Homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church for the Leave-taking (Apodosis) of the Exaltation of the Cross, on Sept. 20, 7530 (Oct. 3, 2021 on the civil calendar).
Today is the leave-taking of the Feast of the Exaltation or Elevation of the Holy Cross, which is one of the most solemn of the 12 major feasts of the Orthodox Church. As one Orthodox prayer puts it, “The Cross is the guardian of the whole world; the Cross is the beauty of the Church, the Cross is themight of kings; the Cross is the confirmation of the faithful, the Cross is the glory of angels and the wounding of demons” (Exapostilarion of the Exaltation of the Cross) Or as an old version of the Orthodox Troparion hymn for the Cross puts it, “O Lord, save Thy people and bless thine inheritance, grant victory to the kings over the barbarians, and by the virtue of Thy cross preserve Thy commonwealth.”
This sober feast, which is a day of fasting, comes early in the Church year. As we take leave of it soberly yet triumphantly with this sign of suffering and triumph, of joyful sorrow, we look ahead from the gathering darkness of the autumn toward the Incarnation at the height of our winter in the northern hemisphere, and the promise of Resurrection in the spring to come. We go forth from the short season of this feast with joyful sorrow into the main swim now of the Church year, which just started recently, following also in the earlier wake of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God. For the Cross is a sign of both sorrow and victory. Significantly, this feast is about the elevation of the Holy Cross by Christians who seek it and find it and then reverence it as a sign of our Lord God and Savior, a banner for our salvation. So this feast includes us as well with them, elevating and exalting the Cross. Just so we wear the Cross around our neck as Orthodox Christians, privately except for priests, but we visibly cross ourselves bodily often throughout the day, and especially to dispel demonic influences. According to tradition, the Cross was found in a place where the herb basil grew, whose name means king. As the old tropar for the Cross calls for victory for the kings, today in our day without an Orthodox emperor or basileus we raise the banner of the Emperor of Emperors, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who makes us as believers by His grace and our ascetic struggle kings and priests unto God, as the Scriptures put it.
The patron of our holy mission, St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, gave this homily on the Elevation of the Cross, which I’ll read today (the translation is a meld of two English texts, one in the book collection, St. John Maximovich, Words and Sermons, and that online here).
Before the time of Christ, the cross was an instrument of punishment; it evoked fear and aversion. But after Christ’s death on the Cross it became the instrument and banner of our salvation. Through the Cross, Christ destroyed the devil; from the Cross He descended into hades and, having liberated those languishing there, led them into the Kingdom of Heaven. The sign of the Cross is terrifying to demons and, as the sign of Christ, it is honored by Christians.
The Lord revealed Himself in heaven to Tsar Konstantin, who was going to Rome to fight the tormentor who had seized power, and, having built a banner in the form of a cross, won a complete victory. Having received help through the Cross of the Lord, Tsar Konstantin urged his mother, Tsarina Helen, to find the most life-giving Cross, and the pious Helen, going to Jerusalem, after many searches did. Many healings and other miracles have been and are being done, both from the Cross of Christ itself, and from its image.
The Lord saves HIs people from all enemies, visible and invisible. The Orthodox in this feast season solemnly celebrate the finding of the Cross by the Church, remembering at the same time the appearance of the Cross to Tsar Konstantin. On those and other days dedicated to the Holy Cross, we pray to God that God will not only grant His graces to individual people, but to all Christianity, to the whole Church. The Troparion to the Holy Cross, compiled in the 8th century, when a friend of St. John Damascene, Bishop Cosma of Mayum, wrote the entire sequence of the service of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, asks:
God save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance; grant victories to the kings over the barbarians, and by the virtue of Thy Cross preserve Thy commonwealth.”
The beginning of this prayer is taken from the twenty-seventh Psalm. In the Old Testament the word “people” designated only those who confessed the true faith, people faithful to God. “Inheritance” referred to everything which properly belonged to God, God’s property, which in the New Testament is the Church of Christ. In praying for the salvation of God’s people (the Christians), both from eternal torments and from earthly calamities, we beseech the Lord to bless, to send down grace, His good gifts upon the whole Church as well, and inwardly strengthen her.
The petition for granting “victory to kings,” the bearers of the supreme authority, has its basis in Psalm 143, verse 10, and recalls the victories of King David achieved by God’s power, and likewise the victories granted Tsar Konstantin through the Cross of the Lord.
This appearance of the Cross made emperors who had formerly persecuted Christians into defenders of the Church from her external enemies, into “external bishops,” to use the expression of the holy Tsar Konstantin. The Church, inwardly strong by God’s grace and protected outwardly, is, for Orthodox Christians, “the city of God” or residence of God, from which the path to the Heavenly Jerusalem begins. Various calamities have shaken the world, entire peoples have disappeared, cities and states have perished, but the Church, in spite of persecutions and even internal conflicts, stands invincible; for the gates of hell shall not prevail against her (Matt. 16:18).
Today, when world leaders try in vain to establish order on earth, the only dependable instrument of peace is that about which the Church sings:
“The Cross is the guardian of the whole world; the Cross is the beauty of the Church, the Cross is the might of kings; the Cross is the confirmation of the faithful, the Cross is the glory of angels and the wounding of demons.” (Exapostilarion of the Exaltation of the Cross)
I would unworthily just add a footnote today to our beloved St. John’s words: That even and particularly a humble mission parish in northern Appalachia is an outpost of our Lord’s commonwealth today, and in this era without government in the world by Orthodox kings in these latter days, in this American land our homes and families likewise are both little churches and little kingdoms, which in Christ bear the banners of the Cross to defend externally in a small but central way our Lord’s Church from the spirit of anti-Christ in godless so-called new world orders, even while we find our own protection also in the Church, our Ark from demonic efforts at global control that would seek to deny our God’s Incarnation. We do this exalting Jesus Christ’s Cross and to His Glory, that He by the virtue of His Cross may preserve His commonwealth. For Who is so great a God as our God? Thou art the God Who worketh wonders. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.
The Interim Dean of Students at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Christian Seminary, Monk and Deacon Theodore Stanway, will speak on the teachings of the late Romanian Priest George Calciu, one of the great confessors of Christianity in the twentieth century under the Communist yoke. Fr. Calciu suffered severe physical and psychological torture in a hellish Communist prison designed to shape a new human personality along atheistic lines, and emerged as a revered spiritual elder in the Orthodox tradition.
The talk will be at 7 p.m. on Sunday Oct. 17 in the outdoor classroom area between Bertrand Library and Academic West, rain location Gardner Lecture Hall.
Father Calciu’s lessons are especially pertinent to young people today grappling with finding and keeping traditional Christian faith amid an increasingly materialistic technocratic culture that claims to reshape human nature and the environment without God.
Father Theodore is a monk at Holy Trinity Monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in Jordanville, NY (near Cooperstown), the flagship monastery and seminary of the exiled Russian Church Synod during the era of Communist rule in Russia and Eastern Europe, and a center of a vibrant renewal of interest in Russian Orthodoxy in the West today. A veteran of the Royal Navy and native of Glasgow, Father Theodore himself is a “Scottish Orthodox” Christian in the Russian tradition, and earned his M.Div. from Holy Trinity recently with research on the Tome of Pope Leo and on the Orthodox Church in India.
Hierodeacon Theodore in work garb at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary
The talk is sponsored by the Bucknell Orthodox Christian Fellowship, the Bucknell Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and St. John Orthodox Christian Mission Church, which serves the Bucknell Orthodox Christian community, stjohnthewonderworker.com. On the morning of Oct. 17, Father Theodore will give the homily at the Divine Liturgy at St. John’s at 10 a.m.
