by Petcu Tudor
A Romanian writer, Tudor Petcu is a graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Bucharest, Romania. He has published a number of articles related to philosophy and theology in different cultural and academic journals. His work focuses on the evolution of Orthodox spirituality in Western societies as well and he is going to publish a book of interviews with Westerners converted to Orthodoxy. In this article, he interviews American convert to Orthodoxy, Nicholas Smith, whose spiritual journey was marked by a series of research experiences, each one contributing to the edification of his inner world.
1) How would you describe yourself before becoming an Orthodox? By this question I want to make reference especially to your spiritual personality before joining the Orthodox Church.
I think the best way to frame a description of my spiritual life before becoming Orthodox is to mention the reason why in America the term ‘spiritual’ has become the term used to separate one’s spiritual life from organized religion. The statement, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is now the preferred way to state that although I am interested in the transcendent / supernatural, I won’t be controlled by a rigid belief system.
The practice of “Spirituality” can be edifying and transformative—Alcoholics Anonymous has produced much fruit for Orthodox Christians—but most people who identify as spiritual and not religious, are using it as a means to feel good about themselves. They are influenced by New Age theosophical or gnostic speculation, monistic idealism, and Spiritism without any necessary conviction.
Their spirituality may be born of a desire for the infinite and God, but mostly becomes ways of seeking out ecstatic, or supernatural experiences apart from moral responsibilities. Nonetheless, growing up in a Reformed evangelically influenced church, I had the same feelings about religion as those who separate themselves from the church. I wanted to love God and thirsted for his presence, but it never manifested for me except as an affective and conceptual framework imposed by the religious authorities in my life. To be fair, I had a sense of God’s presence through some Christians in my life, even in the Church I grew up in, but when I struggled to meet the moral standards of my church, I was not given compassion.
By the time I reached high school, the only cure, I saw for my lack, was in altering my state of mind. I had started having daily panic attacks, overwhelming anxiety, a sense that I was looking on the world through a TV monitor and invisible to everyone while their presence was acrimonious to me. I began to have a solipsistic concern with myself, slipping into a deluge of drugs and alcohol, and maudlin spite for myself, but even so, I saw no answer to my problems. When I was hurting, my pastor was derisive, when I was abused and scarred, my scars were ignored, and when I had a need to be healed and loved, I found nothing but cold abandonment. I saw the God I was taught to believe in only existed in a realm beyond the horizon that I couldn’t touch. This God had completed his relationship to us with the penal substitution of his Son to displace anger toward our disobedience. All of what I was given of this God was conceptual and a moralistic epistemological framework.
Eventually I reached a point of such a limited horizon of future possibilities for happiness, that I could only see one path to peace: abandoning my responsibility to the authorities in my life and to life itself. I did this through an attempt at suicide, but even as I gave up hope in my Church’s God and hit a bottom of spiritual and emotional bankruptcy, I could not bring myself fully let go of life or God.
2.) When exactly took place your meeting with Orthodox spirituality and why was this meeting so meaningful for your inner world or, let’s say, for your own spiritual growth?
I think my meeting with Orthodoxy really began with reading Dostoevsky. I’d started opening up to God again after my bottom, but it wasn’t until I read Crime and Punishment in my junior year of high school that I felt a text had done justice to the depth of human suffering, the extent of historical baggage, and the true depth and particularity of human being, while showing it could be redeemed. In the novel, all the complexities, schismatic compulsions, and existential illusions born of human desire, were illuminated and shown for what they were from a Light coming from beyond the limited horizon of Raskolnikov’s solipsistic world.
This Light was what broke through Raskolnikov’s solipsism and was what broke through to my own. It was present, not in the self-righteous like Father Ferapont in the Brothers Karamazov who imagines himself being carried up to heaven like Elijah for his ascetic perfection, but in the feeblest creatures. In Crime in Punishment it is found in a shamed prostitute, Sonya, who is forced into such degradation by her alcoholic father. It is in her feebleness and humility, she shines the Light of Love that opens up Raskolnikov’s world to new possibilities. It is her Love that brings to light the suffering and sickness of Raskolnikov, and the conceptual and passionate bindings he is being possessed by. It is this Love that allows her to give up her own desires, and desire to carry his burdens and suffer his sufferings. She opens up another world of infinite possibility to Raskolnikov by meeting him with the undying Light of the uncreated energies.
