22 May 2018

On Berdyaev and Bloy – a reply to Fr Stephen (Janos)

Elias Crim, my friend and co-editor at Solidarity Hall, forwarded me this kind message from Fr Stephen (Janos) of Berks Co., Pennsylvania, with a request to render it onto the comments section of my previous piece. In fact, with Fr Steve’s permission, I will do that one better, and give it a post-length response of its own here, which I feel it easily warrants! Here is the letter as I received it, in full, with only a few minor formatting changes.
Mr Cooper, Matthew —

What a delight to stumble upon something substantive stated on the Internet “recent” regarding Berdyaev.

It is some number of years since I last read Berdyaev’s
Divine and the Human, and not quite sure what recently vexed you with it. In your comments you seem to jump instead to B’s A. S. Khomyakov 1912 book (2017 English), regarding the Iranstvo/Kushite distinction. Iranstvo actually is the Logos philosophy within perception—being able to perceive XC-God the Word within the very fabric of creation, which seems to be what you are calling for in relation to our empirical world, to also worship the Lord God in the theatre of our world, as a matter as with icons of the symbolism of “real presence”. The Kushite mentality regarding the sacral is totemic magical, howsoever sophisticated, an “hocus-pocus” incantation, where the icon-symbol of the “real presence” becomes rendered into an object, an idol, a bourgeois contentment with idolatry, a Judas-kiss to the Living God.

Yes, there is much paganism within Christianity, a dark paganism assimilated and illumined by Christianity. When in church we prostrate down to holy Mother Earth, were we truly sensitive to the focused reality of the presence of God, we would be loathe to rise up and raise up our eyes to God Our Heavenly Father. But then too as regards this world, XC that “we are in this world but not of this world”. And as Christ proclaims to the Samaritan Woman, “God is spirit, and they that worship must worship in spirit and in truth”...

Khomyakov was a man of many talents across the spectrum, and a good steward of the land, loving it and not treating it as a bank; Khomyakov was the ideological father of the old Slavophilism, and he coined the significant churchly concept of
Sobornost’, tragically nowadays treated as a mere slogan... To your credit, you seem to be one of the so few not only to have obtained the book, but actually to have read it—B’s Khomyakov book!

Yes, to a certain degree Berdyaev is a victim of rationalism, as are we all. This is somewhat apparent in his early work,
Sub specie aeternitatis, in moving on from Marxism to Idealism and then beyond... My impression of struggling one’s way through a chamber thick with the cobwebs of Rationalism, which in its Enlightement forms is a step-child of Thomist Scholasticism. Berdyaev’s push is towards a metaphysical “ontologism” in reaction to ungrounded Neo-Kantian “gnossologism”..

Are you a clairvoyant?? It would seem so, with your mention of Leon Bloy! Berdyaev wrote a masterful 1914 article on L. Bloy, the only work on Bloy in Russian for nearly a century... It very soon will appear in English (next month) in an expanded version of Berdyaev’s 1918
Crisis of Art. Bloy is deserving of much further study as an existentialist figure of note. He is similar to Nietzsche in intensity, but whereas Nietzsche took the high road, L. Bloy took the low road through the muck of life. An irascible fellow, a Catholic, who brought the atheist Maritain to Christ (Maritain’s wife was of Russian Jewish origin, which help explain the strange bond with Berdyaev via Bloy). Bloy’s language is blunt reading, reading him one is initially repulsed, but then appreciative. He is a man obsessed with the Absolute. Bloy’s thought represents an expose of the “metaphysics of bourgeoisness”. He identifies the mark of a Christian as one co-crucified with Christ Crucified, Christ the Poor One. He brings to light the existential motif of “aloneness”, not loneliness but aloneness, of God and the individual man. In Russian art there is a famous image by I. Kramskoy, Christ in the Wilderness (qv.) which vividly captures the stark barrenness and gripped-hand intensity of this Gethsemane premonition. And there is this profoundly incisive saying by Leon Bloy: “Lord Jesus, Thou prayest for those, who crucify Thee, and Thou dost crucify those, who do love Thee!”

I realise it is bad form to promote one’s work on the forum of an other,—for which I implore your indulgence... Thanks!

Fr Steve
Bless, Father Steve! Also – my goodness! It’s a rare pleasure to hear from one of the translators of Berdyaev’s work into English; and I’m sorry that in my initial ignorance I did not recognise your name and its connexion with that of Berdyaev. As my wife’s people say: ‘I have eyes, but couldn’t recognise Mount Tai!’ Again, thank you for the kind words; I’m glad you found something of worth in my previous piece.

