Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Sergey Averintsev, vlastitel' dum

Philip Harvey

"The present is so important because through it the mysterious depth of the past and the mysterious breadth of the future reveal themselves through an encounter with one another".

By chance I received a copy of Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘Secondhand Time’ recently and “haven’t been able to put it down”, as the saying goes. The author pieces together interviews and conversations with contemporary Russians so they sound like perfect spoken narratives. Every side of the Soviet story, before and after 1991 (annus mirabilis or horribilis depending on the speaker) is given space. Such is the dense detail and emotion of each chapter, one could easily miss the name Sergey Averintsev on page 22 of the Random House edition.

A librarian responsible for collecting Orthodox Spirituality will notice the footnote on that page: “Sergey Averintsev (1937-2004) was a philologist, cultural historian, translator, poet, and specialist on antiquity and Byzantine culture. He lectured on Russian spiritual traditions.” Alexievich’s book discloses that he worked in the Philology Faculty of Moscow State University.

“Why had I not heard of him before?” as the saying goes. An Amazon search declared one book in English with his name attached. Blessedly, the Library already held this book (‘The Rublev Trinity’ by Gabriel Bunge, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007); Averintsev wrote the foreword. And that’s it?

Googling provided other reasons for taking this author very seriously. He has a department of Russian Studies named after him at Durham University. The homepage raised the stakes considerably.

But who really was Sergei Averintsev? It would be easier to say who he was not. In the field of the humanities he was almost everything that a person can be: a philologist, a philosopher, a theologian, a cultural historian, a literary theorist, a translator, and a poet. He was a man of encyclopedic erudition that covered Greek and Roman antiquity, the New Testament, Middle East, Byzantium, European Middle Ages, classical Russian literature and philosophy, Russian Silver Age, and 20th c. Western literature and religious thought. He was a philosopher in the deepest dense, a seeker and lover of wisdom. As probably nobody in Russian humanities he interpreted cultural phenomena in multiplicity of their intertextual and interdisciplinary projections. He was a most broadly thinking humanist but with a very firm standing in humanistic and religious foundations of Russian and European culture. His thinking was opposed to totalitarianism of any kind, be it communism or fascism, religious fundamentalism or technocratic pragmatism. His credo was a combination of faith and freedom. He could repeat after St. Augustine: "Believe in God and do what you want".

Averintsev was born in 1937, in the year when Stalin planned to exterminate completely religion in the USSR and tens of thousands of priests were killed and tens of thousands of churches destroyed or turned into warehouses. Averintsev has done more than any other Russian intellectual to restore the connection of our contemporaries with the spirituality of the past thus opening the way to the spirituality of the future. Since the late 1960s, with publication of his articles in the five volume Phiolosophical Encyclopedia and his book The Poetics of Early Byzantine Literature (1977), he established himself, as they say in Russia, as vlastitel' dum, the ruler of the minds of Russian intelligentsia. He reversed the relation between politics and culture in the minds of many intellectuals. Under Soviet regime, culture was believed to be a tool of politics. For Averintsev, politics was only one small segment of culture, inscribed in larger and spiritually more rich segments, such as literature and language, philosophy and theology. He can be considered, along with Mikhail Bakhtin, who belonged to a previous generation and whom Averintsev admired, a founder of Soviet and post–Soviet culturology, an integrative, multidisciplinary approach to culture. 

Once Averintsev said: "The present is so important because through it the mysterious depth of the past and the mysterious breadth of the future reveal themselves through an encounter with one another". This quote is used on the department’s site as a guiding principle, saying “Let this Averintsevian openness to the past and the future through the medium of the present be our guide in all our scholarly and teaching endeavors.”

Averintsevian sayings became my abiding interest. In an interview with the translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in The Millions online (2009) they say,And there is the fine essayist and “culturologist” Sergei Averintsev, one of the most important Russian thinkers of recent times, a brilliant and witty writer. A few of his essays have been translated into English, but nothing like the substantial collections available in Italian, German, and French,” then add, “the French publisher Cerf has recently commissioned a translation of Averintsev’s complete works.” If there are no books by him in English, does the internet give glimpses of the thought of this vlastitel' dum? My searches found a few. I quote two of them here, but the search continues.

“This, too, is one of the hallmarks of Russian culture. A century later, the journalist Vladimir Korolenko declared that at the gates of heaven every Russian writer would be asked how many years he had spent in prison for the sake of truth. And his contemporary, the literary critic Vengerov, wrote a book with an eloquent title: The Heroic Nature of Russian Literature. From the arrest of Radishchev to the repeated exiles of Pushkin, the conscription of Pozhelayev and the jailing of Dostoevsky, to the execution of Gumilyov and the fate of other twentieth-century writers condemned to the camps, the line runs clear and unbroken ... The Russian people saw the poet primarily as a martyr. How many Russian laments have been composed, from Pushkin to Osip Mandelstam, on the exile of Ovid? But the Roman poet was the victim of the Emperor Augustus, and his fate was less tragic than the fate of those involved in the greater tragedy arising from the tangled web of the Revolution and the rifts caused by its intrinsic contradictions.”

