On the Incarnation of the Word of God

I used to be a heretic.

Not of course that I subscribed formally to the doctrines of Arius, or of the Manichees, or of any others of the legion of false prophets who have attempted in the course of two millennia to rend the unity of the Church.  I was a heretic not by formal subscription, but by seemingly-irresistible psychological suggestion.

For I did not actually believe in the full logical implications of the Incarnation.  I was happy to acknowledge God’s radical transcendence, indeed nearly to the point of an extremely studied agnosticism (all you neo-Thomists out there who suspect the Eastern Orthodox of being closet-case nominalists about metaphysics are probably right … !); but God’s immanence in the person of Jesus of Nazareth I never made much of.  Again, I was happy to acknowledge the unicity, sanctity, and apostolicity of the Church; but her catholicity (not to mention her evangelical mission to assorted social undesirables, “welfare queens” and the like!) … not so much.  Above all I mistrusted the theological opinion, normative within Christianity as a whole, that created time and matter are by nature good.

In other words I was an average college freshman of right-wing prejudice who had been exposed to a little Plato.  And, I was gay.

Christianity at its best, I recently heard someone say, is a religion of praxis.  S. Maximus Confessor, whose writings comprise the largest part of the Philokalia, the great summa of Greek monastic wisdom literature, puts it very succinctly in his “Two Hundred Texts on Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation of the Son of God,” which I have been reading as an Advent devotion this year:

22.  … [T]here are two forms of knowledge.  First, there is academic knowledge, which is theoretical information, gathered merely from habit, about the inner principles of created beings, and which serves no purpose because it is not directed towards the practical execution of the commandments.  Secondly, there is actively effective knowledge, which confers a true experiential apprehension of created beings. [1]

Now Maximus Confessor is a stern one, like Augustine, and like Augustine should be approached with some delicacy.  But the point here is a good one.  Knowledge which serves no purpose is not real knowledge.  To say therefore of something “it does not work,” is a devastating indictment of that thing.  Moreover, it seems to me significant that Maximus chose to make this point in a (very theoretical) treatise on the Incarnation.

An important thesis of this blog is that several of the opinions traditionally held by Christians about sexuality do not work, or work no longer.

By saying so I do not wish to detract in any way from the witness of Christians, gay or straight, who have chosen the “white martyrdom” of a perfect (and fundamentally happy) continence.  Amongst Christians who have not rejected or belittled their queer identity, Eve Tushnet seems to be an especially admirable example.  But such witness is no more possible or desirable for the majority of gay Christians, than it is for the majority of Christians generally.  If I took one lesson from my study of classical and Christian natural-law ethics, it is that natural ends cannot ultimately be thwarted.  One may, either by government policy or by intense private asceticism of the perverser sort, attempt to stamp out homosexuality, or the taking of interest on loans, or other relatively natural activities which at times have been deemed unnatural.  But one cannot truly succeed in stamping them out; nature ensures there will be consequences.  Amongst the consequences for gay Christians are, almost (if not quite) inevitably, a paralyzing contempt of self, and of God and creation.  “For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it,” says S. Paul (Eph. v. 29), furnishing us with the typical Christian natural-law argument for marriage.  He did not make an exception for queers.

As a society we do collectively say and hear too much about “self-acceptance” and “affirmation,” as if vices did not have to be fought and virtues obtained, sometimes bloodily.  But we must take care, lest we misunderstand each other.  It is no vice to live according to one’s nature (however “nature” may be structured by biology and psychology, however mediated by history and language).  And it is no virtue to accuse God of defective handiwork in his creation. 

All those things I used to mistrust—time and matter most of all—become trustworthy in light of the Incarnation.   Maximus Confessor may have been a sterner sort, but he also endured persecution at the hands of Monothelite heretics whose doctrine would have reduced the fullness of Christ’s human nature to a mere abstraction.  And likewise with Augustine, you get the sense that, for all their neuroses, of which there are many, they nevertheless believed that things are by nature good, and that life is at bottom worth living, because they too had stood in the Cave of Bethlehem, and marveled at the virginal birth.

Trop. t. 4: Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, shineth forth the light of Reason over the earth, for in it they who served the stars were by a star taught to adore Thee, the Sun of Truth, and to see Thee from the heights of the East; O Lord, glory to Thee!

