, constructive. All that is beautiful, creative and good belongs to God and is part of the secret activity of Christ’s grace. All of our life, all sectors of society, the economy, the government, work, our homes and families are places where the Gospel can be lived. In sum, the “last times,” have already begun, so too the judgment of God. The future does not blot out the present, for the Kingdom of God which is to come is also already within us, powerful and active.

Fr. Men and Christianity Today

In contrast to other traditions, Christianity is not simply based on a system of the views and legacies of its founder, but on the experience of a continuous living communion with him…The cornerstone of the Church is faith, which is revealed in love. Without this foundation, “churchliness (tserkovnost’) is dead and preserves only an outer shell, as once was the case with the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. The Church is not only an organization or union of people of like belief; it is a miracle, a many-sided incarnation of the spirit of Christ in humankind.

It would be a misunderstanding to write off Fr. Alexander as the captive of his own era, his own Russian context, even his own sources–the Optina elders and other Russian “renaissance” thinkers. As noted earlier, much of what he says, that which is simultaneously exhilarating to some and threatening to others, has been heard before. He is no mere recording though, for he makes distinct contributions of his own. As we have seen, his teaching on the Church and on the Christian life is traditional but provocative, “radical” in the best sense. What he says about prayer in his Lenten-Paschal sermons, in the “house conversations” and in his basic handbooks alone would be a rich subject for study.

Fr. Men’s emergence in translation and publication at this time is providential, for his mind and voice have much to say to not only to contemporary Orthodoxy, but to the entire Church. Inasmuch as he looks both at the core of the tradition and the various understandings and forms that have developed, he is able to shed light on the much of the turmoil and confusion within the churches today, in particular the conflicts between extreme perspectives appearing among Christians of both the East and the West. His meditation on the “two understandings of Christianity” is most relevant here. Insightful commentators have recognized the emergence of extremely conservative, even sectarian Orthodox tendencies in America and in Europe and the serious danger in these. It is no longer issues such as the retention of Greek, Arabic or Slavonic in the liturgy, not even just the “old” calendar versus the “new.” Any contact with other “heterodox” Christians is being branded as the so-called “heresy of ecumenism,” based on their reading of several ancient canons. The Orthodox churches of Georgia and Bulgaria have dropped out of the WCC and a pan-Orthodox consultation in Thessalonika has advocated only limited Orthodox participation in further WCC activities, including the recent general assembly. Very noticeably and significantly, Orthodox participants are by this consultation, not to attend any liturgical services at such gatherings. While particularly problematic services have marked recent WCC gatherings, this decision seems to echo the current conservative claim that to pray with any non-Orthodox Christians is to defy the canonical ban on praying with “heretics.”

Sadly, the list goes on: the claim that outside Orthodoxy Christ and the Holy Spirit are not present, that there is no Church and no grace, thus no sacraments, thereby requiring the rebaptizing of all who enter Orthodoxy; the outright rejection of the Balamand Statement of the international Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue and of the ideas of “sister churches” or of the churches as “two lungs” of the Body as contemporary expressions of the despised “branch theory” of ecclesiology; refusal to take Ut Unum Sint of John Paul II as authentic expression of a desire to heal the schism, and what can only be characterized as hostility, not only toward non-Orthodox Christians but especially towards Orthodox clergy and laity who demonstrate openness and a desire to work for unity with them. The burning of books in Ekaterinburg was a notorious public expression of these attitudes as was the public abuse of Nicolas Lossky and others in Moscow. Whether actions of “appeasement” or harassment, there have been others, those already described as well the suspension of the best-known Russian iconographer Fr. Zinon and the suppression of his monastery in Pskov, the persecution of Fr. Ignaty Krekshin and his monastic community, both for having maintained fraternal relationships with Roman Catholics, the harassment and suspension of Fr. George Kochetkov as earlier mentioned. In polemical attacks in print and on the internet, both the living — Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Archdiocese, Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Arcdiocese in America, Bishops Kallistos and Athenagoras in the UK– and the deceased–Ecumenical Patriarchs Meleton, Athenagoras, Demetrius and Moscow Patriarch Nikodim- are accused of heresy and heretical actions.

However, the traditionalist Orthodox have no monopoly on extremism. More recently the teaching document from the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, has raised again the question of the position of all other churches with respect to Rome. The claim of this document that the “one, holy catholic and apostolic Church” inheres most fully, in fact perfectly, in the Roman Catholic Church and everywhere else imperfectly, defectively, if at all, this the the pre-Vatican II ecclesiology of supremacy, has raised much protest and debate. The conflict in the Orthodox churches I have described here and in other places in this book does not exist in a vacuum, and my concern here is not just with Christians of the Eastern Church. The lives and vision of Fr.Men and the others we have met here stand over against the hardening once again of positions, the ease with which condemnations flow, no matter the source.

