Authorial Interview: Fr. Michael Plekon
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Interview: Fr. Michael Plekon
and theologian Michael Plekon, whom it was my delight to meet last summer at the
Sheptytsky Institute Study
Days, is a very prolific fellow of whose work we have taken notice
previously on here. As I have said before, anglophones in particular owe him a
considerable debt for, inter alia, his on-going efforts, in conjunction with the
University of Notre Dame Press, to make francophone Orthodoxy available in
English. But he has written much else besides that, and on a wide array of
I interviewed him about his research and
scholarship, and here are his thoughts.
--Please provide a brief
MP: I have been teaching at Baruch College of the City
University of New York since 1977. We have 18,000 students, with over 110
language groups represented in the academic community, so it’s a very diverse
community! I love teaching there—the students are often the first in their
families to attend college. They work alongside their courses, many full time.
When you discuss the New Testament, for example, it is usual that there will be
students from all the world's religious traditions in the class, some hearing
the words of Jesus for the first time, all bringing fresh perspectives. We also
have a high standard for scholarship and I am always working on one or another
publications. I am also a priest in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and am
associate at St. Gregory the Theologian Church, Wappingers Falls, NY, alongside my very good friend, the rector,
Fr.Alexis Vinogradov, himself a trained and still-practicing architect. I have
been at the parish 16 years and had almost 15 years of parish experience before
---Tell us why you wrote these
MP: I am finished with the third in a series of books about
holiness in our time. The one yet to be published (forthcoming from UND Press in
2012) is Saints As They Really Are, the title taken from Dorothy Day.
This started with Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (U Notre Dame Press, 2002).
profiled a number of contemporary holy people, only one of whom has been
canonized, viz., Mother Maria Skobtsova--the other being St Seraphim of Sarov,
whom I included because of the many characteristics he possessed common to out
time. The others—Sergius Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, Alexander Schmemann, John
Meyendorff, Nicholas Afanasiev, Lev Gillet, Alexander Men, Gregory Krug, while
renowned for their scholarship, teaching, spiritual insight, and iconographic
gifts, do not fit the traditional categories of sainthood. And this is precisely
why I wrote about them, generously using quotes from their writings as well as
photos of them. The book got rave reviews and an award, but there was more to be
Moreover, I did not want to give the impression that only Eastern
Orthodox women and men can be saints. Thus, in the sequel, Hidden Holiness (UND Press, 2009),
I used as a point
of departure Paul Evdokimov’s comment that in our time, holy people would be both more ordinary and diverse in their holiness;
hence their holiness would be less flamboyant or noticeable. Here I also wanted
to listen to a much more diverse set of voices about living the holy life, not
just those from my own church. Among those generously cited (and pictured) were
Thomas Merton, Etty Hillesum, Simone Weil, Mother Teresa, Charles DeFoucauld,
Rowan Williams, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Kathleen Norris, Sara Miles, Darcey
Steinke, Dorothy Day, as well as lesser known individuals like Paul Anderson,
Joanna Reitlinger and Olga Arsumqaq Michael. One good thing leads to another,
though, and there were issues that I should have but could not address in Hidden Holiness. I did question the obsession with “heroic” holiness or the
“cult of celebrity,” likewise the formal processes and requirements for
canonization. Perhaps the theme stressed most was the universal call to
holiness, and closely related, the everyday qualities and possibilities for holy
living in our time. Yet there were many issues I did not address such as the
destructive potential of institutional religion, the toxic mess we can turn our
spiritual lives into, harming others as well as ourselves. In Saints As They
Really Are, I tried to address these, again listening to a diverse chorus of
voices—Barbara Brown Taylor, Nora Gallagher, Peter Berger, Matthew Kelty, Lauren Winner, Diana Butler Bass, Andrew Krivak, as well as some from the earlier two books and some
Carmelites from my own ten years’ experience in that order.
---Will you continue writing on these themes or are
there other interests?