When I was confronted by this love in Sonya, it was ok that I was the scared, suffering, suffocating little body of sickness running about trying to protect his ego, because in the context of the excess of this love, I still had hope to change. I experienced Love that could even touch with tenderness the madness of Raskolnikov’s world. It was at that point, by the end of the Epilogue, I was present also to the light of this Love. I saw for once the possibility that I could be seen by God and not abandoned, Loved and yet still redeemed in spite of my complete lack of ability to account for it. I saw a God that could actually love and heal me because there were not limits to his Love. I was encountered by a God I’ve longed for and loved ever since but still, it took a while to know was the God of Orthodoxy.
It wasn’t until college and started to read Orthodox Theology that I saw who this God was, or Rather were he was. I read about the lives of Saints, encountered the theology of Russian Émigrés like Vladimir Lossky and Paul Evdokimov, and came to know that the God I had seen or was seen by, was the God of Orthodoxy. This God was uncreated and only known in his love which was himself in his energies. His Grace was his relation to me, and would transform me to partake in His divine life and be a healing presence in the Universe. The first time I came to a Divine Liturgy at an Orthodox Church, it was beautiful, the lyrical imagery in the prayer was beyond any system of signification, the censing of the Icons all brought me into contemplation, but yet it took a while for me to submit to ecclesial authority and let go of my expectations.
Even as I entered the Church I still had trouble with its authority. I believed apophatic and mystical theology of the Godhead and man, but not in the fullness of my need to change yet. I had, had a dream where the Love of God met me in an unspeakable manner that brought me into Orthodoxy, but then I expected these experiences every day. I thought at first that Orthodox spirituality was like consuming sugar, rather than the hard tack it can be at times. I thought the vision of God, Theoria, was immediate rather than a process. It took me awhile to see that Orthodox spirituality is like manna, or seeds planted every day to be received into your life one day at a time.
That the goal of this spirituality is to realize everything you have is given to you out of gratuity and you cannot make anything of yourself by yourself because there is no being apart from God. Orthodox spirituality is about emptying yourself. It is detaching yourself from pleasures, compulsions, romanticized futures, and thoughts that make you glory in yourself and make you incapable of stillness.
It was only when I saw how incapable and broken I was, how far away I was from God, that I found myself in God’s presence. It was only in coming to appreciate and mourn the sickness and shame of my apostacy through prayer, that I started to encounter God. Truthfully, my deepest spiritual experiences are when through prayer I see the actuality of all the unreality I’ve participated in, all the pain I’ve caused, all my lack of concern and love, my complete inability to be redeemed, I am met by an embrace of the Father in distance. It is only in this ultimate losing of myself that I am in the position to be greeted by the excess of love in the invisible uncreated energies pneumatizing my being, and find my being in the infinite embrace in gift of God. There I find a stillness in the love born out of the only possible emotion I can feel in that moment—complete, cleansing, transcendent gratitude.
3) When were you baptised and confirmed in the Orthodox Church and what represented that moment in your life?
I was baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church and they do not baptize again in the Antiochian Orthodox Church if you were baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
As far as being Chrismated into the Orthodox Church, I believe it was on Great and Holy Saturday in 2012. My girlfriend, Johanna, (now my wife) and I had been attending the church for over a year. We were chrismated together in 2012 and married in the Orthodox Church in 2013.
I think, though, that the meaning of becoming Orthodox became clearer only initially in the mysterious presence of God I felt in the sacraments, and then when I was married to my wife in the Church. I had not until then realized what a different world it is when God and his Kingdom is present in marriage. Never has a moment lit up more as an Icon of the Kingdom of God than the new dimension I experienced in the marriage ceremony. During the sacrament I wept, and afterwards, for the first time I saw Johanna a little bit like how God does and makes himself known. I saw her more as an Icon for the living God and was rent by her beauty. After that even though I dishonor how I should see her sometimes, I know in my heart and reality, and sense in moments of Truth, that she is a gift I think has only been captured in art at the end of Wim Wender’s film, Wings of Desire, where at the end Icon of man and woman and their love is shot through with the glory seen by the angels looking down at us and desiring what we have in Christ.
4.) What is in your opinion the difference between the modern moralistic epistemology that can be found in many protestant denominations and the orthodox view on life and human being?
I think there are so many ways to answer this question, and the difference is extraordinary, but one way to get at this difference is how protestants react to Nietzsche’s infamous proclamation of the death of God compared to the Orthodox. For protestants and evangelicals this is scandalous and pricks them the wrong way, because God or Jesus is not existent outside of the name and concept a protestant sees as attached to it. Conversely, most Orthodox Theologians aren’t even fazed by this statement because even if Nietzsche’s will to power ideal is demonic, his statement was true about his real referent. The God he was talking about, was a concept, the moral God of modernity, not anything that could exist. This God was bound to destroy itself for the same reason that philosophy and reason cannot take precedence over the phenomena given by life itself. A God that is bound to the signs blackened on the pages in the Bible and used as a sufficient reason to build a whole epistemology falls apart as soon as the epistemology ceases to be able to keep the masses convinced of it’s boundaries. As soon as it’s picture and myopic vision is called into question, it is dead.
