Editor's note: below is an excerpt from the introduction by Fr. Seraphim (Rose) to the Vita Patrum. Although, sadly, the work is currently out of print, it is nonetheless of monumental value to Christians in the West. Fr. Seraphim writes with both spiritual perception and true scholarly concern. Currently there is a ruthless attack on Western culture, which proceeds from the "enlightened" ones of our times. Sadly they seek to systematically destroy the very history and legacy which profoundly formed what we know as the "West". (A process greatly accelerated by the revolutions of the 17 and 18 hundreds.) Thus for Orthodox Christians of today, and moreover those of us living in the "West", it is good to note that our culture and heritage is Christian, and the current aggressive obliteration of the Christian fabric of the West (what is left of it) is indeed a type of self hatred. This hatred is making itself more and more evident with every passing day. Thus in a very real sense those who are striving to continue in and hold fast to the Christian way are indeed those who are true patriots of the West, that is, they are the ones who realize the beauty of culture and heritage, which is founded on Orthodox Christianity. The current anti-culture of the day is a self loathing and destructive force, which once it cannibalizes itself will turn to annihilate anything of beauty that remains in the world, leaving only the stark bones of naturalistic dialectic materialism to adorn the barren wasteland of "progress".
So that we do not become skeletons on this marionette stage, we need to understand the deeply rich and Christian roots of the West, roots that are kept alive in the Orthodox Church. Thus in truly living Orthodox Christianity we are not living something simply "Eastern" but also something profoundly "Western", or better yet we are essentially Catholic, i.e. complete and universal. Thus if we would save the last shreds of our Western culture from the self-haters of the day, we must repent and live the Christian life of our ancestors. In this lies the reality of the West. The true culture and heritage of the West is alive and well in the Orthodox Church. If it looks funny, or strikes us as strange, it may just be that we have unwittingly traveled too far down the streams of amoralistic anti-western progress. The work by Fr. Seraphim reveals the heart of the "West", the only one that will bring it life again.
The reader may also see "Early Christianity in the West" on this blog for further reading on the subject.
To sum up this brief description of 6th century Christian Gaul, we may say that here we find already the historical Orthodox world which is familiar even today to any Orthodox Christian who is at home in true (not modernized or renovated Orthodoxy) … In modern times, 6th-century Gaul may most accurately be likened to 19th-century Russia. Both societies were entirely permeated with Orthodox Christianity; in them the Orthodox standard was always the governing principle of life (however short of it the practice might fall), and the central fact in the life of the people was reverence for Christ, the holy things of the Church, and sanctity … Does the Christian world of St. Gregory of Tours have any spiritual significance for us today, or is it of no more than antiquarian interest for us, the “out-of-date” Orthodox Christians of the 20th century?
Much has been written in modern times of the “fossilized” Orthodox Church and its followers who, when they are true to themselves and their priceless heritage, simply do not “fit in” with anyone else in the contemporary world, whether heterodox Christians, pagans, or unbelievers. If only we could understand it, there is a message in this for us, concerning our position among others in the world and our preservation of the Orthodox Faith.
Perhaps no one has better expressed the modern world's bewilderment over genuine Orthodoxy Christianity than the renowned scholar of St. Gregory of Tours and the Gaul of his times. In his book, Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age (London, 1926), Sir Samuel Dill has written: “The dim religious life of the Middle Ages is severed from the modern mind by so wide a gulf, by such a revolution of beliefs that the most cultivated sympathy can only hope to revive it in faint imagination. Its hard, firm, realistic faith in the wonders and terrors of an unseen world seems to evade the utmost effort to make it real to us” (p. 324). “Gregory's legends reveal a world of imagination and fervent belief which no modern man can ever fully enter into, even with the most insinuating power of imaginative sympathy. It is intensely interesting, even fascinating. But the interest is that of the remote observer, studying with cold scrutiny a puzzling phase in the development of the human spirit. Between us and the Middle Ages there is a gulf which the most supple and agile imagination can hardly hope to pass. He who has pondered most deeply over the popular faith of that time will feel most deeply how impossible it it to pierce its secret” (p. 397).
