27 June 2010

The First Law of Teaching

As some of you will know, I am busily working through Robert Henle’s First Year Latin [1] in order to brush up at least sufficiently to teach a bunch of grammar-school students, and I am already feeling more confident. But I have been somewhat discouraged by two things I have recently read.

The very first of John Milton Gregory’s ‘Seven Laws of Teaching’ is, ‘A teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth to be taught.’ [2] He devotes an entire chapter to elabourating upon this idea, almost rubbing it in the face of those who would presume to teach without being absolute masters of their subject. Here is part of the final paragraph of the chapter:

Thus a majority, perhaps, of teachers go to their work either wholly without the requisite knowledge, or only partly prepared for their task. They go like messengers without a message, and all wanting in that power and enthusiasm which fresh truth alone can give; and so the grand fruits we look for from this great army of workers seem long in coming, if not beyond hope. [3]

As if this was not enough, I came across the following lines the other day in Pindar, thus adding insult to injury:

In truth, teaching comes more easily to the man who already knows,
and not to be prepared beforehand is stupidity,
for the minds of the unpractised are insubstantial things.
(Olympian 8, 59-61) [4]

I am encouraged by two comments in Gregory, however. First, the very next line after the longer passage I have quoted reads, ‘Let this first great fundamental law of teaching be thoroughly obeyed, or even as fully as the circumstances of our teachers will permit, and there will come to our schools an attractive charm which would at once increase their numbers and their usefulness [italics mine].’ [5] This nod to the circumstances seems to allow for some less than fully accomplished practitioners to do their best. But also, in an earlier passage in the chapter Gregory admits:

And yet it must be confessed that the ability to inspire pupils with a love of study is sometimes lacking even where great knowledge is possessed; and this lack is fatal to all successful teaching, especially among young pupils. Better a teacher with limited knowledge but with this power to stimulate his pupils than a very Agassiz [6] without it. The cooped hen may by her encouraging cluck send forth her chickens to the fields she cannot herself explore; but sad the fate of the brood if they remain in the coop while she goes abroad to feed. [7]

I hope that I may at least succeed in this endeavour to inspire, since I myself am so excited by the study of ancient languages and literature. [8] Pray for me, dear readers!

[1] Robert J. Henle, SJ, First Year Latin (Chicago: Loyola, 1958). I frequently enjoy the irony that the students of a school which officially adheres to the Westminster Confession are studying Latin from a Jesuit textbook which includes such gems as, ‘As the light of the sun moves westward it falls upon chapels and cathedrals, hospitals and camps, where in endless repetition the Sacrifice of the Mass is being offered to God’ (p. 13).

[2] John Milton Gregory, The Seven Laws of Teaching, unabridged (Veritas, 2004), p. 23.

[3] Ibid., p. 46.

[4] Pindar, The Complete Odes, tr. Anthony Verity (Oxford: Oxford U, 2007), p. 25.

[5] Gregory, p. 46.

[6] ‘Agassiz, (Jean) Louis Rodolphe (1807-1873), Swiss-American naturalist, born in Motiers, Switzerland. He was able to bring a great amount of public interest to natural science in his day’ (Gregory, p. 38, n. 7).

[7] Gregory, p. 41.

[8] To aid in my own inspiration, I have also been reading the chapter on Grammar—‘an old woman indeed but of great charm’—in Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology & Mercury (William Harris Stahl & Richard Johnson with E.L. Burge, Martianus Capella & the Seven Liberal Arts, Vol. 2: The Marriage of Philology & Mercury, Number LXXXIV of the Records of Civilization: Sources & Studies (NY: Columbia, 1977), pp. 64-105). I am sympathetic to, but do not share, the boredom that comes upon Jove and the coelestial senate as she speaks.

23 June 2010

Genre & the Theme of Forbidden Love

In my last post, I mentioned attending Nathan Wilson’s talk ‘Story Wars’ at the ACCS conference last week. As the moral merits of Shakespeare, or lack thereof, formed the topic of a heated discussion on this blog a couple of months ago (here), I thought it might be interesting to consider briefly a comment of Wilson’s that comes very close to our concerns in that discussion. In the synopsis of his talk, Wilson writes: ‘Teach a girl to love “The Highwayman” (or Romeo & Juliet) and you’re just prepping her for the lies of Twilight.’ Now clearly, all three works he mentions share the theme of the forbidden love of a girl for a young man who is alien to, and even in opposition to her society, and most importantly, her father. As a father myself, I certainly balk at the prospect of teaching my daughter directly or indirectly to disregard me and my counsels in order to pursue an unstable romantic love. But I have somewhat different feelings about the three examples chosen, and I think these feelings are not unconnected with the fact that all three represent different genres.

