Just Don’t Tell the Priest

pricesce_thumbIsn’t it a small world? If you’re Orthodox, it is. I first heard of, then deacon, Gregory Edwards on the website of the Western Diocese as they reported, I believe it was his ordination to the diaconate.  As editor of the national church site, www.serborth.org, I was curious as to who this might be so that I, in turn, can post it on the national site. In the end, however, I never really found out who he was.

Then, some time later, I discovered a link to the blog of a Gregory Edwards on Aaron’s Logismoi. I soon found out that it was the same person. Since then I have included him on my blogroll and we have even been introduced – virtually speaking. Then yesterday, reading Aaron’s blog I find out that the two are acquaintances, that Fr. Gregory is living in the same flat Aaron once stayed in…. It really is a small world.

Anyway, Fr. Gregory had an interesting post a few days ago, sharing the details of a talk delivered by the Catholic archbishop of Northern Greece. He writes:

The talk was quite interesting on a number of levels. The archbishop began by telling us a little about the Roman Catholic church in Greece today. With immigration, there are now some 350,000 Catholics in Greece. There had been for some time small pockets of Greek Catholics, mainly in certain islands that were held for more of less time by the Venetians, but now the numbers are increasing. This bishop himself was a Greek Catholic, born on the island of Corfu. As Uniates, the Greek Catholics appear outwardly in many respects as Orthodox. In Greece, they even celebrate Pascha (Easter) on the same day as the Orthodox Church.

The main thrust of his talk, though, was on the ecumenical movement, specifically the dialogue between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. He also fielded questions from the students. He covered the usual hot topics, including the Filioque, Papal Primacy, and the status of the Uniates. On the Filioque, he repeated the now-standard Catholic explanation (admission) that it is not necessary, and the Catholics in Greece (like most Uniates) do not use it.

On Papal Primacy, he didn’t really say anything definitive. Basically, we discussed the problem of the Orthodox Church’s understanding of primacy, and whether there is a unified view of the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch, particularly between the Greek patriarchs and the Russians.

His response to one student’s direct questions about the Uniates was the only time I saw him get animated. Basically, his point was: well, this is how it is. Now what?

I found particularly interesting his rather frank and open admission that, since the Catholics view Orthodox mysteries as perfectly valid (while the Orthodox do not share the same view), he (and other Catholic bishops) tell their faithful who do not live near a Catholic church to simply go to the Orthodox Church for communion, but NOT TO TELL the Orthodox priest. He said they have found that if the priest is not told, he will give them communion.

At the end of the talk, there were a few minutes of refreshments and chit-chat. I was sitting with my professor and some fellow students and he came over and sat next to me. Seizing the opportunity, I asked him a question that I hadn’t asked him in the public forum: What about the theology of St. Gregory Palamas? Did he view it as a major obstacle in talks between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholics? I saw that he had written a book with a title involving the Blessed Augustine and St. Gregory Palamas, so I thought he would be a good person to ask for the Catholic view.

I really wasn’t sure what he would say, but I kind of thought maybe he would say that it was a misunderstanding of language, etc. In fact, he quite readily admitted that there was a major difference between St. Gregory’s thought and Catholic thought, but his answer was that it was simply not important. He explained that the difference was a matter of method (of approaching God) and theology, but NOT dogma, and therefore it was inconsequential to union.

Russian Bells and the Future of Music

APTOPIX Russia Harvard Bells

The above is an AP photo of a Russian woman reaching out and touching the bells as they arrive in St Petersburg on their way to Moscow.

This week’s issue of The New Yorker had a nicely done article by Elif Batuman entitled The Bells, How Harvard helped preserve a Russian legacy, an article which unfortunately did not make the online cut on their website.