Presented as a paper, ““Nature and Environment in Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diary,” at the Nature Philosophy and Religion Society affiliated session of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, Thursday, September 23, 2021, in honor of Dostoevsky’s bicentennial birthday year, and slightly revised here.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky identified with a movement among Russian intellectuals known as the “Back to the Soil” or pochvennichestvo movement. Its ideas overlapped with the earlier Slavophile movement but involved embracing some of Peter the Great’s reforms as historical fact in Russia’s historical trajectory by the mid-19th century as a nation, which could not be turned back or excised. So in some ways it was an attempted reboot of the Slavophile movement, for having Russia at the same poker or chess table with modern European nations while still playing strategy in a distinctively Eurasian or non-Western way. At the core of this difference for Dostoevsky was Orthodox Christianity. But how if at all can the Back to the Soil movement as expressed by Dostoevsky, especially given its name, be interpreted in environmental philosophical terms?
Two sections of Dostoevsky’s journal A Writer’s Diary, in 1873 and 1876, while he was working on or taking a break from his final and most famous novel The Brothers Karamazov, provide insight into this question. However they do so in terms of the larger sense of nature about which Dostoevsky had written, that first modernity had sought to erase God, and then to erase nature. So this is nature not only in the sense of the natural world, but also in the sense of human nature, and an Orthodox sense of natural law, which is more closely identified with grace and mystery than natural law that developed in the Scholasticism of the Latin West.
First, it must be noted that the phrase Back to the Soil as the name of an intellectual movement referred not strictly to agrarianism but primarily to a broader sense of the Russian land and a type of spiritual unity of the Russian people associated with the land. But Dostoevsky in his writings up to the end in his Pushkin Address, suggested that this mystical unity with Mother Russia, more than Slavophilism, indicated a mystical unity for humanity globally in God’s Creation. In bringing out that unity, he argued, Russia would show the way for a West misguided in its industrializing individualism, and potentially for the rest of the world dealing with a globalizing Western colonialism with its flaws. So Dostoevsky’s perspective on Back to the Soil is of interest today not only in terms of environmental philosophy, but also in terms of related concerns with neocolonialism and systemic ideological bias, topics that informed also Dostoevsky’s own anti-Western perspectives. But the interesting thing in all this of course is that Dostoevsky offers such critiques from within a Christian, albeit the Orthodox or Eastern Christian, framework.
The Back to the Soil movement’s orientation might be compared to Bismark’s blood and soil and militant nationalism in Europe leading up to World War I, but it is different because of what Dostoevsky and other Russians referred to as the Orthodox cause. It was in Dostoevsky’s thought not only pan-Slavic but ecumenical in the root sense of universal in application according to its own core rooted in Orthodox faith. And the soil or land was embued not with some sacred nationalism so much as with a combination of sacrifice, memory, and agrarianism, in relation to God’s Creation. This parallels the Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton’s later idea of oikophilia, or love of home, as a prerequisite for an enduring environmental conservation ethos — what Scruton called eco-patriotism.
The two pieces from A Writer’s Diary that I examine today are entitled “Environment,” from the third chapter of 1873, and the subsection entitled “The Land and Children” from the 1876 July-August issue. I’ll start with the latter first, as it voices Dostoevsky’s ideas about land, although polyphonically, through the character of the paradoxicalist. So it is hard to know whether these ideas are entirely Dostoevsky’s and without irony, they probably are not entirely without irony, but they are presented positively. The irony likely reflects Dostoevsky’s apophatic Orthodox sense of the limits of any absolute human knowing. The character of the paradoxicalist, who previously in the Diary had argued for the benefits of war in the spiritual life of people, seems to voice opinions that Dostoevsky finds helpfully subversive of standard Westernizers’ liberal views in his time.
The paradoxicalist begins the article on “The Land and Children” by saying “the land is everything,” and that he makes no distinction between the land and children. He says that problems with land distribution in human societies underlie basic social problems, and uses the example of France, a land idolized by the Russian elite of Dostoevsky’s day, going back to Clovis the German conqueror of the Gauls there. “Everyone should have land,” he argues, and “children ought to be born on the land and not on the street.” Factory work is fine as long as it is pursued alongside land that is already being worked. “Every factory worker should know that he has his own Gqrden somewhere, with golden sun and vineyards, a place of his own or, rather, a communal Garden; and he should know that living there is his wife—a fine woman, not one form the street, who lives him and waits for him; and along with his wife are his children, who play at horsies and who all know their own father.”
In this Dostoevsky’s paradoxicalist is sounding much like an American agrarianist along the lines of Wendell Berry, and also seems to take aim at twenty-first-century culture that with the accomplice of both political bureaucracy and commercial heedlessness in a growing inhumane technocracy, has resulted in a tragic decline of American family life not only in inner cities but everywhere. Even if a family doesn’t have enough land to be self-sufficient in their gardening, the paradoxicalist argues that they should still have enough land for a garden for children to grow up in it, and a school in a field for the children. Then the paradoxicalist expresses his faith that perhaps the factory will be built in the middle of the Garden, but is convinced that there will be a Garden, and expresses the hope that it may be remembered 100 years hence that he had explained this to Dostoevsky in the German resort of Ems, in the middle of an artificial garden among artificial people, as he describes the place. “Humanity will be renewed in the Garden, and the Garden will restore it—that is the formula,” he proclaims.
He goes on to say that cities are a terrible phenomenon of the rise of the bourgeoise. Cities with crystal palaces, which in Notes from the Underground and elsewhere Dostoevsky portrayed as modern inhumane Towers of Babel symbolizing a new world domination of human beings by technology. But the paradoxicalist predicts a third phase of humanity, following feudalism and the bourgeoise, namely regenerated humanity, in a procession from castles to cities to the Garden. Here he may slip into the type of utopianism that Dostoevsky always subverts.
But a nation, he argues, should be born and arise on the land, on the native soil in which its grain and its trees grow. Now the proletariat of Europe, he says, is a creature of the street. But in the Garden, little children will spring directly up from the earth like Adams, and not toil in child labor in factories, “deadening their minds before some common machine to which the bourgeois says his prayers. “they will not exhaust and ruin their imaginations before endless rows of gas lamps [today blue screens perhaps], and ruin their morals through the depravity of the factory, which is such as was never seen in Sodom,” as is happening in Russia, he argues.
But in Russia, the paradoxicalist continues, there is the seed of the idea of the future, the Garden, because among the people still “the land for them is everything, and they derive everything from the land… There is something sacramental I nthe land, in one’s native soil.” But while this is clung to by Russian people, he says it is the normal law of humanity as a whole.
Tenure of land in Russia at the time is in chaos, the paradoxicalist notes, a chaos that will need to be resolved, he suggests, by the same kind of unity of consent of the country, rising up in synergy with the abolition of serfdom. However now he suggests that lack of resolution of the land question is complicated by the rise of a new finance economy, what he calls “a game on the stock exchange, the stirrings of the Jew.” That stereotype reflects Dostoevsky’s bias that existed in its own paradox with his advocacy for equal legal rights for Jews, while he identified them with an economic culture of modernity, as he did also more distantly Americans.
