The Ecumenical Orthodoxy of a Dominican
Scribe of the Kingdom: Essays on Theology and Culture
reviewed by William M. Klimon
The British Dominican Fr. Aidan Nichols seems to show up everywhere. He has published more than a dozen fascinating books in the past 15 years. He is an advisor to serious periodicals like Communio and Eastern Churches Journal. And he has undertaken teaching and pastoral duties in Britain, Norway, and Rome.
The publishing house of Sheed & Ward (London) has taken twenty-four of his essays, published and unpublished, from over the last ten years, and produced a rich collection. It is unfortunate that this two-volume set is so expensive: the truly catholic range of its subject matter makes it noteworthy for the ecumenically orthodox readers of Touchstone.
This collection begins with “A Dominican’s Story,” the tale of Fr. Nichols’s intellectual journey. It starts with his discovery, as a boy, of sacramental and iconographic Christianity at an Orthodox church in Geneva, Switzerland. Fr. Nichols writes, “Had I known of an Orthodox parish, I should probably have become Orthodox myself.”
Instead he was drawn to the Lancastrian Catholicism of his native northern England. It took him several years of prayer and study to move from the untutored Anglicanism of his youth to the Roman Catholic Church in 1966 immediately after Vatican II. It is no small irony that so many of the errant theologians who have bedeviled the Roman Catholic authorities in recent years received their formation and education long before the Council. They are themselves in a very real way “pre-conciliar,” to use the now standard term of opprobrium. In contrast, there are more and more churchmen who are legitimate products of the post-conciliar Church and are its true fruit. Fr. Nichols is surely one of their leaders.
After a brief trial with the Benedictines and a typical academic idyll at Oxford, Fr. Nichols serendipitously made his way to the English Dominicans, where he remains today at Blackfriars, Cambridge. His education both before and after he entered the Order of Preachers was under a formidable host of “ecumenically orthodox” scholars—Henry Chadwick, Bishop Kallistos Ware, and Oxford Dominicans like Gervase Mathew and Simon Tugwell—and their ecumenical dimension is clearly reflected in his writings. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s he published prolifically on a wide range of topics historical and theological. But as “A Dominican’s Story” points out, much of this work was ad hoc, related to controversies of the moment, or occasioned by other duties and responsibilities. What binds them together is his commitment to, and application of, what he calls “Intelligent Conservatism as an Ecclesial Stance.”
Taking as his text, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt. 13:52), Fr. Nichols suggests a theological approach that, while seeming so truly evangelical and thus natural for all churchmen, would surely alter the face of contemporary theology were it to be widely implemented. This approach includes at least three elements, namely:
• openness to the new and faithfulness to the old, while being “conscious of the predominantly future-oriented quality of present-day world society …[and] therefore, particularly concerned to maintain fidelity, in the name of Christ, to what has been received from the past”;
• fidelity to the revealed Word of God as the standard by which everything is to be judged; and
• reverence for the “sensibility” or “style” in which that divine revelation has been handed down.
There has been no shortage lately of alternative theologies and declarations of various possible “ecclesial stances.” Fr. Nichols, however, is suggesting something different. “Intelligent conservatism, then, . . I am not proposing as one way of being a Catholic among others, even the best way, but as the very teaching of the Lord of the Scriptures himself.”
The bulk of this collection is organized into four broad categories: “Exploring Theological History,” “Theology and Society,” “Theology, Literature and Art,” and “Theology and Holiness.” These rather bland titles, however, do not do justice to the range of sources and subjects, and the interconnections between them, considered by Fr. Nichols. His authorities are truly ecumenical: Orthodox (Sergius N. Bulgakov, Nikolai Afanas’ev), Anglican (T. S. Eliot) and Anglo-Catholic converts to Roman Catholicism (R. H. Benson, G. K. Chesterton), and Roman Catholic (Walter Kasper, M. J. Scheeben). They reach across all of Church history: St. Augustine, Dante, Hans Urs von Balthasar. Priority is deliberately given to Fr. Nichols’s own Dominican Order. Thus the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Yves Congar, and Père François Dreyfus are all considered at length, as is the spirituality of the sons of St. Dominic, with, as we will see, special emphasis on one modern daughter of Dominic.
There are other themes that run through Scribe of the Kingdom. The Roman primacy is never far from his consideration. It is brilliantly explicated in his essay “The Roman Primacy in the Ancient Irish and Anglo-Celtic Church,” where he stresses Rome’s importance in the conversion of northern Europe. It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of Christian art and imaginative writing for Fr. Nichols. This interest is well represented in this collection: from a study of the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) to a contemporary program of “Byzantinisation” (of the non-Byzantine churches) to help the Church “regain her rôle as ‘iconifier’—bearer of images, and mother of artists.” Here, too, are his reflections on the merits of two Catholic classics, the “poetry and grace” of Dante’s Divina Commedia and the “imaginative eschatology” of Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World. There are essays on Hans Urs von Balthasar and on Adrienne von Speyr, whose powerful theological synthesis and symbiosis are only now being more widely discovered in the English-speaking world. In future years their relationship may come to be included among the great spiritual partnerships of the past: from Saints Macrina and Basil to Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal. Fr. Nichols also includes some reflections on liberation theology, which seems nothing if not passé, as well as on Christ as Rex gentium (“King of the nations”) and the contemporary problem of rising nationalism, particularly in Europe. He makes the controversial assertion that “of all the politics which Europe has known in this century, the Danube monarchy [the remnant of the Holy Roman Empire] at the end of history offers, paradoxically, the most hopeful pattern for the future.”