But to give you a little taste, the reporter was guided by a Fr.  Roman, head bell ringer at the Danilov Monastery, a “towering figure in his early thirties, well over six feet tall, with enormous hands and a flowing chestnut beard.”  He explains that just as painted icons are not intended to be mimetic representations of a spiritual object but magical windows into the world of the spiritual, so too bells are not musical instruments.  Rather it is:

“‘…an icon of the voice of God.’ A Russian bell, he said, must sound rich, deep, sonorous, and clear, for how can the voice of God be otherwise? It must be loud, because God is omnipotent. Above all, Russian bells must never be tuned to either a major or minor chord. ‘The voice of a bell is understood as just that,’ he said.  ‘Not a note, not a chord, but a voice.'”

The article traced the history of the bells at Harvard and made mention of an almost mysterious figure, a man who appeared shortly after the bells did.  His name was Konstantin Saradzhev:

“…described as ‘Moscow’s most famous bell ringer,’ to oversee the bells’ installation. Saradzhev spoke no English, and his entire luggage consisted of four pairs of socks and two hankerchiefs. At his request, he was taken immediately to see the bells, which were not as he expected. ‘You have one bell that does not belong in the set,’ he announced. ‘And you should have seventeen other.’  [They were later informed that Saradzhev was mistaken regarding the seventeen missing bells, while the one offending bell was sent across the river to the Harvard Business School. -f.M]

During his time at Harvard, Saradzhev irritated Lowell residents with incessant tapping on the bells. One day, the university’s president…found him scraping the bells with a file, apparently trying to alter their pitch. Lowell told him to stop, and he became upset. Saradzhev, who turned out to be an epileptic, began suffering recurrent seizures. He was eventually sent to the infirmity, where, one morning, his sheets were found covered in dark stains. According to a Lowell House tutor, Saradzhev admitted that he had been drinking ink – an antidote, he said, to poison that was being secretly administered to him. This was the last straw for President Lowell, who sent him back to Moscow.

[The bells were installed with the help of a Russian émigré and the official public concert that Easter was a colossal failure. Later, however, some students became devoted enough to the bells that they started ringing them after football games and the Klappermeisters were formed. – f. M]

As for Konstantin Saradzhev, he was forgotten altogether – until the nineteen-seventies, when Anastasia Tsvetaeva, the sister of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, published a memoir about his life and fate. As it turns out, Saradzhev really was Moscow’s most famous bell ringer, known not just for ringing but also for his superhuman natural acuity: between two adjacent whole tones, he perceived not just one half tone but a half tone flanked on either side by a hundred and twenty-one flats and a hundred and twenty-two sharps.

When Saradzhev was seven years old, the sound of a particularly powerful church bell caused him to lose consciousness, and he was captivated for life. Although he was a skilled pianist, he always referred to the piano as “that well-tempered nitwit”: a piano can produce only twelve tones per octave, whereas Saradzhev perceived one thousand seven hundred and one. This sensitivity perhaps explains Saradzhev’s intense delight in Russian bells, which are unparalleled in their microtonal complexity. Each bell sounds a unique cloud of untempered frequencies, producing intervals unplayable on any twelve-tone keyboard. By such acoustic fingertips, Saradzhev could distinguish all four thousand of Moscow’s church bells. He described his hearing as “true pitch” (by contrast with perfect pitch). The capacity for true pitch, he said, lay dormant in all humans, and would someday be awakened. But in the meantime he was, like a superhero, cruelly isolated by his own powers. He spent more of his time working on a theory of the future of music that was incomprehensible to anyone who couldn’t hear a thousand or more distinct microtunes in an octave.

Still, the “bell symphonies”, which Saradzhev played in place of traditional church peals, were so popular that, even in the dead of winter, crowds filled the courtyard of the Church of St. Maron the Hermit to hear them. It is difficult to guess exactly how the symphonies sounded – Saradzhev struggled all his life with the problem of musical notation – but the effect, according to Tsvetaeva, was explosive: the sky seemed to collapse under the massive weight of thunder; the square filled with the metallic cries of gigantic bronze birds; the trills clattered overhead like swallows. Many listeners characterized Saradzhev’s ringing as “the music of the spheres.”

[Unfortunately, due to church rules he was never able to play his symphonies as he wanted since bells had to be used according to church rules. Professors at the Moscow Conservatory petitioned the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment but the petition was denied. Therefore, to go back in our story, when Harvard hired him to install the bells at Lowell House he thought his dream had come true. – f.M.]

