(This is Neil) Should we recognize sanctity in the different churches and ecclesial communities? It is difficult to imagine a negative answer being theologically intelligible – would we constantly have to adopt an arbitrary suspicion towards “what appears to be holiness”? In any case, such an answer would also be inconsistent with Roman Catholic practice. The Ecumenical Commission of the Central Committee of the Great Jubilee Year 2000, in its letter to national committees in 1998, noted:
In many places Christians have acknowledged in their midst martyrs and exemplary confessors of faith, hope and charity – both men and women. Some of these, such as Francis of Assisi, Roublev, Johann Sebastian Bach, Monsignor Romero, Elizabeth Seton, the martyr Anuarite of Zaire, and Martin Luther King, have been for various reasons recognized beyond confessional boundaries. Ecumenical groups could look at the example of some of these witnesses with a view to identifying how the work of the Holy Spirit can be distinguished in them and what their role might be in the promotion of full communion.
Already, in preparation for the Jubilee, Pope John Paul II echoed his predecessor Paul VI in claiming that “The witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants.” He would also refer to the Russian Orthodox “Saint Serafim of Sarov” as an exemplar of mystical prayer in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. More recently, after the death of Brother Roger of Taizé, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Brother Schutz is in the hands of eternal goodness, of eternal love, and has arrived at eternal joy,” making it clear that he saw him as a saint.
(None of this, of course, is meant to overlook difficulties. The Ecumenical Commission’s letter acknowledges that there are some figures who seem to be symbols of “division” or “rupture,” and counsels that “an examination of these figures could be undertaken in a particular place in order to arrive at a reconciliation of memories” – a “new perspective” that would truly open a “new chapter” on these figures, but still be accountable to history.)
Thus, it is rather unfortunate that most Catholic knows very little about Eastern Orthodox saints. And, since this post is originating from the United States, I can say that it is very unfortunate that most American Catholics probably can’t even name a single Eastern Orthodox saint from North America. Thus, this post will ask a simple question: What can we learn from the Eastern Orthodox saints of North America? I’ll try to provide an answer by looking at a very interesting recent article [sub. required] by Amy Slagle in Spiritus that suggests that these saints might serve as models of cultural engagement.
Professor Slagle tells us that Orthodoxy confronted ethnic and religious diversity in North America. One might expect that the Orthodox saints would model a safe withdrawal into a fortress of unchanging “doctrinal verity, ritual ancientness, and patriarchal authority.” But this is not the case. This is, in part, because of their missionary impulse to share their treasure and bring others to fulfillment.
When the first missionaries arrived in Alaska in the late 18th century, and, in a second wave, in the 1820s, as Metropolitan Theodosius recently recalled, they “did not equate the preaching of the Gospel with the eradication of a particular culture” but “sought to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that would transform, rather than destroy, a particular culture.” For example, St Innocent Veniaminov created the Aleut alphabet in collaboration with native teachers, maintaining “cultural diversity,” and preventing “Christ and the Gospel from being associated solely with Western European culture and civilization.”
St Innocent, Slagle tells us, even saw “an experiential overlap between Orthodox and Native Alaskan religious forms.” He met with a shaman who claimed to heal through heavenly visitors. Innocent told him to continue meeting with what he described as “Good Angels” and even sought to visit these “angels.” Bishop Kallistos Ware has noted that, when the monastery of Valaam issued a volume in 1894 commemorating the centenary of the mission to Alaska (which had originated from the monastery), they referred to St Innocent’s ethnography and said that he recognized the “spark of divine truth” in Alaskan traditional religion. The monks refer here to St Justin Martyr, who claimed that the divine logos had scattered seeds of the truth, logoi spermatikoi, in all humanity, and it is the role of the church to take up the scattered seeds and nurture them.
Professor Slagle also tells us that St Tikhon, the Russian Orthodox archbishop of North America from 1898 to 1907, did not favor withdrawal into separate ethnicities. He did suggest that the different immigrant group form ethnic dioceses, but this was to be in preparation for an autocephalous American Orthodox Church. Thus, he consecrated the Syrian priest Raphael Hawaweeny to serve as a bishop to the Syrian Orthodox immigrants. And he supported the development of an English-language “Western Rite” liturgy based on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Raphael Hawaweeny is also commemorated as a saint, in part for recognizing the Russian Tikhon as archbishop. An akathist dedicated to him reads, “Knowing that in Christ, all are one whether Arab, Greek, or Russian, thou didst rejoice in God.” It later says, “As a self-proclaimed Syro-Arab by birth, Greek by education, American by residence, Russian at heart, Slav in soul, thou didst minister to all, teaching the Orthodox in the New World to proclaim with one voice, ‘Alleluia.’”
What, then, can we learn from the Eastern Orthodox saints of North America? Professor Slagle tells us that they show an Orthodoxy that is not a “museum-piece Christianity” but a religion “endowed with a strong sense of missionary engagement with and compassionate sensitive towards differences amongst people both outside and within its ecclesial boundaries.” They show an Christianity that does not disdain cultural and ethnic differences.
Obviously, they have quite a bit to teach all Christians.
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