The Light of the Saints

Several events within my memory stand out. As with most the big and happy highlights are all there: my wedding, my daughter’s baptism, my reception into the Orthodox Church. Some there also are bitter: sitting with my father as he died, visiting the matushka of the priest who had catechized me and chrismated me on the day after he had died. Some of the memories are of a different kind, and involve more professional and academic matters. I remember a wonderful evening in Oslo, Norway, at the home of the Rev. Dr. Roald Flemestad, now Vicar General of the Nordic Catholic Church. The evening began about 6 and ran till 3 AM. There I had the best cognac ever I have tasted- – Otard – – but as well the humane and lively company of my hosts (Fr. Roald’s wife, a PhD in Medieval French literature, had made the meal that afternoon, all the while on a conference call with her employers, IBM) and their other wonderful guests, various professors and clerics.

Another day, similar but more subdued, was a brief afternoon spent within one of the libraries of Black Friars, Cambridge (a Dominican house) where I had coffee and conversation with Fr. Aidan Nichols. After the happy pleasantries, we eventually got around to all sorts of topics theological, and I put to him a question prompted by none other than our own Acolyte, about the will of the saints in Heaven, and is it singular, with only a singular object, i.e., is the summum bonum One? While he did not deny the Maximian and Palamite teaching about the plurality πραγματα περι Θεου – – things around God (granted, I wasn’t pressing him hard on this point yet, but he’s no one’s fool), he also noted that we shall see each other face to face as well, so that we are not only turned to God, but to all the Saints as well. I have thought about that since then on several occasions, and now given it more thought in light of a recent conversation elsewhere in the blogosphere, but in light also of that memorable evening in Oslo.

Our good friend and boon companion, The Ochlophobist, on 1 November put up a post that touched on a number of items. One of them was the Russian film Ostrov (The Island). Och wrote

>>I recently watched Larisa Shepitko’s pristine The Ascent (1977), which … evokes that cathartic impulse via which, I believe, the medium of cinema takes the role that some want to find in a church service, correspondent to Trotsky’s logic. I have sometimes wondered if the film Ostrov (The Island) is not the most satanic of films, as it forces the favorable viewer (and seeks to coerce all viewers) into intuiting (or outright thinking) that there is a mimesis outside of an actual encounter with such holiness that meaningfully conveys via manipulative and image-in-place-of rather than -image-in-fullness-of re-presentation the reality of which the film makes a caricature. Following this logic, it may well be better for the soul to watch American Pie than Ostrov. I reserve judgment on that question. <<

Och’s point had been made to me at other times, and most memorably by Fr. Adrian Pollard of blessed memory, that there is a reason we keep monks in monasteries, and that the faithful should take great care in reading such things as the Philokalia. In Fr. Adrian’s experience, most of those who do, do so to mimic the Pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim, and in this regard were nothing but spiritual voyeurs indulging in spiritual pornography. It is a point akin to that Neil Postman made in his Amusing Ourselves to Death, that TV trivializes all it touches. This is why televising the Divine Liturgy is such a bad idea, and consonant with Och’s sentiments above: The Divine Liturgy entails sacred acts and sacred words done within a sacred space. Outside of this space, those looking in are just voyeurs. What is the Divine Liturgy if I can fold laundry or pop a cold one while watching it, and do so in my pajamas, or pause it to answer the phone?

Having said all that, while I think Och has a point about Ostrov, I think it is so only to a point, for I didn’t take the movie as letting people into the life of the holy fool, or getting the viewer in touch with their inner holy fool.

{Spoiler Alert! For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, you are getting ready to find out what it is about.}

Instead I thought the whole movie about the inscrutable ways of God. Clearly the monk is a holy fool, graced with the gift of prophecy and discernment, and that he is gifted as well with farsighted visions of things no one else could know. Lastly, he is a man of great repentance. It is his repentance that drives his monastic vocation, for he took up this life after he shoots the captain of the coal barge he on which he served during World War II. The Nazis blow up the ship – – they are the ones who forced him to shoot his captain, and he is fished out of the water by the monks of the monastery. Overcome by the horror of what he had done he spends his life in prayer as a lay monk, feeding coal into the monastery’s heating system, and praying for the soul of his departed Captain. But beside him we also have the other monks: the vain scholar- – I could identify – – and the soft and far-from austere abbot.