There are however, other small signs of hope, of “springtime” as Pope John XXIII called the Taizé community, of thew kind of openness that Fr. Alexander preached. In Russia,against formidable odds, Karina and Andrei Chernyak, both spiritual children of Fr.Men, lead the Hosanna community, an association primarily of lay people linked by promises of prayer and faithfulness, in a variety of ministries, including work with young people. Yakov Krotov observes that others closely associated with Fr. Men continue in outreach work dear to his heart, the parish of Saints Cosma and Damian under Fr, Borisov and the St. Filaret Institute under Fr.Kochetkov both deeply committed to liturgical renewal and catechetical work, the Russian Children’s Hospital fund. Beyonf these directly linked to Fr.Men are other communities close in spirit, some that he knew, others that have emerged such as the communities of Taizé and the Beatitudes in France, of San Egidio in Italy, monastic communities such at that at Bose in Italy and New Skete in Cambridge NY.

Fr. Men did not opt for some abstract synthesis, an over-spiritualized compromise of these perspectives, the one of openness and freedom, the other of enclosure and rigor. With great discernment, he said, each vision needs the other. There will there always be a Fr. Zossima and a Fr. Ferapont, each with something to give to the Church. And this is precisely where his voice, itself silenced by extremism, still proves timely. His affirmation of culture and society as God’s creation and the arena for redemption and salvation ought to be juxtaposed with the shrill condemnations of all that is weak, sick, and sinful in our society. His unshakable faith in the Church makes Christianity for him not closed and isolated but open, out-going in mission to the world for the life of the world. His freedom and openness are manifestations of the boundless capacity that Fr. Michael Oleksa has described as Orthodoxy’s gift for incarnationally and sacramentally embracing a culture, a people, and building up, from what is already there, the Gospel and Kingdom of God in the life of the Church. 00b-holy-fire-2012

Reflections on Father Men, by John H Erickson.

This is the paper read by Dean John H Erickson of St Vladimirs Seminary at the Alexander Men Conference in Summer 2004 hosted by Nyack College Manhatten campus.

Pastor, teacher, martyr – such was Fr. Alexander Men. As always with such figures, our first impulse is to recount his biography to the point that biography becomes vita, to draw attention to the context in which he labored (in this case, the late Soviet period of Russian history), to recount the personal characteristics that make him not just memorable but ever-memorable. We are more hesitant to speak of the thought of such figures, to examine their contribution to theology. I have in mind here what so often is pointed out in the case of St. Ignatius of Antioch, another pastor, teacher and martyr. While scholars sometimes have included him in histories of doctrine, they generally preface their observations by pointing out that Ignatius’s theology, Christology, ecclesiology, etc. can be properly understood only in light of his impending martyrdom. Similarly, in the case of Fr. Men, we are tempted to say that his theology, Christology, ecclesiology, etc. can be properly understood only in light of the very particular circumstances in which he lived. We concentrate on context. Content, while not ignored, is subsumed within a broader narrative framework.

Can we look at Fr. Men not just as pastor, teacher, martyr, but also as theologian and thinker? I shall not attempt to do so here, not only because of time constraints but also – and chiefly – because I have only a very limited acquaintance with his writings. But I believe that the question should be raised. We value his example, his witness, his martyria. But are there aspects of his thought that deserve attention in their own right? Do his words offer an enduring message that will enrich Christian theology even when the historical context changes?

Certainly Fr. Men’ was an intellectual – he might even be described as a typical Russian intellectual. And fortunately for someone trying to write his intellectual biography or present his theology in systematic fashion, Fr. Men’ believed in putting ideas down on paper. He was a prolific writer who valued writing as a form of ministry. With his usual gift for metaphor and imagery, he put it this way: “A book is like an arrow shot from a bow. While you are resting, it is still working for you.” (Quoted in Yves Hamant, Alexander Men: A Witness for Contemporary Russia, 155) A scholar working on Men’s thought would have a lot of material to cover, and he could approach his subject in a variety of ways. For example, he might begin with Men’s six-volume history of religions, In Search of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Here, among other things, he probably would draw attention to the influence of Soloviev on Men’s thought. Or the scholar might concentrate on Fr. Men’ as exegete and biblical theologian, the author of a number of commentaries and a life of Jesus. Here, in all likelihood, the author’s footnotes would reveal the number (rather small) and quality (uneven) of sources that Fr. Men’ had at his disposal.

It would be possible to write an intellectual biography of Fr. Men’ along the lines just sketched. But would this adequately express his theology? Would this reveal the particular points of emphasis that might set him apart as an original and creative theologian, as distinct from a representative figure of courage in late Soviet society, someone who did the best he could with the rather meager resources at his disposal – some Russian classics like Soloviev and Khomiakov, some scattered western works of more recent vintage. Is Fr. Men’ important simply because of context? Or is there some content here that we risk overlooking?

