A CONVERSATION WITH ARCHIMANDRITE IRENEI STEENBERG
Interviewed by Jesse Dominick
While visiting Moscow during the month of June, Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg), rector of the Sts. Cyril & Athanasius Institute for Orthodox Studies in San Francisco and an Archimandrite of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, visited Sretensky Monastery for an interview with Pravoslavie.ru. Father Irenei, a scholar of patristic and early Church studies, is also known as the founder of the Monachos internet forum, dedicated to the study of Orthodoxy through its patristic and monastic heritage, and as the host of the “A Word from the Holy Fathers” podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.
This is the first part of our interview with Father Irenei, which focuses on the nature of the human person and several of the challenges facing modern society.
—Father Irenei, your writings and work often center on the Church Fathers, and specifically anthropology. What factors influenced you or lead you into that focus and what message does the Orthodox conception of man have for us today in the twenty-first century?
—I suppose what interested me firstly in this theme was the concreteness of the human person. I enjoy the abstraction of some theological discussion, on the metaphysics of Trinitarian relationships, etc. It’s very interesting, and useful in certain contexts. But at the end of the day we’re flesh and blood. I sit and I put down my pen and I look—and I’ve got hands with lines on them, and wrinkles. I’m a concrete being. What do we make of that? The Gospel has always impacted me as being deeply material. Christ becomes flesh, heals with mud, He pours water on people and their sight is restored. That concrete physicality of the Gospel, and of me as a person, is what drew me to want to understand: what is this person? And then we hear these wonderful passages in the Scriptures—Thou hast made man a little lower than the angels… What is man that Thou art mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4, 5)—those questions, ever since I was rather young, really moved me. I wanted to know what the answers were, and I still seek to approach the answers faithfully.
I think also, from a pastoral point of view, that questions over anthropology are increasingly relevant to our modern world. “Anthropology” in academic terms sounds dry and abstract; but we’re talking about what it means to be a human person, what it is to be man. And if there’s any singular question that is being challenged in the twenty-first century it’s precisely this. So the moment that we start to think that anthropology is just some ivory-tower theme for academics in their offices, then take a look around. Particularly in America, but even here in Russia—and everywhere in Europe and throughout the world—the most essential, basic definitions of what a human person is are being challenged on a daily basis, so regularly that we almost stop seeing them as challenges and we simply accept this web of confusion surrounding the nature of the human person. So this area encompasses a great deal that is pastorally and practically useful to speak to the modern world. “What is a person?” “How should persons relate to each other?” “How should they relate to God?” These are questions that are only more important in our day than they have been in others.
—In light of all that, there have been some notable cases in the news lately. In regards to the Bruce Jenner/transgender issue I saw at least one articlereferencing St. Irenaeus, saying this notion of the body being one gender, while the mind or soul is another gender is possibly just a rehashing of Gnosticism that he already defeated. Do you think this is an appropriate application of St. Irenaeus, and what would he say?
—On the one hand I would say it’s easy to pick your favorite heresy and say, “this is such-and-such a heresy repeated.” Sometimes it’s too easy to do that, and we attach labels to things without really thinking. On the other hand, most of the issues that we see today aresimply the rehashings of long-ago condemned heresies. And this question over whether the person can be divorced from his or her concrete created nature is not a modern question, despite the fact that the world seems to think it a very “progressive” question, modern and “free-thinking.” It is, in fact, a very ancient discussion that has been had many times over the course of history, and on which the Church has spoken. So, whether or not St. Irenaeus himself would look at the questions of our twenty-first century and equate them with so-called Gnosticism—St. Irenaeus was very careful about accurately identifying errors, so I don’t think he would simply take a large brush and paint everyone with it—I think he would say that there is very little new in these discussions. He would perhaps identify some common themes. This idea of “my identity” being something I can separate from my created nature, I think he would see as bearing similarities to the Gnostics who had a kind of disregard for physicality and viewed their “real self” as being their soul, something detached from their physical body. He certainly would see some commonalities there. But the key ingredient is that we’re really not facing anything new. Whether it’s questions of homosexuality, or transgenderism, or cultural identity, or whatever it might be—these are just new faces on very old discussions.—We have this upcoming 2016 pan-Orthodox council. Are they considering taking up such questions of sexual immorality and how to pastorally deal with them? Especially in America we even have pastors of the Church who seem to be speaking outright against Tradition.
—With regard to the question of what will be discussed at the council next year, assuming that it does take place on schedule as planned, I think people have become quite obsessed about the issue of the diaspora and what will be done with its canonical organization. Because of that interest, which I think is sometimes excessive, we have not been paying a great deal of attention to other areas that are perhaps far more important to the life of the Church than the question of administrative organization. One of these certainly is approaching the modern world with the consistent teaching of the Fathers. I do believe that on the agenda (though the agenda for the council has not yet been formally set, as far as I know) will be issues like bioethics and social questions in some form. To my mind, one of the things that such a council could do— that would be very helpful, very useful for the generations that follow it—would be to reaffirm the necessity for the pastors of the Church, the priests of the Church, the preachers of the Church, to preach her traditions.
You are quite right that there have been some examples, even just over the last week or two, of Orthodox pastors saying things that no Orthodox Christian has a right to say, and we are reminded that one’s rank does not give one the ability to speak against Tradition. When we see this happening we must call people to account. The only voice with which any Orthodox Christian, whether he’s a laymen or an archbishop, is entitled to speak, is the voice of the Church; and the voice of the Church—despite our modern desire to sometimes twist that voice to be more comfortable—is consistent and clear. When we approach new topics that that voice hasn’t spoken to before (there are issues that don’t exist in the tradition—bioethical questions, for example, didn’t exist in the fifth century), that is where the Church as a whole comes together to discern how her voice should speak. But it’s never up to an individual to speak for the Church; it’s only up to the individual to speak the words of the Church. Our modern, individualistic tendencies sometimes push us in the other direction, and it’s a great tragedy. There’s nothing more sorrowful for me than to receive some newspaper or article where I see a priest of the Church, a “theologian” of the Church, saying something which is quite concretely not in accordance with her traditions. It’s a cause of immense sorrow, and there’s no reason that this should take place.
