Thursday, December 21, 2006

Reflections of a Humble Heart

I have recently enjoyed reading Reflections of a Humble Heart, a small book of Orthodox spiritual writings. The title was new to me, and I chanced upon it at the Holy Archangels Monastery bookstore in Kendalia, Texas. The work is taken from an Byzantine manuscript discovered in the Vatican library, then translated into Russian, and only recently into English. The writer was a monk Basil, who recorded the teachings of an unnamed priest. Either the elder was so well-known that his name did not have to be mentioned, or it was recorded in the portions of the manuscript now lost. The great interest for me was that the writings date from early 15th-century Constantinople. By that time, the greatest city in the world had been reduced to a hollow shell of its former self, and the empire--if you could still call it that--extended little farther than the city walls. Written under these dire conditions, I was intrigued to see what it had to say.

I was also curious to discover just how the book would sound to me--and by this I mean that as a 21-century reader, how exactly would I hear and receive the wisdom of 600 years past? I know that for Protestants reading the actual writings of the Reformers, the teachings can seem odd and stilted in light of current beliefs (which ought to be a clue). It was refreshing to discover that the Reflections read as though one were reading a contemporary Orthodox theologian or author. Maybe this is due to the translators, but then maybe it is something a bit more basic; a confirmation of the successfull trasmission of doctrine from generation to generation. I am not saying this to try and score points, or indulge in Orthodox triumphalism, but merely noting my overall impression of the work.

Later on, I will post excerpts from the elder's writings. First, however, I found his thoughts on the impending doom of Constantinople, as well as the relationship of eastern and western Christianity to be of interest. I might note that this is not at all the thrust of the book, merely an aside to his readers in the first few pages.

The enemies of our Lord Jesus Christ will take captive our earth and the Great Church [the Hagia Sophia] will cease to be a temple of God. Great tragedies will overtake the land of the Romans [the "Byzantines"], and by God's great judgment it will cease to exist. People will die, cities will perish, even whole nations will perish, because there is nothing eternal under the sun except the human soul, which is created in the image and likeness of the eternal God. Do not look for help from Western Christians, expecting that they will take up arms in defense of the common Christian heritage. Do not expect this. Because the Western Christians are not Christians; they are pagans.

Before one dismisses the writer as just another knot-headed anti-Latin Greek, the elder goes on to explain:

Even we Orthodox have a lot of things that are pagan....Yes, brother, we have much that is pagan, because we Orthodox are sinners, both as individuals and as a people. However, we are pagans on the surface, while in the depths of our souls we are Christian, because in our humility we have Christ in our hearts....Western peoples are Christian on the surface, but in their hearts, in their souls, they are pagan. We Orthodox grieve that we have idols living in our souls, and in humility we fall prostrate before Christ, desiring with our whole heart to belong to Him. In the case of Westerners, however, Christianity is like a thin gilding over copper; the rest is wholly pagan, because within their souls they bow down before their idols and these idols reign over them. They are proud, and Christ does not dwell in their hearts. For this reason, we Orthodox are truly pagans--on the surface--but deep within we are Christians; while the Western Latins are Christians on the surface but pagans underneath. Therefore, do no expect that they will help us. We Orthodox are strangers to them. Of course, in every nation there are good and humble people who bear Christ in their hearts and in their way of life.

I find his 15th-century analysis of what separated East from West interesting, to say this least. Of course, the elder realized he was speaking in broad terms, and he qualified his judgment in the last statement. I would be curious to know if anyone finds merit to the distinctions he draws.


Mimi said...

Wow, that does sound good. Great reflections.

Anonymous said...

Interesting indeed! Especially on the heels (in Orthodox time) of the Crusades. But even that said, I think the spiritualities of modern American protestantism and an authentic Orthodoxy are probably not far removed from that assessment. I work with a lot of evangelical people and while they are sincere and I think truly desire a life in Christ, there is a thin veneer of "nice" about them that is disconcerting and has a hollow ring to it.... of course there are Orthodox sinners too, but there is a "culture" of evangeilcalism that needs to be looked at critically. The essay may be harsh, but may also be closer to the truth than is politically correct.

Unknown said...

This was interesting. Growing up a Southern Christian, I feel this strongly.

Often we promote Southern Hospitality and fuss that our Northern neighbors are just rude. After much travel and experience with those across the country, I have found the opposite. In fact, much of what passes for Southern hospitality is just a veneer of niceness. I have heard the joke that the expression "bless your heart" is Southern code for "go to hell". That's only funny if you can do it in a Southern accent.

There is a huge difference between niceness and kindness.

I know this may be drifting from topic, but it seems an example of what the good monk is getting at.

I was hoping for more comments, and I pray that my Orthodoxy reaches its core and not the surface.

Terry (John) said...

s-p, I agree. As a battle-scarred survivor from American evangelicalism, I know all about that thin veneer of "nice," -- just how thin it can actually be, and what lies beneath.

theron mathis, welcome and thanks for visiting. You are SO right about our vaunted Southern hospitality. I do not want to discount the general friendliness and quaint eccentricities that pervade all things Southern, but this can often be a cover for pettiness, interference, judmentalism and general "noseyness." The ubiquitous "bless his/her/your heart" is usually followed by some cruelty, such as "she's as ugly as a mud fence," or some such. We place so much emphasis on being "nice," which is, as you note, something completely different from being kind.

Stephen said...

Travelling through western Europe recently and seeing all the art, especially in the churches, I do agree with that elder's conclusions of the west, though there is probably a lot I don't understand, so I could be wrong.

What I saw was that a lot of the religious paintings and mosaics from the 11-13th centuries wouldn't be out of place in an Orthodox church. Sure, the painting style was definately Western, but the composition of the works were like icons, or even iconostasis in some cases. But later works were completely different, which I am sure you know. At one museum I was told that this was because the artists saw the Byzantine tradition as old and stirile, and something new needed to be done. Which seems to indicate to me that art, etc... was taking precedent over Christianity, which is a sketchy. Also, I noticed especially in the Vatican that along with "Christian" art, the place is full of statues and paintings based Greco-Roman themes and myths. I don't understand how the popes could justify being Christian monks and simultaneously being surrounded by all those nude statues and paintings of attractive men and women.

So all that to say that in my travels I got the impression that starting with the Renessaince, or even a bit earlier, Christianity was increasingly just paid lip service to, and as long as the end result looked Christian, you could do what you wanted.

To make things interesting, though, I did see two churches in Paris, Sacre Coeur, and St. Vincent de Paul that had massive, Byzantine looking mosaics on the roof above the alter. I think both of these churches were built relatively recently (19th Century?). Also saw a lot of Orthodox icons in these Catholic churches and in Catholic bookstores, both for purchase and for veneration. I don't know what all this signifies. If anyone knows, please inform. Thanks.

Terry (John) said...

"...seems to indicate to me that art, etc... was taking precedent over Christianity....I got the impression that starting with the Renessaince, or even a bit earlier, Christianity was increasingly just paid lip service to, and as long as the end result looked Christian, you could do what you wanted."

Interesting observation, Stephen. By the time the Renaissance was in full flower, it certainly looked that way. And of course, this was exactly the time things were really rotten in the Western Church, in terms of corruption, etc. Perhaps these trends were evident earlier on, and even to our elder in far away Constaninople.

Thanks for the reminder about Sacre Coeur. I had forgotten, but remember now that you mention it. Of course it really didn't register with me at the time anyway.