Another person recently reminded me of a remark of Fr. Glagolev’s: we know “no theology, except the theology of Wonder—of Marvel, of Amazement, of standing with your mouth gaping like a total idiot.”  To be true to the experience of such wonder—to the engagement with multiform, eccentric, delightful reality—everybody has got to come out of his or her closet, has got to stop hating him or herself, whatever forms his or her particular “closet” and hatred may take.   Doing so is an indispensible precondition of any serious spiritual development.  Grace perfects nature, let us never cease repeating to ourselves.

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Compiled by St. Nikodomos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, trans. G.E.H. Palmer et. al., vol. 2 (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 118.

Published in: on December 25, 2010 at 5:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bl. Andrew Warhola, Fool-for-Christ

Current controversy concerning the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video “Fire In My Belly” from the “Hide/Seek” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington has generated two interesting open letters from The Andy Warhol Foundation. Wojnarowicz’s video, which uses a crucifix being swarmed by ants to speak about suffering through the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s, was judged by Bill Donohue of The Catholic League to have been “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.” (Andrew Sullivan makes a go at explaining the inexplicable, here.) I would like to weigh in on one aspect of the controversy.

The Warhol Foundation, which has funded several Smithsonian exhibitions over the last three years to the tune of $375,000, has responded to this act of censorship by threatening to withdraw all future support from the Smithsonian. The open letters may be found here and here.

Both statements, unsurprisingly, emphasize the value to society of freedom of expression. What they do not emphasize, however, but might well have done, given Warhol’s legacy and the specific nature of this controversy, is the queer contribution to Christian or Christian-inspired art and iconography. For it is a fact to which indeed some art historians and museums have called attention (notably Jane Daggett Dillenberger in her monograph The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, James Romaine in an essay “Transsubstantiating the Culture,” and the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens in its exhibition “Warhol/Icon”), but of which the general public probably remains mostly unaware: Andy Warhol was a pious Christian.

That fact is for me of some personal relevance, as it is “all in the family.” Andy grew up in the Russian Dolina in Pittsburgh. His ancestral village, Mikova, is not so very far to the east of Kamienka and Bardejov, my own. And reading the eulogy delivered by John Richardson at his April 1987 memorial service in New York played a small but significant role in my own decision to come out of the closet.

What Richardson’s eulogy offered me was one possible model for a way forward. Here was a queer man, culture-maker, from his youth a producer of homoerotic images …

Reclining Male Torso

… hailing from my part of the world moreover, and an Orthodox Christian in the Roman obedience, a Uniate …

The Last Supper

… whose individual form of witness, largely silent but hugely stubborn—attending the liturgy, occupying a place toward the rear of the church, hiding behind big celebrity sun-glasses, but attending, day after day, year after year, irrespective of what clergy said or whether they deigned to communicate him—whose form of witness, as I say, could perhaps be imitated:

Although Andy was perceived—with some justice—as a passive observer who never imposed his beliefs on other people, he could on occasion be an effective proselytizer. To my certain knowledge, he was responsible for at least one conversion. He took considerable pride in financing a nephew’s studies for the priesthood. And as you have doubtless read on your Mass cards, he regularly helped out at a shelter serving meals to the homeless and the hungry. Trust Andy to have kept these activities very, very dark.

The knowledge of this secret piety inevitably changes our perception of an artist who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, glamour, and that he was cool to the point of callousness. Never take Andy at face value. The callous observer was in fact a recording angel. And Andy’s detachment—the distance he established between the world and himself—was above all a matter of innocence and of art. Isn’t an artist usually obliged to step back from things? In his impregnable innocence and humility Andy always struck me as a yurodstvo—one of those saintly simpletons who haunt Russian fiction and Slavic villages, such as Mikova in Ruthenia, whence the Warhols stemmed. Hence his peculiar, passive power over people; his ability to remain uncorrupted, no matter what activities he chose to film, tape, or scrutinize. [1]

If I may gloss the text of Richardson’s eulogy, what “the world” mistook for callousness in Andy’s personal relationships and attitudes, was in fact the supreme ascetic virtue of apatheia, “dispassion” or perhaps “purity of heart”; and the spiritual motivation for much of his pop-art was “foolishness for Christ’s sake,” that is, the hard-earned right to (constructive) criticism, irony, and satire.

There are two points here. One is academic. Concerning Warhol’s artistic “detachment,” which I have glossed as ascetic apatheia, I think we can situate the implicit philosophy behind his artwork in the long and venerable tradition of Christian realism which stretches all the way back to the unpolished, popular prose of the Bible itself, and to the encaustic and tempera mummy portraits of the Egyptian Faiyum. In a world sanctified by the Incarnation, where God may be located “betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass,” no detail of history, be it material or psychological, and however obscure a detail it may be, can be utterly without genuine human interest. The Incarnation means, amongst other things, that Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles may be suitable subjects for artistic representation.