We all need to become conscious of what we do as Orthodox people, and especially as Orthodox teachers. We are given the responsibility to bear the light of Christ into the world. If we are bearing some other light, including our own, we’re failing. Yet even that is not a cause for anger. Our job is not to become angry at such people. It’s a cause for sorrow that the light that the world receives is not the unadulterated light of Christ. And so it should be our compassion and our love that urges us to do better. Especially when we look out at the world and we see how much suffering there is. Not just physical suffering from poverty, from hunger, but moral suffering that is the result of our laxity in teaching. If we taught people with love, and with zeal of the truth of the Gospel, there would not be such moral suffering, such angst in people’s hearts. This is a sign of our weakness. It ought to be love, rather than anger or fear or judgment that encourages us to do better.
—Another burning issue in America is the reception of converts. And again, thinking of the upcoming council and questions of the diaspora, is there a possibility of moving to a unified system? Is that something we would want? For instance, should all converts be baptized regardless of where they came from?
—This is one of the great pastoral questions of the present day, certainly in America. It exists elsewhere, of course, but in America it’s pronounced because different local jurisdictions have, at times, emphasized different views on this practice. There are some jurisdictions that will, as a matter of course, always baptize a convert. There are some jurisdictions that will, as a matter of course, always chrismate, will refuse to baptize, and vice versa. And then there are some that will do a little of each. Here I think everyone is in agreement we need to sit down and look at our practices, and examinethe situation around us, to assess what the pastoral response ought to be. Clearly, from the canonical point of view, there is a straightforward pattern inthe canons of the Church for different types of reception, based on the circumstances through which they come to the Church—there are certain conditions in which baptism is absolutely required, there are certain conditions in which chrismation may be performed, a baptism having already been performed, etc. There are responses to apostasy, to schism, etc. The canonical tradition is clear.What is far less clear is the condition of Christianity in the twenty-first century, and how it relates to the condition of Christianity in the periods in which those canons were written. The canons were written when, by and large, there was one Church—and that was the Orthodox Church. Any departure from the Church was a departure from Orthodoxy, and it was a question of how to return to Orthodoxy. If you were in schism from Orthodoxy, you were brought back into the Church. But we live in a world now where there are many Christian traditions which are not connected to the Orthodox Church, and this is not a situation most of the canons specifically address. So I do believe that most of our hierarchs agree we need to sit down and talk about how to apply the canonical principles—which are clear and relevant, but need to be applied pastorally to our situation today.
—I’ve seen that certain questions arise from this. If we can receive people from such and such a church by chrismation, what are we saying about the bounds of the Orthodox Church? Are the lines a little more fluid than we think? How do we have these different practices but maintain our strict ecclesiology?
—This is a question to which you’re going to find differing answers from different people. And this is of course an area where the Church needs to speak clearly to the modern world. Yes, it’s true, God does not give us the right to speak about firm boundaries to His grace, and we know that God loves and cares for, and works to save, even those who are outside of the Church. However, within the Church, we know what God has given us as a Church. God has given us holy baptism as a means for entry into the Church. Out of economy we see the life of grace beyond our borders; but God does not call us either to judge or to base our life on what happens elsewhere. Christ commanded us to go and baptize all nations in the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19). That must be our consistent goal. Our love for those outside of the Church, and our acknowledgement of the working of God outside the Church, cannot change His commandment to us, which is to go and to baptize. Now, if there are circumstances where, out of economy, the Church says “in this case we will receive by chrismation,” for circumstances specific to this person and not as a global rule—alright. It is within the purview of the hierarchy to exercise this grace, this economy. But the mission of the Church is to baptize all nations, and we must be wary of watering down that mission by being overly concerned about defining the “boundaries of the Church,” defining who is a real Christian, who is not; who is genuinely a believer, who is not. What we know is that the Church has the imperative to baptize, the imperative to draw people into Her life—and that should be our goal, that should be our mission, as it has been for the Apostolic community from the very first.
—On a related issue, again especially in America where there are so few Orthodox people, a lot of our people are marrying non-Orthodox Christians and even sometimes non-Christians. Obviously the ideal is for two Orthodox people to marry. How do you communicate to our young people the gravity of marriage, and the gravity of who we marry?
—I think you phrase the question nicely, in the sense that its beginning is not really in the question of Orthodox and non-Orthodox marriage. The beginning is in a debased understanding of marriage altogether. Marriage has come to be understood simply as the emotional connection between two people. “This person makes me happy.” “I feel what I define as love for this person.” And so if that’s all that marriage is—an emotional bond—then it becomes difficult to say “you should marry this person but not that person.” If marriage is no more than a feeling of attraction or happiness between people, why shouldn’t it be between an Orthodox and a non-Orthodox person, or an Orthodox and a non-Christian person? What’s the justification, if that’s all that marriage amounts to? Our people have lost sight of the fact that marriage is something far more: the co-suffering of a common life in Christ, the purpose of which is to attain the Kingdom of God. The emotional joy that comes and that arrives between a husband and a wife is a fruit of that common work. It is a powerful fruit, but it’s not a persistent, consistent fruit. At times there is great sorrow between a husband and a wife. At times there is a shared agony, at times there is shared grief, and at times, yes, there is a shared, profound joy. But what is consistently shared is the struggle for the Kingdom of God. This is the Orthodox vision of marriage: two lives joined together, so that together they can struggle more deliberately for Christ’s Kingdom.
