Over at Church Life Journal, Andrew Kuiper has a tour-de-force article on the history and theology of Catholic Kabbalah. His review of four Catholic Kabbalists – Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, Giles of Viterbo, and St. John Fisher – is a model of intellectual history. He does a great job showing the continuing relevance of Kabbalah for Catholic (and other Christian) thinkers throughout the centuries.
The piece is amply cited and provides several helpful theological considerations. I thought Kuiper’s nod towards Sophiology was particularly enlightening. If Christian Kabbalah has a place in Catholic theology today, I predict that it will be in the writings of latter-day Sophiologists.
If I were to offer a criticism of Kuiper’s piece, it would be a very minor one at that: he makes no reference to the works of Margaret Barker. Her research has shed a new light on the roots of Christianity and Jewish mysticism (in both its Merkabah and later Sephirotic developments) in the memory of the First Temple. Reading Kabbalistic texts through a Temple lens can ease their Christian interpretation. But I digress.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the article, for a historian of the period, is Kuiper’s various references to the Kabbalistic books written by these Christians of the 15th and 16th centuries. I would particularly keen on finding the text of Giles of Viterbo’s Shechina or Pico’s Heptaplus. Some of these hard-to-find volumes have never been translated into English.
It is not easy to summarize the teachings of the Jewish mystics, nor their Christian interpreters. Kuiper does both with commendable attention to detail and obvious competence, all while keeping things clear and concise enough for a lay reader. This article also provides a badly-needed defense of the respectability of Kabbalah as a field of study. Its bastardization in recent times, exemplified most clearly by Madonna et al., has led some to question whether Kabbalah is anything more than a gnostic mishmash of magic with Hebrew letters. I have heard colleagues dismiss it entirely as a field of serious inquiry for a historian or theologian. This tendency seems especially strong with Christian academics, many of whom retain outdated ideas about Jewish mysticism or who simply haven’t up with the post-Scholem rediscovery of Kabbalah. Kuiper’s intervention is a broadside against this boring complacency. It’s not exactly “a cruel angel’s thesis,” but it is one worth defending.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski has an excellent Facebook post (which I very much hope he will turn into an article) demonstrating why the pre-1955 Easter Vigil is superior to alternatives within the Roman Rite. An excerpt:
One could go on and on… The bottom line is that the whole liturgy, one vast hymn of praise to the might of God revealed in the creation of the world, the creation of the old Israel, and the creation of the new Israel, possessed a cosmic sweep, an historical rootedness, and an immersion into mystery that I have never seen before, in a seamless interconnection with none of those embarrassing modular joints or ceremonial caesuras typical of the work of Vatican committees from 1948 onwards.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski
This is spot on. I would add that this year, I was struck by the particularly insistent if understated theme of divine paternity, generation, and filiation found throughout the twelve readings. They build perfectly to the blessing of the font. This ritual, so clearly a stylised evocation of the procreative act, is elaborated through repeated prayers of fecundation. The font is renewed as a vessel of new life, the place where souls are adopted by God. The divine paternity in Christ, through the Spirit in the sacraments of the Church, is one of the Vigil’s great themes. I hadn’t noticed it before. But it makes sense. After all, our adoption as “filii et filiae” (in the words of the Vigil’s vesperal hymn) is entirely constituted by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, the whole of the Paschal Mystery.
I was likewise struck by the apostrophising of the fire, candle, and water…I hadn’t noticed it before. It reminded me of the Old Believer icons that show the elemental spirits and the angels of the weather.
This Rite is clearly the product of a similar worldview. One gets the distinct sense that these are not mere poetic effluvia, but, as Dr. Kwasniewski notes, a real address to the material world, as if summoning it to sacramentality.
The liturgy had a majesty to it, a mounting series of joined but unconfused symbols, which the orations and lessons and ceremonies brought forth at a stately, leisurely pace: fire, candle, water, all *directly* addressed in words of power. It is the Church taking command of the rudiments of creation and literally ordering them to serve Christ and the salvation of souls.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski
Man imprints a touch of humanity upon those animals and things he takes up into his own life. Dogs, for instance, are not mere beasts; they occupy a quasi-human realm by virtue of their adoption into our own homes and rhythms of life. That is – our culture.