Yet the key to the whole movie was what the monk, the holy fool, despite his gift of vision and clairvoyance did not see, and could not know, for God had never revealed it to him: the raison d’etre of his life was not true, for his captain had survived. The real reason he was a monk and had lived the life of repentance was not so he could be absolved of his sin of murder, for he had murdered no one. This, the foundational and fundamental fact of his life, God never revealed to him. Instead, the purpose of his life was so that he could exorcize the demon of the daughter of his ship’s captain, who not only had not died, but had thrived and was now an admiral in the Soviet navy. Yet despite his status and all the benefits that came to him with it (party membership has its privileges), these were of no help to his daughter. And so he came seeking salvation from the miracle-working fool he had heard about, this pariah in the Soviet system.

I show this film to my Orthodoxy class on the last day of class. Most of them, of course, are sucked in by the very things that Och warns about (and I have already warned them as well, as they had all read- – or were supposed to have read – – The Way of the Pilgrim). It is getting them to see what only struck me the second time I watched the film that proves the benefit of the movie, something that Tolstoy noted in his short story “Truths We Live By” (sometimes called “Michael the Visitor”), that “it is not given to man to know his own needs.” What we need we only come to realize over time, for we are ignorant of the ways of God, and thus absolutely ignorant of all our needs. In Tolstoy’s words, we do not know whether we need boots for the next year’s work, or slippers that evening for our corpse.

This has application in how we view others, whose needs we often see better than our own. It is left to us to help others in their needs, realize that because we are blind to our own failings and needs, that we need them to help us as well, and lastly we need others so that our own personal existence, the logos of our existence, can move towards its proper τελος and end, which is rest in God, to enjoy “all good things”.

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11 Responses to The Light of the Saints

  1. David Lindblom says:

    I have not read much from Ochlophobist but what I have read indicates to me that he one of these people who, too often, put things in extreme language. He seems to like to take things way too far…offensively so. W/o question he’s much ahead of me in terms of Orthodox knowledge but I find it hard to respect this dude. I like your take on this movie much better. Balance is usually a good thing.

  2. David,

    Whatever your personal likes or dislikes concerning Owen personally, that really doesn’t have a place in the comment box. I am not ticked or anything, it is just not relevant. I’d say this or at least I hope I would for anyone. That said, Owen is like Cyril, a contributor here, if you take a look at the contributors.

    I think it is important to have enough space for contributors to express disagreements. This makes for good, interesting and profitable conversation. I don’t expect contributors to agree with everything I write, but I expect them to fall in the main within certain parameters. This is I personally asked them to be contributors because I thought they already did so.

    Now Owen is quite adept at being critical using a specific method. I think that method is valuable so far as it goes. I do not think it is unlimited in its appropriate application. On the contrary it seems it can be very bad for people if it is universally applied. I think Owen would agree with me here.

    What I think Gary would wish commentators to aim at if they disagree with Owen’s take is an argument why that take is inadequate or wrong.

  3. isaac8 says:

    I found it interesting that in an interview that Met. Jonah did awhile ago (can’t remember exactly when)he noted that he thought Andre Rublev was a far more “Orthodox” film than Ostrov.

  4. David Lindblom says:

    Your point is taken and I will abide by that in the future. You said:

    “Now Owen is quite adept at being critical using a specific method. I think that method is valuable so far as it goes. I do not think it is unlimited in its appropriate application. On the contrary it seems it can be very bad for people if it is universally applied.”

    I agree. Perhaps I have just read his more severe stuff.

  5. RiverC says:

    Ostrov. Yeah, I think too many people want to ‘see’ the miraculous, or to know it in a kind of clinical, scientific fashion. In that respect the movie makes it too easy for someone to think that they’re getting that, like how porn tricks a person into thinking they’re really witnessing sex. Most of the miraculous is private and personal, IMO, and the most beautiful point of the film, that wonderful contradiction in the life of a man who can read the thoughts of others and work wonders, could be lost in a kind of voyeurism of the divine.

    But this contradiction has existed for centuries in a different form, the form of pilgrimages, and relic collecting and so forth. T.V. maybe magnifies the impression (as photography did before it) but it doesn’t fundamentally change anything about the problem.

    There is a reason why religion is connected to marriage by both Paul and the Lord in the O.T!

    I have yet to see Rublev (though he is a man close to my heart) and am glad to know that the Met had a good word for the film.

  6. Cyril says:

    River,

    I am not sure about the beginning of your second paragraph: I don’t think you are saying that relics and pilgrimages are a problem. Is it rather that the voyeurism insinuates itself into it?