Probably all of us here could indicate something special that they have learned from Fr. Men, points that they find particularly significant in his thought. Probably all of us could give advice to a would-be intellectual biographer. From my own very limited reading, I would draw attention particularly to Fr. Men’s understanding of freedom – human freedom, but also divine freedom. Or rather: man’s propensity for un-freedom, and God’s free and creative power to bring resurrection life out of death and disintegration, wherever and whenever, but given full and definitive expression in the Godman Jesus Christ.

Men frequently refers to an unfortunate fact: “People do not want freedom.” (About Christ and the Church [Oakwood 1996] 36) This can be seen in society at large, with the late Soviet nostalgia for Stalin. This can be seen also in church life, in the life of Christians: “People crave a freedomless Christianity; they particularly incline towards slavery.” (Ibid.) “You are called to freedom,” the apostle says. “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” But in fact people all too often try to turn the Church into “an easy chair, a refuge, a tranquil harbor,” even “a security blanket” (Hamant 138). “We want the Church to be a mother. The infantile mind says: someone will shepherd us, someone will lead – as one learned man said to me, people even want very much to be deceived.” (Christ and the Church 36) Or they adopt a sectarian mentality, regarding everything outside their own self-made prison – e.g., other Christian traditions, other world religions – as the realm of hostile powers – a mentality, which – according to Fr. Men’, is quite contrary to that of the church fathers, who “were always open to the world.” (Ibid. 51)

Fr. Men returns to this subject from a broader, more philosophical perspective at several points, most notably (for me, at least) in his “Conversation on Redemption.” (In Christ and the Church 87-96) There, he notes, that the mystery of redemption is, first of all, the mystery of liberation – of God setting man free by uniting us to Himself, to be His chosen people, to be His Church. Here he again refers to an unfortunate fact – a given: the Fall. According to Fr. Men’, using – as usual for him – very evocative imagery:

The universe is formed and develops along two principles. The universe evolves on the one hand according to the vision of God and on the other hand it is constantly penetrated by elements which oppose this principle. I will formulate this notion with the following short statement: Blind is the one who does not see the harmony of the world, but equally blind is he who fails to see the disharmony of the very same world. (89-90)

There are always forces which contradict God’s own idea – forces described in the Bible but also by thinkers and writers of all ages in poetic and mythological terms. Fr. Men’ sums these up as Chaos – a current carrying the world toward death, to a state of entropy (90), to non-being, to un-freedom. Why are there these powers opposed to God but also for some reason permitted by Him? Men’ continues: “We can of course guess why. Creation is one entire whole, and in order to repel this anti-divine vector, this impulse towards darkness, creation must itself remain free. But essentially, creation per se does not contain freedom. Only the one who personalizes creation is free, and this one is man…. We are after all a microcosm; we carry everything inside us; all creatures live within us and we are called to participate in the battle between Chaos and Logos, entering into the Logos, into illumination. But man failed to accomplish this mission; and here God begins to act himself, through man… the Logos who becomes incarnate in man.” (92) “…when he himself enters the process of the world, assumes the evil of the world as his cross, He pushes this world further along towards the Kingdom of God. Christ takes upon himself the suffering of the world. For the first time, God involves Himself in this battle, but He does it according to a divine principle. This divine principle is: constant humiliation, a kind of diminution of the Divine power before the face of creation, to give it the freedom of manifesting itself, the freedom to become what it is.” (92)

Freedom! Every man and woman is called to this. Those who are truly in Christ, who become members of His body, experience this – even in the midst of a world inclined to un-freedom. For me, at least, this is an important aspect of Fr. Men’s thought. Others no doubt have discovered other important points of emphasis. I hope that a future intellectual biographer of Fr. Men’ will be attentive to such points. Writing a systematic work on Fr. Men’ as thinker and theologian certainly will not be easy. I hope someone will attempt it, and that this work will not limit itself to cataloging his works and tracking down their sources.

Russia’s Uncommon Prophet: Father Aleksandr Men and His Times

alex men  This lucidly written biography of Aleksandr Men examines the familial and social context from which Men developed as a Russian Orthodox priest. Wallace Daniel presents a different picture of Russia and the Orthodox Church than the stereotypes found in much of the popular literature. Men offered an alternative to the prescribed ways of thinking imposed by the state and the church. Growing up during the darkest, most oppressive years in the history of the former Soviet Union, he became a parish priest who eschewed fear, who followed Christ’s command “to love thy neighbor as thyself,” and who attracted large, diverse groups of people in Russian society. How he accomplished those tasks and with what ultimate results are the main themes of this story. Conflict and controversy marked every stage of Men’s priesthood. His parish in the vicinity of Moscow attracted the attention of the KGB, especially as it became a haven for members of the intelligentsia. He endured repeated attacks from ultraconservative, anti-Semitic circles inside the Orthodox Church. Fr. Men represented the spiritual vision of an open, non-authoritarian Christianity, and his lectures were extremely popular. He was murdered on September 9, 1990. For years, his work was unavailable in most church bookstores in Russia, and his teachings were excoriated by some both within and outside the church. But his books continue to offer hope to many throughout the world–they have sold millions of copies and are testimony to his continuing relevance and enduring significance. This important biography will appeal to scholars and general readers interested in religion, politics, and global affairs.


