Saturday, January 19, 2008

Ecumenism Is a Conversation for Saints

People who know my view of the Council of Florence and the Filioque are sometimes surprised to find that I also very much like St. Mark of Ephesus, who, of course, was a vehement opponent of both. But it has always seemed to me that the problems people have with St. Mark are really with the people who try to use him as a club to hit people with. It is not pleasant to be hit with a club, and it stirs up feelings of dislike; but, really, it is not the club's fault. We should not judge saints by their followers. I learned this over a space of several years with St. Gregory Palamas. As I've said before, I'm a Palamite; and, what is more, I am a Palamite despite all of Palamas's defenders. The 'despite' is not an exaggeration. If it were a matter of paying attention to their arguments, the Orthodox defenders of Palamas would long ago have convinced me that the distinction between essence and energies is incoherent, confused, unbiblical, unconciliar, and leads to an astounding amount of malice in its defenders. Fortunately, I took the trouble to start reading as much of Palamas himself as I could -- not easy, because despite their considerable heat, surprisingly few of the polemicists who use St. Gregory as a club take much trouble to make him more accessible to the people they are attacking. And it was St. Gregory who convinced me, because St. Gregory articulates and defends the doctrine properly. Perhaps this is because he actually experienced it personally rather than (as many of his followers) merely talking as if he had. He began with God in Christ, not abstractly but personally, both in prayer and in participation in the tradition of the Church; the doctrine of energies came out of that. This contrasts sharply, it seems to me, with many of the defenders of the doctrine today, who begin with opposition, as if the point of the doctrine were to tell you why Catholics (or Protestants, as the case may be) are idiots and heretics. This is unfortunate; even the best-intentioned defenders are sometimes only borderline competent to say anything about the subject at all, since, unlike St. Gregory, they are more apt to garble than to clarify.

Similarly, the thing that I find likable -- admirable is perhaps a better word -- about St. Mark Eugenikos is that, for all his polemic, he did polemic the right way. It is sometimes necessary to remind Orthodox polemicists that saints aren't made saints because they did one thing only; what made St. Mark a saint was not that he attacked the Latins but that he was a holy man even in attacking the Latins. He, too, began with God, not with opposition; he, too, was more interested in Christ than in beating Catholics over the head. I don't think he was right in every claim; indeed, I think he made a fair number of mistakes. I don't think he's a perfect model for handling the situation. But it was a new sort of situation; mistakes are human, even for saints, and we don't look to a particular saint for inerrancy and flawless exemplarity. But he began in the right place, and his prayer was deep; these were the essential things, from which everything else followed, and everyone could do much worse than to imitate him in these most important things. I also think that St. Mark -- not the people who use his words as a chess piece -- is a reason Catholics need to have a certain sort of sympathy with prayerful, charitable Orthodox who look West and feel inclined to voice the objections he voiced. There are plenty, and although they are not usually the loudest voices, they are far and away the important ones. These Orthodox who really do follow in the footsteps of Eugenikos, those who begin with God and Christ and find the Filioque, at least as often expressed, worrisome, should lead all who accept the Filioque to take more thought on such matters, and to examine themselves more thoroughly for impediments to charity, and to take care that all that they may say on the matter begins with God and Christ as well.

And that brings me to the view expressed in the title of this post. I'm inclined to think the divisions of the Church are rifts beyond all human healing; reunion comes not by human argument and scheming but by moral miracle, if at all. Neither you, nor I, nor anyone else can contribute anything to it except insofar as we may be instruments of it. The pen does not write for the writer, the scalpel does not have the wisdom of the surgeon, the staff does not possess deep insight into the ways of the shepherd. Our task is not to invent the solution to the problem. It is not to force the other side to listen. It is not invincibly to refute them. Our task is what it is in every other part of our lives, to walk the path of Christ in the manner of Christ, prayerfully and through His grace, doing good to those around us as is befitting of children of the Father, teaching not with clever words but with the power of the Spirit. Our task is to begin in the right place. And it is only if we do this that there is any sure hope at all in this regard; the only certainty for hope is in the Lord. Reunion will come not because we have designed it, not because we have been smarter than our opponents, not because we have brought it about; it will only come about, when and if it comes about, as a living outgrowth of the Spirit-inspired conversation of the saints through the ages.