Personal Reflections on Fr. Dumitru Staniloae and on the Meaning of his life and Work for Roman Catholics
Presentation at the 6th Symposium of Romanian Orthodox Spirituality organized by the Romanian Orthodox
Archdiocese in the Americas and the Trinity College, on April 13, 2013 at the University of Toronto, ON on the theme
Holy Emperors Constantine and Helen and their legacy. Christian Faith in the new context of freedom. Church’s transformative dynamic between social responsibility and Christian commitment
I was asked to put together a few personal reflections on Fr. Stăniloae in a year which marks 20 years since his death and 110 years since his birth. These reflections were to have been an “extra” added at the end of today’s program, but changed circumstances have turned them into the opening talk for the Conference as a whole, and I beg your indulgence for what might seem an unusually informal style and approach to our subject.
It may also be helpful to know that I spent the academic year 1970-71 in Bucharest as an ecumenical student at the Theological Institute of University Rank (as the Orthodox Institute of Theology was then titled), taking graduate courses in theology, among which were the courses in Dogmatic Theology taught by Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae.
I arrived knowing virtually no Romanian but soon came to love the language. My own background in languages was very strong and by the end of the year Fr. Stăniloae asked me to undertake the translation into English of a collection of his articles which he wanted to make known to the theological world outside Romania. Then, as now, there were few in the West – even among scholars – who read Romanian.
I was very moved by the trust he placed in me by making this request, especially because I think it fair to say that there never had been any particular closeness or personal friendship between us as student and teacher during the year, although he must have noticed that I was a very attentive member of all his classes. In the years that have passed since 1971, and particularly in my translations of his work, I have tried to be loyal to the trust he showed me then. In what follows I will offer some Reflections on the person of Fr. Stăniloae and then suggest two Elements of his life and work which – speaking in my own name - I believe have great significance for Roman Catholics and indeed for all “Western” Christians who study the writings of Fr. Stăniloae.
1. My first reflection has to do with Fr. Stăniloae primarily as a teacher in the classroom rather than as a writer “on the page.” Among all the professors at the Theological Institute – and there were 10 to 12 active at the graduate level – he was unique. He was certainly not the most “scholarly” member of the faculty in the modern Western sense of that word; that distinction would clearly have belonged to Prof. Alexandru Elian, a very accomplished Byzantinist and a true scholar in the mode of a Nicolae Iorga or a Mircea Eliade. Nor was Fr. Stăniloae a “specialist” in the manner of almost all the other professors who accepted a compartmentalized approach to their teaching and frequently displayed a defensive attitude towards their own reputation and dignity. Without suggesting any judgment upon these other professors, it was clear to us as students that Fr. Stăniloae was not someone who “cooperated” with the system, whether the academic one or the political one. For example, when the “Ecumenical Day” would be hosted at the Institute once a term – under the watchful eyes of the representative from the Ministry of Cults – and our teachers who gave the conferences or commented upon them were expected to turn the topic, whatever it happened to be that day, into some kind of criticism or denunciation of the West, Fr. Stăniloae never took part. His silence was deafening.
But what set Fr. Stăniloae “apart” for us students was what happened in his classroom. There, theology was not a lecture or even a seminar-style study; it was a meditation, an exploration that was taking place in front of our eyes, not something read to us from a page of notes. In some deep sense we were attending to it, assisting at it, rather in the way that we might assist at a Liturgy, “straining towards” this spiritual center in a manner reminiscent of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s teaching on the epektasis of those seeking the face of God. I have encountered this atmosphere only one other time in my life as a student and a teacher, namely, when Fr. John Dunne gave the Sather Lectures at Oxford which ultimately led to the publication of his remarkable book, The Reasons of the Heart: A Journey into Solitude and the Return to the Human Circle.
The two themes which always recurred in the classroom of Fr. Stăniloae were those of the Trinity and the world. For Fr. Stăniloae the Trinity meant the very life of God; it was never an abstract or purely conceptual study. He had fused in his own thought and experience the personalist philosophy which he had encountered as a young student in Germany and France in the 1920s with the substance of the Eastern Fathers’ teaching on the reality of the Divine Persons, and this fusion was meditated upon every week before our eyes in his classes, just as it can be found in his writings, especially in his article: “The Holy Trinity: Structure of Supreme Love.”