Unfortunately – and this is typical of my muddleheadedness – it looks like I skipped around in my thinking and condensed much of the main point I was trying to make, connecting it to other concepts and ideas drawn from elsewhere in Berdyaev’s essays and books. I should, from the start, have drawn examples of what I was responding to directly from The Divine and the Human, rather than glossing Berdyaev’s point about nature and history which I found slightly one-sided, as I did before. Berdyaev makes the same point in several places in The Divine and the Human, but this is one formulation of it:
In the critique of revelation the problem of the relation of revelation to history is of immense importance. Christianity is the revelation of God in history, not in nature. The Bible tells the story of the revelation of God in history. The mystery of Christianity is bound up with the Incarnation of God.
Berdyaev also quotes in these passages the Johannine insight, taken (as you say) from the conversation Christ had with the Samaritan woman, that ‘God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth’; indeed, this passage from John appears in the selfsame paragraph! I thought I understood Berdyaev’s point about ‘magic’, ‘mana’ and ‘religious materialism’, though from your response to me it looks like I overlooked the crucial aspect, which is contained in his use of ‘symbolism’. Reading that passage again, it does look like what he is attacking is precisely this ‘symbolic’ hocus-pocus prestidigitation, the re-reification of matter into something it is not to fool the gullible. Instead of making nature transparent to the Divine as Saint Gregory the Theologian did through his poetry, what the ‘Kushitic’ religions do is to use nature to impose a barrier between the Divine and the communicant. From there, the predictable results were: blood sacrifice; sadism; the beginnings of totalitarian logic. It looks like I missed the opportunity to drive home Berdyaev’s point that there is exactly such a ‘Kushitic’ element, not only in the various nationalist and ideological cults of modern times, but also in the modern bourgeois cults of self-help / self-medication / therapeutic consumerism – and that would have tied the point back nicely into my œcological concerns.

However: my problem with Berdyaev’s formulation, such as it was, was in his use of ‘in history, not in nature’. I felt that to be a false dichotomy. For God to enter into history, ‘in spirit and in truth’ – and this is what so scandalised the Greeks, no? – he had to take on matter, to bring Himself down to the level of mere nature. At that, not to fool us – but instead to redeem us in our totality (and not just our ‘spirits’, not just some abstraction or some disembodied part of us). My worry with Berdyaev was that in severing ‘nature’ from ‘history’ he was edging toward a Gnostic quasi-Cartesian separation of ‘matter’ from ‘mind’, with the salvation of only the latter in view.

Even in my less-charitable reading, though, Berdyaev did not wind up a Gnostic. What kept him away from it was a contemplation of the nature of love. Even the ‘non-human’, even the ‘non-mind’, would be saved because it is beloved of God – and you can’t get to that point without acknowledging at least some of the goodness and personality in matter on which Saint Gregory was insisting. Berdyaev – and this is to his credit; sadly it sounded in my previous writing as though I was dismissing this! – simply would not countenance the loss to æternity of his cat Murya:
My favourite cat has died: they will tell me that this death is not tragic because an animal has no personality. This argument is of no importance to me… What is most important is that my great love for my cat demands, as all love demands, immortality, eternity for the object of its love. I cannot think of the Kingdom of God without a place in it for my Murya.
Regarding Khomyakov… yes! Khomyakov was a true genius of his time. Not only was he a gentle landlord who treated his land with respect and refused to collect corvée duties from his tenants; he was also (contrary to the common perception of Slavophils as obscurantist reactionaries) a polymath and a technological innovator. It is very easy to mischaracterise or caricature the early Slavophils, and I’ve found I’ve had to correct even some of my own misrepresentations of Khomyakov and Kireevsky even as I’ve made them on this blog. I regret to say, though, that I’ve not yet read Berdyaev’s AS Khomyakov, either your English translation or the original. On the other hand, that will be a welcome addition to my reading list! My knowledge of Berdyaev’s treatment of Khomyakov comes instead through his book The Russian Idea. Berdyaev’s treatments of Khomyakov in various writings really only whetted my curiosity, though – I’ve read Riasanovsky and Gleason’s secondary works, and have still got several more on my bookshelf which I haven’t had the chance to crack open yet.