MP: I am not sure if there will be more writing about
holiness and those struggling to live it in the 21st century, but all
three volumes as well as my own pastoral experience (and that of colleagues and
seminarian interns serving in our parish) have nudged me toward a related
project. I am calling it “The Church Has Left the Building,” borrowing a phrase
I saw on Religious News Service (RNS). I have asked colleagues and former
interns to reflect, in essays, on their experience of parish life and pastoral
ministry in the first decade or more of this new century. I think of those who
may write, there is well over a hundred years of pastoral experience upon which
to reflect, and all have encountered the complex collection of demographic,
cultural and social factors challenging the churches now. For example, through
no fault of dedicated clergy and laity, there are numerous “redundant” parishes
across the churches: parishes in small towns now only a few minutes away from
the next parish, also parishes where the economic and social bases have long
since disappeared: mills, factories, mines to which immigrants flocked a century
or more ago. Also the communities of ethnicity/language have now moved into the
third or even fourth generation, with many, actually most “marrying out” of
ethnic and denominational roots. Quite contrary to the myth that we continue to
suffer from a “priest shortage,” the actual situation of basic church life, that
is, parish life, is crying out for clear, insightful commentary. This is what
the project hopes to provide through a handful of experienced pastors. It is not
going to offer “recipes” for improvement, though clearly the conditions in which
many parishes of all church backgrounds are finding themselves do signal a need
to return to simplicity of life and the basics of prayer, sacraments, fellowship
and service—precisely the characteristics Diana Butler Bass found in a study a decade ago.
---Have you been involved in other
MP: Yes, I have. Alongside these books, I have been
involved in editing translations of some important studies in ecclesiology and
church reform. Last year there was Jerry Ryan’s translation of Toward the Endless Day: The Life of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (UND Press, 2010).
AD: Yes, that was a splendid biography, which I
discussed briefly on here last fall. As soon as I read it, I wrote to the
editor of Reviews
in Religion and Theology telling her of the importance of the book and
volunteering to review it, which I then did. The review was published earlier
this year. EBS is such a fascinating figure that I wanted to spread the word,
and also encourage further discussion of her challenging and important ideas on,
MP: In addition, I edited Vitaly Permiakov's
translation of an important classic in ecclesiology: Nicholas Afanasiev's The Church of the Holy Spirit (UND Press, 2007).
AD: I know it well, and have used it in my courses. My own book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of
East-West Unity shows its indebtedness to that book of Afanasiev,
especially my conclusion.
MP: One is Antoine Arjakovsky’s The Way: Religious
Thinkers of the Russian Emigration in Paris and their Journal, translated by
Jerry Ryan, which I edited with John Jillions (UND Press, forthcoming, 2012).
And ahead lies the
publication of Hyacinthe Destivelle, The Moscow Council of 1917-1918: The Creation of
the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church, also translated
by Jerry Ryan with my editing.
---For whom were the books written—did you have a
particular audience in mind?
MP: The three books having to do with holiness in our time
I aimed at the widest possible audience, trying hard to write accessibly,
without jargon, also explaining wherever needed. The same would be true for the
Elisabeth Behr-Sigel biography in translation. It’s a nominee for the ForeWord
annual awards. I think both the Arjakovsky and Destivelle studies will attract
those interested not just in Russian church history and theology but most
importantly, in the efforts at renewal and reform in the Eastern Church in the
modern era. The Moscow council of 1917-18, never
really implemented there, did shape ecclesiastical statutes and structure here
in the OCA, as well as in Finland, Japan, the Sourozh diocese in the UK and
the Paris/western European archdiocese.
Nicholas Afanasiev’s The Church of the Holy Spirit (UND Press, 2007)
has had a much
wider audience, involving theologians of the liturgy, ecclesiologists and
ecumenists. Ecumenically minded readers would also have had a great deal to
invite them in the three books on holiness, since the effort there was
deliberately ecumenical in the writers selected and examined. Now I would hope
that “The Church Has Left the Building” will be readable and accessible insofar
as the reflections will be personal and based on everyday parish
---What about your own background led you to the writing
of these books?