    C

  7. ochlophobist says:

    Balance is usually a good thing. One might be inclined to say that such is the ethos of Pontius Pilate when Christ stood before him, the perfect posture to take when one is concerned to be able to say “I am innocent of this man’s blood; you will see.” But I would certainly hold that one is best advised to stay clear of my blog, and that ochlophobism naturally defers to certain extremities.

    If I read correctly the line of thought presented in this post, especially in the paragraph beginning “Yet the key to the whole movie…” it would seem that Cyril’s main idea is that the apophatic qualities of the film are the most essential and perhaps the most Orthodox aspects of the narrative, and that the danger of our entering into the sort of false cathartic mimesis film normally draws us into (as in the Schindler’s List phenomenon of folks who feel as if they have experienced something of the Warsaw ghetto when they have not) is mitigated/muted here, because what is most essential to Ostrov is not the manifest mysticism and expressions of spiritual power but the hiddenness of divine action and the apophatic narrative features within the film.

    On the surface of things I accept that narrative mechanisms which engage in hiddenness and apophaticism are better than other mechanisms, generally speaking, so I appreciate Cyril’s point and he has me rethinking the film.

    But I wonder if in Ostrov the hiddenness is rather “worn on the sleeve” and the apophaticism rather explicit, if one might say that. That the holy fool does not know and what the holy fool does not know (until he redemptively knows) is made fairly clear and very much at the surface of the narrative – to the point of this lack of knowledge becomes an almost didactic feature in the overall narrative.

    I go back and forth. One has to start somewhere and apophaticism for dummies might be where some need to begin. On the other hand, when looking at contemporary culture broadly, it seems that those who begin to eat on condensed sweetened milk never move on to regular milk, let along meat.

    I am intrigued by Met. Job’s comment. I hold Rublev to be a vastly superior film as well. I would love to read more of his thoughts on the matter. But this begs accusations of snobbery, as Rublev is a far less accessible film for most folks than Ostrov is. Can we have a film that is suited to the interests and intellectual inclinations of most folks who would see a film like Ostrov that engages in a apophaticism that is more textured, less didactic, and leaves more mystically veiled/protected? I am inclined to think not, but I have been wrong about 4 things in the past, so you never know.

    Thanks to Cyril for his thoughts on this matter.

  8. David Lindblom says:

    You said:

    “Balance is usually a good thing. One might be inclined to say that such is the ethos of Pontius Pilate when Christ stood before him, the perfect posture to take when one is concerned to be able to say “I am innocent of this man’s blood; you will see.” But I would certainly hold that one is best advised to stay clear of my blog, and that ochlophobism naturally defers to certain extremities.”

    Well, you start out good but then immediately go down the extreme path again. Immediately comparing attempting to find balance w/ the ethos of Pilate would be kinda like me comparing your blog to that of a Satanist cuz you both use blogs to speak your mind. As I have heard it, it’s a semi-common statement that Orthodoxy is the absence of extremes. Similarly, that it’s wise for an Orthodox Christian to attempt to follow the Royal Road. Which is avoiding the extreme positions on a given subject and try and travel the road between them. Inching closer to either position or wholesale siding w/ either position at a given point as that position is closer to the truth. I don’t see this as a bad way of approaching things.

  9. Thomas says:

    I watched Ostrov a few years ago and then again just a few days before Cyril posted this. I think it is a great film — one of my favourites. Although the clairvoyance of the holy fool is interesting, the central message for me is the profound repentance as is exemplified by praying Psalm 50. For me, that reflects a genuine Orthodox phronema.

    After the above comments, I may try the Андрей Рублёв film again. There are several versions. Any recommendations?

    The film is supposed to be only ‘loosely’ based on the life of Andrei Rublev and many regard the film as more about artistic freedom in the face of repressive authority than about Christianity. And that is what I remember of it. Do those who like the film concur?

  10. Cyril says:

    Thomas,

    You can actually watch Tarkovsky’s great work entirely you You Tube, and I think it is on DVD. I have mine on two VHS.

    C

  11. Darlene says:

    There might be those who criticize Ostrov for not depicting Orthodoxy in a spiritually pleasing way, or revealing the true nature of Orthodoxy, or however one might want to word it, but…there are many Orthodox blogs, I dare say NUMEROUS Orthodox blogs that do a FAR WORSE job of communicating the true nature of Orthdoxy. Often, these blogs and what transpires in the comment section is a blemish on the Church. I would seriously warn any person who is considering the Orthodox Church to steer clear of such false representations merely mimicking the true faith.

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