Now, when we see that as the definition of marriage, it becomes much clearer why a marriage should be between two Orthodox people. How can we struggle together for the Kingdom of God if we don’t believe the same things about that Kingdom? Can it be done? Is it possible? The Church says, “Yes”—she makes exceptions for certain cases. But the Church always says, in these cases, “You are taking on your shoulders a much more difficult cross.” We have the witness of the Scriptures that a believing wife can sanctify a disbelieving husband, and vice versa; but that is toil and a cross! Far better that the wife should sanctify the husband while the husband sanctifies the wife. This is the ideal of marriage that the service of marriage anticipates. Marriage to a non-Christian, while understandable in civil terms, is almost incomprehensible in Church terms because it immediately divorces the idea of marriage from its ascetical aspect. If someone does not even believe in Christ at all—how can that marriage be a co-suffering for His sake? And again, the Church makes exceptions for interfaith marriages between people of different Christian backgrounds; but we should be encouraging our young people to see what marriage really means and to view it as an ascetical offering of a life for Christ.
This is connected to the way that someone becomes a monk or nun. If a person is devoutly Orthodox and wants to join the monastic life, he doesn’t go to a Roman Catholic monastery to do it. He doesn’t go to a Protestant monastery to do it (though there aren’t many of those to choose from). He goes to an Orthodox monastery; and the thought of going to a monastery of a different tradition would seem scandalous and absurd. But the monastic life and the married life are parallel, and in the married life, unfortunately, it seems less absurd to go to other traditions. Again, we must trust in the Church’s economia, that marriages between those of different faiths can be fruitful and can bear sanctity and grace; but we know what the clear standard of the Church is, and it should always be that at which we aim. Economia should never be the norm we are striving for. It should be that which is exercised for specific reasons in specific cases.
—It seems that the proper anthropology and the concreteness of it that you spoke about before would go hand-in-hand with properly understanding marriage.
—Again, I think we always have to ask—and the question that I always ask people when they talk about getting married, is—“What are you really trying to do? What are you striving to do?” If someone comes to me and says, “I’m thinking of marrying this person,” my first question is always “Why?” which sometimes startles people, as if the question itself is obvious and the answer should be, “Well, I love them.” But it’s an important question to ask. “Why am I going to the monastery?” “Why am I going into marriage?” Unless we can answer that question authentically, then we shouldn’t be going there. If someone’s going to a monastery because, “Well I don’t really know why, it just seems like a nice idea”—this is not a reason to enter into the monastic life! Similarly, if someone is going towards marriage because, “Well, that’s just what people do”—this is not a reason to get married. If someone can answer the question “Why?” with the answer “I know that with this person I can be the person God has created me to be; that without this marriage I will always be less than the creature God is fashioning, but with this person, in the bounds of a pious Church marriage, I will become the person God is creating, more authentically than I ever could become otherwise,” then let the marriage take place as soon as possible. So yes, it’s related to our understanding of who we are as persons, what we’re doing with our lives, and what the Church is for.—You are American and serve in America, but you obviously have close ties with Russia and the Russian spiritual world. What lessons do you think in American Orthodoxy can we learn specifically from Russia, and vice versa—is there anything that the American Church has to teach Russia?
—I’ll start with the easier question, which is “What can the Church in America learn from Russia?” A great deal. One of the reasons that our connection to the Russian Church in America, as the Russian Church Abroad, is so important to us is that we are consciously aware of the spiritual legacy of the Russian people, which is our own legacy, our own history. The Church in America is an extension of that Russian heritage. The missionaries came from the Russian lands; the Orthodox culture began in America from the Russian mission, and we exist today as the Russian Church Abroad very much in a conscious, lived expression of that Russian history. It is something we cherish because it is a long, mature life.
I think sometimes in America we forget how young the country is. This is a nation still in its adolescence. That is a beautiful thing. Adolescence is a time of growth, of maturity, of beginning to see life in deeper ways. Each person goes through this, and nations go through this as well. But just as all persons in adolescence strive to skip through adolescence and be “all grown up” as soon as possible, this is also a tendency amongst nations and amongst peoples, and one of the greatest things we learn from our mother in the faith, the Russian culture, is the patience of maturity, the patience of a thousand-year-old faith, the patience of ten centuries of Church life— the patience to be patient. In any period of adolescence there is an inherent impatience, and we suffer from this in America. We want to stand on our own two feet with no one holding our hand. But we need our hands to be held. We need the loving embrace of a spiritual mother to give us a necessary maturity. Maturity is not something you ever attain on your own. You receive it, you are given it—and we are grateful for that.
The long-suffering of the Russian people is another profound example that those in America must learn from: the ability to suffer in quiet, the ability to suffer without growing weak. The witness of the Russian Church in the twentieth century under the communist yoke, under the atheist yoke, is a profound example for America now. America is not coming under, so far as I know, any communist yoke, but it is most certainly coming under an atheist yoke. It is secularist atheism rather than communist atheism, but it is nonetheless an atheist regime. How to deal with that is a question that we must lay before the example of the Russian Church, which has been through this before. Now, the circumstances are different, and we cannot simply emulate everything; but the ability to maintain the faith under atheistic influence is not something that needs to be invented. This is not a skill that must be come up with in America! We can look to our forebears and gain from them the witness of long-suffering, of patience, of stability, which I think we need very much in the diaspora now.
