Friday, March 30, 2007


I just stumbled across a very intriguing Orthodox blogger who goes by the name of Ochlophobist. The article I read first was this one, called "The Uberfromm, Snuggling Up to the Gates of Hell, Part IV". You may need to scroll down a bit.

I have since read more of his posts, and I have to say that I am impressed by his erudition, his concision, his poetry. Most of the time.

In this first post, however, I see some circular reasoning. I see someone that uses a term - überfromm - the definition of which he seems at times uncertain. I see someone that has lofty ideals for Orthodoxy that may be out of place with reality.

Let me touch on a few points.

He opens his post with a litany of scandals, heresies, and sundry other immoralities that beset the Church at this time. Most of them would be of no surprise to the informed Orthodox, and perhaps my readers (like myself) can think of one or two other abominations in our temples that he hasn't mentioned. Naturally, it grieves my heart to read them, for they shouldn't be. Never mind that scandals have rocked the Church since the day of Pentecost (as he rightly points out), they are a blot on the virgins' white robes and an ongoing tragedy that should cause us to weep. Sackcloth and ashes would not be misplaced either.

That said, I should like to point out that the jury is out on Elder Ephraim, Ochlophist's "Orthodox fundamental who savors all that is pagan in what might best be called Athonite spirituality"; also that the "heterodoxiarch" Seraphim Rose is greatly beloved, widely esteemed as a fully and radically Orthodox Saint, and that "his" tollhouse soteriology is one that existed within the Church before he wrote about it. Suffice it to say that not all Ochlophobist's scandals are obvious ones.

Ochlophobist also betrays some anti-monastic tendencies and inclinations. I believe "Monasticism in Orthodoxy today is a smoke and mirrors farce" argues my case for me. Part of the problem is that his exposure to monasticism appears to be North American, which is notoriously and sadly shallow. (And Elder Ephraim's version of Athonite monasticism, which monasticism would provide a handy counterpoint to the weaknesses of many N. A. monasteries, is controversial at best.) However, the Old World is flourishing. Romania's Moldavian monasteries offer a second Mt. Athos, and Serbia's travails at the hands of Clinton prompted a massive resurgence of monastic life in that beleaguered country. Doubtless there are other places where monasticism is hale, whole, and holy - North America's frailties are not the world's.

Part, too, of Ochlophobist's anti-monasticism seems to be tied with the turn of the millenium (the last one) tension between a non-monastic spiritually - tied to the laity, married clergy, urban dwellers all, and the bishop and cathedral - and monastic spiritually - tied to a monastic clergy, and the abbot and monastery. He says that this non-monastic spirituality was flourishing, and that it is now gone, swallowed by monastic influences in the centuries following the Ottoman conquest. I have heard this argument before, and in fact, I have heard it posited that there were different liturgies to go with the different spiritualities. Frankly, I can't see how the liturgy of the urban church is somehow more meritorious, more lay-appropriate than the liturgy of the monastery. We are not talking the differences between apples and oranges here, but the differences in the length and number of hymns.


But all these extraneous points should not take us on a tangent from his central thesis, as I see it. He believes that Orthodox, for all our mouthing of a holistic faith, do not and can not live such a faith outside of the monastery, and that his ubiquitous überfromm are the post-Ottoman invasion poseurs who think that they are doing so by borrowing some monastic trappings. Let me quote:
The spiritual practices that this girl [whose lifestyle is outlined in the previous paragraph --- V.] engages in are thoroughly Eastern monastic, which means that they are practices developed by and encultured in a climate that represents a rejection of this world. Not only that, but the spiritual literature which buttresses these practices, and which our trendy Orthodox girl reads, is quite clear that the whole point of monks leaving "the world" is to get away from environments such as those which our trendy girl inhabits on a regular basis. We are not talking about a fundamentalist fear of dancing and movies here. We are talking about any engagement with the secular and civic worlds that is beyond the minimally necessary. It is impossible to develop an authentic Orthodox culture as long as the Church is a monastic Church. Thus, when a lay Orthodox (or married priest) engages culture, he does so in a necessarily fragmented manner (here, Roman Catholics have a great advantage over us). He has his totalizing monastic bag of devotional tricks in one corner of his life, and then he has the rest of the world that must be fuddled about in manners which are adopted, stylistically, from other sources. I cannot pinpoint a manner of lay life and say of it -- "every aspect of that Basil's life is recognizably Orthodox" (this can only be said of Orthodox monks) in the manner that I can say that "every aspect of Henry's life is recognizably Catholic" or "every aspect of Ed's life is recognizably confessional Presbyterian." There is a cohesive and comprehensive nature to magisterially faithful Catholic and some confessional Protestant modes of life. These styles are rarely totalizing and fragmented. Instead they are embracing of every aspect of human nature (especially Catholicism). When Henry drinks beer, he does so in a manner that, well, seems Catholic (Catholics have an articulated theology of food and drink, and temperance with regard to them). When he watches movies, he does so in Catholic fashion (Catholics have an articulated theology of the purpose and telos of modern forms of media). When Henry has sex, he does so as a Catholic (his Church teaches him exactly what is and is not permitted within the bounds of marriage, and informs him of the purpose and telos of the sexual act -- ask 10 different Orthodox about sexual matters, i.e. contraception, the relation of sex to fasting, etc., and you will get 15 different answers). There can be recognizable Catholic and confessional Protestant styles of life because they are surrounded by enough definition and boundary to work on a comprehensible art of living. The lay Orthodox on the other hand must always revert back to a monastic style of life which is not really his and which he can never live up to. This distortion is hidden by the abstract (in the art sense of the word) uses of non-definition and active non-clarification. In the Orthodox Church, the whole ethos of the realm of personal holiness (righteousness) and a personal style of living is something like a cross between a Quaker meeting and the French Theatre of the Absurd. On the one hand, I find refreshing the Orthodox aversion to cookie-cutter Christian moralism. On the other hand, humans being the mimetic creatures that they are, the former moralism is often replaced with cookie-cutter ritualism (prayer ropes, beards, etc.), even if this is done on a very limited basis by busy, worldly laymen.
And this is where my interest really picks up. For here I agree with him, or at least, I see the same or a similar problem. A couple posts ago I wrote about it, albeit not as fluidly or fluently. I wanted to know how as a working man I could keep the Fast, how to be fully Orthodox and yet fully functional in my very physical work. Surely the Fast is not just for the intelligentsia, for the urban elite? I intuited a need for a model and a way of life that would allow me to live in a cohesively and comprehensively Orthodox manner, and yet not be outside my reach. I am not in a monastery, and I can't live like I am in one. Live ascetically, perhaps, but I need to know how.