The paradoxicalist indicates that amid an economy increasingly based on financial dealings of the powerful, some kind of agrarian culture is needed as a solution to the woes of not only Russian society but global modernity as well. After the abolition of serfdom, the Russian people he argues still cannot accept freedom without land, that they would prefer land to freedom. “It means that the land came first for them; it was the basis for everything… freedom, life, honor, family, children, order, the church…” Regarding the latter, the Paradoxicalist may echo partially views highlighted by the American agrarian religious writer Ellen Davis in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, which argues that agrarianism is integral to the Bible and faith engaged with Christian Scripture. The land ethos in the Bible, of the land belonging to God, and of the redistribution of land among the Israelites cyclically (themselves including others who came to share their worship and law), restrictions on usury, and encouragement of using marginal fruits of the land for the poor, all point to this in her view.
The paradoxicalist suggests that only through grand and universal consent will an embryo of a new idea of land tenure in Russia, and for the world, be developed, the Garden idea. What form that will take he is not sure. The old idea of the commune he notes can sometimes be a much heavier burden than serfdom, as would indeed be proven under communism which took power not by spiritual unity but by force of a minority empowered by international funding, technology, a totalitarian ideology, and a nihilistic breakdown of Russian culture. But the paradoxicalist suggests still that the idea of the old rural commune contains the seed of something better in future.
Indeed the Russian words for “village commune,” “peace,” and “world” in the sense of inhabited earth, are cognate in the term mir. Solzhenitsyn took up the Dostoevskyian question of agrarianism again as central in his writings, in his great novelistic cathedral of the Red Wheel cycle. There, Solzhenitsyn suggested an answer to the problem in the proposed land reform of the martyred Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (+1911), who had worked for the shaping of a country of small farmers owning their land throughout much of Russia, a Jeffersonian-style agrarian vision, much like the ideal of the American South, if it had given 40 acres and a mule to each freed slave household at the right time. Solzhenitsyn saw such land reform as a potential historical answer to the land tenure question raised by Dostoevsky, because he viewed the question from the other side of Communist rule, when the kulaks or small farmers had been a target of the cultural genocide of the Bolsheviks, along with the Church.
Little children are the future, the paradoxicalist concludes, in effect stating that for the seventh generation, we should plant a Garden for the children. Solzhenitsyn saw the potential for agrarianism as a source of civil freedoms in Switzerland and in Vermont, his homes in exile, and argued that such Jeffersonian agrarianism on the local level of subsidiarity could have co-existed with autocratic Christian tsarism at the national level in Russia. For implicitly shared in this vision back to Dostoevsky and beyond is the Russian idea of sobnornost, or hidden spiritual unity, the source of the grand consent, and why agrarianism is seen as both distinctly Russian and also a universal by the author, because it is related to the Orthodox Christian idea of a hidden spiritual unity of all those dwelling in the oikumene or mir of God’s Creation.
Finally and more briefly I turn to Dostoevsky’s essay on “Environment,” near the start of his Writer’s Diary. Here he speaks in his own sometimes whimsical and ironic voice as the narrator-persona. He offers a critique of the new legal system adopted from the West, which is a source also of his fictional courtroom scenes in his two greatest novels. He raises the question of the mania of acquittal by jurors in this new system in Russia. Why are they less serious than their English peers about convictions? The influence of the corrupting environment he argues is the explanation given for the high rate of acquittals by jurors of all classes of those charged with crimes, even often when the evidence seems overwhelming for their guilt. There is a process at work by which people in the jury realize they themselves are sometimes worse than the criminal, and thus acknowledge they are half to blame for his crime. “If we were better, then he, too, would be better and would not now be standing here before us.”
But Dostoevsky then offers that this is no reason to acquit criminals. “We must ourselves take on the burden of the sentence, “the pain of the heart,” he argues. This will purge us and make us btter. Then we will also improve the environment and make it better. And this is the only way to do so. “But to flee from our own pity and acquit everyone so as not to suffer ourselves—why that’s too easy.” Then the conclusion will become that the environment is to blame for everything, and crime even a duty and noble protest. This is the nihilism out of which Stéphane Courtois, lead editor of The Black Book of Communism, argued that the all-encompassing organized crime of Communism emerged. Then who will really improve the environment, if people individually are not repenting and cultivating themselves spiritually first? Who will cultivate the Garden so that it is not an artificial utopia, like the supposed Soviet technological marvel of the Chernobyl or Lenin nuclear plant, which went awry to destroy so many literal gardens in a Ukraine that earlier had been the target of the food genocide of the Soviets? The doctrine of the environment is opposed to Christianity, Dostoevsky argues. This too is sobornost, by which the mystery of spiritual unity includes also freedom, in the person of Christ, Who rejects the three temptations of Satan for material gain, self-assertion, and power, and continually does so for us, as in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor. This sobornost or spiritual unity is the Garden for Dostoevsky.
When Dostoevsky tells of how Russians call criminals unfortunates he says this is not due to environmental but Christian philosophy, which sees us all as sinners, and ourselves as contributing to what made criminals stumble. In offering bread and gospels to prisoners, the Russian people in effect ask them to pray for us, and to seek a common repentance, he writes. But he adds that it is energy, work, and struggle that improve the environment, not accepting it as determinative. The latter will only lead us to greater and more organized crimes, like technocracy and totalitarianism in his prophetic vision. That trajectory leads us to what Shoshana Zuboff in her study of surveillance capitalism calls the turning of human beings into products by big tech, to what CS Lewis had called earlier the “abolition of man.” Dostoevsky draws on his own prison experience to argue that the fruits of the juror taking responsibility for moral choice and the criminal for crime are repentance and that which can improve the environment rather than worsen it as modernity is doing. This is the source of the idea of the Paradoxicalist’s Garden, which is rooted in the sobornost of the Christian church for Dostoevsky’s Orthodox cause of return to the soil. I think Dostoevsky came to realize this in his encounters with the Elders of Optina Monastery, for Orthodox Christian monasticism exemplifies this in many ways, as does the community life of the Orthodox parish.
Ultimately, for Dostoevsky, the land is a living embodied symbol of sobornost or life in communion with God in Creation. However, this exists in tandem with freedom, for man’s fallen environment is renewed by a synergy of divine grace and man’s free choice. All of which raises a question for America today: Our founding documents and principles based on the Creator and Providence and so forth, from the Declaration of Independence strung through the Constitution to Lincoln’s “one nation under God” in the Gettysburg Address, and the agrarianism embedded in the Jacobitism underlying much of America’s historical culture — can it be renewed in sobornost in a way related to Dostoevsky’s vision? I think he would have said yes, but only in tandem with a renewal of traditional Christianity as the source of the country’s hidden unity.
In high summer recently I had a chance to travel back to my home neighborhood in Chicago with my sons, where my mother-in-law Galina still lives, and then on with them to my father’s family’s old ancestral digs in northeastern Iowa, a place called Siewers Spring.
I was grateful for a warm and unexpected welcome by Christine Oliver and family at the Hjelle Farm by Siewers Spring, and on a busy eve of her wedding no less. Here is a photo of my sons Kevin Seraphim and Nicholas and I with the “brick house” (formerly home of the first Siewerses in our branch of the family to come to the US in the 19th century) in the background across the spring, which is also a state park and state fish hatchery.
We took the trip at my son Nick’s request, he wanted to travel with his brother before starting college at the small Christian liberal arts college where he now attends. The trip morphed into a visit to his grandmother and then Siewers Spring and so the theme of it in many ways became family roots and backgrounds, which our sons didn’t know well growing up in an academic Russian-American family remote from relatives in northern Appalachia. (My wife, Matushka Olga, due to some work logistics and an ill family pet, wasn’t able to travel with us this time.)