Regarding Bloy, Fr Steve, you have me at a distinct disadvantage. I’ve not yet read a single word by Léon Bloy, and sadly, my only understanding of Bloy’s hold over Berdyaev’s imagination comes from having read his 1917 essay ‘Bourgeoisness and Socialism’ and Peter Maurin’s collection of short quotes from Berdyaev on the ‘bourgeois mind’ for the Catholic Worker. However, from the brief description you’ve given to me of him, it sounds like it would be well worth my time to tackle some of his novels. If Bloy manages to capture, in some of that work, even some of the world-heavy pathos that is evident in Kramskoy’s painting, it would be well worth persisting in it.

Regarding your upcoming translation of Berdyaev’s Crisis of Art, it’s my pleasure to publicise this work as far as it’s in my power, and I eagerly look forward to reading your translation particularly as it pertains to the Berdyaev-Bloy connexion. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for it!

Please pray for me, a sinner!

With warmest regards,

Ivan Kramskoy, Christ in the Wilderness, 1872

20 May 2018

Prison or process?

HAH ŒP Bartholomew of Constantinople

Earlier this year I had the disorienting experience of reading a book by an author I deeply admire, which left me feeling rather cold. The Divine and the Human, by Nikolai Berdyaev, was the first book of his that I failed to be impressed by. Now, this was just after having read a selection from the Orations by Saint Gregory the Theologian. Saint Gregory is a tough act to follow, and perhaps any comparison I could possibly make between the two would be grossly unfair to Berdyaev. Even so, the nature of what I was thinking about in the wake of reading Saint Gregory led me to see some of the profound blind spots in Berdyaev’s work.

I do not say any of the following, by the way, to denigrate Berdyaev as a thinker. The man’s philosophical work is still immensely valuable, and was, as I have said numerous times on this blog, one of the key influences in my turn toward Orthodoxy. His deep and compassionate Christian personalism and his respect for the human creative impulse sparked life and fire in my soul, even as I was intellectually and spiritually floundering in my after-college years. Playing a key rôle in my political formation were his deep suspicions of the great Enlightenment divorce of material and spiritual questions, and his preferences for both left-anarchism (à la Kropotkin, among others) and traditionalist conservatism (à la Leont’ev and Bloy). The fortitude and fearlessness with which he faced and fought the most fundamental dehumanisations of the harrowing early 20th century, from chemical warfare to concentration camps to capitalism, were a blazing inspiration. So it is not with ease or with lightness that I make the following assessments – some of them quite hard – of The Divine and the Human.

Berdyaev has a strong and visceral dislike of those religious traditions which place too great an emphasis on the sacral importance of nature. He sees such ‘magic’, such ‘animism’, as being driven by a spirit of ‘necessity’ opposed to the Jewish-Christian-Islamic spirit of creative freedom. In such nature-worship he finds the kernels of sadism, of apologetics for naked power, the beginnings of totalitarian logic. Normally, I would find that this parallels the Khomyakovian distinction between iranstvo (the ‘Iranian’ civilisational principle, the principle of fire and sunlight and the spontaneous poetic spoken word) and kushitstvo (the ‘Kushite’ civilisational principle of divisibility and earth-totemism and despotic statuary). In the human world and the life of the mind, there is a strong and living kernel of truth in this distinction. But applied here, to a realm touching on the physical and material world rather than merely the intellectual one, it strikes me as ‘off-key’.

I understand Berdyaev’s point, which concerns human creative freedom in the face of the ‘given’ and ‘constraint’. He sees human freedom at work in history as over-against nature; and that is where he looks for the work of the Divine. But even that formulation nonetheless relies on a quasi-Cartesian intellectual foundation that degrades, howbeit ever so slightly, the mystery and the scandal of the Incarnation as the Greeks would have understood it. To be fair to Berdyaev, I think he understands at least in part the paucity of his own position. Though he teeters on the edge of a kind of misarchism he never quite falls into it. He falls back, rather frustratingly, upon an emotivist point to back away from the Gnostic precipice he’s edged himself onto. He will not accept a God whose salvific work cannot ultimately extend to his cat.

Saint Gregory, on the other hand, beholds nature and speaks thereof from a position of awe, from whence the only response could be, not intellectual speculation and mental division, but poetry. The song of the Divine. What Madeleine L’Engle would call ‘the Old Music’. When Saint Gregory the Theologian writes in his Orations of nature, of the seas and the mountains, of the birds and the fish, of the grass and the stars, he sees it all as transparent, illumined, pregnant with the grace of God, breathing with the spirit and personality of Christ. In the wake of such meditations it struck me as profoundly ungrateful, that Berdyaev could look at the same nature as Saint Gregory, and see in it something akin to a prison.

