Father Lev Gillet: The Monk in the City, a Pilgrim in many worlds
by Fr. Michael Plekon
The whole teaching of the Latin Fathers may be found in the East, just as the whole teaching of the Greek Fathers may be found in the West. Rome has given St. Jerome to Palestine. The East has given Cassian to the West and holds in special veneration that Roman of the Romans, Pope Gregory the Great. St. Basil would have acknowledged St. Benedict of Nursia as his brother and heir. St. Macrina would have found her sister in St Scholastica. St. Alexis the “man of God,” “the poor man under the stairs,” has been succeeded by the wandering beggar, St. Benedict Labre. St. Nicolas would have felt as very near to him the burning charity of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Vincent de Paul. St. Seraphim of Sarov would have seen the desert blooming under Father Charles de Foucauld’s feet, and would have called St. Thérèse of Lisieux “my joy.”
A complex man, a wandering monk
Among the truly extraordinary people of the Russian emigration was Sister Joanna Reitlinger, the nun-iconographer closely linked to her spiritual father, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov and influential for others who would renew the tradition of iconography, such as the two masters who first studied with her, Leonid Ouspensky and Fr. Gregory Krug. Sister Joanna left behind a moving account of the death of Fr. Bulgakov, the experience of the “unfading light” he himself wrote of being in fact, the impression of his passing. She also left behind some astonishing icons. In the chapel of the now closed St Basil’s House in London, there are her two remarkable frescoes which in many ways bring to life the vision of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” alive in holy men and women, despite the centuries of schism and distance. (These and the rest of the iconography of St Basil’s have been transferred to a monastery in Wales.) On one wall, assembled before the rounded dome of the Great Church of Holy Wisdom of Constantinople are Anthony the Great and Dorotheos, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Nicholas, Athanasius and Macrina. On the opposite wall, in front of St. Peter’s in Rome, are gathered Benedict, Genevieve of Paris, Leo the Great, Martin of Tours, Augustine, Monica and Irenaeus of Lyons. All are saints of the pre-schismatic era, to be sure, and rather heavily drawn from France in the latter case as well. Yet the two synaxoi or “assemblies” in the frescoes as well as that in Fr. Lev’s text above nevertheless are icons not only of what he taught and wrote but also of who he himself was and the Christian, churchly life he tried to live.
In a century in which the great schism and other divisions of the churches continued to separate people of faith, a century of wars and depressions and rapid social change, there also was the surprise of the ecumenical movement, the sometimes feeble, sometimes defiant urge to recover the original unity of the Church. As with his friends who also figure importantly in this book, Paul Evdokimov, Fr. Bulgakov and Mother Maria Skobtsova, Fr. Lev became a kind of pilgrim between the churches, truly the citizen and inhabitant of various worlds.
Living in both Western and Eastern monasteries, then among the Russian émigrés and the homeless of Paris and later in London, Beirut and Geneva, the little monk had a large soul, an amazingly expansive and diversified life. His life-long friend and biographer, herself part of the sweep of church history in this century, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, has captured something of the quixotic character and nonconformist life of Fr. Lev. In her biography she refers to him, as we have here, as the “monk in the city,” an apparent contradiction, nevertheless pregnant with meaning, and as a “pilgrim” in many worlds.
This he most certainly was, truly a monk, both of the Western Church’s Benedictine order and of the Eastern Church, but for relatively a brief time of his long life actually resident in a monastic community. Fr. Lev had the soul of a pilgrim. In his long life he was never tied down to one occupation, position or place. Born on August 6, 1893, the feast of the Transfiguration in Saint-Marcellin, in Isère, France, his early life saw service in combat in World War I, university studies in philosophy and psychology. He produced the first French translation of Freud’s On the Interpretation of Dreams, underwent psychoanalysis and acquired a life-long sensitivity to the complexity and the suffering of the soul, as Freud called it. After the war he entered the Benedictine Order at Clervaux abbey in Luxembourg. His monastic profession took him to Farnborough abbey in England, where he served and worked under one of the leaders of the liturgical renewal movement, Dom Ferdinand Cabrol. Singled out for further study, he was sent to San Anselmo in Rome, where he made deep friendships with two monks with whom he would be a co-founder, at least in spirit, of the mixed Eastern-Western church monastery of Chevetogne in Belgium.
Later in life, work as priest and scholar would take him across Europe and to the Near East. He would be a member, albeit briefly, of a fledgling monastic community in the Ukraine, also priest in a mission near Nice. After entering the Orthodox Church, he was rector of the first French language Orthodox parish in Paris. He served as chaplain in a number of locations: to Russians and others held in French prisons, at Mother Maria’s hostel, and at St. Basil’s House in London. In between and after, he was an itinerant preacher and retreat master, spiritual father and advisor to bishops, priests, monastics, church youth movements and many individuals. He supported himself at various points in his life, not so much by clerical appointments and stipends but by free-lance, independent writing, editing, translating and research. And if nothing else, he was a go-between, a traveler between numerous “worlds,” that of the past century and the present, that of the Western Christian churches and tradition and that of the East, between clergy and laity, intellectuals and artists and ordinary working people, and, most significantly, between an apparently secular, even Godless world and the reality of God and the Kingdom, one which he experienced in a most intense, even mystical manner. Several of his most widely read books took the form of dialogues between the soul and the Lord, prayer “out loud.”
