28 July 2009

On the Reverence We Owe the Saints

As an Orthodox Christian, I try consistently on this blog to honour and venerate the Saints of the Church, to praise their virtues and esteem their deeds and writings. On the feastdays of Saints in particular, it is my policy at Logismoi, practiced less consciously at first but more so later, to avoid those things about which the Saints might be open to some criticism or other. As St Photius the Great (in The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, trans. HTM [NY: Studion, 1983]) says of the accusations of the Latins that Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and others teach something like the filioque:

70. I do not admit that what you assert was so plainly taught by them, but if they happened to express some such thing, if they happened to fall into something unbecoming, then I would imitate the good sons of Noë [Noah] and hide my father’s shame, by using silence and gratitude as a cloak. . . . (p. 100)

Thus, like St Photius, I do not deny that it is possible that a holy Father may have misspoken in some matter, but I always give them the benefit of the doubt, I refuse to be at all cavalier about identifying or pointing out such things, and I hesitate even to mention them on the Saint’s feastday, when we should be celebrating their sacred memory. I don't wish to offend anyone, but commentors on my posts who do not observe a similar piety will face the prospect of their comments being summarily deleted, and particularly if, as recently happened, they ignore all that has already been said in praise and defense of the Saint and proceed with their rash words. Thus, I am making an exception to my policy of silence and gratitude today, first, in order to make this policy explicit, and second, because the subject has already been broached in an earlier post and the policy put into effect precisely concerning the Saint I have blogged about today—St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain.

I admit, I myself raised this subject in the context of my initial post on the book Orthodoxy and the West, by Chrestos Yannaras, trans. Fr Peter Chamberas and Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2006), kindly sent to me by Aimee Cox Ehrs, Managing Editor of Holy Cross Orthodox Press. As I mentioned in that post, Yannaras made some rather strong criticisms of St Nicodemus, criticisms which, I believe, go too far at best (he actually appears to be calling the Father’s sanctity into question), and are shockingly impious at worst. Thanks to God, what he has to say has already been sufficiently answered by Fr George Metallinos in the Introduction to the English translation of the special target of Yannaras’s attack, The Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession, trans. Fr George Dokos (Thessalonica: Uncut Mountain, 2006), pp. 33-60, of which an earlier version is also available here.

But I wanted to add one or two things, not addressing specific points of Yannaras’s, but providing the whole perspective from which the question should be addressed. First of all, we do well to recall what has been written by Fr Gerasimos Micragiannanitis of Mt Athos in his ‘Life of St Nicodemos’ (translated by Constantine Cavarnos in Saint Nicodemos the Hagiorite, by Constantine Cavarnos [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1994], pp. 64-95):

Having now been filled with grace and wisdom, and received from heaven the gift of teaching, the divine Nicodemos became a most brilliant Luminary of the Orthodox Church, a great Teacher of Christendom and the strongest adversary of every heresy and heterodox teaching. . . . His holy writings—theological, dogmatic, interpretative, and moral—constitute a whole library. And in them is manifest the sublimity and depth of every kind of human and divine knowledge, and the flood of heavenly wisdom. God-inspired Nicodemos took infinite pains in writing his sacred teachings day and night for the benefit of his neighbor and the enrichment of our holy Church, which he so illuminated and adorned in recent times. (pp. 78-9)

So this is the voice of the Holy Mountain concerning the works of its own son, St Nicodemus. If we do not heed this voice, he can we claim to have properly approached the Saint’s writings? But even more important for worldwide Orthodoxy is the testimony of Patriarch Athenagoras and the Holy Synod of the Œcumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. I am not normally in agreement with this Patriarch, but here he is not merely giving his own opinion or acting of his own will, but is truly acting as the voice of the Church of New Rome (Cavarnos notes that the recognition of his sanctity 'was requested in 1953 by the Monastery of Lavra, of which the Kelli of the Skourtaioi, where Nicodemos spent his last days, was a dependency' [p. 62]). In the 1955 ‘Synodical Act of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Concerning the Registering in the Company of the Saints of the Righteous Monk Nikodemos the Hagiorite’ (Exomologetarion, pp. 11-12), we read:

In so much therefore as Nikodemos the Hagiorite, in the beginning at the Sacred Royal Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of Dionysiou, in which monastery he received the sacred monastic schema, then in the Sacred Royal Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of Great Lavra and in other places, did excel in such eminent feats of virtue on the Holy Mountain, and by sanctity and holiness of life did make himself to be a pattern of the life in Christ, and a living icon of virtue, showing and poising himself to be a teacher of the Church and of the whole Christian body through his various Orthodox and edifying works, our Modesty together with the most sacred and most honorable Metropolitans with us, our beloved brethren and concelebrants in the Holy Spirit, recognizing his God-pleasing life and his works and achievements, and foreseeing the common benefit of the faithful, also taking into account all of his contributions to the Church, as Elder Ananias of the Cell of Lavriotes in Karyes personally submitted, along with all of the holy monks living in asceticism on the Holy Mountain, requesting that the anniversary of his death be established in honor of a Saint, we decree, in accord with the customary practice of the Church and our divine Fathers before us, to bestow upon him the honor due to holy men.

Wherefore we decree synodically, and do ordain, and in the Holy Spirit direct that from this day forth and unto all ages Nikodemos the Hagiorite be numbered among the holy men and Saints of the Church and that he be honored with annual sacred and holy rites, and venerated with hymns of praise on the fourteenth day of July, on which day he blessedly departed to the Lord.

George Bebis notes that in 1956, the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia decreed that the Russian Church 'would honor and celebrate the memory of St Nicodemos on July 14 each year' as well (Introduction, A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, by St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, trans. Fr Peter Chamberas [NY: Paulist, 1989], p. 16). Can the position of the Church be any clearer? St Nicodemus is ‘a teacher of the Church and of the whole Christian body through his various Orthodox and edifying works’ (Exomologetarion, p. 12). Can an individual attack those works as ‘a spiritual failure’ (Yannaras, p. 137) and still be faithful to the Church? God forbid!

On this subject—not St Nicodemus specifically, but the whole problem I have addressed here—I hope to say more in the future in the context of a wider discussion. It seems to me that Alan Jacobs’s book, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001), which I have already mentioned here, and its thesis that we must read with love, could be helpful in articulating the proper Orthodox approach to such matters. But of course, Jacobs is primarily discussing the reading of secular literature. With the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers, not only must we read with love, as we should read any book, we must read with piety and reverence. As Fr Vasileios of Iveron writes (in this passage from Hymn of Entry, trans. Elizabeth Briere [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1984], p. 34):

What is required in patristic study, in order to remain faithful to the Fathers' spirit of freedom and worthy of their spiritual nobility and freshness, is to approach their holy texts with the fear in which we approach and venerate their holy relics and holy icons. This liturgical reverence will soon reveal to us that here is another inexpressible grace.


+Bishop SAVAS of Troas said...

Well said, Aaron.

One small point: it's Dr. George, not Fr. George Bebis. His identical twin brother, Constantine, is a priest. Perhaps you mixed them up? ;-)

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for pointing that out, and for the compliment, Your Grace. I don't think I mixed them up, I think I just got the impression somehow that George was a priest! I'll correct it.