Is there something that the Church in America can offer to the Church elsewhere? Of course there is. Everyone has the ability to learn from everyone else; so I don’t want to shy away and say “No, we’re too young, we have nothing to teach.” But I also don’t want to be imperialistic and say, “Look what we can offer the ancient world!” But if we genuinely believe that every person is an icon of Christ, then we have to believe also that the Church everywhere is an image from which we gain spiritual edification. And the Church in America is a Church of mission. It’s a Church that exists in a culture more or less completely foreign to Orthodoxy. Not a culture like communism was in Russia, that grew up in antipathy to Orthodoxy, specifically against it; but a culture that doesn’t care, a culture that doesn’t know what it is, a culture that “can’t be bothered.” And the Church in America is gaining experience in how to respond to those sorts of questions, which are different from questions in the old world. Here in Russia these questions are rather novel, whereas in America they’ve been the framework for the life of the Church for 200 years—how to speak to people who have no idea what Orthodoxy is, or who have no idea what religion is, who just simply don’t care. So yes, we have experience that also can be shared. But we need to be very careful—the individualistic emotion can become very quickly a triumphalist one. Better to be humble and to simply share our experiences than to think that we have something to teach others.
—Your mention of missions in America leads directly into my next question. We’ve had several great missionary saints in America, and we just canonized two more—Sts. Sebastian and Mardarije. But as you said, the mission field is still wide open in America. Do you have any particular vision for missions and evangelism in America, any particular insights or thoughts on some specifics we can do?
—I can only share the Church’s vision of mission. I don’t have any particular insights. But the Church’s vision of mission is quite clear. The chief missionary is someone whose heart is totally transformed with the love of Christ, who then—not out of the desire for some specific act, but simply because his heart is aflame—speaks the word boldly into the world around him. So, the way to be a missionary is in your own heart to be so deeply converted into the life of the Church, the life of Christ, that there is nothing for you to do but speak the gospel, and then to speak it without any fear, and without any adulteration. This is how all the great missionaries have worked. This is the case with all the great missionaries of America, the missionaries within Russia, the missionaries in Serbia, Romania, everywhere. If you look at them this is the pattern—hearts wholly transfigured, that created voices that spoke without fear or conformity.The reason I think we have become stagnant in our missionary life in North America is that we have focused far too much on the “logistics” of talking to the world. We try to speak in the same language that the politicians speak, or the same language that other religious traditions use; we try to be “culturally relevant;” we try to be socially acknowledged—none of which really helps us in our missionary work. It is a delusion to think that if we become more engrained into the political system, if we become more accepted socially or culturally, that we’ll then be able to speak more effectively to the people. It’s never been the people that have “blended in” that have been the good missionaries. It’s been the people who stood out, who spoke even when people did not want to hear what they had to say. St. Herman of Alaska, one of the greatest missionaries to America, is a wonderful example of this. Nobody liked what he had to say. If you look at the politicians of the day, if you look at the trading companies, the businesses—nobody wanted to hear what he had to say. But he said it with boldness because it was true and because there was nothing else for him to do. That was all his heart could do. And the world changed. People by the hundreds and thousands were converted, despite the fact that everyone in power wanted him to disappear.
Today we’re too interested in speaking to those in power. There is the constant temptation to issue statements that the president will listen to, to speak through congressional channels, and the like. We want to fit into the social activities of the world. This is not the way to speak. This is not the way to be a missionary. We have “lost our salt.” This image is salt pricking the tongue. It gives flavor by having bite to it. Now this isn’t to say that we should get our soap boxes out and stand on the street corner and condemn passers-by—that doesn’t have the power to convert anybody. We need first and foremost to be less interested in what the world thinks, more interested in attaining a real Christian life, and then once that is attained to speak it without reference to the world’s speech. Who cares what the politically normal way of talking is? Who cares if what I say will be reacted to poorly by such and such a social group? If it’s true, say it. Don’t say it to preach, but say it when God stirs your heart to share the gospel with another person. If we can do that, and if we would do that, America remains an enormous missionary field. There are so many lives there suffering for want of the true gospel, and we don’t bring it to them. That is a shame upon us, and it is something that has to change. We have to reclaim our boldness and our zeal as Christian missionaries.
—It seems to me that there is a hesitation sometimes just to speak, to literally speak the gospel. There’s this quote that’s sometimes attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words,” and this seems to have gotten traction even in Orthodox circles—this division between how you live and what you speak.
—It is absolutely true that the chief way we share the gospel is through our lives. The chief way that I am able to share with you anything about Christ is by living my life in Christ. The chief way I can tell you about the love of God is to show you the love of God. The chief way I can teach you about repentance is to show you repentance in my own life. This is true, and this is a fundamental truth of Orthodoxy. But, we have begun to use it as an excuse not to speak, and we must call back to our Tradition. If we look at the lives of the Holy Apostles, these were men who lived the faith, who first and foremost taught others by their lives; but these were also men who spoke. They spoke the Gospel. If we look at the great teachers and preachers, too: these were men who lived, but who also taught, and I’m afraid that sometimes we use the idea of being missionaries through our lives—which is true and important—as an excuse not to stand up and speak. And the fact of the matter is we are so weak in our spiritual lives that oftentimes we are not the lights on the hill that we think we are, that we ought to be, and we must augment our lives with the Gospel’s teaching.