Here, oddly enough, I find the voice of my father speaking to me. Though I wonder if he would use this precise term, Dr Reid Cooper, the engineer and gæologist, beholds nature with the same kind of reverence that Saint Gregory does. He observes the natural order, the cosmos: from systems like anthills and cities to the patterns of earthquakes and the spread of the galaxies. What he sees in them are not constraints that preclude creativity. What he sees instead are a set of boundary conditions that enable all the diverse and spectacular structures and systems we observe in the cosmos to flourish.

On the earth which he studies, he sees an overabundance of energy, an outpouring of the sun’s radiance, being channelled and consumed within and through those boundary conditions. We – the living beings in the earth’s biosphere – receive only the most infinitesimal fraction of that star’s output, and that at a modest level. And yet even that modest level of energy, that ‘constraint’, sustains every single thing that all us living beings breathe and eat and do. The universe is constantly pouring itself out, in outrageous overabundance, for our sustenance. (The Greek term is kenōsis; it connotes precisely the same thing.) For him, there has never been a conflict between religion and science, because even though scientific method is grounded in certain operational assumptions about the created order which are necessarily material, his discipline itself points to a cosmic reality which is sustained by grace, which is grace. As well as for Gregory, for my father – though again, he might not use this term for it – the cosmic order not only reflects but expresses the personality of Christ.

Though for very obvious reasons I have a strong personal bias in the matter, I feel my dad draws far nearer to the truth on this question than Berdyaev does.

One of the benefits of my liberal peace-church and Anglican religious upbringing is that it embraced a practice and ethic of care for the environment. Thankfully, one of the ‘perks’ of my embrace of Eastern Orthodoxy – unbeknownst to me when I was chrismated – was that it expresses this same ethic of care in a visceral, physical way. I’ve spoken before of the Blessing of the Waters on the feast of Theophany, and how it consecrates and treats as sacred not only the waters used in the Liturgy, but all water. All water becomes holy water. All of nature is transparent to Christ, and as such is holy and to be treated with reverence. The holiness of œcology and the need for an ascetic ‘curb’ on our consumer demands on that œcology, is a topic on which as liberal a Greek as His All-Holiness Œcumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, and as conservative a Russian as Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, can find themselves in perfect agreement.

On the other hand, the most trenchant religious voices in the West on the topic of œcology – those who stand beside and inform the work of Bill McKibben, for instance – are Dr John Cobb, Jr and Dr Herman Daly. The latter is a disciple of the Romanian œconomist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and the British Quaker religious philosopher Kenneth Boulding; while the former is a student of the ‘process theology’ developed by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. Hartshorne, fascinatingly, also cites Nikolai Berdyaev with deep respect and approval in his own writings, and I’m very eager to understand precisely what insights Hartshorne recovers from Berdyaev and how he uses those insights. This is clearly a stream of modern religious philosophy that would be worthwhile to engage.

15 May 2018

Al-Nakbah, 70 years later

Today was another ‘catastrophe’, in fact a massacre, with over 60 Palestinians killed and over 2,000 more injured by live fire from the IDF as they stood nonviolently protesting at the border fence on the border of Gaza. Meanwhile, 40 miles away, our national disgrace of a head-of-state presided over the opening of a brand-new embassy in Jerusalem, to much fanfare from his hosts.

Actually, even that isn’t quite right. It wasn’t ‘another’ catastrophe; it was the same long catastrophe. As I’ve mentioned before, the term al-Nakbah النكبة was coined by Dr Qustantîn Zurayq to refer to the mass expulsion, of 750,000 Palestinians, from over 400 villages in the land of Palestine between 1947 and 1949.

One of the sadder anecdotes from From the Holy Mountain was when William Dalrymple interviewed refugees who had fled their villages when the Israelis took over. He interviewed three residents of the refugee camp of Mar Elias, a Greek Orthodox camp on the Lebanese side of the border. Their names as recounted in the book (but perhaps changed to protect the innocent) were Sarah Daou, her mother Samira and her sister Ghada:
Inside, we found the room full of Palestinian women. Our host was called Sarah Daou, and we had dropped in on the morning she happened to be entertaining her mother, Samira, and her pretty teenage sister Ghada. Her two small daughters, Rana and Rasha, fetched us a pair of plastic chairs, while Sarah went off to the kitchen to make us coffee… None of the family spoke English, so Abed acted as interpreter. Soon we were hearing a recital of the depressing, but familiar, Palestinian story of loss and dispossession.