The theme of the “world” (lumea) represented for Fr. Stăniloae a profoundly theological vision of creation as the expression/object of God’s love with its ultimate focal point in the Incarnation and the Transfiguration/Resurrection of Christ. For Romanian students in the 1970s this was an assertion of transcendence which challenged directly the dull socialism of the country’s culture and regime without ever becoming a kind of escapist fantasy. The phrase which encapsulated all this was raţiunile lucrurilor, “the reasons of things”, the inner principles at the heart of each created reality which represented not just their intrinsic intelligibility but the “word” of revelation spoken by God at the center of every being, an invitation to communion in the divine life. Seen in this way, the world is not a hostile environment, nor (as the modern fascination with Gaia might suggest) a kind of false god, but rather the place of God’s own revelation drawing us upwards through it into the encounter with the ultimate Personal Reality. C.S. Lewis captures some of the excitement of this dynamism at the end of his Narnia cycle through the image of the totality of all persons bringing creation with them in a kind of rush towards the Life in God: “Higher up and farther in!”
2. My second reflection has to do with the experience of Fr. Stăniloae as “witness.” The word itself is an interesting one, because for those whose mother tongue is English, the Romanian word for witness – martor – may suggest too quickly all that is associated with the idea and imagery of martyrdom. But Romanian has a separate word for that – martir – and my point here has to do first of all with the different dimensions of Fr. Dumitru’s witness as teacher, theologian, priest and Christian. He was a man who had witnessed it all, who had seen it all at first hand.
I do not mean to pass over or play down Fr. Stăniloae’s experience in prison. All of us students knew about this, the five-year gap between 1958 and 1962 in the bibliography of an incredibly prolific writer, but he never made any allusion to this in class and we certainly never dared to raise the question in the atmosphere of the Bucharest of 1970-71. Yet it was always at the back of our minds when we saw his hands, the hands not of an intellectual, but of someone who had worked at tasks we could only imagine and whose body bore the marks of that work. This provided us all with a very different perspective on “work” from that so airily put forward by the theorists of “scientific socialism,” a propaganda course which all students in Romania had to undergo, even in the Theological Institute.
I discovered another dimension of Fr. Stăniloae’s witness when, towards the end of my year in Romania, I set out to compile a complete bibliography of his work. He had spent a good part of his life as an active journalist and ended up as the editor of the oldest Church newspaper in the country, The Romanian Telegraph. He had written hundreds of leading articles on all the major events and themes of the 1930s and the 1940s, not just “church stuff” but the political, economic, cultural and intellectual questions of the day. And, as Robespierre had once boasted that if he had a single letter written by a man to his mother, he could find enough evidence in it to send him to the guillotine, so this huge collection of editorials certainly provided the later Communist regime with enough “evidence” to send Fr. Stăniloae to prison or death at any moment they wished. He lived from 1944 to 1958 with this sword directly over his head, and the unanswered question is why it took the regime almost fifteen years to act against him.
I have written above about Fr. Stăniloae’s theology as something “he did in front of us” as we watched and listened rather than something he read to us from notes. In this he was witness to the true meaning of “spirituality,” a term much used today and which often means nothing more than a style or posture of our own, whereas Fr. Stăniloae showed us that real spirituality is the actual working of the Holy Spirit within each of us as Christians. It was this understanding of spirituality that undergirded his conviction of the importance of the Palamite distinction between the Divine essence and energies and his dedication to providing the Romanian edition of the Philokalia in 14 volumes.
Finally, for us his students, Fr. Stăniloae was a great witness to the fact that the Church has always to be understood as a reality wider and deeper than the merely “ecclesiastical” – what Pope Francis has recently called the Church’s temptation to live within a narrow “self-referential” world. Fr. Stăniloae’s dialogue with the leading minds and spirit of his own Romanian culture, Blaga, Sora and the editors of Gindirea, and with eminent Western theologians like Barth and von Balthasar, was balanced by his profound grasp of the Fathers, especially St. Maximus the Confessor, whom he brought us to realize were living interlocutors, not just names from a dead past.
