15 January 2009

'Rejoice, for thou didst embrace all the ends of our earth with thy love!'

In the Russian Church, today we also commemorate the renowned St Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833). I won’t spend time going over the details of the famous hesychast’s life, which should be well known and can be read about here (his famous conversation with Nicholas Motovilov can be read here). But I would like to mention three interesting things.

One is something I had noticed before but was nicely spelled out by Ruth Coates in her wonderful article, ‘Bakhtin and Hesychasm’ (Religion & Literature 37.3 [Autumn 2005], pp. 79), which a friend obtained for me, somewhat ironically, from the library of Brigham Young University. Coates spends some time on the figure of St Seraphim as a source of hesychastic influence on Mikhail Bakhtin, who ‘would refer to Seraphim as his “heavenly protector”’ (Coates, p. 60). By way of background, she quotes George Fedotov, ‘[For this] generation of the Orthodox Renaissance, the last before the Revolution . . . St Seraphim was the prophet of the expected revelation of the Holy Spirit and the forerunner of the new form of spirituality which should succeed merely ascetical monasticism’ (George P. Fedotov, ed., A Treasury of Russian Spirituality [Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1988], p. 146). But Coates shrewdly observes—

Fedotov’s description of the reception of Seraphim by the religious intelligentsia rings true, and betrays the arrogance and ignorance of that generation: so far from being the forerunner of a new form of spirituality, Seraphim was in his time the latest representative of an ancient tradition of Eastern Christian spirituality, a practising hesychast whose spiritual authority as a starets, or elder, derived from his direct mystical knowledge of God through prayer, as opposed to his position in the institutional Church’s hierarchy. Moreover, so far from succeeding ascetical monasticism, Seraphim was a hieromonk . . . who maintained close links with the monastery to which he was attached, in keeping with the hesychasts of old, and who continued to take part in the sacramental life of the Church. (Coates, pp. 61-2)

I rejoiced to read these words, whereby Coates, who as far as I know is not herself Orthodox, pulls back the curtain to reveal just how ridiculous is this statement, among the many that the ostensibly Orthodox Fedotov was apt to make. This is, however, just one more reason to read her article, available, as I have noted, from the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU. Unfortunately, I still have not managed to read through her book, Christianity in Bakhtin: God and the Exiled Author (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1998), though it has long sat on my shelf.

The second thing I wanted to note is a happy echo in St Seraphim of a statement from St John Cassian’s Conferences, one of my favourite books, ever. Before I go on, however, I should point out that while I had previously read the Conferences, I had not noticed this passage in particular until I came across it in a footnote in Harry Boosalis’s study of St Silouan (Orthodox Spiritual Life According to St Silouan the Athonite [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 2000], p. 34, n. 18), written, incidentally, as a doctoral dissertation in my department (moral theology) at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

Anyway, in his conversation with Motovilov (I quote the translation of Fr Seraphim [Rose] in Little Russian Philokalia, Vol.1: St Seraphim, 4th ed. [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996], p.79), St Seraphim famously says:

‘Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian practices, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition the Holy Spirit of God.’

This, I found, is strikingly reminiscent of a statement made by Abba Moses of Scetis in the First Conference, VII.3: ‘Thus fasts, vigils, meditating on Scripture, and the being stripped and deprived of every possession are not perfection, but they are the tools of perfection. For the end of that discipline does not consist in these things; rather, it is by them that one arrives at the end’ (St John Cassian, The Conferences, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 1997], p. 46; according to Fedotov, the actual phrase ‘acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God’ is from St Macarius, but the closest thing I’ve found to it is a reference to ‘receiving’ or ‘partaking’ of the Holy Spirit in Spiritual Homilies 5:8). While it doesn’t seem likely that St Seraphim would have read the Conferences (perhaps someone else can tell me whether these were ever translated into Russian), he certainly did read the Philokalia (Fr Seraphim, p. 14), and this statement can be found among the excerpts from St Cassian in that compilation (see The Philokalia, The Complete Text: Vol. I, trans. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos [Ware] [London: Faber, 1979], p. 96).

Finally, in a casual glance through Fr Seraphim’s translation of St Seraphim material to recall its contents, I stumbled across a chapter (39) in the ‘Spiritual Instructions’ that called to my mind something I’d encountered before. The chapter is titled ‘The Active and Contemplative Life’, and there St Seraphim repeats a well-known Philokalic teaching:

The path of the active life consists of: fasting, continence, vigils, prostrations, prayer and other bodily ascetic labors, which comprise the narrow and grievous path which, according to God’s word, leads to eternal life (Matt. 7:14).

The path of the contemplative life consists of the elevation of the mind to the Lord God, of heartfelt heedfulness, mental prayer, and, through such practices, contemplation of spiritual things.

Everyone who desires to traverse the spiritual life must begin with the active life, and only then come to the contemplative: for without the active life it is impossible to enter the contemplative. (Fr Seraphim, p. 56)

This reminded me, by way of contrast, of a statement I’d just seen in that article on St Basil and Benedictine mission that I linked to yesterday, a statement in turn reminiscent of others I’ve seen in various Western books: ‘Down the Benedictine centuries there has been a tension between monks being “on the mission” or ‘in the monastery” and disagreement about what the appropriate balance between the “vita contemplativa” and the “vita activa” should be’ (Dermot Tredget, OSB, ‘Basil of Caesarea and His Influence on Monastic Mission’, p. 2). This seems rather similar to Aristotle’s use of the equivalent expressions in Nicomachean Ethics, but as far as I know it isn’t patristic. If anyone else can explain why the Catholics and Protestants use these terms in this way, I would be much obliged!

Well, sorry to have strayed from the subject of St Seraphim per se, but I assumed everyone would know all about him and be ready to follow some tangents!

(The icon above is by the hand of Philip Zimmerman; the title of this post is from Ekos 11 of the 'Akathist to St Seraphim of Sarov' in Book of Akathists: To Our Saviour, the Mother of God, and Various Saints [Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994], p. 359)


Anonymous said...

Very nice words Aaron! God bless your labours.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Father. I'm always worried that I'm the only one who finds these things interesting!

Anonymous said...


Please forgive me for jumping in here- just wanted to reply 'On the contrary' to your last statement... as a fellow Orthodox layman perhaps too a little smitten with bibliomania I find your blog to be quite a treat, and would count myself as a regular reader. Your last post is a prime example of why your blog is so delightful. From St. Seraphim to Bakhtin (wish I could access this article, BTW), to Fedotov, to St. Cassian, and so forward...
As to your question concerning the (mis-)appropriation of the terms 'vita activa/contemplativa' in modern Catholic/protestant thought and its flagrant departure from its patristic context... I really have no answers, but would encourage you-if you are in a position to do so- to dig a bit deeper on this one, as it seems very suggestive of a profound misunderstanding, and possibly one of relative antiquity?
Anyway, just wanted to assure you that there are a few others out here in cyber-land following your musings with interest.
Peace to you, In Christ,

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you very much for your kind words, Symeon! I'm very glad to hear there are people like you out there!

I'm sure someone has written all about this active/contemplative thing before, so hopefully I can try to do a bit more digging next week if no one comments with the explanation I'm looking for. Frankly, I hoped Sr Macrina might have something to say, but it sounds like she's been sick and now she's travelling and her internet access may be spotty. :-(

I've often found myself inclined to give up ever trying to 'figure out' RC spirituality, but my interest in St Benedict ensures that I keep bumping up against it. Unfortunately, even Fr Placide doesn't seem to really address this issue in the lecture I've been trying to translate! Maybe it's completely obvious to everyone else, or maybe it's a pseudo-problem or something.