The second point here is experiential. “The artist who held the most revealing mirror up to his generation,” as Richardson called him, was in some sense Christian because he was queer, queer because he was Christian. His whole life confirmed an ancient precept, dressed in modern garb, that it is not necessary to preach using words, especially not loud or angry words; there are subtler ways to get one’s point across. At the same time, his whole life also confirmed that we are who we are (“just look at the surfaces of my paintings and films and me, and there I am”) and that we are not going away.

These seem to me to be some of the deep issues which substantiate and humanize (or ought to) The Warhol Foundation’s commitment to the principle of free expression.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time, ed. Cyrus M. Copeland (New York: Harmony Books, 2003), pp. 23-24.

Published in: on December 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm  Comments (2)  
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On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Cultural Christianity for Life

Two weeks ago, Toronto’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (OCA) welcomed a visit by the relics of the holy right-believing prince Vladimir of Kiev, “equal-to-the-apostles and baptist of all the Russias.”  (Announcement here; video, with our beloved and embattled Archbishop Seraphim Storheim, recently accused of sexual indiscretions with boys some twenty-five years ago, here.)  I betook myself to church mid-day that Monday, in a spirit of some gratitude for recent progress toward the completion of my doctoral dissertation.   I kissed the reliquary; I received my prayer cards (two of them) from the hands of a young-ish Ukrainian hieromonk with doubtful English; and went my way once again.

The story on this particular saint is not pretty.  He was a Viking, and did what Vikings did.  He was a fratricide and a polygamist in the old, cruel style.  His mother was regarded in Norse saga as a prophetess; his grandfather twice lay siege to the Christian capital of Constantinople.  Vladimir’s reasons for accepting Christianity, moreover, and in its Greek form, were infamously less than completely pious.  Islam prohibited the consumption of pork and alcohol, a prohibition impossible for Slavs to observe; and the Greeks presented a richer, more powerful potential ally than did the Latin-rite Germans, and (at least in the judgment of Vladimir’s ambassadors) the Greek liturgy was aesthetically more pleasing.

The popular veneration of Vladimir, indeed according him the honorific title isapostolos, distills in a single observance everything legitimately said to be wrong with the Orthodox churches.  There is the mere ritualism; there is the coarse sensuality; the slavish subservience of the clergy to secular power; the rabid nationalism.  No doubt.

And yet (my dear moderns), “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

So there I was, making full prostrations before the corruptible remains of a tenth-century Viking, covering the bits of glass and precious metals with my kisses, as might any superstitious grandmother … or as I might, in a different but not unrelated context, when nobody was looking, kiss a picture of a deceased and fondly remembered relative; or kiss a picture of my boyfriend.

A bisexual reader of this blog commented to me recently that a secular friend, herself a lesbian, had asked how anyone could belong to a church which at best ignores us, and at worst condemns us.  Perennial question. 

The fundamental answer, or mine at any rate, goes something like this: you don’t abandon your family.  The Church even in the New Testament is imaged as the oikos or the domus of God, that is, as a Graeco-Roman household.  An individual bishop in his diocese may, by analogy, be a tyrannical paterfamilias; but you don’t deny his authority, any more than you would or could deny your own flesh and bones, your very own genetic structure.  I returned to the Russian Orthodox Church at the age of 18 primarily out of a sense of loyalty to the faith of my birth and baptism, and though as time has progressed, and my reasons for adherence to the Christian religion and philosophy have become (I hope) at once more intellectually sophisticated and more charitable, the gut sense of belonging remains.

Throw the Priest in the Volga

Communal bondage to the altar has its advantages.  One of the most important is that when an ecclesial body by accident or design comes to sanctify an entire human society, it has to take human nature as it actually finds human nature, and not as it might desire human nature to be.

There is a charming anecote in the autobiography of the archpriest Abbacum Petrov, the bigoted but revered founder of the schismatic “Old-Believer” sect in Russia.  In September 1647, travelling to the city of Kazan with the newly-appointed governor, a Sheremetev, he refused to hear the confession of the governor’s son, for the latter, a friend of the tsarevitch, had, in a most “effeminate” and “unnatural” manner, shaven his beard.  Whereupon Papa Sheremetev threw the bigoted but revered protopope of Kazan Cathedral into the river Volga.  (According to the same autobiography, they were subsequently reconciled.) [1]

I call this attitude “pro-clerical anti-clericalism.”  Educated in a society long sanctified by Christianity, the Christian layman with an appropriately formed conscience knows when and how to take the clergy seriously, and when and how to take the clergy down a peg—because it’s all in the family.