Like Jean-Luc Marion’s understanding of the Idol as a concept that bedazzles the gaze of the one beholding it only as much as it is contained in his own gaze, this conceptualized moral God only goes as far as he is thought. Even when images of him are deposited behind the screen of the visible they reach the extent of their bedazzlement in an invisible mirror that reflects the length of the concept to the beholder. Just like a statue of Athena cut by a Greek sculptor which bedazzles the worshipper in a temple with the same vision of the divine that impressed the sculptor, this idol is nothing but a low water mark, a gaze into the invisible beyond the object that reaches its limit and returns to the gazer. The difference between an Idol and God is the difference between the concept and the Icon. In Fr Maximus’s reiteration of Marion, the Icon reads us, we are opened up to a gaze from beyond our conception that expands and overwhelms and challenges our conceptions, seeing us and making us known in His light, not our own conception.
I think the Icon / Idol distinction is a binary of sorts to differentiate between moralistic modern epistemologies and an Orthodox one. Modern epistemologies are Cartesian, they are of the mind and impose the minds transcendental ego and the conceptual ideas of this ego over and against the world as it gives itself to perception and intuition in phenomenality. They re-present the world in conceptualized systems and metaphysical beliefs and morals. They superimpose a concept upon the world and thus as in all idolatry limit the possibility of life itself and God to reach us.
Orthodoxy looks at human beings, Icons, and the world itself as Icons. The world is not vested with meaning by our reasoning and projections of our thoughts, but rather we are vested with meaning by He who gazes upon us and Loves us more than our gaze can handle. His adoration causes fear or trembling for its very excessive incomprehensibility is blinding. Who we are, what the world is, and who other human beings are, is only known in light of revelation. We are only through the gratuitous love of God and we know God only in the excess of the light of this love in the Glory of the Crucified and Risen Son who produces an unending, infinite rhetoric that is the Light and Meaning of the world.
All of this may sound like theological mumbo jumbo but the point is that Orthodoxy is a different mode of perception than Western Religion is used to. Modernity says we think about the world and thought is knowledge. Orthodoxy says the reality of the world and life itself is given to us by God’s glory that fills all things. The difference is that modern or protestant thinkers say we can think our way to God or to a perfect morality or social construction. Orthodoxy says we have to clear our eyes and stomp out our selfish conceptions of the world to let God himself, give himself. We do not conceptualize God, rather God and his glory and love cause us to reinterpret ourselves, the world, and be opened unto new horizons by the very Light that is his glory.
Though Orthodoxy is hard to communicate to anyone in the West without sounding triumphalist, it is because of its very state of being the Truth beyond conceptualization that makes it important. Because Orthodoxy is not of reason and human thought but of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, by whom the reality of Christ continues to be present interpreting us by his Word. It is his interpretation and expansion and challenge of us in his excess in love and truth that make all rhetoric about him, the image of the invisible God, inexhaustible. This rhetoric born of communion with the Incarnate Word of the invisible God, can only destabilize, separate, and unground language, ever rewriting the linguistic sources it draws on to bring them back together in a fashion of paradox and worship.
It is Orthodoxy’s sense of incapability of God to be contained in language only referenced, to be experienced in full in worship and kenosis, that makes it’s difference from Western Religion and thought, meaningful. For when living in a world gone wrong, a world where the gods and our institutions have failed us, where once again we are searching desperately to project a future we can live in and work for, only a world outside of our normative thinking is possible to have beauty, healing, and truth.
5.) Given the times in which we are living, how can Orthodoxy help people to discover the forgotten purpose of life?
Well first of all the purpose of life is no longer even perceived by most people in the west, because it only sees hope through virtual representations of a better future, of progress. In spite of all of the ways that progress has been dispelled as a myth, without a sense of a God or anything outside our society that can be given to us, there is no other way to sustain western life. We take up habitation in a simulcratic world of false representations of people, their value, and of all that exists in the name of progress and social justice, but only to displace actual human being, particularity, and suffering. We find a virtual hope in every new election or revolution, but only to cut ourselves off from the corruption of being, responsibility to the dead and for our place and participation in the carnage of history, in its flight from real being.
