14 December 2008

Archimandrite Placide (Deseille) on Orthodoxy and Catholicism

I became extremely taken with the French Orthodox monk and theologian of spirituality, Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), about seven years ago upon first reading his wonderful conversion story, 'Stages of a Pilgrimage', which I’ve already had occasion to mention. Fr Placide began as a Trappist monk, started a Uniate skete in France, and ended by being baptised on the Holy Mountain. Not yet having learned French, I was disappointed to learn that nothing else that he has written seems to be available in English. During a trip to Thessaloniki, however, in the Spring of 2007, while browsing the delightful ‘Armos’ bookshop near Agia Sophia (the lesser), I discovered a book in Greek of pieces by Fr Placide on Orthodoxy and Catholicism: Ανατολική και Δυτική Χριστιανοσύνη [Eastern and Western Christendom], trans. Sotiris Gounelas (Athens: Armos, 2004).

Although it's not quite finished it yet, I’ve been working on translating a lecture called ‘Roman Catholic Spirituality and Orthodox Tradition’. The piece does not dwell on popular RC spiritual practices, but rather on the teachings of the recognised spiritual writers of the post-Schism West—John of the Cross in particular (I can’t help but think I’d like to see a similar lecture discussing Bernard of Clairvaux in as much detail). As a monk with deep experience of both traditions who left the RC church, Fr Placide is not naively ecumenistic or syncretistic in his conclusions. He is not afraid to state when he believes the two traditions have diverged, and he is clearly an adherent of the Orthodox position when this is the case. Indeed, many of his personal observations consider the extent to which the RC spiritual tradition has succeeded or failed in remaining faithful to the patristic legacy, with which he clearly holds later Orthodox teaching to be identical.

As just one example of what Fr Placide has to say, however, I was especially surprised and fascinated to read the following assessment of the influence of St Dionysios in the RC spiritual—as opposed to scholastic—tradition:

In spite of this, the teaching of the spiritual fathers in the West holds great interest, because it is inspired to a great degree by the Fathers of the Church. Among the main sources of ascetic teaching are included the Fathers of the desert, Saint Cassian and a little later St John Klimakos, together with Gregory the Great (the Dialogist). As for the mystical teaching of the West, this has been shaped on the basis of the teaching of St Augustine (which it is true was never fully ‘accepted’ by the Orthodox East), of Gregory the Great and even of St Cassian, as well as St Dionysios the Areopagite. This last, who, according to one tradition, is identified with the convert of the Apostle Paul and with the first bishop of Paris, can be viewed as ‘a catalyst of the great Catholic mystical tradition’ (P.G. Théry, ‘Dionysios in the Middle Ages: The Dawn of the “Dark Night”’, in Carmelite Studies, 23rd yr., Vol. II, Oct. 1938, p. 69). . . . At this time, these writers, in contrast to Thomas Aquinas, will understand Dionysios in a way that agrees to a great extent with the interpretation he has been given, within the Greek world, by Maximos the Confessor and Gregory Palamas.

Thanks to this permanent patristic impact . . . Roman Catholic spirituality remained relatively more homogenous with the ancient tradition than Scholastic theology.

But Fr Placide is careful not to overstate his case. He quickly adds:

In spite of this the differences are real and should not be minimised. They are not merely the inevitable reflection in the arena of spiritual life of the dogmatic disagreements that divide Catholicism from Orthodoxy.

I was particularly impressed with Fr Placide’s frank yet tactful summary of the problem of the essence/energies distinction:

Nevertheless, the absence in the West of a distinction between the imparticipable divine essence and the uncreated energies, energies that are an eternal radiance of this essence and the divine life that is communicated to creatures, will always leave the Orthodox with the impression that Western Christianity is continually suspended between a pantheistic confusion between God and man on the one hand, and on the other a purely metaphorical interpretation of theosis, which deprives it of its real content and demotes the spiritual life to a life of lofty ethics.

Anyway, I hope to be able to finish this translation at some point in the near future. I’ve only got a couple of pages left to go, but I’m going to need some serious help with a number of words and phrases that have continued to stump me!


Aaron Taylor said...

Sorry guys, I continue to struggle with the formatting on this 'Blogger' thing! Spaces between paragraphs, italics, and justification never seem quite to work out like I want them to!

Esteban Vázquez said...

You mean to tell me that Étapes d'un pèlegrinage has been translated into English?! That is the best news I heard, well, since we last talked on the phone. ;-)

Looking forward to the completed translation, my friend!

Aaron Taylor said...

Yes, if you followed my link to the post on the Medal of St Benedict, I provided the bibliographical information for the translation. Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin), who, I believe, was at Simonopetra for some time with Fr Placide, is to be thanked for it.

I first read this translation in Greece in 2001, in a copy of Fr Alexander's book that I found at the apartment of Fr Luke Hartung (my most frequent commentor so far and a priest of the Serbian Church).

Ochlophobist said...

I have posted concerning your work here and linked to you over at Energetic Procesion. see http://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2008/12/19/pantheistic-confusion-or-the-purely-metaphorical/#more-397

I very much look forward to the completion of the translation of this lecture.

Thank you very much for your efforts.

Aaron Taylor said...

And I thank you for the encouragement, Mr Ochlphobist! I certainly need to get cracking on this translation.