Why Stigmata?: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 5)

Discussion of Allied Questions:  Why Stigmata?

Having addressed the sources which pertain to Francis’ reception of the stigmata, and having looked at some of the contemplative and meditative techniques common to the Latin west of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we then addressed the question of the Seraph and the meanings associated with angels held by Christians of Francis’ time. With that initial groundwork, we can turn to the question of the stigmata themselves (their meaning at the time, their use by later writers, and the meanings which have emerged for us today as a result of that use).

It is important to first contextualise the word or concept of stigmata historically. How the word was used prior to Francis’ time may shed light on the context in which Francis’ contemporaries applied the term to the marks Francis bore. By looking at antecedent examples of what were called stigmata, we can better discern what was new and different about Francis’ stigmata and what similarities may link Francis to his predecessors. What were Francis’ stigmata, and what were they not? Were they actually part of an older, larger tradition? How did the symbol and meaning of the word ‘stigmata’ change as a result of Francis’ experience, or more specifically, through the portrayal of Francis experience by his hagiographers?

After this brief historical foray, a look at how Francis’ stigmata were situated devotionally among his contemporaries is in order. How do the stigmata, and specifically, how does a person miraculously imprinted with them, fit into ideas about the wounds of Christ, the body of Christ, and the imitation of Christ, all devotions popular among Christians — to an extent both Eastern and Western — of the time? Although the focus is predominately on West European experience, we must take account that twelfth century Latin Christians were also very much aware of their ongoing political connexion to the Crusader kingdoms of Outre-Mer, and the liturgical changes in both Byzantium and the West flowing from that association. One liturgical change in Byzantium which slightly predates the Crusader period (and predates the Latin occupation of Constantinople by about a century) is Byzantine devotion to the icon of Christ’s deposition; this devotion became increasingly assimilated to, even as it expanded upon, earlier devotion to the Cross.

Keeping in mind these two analyses, the larger Latin tradition of naming something ‘stigmata’ and the liturgically influenced spirituality of the Cross, a comparison of the Latin ecology of religious symbols with Byzantine devotional forms undergoing changes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries can be fruitfully undertaken. The purpose of uncovering similarities and differences between East Roman and Italian City State spirituality is to discover why stigmata appeared or ‘made sense’ in the West but not in the East, and rests on the fundamental theorem that a miracle of holiness only occurs in a context in which it can be interpreted as such without doing violence to the preceding tradition. (That thesis was developed in Abbasid period Baghdad to facilitate ongoing Muslim, Christian, and Jewish inter-religious debates; and belongs more properly to the theology of revelation, which I will hopefully explore in a later post. For the same reason, I will not address the question of deceptive or delusional miracles, which adds the question of discernment to an exploration of the theology of revelation.)

What, then, was similar in both the East Roman Empire and the Italian City States, in terms of religious expression and symbolism? Would Francis’ stigmata have been understood in the Byzantium of the Comneni [dates], or is the phenomenon of stigmatism confined to the West for reasons of prior tradition and later devotional elaboration?

Understanding Francis’ stigmata as both unique and, from a thirteenfth-century Latin perspective, a miracle of holiness forms the final portion of this post. What were the subsequent Latin interpretations of Francis’ stigmata? How were they brought into the theological tradition of the West? How do these medieval Latin interpretations relate to Byzantine models of spirituality and holiness from the twelfth century through the close of the Palaiologan dynasty? Can a certain rapprochement with Byzantine spirituality and theology of today be considered, or is the repudiation evinced by the author the Orthodox Word article the only way to understand the phenomenon of stigmatism, particularly in Francis’ case, but also in the lives of subsequent stigmatists such as Catherine of Siena, who lived during the Great Schism following the Babylonian captivity of the papacy in the Renaissance, and Padre Pio in the twentieth century?

I. Word-concept of stigmata, historically: Peter Damian. Imitatio in Alsace.

In her wide-ranging and very thorough From Judgement to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary 800 -1200, published in 2005, Rachel Fulton devotes significant space to an examination of Peter Damian (d. 1072) and his hermits. Peter Damian is significant for her purposes inasmuch as with him, devotion to Christ as Judge becomes fused and turned towards devotion to the Passion, the Cross being the judgement seat from which the world and its corruption is judged. The shift is interesting to consider in the light of Peter’s own seemingly judgemental sermons and his involvement in the Gregorian reform movement, a movement which set the stage for the spirituality and emphases of practice in the Latin West for the following three centuries.

One example of Peter’s devotion to the judgement-eschatology as it is linked to the Passion will suffice here. Presenting a long prayer by Peter contained in one of his letters, Fulton notes that Peter’s prayer ends with an exclamation that just as he is signed with the mark of the cross and thereby ‘configured to the crucified in punishment,’ so may he deserve to be the companion of the Arisen in glory.’ (Damian, Opusculum 50 (Letter 66) ch3, PL145, col 735, quoted in Fulton 2005:104f.) We thus see that for Peter, conformation to Christ in his passion, through penitence or self-mortification, one is led through death to transformation in Christ at his resurrection. Here, we see also how Latin and Byzantine emphases began to depart in emphasis, the Latins linking the Passion to the Resurrection as a necessary part through which the individual Christian, too, must pass.

More important to our purposes, however, what seems to be the first known reference to ‘stigmata’ appears in the vita of one of Peter’s monks at Fonte Avellana, where Peter’s reforms had taken root (Fulton 2005:101f, 105, 116, 460). Among the monks there was a former hermit called Dominic Loricatus (d. 1060, Oct 14), ‘Loricatus’ deriving from the chain mail he wore as a hairshirt. Fulton quotes from his vita:

“Dominic bore Christ as the crucified Judge, his body so tortured that it ‘bore the stigmata of Jesus’ for he had ‘fixed the sign (vexillum) of the cross not only on his forehead [at baptism], but printed it on every part of his body'” through self-mortification.

The idea of bearing the marks of Christ seems to hearken back to Paul’s statement in Galatians 6:17, associated at the time of Peter with the sort of self-mortification in which Christ’s power is made manifest or complete. This idea was already set out in Peter’s prayer, referenced above. Fulton, referencing Constable (1995), cautions that while “here, in Dominic’s vita, we encounter ‘the first known reference to what may have been the reproduction of Christ’s stigmata on a living person,’ … it is hard to know how descriptively Peter intended the allusion to Paul’s stigmata. (Constable. Three Studies in Medieval Religion and Social Thought. 1995. cf Elm ‘Pierced by Bronze Needles’ J. Roman Studies 1987:139 – 55.) In other words, Dominic’s stigmata may simply be an overall allusion to the ‘suffering servant’, and not to the five wounds of the crucifixion, which is what Francis’ stigmata specifically reference. This then raises the issue of the sheer novelty of Francis’ stigmata: actual marks of Christ were reported on his body.

In the eleventh century, ‘stigmata’ seems to reference asceticism undertaken in imitation of the sufferings of Jesus. It appears to be a general term, not linked to the Wounds of Christ. However, by the thirteenth century, as explored by Bynum in “Women mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century” (reprinted in Lock and Farquar 2007), Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life, 202-212; from Chapter 4 of Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, 1991.), the term seems increasingly confined to the five wounds of the Cross.

Setting up the context of this imitation, Bynum clarifies that “Illness and asceticism were … imitatio Christi, an effort to plumb the depths of Christ’s humanity at the moment of his most insistent and terrifying humanness — the moment of his dying.” (Bynum 2007:206) Bynum’s focus in the article is on the Eucharistic spirituality of thirteenth century female mystics, some of whom, like Gertrude the Great, were later canonised. “For thirteenth-century women this humanity was, above all, Christ’s physicality, his corporeality, his being-in-the-body-ness; Christ’s humanity was Christ’s body and blood.” (Bynum 2007:204). (Exploring the divergence between Byzantine and Latin eucharistic devotional theology must await another post; the devotion of the women Bynum treats in her article may not have made sense in the Byzantine contexts contemporary to them.)

Self-mortification in such a context was not viewed as a means to uproot lust, nor destroy the body or physicality as such, in contrast to such earlier ascetics as Jerome. Instead, it was meant as an aid to conform the practitioner to the Incarnation. As Fulton glosses Bynum’s work, Bynum traces how people ‘explored boundaries between body and person, person and God.’ (quoted in Fulton 2005). Devotion thus takes the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Church as the Body of Christ, and the individual’s participation in that corporeality as a means of self-transformation, as starting points for a deeper engagement of the person with the divine life.

After presenting various examples of Christ’s humanity in the visions of these mystics — as an infant in the host, for example — Bynum writes, “No religious woman failed to experience Christ as wounded, bleeding and dying. Women’s efforts to imitate this Christ involved becoming the crucified, not just patterning themselves after or expanding their compassion toward, but fusing with, the body on the cross. Both in fact and in imagery the imitatio, the fusion, was achieved in two ways: through asceticism and through eroticism. Thirteenth-century women joined with the crucifix through physical suffering, both involuntary and voluntary — that is, through illness and through self-mortification… We see this particularly in the case of stigmata, where it is sometimes not only impossible to tell whether the wounds are inner or outer, but also impossible to tell how far the appearance is miraculous and how far it is self-induced.”

Bynum goes on to quote a thirteenth century Alsatian author who wrote of the local nuns, “‘In Advent and Lent, all the sisters, coming into the chapter house after Matins, or in some other suitable place, hack at themselves cruelly, hostilely lacerating their bodies until the blood flows, with all kinds of whips, so that the sound reverberates all over the monastery and rises to the ears of the Lord of hosts sweeter than all melody…’ And she [the Alsatian author Bynum just quoted] called the results of such discipline stigmata.’ Francis ended his life in the first quarter of the thirteenth century; whether these sisters had heard of Francis or not, the evidence provided by this author suggests a wider idea of what constituted ‘stigmata’ than the spontaneous appearance of wounds on Francis’ body: any self-mortification in imitation of Christ’s passion was enough to be called, ‘stigmata’.