First of all, as I’m sure all can predict, I have little regard for Twilight. The series offends me at a moral level, a literary one, and even as an afficianado of vampires, who in my view ought not to sparkle in the sunshine or play baseball. There is little likelihood that I will allow my daughter to read it until such time as she is sufficiently innoculated against it on moral and literary grounds. But part of the reason for this is that, quite apart from its merits, the books are novels, and in my opinion are thus most easily situated to ‘carry away’ their reader into the thoughts and feelings of the charactres. Working in everyday prose, with all the pathetic tools of the genre at one’s disposal, a writer needs very little real talent to turn the reader in whatever way he or she wishes them to go. Witness the example of Dan Brown.

Second, as I hope I made clear in the Shakespeare post, I am far from convinced of the moral merits of the Bard’s work. Indeed, I typically find such merits quite wanting. I do find it difficult however to ignore or contradict the opinion of what seems to be the majority of Anglophone critics that—despite the bleak morality of what looks like the glorification of ‘love at first sight’—even this play has some literary merit. Mark Van Doren applies to it Tolstoy’s back-handed compliment to Shakespeare’s work generally:

However unnatural the positions may be in which he places his characters, however improper to them the language which he makes them speak, however featureless they are, the very play of emotion, its increase, and alteration, and the combination of many contrary feelings, as expressed correctly and powerfully in some of Shakespeare’s scenes, and in the play of good actors, evokes even, if only for a time, sympathy with the persons represented. [1]

In other words, I think there is something that we can teach young people to love here, if it is properly tempered with a healthy dose of moral discernment. Juliet is of course no exemplar, however fair her speech may seem.

But it seems to me that however difficult such discernment may be in the context of the cathartic alchemy of a dramatic performance, it is greatly helped by the stylised, formal nature of Shakespeare’s poetry when read as text. With a book in hand, we do not forget that we are reading words on a page, words which are very different to the way any persons then or now speak and many of which we do not even know without the help of notes. A story told in this manner is much more difficult to experience uncritically—indeed, I daresay that for most young people in our day, it is impossible. If the theme of forbidden love is our primary concern, we are not of course helped by the habits of our culture’s heart, but from a Christian perspective I would say that the form gives us very nearly just the right kind of distance.

Third, I think we have even less to fear from Alfred Noyes’s famous ballad. Though ‘The Highwayman’ lacks Romeo & Juliet’s formality and obscure language, it strikes me that the genre makes up for this in other ways. We are not meant to identify with the subjects of a ballad as we are with the tragedian’s dramatis personae. It is not a cathartic journey in which we are supposed to participate. It is a story, plain and simple, in which we learn of something that has always happened to someone else—usually to some legendary figure(s). Its morals almost never purport to rise above the level of entertainment. ‘Bess, the landlord’s daughter’ loves the highwayman and dies, not that she might provide an example of what love is—though the poem no doubt depends upon the fact that people do sometimes behave this way—but because it is exciting. The homespun nature of the genre almost serves to remind the reader that we ourselves are good, simple folk, and are not to behave this way, however much fun it may be as a story.

Your thoughts are of course welcome.

[1] Qtd. in Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953), p. 60.

21 June 2010

Summertime Peregrinations

Well, dear readers, at last I have returned from my hectic June travels. Unfortunately, I have somewhat less Orthodox activity to report on than I had hoped I would. In Memphis, my friend Christopher and I were the guests of Macarius (‘Mickey’) Hodges, a gifted translator of ancient Greek who did some work for the OSB (the end result of which did not please him). We were delighted to have breakfast and coffee with Mr Hodges and my good friend, Owen White, the Ochlophobist, before heading on our way. Although we had planned to stop next in Wayne, WV, where we were to stay with Logismoi reader Fr Deacon Jeremiah Davis, at the last minute we realised that we would be arriving too late and leaving too early to see the monastery (or Fr Jeremiah for that matter), and that we would be better off simply to continue through the night on to our next destination—Long Island. There, we were hampered by time, distance, and available transportation, and so were not able to visit the other Holy Cross Monastery, there, under Fr Maximos.

