Book Review: Fossil or Leaven: The Church We Hand Down

Fossil or Leaven: The Church We Hand Down
Essays Collected in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of New Skete
New Skete Monasteries and Alexander Press, 2016, 239 pp.

There was once a renowned bakery which produced the best bread in the land. The bakers said it was because they used a special strain of yeast. One day, a group of marauders came and ransacked the bakery, forcing the bakers into hiding. A generation later, the old bakers returned to the shop to resume their bread making, but unfortunately the yeast had died and ossified. Understandably, the bread failed to taste any good. Then, some enterprising bakers decided to use the old recipe with a live yeast. These bakers were denounced as charlatans by the old bakers, who still kept making bread with the petrified leaven; but nonetheless the new bakers succeeded in recapturing the fame and taste of the original. For many years after this, a debate ensued in the baking community; which set of bakers produce the more authentically traditional bread from this bakery: the old bakers who used the original ossified ingredients, or the second group who used the same recipe with fresh ingredients?

Fossil or Leaven sketches an answer to this parable, only the book is not concerned with baking but with the Church. The book is a collection of reflections inspired by New Skete, a monastic community that attempts to be authentically Byzantine while also providing a leaven for society. New Skete was founded by a group of Byzantine Franciscans who recognized a certain decay in Eastern Rite monasticism within the Catholic Church, leading them to commit themselves to being as authentically Byzantine as possible. This led them to found New Skete and to leave the Roman Catholic Church for the Orthodox Church of America. They were encouraged in this mission by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, among others, who had a similar vision of renewal through the rediscovery of Byzantine traditions. This text, which contains thirty reflections by friends and members of New Skete (who happen to also be some of the most prominent voices in the Church today), perfectly encapsulates the life, vision, and legacy of New Skete. Some essays are explicitly on New Skete, others are on topics of particular importance to the monastery, such as liturgical renewal, women in the Church, hospitality, or prophetic witness. What unifies these essays is that they all provide an answer to the question: how can the Church be leaven for the world? In this way, the text instantiates what New Skete is about: proclaiming the salvation of the world through the renewal of Byzantine religious life.

One of the defining features of monasticism in the Byzantine Empire was its freedom. The first monastics lived in a variety of ways: in groups, in pairs, in scattered communities, on pillars, in caves, in deserts, or even in cities. Each monastic community, or hermit more or less had their own rules. Macrina and her brother Basil provided yet another rule, in their vision of a ‘new city.’ This led to an even wider variety of communities proliferating throughout the Byzantium, with some being Basilian in nature, some serving particular groups of vulnerable populations, some being for women, some just for eunuchs, and others still serving as retirement communities for aristocrats. The custom was that whoever founded the monastery was to write its rule (which would often include anathemas to those who would try to unjustly seize the land or in any other way interfere with the legal status of the monastery, a good way to protect your property from the Emperor). This led to quite a diversity of communities, and while various monastic traditions would crop up and continue across communities, the freedom and diversity of Byzantine monasticism prevented anything like monastic orders from arising. The desert monastics fled the cities to live a life of radical freedom, hoping to hold imperial and ecclesial authorities at a distance. The most significant monastic leaders of the empire thereafter, such as Theodore the Studite, Basil the Great, and Symeon the New Theologian, likewise led movements of reform and renewal, combatting the slow ossification and decay of the monastic witness. In short, the legacy of Byzantine monasticism is one that is perpetually attempting to leaven society, providing centers of renewal, faith, intellectual life, and charitable work.

The Eastern Roman Empire ended centuries ago, and due to the various political movements that have dominated the region since then (especially the Ottoman conquests and the subsequent nationalist reactions), many aspects of Byzantine society have become buried in history. Nonetheless, the religious traditions of the Empire have continued, albeit in a modified form, with monasticism among those traditions. Unfortunately, the collective trauma of centuries of living in another society, combined with the loss of the diversity of religious forms and the reification of extant forms (due in part to the success of the printing press), have left Byzantine monasticism today a shadow of its former glory. Monasticism no longer holds the prestige in society it once did, and the premier educational and social institutions of the world are no longer run by Byzantine monastics. Though there are those quite suspicious of efforts of renewal, fearing that innovation leads to the betrayal of the faith, renewal is necessary if Orthodox religious life is to stay true to the Byzantine tradition. As the parable recounted at the outset of this review implies, staying true to one’s traditions sometimes means renewal.