God does much the same with His creation. A self-diffusing goodness, He creates and redeems us as integral persons after His own image and likeness. The old Paschal Vigil suggests that He also imprints both sacrality and a kind of elemental personality upon the non-hypostatic creation, too. The Trinity has, if you like, its own culture. God wishes us to join in that culture, that pattern of common life shared by the three Divine persons. God assimilates us to that culture by cultus.
Namely, the sacraments. In these rites, the Church teaches us how God animates the sacramental potential inherent in all nature.
There is much to meditate here upon the underlying spirituality of the natural and material world we inhabit. At any rate, all Catholics would do well to attend a pre-55 Easter next year if they can. They will experience the Church’s liturgical pedagogy at its deepest and most mystically resonant.
In Holy Week, we edge ever closer to the Paschal Mystery that begins on Maundy Thursday and does not end until the joy of Easter Morning. Or, more rightly, the joy that never ends. The Paschal Mystery is always present on our altars. Christ deigns to give us all of the glory and drama of those frightful, baffling, sacred days in the course of every single Mass. The reverse is also true. Our meditation on the events of the first Holy Week must be impregnated by a sense of the profound Eucharisticity of it all. Everywhere, be it in the shadowed garden or the iniquitous court or the clamorous street or the desolate mount where Our Lord died, we discover hints of Eucharistic air. We cannot approach these scenes without catching a whiff of incense.
This scent of paradise would seem to waft from the very wounds of Christ as from the most fragrant flowers on earth. For they are the vessels of the new creation, the blooms of the new Eden, and the stars in the new Heaven. If we would have an idea of paradise, we must study the shape and depth and hue and feel and – in the Eucharist – the taste of these wounds. They are our gates to Heaven. They are our safe passage through the sea of tohu-va-bohu, the chaos of this sinful world. Yet, one must not carry the comparison too far. If the Israelites reached the Mountain of God kept dry of the waters of the Red Sea, the Christian must do quite the opposite. He finds God by drowning in that very different red sea, Christ’s Precious Blood. He must die there in that flood, just as His Savior did. But this death brings new life – and that everlasting.
It is thus the peculiar mission of the Christian soul to devote herself to the Holy Wounds. Few devotions are more perfect, for few are so closely bound to the very quick and marrow of our salvation. Indeed, devotion to the Holy Wounds is little more than devotion to Christ precisely as Redeemer of Mankind, and thus as our Prophet, Priest, and King, as Victim and Altar, as the Word Incarnate – in short, to Christ Himself.
It also inevitably means devotion to Christ in the Eucharist. All of the Holy Wounds remind us of the Blessed Sacrament. We find them there, on the altar, and we discover the shadow of the tabernacle falling over each wound in turn.
Anyone who has seen the Medieval materials produced around this devotion (including the flag of the doomed and valorous Pilgrimage of Grace) will know that, typically, there were five Holy Wounds: two feet, two hands, and heart. One could bring this count up to six if the wound in the side were considered separately from the heart. Yet St. Bernard of Clairvaux suggests there is another wound, rarely depicted, that gave Our Lord exquisite dolors unrecognized by men. Once, in conversation with Jesus, the Mellifluous Doctor asked him about his greatest unrecorded suffering. Jesus answered,
“I had on My Shoulder while I bore My Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound that was more painful than the others, and which is not recorded by men. Honor this Wound with thy devotion, and I will grant thee whatsoever thou dost ask through its virtue and merit. And in regard to all those who shall venerate this Wound, I will remit to them all their venial sins and will no longer remember their mortal sins.”
From the Annals of Clairvaux
A prayer to the Holy Shoulder Wound, bearing the imprimatur of Thomas D. Beaven, Bishop of Springfield, has circulated on the internet. It reads:
O most loving Jesus, meek lamb of God, I, a miserable sinner, salute and worship the most sacred Wound of Thy Shoulder on which Thou didst bear Thy heavy Cross, which so tore Thy flesh and laid bare Thy bones as to inflict on Thee an anguish greater than any other wound of Thy most blessed body. I adore Thee, O Jesus most sorrowful; I praise and glorify Thee, and give Thee thanks for this most sacred and painful Wound, beseeching Thee by that exceeding pain, and by the crushing burden of Thy heavy Cross, to be merciful to me, a sinner, and to forgive me all my mortal and venial sins, and to lead me on toward Heaven along the Way of the Cross. Amen.