Two cases from the early fourteenth century also support that idea, and show how the term ‘stigmata’ becomes constrained to reference only the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet; both cases are from nearly a century after Francis’ death, and thus the term may have changed its meaning due to how the term was applied in Francis’ cases specifically. Bynum notes the case of Lukardis of Oberweimar [d. 1309], who ‘drove the middle finger of each hand, hard as a nail, through the palm of the opposite hand, until the room rang with the sound of the hammering; and stigmata ‘miraculously’ (says her thirteenth century biographer) appeared. Beatrice of Omacieux [fl. 1305, diocese of Grenoble, thus 80 years after Francis] thrust a nail completely through her hands and only clear water flowed from the wound.” (Bynum 2007:206. I would note this point corresponds to the acupuncture point PC-8, ‘LaoGong’, and avoids hitting major blood vessels in the palm; thus while the people of the time might consider it miraculous, today it would not, and we would say only lymphatic fluid drained from the area).

The difference between Francis and all the cases mentioned above — Peter Damian, Dominic Loricatus, the Alsatian nuns, Lucardis von Oberweimar, and Beatrice d’Omacieux — is that Francis did not take up a specific re-creation of the five wounds himself, whereas in the case of the others, particularly the last two, the physical imitation was clearly self-initiated.

When and how did this devotion to the Imitation of Christ originate? Is it aberrant? How can it be understood in Byzantium, if at all? A follow-up post may plumb the beginnings of this devotion to the Imitatio Christi (in addition to a whole series exploring the fifteenth century’s peculiar forms of Christianity — the century which gave rise to the Reformation); for now, however, let us return to the task at hand: clarifying what Francis’ stigmata were and what they were not, so that we can see what was ‘miraculous’ for his contemporaries about their appearance on him.

In terms of the larger tradition, the stigmata were associated with the Cross (by the date assigned to their appearance) and love (by the image of a Seraph, and by commentary of the hagiographers) rather than judgement or punishment (though the Alsatian sisters seem not to have seen their self-flagellation as punishment, but rather as Imitatio). They were treated as a seal indicative of conformation to Christ’s life.

What is different, however, is that Francis’ stigmata were not self-inflicted, according to the evidence we have in Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer. These stigmata were not taken upon himself by Francis himself — no self-flagellation or self-piercing is recorded in the context of his reception of stigmata, although Francis’ efforts at self-mortification earlier in his life were clearly noted. Additionally, the wounds seem to have contained nails which were not removed (not removable?), and the wounds did not heal.

It seems, then, that Francis subscribed to the earlier notion of stigmata evinced by Peter Damian and Dominic Loricatus, namely, a general self-mortification, or specifically in Francis’ case, devotion to ‘Lady Poverty’, rather than the later versions taken up by Lucardis of Oberweimar and Beatrice of Omacieux. Bonaventure’s statement made at the beginning of the Legenda Major bears out this interpretation: “[Francis] paid great attention to the mortification of the flesh so that he might carry externally in his body the cross of Christ which he carried internally in his heart.” (Legenda Major 1.6) Thus again, we see self-mortification as a form of voluntary Imitatio Christi, conforming to an interior bearing of the Cross Francis carried inwardly; the stigmata were unwilled, though accepted, marks of that interior devotion, impressed by all early accounts through the vision, if not the action, of the Seraph. The novelty of the five wounds specifically on Francis’ body therefore become not Imitatio so much as a surprising Transformatio in Christe.

Francis’ stigmata fit into the larger tradition of Imitatio Christi; the peculiar manifestation of the wounds in Francis’ case, however, moves beyond imitation and enters the realm of transformation. The transformative aspect is especially emphasised by the commentators, particularly when they describe the conformation of Francis’ external body to his interior life. Thomas of Celano, for example, describes the origin of the mystery (or sacrament) of Francis’ stigmata to the Cross rooted in Francis’ heart, “And therefore did the stigmata shine outwardly in his flesh because within that deeply planted root [the Cross] was sprouting in his mind.” (The phrase could plausibly be rendered in Anglo-Greek as ‘the noetically sprouting root of the Cross shone outwardly in his flesh’.) The image would be taken up again by Mirandola’s image of seeds bearing fruit — transforming one into an angel or Son of God, as described in the previous post on angels. No longer is the idea of angelification primary; with Francis, theosis, divinisation in the form of the Crucified and Resurrected Christ becomes visible.

Thomas of Celano refers to Francis’ stigmata as a mystery or sacrament, the transformation of the lover into the Beloved through or by means of his reflection of the Cross. I hesitate to use the scholastic definition of a sacrament as ‘the making visible of an invisible reality’, as the scholastic movement is only just beginning during the lifetime of Thomas of Celano. Nevertheless, Thomas does accept the stigmata as a revelation of an interior grace; merely the reason for its revelation at the time are concealed, as he exclaims in Chapter 154: “Be this alone announced to human ears, that it is not yet wholly clear wherefore that mysterious thing appeared in the Saint; for, as revealed by him, it derives its reason and purpose from the future. He shall prove true and trustworthy whose witness shall be Nature, the Law, and Grace.”

For Thomas of Celano, Francis is an exemplar of the Christian life. Francis’ behaviour and the symbolic importance of the stigmata were used in teaching the faithful. From a literary structuralist viewpoint, this can be seen in the arrangement of additional chapters treating Francis’ stigmata (e.g. ch. 98). These chapters are associated with Francis’ behaviour following the appearance of the stigmata, i.e. the remaining two years of his life, during which time Francis diligently concealed the marks from strangers, and even those closest to him were unaware of them for a long time. The chapters are placed so as to follow sections counselling against vainglory, and to precede those which discuss the virtue of hiding virtues; the climax occurs in chapters which praise humility and caution against trusting in one’s own opinion. In the entire series of chapters, we see an ongoing emphasis in Christian spirituality, drawn from Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Tax-Collector, against self-aggrandisement in the name of righteousness. The implication is that while Francis could have been tempted to boast of the stigmata and proudly bear them, he did not; rather, Thomas writes, “He exerted himself in every way he could to hide it,” because he did not want to lose the grace through the favour of human beings. “For he had found by experience that it is a very evil thing to impart all things to everybody.” At the same time, Francis did not think it wise to conceal ‘revelations’ from others. In the Second Life, chapter 102, Thomas writes, “In many matters he had learnt his opinions by revelation, but yet he would bring them into discussion and prefer the opinion of others. He believed his companions advice to be safer… He used to say that anyone who kept back the treasure-chests of his own opinion had not left all for the sake of God.” In other words, a theology is being drawn from Francis’ life, whose sanctity and embodiment of particular virtues confirms previous ideas regarding them. Francis, in keeping with Gospel precepts about not boasting about grace, was afforded additional graces. This was proof enough for Thomas to hold Francis up as an example for readers to learn how God rewards those who follow His counsels.

“And indeed the glorious life of this man sheds clearer light on the perfection of earlier saints; the Passion of Jesus Christ proves this and His Cross makes it most fully manifest. Verily our venerable father was signed in five parts of his body with the token of the Cross and Passion, as if he had hung on the cross with the Son of God. This sacrament [mysterium] is a great thing and makes known the majesty of love’s prerogative; but therein a secret counsel lies hid… wherefore it is not expedient to attempt much in praise of him whose praise is from Him who is the Praise, the Source, the Honour of all, the most mighty, giving rewards of light…” (Thomas of Celano, First Life of Francis, Part 2, on the last 2 years of Francis’ life.) Key in this passage are the links drawn between the union of earlier saints with Christ’s kenosis as expressed in the Passion (the term at Thomas’ time can include the Resurrection, although the two — Passion and Resurrection — slowly separate into their own respective, overlapping domains), through whose reconciliation grace flows to humanity; between love, the Cross, and sacramental mysterium; and between the singular favour with which Francis was loved and how that love given to him to love Christ was manifested outwardly in his body. These links are drawn more fully by Bonaventure, as presented previously. One additional example here must suffice.

In Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ reception of the stigmata, he relates that at the end of forty days, Francis comes down from the mountain as a second Moses, bearing the image of the crucified as engraved in his body by the finger of God, glossed “when the true love of Christ had transformed his lover into his image.” The finger of God, of course, is the Seraph or the action of the Seraph in imprinting the marks of Christ’s wounds on Francis, the symbolic image of love; while the transformation is of Francis’ physical body into the image of the body which Thomas the Apostle saw and sought to probe. From imitatio Christi, Francis came to experience transformatio in Christe. Bonaventure makes a further leap, however: just as Christ is the giver of the law of grace, so also Francis inaugurates the physicality of that grace, becoming like a second law-giver, but a law which must be embodied. Unless the idea of law be attached to fear and punishment, Bonaventure adds another motivation: love, specifically, God’s choice to impress the marks of the Passion on Francis. Bonaventure emphasises becoming Christ, shifting from earlier Augustinian images of the Trinity manifest in humanity. A possible counterpoint to Richard of St Victor as well may be detected, inasmuch as the transformative power of grace operates on both mind and body.

As for later commentators, I have already posted how Olivi exalts Francis on the basis of his perfect Imitatio Christi, placing Francis in the sphere of the Seraphim. Mirandola, likewise, uses Francis as an example of how the seeds of virtue planted during one’s life can bear fruit in the divinisation of sainthood.

Why did the phenomenon of the five-wounds stigmata appear in Italy, then, and not in the East Roman Empire?


How the Church retained me in my 20s, and how I grew disaffected by my 30s (Part 3)

This post was outlined in September 2010, but written up in October 2011.  The outline was hopeful; I will have to add a coda, looking at where I am now.

I believe I left off my last post somewhere in San Francisco.  I had detailed reasons why I stayed in the Church; now I will write about how it began to lose me.

I eventually returned to the parish church.  Part of what made this possible was a retired Lebanese priest who just had a good heart and whose sermons would sometimes wander off in completely unexpected directions.  Still, I seemed to have no connexion to the parish, and I was constantly asked, even after nearly five years of fairly regular attendance, if I was Greek.  (Granted, sometimes this question was posed to me in Greek.)  I suppose I wouldn’t have minded, except that this is the very first question one is asked by Greeks when first meeting someone (unless one is in Greece, in which case the question becomes, “Apo pou eise?”  “Where are you from?”.)

