WHEN BIOGRAPHY AND HAGIOGRAPHY COLLIDE by Giacomo Sanfilippo

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Clockwise from left: St. Nikolai Velimirović, Father Pavel Florensky, Father Seraphim Rose 

I happened to be already at work on this article when John Stamps’ Tell the Truth: We Must Have No Bogus History appeared at Public Orthodoxy to mark the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. I have somewhat modified my original text in an attempt to address the tensions and ambiguities raised—but left entirely unresolved—in the Stamps article.

The Orthodox Church’s formal glorification of modern-day individuals as saints presents difficulties to a certain kind of piety characterized by a reluctance—or refusal, in the case of some believers—to accept as factual the inconvenient truths of a revered person’s biography. Our wilful blindness to the realities of a saintly person’s life, documented in his or her published writings, diaries, letters, photographs, the diaries and letters of friends and acquaintances, etc., in favour of a sanitized and partly fictitious narrative, appears to spring from two interrelated motives. First, we sometimes expect doctrinal infallibility and moral purity at every stage of a saint’s life—notwithstanding St. Augustine of Hippo’s illegitimate son and St. Mary of Egypt’s insatiable lust, to cite two examples among many from our earlier saints. Second, each of us individually seems to trace a line in the sand that we simply will not or cannot cross when faced with the unvarnished evidence from a saint’s or prospective saint’s biography.

This wilful ignorance becomes further complicated when we universally deem some aspects of a saintly person’s biography as lamentable, such as the anti-Semitic utterances of a St. Nikolai Velimirović (d. 1956) or a St. John of Kronstadt (d. 1909), while other aspects are regarded as appalling by some and attractive by others, such as the loving same-sex relationship of a Father Pavel Florensky (d. 1937) or a Father Seraphim Rose (d. 1982) in their early adulthood—both young men having been partnered with a pious Orthodox companion who proved to be an immeasurably positive influence in their spiritual journey.

Florensky and Rose have other things in common. Neither has been formally recognized as a saint. Both have an extensive following of devotees around the Orthodox world who hope for their eventual glorification. Both articulated views in their writings which were considered during their lifetime, and continue to be considered today, as highly controversial. Florensky—in addition to his theology of same-sex love, which Father Georges Florovsky (d. 1979) condemned for its “dark sediment of erotic temptation”—was the second of three successive architects of Russian sophiology, following Vladimir Soloviev (d. 1881) and preceding Father Sergius Bulgakov (d. 1944). Rose adopted an inflexibly doctrinaire position on young earth creationism and the aerial toll houses as essential to patristic tradition, views that find virtually no support among the more prominent Orthodox thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Yet both men’s sanctity remains unquestionable. Florensky died a martyr at age 55 (passion-bearer, non-resistor, or confessor might be a more apt term) in front of a firing squad after years in the gulag system of prison camps—despite putting his vast scientific expertise at the service of the Soviet Union—and Rose likely from the physical effects of his austere monastic asceticism at age 48.

Florensky’s relationship with Sergei Troitsky, his roommate at the Moscow Theological Academy and every bit his intellectual equal (in 1907 Troitsky received top marks for his master’s thesis entitled “Spinoza’s Ethics”), ended abruptly against Florensky’s will—he wrote to Troitsky threatening suicide—for complex reasons beyond the scope of this brief article. Far from “repenting” of their relationship, Florensky went on to memorialize it for posterity in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, published in 1914 four years after his marriage and three years after his ordination to the priesthood and the birth of his first child. (I have written extensively on this in my MA thesis, at Public Orthodoxy, in The Wheel, and here on the pages of Orthodoxy in Dialogue. I begin writing my doctoral dissertation on the same subject within the next two or three weeks, with a projected completion date in nine or ten months.)

For Rose’s part, he terminated his relationship with Jon Gregerson upon converting to the Orthodox faith and discerning a monastic vocation. Gregerson was a young Orthodox Christian of Finnish descent and the author of The Transfigured Cosmos: Four Essays in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, published originally in 1960. He introduced Rose to the Orthodox Church and to Bishop John Maximovich (St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco), attended divine services with Rose, and published his book on Orthodoxy, all during their relationship which Rose described in his “coming out” letter to a friend as “living—and sleeping—together.” In another letter, with his characteristically coy sense of humour, Rose mentioned the “noisy bed” that he and Gregerson shared in their furnished apartment. Gregerson expected that he and Rose would remain a couple after the latter’s reception into the Orthodox Church. It remains unclear to me whether Rose ended the relationship to become Orthodox, or later, to become a monk. Yet his precise motive in breaking with Gregerson is tangential to the main focus of the present article, i.e., the wilful blindness of the pious when confronted with a revered subject’s long-term involvement in a committed same-sex relationship at any point during his lifetime.

In the case of both Florensky and Rose, a biographer has stepped forward in recent years to counterbalance the myopically hagiographical tendency that can accrue among those calling for the Church’s formal declaration of a person’s sainthood. For better or for worse, the decentralized ecclesiastical governance of Orthodox Christianity and our natural antipathy to overly legalistic structures and procedures make the investigative mechanism for glorifying saints in the Orthodox Church a somewhat inexact process. To my knowledge, we have never had the equivalent of the Roman Catholic advocatus diaboli, or “devil’s advocate,” created in the late 16th century and renamed in 1983, who has the job of unearthing evidence against a person’s canonization. Avril Pyman—a British scholar, translator of Russian literature, and Orthodox Christian—fulfils something of this function in her Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius (2010); Cathy Scott—Rose’s niece and an award-winning American journalist—in her Seraphim Rose: The True Story and Private Letters (2000). I underscore “something of this function” because, importantly, neither biographer has any wish to obstruct her subject’s veneration as a saint. They simply insist that the full story be told. Without its becoming the central focus of either narrative, Pyman and Scott attest unambiguously to Florensky’s and Rose’s disinterest in women, their years in a committed same-sex relationship with a devout Orthodox partner, and in Florensky’s case, the shocked reactions of his friends at his impulsive decision to marry after his relationship with Troitsky had ended. Father Andronik Trubachev—Florensky’s grandson and custodian of his papers—provides corroborating evidence, albeit unwittingly, for the nature of his grandfather’s “starry friendship” with Troitsky in volume two of his multi-volume biography, Path to God (2015).