As it turned out, our first Orthodox encounter occurred last Sunday, at St Irene Chrysovalantou Monastery in Astoria, where the abbot, Archbishop Paisios, was celebrating his nameday. We arrived quite late, owing to inexperience with the NY public transportation systems, but were able to hear two homilies (in Greek, of course), participate in the final portion of liturgy, receive antidoron, and partake of a wonderful fish feast with the Greek community of Astoria. As a final NY treat, I was able to spend most of Monday with my good friend, Herman Middleton, author of Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece. Then, Monday evening, Christopher, Herman, and I met up for drinks and dinner with the Baldwin-esque Christopher Orr of Orrologion fame, and St Vladimir’s seminarian and Texan, David Bryan Wooten of Oh Taste & See.

Essentially the rest of my week was spent at the Association of Christian & Classical Schools conference, ‘Repairing the Ruins’, in North Carolina. I attended talks by such Protestant luminaries as Os Guinness and Douglas Wilson, had a wonderful time criticising them with the other faculty of my school, drank and sang Irish songs with the staff of Veritas Press, and returned heavy laden with complimentary books, most of them courtesy of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and their poor, harassed employee, Michelle Huntley (I miss you already, Michelle). I shall wrap up this post with a brief overview of my winnings, concluding with two found in NY.

1) John Milton Gregory, The Seven Laws of Teaching, unabridged (Veritas, 2004). John Milton Gregory (1822-1898) was a Baptist clergyman and president of Kalamazoo College and the University of Illinois. Veritas advertises their edition as ‘unabridged’ owing to the wide familiarity throughout the twentieth century with an edition from which nearly all religious references had been expunged.

Although I’m sure I’d heard of this book before, I didn’t really start paying attention until I sat in on a workshop entitled ‘The Art of Rhetoric-Level Testing’ by Stephen Rippon of Tall Oaks Classical School in Delaware. Rippon used the book heavily in his talk and listed it in a handy bibliography he passed out. Later in the conference, Joan Middleton of Cary Christian School included the following quote in one of her handouts: ‘The very language with which knowledge must be expressed takes all its meanings from old knowledge.’ Finally, Denise Hollidge, in ‘Chanting & Singing: A Call to Teach the Grammar of Learning’, cited the book repeatedly without even naming the author, as though we should all know what she was talking about. Gregory’s was the only book I actually purchased at the conference. I certainly plan to read it before August.

2) John H. Haaren & A.B. Poland, Famous Men of the Middle Ages (Louisville, KY: Memoria, 2006). Part of a series of collections of brief illustrated accounts of historic persons, this was one of many books given out at a talk emphasising the integration of subjects called ‘Planning for a Creative Classroom’, by Veritas co-owner Laurie Detweiler.

3) Paul Heyne, A Student’s Guide to Economics, ed. Joseph A. Weglarz (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2007). This one is part of a series from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute designed as ‘reader-friendly introductions to the most important fields of knowledge in the liberal arts’. Visitors to the ISI table were initially allowed to choose one free of charge, but by the end of the conference Ms Huntley was eager to lighten her load as much as possible and I snapped up this along with anything else I saw.

4) Harvey C. Mansfield, A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2008). Another score from the closing moments of the ISI table.

5) James V. Schall, SJ, A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2000). This one was actually my first choice of the Student’s Guides, and I read it straight through Friday night. Writing for the student who feels his deepest questions—those which concern the meaning of life itself—are not being answered in his university education, Schall provides a delightful, highly informal sympathetic guide. Here is a welcome passage on the ‘Great Books’ approach to things:

[In his famous essay, ‘What Is Liberal Education?’, Leo] Strauss also mentioned, however—which is [Frederick D.] Wilhelmsen’s point [in an essay entitled ‘Great Books: Enemies of Wisdom’]—that careful study of the great thinkers reveals eventually that they contradict each other. And contradictories cannot both be right; but they can stimulate our curiosity. The study of ‘great books’ can lead students to a kind of implicit relativism or to a choice of a great mind that leads them far afield. Or they will think that if the great thinkers do not agree, ‘whom am I to dispute them?’ ‘Why bother?’ The whole point of this present essay, while in no way doubting Strauss’s point about the great minds contradicting each other, is to suggest that this controversy among the great minds can lead to a false sort of humility, something that misunderstands what the mind is about. In the modern world, Chesterton said, humility is misplaced; it is thought to be located in the intellect where it does not belong, whereas it is a virtue of the will, an awareness of our own tendencies to pride. We should not doubt our minds but our motives. The condition of not knowing should not lead us to a further skepticism but to a more intense search for truth. We should see in what sense a great mind might reveal something of the truth even in its error. [1]

One of the most charming things about this book is the little lists Schall scatters throughout, such as ‘Three of the More Than One-hundred P.G. Wodehouse Novels’, ‘Five Books on Thomas Aquinas’, ‘Five Classic Texts on Philosophy, Good Men, & Death’, and ‘Four Books Once Found in Used Book Stores’, culminating in ‘Schall’s Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By’. As a sample, here is Schall’s ‘Six Classic Texts Never to Be Left Unread’:

1. Plato, Gorgias
2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
3. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
4. Augustine, Confessions
5. Pascal, Pensées
6. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France [2]

6) James V. Schall, SJ, The Life of the Mind: On the Joys & Travails of Thinking (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2008). Having so thoroughly enjoyed Schall’s contribution to the Student’s Guides series, when Ms Huntley was packing up Saturday and I saw this one was still left, I knew I had to grab it. In the introduction, Schall writes:

Does this book have a ‘practical’ purpose? Will it help you get into graduate school, or get a better job, or run for office? Not really. It is largely addressed to what is impractical about ut, to what has to do with knowing, not doing, even granting their intimate relationship. The ‘doing’ that I envision is not merely the desire to find a book and to read it. It is to feel our soul moved by what is not ourselves, by the truth, by what is. [3]

7) Hugh Mercer Curtler, Recalling Education (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2001). Another book unjustly left sitting on the ISI table at the end of the conference, I had to rescue it. From the dust-jacket synopsis:

In this searching and accessible critique, Hugh Mercer Curtler [Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Honors Program at Southwest State University in Marshall, MN] argues that the purpose of education—enabling studnets to achieve intellectual autonomy, and thus true freedom—has been forgotten. Furthermore, he argues that any renewal of American civil society depends on the renewal of American education, for only when our students learn to become truly autonomous can they act as free and responsible citizens.

8) William F. Lynch, SJ, Christ & Apollo: The Dimensions of Literary Imagination (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2004). I first discovered this book while doing research for my Master’s thesis. Unfortunately, a perusal suggested it was a bit too tangential to my main argument and if there was anything directly relevant, it would take too long to find. I certainly intended to come back to it, an intention firmly bolstered by Fr Jonathan Tobias’s apparently permanent inclusion of the book in the ‘Open Books’ sidebar of his blog. Here is the final paragraph of Glenn Arbery’s introduction:

But Lynch’s great point, the one the powerfully abides in the wake of this book, the one that gives the book a continuing energy, si that for the ‘Christic imagination’ limitation is charged with God’s own nature—in other words, that even common circumstances and appearances, such as those routinely recounted in the Gospels, bear enough meaning to sustain two thousand years of continuous meditation and commentary. In developing his view of the Christian imagination, he does not feel the need to apologize for God’s failure to write as a philosopher or mathematician. Any situation—Flannery O’Connor’s ordinary famrs and doctor’s offices and family trips—can yield enormous meaning for the imagination sufficiently open to it. What the Lynch of Christ & Apollo clearly loves in literature is this access it affords to reality. He makes clearer than almost anyone else what an ontological poetics might truly be. His book liberates the imagination to face what is really in front of it—the image, with its reservoirs of profound hope, and the action that in it analogical unfolding leads one deeper and deeper into the mystery of the common thing—including, it turns out, the real life one already leads. [4]

9) Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Dostoevsky: His Life & Art, 2nd ed. (NY: Grove, 1960). Although I possess a lovely slipcased and illustrated edition of Yarmolinsky’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov, and wrote a fairly thoroughly researched senior paper on Dostoevsky as an undergrad, I didn’t recall ever having heard of this book when I saw it last week on a table full of books on a Manhattan sidewalk. The bookseller wanted five dollars for it, but as I only had four, he agreed. Here is the final paragraph:

Whatever course history may take, a large part of Dostoevsky’s work, so warm with compassion, so crowded with people inwardly seen, powerfully projected, so big with questionings, will trouble the blood, kindle the imagination, move the mind toward a concern with ultimate things. His major novels should continue to provide the reader with the sense of having glimpsed the human drama at its most intense, of having shared in the enterprise to which Dostoevsky at an early age promised to devote his life: the unravelling of the mystery of man. [5]

10) Elizabeth Schmidt, ed., Poems of New York (NY: Knopf, 2002). A contribution to the Everman’s Library Pocket Poets series, this was my little souvenir from the New York Public Library, where I also—to my great delight—acquired a library card. Though I could wish that Schmidt might have found a few selections earlier than Walt Whitman, I thought this very nearly a perfect souvenir. Here, in conclusion, is early twentieth-century Jamaican poet Claude McKay’s ‘The City’s Love’:

For one brief moment rare like wine,
The gracious city swept across the line;
Oblivious of the color of my skin,
Forgetting that I was an alien guest,
She bent to me, my hostile heart to win,
Caught me in passion to her pillowy breast.
The great, proud city, seized with a strange love,
Bowed down for one flame hour my pride to prove. [6]

[1] James V. Schall, SJ, A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2000), p. 24. Incidentally, this is a point I found echoed in one of Os Guiness’s talks, as well as N.D. Wilson’s workshop, ‘Story Wars’, on the importance of imparting discernment when we teach stories.

[2] Ibid., p. 15.

[3] James V. Schall, SJ, The Life of the Mind: On the Joys & Travails of Thinking (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2008), p. xvi.

[4] Glenn C. Arbery, ‘Introduction’, Christ & Apollo: The Dimensions of Literary Imagination, by William F. Lynch, SJ (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2004), pp. xxxvii-xxxviii.

[5] Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Dostoevsky: His Life & Art, 2nd ed. (NY: Grove, 1960), p. 411.

[6] Claude McKay, ‘The City’s Love’, Poems of New York, ed. Elizabeth Schmidt (NY: Knopf, 2002), p. 45.

10 June 2010

Met. Anthony on Tolstoy, Logismoi News

Thanks to a kind reader, last night I received a pdf of the article I referred to in the last post—‘The Elder at Iasnaia Poliana: Lev Tolstoi & the Orthodox Starets Tradition’ by Pål Kolstø. Although I haven’t yet had time to read it (I am, however, currently reading Kolstø’s similar article on Tolstoy’s relationship to the strannik tradition in Russian spirituality), I did note the following interesting footnote right there on page 2:

After Tolstoi’s death in November 1910, the highly respected Russian theologian and church dignitary [Metropolitan] Antonii Khrapovitskii [of Kiev, later First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad] gave a talk on the topic ‘How Influence from Orthodoxy Is Reflected in Count L.N. Tolstoi’s Later Works’. The spiritual relationship between Orthodoxy and Tolstoi’s thinking went deep, Antonii asserted—much deeper, in fact, than Tolstoi himself had realized. Antonii (Khrapovitskii), ‘V chem prodolzhalo otrazhat’sia vliianie pravoslaviia na posledniia proizvedeniia gr. L.N. Tolstogo’, in Zhizneopisanie i tvoreniia blazhenneishego Antoniia, mitropolita Kievskogo i Galitskogo, 17 vols. (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1978), 14:247-68. Antonii had known Tolstoi personally and wrote no less than seven articles and small booklets about various aspects of Tolstoianism. For further details, see Pål Kolstø, ‘The Demonized Double: The Image of Lev Tolstoi in Russian Orthodox Polemics’, Slavic Review 65, 2 (2006): 304-24. [1]

This last is of course another article I’d like to see, readers! [Addendum: the article has just arrived, courtesy of Samn! of Notes on Arab Orthodoxy fame.]

In other news, I’m afraid I must announce that this post will likely be my last for the next week and a half. My best friend and fellow parishioner, Christopher, and I leave this morning for Memphis, TN, followed tomorrow by Wayne, WV, and Saturday by Long Island, NY. I will be spending two nights—Sunday and Monday—in Manhattan, and returning to Oklahoma City for only one day before departing for Durham, NC, for the annual Association of Christian Classical Schools conference for the rest of the week. I know of at least two or three readers/fellow bloggers I will be seeing during my travels, but I’d still love to hear from any others who might like to get together somewhere along the way. Feel free to e-mail me—probably the sooner, the better. In the meantime, I would ask all to pray for our safe journey.

