Today the feast of St. Gregory the Theologian is celebrated in the Orthodox Church. A saint, unfortunately I know very little about and who happens to be the patron saint of the chaplaincy I attend. He is one of the the three hierarchs of the Church—St. Basil the Great, known for his purity, St. John of Chrysostom known for eloquence and of course St. Gregory the Theologian, known, obviously for his theology. There was apparently a debate in the 11th century over who was the greatest of the three, and consequently a feast day was instituted for all of them—January 30, and they became known as the Three Great Hierarchs. Each have their own separate feast days that are celebrated this week.
Father John (the priest at my chaplaincy) spoke this morning, namely about Haiti, and about what to make of the tragedy, as Orthodox Christians, particularly in light of what has been said by Patriarch Kirill, and not to mention Pat Robertson. I don’t know why the earthquake in Haiti has made such an impression upon me, unlike any other natural disaster has before. Perhaps it is simply the consequence of age and the ways in which it slowly unveils the certitude of our mortality, but I have been quite troubled by it. There is a large Haitian population in Brooklyn, where I work, many of whom I teach, and not one of whom has not been affected by the disaster—so perhaps it simply seems slightly closer to home. A colleague of mine lost his six year old daughter in the disaster, and multiplying that single loss by 1-200,000 is incomprehensible to me, and quite honestly something I can neither fathom nor do I want to.
Like many of Father John’s responses to such pressing concerns, I found his “answer” unsatisfying, not in it’s theological merit, but in it’s inadequacy—in it’s failure to make sense of such an atrocity. Rather than offering answers he discussed the newly sainted Mary of Paris, or Maria Skobtsova. She was born in Latvia and raised in St. Petersburg, an atheist. An aspiring poet, she married and became a part of the Bolshevik movement in Russia in the teens. Her reading and poetry eventually led her back to Christianity and she became increasingly devout. She eventually moved to Paris with her second husband and under the Nazi occupation was granted a divorce (from the husband she loved) so that she could take orders as a nun, in order to better serve the poor and oppressed of Paris. She and the others in the home she lived in (she did not live in a convent) offered Baptismal certificates to young Jewish children to keep the Nazis at bay. She was captured in 1945 for housing and abating Jews and was killed in a concentration camp on Holy Saturday of that year. When asked, while helping the Jews in Paris, how she dealt with all of the death and suffering which surrounded her, she responded, “there is only one death,” her point being that death is always an individual, a particular, a personal thing—and it is incomprehensible to, as mentioned above, make the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people intelligible, because even one death is insufferable, unfathomable, and to even talk, to try to make sense of so much death somehow works to lessen the blow—a perfectly misanthropic thing to attempt in the first place, as many of us who have lost people understand. And these words ring especially true coming from a woman who watched her own daughter die of tuberculosis shortly before beginning her ministry in Paris. And it seems to be that the reason Father John’s response to this particular tragedy in Haiti is unsatisfying is because not only does it fail to offer an answer as to why this kind of thing happens, but it does not even begin to try and comprehend it, for to comprehend it would be to nullify the lives and deaths of hundreds of thousands of little children, middle-aged men and women, students and vendors, clergy and elderly and prisoners alike, not one of whose lost-lives is worth whatever granduer one might anticipate as a “result” of such a sweeping toll. His response was simply a story, and in its own rite, a turn toward culture, toward a life, one of many lives lived and lost, of a woman who knew that “there is only one death” and that there is little more to be said about the issue, but quite a bit to be done. It was St. Gregory himself who said, “He is not wise to me who is wise in words only, but he who is wise in deeds” and in the shadow of such a tragedy as the one in Port-au-Prince, there is much supplicating to be done on behalf of those who still live and those who died, and as Father John pointed out, money and time to be devoted. And Maria Skobtsova’s life remains a testimony to this very fact, as a way, because there simply is no intelligible answer, to live in light of the reality of death.
In an essay he wrote after the Tsunami in 2004, David Bentley Hart discusses Voltaire’s response to suffering in contrast to Dostoevsky’s, “Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the actual history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoevsky sees—and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his Christian view of reality—that it would be far more terrible if it were.” And like Maria Skobtsova, Ivan Karamazov fully comprehends the terror of a faith that would make death “morally intelligible” and finds this kind of faith intolerable, for to Ivan, the tears of one suffering child (the “one death”) would not be worth it.
I began this peice with a reference to St. Gregory the Theologian, whose feast is celebrated today and whom I believe actually has quite a bit in common with Maria Skobtsova, although I didn’t realize it until now, which is the beauty of Father John’s homilies—you begin to put them together hours, sometimes days later. Both saints were poets-turned-theologians who worked tirelessly for the sake of justice and for the poor and suffering. And it was St. Gregory who suggested that to be a good theologian one has to be engaged in culture. And not in the sense that he thought everyone should necessarily be versed in the nuiances of the Jersey Shore, but to be a good theologian it is important to be a person who reads books and contemplates poetry, who plays instruments and paints or draws, who has a reverence for beauty and a compulsion to participate in it; simply put, someone who, in some form actively engages in the issues of their particular time, weather poetically, artistically, hospitably or otherwise, and that doing these things, in and of itself, does not make a person a good theologian, but a theologian cannot be good without being engaged in this kind of activity. And the truth is, that it is people like both St. Gregory and Maria Skobtsova who seem to understand this the best of all—it was not their “ideas” alone which made them such compelling and inspiring figures, and saints, for that matter in the church, but it was their participation in culture, as poets, as intellectuals, as artists and as ministers to the poor and to the suffering which provide them (and their theology) such esteem in the cannon of the Orthodox Church, and in the hearts and actions of the laity and priestly alike. And for any of you who feel “selfish” or as if you are “wasting time” when you pick up a book for pleasure, or attempt to write a poem, learn a dead language or paint a landscape, remember that it was St. Gregory the Theologian who said, “Come now, refresh this soul of yours with words.” And while these things do not in any way annul the scandal of death and its impression upon our lives, they do, as Plato and Aristotle so long ago recognized provide us a means of reclaiming human dignity even in the midst of utter devastation and misanthropy.
Let us then commence our own theologizing with prayers and compassion for the people of Haiti, and for all who suffer in the earthquake’s wake.