The world is asking questions, whether it knows it or not. The world is asking questions about humanity, about society, about ethics, about morals—even about religion to a certain degree, though it doesn’t know yet that it wants to talk about religion. And the fact of the matter is that we have answersto these questions. We have written answers to these questions. We have the legacy of the Fathers to speak, and we need to share the voice of theChurch. We are called to be the mouthpieces in this generation to the heritage that exists in every generation; and if we out of shyness or lack of courage, or fear—and it’s usually fear—don’t speak, then God will hold us accountable for the words that we did not say. If we knew the words of life and did not share them, God will demand an account for this. Now of course I want to reiterate, I’m not suggesting we should go out on street corners and become “Bible thumpers,” but the Orthodox Tradition is to live, and to speak. St. Stephen is a martyr. He also delivered the most stirring sermon in the history of humanity, and it was the sermon that grounded his martyrdom. It was the sermon that stirred people both to faith (and there were thousands baptized), but also to the reaction that led to his glorious death. Without the words his life would have been very different. We have to take the example of both of these aspects of our Tradition.—You’re a monk, but also you’re quite active. It seems you travel quite a lot, and I remember a quote from Elder Cleopa saying that when he leaves his monastery and goes to the city it takes him weeks to regain his peace. Modern man is often on the go. What can you say about maintaining inner peace, and finding it again when we have lost it, in our busy world?
—I should start by saying that I wish I myself were better at this. I do travel and it is a struggle. But there is a principle in the Orthodox life: that peace travels with you if it lives in your heart and isn’t simply a set of circumstances. If what I identify as peace is a quiet room, a lack of busywork, a lack of noise, a lack of people, a lack of distractions, it’s easy for that peace to be taken away from me the moment that I’m removed from that nice quietude into a bustling environment. If, however, peace is a condition of interior quietude, where the heart is resting in Christ even in the midst of a city, then you have a peace that cannot be taken away, a peace that travels with you.
Now, this is not at all to go against the saying you mentioned. Even St. Anthony, so many centuries ago, said “a monk out of his cell is like a fish out of water.” Yes, of course there are places that God gives us specifically to foster peace, and when we depart from those places—like a monk from his cell, or a priest from his parish, or a husband from his wife—when circumstances force a person to move away for a time from the environment that God has given him to create peace, of course when you go back there are long periods of readjustment to get back what you had lost. But that doesn’t negate the fact that there can be a peace in the heart that is not specific to a situation or to a place. This is the peace that we see in the martyrs, who remain peaceful when they are at home or when they are in the arena with the lions; who remain peaceful when they’re preaching amongst friends, or when they’re on the pyre and the flames are licking their feet—the peace that passes all understanding, as the Scriptures put it (Phil. 4:7). And that’s what we have to foster if we are to even remain sane in the modern world, because the modern world strives to steal our peace from us all the time. The world is a constant hive of distractions; and if our peace is external, then the world will win. It will always win, in that sad circumstance. But if the peace of Christ lives in the heart, then the world can’t defeat it.
How do we attain that peace? We attain that peace by striving to live the life of the Church, praying so far as we can with consistency, every day letting prayer infuse our lives. That’s not to say everyone needs to have a three-hour prayer rule, but whatever one’s rule of prayer, it has to be consistent so that that breath is there every day. Confess regularly, frequently, because that empties the heart of the enemies of peace. It empties the heart of turmoil and torture and pain which prevent peace from residing in the heart. To confess frequently, regularly, to pray every day, so far as is possible to go to the services as regularly as one can, to be compassionate to other people, forgive those who wrong us—these are the things which create peace and which can be exercised anywhere. You can forgive your enemies on the bus just as easily as you can at home, if you, at that moment, in your heart determine not to hold onto your bitterness. So the whole world can be an avenue of gaining peace, if you understand peace to be inward. Of course it’s much easier in the places that God anoints for peace-making—in a temple, in a cell, in a marriage—which is why God blesses those things. It’s why God gives us temples and marriages and monasteries. But God has also created the world, and as much as we distort and disfigure the world, it is still His world. God will use even this fallenness that we have fashioned, for our redemption. So in the midst of society, in the midst of a city, there’s the opportunity for peaceful hearts.
While visiting Moscow during the month of June, Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg), rector of the Sts. Cyril & Athanasius Institute for Orthodox Studies in San Francisco and an Archimandrite of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, visited Sretensky Monastery for an interview with Pravoslavie.ru. Father Irenei, a scholar of patristic and early Church studies, is also known as the founder of the Monachos internet forum, dedicated to the study of Orthodoxy through its patristic and monastic heritage, and as the host of the “A Word from the Holy Fathers” podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.
This is the second part of our interview with Father Irenei, which focuses chiefly on the state of Orthodox scholarship and sanctity.
—In a podcast with Archpriest Josiah Trenham you spoke about what you believe is the poor state of our Orthodox scholarship today. What areas are you concerned about and what do you see as the fundamental need from Orthodox scholarship, and how can we improve our scholarship while remaining true to the Tradition?
—The fundamental problem that we face in Orthodox scholarship is that we as scholars within Orthodoxy (and I speak here very broadly, including students, professors—broadly speaking everyone who’s involved in Orthodox scholarship) tend to be far too influenced by a secular approach to the study of theology of the Church. Very pious people, from a very churched perspective, go about studying and writing about theological themes in a secular way, so that the end result—the studies that we see published, whether on the Fathers of the Church, or the history of the Church, or the life of the Church—regularly end up being indistinguishable in their form and in their structure from studies that would be produced by secular scholars about Plato or about the history of the American Civil War. The theme might be religious, but the way the scholarship is done, the way conclusions are drawn, the way information is presented, is largely according to a common secular model.