Prayer to the Holy Shoulder Wound
All the wounds of Jesus teach us something of his Eucharistic life. The wounds and the Blessed Sacrament are mutually illuminating. If we would understand the Eucharist, we can look to the wounds; if we desire to penetrate those wounds more deeply, we must adore and receive the Eucharist. This can be seen in each of the typical wounds. The feet remind us of the absolute fixity as well as the global universality of the Blessed Sacrament. The hands remind us of Christ’s priesthood. The Wounds in the side and heart of Jesus speak to the burning charity which motivated the institution of the Sacrament as well as its generative power; along with Baptism, it makes mortal men into Sons of God.
The shoulder wound, however, tells us something different. It points to the veil of the Eucharist. It reminds us of the hiddenness of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. It is a silent and unseen wound, and it tells us about the silent and unseen God who becomes present for us, silently and invisibly, in the Eucharist. It was this wound, so St. Bernard tells us, that caused Our Lord such terrible pain in His Passion.
Consider the duty of the Christian soul towards this admirable wound. She must make reparation to the Father for this wound on the unblemished Son; she can only do this by uniting her own sorrows to His. She must prayerfully let the Holy Spirit mold her hidden suffering into the very likeness of the shoulder wound. No suffering is too great for this transfiguration, nor any soul too far gone in sin for this empowerment. All that is needed is a penitent heart, a sacramental life, and humble prayer before the Father. The Almighty is merciful, and His mercy comes to us through the Wounds of Jesus Christ. In fact, we find here one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith. If we would behold the mercy of the Father, we must look at the wounds of the Son – they are His mercy.
The Christian must burrow into them. We must bury ourselves in the wounds of Christ. We cannot be stingy with this self-offering. Every part of the soul belongs to God. The hidden wound of the shoulder reminds us that, even those parts we wish to keep away from the eyes of the world, those most interior sins, those most private sufferings, those darkest sorrows and temptations – all these unseen afflictions of body and soul – all must be given over to God. Nothing can remain outside His grasp. In the words of the Evangelist, “there is nothing hid which shall not become manifest, nor secret which shall not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17 DRA). It is fruitless to hide from God, just as it was when our first parents fled from His voice in the Garden. And so, the hidden wound of Christ reminds us that we will be judged, even as it offers us mercy.
These considerations must spur us to a more authentically Eucharistic life. We cannot hope to save ourselves. Christ has died for us, and to take on His dying life, we must cleave to the Blessed Sacrament. Acts of Reparation, Adoration, and frequent reception of communion are all ways to press our souls into the sacrifice of Christ.
In this sacred time of year, let us make a special effort to hallow the Holy Wounds in our heart, to unite our sufferings to those endured by our Savior, and to make reparation for the offenses that sin has wrought. And above all, let us praise God the Father Almighty, the author of these Holy Wounds, for His infinite mercy.
In Lent, I often return to the words of the great Bishop of Cambrai, François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon. He is a perennially refreshing source of spiritual wisdom and guidance. Since we are finally in Passiontide, I thought this excerpt from Fénelon’s sermon on prayer, “The Saints Converse with God,” would be greatly edifying for all those of my readers keeping up with the Lenten Spirituality Series.
We must pray with perseverance. The perfect heart is never weary of seeking God. Ought we to complain if God sometimes leaves us to obscurity, and doubt, and temptation? Trials purify humble souls, and they serve to expiate the faults of the unfaithful. They confound those who, even in their prayers, have flattered their cowardice and pride. If an innocent soul, devoted to God, suffer from any secret disturbance, it should be humble, adore the designs of God, and redouble its prayers and its fervor. How often do we hear those who every day have to reproach themselves with unfaithfulness toward God complain that He refuses to answer their prayers! Ought they not to acknowledge that it is their sins which have formed a thick cloud between Heaven and them, and that God has justly hidden Himself from them? How often has He recalled us from our wanderings! How often, ungrateful as we are, have we been deaf to His voice and insensible to His goodness! He would make us feel that we are blind and miserable when we forsake Him. He would teach us, by privation, the value of the blessings that we have slighted. And shall we not bear our punishment with patience? Who can boast of having done all that he ought to have done; of having repaired all his past errors; of having purified his heart, so that he may claim as a right that God should listen to his prayer? Most truly, all our pride, great as it is, would not be sufficient to inspire such presumption! If then, the Almighty do not grant our petitions, let us adore His justice, let us be silent, let us humble ourselves, and let us pray without ceasing. This humble perseverance will obtain from Him what we should never obtain by our own merit. It will make us pass happily from darkness to light; for know, says St. Augustine, that God is near to us even when He appears far from us.