So the, Lord, it is this? It is truly this? It is only this? This is the whole law and all the prophets? To love with one’s whole heart…To love Him who first loved us, to love everything that He loves, all men, all women, all creatures…Yes, my child, that is it, and that is all. Everything “else” has value only inasmuch as it is the expression, the carrying out-under so many various forms- of that initial impulse which is my limitless Love….The heart transplants, which in our day have become possible, are a wonderful sign of a spiritual reality. To give one’s heart to another, to accept the heart of another…It is the parable of limitless Love’s triumph…
For years, many of Fr. Lev’s writings were published under the pen name of “The Monk of the Eastern Church,” a device first contrived to avoid controversy but later continued because of the anonymity and perhaps also the mystery it afforded. Fr. Lev was in many respects a wanderer. He took a path seldom pursued for a Western monk, far to the East, to a small and experimental Byzantine Catholic monastery in what was then Galicia, now Ukraine, Uniov, near Lvov. He made his permanent monastic profession to and was later ordained by that remarkable bridge figure, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. But Fr. Lev was a Westerner, a Frenchman, and it became apparent that his place in the effort to create contact between the churches of the East and the West was back in the West, not Uniov in Galicia. From there he returned to France, first to a mission among Russian immigrants and then to Paris, where he attached himself to the Russian émigré community there. Eventually the singular bishop of that Western European diocese, then of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Evlogy, received him into the Orthodox Church and its priesthood, simply by concelebration in the Eucharistic liturgy in the Trubetskoy home-chapel in Clamart on May 25, 1928.
From that point onwards, Fr. Lev served within the Orthodox churches in Europe and in the Middle East. A Westerner always, he nevertheless was surely a priest and “monk of the Eastern Church.” In this he was a precursor, with Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, of many others from the Western churches who would become part of the Eastern Church in the 20th century, to some a curious, even suspect phenomenon. Nevertheless, as Paul Evdokimov and Mother Maria and many of the Russian émigrés came to understand it, the destructive Bolshevik revolution also had a very positive outcome, the return of eastern Orthodox Christians to the West, the opening of contacts of prayer, study and common work between them. Perhaps surprisingly, there appeared pilgrims from The West to the Eastern Church, men and women whose love for the Church would repair and create bridges between the divided churches.
After a long life, just such a pilgrim, Fr. Lev, was buried from the Greek Orthodox cathedral in London by his friend and younger colleague, Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of the Russian Patriarchal diocese of Sourozh. In addition to all the prayers of the Orthodox funeral service, one from the Roman Missal was also read by Metropolitan Anthony. Even in death, Fr. Lev kept trying to live in an undivided Church. He understood himself to be a priest of the Orthodox Church, but this did not prevent him from ministering to Christians all across the spectrum, preaching in Hyde Park as well as Protestant churches in London and elsewhere, giving retreats to Orthodox, Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Protestants as well, in short serving all of the people of God like his friend Paul Evdokimov, as if there had never been schisms.
It is perfectly characteristic of the enigmatic chacter of Fr. Lev that after his death, a longtime colleague at St. Basil’s House, Helle Giorgiadias would claim, in print, that he had never left the Catholic Church and had, as some detractors had thought much earlier, “infiltrated” the Orthodox Church almost as a spy. This was her reading of an impassioned exchange when interviewed in his 80s about people and events in the effort to build bridges between East and West in the 1920s, efforts such as the establishment of a Benedictine monastery at Amay in Belgium, whose vocation was to be outreach to the East Fr. Lev was really one of the co-founders, along with Dom Lambert Beauduin and Dom Olivier Rousseau, although he never was to live in this community which still exists today, Chevetogne, internationally known for having both Eastern and Western monastic communities and churches. Fr. Lev exclaimed, in this exchange, that he had always considered himself to be “a catholic priest in full communion with the Slavic Orthodox Church.” This was hardly the revelation of some deep, dark, secret of ecclesiastical espionage, although the actions of several in the 1920s, particularly Bishop Michel d’Herbigny, with special “faculties” for work in Russia and points East might suggest this.
In his singular personality, bordering at times on the eccentric, Fr. Lev’s own statements could, with some effort, be stretched into almost this interpretation, for in letters to his family and former colleagues in the 1920s and even toward the end of his life, he spoke in the idealistic terms of one who recognized the schisms of the churches but believed that the consequent walls of separation could be overcome in many ways, in prayer, in holiness, in the living out of a fully ecclesial life. It is important to note that such a vision of catholicity, of unity despite division, was hardly unique or for that matter peculiar to Fr. Lev. It clearly was the perspective of his longtime friends Paul Evdokimov and Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, friends who dearly loved Fr. Lev but who differed profoundly among themselves in other important respects. It was a vision as well as goal for others being profiled here, others of the remarkable Russian “religious renaissance,” such as Frs. Bulgakov, Afanasiev, Meyendorff, Schmemann and Men.
Fr. Lev seems to shatter every typology of personality. He was intense and passionate, extremely private and revealing at the same time. He is described as child-like and open, most accessible and yet often difficult, brooding even cranky. Though his thinking was straightforward, his friendships deep and lasting and his attitude warm and outgoing, he remained an enigma, a mystery, even to those who knew him well and over a lifetime. This is the sense left in Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s immense biography of Fr. Lev, based on almost 60 years of friendship and correspondence, now available in English translation. Yet in this man of apparent contradictions, there was an amazing resolution or transcendence of conflicts that would destroy and divide. Just as Fr Lev was moved and transformed by the spirituality of the Russian Orthodox Church and its clinging to the “kenosis,” the self-emptying of Christ, Bishop Kallistos Ware has described the monk of the Eastern Church as a most “kenotic” personality himself. Bishop Kallistos cites an early letter of Fr. Lev:
The more I examine myself, the more I see that a life devoted to constructing and organizing, a life which produces positive results and which succeeds, is not my vocation, even though, out of obedience, I could work in this direction and even obtain certain results. What attracts me is a vocation of loss–a life which would give itself freely without any apparent positive result, for the result would be known to God alone; in brief, to lose oneself in order to find oneself.