Eric Sevareid, the late CBS news commentator, wrote elegiacally of the rolling landscape of northeastern Iowa, and its attraction to Scandinavian immigrants, having grown up himself nearby in the Dakotas. For my sons, the trip was an initiation of sorts also into my native Midwest, as we drove through northern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin on the way to Decorah, at times trying to outrun tornado warnings and severe thunder storms in what seemed to them like scenes from the reality TV tornado-hunting series, but which brought back childhood memories for me of the flatlands. Our experiences included a stop in a country bar-burger place, just across the border in Minnesota by the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which seemed to delight Nick especially in what he considered to be a taste of heartland American life.
When my ancestors arrived in northeast Iowa, it was to join the Norwegian immigrant community clustered around Luther College. The Lutheran founders’ memorial there dedicated to the pioneering faith of the College’s origins, includes the name of Lyder Siewers, a professor whose obituary describes his love of nature and children, and who went on to edit the magazine of the national Norwegian newspaper based in Decorah.
As we arrived at Siewers Spring without warning, my sons urged me not to embarrass them by making a scene. But seeing some people gathered by a tent outside the old brick house, I nonetheless walked across the bridge and introduced myself to Christine Oliver, who immediately recognized me indirectly through knowledge of my father in Chicago, welcomed us, and kindly took us on a tour. I knew I was “home” in a sense, because she immediately pronounced our last name correctly in the old style I use (“See-vers”). However, even that name is a mark of displacement in a sense, for it is a Baltic German name best known in Estonia, and in the U.S. apparently among old Moravian families originating from Bethlehem, PA, and Winston-Salem, NC, not our immediate family branch. The Siewerses in our branch hailed from Fredrikstad and Bergen in Norway, merchant towns where according to family lore they once had a trading fleet that was seized by the British during the Napoleonic Wars. Material family fortunes never recovered, but Lyder had married Christine Brandt, scion of a famous Norwegian family also entwined with the Hjelle family, which now owns the farm adjacent to Siewers Spring State Park, and to which Christine Oliver belongs. Our ancestors also had connections with the Collett family in Norway, whose members hospitably took me in on a post-college graduation trip to Norway long ago. In Iowa, the Siewerses intermarried with Irish Catholic immigrant families. Hence my father was a couple generations removed from his Lutheran forebears in growing up in the now-vanished tribe of West Side Irish in Chicago. Then he married a woman of Yankee-Swedish background who grew up a Christian Scientist on an old farmstead in Chicago. But that’s another story.
On the tour of the brick house by Siewers Spring, I saw an old piano, gifted there by my father during restoration of the house. I remembered it well from our basement on Estes Avenue in West Rogers Park, Chicago, where I grew up. Earlier, driving by that urban house, I recalled most fondly memories of our backyard, seeming so small now, but such a vast semi-tamed wilderness in my early childhood memories. Nearby was the bustling and hustling hyper-urban part of multiracial and multicultural and economically diverse Rogers Park, where my mother-in-law lives near Lake Michigan in an apartment building with many elderly Russian Jewish neighbors. The nearby leafy home of my urban childhood memories was a house of tragedy, too, where my sister died too young, and full of sadness mixed with wonder, as is all of human life itself.
I must have been a strange, if distantly familiar to a few, figure at both Siewers Spring and strolling my old city neighborhood on our trip, in Russian Orthodox Christian clergy garb including riassa and skufia, stealing back for a visit “home” to help my sons find some context for their history. A couple people stopped me on the street in my old Chicago neighborhood to ask me who I was because of my garb. But the experience of displaced home connections, present yet lost, links to my life today as father of Russian-American young men, husband of an immigrant, missionary Deacon in a worldwide faith that in deep Christian tradition is familiar yet strange to Americans despite its long apostolic lineage, and a literary professor who focuses on early English literature, which is ever-more of a strange country to young Anglophone people and even to my own academic colleagues. The Russian Christian existentialist philosopher S.L. Frank, an exile first from Communist Russia and then from Nazi Germany, wrote in his book The Meaning of Life of “strange love,” love for a home place that no longer exists. This echoes the human condition, our yearning for a lost Paradise, and our ability through Jesus Christ to find it again, more and deeper.
Recently at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY, I was walking through farmland near the golden domes of the Church there, with Reader Nicholas Chapman, erudite director of Holy Trinity Publications, while he spoke to me of how some people seek a romanticized view of a home region, using as an example nostalgists for the old American South, neglecting the evils of slavery in seeking an imaginary refuge from modern materialism. For me, Siewers Spring and the backyard of my old house in West Rogers Park in Chicago have functioned as imaginary refuges of memory. But over and around and beneath and before and beyond, as in St. Patrick’s ancient Irish lorica prayer speaking of Jesus Christ, lie memories of joyful sorrow from within the Church home where I live today with our Lord, the “memory eternal” we seek from God for us. In Him we believe in the resurrection of the dead and hope for a return to Paradise through His grace, the particular man Who is the Creator God. That “strange love” of true home and family makes every moment of life here and now deeper: An opportunity to struggle with His grace for virtue touched by immortality, in the freedom of voluntary choice to serve the Truth–the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Who is a Person. His Mother intercedes for us with Him, Who shows us the Father, and through Whom the Spirit comes upon us. In the mystery of His love, in the Body of His Church, we find home and family in the deeper context of His never-ending font of love like the headwaters of the four rivers of Paradise, in what the Russians call the sobornost of hidden unity–fulfilling the experience of home by emptying ourselves in love.
From a five-minute “snap talk” delivered as part of the Non/Humanity program at Bucknell University on Aug. 20, 7529 (civil calendar, Sept. 2, 2021).
Richard Henry Dana Sr.’s early American Gothic novella, Paul Felton, the title character encounters a wilderness whose woods enclose demonic evil. The title character’s ultra-romantic individualistic approach to life has disastrous results, by engaging the demonic presence of an old murder in the woods. Dana’s explication of the woods as a place of horror is of a piece with his critique of the trajectory of New England culture from Puritanism to liberal Unitarianism and Transcendentalism. The latter, finding an apotheosis of sorts in what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “transparent eyeball” of absorbing Nature, related to his promotion of “Self-Reliance” apart from traditional faith. Such ideas offered fertile ground for both American social-justice utopianism on the one hand, and New Thought and the Prosperity Gospel on the other — with a shared tendency to try to remake the nonhuman and erase the terrible reality of mortality in the image of individual will. Dana’s depiction of the non-human world of the woods could easily be read into that narrative, labeled typical of developing American attitudes toward the wilderness, as an evil awaiting not only purification but commodification– the reduction of the nonhuman to an object used to build up and shape our reality according to our will, such as turning Felton’s woods into a parking lot.
But such a reading of Dana’s book would neglect important older themes that he reworks into his early American horror tale, and themes important to American cultural history itself — namely awareness of terrible and awful aspects of the non-human, and implications for human nature. It would neglect in his work the traditional Christian concern with the existential choices moment-by-moment of this life, as the basis for the after-life, that continue to inform an important dimension of American culture.