From ‘Poetry, freedom, and revolution”, quoted in Questia online, Unesco courier.

“When I was growing up in the Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet Union, I knew, at least from rumors, that I was a contemporary of some great composers, artists, and writers. Later I also learned about great contemporary philosophers. Shortly before the death of Herman Hesse, I was obsessed with the idea of sending him a letter from Moscow. But the gods passed away one after another, and when I now travel around the world and have a chance to look at any book in a library, I understand less and less whose contemporary I am. Such must be the time we live in. I do not partake of discussions about the imminent end of philosophy, poetry, and other such things. And by not doing it, I do not mean to claim that there will be no such end. I simply do not know. No doubt, we all should realize and remember that someday we will all die. But we should also do our own work based on the assumption, albeit false, that our lives will continue. In a sense, we should be ready to pass away at any moment, but in another sense (which is perhaps not any easier), we should be prepared seriously, substantially, and perhaps even naively and self-confidently to stay and carry on our work. I believe this is what our attitude to life should be.”

From an interview in Day Kiev magazine online, 13th November 2012.


Wednesday, 20 July 2016

On Raimon Panikkar's Opera Omnia

This message and accompanying letter were sent to the theological library lists today.

Orbis Books is publishing a posthumous Works of Raimon Panikkar called Opera Omnia. Opera Omnia usually means the final collected writings of an author, so we assume that this is Panikkar’s previously published work in a uniform set. However, study of introductions and contents soon shows that this Opera Omnia is quite a deal more than just that. Rewrites, fugitive pieces, lost papers and all sorts of other writing are assembled under headings, as well as edits of classic titles, making this a whole new adventure for his readers. One Panikkar scholar (Ruth) here at the Carmelite Library sent me this email analysis of her reading so far, which she is happy for me to share on the library lists. I trust some of this information will help your decision-making about this remarkable literary production at the end of Panikkar’s life. It helps to know what we’re looking at.

Dear Philip, 

I am beginning to look into Panikkar's vol. 1.2, Mysticism and spirituality, and am slowly, slowly getting a bit of an idea about what is happening in this series.  

With vol 1.1, which i own, i couldn't see any relation to other works of his which I know of. it all seems new -- though it may well not be - I might just not have come across anything he has written there, or it may be the first time it has been translated from another language. But it has the feel of an introduction and overview. Good to read anyway.  

With vol. 1.2, however, it is clearly three books previously published - but in the first one, (The Experience of God: icons of the Mystery) the translation has been slightly altered, some of the headings have been altered, and an entire middle section on the Christian experience has been omitted.

 Then follow three papers originally given in Italian and now translated into English.  
The next book in this volume is his iconic Blessed Simplicity.  And I see the third book is A Dwelling Place for Wisdom. From just a quick check, the original appendices have been omitted and a new one inserted.  

Next comes something I haven't seen before, with the over-all title of The hindu Monk, about 12 pages.  And then a Letter to Abishiktananda on Eastern and Western Monasticism, which i am looking forward to reading.  

This is followed by a book I do know, The Dwelling Place of Wisdom. But the Omnia Opera version contains only the first 69 pages of the original English edition. Pages 70--157 are not reproduced. Perhaps they will appear in some other volume.  

This morning I was talking to a Camaldolese Oblate, Glen Wolter, who lives in Queensland,and is now in his eighties. He used to correspond with Panikkar, and to whom Panikkar sent him pamphlets that may not have been published in book form. He has offered to send copies of these pamphlets back with Fr Michael Mifsud, who is staying with them at present. Glen is aware of the Omnia Opera, and was asking me about prices. That series is going to be such a resource! 

Warmest regards, 


Reveries of libraries, the nineteenth : POSTAGE STAMPS AND PLANETS

Philip Harvey

Have you ever noticed how the pages of an average book when opened are about the size of the human face? This is worth keeping in mind when pondering the news that all books could now be stored on a device the size of a postage stamp. 

A team of scientists in the Netherlands have, through the manipulation of single atoms, made the world's smallest hard drive. It gives new meaning to the word netherlands. Without going into details of what they mean by “all the world's books”, the team claims the technology is “so dense” it could hold this quantity of book content. One professor at Delft University describes this invention as “an atomic-scale printing press.” Another gave a lecture, in which he asked “What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them?” The University team even encoded this lecture in a grid 100 nanometres across, a hundredth the width of a human hair, and in appropriate Delft Blue.
Photo: Delft University/Sander Otte

The fact that this postage stamp has to be kept at liquid nitrogen temperature (-196.15 degrees) does not tempt this reader, who prefers reading anything at a mild temperature of 21 degrees celsius, near a sunny window, on a lovely Spring morning, nowhere near a laboratory.

That this microdot postage stamp is some kind of ultimate library, albeit virtually invisible to the naked eye, may leave librarians and readers alike asking, so what’s the point? The issue, it seems, is not the readability of a microdot but its capacity for storage and retrieval of information, all of it in binary form. We understand that bit, at least. While someone can retrieve the right kinds of atoms in the right order, then librarianship is entering a new phase.