With such a long life and voluminous literary output, Fr. Lev’s person and work are difficult to capture succinctly. Olivier Clément chose to examine what he considered the central themes in Fr. Lev’s thinking, realities which not only shaped this extraordinary monk-priest but which he lived out: the life in Christ, a universality without relativism and God as One who suffers with us.
In the presence of a suffering God who loves without limits
Incorporating these, and pressing deeper into them, we shall look first at Fr. Lev’s intimate sense of intimate communion with a God who not only was “kenotic,” the One who suffers with us, the Book of Revelation’s ( Bukharev and Evdokimov’s “Lamb immolated from the beginning of the world,” but also “Love without limits,” the One whom often Fr. Lev called “Lord Love.” While Fr. Lev was trained as a scholar and published much in that vein, for example his studies on the “Jesus Prayer,” on the concept of the Messiah and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, on the liturgical year, its lessons, texts and feasts, many of the books published under his pen-name, “A monk of the Eastern Church,” stem from retreats and conferences he gave. Whether focused on the Good Shepherd, the burning bush, the Holy Spirit or a dialogue with Jesus, the presence of God during a typical working day, all are, in a sense, the revelation of what prayer sounds like, a look into communion with God and, conversely, a glimpse of God’s attitude towards us. I would say further, that not only do they reach out to actual listeners at a retreat; they also are a view into Fr. Lev’s own internal discourse and relationship with God and his pastoral way with people.
It is not so much the exegesis of the burning bush of Exodus 3 that concerns Fr. Lev. Rather it is God as fire which burns but does not consume.
God is fire. God is love. God is a self-propagating emotional power, a fire that shares itself. Centuries after Moses beheld the flames of the burning bush, this same fire merged with the tongues of flame at Pentecost, and with the fire that burned within the hearts of the disciples at Emmaus. In saying that God is a fire of love we are certainly stating a truth that plays havoc with many of our ideas, in fact almost all our ideas.
Here we are at the root, not only of Fr. Lev’s intentions in a retreat in the late 1960s at Pleshy, but in much of his ministry, namely to counter worn-out, even wrong ideas of God which all sorts of religious teaching and experiences have planted in people with the startling truth found in the scriptures. In addition, it seemed that from his earliest years working with refugees and particularly the Russian Christian Students’ Movement, Fr. Lev was particularly interested in those outside the Church, outside Christianity, outside conventional religious faith of any kind. Speaking to retreatants during the “death of God” era, he observes that perhaps the very word, “God,” has become overburdened with false meanings. “God” is also all too abstract, empty a term for many. Why not simply identify him with what is the supreme reality for us, love, and speak of and to the “lord of Love,” or “Lord Love”? The Exodus text’s narrative is no mere coincidence here, for Moses asks the burning bush for a name, his name.
You ask what my name is. I am Being. I am the Being whom you see in being at this very moment. Look before you. You see the bush that burns without being consumed. You see fire. The Being I am is a Being of fire. These flames proclaim my love. But look more carefully. My fire does not destroy. That which it burns it purifies and transforms into itself, makes part of itself. And my flame has no need to be fed. It imparts itself, gives itself. I am the Gift that never ceases to give itself…I am Limitless Love.
Weaving in the Eastern Church’s vespers psalm 103 (104), Fr. Lev expands on the eternal, limitless nature of Love who is God, tracing the cosmic and communal linkages implied in creation. From the mountains and the rock badgers to the storms, the oceans, and every man and women, within them all God, limitless Love, lives. And there should be no alarm that the Trinity and Jesus the Christ have not yet been mentioned, for in Moses’ time God had not yet revealed himself as Trinity nor become flesh, and yet there still was Lord Love. In the story of the prophet Hosea and his prostitute-wife, Fr. Lev suggests that the “spontaneous reaction, the first response to the discovery of Limitless Love” is hope, a door of hope opened to each of us, no matter who we are and what we may have made of our lives. Limitless Love calls us back as beloved, puts a ring on our finger, opens the door to communion with him, to the marriage feast.
In the text Fr. Lev admits that for him it was a major change, to start not with our love for God, our obeying the command to love him, but rather the other way around, that is with the overwhelming Love that God has, that God is, for us. “I have come to show you, for you are greatly loved,” is the angel’s message to the prophet Daniel. (Dan. 9: 23) The letters of John affirm this. But Fr. Lev pushes even further to the passion, the suffering of God for us and to love us.
Divine Love is comparable to the atmospheric pressure surrounding us, which sustains each being and also exerts pressure from all sides. Love lays siege to each being and seeks to discover an opening, a path leading into the heart, by means of which Love can permeate everywhere. The difference between the sinner and the saint is that the sinner closes his heart to Love while the saint opens himself to this same Love. In both cases the Love is the same and the pressure is the same.
Limitless Love is for all, both the devoted and the indifferent. Hosea woos back his unfaithful wife and again betroths her in love. Another prostitute, Rahab, saves the Israelite spies and is in turn saved from the destruction of Jericho. (Heb. 11: 30-31) The scarlet thread she hangs out her window spares Jesus himself welcomed those cast off by the church of his time: tax collectors, the woman caught in adultery, possessed men, lepers, those considered punished by God with sickness and seizures. The tax collectors and prostitutes would be the first to enter the Kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 21: 31) Fr. Lev reminds us that not only does Rahab become part of the line of David and therefore of the genealogy of Jesus, but included in the same are others who similarly lived and loved “outside the rules,” Tamar and Bathsheba, not to mention King David himself!
