23 January 2010

More on St Theophan & Tradition

In the very first paragraph of my post on St Theophan the Recluse, I mentioned the view of Fr Seraphim (Rose) that St Theophan and St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) were important figures for modern Orthodox. In making that observation, I cited a passage from Fr Seraphim’s biography that I believe is worth citing at greater length. Here at Logismoi, I have chosen deliberately to focus much of my attention on the past, but in this passage Fr Damascene, citing Fr Seraphim, reminds us that there must be a bridge from the past to the present:

Fr Seraphim emphasized that ‘the genuine, unchanging teaching of Christianity is handed down in unbroken succession both orally and by the written word, from spiritual father to spiritual son, from teacher to disciple.’ There was never a time, he said, when the Church was without Holy Fathers, or when it was necessary to discover a ‘lost’ Patristic teaching: ‘Even when many Orthodox Christians may have neglected this teaching (as is the case, for example, in our own day), its true representatives were still handing it down to those who hungered to receive it.’ He spoke of how important it is for us, the last Christians, ‘to take guidance and inspiration from the Holy Fathers of our own and recent times, those who lived in conditions similar to our own and yet kept unchanged the same ever-fresh teaching.’ There were two key figures whom he especially stressed in this regard: the Russian spiritual writers Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov (1867) and Bishop Theophan the Recluse (1894). . . .

‘We have to look to ourselves: if we see that we have zeal for Orthodoxy and yet are not “linked” with the line that goes back to Ignatius Brianchaninov and Theophan the Recluse, [1] there is a danger that we might not be linked up to all the Fathers. There should be a continuous line.’

It was by being a devoted son of the Fathers of his own time (beginning with Archbishop John) and of recent centuries (Ignatius, Theophan, Paisius, etc.) that Fr Seraphim became a true son of the ancients. Linked to the transmission, he became a transmitter of ancient Patristic wisdom in our days. [2]

St Theophan is a particularly apt example in this regard, because of the clear example of the great figures of the Russian Church Abroad in passing on his legacy. Although one must always be wary of his personal testimony, it seems to me there is little reason to mistrust the former ‘Fr Herman’ (Gleb Podmoshensky)—I’m not sure what to call him now—when he illustrates this observation in his Preface to The Path to Salvation:

My spiritual fathers and instructors, Archbishop Averky [of Jordanville], Bishop Nektary [of Seattle] and Fr Adrian [later Archbishop Andrei of Novo-Diveevo], were deeply indebted in their spiritual formation to the holy Recluse Theophan. They read and re-read his voluminous teachings, not only studying his words but engrossing themselves in his advice on prayer and involuntarily likening themselves to him to some extent. These men had actual mystical ties to St Theophan and possessed insights into the spiritual life that would otherwise have remained highly concealed from modern man. Their love for him made him alive and vibrant in their lives and teachings: they truly became his disciples, and clung to him as a lifeline. St Theophan governed the tenor of their archpastoral defense of their flock. They constantly referred to him, and treasured the patristic fragrance of his writings, which stemmed from ancient times. St Theophan turned them away from the Renovationist hierarchs of today who, disregarding that ancient model, follow a spirit alien to Orthodoxy and install foreign elements into their governance of the flock, cutting them off from the influence of Fathers such as St Theophan.

I remember how my Fr Adrian [Archbishop Andrei] would often quote from St Theophan’s Commentary on the 118th Psalm, and how once he told me that the mere remembrance of St Theophan’s Love for the Law of God had at one time miraculously resurrected hope and faith in his soul, whereas before that he had been literally robbed of faith and in deep despair because of the horrible reality of life under the communist yoke. I also recall how Archbishop Averky, a former cell-attendant of Theophan of Poltava, gave a sermon with tears streaming down his face, as he revealed the divine method—transmitted to him through the ‘Theophanic’ line—of softening one’s being with contrition of heart (umilenie), which draws God’s attention and eventually transfigures man’s whole being so that his naked eyes can behold divine light. Again I recall the many times in which Bishop Nektary, as well as his brother Ivan Kontzevitch and his wife Helen (also a disciple of Archbishop Theophan of Poltava), would draw unexpected answers from St Theophan the Recluse’s writings, which came like flashed of illumination. Sometimes, as in the case of Fr Adrian, only the remembrance of the power of St Theophan’s wisdom was enough to dissolve whole dramas of seemingly insoluble problems. Behold St Theophan’s power to ignite a mystic tie with the other world. [3]

It is precisely for this reason that I try to adhere to the spirit and guidance of the great figures of our Church Abroad, of whom Fr Seraphim is surely one, even as I blog about the Saints and writings of ages long since past.

Addendum: It is interesting to note that St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) himself has said something rather similar to Fr Seraphim. As Timothy Ware (now Met. Kallistos of Diokleia) points out, ‘(of course he is not in fact speaking of himself, but what he says applies also to him and Theophan): “The writings of the Russian Fathers are more accessible tous than those of the Greek authorities, owing to their particular clarity and simplicity of exposition, and also because they are closer to us in time.”’ [4]

[1] Obviously, for those outside the Russian tradition, one need not take these two Saints as the sole litmus test. The Greeks have their own such figures, starting with the Kollyvades and even including such lay figures as Papadiamandis and Kontoglou. Constantine Cavarnos’s books have much to say about the transmission of the Patristic legacy in modern Greece. I’m sure other Orthodox, like the Romanians, have their own figures to point to.

[2] Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Father Seraphim (Rose): His Life & Works (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2003), pp. 467-8.

[3] Herman Podmoshensky, Preface, The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) & the St Herman Brotherhood (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Monastery, 1998), pp. 17-8.

[4] Timothy Ware [Met. Kallistos], Introduction, The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, comp. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. E. Kadloubovsky & G.E.H. Palmer, ed. Timothy Ware (London: Faber, 1997], p. 16.


Isaac said...

Brilliant and masterful as always. This is going on my delicious and facebook immediately. This golden chain of fathers- brilliant and so poignant in our day when those straying both too far in either direction arrogate to themselves the authority to re-define the tradition, to break the chain as it were.

Romania, let's see... well there was St. Paisy (Velichkovsky) and up through our own day people like Elder Cleopa of Sihastria. Serbia has had great teachers like elder Justin of Chelije. We in America are really neglecting our rich inheritance if we don't sit at the feet of the genuine bearers of this golden chain: St. John, Fr. Seraphim, St. Nikolai, Fr. Sebastian, St. Alexis, St. Innocent, St. Herman...

aaronandbrighid said...

Isaac> Since you enjoyed the post so much, you might also like to see my little addendum!

John Simmons said...

When Elder Ilia of Optina came to San Francisco, someone asked what we should read (modern people in the world). Without hesitation he said "St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Ignaty Brianchaninov".