The non-human in Dana’s novella is terrible as a source of terror and confusion of human certainties, awful not only for its sense of brooding evil, but evocative of a fullness of awe in the face of the ultimately nonhuman experience of death, which is nonetheless all too human. In this, Dana draws on a core of Christian and biblical themes going back two millennia and more, on a personal path that would lead him–not conventionally for Yankee literati of his era as they embraced secular materialism with religious fervor–to the traditionalist faith of the high Episcopal Church. His horror at the encounter with death as the ultimately nonhuman that is also human is something secular humanism came to evade, a shared but denied experience of the “nonhuman” limitations of human life. A vivid memory of such horror came to me by surprise, as a young person, when told by a neighbor of how a beloved relative whom I admired for his strong personality was reduced to pounding his hands on the concrete floor of the morgue in despair when identifying the body of his daughter.
As the historian Michael Connelly noted in discussing the critique of American Romanticism by Dana, whom he describes as an “American Tory,” the early American author saw the paradox of how “[t]he Romantic could create works of beauty, imagination, and grandeur. Led by subjective individualism, he also held the potential for psychosis, madness, and nihilism.” Literary scholar Doreen Hunter noted that Dana “could not accept a worldview that placed fatally flawed humankind at the center of the meaning-making process. He discerned few literary possibilities in the workings of the unconscious mind. The hidden processes of the mind, which for many romanticists was a rich source of symbolism, now seemed to Dana haunted by the demons of untamed passion.”
The terrible nonhuman as a theme in ancient Christian tradition with which Dana engaged goes back into Late Antiquity and beyond in biblical accounts. In the fourth-century Vita of St. Antony the Great, the great prototype of Christian hagiography, the author St. Athanasius the Great records that Antony went out into the desert, into a wilderness infested by demons. Yet ultimately in that desert, unlike the romantic Paul Felton in Dana’s New England woods, he came to fall in love with a desert place where he came to live and engage in asceticism and meditative prayer, combined with survival gardening and a fruitful defensive interaction with animals eating his garden. The non-human landscape permeated with the demonic, with spiritual beings beyond human ken, sometimes appearing in nonhuman animal form, involved a spiritual landscape in which Antony’s ascetic contemplation thrived, even when he lived in a tomb in the desert or in an abandoned fort there. Multitudes followed him to the desert to escape in faith the cruelties of the Roman Empire. But it remained a potentially dangerous physical and spiritual place. Like Edmund Burke’s idea of the experience of the sublime as going beyond the merely beautiful to experience a deeper truth in nature, going to live in the nonhuman desert as a contemplative ascetic involved an experience like being perched on an abyss, an encounter also with one’s own “nonhumanity” through faith. To use another analogy, just as looking to the horizon from a boat can calm the embodied terror of seasickness, so the contemplative grounding of prayer and asceticism could be called a kind of looking to a larger context of the “nonhuman” greater than ourselves, which for the Christian is the mystery of the God-man Jesus Christ.
The Christian Gospel influenced writers such as Athanasius and Dana to meditate on how finding one’s self requires losing one’s self in the nonhuman and finding the nonhuman to be human as well in the process. Finding ourself is a central cultural value of today’s secular education. But as indicated also by Dostoevsky’s horror-tinged writing, with Christian existentialist themes like Dana’s, self-emptying into the terrible non-human, finding the non-human in the human face of Christ the God-man, offers another way than the self-assertion emphasized in many modern ideologies. As the poet Rilke put it, “every angel is terrible.”
Homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, on Sunday, Aug. 23, 7529 [Sept. 6, 2021, on the civil calendar].
Today is the Apodosis or Leave-taking of the Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God which is sometimes called the Summer Pascha, as we move toward the end of the Church Year on Aug. 31 (Sept. 13 on the civil calendar). At this leave-taking of summer Pascha, on the eighth or resurrectional day after the feast, we commemorate also on the Church calendar each year the holy and glorious right-victorious Hieromartyr Irenaeus, who was born about a hundred years after the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, and lived in what is now France. He was a great early teacher of Orthodoxy to the West.
Significantly for the correlation of his legacy with the Dormition season, he is the first Christian writer whose work survives to highlight the tradition that the Virgin Mary is the New Eve, just as Jesus Christ is the New Adam. Related to that, for the Theotokos Is the greatest of the saints and the hub as it wee of the Apostolic era, St Irenaeus emphasized that early the importance of apostolic succession, how the living tradition of the Church is sustained by God’s providence across generations through the spiritual power given to her at Pentecost, in which her members join through communion.
He emphasized apostolic succession in the face of a great heresy or wandering away from Christian truth that had already started in his time, known as Gnosticism, which is a major heresy returned to us in new forms today in America. His major surviving work, entitled On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-called Gnosis, today known usually by shorthand as Against Heresies, is counted among the writings of the apostolic fathers, as Irenaeus was a living personal link in that early tradition of the Church. He was a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna who himself was a disciple of the Apostle John the Theologian.
His writing against gnosis or Gnosticism, which means a private knowing of truth, is significant because he offers an early historical testimony to the life of Jesus Christ from only two generations away tracing back to someone who knew our Lord, and combines this with an historical witness to the pernicious and persisting heresies of Gnosticism His descriptions of Gnosticism were considered too fantastic and terrible, like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel, until they were confirmed by the discovery of gnostic writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1945 and after.Folklorists claim that oral traditions are reliable about history for at least a couple generations, to the time of the grandparents and living memory, and Irenaeus was a spiritual grandson of the beloved disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, testifying to the truth of the Gospels written directly by those who knew the Lord.
St. Irenaeus is remembered as the second bishop of Lyons, succeeding Pothinus, who was martyred during persecution of Christians under Marcus Aurelius when St. Irenaeus was visiting Rome. Lyons in France at that time was a major center of the Western Empire and a kind of gateway to the old Celtic and Germanic regions of the West. Known as Lugdumum, the Roman capital of Gaul, it may have had up to 200,000 residents in the time of St Irenaeus. Some scholars say its name is based in that of a Celtic pagan god associated with the sun although it also has been interpreted as “shining hill.”
Irenaeus is thought to have been a Greek from Polycarp‘s hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, now Izmir, Turkey. He was brought up in a Christian family so personally connected to orthodoxy. He is remembered as a martyr and buried under the church in Lyons, although his relics there were destroyed in 1562 by the Calvinist Huegenots during the religious wars that wracked France in the Reformation, in which Protestant culture came to hasten the revival of Gnosticism in the West.
Irenaeus describes in the final volume of his book the overthrow of Satan as occurring in our Lord Jesus Chrst’s overcoming of the three temptations by Satan in the wilderness. These are temptations of material comfort, of willful arrogance, and of power over others. They were all present in the Gnostic heresy by apostate Christians claiming to know better than the apostolic tradition, and they bedevil us today in American culture. But St. Irenaeus reminds us of how our Lord has freed us from the deceptive bonds of these delusional temptations for all time.
By overcoming these temptations, Irenaeus writes, our Lord overcame them for all humanity. Satan’s name in the Greek is diabolos, from which we get the English devil, and it means slanderer or opposer, literally that which separates as opposed to symbolos, from which we get symbolic, which means to unite. Ireneaus refers to Satan’s name as synonymous with apostate, those whose heresies he refutes in his early writing. Our Lord called Satan the liar and the father of lies, setting up prelest or delusion in which we become unable to love because we are living lies about ourselves and others, in a false virtual reality made from our own objectification and essentialization, as if we would take the role of God. This is the heart of the Gnostic heresy as St Ireneaus described it offering us practical help in our spiritual warfare today.
