Orthodoxy is the Fruit of My Whole Life as a Christian and a Monk

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“Orthodoxy is the Fruit of My Whole Life as a Christian and a Monk”-

Father Gabriel Bunge
By Archpriest Pavel Velikanov
Jan 25, 2011, 10:00

Translated by Svetlana Tibbs

Edited by Jacob Aleksander Brooks and Isaac (Gerald) Herrin

A famous Swiss Catholic theologian, Hieromonk Gabriel Bunge, converted to Orthodoxy on August 27th 2010 in Moscow, on the Eve of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. It was Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk who received Fr. Gabriel into the Orthodox Church. We are glad to offer our readers translations of two interviews with Fr. Gabriel. The first interview “I came to the faith owing to my peers” was conducted by Archpriest Pavel Velikanov, the editor-in-chief of the scientific theological website “Bogoslos.ru” in 2008. At the time Fr. Gabriel was still a Catholic hieromonk. The second interview One Can’t Learn to Pray Sitting in a Warm Armchair Fr. Gabriel had right after he had converted to Orthodoxy. It was conducted by a Russian Orthodox Christian Journal for Doubting Thomases – Foma.

A short biographical note

Gabriel Bunge was born in 1940 in Cologne. His father was Lutheran and his mother was Catholic. At the age of 22, Fr. Gabriel joined the Order of Saint Benedict in France. In 1972 he was ordained to the Holy Priesthood. For many years, Fr. Gabriel devoted himself to studying works of Evagrius of Pontus. He has been living in the Skete of the Holy Cross in Swiss canton Tichino since 1980 following the ancient typicon of Saint Benedict. He is the author of the following books: “Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition,” “The Rublev Trinity: The Icon of the Trinity by the Monk-painter Andrei Rublev,” “Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread”, “Spiritual fatherhood,” etc.

En excerpt from the article “Back to Unity” by Hieromonk Gabriel Bunge

My discovery of Orthodoxy wasn’t a result of some kind of scientific study, but the fruit of my whole life as a Christian and a monk. This discovery of Orthodoxy, that had started 40 years ago and is in progress up till now, has formed into a specific meaning. It let me enter and penetrate into what we can call “a mystery of the Church.”

I remember how I came to this discovery. Long before university, when I was very young and was studying in the school, I started to read the Holy Fathers, mostly monks. I started with Apophthegmata (sayings of the Desert Fathers), St. John Chrysostom, and St. John Cassian who was a kind of a bridge between East and West in the 4th-5th centuries. Later I began to read “The Philokalia” in a brief edition in German.

Later I read “The Way of a Pilgrim”, that was translated into German in the 1920s. It was truly a breath-taking experience. As is well known, this book consists of several parts, but I started from the three stories and didn’t get to the theoretical part. And then without a spiritual guide or even a prayer-rope, I started to practice the Jesus prayer. I was 20. Like a Russian “pilgrim,” I started to learn this prayer “on the run”: on my way to the university through a park I constantly repeated it in my mind. And it has stayed with me for all my life, since then I have never stopped saying this prayer. It has entered into the rhythm of my existence and my breath. I knew nothing about Orthodoxy at that time.

At the time when I was studying in Cologne there were some Orthodox but I never met them. Then, spontaneously, I found the origins of Christian and monastic spiritual life. This discovery became very important for me when later I thought over all my experience and all my life. Thus, by the grace of God, I received the most important thing.

I came to the faith owing to my peers”

Fr. Pavel: Father Gabriel, please tell us how you came to the faith?

Fr. G.: I came to the faith owing to my peers, at the age of 17–18. The thing is that my family was a bit strange, mixed: my mother was Catholic and my father was Protestant. As a rule, it follows that you become, as they say, “neither fish nor fowl.” Quite early I discovered for myself works and lives of the Holy Fathers, the life of Saint Anthony the Great, sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Lausiac History, the short Philokalia (there were only brief excerpts on foreign languages). But just a little spark is enough to set a big fire: bring it close and the fire will flare up. Something similar happened to me. I wanted to follow those I had met in the books. Looking for what was the most genuine in our Catholic Church, I entered the Order of Saint Benedict.

