A Theologian of God's Beauty, A Life of Service

[Spring/Summer, 2002]

by Fr. Michael Plekon

   Unswervingly faithful to the Church's Tradition, and genuinely out of love for the truth there preserved, Paul Evdokimov sought to listen to the anxiety and rage of the modern challenge to God, the revolt so characteristic of the entire 20th century. It was his century, and in every way imaginable, he was a person of it, living a full life as a father, spouse then widower and remarried spouse again, a counselor of distressed folk in his position as administrator of hostels for youth and refugees, and in the last two decades of his life, a theologian-teacher and writer. Though he died in 1970, Evdokimov had lived long enough to know modern revolutionary consciousness from the Bolsheviks his family fled, leaving St. Petersburg in the 1920s, to the late 1960s counter-cultural activity, even the public turmoil in Paris in 1968. It seems quite a paradox that one described even by his family and close friends as an elegant Old World patrician, personally reserved and a bit remote, could nonetheless be in speech and writing a passionate and compassionate partisan of modernity, able to hear and converse with Third World immigrants, alienated young people, his own Russian Diaspora collection of characters, intellectuals and clergy of the most ecumenical inclusivity. Cosmopolitan, urbane, brilliant, he was most at home in the liturgy, surrounded by the company of the saints of the icons, wrapped by the swirl of the incense and liturgical chant, transported to heaven though still firmly planted on earth, in our time.

   There is much that could be termed unusual, untypical and even contradictory about Evdokimov and his work as a theologian. Like many others who formed the French Diaspora, he was rooted in the literature and life, the Church and piety of the pre-Revolutionary Russia, yet unlike some, his reverence for Russia never became obsession. Evdokimov's friend, the theologian Olivier Clément, identifies the roots of his pervasive, self-defining faith in the completely natural lived experience of the Church, the liturgy, the feasts and icons, even the centers of monastic life provided by Evdokimov's mother within the regular rhythm of their family's life. Evdokimov's father, a military officer who had the reputation for fairness and for peace-making in a troubled time, was assassinated by one of his own men. Clément insightfully traces this traumatic event later in Paul Evdokimov's theme of the sacrificial love of God the Father. Seeing the luminous dead face of his own father, placid in a death he knew he risked by remaining with his men, Paul Evdokimov would later speak of the smile of the One who allows Himself to be crushed in death for the life of many, for the life of the world.

   Evdokimov lived in a home in which the icons and daily prayer were as expected and essential as eating and speaking. Later, he himself would be described as one for whom faith was more natural than breathing. His close friend, the equally untypical "monk of the Eastern Church," Fr. Lev Gillet observed in the homily at Paul Evdokimov's funeral liturgy, that he was more at home in the "kingdom of the invisible ones, of divine realities" than in that of earthly contacts and business. Yet Evdokimov was anything but stereotypically "churchy" or inept in his daily existence, as the shape of his life strongly attests. Although enrolled in military school at first, his own leanings were toward theological formation, first in Kiev, then later in France, the ultimate home of exile. As fellow refugees, princes who drove taxis, scientists who waited tables and were kitchen help, intellectuals who worked in factories or on the railway, so did Evdokimov experience quite ordinary proletarian existence in supporting himself in the Russian Paris of the 1920 and 30s. He worked as a chef's assistant, in the Citroen factory, cleaning railway cars, among other jobs. Meantime, he participated in the formation of the Russian Christian Student Movement, did his undergraduate degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne, and on scholarship, received his theological training at the recently formed Institut-Saint Serge. There he was most particularly shaped by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, the brilliant and controversial theologian much in the line of Khomiakov and the philosopher Nicholas Berdiaev. Evdokimov married Natasha Brunel and they had a daughter and son, Nina and Michel, now a professor of comparative literature, scholar and Orthodox priest. In 1942 he completed a doctorate in philosophy and literature at the university at Aix-en-Provence, but he was neither to be ordained to the priesthood nor would he engage in academic activity fully until the 1950s.

   During the war, Evdokimov worked with the Resistance and near its end began a long period of service work in hostels for the displaced, for troubled and homeless and unemployed people, later for Third World refugees and students. This service, which Evdokimov himself characterized as more than mere social work, actually a form of the priesthood of the baptized, a lay pastoral ministry to be sure, was done in residences run under the auspices of a Protestant organization, CIMADE (Comité inter-Mouvements pour l'accueil des évacués). In the hostels at Bièvres, Sèvres and Massy, Evdokimov was not only the practical administrator but clearly a spiritual father; listener and counselor, parent and friend to those in the household for which he cared. It was as natural for him to mediate disputes, listen long into the night to stories of tragedy, as to lead evening prayers for a very mixed, ecumenical community. The reminiscences of Evdokimov by several who lived in these hostels as well as by other family members and friends reveal the character of a teacher without classroom, of a monastic elder who was married, of a true pastor who was a lay person, of an authentic theologian most practically occupied with everyday life.