An example of this would be the study of the Church Fathers, which is my area of interest. Most of the books that are published about the Fathers of the Church, so-called scholarly books, even by Orthodox writers and by Orthodox printing houses, are really indistinguishable from the sorts of books that anybody could write about the theme of an Orthodox saint. They talk about the history of the person’s life, the dates, the textual traditions, the cultural circumstances, but there’s very little involved, by and large, in this scholarship that deals with the expression of Orthodox theology: that we view the Fathers as being divinely-inspired; that we view the source of their common witness not simply as being a shared textual heritage, but the fact that they are inspired by the breath of the same God. The fact that St. Irenaeus in the second century sounds a great deal like St. Athanasius in the fourth century doesn’t necessarily mean that St. Athanasius is getting all of his information by reading the texts of St. Irenaeus (although he certainly did read some). Far more importantly, these are two men drawn into communion with the same God, Who reveals to them the same truths. This reality, which is so fundamental to our Orthodox spirituality, is almost entirely absent from Orthodox scholarship, and it seems to me that the reason for this is that we are far too keen to accept the parameters, the limits, of secular study, which doesn’t involve real theology—it doesn’t frame observations in the realms of divine communion, in discussions of divine inspiration, prayer, and spirituality. These are all treated simply as abstract theological principles; but they never figure in a real way into the way we study, the way we do our scholarship. That to me is the biggest problem we face, and it seems to be pandemic. We find it everywhere. It’s the thing that we most need to address in our studies.
—Would you say there are any notable exceptions? Who would you suggest we read amongst modern scholars?
—That’s a very good question. Thinking for the moment of scholarship in the English language, I think one of the reasons that Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) is so popular is that he speaks very much in an educated, erudite language, but he infuses that language with a genuine belief in the theology of the Church. I think he is an example of this. But it’s hard to answer your question, because I find it difficult to think of examples in the scholarly world. It’s oftentimes in the preaching world that we find them. For instance Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh—I’m just reading some of his sermons again—we often see this in his works; and Fr. John (Krestiankin) in Russian—here you find examples of living theology. But I think the very fact that I find it hard to answer your question is probably a telling situation; that in my mind the response to your question is primarily located in preachers and pastors, not academics. This is not to say that we don’t have good academics. We have many fantastic Orthodox scholars who do wonderful work. But I think we’re all inhibited by what has become the tradition of our day. I myself have been guilty of this. This is something I’m ever more conscious of in my own work, and so I become more conscious of it in other people’s as well.—In that same podcast with Fr. Josiah you spoke about your work on a book about St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catecheses. What’s the status of that book?
—That book is very, very slow in coming. I regret that I have far too many projects in the works, and this one is my own project, not somebody else’s, and therefore it gets pushed down the list of priorities regularly. I do intend to finish it; it’s about halfway done. It’s on a theme that I find important precisely because I find St. Cyril of Jerusalem a wonderful example of a saint who speaks academically to many of the questions we have over Church history, but who is eminently a pastor, as really all the Fathers are; he in a very obvious way through his catechetical lectures. So I hope that a study on his life can be useful to people today, and I hope that I can complete it before I die—that would be a nice timeline! But we will see.
—Another recent issue that I’ve been seeing lately in the Orthodox world is that some prominent blogs have been discussing universalism: for or against. And it reminds me of some posts of yours from a few years ago on your Monachosforum about the ideas of heaven and hell. You described one popular opinion as, “hell is just heaven experienced differently.” So it seems there are always these questions of the afterlife and questions of God’s mercy and justice and wrath. Why is there so much confusion on these issues? Why are we still unclear, and where can we find the answers?
—You raise a big and a heated point. And you’re right that I have written and spoken about some of these questions, and have been criticized for not following what has become a popular line in modern day discussions. A tremendous amount of the discussion that takes place, particularly on the internet (which really is just the avenue for fruitless discussion), focuses on this idea that has become immensely popular since the mid-1980s that there is no distinction between heaven and hell—that they are one place that is “experienced differently.” Now, this simply is not to be found in the Tradition of the Church, save for, as near as I have ever been able to discern, two paragraphs in the entire history of the Church—one from St. Gregory of Nyssa and one from St. Isaac the Syrian. Two paragraphs …paragraphs. Not books, not lives, but paragraphs.
Now, there are reasons that people desire to look at the afterlife in this way, and usually those reasons stem from fear, and from a lack of understanding of the love of Christ, the love of God. When we hear the words that the Church consistently employs, like the “fires of hell,” “punishment,” “judgment,”—images that are everywhere in the Scriptures, everywhere in the Liturgy, everywhere in our hymnography, our iconography—we don’t hear those words, we don’t see those images, with the mentality of the Church. We see them and we hear them with the mentality of the twenty-first century, which views them as judgmental, cruel, unkind, uncharitable, unloving. And so we, seeing them in that manner, feel we must explain them away. “Well judgement is ‘mean,’ so we can’t really believe in judgement.” “Hell, an eternal hell, is a cruelty, so we can’t really believe in an eternal hell.” There is an impetus to “explain away” this apparent cruelty.
I understand this. This is perhaps even a pious desire. The problem is that it’s grounded in a misunderstanding. The Church doesn’t view hell as a cruelty. The Church doesn’t view death as a cruelty, or judgment as a cruelty. Our job really ought to be not to come up with a new vision of the afterlife that is more “comfortable” to us, but to conform our understanding to that of the Church; to discover in the authentic language of the Church, the authentic witness of the Church, the authentic love of God. If what we discover in the voice of the Church, in the language and the imagery is a cruel God, then we have not heard the Church’s voice correctly. So this is why I think these questions are perennial. They are raised in every culture, because in every age we misunderstand. In every age the temptation is to hear with the ears of that age rather than with ears of the Church. In every generation we have to conform ourselves anew to the gospel, and that’s difficult. That’s hard work. But it’s the work that repays a soul with life.
—It seems like it could be an example of the way we do scholarship that you were speaking about. People on every side can look at the same sources and say, “Here’s a body of quotes; how can I interpret them to make my point?” rather than interpreting them in the light of an active life in the Church. It seems to be a more academic way of approaching it.
