"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Michael Plekon on the Sacramentality of the World

It has always been a pleasure to interview Michael Plekon over the years about his many books. Less than a year ago we were talking about his then-new book, Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience. In addition to books he has authored, he has also edited and translated a number of them, as I have noted on here over the years.

And now we have another one, just released in March: The World as Sacrament: An Ecumenical Path toward a Worldly Spirituality (Liturgical Press, 2017), 272pp. As in the past, I sent him some questions for an interview, and here are his thoughts.

AD: It's been less than a year since we last spoke on here about your award-winning book, Uncommon Prayer. Are there any connections between that book and The World as Sacrament?

MP: Yes, as I look back over what I have written, the threads and connections are clear to me, maybe more in hindsight. Both Uncommon Prayer and The World as Sacrament try to get us out of church buildings, out of the rites we revere, even out of the liturgical texts and scriptures and into the world of God’s creation and redemption. It is not at all a slight to the specifically religious contexts of prayer and of the spiritual life but a quest for these—as the scriptures and rites themselves intend—in the everyday lives we all know. As Barbara Brown Taylor put it in the title of her fine book, it’s a search for “an altar in the world.”

As I look back further, this was also the intent in looking at less than obvious “hidden” forms of holiness, also in the effort, as Dorothy Day said, to see “saints as they really are.” For me, the attempt to refocus ourselves on the ordinary, this-worldly life is to very much follow the lead of the New Testament: farmers, fishermen, shepherds, bakers, and tax collectors, along with cooks and weavers are where the treasures of the kingdom of heaven are found.

AD: As you know, the language of "the world" and "ecumenical" from your subtitle are red flags to some today in the Church, especially the Christian East. Were you at all concerned about that?

But both “world” and oikumene have solid histories in the Christian legacy. Even the anti-materialism of some strains of ascetic and philosophical thought cannot suffocate the world, and I mean the public world of work, politics, family, and friendships. In the Hebrew Bible and later in the NT, we are urged to welcome the stranger, to respect the one who is different—Samaritan, the immigrant, those in need, widows, orphans, the sick and imprisoned, the poor. We even are instructed to love the enemy.

The current disdain for others who confess Jesus as Lord but who are not within our ecclesial orbit, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or evangelical, needs to be seriously challenged. I for one am appalled by fellow Christians who can only describe other Christians as “heretics” or “schismatics.” Besides, there is a great deal of evidence that great writers and saints, like Basil the Great, urged the “orthodox” to reach out and re-establish communion with the separated. Disunity was for him the greater scandal and sin. So I am glad to include in this new volume Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant writers, just as I included writers of no particular denomination or church home in Uncommon Prayer. What they all share is a love for God and deep longing to live according to God’s grace. Marilynne Robinson is especially powerful in bringing the parables of Jesus to life again in the small Iowa town of Gilead, in her trilogy of books about two clergy families in that hamlet.

AD: And yet, this language is not your own: you explicitly draw on "The World as Sacrament," an essay by one of the most beloved and widely respected Orthodox thinkers of the last century, Alexander Schmemann, published nearly 40 years ago now. Who are some of the other important Orthodox thinkers who feature in this book? 

MP: I think those I chose are only a small selection of wonderful figures. To most readers, they will not be familiar but it was the suggestion of Hans Christofferson, director at Liturgical Press, to listen to an ecumenical array of writers, allowing readers to learn about some who would be new. Thus I chose Lev Gillet, the Benedictine priest-monk who out of love for the Eastern Church moved first to the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Studite monastery, and who later was received into the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Evlogy of the Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe. Under his pen-name, “A monk of the Eastern Church,” he was widely read particularly in France, Great Britain and Lebanon back in the 50s and 60s. He was chaplain at Mother Maria Skobtsova’s hostel on rue de Lourmel in Paris, then later at St. Basil’s House in London, and a widely traveled retreat master, spiritual counselor, and street pastor.

I also included Mother Maria Skobtsova, canonized with her companions in 2004, for her efforts to save the targets of Nazi annihilation: Jews and Communists, members of the Resistance, and others.

Another modern martyr I picked was Father Alexander Men, probably the most well known TV religious personality in post-Soviet Russia. He became a victim of the religious right for his ecumenical openness and openness to the West.

To many a brilliant scholar but diminutive personality, Nicholas Afanasiev, the noted NT and canon law specialist, was another choice. His insistence on the original non-hierarchical but conciliar and eucharistic shape of the church makes him an especially important voice today. Vatican II listened to him!