A pattern emerges here, is intensified in Fr. Lev’s reflections of the “clean” versus “unclean” dilemma of the Apostle Peter, in his vision at Joppa. (Acts 10: 15) There is a different and we could say, far more radical ethic at Horeb, of the burning bush, of Limitless Love. Our own view of what is right and just is in conflict with that of Limitless Love. Love abolishes the Law, the standard, the ethic by which we human beings insist on measuring things, seeking justice. What has replaced the Law is Christ. We now do what is good, truthful, right not because the opposite are against the Law, but because Christ as died and rose for us. Such is not “situational ethics,” but a parting of ways with legalism. And it is more. Here we begin to see the deeper radicalism of Fr. Lev, not unique to him by any means, in fact part of the mind of the Eastern Church, as expressed not only in liturgical texts and rites but in the reflections of writers such as Dostoevski. In God’s eyes, what may seem “irregular” to us, even to the clergy, may in fact be “regular” that is right with God. And the opposite holds as well. The one so apparently within the community of the righteous, so careful in fulfilling ritual and other details may be in “inner truth,” very much removed, “outside” the assembly. The greatest sin is, as Christ himself stressed, not the violation of a rule but the action against love or without love.
Fr. Lev pushes even further.
The ethic of Limitless Love demands that we should be able to recognize the presence of God in the very sin that the sinner commits…You must not think I mean that God approves of the sin or encourages the sinner. I simply mean that even in an act of sin God is, to a certain extent, present…everything that happens—the bad act as well as the good—has its roots in the being of God. Only because God gives us our being (or rather lends it to us) are we in existence at the very moment when we commit a sin. At that very moment God could withdraw our being from us, could destroy us. But he holds us in the existence we have received from him, even when that existence turns against him. Moreover the Lord Love, in his infinite mercy, allows sin to contain certain positive elements.
Fr. Lev gets quite specific here. The illicit sexual relationship is not justified or redeemed by the bit of tenderness, the small moment of self-giving or of compassion. Yet this “spark” from the burning bush is the sign that Limitless Love has entered this relationship. God is present even in the connection between a prostitute and her client, between two lovers. God continually is “showing forth his compassion in ways that are so often unexpected and always new. Even when one cannot stop, cannot escape from the limits of his or her behavior, there is room, there is openness on Love’s part. No one is excluded or thrown out. The Eastern Church, Fr. Lev argues, as does his friend Paul Evdokimov, and their common teacher, Fr. Bulgakov, knows the limitless compassion of God, and thus confession is more healing than punishment, more the joint commitment of confessor and penitent in prayer to find God’s way so that the sinner can hear Christ’s words: “Rise, pick up your bed and walk…Your sins are forgiven. Go, and sin no more.”
It is not fidelity to a code, conformity to a standard but the often difficult effort “to act as God acts in respect of this sinner and this sin; in other words, I try to love him, or her, out of it.” This is threatening to many, disturbing, for it confronts us with a God who is quite unlike us, free to forgive, to love, to brush offenses away, without any shock or vengeance. It is the same insight that Paul Evdokimov brings back from the Fathers, namely the reality that God does compel anyone to love him but knocks at the door of our hearts, waits as a beggar in his “absurd love,” even desiring to “share the bread of our suffering.” To think with the mind of Christ, to see with the eyes of God is to transform the person and situation before us.
To love, with all one’s heart, as oneself; the Gospel transmutes all of the law and the prophets into that…It is a matter of offering our whole heart to Love, a heart which is pure as a wine is pure, a heart unadulterated and whole, a heart which is not divided or shared. And in the light of this it might perhaps be useful to revise our contemporary understanding of purity, or more precisely, of chastity. Too often we think of chastity in negative terms, as no more than a matter of abstaining. But a chaste heart, a pure heart, is a whole heart, an integrated, total heart which offers itself to God or to men in its wholeness. The real sin against purity is to offer (or to seem to offer) to God, or to a man, or to a woman, a love which is falsified, a love that is not or cannot be integral, a heart that is not “whole.”
As in St. Peter’s vision, Fr. Lev suggests, we today see a great sheet unrolled before us with all sorts of creatures and things which, to our conventional religious and moral sensibilities, appear “unclean,” ways of life and situations we think we should ourselves reject, while also distancing ourselves from those who are involved in them. He specifically refers to drug addiction, homosexuality and abortion, which remain as real now over 30 years later. But Fr. Lev hears these words from the Lord Love:
There are, among these particular things, some I have already purified entirely. Others I am purifying at this moment. But I cannot purify or pardon without an inner change in the sinners. I ask you to participate in my work of purification by your prayer, by your sympathy for the sinner (not the sin), by your adoring discovery of my absolute Purity acting secretly in the very midst of the visible impurity, so that it shall be consumed in my flame….Separate the entirely negative element from the positive element existing in all faults…Assimilate everything which in the sinner comes from me and continues to be mine, and unite yourself to me in my effort to transfigure that which is not of me. Enlarge your heart to the dimensions of my heart.
Here is a hope that indeed, “all will be saved,” an impulse both of faith and love which sees, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, Origen and in our own time, in Fr. Lev’s contemporary, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, the promise of an ultimate apokatastasis, a final resurrection of all into the Kingdom. How irritating this is, how maddening and how absolutely wrong in the minds of so many within the Church! How soft, messy, disorderly this approach, this attribution of attitudes to God. How much more awful a world it would be if such an ethos became widespread. Perhaps already over a generation, actually more than a half-century ago, Fr. Lev was already deluded by the permissiveness of the culture around him, distorted by the psychological and psychoanalytic theory he studied in graduate school, confused by the complex, troubled people around him in Paris, Beirut, London, Geneva and so many other places. Or better, could it not be that Fr. Lev, so much drawn to the Church of the East and her preservation of Tradition perceived here the living and open, creative and free movements of the Lord Love, transcending rules and stereotypes, always seeking the soul that is lost.