Elements in Fr. Stăniloae’s Life and Work of Significance for Roman Catholics
1. The first of these is what might be called “the elephant in the room,” namely, Fr. Stăniloae’s anti-Catholicism. I am not sure this is the right word to use of the attitude I am trying to evoke, because it may suggest more than I intend, more than what was in fact real within Fr. Stăniloae’s personal makeup and experience.
But as a journalist with The Romanian Telegraph of Sibiu, he repeatedly raised a strong political voice against what he thought was a disproportionate and untoward Catholic influence on Romanian life, conceiving it as a “foreign” influence within the Romanian national story. His formative context was that of his native Ardeal and the control exercised historically by Hungarian and German currents over Romanian nationhood, especially by the imported German Catholic monarchy. His attitude had clear analogies in his time with the desire expressed by many within the Quebec of today to be “masters in their own house.” It perhaps remains an open question whether this desire is really so much “anti” as it is “pro” the national and personal aspirations of a group aware of its own identity.
Fr. Stăniloae also allowed himself to use the rather too neat structure which was fashionable in the Orthodox theological writing of the Communist period of the 60s and 70s and according to which Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy (“cele trei confesiuni”) could be contrasted in a kind of Hegelian-style analysis that always placed Catholics and Protestants in some exaggerated and caricatured position, and then proposed the Orthodox teaching or practice as the true model of harmony and equilibrium between the two extremes. In certain instances Catholics themselves could acknowledge the justice of some of these observations, but at other times the caricature was not just hurtful but seemed to be a kind of deliberate “fixing” of Catholic thought into positions which allowed for no possibility of subsequent growth or development. This was more than a little ironic for a writer who was active in the very midst of the sweeping post-Vatican Council changes which have so transformed the “immovable” positions of Catholic life and reflection.
On the other hand, I must note again the remarkable trust Fr. Stăniloae showed toward me, a young Catholic religious not as yet ordained in 1971, when he commissioned me to make known to the “outside world” his most important theological writings. It is a helpful reminder that we would all benefit from abandoning our tendencies to put other Christians within artificial “boxes” that we build by fabricating one-sided definitions of their ideas and experiences and, instead, dedicating ourselves to listen more deeply to what the “others” are actually trying to say.
2. I will end with a second element of significance to Catholics, although it may have less to do specifically with Fr. Stăniloae than with the experience of the Romanian Orthodox Church as a whole at that time, namely, the relationship between Church and State. In the Romania of 1970-71 under the regime of Ceausescu, what interested me most as a student of the Christian East and as a Canadian coming from the tradition of Western democracy was the encounter with a State which exercised a role over the Church and apparently within the Church through the Ministry of Cults. This role was obviously one of control, manipulation and intimidation, and – at least insofar as I could understand it – the formative attitude of the Orthodox Church was to try to continue existing, to try to find a space to live within these constraints and realities, even though such a space would have to be the space assigned to it by the Great Leader and the Party apparatus.
I was struck then by the continuity between this situation and the view of the Emperor’s role within the Church and the world as Eusebius of Caesarea had sketched it in the fourth century. For Eusebius the Emperor, who at the time was Constantine the Great, functions in this world as a reflection or agent of the Logos, in just the way that the Logos Himself functions within the whole of creation, transcending it as the One Who “holds all creation together in Himself,” and promoting the unity and fruitfulness of each of its parts in order to bring about the will of the Father. The question that troubled me then and to which I still do not have an answer is this: Can the Orthodox Church do without an Emperor? Can it leave behind the model proposed by Eusebius and imagine its relation to the State in a new way?
We are living at a time of great changes. It is not inconceivable that, as we look on, a Pope like Pope Francis may even be beginning the process of dismantling the Catholic Church’s current international legal status as a “state” in its own right. In a world very different, therefore, from the world which Fr. Stăniloae knew for almost the whole of his lifetime, what could be the deepest and most authentic Orthodox contribution to a new and pan-Christian understanding of the proper relationship between the Church of Christ – in both East and West – and the legitimate role and meaning of political power and institutions (the “state”)? For all of us as people of faith, this has a special meaning, for we are living in a world that is waiting for the return of its true King!
Fr. Robert Barringer C.S.B.
St. Augustine’s Seminary, Toronto