On the 30th of March, 2013, I made the profession of faith at the Easter Vigil and received the sacraments of Confirmation and First Holy Communion from then-Bishop-Elect David Talley. I can still remember the night well. It was raining hard outside, and so we had to light the Paschal fire at the church door. We catechumens and confirmandi huddled in darkness while the rites began. It was a moment of profound holiness, and an Easter liturgy I will never forget.
Much has happened since that night. I am still a sinner, much as I was then. Perhaps I am a bit more aware of the fact, though. That’s a grace in itself. I have been a student, a pilgrim, and a devotee. I have made many friends in heaven and earth who have helped me along the way to God. I am grateful for every one of them, and I hope I have been able to do the same from time to time.
Ever since 2014, I have consecrated every year of my life as a Catholic to some Holy Person. My second year was dedicated to Our Lady, the third to the Holy Ghost, the fourth to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the fifth to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary. Keeping in this vein, I hereby consecrate my sixth year as a Catholic to the Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph.
St. Joseph has been a great friend to me in the past, and has proven the power of his intercession on more than one occasion. I ask my readers to join me in praying now that St. Joseph will bless this coming year with abundant graces proper to my state of life, and especially an outpouring of those virtues which he so admirably exemplified: humility, purity, simplicity, detachment, submission to the will of God, reverence, and a constant, attentive devotion to Jesus and Mary.
On March 16th, 1583, St. Philip Neri worked one of his greatest miracles. Having been called to the deathbed of Paolo, the young scion of the noble Massimo family, he arrived to find that he was too late. The youth was half an hour dead and, what’s worse, unshriven. But time and its corrosive powers are nothing before the grace of the Almighty. Thirty minutes of sorrow were given as the short prelude to a feat that would win this servant of God a heavenly renown and, for the youth himself, an eternity of joy.
We can imagine the scene well enough. The wailing mother, pressing her tear-stained face into the breast of her grieving husband, the servants praying for their dear lost lord, the doctors already retreating with a grimace of embarassment at their failure. Into this scene walks the silent old priest, calm as the eye of a hurricane. He receives the news with a stoic frown. Then, lifting his eyes in prayer, imploring the power of the hand that once raised Lazarus, he breathes upon the eyes so lately shut. He whispers,
This invocation brings forth a mystery beyond reckoning – the boy stirs and wakes, as if he had only nodded off a few minutes before.
We can only imagine the joy that fell upon the hearts of the mourners. What stunned clamor must have erupted in that little chamber! Yet the saint is ever in control. He commands all to leave, that he might hear Prince Paolo’s confession. Having cleansed the boy’s soul with the assoiling balms of penance, St. Philip spoke to him for thirty minutes. Would that we had some record of their conversation! There can be no doubt that the solicitous confessor was preparing the soul to meet God.
For that is the strangest thing of all in the story of the Paolo Massimo’s resurrection. It was only temporary. The thirty minutes of death are undone, yes, but only for about another thirty minutes of life. The parents of the young prince were, no doubt, bitterly disappointed at this second loss, a departure made even more painful by the desperate hope it stirred in their hearts.
Yet it was a miracle indeed – and it shows us a salutary truth about miracles. They are not for our comfort. They are not granted to appease our desires, however noble. Providence instead works all things, natural and graced, with only one end in view – the greater glory of God. St. Philip was sent to bring Paolo Massimo into eternal life, not to grant him any more time on earth. That was his duty, the quintessential duty of every priest.
We live in an age when the priesthood seems so mired in scandal and banality, torn this way and that by the worldly ambitions of the clergy, stained with sins of every kind. Lust, violence, abuse, pride, vanity, greed, division, cruelty, party faction – all of these wicked tendencies and more have obscured the nobility of the sacerdotal office, a dignity drawn entirely from the crucified Heart of our Great High Priest.