The Gnostics falsely sought to split up the unity of God into a number of divine “Aeons”, distinguishing between the “High God” and the wicked “Demiurge” who created the world in a counterfeit mockery of Trinitarian belief. In this they are like modern unitarians distinguishing between the material mechanisms of evolution as cause and vague spiritual powers either attributed to a deist watchmaker or to neopagan entities. With the gnostics’ splitting up of God came their splitting up of the intellect and the physical. This is like how many people today assume that they can do what they like with their body as a kind of meat puppet of their will but there is no integrity of body and soul. In such false belief there is no need for chastity because what people do with their will falsely is believed to be disconnected from their body. It is the tendency to make human beings into the equivalent of computer avatars, using technology to manipulate themselves and others, and not being mindful or grounded in holistic lives. With this comes the other primary gnostic belief that certain select people can gain the elite knowledge needed to understand truth and then to control and manipulate others. Thus the gnostics sought to twist and misuse scripture for individual interpretations. And the powers of this world still seek to do this today.
Against these beliefs, Irenaeus emphasized the importance of the unity of God in the triune Trinity, and the essential significance of the Incarnation, in tandem with the Crucifixion and Resurrection to our salvation in the resurrection of the body. He emphasized apostolic succession in the one apostolic and catholic Church, that God-given tradition that ensures in the Christian gospel we live in the Church in the body of Christ, in open and not some kind of secret or elite-driven evolving knowledge used to control and manipulate others. We do not find ourselves by asserting ourselves as possessors of special knowledge. Rather, we empty ourselves in Christ in His holy catholic and apostolic Church through the Eucharist and ascetic struggle with God’s grace.
So much of modern culture now wanders away from the apostolic succession to gnostic tendencies such as transgenderism and technocracy or rule by technology. But Orthodox Christianity shows us how God’s Providence sustains us in His Church unto the ages of ages. Even the sufferings we experience are part of that Providence and for our salvation when we turn to our Lord in His Church which is our ark of salvation amid demonic renewals of ancient heresies in these latter days. As St. Irenaeus pointed out, Christ as the new Adam systematically undoes what Adam did. When Adam was disobedient about the fruit of a tree, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of the tree. Christ overcame Satan’s temptations. The faithfulness of the Theotokos undid the faithlessness of Eve. In the Incarnation and life of Christ was recapitulated or summed up human life, and Christ by living it, sanctifies it with his divinity, providing as it were a true antidote or vaccine to sin.
I’ll close with words directly from St .Irenaeus, the faithful spiritual grandson of the Evangelist John:
The Lord of all gave to His apostles the power of the gospel, and by them we also have learned the truth, that is, the teaching of the Son of God—as the Lord said to them, ‘He who hears you hears Me, and he who despises you despises Me, and Him Who sent Me’ [Lk.10:16]. For we learned the plan of our salvation from no other than from those through whom the gospel came to us. The first preached it abroad, and then later by the will of God handed it down to us in Scriptures, to be the foundation and pillar of our faith. For it is not right to say that they preached before they had come to perfect knowledge, as some dare to say, boasting that they are the correctors of the apostles. For after our Lord had risen from the dead, and they were clothed with the power from on high when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were filled with all things and had perfect knowledge. They went out to the ends of the earth, preaching the good things that come to us from God, and proclaiming peace from heaven to all men, all and each of them equally being in possession of the gospel of God. (From Against the Heresies, III)
It’s been a few years since our family was able to get to our county fair, which actually is called the West End Fair, for the West End of Union County, PA, where it is located, near Laurelton. (The actual county fair apparently was canceled a long time ago near our college town, the former grounds of which are now the Farmers Market.)
We got there Tuesday night and it was as if timeless, as I commented to our sons, who nodded in agreement. For Tolkien fans, it was a bit like a timeless Elvish encampment, but Northern Appalachian-style (maybe a farfetched comparison, but considering that some claim Tolkien modeled the Shire on Eastern Kentucky, maybe not so much so…).
A Statler Brothers act featured four older gentlemen in red-white-and-blue suits singing on the stage numbers like “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” and “I’m Proud to be an American.”
As the twilight deepened into night, the roar of the tractor pull event, and the lowing of cattle and bleating of sheep and goats in the livestock pavilions, mingled with the rush of carnival rights like a tilt-a-whirl. Strings of Italian lights made the fairground into a magical land with the bright marquees of food trailers.
The Gadsden Flag was flying at the Republican booth.
We stopped at the chocolate malted marquee, and I had to explain to my teenage sons what a chocolate malted is (the family concessioners, in a concession to the times, kindly also had signs explaining the same).
The Gideons handed me a pocket New Testament with book of Proverbs, which has a small American flag on an inside front page, King James Version.
The crowd of all ages was mainly white, apparently rural, with a few people of color, and all seemingly congenial.
I was in my black riassa, cassock, and skufia, my Russian Orthodox Deacon garb, and ran into a couple families from our Church in the darkening shadows amid the carnival’s twinkling lights. I only got some curious looks, no hostile ones.
“I remember hearing the original Statler Brothers live with Johnny Cash,” commented one of the fellow parishioners I met, who like me has gone from “heartland” American to being a Russian Orthodox Christian in America.
Talking with her husband, we agreed on how special the evening there was. It reminded me of a Ray Bradbury novel, and the carnivals he wrote about in his native Waukegan, Illinois, my home country, far from here in the northern Appalachians, but also set in a heartland American culture.
In writing this now, though, I reflect now on how Bradbury (whom I had the privilege of interviewing a few times about those childhood memories) put a touch of horror into his carnival scenes, especially in Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Death stalks us even in high summer at carnival time, the Nazgûl are in the wings even at Woody End when the Hobbits have a safe night out with the Elves in the Shire.
However timeless even the West End Fair may seem to be, it is a passing moment, and an old American heartland culture it represents, however deeply rooted, is at least as deeply challenged as is rooted today. Like the old Irish otherworld stories, where time seemed to stand still in the fairy mounds, there is always an escape back, whether forced or desired. Friends told us that people were missing from the fair that night, gone to a National Night Out event to provide a “space place” for children to go in a neighboring rural county, and to a school board meeting in the nearest larger town featuring arguments among parents, taxpayers, and activists over issues such as Critical Race Theory.
The hostility I receive for my “exotic” faith in central Pennsylvania comes more, ironically, from the “cosmopolitan” college town in which we live, complete with its academic Russophobes, who celebrate difference in words but not in fact, than any trouble from what the latter’s progressive denizens would label unfairly the insular benighted rural West End of the county. Our college town’s community rituals lack the church stalls and Gospel music found at the West End Fair. Instead they celebrate a raw kind of ideological political power and privilege (cloaked in radical utopian ideology), which ironically reflects more the materialistic Vanity Fair condemned by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress than the rural farmland celebration with its signs of faith.
But even at the West End Fair, as our friends and I discussed briefly, we now wait for another historical shoe to drop, like the Roman poet writing of waiting for the barbarians to arrive. There is no safe refuge in country life or old time carnivals in these undefined latter days, however refreshing they may be in their best qualities, anymore than in Elvish gatherings in Tolkien’s woods with Mordor on the march. Troubles are here, too, sin and the cyberworld reaches all of us, here as much as anywhere. Deep troubles stalking the world today and slouching toward Jerusalem lurk in the Fair’s shadows as well, demons that troubled Dostoevsky before the coming of the Communist holocaust to Russia at work within America as much or more as anywhere else.
Yet even more so do God’s love, His protecting grace and angels, and the protecting veil of His holy Mother, cover us in this and every place.