I recall one Pan Orthodox Vespers I attended, somewhat hopeful that this might be an interesting or cordial event, except that afterwards, I was left somewhat lonely in the reception hall, the Palestinian priest glancing at me with daggers in his eyes.  I happened to be wearing a keffiyah that was a gift from a Yemeni student of mine, and I wondered if that prompted his looks.  Regardless of the reason, he did not approach me directly, and I was already feeling apart.  His expression did nothing to make me feel welcome — not that it was his parish in which to offer hospitality; he was, after all, a guest.  As if that were not enough, I did engage a fellow parishioner in conversation, but he merely repeated some old and simplistic polemic championing Photios, and condemning Augustine for his Platonism.  He did not seem to want to hear my position, which took into account Augustine’s rhetorical exigence and the particular audience for his Confessions.  (Simply put, Augustine had to portray himself as a Neoplantonist philosopher to his interlocuter, and purposely chose what aspects of his life he would recount to that individual, and framed them with an eye to convincing this fellow philosopher of the beauty of Christianity.  In other words, Augustine was much less a Platonist than he made himself out to be, and in fact is no more Neoplatonist than some of the Greek Fathers, St Gregory of Nyssa, for example (or even more to the point, Evagrios Pontikos).)

In contrast to my somewhat liminal experience, whenever my partner, a tall dark haired Jewish man would visit, he was immediately welcomed.  People would come up and talk to him, often asking if he was one of the <insert your choice of several typical Greek surnames> sons.  Years later, he once turned to me and said he was sorry that I had that experience; he knew it must have hurt me.  It did.

When I turned to devotional magazines for consolation, or even some translated Patristic works for consolation, in the hope that I could find something that would keep my attachment to the Byzantine faith alive, I was inevitably confronted with a ubiquitous and simplistic polemic, a polemic which far from spurring my faith, spurned my experience and turned me away.

I retreated even further, relying on private devotions.  For me, that meant the regular recitation of  matins from the Mozarabic rite (interestingly facilitated by a study on the shape of Daily Prayer in Christian Spain executed by a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church in England).    While that helped, I stopped going to the Greek parish.  I sometimes attended the Russian service on Geary Boulevard, but not understanding Old Slavonic, and not quite knowing if any post-liturgy reception was held, I didn’t attend that frequently. On the other hand, I would keep Shabbat on Friday night and Saturdays with my partner, and study the history and roots of Jewish mysticism with him.  I would sometimes go to Temple on Saturdays and then go to Divine Liturgy on Sundays, lending a different significance to fourth meal, celebrated after the close of the Sabbath and called ‘the feast of the Messiah King’.  I enjoyed the home-based aspects of Judaism, the study that could be done during long Shabbat mornings, the festivity of the meal, the imagery of the Sabbath Queen.  I did not see a complete contradiction between the two traditions calling themselves Orthodox.

At some point, another priest, whose captivating sermons I always enjoyed and whose personal focus on social justice I always admired, returned to the Greek parish.  He set up a ministry in which those community members who could not come to the church would be visited.  That ministry met about once a month, and involved the Eritrean members of the parish as well.  We would typically cook some meals and then bring them, in small groups, to various people throughout San Francisco.  In this way, I got to know some of the older Greek women in the parish, and they began to forget at times that I was not Greek (and they would sometimes speak to me in Greek and vice versa).

Another aspect of parish life I participated in was the Bible study group which met midweek.  My experiences there were mixed.  I suppose I was wanting to go even more in depth than we had time for — or than some participants were academically trained for.  That, I suppose is my own fault; it was a pastoral group, not a scholastic one.  At the same time, though, some academic argument did take place, notably with the same fellow I met at Pan Orthodox vespers.  Unfortunately, that friction never quite smoothed itself out, and I was often disappointed that this interlocuter was not as critical of his sources as a historical theologian could be.  (Subsequently, I came to learn just how much of a dearth of historical perspective many theologians in America seem to have.)  My partner and one or two friends also began to note that I was coming home from church in bad mood.  Not irritable so much as melancholy.  It was obviously not the best place for me to go.

I would note that some persons in that group knew about my partner, and some did not.  Those who did not, did not because they were expressive of their attitudes towards (for example) Gavin Newsom’s politics when it came to gay marriage.  Other conservative elements emerged when discussing certain psalms, an inquirer adding to the verse at hand punitive implications not present in the text before us.  That sort of scriptural interpretation seemed unwarranted and uncoordinated.  It is one thing to link several verses because of similar language; quite another to add to or detract from the verse to make it say something other than a meaning which could be drawn forth from it, and which would lead to a deeper relationship with God or a deeper appreciation of the text itself.

Although I was feeling more integrated with the community via the outreach ministry, it really began to pick up steam at about the same time my partner and I decided to move back to the East Coast.  After we moved to Vermont, I went to church only once or twice.  I was welcomed by the priest, immediately put on a mailing list — but I was still dealing with the fallout from the previous parish and my time on Athos.  (Aside from that, the music was a mix of Russian and Greek and English, and did not really appeal to me; at least my former parish had an excellent choir — one I would have joined had we stayed on the West Coast.)

My parents are Latin-rite Catholics, and when i would visit them, often at Christmas, I would sometimes go midnight mass with them (usually held at 9pm or some hour far removed from midnight).  The service held little appeal.  Not only did the semi-circular modern church design not appeal to me, the sermons were spiritually impoverished.  I would listen to the prayers recited during the Christmas liturgy, impressed at their theological depth, pinpointed references to Athanasios of Alexandria, Gregory the Great, and others — themes of theosis and Incarnational theology that could have been developed or explained in greater detail to the audience — but those themes never were so much as alluded to.  I would come away from this church to which some Athonites claimed I was too attached feeling like it was a complete stranger and lacked appeal to me.  I was clearly not Latin-rite Catholic; I felt much more at home in Byzantine liturgies.

Theology school helped in some ways, though.  I applied so that I could pursue higher studies in Rome, Navarra, or Thessaloniki afterwards; in order to be accepted to schools in Rome, I needed a prior degree in theology.  So I decided to get such a degree, initially thinking of combining it with the MA in Classics at UVM.  While that latter idea did not pan out, in theology school I was brought into contact with the texts I loved.  I was able to work on projects and put my experiences into writing.  I learned more about Vatican II, Judaeo-Christian apocalypses, North African patristics, and Jewish patterns of exegesis.  I enjoyed my classes in medical ethics and ecclesiology; I brought the Greek text of the gospel along with me to my classes in Scriptural studies.  I had some rough spots — one class during the summer stands out — but that class also saw me produce one of the papers I was most happy with (and which I have posted to this blog).  That instructor also encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. in theology by the end of the course; for that, I remain grateful to her.  Yet when it came to asking of my various professors about what sort of jobs theologians had, I was left with few answers apart from teaching.  For some reason, that did not appeal to me.  Nor did I have much success when I asked what was the edge of theological knowledge and what were the current questions being generated in the field — in other words, what is the ‘cutting edge’ of the theological project?

From Vermont we moved to Massachusetts.  I had applied to two schools at the same time — theology school and acupuncture school.  Being accepted to both, I decided to pursue both and saw that in terms of time constraints, I could actually pursue both.  the acupuncture school was in the Boston metro area; hence our move.  Living in East Boston, I attended the divine liturgy only once, in an Armenian church in Watertown, on January 6.  I was curious to see how the Armenians celebrated the collected commemorations of the Nativity and Epiphany, Circumcision and Presentation of Christ.  But I had little incentive to try a new church on any regular basis.

I had one more formal class in Vermont to complete.  That class left a very bad taste in my mouth, and nearly turned me off from spiritual practice altogether.  It was little better than an undergraduate intro to world religions but with the added benefit of a spiritual voyeur teaching.  I recall one class, towards the end, when people were discussion how we had formed a community.  Some also talked about recent suicides they had experienced.  I found that community to be a prison for me, and had thought as I drove up to it on more than one occasion that if it were the only community I was in, I would be one of those suicides.  Luckily, it was a brief class, although it had an impact on me which lasted some years.

On the other hand, my partner and I frequented the Chabad house at Harvard on a nearly weekly basis.  There I found a community which shared not only food but intellectual discussion on many topics.  I could attend services, wrapped in a tallis and not worry about whether I’d receive communion that day (since obviously Jews do not celebrate a commemoration of the Last Supper) as I would wonder each Sunday in an Orthodox church; nor would I need to worry about being called up to the bimah to witness the correct canting of the Torah.

The experience was good, mostly, except for the rabbi who wasn’t sure what to make of us. He sometimes seemed like my partner and I were something he ate and he wasn’t sure it agreed with him or not.  His wife seemed fine with us, and another rabbi was was usually there (and last I heard was at MIT) would ask after my partner if I went without him, and about me, if my partner went without me.  I was treated well also — I recall one time when we were nine men total at the service, eight who could be counted for minyan.  When another man joined the group, making to all appearances ten Jewish men, one of the three rabbis would leave the room, leaving us with nine persons in the room.  The rabbis would not single me out as the non-countable member.  This happened several times, and later, at lunch aroused a wondering comment at how long it took to form a minyan that day, and how we’d have nine men, and then a new person would come, but someone would disappear leaving us still at nine.  That simple consideration touched me deeply and left a positive impression on me.

Overall, then, we were accepted, the community was fairly engaging (despite the typical Harvard business school students who sometimes appeared), and I encountered little polemic (even against reform Judaism).  Then again, this was Chabad.  The whole point of Chabad is the belief that in every Jewish person is a spark of the divine which is indeed redeemable, and the role of Chabad is to encourage the person to nourish it.  It also had the side effect of breaking down whatever prejudice I held against ‘elite’ universities.  As a result, when the opportunity to apply to Oxford came, I followed it.

Later, when our landlords sold our apartment without telling us they had split the house up so that apartments could be bought singly, we moved to Watertown, to the street on which I had parked the year before when I went to the Armenian church.  I was only a block or two away from a Greek church, and I went a few times to the services.  I encountered polemic every time I went and the service was conducted by the younger priest.  It seemed he could not celebrate the Byzantine heritage without castigating other ‘Western’ churches.  Sometimes this polemic took the seemingly superficial matter of steeples, others the more thorny question of the late Latin doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  The positive result seems to be that I began posting to this blog, having become fed up with ignorance and a lack of nuance and historicity (not to mention geographic experience of the Orthodox world) in the Orthodox church.