“[This] magisterial biography portrays Father Aleksandr Men (1935-90) as a most uncommon cleric. . . . Daniel has written a powerful and timely book that will, like Men himself, endure.”
The Russian Review

“The thorough treatment of the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and Daniel’s insights into religious life make the book a must-read for historians specializing in the Soviet Union.”
History: Reviews of New Books

“This biography of Father Aleksandr Men’ is an excellent contribution to the study of Russian religious thought and the history of religious experience in the Soviet period. It is also a great addition to the growing library of biographies of individuals, who have had an exceptional spiritual influence in their lifetimes and beyond. Historians, philosophers, and theologians will find Daniel’s insightful exploration of Aleksandr Men’s life, ministry, and thought worthy of their consideration.”
Modern Greek Studies Yearbook

“Daniel vindicates Men against his detractors, but this is no hagiography. Rather it is a portrait of a uniquely gifted man and a paean of praise to the possibility, even in the most difficult of circumstances, of a truly human life, lived to the full and crowned with martyrdom.”
Journal of Ecclesiastical History

Russia’s Uncommon Prophet is especially valuable for the way it places Fr Men within the context of Soviet history and the political changes of perestroika under Gorbachev, a period when Fr Men was able to fulfil his gifts as a missionary and writer.”
Church Times

“This is an accessible, clearly written, sympathetic treatment of an important but largely forgotten or ignored figure in modern Russian Orthodoxy.”
–Patrick Lally Michelson, coeditor of Thinking Orthodox in Modern Russia

“Wallace Daniel’s book is one of the best ever on the Russian Orthodox Church in the communist period. It is much more than a biography: in its way, it is also a history of the Russian Church from the 1950s to the collapse of communism in the days of Mikhail Gorbachev.”
–Michael Bourdeaux, founder and president of the Keston Institute

Russia’s Uncommon Prophet is a magnificent, rich, careful study of Fr. Alexander Men, his life and writings, and the complex historical, ecclesial, and intellectual contexts that shaped him and his work. While there have been other books about him, Wallace Daniel’s labor of research and love here is without parallel; it is, in fact, incomparably valuable. It is likely to become the standard work on Fr. Men for many years to come, in any language.”
Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe

Russia’s Uncommon Prophet weaves together Men”s intellectual journey with his biography and makes a valuable contribution to the history of religion in Russia and also to our understanding of late Soviet society.”
Canadian Slavonic Papers

“Wallace Daniel’s Russia’s Uncommon Prophet provides an authoritative, accessible, and highly sympathetic English-language biography of Aleksandr Men’.”
Journal of Church and State

“Most importantly, this is a book written by a professional historian of Russian thought with a special emphasis not only on the history of the church, on the history of the Soviet epoch, on the history of the erosion and dying convulsions of the communist dictatorship in Russia, but also on the intellectual history and especially the intellectual and the philosophical dynamics of the twentieth century.” –Voprosy Filosofii (Problems of Philosophy)