How to integrate asceticism and the world.

I have also expressed a wish for a book entitled Practical Orthodoxy For Converts: How to Live a Life You Weren't Raised In. Again, I did not express myself as well as I could have or should have, but what I wanted was the one thing I have not received - a model of Orthodox living [for the non-monastic]. Is Orthodoxy holistic? Well, then, show me how. I don't want to have to read all of St. John Chrysostom's sermons or Alexander Schmemann's journals to acquire this knowledge. I want to read it in one place, or perhaps one person.

I am a bibliophile by nature. I love books, and I have devoured libraries of them. When I first converted to Orthodoxy, I consumed them by the barrow-load. I could debate Arianism or discuss the sociological tensions that led to Egypt's embracing of Monophysitism.
I still have a half-completed thesis paper on comparative diachronic monasticism kicking about. I also wrote about the unity and cohesion of what I believed, and I reveled in my Orthodoxy and in my wisdom.

Then one day it occurred to me that I knew lots and lots, but couldn't live the Orthodoxy I "knew", didn't know how to. And I still don't.

Now I just need to find someone, or somebook, that does.

- V.


Anonymous said...

v. From a Catholic perspective I can give you a glib response. You must write that book you seek.

My more thoughtful response would be; You must write that book you seek.

In a sense it is your life that is the book. And while it may seem that Catholics have an advantage in that every aspect of their lives has some magesterial prescription attached, the proof of the pudding, as it were, is in the eating. I could give you the statistics, but suffice to say, many, many Catholics in this western culture are fully engaged in it, perhaps most are. To the point that Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, mused in a public interview that the Church that emerges from this period in the west may well be smaller and a lot more faithful. In other words, that continuity of pattern of life is not sufficient to keep the "faithful" faithful. In fact, in my opinion, it is our Protestant Evangelical friends who hold one advantage here, just in the fact that their identity is bound up in a personal conversion of heart.
Benedict XVI as well as many others, recognize that the faith component of Catholic life must be integral, internal and personal for any of the prescriptions, circumscriptions and liturgical forms to make any sense or even to be efficacious.
That leaves us with your problem unanswered, but believe me, I am acutely aware of its depth and breadth. How far do we engage the culture? How is our faith practice to be integrated into the necessities of living? Can we live in the world without it tainting us? Can we meet its requirements without compromising the fullness and beauty of our faith tradition and liturgical practice? How is it possible to be everywhere at once, fulfilling all of the obligations that we have set for ourselves?
This is no more poignant for me than in this Holy Week. I could not go to work and support my family if I were to attend everything, every mass every liturgy, every event, every opportunity to participate in the remembrance of the central events of our faith, just in my own parish, let alone the diocese.
Clearly, those are not all obligations in the strict canonical sense, but within my heart I long to be there for all of it.
But then again, when I leave after Mass, it is always reluctantly, with sadness of heart, and a yearning to return. That yearning, I believe, cannot be satisfied this side of the grave.
This is a critical issue you raise, not only for Orthodox Christians. I am hoping to post on this soon over at Whippleshire.

LifeSpark said...

Hey V,
Just wanted to bring a blog called Second Terrace to your attention.
It is the work of Fr. Jonathan Tobias, a priest and catechist of the Carpatho-Rusan diocese.
This article he wrote in particular,
at least partly speaks to your concerns. It's only an article and not the full-length book (you'll still have to write that) but some good notes here for sure!

V & E said...


It is amusing and perhaps ironic (does anyone know what irony is anymore?) to note that I discovered Second Terrace the same day I discovered Ochlophobist. Check out the blog links.

I think his poem, Stravrophobia, is incredible.

Thank you for the link to his site, and thanks for the link to the article. I will be looking at that directly.

In XC,

V & E said...

Unfortunately,'s servers are either malfunctioning or non-functioning. I'll have to take a look at the article later.

- V.

Steve Hayes said...


I got altogether lost trying to follow that. I once met a monk, Fr Ephraim (but not the one I think you, or was it the Ochlophobist were talking about). He said that monasteries are the lungs of the church, because the air of earth is polluted, and the monasteries breathe the pure air of heaven. He also said that more people go to hell from monasteries than from anywhere else.