From the Foreword of Holy Transfiguration Monastery’s The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (p. xxxiii), after a lengthy pair of quotations of Saint Isaac, in which he says, “The man who follows Christ in solitary mourning is greater than he who praises Christ amid the congregations of men” (Hom. 64):
How far have we that are monastics departed from this understanding in these latter days, and become self-called teachers, writers, missionaries, charismatics, etc. One beholds in the Western part of the world monastics attending movies and writing reviews ‘for the edification of the faithful’, bishops and monastics teaching full time in secular institutions as monk-scholars in imitation of the Latin scholastic tradition. Elsewhere we read of cantatas played in deserts and abodes of prayer. We are told, ‘We must learn again what beauty is. We must learn to be carried on the thunder of a fugure, to be engulfed in the madness of Lear, to be consumed with the sanity of Quixote. We need to be refreshed by the health and charity of Dickens, illumined by the clarity and perception of Hugo, ballasted by the sober gravity and sidelong wit of Johnson, touched by the fire of Donne, soothed by Chaucer’s flowering springtime.’ And this from monastic lips.
Through the wonders of the internet, behold the article from which the ‘objectionable’ quotation was drawn: “Literature, Culture and the Western Soul” by the Sisters of St. Xenia Skete, originally published in slightly different form as “Forming the Soul” in The Orthodox Word 19(1983).1-2.
The two perspectives are interesting. I see the value in both, but the perspective of St Isaac wins, I think, particularly in application to monastics. Monastics are supposed to be dead to the world. And though I’m not a monastic, I can appreciate the separation. Some days I think the only peace in body and mind that I’m ever going to have will come in holing up in a cave somewhere away from all this commotion where I can finally pray as I ought. But I’m not monastic. And as a layman, I do have a vivid and abiding appreciation of the arts of both Western and Eastern culture, literary, plastic, or musical, in some cases being somewhat of a connoisseur, in others a rank aesthete who simply revels in the beauty of it. There is much use to be gotten of from a command of literature, for instance, in discussing the degraded societies in which we live now, surely as decadent as a Neronian Saturnalia. There are many works of beauty that surely pluck a string to resonate with the love of God, and thankfulness for such God-given talent. Of course, there’s also a whole lotta crap out there, and these days, it’s becoming more and more trying to sift through it, for there are seldom worthwhile returns for the effort. Thus the return to the classics: older canons of works built up in those times before the wholesale degradation and cheapening of cultures had occurred, by minds free of the puerile and affected attitudes that attempt to pass for “cultured” today.
Anyhow, it’s an interesting pair of alternating perspectives.