About the Author

Wallace L. Daniel is Distinguished University Professor of History at Mercer University. He is the co-editor of Perspectives on Church-State Relations in Russia and the author of The Orthodox Church and Civil Society in Russia, as well as many articles on Russian economic, social, and religious history.                                                                                                                                                                 Finally, a note from Rev MacNaughton, in reviewing aforementioned book, before his passing in 2017:
I was studying in Minsk, Soviet Belorussia, 1976. I stared at the vast propaganda bills stretching several storeys deep on the neo-classical buildings. Lenin, and more recent figure-heads. Above, huge lettering ‘Communism strides out across the world’. But I was the only one gazing at them. Not a soul else raised their heads to look. The following Sunday I was in the Orthodox Cathedral at the Divine Liturgy. The creed was being sung. And it struck me that there was far more conviction in that not-very-good singing than in all the in-your-face street propaganda.
Wallace Daniel’s Russia’s Uncommon Prophet tells how Father Alexandr Men experienced his call, when standing in Red Square shocked and horrified by a vast portrait of Stalin illuminated by a projector. ‘When he saw the portrait in the dark sky, he knew he had to become a priest’.
I have been working on a translation of Father Alexander’s A History of Religion: In Search of the Way the Truth and the Life. Having lived in Minsk for 3 months in 1976 and visited on other occasions in communist times Father Men’s work is full of resonances for me. But Wallace Daniel’s book provides deeper answers: that is to questions like: what was it that gripped Father Aleksandr in the writings of Vladimir Solov’ev,Sergius Bulgakov and Nicholas Berdaiev? How on earth did he obtain so many books that were banned, out of print or only available abroad? What did everyday life involve for those who attended the Catacomb church or secret, by-invitation-only, discussion groups? How did his Jewishness influence his ministry and his writing? Above all, how did Russia nurture an inner life and a prophetic voice completely counter to the external materialist narrative?
Daniel states – much more clearly than I could for all the translation done so far – how his mother Elena her cousin Vera themselves experienced the stifling external narrative, and sought, and found deep inner resources through their faith. This they encouraged in Aleksandr from an early age at the same time as aiding him in his desire to read widely from early childhood. Soviet people’s life
was acted out in the work place, the library, the park, the sports stadium. Living space was cramped, peoples’ inner world numbed. Even science, with genetic research blocked for political reasons, was partially stuck in a doctrinaire time-warp.
Men is deeply Imbued with the faith and philosophy of Solov’ev, Bulgakov and Berdaiev. All three and others (the Trubetskoi brothers) were part of a glorious ‘Russian Renaissance’ flowering of philosophy at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Fr. Aleksandr’s understanding of knowledge, spiritual awareness, freedom and human development springs largely from these sources; and then there is the vast hinterland of his reading in biology, ethnology, paleontology, the sciences in general, theology and ecumenism, Hinduism and Buddhism, the Presocratics, Plato and Aristotle not to mention modern science fiction. All this Daniel charts with great aplomb: for a translator such as me, getting a deeper feel for the sources Men’ was working with is a big plus. And I am envious of the fruit of his researches, especially his one-to-one interviews with the family and friends of Men’.
He provides (as Michael Bourdeax acknowledges on the cover ‘one of the best ever books on the Orthodox Church in the communist period’), riven as it was by division between those who collaborated with the state and those who did not.
At the recent memorial events in Moscow for the 25th Anniversary of the murder of Protopriest Men’, well into his eighties, Metropolitan Iuvenalii played a principal role, including giving a lecture that was very appreciative of his ministry.
Daniels charts the key role played by the Metropolitan. He had connections to the K.G.B. He was a permanent member of the Holy Synod, the church’s highest council, serving through the difficult Brezhnev years when the KGB applied intense pressure. When the security police demanded a ‘confession’ from Alexandr Men there was also a summons to the offices of Metropolitan Iuvenalii. Each time changes were demanded in Father Aleksandr’s ‘confession’ these were submitted through Iuvenali’s office. Later he became ‘the protector of Fr. Alexandr’ and in 1986 Iuvenalii invited him to have supper – a ‘mark of special disposition’. In this and other ways Daniels maps out the twists and turns of Fr. Aleksandr’s relationship to church and state. And we see in Metropolitan Iuvenalii a man who had no choice but to work with the communists in his high ecclesiastical office yet who recognised applauded and shielded a man whom he recognised as an outstanding and a loyal Orthodox parish priest and writer.
It would have been difficult to write a convincing biography covering this tortuous period were not Daniels a gifted historian. In addition his book sets Fr Men’ in clear theological and philosophical perspective.
In Russia the Aleksandr Men’ legacy continues to engender much controversy, as well as inspire practical charitable work. For people like me who need more background so as to understand his writings in context, this book is an absolute godsend, as well as very readable.
(Canon Alastair Macnaughton, Permission to Officiate Dioceses of Durham and Newcastle, UK. Completed a first-volume translation of History of Religion by Fr Men: Volume 1 The Wellsprings of Religion, published by St Vladimir Seminary Press N. York autumn 2016.) Memory Eternal!

On the Eucharist, by Fr Alexander Men

On the Eucharist

A bird is sitting in a tree singing. Even though its singing seems without purpose, it performs important work: singing is its territorial claim. The part of the forest that hears my voice is mine – says the bird. Even if someone larger and stronger inserts itself in that territory, the owner will begin to fight and more often than not come out victorious: there is a peculiar law of nature that protects the property right. It is in the very nature of life that the desire to spread out, conquer, consume the weaker is lodged. Yet, when the very life is threatened, nature put some limits in place, which do not allow a wolf, for example, to devour a fellow wolf. Konrad Lorenz described in detail the ritual where the lost side uses: the ritual submission position compels fangs, the ready to be clenched, to stop. It is only man who is capable of stopping on his own will when the nature is telling him to strike. On the other hand, let us not forget that it is only man who is capable of killing his own kind (excluding rats who most likely learned from us).