But before that, I made a small trip to Greece. It happened in 1961, when I was still studying in Bonn. One day by chance, I got in touch with the Orthodox Church very closely. On the boat I met one of the Greek metropolitans who was coming back from Palestine together with clergymen. He was like one of the fathers I read about, very honourable and with a long beard. He saw me, a young man, and asked me to come and sit with him and showed me his books.

I stayed two months in Greece on Lesbos. There weren’t many tourists then and, therefore, we were lodged among local families. I lived in a family of a priest. And of course, I was going to church every Sunday. The family knew I was a Catholic, but because there wasn’t any Catholic church around, I was going to an Orthodox one. Everyone in the family was kind to me and treated me with much love. On the small entrance, they even brought me the Gospel to kiss as if I was an honourable guest.

Also I have to say that before that trip I was very prejudiced against Orthodox Church; I was inclined negatively to Orthodoxy.

Fr. P.: What was the reason for such a negative attitude?

Fr.G.: The teachers told me to be careful with this Orthodoxy. They said that the Orthodox are schismatics. So during my trip it was as if was wearing a pair of gloves so that I wouldn’t stain my Roman purity by contact with Orthodox.

And of course, I hadn’t any problems. Greeks were very friendly and kind. I was even allowed to enter the altar though it wasn’t right according to the canons. In a word, my prejudices diminished every day.

At the end I went to Athens for a week and lived there in the theological seminary together with other seminarians. During one conversation with them I had an experience that turned the scale. I said to them “Well, everything is fine in your Church, but I feel sorry that you broke away from us.” And they replied: “No, you are wrong. It was you who broke away from us.” I was astonished. In Germany, we meet only Protestants and we all know that they are schismatics which means that it was they who once broke away from the Catholic Church. But here this scheme didn’t work because the question was about the Church which has its origin from the Apostles. The Apostle Paul had walked on these lands before he came to Rome.

I was 21 at that time. I started to think everything over, and even now I haven’t stopped doing that. I had to realise that they were right on many issues even from the scientific point of view. There is nothing even to discuss as it is useless to defend something that can’t be defended in principle. The results of my reflections you can find in my book “Earthen Vessels” that has been translated into Russian. This book is about the practice of the Jesus Prayer according to the teachings of the Holy Fathers. And it is quite clear that the practice of the Jesus Prayer was the same both on the East and in the West.

Fr. P.: It would be interesting to find out what is the Jesus Prayer in the Western tradition? Quite often we can hear that the specific character of Eastern Christianity is in the inner work that is absent in the West. How truthful is this point of view?

Fr. G.: At first I would say that the Catholic Church is a huge organization that consists of billions of Catholics. Catholicism has different internal movements which can conflict with each other, even mutually exclude each other. Many note that, thanks to the discovery of Orthodoxy in the West, people are beginning to find renewed interest in their own spiritual origins. Often that sort of discovery takes place with the help of icons, songs, and books. There are many Russian Saints who are revered in the Catholic world: St. Silouan the Athonite, St. Seraphim of Sarov… We tonsure a lot of monks with the name Seraphim here. Seraphim of Sarov is even included in litanies for commemoration.

But there are very strange things as well. And here I am talking as a monk first of all.

The origin of western monasticism is from the East. It came to the West quite early: the life of St. Antony was written by St. Athanasius due to the request of Latin monks. If they hadn’t asked, his life wouldn’t have been written down. The original is in Greek, but the most ancient manuscripts are in Latin.

So, the East has been the guideline for monasticism for many centuries. But you always have to rediscover this guideline for yourself… Once you lose it, you have to focus on it again. We could see over the centuries how the West periodically rediscovers the East. For instance, there are treatises in France that could find their place in “The Philokalia.” There is an interesting article about it written by an Orthodox historian Jean-Paul Bess called “The footprints of hesychasm on the West.” An interesting character whom I have discovered for myself is the Abbot de Rancé (1626-1700), the founder of the monastery of La Trappe. He was a contemporary of St. Paisius Velichkovsky, but his school, the Trappists, do not exist anymore in the original form in comparison to St. Paisius Velichkovsky.