‘Since the time of Saladin my family had owned several hundred acres of land in the village of Kafr Bir’im,’ said Samira, Sarah’s mother. She was a large, cheerful middle-aged woman with a wide smile, but her face was heavily lined and there was a weariness in her voice as she told her story. ‘The village was north of Acre, near the border with Lebanon. I was only five when we fled, but I remember that Kafr Bir’im was a very beautiful place…’

‘My father was working in Haifa at the time of the catastrophe… I was at a Sisters of Charity school. I very well remember when the planes were bombing and a house nearby was destroyed. We were all very frightened. We had no idea what was happening or what to do.

‘My father was about 25 at that time. He was a butcher and worked for a Jewish company in Haifa. He had a very good relationship with his Jewish employer. The man said, “If you are frightened, send your family to Lebanon. Stay here and work for us. Then when the war is over go and collect them.” But my father was too afraid. Everyone knew what had happened to the Palestinians massacred by the Jewish terrorists at Deir Yassin, and he was worried that maybe the border would close and he would be separated from us. Then the Jews began firing their mortars into the Arab areas of Haifa and our building was completely destroyed. Luckily, by some miracle, none of us were in at the time, but it made up my father’s mind.

‘His employer gave him a month’s leave and lent us his van. That was how we left Palestine… We left everything behind. The only thing of any value that we had with us was my mother’s gold earrings. How were we to know the Israelis would never let any of us return to our homes? Later, when the Israeli planes destroyed Kafr Bir’im – they bombed every house in the village – everything we owned, everything we had worked for, was destroyed. Only the church was left standing. Our land was divided between new Jewish settlements, and given to people from Poland and America.’
The troubles of this one family, the Daous, are presented in Dalrymple’s book as a microcosm of the Nakbah as a whole. Israelis would promise families that they would be able to return home; none of them ever could. Like Kafr Bir’im, many Palestinian villages were flattened by mortar fire. In others, like Deir Yassin, the inhabitants were ethnically cleansed. The Nakbah was indeed a crime, one which has gone unaddressed. And it is not one from which we who live in the West can easily wash our hands. The Nakbah is not simply a crime committed by settlers and local terrorists, who later organised themselves into an occupying army.

The Palestinian Arabs themselves understood this. There was, from the beginning, no anti-Semitic canard among the Arabs, apart from a Francophile crank or two (like Najîb ‘Âzûrî, who became an anti-Dreyfusard). Palestinian Christian historian George Antonius, writing before the Nakbah even took place, diagnosed the problem perfectly, when he said:
The treatment meted out to the Jews in Germany and other European countries is a disgrace to its authors and to modern civilisation; but posterity will not exonerate any country that fails to bear its proper share of the sacrifices needed to alleviate Jewish suffering and distress. To place the brunt of the burden upon Arab Palestine is a miserable evasion of the duty that lies upon the whole of the civilised world. It is also morally outrageous. No code of morals can justify the persecution of one people in an attempt to relieve the persecution of another. The cure for the eviction of the Jews from Germany is not to be sought in the eviction of the Arabs from their homeland; and the relief of Jewish distress may not be accomplished at the cost of inflicting a corresponding distress upon an innocent and peaceful population.
As tempting as it is for Americans, British and Western Europeans to see it that way and to address it that way, the Nakbah is not a ‘Middle East problem’. The problem of Palestinian suffering is, in fact, very near to us, and we are not, in fact, ‘bystanders’. We are participants. As Antonius astutely observed, we Westerners ourselves are implicated, by our indifference to the Jewish plight during the war and by our irresponsibility in addressing it afterwards.

It has always been incumbent upon those of us who have the historical responsibility, and those of us who have the means and might to do so, to end the catastrophe and broker a just peace that acknowledges the Palestinian right of return. But this is a responsibility we have always dodged, and we have always acted as a partizan patron of Israel. The most recent move of the embassy did not begin our nation’s failures of the Palestinian people; it merely recapitulated them in the most visible possible way. God willing, the good that might come from these 60 deaths, accompanying such an egregious violation of our obligations on the part of our government, would be that we begin to see our own faults and walk the way of repentance.

13 May 2018

Red, Tory and Orthodox

God bless and save His Eminence, Met. Kallistos of Diokleia!