—One of the problems that relates both to scholarship and to this question of the afterlife, and this view on the afterlife, is the question of narrowly reading the Fathers versus being inundated with thelife of the Fathers. If we simply open up the corpus of the Fathers of the Church and look for quotations on the afterlife, we’ll find them; and we’ll find them saying whatever we want them to say—in the same way that if we simply open up the Scriptures we’ll find the Scriptures saying whatever we want to hear, in whatever way we want to hear it. Now, we can do that with a certain degree of dispassion, with a certain degree of intellectual refinement, which may be a little more authentic, a little more accurate than if we just randomly quote things; but in any case it’s a categorically different experience than entering into the life of the Scriptures, entering into the life of the Fathers, into the life of the Church, so that these questions themselves are formulated from within that life rather than outside of it.We tend to analyze the life of the Church always from the outside, even if we ourselves are Orthodox Christians. Academically we take a step back from that life and we say, “Well, how do we explain this? How do we justify this?” And we justify this action in terms of “objectivity.” I have to take a step back, to be “objective.” But Orthodoxy is not about objectivity. It’s a subjective religion. I am a person; I live in the Church. I am a subject of experiences, of teachings—and it’s only in that experience that I’m able to discern what the Church says. So by “taking a step back,” we are doing precisely the opposite of what we ought. If you want to know the Orthodox teaching on the afterlife, on judgment, on heaven and hell, go through Great Lent—go through the Sunday of the Last Judgment and listen to every hymn. That will teach you. More than anything else, that will teach you how the Church views judgment and heaven and hell. And then, when you question, “Well, that’s a frightful thing, to hear of judgment, to hear of the last days, to hear of the river of fire,” go through the next experience, which is the Sunday of Forgiveness. The liturgical life of the Church will answer your questions far better than any academic study. Not that we shouldn’t have academic studies! But they should be grounded in that same experience, and balanced with that active life.
—A totally different question: you serve in San Francisco in the church of the orphanage where St. John (Maximovich) lived, and there in the city you have his relics and his mantia. Could you say a little bit about life with St. John—his presence, his influence?
—The first thing I would say about living with St. John (as I see our lives in San Francisco) is that it is immediately tangible. When one stands before the relics of St. John—his incorrupt relics which are in the cathedral of the Holy Virgin, the Joy of All Who Sorrow—one knowsone stands in the presence of a living saint. When one walks into his kellia [cell], where he lived, and sees this tiny room, one is not simply impressed by the smallness or the simplicity of it. You feel St. John standing there with you. I think that all of us who have the blessing to serve in San Francisco, in these many places associated with his life—the New Cathedral, St. Tikhon’s, the Old Cathedral, our many other parishes where he served: the Kazan parish, St. Sergius parish and others—we’re all blessed with this tangible feeling that we are walking together with this saint.
I have to say, personally, that on the one hand this is immensely inspiring and encouraging, and on the other hand it is profoundly condemning. Every day I walk in to the little church of St. Tikhon, which is a house church where St. John lived, where the orphanage was, where his kellia is. Every day I walk in through this ordinary door on what looks like any other building on the street, and immediately I feel the presence of this saint; and I have to say that every day I feel as if he is piously condemning me for my profound weakness in my own pastoral life, for my laxity as a Christian. I don’t say he’s condemning me in the sense of a cruel judge, but as a loving father. To live in the presence of a saint who was such a profound ascetic, who worked miracles in his own lifetime—his miracles did not begin after his death; he was a miracle worker for decades before he departed this life—to serve in the same Church as a man who could heal the sick, who has brought people back from the point of death, who has through his intercessions and blessing caused the barren to give birth—one cannot help but stand in the presence of that legacy and feel entirely unworthy of the Christian calling, of the pastoral life. “What have I done with my life? What am I doing? Where is my repentance? Where is my devotion?” These are the questions that living in his presence causes me to ask. Maybe people of greater spiritual stamina don’t have these questions; but asking them is the inspiration for, I hope, an ever-deepening faith and zeal. When I stand in that little church and I find my mind wandering in the third hour of a vigil, and suddenly I realize I’m standing, literally, in the spot where St. John stood during the seventh or the eighth hour of his vigils—then you catch yourself mid-thought and think, “I really should be more attentive. I can do better.” We have all the miracles of St. John, and they are inspirational and continuous. We see them every day. But at a personal level the most influential dimension of his legacy is his example that one can do better in the Christian life. “If you really wanted to, you could heal the sick. If you really wanted to, you could see into the hearts of others.” That’s what I hear him whispering to me, to all of us.
—Does he ever say, “If you really wanted to you could become all flame?”
—Well, I think he does, but then I think that all the saints say this! I believe you know that I have a particular fondness for that saying of Abba Joseph of Panephysis in the Desert Fathers. But isn’t that the message that St. John is giving? Isn’t he a man who, in his own way, became entirely consumed with the grace of God—a living light, who showed by his example that an “ordinary person,” if I can use that language, can attain such things? He began life not as St. John but as Michael the law student, a gifted academic, with a talented legal mind that he kept with him, by the way, all throughout his pastorate. He ruled by decrees. We have hundreds of decrees that he wrote about everything, in minuscule detail. But this “ordinary person” was able to attain extraordinary holiness. And what is his witness to us if not that this is the potential of every person? If only we would take seriously our spiritual lives, we would be all saints. We would not view St. John with any less reverence, but he would not be the only example of this that we see. And to me, that commandment of St. John, “Do better,” is the commandment that inspires me the most. The miracles feed my soul when it’s weak, they strengthen my faith when it is tired; but the thing that urges me to do better is the witness of a man who attained real holiness. Real holiness. The holiness that even today infuses the walls and the chairs that he sat in with grace. And his voice to each of us says, “Strive for the same thing!” I have no delusion that I’ll ever attain a fraction of what he attained. But each of us is called to strive for holiness, to strive for sanctity. The moment we are not aiming for that, we are lost.—It’s so encouraging that we have someone like St. John in our own land.