The lives of many monks for example, of Elder Joseph the Hesychast are very popular on the West and are translated into many languages. The book “The Way of the Pilgrim” was translated in the 20th century. This book inspired me. I was a student at that time and had never seen a prayer-rope. I read that you can even pray the Jesus prayer while walking. And I started to pray while walking. On the way to the university and back, I always said the Jesus Prayer and it entered my heart.

Now the Jesus prayer is very popular in the West. By the way (“smiling”), if you would like to please me, give me prayer-ropes as a present, short or long ones, doesn’t matter. Faithful who visit me and come for confession often ask for them.

I pray to God that we don’t forget again, and another hundred years passes, and we have to again discover Eastern spirituality. Today we have to get to the core of things: the Eastern and Western Churches have to come together. I speak freely about this. They don’t burn people at the stake anymore. We are not speaking about Ecumenism. That word has already become ambiguous. Right away we think of the Dalai Lama, etc. I am not even talking about unity of the Church, as “unity” is understood by each in his own way. That one and the same word can mean many things. Contemporary Catholics can consider “unity” in only one form, the one that they grew up with in the Catholic Church. Orthodox Christians don’t know that kind of institutional unity. Inside one local church? Yes. But not between local churches. And it is because of that, unfortunately, there is no mechanism for settling internal disputes. There is sobornost, of course, but that is another question.

Returning to the subject, I have to say that we always need to come back to the Fathers. The ancient “Ambrosian” liturgy contains a litany that lasted until the Second Vatican Council but then it was lost. It contained the following petition, “Let us pray for peace between Churches, for conversion of the faithless, and for peace among barbarians.”

What is this peace between Churches? “Churches” are in plural here, although the Creed mentions only One Church. But One Church exists only in a great number of churches. This litany is the program that has to be performed. We have to work on keeping our churches in peace.

Today we can see the signs showing that it is possible. In the West, the Orthodox Church is in a minority. It is not large; quite often a congregation is not even able to build its own church. However, there are no problems when the Catholic Church hands over its churches to Orthodox parishes. For example, the Cardinal of Milan handed over three big ancient churches. Our believers are very happy when this happens. People are friendly to the Orthodox faithful nearby. I think that never before did Western people have so much sympathy to Eastern Christians as now. The West only gains from that.

I know that this wouldn’t be possible in Russia. And there are some historical reasons that could explain that. Of course, there was a certain evolution regarding this issue, but your problems are not my work… For me personally the ideal would be peace between the Churches, a lessening of existing prejudices to the minimum of most important issues so that with mutual respect we can decide these questions in the future.

Fr. P.: The next question would be about those examples that are often taken by the Orthodox as indicators of false orientation of Catholic mysticism. If for the East the crystal purity of the soul is the main condition for inner work in order that the Divine Light would act in it, then the examples of such ascetics as Teresa of Ávila show something very opposite: the aim of podvig is to attain to ecstasy where a person experiences God. Could you please comment on this?

Fr. G.: There are two types of mysticism in the Catholic Church: restrained (inner work) and ecstatic. Both schools are rooted in the monastic tradition. The first school that originated in Sts. Macarius, Anthony, and Evagrius is the inner mysticism, “inner work.” But St. Macarius’ Homilies contain the other school too, more affective mysticism. Therefore he is traditionally considered to belong to the softened or semi- Messalianism, that is a kind of ecstatic monasticism. I think, that here we could see just two different spiritual temperaments that confront one another. That’s why it’s difficult to find a common language. The follower of the inner work could say to his opponent, “You are too sensual,” and the latter could reply, “You are too reasonable. You don’t have any inner experience.” And both these opinions would be wrong.