At least there I was accepted as Greek, people addressed me first in Greek, did not ask if I was Greek, and in fact, didn’t really ask me much at all.  I did not see much opportunity to socialise with or to get to know the people.  When the young priest served, I would come home in bad mood.  The worst was during the Akathistos hymn, when i had had a long day, was looking forward to hearing the full hymn, enjoyed the singing, and found myself content at being in the church — until his sermon.  After that point, I stopped altogether going to church.

That was the state of things until this past year (2009 — 2010).  During that time, two people got back in touch to speak with me about spiritual topics and ask for historically oriented advice.  Those two friends really helped restore my confidence in all that I had trained myself for in life, but found that I could not actually put into practice in a place where such knowledge and experience was deemed respectable.  They came at a time when I felt I was dying — I had begun experiencing atypical migraines, my physical strength was drying up, and I rarely experienced a day of respite from the ongoing migraine.  (MDs were no help.)  I decided to start this blog primarily to speak up about these problems I saw in the Church, and to record my historical perspective on theological matters.  I wanted to write something worthwhile before what I thought could have been an approaching death.  (Of course, for a time, the blog went the way of Buffy and Angel…)

Also, not long after these two friends got back in touch with me, so did another old friend, who also happened to be my former boss in San Francisco.  He offered me some work as an Associate produce for a film.  Working on the script with him, I encountered interviews with people who described how they came to the Episcopalian church.  I learned that I am not alone in looking for something deeper, and something to do which uses my training and background.  A certain sense of hope was restored to me.

As I was working on the film, I was also looking forward to Oxford.  I particularly interested in meeting some people at the theology school in Oxford, with its Orthodox scholars.  I hoped to be reintegrated into the church, to find a community I could relate to, to find companionship among other scholars in the field of theology — despite the fact that I would be in the anthropology department.


That was where I was a year ago, right before I left for Oxford.  What has happened since?  Well, I came to Linacre college and in the first week met a fellow student, also from Northern California, doing a course in Syriac studies.  I went a couple times to the Orthodox church here, a few talks by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, and attended Holy Week services.  But it didn’t quite gel.  Some students and monks were friendly enough, one student was a typical Magdalen undergrad who turned me off quite quickly, but overall, I didn’t feel a connexion.  I don’t think it had to do with the distance of the church from my college, or the mixture of Russian and Greek music during the service.  No one was particularly mean to me (aside from the contemptuous Magdalen student whose father was a consultant).  The food was good.  But something wasn’t quite connecting.

So I went to Chabad.  My first encounter with Chabad here in Oxford was for the menorah lighting in December.  I was happy to be present outside Balliol college as the public menorah was lit.  Then I went to the second night Seder, and had lively discussions with the rabbi and his wife.  During the summer — at which point my partner of the previous eight years and I had (unexpectedly for me) broken up/ divorced — I was invited to a Shabbat dinner by a coursemate, and I showed up.  Again I experienced the warm atmosphere I’ve come to associate with the Lubavitcher Hasidim.  Recently, I attended the High Holiday services, and met other people who invited me to celebrate a Sukkoth meal at their friends’ home.  I make challah on Fridays and have once again placed myself in a shomer Shabbat ‘home’ here, in my own college room and kitchen.

Am I now counted for minyan?  No.  Do I intend to officially convert?  No.  In some ways, I do not find it necessary.  What then is my faith?  That may be complex to answer, and not something I easily share with others — especially given my past experiences.  The blog posts as a whole may go some way to demonstrating where my faith may lie, though they are more examples of practice than belief per se.

What then is my practice?  My observable practice is simple:  I try to keep the Sabbath and Festivals, and to write posts regularly on topics of Christian theology.  Last Friday, I found myself running to the Bodleian to do some research on the place of angels in Medieval scholastic (Catholic) theology, having two hours to spare while challot rose in the oven.   Today, Sunday, I completed this post, and am writing the third post in the Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic series.  I still say I am canonically Greek Orthodox; though I make a better observant Jew than observant Christian.

What is my hope?  That I continue to write on theological topics, and experience the time and space that is ‘inscribed and constant throughout the Universe, fashioned by He of Most Ancient of Days.’  If I find a community with whom I can share my faith, my spirituality, the knowledge I’ve acquired, great.  Until then, I will try to bring forth what is within me, lest it destroy me.

Jason Scott Johnson

2011, October 23.

Linacre College, Oxford

Earliest Accounts: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 2)

This post continues the previous one regarding the polemic surrounding Francis of Assisi’s reception of the stigmata on Mt Alverna is Tuscany during August-September 1224.  Here, I will present the account of St Francis’ experience as related by two sources much earlier than the one used by the author of the Orthodox Word article.  The first account is by Thomas of Celano; the second is drawn from Bonaventure’s Life of Francis.

  Thomas of Celano’s Account

Thomas of Celano was a disciple of Francis, present with him from around 1213 to 1216, though apparently not one of the inner circle of Francis’ companions.  Although he was absent the last two years of Francis’ life, during which time Francis bore the stigmata, he would have remained in touch with Francis’ companions who could have provided him with his sources of information for this time period.  Thomas was present at Francis’ canonisation on 16 July 1228, and by February 1229 had written the first life of Francis at the direction of Pope Gregory IX.  His account is thus not the textual basis on which Francis’ sainthood was decided; however, it shaped most subsequent accounts. The work can also be viewed as the earliest ‘official’ understanding (by the Latin church) of Francis’ particular sanctity and way of life. Thomas’ account of Francis’ reception of the stigmata appears in this First Life. Between 1244 and 1247, however, Thomas also wrote a Second Life of Francis for the Minister-General of the order. This second work fills in some lacunae left by the initial Vita. (All quotes are from Howell’s 1908 translation, and therefore ought to be in the public domain.)

In Thomas’ telling, the appearance of the stigmata is framed by a chapter in which Francis sought in prayer to know, “in what manner, by what way, or by what desire he might most perfectly cleave to the Lord God in accordance with the counsel and good pleasure of His will.” Francis therefore prayed prostrate that God would show him His will by opening the Gospels at random, and that Francis would have the strength to do what was God’s will for him. Francis opened the Gospels to the Passion narrative. He repeated this three times, each time his gaze falling on similar passages recounting how Jesus suffered tribulation. Francis took this to mean, “that it behooved him through much anguish and much warfare to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Earlier, in the second part of the First Life, Thomas had recorded that Francis, in imitating Jesus, would spend one part of his time profiting his neighbour, and one part in contemplation and repose (meaning solitude). Thomas avers that Francis was engaged in continual prayer, and that this frequent contemplation led to intimacy with God. (Possible ‘methods’ of contemplation that Francis might have used will be treated in a subsequent post, drawing on some of St Bonaventure’s writings concerning the topic.) Thomas thus already set up in the reader’s mind the idea that Francis was engaged in an earnest pursuit of imitating Jesus’ earthly life as closely as possible.

In chapter three, the vision on Mt Alverna is recounted. In Thomas’ account, the earliest we possess, the vision is not preceded by any particular notice; it just happens. Francis is not contemplating anything in particular, though he was in retreat celebrating the Fast or Lent of St Michael. The Lent of St Michael is observed between August 15 and September 29 (which is the Feast of St Michael, or Michaelmas, in the Latin Rite). As Thomas writes: “While [Francis] dwelt in the hermitage, which, from the place in which it is situate, is called Alverna, two years before he gave back is soul to heaven, he saw in a vision of God a man like a seraph having six wings, standing over him with hands outstretched and feet joined together, fixed to a cross. Two wings were raised above his head, two were spread for flight, and two veiled the whole body. Now, when the blessed servant of the Most High saw this, he was filled with exceedingly great wonder, but he could not understand what this vision might mean.”

For Thomas, the vision of a Seraph is like any other vision of angels; it provokes wonder in the beholder. Later, we will look at one possibility of how a Seraph might have come to be associated with the Cross, via the ever popular Judah Cyriacus legend. In any event, Thomas goes on to say that while Francis was delighted by the beauty of the seraph’s expression, he was fearful of the angel’s suffering. “Thus he arose, so to speak, sorrowful and glad; and joy and grief alternated in him. He anxiously pondered what this vision might portend, and his spirit laboured sore to come at the understanding of it. And while he continued without any clear perception of its meaning, and the strangeness of the vision was perplexing his heart, marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, such as he had seen a little while before in the Man crucified who had stood over him…” (Emphasis mine.)

Thomas goes on to describe the stigmata in detail. “His hands and feet seemed pierced in the midst by nails, the heads of the nails appearing in the inner parts of the hands and the upper part of the feet.” The ends of the nails were bent and driven back. Francis’ right side was overlaid with a scar, but often shed blood.

In contrast to the presentation in the Fioretti, Francis’ contemplation followed the vision; it did not precede it. Nor does the text allow us to posit that Francis was practising a sort of visualisation technique that might have led to such a vision. Additionally, a close reading of the text demonstrates that Francis wondered at the meaning of the vision: words like portend, understanding, perception of meaning, strangeness perplexing the heart, all point to a desire on the part of Francis to meditate on a puzzle in need of deciphering, or a revelation in need of interpretation. It seems that he did not arrive at an answer until after the stigmata appeared in his body. Only then was a meaning assigned to the vision: the Seraph appeared to Francis in order to prophecy Francis’ own bodily transformation, and as a result of his thus far perfect imitation of Jesus’ life. (In later imagery, i.e. in frescoes of Francis’ vision, rays shoot from the Seraph’s wounds to Francis’ body. However, the text does not offer such an account.)

Bonaventure’s Account

The source for Bonaventure which I am using is the easily accessible Classics of Western Spirituality series, edited by Ewert Cousins and prefaced by Ignatius Brady, OFM in 1978.

Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church for Roman Catholics, holds an important place in the history of medieval Latin spirituality. Being a professor at the University of Paris (1254-1257), Minister General of the Franciscan Order (from 1257), and a Cardinal, Bonaventure exerted wide influence on his contemporaries. Together with Thomas Aquinas, also at the University of Paris at the time, he defended the development of the two mendicant orders, Franciscan and Dominican. He was also an advisor to various popes. His influence over the popes of Rome was not limited to the thirteenth century, however; while a student of theology, the current pope, Benedict XVI, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Bonaventure. As Cousins sums up, “Grounding himself in Augustine and drawing from Anselm, he brought together the cosmic vision of the Pseudo-Dionysius with the psychological acumen of Bernard of Clairvaux and Richard of St Victor… In a certain sense, Bonaventure achieved for spirituality what Thomas [Aquinas] did for theology and Dante for medieval culture as a whole.” Therefore, if one wishes to understand pre-Tridentine, medieval Latin spirituality, especially as it relates to theology, a knowledge of Bonaventure is indispensable.