Fr. Lev concludes the retreat on the burning bush, which I have closely followed here with the incident toward the end of the Apostle Paul’s adventures during his journey as a prisoner to stand trial in Rome, this toward the ends of the Acts of the Apostles, 28. The soaked, shivering survivors of the shipwreck are received with compassion, “great kindness,” by the barbarian inhabitants of the island of Malta. A huge fire is made so that they can warm and dry themselves. Moreover, the Maltese them take the survivors back to their homes, after the emergency services are delivered, for food, rest and other care. If we are truly servant of the Lord Love, Fr. Lev says by way of conclusion, then like the residents of Malta, we too will seek out the survivors wherever they may be, drenched and paralyzed by rain and cold, bringing them fire, the fire of our love, the fire of the burning bush, of Limitless Love.
A God who is limitless love, who suffers with his creatures, who reaches down to help, forgive and save them but without threat or compulsion, a God “absurd” in his affection for us, violating apparently, not only our sense of fairness but his own law and its implications, such a God is the only God found in the writings of the monk of the eastern Church. Repeatedly, the same themes surface throughout Fr. Lev’s retreat talks, later written down and published. Two such small collections, printed together under the title, In Thy Presence, in particular exhibit Fr. Lev’s distinctive approach and insights. In the first of these, “Limitless Love,” it is again the One in the burning bush who addresses us, who reveals a name other than that we usually and unthinkingly use, “God.” So “Lord Love,” “Limitless Love” makes the first movement towards us and shows himself to be, at one and the same time, beyond our expectations and ideas of a God and yet closer to us than we are to ourselves.
This God is the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit revealed by Christ. However, as Elisabeth Behr-Sigel points out, it may well have been the cumulative effect of working and conversing with so many outside of Christianity, either because of membership in other traditions and communities of faith such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or because of estrangement from Christian faith by experiences of the past and the present, that Fr. Lev deliberately sought to take another, simpler and more basic path. It is not so unusual a path in the modern era at that, choosing ordinary language, events and experiences of everyday life to communicate the same Truth of God and his love proclaimed in the scriptures, liturgy, icons and theology of the Church’s tradition. Fr. Lev was looking for what Emil Brunner called a “point of contact,” what Peter Berger refers to as “signals of transcendence,” very basic, even “prototypical human gestures,” in which the Holy One is present, encounters and is encountered by us.
Much of what we heard in the talks on the burning bush is here again, but as well new and different reflections. Over and over, the personal character of Lord Love, his relentless seeking us out to share in his love, his constant suffering with us—these are keys upon which Fr. Lev plays, answering very likely to the hunger and frustrations he himself experienced and which he encountered in the people around him, religious and secular. To those who would prefer God in his heaven and all else in place as a form of faith, he reminds us of the active work of God in seeking us and overturning our plans.
Limitless Love forces open doors. Perhaps I had not achieved some sort of peaceful coexistence with God. Perhaps I had succeeded in believing that, as far as my soul was concerned, I was more or less “in good order,” and so had come to feel more or less at rest…And now all those presuppositions have been turned upside down by a divine intrusion. God asks something from me that I am quite unprepared for. It is like the news of an unwanted child…To listen to this demand, to take the costly decision, ah, but why? Everything seemed to be going so well! Must I have new uncertainties and anxieties?..And now limitless Love wants to erupt into my life. It comes to upset everything in it. It comes to break up what seemed stable and to open new horizons to which I had never given a thought.
Here and there are the faces of men and women Fr. Lev listened to and consoled: a woman worried at only the loss she perceives in her aging, a lonely young émigré fearful of the future in a new land, the very pious Christian with prayer books and Bible in hand, running to church, the beautiful girl with so many lovers, the convict he cared for as prison chaplain, the mother who lost her child, the victim of the concentration camp, (perhaps the memory here of his beloved Mother Maria Skobtsova?), the alcoholic, the drug addict. There are brilliant small reflections on the significance of a look, a smile, on prayer, on bearing within oneself the spark that kindles the fire of limitless Love in others, and a perceptive meditation on the gift of women to the rest of humanity.
What is more, in these talks, without descending to the constricting level of “recipes,” Fr. Lev suggests how one can live an authentic life in God in the very ordinary tasks of everyday life. Particularly in the second collection, “Thy Presence Today,” the emphasis is as much on the “today,” as on “presence.” There is a treasure of detail here: the beginning of waking up, the act of washing, dressing, reading and writing, leaving home for the workplace and those encountered there and on the trip, the simple gesture of the outstretched hand and the clasping and shaking of same, the meals shared or eaten by oneself, the cleanup, finally, the return home to the darkness of night, to the stillness of a house late in the evening, to sleep. How closely this follows the quite mundane schedule of Fr. Lev during his many years at St. Basil’s House in London that Elisabeth Behr-Sigel describes. Yet without giving it a name, and without laying it out in programmatic form as a technique (as in manuals of “spirituality” today) Fr. Lev here suggests the ways in which the life of any person can be “churched,” made incarnate with the presence of Christ, be in St. Seraphim’s phrase, an acquiring of the Holy Spirit.