And yet, for us who strive to be conscious Orthodox Christians in the 20th century it is precisely the spiritual world of St. Gregory of Tours that is of profound relevance and significance. The material side is familiar to us, but that is only an expression of something much deeper. It is surely providential for us that the material side of the Orthodox Culture of Gaul has been almost entirely destroyed, and we cannot view it directly even in a museum of dead antiquities; for that leaves the spiritual message of his epoch even freer to speak to us . The Orthodox Christian of today is overwhelmed to open St. Gregory's “Book of Miracles” and find there just what his soul is craving in this soulless mechanistic modern world; he finds that very Christian path of salvation which he knows in the Orthodox services, the Lives of the Saints, the Patristic writings, but which is so absent today, even among the best modern “Christians,” that one begins to wonder whether one is not really insane, or some literal fossil of history, for continuing to believe and feel as the Church has always believed and felt. It is one thing to recognize the intellectual truth of Orthodox Christianity; but how is one to live it when it is so out of harmony with the times? And then one reads St. Gregory and finds that all of this Orthodox truth is also profoundly normal, that whole societies were once based on it, that it is unbelief and “renovated” Christianity which are profoundly abnormal and not Orthodox Christianity, that this is the heritage and birthright of the West itself which it deserted so long ago when it separated from the one and only Church of Christ, thereby losing the key to the “secret” which so baffles the modern scholar – the “secret” of true Christianity, which must be approached with a fervent, believing heart, and not with the cold aloofness of modern unbelief which is not natural to man bu is an anomaly of history.
But let us just briefly state why the Orthodox Christian feels so much at home in the spiritual world of St. Gregory of Tours.
St. Gregory is a historian; but this does not mean a mere chronicler of bare facts, or the mythical “objective observer” of son much of modern scholarship who looks at things with the “cold scrutiny” of the “remote observer.” He had a point of view; he was always seeking a pattern in history; he had constantly before him what the modern scientist would call a “model” into which he fitted the historical facts which he collected. In actual fact, all scientists and scholars act in this way, and any one who denies it only deceives himself and admits in effect that his “model” of reality, his basis for interpreting facts, is unconscious and therefore is much more capable of distorting reality than is the “model” of a scholar who knows what his own basic beliefs and presuppositions are. The “objective observer,” most often in our times, is someone whose basic view of reality if modern unbelief and skepticism, who is willing to ascribe the lowest possible motives to historical personages, who is inclined to dismiss all “supernatural” events as belonging to the convenient categories of “superstition” or “self-deception” or as to be understood within the concepts of modern psychology.
The “model” by which St. Gregory interprets reality is Orthodox Christianity, and he not only subscribed to it in his mind, but is fervently committed to it with his whole heart. Thus, he begins this great historical work, The History of the Franks, with nothing less than his own confession of faith: “Proposing as I do to describe the wars waged by kings against hostile peoples, by martyrs against heathen and by the Church against heretics, I wish first of all to explain my own faith, so that whoever reads me may not doubt that I am a Catholic.” (“Catholic,” of course, in 6th-century texts, means the same thing that we now mean by the word “Orthodox.”) There follows the Nicene Creed, paraphrased and with certain Orthodox interpretations added.
Thus in St. Gregory we may see the wholeness of view which has been lost by almost all of modern scholarship – another one of those basic differences between East and West that began only with the Schism of Rome. In this, St. Gregory is fully in the Orthodox spirit. In this approach there is a great advantage solely from the point of view of historical fact – for we have before us not only the “bare facts” he chronicles, but we understand as well the context in which he interprets them. But more important that this – particularly when it comes to chronicling supernatural events or the virtues of the saints – we have the inestimable advantage of a trained observer on the spot, so to speak – someone who interprets spiritual events (almost all of which he knew either from personal experience or from the testimony of witnesses he regarded as reliable) on the basis of the Church's tradition and his own rich Christian experience. We do not need to guess as to the meaning of some spiritually-significant event when we have such a reliable contemporary interpreter of it, and especially when his interpretations are so much in accord with what we find in the basic source books of the Orthodox East. We may place all the more trust in St. Gregory's interpretations when we know that he himself was granted spiritual visions (as described in his life) and was frank in admitting that he did not see the spiritual visions of others (HF V, 50).