The purpose of life, is to answer the question of suffering. All religions and all political systems deal with this issue, whether its social oppression, or spiritual sickness, but really the question of purpose, is what stands up to the horror of history and stands against and above it. Is there anything that can heal us, and that we can do to help others, and find happiness? This problem is answered by Orthodoxy in many ways but to discuss the problem most definitively, I think its best to go to Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy of History.
In Benjamin’s 9th Thesis in, Philosophy of History, written during the rise of the Third Reich in Germany during the 1940’s when he nor the earth had yet to recover from the first World War, he writes a drawing of
“an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress (9th thesis in Philosophy of History).
Here, Benjamin points out, that the very ideas of Paradise and Utopia, bring us away from the truth of world’s wreckage and suffering. The angel of history, like those who look on life honestly, cannot let go of his hope to make whole and heal the catastrophe of history by bringing back the dead but the irresistible storm of Progress forces him blindly into the future ever separating him from the ruins he wishes to heal. This is the state of our world and our detachment from reality. In hope of liberation from suffering through progress, we fight for the right to never be questioned or challenged. In hope of preserving our selves we grow more divided. And in the inability to conceive of our own death let alone face it, we remove ourselves from the chain of humanity which is clasped together only through empathy and responsibility for the whole of suffering and mistreatment.
As for Benjamin, his hope, because of his care for suffering and history, was for messianic time, which could let a time of healing, reignite in the present through memory, that does not negate the past, but allows the past to have some meaning and the present to heal some. This vertical, or transhistorical, vision of time, where history doesn’t leave itself behind but is always there, is the view of history of Orthodoxy who also answer the problem of history presented by Benjamin. But for the Orthodox history revolves around the Cross of Christ and his assuming the weight and burden of our sufferings and infirmities unto letting go of his rights as God to enter into darkness beyond the horizon of life to bring back the dead.
It is Orthodoxy’s understanding of two wills, two natures, of Christs emptying himself to assume the tragedy of humanity and its destruction, that allows not just weak messianic time and memory to greet us in the present, but rather, for the fullness of healing in each and everything thing, being, and creature, by the uncreated entering into the refuse of humanity, even unto it’s nonexistence, to opened up a path for us to redeem the world by partaking in his death and resurrection.
By being Baptized into Christ’s Death and Coming out of the Water a new Being, we enter into the possibility of being funded by eternity not worldly existence. Furthermore we enter into the possibility of uniting ourselves to Christ’s both to communion with God and deification of our corrupted natures unto God’s radiant likeness, while simultaneously participating in the sufferings of Christ which is to assume and carry the burdens of the sickness of the world and of those around us to fill the world around us with the transfiguring and healing light of Christ.
For me, the only answer to modernity, history, and suffering is an Orthodox Anthropology and divine economy. It is the only path to being beyond and not defined by Western Society’s reproduction of its systems controls us. Just as an answer to a problem can’t be found by resorting to the same logic and mode of perception that caused it, similarly the healing of the world can only come from a world beyond it, a change in perception. The beauty of Orthodoxy is that it requires a different perception of man and reality, that it is present only to a participant breaking out of a modern and idolatrous view of the world.
To put it simply just as many would say that the purpose of life is to love and be loved, I can’t do anything but agree, but love has many meanings or understandings and is finite as the system of representation governing it. The hope of Orthodoxy, how it can give purpose to humanity, is that it is not bound to the finite understandings and intellectual re-presentations of this world. Rather it is built on the foundation of a Love that in its infinite gratuity, becomes infinitely vitalizing and healing, and capable of deifying humans into the likeness of this Love. The desire to love, though we may not say it, is always the desire for the infinite, the erotic distance between who we are and the intangible we want to be with. Only in Christ can we find such an infinite Love, and infinite distance transcended by incarnation to be immanently present to human being as its perfector.
Furthermore, as much as this love is infinite, it is interested and bound to the earth, in humans wishing to participate it, for it is a love, that permeates the very material world and corporeality of humanity. It does not denigrate life on earth but brings it to its full meaning. For it is present only in human beings who give themselves over to responsibility for humanity and the earth as the image of God. This love is given by human beings in spirit, to the healing of earthly and material corruption.
Such love and meaning transcends history by having assumed all of its sickness, and it works in us, as Orthodox Christians, because the light of it is within us as much as much as it is given to us and we are receptive to it as much as we partake in the cross of Christ unto the healing of body and spirit and the image of the human race.
This interview is one of many that will be published in the book “The rediscovery of Orthodox heritage of the West” by Tudor Petcu, containing interviews with different Westerners converted to Orthodoxy. It will be published in two volumes and the first one will appear by the end of this year.