   After Natasha Evdokimov's death in 1945, there was remarriage to Tomoko Sakai, and finally in the mid-1950s, Evdokimov was able to devote himself more fully to writing and eventually teaching, first at the Institut Saint-Serge, and later at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey and at the Institut Supérieur d'Etude Œcuméniques of the Faculty of Catholic Theology in Paris. He was appointed official observer at the third session of Vatican Council II in 1963 and exerted significant influence on the Council's schema 13 on the Church and the world, Gaudium et spes. Although he had completed for his thesis and published Dostoïevsky et le Problème du Mal [Dostoevsky and The Problem of Evil] in 1942 and Le Mariage, Sacrement de l'Amour [Marriage, The Sacrament of Love]in 1944, it was not until the later 1950s that his writing, both journal essays and monographs began to flourish. A formidable series of publications proceeded.

At the Heart of Theology: The Lover of Man

Central to all that he lifted up in his theological writing, though, is the identity of God and His orientation toward us, precisely where we began--the God who is absurd in giving of Himself, foolish in emptying Himself, limitless in loving and forgiving us. God makes Himself small and defenseless, "the Lamb immolated from before the foundation of the world," suffering for us in his weakness. In both the icon and the liturgical iconography of Holy Saturday and the Paschal Vigil, Christ descends into hell, searches for Adam and Eve and all their children, seeking us to save us. At the heart of the Church and the Gospel, the cause of paschal joy, is the suffering, risen Lover of humankind. The sources for this startling imagery of the divine philanthropy are scattered throughout the Church's Tradition and Evdokimov's writings, but are nevertheless named and quoted. In the beautiful essay, "L'eschatologie," (La nouveauté, pp. 135-167) Evdokimov leads through the thicket of questions constantly plaguing believers: salvation as healing, predestination, death, purgatory, hell, the end of the world and Parousia, judgment, resurrection, the eternity of hell--all the questions which have given rise (and still do) to great personal anxiety and the most preposterous of mechanistic-theological answers. Along the way, a veritable procession of teachers and saints are cited, the Apostle Paul, Ignatius of Antioch, Augustine, the two Gregorys- of Nyssa and the Theologian, Isaac the Syrian, the two Cyrils, Maximus the Confessor, Antony the Great, Macarius, to name only a few. The train winds much further down, in Evdokimov's Le Christ dans la pensée Russe [Christ in Russian Thought] to include the great 19th century figures Khomiakov, Philaret of Moscow and his protégé, the enigmatic, controversial Alexander Bukharev, and then to Soloviev, and Evdokimov's own teachers, Nicholas Berdiaev and, in particular and at great depth, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov. Evdokimov draws from the Gospels, especially St. John, from St. Paul's own preaching and from the forceful confessions of these teachers of the Church an impassioned vision of the unfathomable depth of God's love, the "abyss of the Father," revealed in the Son sacrificed. In his last lecture, given just days before his death on 16 September 1970, Evdokimov even points to that mystery within the Church's Tradition, that "mysterious icon" of the loving, suffering Father's face in that of the Virgin Mary, who is the Mother of God.

   In all the kenotic imagery Paul Evdokimov employs, both from the Fathers and on his own, there is at first the shock of such to our habituated notions of the omniscience and omnipotence of God, perhaps even scandal to our measuring of his justice according to our own standards. Yet what Evdokimov reintroduces, echoing and further developing both Berdiaev and Bulgakov's bold intuitions, is the inversion so characteristic of the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New. God is constantly other than we make Him out to be. He consistently surprises us. He even frightens and angers us by the depth of his compassion, the freedom of His forgiveness, the generosity of his plans. God must be taken at His word, when the human creation is described as "in His image and likeness." The liberty God gives to human beings is audacious. That God wants to be loved by His creatures, that He so lowers Himself to become one with them, one of them, even crucified by them, has always resounded dangerously in religious ears. The prophet Jonah is hardly the only one to rebel against such divine freedom and largess. He is joined by apostles, and later, by theologians, clergy and laity. The Church's history is littered with conflicts precisely over the outrageous compassion of God in the Incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The rejected, abused Bridegroom of Good Friday is the culmination of all the nuptial imagery of the Old Covenant, the passion of the Bridegroom for His Bride despite her infidelity. How many of us still recoil from the Father's unreasonable forgiveness to the prodigal son. How natural it is, like the other, "good son" it is to despise the feast celebrated for the returned runaway, the reconciliation and resolution of all in the great wedding banquet of the Lamb.