It is not without coincidence that the one who in so many of his writings used the pen-name of “the monk of the eastern Church,” and who throughout his life, at least according to his friends and colleagues consistently understood himself precisely as a monk, in actual practice spent relatively few years within a monastic community. In a fairly long life, he resided in Benedictine and the Uniov Eastern Church monastic communities only from 1920-1927, concluding in a brief stay in Nice, in a mission house for care of Russian refugees. For the rest of his nomadic life, there would hardly be any permanent position, and no monastery to which he belonged. One is tempted to conclude that it was principally Fr. Lev’s impatient spirit, the wandering impulse within him that kept him on the move. However, for the many Orthodox dispersed in the West by exile and emigration, permanent monasteries were for a long time impossible and more a dream than anything else. Archbishop Anthony (Bloom) recounts this in an interesting article about his own long monastic life without a monastery. Mother Maria Skobtsova did visit monastic communities which survived the revolution in Estonia and Latvia, but found these to be essentially museums of past practice. She was convinced that there could be a renewed monasticism in the world, her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy remarking that indeed the streets and the city of Paris and her hostels had become her monastery. One can only speculate on the conversations and exchanges of ideas about the way to follow Christ, to live the Gospel life in the midst of so much turmoil and suffering in the modernity of the 20th century between Mother Maria and Fr. Lev who was chaplain at her hostel in Rue Lourmel from 1935-38. In the chapter here on Mother Maria, I think the essence of those conversations can be found in many of the texts cited from Mother Maria, quite a few of them from essays precisely on the possibilities of a renewed monastic life today. The most remarkable essay of hers generously cited is “Types of religious Lives,” in which the Gospel or “evangelical” way corresponds most closely with her other writings about a full spiritual life in the world. I would argue that the daily form of Christian living, in the presence of Christ that Fr. Lev lays out here as well as in other places, also is rooted in his own nomadic and worldly, primarily urban monasticism.
A third person profiled in this book was very close to Fr. Lev, and also knew Mother Maria through the Russian Christian Students Association. This is the lay theologian who worked for many years not unlike Mother Maria, directing hostels sponsored by the ecumenical CIMADE for the poor, homeless, suffering, later refugees and students. And I find it once again not surprising that Paul Evdokimov would have devoted so much thought throughout his teaching and writing to this same matter of how to live out the Christian life, as one’s ancestors in the faith had for so many centuries of Christian history. But it was impossible to simply recreate, repristinate the past, force 3rd or 13th or 18th century conditions and practices into the life of the 20th century. Borrowing from the insightful ideas of the 18th century monk and bishop, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Paul Evdokimov spoke of an “interiorized monasticism,” what St. Tikhon had referred to as “untonsured monasticism.” One can fuss about descriptions and labels and their implications, whether even the mention of monasticism is appropriate for a universal understanding of holiness or possibly a dilution of this singular vocation. Nevertheless, what Fr. Lev insisted on throughout his preaching and writing was not a “spirituality” of unusual practices and ‘mystical” experiences. Rather, he appears to have assimilated what so many of his beloved Russians understood and urged as the “churching” of life, the elimination of cultural religiosity, and what Mother Maria would typify as esthetic, ritualitic or ascetical forms in favor of a “Gospel” way of life, a “lived-out” or “experiential” faith as Paul Evdokimov expressed it. While his vision of the life in Christ is not without feeling, very much communal, with others and for them, Fr. Lev’s presentation of this pattern is within the tasks and details of ordinary living. What Fr. Schmemann termed the “sacramental vision of the world,” really an eschatological one, in which every encounter was a possibility for seeing Christ and following him. Fr. Lev too envisioned such a “paradise of the moment,” in which all of everyday was the arena for holiness.
Living in the una sancta
Lastly, what stands out so strongly, particularly in a time of retrogression and revision is Fr Lev’s astonishing openness, the incarnation in his thought and ministry of the absolute freedom of Orthodoxy of which Fr Elcheninov, Soloviev, Berdiaev and so many others of the Russian experience knew. Many years later, in a journal entry that would find its way into his volume Conversations of Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton would write
If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russians with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other or absorbing one division into the other. But if we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political, and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ. (p. 21)
In a remarkable manner, Fr Lev accomplished just this union and communion. Such a realization was the fruit of Fr Lev’s own “return to the sources” and his complex and painful pilgrimage, not only from the Western Church to the Eastern Church, but all of the many side trips, one might call them, he also pursued over the years: his exploration of the Judaic roots of Christianity, his fascination with the traditions of the Orient, his willingness to listen to the voices of what Evdokimov called “principled atheists,” those with serious criticism and questions of faith. Critics note that Fr. Lev was himself a romantic, constantly disappointed however, with the realities of those people and communities with whom he easily became infatuated. Above all there was his powerful attraction to the Russian émigré community in France. He rhapsodized over the Eastern Church, loved her adherence to Tradition, the greater presence in her, at least as he saw it in the 1920s, of the faith of the undivided Church of the first millennium. Not without reason did so deeply fall for the Paris Russians, for among them, in Metropolitan Evlogy, in Frs. Sergius Bulgakov, Alexander Elcheninov, in the spirit of Soloviev and the person of Nicolas Berdiaev, in Pierre and Evgraf Kovalesky, Nadia Gorodetsky and Paul Evdokimov and many others did he experience the tremendous creativity of a Tradition that knew itself in the suffering of persecution and exile and yet was able in great freedom to be open to the rest of Christendom and the world.
O strange Orthodox Church, so poor and weak, with neither the organization nor the culture of the West, staying afloat as if by a miracle in the face of so many trials, tribulations and struggles; a Church of contrasts, both so traditional and so free, so archaic and so alive, so ritualist and so personally involves, a Church where the priceless pearl of the Gospel is assiduously preserved, sometimes under a layer of dust; a Church which in shadows and silence maintains above all the eternal values of purity, poverty, asceticism, humility and forgiveness; a Church which has often not known how to act, but which can sing of the joy of Pascha (Easter) like no other.
As Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s biography shows, the Eastern Church was big of heart and free enough to accept the complicated, emotionally vacillating and restless pilgrim monk of the West as one of her own. And in the Eastern Church, Fr. Lev was not spared any of the weaknesses or eccentricities he recognized her to possess. The best of his intentions were often disregarded, not only by Russian but also by Greek bishops, in Paris, Moscow, Jerusalem and at the Phanar in Istanbul. Even the Arabs, for whom he was to acquire a deep attachment, could be immensely disappointing to him. He was to find the hardening of canon law and Episcopal authority, and pure inertia wherever he went in the Orthodox world and even in where Orthodox had moved and settled in the West. One can only wonder what he would have made of the chaotic and contradictory chacter of Orthodoxy here in the United States, with the curious blend of traditionalism and obsession with technology, the confusing overlapping of and conflict among jurisdictions allegedly in ecclesial and sacramental communion with each other. Time after time, Fr. Lev’s ideals of the catholicity of the Church, her fullness and universality, her freedom and fidelity to the Lord and his Gospel were seriously challenged by the actual clergy and laity with whom he lived and worked. Although Elisabeth Behr-Sigel does not conceal his discouragement and depression over the sad, sinful realities of the Christians who comprise the Church, her biographical sketch and Fr. Lev’s own writings do leave us with something more than dashed hopes and dreams of a reuniting Church.
In the end, Fr. Lev’s life and his preaching suggest an attitude of hope over against a very messy ecclesiastical landscape. Both Olivier Clément and Elisabeth Behr-Sigel underscore his exceptional openness, a catholicity of heart, a universality and immense freedom without his ever being a relativist. To a large degree, Fr. Lev’s life and ministry were on the margins of the institutional Church. Most of his efforts to obtain canonical recognition for groups wanting to enter Orthodoxy or utilize a Western rite for liturgical worship within an Orthodox jurisdiction proved unsuccessful. In the cases of Charles Winnaert and Evgraph Kovalesky, the inability of Fr. Lev to gain canonical acceptance was hardly due just to his own ineptitude. In fact, he was rather astute ecclesiastically, as the voluminous correspondence he conducted, and employed by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel in her biography would indicate. All too often as in these case of these individuals, personal idiosyncrasies and obstinate attitudes probably did more to prevent acceptance than anything else.
It is also likely the case that Fr. Lev consistently fell between the ecclesiastical cracks himself. Thoroughly a Westerner, a Frenchman, and formed in the Roman Catholic Church, though he became fluent in Russian, completely assimilated in Orthodox theology and liturgy and something of a cultural cosmopolitan, he really could not be taken as “one of our own” by any of the jurisdictions to which he was attached, whether that of the Lviv diocese and Uniov monastery of Metropolitan Andrei Szeptyky, the Western European Exarchate of Metropolitan Evlogy, the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople to which he was later connected. He was never formally excommunicated by Metropolitan Andrei and was never asked to formally renounce anything when received into the Orthodox church by concelebrating the liturgy and during it confessing the Creed.
Perhaps despite all the small details of his personality and disappointments of his ecclesiastical activity, Fr. Lev is nevertheless a kind of sign of both the schism and its healing. There is a well-known statement, attributed both to Metropolitan Platon of Kiev and Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow, cited by none other than Fr Lev’s own bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy of Paris:
Men like St. Seraphim of Sarov and St. Francis of Assisi and many others have in their lives accomplished the union of the churches. Are they not citizens of the same holy and universal Church? At the level of their spiritual life they have gone beyond the walls which divide us, but which, in the fine expression of Metropolitan Platon of Kiev, do not reach up to heaven.
At the beginning of a new millennium and century, many of the ecumenical hopes of Fr. Lev’s youth and mature years, of those now seemingly golden years of contact and cooperative work especially after World War II, are in tatters. At the best there appears well-intentioned but ineffective and unconnected gestures. Pope John Paul II’s consistent appeals are for the most part ignored or fiercely rejected by many Orthodox bishops, theologians and clergy. Several Orthodox churches notably those of Georgia and Bulgaria, have left the WCC and participation of others such as that of Russia is suspended for the duration of negotiations and changes in the body’s make-up and structure. The voice of the exclusivist or traditionalist perspective within Orthodoxy, that which recognizes nothing, no sacraments, priesthood, church, no grace whatsoever outside its own boundaries, is aggressive and loud, on Mt Athos, in other monastic centers such as Trinity-St Sergius and Valaam. Any prayer with the non-Orthodox Christians is condemned by appeal to the canons’ prohibition against worship with heretics. Rebaptism of converts is required, as well as a range of other divisive and isolationist strategies such as use of the old calendar, use of Greek and Slavonic in liturgical services, and a host of other practices many which are of relatively recent origin or are cultural rather than theological in nature. Sadly the response to such aggressive defining of what is authentic Orthodox belief and practice has recently been weak, overly cautious or non-existent.
Fr. Lev is not alone in witnessing otherwise. As noted, his closest friends and comrades, to a person, embodied the freedom of the Eastern Church, fidelity together with great love and openness to the world and the churches, speaking and acting as if the schism had never been or was by their very gestures being healed by the Holy Spirit. Many have been mentioned in this chapter, some are the focus of other chapters in this book, still more fall outside our view here, gathered as those assemblies in so many icons such as the resurrection, “All of Creation Rejoices in You,” and the Protection of the Mother of God: Vladimir Lossky, Frs. Bulgakov, Elchaninov, Zenkovsky, Kern, Afanasiev, Schmemann, Meyendorff, Knazieff, and those still with us, Bishop Kallistos Ware, Georges Khodre, and Anthony Bloom, Frs. Bobrinskoy, Breck, Evdokimov, theologians Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, John Erickson, Paul Meyendorff, Peter Bouteneff, and others.
