01 October 2009

The Illuminating Icon


When I was newly Orthodox, I discovered a book called The Illuminating Icon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989) by a tattooed Vietnam vet who was then a deacon (now a priest) named Anthony Ugolnik. Although I got a lot out of it, not least in the various other things it led me to, I’ve seen almost nothing else that Fr Ugolnik has done since and very few references even to this one book. Although I recently found a few interesting things on the Internet (a series of audio lectures, his current parish, his faculty page and a profile, and an old review of Icon), the only print references to Fr Ugolnik’s work that I know of anywhere have been in Bakhtin studies (Bakhtin comes up in Icon). In their controversial intellectual biography, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1984), pp. 85-6, Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist quote from Fr Ugolnik’s dubious-sounding article, ‘Tradition as Freedom from the Past: Contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy and Ecumenism’, Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, Occasional Papers, no. 17 (Nov. 1982), p. 2. Then, Aleksandar Mihailovic cites the book in question as an example of an interpretation of Bakhtin as ‘a modern Orthodox thinker’ (Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse [Evanston, IL: Northwestern U, 1997], p. 236, n. 5).

The book is an unusual one. Written for a mainly American Protestant audience, it covers an extraordinarily wide range of ground, dealing with theology, history (both ancient and recent), literature, politics, critical theory, philosophy, and even rock music, film, and sports (Fr Ugolnik is a hockey man). Written at the end, but still within the atmosphere of, the Cold War, its main purpose it seems was to facilitate greater understanding of specifically Russian Orthodoxy among American Protestants. Along the way, Fr Ugolnik makes a few statements that I thought excessively ecumenistic, as well as a few others that I thought excessively sympathetic towards communism and the Soviet Union. I credit him, however, with helping me to understand the MP and OCA a bit better, and I’ve always been touched by his fond reference to the Russian Church Abroad as ‘our “church in exile”’ (p. 43). But apart from the ecumenism and sympathy toward what was then the still rather Sergianist MP, the book is quite dated in its focus on the tensions of the Cold War. It’s not even something that could be revised for an updated edition; this focus permeates the entire book.

I definitely have a soft place in my heart for this book, however, and I find that the constant interplay of theology and literature has stuck with me to become a, if not the, primary academic interest in my life. I would like to give an excerpt from Fr Ugolnik’s book (which I acquired with the help of Warren Farha at Eighth Day Books—sorry about the delay in settling that bill!), as well as one each from two of the books that he introduced me to (which I eventually tracked down and purchased with the help of my Orthodox librarian friend, Lee Webb). First, The Illuminating Icon:

When Augustine took up that book and opened it to Romans 13:13, he created a primary epistemological model, a blueprint for understanding. In the Western encounter with the Word of God, Christians relate to a text. The central quest is to wrestle meaning from the Book.

This Augustinian model had a powerful influence on the way people envisioned the process of meaning. The Middle Ages, for example, had its own counterpart to what we might call ‘psychological insight’. Medieval literature abounds in ‘dream narratives’, in which a dreamer falls asleep and discovers a rich interior world that conveys somehow the real nature of things. Significantly, the dreamer typically falls asleep with an open book in his or her lap. For example, in the opening passage of The Book of the Duchess, which launched his literary career, Geoffrey Chaucer employed a scenario well known to his audience:

So when I saw I might not slepe
Til now later this other night,
Upon my bed I sat upright
And bad oon reche me a book,
A romaunce, and he it me tok
To rede and drive the night away. (ll. 44-49)

In short, Chaucer liked to read in bed. And reading becomes the act by which he most makes sense of the world—the reader becomes a dreamer, and the terms of the text reshape the inner landscape of consciousness. When educators now lament our loss of a common body of classics and complain that teachers can no longer assume that their classes have read the same (or any) texts, they prove how central the text is to meaning. They fear meaning itself will be lost, just as some educators fear that the spreading ignorance of Scripture will undermine cultural as well as religious meaning. This problem constitutes an intellectual crisis precisely because it erodes the foundation of meaning as the West has perceived it.

From the earliest medieval romances to the great Reformation works like Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the reader learns through the text how to approach the phenomena of this world. Truth comes through the book, and so also does deception. When Spenser’s Red Cross Knight, the champion of truth and the true church, battles the monster Error, it is significant that she vomits forth gobbets of undigested books and pamphlets. The book begets illumination or perdition; we can ‘read’ experience, like we ‘read’ the book, in order to discern meaning. And the greatest meaning of all, the Word of God, comes to us bound between two covers. The Protestant mind, whether or not it approaches the Word of God through the filter of ‘inerrancy’, imagines the Word as embodied within a text, a book, a bible. This is a cultural inheritance.