Two other close friends of Fr. Lev Gillet, lay theologians Elisabeth Behr-Sigel and Paul Evdokimov, were the other Orthodox figures I selected. Elisabeth concerned herself with the status of women in the church, this part of a deeper concern for the life of holiness in every nook and cranny of everyday existence. Similarly, Evdokimov focused on marriage as the sacrament of love as well as the “interior monasticism,” his way of arguing that holiness was universal, all of us called to be saints. From Dostoevesky and existentialist literature he emphasized the path to God as one through all the beauty and mess of life in modern society.

AD: And the West? You draw on Catholic and Protestant figures as well. What are some of the things that unite some of these diverse figures in your view? 

MP: Whether we talk of renowned figures such as Thomas Merton or Marilynne Robinson, Richard Rohr or Joan Chittister, Kathleen Norris or Barbara Brown Taylor, all have become spiritual teachers because of their honesty and, I think, their realism in talking of the life with God. No convenient, trendy pieties from these writers! And they do not shy away from what is messy and painful in life. The life with God very much includes suffering and emptiness. What is more, they see the stage of everyday life as where God encounters us, and remains with us.

AD: One of those figures from the modern West is Thomas Merton. A student of mine this semester has been reading him for the first time and finding a great deal of wisdom before some of my student's friends tried to warn him off Merton, saying he was "unsound." Give us your sense of why Merton remains such an important figure nearly 50 years after his death.

MP: It’s sad that for such a recognized and substantial figure like Merton, disagreement with his stances on civil rights and war and the inability to accept his criticism of the church result in a verdict like “unsound,” a judgment he is not “authentically Catholic.” But then, consider the list of others who would deserve similar rejection: Dorothy Day, the Berrigans, Oscar Romero, Gustavo Gutiérrez, yes, and Papa Francesco himself, since he has been personally responsible for the rehabilitation of many. He mentioned Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton along with Abraham Lincoln as important American spiritual leaders when he addressed Congress a few years ago. You don’t need me to remind you that the “culture wars” conflict has found its way not only into debate on social issues but into liturgy and spirituality.

AD: Your introduction speaks of men and women "looking for God in everyday experience." And at the same time your epilogue notes the attractiveness to some of an "extreme world-denying vision" (p.250-51). This seems to be a difficult tension to negotiate--to be in the world but not of it. How do the figures in your book help negotiate this tension? 

MP: These two poles are there all the way through the history of the Christian tradition. Diarmaid MacCulloch documented that in his wonderful Christianity, The First 3000 Years not long ago. I think the experience of early Christians is telling, and this is the case whether one looks at the desert mothers and fathers or even the members of early communities. Their cultural roots, both in Judaism and in Hellenism, gave them respect for the need to stand against the culture, society, the empire even, while at the same time being active participants in the life of the community. As I see it, the real distortion comes when we are told that everything here in this world and life is merely a training ground, only distractions, with the afterlife, the other world, being our destiny, being what really counts. Nowhere, and I do mean nowhere, in either the Hebrew Bible or the NT can you find this vision!

Amy-Jill Levine, the Orthodox Jew who is a NT specialist at Vanderbilt, has emphasized this in many books, especially Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.  And this is why the NT is full of women baking, farmers plowing and seeding fields, others out fishing, craftspeople and tax collectors and teachers plying their trades in so many parables and metaphors. Jesus goes apart to commune with his Father but what he leaves his disciples is the everyday work of mercy, grace put into practice. If we really believe in the Incarnation, then our faith, our spiritual lives, are not like a spaceship evacuation to a better life on another planet. Detachment and distancing from what we do not like or agree with, as in Dreher’s “Benedict option,” is really not an option for followers of Jesus. Benedict of Norcia would agree, I am quite sure.

AD: Is it just my own take, or does it seem today that more and more people in the Church seem to think we have to go searching for God in an exotic monastery and not, say, in cleaning up after Grandma's colostomy bag broke, or going about my workaday routine? Do we disdain the quotidian and thus fail to see God at His most "mundane" as it were?

MP: Having some experience in monastic life—with the Carmelites—the motto of the friar orders rings true for me: contemplata aliis tradere. We are to share the gifts we receive in prayer and contemplation with others. We are to spread the mercy and the grace. It is attractive to retreat to a quiet monastic guest house, follow the prayer of the hours with the monastics, eat in silence in the refectory, stroll the grounds, smell the incense. But let me tell you, this is a selective experience, one which we control and which spares us sponge bathing an elderly monk or nun, battling a sink of greasy pots and pans—vessels which, it must be noted, Benedict said were as holy as the chalice and paten on the altar.

