Another way

Because of my recent reading dealing with the origins and foundations of modern academic Biblical studies in all their sordid, disruptive, and inglorious particulars, I thought it would be helpful to present, in contrasting light, what was going on in Greek Orthodox scholarship in the nineteenth century. The differences are telling.

I’ll draw here on just a few volumes of Constantine Cavarnos’ Modern Orthodox Saints series, which I’ve mentioned several times here before. Several of the Saints covered in the series left us some supremely valuable writings, and I’ll focus on them, although it must be noted that the other Saints included in the series were by no means anti-intellectual. In Orthodoxy, the intellect is a part of a person which may be used or abused, like any other part, used for holiness or abused in sin. All the Saints partake of the continuity of the Church, advising and exemplarizing a way of life lived in continuity with the spiritual direction given by God through the Prophets, Apostles, and Fathers. It is a way of continuity, not discontinuity and disruption—a way of tradition, not innovation.

We begin first with the necessary reminder that from the mid-fifteenth century through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the Greek mainland and islands were under Ottoman Turkish domination, as was the entire Balkan peninsula and most of North Africa and the Middle East. In such a world order, Greek education was rudimentary; the formerly widespread Classical through Byzantine tradition of paideia was long gone. For centuries there had been no schools of higher studies for Christians anywhere in the Turkish realm. The Greek language itself and whatever history which had not passed into legend was preserved entirely by the Greek Orthodox monastics and clergy, and taught to the people, keeping the culture and the Faith alive within an organic matrix that was as much culturally Greek as religiously Orthodox. (I think it’s very likely that it was during this time, the very difficult age “under the Turkish Yoke” that Greek culture was truly baptized, by fire and blood as much as by the working of the Holy Spirit through the many Saints that shone forth during this period. To read about a number of these Saints, I recommend Witnesses for Christ: Orthodox Christian Neomartyrs of the Ottoman Period 1437-1860, by Nomikos Michael Vaporis.) With this in mind, the explosion of learning in Greek Orthodox circles in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is all the more remarkable.

The foundation was laid by St Cosmas Aitolos (1714-1779), who for his dedication to itinerant revivalist preaching is honored, as a number of Saints are, with the title Isapostolos, “Equal to the Apostles.” (Keep in mind that in Orthodox, as in early Christian usage, The Twelve are not the only apostles: all missionaries directly sent by the Lord bear that title, included the men and women among the Seventy Apostles described in Luke 10.) Having benefitted from a good education himself at a school which briefly functioned in the Monastery of Vatopedi of Mount Athos, St Cosmas was intent to share his learning with others for their betterment. In addition to reviving the faith of Orthodox Christians throughout the areas that he visited, St Cosmas therefore managed also to establish a number of primary and secondary schools in towns and even in small villages, for the benefit of the people. St Cosmas became, by the grace of God, so successful in rekindling the faith of Orthodox Christians that, as is inevitable, jealousies and suspicions arose, and he was martyred by the Ottoman authorities.

A generation later flourished two of the most extraordinary of the Church Fathers in the modern Orthodox Church: Saint Makarios of Corinth (1731-1805) and Saint Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain (1749-1809). These collaborated on a number of works which are treasured throughout the Orthodox world, and are now coming to be appreciated even in English translation. St Makarios, during his time as Archbishop of Corinth, put a great emphasis on education, and had planned to establish schools throughout his archdiocese, though these plans were obstructed by a war which led to him losing his position. He did, however, institute a program of education and training for the priests in his care, dismissing the illiterate, and sending many to be educated in the monasteries. In 1783, St Makarios anonymously published his first work, Concerning Continual Communion of the Divine Myteries, which had been given its final form by St Nikodemos, whom St Makarios early recognized as an excellent scholar, and who came to edit several of St Makarios’ works. The book argues against infrequent Communion, a practice which had become common, but which is theologically and traditionally without warrant, as St Makarios details in the book. Next, St Makarios compiled, out of numerous manuscripts that were available to him, the Philokalia. In 1777 he gave the manuscript to St Nikodemos to complete; he added a Proem and short introductions to the writers included in the Philokalia. The whole work was published first in 1782 (see here for a history of editions). At this very same time, the indefatigable St Nikodemos had also completed, at the request of St Makarios, an edition of The Evergetinos (described here), which was published in 1783. St Makarios and St Nikodemos also collaborated on The Extant Works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, published in 1790 and the Neon Martyrologion, published in 1799, which latter is the last book that St Makarios authored. It contains the lives of eighty-five Orthodox martyrs who died between 1492 and 1794, seventy-five of which were until then unpublished. St Nikodemos worked tirelessly in his editing, authoring and translating, continuing to provide a wealth of spiritually beneficial material for Greek Orthodox readers, much of which was promptly translated into Russian. Some of the better known among St Nikodemos’ many writings are: The Unseen Warfare (1796) an adaptation of Lorenzo Scupoli’s Combattimento Spirituale; Spiritual Exercises (1800), also an adaptation, based upon Giovanni Pinamonti’s Esercizi Spirituali; Exomologetarion or A Manual of Confession (1794), which educates the reader on proper confession; Pedalion or The Rudder (1800), a compilation of and commentary on Orthodox canon law rendered in common language; and perhaps his most popular work, the Synaxaristes (1819), a translation into simple modern Greek of the Synaxaristes, a collection of Saints’ Lives for liturgical use arranged by month, compiled by the 16th century Deacon Mavrikios of Constantinople. St Nikodemos wrote or edited numerous other works, all of which are listed by Cavarnos in volume 3 of the Modern Orthodox Saints series. The works of St Makarios and St Nikodemos are striking for their complete Orthodoxy, maintaining a continuity with all the Apostles and Fathers of the past, indeed, various of their works being composed entirely of older writings, but arranged and commented upon in such a way as to make them comprehensible and effective in the lives of contemporary Orthodox Christians.

