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123. Palm Sunday, [April 9/22], 1973

Dear Father Neketas,

My dear, my dear, what to say now?! In the same mail with your latest letter came a letter from Alexey about the “news” which he is sure will be greeted by us with “sighs and sadness” — that he decided to send out the “Shroud” article over our objections, and how much he regrets it now! We haven’t received the printed version yet, so have no idea what he said in his preface, which we assured him could not make up for the blatant Latinisms in the text. (By the way, he didn’t submit this preface to us for criticism, if indeed he wrote one.)

Well, is this supposed to one of those “mistakes” which we just wrote you we weren’t afraid of his making?! I hope you don’t think this is one of the articles we “approved”!)

However, let us shock you again by saying that we aren’t afraid of an article on the Shroud itself; but such an article isn’t the one! It doubtless will do exactly what we told Alexey: (1) Cause a great furor; (2) do so justly because an article written for Latins is given as Orthodox (and the text speaks more strongly than anything he could have said in his preface), and therefore the true case for the Shroud (if there is one — see below) will be rejected outright by many because of the papist trappings; and (3) in general the article “pollutes” the spiritual atmosphere with papist attitudes and outright errors, from which the poor Orthodox people have already suffered so much. Not to mention (4) what will happen to Nikodemos as an Orthodox voice after this?

But what about the Shroud itself. Until very recently we have never been the slightest bit interested in it and could not even bring ourselves to read the Jordanville pamphlet on it or anything else pro or contra. Finally, however, we saw that in view of all the controversy (our Russians as a whole certainly accept it, and by no means are they all papophiles, and we knew that Fr. Panteleimon was strongly against it) we reluctantly decided that we would have to at least become informed on the subject, to the extent of reading a few works on it. This task was assigned to me, and I must confess my initial repugnance at approaching a sacred object by means of laboratory experiments on cadavers and the like. But I swallowed that and read on to get the whole picture.

Well, I got a pretty good picture of the whole and presented the leading points of it to Father Herman. Now brace yourself: we think it extremely likely that it is genuine. We are not entirely convinced as yet, as we told Alexey the absolutely crucial point for Orthodox believers will be the thorough documentation of its history and the evidence for the Church’s veneration of it.

Where is the service to it? — the Vespers of Great Friday and the Matins of Great Saturday! (This startling idea, by the way, has occurred to several people we’ve asked quite independently.) When is its feast day — Great Friday and every Friday, if we are to believe the 11th century testimony (I don’t recall if Sarah’s article or the Jordanville article mention it or not) that it was brought out for veneration by the faithful every Friday (in the Blachernae Temple, I believe).

Well, that’s enough to suggest that we think there might be a case for it — but were not going to “defend” it for you, because we haven’t gone into any sources. We are completely open on the subject, but frankly sympathetic toward it. The “bloody detail” of the Shroud itself does not bother us — if it is what it is claimed to be, then of course it is full of bloodstains! How one should write about it if it is genuine — that, of course, is another question.

However, to get back to the article — as I said, this is not the article with which to defend it, if it is genuine, and we agree with you on the points you raised, all of which (and others) we made to Alexey. We emphasized the importance of the four nails (not three) even though he thought it at first an unimportant “detail” — but the Jordanville article precisely mentions the four nails and the lateness of the Latin tradition of three, because there is no evidence from the marks of the Shroud one way Or the other. We told him that the Lord’s Tunic has an important part in the Life of St. Nina, but we don’t recall a single reference to the Shroud there, which makes us not convinced by the other references either, until they are checked and others found. We told him that the article places disproportionate emphasis on the scientific side, which by no means can prove that the God-man rose from the dead or that this is His Winding-shroud, but at most can be a startling confirmation of these facts to the extent that scientific knowledge can “confirm” anything — and we specifically warned him against trusting scientific knowledge so much, as it is the lowest and least stable form of knowledge). (By the way, in case I didn’t make it clear in my last letter, the argument against the supposed “scientific” theory of evolution is not itself scientific, for “science” itself can neither prove nor disprove it, for science its only guesswork: the argument against it is theological, that it involves implications which are entirely unacceptable for Orthodoxy, and these implications can’t be escaped, and every propounder of evolution uses them, the theists and spiritualists being worse that the atheists.) We warned him that Sarah speaks with equal confidence about some dubious speculations (the Roman “Basileus,” etc.), outright errors (the three nails), and the more important points of evidence which the Shroud seems to give, which will make it easy for someone to tear the whole thing apart by pounding on her errors; etc., etc.

Unfortunately, we didn’t read Sarah’s article (it’s 100% hers!) until just before Great Lent, when Alexey told us he was thinking of distributing it during Lent, and by the time we read it and got our comments to him he had already sent it to the printer. Our letter made him abandon for a while the idea of sending it out (despite the considerable sum it must have cost him), and we thought he had really abandoned it for good. But alas, temptation overcame him and for the first time he did something directly against our counsel to him — and of course, at the worst possible moment, when a hornet’s nest has erupted over “evolution” (which in our view is a completely different matter, as you already know). We are sending him a good scolding — but one with love and genuine concern over what he should do now. Of course, he hasn’t gotten rid of all his Latin background (and has now proclaimed it to the world) (although in articles he writes himself he’s cautious and always asks), but he’s trying and learning, as we said in our last letter, and this mistake (if he survives it!) will help him on that path.