AD: Both your prologue and epilogue work in autobiographical perspectives, and being a great lover of biographical studies as well as memoirs and diaries, I naturally read these first. I'm especially taken by your epilogue, "Learning to be a Pastor." May and June are often traditionally ordination months, and so I'm wondering, after decades in pastoral ministry, first in the Lutheran and now the Orthodox Church, what would you tell upcoming ordinands to expect as they set out on pastoral ministry?

MP: I follow, in various venues, ongoing reporting on seminaries and the training of future pastors and then what happens to people newly ordained. After five years, three out of five new pastors have left parish ministry, or never entered it, choosing specialized ministries in chaplaincy, counseling, teaching. Many of the reflections in The Church Has Left the Building express the challenges, both the hope and frustrations, pastors experience today in parishes. There is no doubt—and the leaders of church bodies have to get real about it—that the model of parish life and thus of pastoral ministry that we’ve pursued for over a thousand years is gone. Only a few exceptions--urban parishes with substantial endowments, and some fascinating experiments in reinvention and redefinition--show vitality. I don’t mean to sound arrogant here. I have spent almost 35 years as a pastor in fairly ordinary parishes, all of which are challenged and shrinking because of demographic changes that have nothing whatsoever to do with belief. Any pastor who thinks that simply doing what he/she has done for the last millennium or more is in delusion. Reading the NT would be a first therapy.

Some find a resistance and detachment on the part of Eastern Church clergy attractive, a negation of nasty secular, corrupt culture and society and adherence to paradisic liturgy: you know, all those icons glowing from the candles, the smoke of the incense, the “mystical” chant. Some even think if the chant were in languages one could not understand, it’s all the better. Close the holy doors, pull the curtain, lose yourself in the other-worldly. Well I know what Papa Francesco, whose Vatican basilicas are pretty smokey and bedecked with frescoes, would say. I also know what some of my beloved teacher and writers like Gillet, Evdokimov, Afansiev, Schmemann, Skobtsova--all faithful members of the Eastern Church-- would say. Afanasiev in particular said the tinkle of the bells on the bishop’s sakkos, the eagle rugs thrown on the floor for him to stand upon, the endless chants that he should live forever (or at least for "many years"): these are what remains of the Byzantine Empire and its court, imperial props that John Chrysostom and Basil the Great knew nothing of, and which are the most "this-worldly" conceivable!

Mother Maria said the people gathered for the Eucharist and also in line to get a bowl of soup and chunk of bread are the “living icons” just as much as those on the walls and screen incensed by the deacon in the services. Schmemann celebrated the conciliar shape of the church which has, as his teacher Afanasiev said, place for all, from bishop to small child. But he also called the obsession with ecclesiastical headwear and clothes a “vaudeville of klobuks,” a circus of obsession with trappings. And Paul Evdokimov’s son, Fr. Michel, an emeritus professor and pastor, once told me as we put our cassocks on, “This riassa can be worn too much and badly, and do much wrong,” though that was hardly the purpose of it. So if I were to say anything to newly ordained people, I would say bless me, pray for me, be merciful, be merciful, and be merciful some more. Listen to the people. Listen to the your neighborhood. Listen to the world of work and play going on around you everyday. Maybe you should be, like the apostles, a “worker pastor” with a “day job” like them and countless other pastors for centuries.

AD: You've seen many changes in your pastoral life, some of them discussed in another of your recent books, The Church Has Left the Building. Any prognostications about what changes are still to come in the life of parishes today in North America? 

MP: Ah, every wonderful question you ask leads to another. Funny you should ask about changes in parish life, for I have started work on a book I am tentatively calling Community as Church. By this I mean that I am looking for people outside the institutional churches looking for fellowship, sharing, meaning, God. I have met a couple whose potluck get-togethers are not just 30-somethings commiserating about drooling infants and exhausting toddlers and constant pressure at work but also in the exchange, discovering communion with each other, things to live for, support on the way.

As well, however, I have come across pastors trying new, different things. Right in my own backyard in the Hudson Valley, for example, a UMC pastor and friend, Wongee Joh, leads a cooperative of four parishes seeking to find new ways of being church in the future. All these were small-town congregations but now because cars have made the towns mere minutes away from each other, the duplication of Methodist parishes is redundant. The annual NY Conference—what we would call a diocese—is urging the parishes to find ways to pray and work together and use the resources they still have wisely. But for many, the heartbreak of no longer having Sunday services where Grandpa and Grandma once sang and prayed looms large.