However, I have to admit that in the Middle Ages there were purely women’s mystical movements on the West that seem strange to me and are beyond my comprehension. I belong to a different school. I don’t have anything that could help me to understand or feel deeply that affective, ecstatic mysticism. The main rule of any spiritual life for me is restriction and lack of exaltation because exaltation itself is a ground for demonic prelest. This experience we can find today in charismatics. To avoid mistakes that Evagrius calls imitation of spiritual and mystic states, we have to be very careful, wise, and to possess simplicity and purity. Today it is called a self-suggested condition, that is, an imaginative mystic (spiritual) condition.

St. Theophan the Recluse, who is very popular in the West, by the way, understood the matter of western mystics very subtly. Once he exclaimed: “Oh, these Western people, they cannot distinguish between psychic and spiritual!” And really, when I talk to people who come for confession, I see how often they mix these things. One has to teach and help people to see the difference between their feelings and true spirituality from God. People quite often feel something deep inside and think “Here it is, here is that true spirituality.”

Fr. P. You have just touched upon a very important issue. Both Ignatius of Loyola in his book “The Spiritual Exercises” and Thomas à Kempis in his book “The Imitation of Christ” underline the developing of the imagination as most important. Could one say that even if it is just one of the several schools in the Catholic Church, it is, however, quite weighty and officially recognized by the Catholic Church?

Fr. G. No, it is not dominating, but is still wide-spread among the Jesuits. They practice these methods of imitation of Christ even nowadays.

By the way, the book “The Imitation of Christ” was very popular in Russia at a certain time. Now the work about the influence of this book on Russia and its history is being prepared for publication. I asked the author of this book if there is any impact of popularity of this book on the image of Christ on iconography. I asked this question because it appeared that at certain time Christ on Russian icons got a very human look that you cannot find in Byzantine icons, a kind of soft and tender sense. Since what time did it happen? This would be a question to the historians of art.

Fr. P:. What works of St. Theophan the Recluse are most popular in the West?

Fr. G. There are some brochures and extracts from his works. Hegumen Chariton of Valaam wrote a book between two world wars called “The Art of Prayer.” It is an anthology about prayer based on his knowledge and experience. Part of this book that contains extractions from teachings of St. Theophan the Recluse is very popular.

Fr. P.: Don’t you think that the main aim of modern clergy and monasticism is to adapt the tradition of the Holy Fathers for contemporary people? This was the same aim as that for St. Theophan the Recluse

Fr. G. Well, I believe that the latest teachings of the Holy Fathers should be learned together with the teachings of the early Fathers. Every later Father has to be checked with earlier texts. This is my method.

When a beginner comes to me, he receives from me basic texts, that are sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Philokalia etc. After having read those texts he can read anything he wants. First the taste should be cultivated. When the taste is refined, one would be able to tell if the work is true or not.

If you start your reading with the teachings of women mysticism of the 13th century you will spoil your spiritual taste forever. But if you have a healthy taste, you can also read it and be able to find something useful for yourself.

Fr. P.: I have one more question about asceticism. One can say that monasticism is the elite, forefront of the Church, even though the largest part of the faithful is laity. Obviously, Christian ethics are unthinkable without asceticism. What, then, could be support for Christians in the world? When monastic life imprints on family life, the latter gets ruined together with Christianity. That’s why Christianity is today being accused of “antihumanity.” Everyone should become a monk; life in the world is accepted but not welcomed. Such an approach becomes a barrier for those people who long for Christianity: they want to enjoy life, which doesn’t mean to sin but to live fully. They could be in the Church but alas often avoid it.

Fr. G. Firstly, there is no separate spirituality for monks, laymen, and priests. Christian spirituality is one for everyone. If you look from the outside Christianity you could really say that monasticism is the elite of the Church. But every single monk shouldn’t think that way, shouldn’t consider himself to be in the elite. There is a well-known saying of a Desert Father who said that he lives in the desert because he is not good enough to live in the world. The best virtue for both a monk and a layman is the humility.

I think that deep love and compassion for everyone are the distinctive features of Orthodox Elders. You have many of them in Russia and I knew one from Romania personally.

