Healing the Tragic Soul of the Modern West

Fr. Georges Florovsky did far more than forge a path back to the fathers for the Orthodox Church: he also mapped a route for the return of Western Christianity to its own Orthodox roots. Discussing the modern encounter of Orthodoxy with the churches of the West, he wrote:

A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new “polemical theology.” But this tragedy must be re-endured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fulness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition.

If you’re like me, then “historiosophical” is a new word. It is an analysis of history in terms of ideas, concepts, and movements. Florovsky is suggesting that the Western world cannot be approached or understood on the grounds of idea versus idea. Rather, the very process that gave rise to those ideas must also be examined – and that must be in the light of the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. Perhaps, even more to the point, this examination must be deeper than mere intellectual argument and curiosity. It must be “re-endured and relived, precisely as one’s own.” Conversion to Orthodoxy does not mark the winning of an argument or a way of making a point. It is the gathering of the whole of the West within oneself and plunging it into the depths of the Orthodox way of life. This is not a mental exercise – but the fullness of existence in the very roots of our being.

For example, to say that Christianity in our contemporary world is dominated by the ideas of modernity is part of such a historiosophical analysis. It is insufficient to argue that “making the world a better place” (a thoroughly modern notion) is wrong. Rather, we must see how such an idea came to be, how it came to dominate certain forms of Christianity, and, perhaps most important of all, how this has distorted the souls of believers. When I have observed the problems associated with the “soul of democracy,” it is not a suggestion that monarchy is to be preferred or to engage in any sort of political discussion. Rather, it is to ask how the rise of modern, democratic ideas has changed the souls of believers.

We cannot rightly engage the experience of the Church and patristic tradition with souls that have already been formed and shaped by the notions of modernity. At the very least, there is a need for self-awareness, an ability to examine how the filters and assumptions of modernity affect our perceptions. This is the problem with those who suggest the path of “dialog” with modernity. By-and-large, they speak from a thoroughly modernized soul (“dialog” itself is a modern suggestion), without an awareness of the tragedy that infects us all.

Our dominant culture is driven to “fix” things. Everything must improve; all problems must be resolved. We are particularly impatient with anything slow and organic. Florovsky suggests that we must “re-endure” and “relive” the tragic crisis of the West within the living context of the Church’s experience and patristic tradition. This re-endurance is a deep work within the soul, requiring patience, compassion, and sympathy.

I will turn to my own experience to offer some reflection. My earliest exposure to Orthodoxy was in the mid-1970’s. There were but a handful of books (in English) on the topic. There was enough for me to understand that the claims of Orthodoxy were serious and challenging. This was not a mere voice among the denominations. As a “High Church” Anglican, I had been taught a story of English Christianity in which the Church of England was, essentially, the Orthodox Church of the English people. Its argument with Rome was depicted as having long predated the Reformation. As such, reading the early Church and the fathers was, for me, as much a reading of who I thought I was as it is today as an Orthodox Christian. The tragedy of the English Reformation was, as yet, not something I saw and understood.

That understanding began to unfold slowly during the ‘90’s. My studies of Orthodoxy had deepened (I did a Masters’ thesis on the theology of icons). At the same time, my study of Anglican history deepened. As the Church around me was abandoning many important points of traditional teaching, I found my voice of protest to be an empty cry in an echo chamber. Sadly, though I had once been taught I was not a Protestant (High Church Anglicans always denied being Protestant), I began to come to the conclusion that I was, in fact, deeply in the backwash of the Reformation and modernity’s rush towards madness.

By God’s grace, I was introduced to Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, the first convert to become an Orthodox bishop in the Western Hemisphere. He was kind, gentle, never judging, and always understanding of my inner struggles and the subsequent practical difficulties that accompanied my efforts to convert. As a priest (I had never done anything else), finding new employment to support a wife and four children was a major obstacle. That obstacle was later removed by nothing less than a miracle.

The inner soul work of my conversion would not have been obvious to others. Coming to understand that you have been terribly wrong for years is a serious thing. If that was wrong, why should I now think I was right? Many converts wrestle with this paradox. How do we know? To make matters worse, there were terrible jurisdictional battles at the time. Several months before my reception into the Church, a nearby monastery entered schism and broke communion with Vladyka Dmitri. He was heart-broken (as was I).

If Orthodoxy was the ship of salvation, it was clear to me that the ship was leaking. Some wags warned me, “What is happening to the Episcopal Church will happen to Orthodoxy in 10 years.”

My soul had plenty of agony. A ray of peace began, however, when I saw that I had spent the whole of my ordained life trying to “save” the Anglican Church. I wrote, I spoke, I was deeply involved in Church politics. It consumed me. The peace came when I thought: “I do not need to save the Church. I need the Church to save me.” What I saw in Orthodoxy was the storm-tossed life of the very same Church that had sailed the waters of this world for 2,000 years, saving souls and yielding saints and martyrs. Safety could be found, but only in stormy waters.

My heart came to see that renouncing the modern project of “fixing” the Church (i.e. the Reformation) was not itself a way of solving my problems: what was needed was the path of “fixing” me.

Very little peace came with my reception into the Church. Florovsky wrote of re-enduring and reliving the tragedy of the West. There are far too many stories and experiences over the first years of my Orthodoxy to describe in this short article. In hindsight, however, I can see that my soul was enduring and reliving so much that had gone on for centuries before. Bringing all of that to peace (and myself with it) was difficult. I encountered many converts who suddenly imagined themselves to be different creatures – to have embraced a Byzantine purity that excused them from all participation in heresy, all guilt and shame, and provided them with a platform from which to judge the world with impunity. I can painfully recall hearing accusations thrown at me saying, “He’s still an Anglican.” Of course I was. Indeed, there are many things within me that still carry that experience, just as I continue to carry my Baptist childhood and the world of a charismatic commune from my late teens. Salvation does not provide erasure.

Oddly, among the most helpful words during that time came from my Archbishop who consistently said, “Never condemn where you came from. It is likely the place you first met Christ.” His generosity towards the non-Orthodox always called me back from the dark abyss of condemnation that beckons. What has taken place in the West, as well as all that is now taking place in our midst, is within the providence of God. I could not be who I am had I not been who I was. I do not credit God for the sins that are mine, but I recognize that “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God.” God is redeeming us, not condemning us.

We do not solve the mistakes of history. They are what they are. Wrong decisions were made, and they cannot be undone. The medieval synthesis that preceded the rise of modernity has all but disappeared. We live in a world of fragmentation and disintegration. But it is at just this time that a viable Orthodox presence has been placed in our midst. That is no accident.

These words of Father Alexander Elchaninov come to mind:

When a man finds in himself the power to acquiesce in the ordeal sent by God, he accomplishes great progress in his spiritual life. (From The Diary of a Priest)

Of course, I came to believe that the Orthodox faith was true. In fact, I think I had thought that for years. What was lacking was acquiescing to God in the ordeal that is the path of the Church. I had to acquiesce to the tragedy of the Christian West, as well as the sad little witness of immigrant Orthodoxy in our midst. There is the simple acquiescence that the first victim of the Reformation, as it had been at the Great Schism, was ecclesial.

I am no longer saving the Church. Among the rules on the blog is one that forbids discussions of Orthodox politics, or the criticism of clergy. There are times and places for such discussions – they are described in the canons. What is required of us, however, is the deep soul-work of acquiescing to the providence of God (including the whole of our past – in its past) learning to give thanks always and for all things, and the patient work of acquiring the Holy Spirit.

Thousands around us will be saved.

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