—Essentially in our own times.
—It’s still possible. The saints aren’t just distant past experiences.
—One of my greatest joys and privileges is serving in that little church where there are still many of “St. John’s children,” which is our term for the children who grew up in his orphanage or in that very house at St. Tikhon’s in San Francisco, having come from Shanghai through the Philippines. These are people who grew up from their childhood in his care, for whom he was their father. I meet many people who knew St. John. He lived not so long ago and there are many, many people alive who knew him. But these are the people who didn’t just know him from a few encounters, who didn’t just serve with him on Sundays in the church. These are people who lived with him morning and evening, every day, their whole lives, until he departed this life; for whom he was a person, not a legend—a person who smiled at their jokes, who scolded them when they were being too silly or too frivolous, who reprimanded them when they were going astray, who touched them gently on the shoulder when they needed consolation, for whom he was a loving father. And yes, to know that such a person lived in our own day, and that there are others like him who live now, some of whom we catch glimpses, but most of whom are hidden from us, is a cause for great inspiration.
—Last question, and we’ve already hit on this here and there. The summer module for the Sts. Cyril and Athanasius Institute is on a study of sanctity and sainthood, and I’ve noticed over the years, in theological discussions, at least in America, and especially on the internet, we often hear things like “the saints can be wrong,” “the saints contradict one another,” “that’s just theologumena.” It strikes me that we don’t really have a good concept of what it really means to be a saint, and we have trouble seeing them as really being different from us in some way. Could you give us a glimpse of what is being discussed in this summer course, and how we ought to approach and think about the saints?
—One of the things that we talk about in this course is that there are two extremes in man’s attitudes towards the saints. One extreme is to turn them into idols and to say that the saints are almost ontologically different creatures from normal human beings. They make no mistakes, they live perfect lives, they never commit any errors, almost as if they’re a different category of being. On the other end of the spectrum, the other extreme, is to simply say that they’re no different at all from you or me. They’re “ordinary people” in every way. They simply lived a little differently, thought a little differently, but in no way is there any distinction from me or from you. In fact, both of these are errors, and which extreme one goes to depends on personality, background, upbringing, circumstances. By and large the vast majority of people err on the side of idol worship. Most “intellectual” people err on the side of simply viewing the saints as in no way distinct from so-called “ordinary persons.” But the reality lies in the middle. The saints are not ontologically different beings, they are, in the sense of their created nature, ordinary people, though I don’t like that word “ordinary.” “Ordinary” in English sounds quite pedestrian. But ordinary in the sense that they express the same nature as every other human person that has existed or ever will exist in life.
But they are not like you and me, in the sense that they have attained a communion with God that we have not yet attained. Perhaps you have, but I have not yet! And that does affect their being; it doesn’t simply affect their mentality or the way they think. We cannot intellectualize sanctity and say a saint is a saint because he thinks in very theologically correct ways, or he speaks in theologically precise terms. Sanctity is a communion in Christ, and it alters the way a person lives. When one lives in authentic communion with Christ to a high degree, one is able to do the things Christ did, and does. We see saints who with their touch heal the sick. We see saints who can see into the heart and know the thoughts of another person. Not guess, not speculate, but know. We see saints who can raise the dead—St. Peter. We see saints whose shadows were sufficient to remove disease. Now, this is not “just like you and me.” This is different. Does it mean that they’re a different type of being? No. What it means is that human life is meant to be lived in communion with God. The life that we live, “ordinary” life, normal day-to-day life, is the life of a debased humanity. The way I live my life is not fully human. If I were fully a human person, as the saints show us the images of full human people, my heart would be continuously aglow with the love of God. The grace of Christ would be manifest in me as it’s manifest in the saint. The fact that it is not so tangibly manifest in me is a sign, not that I haven’t become “superhuman”—the saints are not superhuman, they are human in a way that I have yet to become.
We need to understand that sanctity is not bound up in theological correctness. Of course the saints make mistakes. Sanctity is not a question of being intellectually accurate. There are saints who didn’t know the answers to certain questions, nor was it expected that they should know the answers to certain questions. To be a saint is not suddenly to flip a switch and have an encyclopedic knowledge of all things. What the saints have is a heart in genuine communion with Christ, in authentic communion with Christ, that elevates them to true human people—able, to the degree that God desires, to manifest His attributes in the world, which means that some saints are great miracles workers. If God desires, they will heal the sick, and they will cure the blind. But God may not desire that in the life of another saint. And we have some saints who are not miracle workers but who are no less sanctified. We have some saints who are erudite teachers and write theological tomes. We have some saints who never penned a single text in their entire life, who are completely uneducated, and could not, if asked, answer doctrinal questions. But could they share the true theology of the Church? Absolutely, often to a far higher degree than a theologically-erudite person could, because it’s something lived in their heart. So just as we see that the problems in understanding marriage come from a debased view of marriage, a debased view of the person, so it is with the saints. The problems with our understanding of sanctity come not from false piety, or bad piety. But we don’t understand what sanctity is. Sanctity is the communion of a life in Christ that allows the human person to become simultaneously more human and more divine, which is the whole purpose of our creation.
So again we come back to anthropology—what does it mean to be a person? The true human person is the saint. We often think that Adam is the true person, that we are all sub-Adams. But in the Garden of Paradise, Adam was called to be greater. He was called to a higher communion. It is Christ, the New Adam, Who shows us the full human person. His saints show us the true human person: the person that I am meant to become, that you are meant to become. And if we strive towards this, we will find our redemption.