The world is given to man, which fact obligates us to answer for every piece we eat. The substance of food, the nutrients, the eaten, the consumed, the living things we kill, of everything given us, — does not merely disintegrate: it enters our flesh and our blood. The flesh and blood of the earth, of the plants becomes our own flesh and blood. The flesh of the plant is the grain; the blood of the plant is its juice. When man eats, he takes communion with nature, he becomes its part, and the nature becomes his part. Man could tell the nature: “We are of the same blood you and I” [1]. Moreover, man does not only takes communion with the nature, but also the common meal unites people. This is understood today and it has been understood always: through the ages a great significance existed in the common fraternal feast. All the sacrifice always ended that way: people, having burned a part of the victim on the altar, ate together that food. In the Old Testament we see references to rituals of sacrifice. Among the sacrifices a special place is given the Paschal Lamb. The Lamb is connected with the deepest symbol of man and mankind, the symbol of blood.

The animal kingdom is an array of competing and war-making groups. As he emerged on earth, man employed himself in hunting and gathering, and lived in separate clans. A stranger was someone who was to be chased away or even killed. The groups of blood relatives kept very much to their own and protected their territory with the same fierceness as animals protect their hunting estates. That, which is so deeply rooted in the animal, passed as in inheritance to the man. Whence the well known phenomenon of xenophobia: the fear of the foreign and the hatred of the foreigner. In a Seton Thompson’s book, the mother teaches her fox cubs: “every unfamiliar object may be dangerous!”

And so, in the life of men there is such a moment when they have to meet and overcome the barrier between the foreigners by blood, and enter in contact. This is a special period in the life of mankind. A complex system of inter-tribal marriage emerges, so-called exogamy. It was important that the people had to meet, despite their inclinations to the contrary. It was very difficult for them, in the beginning, to overcome the fear of the foreigner, the rejection of the foreigner, the dislike of him. So at that time peculiar rituals started to emerge, whose objective was to make people kin, make them relatives. Blood always was present in these rituals. It could be that two men representing their different tribes made a cut on their hands and mixed their blood. At times the blood of the sacrificial animal was smeared on the fence posts. In the Old Testament the blood of man was considered sacred: it symbolized life, and only God ruled over life. At times when a treaty was concluded, when a religious covenant – a testament — was established, the blood of the sacrificed animal was sprinkled over the entire crowd and so all present became as if relatives. Similar rituals were repeated over centuries and became symbols of unity. So therefore Christ uses this symbolically significant ritual of the sacrifice, feast, eating, and establishes something similar in the form and in the essence.

Christ never left us any book, any school, any doctrine. He only left us His own Self. He remained with us himself: “I am with you all days” (Mt. 28:20). The strength of the Christians is that Christ is with them.

If we gaze with attention into Christ we notice something strikingly unique: when He gives His commandments of morals, He, in substance, does not offer anything new. “Whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you also to them” (Mt. 7:12). But this is what prophets, authorities and teachers said in ages! When He gives religious commandments, He nowise says anything principally new: didn’t Moses likewise installed faith in people; didn’t the prophets speak of the One God? So Christ speaks of the same things, formally He acts like they did. But not one – make note, not one! – of the great teachers of the past and of the present left us this miraculous mystery: I will be with you – this is the cup, this is the bread, these are My flesh and blood, this is Me Myself!

The Mystery of the Eucharist as a mystery of Christ Who abides with man is unique, — nothing similar ever happened in the world! Christ is with men not like a memory, not like an idea, but like One really Present. So at every Liturgy Christ and man testify to the presence of Christ here and now. The entire Eucharistic text is not merely repetition of the words spoken and the Mysterious Supper, it is also a memory of what happened, and thanksgiving, and the confirmation of the One Who is present.

The First Eucharist was accomplished on the eve of the Passover, when the old and forever new story of Israelites’ delivery from captivity, of their crossing the sea, and of their wandering in the desert is remembered. That history turned myth in the conscience of man – not in the sense of a legend, but rather in the sense of an original scheme, the pattern offered form the ancient time, which man and mankind follow on their way to spiritual growth. The religious holiday of the Passover became not merely a memory, but a new substantiation of what had occurred: God is Liberator and Savior. So men present themselves to Him just as they did at the night of the exodus from Egypt. As it was then, so now, unleavened bread is before us.

In one ancient text it is said that every faithful who makes the Passover, who breaks unleavened bread on that day, himself participates in the escape from Egypt. That which was, the deed of God is happening over time. Then, people were ready for a journey and read certain prayers. The hasty preparation did not afford an opportunity to bake leavened bread, and here, now, unleavened bread is on the table. Christ with the Apostles repeats the holy word of praise, the prayers, brings a thanksgiving: Thank Thee for Thou gave us salvation. The disciples pray with Him. And later, when Christ breaks the bread and gives it out, He speaks the ancient words of the prayer over the bread, the bread that was scattered over the hills, but having been gathered, became one: may we then, likewise, gather together and become one. So the first Christians prayed in the same words: as the bread of thanksgiving was scattered and now is gathered, and became one in this unleavened bread, so may we join as one.

