02 February 2010

Two Articles on Orthodoxy & Secular Culture

I recently received an unusual amount of attention for a post (here) setting out my approach to secular learning and culture at Logismoi. Of course, it was only meant to be a quick statement, clarifying this blog’s approach in order to warn the unsympathetic that they had better go elsewhere. Apart from Saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian, I drew on some statements of Fr Seraphim (Rose) of Platina, since I assumed that the most unsympathetic would be fellow traditionalists who would respect Fr Seraphim even if they cared nothing for Virgil or Boethius.

But there is an apparently little-known article from the Orthodox Word by the Sisters of St Xenia Skete—a beautiful little skete in Wildwood, CA, very near Platina—that elabourates wonderfully on some of Fr Seraphim’s comments quoted in my earlier post. [1] Entitled ‘Forming the Soul’, [2] it was first brought to my attention last July by Joseph Patterson in this post at his superb blog, Scholium, where he excerpted the very beginning of the piece. Joseph’s source was a more substantial, but still ‘edited version’ of the article, at the website of St Michael’s Orthodox School in Santa Rosa, CA (here).

Still not quite satisfied, however, I contacted Abbot Gerasim at Platina, who had one of the monks e-mail me a pdf of the truly complete version. It is well worth reading. Here, I will just offer a few choice paragraphs:

. . .

To regard everything Western as immediately suspect argues a profound insecurity, a legalism more rigid than any sect, a scholasticism more arid than any summa. We have not inherited Western culture at all. That is precisely our trouble. We have simply grown up on the degenerate and decaying vestiges of that culture. We live, not in the West, but on the fading memory of the West. Our present ‘culture’ is an absence of culture, a vacuum that has left our souls shrunken and our spirits stifled. Before trying to plunge his spirit into the depths of Orthodoxy, today's man must first feed his soul, for its malnutrition will not permit any profound growth of spirit. . . . [3]

What course, then, should one following trying to guard and cultivate one’s soul in today’s world? The Orthodox Christian who wishes to avoid crippling even further the already spiritually-underdeveloped soul of today’s man can find his guide in the actions of the early Church, and he can also find there his defense against those who would wish to regard all artistic and intellectual pursuits as worldly or useless. When the Church denounced pagan culture, She denounced only those aspects of it which were based on the demonism of pagan religion or the hedonism of pagan art. Those aspects of Hellenic culture which were useful and healthy, She not only refrained from denouncing, but even transmuted into a profoundly convincing missionary statement. . . . [4]

. . .

It is quite true that the study of poetry, history, art, fiction, is indeed a ‘most rudimentary’ one. It is indeed not a spiritual study. But we, in our modern condition, are in dire need of the rudiments, not only of spiritual life, but simple humanity. . . . The Apostle warns us not to mistake the lower life of the soul for the higher life of the spirit, and warns us not to turn back from the fullness of Christ to the emptiness of the world, but he does not tell us to ignore the development of the soul altogether. . . . [5]

. . .

We must recover the feelings and sensitivities which were once the common property of all civilized people. Those works of art, of literature, of music, which are pre-modern are of essential value for us. They can teach us, as will nothing we ourselves now produce, what nobility is, what virtue is, what honor and purity are, what sacrifice and loyalty are, what is worthy and what is not. Poetry, music, art, fiction, are not spiritual food, but are rather the milk and bread we need to strengthen ourselves to live on the meat of the spirit.

We have almost forgotten the sight and sound and feel of the sublime. To regain it we must return to a time when the gray, gritty moral fog had not yet settled over the world: a time when men's sight was still clear and their souls still keen. If we cannot manage the uplands of the soul we shall hardly be able to touch the peaks of the spirit. Hardened by the din and moral cacophony of our world, our hearts are cold and our consciences numb. We are little moved by pity, honor, nobility, purity, because we seldom or never see them. We are even little moved by beauty, because we hardly know what it is. Like most value-terms, ‘beauty’ has become almost contentless, a word empty of any absolute meaning. Beauty is now whatever we like, or whatever someone tells us is beautiful. Art is whatever someone chooses to call art. There are, ostensibly, no longer any valid reasons for refusing to admit that a pile of rusty hubcaps and bent pipe is ‘art’ in the same way that Rembrandt is ‘art’.

Artistic taste has only very recently become entirely personal. Beauty, like all other aspects of art, was once an aspect of the absolute Truth, which was God. Therefore, a thing was beautiful in proportion to its faithfulness in reflecting some part of the image and truth of God. Now, having lost the concept of Truth, we no longer have a true concept of Beauty, and feed on mediocrity, on ugliness, on anti-beauty, anti-heroes, anti-art, the mockery of God and man.

