Transfiguring thinkers

The Transfiguration by Patrick Pye

The common thread that runs through Andrew Louth's 'Modern Orthodox Thinkers' is the unity of being and knowing. Knowledge in pursuit of spiritual life is never abstract. It can be reasonably, rationally argued, but it is fully truth only when lived out as the integral aspect in a transformed person, community; and, ultimately cosmos.

Louth weaves this thread deftly and with consummate clarity through the lives of a radically diverse group of people who yet belong to the same overarching tradition that of the Orthodox Church.

The story begins with the publication and dissemination of the Philokalia at the end of the eighteenth century that remarkable collection of practical texts on living the mystical life within Orthodox monasticism. What is striking is that most of these texts were meant for a monastic audience and meant to be read in conjunction with the live guidance of a spiritual elder; however, the editors took the risk of letting them out into 'the world.' Maybe they were (unconsciously) foreseeing the latter birth of what two of the twentieth century thinkers explored in the book call an 'interior monasticism'; and, the possible diminishment of reliance on external guides and the evolution of a more democratic spirituality (though, I expect, they would be consciously disturbed by such a trend).

This publication in turn fed into a revival of authentic monasticism, especially in Russia and particularly at the Optina monastery, that played such a significant role in the Russian Religious Renaissance at the opening of the twentieth century and into the diaspora following the Russian revolution.

Louth's book is deliberately embodied in the lives, not merely the thinking, of his selected thinkers, seeing how both their personal questions and cultural context shaped their responses to the world. They were responses that often went beyond simply writing and teaching, spreading into organizing Church life, developing ecumenism and serving the poor and the marginalized. This took Mother (now St) Maria of Paris into the heart of darkness, namely the Ravensbruck concentration camp, as she sought to protect Jewish families deportation from her adopted France. It led to her death there, a martyr, optimistic and smiling to the end, a good woman reproving hell.

The chapter I confess to most enjoying was that on one of the two subjects I have known - the lay theologian, translator of Greek poetry and the Philokalia and writer on art, Philip Sherrard. Though a delightful person in person, there was the whiff of the Old Testament prophet in Philip when he took to correspondence. He was, as I was, a friend of the poet, Kathleen Raine, and she would remark periodically on receiving a letter from Philip replete with multiple denunciations of the perceived intellectual failings of modernity that carried the smell of brimstone. I remember we had a fierce exchange on the subject of salvation. I had the temerity of suggesting that it had a communal (and indeed cosmic) dimension to which we might be evolving (evolution was not a word in Philip's lexicon). I was denounced but my temerity stood!

Be this as it may, Andrew Louth in a few pages brings out the essence of Philip's concerns - whether it be for the sacred nature, implicit and explicit, in Greek poetry, his sensitivity as a translator, his love of a particular place and all it can reveal to the person (in his case Greece), his defence of beauty and his analysis of how a failure to envision a truly sacred vision for the person corrupts our ability to live in and tend the world, broken as it is in deepening ecological crisis, and the need in that tending to recognize that all that lives is holy.

Most of all the book reminds me of what I have most deeply love in Orthodoxy - a vision (however differently and faultily applied) of a Christianity that at its depth offers a returning paradise where everything is at home, healed and at one.

St Silouan of Athos also featured in the book, expressed it beautifully. He was once asked if, at the end of time, there would be anyone left in hell and he replied simply, 'Love could not bear it'. All would be restored in all and love would be the last, abiding dance.

 A theme most beautifully expressed in my favorite poet and poem:

The Transfiguration

So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? Was the change in us alone,
And the enormous earth still left forlorn,
An exile or a prisoner? Yet the world
We saw that day made this unreal, for all
Was in its place. The painted animals
Assembled there in gentle congregations,
Or sought apart their leafy oratories,
Or walked in peace, the wild and tame together,
As if, also for them, the day had come.
The shepherds’ hovels shone, for underneath
The soot we saw the stone clean at the heart
As on the starting-day. The refuse heaps
Were grained with that fine dust that made the world;
For he had said, ‘To the pure all things are pure.’
And when we went into the town, he with us,
The lurkers under doorways, murderers,
With rags tied round their feet for silence, came
Out of themselves to us and were with us,
And those who hide within the labyrinth
Of their own loneliness and greatness came,
And those entangled in their own devices,
The silent and the garrulous liars, all
Stepped out of their dungeons and were free.
Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
It might have held for ever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
As if it had never stirred; no human voice
Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks
To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines
And blossoms for itself while time runs on.

But he will come again, it’s said, though not
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
And all mankind from end to end of the earth
Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
In a green springing corner of young Eden,
And Judas damned take his long journey backward
From darkness into light and be a child
Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal
Be quite undone and never more be done.

Edwin Muir


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