[1]Pål Kolstø, ‘The Elder at Iasnaia Poliana: Lev Tolstoi & the Orthodox Starets Tradition’, Kritika: Explorations in Russian & Eurasian History, Vol. 9, #3, Summer 2008 (New Series), p. 534, n. 6.

07 June 2010

Tolstoy, Lewis, Fr Alexander, & St Augustine on Cœlestial Hierarchy

I was recently looking back at Tolstoy’s famous diatribe, What is Art?, and came across the following passage, typical not only of Tolstoy but of a whole strain of post-Reformation thinking about the ‘hierarchies’ of mediaeval Christianity:

And this ecclesiastic Christianity which is quite distinct from the other, began, on the basis of its doctrine, to change the apprication of men’s sentiments and the productions of the arts which conveyed them. This ecclesiastic Christianity not only did not recognize the fundamental and essential propositions of true Christianity,—the immediate relation of each man to the Father, and the brotherhood and equality of all men, resulting from it, and the substitution of humility and love for all kinds of violence,—but, on the contrary, by establishing a celestial hierarchy, similar to the pagan mythology, and a worship of this hierarchy, of Christ, the Holy Virgin, the angels, apostles, saints, martyrs, and not only of these divinities, but also of their representations, established as the essence of its teaching blind faith in the church and its decrees. [1]

The use of the word ‘hierarchy’ of course, and particularly with the modifier ‘celestial’, reminds us quite naturally of the inventor of the word himself, St Dionysius the Areopagite. Thus, while it is disappointing, it is not surprising to find C.S. Lewis describing Dionysian teaching in terms less stringent but hardly more approving than Tolstoy:

. . . [P]seudo-Dionysius is as certain as Plato or Apuleius that God encounters Man only through a ‘mean’, and reads his own philosophy into scripture as freely as Chalcidius had read his into the Timaeus. He cannot deny that Theophanies, direct appearances of God Himself to patriarchs and prophets, seem to occur in the Old Testament. But he is quite sure that this never really happens. These visions were in reality mediated through celestial, but created, beings ‘as though the order of the divine law laid it down that creatures of a lower order should be moved God-ward by those of a higher’ (iv). That the order of the divine law does so enjoin is one of his key-conceptions. His God does nothing directly that can be done through an intermediary; perhaps prefers the longest possible chain of intermediaries; devolution or delegation, a finely graded descent of power and goodness, is the universle principle. The Divine splendour (illustratio) comes to us filtered, as it were, through the Hierarchies. [2]

While I can’t say I was ever seriously troubled by the Dionysian hierarchies, it’s true that at one point they appeared to me to differ from what I took to be St Gregory Palamas’s emphasis on the direct experience of God’s uncreated energies. Any questions I had on that score, though, were more than answered by a brilliant article from the pen of Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin)—‘Dionysius Areopagites in the Works of St Gregory Palamas: On the Question of a “Christological Corrective” and Related Matters’ (available here). I urge all to read the article in full, but the turning point for me was the following statement:

As Romanides pointed out some years ago, neither Palamas nor Dionysius believed that the great theophanies of either the past (to the saints of Israel), or of the present (to the saints of the New Covenant) took or take place through angelic mediation, but rather that the angels served both then and now to explain and interpret the visio dei luminis.

The point was made even more vivid and convincing to me, however, when Fr Alexander went on to compare the angelic mediators to monastic elders:

More specifically, however, as the vocabulary which Dionysius deploys for the angels’ mediatory function should suggest to us—mystagogues, teachers, guides and directors (hêgoumenoi—in short, abbots!)—his own presumption is clearly of a monastic setting. We are reminded in fact, and not accidentally, of the spiritual fathers and elders who appear so prominently in our earliest monastic texts, as in, for example, the Vitae of Anthony and Pachomius, the Gerontikon, the Historia monachorum in Aegypto, the works of Evagrius Ponticus, and others. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere [here, that is], the geron or spiritual father is to a striking degree assimilated to the figure and role of the angelus interpres of the ancient apocalypses in both this earliest monastic literature, and thereafter to the present day.