That is why we must remember the story of St. Philip and Paolo Massimo. It reminds us of why we have priests – of what the priest must do, and of what he must be.
The priest is a conduit of grace. His steps, his works, his words, his hands do not belong to him, but to God. They step into the wounded rhythm of our natural life and bear the healing presence of the supernatural. They raise us from the dead, but only that we might make a better death in the end.
St. Philip’s miracle today is commemorated with a proper Mass. May he pray that all of us might rise from the living death of sin and enter a dying life of grace.
SHOULD it happen sometimes, my daughter, that you have no taste for or consolation in your meditation, I entreat you not to be troubled, but seek relief in vocal prayer, bemoan yourself to our Lord, confess your unworthiness, implore His Aid, kiss His Image, if it be beside you, and say in the words of Jacob, “I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me;” or with the Canaanitish woman, “Yes, Lord, I am as a dog before Thee, but the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”
Or you can take a book, and read attentively till such time as your mind is calmed and quickened; or sometimes you may find help from external actions, such as prostrating yourself folding your hands upon your breast, kissing your Crucifix,—that is, supposing you are alone. But if, after all this, you are still unrelieved, do not be disturbed at your dryness, however great it be, but continue striving after a devout attitude in God’s Sight. What numbers of courtiers appear a hundred times at court without any hope of a word from their king, but merely to pay their homage and be seen of him. Just so, my daughter, we ought to enter upon mental prayer purely to fulfil our duty and testify our loyalty. If it pleases God’s Divine Majesty to speak to us, and discourse in our hearts by His Holy Inspirations and inward consolations, it is doubtless a great honour, and very sweet to our soul; but if He does not vouchsafe such favours, but makes as though He saw us not,—as though we were not in His Presence,—nevertheless we must not quit it, but on the contrary we must remain calmly and devoutly before Him, and He is certain to accept our patient waiting, and give heed to our assiduity and perseverance; so that another time He will impart to us His consolations, and let us taste all the sweetness of holy meditation. But even were it not so, let us, my child, be satisfied with the privilege of being in His Presence and seen of Him.
I confess, I had meant to get this post out earlier. The end of term was hectic and the start of vacation distracting. So here I am, offering my thoughts on Advent reading when the season is already here and nearly halfway done. Still, we can begin to read true and edifying things on any day, especially in the a holy time set apart by the Church for reflection and contemplation of Our Lord in one of His cardinal mysteries. So I offer here a few reading ideas for those looking for a spiritual boost this winter.
1. In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart – the Journal of a Priest at Prayer
This meditative book is the sort of thing you’ll want to take to Adoration. Written by an anonymous Benedictine monk, it is jam-packed with consoling thoughts and inspiring messages. The author relates the various locutions from Our Lord and, occasionally, the Virgin and Saints, received in the inward ear of the heart in the course of profound prayer. Over the course of several years’ worth of journal entries, we read of the author’s deep vocation to reparation and adoration for the sanctification of priests. I would recommend this volume to any men considering a vocation of any kind. Its rhythmic, prayerful passages breathe and bristle with a sense of holiness rare among contemporary spiritual authors. The voice of Our Lord sings through it all, not as a trumpet or thunderclap, but as “a whistling of a gentle air” (1 Kings 19:12 DRA). Speaking only as a layman, I can say that this book completely revolutionized my spiritual life. I wonder where I should be now if it had not come into my hands a little over two years ago.
2. Bethlehem or 3. All For Jesus
This list wouldn’t really be an Amish Catholic post about spiritual authors without some reference to Fr. Faber. The Apostle of London wrote many books about special devotions, graces, and mysteries of Our Lord’s life. His last volume, Bethlehem, is devoted to the birth and infancy of Jesus, making it especially suited for perusal at this season.
Like many of his other texts, Bethlehem is more devotional that practical. It is intended to inspire love for Our Lord under the particular mystery of his Incarnation. While this may be just what you need this Advent (and Christmas), you may desire something a bit more practical. How to grow in the practice of the love of Jesus? How to keep on in the unflagging task of Christian charity at a time so full of worldly distractions and weariness? How do we live out the Incarnation in our own lives?