Leaving aside the insanity in certain Orthodox circles that greets everything that I have written on Florensky and same-sex love since my Conjugal Friendship at Public Orthodoxy in May 2017, I have received one protest worthy of our attention because it comes from an Orthodox colleague in theological studies with whom I have a cordial relationship and whose work is well regarded in academic circles. In November 2019, he shared with me his resentment that the widespread dissemination of my work with Florensky’s experience of, and theological approach to, same-sex love may have singlehandedly wrecked his chances of formal sainthood.

He also cautioned me, as well as a close personal friend of mine and ardent supporter of my work (who happens to be the proud Orthodox mother of a gay man in a long-term relationship), that I “see things in Florensky that aren’t there.” From this we can infer that a 65-year old Orthodox PhD student who has devoted seven solid years to studying Florensky cannot be trusted to bring the requisite level of scholarly objectivity to his work if he accepts his own same-sex orientation as a positive spiritual force in his life. Do we not trust monastics to write about monasticism? The married to write about marriage?

A similarly defensive posture obtains in Rose’s case. The Talk page for the Wikipedia article on his life contains an extensive debate on the relevance, indeed the veracity, of his experience of same-sex love. Participants in that discussion express sentiments ranging from fears that the revelations contained in Scott’s biography of her uncle have wrecked his chances of sainthood to the charge that she falsified some of the letters quoted in their entirety in her book.

In both cases—my colleague’s comments about my work with Florensky, and those on Wikipedia about Scott’s work with Rose—we find ourselves confronted with a blurry conflation of two distinct wishes: first, that uncomfortable aspects of a saintly person’s actual biography be wilfully swept under the carpet; and second, that their factuality be outright denied. This, in turn, raises the serious question of whether the formal glorification of Orthodox saints requires falsehoods of commission and omission about the lives of the holy persons under consideration.  

To return full circle to where we began, I found John Stamps’ treatment of these kinds of questions largely unsatisfactory. Part of my dissatisfaction is personal: on a number of occasions during the closing years of his life, the aging St. Nikolai Velimirović provided pastoral care to my priest-grandfather, my grandmother, and my aunt who turned 12 eleven days before St. Nikolai’s death. He figures in our family’s oral history in ways known only to us and to God—for in each pastoral interaction with my grandparents and my aunt he dealt with deeply sensitive or troubling matters in their lives—which convinced them of his saintliness a half-century before his formal glorification by the Church of Serbia in 2003. My grandparents had long fallen asleep in the Lord by then. My aunt, then 59, was as unsurprised by the news as she was delighted. Imagine my own tearful joy when, by sheer “coincidence,” his icon was handed to me to carry during a Bright Week procession at the Russian cathedral in Toronto in 2015. Stamps’ single paragraph about my family’s beloved father, friend, and intercessor in heaven reads more like a hit piece than anything worth contributing to the legitimate, and painful, conversation that needs to take place around the collision of biography and hagiography.

Indeed, from his talk of “heroes” rather than saints, and his juxtaposition of St. Nikolai and Archbishop Damaskinos with a long cast of characters from outside of the Orthodox Church, nothing in Stamps’ article (or his bio) led me to guess that he is an Orthodox Christian, or to discern that he wrote from a place of deep interior warmth and piety. I had to track him down on Facebook to find out that he is, in fact, at least nominally Orthodox.

Stamps neglects even to allude to, let alone attempt to articulate, the fundamentally mystical character—might we say the sacramental character?—of the Orthodox Church’s glorification of her saints in whom God is glorified. The glorification of a new saint is a revelation from God, His gift to the Church. It expresses the mind of the Church, who has the mind of Christ. The Church’s glorification and veneration of her saints in our encomiums, our hymns, our icons, our annual liturgical commemorations, our personal prayers, naming our newborn children after them, taking their names when we convert to the Orthodox faith in adulthood, is neither about the sentimental or psychological remembrance of dead people, nor about academic research into interesting historical figures, but about entering into a new dimension of relationship with those who have gone before us and are alive in Christ, that great cloud of living witnesses who surround us invisibly and pray for us continually—first among them the Most-Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.

For the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob is not the God of the dead, but of the living, and the Church on earth and the Church in heaven is one Church.

See the following sections in our Archives 2017-19 and/or Archives 2020Anglican Church and SameSex Marriage, Bridging VoicesFifty Years after StonewallJosiah Trenham: The ScandalSexuality and GenderWarwick Files, and The Wheel 13/14.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian, former priest, father of five and grandfather of two, and founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He is soon to achieve PhD candidacy in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, and to begin writing a dissertation tentatively entitled, “The Sacrament of Love: Father Pavel Florensky and His Theology of Same-Sex Love.” He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College, both in Toronto, is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, and completed the course requirements for his MDiv earlier in life at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary near New York City.     
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