I say, “if he survives it,” and doubtless you are already rather certain that another “crazy convert” has gone off the deep end. But with this we can’t agree — not unless he does go wild or collapse completely now under this trial which his own blunder has caused him. He still respects and trusts us, and we will do our best to keep him from going off that “deep end” right now. Should he abandon Nikodemos? We don’t see why he should — Orthodox Life printed a Shroud article (admittedly a better one) and survived, and you still advertise it, having passed that article over with benign oblivion. Nikodemos also can survive, we think. And you already know our approval of this kind of “lay periodical,” although we didn’t give you all our thinking on this subject.

Well, now at the end of a second long epistle this week you probably have some conclusions about our attitudes and approaches. Specifically, you are perhaps thinking that inexperienced people like Alexey should be “taken in hand” and not simply “counseled,” as we have tried to do. To this we will disagree, for two reasons: (1) Vladika John gave us the path which we are following in this respect, and he is our guiding star, and we see pretty clearly the meaning of his approach to missionary labor and why he chose it; and (2) what is the alternative? We were frankly horrified when we heard that Fr. Panteleimon had suggested a year or so ago that Vladika Vitaly be somehow placed “in charge” of converts or convert priests, to avoid the “mistakes” of the past. Well, yes, that might mean the end of the “mistakes” of the past (but somehow we doubt even that), but it would also mean the end of the Orthodox missionary movement in the Church Abroad, period. (And it wouldn’t help to have someone better in charge — the principle itself is the dangerous thing.)

But speaking of Vlad. Vitaly (can I speak more frankly, now?) — do you see now something of what this alternative to Nikodemos and a reasonably free missionary movement is? We could have told you two years ago everything you now know about him and his approaches and more besides, but we deliberately refrained from this, not because of his high rank (which we respect, but we still speak the truth when it is called for), but chiefly for fear of causing any kind of hindrance to the possible good that might come out of the “missionary committee” (or whatever it was called) of which he was head. We do not believe in discouraging any kind of missionary labors which seem to be heading in the right direction. We even gave a notice to The True Vine after this first tentative issue when its full orientation was not yet visible — and not as a duty to an Archbishop, but as a duty to the missionary movement. (We would be glad to give such a notice to The Celtic Cross, by the way, but we have been waiting for another issue or two to test its stability first.)

Now we’ve just received the fourth (Jan.) issue, and there at last is Vlad. Vitaly in full color: a sub-mediocre sermon that reveals him as a disciple of the worst (“literary-sentimental”) side of Metr. Anthony Khrapovitsky — and such discipleship will only serve to discredit someone who in other respects was a great hierarch; a Protestant “childrens legend” which, Fr. Herman urges me to say, is an absolute mockery of Orthodox Russians, who do not believe in German “Christmas trees” (and Jordanville is so strict on the subject that the fathers won’t even allow greens inside the church during the feast days around Christmas); an endorsement of “Schmemannism’ (p. 11) which reveals to our dismay that Fr. Michael doesn’t get the point about Schmemann — which is not his “incorrect views” in this or that subject, but this whole hothouse approach to theology, which our simple Russian priests grasp immediately from their genuine Orthodox instinct without needing a theological degree; a Vasnetsov “icon” (how much we’ve fought in the Russian Church over him) which is a blasphemy against the saints; a mediocre article on holiness (apparently revealing Vlad. Vitaly’s apologetic approach) over the signatures of one who is the leading public scandal of the Church Abroad; etc., etc.

This publication is a disgrace; it is not merely off the beam and completely unaware of what is needed today, it is positively harmful, and it presents our Church’s official stand!?? Whatever is good in it is swallowed up and given the tone of the rest. Well, I won’t rub in the fact that you are on the “editorial staff” and still advertize it, especially since we know how much you must be suffering over it yourself (to the extent to using it for kindling, so we hear!) But Alexey’s efforts result in a much purer Orthodoxy than it, and even the blunder of the Shroud article (which at least is not part of the periodical) can be forgiven as the mistake of a young struggler, and not simply swallowed as the “official” statement of our Church.

Well, you already have our defense of Alexey, and we don’t defend him for sending out the Shroud article — for which he will have to suffer — but, God willing, for his own good and the good of Nikodemos, which we really hope will not collapse because of this trial. Please pray for him.

Laurence Campbell has finally joined us for good, and you can probably imagine some of the adjustments that are now going on. So far all is peaceful, and we trust in God to bring a harmonious coenobia out of our previous “middle path,” which incidentally is described (on a much higher level, of course!) in the installment of Elder Paisius’ Life.

At the same time, Daniel Olson made his final decision to go to Fr. Panteleimon for good, and two weeks ago he came here to bid us a tearful farewell. His final decision was inspired by a long talk with Fr. Herman on his last visit, and we really feel that he is our “offering” to the Monastery and a part of the indissoluble tie that must always bind together us true laborers in Christ s harvest, whatever minor differences (or even seemingly major) in views we may have. Forgive us, Father, and pray for us. [Letter ends.]

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