But when I finally started reading St Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana for the first time the other day, I was surprised to find a response to a similar problem. In the Preface, the Bishop of Hippo is dealing with those who object to his producing a book on techniques for exegesis on the grounds that God Himself illuminates the exegete. They are particularly troubled at the notion of being instructed by a human being, and St Augustine seems to assume that they would not be as troubled as Lewis at the mediation of angels. Nevertheless, his arguments are very much relevant to the issues raised by Tolstoy. Responding to these objectors, St Augustine writes:

Let us beware of such arrogant and dangerous temptations, and rather reflect that the apostle Paul, no less, though cast to the ground and then enlightened by a divine voice from heaven, was sent to a human being to receive the sacrament of baptism and be joined to the church (Acts 9:3-8). And Cornelius the centurion, although an angel announced to him that his prayers had been heard and his acts of charity remembered, was nevertheless put under the tuition of Peter not only to receive the sacrament but also to learn what should be the objects of his faith, hope, and love. All this could certainly have been done through an angel [or through God Himself, I would add], but the human condition would be wretched indeed if God appeared unwilling to minister his word to human beings through human agency. It has been said, ‘For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are’ (I Cor. 3:17): how could that be true if God did not make divine utterances from his human temple but broadcast direct from heaven or through angels the learning that he wished to be passed on to mankind? Moreover, there would be no way for love, which ties people together in the bonds of unity, to make souls overflow and as it were intermingle with each other, if human beings learned nothing from other humans. [3]

Already this last statement, which almost seems to anticipate Charles Williams, ought to overturn the Russian novelist's whole take on things. But the final clincher for Tolstoy comes a bit further down. Recall that he essentially made himself the guru of a new religion, accepting disciples and so on. Furthermore, the 2008-2009 Annotated Bibliography in the Tolstoy Studies Journal, Vol. XXI (2009), lists an article by one Pål Kolstø I’d very much like to obtain called ‘The Elder at Iasnaia Poliana: Lev Tolstoi & the Orthodox Starets Tradition’. [4] Consider the synopsis of Kolstø’s argument in light of Fr Alexander’s thesis:

Tolstoy was familiar with and fascinated by the institution of starchestvo, a peculiar Orthodox form of piety. He trasnferred the principles into his own practice of spiritual guidance while at the same time changing the foundation to serve his own purposes. Tolstoy acted as a heterodox starets, the rôle into whichc he was at first forced by his adherents and which he considered a natural burden. The article gives an account of starchestvo in Orthodox theology and practice, discussing Tolstoy’s attitude toward this institution as reflected in his life and works. [5]

Thus, St Augustine’s words very much apply to the ‘elder at Iasnaia Poliana’: ‘But if he reads and understands without any human expositor, why does he then aspire to expound it to others and not simply refer them to God so that they too may understand it by God’s inner teaching rather than through a human intermediary?’ [6] The answer was aptly given by St Ambrose of Optina after his 1890 visit with the writer: ‘He is very proud’. [7]

[1] Count Lev N. Tolstoy, Resurrection, Vols. I-II, What is Art?, The Christian Teaching, tr. Leo Wiener (Boston: Dana Estes & Co., 1904), pp. 188-9.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), pp. 72-3.

[3] St Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching, tr. R.P.H. Green (Oxford: Oxford U, 1999), pp. 5-6.

[4] Pål Kolstø, ‘The Elder at Iasnaia Poliana: Lev Tolstoi & the Orthodox Starets Tradition’, Kritika: Explorations in Russian & Eurasian History 9:3 (2008), pp. 533-554.

[5] Joseph Schlegel, Olha Tytarenko, & Irina Sizova, ‘Annotated Bibliography for 2008-2009’, Tolstoy Studies Journal, Vol. XXI (2009), p. 76.

[6] St Augustine, p. 6.

[7] Qtd. in Leonard Stanton, The Optina Pustyn Monastery in the Russian Literary Imagination: Iconic Vision in Works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, & Others (NY: Peter Lang, 1995), p. 206.