A dozen more themes could be added to this list, but there is one in particular that holds Fr. Nichols’s attention throughout and indeed is reflected in all his life and work. From his encounter with Orthodoxy in Switzerland as a boy to his studies under Bishop Kallistos Ware at Oxford, from his doctoral dissertation on the Russian Orthodox theologian Nikolai Afanas’ev to his recent books on the East-West schism and St. Maximus the Confessor, the relations between Christian Orient and Occident are a constant concern. This is especially evident in his essay “St. Augustine in the Byzantine-Slav Tradition.” Sparked in part, no doubt, by a little apologetic book by the late Russian hieromonk Fr. Seraphim Rose (The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church, Platina, Calif.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1982), Fr. Nichols reviews the status of Augustine in the East. He concludes that, although he always was regarded as a saint, Augustine’s work was almost completely unknown in the East during the last millennium. It enjoyed a certain popularity among medieval Latinophrones like the Greek brothers Demetrios (c.1324–1398) and Prochoros Kydones (c.1333–1369) and was being vigorously rediscovered by pre-Revolutionary Russian churchmen before the Communist yoke fell on the church. Many prominent modern Orthodox theologians give qualified praise to the writings of the bishop of Hippo. Yet there is among many Orthodox still a strong undercurrent of hostility towards this great doctor of the Western church. And this sort of antipathy (whether from ignorance or misunderstanding), no less than the great doctrinal issues, must be brought to some resolution before the wall between East and West can be razed.
Also included are essays on the thought of two modern Russian theologians, Nikolai Afanas’ev (1893–1966) and Sergius N. Bulgakov (1871–1944). Fr. Nichols’s essays examine the modern questions of patristic ressourcement and Orthodox Sophiology, respectively. These are interesting questions in themselves, but they are also relevant for what they reveal about the meeting of East and West, in this case on the scholarly and philosophical level.
The most interesting meeting of East and West in this collection, however, is in its closing essay on yet a third Russian, Mother Ekaterina Sienskaya (Anna Ivanovna) Abrikosova (1882–1936): “A Dominican Uniate Foundress in the Old Russia.”
Mother Ekaterina’s story is bound up with that of Russian Roman Catholicism. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a number of upper-class Russians, most of whom were alienated from or had never known Orthodoxy, made their way into the Roman Catholic Church. Vladimir and Anna Abrikosov were part of this group of converts. Anna, strongly influenced by Dominican saints and spiritual writers, became a lay Dominican in 1912 and took the name Ekaterina Sienskaya (i.e., Catherine of Siena). But the Abrikosovs soon were caught up in something new: a Russian Byzantine-rite church in union with Rome.
The impetus for this Russian-rite Catholic church came from Russian converts themselves and is thus to be distinguished from the “Uniatism” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first parish was organized in St. Petersburg by a laywoman, Natalya Sergeievna Utcakova, in 1909. Fr. Eustace Susalev, a convert Old Believer priest whose questionable orders had been recognized by Rome, and Fr. Alexis Zertcaninov, a convert Orthodox priest, were the first chaplains. It soon came under the episcopal oversight of Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky, the Ukrainian Catholic archbishop of L’viv. In 1917, Sheptytsky named Leonid Feodorov, another Russian convert and disciple of Vladimir Soloviev, as exarch for the Russian-rite Catholic church. Sheptytsky and Feodorov acted with the knowledge and approval of, but completely independently of, Rome, to organize and strengthen this fledgling church headquartered in St. Petersburg. Meanwhile the Abrikosovs had organized a Russian-rite Third-Order Dominican community in their spacious apartments in Moscow and from that base undertook heroic educational and pastoral efforts. Given the increasingly precarious state of all church bodies as the Communists solidified their hold on power, the efforts of the Russian Catholics and especially the Abrikosovs surprisingly were welcomed by many even in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. There was a true flowering of the ecumenism of the catacombs.
Unfortunately, their efforts were largely swept away by the Bolshevik regime. Exarch Feodorov and later Mother Ekaterina were arrested and sent into internal exile, where they both died. (Vladimir Abrikosov, ordained a priest by Archbishop Sheptytsky 1917, was exiled from the U.S.S.R. and died in France in 1966.) All that remains of this experiment are a few exile parishes (three in the United States, with Our Lady of Fatima Russian Byzantine Catholic Parish/Catholic Russian Center in San Francisco as the most famous) and some institutions like the Russian College in Rome. Despite this apparent failure, we can see in the career of Mother Ekaterina the personal resolution of many contemporary conflicts in the Church: the role of women in the Church, the relationship between Church and society, the reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christianity and of medieval spirituality with modern sensibility. In this way the life of Mother Ekaterina is instructive for all who are grappling with these issues. And Fr. Nichols, in bringing us this story as well as the rest of his thoughtful and informed work, is truly following the path of the “scribe of the Kingdom.”
William M. Klimon studied history at the University of Pennsylvania and at Cornell University. He currently is a student and Maryland State Senatorial Scholar at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.
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“The Ecumenical Orthodoxy of a Dominican” first appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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