Bonaventure composed his Life of Francis around 1263, drawing on the earlier works by Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer. (Francis was canonised when Bonaventure was 11 years old, but Bonaventure had earlier been saved from an illness by invoking Francis’ intercession when Bonaventure was a boy.) The intervening forty years from Thomas of Celano’s First Life (and twenty since his Second Life) allowed Bonaventure’s hagiography to place Francis in the framework of a consistent theology, especially since this work followed Bonaventure’s treatises on the Journey of the Mind to God (1259) and The Tree of Life (1260). Bonaventure’s organisation and interpretation of the saint’s life is therefore somewhat unique, inasmuch as its chronology and presentation is subordinated to other concerns. The biography was officially approved in 1266, and served as both a political and peace-making work for the Order (the details of which do not need to be addressed at the moment; suffice it to say that some wanted to take Francis’ example in a much more zealous or radical direction than others found prudent).

For Bonaventure, Francis’ life is a quintessential example of the spiritual journey, and as already mentioned, his account of Francis’ life should be understood in the context of two prior works, his Journey of the Soul (or Mind) to God and the Tree of Life, a meditation on the life of Christ. In the former work, Bonaventure uses the six wings of the Seraph of Francis’ vision to describe the three paired roads by which the mystic can reach the sort of rapture in contemplation of God experienced by St Francis. Those three roads are consideration of nature, the soul, and God. A fruitful comparison could be made by comparing this ‘method’ with that of the thirteenth century Athonite fathers’ emphasis on contemplating the logoi of all created things. The Tree of Life continues that line of thought, and “presupposes the theological vision of the former treatise.” Since my current interest is in presenting only the experience of the stigmata by Francis, I will return to these works at a later date. I have presented them only so that the careful reader will know how to contextualise Bonaventure’s Life of Francis.

Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ reception of the Stigmata is preceded by chapters on Francis’ zeal for prayer (in chapter X), and a much earlier chapter on humility (chapter VI). In Bonaventure’s telling, as Francis began the fast of St Michael, he “experienced more abundantly than usual an overflow of the sweetness of heavenly contemplation, he burned with a stronger flame of heavenly desires, and began to experience more fully the gifts of heavenly grace.” Bonaventure likens this spiritual grace to being borne aloft like the faithful and prudent servant searching out God’s good pleasure, to which Francis wished to wholly conform himself. Inspired to to take up the Gospel, Francis had a companion take the sacred book and open it three times in the name of the Trinity. Passages narrating the Passion were revealed each time. From this, “Francis learned that now he must imitate Christ’s passion, just as he had worked before this in imitating Christ’s earlier life.

As Bonaventure foreshadows regarding Francis’ “seraphic” ardour at this time, “by his sweet compassion he was being transformed into Christ…”

Bonaventure continues, “On a certain morning about the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross [September 14], while Francis was praying on the mountainside, he saw a seraph… descend…” Like Thomas’ version, Bonaventure describes Francis’ joy at the vision; however, Bonaventure says that Francis felt compassionate sorrow for the suffering in the vision, rather than fear, as in Thomas’ account. In both cases, Francis wondered at the vision. Bonaventure specifies the topic of Francis’ meditation: the incompatibility of human weakness and the Passion with the immortality of the Seraph. It allowed, in other words, a meditation based on analogy to the hypostatic union and the kenosis of the Word: here is an angelic being who yet also can suffer, imitating Christ’s earthly life.

“Eventually [Francis] understood by a revelation from the Lord that divine providence had shown him this vision so that as Christ’s lover, he might learn in advance that he was to be totally transformed into the likeness of Christ crucified, not by martyrdom of his flesh, but by the fire of his love consuming his soul [literally, incendium mentis, ‘conflagration of the soul or mind’].” (I should note in this context that Bonaventure also wrote a work called The Triple Way or Fire of Love.) “As the vision disappeared, it left in his heart a marvelous ardour and imprinted on his body markings that were no less marvelous. Immediately the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet…”

Bonaventure adds something more to the account, however: Afterwards, not wanting to publicise what had happened, Francis called some friars and sought their counsel about the stigmata, “speaking in general terms” so as not to reveal what had happened. A friar named Illuminato told Francis not to bury the talent with which God had entrusted him. Taking Illuminato’s advice, Francis recounted his vision, adding the vision also spoke, but that Francis would not reveal those words. Neither Thomas of Celano nor Julian of Speyer mention anything about the vision speaking. The experience on Mt Alverna, therefore, was more than merely visual for Francis; it was also auditory. What those words might have been, one can only speculate.

In Bonaventure’s version, we see that while Francis was aflame with love for God during his yearly retreat at La Verna in Tuscany, the topic of his prayers remains unnamed. The seraph descends while Francis is at prayer, true; but the marks of stigmata appear before Francis has much time to contemplate the meaning of the vision. We have no indication that Francis was using any particular techniques of meditation; indeed, Bonaventure repeatedly says ‘contemplation’, which ultimately came to be distinguished from ‘discursive meditation’ in Latin theology. Meditation has a topic; contemplation enters into silence — or if it uses words, they are short phrases such as the Jesus prayer, or that favourite of Francis: Deus meus et omnes, ‘my God and my all’. If Francis was in the midst of a silence brought about by his prayer, and he had an experience with visual and auditory components, that experience can hardly be held to be the result of delusion brought about by specific practices of imaging Jesus in his mind’s eye during that prayer. Rather, the vision in Bonaventure’s account, like that in Thomas of Celano’s, appears to have been rather spontaneous.

I do not have space here to include the account in the Fioretti (likely composed around 1390) for comparison. The Fioretti, or Little Flowers of St Francis, is the work used by the author of the Orthodox Word article. Because the argument in the Orthodox Word was based on a late work, and because it assumed a type of mental exercise not clearly in evidence, the argument presented in the Orthodox Word article is invalid and must be reassessed.

In my next post, I hope to explore some issues raised in the two accounts presented above. Those issues include the purpose of the various hagiographies; an exploration on holiness in context, which may examine the questions of why stigmata? and why a seraph? It also will note how Francis became a node uniting several medieval devotions, and presenting an alternative masculinity or way of imitating Christ’s life, in counterpoint to the warrior-image of male Crusaders at the time.

St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 1/6)

October 4 is the feast day of the Latin saint, Francis of Assisi.  Francis’ sainthood is a matter of dispute between some Orthodox Christians (by which I mean members of the Greek, Russian, Serbian, and Romanian churches; or more generally put, the Byzantine Orthodox church), and this post is motivated by an experience I have already referred to earlier on How the Church retained me through my 20s, but lost me by my 30s.  Briefly, when I was on Mt Athos some years ago, I was given a copy of an article published in The Orthodox Word. Presumably, I was considered too ‘Catholic’ and not ‘Orthodox’ enough, and this article would set me straight with regard to how Francis of Assisi was a deluded man and not a saint at all.

The article began in response to a question posed by a layperson. She had noticed some of her Italian Catholic friends had a devotion to Padre Pio. Padre Pio (1887 – 1968) was a Southern Italian monk who was marked by the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ. In Padre Pio’s case, these wounds developed spontaneously and slowly. He had reported to one of his superiors that his hands and feet were getting sore. He was told to pray about these sufferings, but the pain did not cease. Eventually the wounds broke open, and he bore their marks for the rest of his life.

None of Padre Pio’s biography, however, was mentioned by the priest who answered the question. Instead, in order to demonstrate the errors of Latin Catholicism  (in which Padre Pio must certainly have participated, being a Latin friar), the author of the article decided to present an account of the first known stigmatist, Francis of Assisi. Using the Fioretti di San Francesco, the priest attempted to demonstrate that Francis’ reception of the stigmata was due to self-delusion and a meditative technique filled with visualisations, the result of which was a demonic marking on Francis’ body, mocking the Passion of the Incarnate Word. All other stigmatists (none of them named, but among whom is another Latin Saint and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena), by implication, were therefore also equally deluded into error.

Rather than convincing me of the Truths of Orthodoxy, however, the article merely left me annoyed by its unscholarly character and the fact that it devolved into mere Catholic bashing. When I expressed the former sentiment to one of the monks, he just rolled his eyes and walked away.  Another monk was more keen to hear my objections and looked thoughtful about them. (Both monks were Americans, and converts from Protestant churches.)  One of the laypeople I encountered at another monastery, a convert to Orthodoxy from the Episcopal church who frequently visited the Holy Mountain, was very keen to defend the article.  He urged me to read the original Latin life of Francis to which the article referred; surely then I would be convinced. I pointed out to this young man (he was my age at the time, actually, about 24 or 25) that the article referred to the Fioretti, a rather late work, written in Italian.

Nonetheless, I suppose I have followed his advice, and followed up on my own criticism of the Orthodox Word article.  Leaving aside the Fioretti, which I read when I was 15, and which did influence my own spirituality, I have turned to two of the earliest works on Francis life, both of which were key texts in fashioning the canonical image of Francis as a saint in the eyes of the Roman church.   (The Fioretti  influenced my own spiritual life in terms of introducing me to the concept of Holy Obedience, the simple prayer Deus meus et omnes, ‘my God and [my] all, and a love of a poverty which imitates the kenosis of the Incarnate Word.)

I can agree with the author of the Orthodox Word article that spirituality differs across geography and is at the root of why the schism between East and West continues. Indeed, one can argue differences in spirituality — and disjunctions in the theology which informed and continues to inform those spiritualities — is why the Protestant schism occurred between the Latin and German churches as well.  However, I do not agree that Francis is an exemplar of all the delusion (a term which really needs to be defined) that Catholic spirituality and theology has come to embrace; in fact, what I have read in the earlier Lives mitigates against this belief. In the context of Francis and the stigmata specifically, I strongly disagree with the idea popular in some Orthodox circles, that Orthodoxy never went through an ’emotive’ phase devoted to the Passion. In fact, it did, in the twelfth century, roughly contemporaneous with the lifetime of Francis himself.  I have touched on that devotion in a post treating Heraclios, the Crusades, and the True Cross.