This is an excerpt from an interview he gave with the Anglican priest, Fr George Westhaver, on the occasion of the Lambeth Conference in 2008:
I’ve spoken about the need for catholic consensus on issues like the ordination of women or the blessing of homosexual relations. These are departures from Church order and from accepted moral teaching of major importance, and therefore there ought to be some consensus not just within the Anglican Communion but with the other Churches, especially those that preserve the historic apostolic faith and order, the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. That is one side of the matter, the need for consensus. But then we might also say, should there not also be the possibility for a prophetic action? …

When so much of the human population is permanently hungry, ill-housed, suffering from disease which could be cured (if we the rich nations would really set our minds to helping), when so much of the world is suffering in this way, is it not a loss of proportion to be concentrating on women priests, or even on homosexuality? And one could strengthen this point by saying, the Church does not exist for herself. Christ said, ‘May they all be one that the world may believe’. The Church exists for the world, for the conversion of the world, for mission, and mission doesn't just mean telling people about Christ (though that is vitally important). Mission means also helping them and ensuring that there is social, political and economic justice - that is all part of mission. The Epistle of James is very clear on this matter, that if a poor man comes to you and is hungry, has no clothes, no home and no food, and you just talk to him about Jesus Christ and say, ‘Now go away,’ that's not really mission, that’s not preaching the faith. Faith is not words, faith is how we relate to living persons, how we make their joys and sorrows our own, to use the image of St. Paul that I have already mentioned.
Coming as it does from an Orthodox hierarch of the Œcumenical Patriarchate, I honestly can’t think of a better expression of the broad basic convictions of the Red Tory idea, unless Dr George Grant himself were to have expressed it. Unless, of course, one counts His Eminence’s presence as a chief office-holder in the Royal Stuart Society. One doesn’t get much higher a Tory than that. God grant His Eminence many, many years!

12 May 2018

In the footsteps of Saint John Moskhos

Mount Athos

I recently finished reading William Dalrymple’s book From the Holy Mountain, his 1994 religious-historical travelogue through the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s been a stunning – and by no means an easy – read, but it is one I would highly recommend to anyone (particularly us Americans, who are in general thunderously ignorant of these things) who seeks to understand historical Christianity in its formative years, or the fate of that same historical Christianity in the context of modern political conflicts in the Middle East.

As an observer, Dalrymple alternates between an unfeigned sympathy for the communities he visits, and a bleak and uniquely-British gallows humour. He comes off, surprisingly for a British man of his education, as an observant Latin Catholic. He prays at several points for his safety on the journey, for obvious and understandable reasons, and treats the inspirer of his journey, Saint Ioannes Moskhos, with a reverence that I suspect is completely unfeigned. He is deeply affected by his time spent in monasteries; and he comes away from the desert sketes with a feeling – familiar to anyone who has read Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov)’s Everyday Saints – that only the monastic world is real, and that the sæcular life is blind, spiritually-dead, headed for perdition. At the same time, when in that same sæcular life, Dalrymple is capable of some remarkable cheek. Much of the time, he simply stands back from his narrative and allows the antinomies and absurdities of Middle Eastern life to speak for themselves. But then, he’s also perfectly happy to poke outright fun at the hyper-religiosity of some of our Orthodox monastic figures, speculate on the syncretic roots of iconography, on the worldly temptations of monks, on the riotous life in cities which are now held up as paragons of Christian spirituality, and on the salacious sex lives of historical figures like Empress Theodōra. These two attitudes sit together a bit uneasily, but this dual approach seems to match his subject matter perfectly.

But his main focus, and the major draw of this book, is the fate of Middle Eastern Christendom. Although he went on this journalistic-historical-spiritual pilgrimage for the sake of describing and drawing attention to their plight, and although he expected to find a uniform oppression being carried out along sectarian lines, the situation he encountered as he journeyed from Mount Athos into the lawless deserts of Upper Ægypt was far more complex. As he sums it up at the end of his journey, writing from Asyut in the bleak and desolate uplands of Ægypt:
The problems faced by the Christians right across the Middle East had proved surprisingly diverse. When I began this journey I had expected that Islamic fundamentalism would prove to be the Christians’ main enemy in every country I visited. But it had turned out to be more complicated than that.

In south-east Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrummage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish. Here it was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians: they were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in. In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution in Maronite power. The dilemma of Palestinian Christians was quite different again. Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters. However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did, en masse. Very few were now left. Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, and even there such violent fundamentalism was strictly limited to specific Cairo suburbs and a number of towns and villages in Upper Egypt, even if some degree of discrimination was evident across the country.

