We may not realise it, but Western Christians owe a great deal to the modern heroes of the Orthodox faith, says William Barlow
Living Icons by Michael Plekon, University of Notre Dame Press, £16.99
The appearance of this hook by an American Orthodox priest, Father Michael Plekon, is timely, given the continuing interest in icons, its title immediately recalling Metropolitan Anthony's Living Prayer. published in 1966 and still influencing many. The idea that prayer should live had a great impact, and yet it was stating the obvious. It is simply that many had not thought of it in quite that way, prayer being for them an essentially pious practice, both in church and outside. In much the same way, the present book, as the title suggests, continues a similar theme by again stating the obvious. If prayer lives in people they become prayer themselves, attaining to their true image as living icons who embody the Openness of the Gospel to all. It is a powerful proposition.
Living Icons begins by presenting us with an image of holiness in our own time, that of St Seraphim of Sarov, chosen because he taught that the whole point of the Christian life lies in acquiring the Holy Spirit. There follow profiles of nine persons of faith in the Eastern Church, all dead, who may be said to have exemplified this dynamic spiritual principle and be seen as having pointed the way forward in their own Church — not all of whose adherents, however, will agree. Significantly, only one lived in Russia, Father Men, a man so centred on the Kingdom and open to the Spirit that he was seen as a threat and murdered. Of the other eight, only one is a woman, Mother Maria Skobtsova, a twice-married, Gauloisesmoking nun who believed that everything not lovingly given away burns up. She perished in Ravensbrook, the manner in which she met death proving she was no fraud Non-Orthodox will find in the preamble to this book an accurate appreciation of Western perceptions of
Orthodoxy, still described as "the bestkept secret of Christianity". You would not think so, though, from press coverage of the Orthodox Church nor, for example, from Victoria Clark's When Angels Fall, whose encounters with Orthodox make you wonder about their mental state.
The compelling reason for reading this book is that those profiled (all of them theologians in that they were people of prayer) are important because they recognised the need for the Church to engage the world. This has been the abiding concern of Western Christians and the one which made Metropolitan Anthony's book a best seller. But the West understood the problem in terms of relevance, and churchmen made their names because they showed they were aware of the problem and spoke with conviction, not because they had answers.
Here greater progress is made because the answer was sought at a deeper level, where what was at stake was their own spiritual integrity. In the inner struggle which this precipitated, the need, which all recognised, to be true to tradition was seen as non-negotiable and paramount. Tradition did not mean custom but a living experience. Any advance or breakthrough entailed growth and this made what they had to say count.
Inevitably, they invited criticism, not without hostility, but what they were spoke for itself.
In any life lived intensely within constraints, there can be a breakthrough on to new ground. Father Plekon calls this "pushing beyond". This is what these people did. Moreover, there comes a point when the way travelled will heat its own path. It was here that they all discovered that Orthodoxy is a religion of freedom, pursuing fearlessly the truth which had become part of them and which made them free.
Father Bulgakov, an ex-Marxist, believed that biblical faith and tradition could engage the world. For Mother Maria, the world was her monastery. Paul Evdokimov advocated an interiorised monasticism incumbent upon all. Father Afanasiev. cited by Vatican II, could speak of the Church's worship as privatised to the point of being a pathological condition. Father Lev Gillet's daring love of Christ and the Church made him a sign of what was possible. no matter what the difficulties, and Father Grigori Krug's icons vindicate tradition as a creative force. Father Meyendorf held that the West's problems were Orthodoxy's too, because there is only one Church, while Father Men paid with his life for his openness to other churches. For Father Schmemann the world was a sacrament.
Here one grasps the measure of what was achieved by all those profiled. Their concern was not relevance or the secularisation of religion. They preached the need to church the world and their significance, which is great, is that their inner struggle revealed within them a continuity with the world to which the Kingdom is the key. We owe them a great deal.