In order to examine the case of Francis’ stigmata more closely, in Part 2, I will present substantial sections from two early works which treat that event specifically. The first example is from Thomas of Celano; the second from St Bonaventure.  Another early work, written by Julian of Speyer and roughly contemporaneous with Thomas of Celano’s First Life, may treat the stigmata, but I have not read that Vita. As will be discussed in Part 3, these accounts differ substantially from that presented in the Fioretti, and on which the Orthodox Word author’s argument is based.  Part 3 will also take up the question of authenticity and miracles after Francis’ death, and provide links to various references mentioned in this series of posts.


How the Church retained me through my 20s and how I grew disaffected by my 30s (Part 2)

In my first post, I illustrated the ways in which I had been invested in the Church as I was growing up and through my 20s. I also intimated some of the experiences which led to a growing disaffection with the Church. In this post, I will elaborate on those more negative aspects; hopefully I do not come across as whining or self-pitying.  That is certainly not my intent.  Rather, my intent is to place my personal experience in written form so that I can reflect on it more fully and derive something of worth to other people from it.  The post is not all negative, and it does end with hope.

The third and final post in this series will examine the elements of my own experience and attempt to tease out generalities which can be fruitfully applied to help retain and attract members.

I’ve already mentioned a few initial experiences which started to push me away from Church. Luckily, these experiences were few and far enough apart that I was able to have my trust in staying with a community restored by other members, clergy or laity.

The first was confession to the Irish American priest. The antidote was going to confession to other priests, of whom we were fortunate to have two or three more. yet what struck me more was the rather severe paternalistic attitude the priest adopted “if your friend is ill, you don’t give them a remedy, you send them to a doctor.” Well, we know where that metaphor fell flat in my life. I became an acupuncturist specifically to further my studies in herbal medicine, because I did, in fact, recommend (European) herbal remedies to ill friends all the time.

The next was not being able to teach CCD (Roman Catholic catechism or Sunday School). This seemed to deny my vocation.

I should mention something else between these two events, however. I went away to college. I came out. After I broke up with that first boyfriend, I felt the absence of my former vocation to the priesthood. Why it had been lost, I am not sure; but I prayed intensely that it be given to someone who would greatly appreciate it, as I had not. I felt the vocation return. I was more grateful than words could express (though not, it seems, enough to have entered a Seminary at that time, nor in the years subsequent). Still uncertain about the waters of priestly ministry, I would proceed slowly: if I could teach, do some sort of lay ministry, perhaps I could get a taste of what it would be like.

Not being able to teach seemed a blow to this attempt. Especially as it came from a priest who knew I was capable of it. He also knew I favoured Byzantine theology, so perhaps he was afraid I’d instill doubts about Latin theology in the children’s minds. That was hardly my intent, and frankly, I do somewhat fault the idea that we must shelter our teenage children from all doubts and assaults on their faith. It seems too much like keeping children away from those communicable diseases which strengthen the immune system. It is a bad idea, and the result in adulthood is much more devastating than anything a child would go through as they try to make sense of the world around them, and form their own structures for acting and creating meaning for themselves.

There were also two other moments which were somewhat confusing. One was the priest who tried to dissuade me from deepening my practice, as I mentioned. The other was a little more intriguing, since the priest actually confessed his own intellectual conundrum with St John of the Cross’s advice to deny one’s own will. Doesn’t following that advice and opting for the longer path over the shorter, the difficult of the easy, etc — doesn’t that actually mean we are still following our own will? Today, I would offer two answers. The first is the observation that it is for this very reason that those who wished to deny their own wills would enter a monastery and pledge monastic obedience to the abbot or abbess. The other is that St John is recommending we deny the egoistic or animal will in order to cultivate the spiritual will; in the terms of Chinese medicine, self-denial would serve to strengthen the “will-within-the-will”. In terms of Byzantine theology, one is allowing the uncreated energies of the Trinity to manifest through a synergy of your will with the Divine life, so that your previously crooked will can become divinised and strengthened in this outpouring of grace. The Syriac Book of Steps offers further insight, but I am digressing. This incident was not terribly alienating, certainly not as much as the former question “Are you Francis, are you John?”

One more aspect of my time in Albany deserves to be mentioned, and that is the attitude of my classmates to Catholicism (in particular).  Two incidents stand out.  One is the first boyfriend who went to a Catholic high school trying to tell me how much “they” hate “us”.  He related an incident in one of his health or religion classes in which the teacher came in and the first thing that teacher said was, “All those bitches at Planned Parenthood are going straight to Hell.”  This sort of discourse was never heard around me when I was growing up, regardless of one’s political stance on abortion.  Neither were homosexuals grouped together and condemned.  I’m not sure if homosexuality was ever discussed at all, but it was grouped in the somewhat anomalous category of “sexual sins.”  I encountered the Church’s position on it more through books than anything else.

The other attitude I encountered was a scoffing at the mere idea that Catholicism or Christianity had any “mystical” elements in it at all.  This in particular pained me to hear, since it was exactly that sort of Catholicism that I knew and loved, not that other sort filled with polemic and vituperation.  Although I could be allowed my eccentricity by some people, I did end up slowly feeling like I must be somehow wrong.  How did I end up with such a different view of Catholicism than my classmates?  Ironically, I seemed to have a worldview more akin to the folks in the Pagan Student Association (whose treasurer, as I recall, was Catholic, not Pagan).  We all held a medieval or late-antique perspective on the workings of the world and spiritual life.  (This was pointed out to me by the treasurer.)

It isn’t always the clergy who turn people away from the Church.  Often, it is the laity, or the already disaffected.

In any event, being Orthodox gave me some respite.  Orthodoxy is often viewed by outsiders as more ancient, mystical, or even exotic — at least by those who know of its existence.  For those who don’t, well, you can’t well criticize the public stances of something which doesn’t end up often in the media.

After moving to SF,  it took a little time to integrate myself at a new parish.  I arrived during Holy Week and met a few people at that time, but of course they melted away after Easter.  The regular Sunday crowd took a little time to get to know, but I was introduced and was able to socialise somewhat after services.  Being introduced to a young deacon who had immersed himself in Patristic writings was definitely one of the highlights.  I think he was sent over to me after I asked some obscure theological question of the priest.

The trouble came when I had two brief run-ins with the parish priest.  I had recently started visiting some monks living north of the Bay Area.  The abbot encouraged me to look into going to seminary in Greece, Thessaloniki in particular, rather than in Boston.  I would be in proximity to Athos, I would have truly Orthodox teachers whose spiritual fathers were often Athonite monks, and I would in general be better off.  To do this, I should ask my priest to write a letter of recommendation to me, to see if the bishop might sponsor me.  So I wrote to the parish priest, and his response was that he would make such a recommendation as he did not sense the vocation to the priesthood in me, and the bishop certainly would not sponsor someone he did not know.

This was incredibly shocking to me.  Not only had I grown up with people expecting me to become a priest, I had also recently been accepted to the Orthodox Seminary in Brookline.  Obviously the people who wrote recommendations for me, the Chancellor of the NY diocese — they must have seen something.  Why was it now absent?  I wrote off a quick response to the priest (I was 22, after all, and not prone to reflection when stung by literature).  I seem to recall writing something along the lines that I would become a priest eventually whether he liked it or not.  The net result was a definite curtailment of interaction on our part.

On the other hand, some weeks later, Presvitera, the priest’s wife, kindly came over and started talking to me.  So a certain amount of reconciliation or peace prevailed.  And I asked the bishop’s deacon for a letter to go to Athos, which it turns out was not required.

I went to Athos, thrilled to be back home in Europe.

St Gregory of Sinai writes if one begins to come to harm from a spiritual father, you must leave him immediately.  Indeed.

Athos, a friend pointed out to me, is an experience I usually refer to in more negative than positive terms.  Let me state at the outset that it was not entirely negative, nor do I regret going.  I am certainly wiser for it.

My first experience was being told the monks I had been visiting in CA were now part of a break-away sect from the Orthodox church.  This was told to me by a friend of the abbot of that monastery I had been visiting.

Then I was encouraged to be rebaptised.  To do this I should go to a particular monastery, they wouldn’t ask questions but would lead me to the sea and that would be it.  I was not convinced that I should be rebaptised.  All my life I had confessed a belief in “one baptism for the remission of sins.”  I had learned that it was not the universal tradition of the ancient church to perform rebaptisms, and in the sixteenth century that was exactly the question at issue with the Anabaptists.

If there is any way to imply without actually stating that someone is not a part of the Church it is to tell them they must get baptised.  Again.  And that the sacraments they have already received — chrismation, for example — is not valid.

I was also told my problem was that I had not committed to Orthodoxy and was still too Catholic.  Apparently I would correct misconceptions the Orthodox monks had about Catholicism, and this was viewed as traitorous.  The monk would look for a tract against St Francis for me to read; that would convince me of the errors of Catholicism.  I read it.  I found it anything but scholarly.  First it did not address the question initially posed of the writer.  Second, it made use of a late work on the life of St Francis written for a popular audience (in Italian, no less).  To have a better article, the author should have gone back to Thomas of Celano or Bonaventure’s Life of Francis.  Third, it seemed to just degenerate into Catholic bashing.  When the monk later came back to ask what I thought, I said I found the piece unconvincing and not scholarly.  The monk scowled and walked away.  Another monk seemed interested in why I felt that way, and patiently listened, before I was on my way.

I had also mentioned my reasons for coming to Athos — I had a choice to make:  become a doctor of Oriental Medicine or enter the monastery.  Little did I know this touched off a buzz word bandied about on Athos.  “Widsom of the East.”  So I was sent to a monk who had apparently once been part of some Buddhist cult in Montreal.  He advised me not to go into acupuncture, since it would inculcate in me ‘the mind of the Fathers’.  Neither was I going to be allowed to be a monk until I lived celibately in the world for months or years, since in a moanstery I would be surrounded by men.  (Not that I was attracted to men with beards).  Nor could I do my other fallback option, dance.  I could nto study any sort of medicine except modern western medicine — even Unani Tibb was forbidden to me, although I’m fairly certain the monk didn’t know that this was Greco-Arab medicine.  It was all steeped in paganism and delusion.  Even their gods appear to them in those many armed shapes, and all was filled with sensuality and materiality.