If this is the sort of thing you’d prefer in your Advent reading, then perhaps turn to Fr. Faber’s first great devotional work, All For Jesus, or the Easy Ways of Divine Love.
In this great volume, it is Fr. Faber’s task to kindle the zeal of his readers by demonstrating the sheer ease of love. He points to concrete, simple practices by which to further what he calls “the Interests of Jesus,” to save other souls, and to sanctify our own.
All For Jesus is my main spiritual reading this Advent, and I have already found it working marvels. If you would love God with warmer enthusiasm and brighter joy, then read Fr. Faber!
4. “A Short Tale About the Antichrist.”
This short story by Vladimir Solovyov, the “Russian Newman,” may seem like an odd choice for Advent. Yet Advent is the apocalyptic season par excellence. The liturgy turns our ears to the voices of the prophets and our eyes towards the visions of the Last Day. And so it can be helpful to think creatively about what the end will be like.
I don’t believe Solovyov envisioned his (in some ways, rather prescient) tale of the future to be a literal prediction of what would happen. The man was not a fundamentalist, and this is not Left Behind. But he did see it as his spiritual last will and testament. The story is a powerful meditation on the nature of real evil, real Christian love, and what Christians will have to stand for in their last and terrible hour.
An edifying read, for sure.
5. The Book of Revelation
If you like your apocalypse unalloyed, then open your Bible, sit down, and read the entire Book of Revelation in one or two sittings. That may seem like a lot, but it brings lots of rewards. We often lose sight of the unity of the Bible’s individual books when we just pick at passages here and there. Reading the text fully through can help restore our vision of each book as what it is – an integral whole. With a book as symbol-laden as Revelation, that reclamation becomes even more important.
It is a holy and pious thing to meditate on the Second Coming of Our Lord in Advent. Reading the Apocalypse nourishes the soul’s sense of expectation and, indeed, her desire for the final judgment. The pious soul who seeks to be immersed in the text’s sapiential logic will gain many fruits. Those who go into it with only a narrow literalism will find nothing but an arid maze. This truth applies to all of Scripture, but most especially to its apocalyptic passages.
So, those are just five options for Advent reading. There are probably hundreds of other texts I could have chosen; thus we come one example of the great diversity that characterizes the true mind of the Church.
Fridolin Assists with the Holy Mass, Peter Fendi. (Source)
Earlier this month, my friend Keanu Heydari penned what is, I think, a very good essay about his own conversion and about conversion in general. I thought these two paragraphs were especially poignant:
If Jesus is the slain Lamb of God, the content of reconciliation is substantial rather than conceptual, or even primarily juridical. Forgiveness is freely given by God, but rather than bestowed, it is—like a substance—dealt with. It is held, beheld, and shared. I am speaking, of course, of understanding reconciliation as a sacramental event rather than as (primarily) juridical proclamation. The removal of our guilt is a free gift of the gracious God, yet it is not as a word, spoken in a booming voice. It is the material, densely textured experience of Jesus Christ, the Word, the Lamb of God, as he dies on Calvary, by the Church community, in the reception of the sacraments, wherein we receive God. The Psalmist implores, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34:8, RSV2CE). We taste and see, we behold, the forgiveness of God.
But pictures say more than words ever can. The Catholic artistic paradigm overflows with meaning. It is effusive, dynamic, and embodied. It is densely textured, thickly self-describing, multi-dimensional, and frankly excessive. But it is precisely in these Rabelaisian excesses that Catholic aesthetics gesture, even more powerfully, towards the ineffable, over and above the words themselves that are used in the liturgy. Sacramentally, we can truly say “Ecce homo.” Artistically, we are reminded that things are really happening outside of us, that we aren’t automata aimlessly generating profit for managers and selling our productivity to survive. We are more than the sum of our extrinsically imposed reductive component parts. The liturgy revels in its (in Cartesian terms) obscene uselessness. The defiance of the mass is its strongest selling point, as it were.
Read the whole thing. In what is proving to be an extraordinarily dark time for the Church, Keanu’s essay brings a good deal of hope in the fundamental promise of salvation.
A few months ago, I published a post entitled “The Best Monastic Documentaries.” It was quickly pointed out to me that, although I had covered several good features, they were all about Western monks. So I decided that, once I had the time, I would assemble a review of the best documentaries covering Eastern Monasticism. That time has finally arrived! So buckle up, get out your chotki, and watch some of these films.