V.M. Vasnetsov's "Baptism of Vladimir": Or, It's All in the Family

Back to S. Vladimir.

The Primary Chronicle relates a suggestive story about one of Vladimir’s sons, the Russian protomartyr S. Boris.  Assassinated without resistance in 1015, and formally canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1724, Boris’ life demonstrates the rapidity with which the highest, evangelical counsels of the Gospel may be adopted, even by the most pagan of social orders.  We read:

After offering this prayer [Matins], he lay down upon his couch.  Then [the assassins] fell upon him like wild beasts about the tent, and pierced him with lances.  They stabbed Boris and his servant, who cast himself upon his body.  For he was beloved of Boris.  He was a servant of Hungarian race, George by name, to whom Boris was greatly attached.  The prince had given him a large gold necklace which he wore while serving him….  But since they could not quickly take the necklace from George’s neck, they cut off his head, and thus obtained it.  For this reason his body was not recognized later among the corpses. [2]

SS. Vladimir Equal-to-the-Apostles; Boris Protomartyr of Russia, his son; and George the Hungarian, co-martyr and beloved: pray to God for us, and deliver your family from the tyranny of the criminal archpriests.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] A French translation of the autobiography is available: La vie de l’archiprêtre Avvakum écrite par lui-même, trans. Pierre Pascal (Paris: Gallimard, 1938).

[2] The Russian Primary Chroncile: Laurentian Text, trans. Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Cambridge, Mass.: The Medieval Academy of America, 1953), pp. 126-27, 132-35.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 4:01 pm  Comments (5)  
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A Queer, Byzantine Appreciation of Bl. John Henry Newman

A fourth-edition copy (1885) of John Henry Newman’s Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, is perhaps the most precious article now in my possession (though not in my ownership).

On the leaf opposite the appropriately-yellowed title page, in the upper left-hand corner, there can be found the elegant signature of one Walter Pater, fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, tutor to Oscar Wilde, and sometime owner of the volume.  In the bottom left can be found a dedication, in pencil, by my freshman-year literature professor, who first taught me Wordsworth and Goethe and Pushkin.

Since first learning of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s life and example, way back when freshman year, I have had a great reverence for the man, including physical reverence.  There is a stained-glass window of Newman at his desk in Littlemore, in the rear of Georgetown’s college chapel; I made a habit of kissing it as I entered and exited, as I might an icon.  I remember one morning very distinctly when I went to visit him in his window: I was in the midst of an emotionally immature, but utterly sincere, attachment to another boy; and learning that Newman’s last will and testament had been to be buried in the same grave with the “friend of his heart,” Fr. Ambrose St.-John, some sense of compulsion drove me to go say thank-you.

So it is with gladness that I hear tell of the papal beatification in Birmingham today.

I would like to make two observations, one about the cast of Newman’s mind, and one about his sexuality.

Newman, like myself in some way, was personally a scholastic, in the broadest sense—a schoolman, a man of reason, governed in his thinking and writing by scholarly criteria of evidence and proof and probability.  But what is interesting to me, both from an Eastern Orthodox and from an ordinary psychological point of view, is that Newman exercised his refined personal scholasticism on, and in creative tension with, commitments of a very different order.   He was not, after all, especially moved by scholastic theology, that is, the elaboration of theological propositions (all be they divinely revealed) using academic-philosophical means.  Rather he cared primarily for patristic theology—theology as it had been practiced before the rise of the modern (medieval) university, when one’s right to speak of divine things was still supposed to be earned in the sweat of much (monastic) ascesis, and when philosophy was still supposed to embrace a whole way of life.  Augustine, so to speak, and not Aquinas, converted Newman.  This fact should make him, and the patristically-minded pope now beatifying him, central figures in contemporary Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism.  There is much in Newman for the Orthodox to appreciate.

Cor ad cor loquitur

I will cite one example of what I mean.  In his Grammar of Assent, Newman dilates on what he terms the “illative sense,” which he closely identifies with phronesis, the “prudence” or “practical wisdom” of ancient Greek philosophy.  The illative sense, for Newman, is something more than abstract ratiocination.  Not for nothing did he choose a quotation from S. Ambrose of Milan for the book’s dedication: Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum; “It did not please God to save his people through logic.”  Rather, the illative sense is above all concerned with judgment “in concrete matters,” [1]—it is a sense for real life, for vitality (the same sense so near and dear to Russian religious thought), and hence its articulation inevitably entails some awareness of our subjectivity.  Translating and transforming pagan Greek philosophical terms into Christian theological ones, we might indeed draw an analogy between classical phronesis, Newman’s illative sense, and “the eye of the heart” of the Eastern fathers—the latter being that perceptive faculty which belongs to our most essential nature as persons, created in the image and likeness of God.