   What Evdokimov expounds about the self-emptying of God, His alienation, His stooping to be powerless over against His creatures and to suffer rejection, ridicule, torture even death from them is probably the ultimate disturbance of many he causes in his theology. It is important to realize that those from whom he absorbed this vision of God's philanthropy, figures such as Bukharev, Soloviev, Frank, Florensky, and especially his own mentors, Berdiaev and Bulgakov, were perceived as threatening the theological order with a perspective much too free, beyond what the Tradition of the Church was thought to bear. In varying degrees, all were criticized and sanctioned. Yet such relentless peering into the divine philanthropy is for Evdokimov, as for the others before him, only a return to the view of both biblical and patristic sources themselves. Even the liturgy abounds with the pathos of God so forcefully expressed in the letter to the Philippians well-known hymn of kenosis, cited at the beginning. The often-quoted Good Friday sermon of Philaret of Moscow captures the Trinitarian suffering and compassion: "The Father is crucifying Love, the Son is Love crucified, the Holy Spirit is the invincible power of the Cross." In Johannine view, the Light shines in the darkness, even that of hell, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Even Judas carries a morsel, the Bread of life Himself, with him, out into the darkness of his treason, so the Holy Week liturgical texts and the Fathers claim. "God can do everything, except constrain us to love Him," so Evdokimov reverberates the consensus of the Fathers on the limitlessness of God's philanthropy, a certainty he shared with his friend, Fr. Lev Gillet.

   All this contemplation and praise of the boundless mercy of God was hardly academic abstraction or theoretical performance for Paul Evdokimov. In the essay where we began, the context is sketched in stark realism, just as in many other places in his writings, such as the beginning of Les âges de la vie spirituelle [Ages of the Spiritual Life] and the marvelous "Message aux Églises du Christ [Message to the Churches of Christ]," from 1950. We should recognize it well. The setting is everyday life in our late 20th century culture. He names the films in our cinemas (Bergman and Antonioni), the volumes on the shelves of our bookstores (Freud, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Sagan, Malraux, Simone Weil, quite appropriately current for Paris in the 1960) or read in our courses at university. (Tillich, Bultmann, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Kant, Feuerbach, Nietzsch and as host of classical others) Evdokimov does not avoid the atrocities and tragedies in the newspapers, on the TV, even outside our windows, in the streets. It is a world remarkably enlarged by technology, unavoidable, intrusive, overwhelming with its data and stimuli, full of opportunities and promise, still chained about with many fears: of nuclear destruction, then in the 1950s and 60s, but still of other forms of ethnic and religiously rooted violence, of unemployment, aging, of sickness, especially cancer, of death.

God's "Yes" and Ours

   Clearly, much of what has passed for theology no longer can adequately explain or defend against such fears. With his teacher Fr. Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov recognizes that such a world has no use or respect for a "terrorist" theology and opposes such. If the questions and challenges, even the opposition of our time to God is met only with a coercive theology, one which seeks to control by fear, condemnation or a divine absolutism, God's freedom and that of His beloved creation, humankind, will have been compromised, denied. Rather than the distant accountant, the impassible and infinite prime cause, the vengeful judge, the Bible presents God as the One who wants to pitch His tent in the midst of our villages, the Lover who incessantly knocks at the doors of our hearts, speaking even in silence, inviting us to His table. We can say "no," Evdokimov reminds us, pushing the philanthropy of God to the extreme, but there is only "yes" in God. That "yes" awaits the "yes" of others, as that of the patriarchs and prophets, the "yes" of Mary, John the Baptist, apostles, martyrs, teachers and many other holy ones before.

   Here we see the ecclesial substances and consequences of God's foolish love. His "yes" evokes a "yes" from each of us, which folds us into the communion of those who have done the same. At the head of this community is the one whose own fiat helped bring God to human birth, Mary, whose great "yes" forever makes her the image of God's love embodied and the love of God enacted. It would not be inaccurate to say that the "foolishly" loving God Evdokimov presents is much more like what we want to be, more like what we were made to be, than the divine distortions we are likely to create and want to rule over us. With his teachers before him, Paul Evdokimov would rather risk proclaiming the abundance of God's compassion than enclose Him within the all too narrow confines both theology and ecclesiastical maneuvering produce. It is not so much to satisfy contemporary skepticism, or to interest the indifferent, or even to appease the outraged that Evdokimov points to a powerless, suffering God. Rather, it is to affirm the truth about God. Only such a God would truly love us and be worthy of our love.

   Christians of the West and the East have a great treasure awaiting them in a re-discovery of Paul Evdokimov's work and life. He opens up the beauty of the icons and the liturgy. He sketches out how the life of prayer lived out in the Church of the past can be lived by people like ourselves today. He fosters a very important meeting of Tradition with our thinking and ways of living in the last years of this century. He does not allow us to forget that the life of prayer, our "liturgical being" is valid only when continued in the liturgy of lovingkindness and service to the neighbor. And at the heart of this entire vision lies Paul Evdokimov's proclamation of the "abyss" of divine compassion, the God's whose love for us is limitless and all-powerful precisely in suffering and weakness.

[This article originally appeared in a longer version with a different title, "The God Whose Power is Weakness, Whose Love is Foolish: Divine Philanthropy in the Theology of Paul Evdokimov," Sourozh, 60, 1995, 15-26)

Fr. Michael's book, Living Icons, which includes a  portrait of Paul Evdokimov and other Orthodox priests, theologians, writers, and caregivers to the homeless and poor of the 20th century is available from the University of Notre Dame Press and from St. Vladimir's Seminary Bookstore (800) 204-BOOK.


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