60 Minutes Goes to Mount Athos
Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos, one of the monasteries profiled by 60 Minutes. (Source)
In 2011, viewers who tuned into the Christmas episode of CBS’s popular weekly news-documentary series, 60 Minutes, were greeted with an extraordinarily rare treat. For the first time in thirty years, the monks of Mount Athos had opened up their peninsula to a television crew. I remember when it premiered; this was one of my earliest encounters with the monastic tradition of the East. Bob Simon layers on the journalistic smarm, clearly stunned by and slightly distasteful at the various sacrifices and remnants of Medieval life on the Holy Mountain. Nevertheless, the holy simplicity of the monks that he interviews nevertheless shines through. I’m particularly impressed with the testimony to perpetual prayer – the prayer of the heart – given in this film. And luckily enough for us, both Part 1 and Part 2 can both be found online.
One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery
The sound of the wooden doaca awakens the monks from their sleep and calls them to prayer. (Source)
This quiet, reverent film covers the daily routine of a monastery in Georgia. There is no dialogue and no plot, per se. We don’t follow the actions of any single monk. But the viewer does gain an insight into the feeling of the monastic rhythm in this little, faraway community of Abkhazia. Viewers who have seen Into Great Silence will recognize a very similar style in this film. My only criticism is that there’s rather too much focus on the work of the monks, and not enough on their prayer. Still, those moments of prayer we do see are also noteworthy for clearly showing the larger lay community that depends upon the monastery for spiritual sustenance. This short film is thus perhaps the most poetic production on our list.
Monks have always sought “the desert,” though sometimes that desert takes the form of tundra. The monks of Trifonov Pechengsky monastery, Kolsky Peninsula, Russia, must be some of the northernmost monastics on earth. This intimate portrait of the community gives insight not only into the externals of ascetic life at the edge of the world, but also the reasons why men become and remain monks. It also shows, in a more explicit way than One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery, that the monks play an important role in their small town’s life and history.
“Hermits of Our Times – Orthodox Christian Monasticism (Hesychasm)”
To be fair, this isn’t really a documentary. It seems to be footage from a Romanian Orthodox news service taken in the late 1990’s. But it does shine a helpful spotlight on modern anchorites (then) living in the Romanian forest. Anchorites are not monks per se; at least, they are not cenobites, living in cells within a larger community. They are hermits who may once have been attached to a community but now seek God in solitude. I always find myself deeply impressed by the simplicity and manifest wisdom of these holy men whenever I return to this clip. I am reminded of the sayings of the Optina Elders, the Desert Fathers, or even my good St. Philip Neri.
“The Motorbike Rider Who Became a Monk”
The basics of monastic life, as communicated by a monk in Israel. (Source)
Again, I’m not sure this technically counts as a documentary. But it’s a good interview with a Cypriot who became a monk in Israel, at St. Gerasimos Monastery. One of the great strengths of this film, besides relating a vocation story, is the emphasis it places on the role of the Elder or Spiritual Father. For the Eastern Orthodox, and especially for monks, there is a spiritual lineage passed on from one old monk to younger ones (or to those in the world). In the West, we have mostly lost the sense of Spiritual Fatherhood by dividing its roles between the confessor and the spiritual director, neither of which carries the same weight as the Spiritual Father. But this short and helpful film is a good reminder of what still persists in the monastic tradition.
This 2011 documentary looks at the personal stories of various monks and nuns in Romania. It’s an artfully made piece, with a very good choral track throughout. But I admire its spiritual insights more than its aesthetic notes. Although the filmmaker does not seem to take a definitively Christian standpoint, she allows the monastics to speak for themselves. They provide a remarkable testimony to the strength of Orthodox traditions in the wake of Communism. We see not only the monks and nuns themselves, but also the devotional practices of ordinary believers who come to the monasteries. There are, for instance, many prostrations before icons. I also enjoyed the film for my own personal reasons. Romanian monasticism will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was a trip to a Transylvanian monastery that started my conversion, about seven years ago.
I’m sure there are other examples one could point to, but for now, these are some good places to start. They cover a wide range of Orthodox practices and values, all refracted through the lens of its monastic tradition.