…Finally, some Americans, recognizing the greatness of his bell symphonies, were going to build him a symphonic belfry in America, equipped with thirty-four Russian bells: the seventeen Danilov bells, plus seventeen others of his own choosing. One can imagine Saradzhev’s feelings when he got to Harvard. Nobody was interested in the more than a hundred symphonies he had composed – which were unplayable now, anyway, since the seventeen bells he had painstakingly chosen were nowhere to be seen.

Saradzhev is said to have returned to Moscow one night in 1931, unannounced, bringing his father a raccoon-fur hat with earflaps. America appeared not to have made much of an impression on him. “There’s nothing there but Americans,” he reportedly said, when pressed for details. Little is known of his later years. He is believed to have died in 1942, in a mental asylum in Moscow.”

In Our Own Language


Photo: New Gracanica during, I believe, the last snowstorm of the season sometime towards the end of Lent this year.

As language in church services is a constant topic within the Serbian Church in America, this quote I found in Archimandrite Vasileios’ (Gondikakis), The Divine Liturgy – A Revelation of Creation*, shed some light. That is, even when we are all speaking the same language, we are all speaking/experiencing/praying/participating in the liturgy in our own language. He writes:

“Unity in the Orthodox Church is not experienced as typical administrative order and human achievement but as grace and fullness of new life which renews man and his entire world.

Theology does not possess its own philosophy, nor does spirituality have its own particular way of thinking, nor does administration have its separate kind of system, nor does iconography represent a particular art school. On the contrary: everything surfaces from that one and the same baptismal font of liturgical experience; everything co-celebrates one with the other in a Triune fashion, during which everyone sings the Trisagion hymn in their own language. ‘Everything begins to speak in wonderous dogmas, wonderous words, wonderous teachings of the Holy Spirit.'”

*This was from a Serbian translation done by Bp. Irinej (Bulovic) and, as he notes in the preface, the original title of the book is: Elements of the Liturgical Experience of the Mystery of Unity in the Orthodox Church. Has this book been translated into English?  I bought it years ago when I was in Serbia and read bits and pieces of it.  I might want to dedicate some time and read it. (Ironically enough I’m leaving for Serbia next Thursday. Maybe I’ll read it on the plane.) The author notes in the Introduction that in reading it:

“…the reader will comprehend on his own the true answer to the question of the “unity of churches” and of “ecumenism” which was the direct cause for putting this work together…”

Sunday of Doubting Thomas

Homily taken from The Abandoned Mind, here:

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

A couple of months ago, I was involved in a discussion with a few guys on a Christian internet forum. One of the participants, apparently an agnostic, put forth the idea that if God wants men to believe in Him, He should not make it so difficult for them to do so. In his mind, God should perhaps leave a flaming cross in the sky, or speak from heaven each day, or make some other obvious sign of His presence so that men could more easily believe in Him. I suppose there are many people who are sympathetic to this man’s point of view. If it is so important that men believe in God, why does He keep Himself “hidden” from them? Why doesn’t He give us proof of His existence?

To be fair, this is a completely rational question. But that is also the problem with it. The question presupposes that God wants to reach us on a strictly rational level; to provide us with intellectual proof of His existence, as if that were all we needed to believe in Him and be converted.

But that isn’t the case, is it? If we look in the Old Testament scriptures, we see that God provided exactly such rational proof to the children of Israel as they were set free from bondage to Egypt. Not only did He send the many plagues against the Egyptians, not only did He perform many miracles through Moses His prophet, not only did He drown Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, but He also provided the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day to be a sign of His presence with them, and to guide them in the wilderness. Yet, all these rational proofs of God’s presence did not convince them, and they still fell into grumbling and doubting and thanklessness, and into the worship of idols. They saw the proofs of God’s existence and presence clearly, yet most of them remained unconverted in heart.