Sir Samuel Dill notes that access is denied him, as a modern man, to the world of St. Gregory's “legends.” What are we, 20th-century Orthodox Christians to think of these “legends”? Prof. Dalton notes, regarding the very book of St. Gregory which we are presenting here, that “his Lives of the Fathers have something of the childlike simplicity characterizing the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great” (vol.1, p. 21). We have already discussed, in the “Prologue” to this book, the value of this “childlikeness” for Orthodox Christians today, as well as the high standards of truthfulness of such Orthodox writers as St. Gregory the Great (as contrast with the frequent fables of the medieval West). The extraordinary spiritual manifestations described by St. Gregory of Tours are familiar to any Orthodox Christian who is well grounded in the ABC's of spiritual experience and in the basic Orthodox source-books; they sound like “legends” only to those whose grounding is in the materialism and unbelief of modern times. Somewhat ironically, these “legends” have now become a little more accessible to a new generation that had become interested in psychic and occult phenomena as well as actual sorcery and witch craft; but for them the whole tone of St. Gregory's writings will remain foreign unless they obtain the key to its “secret”: true Orthodox Christianity. St. Gregory's “wonders and terrors of an unseen world” open up for us another reality entirely from that of modern unbelief and occultism alike: the reality of spiritual life, which is indeed more unseen than seen, which does indeed account for many extraordinary phenomena usually misunderstood by modern scholarship, and which begins now and continues into eternity.
There is, finally, another aspect of St. Gregory's writings which modern historians find generally not so baffling as disdainfully amusing, but to which, again, we Orthodox Christians have the key which they lack. This aspect is that of the “coincidences,” omens, and the like, which St. Gregory finds significant but which modern historians find totally irrelevant to the chronicling of historical events. Some of these phenomena are manifestations of spiritual visions, such as the baked sword which St. Salvius (and no one eles) saw hanging over the house of King Chilperic, portending the death of the king' sons (HF V, 50). But other of the manifestations are simply dreams or natural phenomena of an extraordinary kind, which either fill St. Gregory with foreboding (Hf VIII, 17) or of which he says in all simplicity, “I have no idea what all this meant” (HF V, 23). The modern historian is only amused at the idea of finding “meaning” behind earthquakes or strange signs in the sky; but St. Gregory, as a Christian historian, is aware that God's Providence is ate work everywhere in the universe and can be understood even in small or seemingly random details by those who are spiritually sensitive; he sees that the deepest causes of historical events are by no means always the obvious ones. Concerning this theological point we may cite the words of a contemporary of St. Gregory in the East, Abba Dorotheus, to whom the writings of St. Gregory would have been not in the least strange. “It is good, brethren, to place your hope for every deed upon God and to say: Nothing happens without the will of God; but of course God knew that this was good and useful and profitable, and therefore he did this, even though this matter also had some outward cause. For example, I could say that inasmuch as I ate food with the pilgrims and forced myself a little in order to be host to them, therefore my stomach was weighed down and there was a numbness caused in my feet and from this I became ill. I could also cite various causes (for one who seeks them, there is no lack of them); but the most sure and profitable thing is to say: In truth God knew that this would be more profitable for my soul, and therefore it happened in this way.” (St. Abba Dorotheus, Spiritual Instructions, Instruction 12.)
St. Gregory, like St. Abba Dorotheus, was always seeking first of all the primary or inward cause of events, which concern the will of God and man's salvation. That is why his history of the Franks, as well as of individual saints, are of much greater value than the “objective” (that is purely outward) researches of modern scholars into the same subjects. This is not to say that some of his historical facts might not be subject to correction, but only that his spiritual interpretation of events is basically the correct, the Christian one.