The Orthodox mind also gives primacy to the canonical, duly ‘handed-down’ and biblical Word. If Westerners bind their Word in denim or morocco, the Orthodox lift theirs—clad in gold and, of course, icons—before the assembly of worshipers. Their priests then chant a single word: Sophia in Greek, Premudrost in Slavonic—in English, ‘Wisdom’. But that wisdom comes in the context of the liturgy, the Word communally celebrated rather than individually encountered in the text. The Book is the repository of meaning, yet the Book is regarded and treated as if it were itself an image begetting images. The Book not only reveals but is itself ‘image-producing’, transforming dead matter into the reflected image of Jesus Christ. (pp. 49-50)

Fr Ugolnik refers at one point to a dissident named ‘Tatiana Goricheva, a Russian philosopher and Christian believer, [who] spent her training immersed in Nietzsche and Kant and . . . even corresponded with Heidegger’, noting that even after her return to the Church, ‘she did not cease to take seriously the intellectual challenge of those figures who had brought her “to the verge of despair at which faith begins”’ (p. 9). Goricheva has edited a wonderful book—available in English—of letters and writings of several Russian confessors called Cry of the Spirit: Witnesses to Faith in the Soviet Union, trans. Susan Cupitt (NY: Crossroad, 1989). But Fr Ugolnik cites her personal memoir, Talking about God is Dangerous: My Experiences in the East and in the West, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1986). Here is a passage from that volume:

But the church never took the way of relaxation. I never heard that moral demands in the Russian Orthodox church would be reduced, the moral demands which are only imposed because we live in the century of the ‘re-evaluation of values’, the ‘sexual revolution’, and so on For those of us who were new converts it was difficult to accept this new life in all its fullness. We were unaccustomed both to fasts and to regular praying, and even to regular penitential confession. We were not used to accusing ourselves rather than others when anything went wrong. But we gradually learnt that, and in everything we felt the support of God and the church. On the other hand we were very glad that the church preaches the truth which is given once and for all by God, that the commandments of God are not subject to the individual changes that time brings with it. We liked the maximalism of the Christian proclamation: it was only worth living for those things for which people could and would die. We learned to be ruthless about our sins, and we learned to destroy the root of impurity itself. For example it was difficult to describe free relations with someone we loved as ‘sexual excesses’, which is what they were. We wanted to offer excuses: ‘What kind of sin is that? We love each other.’ But despite all possible and usual views Christianity calls for choice and perfection: ‘Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ And this perfection is something in which not only the soul but also the body is involved. Each of its sighs, each of its movements, is to be dedicated to God.

The high level of demands in Orthodox faith is connected with its extraordinary flexibility and its gentleness towards human beings. How can this contradiction be resolved? Only through love. The specific, wise love which does not seek its like. We find such a love in our [Russian] pastors, who are endowed with grace to give us freedom. They have freed us from the harsh, oppressive ‘karmic’ yoke of our past; they have achieved something of which people from non-Christian or pseudo-Christian cultures would not have dreamed. How often has it been written in various philosophies that it is impossible to turn back time, that it is impossible to possess ‘what was’. Nietzsche, Heidegger and Proust tormented themselves over this question, and very profound minds and artists still torment themselves over it today.

Their lack of faith makes them slaves of what happened earlier. They do not know that they too are children of God, that a miracle can also happen in their life, that God can also encounter them with his love, as he has encountered all of us. (pp. 26-7)

Later in his book, Fr Ugolnik writes, ‘The poet Irina Ratushinskaya, writing with all the sharpness of her generation’s conscience, captures the feeling’—that is, ‘of guilt at the loss’ of faith among the Russian people (p. 62). Citing a dual-language edition of her work, Beyond the Limit: Vnye Limita, trans. Frances Padorr Brent and Carol J. Avins (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U, 1987), he mentions that as a prisoner of conscience for her faith, Ratushinskaya was ‘denied writing materials’, and ‘preserved the original lines of many of these poems by etching them in a bar of soap in her prison cell, committing the lines to memory, and then washing them away to prepare the way for the lines that would succeed them’ (p. 63). Here, in full, is the untitled poem that Fr Ugolnik excerpts:

I remember an abandoned church near Moscow:
doors wide open, cupola smashed.
And shielding the infant with her arm
the Virgin [Богородица] quietly
mourns. Cold lies ahead,
the boy’s feet are bare,
it’s frightening across the Russian snow—
Forever, not knowing where—
to let down the child, black-
eyed, among these people, to crucify . . .
Don’t throw stones! Don’t!

