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Spirituality in Orthodox Perspective: II | A vow of conversation

17 September 2016

Macrina Walker notes in a blog post that “it is hardly surprising that some Orthodox theologians should be wary of the word “spirituality.” Golubov highlights the concerns of Father Stanley Harakas and Giorgios Mantzarides who reject the use of the word in an Orthodox context. Harakas argues that, in contrast to terms such as “spiritual life,” it has a “reified, objectified and ‘substance-like’ connotation” that he sees as related to western ideas about grace. He writes:

The parallel between ‘spirituality’ and grace understood as ‘created,’ an objective substance which is ‘conveyed’ by the sacraments, is too obvious to need documenting. It is no accident that a theological milieu accustomed to the understanding of divine grace as a created substance which was capable of being dispensed or withheld by the official Church, could in a quite analogous way, create the term ‘spirituality’ and live comfortably with it. (Kindle Location 120)

Source: Spirituality in Orthodox Perspective: II | A vow of conversation

I can heartily agree with that.

I’ve sometimes seen articles about words that get on people’s nerves, and I gather quite a lot of people have a strong aversion to the word “moist”. In the same way I have an aversion to the word “spirituality”.

I first became aware of it, and of my aversion to it, when I was a student at St Chad’s College in Durham, in 1966 or 1967. I, like many of the other students, was studying for a postgraduate diploma in theology. We had university lectures and college tutorials for the academic stuff, and then there were other gatherings in the grads’ common room for things like sermon practice. And one term there were weekly gatherings on “spirituality” — a lecture given by a member of staff, followed by questions and discussion. And it gave the the heebie-jeebies, like “moist” does for some people, because nobody bothered to define the word, it was simply assumed that we all knew what it meant.

They even had a session on Orthodox spirituality, which I wrote about in my diary.

Then went to the Junior Common Room, where there was a meeting of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius — an introduction to the Eastern Church by Benedikz and Father Bates. Father Bates, it appears, spends his holidays in Greek monasteries. The thing lasted three hours, and was incredibly dull. However, their theme this year was “God and Caesar”, and they are having a conference on that theme in about six months time — so perhaps things might improve, or at least something fruitful may be learned at the cost of boredom. Father Bates, and the English generally, seem to find the Eastern Orthodox Church quaint, foreign, and rather amusing. They roared with laughter at the description of the way a priest baptised a child in St Oswald’s, and washed the olive oil off his hands in the font afterwards, and then got all deadly earnest and serious over obscure points of spirituality.

I was later to find that attitude quite common. English people affected an interest in Orthodoxy, but in fact they were only interested in Orthodox spirituality, whatever that was supposed to be, and from my observations their suppositions were pretty far removed from Orthodoxy itself.



And Father Hugh Bates (one of the college tutors) never did answer any of my questions about Orthodoxy, in spite of having spent time in Greek monasteries. In fact he discouraged me from asking, implying that it was something esoteric, dangerous, and definitely not for the hoi polloi like me, making it sound like a Rosicrucian ad for secret knowledge of the mysteries of the ancients.

The Fellowship of SS Alban and Sergius, which was supposed to promote understanding between Anglicans and Orthodox, began to look to me very much like what is nowadays called “cultural appropriation” — a selective nicking of bits and pieces of other people’s cultures, while ignoring or despising the rest. At least that’s what it looked like in Durham 50 years ago. It may have been different in other places, and it may be different in Durham today.

Spirituality seemed to be primarily a Roman Catholic word, adopted by High Church Anglicans, and seemed to be attached more and more to advertisements for retreats. I got a new insight into it about 10 or 15 years after my time at St Chad’s, from Colin Gardner, an English Professor at the University of Natal (now UKZN). He was a Roman Catholic, and this was at the height of the charismatic renewal. One of the leading figures in the charsimatic renewal in the Roman Catholic Church at that time was Cliff de Gersigny, a businessman and lay evangelist, who was off all over the place conducting missions, speaking in tongues, getting people to sing bouncy choruses and the like. He was fairly good at waking up somnolent parishes, and getting people to take their Christian faith more seriously. I mentioned him to Colin Gardner once, and Colin said that he was rather put off by Cliff de Gersigny’s “jaunty spirituality”.

Thinking of “jaunty spirituality” in relation to the Cliff de Gersigny I knew gave me a better understanding of the word, at least as Roman Catholics used it. It was also used in some Orthodox literature in English. I know of two different books called Orthodox Spirituality, one of them actually published by the Fellowship of SS Alban & Sergius, but neither of them dealt with the forbidden knowledge that Father Hugh Bates had so darkly hinted at. They just seemed to be dealing with how to live the Christian life. It then occurred to me that spiriuality was a rather poor attempt to translate the Russian word dushevnost, which might be better translated as “spiritual life” or “life in the Spirit”.

Either term seems better than the kind of moist spirituality people seem to talk about nowadays, which still gives me the heebie jeebies.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 September 2016 11:46 pm

    Golubov: “The parallel between ‘spirituality’ and grace understood as ‘created,’ an objective substance which is ‘conveyed’ by the sacraments, is too obvious to need documenting.”

    —Well, i wish he’d documented it anyway, because this is certainly not anything like we use the word in California— and we’re all about “spirituality”, in California!

    But around here, it just means your way of relating to spiritual matters— your spiritual convictions and the practices motivated by and motivating them— your “spiritual life” indeed, but perhaps in a slightly more abstract perspective than expressions like “spiritual practice” etc, which are more specific. So you could have a “Jesuit spirituality” or an “Eastern spirituality” or an “Orthodox spirituality”. But how that’s parallel to the idea of “created grace” completely escapes me!


  1. Appropriate and inappropriate cultural appropriation | Khanya

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