MP: I think just as it goes with preaching and teaching, so
too with scholarly research and writing—you work with what is of great interest
and commitment to yourself. Surely, this is the case with every book I have
mentioned here. As one who was always intrigued by saints, I wanted to respect
and honor the past but look more carefully at the time we live in. Saints are
not only for icons or statues or holy cards. Holiness is a gift of God, first
and foremost, and only real people, flesh and blood women and men, can be
saints! I have had quite a few years on my life deeply involved in the church. I
went to minor seminary, gave monastic life a serious try. I have experienced
both Eastern and Western church life from the inside, I have great love for the
gospel but as with many, I have a lot of strong feelings about what the
institutional church has done to distort it, not to mention other atrocities
such as clericalism, abuse of those in pastoral care, or the fundamentalism
pretending to be traditionalism--addressed in an essay of mine in this collection.
---Were there any surprises you discovered in the
More than anything else, research on contemporary holy
people as well as those writing about their own efforts to find God keeps
showing me that ecclesiastical differences and divisions do not quench the
Spirit. God is not the building nor is God the rules or the “culture” of the
ecclesiastical community to which we belong. God is beyond all of this yet
closer to us than our hearts. God lives with us and gives us the gift of
holiness, God’s own life. Let me give you an example. In an online course, I
guide students through some of the nastiest, meanest anti-ecumenical writing—not
because I honor or agree with any of it but because it is there and in some
places and for some people enormously powerful. The rationale then was that
students needs to understand how strongly some feel about other Christians
having no grace, no church life, sacraments, not even being Christians really,
just heretics. All this runs counter to the New Testament as well as what we
know and what was written in the first five hundred years of the church’s
history. If anything, I have been very pleasantly surprised at seeing what I
have been writing about confirmed, for example, in Diarmaid Macculloch’s
magisterial Christianity, The First Three Thousand Years (Viking, 2010).
I have also
been encouraged to see the swell of support for theologian Elizabeth Johnson in
the wake of the heavy-handed criticism and rejection of her recent book, Quest for the Living God.
---Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is
MP: Publishers always ask about this in author’s
questionnaires, mostly for marketing purposes. No good ideas are the monopoly of
an author. Quite a few people have been writing about the same issues I have
looked at, which is why I have listened to, quoted, even pictured so many of
them in my books—James Martin, Elizabeth Johnson, Rowan Williams, Barbara Brown
Taylor, Mary Karr, Elizabeth Strout, Mary Oliver-- to name just a
---You’ve been very generous with your comments.
Anything to add in closing?
This past spring 2011 semester, as I have done many times
in the past, I used materials from my books in my classes at school.
Specifically, we read together a number of memoir and autobiographical authors,
some of which I had used, others not. The response, as usual, was very good but
this time, far deeper, more moving, than I could have expected. Given the
diversity of my students as well as the “street smarts” that usually make them
personally very guarded, their sharing of their own searches for God, for
identity and for meaning in their lives bowled me over—and I have been teaching
for a long time! This assured me of something that the last years of working on
and writing these books has revealed to me. The world around is ought not to be
castigated as secular, immoral, materialistic, promiscuous, corrupting. Rather,
it is filled with saints like the summer evening skies are with
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- I have received a blessing from Metropolitan Seraphim, to organise a Coptic Language Summer School, sponsored by the British Orthodox Church.
The student numbers are limited to 10, and places are already filling up.
The details are as follows:
Coptic Language Summer School
King's College, London
Monday 5th - Thursday 8th September, 2011
Session 1: 11:00-13:00
Lunch and Discussion Break: 13:00-14:00
Session 2: 14:00-1600
The tutor will be Dr Carol Downer, an experienced and well qualified lecturer in the Coptic language.
The course material will be based on Introduction to Sahidic Coptic by Thomas O. Lambdin.
The cost of the School is £60, payable in advance.
Those wishing to book a place should contact the School organiser: Father Peter Farrington - fatherpeter@...
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