The material universe is mighty big. Vast, humungous, tremendous, super, ginormous and other synonyms strive to describe the mightily big. When people say, philosophically, we are only a speck in the universe they have imagined a similar planet to our own in a distant galaxy, then reached the obvious conclusion. If they’re a speck then we’re a speck. This merely materialistic conclusion about the situation of the universe is a fallacy. After all, we as persons are not specks, anymore than the Earth we inhabit is an infinitesimal postage stamp. It’s all we know, both its human scale and its extra-human dimensions. True, our bounds are horizons. Even on the Moon we can only see half the picture, but as persons, reading our book on a Spring morning, it’s as much as we’re going to know in this world.

Which is why science can seem such a misguided adventure, planning to put all books on a postage stamp. It is we in our own space who will choose to read the pages we read, up close, with our best spectacles if needs be. The microdot library is incidental, storing all of that other stuff we may never get around to reading.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Praying in Creation -- Jan Morgan and Graeme Garrett

At the Creation Spirituality Symposium held at the Carmelite Centre in May Jan Morgan and Graeme Garrett introduced us to a practice of prayer they have been developing,  in a session they called ‘Learning to  Pray in the Anthropocene’.


Find a place where you feel a sense of being in the presence of Nature. This may be by the ocean, in the desert, on a cliff top, in the mountains or the bush, in grasslands or wetlands, by a river, creek or pond. Chose somewhere you can go regularly, somewhere that calls to you, however faintly.

 For city-dwellers find a place that is as near to a ‘natural’ wild order, as relatively intact an ecosystem, as you can find. For example, a tract of bush remaining in parkland, or the re-vegetated edge of a local creek or pond. But it may be your own created garden, or even simply a single tree or a plant in a pot.

Our circumstances differ, and change through time. The point is to find some connection with the wider living world of which we are part.

You might imagine this as returning to the Garden, as an act of re-membering ourselves as part of Creation, or simply as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and feeling the life-world of which we are part, the Ground of our Being from which we have been separated.

We suggest you commit yourself to keeping the practice for 3 months. Like a growing plant this work is slow, organic, unfolding quietly. A half hour each day or even twice or once a week would be a way to start. If you already have a spiritual practice –  meditation, contemplation, prayer, yoga, you will already know the value of a regular commitment. Consider re-allocating some of the time you already set aside. If a practice is a new idea, you may need just to plunge in. You may already be in love with the natural world, and spend time hiking, canoeing, surfing or walking or gardening. This is a different way to attend.

The practice is done alone, but you might find a friend who would like to join you, either at the same place and time or separately. You could then agree to meet once a week and share stories and/or journals (see below).

You also need to think about what we call ‘the weather’. Do you need to take a hat, sunscreen, rain jacket, umbrella, gloves etc?

Other people may walk by. Decide ahead simply to attend to the practice. They have their life (and probably dog), you have yours.

You might like to meditate on certain Bible verses in preparation. The following are useful: Psalms 8, 19, 65, 95, 104 or 148. Jeremiah 4; Job 38-41; Genesis 1-2; Matthew 6:25-30; John 1:1-5; Colossians 1:15-20

Beginning the practice

Once you have chosen a place consider how you will get there. Approach matters. Build in as much silence as you can. If you need to drive, turn off the radio or take some meditative music to play. Perhaps park some distance away so that you can walk in to the spot. If you do the practice in your own garden, consider a walk around the neighbourhood as preparation, and ensure that any other people in the house know not to disturb you (pray the baby stays asleep!). If you are in hospital, tell the nurses what you need.

Greeting the place

Having arrived, decide where to stand (listen to what is calling you).

Take time to notice what you are hearing, seeing, tasting, feeling, smelling.

Turn to honour each of the four directions (E, N, W, S), and feel the energy of the sun pouring down, and the energy of the earth rising beneath your feet.


Dedicate the practice to the flourishing of all beings.

Standing (or sitting if necessary)

Push upwards from the top of your head.

At the same time, relax the rest of your body, feeling the weight of your muscles dropping downwards, almost as if you ‘let the flesh fall off your bones’. In particular, relax your stomach muscles and your
jaw, place the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth, unlock your knees.

Keep your eyes open. Soften your gaze – about a 45 degree angle is good.

Empty your mind. Gently let distracting thoughts pass by as clouds across the sky, and return again to the practice.

The occasional use of a prayer mantra (e.g., Maranatha; Lord have mercy) can be helpful.

You may like to put some questions to the Earth. The first is a matter of courtesy in approach:
Are you willing to communicate with me?

Wait in a receptive state for an answer, then if it seems right quietly ask . . .
 Is there a message?
 Is there a lesson?
 Is there an offering?

Taking leave (when the half hour is up)

Make an offering sending the energy of the practice back out into the world.

Walk/drive home silently.

Write about your experience (e.g. half a page). Keep these pages in a folder – you will be amazed at what you find when you read them later.

We gratefully acknowledge teachings from a range of sacred traditions, in particular Taoist and Native American.

Jan Morgan and Graeme Garrett