Another friend, Presbyterian pastor David Frost, himself a PK, was asked by members of his dad’s former parish, an historic, 200+ year-old congregation, to try to keep it going, maybe revive it. The regional body, the presbytery, agreed, even accepting that this parish could not be expected to behave as ordinary ones do. They would share with the larger church financially as they were able, but also not be bailed out by them. Almost ten years later, miraculously, as David says, there still is a community, praying together on Sundays, staffing a thrift shop and food pantry, even being home to street folk from the village of Patterson NY.

One more example. A former parishioner from the first parish I served, also a former student in the diaconal training course we sponsored over 20 years ago, is now pastor of an old Swedish Lutheran parish, Gustavus Adolphus (GA), on 22nd Street in Manhattan, literally on the campus of my school Baruch Colllege-CUNY. The parish was about to close when he arrived, after a too-long pastorate of almost 50 years. Miraculously, as Chris Mietlowski also describes it, GA has become a “destination” parish. I was amazed when he told me that only he and his wife live in the neighborhood, in the rectory next door. All those who have come to the parish are from elsewhere, from all the boroughs, even a few from across the river in NJ. They come because of the liturgy, the preaching, his pastoral leadership and care, but as he notes, mostly because they find God and community with each other and then turn this into neighborhood outreach: early childhood education, food pantry, but also importantly, doing the works of mercy in their own neighborhoods and homes and jobs elsewhere! Yes, there is much to be concerned about as parish numbers shrink, and deaneries and dioceses decrease. Not a week goes by that I do not see and collect an article on a parish reinventing itself, a parish dying, closing only to rise again in a new congregational start in the same location. The church will remain, but not as we’ve known it.

AD: Your epilogue took me back to some part-time work I did in a nursing home in Ottawa in the 1990s as a volunteer in the pastoral care department where I learned, as you so winsomely describe, that some of the shut-ins you visited were unexpectedly "absolute gifts of grace to me." Isn't that one of the hidden paradoxes of such "work"--that far from being a tedious chore in which you minister to someone, they often end up ministering to you, offering you unexpected gifts?

MP: I get the sense, especially for the last few years now, that we are more the recipients of mercy and grace than we could imagine or hope for. Maybe it’s one of the many experiences of “aging” for me. Whether in my home parish or in others I visit when away, I am struck by how much more we are given within the community of faith, no matter how little or great our levels of contribution may be. Behind both Uncommon Prayer and The World as Sacrament is a realization many great spiritual teachers have had, from the first centuries on down. Weeding the garden, putting together a meal, cleaning up—all these seemingly mundane, meaningless tasks are opening to communion with God and with each other.

The prayers in our prayer/liturgy books are beautiful. Those that come in work, in happiness, in love, in being forgiven, are powerful prayers as well. This we hear from lots of voices. I hear it almost weekly from Papa Francesco. But as I worked through Kate Hennessey’s riveting memoir of her grandmother, Dorothy Day and Dorothy’s only child, Tama, Kate’s mom, I heard the gifts of mercy and grace given over and over again in the lives of those women. And, as I have said, I have heard it and tried to communicate it from Mary Oliver, Mary Karr, Barbara Brown Taylor, Merton and Rohr and Schmemann and Skobtsova and so many others.

AD: The prologue and epilogue build on some autobiographical material in other books. Now that you are about to retire from CUNY, can we expect a full-blown set of memoirs? If not, what might you be working on instead--any future projects we should keep an eye out for? 

MP: Years ago, my very brilliant and even more outspoken daughter Hannah tore into me for not telling my story in a chapter in Saints As They Really Are, about my years in the Carmelites. “You keep talking about other people, describing things like a professor, objectively, in the third person. This is about YOU, Dad! Where is your heart, your feelings, your voice.” Anyone with daughters will immediately get this. It made for a much better chapter and encouraged me to start putting autobiographical/memoir material in other chapters in my books.

But as master memoirists like Patricia Hampl and Mary Karr say, memoirs read easily but are very difficult to craft. I hear the anti-ecumenical buzz in my own church body. I see with pain no sensitivity to the reality of faith in other communities on the part of younger clergy—they’re all “heretics.” I think the account of how I was raised in the faith that I did in the prologue explains my ecumenical commitment. I know others have opened and grown from such ecumenical sharing and there is no future for us without it.

I have said plenty about what I was given and how much I learned years ago, as a young pastor. If what I saw and was gifted with can encourage a reader, then I have kept the giving going and alive.

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