Even the yin-yang symbol, another monk explained to me, was problematic, namely, the belief that everything is good and evil and that in every good thing is a little bit of evil and a little bit of good in everything evil.  I tried to explain to the monk that this was a Western misinterpretation, that the yin-yang came from the Naturalist school of thought in China and that it was a representation of nature at work, not human morality.  The lion kills the lamb — this is neither good nor bad.  Yin-Yang was originally a representation of a hill, with one side in the shade and another in the light.  Besides, the most ancient representations of Yin Yang had no little dot inside the “fish”.  It was simply a circle split in half.   (I don’t recall if I mentioned to him my position that “That which is good when defined against evil is not true good.”)

I must confess the comment about thangkas tipped me off to the monk having been in a cult rather than a more mainstream tradition of Buddhism.  I was always taught the iconography was symbolic.  I was also taught that one holds the icon in mind, knowing its symbolism, and just that had its effect.  If the image started talking to you or moving around, that was problematic.  Not unlike Orthodox icons, it would seem.  But I did not venture to explain this.

(Ironically, I saw an icon smile at me at another monastery, which shocked me.  I ran to ask the American novice what he could tell me about that particular icon.  He looked at me funny and said, “Well, it has told some people to become monks here.  It has actually talked to them before they become novices.  Why?”  Needless to say, I was greatly comforted that I had gotten off so lightly.  I think I would have fainted dead away if it had spoken to me.)

At another monastery the next day, I spoke to an Australian monk who shrugged and said, “Why not acupuncture?”  The Chinese pilgrims I met on the Holy Mountain uniformly suggested I go to China to study — it would be cheaper and more thorough.

Then came the confession and excommunication incident.  Interestingly, this monk gave me a pamphlet on Chinese martyrs.  He seems to have heard I was interested in Chinese medicine, so thought I would appreciate the material.  He had no interest in dissuading me from studying Chinese medicine.  He was more interested in getting me baptised again.  He also gave me a postcard of a monastery in Lebanon, Deir Hamatoura, since he had noticed I spent more time with the Arabs than any other group at that monastery.  Deir Hamatoura later turned out to be one of the reasons I haven’t actually left the Church.

Around the same time, I met up with a lay pilgrim who had come to Greece from the States in order to live a more Orthodox life and learn Greek (his girlfriend was Cypriot).  He was a convert from the Episcopal church.  He was well esteemed by the monks of the first monastery I had visited.  He also recommended a second baptism, especially since it would have a good exorcism, which in his assessment, I apparently needed.  We got along cordially enough, but the interaction ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth.  One of the Arab guys who became a mutual friend of ours observed that sometimes when Protestants convert to Orthodoxy they go a little overboard — everything they had been taught beforehand was so different from Orthodoxy.  My view was similar — when Protestants convert to Orthodoxy, they are able to keep all the prejudices against Catholicism they held previously.  Two of the monks at that first monastery were converts from Protestantism, actually.

This is not to deny the very real differences between the spirituality of the Orthodox and those of the Latins, a difference I hope to explore elsewhere.  It certainly does exist.  What I am trying to point out, however, is the continuing polemic between East and West which affects the lay people as well as monastics and clergy.

Then there was the interview with Geronda at another monastery.  “I met him, and he told me my entire life,” a fellow pilgrim claimed.  This was a monastery at which I stayed for a longer period of time — a month, perhaps.

After Bright Week, I left Athos and ended up living in Beirut for several months.  My experience of the Church there was quite positive, as I mentioned earlier.  However, one statement which stayed with me made me think twice about how my entering a monastery could be perceived — other people’s perceptions about my motivations being something I had never given any thought to.  It was an odd comment, but seemed to imply that this particular person understood I was going to become a monk because I was decidedly not heterosexual, and not being able to marry a woman, the only other option open to a pious Christian was the monastery, a choice he respected.  This was entirely not in any of the reasons for becoming a monk I had ever fathomed in myself.  I realised something was amiss in his view, and it troubled me.  Why I should care what other people thought of my reasons for choosing a vocation is something I have not yet grappled with fully.  In any event, this particular pilgrim was Romanian, and aside from that one spare comment (which was made in Lebanon, incidentally), my experience of people in the Church in Romania was quite positive.  (Although one monk nearly choked on his soup when he learned if I were to choose a monastery, it would be in Constantinople.)

I came back to CA, but being excommunicated, my attendance at Divine Liturgy dropped off.  Then I went off to Spain, where likewise, my attendance at liturgy was slim (not the least because I saw no Orthodox or liturgically Mozarabic churches in Granada.)

The next post with this title will pick up from when I came back to California after living in Spain, and my attempts to give Church attendance another try.  This next period in my life was characterised by a partnership with a Jewish man three years my senior, and with whom I formed a life and family for the next eight years.

(Originally written on the Feast according to the Latin Rite of St Benedict of Nursia, July 11, 2010)

How the Church retained me through my 20s and how I grew disaffected by my 30s (Part One)

When I worked at an Episcopal cathedral in my early 20s, the department of which I was a part often asked how to attract young people to the congregation and its liturgical services. But no one ever asked me why I had stayed in the Church nor did they ask what kept me there. I believe it is a mistake to focus on recruitment when retention has not been examined — or mastered.  While one reason  I may not have asked why I continued going to church was because I was (and am) Orthodox, I believe my experience is broadly applicable to any of the organised, hierarchical and historically continuous denominations of Christianity.  That is how I will define the term “Church” for the purposes of this essay.

I grew up at the altar.  I first became an acolyte, that is, an altar boy, when I was 8, and by the time I was 15, I was serving nearly every Sunday.  Church services, however, weren’t the only factor in my spiritual and religious formation.  Rather, I was surrounded by public rituals and liturgical celebrations in Germany and while on holiday in various Mediterranean countries.  Some celebrations were also brought into the home, as during St Martin’s Day, Advent, St Nicholas’s Day, and Epiphany/ Theophany.  Interested in my religion, I also often happened to read devotional books which were put out for anyone to peruse and take home — so not all my “home spirituality” was ritualised.

Additionally, I had good catechism teachers — and a few boring ones.   The boring ones fell into two categories:  those who talked above our heads (few and far between) and those who were just learning the material themselves or reading from insipid and transparently manipulative books which emphasised generic cultural values like “sharing” and “being good”, books without any real substance or interest in cultivating the skills necessary for further spiritual growth and maturity later in our lives.  Luckily, this latter type of teacher (and text) was also few and far between.  I was also exposed to a range of theological sources, both Latin and Byzantine, and this influence extended to the liturgy as well.

The congregation — of which the teachers were a necessary part — was also influential, and my family’s friends seemed mostly drawn from church, perhaps because the parents would go out together to a cafe after services, while the kids were in Sunday school.  We were also friends with the priests of the parish, and sometimes had them over for dinner or otherwise spent time in conversation with them.

The sacraments, primarily the Eucharist and confession, were lifelines for me.  I was invested in deepening my experience of them, and because of that, I was invested in the Church, its liturgy, its mysticism, its history, community, and theology.  I felt called to the priesthood.  Although I would rarely actively discuss this, out of embarrassment, perhaps, other congregants took note and I was actively encouraged by priests, a bishop, and many community members to “think about” becoming a priest.  Interestingly, it seemed as obvious that I was called to the priesthood as it was obvious that I wasn’t heterosexual, although I would not say one was the cause of the other, merely that just as one can “tell” at a glance where someone’s orientation lies, so also with this vocational direction.  Perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps in the ’80’s and early ’90’s the two were not so sharply distinguished, and if a community member were thought to be gay, he would be encouraged to enter the celibate ministry.  (I wonder what lesbians were encouraged to do.)  In my case, however, I think I was encouraged to the priesthood for other reasons.  Too many people mentioned it, even after I came out, for me to think it had anything at all to do with sexuality.

In any event, what I never encountered was bad mouthing, either other religions or other community members.  Not that Protestant denominations were particularly admired (except for the music and preaching of some denominations), but it was never considered irrelevant,  inconsequential, or invalidated as a part of someone’s identity.  At least not that I was able to perceive at that age.  I did understand that Protestant theology was rather different from Catholicism and had a later pedigree, if you will.  Certainly, though, I never saw any condemnation of individuals, nor heard of large groups of individuals condemned, neither “abortionists” nor “homosexuals” — in contrast, apparently, to what was going on in the States at the time.

Instead, what I saw was law with compassion.  I was taught the moral position of the Church, and shown the pastoral complications and manner in which it must be tempered or expressed.  The importance of keeping details in correspondence with the big picture was not forgotten, but a belief in the complexity of applying the abstract concretely was recognised and inculcated, at least in me.

During my last two years of high school, in the States, I became a lay eucharistic minister, and had the opportunity to give the holy gifts to my fellow parishioners — even those whom I personally did not like, including a dentist whose work on my teeth still annoys me.  Of course, such personal disagreements had little to do with the Church, nor did it affect our participation in the liturgy together.  My experience of a particular Irish-American priest in the confessional, though, was different.  Not that anything untoward happened.  It was more his manner, his authoritarianism that disturbed me.  And a certain illogic on his part.    It was a brief encounter, and since we had the fortune to have several priests to choose from, I never went back to confession with him (I started going to an Irish priest from N. Ireland instead).  Years later, that Irish-American priest would leave the priesthood.  It was the first encounter I had with what I’ve come to learn seems to have been the typical experience of American Catholics.

In college, I came out and encountered American Catholics for the first time — and the scars they suffered from the combination of political agendas with religious instruction.  That combination, ironically, also too often seemed to lead to an ignorance of the catechism of the Church, to say nothing of its spiritual treasures.  Certainly the experience and writings of the saints, the mysticism and spirituality embodied in the history and life of the Church seems to have been neglected in favour of inculcating a predetermined political stance — one which did not seem to include a “preferential option for the poor.”