These things were allowed to happen to them for our instruction. They demonstrate to us that the spiritual sickness of mankind has caused there to be an unnatural disconnection between the mind of man and his innermost being, his spiritual faculty, sometimes simply called his “heart”. What the eyes see and the mind observes does not often make it all the way to the heart to convert it. Thus no matter what outward and obvious sign God may give to men, such a witness still does not lead us automatically to have faith in Him. The mind may witness some sign or wonder, but the spiritual faculty in man is too darkened to comprehend its meaning and to be awakened from its slumber to a living faith in God.

Thus, to heal us, God must awaken that inner spiritual faculty. Whether as Christians or agnostics, if we live our lives strictly on the rational level, seeking some sort of “proof” without any stirring of a noetic awakening, we are living as “half-human” people and will ultimately fail to gain communion with the God who dwells primarily in the heart of man, rather than the mind of man.

Jesus once said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you” yet many people fail to grasp this reality, because we tend to live our entire lives on the rational or emotional or sensual level, and never find our way into the deeper realm of our own hearts to discover God. This is why God in a certain sense “hides” Himself from us on these outer levels, only to reveal Himself within the heart of man.

But of course, God does not hide Himself entirely in the outer levels. Romans 1 tells us that “…the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse…”. God’s presence and power and mercy can certainly be seen in the world around us, if we have the spiritual eyes to see them. Put two men under the desert sky at midnight and you can get two different reactions. One sees only distant balls of burning gas. The other is so moved by the witness in the sky that he exclaims with the Psalmist, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou are mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” What a man sees is ultimately determined by his level of spiritual awareness, and his relative ability to perceive the Creator behind the creation.

All of this I offer as an explanation for our Lord’s mysterious statement to Thomas in our Gospel Lesson this morning. Jesus said to him “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”. Jesus is of course speaking of us.

We are not direct eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Christ as the apostles were. This might seem to put us at a distinct disadvantage, especially in a fallen world that claims “seeing is believing” and thus dismisses the value of spiritual perception. Yet our Lord declares that we who have believed without seeing are more blessed even than those who did see. Why? Because for us to accept the testimony of these eyewitnesses and believe it, when even Thomas himself did not, means that there has to have taken place in us some small awakening of our noetic faculty by the grace of God. By believing in the resurrection of Christ, even in our tiny, imperfect way, we have taken a baby-step forward to becoming more fully human, and toward perceiving reality not just with the eyes of flesh, but with the eyes of the soul. To the saying that “seeing is believing” we respond rather that “believing is seeing”.

And so we come to the realization that God’s allegedly “poor method” of making Himself known to mankind, through refined spiritual means rather than by crude external signs and wonders, is in reality the highest and most perfect form of self-revelation as far as our spiritual health is concerned. For by utilizing this method, God forces man to discover and begin to use his noetic faculty which, if he continues to purify it through determined repentance, can open up an entirely new dimension of perception for him. Man can see angels, the saints, the kingdom of heaven, and even God Himself through a purified and illumined heart. This condition of spiritual vision, called by the Church “theoria”, is the highest form of perception, even higher than the mind of man alone.

By the gift of the Holy Spirit, that faculty has been awakened in us. You might say it is waiting for us to discover it if we haven’t already, and begin the process of cleaning it up so that, like through a window, the light of God may begin to shine through it into our lives. As our sins are responsible for dirtying it in the first place, turning from them to the therapeutic practices of Holy Orthodoxy are the means of cleaning it once again. This is why we place such an emphasis on repentance and ascetical struggle. These things aren’t given to us as a kind of ecclesiastical “busy-work” to keep us occupied; they are the very means of our purification which will lead in turn to the illumination of the inner man and the glorification of the entire man in Christ Jesus. The lives of holy people throughout the history of the Church and right to this very day demonstrate the truth of this. Their experiences of the divine, as well as our own limited experiences, cumulatively encourage us to “be not unbelieving, but believing” and confess Jesus as our Lord and our God.

“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”. Blessed are you when you receive this apostolic witness and nurture it into an inner purity leading to the glory of God.

Christ is risen!