Monday, September 02, 2019

An Orthodox Monk on the Modern Catholic Church: “Busy Dissolving All Memory of the Past”

Thanks to John Pepino, whom readers will recognize as the translator both of Louis Bouyer’s Memoirs and of Yves Chiron’s Bugnini, NLM is pleased to present a translation from French of a recent letter addressed by an Eastern Orthodox monk to a Benedictine monk who had presented him with a lengthy apologia for the papacy and for the necessity of returning to Rome. Neither monk is named. (The original document may be found at Le Salon Beige, where one can also find other pertinent articles.)

The thoughtful and, at times, poignant reply of the Orthodox monk will surely be of interest. Although one might question the absoluteness or sharpness of some of his criticisms, it seems to me that he lucidly identifies major issues that stand in the way not only of reunion between East and West but, more basically, of the continued existence of any sort of recognizable confessional Catholicism.

As a Roman Catholic, I believe that the Church’s existence is guaranteed by God; at the same time, I believe that God requires of the Church a profound repentance for sins against tradition and a no less profound conversion to Christ whom we have scorned. It is, to me, not false ecumenism but a salutary humiliation to receive the charitable chastening of an Eastern brother. I find it striking that the monk does not even mention the abuse crisis, which is an obvious big stick that even the superficial can use to beat the Church. Instead, he looks at the deeper currents that explain why we have a global crisis in Roman Catholicism to begin with.

UPDATE: Since some readers took my publication of this letter to be an indication that I agree with it completely, I have published a full response here at NLM, indicating especially where I disagree with the author.

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Dear Father, Son of Saint Benedict, I thank you for your words and for your attention to Orthodoxy.

Know that we Orthodox are currently living through a rather incredible period of spiritual renewal. The search for and experience of God are at the heart of our concerns. Of course, God is unknowable, but the experience of the Transfiguration and of the uncreated Light is at the heart of our spiritual progress. You are aware of the Russian figure, Saint Seraphim of Sarov, who tells of the acquisition of the Holy Ghost. Perhaps you have heard of those Elders of Athos, such as Joseph the Hesychast, whose current spiritual fruitfulness is extraordinary. Among the Egyptians too, you may have heard the name of Matthew the Poor, former abbot and restorer of the monastery of Saint Macarius. These Orthodox worlds, be they Russian, Greek, Coptic, or Egyptian are today being visited by the mighty light of God, God made accessible thanks to the strength of the New Testament, faithfulness to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, our divine liturgies in all points conformed to the received tradition — all of this leads us to breathe spiritually as never before. The Virgin of Zeitoun, not so long ago, honoured our Coptic brethren with her presence, visible to all.

Despite the Turkish peril, despite the barbarity of Communism, despite an Islam gone mad, we have preserved the inheritance of our fathers faithfully.

You who belong to that so-called free world, what have you done with it? Who among Catholics knows Saint John Climacus, whose Holy Ladder surpasses in wisdom the Imitation of Christ? Who has read Saint Maximus the Confessor, the Thomas Aquinas of the first millennium? Who is aware of Ephrem and Isaac the Syrian, those great Masters of the spiritual life? Besides Saint Augustine, your roots go no further back than the twelfth century. Each one of your generations gives itself its own masters, its own fashionable references. Some time ago it was Pascal. Yesterday it was Father Teilhard de Chardin, today fashion changes so fast that the names don’t even stick, except perhaps Rahner, Küng, and Boff. It seems to me that all those people are interested in constructing an anthropology in their own image and likeness, and conformed to the doxa of the moment, rather than in receiving the presence of God within themselves. As we see things, those whom you consider as guides and theologians are often intellectuals less advanced than the youngest of our monks performing their metanies and relentlessly uttering the Jesus Prayer in order to establish within themselves, and with the help of the Blessed Trinity, the custody of the heart. Your thinkers know nothing of praxis or of theoria. The wisdom of the humble is foreign to them.