The Catholic form of the holy Eucharistic bread is the host, round flat unleavened bread. Many of these are made and they are put on the altar for consecration. In the time of the first Christians flat bread was brought for the fraternal meal and the leader read a prayer of thanksgiving over that bread. It was, to be sure, an improvisation: people spoke of what concerned all the present: thank Thee, o God, for gathering us all, for the salvation that Thee granted us, thank Thee for Jesus Thy Servant, Who gave Himself for us and on that night, when He was betrayed, said: “Take ye, and eat. This is my body … Drink ye all of this, for this is my blood…” (Mt 26:26-28). And a common cup moved around the circle — the cup of communion of the people between themselves and with Christ.

This is continuing today. Of course, people should be fully informed as they participate in the Eucharist, but even when someone does not fully understand the meaning and the essence of what is going on, and simply takes his communion with the Divine Mysteries, he very often feels a certain impact of grace, he feels a change inside. This happens especially vividly with children.

In the sacrament of the Eucharist one very important moment is connected to the Incarnation. God made us as a second “I” of His, His alter Ego. We are in the immense Universe – and we are divine alter Ego, a reflection of His attributes, His signs, His nature. This is an infinitely reduced reflection, yet still it is a reflection. In order to lift us, bring us close to Him, let the uncommon possibilities in us open, God was drawing nearer to man at all times. The history of the Revelation is the history of God coming nearer to people. He had to come near, take on flesh, become not only God the hidden, God the mysterious, but also God Who stood level to man, became smaller.

Some ask why the reality of God is not as evident as the reality of the visible world. We can see the sun, the earth, but why do we not see God equally directly? Let us answer with an example.

It turns out that those who see the northern lights for the first time are strongly impressed by it. Many cry from some unexplainable ecstasy or terror. During a solar eclipse animals dash around in fear, dogs howl. One would think, — so what has happened? Okay, so what that it became dark, the sun is covered by clouds… Or imagine the moon as it hangs on the horizon, brightly red. And suddenly you see the moon becoming larger, covering half the sky, — truly that would be a frightening spectacle, that would depress, disturb, install fear; for a weaker psyche that would be a shock. Let us recall the scene from the “Faust” where the protagonist, seeking to know the mysteries of nature, invokes the Spirit of the Earth, and, when in a powerful explosion the Spirit appears, Faust falls and cannot stand up – that is how much the power of the event shocked him. Faust is crushed like a worm. So, the majesty and power of the transcendental God are such that we are not capable of bearing them. It is only by becoming smaller, only by leveling with us, becoming kin to us, He can be perceived by us. God turns off His power, His immeasurable vastness, makes it smaller and therefore becomes incarnate. The Incarnation had to happen even if there had been no Golgotha later, even if the history had been different and the destiny of the Man-God had been different. It was a possibility: do we not read in the Letter of Paul that the Lord endured the Cross instead of having joy set before Him (Heb. 12:2). The meeting of man with God face to face, when God becomes one of us, when He entered our world directly and visibly, — that would have been the greatest joy! But the world turned out such that the result was the appearance of the Cross.

We have to decline the thought that is very popular in poetry and even among old theologians, the thought laconically and brilliantly expressed by the Blessed Augustine, about the “felica culpa” – the “happy fault”, that is the fault of man which gave us this Savior. The mind of the Church as a whole left the view point that the appearance of Christ was necessitated by the catastrophe and if the catastrophe had not been there, He would not have come to us. Rather, the situation is completely different. The encounter between man and God was intended, planned regardless of its actual form. That was the capstone crowning a certain period of human existence.

Let us now imagine the moment when the sacrament of the Eucharist is taking place. Again, this is incarnation! Again, the power of God – not invisibly, not purely spiritually, but in full reality – enters the feast of the offering, which in a short while will become a part of our own substance. The power feeds us, we commune with the flesh and blood, bread and wine, wheat and the vine. Christ Himself enters our flesh and blood. When He said “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth”, He became – everywhere.

Christ had power as a heavenly being, but as Man-God He was tied up, bounded: He felt fatigue, needed air and food; He did not have the entirety of the command over the nature. Surely, He could heal, He in the end defeated death by His Divine power. But He did not have the fullness of power on earth, He was bounded. But now, having conquered death, He says”, All power is given to me…” So now we can speak, as Teilhard de Chardin writes, of “cosmic Christ” – of the Christ Who ascended not to some particular place in the Universe, but to the entire Universe… Christ spread His hands wide across the Creation, that is: God incarnated and made the Universe His flesh and blood. It is the sanctification of the cosmos, the nature and the flesh, that leads to the future transfiguration of the world. The Eucharist is the pledge of it for us.

When a priest visits a sick woman in her house, and she is lying, in filth and odor of sickness, behind the cupboards [2] somewhere, on the dirty table in the squalid surroundings a pyx is placed. That tiny box sits like an orphan between the black rags, amidst all the disaster, but that is exactly what God wants to accomplish, and is capable of accomplishing. He came and that feast became a shining spot in the dirt, darkness, disease and poverty. This is how He enters everywhere and nothing is unclean to Him. He comes down to any place, even to the bowels of the earth.

