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Authorial Interview: Fr. Michael Plekon

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  • Nina Tkachuk Dimas
      http://easternchristianbooks.blogspot.com/ Loading... Wednesday, July 6, 2011 Authorial Interview: Fr. Michael Plekon The priest and theologian Michael
    Message 1 of 2 , Jul 8, 2011
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      Wednesday, July 6, 2011

      Authorial
      Interview: Fr. Michael Plekon
      The priest
      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
      topics.

      I interviewed him about his research and
      scholarship, and here are his thoughts.

      --Please provide a brief
      biographical sketch:

      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
      that.

      ---Tell us why you wrote these
      books:
      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).

      There I
      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
      said.

      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
      projects?


      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,
      e.g., gender.

      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.

      ---Future projects?

      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
      life.

       
      ---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
      writing?
      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
      yours different?

      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
      few.
      ---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
      stars.


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    • Father Peter Farrington
      I have received a blessing from Metropolitan Seraphim, to organise a Coptic Language Summer School, sponsored by the British Orthodox Church. The student
      Message 2 of 2 , Jul 9, 2011
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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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