We stand today in a situation much like that of the leader of one of the greatest Byzantine monastic renewals in history: St. Francis of Assisi. As Byzantine historian Fr. John McGuckin points out, St. Francis is more of an eastern monastic than a western one. At the beginning of his ministry, Francis found himself praying in the San Damiano Church, in front of a cross painted in the Byzantine style with icons. The church was in ruins, and even if it were not a ruined Byzantine church (which existed at this time in Italy), it evidently had some contact with eastern monasticism, leading to the San Damiano cross. Francis responded to this call for renewal, reportedly from the mouth of the Byzantine cross itself, and lived not according to any western monastic rule, but instead in the pattern of the Byzantine fool-for-Christ. In this way, Francis successfully brought a vision of Eastern monasticism to the west. Francis’s vision of monasticism resonated deeply with the Byzantines of his day who heard of him, as evinced by the Greek liturgical service to St. Francis recorded in the Galatone codex, or the legend in Crete that Francis’s mother, Pica de Bourlemont, was actually Byzantine rather than French, or the popularity Francis icons and of the name Frangiskos in the Greek islands, such as Crete. Francis brought to the Church of his day the freedom of love characteristic of Eastern monasticism.

New Skete has done today what Francis, Theodore, and Symeon did centuries ago, reviving Byzantine monasticism in the face of the ruins of fossilized religion. This revival is not an updating or revising of the truth or way of Byzantine religious life, but a revival of it. The unique liturgy and way of life practiced by New Skete may seem to some as suspect, but it is nothing more than the carrying out of Schmemann’s vision (though perhaps more radically than Schmemann himself), a liturgy in the vernacular, simplified so that the laity may understand and participate. New Skete bears none of the marks of trauma which have inflicted much of the rest of the Church: fearful of outsiders, and clinging to received traditions as if survival depends upon it (for indeed during the intervening eras of persecution and occupation, survival did depend on it). Tireless scholarship has gone into making New Skete what it is today.

But the real work of the community is the work of loving one another, and living in harmony. The sign of Christian life is that we love one another, for we shall be known by our love, joyfully caring for each other “in the spirit of happiness.” This collection of essays encapsulates that joyful love. Each essay in it is no more than a few pages long, and makes for easy reading, as if one if gathered in conversation with the authors, who are in conversation with each other. The book will remind pilgrims to New Skete of the experience around the holy table at which meals are taken in the monastery. The table is always full of good food, good company, and lively conversation. This is a book of friends communing together, proving that the Byzantine religious tradition is alive in this century, and is capable of meeting the needs of people today as it used to in Constantinople. It is a book that I would recommend to anyone interested in Christianity, and especially to those Christians who call themselves Orthodox. Each essay is a gem of wisdom from eminent scholars such as Sister Vassa Larin, Peter Bouteneff, Michael Plekon, Pantelis Kalaitizidis, Paul Meyendorff, Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, and Kyriaki FitzGerald.

Christianity started as a small group of friends who would gather together to eat meals and to proclaim the truth. It was a small movement, but served as leaven to the world; just a little will change the whole batch, as Christ himself note. The first Christians faced persecution, but in the face of this they doubled down on what made the movement distinctive: love for one another. This was so attractive that the Church grew and become leaven, and within just a few generations the entirety of the known civilized world became Christian. In the first centuries, this happened through the Greek-Christian synthesis of St. Constantine, but the only reason this Semitic movement became Greek Christianity in its early days was because the dominant culture was Greek. As such one should expect the next great revival not to be Hellenist as with Constantine, or in Italian as with Francis, but in the vernacular, with English being the great international language in the world today. Just as Christianity began in the margins of a great empire as a movement reviving the prophetic Messianic traditions that had decayed in the second temple, so Francis worked in the ruins of a great empire, reviving the freedom and love of Byzantine monasticism. Today our challenge is the same as that which faced the first Christians, and which faced Francis. The Church faces many challenges, with violence plaguing many ‘traditionally Orthodox’ countries, and demographic decline that threatens the future of the Church. But the first Christian movement was not hindered by violence or limited by demographic realities. As leaven it transformed the entire society, converting the world to its vision of life. If the Church today doubles down on what makes it distinctive, on the love and freedom of Byzantine religious life (represented particularly in monasticism), then Byzantine Christianity can again sweep the world, as it did under Constantine, or in Italy under Francis. This is the challenge that New Skete presents to us and which it attempts to answer, namely, will we be fossil, or leaven?