With every Eucharist the Mysterious Supper is lived again, and it is lived much more fully than when the apostles experienced it. That is because at that time they did not understand what was going on, and merely tried to remember everything the Lord said; they were troubled but they did not know what it all meant. We are in an advantageous position compared to them because we know what was being worked and we are thankful for it. This is why the Lord said: it is better for me to go and then you will have me more fully. Before, He was bounded, and now he is in front of every altar, in every house, and every Cup is His heart!

There is a cult in the West, the Heart of Christ. Naturally, it is an image, because the heart is the symbol of love. So now that Heart gives Itself, like that legendary bird who fed his children with his blood. Often the bird was shown in medieval frescoes and stained glass, the bird picking his blood and giving it to the chickens. This is the way and the method of Christ’s work.

The scholastic questions how the unleavened bread, or the bread of the offering become body and blood of Christ, at what precise moment it is happening, and such, — often became idle talk, at times, dispute. But this is not germane to the issue! We are not talking about some kind of chemical transformation – that is altogether absurd! Far more is here than a transformation. When Christ said “This is My flesh and blood”, — it meant that He gave people His entire Self. This is something ineffable, something much deeper than, for example, the concepts of transubstantiation or something similar to that. The truth is that we don’t need to know, and since it is not needed to know, it is not given to know. The important part is that He said Himself: I am with you, I am here, I give Myself to you, you will drink My blood and eat My flesh, and you will commune with Me. This is not a spiritual, symbolic, or, far worse, ideological communion. He said that the sacred feast will be He Himself and in the end it turns out that He incarnates into us! The summit and center of the Eucharist is incarnation of Christ in us.

Now the sacred Eucharistic feast is divided between those present, it came into their bodies, united with them, dissolved in them, and everyone is carrying Christ in him. The desire of Christ is to make us commune with Him. As soon as we accept baptism, we become His instrument. He is to work in us, and out tragedy is that we are not sufficiently worthy. The irreligious or antireligious people are correct when they judge about our faith by us ourselves, because Christ wants us to make Him apparent, represent Him, and incarnate Him in our entire image. Every communion not merely reminds us of that, but we truly unite with Him. He lives and works in us and by us. And then everything is beauty: Christ burns in us, lives in us, and we do what we were not able to do before, and we do it now with His power. This is a great thing, the Eucharist, by which Christ attached us to Himself and made each of us not only an apostle, but more than an apostle, a carrier of His strength! This is our happiness, our grace, our joy, our font of endless energy!

Publication by Anastasia Andreeva

  1. Rudyard Kipling, the Jungle Book
  2. Common in rural dwellings in Russia, where furniture partitions the interior alexander men icon

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, by Frederick Buechner

Buechner guides us down meandering dense forest paths of meaning, with tales drawn from the ages; tragic, comic and fairy tale. In that order- moving from ourselves and our everyday experiences to the centre of it all, The Gospel- he encourages us to allow it’s silence to precede the word. Frederick creates an Incarnate image in our mind and fitting for our time, that of the news on tv; encouraging us to see The Gospel like the news with the sound off first. Allow the force of reality to hit without the comforts of context or banal encouragement. He begins here with the raw existential passion of existence and follows Christ, The Holiest of Holy Fools, through it to the comedy that requires openess to Grace and self-reflection. Beautifully sharing the story of Abraham and Sarah, with his own creative glosses. Then, ultimately the fairy tale; The Resurection and Coming Kingdom which locates it all-the pain, the mundane, the white snow and scent of rain- in a world that makes sense. But a world that is not mere magic, anymore than it is merely tragic, and in which God is not a mere magician.                                        So, like Dorothy, Frodo and the others in our meaning-full tales we must experience the extraordinary in the ordinary primarily by answering the call to be who we are called to be, loving life in poetic attentiveness and childlike wonder. This openess to Grace brings Joy and involves loving God, others and our selves in all reality, stripped naked and without worldly shame. That is our door to other realms- The Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.                                                                                                                   Moreover, we need great courage because there is darkness out there and we still have to face great evil, sin, sickness and death; God’s absence is a lamentable feature of life in the creation groaning for fulfillment just as His presence. Like The Old Testament heroes and heroines, we must lament! Paul Miller reminds us of this in A Loving Life… You’re not in Kansas anymore.                                                                                                                      If you enjoy this, you may enjoy Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, Dostoevsky, Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, Jonathan Pageau’s Symbolic World, Sacks’ The Great Partnership, CS Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien and the other Inklings.                                                    Philosphically, Buechner shows shades of Shestov and Kierkegaard; who also gave God the final word. Theologically, Fr Alexander Men. buechner tellng