Pray that we may all find shelter and refuge and enduring joy in the Church of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, within His Body. May we with God’s help further the spread of the Orthodox Gospel in today’s rootless America, which like all mortal realms stays not the same and will not last, but still can find a deeper spiritual unity, sobornost, only in Him. As ancient hymns of our Church proclaim:
O Lord of the Powers, be with us, for in times of distress, we have no other help than Thee.
How great a God is our God, He is the God Who worketh wonders.
A recent online discussion renewed the perennial and controversial modern topic of God the Father in Orthodox Christian iconography, as a bearded ancient.
My former Scripture instructor in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s online Pastoral School, Fr. John Whiteford, has this excellent overview of the issue. It links to a further in-depth discussion of the background by the writer Vladimir Moss, which is not affected by the schismatic advocacy of some of his other writing.
I’d recommend reading both pieces, which illustrate complexity and nuances in the discussion, about which a book-length treatment here sums up the criticisms of Orthodox “Ancient of Days” iconography in much online discussion today.
Basically, the controversy has centered around whether portrayal of God the Father as the “Lord of Hosts” or “Ancient of Days” in much Orthodox iconography found in Eastern lands (particularly Russia but also in Greece in centuries following the Fall of Constantinople) is non-canonical or even heretical. Some view the Ancient of Days figure as being properly of Christ.
The issue involves whether the “nature” of God the Father is portrayed, when un-portrayable, or whether the figure of the Father as a Divine Person in the Trinity can be symbolized as seen by the Prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. The name “Ancient of Days” and with it “Lord of Hosts” is also identified with the Holy Trinity as a whole in Church Tradition.
An added aspect, I would add, is that the relationship being portrayed in such iconography, between the figure of our Lord God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, with our Lord the Holy Spirit, is, as in St. Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity “The Hospitality of Abraham,” not essentializing in nature, but within the bounds of Orthodox apophatic theology. However, the depiction of God the Father by nature was specifically prohibited by two local but pan-Orthodox councils of the Church in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Orthodox scholar Eric Jobe has offered a review of the issues, in which he concludes that “The One Essence of God cannot be depicted in a direct manner, but the idea of it may be referenced symbolically through these eidos [idea-depicted-as-symbol] icons. Nevertheless, these icons remain on the cusp of canonical permissibility, and they should be treated with caution.” What Dr. Jobe calls eidos icons could also be considered including figures of theophanies in the Old Testament, such as the vision to Daniel of the Ancient of Days, most often interpreted by Church Fathers as typology of God the Father.
Holy Trinity Monastery’s temple in Jordanville NY has a beautiful icon of the Trinity with God the Father, and also another type of the same featured above the altar, which is visible in the photo below at the top behind the Cross. The ceiling iconography is especially breathtaking as part of a sequence related to the Trinity.
The sequence begins below with Jesus Christ in Divine Council with the Theotokos on His right and St. John the Forerunner (last of the Old Testament Prophets) on His left and other saints around with the Holy Spirit prominently above as a dove. Then above that the viewer sees a version of Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham, in which the theophany figure of Christ bows to an angel as representing the Father as it is often interpreted. Then, on the high ceiling area, Jesus Christ as a child sits on the lap of God the Father, with the Holy Spirit as a dove in the middle. In a cultural age like ours in a “global West” bereft of strong symbols of Fatherhood, lifting one’s eyes in this sequence especially can catch a faithful viewer off-guard, in recognition of the mystery of the Trinity.
A number of icons with the depiction of the Ancient of Days have been wonder-working over the centuries, including the Kursk Root icon. Their beauty and miracle-working inform Orthodox Christian tradition. Truly, God’s ways are mysterious, and one can love and venerate such icons while being aware of the ultimate mystery of the Holy Trinity, communicated by canonical warnings, as being beyond human ken.
(The photo above was taken this past week on the Feast of St. Vladimir, on my unworthy first-year anniversary of ordination as a Deacon, with my mentor and friend Fr. Felipe Balingit, with whom I had the blessing to serve; you can see the beautiful image of God the Father right behind the Cross, with — not mainly visible due to the Cross– the figure of the child Jesus Christ in His lap and the Holy Spirit symbolized by a dove.)
“Ecosemiotics.com” being the address of this blog, and “Christian ecosemiotics” one of its themes, raise the question “what is ecosemiotics and why is it related to this blog?” The answer is that ecosemiotics is a secular field of academic study today about the relation of cultural signs and natural life, most actively represented in the work of semiotic studies at Tartu University in Estonia. Years ago this blog started with a focus on issues of culture, environment, and faith, which it still has, but with increasing emphasis on considering how traditional Orthodox Christianity informs and transfigures modern secular views of culture and nature. This is a conversation that has occurred across centuries and even millennia (counting the Old Testament prophets and also ancient non-Christian philosophers whose work was adapted into the Hellenic-Christian synthesis or which parallels aspects of that discussion, as explored in the book Christ the Eternal Tao by Abbot Damascene Christiansen). But the work in secular scholarship of my friend and colleague Prof. Timo Maran at Tartu, who is not an Orthodox Christian or responsible in any way for my views here, as a very astute and discerning scholar, helps to keep the field of ecosemiotics academically vibrant and open to those like myself who wish to explore connections with faith and Orthodox Christianity. I am indebted as an academic to his work, and also as someone who aspires unworthily to explore Christian apologetic theology in my work.
I have linked here before to his recent book Ecosemiotics in the Cambridge Elements series on environmental humanities, but wanted to highlight it front-and-center for those interested in the topic of study, as an excellent concise overview and introduction. I even unworthily received a short mention in the book, for which I am appreciative, with regard to my coining the term “ecosemiosphere” in my edited collection Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics, which also featured one of Prof. Maran’s insightful essays.
Prof. Maran’s essay elsewhere on “nature-text” (encapsulated in the diagram from his article immediately below) is very helpful in terms of my studies of Christian literature. His new book adds the rightful qualifier that the relationship of the “fourfold” of meaningfulness he proposed in the article (overlapping contexts of author, reader, environment, and text) can be unpacked in multiple forms of influences and reception, specifically beyond beyond the necessarily shorthand categories of “author” and “reader.” I would add the same is true also of “text” (in the sense of intertextuality) and “environment” (cultural, social, natural, and, from a Christian standpoint, spiritual but also incarnationally cosmic Creation). In any case, the ecosemiotic approach offers an alternative in secular discourse to the reductionist materialism found in much academic thought today, by viewing communication exchange and information as basic to life. Here, the diagram suggests a model for thinking of the context of meaning in life in a fourfold.
For the Christian, “author” can ultimately mean God, and “text” His logoi. Landscape and the contexts of our life can be included in “environment,” and so forth. These are fluid and suggestive terms, but illustrate an overlap between God’s cosmic language of Creation and our experience of Creation as human beings, suggesting how our identity is relational with God and secondarily with one another, in what Russian Orthodox Christians call sobornost, the spiritual unity of communion.
What distinguishes this from conventional Western semiotics is the link between “sign” and “environment”–unlike much of what the English-speaking world knows about semiotics, the relation between the two is not merely internal and an arbitrary binary alone. There is a relationship. In fact, the American polymath Charles Peirce, whose devotion to Trinitarian Christianity paralleled his interest in developing a “triadic” semiotics that influenced today’s ecosemiotics: Sign, Object, Interpretant. Maran’s model changes the names of Sign to Text, and Object to Environment, and unpacks the “Interpretant” into Author and Reader, but Peirce’s work helps underlie his, as well.