Even you, dear Father, son of Saint Benedict and of Saint John Cassian, have you tasted of their common source, Evagrius Ponticus? Many of your monastic gift shops are filled with the commerce of worldly goods, and the room left for the Fathers is often slender indeed.
Catholic bookstore window in Buenos Aires (courtesy of George Neumayr)
Our spiritual tradition was seared by the Iconoclasm controversy, the solution of which was reached at the second Council of Nicaea. The distinction between icon, idol, and image is very important to us. But you, after having abandoned the icon with and after Fra Angelico, you threw yourselves headlong into the cult of images with realist painting, which emphasised the talent of artists and human emotions and sentiments. At long last you grew tired of these anthropomorphic visions. Now you have reached a subtle form of iconoclasm centred on man’s self-celebration. Your churches are stripped of all sign, but you have placed yourselves at the centre.

This brings me to the dreadful liturgical desert where you now find yourselves. You have abandoned the Roman liturgy of Saint Gregory. You have more or less chased out of your churches those who wished to remain faithful to it. Even though you have lost the tradition which amongst us is called Iconostasis/Royal Door and amongst you Rood Screen, there were great similarities between your ancient liturgy and our divine liturgies of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Basil. You have an urgent task of restoration to carry out, because as long as that is not done, you will not be able to welcome other traditions, as busy as you are dissolving all memory of the past.

Speaking of liturgy, I am saddened to see how far the Holy Trinity has vanished from the landscape amongst you. [1] Yet It is the sole subject of the Faith. While the procession of the Holy Ghost led to so much turmoil between us historically, as far as I can tell the contemplation of the Trinity no longer seems to be at the heart of the liturgy for you. A little like in the Old Testament, you are community, People of God, face to face with the One God, yet quite discreet regarding the individual who is fundamentally unworthy before the Blessed Trinity. Your lack of reverence before the Holy Gifts, the Communion that the believer gives to himself, [2] without any recourse to Confession, seem to us to be serious anomalies.
Let us now come to obedience and to the primacy of the pope of Rome. To deal with this topic one has to understand our historic traditions. We are the heirs to the Eastern Roman Empire. Amongst us, the imperial power has always counted for something at the time of the Holy Councils. It is normal and natural that temporal princes should be associated, in one way or another, with the life of the Church. It is natural that the borders of the State should enter into the definition of Patriarchates, and that these patriarchs should have their own authority before the government. On your side, in the West, you have known a vacancy of the temporal power very early. Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, are at the end of the Western Roman Empire. This situation led to an important role for bishops in the governance of nations. They and the pope have often held both the spiritual and the temporal jurisdiction at once. Circumstances have led us to have a different approach to governance within the Church. This past is neither good nor evil; it just is. The question before us, therefore, is how to respect these different historical traditions.

Without question the Communist era showed us the limits of national patriarchates, so often oppressed by the political power. The tragedy of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is still fresh in our minds. On your side, the centralisation and purge that followed Vatican II, subordination to the bishops without the counterweight of pastors because of their short terms of appointment, the trials and tribulations of spiritual men like Padre Pio at the hands of the hierarchy, Pope Francis’s brutality against those bishops who are simply faithful to the teachings of his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI — all of this raises questions.

So acknowledge that you have a manifest problem of authority in the Latin Church. The Western Councils of the Carolingian era brought out the existence of checks and balances within your Church. Today all of that has disappeared, and the word of one man, the bishop of Rome, must impose itself on all men about all things, well beyond the tradition of the Fathers. This is in conformity neither with your tradition nor ours. You are now at an impasse. Perhaps you will be able to take a step back, taking into account our respective impasses as we experienced them in the twentieth century, so that we may find a solution in the light of the Trinity, without triumphalism or enslavement.
Dear Father, to end these words I would like to share with you this hope I have and which guides my steps every day. Already now every moment is a gift for me to advance in the knowledge of the Triune God. In keeping with my masters, Macarius of Egypt and Hesychius of Batos, I aspire to nothing but to empty myself of myself to let the Blessed Trinity dwell in me more at every instant, here and now. I wish to share with you this treasury of prayer that unites us, so that the Charity of God, acting in us, may be fruitful through us.

A Hieromonk.


[1] The monk could be thinking here of something like this: the two explicit mentions of the Blessed Trinity in the old Roman liturgy, the Suscipe, Sancta Trinitas and the Placeat tibi, were both removed in the liturgical reform, together with nearly all of the Trinitarian doxologies that had been present (e.g., the Gloria Patri of the Introit; the conclusions to all of the prayers, not merely the Collect; and so forth).

[2] The monk is referring to the practice of communion in the hand, which of course is totally foreign to Eastern practice, as it had been to Western for over a millennium.

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