In such a context, those who liked the Church could easily be seen as being uneducated, naive, sheltered, bigoted, or otherwise conservative.  I would note that the reverse process also had its influence:  being conservative was seen as the result of naivete, lack of exposure, lack of thinking through various positions.  I suppose this is a typical college milieu, and I am not arguing that I am conservative.  As I would describe myself years later, I was progressively oriented and historically minded.  The distinction between historical-mindedness, with its desire to examine the virtues of the received tradition, and simple-minded conservatism, however, was not a distinction easily made by most people around me at that time.

College saw a clear but simple mix of good and bad experiences of the Church.  One of the best experiences in either the Catholic or Orthodox church was a service of anointing for those affected by HIV/ AIDS.  The less encouraging, insofar as the Catholic church is concerned, were with a couple different priests who didn’t quite understand that my focus in the Confessional was not so much on being scrupulous so much as being desirous of pursuing a life of Christian perfection and deepening my spiritual practice.  Perhaps they were right that a college student should not apply to his own life the instructions St John of the Cross or St Francis gave to monastic novices.  “Are you Francis?  Are you John?”  is a question I was asked once.  But it only takes once, sometimes.

Looking back, I may also have felt shut out of making a contribution to the parish by not being able to put my strength — a background in classics, Church history, and a thorough grounding in the catechism — into practice a a CCD teacher.  I watched as the volunteer position for a middle school catechism teacher remained open for months, after my offer to take it up was turned away.

Ironically, years later I would be the one to turn down an offer to teach Sunday School at the Orthodox Church I attended in SF.

It was during college in NY that I formally switched denominations, from the Latin to the Byzantine Church, although I had made up my mind to do so long before college, for reasons I may detail in another post.  I continued attending church, as much as was possible.  Why?  Simply put, I liked the music, the language, the routine, and the people.  Going to church on Sunday mornings set up my week and weekend.  Liturgy in two languages presented an intellectual puzzle for me to figure out, and connected me to a continuity with the past.  The people were for the most part friendly and open, and it had a few college kids who also attended.  I applied to the Greek seminary in Brookline.  I was accepted.  I deferred, originally for only one year.  I moved to San Francisco, where I got a job working in a church, ostensibly because I wanted to see what it was like to work in a church environment before I became a priest or deacon.

The West Coast was certainly more congenial to my general disposition than NY and the East Coast ever were.  I lived right around the corner from the parish church (technically a cathedral), and I would even make it to services after a night of dancing and getting home at 3am (or later) — sometimes even with the remnants of “guyliner” still shading my eyes.  I wonder if I would have made it to services had I to walk further than a block and a half!  I was also working at the Episcopal Cathedral.

Yet this time period also saw the beginning of the shift away from the Church, and as such perhaps deserves its own exploration.  What had stayed the same?  What had changed?  Since the focus of this post is more on how the Church retained me, those questions must be deferred.

I spent about two years going to that parish, and then I took a trip to Mt Athos, the historic centre of Orthodox Christian monasticism.  Before I went, I was given the advice, by more than one person, not to be scandalised by anything I saw or heard.  Similar advice had been given to me before going to the Seminary — advice I hadn’t needed to follow up on, since I never actually matriculated.  “The devil,” I was told, “is most active in places where holiness is pursued.”  How true.  On Athos, however, I offered a different sort of advice to one fellow pilgrim, who seemed scandalised and affronted by the divisions between Latins and Byzantines:  “You don’t come to Athos to be coddled, but to be challenged.”  After my return, I would say now to a potential pilgrim:  “The most talkative monks are not necessarily the monks you should be listening to.”

One key event happened to me while on Athos which have a bearing on my participation in Church.  The first was that I was excommunicated, that is, I was forbidden to receive the Eucharist for a year.  This was the penance I received in the confessional.  Frankly, I didn’t understand it, since I don’t go to confession unless I’m willing to stop or work on whatever it was that I confessed.  Worse, Athos was the start of a pilgrimage to many of the monasteries throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the very action of communion with those parishes and communities had just been stripped away from me, and for what?  For actually going to the sacrament of forgiveness!?  Never mind the fact that when I was younger the sacraments were what kept me going to church far more than the music and community I mentioned above.  I could find music and community in other places, to put it bluntly, but the sacraments, the Eucharist in particular, that could only be found in a few select places.

Although I tried to mention to the monk I didn’t think this was a good idea, protesting in the Confessional over a penance was not my custom (despite the inaccurate accusation of an abbot at another Athonite monastery, that he knew people like me, and we always argued with our spiritual fathers over our penances).  Suffice it to say I did end up scandalised and it took years to come to terms with that penance.  I guess one could argue it shocked my pride, and that may be so — but it also loosened my ties to the Eucharsitic assembly, and thus to my union with the Church (a connexion the Orthodox theologian Zizioulas points out in one of his books).  More than that, however, it tore apart a sense of trust I had had in the Church’s ministers up until that point.  That trust I have yet to recover, and I have not gone back to Confession at all in the ten years which have elapse since that experience.

To this day, I’m still unclear about the reason for that particular penance; I guess I never really asked him why.  It could very well have been for “homosexual activities.”  Although when I told one Greek guy my penance his jaw dropped (“What, did you kill someone?”  he asked me), it seems, from discussion with a Romanian pilgrim who went to Confession to this particular monk that I was given a somewhat light sentence.  He was told not to receive communion for five years.  I was told that the penance would last a year, unless I were baptised again.  While I don’t think it was imposed on me to manipulate me into accepting an uncanonical baptism after chrismation, it certainly left that taste in my mouth.

While on Athos, I also got a taste of what the entrenched Irish Catholic authoritarianism many of my acquaintances from college had experienced in their churches growing up, except with an Orthodox flavour.

But I didn’t leave the Church at that point.  I continued my pilgrimage, and found the churches of Lebanon and Syria to be very welcoming, hospitable, pastorally oriented, theologically educated, full of humility and sincerity and strength.  For years, it was Antioch — and Bucharest — that kept me from leaving the Church entirely.  Arab Christians know what it is like to live in a world where most people are not Christian, and where ethnicity is no guarantee of remaining one.

However, not having a reason to go to the liturgy, that is, not being able to receive the Eucharist, when I returned to the States, I only sporadically attended services.  After a six month stint in Spain which was also filled with pilgrimages to various sites, from Braga to Granada, and where I prepared myself to study Visigothic and Mozarabic (i.e. Late Antique and Early Medieval) Chrisitan theology, I came back to SF.  I did not return to the Greek parish I had attended previously.  I had no real connexion there anymore, felt it had no place for me.  I had been there for years and people still asked if I was Greek.  Which wouldn’t have been so bad, except it is the first and most basic question the parishioners ask — meaning they hadn’t even got this most basic of information after years of being there.  So instead of the Greek parish, I initially started going to the Russian church on Geary Blvd, which is where St John Maximovich of Shanghai and SF rests.  If I could not receive communion, I could at least go to where the relics were.  Although the excommunication had “expired”, the habit of not receiving was ingrained in me.  That and the fear of humans reprimanding me for approaching the Holy Mysteries.

Even though I knew that during his lifetime, Jesus dined with harlots and sinners.

It was a bit of a hike for me to get to the Russian Church, and I don’t understand any Slavic at all.  I never got to know anyone in the parish.  Not that they were unfriendly; the parishioners just kept to their pre-established circles of friends, and everyone who was there was expected to already know the routines of what happened after the liturgy concluded, if there were any.  Eventually I heard a particular priest had returned to SF and was saying the liturgy at the Greek parish I had formerly attended, so I returned to that parish, specifically because of him.  His sermons were incredible, and I felt he “got it” — he took to heart the message of social justice embodied in the Prophets and Gospel.

This time, the experience was a little different, but challenges I had first encountered in Athos were beginning to play themselves out.

(Substantially written on the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, 2009)

Liturgical Spaces, A fragment from memory

Eucharistic Vigil of St Charalambos, Karakallou Monastery, Athos, Greece. Spring 2001.1

Leaving my room in the guest wing of the monastery, which was built into its external walls, I crossed the cobblestone courtyard and entered the dark church nestled in the centre of the monastery’s walls, leaving the cool night behind me.

Within, a warm glow spread from the few oil lamps burning in front of   several mounted icons, the  oil’s yellow light glinting off the gold frames. Beeswax candles burned in brass candlesticks, the metal gleaming faintly in the darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I could see the resident black-robed monks standing at their places around the walls of the church. Pilgrims interspersed themselves at available places, shifting in the darkness.  Peering out from above them were the frescoed likenesses of various saints, seeming to move forward to join our prayers, emerging from lapis backgrounds receding into shadows beyond the lamplight.

The small space kept the incense from diffusing too quickly, and the scent of myrrh and resin mingled with the warm scent of beeswax. As the vigil began, the chants of the monks reverberated throughout the church and within my body. In the centre of the  church a small table was placed, and on that, the reliquary containing the saint’s relics was set. We were a series of Chinese boxes, one inside the other: Athos surrounded by the world, Karakallou by Athos, the Katholikon (main church) by the walls of the monastery, the relics by the monks and pilgrims of that monastery.  The small church with its relics and community of monks was a microcosm of the whole Church, and that entire Church was present with us.

Space at this vigil was not simply physical; it moved imperceptibly into time, collapsing the distance between the martyr’ Charalambos’ death at the hands of Roman authorities, the lives of countless medieval monks who prayed in this monastery (despite the vicissitudes of the actual building), those of us gathered at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the saint’s glorification in the eternal Day amid God’s uncreated light. The icons in the walls reminded us that we were in the antechamber of heaven, although we could perceive that light only dimly in the darkened chamber, as if looking into a polished metal mirror. The relics in the centre of the Church brought to our awareness that here were the physical remains of one who had become a “god on earth” by the action of the Holy Spirit, and attested to both his physical and spiritual presence with us. We, who were also seeking to follow that path of grace, were all oriented towards the grace-filled remains and towards the life-bestowing gifts of the altar. As we began the Eucharist, all of us together, on earth and in heaven, celebrated the transcendence of time and space through the cross, Christ’s victory over death by death and resurrection.

1 www.macedonian-heritage.gr/Athos/Monastery/karakallou.html has images of Karakallou, albeit without photos of the interior of the church.