We must learn again what beauty is. We must learn what it is to be carried on the thunder of a fugue, to be engulfed in the madness of Lear, to be consumed with the sanity of Quixote. We need to be refreshed by the health and charity of Dickens, illumined by the clarity and perception of Hugo, ballasted by the sober gravity and sidelong wit of Johnson, touched by the fire of Donne, soothed by Chaucer's flowering springtime. [6]

I personally find this a wholly convincing, and indeed, stirring piece, but there is also an article that makes a similar point from a more historical and scholarly way in an issue of Orthodox Tradition from a few years ago—‘The Teachings of the Church Fathers on Secular Knowledge’ by Hieromonk Patapios and Archbishop Chrysostomos. [7] The entire thing can be read in pdf at the website of the Old Calendarist ‘Synod in Resistance’ (here). Again, I offer just a few passages:

. . . One unfortunate example of the misuse and exploitation of the Patristic witness is the popular idea that the Fathers of the Church and the Church in general hold secular learning in low esteem. This idea is frequently touted in both clerical and lay circles, today, doing great disservice to the formidable intellectual traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy and creating the mistaken notion that the Church and her traditions are somehow anti-intellectual, if not preliterate. . . . Many of these assertions are supported by misused Patristic quotations, thus leaving a reader unacquainted with the vaster Patristic witness and the historical, pastoral, and consensual context in which such citations must be read, with the unfortunate impression, once more, that the Orthodox Church spurns worldly knowledge and approbates, cultivates, and advocates anti-intellectualism. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The blossoming of Orthodox Christianity in the Byzantine Empire was accompanied, not by a trend toward the rejection of secular knowledge, but an open, if eclectic, adaptation of classical studies and the sciences for the formation of the Christian soul. . . . [8]

. . .

It is, of course, quite possible to find in the . . . Church Fathers a number of very blunt and even acerbic statements about pagan philosophy and science, secular knowledge, and the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. . . . The Church Fathers considered Christianity to be the ‘science of sciences’ and the unique and singular path to human restoration through the therapeutic application of its precepts and the Mysteries of the Church. And to those who rejected or distorted the Church’s teachings (heretics), they have, over the centuries, directed clear condemnation for offering a ‘stone’ instead of ‘bread’. However, this condemnation is quite distinct from their admonitions about secular knowledge falsely elevated to something that it is not; i.e., to a stature that exceeds its proper place in facilitating our ascent beyond the mind to the heart or beyond reason to noetic enlightenment. Not only were the Fathers quite clearly not troglodytic anti-intellectuals, but, placing secular knowledge in proper perspective, they experienced the positive and productive awe that it can evoke and the inspiration which it can provide even to non-believers, when they approach it with humility and an openness to the spiritual knowledge to which natural knowledge can lead. [9]

Again, there is much more in this article that is worthwhile, and I recommend that everyone read it in full.

Through the prayers of the Great-Martyr Catherine of Alexandria, Protectress of Scholars & Philosophers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.

[1] Though I quoted Fr Damascene’s excerpt in his biography of Fr Seraphim, these comments too were originally published in an obscure Orthodox Word article—Fr Seraphim (Rose), ‘Living the Orthodox Worldview’, Orthodox Word 105 (1982), pp. 160-76.

[2] The Sisters of St Xenia Skete, ‘Forming the Soul’, Orthodox Word 19:1-2 (1983), pp. 44-52.

[3] Ibid., p. 45.

[4] Ibid., p. 46.

[5] Ibid., p. 47.

[6] Ibid., pp. 50-1.

[7] Hieromonk Patapios and Archbishop Chrysostomos, ‘The Teachings of the Church Fathers on Secular Knowledge’, Orthodox Tradition 21:3 (2004), pp. 33-43.

[8] Ibid., pp. 33-4.

[9] Ibid., pp. 36-7.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful article. I am reading through _The Trivium_, by Sister Miriam Joseph. We are planning on homeschooling our son this year if we are in the financial position to allow me to stay home.

aaronandbrighid said...

Juliana> That's a really neat book! I posted about it here.

Unfortunately, we weren't in a position to homeschool right now, but my in-laws kindly volunteered to pay for my daughter to attend a Christian classical school which follows the Trivium.

Anonymous said...


My wife homeschools our kids. This reminds me of things she's always talking about.

Matthew the Curmudgeon said...

Excellent! Are you going to make the complete "FORMING OF THE SOUL" available?

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, I don't usually simply post entire articles here, but in this case perhaps I could ask a blessing from Frs Gerasim or Damascene and make an exception. It is an important article which does not deserve to be buried in the Orthodox Word archives...

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post. I will print out and read the piece by Hieromonk Patapios and Archbishop Chrysostomos this evening. I second the posting of the full article from the Orthodox Word.

Joseph Patterson

Xeneteia said...

Hi Aaron,

I'd third the motion for a full edition of the article from the Mothers at St Xenia's!! No pressure :).


aaronandbrighid said...

Okay, guys, I asked them. Now I'll just wait to hear back!

Anonymous said...

It is a wonderful book. I had just ordered it when you posted your review. My son is currently in a Lutheran school, but it is not a classical school following the Trivium. You have wonderful in-laws!

I do hope you're allowed to post the whole article!

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, dear readers, I'm afraid it's a no go. I have had a very cordial exchange with Fr Damascene, and suffice to say there are reasons the entire article is not approved for posting. Fr Damascene did point out a nice little article Fr Seraphim wrote for Orthodox America which deals with some of the same themes, though in a more limited and restrained fashion. It can be read here. Please forgive me for getting your hopes up in vain!