Chrysostomos A. Stamoulis, Holy Beauty: Prolegomena to an Orthodox Philokalic Aesthetics, translated by Norman Russell, Cambridge, UK: James Clarke and Co, 2022, xx + 236 pages.
It is not often that a theologian reaches outside his or her own comfort zone. That is true of many, if not most disciplines. But like his mentor, Nikos Matsoukas (1934–2006), professor of systematic theology at the University of Thessaloniki, who discerned the connections between theology and literature or poetry, Chrysostomos Stamoulis, currently dean of the theological faculty at the University of Thessaloniki, pursues the associations between theology and art or beauty. In the words of Matsoukas cited in this book:
The poetic or mythical gaze tends to be excluded by more than a few theologians either because they chase after demythologized versions of salvation, or because they want to be first-rate scholars, or because they believe that poetry falsifies genuine—in their view—religious feeling! (77)
Beyond a series of theological publications in the fields of patristics and the history of Christian thought, Stamoulis has focused on Orthodox theology’s engagement with modern challenges and also enjoyed a successful career in music, choir, and composition.
While not always simple to grasp—and until more recently not even available in English—his theological writing is accessible and stimulating to read. He rejects false, if conventional dialectics, such as sweeping distinctions between East and West, and seeks instead to propose a more holistic vision of the goodness and sacredness of the world. In this latest publication—the original Greek first appeared almost two decades ago, though it has seen several reprints—he assembles a variety of voices from early classics to contemporary poets and from political theory to literary criticism in a frank dialogue that perceives the world with fresh eyes.
Holy Beauty is, of course, a systematically crafted and carefully constructed study. But his presentation is in the form of “an open dialogue, a round table” (xix). It is a sheer pleasure to follow as Stamoulis revives and relates the groundbreaking lineaments of a progressive writer like Kostas Zouraris, a prominent clergyman like Alexander Schmemann, and a pioneering thinker like Nikos Matsoukas. He accomplishes the same with the inimitable novelist and painter Nikos Pentzikis, the saintly artist-iconographer Sophrony Sakharov, and the popular urban ascetic Porphyrios Kafsokalyvitis. This kaleidoscope alone liberates the mindset of the author from any defensive or conservative tendencies that plague so much of Greek theological and spiritual life today.
For example, Nikos Pentzikis interprets the Palamite teaching: “The body conceals all the wealth of the starry heavens” (113). Elsewhere, Pentzikis declares: “How do we venerate the Creator without what he has created? That is an abstraction” (170). And: “It is not possible for us to deal with spiritual matters without respect for physical things” (171). Or as Panayiotis Nellas comments on the Maximus Confessor’s adage that “in all things visible God is hidden and proclaimed in silence” (119): “There is no more exact description of the bond uniting man with God and the world, or a higher evaluation or more exalted understanding of human nature” (118).
Stamoulis is not wrong when he observes that even prominent theologians, such as Christos Yannaras and Metropolitan John [Zizioulas], perceive nature as something from which to be detached, divested, and, in death, ultimately divorced. Stamoulis rejects this approach as “a refined Platonism, a provocative dualism, as was adopted and expressed by the anti-hesychasts” (142), “stripping matters of their truth” (154). He states unequivocally that “the Church’s teaching is not that nature is diminished through the subtraction or draining of natural properties, but that it is sanctified, that is, that its deficiencies have been made good” (156). Or, in the words of the Greek poet Georgios Themelis: “I am a physical thing / And I become, I keep becoming . . . / Until I reach the end point / To acquire my existence, like a stone or a plant. / Until I take on my final form . . . / As the last, the final transformation” (159).
If I were to summarize the thought of Stamoulis in a single word, it would be the word “both-together” (τό συναμφότερον) that he derives from the patristic tradition to describe the universality, inclusivity, and integrality of truth and beauty. If I were to define his theology in a single concept, it would be “incarnation” (ἐνσάρκωσις)—the conviction and confession that “the Word assumed flesh” (Jn 1.14), “becoming like us in every way” (Heb. 4.15). On the basis of these principles, there can be no division or contradiction between heaven and earth, history and eschatology, material and spiritual, or even truth and beauty. One of the aims of theology and art and life is the reconciliation (or at-one-ment) of what is aberrantly estranged and fractured. Such is the essence and depth of the Chalcedonian dogma. Any other form of spirituality or idealism is sacrilegious and idolatrous. Stamoulis denounces it as “a theology of suspicion and unhealthy mysticism . . . ideological purity and exclusivity” (148–149). “The Church has room for everything” (176). So “someone who knows how to see finds beauty everywhere” (177). Whether in the art of painting for Sophrony of Essex (181) or the song of the nightingale for Porphyrios of Kafsokalyvia (209), the human being yearns to see the uncreated in the created—even in the darkest of tragedies. I often consider this as I watch how Orthodox hierarchs justify or overlook the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Stamoulis concludes that we are persistently called to rekindle our sense of surprise (ἒκπληξη), of amazement and wonder (217). If we don’t, then that is the “last ‘impediment’, the last ‘temptation’” (181), of which Fr. Sophrony would speak.
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