One day I was traveling to Athos on the boat together with many different people: businessmen, bankers, etc. They were going to their spiritual fathers. They said, “Our spiritual fathers on Athos are very strict. But they know us very well and know what treatment we need for our diseases.” There were many young people among them, many family men. They could visit any other spiritual father in the world who could say: “All this doesn’t matter much.” But these people were going to a strict ascetic, who would cry with them over their sins and give them a treatment which they could bear and which would heal them. He would tell one person one thing, another person something else.

Returning to your question, I have to say that I come across this problem almost every day. I left the world 28 years ago to become an eremite. I am sorry but I’ll talk a little about myself. I didn’t plan to do scientific or pastoral work. I translated the works which seem important for me. I wanted to make them accessible for others. But how can the contemporary man of the 20th century understand a text from the 4th century? I had to add a little bit of water to this “good wine” to make it understandable for people. And lately, people started asking for my advice. Gradually I became a spiritual father for many of them. Most of them, around 90%, are family men. There are not many women as the monastery is closed for them and not many priests.

What can I do to help to my brothers who are businessmen, professionals in the world? How can I help them to live a true Christian life while everything around opposes it?

First of all, I give them a prayer rule adapted to their personal life, depending on how old they are and how many children they have. I think that there is only one way to pray. There is no such a thing like a special monastic prayer. Monks just have more time for it. There is the Jesus prayer and the other prayers too. And every morning, every evening these people are standing in front of the icons and praying. Within their “normal” life they are seeking for the same as we monks do. I am astonished how this “monastic discipline” changes people’s lives. I am not trying to impose the real monastic discipline on them. Some charismatic schools try to do that, but such attempts always end in failure.

Fr. P.: We have several not very profound but very important questions. In your opinion, what are the most important discoveries in western theology that happened recently?

Fr. G. I do not follow it any more; I am not even able to as I don’t subscribe to magazines. Sometimes I read only some interesting works. As for Church science, I don’t know it.

Fr. P:. What was the most important discovery for you personally in the teachings of the Holy Fathers?

Fr. G.: While reading Isaac of Nineveh (of Syria), I understood that the Fathers were inspired by works of Evagrius of Pontus. I decided to find out more about him, I learned the Syrian language and found that there are a lot of prejudices relating to him. The fact is that in the Fifth Ecumenical Council he wasn’t personally condemned, but only in connection with Origenists. Since, it was decided that he was an Origenist, impossible things were imputed to him.

When I touch upon this subject with somebody, I say: “Evagrius is accused of disagreement with almost every statement of Orthodox Christology. Good, but don’t you consider it strange that St. Basil the Great didn’t notice anything like this in him? And Gregory the Theologian hadn’t noticed either. More over, Theophilus of Alexandria wanted to make him a bishop (he got away from it). Even anti-Origenists (Epiphanius of Cyprus, Hieronymus) never accused Evagrius of anything, although they knew him personally. Are we making a mistake somewhere?”

So I started seriously studying Evagrius. The eighth letter of St. Basil the Great which is traditionally ascribed to St. Basil, was undoubtedly written by Evagrius. This letter contains all of Evagrius’ teaching. It means that Evagrius can be always read in an Orthodox way. But he can also be read in an unorthodox way. The issue is in the method. I could also mention “On Prayer,” known as a work of Nilus of Ancyra. The names of Orthodox Holy Fathers were put on Evagrius’ works in order to save them and in order to read them in an Orthodox way. It’s really possible to read his works from the Orthodox perspective. I appraise him from this point of view.

Fr. P. Do you use the Internet?

Fr. G. No. There is a forest all around…

Fr. P. It means that you have completely kept aloof from the world.

Fr. G. I have only a telephone. And there is a typewriter as a computer.

Fr. P. Unfortunately, today there are many myths and legends about western mysticism. It is very desirable to achieve some scientific accuracy in this question. Your activity as a scientist, a monk, a theologian is very interesting for us. Therefore, we would like to stay in touch with you, even in writing. You have secluded yourself from the world, but we will not leave you alone!

Fr. G.: How can I reject to stay in touch with you? I devoted one of my best books to the Lavra’s Brotherhood.

Translation from French into Russian by Hieromonk Savva (Tutunov) and Priest Dmitriy Agueev.