But if the pattern of Christian suffering was more complex than I could possibly have guessed at the beginning of this journey, it was also more desperate. In Turkey and Palestine, the extinction of the descendants of John Moschos’s Byzantine Christians seemed imminent; at current emigration rates, it was unlikely that either community would still be in existence in twenty years. In Lebanon and Egypt the sheer number of Christians ensured a longer presence, albeit with ever-decreasing influence. Only in Syria had I seen the Christian population looking happy and confident, and even their future looked decidedly uncertain, with most expecting a major backlash as soon as Asad’s repressive minority regime began to crumble.
Of course, there is far more in this book than merely an elegy for a group of religious and ethnic minorities that is disappearing from the Middle East. Art and architecture, iconography and literature feature prominently in this travelogue; with descriptions of the monasteries, ruins and other manmade landmarks he visits featuring prominently. Dalrymple seems also to have a marked interest in the historical parallels and connexions between his own native Scotland and the tradition of mediæval Celtic Christianity, and the various literary and artistic deposits that came thence from the places he visited. He dwells on the possible routes by which Scriptural fragments, eremitical practices and iconographic tropes which survived in the Christian West only in the remote areas of Ireland and Scotland, might have arrived from the Greece or the Levant or the Ægypt of Late Antiquity. These digressions are frankly fascinating and informative, even if they have a slight whiff of the chauvinistic about them.

And he observes with his usual wry wit and occasional foxhole humour the patterns of life in the modern Middle East circa 1994: whether it’s the everyday paranoia of the Kurds in Turkey; the complexity of the state’s relationship with populace in Syria; the dystopian juxtaposition of anarchic dog-eat-dog everything-for-sale gangster capitalism with pressure-cooker sectarian hatreds in Lebanon; the stark œconomic and social segregationism that separates rich Israeli settlers from dirt-poor dispossessed Palestinians; or the stark, silent fear that stalks the Copts in Ægypt even as they deny any breath of a problem with their Muslim neighbours, and beg Dalrymple not to mention their actual names in print once they talk of their troubles.

I am surprised, in fact, at how many high-profile interviews Dalrymple was able to produce. I mentioned in my previous blog post how he spoke with the (now-kidnapped) Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim (may God swiftly deliver him from his captivity!). However, he also got the chance to talk with ex-President of Ægypt, Hosni Mubarak; Likud politician Ron Nachman; and veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk (for whom my respect, incidentally, has grown exponentially in reading this book – even as he is being discredited in the present-day press for going off-script on Syria). But it’s not his interviews with the great and the powerful that have the greatest emotional impact or are the most edifying – it’s his interviews with the common people. Cab drivers, monks, stringers, parish priests, ancient peasants, gang leaders, refugees, settlers, socialites populate his narrative, and it is through these face-to-face exchanges, in which every word spoken and left unspoken carries its own weight, that his work really shines. By Dalrymple’s account, these kinds of personal anecdotes and encounters are also precisely what lift The Spiritual Meadow head-and-shoulders above its contemporary works of Byzantine devotional literature.

If this book truly is meant to serve as an answer to, and a bookend for, the travelogue of Saint Ioannes Moskhos, then it’s clear which book has to travel to the top of my reading list! But this book stands well enough on its own merits.

Ruins in al-Khârijiyya

11 May 2018

Stará Morava

Orthodox Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Humenné, Prešov, Slovak Republic

It’s something to remember on the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius that, because 863 comes before 988, the Rusin people have been Orthodox for that much longer than the other East Slavic members of the federation of Rus’ centred on Kiev have been. (Nowadays we don’t even know exactly where Saint Methodius rests, but we do know that it is somewhere in the former lands of Veľká Morava.) The Rusins were among the first Slavic peoples to be Christianised by our fathers among the Saints, and they continued under the Œcumenical Patriarchate until they were forcibly converted to Catholicism by bourgeois Poles. Said force included the destruction of Orthodox monasteries, the burning of Orthodox chronicles and the desecration of Orthodox graves. The fact that the very same despoilers of the Orthodox legacy in Carpathia are now among those clamouring to the Œcumenical Patriarch for an autocephalous church in the Ukraine takes quite some, as my own people said back in the day, chutzpah.

The fact that Moscow is younger than Kiev no one disputes, least of all Moscow herself. But the fact that Moravia is older in the Orthodox faith than Kiev is, is a fact that has yet to be adequately reckoned with. By that very fact, the Rusin nation – allied to Moravia by shared history and to the rest of the Rus’, and particularly Great Russia, by religious sentiment – ought by rights to be considered independently of the Ukrainian. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn judiciously put it: ‘And what about Carpathian (Red) Ruthenia? While demanding justice for themselves, how just will the Ukrainians be to Carpathian Russians?