However, we find in Fr. Lev’s deep faith, persistence and creativity, despite his own discouragement and counterproductive ecclesiastical functioning, a sign of hope for ourselves. Despite all the personal weaknesses and his failures, despite even the grand chaos, what Paul Evdokimov termed “ecclesiastical anarchy,” Fr. Lev (and his comrades) loved Christ and the Church and nurtured that love in whatever ways were possible. He remains a sign of what can be said and done, under the most trying of circumstances.
1. Orthodox Spirituality, 2nd. ed., (Crestwood NY: SVSP, 1978 ), pp. x-xi. Much of what follows is indebted to Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s masterful and extensive biography, Lev Gillet: ” Un moine de l’église d’ Orient,” (Paris: Cerf, 1993), now in English, Lev Gillet: ‘a monk of the Eastern Church,’ Helen Wright, trans., (Oxford: Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, 1999). I am also indebted to Dr. Behr-Sigel for her willingness to talk about Fr. Lev, Paul Evdokimov and many other of her contemporaries and friends of the Russian émigré community in Paris. Her more than half a century of friendship and correspondence with Fr. Lev gave her the singular vantage point for writing his biography. Her own life and work as a lay theologian remain, at 93 years of age, a living witness to the legacy of this Russian “religious renaissance,” a testimony to their creativity and openness while faithful to the Tradition of the Church. Such are the hallmarks of her many years of teaching and writing.
2. See Sister Joanna Reitlinger, “The Final Days of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov. There is also a reproduction of her drawing of his face on his deathbed in the special number devoted to Fr. Bulgakov Le messager orthodoxe, no. 98, p.87.
3. Reproductions of these are in the Cerf, French language edition of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s biography, between pp. 312 and 313.
4. In Thy Presence, (Crestwood NY: SVSP, 1977), pp. 71-72).
5. See Helle Georgiadis, “The witness of Fr. Lev,” Chrysostom, 8, 1980, pp. 235-238 and Behr-Sigel, Lev Gillet, pp. 9-12, 441-442.
6. See Zernov, The Russian Religious Renaissance, p. 196.
7. Letter of 9 March 1928, in Contacts, 49, no. 180, 1997, p. 309. This is one of a series of letters from Fr. Lev to his bishop, Metropolitan Andrei Szeptycky, recently discovered in archives in Lviv and here excerpted and translated by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel. Also see Cyril Korolevsky, Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky, Serge Keleher, ed. and trans., Fairfax VA: Eastern Christian Publications, 1997).
8. See his preface, “Le père Lev Gillet: grand théologien du Dieu souffrant et de l’Amour sans limites,” in the anthology of Fr. Lev’s writings, Au cœur de la fournaise, Maxim Egger, ed., (Paris/Pully: Cerf-le sel de la terre, 1998), pp. 9-23.
9. See Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Alexandre Boukharev: un théologien de l’Église orthodoxe russe en dialogue avec le monde moderne, (Paris: Beauchesne, 1977), Paul Evdokimov, Le Christ dans le pensée russe, L’amour fou de Dieu, (Paris: Seuil, 1973) and my essay, “The God Whose Power is Weakness, Whose Love is Foolish: Divine Philanthropy in the Theology of Paul Evdokimov,” Sourozh, 60, 1995, pp. 15-26.
10. The Burning Bush, (Springfield IL: Templegate, 1976), pp. 12-13.
11. Ibid., pp. 17-18.
12. Ibid., pp. 33-34.
13. Ibid., pp. 48-49.
14. See Paul Evdokimov, “L’eschatologie,” in Le buisson ardent, “Paris: Lethellieux, 1981, pp. 135-167, also in In the World, Of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader, forthcoming.
15. Ibid., p. 51.
16. Ibid., p. 51.
17. Ibid., p. 52.
18. Sergius Bulgakov, L’Épouse de l’Agneau: La creation, l’homme, l’Église et la fin, Constantin Andronikof, trans. (Paris: L’Age d’Homme, 1984), pp.268-416.
19. Such as Jesus: Dialogue with the Savior, (NY: Desclée, 1963).
20. Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, and A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, 2nd ed. (NY: Anchor-Doubleday, 1967, 1990), pp. 59-85.
21. In Thy Presence, pp. 37-38.
22. Ibid., pp. 47-49, 54.
23. Ibid., pp. 56, 66-70.
24. “My Monastic Life,” Cistercian Studies Quarterly, 8, 1973, pp. 187-197.
25. Sergei Hackel, Pearl of Great price, p. 20-27. See also the anthology of Mother Maria’s writings, Le sacrement du frére.
26. Excerpts from these essays, mostly cited passages, are to be found in Le sacrement du frére and Pearl of Great Price.
27. See Ages of the Spiritual Life, pp. 133-154, 227-239, and my essays, “”Monasticism in the Marketplace, the Monastery, the World and Within: An Eastern Church Perspective,” Cistercian Studies Quarterly, 34, 3, 1999, pp. 339-367 and “Interiorized Monasticism: A Reconsideration of Paul Evdokimov on the Spiritual Life,” The American Benedictine Review, 48, 3, 1997, pp. 227-253.
28. Lev Gillet, p. 129.
29. Quoted in M. Villain, L’Abbé Paul Couturier, Apôtre de l’unité chrétienne, Paris, 1957) as cited in A.M. Allchin, The World is a Wedding, ( NY: Crossroad, 1982), p. 80.
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