Can it be, once again,
for love, salvation, miracle,
a wide, untrembling gaze—
a Russian Judas will come?
a Russian Pilate will be found?
Among us—those who entered—not a cry
or breath—the throat cramps—
Across his mother’s countenance
crooked letters of profanity
scratched with broken glass . . .
The infant gazes as into a fusillade:
Wait—I will come soon,
in your northern December
my face will be scorched
but I will traverse the bloody
Russian path to the end,
and I will ask—out of power and glory—
what have you done with the house of my Father?
And we stand before him, as clay
created in his likeness, cursed,
on our temples: hammering,
sensation of collective guilt.
How long must we—on crosses, executioner’s blocks—
through fire of maternal alarms—
cleanse his image of shame,
of ashes, scourged within us?
How long wash this earth
of force, falsehood?
Dost thou harken, Lord? If thou dost—
Give us the strength to serve her.

—12 October 1983 (pp. 20-3)

14 comments:

Esteban Vázquez said...

This is a lovely little book, and I'm delighted to learn that you too have a soft spot in your heart for it. As a priest of the Russian Church once remarked to me, the book isn't about anything specifically at all, but reading it is like sitting down to have a beer with a son of the old-school Metropolia, and listening to what he has to say. This makes the book very endearing to me.

Fr Ugolnik currently serves as the rector of the Holy Ghost Orthodox Church in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA (Ecumenical Patriarchate). He's also a Professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. To the best of my knowledge, his most recent publication is the article "Jacob's Ladder: Jaroslav Pelikan and the People of the Book," in Valerie Hotchkiss and Patrick Henry (eds.), Orthodoxy and Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday (Crestwood: SVS Press, 2005), pp. 65-84.

Esteban Vázquez said...

(And evidently, after reading your post by bits while doing dishes I forgot that you already had a couple of those links up in your post. My apologies for the repetition!)

Matthew the Curmudgeon said...

Wonderful post I remember this book and special ordered it as soon as it was available. The thing is, I read an excerpt in "EPIPHANY JOURNAL" which was wonderful and so when I received the book I rushed through it to find this excerpt and hoped to find more. I never did find it and was very disappointed. I have been meaning to contact Fr. Anthony about that and now maybe I will. A while back I found a used copy and purchased it. I think I'll go through it again before I verbally assault the good Fr.! I could have missed it.

aaronandbrighid said...

Esteban> Thanks for the links! ;-)

Actually, I WOULD like to read the Pelikan article.

Matthew> What was the excerpt? I might remember it!

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

The comment above about the rambling, "beer with Father" quality of Fr Antony's prose is the best description I've ever read - bravo!

And the title, "Tradition as Freedom from the Past" comes from none other than Fr Georges Florovsky, in a discussion of Tradition as a living, charismatic reality - not a restoration of the past, nor an effort to use the past as a criterion for the present.

I'll need to find the exact sources for that - I have an old photo-copy of the Ugolnik essay somewhere in a pile in my office.

And I can't imagine Illuminating Icon being revised. It is so thoroughly replete with the Cold War perspective, I think it would have to be completely re-written.

- Fr Mark

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

Found it!

The source of the title, "Tradition as Freedom from the Past" is Fr. Georges Florovsky's "Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View." Interestingly, it's in the same section where he writes the often-quoted statement, "Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit, and not only the memory of words. Tradition is a charismatic, not an historical principle."

aaronandbrighid said...

Fr Mark> I agree with you %100 on Esteban's description. It was perfect!

As for the title, I believe I would have been fine simply with the phrase 'Tradition as Freedom from the Past' (a sentiment I recognise, and approve, as Florovskian), but it was the context of ecumenism that prompted the characterisation of 'dubious-sounding'. I've read too many absolutely nauseating things on those lines!

The Ochlophobist said...

Have you read this?

http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/09/002-living-at-the-borders-eastern-orthodoxy-and-world--11

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

I remember the First Things essay - I actually subscribed to the hard copy back then. Tighter budgets mean that I now peruse online.

Regarding Ugolnik and ecumenism, it's interesting to note that the essay has been published with various titles - my copy is entitled, "TRADITION AS FREEDOM FROM THE PAST: EASTERN ORTHODOXY AND THE WESTERN MIND." He doesn't subscribe to anything like the "branch theory," but he clearly draws from some sources that give some traditionalists pause - Bulgakov, Florensky, et al.

I'll email a copy if you're interested.

aaronandbrighid said...

Owen> I had not seen that. I'll have to give it a read-through. Thanks!

Fr Mark> Well, I would have felt much less dubious about an article entitled 'Tradition as Freedom from the Past: Eastern Orthodoxy and the Western Mind'! Please do e-mail a copy.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

My copy of The Illuminating Icon arrived today.

The purchase was motivated by your review, Aaron, and Esteban's Russian priest friend having said that "reading it is like sitting down to have a beer with a son of the old-school Metropolia, and listening to what he has to say."

I look forward to reading it!

aaronandbrighid said...

Kevin> Congratulations!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Thanks! And it was a hardcover that cost only $1.98! Woo-hoo! The shipping cost more than the book! And it's in perfect, unmarked,condition, with dustjacket.

aaronandbrighid said...

Awesome score, my friend!