23 January 2009

Books in the Mail!

There was a pleasant surprise in the Taylor household yesterday when I unexpectedly received two books in the mail—a gift from my friend, Fr Luke Hartung! The books were, to my knowledge, the two most recent books from Uncut Mountain Press, whose publications I have been pleased to follow ever since Fr Heers handed me a free copy of Truth of Our Faith from the unsellable reject stack in Thessaloniki back in 2001.

The first is the latest in UMP’s ongoing project of publishing the works of St Nicodemus the Hagiorite in English—Confession of Faith, trans. Fr George Dokos (Thessaloniki: Uncut Mountain, 2008). It is a translation of a book that was originally published in Venice in 1819, subtitled ‘That Is, a Most Just Apologia’. The translation begins with a ‘Preface’ by Fr George Bebis, Professor Emeritus of Patristics and currently Adjunct Professor, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, which is primarily devoted to summarising the contents. It ends with the following recommendation of the Saint’s work:

Every time I read the books of St Nikodemos I am inspired by his humility, his love, his steadfastness in the faith, his faithfulness to the Canons of the Church, and his unlimited love for Christ, for His Mother the holy Virgin Mary, and for the Mother Church of Christ. St Nikodemos, although he lived in the eighteenth century, still is contemporary, and I say this because even today there are people who do not like him and accuse him of being a westernizer and unbending. But we know that St Nikodemos can speak to our hearts today and give us direction for a truly Christian life. Amen. (p. 19)

The ‘confession’ proper appears in the Saint’s ‘Introduction’, followed by three chapters concerning the Kollyvades controversy, two defending claims or stories told about the Gospels in his Spiritual Exercises (not yet available in English), and finally, there is a defense of his beliefs concerning the Eucharist, and a brief Conclusion. It is clearly a polemical book—St Nicodemus writes:

We were motivated to write these things, not in order to cause a scandal in the Church of Christ—God forbid!—but chiefly and first of all to show that we are not guilty of any of the defamations and accusations which the good brethren allege against us, and especially because they called us heretics and unorthodox, and masons. (p. 110)

I am glad to see that UMP is continuing to publish these translations. The translator, Fr Dokos (Fr Bebis calls him ‘my beloved student’, p. 11), did his Ph.D. on St Nicodemus at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where he and his family took over the apartment my wife and I had occupied for about a year and a half. I had the good fortune to meet him there in 2005, and he graciously provided some assistance to me on St Nicodemus issues just several months ago. I look forward to reading this volume, and to seeing the next one!

The other volume was the recent translation, Patristic Theology: The University Lectures of Fr John Romanides, ed. Monk Damaskinos Agioreitis, trans. Hieromonk Alexios (Trader) (Thessaloniki: Uncut Mountain, 2008). It consists of 67 brief pieces on various and sundry theological and spiritual topics, taken from Fr Romanides’s lecture at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in 1983. Fr Damaskinos has provided extraordinarily helpful chapter titles for these, as well as a Table of Contents that makes it quite simple to simply look up what Fr Romanides has to say about, for instance, ‘The Social Aims of Orthodoxy’, ‘Ecclesiastical Music’, or ‘The Distinction Between Essence and Energy’.

The tone and approach is very conversational and informal, which is nice, but it is also sometimes ‘caustic’ (as Fr Damaskinos notes, p. 15), and there is not much occasion for patristic quotes or discussion of specific Fathers. Thus, the title may be a little misleading to some, for while Fr Romanides’s theology may or may not be ‘patristic’ in content and spirit (and I think it largely is), it is certainly not ‘patristic’ in the sense of simply expounding the writings of the Holy Fathers. Fr George Metallinos, in his ‘Preface to the Greek Edition’, seems to acknowledge this when he says: ‘His lectures were not mere citations from Patristic texts, but an entrance into the Patristic spirit and experience through the Fathers’ relationship with our Triune God in their hearts. On this basis, he reformulated the Patristic teaching’ (p. 11).

One cannot deny, however, that Fr Romanides is controversial, both in the content per se of his writings, where he very much emphasises the differences between traditional Orthodox teaching and everything else, as well as in the way that his writings have been, and will continue to be, received. I myself am not, however, a sufficiently qualified dogmatic or historical theologian to be able to comment on these controversies, and they are not the sort of thing I wish to engage in on this blog. But I will second the judgement of Fr Heers that Fr Romanides ‘was a path-finder who opened the road for academic theology to return to Patristic theology and for pietism to be replaced with hesychasm’ (Preface to the English Edition, p. 9). Indeed, this is very close to the opinion of Fr Nicholas Loudovikos, a student of Fr Romanides and a notable critic of some of the latter’s teaching (for the relevant comments on Fr Romanides’s significance, see his brilliant Η Αποφατική Εκκλησιολογία του Ομοουσίου—Η αρχέγονη Εκκλησία σύμερα [Athens: Armos, 2002], p. 132).

This book was not new to me. In fact, I had purchased and read quite a bit of the Greek edition—Πατερική Θεολογία, ed. Monk Damaskinos Agioreitis (Thessaloniki: Parakatathiki, 2004)—back in 2005, and I actually prefer the design of the Greek edition, which was likely done on a greater budget than Uncut Mountain Press can manage! Interestingly, the two editions were prepared together in a very coordinated way if I remember correctly, with Fr Alexios making his translation even as Fr Damaskinos transcribed the recording of the lectures in Greek. Both, however, have exactly the same chapter titles, divisions, and order, and can be easily compared with one another. I thought I recalled there being a note about this cooperation between editor and translator (both Athonite monks), but I’m not finding it at the moment.

Anyway, I was also given a copy of the English translation back in September, by Fr Dositheos of Holy Archangels Monastery in Texas, so I intend to find a good home for the new one from Fr Hartung. One can read chapters 1 (‘What is the Human Nous?’—where Fr Romanides states in the opening sentence his governing thesis, ‘The chief concern of the Orthodox Church is the healing of the human soul’ [p. 19]), 24 (‘What is the Core of Orthodox Tradition’), and 29 (‘On Conservatives and Liberals’), at the Orthodox Information Center.

(Addendum: Here one can read another helpful, and shorter, discussion of the Kollyvades movement. HT to Fr Dcn Gregory Edwards.)


Esteban Vázquez said...

Oh, great--now there are three UMP bok by St Nikodemos that I need to get. There goes my (not yet existent) budget! ;-)

aaronandbrighid said...

I recommend a visit to Holy Archangels--you're likely to be given a copy of at least one of them! Of course, there are other reasons to go...

Justin said...

I would like to see the arguments that led the 'good brethren' to conclude St Nicodemos was a mason. Or is it merely the kind of name calling that frustrated monastics resort to when they run out of things to say?

Also, I need to get the kind of friends who send books in the mail. I'm jealous. You mason.

aaronandbrighid said...

Oh, I don't know, publishing patristic texts, advocating stricter adherence to the canons, encouraging frequent receptions of the Holy Mysteries--it all sounds pretty Masonic to me, don't you think? No, I'm rather certain it was merely 'name-calling'. Indeed, 'Mason' is still sometimes used as a nearly meaningless pejorative among pious, or at least, quasi-pious circles in Greece.