03 June 2010

The Grammar of Sanctity—The Title of St Gregory's Vita Patrum

When I first came across the translation by Fr Seraphim (Rose) of the Vita Patrum of St Gregory of Tours, I recall noting the following comment in a little preface with the names of Fr Herman and Fr Damascene appended to it: ‘One book especially dedicated to his native ascetic strugglers whom he even knew personally, he called Vita Patrum, or The Life of the Fathers, as if these many men led one life before God—the ultimate Christian virtue of oneness of soul.’ [1] It struck me—and thus stuck with me—as a point fundamental to Orthodox ecclesiology, which I had seen expressed as well by St Justin (Popovich):

Christians are those through whom the holy Divine-human life of Christ is continued from generation to generation until the end of the world and of time, and they all make up one body, the Body of Christ—the Church: they are sharers of the Body of Christ and members of one another (I Cor. 12:27, 12-14, 10:17; Rom. 12:5; Eph. 3:6). The stream of immortal divine life began to flow and still
flows unceasingly from the Lord Christ, and through him Christians flow into eternal life. [2]

But for some strange reason, I all but forgot about St Gregory’s own statement about his in the Prologue to the Vita Patrum. He writes:

There are those who ask whether we should speak of the life of the saints or of their lives. Agellius and several other philosophers wished to speak of the lives. But the author Pliny, in the third book of his Art of Grammar, expresses himself thus: ‘The ancients spoke of the lives of each of us; but the grammarians do not believe that the word life has a plural.’ Therefore, it is manifestly better to say the Life of the Fathers rather than the Lives of the Fathers, because although there is a diversity of merits and virtues among them, nevertheless one life of the body sustains them all in this world. [3]

I was happily reminded of this wonderful passage by an interesting book I recently picked up at Half Price Books called Sacred Biography: Saints & Their Biographers in the Middle Ages, by Thomas J. Heffernan. Heffernan quotes the final sentence and then makes a series of comments:

Gregory’s conclusion is most important as it reveals his understanding of the relationship between theological truth and language. Notice that his argument moves beyond purely grammatical concerns into the realm of theology. The precedents of Gellius, Pliny, and the grammarians notwithstanding, the essential reason for his choice of the singular when composing a book of more than one life is based on the developing Christian idea that the saints share collectively in the luminous life of the incarnate Christ. In sum, sanctity is derived from the sacred, which is radically singular (see Eph. 5:8-14 and Rom. 12:3-10). [4]

Gregory subordinates grammaticality, and with it language’s ability to represent reality, to the exigencies of religious truth. Language, it appears can be employed in discourse to depict contexts which violate both the normative view of things (e.g., Gregory’s use of the singular rather than the plural) and its own syntactic structures so that it may be a handmaiden to theology. . . . [5]

Gregory of Tours presented his explanation of his choice of title with little rhetorical embellishment, and we can infer that he believed the meaning of his remarks to be obvious. Of course, it is anything but obvious to a modern reader. Such an understanding of the dimensions of the self (what Gregory would have expressed with the reflexive pronoun seipsum) and language’s capacity to reflect such concerns is alien. Gregory’s point here is of seminal importance in the genre of medieval saints’ lives. It reflects an understanding of sanctity, and of language’s responsibility in representing the essence of the holy, that is crucial to sacred biography and the mentality of these writers. In Gregory’s view narrative can reflect both actual circumstances and metaphysical truth. [6]

Heffernan’s is a very promising book. In a brief preface, he tells us his interest in the subject was first aroused by ‘the sheer number of lives of the saints which survived in manuscript. Surely, I thought, such numbers were an indication of importance; I promised myself to look into this.’ [7] But he laments:

Of all the genres that survive from the Middle Ages, only the lives of the saints, arguably the richest in terms of extant records, are still treated by literary historians as documents for source studies (Quellenkritik) and little else. The genre has until recently fallen through the net of scholarly research, avoided by the historians because it lacks ‘documentary’ evidential status and by the literary historians because saints’ lives are rarely works of art. [8]

[1] Herman Podmoshensky & Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), ‘Preface’, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, tr. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988), p. 10.

[2] St Justin (Popovich), ‘Introduction to the Lives of the Saints’, Orthodox Faith & Life in Christ, tr. Fr Asterios Gerostergios, et al. (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1994), p. 42.

[3] St Gregory, p. 163.

[4] Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints & Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (NY: Oxford U, 1992), p. 7.

[5] Ibid., p. 8.

[6] Ibid., p. 11.

[7] Ibid., p. vii.

[8] Ibid., p. 17.