Newman, distinguishing our human nature, did not choose to emphasize our reason, or in patristic language, “the eye of the mind.”  Now that humanity’s exclusive claim to rationality seems to be breaking down, this seems prescient.   He emphasized instead our moral freedom, that is, our educability and perfectibility, as creatures in the image and likeness of the Creator:   

What is the peculiarity of our nature, in contrast with the inferior animals around us?  It is that, though man cannot change what he is born with, he is a being of progress with relation to his perfection and characteristic good….  Nor is this progress mechanical, nor is it of necessity; it is committed to the personal efforts of each individual of the species; each of us has the prerogative of completing his inchoate and rudimental nature, and of developing his own perfection out of the living elements with which his mind began to be.  It is his gift to be the creator of his own sufficiency; and to be emphatically self-made. [2]

Compare, Russianly, the thought of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov:

The freedom that creation experiences is not proper to God, for He is above freedom.  God’s suprafreedom, which is limited by no given and which is perfectly adequate to His nature, can signify in Him only the character of His self-positing by an absolute act.  Creaturely freedom is precisely incapable of this absoluteness of self-positing.  However, the image of God is preserved in creaturely freedom by the fact that this freedom is nevertheless a self-positing, though not an absolute one, and human life is marked by continuous personal self-creation.  The image of God is therefore manifested, first of all, in the person, which is the principle of creativity and freedom.  However, because this creativity is not absolute but presupposes a given in human nature, the image of God in man is a task requiring realization…. [3]

These two thoughts, Newman’s and Bulgakov’s, seem to me to be quite similar.  Both are obviously endebted to their time and place, and their language has obvious limitations.  But both do seem to be attempting to give coherent voice to a permanent tendency in Christian theology and philosophy, that tendency which rightly privileges the religion of the heart as more complete and comprehensive, than the religion of the mind (even as it highly values and employs the religion of the mind).   One recalls Newman’s motto: Cor ad cor loquitur; “Heart speaks to heart.”

Lest the modern historical context seem too much for conservative skeptics of subjectivity, compare, patristically, S. Gregory of Nyssa:

But having come to the very top of the mountain, [Moses], like a good sculptor who has fashioned well the whole statue of his own life, did not simply bring his creation to an end but he placed the finishing touch on his work. [4]

Newman, Bulgakov, Nyssa.   All three insist that we do have something to contribute, freely and concretely, that is, properly personally, to our own religious life.

Newman’s Sexuality

Much is currently being made of Newman’s probable homosexual orientation.  Peter Tatchell, deserving of all praise for submitting to the blows of neo-Nazis at Moscow’s Pride, has nevertheless been making himself generally obnoxious; the Hungarian-born atheist Frank Furedi “gets” Newman much better.  A traditionalist Anglo-Catholic blog out of Oxford makes the entirely legitimate point, that we cannot know for sure what Newman’s orientation was; but both by its exaggerated rhetoric, and by its seeming uncomfortableness with the very idea that a saint might have been “that way,” the blog undermines its own moral credibility.

One comment about this.  It is a pious tradition, and a venerable one, for Christians to adopt patrons on the narrowest of pretexts.  The Bible does not say that Mary Magdalene, for example, was a prostitute—and yet she is patron saint to prostitutes.   Nicholas of Myra was not a sailor—and there he is, patron saint to sailors (in addition to children).  Some saints may never have existed historically at all—George, for example, patron to soldiers, or Christopher, patron to travelers (Christopher being spectacularly represented in Eastern iconography, with the head of a dog).

Christians have always kept such pious traditions.  I like to think that queer Christians, who object in conscience to their Church’s teaching, will take Newman, a great apologist for the authority of conscience, and one (in?)famously described in his day as having possessed “a woman’s soul in a man’s body,” as one of their heavenly patrons.  A Russian might call him porjadočnij—fair and decent, with a strong connotation of meek and gentle.

Blessed cardinal-deacon, pray to God for us.


Victor de Villa Lapidis  

[1] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates & Co., 1870), p. 346.

[2] Newman, Grammar, pp. 341-42.

[3] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2002), p. 135.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 134.

Published in: on September 19, 2010 at 9:54 pm  Comments (45)  
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