One classic early article by another pioneer in the field, Winfried Nöth, simply titled “Ecosemiotics,” mentioned the “pansemiotism” of medieval literature, that is its sense of all-meaningful sign-filled Creation. This is the area of a “Venn diagram” in my view between patristic Christian literature and secular ecosemiotic studies today. Traditional Christian cosmology (exemplified in St. Maximus the Confessor’s discussion of the Logos and logoi) affords a dynamic transfigurative sense of Creation as dynamic inter-related and embodied meaning, incarnationally yet apophatically (mystically) iconographic, governed by God.
In the short mention of me in his new book, Prof. Maran quotes my view that an “ecosemiosphere literally means an ecological bubble of meaning (borrowing the term ‘semiosphere’ from semiotics. It involves not a ‘reenchantment’ of nature, but recognition as a meld of physical and cultural communication, which can be considered spiritual as well as material.”
Contextually, my view is that the development of ecosemiotics in the Baltic region is not coincidental, given its position in the rich Estonian cultural zone between ancient Orthodox and Western cultural zones there. The adaptability in my view of ecosemiotic thinking to Orthodox cosmology reflects the historical cultural contexts of what has been termed (back to Soviet times) the “Tartu-Moscow” school of semiotics–semiotics being, as with the work of the “crypto-Orthodox” renowned scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, an area of academic work that was considered relatively “safe” for those dissenting from Soviet materialism, yet “non-Western” in reflecting aspects of Eastern Christian cultural that emphasize a view of being as incarnationally communicative energy with the divine, rather than the Western Scholastic sense of being as more a conceptual analogy to the divine.
Homily for the commemoration of the Holy Royal Martyrs, given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, on July 4, 7529 (July 17, 2021 on the civil calendar). Please consider giving to our building fund.
Today is the Fourth of July on the Old Calendar, and on it we commemorate the Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia, witnesses to the true Orthodox Christian faith against the Bolshevik terror of atheism, nihilism, and demonic destruction. That the Fourth of July and their witness be linked together on our Church calendar is a meaningful coincidence. For the Holy Royal Martyrs remind us today of true freedom, which is voluntary service to the truth, in the Person of Jesus Christ, Who says to us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “Ye shall know the truth,” our Lord and Savior told us, “and the truth shall make you free.”
The witness of the Holy Royal Martyrs reminds us today, as Orthodox Christians in North America, of the witness required of us in the secular West of the 21st century, with its rising communism, anarchy, nihilism, demonic trends, and totalitarian spirit. We ask their intercession fervently for wisdom in discerning the signs of the times, and in witnessing with love in truth to our Savior and His Church. The opposition of the world we face today is the same as they faced and the same as Christians have faced throughout time, even as prefigured in the trials of the Old Testament Church. But today the last of the major kingdoms dedicated to God and His Christ has fallen, more than a century ago now. Today we face more directly in these latter days the spirit of Anti-Christ that denies that God has come in the flesh to save the world, and His Body the Church. We must pray each day and work to bring others to the Orthodox Church, our ark in these times of troubles, for in such evangelism we will save lives and cover a multitude of our sins, glory to God.
The opposition we face today comes through open hostility increasingly, but more deadly it comes from within in the form of materialistic so-called comforts and a drugging of our souls in consumer pleasures and fun. It is no coincidence that many corporations are adopting atheistic forms of Marxism as their ethos, for materialistic atheism comes at us both in modern forms of communism and in its supposed opposed, materialistic consumerism. Lust for power and profit, manipulating others and God’s creation, makes idols of technology, in what is called technocracy.
Today, miraculously, Russia has become the only major world power still to have an openly Christian culture, and America, which used to attest in a heterodox sense to Christianity as the source of her culture, struggles amid what some call the post-Christian West. We are Russian Orthodox Christians today not because we are Russian but to attest to the witness of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia to our Lord amid the forces of darkness in this age.
Brothers and sisters, let us be alert and let us remember the example of the Holy Royal Martyrs. At the end, stripped of the pomp and glory and power of empire, they stood against the Bolsheviks as one pious and humble Orthodox Christian family. They remind us of how each home, like a little monastery, is a little Church and a little kingdom, as is our parish as a Church family. And each of us, whether we know it or not, is on the front line of spiritual warfare today as much as the Tsar and his family in 1918. Today, on this spiritual Fourth of July, let us re-dedicate ourselves to the freedom offered to us by our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, and to our time for daily prayer, our continual reliance on the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, to guidance from our spiritual father, to regular Church attendance and study of God’s word and the lives of the saints, and to helpful spiritual works such as the book Unseen Warfare compiled by St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain.
I wish to close with a few words offered for this day in a homily by a monk at Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia, and a few selections from the Vigil service. From the monastery homily:
Everything filthy and paltry and sinful which could be found in the human soul was summoned against the Tsar and against Russia. All of this, with all its might, rose up in struggle against the Royal Crown, which was crowned by a cross, for Royal service is bearing of the Cross.People always rise up against the Cross by means of slander and falsehood, doing the devil’s work, for, according to the word of the Lord Jesus Christ, When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own; for he is a liar, and the father of lies (John 8:44). Everything was roused up against the most meek, pure and abundantly-loving Tsar, so that at the terrible hour of the struggle against him he would remain alone. Filthy slanders were spread before and against the Tsar and his family, so that the people would grow cold towards him. Faithless allies took part in the conspiracy. When the Sovereign was in need of moral support, his closest associates did not provide it and violated their oath. Some took part in the conspiracy; others, out of weakness, counseled abdication. The Tsar remained completely alone, surrounded by “treachery, baseness and cowardice.” From the day of the abdication, everything began to collapse. It could not have been otherwise. The one who united everything, who stood guard for the Truth, was overthrown. A sin was committed, and now sin had easy access.
And from the Vigil Service for today’s feast:
When the grievous time of trials began in Russia, thou didst beseech the Queen who reigneth and helpeth, O holy passion-bearer Nicholas, that she take the royal authority into her own hands. For the blood of thee and of thy family and servants crieth out unnto the Lord with the suffering ones of the land of Russia, for Christ to accept it in exchange for the forgiveness of sins, through the supplications of the Theotokos and of thee….
The counsels of God are not like the counsels of men, saith the Lord; for He casteth one down and exalteth another; the Lord killeth and giveth life, and He raiseth up the poor man from the earth, giving him a throne of glory. Thus did the Lord prepare His beloved favorite Nicholas, rewarding him for his piety, and causing him to dwell in the heavens after his path of the cross, that he might pray for the salvation of his people….
O Kindly Mother of the Light, beseech thy Son and our God, that He establish in our nation the throne of an Orthodox king, that He preserve it in peace and prosperity, that He deliver us from civil strife, and strengthen the Holy Church, delivering it from unbelief, schism and heresies….
Thou wast shown to be an imitator of the intercessor of Myra in Lycia, O right faithful Tsar; for, fulfilling the Gospel of Christ, thou didst lay down thy life for thy people, and didst spare the guilty, even those guilty of murder. For these things thou hast been sanctified by the blood of martyrdom, as a great martyr of the Church of Christ…
Like a solicitous father and mother ye visited your infirm soldiers, comforted them with love, and with your tears watered the place of their repose.
O spiritual garden, ye perfect seven, icon of the Orthodox family: ye are for us an image of the virtues and the glory of the Russian land….
Thy princes on chariots and horse fell; but we have risen up from our sins and by the name of the Lord have set ourselves aright. Wherefore, in repentance we cry out to thee: Save us O Lord, and hearken unto us, if only today we call upon our holy martyred tsar.
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us! Amen