Next comes one of the greatest and most beloved Saints in the modern period, Saint Nektarios of Aegina (1846-1920). Greece was recognized internationally as an independent nation in 1832, after nearly two decades of fighting for independence. Primary and secondary schools were established throughout the mainland and islands by the new government, and universities and seminaries were opened again. St Nektarios began his writing career in his last year of university education (1885) by writing pamphlets directed at modernist ideas which were popular amongst university students wishing to be considered “modern.” A consistent trait of all the Saint’s writings was a concern for the souls of readers, particularly young students, as in 1895 he became the head of an ecclesiastical school. Of his twenty-nine published books, excluding pamphlets, letters, and articles, Saint Nektarios shows himself concerned with providing useful ecclesiastical-liturgical books and books corrective of modern misconceptions on various subjects historical, ethical, and theological/philosophical. One of the most interesting of his books is the two volume Treasury of Sacred and Philosophical Sayings (1896) which combines excerpts from the Bible, ancient and modern Church Fathers, ancient and modern Greek philosophers and other writers, all arranged by religous or ethical subject. This work is perhaps exemplary of all Saint Nektarios’ writings, showing his breadth and depth of knowledge of the ancient and moder writers, and his consistent concern for souls. Here is an excerpt from another work, Know Thyself (1904):

There is in man by nature the power of self-knowledge, because man is a spiritual and morally free being, having free will and the power of knowing…. But in order to acquire perfect knowledge of himself, man must first will and move towards self-inquiry and make himself an object of his study. Without willing, none of the things that ought to be done can be done. Unless one wills, one’s moral powers remain idle, nowise leading their possessor to knowledge. The will activates them and renders them manifest. In man, the faculty of the will, strengthened by the faculty of reason and that of free choice and self-control, overcomes all obstacles and succeeds in everything: ‘I will’ becomes ‘I can’ in the man that acts with knowledge and freedom.

Man ought to will to know himself, to know God, and to understand the nature of things as they are in themselves, and thus become an image and likeness of God.

Those who know themselves are praised in adages as wise. The writer of the Proverbs, Solomon, says: “Those who know themselves are wise;” and he advises: “Know thyself and walk in the ways of your heart blameless.”

The need of knowing ourselves has been taught by both religion and philosophy. Thales the Milesian held that the beginning of all the virtues is self-knowledge. The Oracle at Delphi called self-knowledge “the foremost and best part of true knowledge.” Clearly, then, self-knowledge is the beginning of all virtue and wisdom. Now if the precept “Know thyself” is imposed upon us by our cognitive power as a Divine law written in our mind, we ought, as rational and morally free beings, to respect it and observe it.
(Know Thyself, 5-6; translated by C. Cavarnos in St. Nectarios of Aegina, Modern Orthodox Saints vol. 7, pp 163-164)

Notice the full continuity here, beginning in the present by touching on the religio-philosophical heritage of discussion of free will in the Church Fathers, he then resorts to the Old Testament, and finally to ancient pre-Christian Greek ethical and philosophical traditions, all this in the space of a page. This is in marked contrast to the kind of hermeneutic of discontinuity or disruption found in German so-called theological writing of the time, which compares to the above as dung does to diamonds.

The nitpicking and intellectual arrogance found in the German so-called theological writings is completely absent here. Issues of methodology are addressed at the level of motivation. It is as unthinkable for one of the Saints writing above to have approved of such writings as it is for them to have written them and still be considered Saints. We have entirely different worldviews in sight. While the Enlightenment superficially proclaimed that it was for the enlightenment of human reason, that enlightenment is truly only found in the teachings and writings like those of the Saints mentioned above, which show a consistent, continuous concern for the psychological, ethical, spiritual and physical well-being of man. Likewise there is among them, as in the case of St Nektarios above, a trans-civilizational continuity, one that the Reformation and Enlightenment lay claim to, but don’t display. The differences are stark. Where one claims so much about itself even by its label of Enlightenment, the other claims nothing, but simply demonstrates a better way in its very existence in the various writings of its proponents.

I’m sure I’ll put something else together along these lines in the future. This is just a series of thoughts on the matter. The differences between the two worldviews are night and day. Even just reading through them, the heaviness of oppression in one, poisoned as it is by hate and arrogance, is supassed by the refreshing clarity of the other, motivated by love.