That justice may be done for the ancient and long-suffering Rusin people and their descendants, and that the faith of their fathers might shine in their own hearts, this unworthy sinner begs the Holy Fathers Cyril and Methodius to intercede with Christ Our God.
Let us praise the two priests of God who enlightened us,
And poured upon us the fount of the knowledge of God by translating the Holy Scripture.
O Cyril and Methodius, as abundant learning has been drawn from this work,
We exalt you who now stand before the Most High,
Interceding with fervor for the salvation of our souls!

09 May 2018

What’s worth conserving

Among the best – that is to say, the most morally trustworthy and authoritative – of people that I’ve ever known, my grandfather on my mother’s side figures near the apex. Holden Doane was a farmer in the true hill-Yankee mould (hardworking, tireless, thrifty, resourceful, respectful of the land and its limits and potentials), belonging to a long line of Vermont farmers of the same name going back to 1815. Even my first memories of him are those of an ancient old man, but as powerful and sturdy as the maples he tapped for a living. Powerful – but not violent. Holden Doane was a Methodist to his very bones, including in his commitment to peace, a commitment which went far deeper than mere outward pacifism. It was built into his habits, his character. He was careful, spare and gentle in his voice – but when he spoke, you listened. When he made a request of you, you did it. His patience was the stuff of hagiography. He cared deeply for all of his neighbours, even those who tried that legendary patience. And it goes without saying that he loved all of us far more deeply than we could have appreciated.

I remember that my mother once described him, politically, as an ‘Eisenhower conservative’: ever distrustful of the ‘Three Bigs’ (that is to say, ‘big government’, ‘big business’ and ‘big organisations’). He believed that hard work should be rewarded; laziness not so much. His opinions of new developments (whether a Walmart or a new tract of suburban housing in former farmland) were seldom expressed, but I never remember them being at all positive. His land and its ways: that he understood. His community: that too. But the party of Eisenhower, as it turned out in his later years, cared very little for either of those things. Without changing his fundamental beliefs or political orientation, toward the end of his life he became an Obamacon and an environmental activist – a devotee of the countercultural way of Andrew Bacevich and Bill McKibben.

Why do I bring up my grandfather and his relationship to politics?

Simply put: a few of my friends online simply do not see the use of conservatism. For them, conservatism merely consists of a set of empty, discredited pieties: a body of myths that even its adherents don’t believe and are willing to cast off when inconvenient. Worse still, conservatism has become, in their eyes, the embodiment of hypocrisy. Watching the same evangelicals who despised the forty-second president for his infidelities and crass womanising turn a blind eye to the forty-fifth’s, has been particularly galling to them. Most recently, some of my online acquaintance have latched onto Ross Douthat’s recent sadly ill-thought article on ‘incels’ as proof that conservatism is a morally-bankrupt whited sepulchre filled with the rotting bones of ressentiment and lust for power over others.

I’m here to (again) push back against that particular prejudice. I cannot, and never will, accept the idea that my grandfather’s views were morally-bankrupt, lived as they were from the context of a life that was more than merely conventionally moral, but actively generous and aggressively peaceable (if that makes any sense).

The intellectual substance of conservatism – not, I hasten to record, the shadow of it that stalks American political fora like a particularly deranged hobgoblin – is something that’s gripped my imagination since the eighth grade, when I had a contrarian Irish-American High Tory social studies teacher who taught us out of Howard Zinn’s People’s History. But the one who really fired my enthusiasm for that substance was the Mount Holyoke poet-historian Peter Viereck. His work fairly brimmed with the same powerful-but-gentle spirit that presided over our family visits to the Vermont maple farm. Like my grandfather, too, Viereck was deeply alienated from the rank ideological morass that took the place of his initial poetic vision, and by the wild, tyrant-spirited demagoguery that threatened to replace at every turn the moderation he had so carefully cultivated.

Is conservatism, in the Doane-Viereck sense that I’m using the word here, doomed forever to a Faustian bargain? Are the only choices before it, those of becoming a monster, or else becoming an increasingly-irrelevant and watered-down shade of liberalism? I dearly hope not. And insofar as all good things do partake in some fundamental existence, I dare to think that this substance may yet survive the doom which its imitators attempt to inflict on it. Even though my own politics seem to default to some form of Christian socialism, I’m still not quite comfortable with the label. I continue to draw inspiration and strength from other wells, including that which Holden Doane tended so faithfully.