Closest to the Heart: A Mystagogy of Spiritual Friendship in Pavel A. Florenskij’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth
Ħal Qormi, Malta: Horizons, 2020
Father Glen Attard’s book puts me in an unusual spot for a reviewer. Unbeknownst to each other at the beginning of our projects, the author and I were both working on a doctoral thesis/future book on the same topic at the same time. He became aware of me and my work when Public Orthodoxy published my Conjugal Friendship in May 2017; and I, of him and his work when he emailed me in February 2018 to introduce himself as a colleague in Florensky scholarship. He conveyed his disagreement with the central premise around which my entire thesis revolves: to wit, that Father Pavel Florensky wrote “Friendship,” the culminating chapter of The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, as his theological and spiritual response to the era’s—and his own—preoccupation with the recently coined and theorized “homosexuality.” In response to Attard’s request for something more substantive to support my reading of “Friendship,” I referred him to the chapter on Florensky in my MA thesis, a few short pieces of mine at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and especially my more adequately annotated Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love, scheduled to appear a few months later in The Wheel. I wrote again to let him know when the latter came out. My doctoral thesis proposal, Conjugal Friendship and the Sacrament of Love: Father Pavel Florensky’s Orthodox Theology of Same-Sex Love, was not posted publicly at academia.edu until one month after Attard’s book appeared in print. The timeline of our correspondence and my online publishing record proves relevant later in this review.
Despite my confidence that, over the course of eight years of research and prayer, I had covered all my bases to support—and found nothing whatever to contradict—a homosexual interpretation of “Friendship” as the one intended by Florensky, I opened Attard’s book with some trepidation that he might present material evidence, unavailable to me or somehow overlooked by me, to disprove my thesis. This would have effectively ended my quest for a PhD at a time when I had already begun writing my dissertation. At almost 66 years of age, and with mounting health and medical challenges, I have no taste—or time!—to start over with a new thesis topic.
As it turns out, I need not have worried.
Attard is a winsome young Carmelite priest who teaches moral theology at the University of Malta. He holds an SThD (Doctorate in Sacred Theology) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, for which he defended the present volume as his thesis in March 2019. That same year, he founded the Maltese Association for the Study of Spirituality and Spiritual Companionship. Importantly, these few facts help to sketch some of the “positionality” from which he produced Closest to the Heart—with its attendant strengths and weaknesses—weighing in at a massive 651 pages, inclusive of endnotes, bibliography, and indices.
In December 2020, when Attard wrote to let me know that his book had been published, as a friendly gesture of scholarly collegiality and to give him more widespread exposure than an academic tome usually garners for an unknown author on its own, I invited him to introduce his work to Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s readers in his own words prior to my review. Since tens of thousands of readers around the planet already know my views on Florensky’s “Friendship,” I thought it only right to offer my followers an alternative interpretation. Although Attard chose not to mention it when he wrote Pavel Florenskij’s Mystagogical Manual of Antinomic Friendship for Orthodoxy in Dialogue, he cites me by name in his book and devotes two pages to an attempted refutation of my work. To this I also return shortly.
(Since it would be redundant of me to summarize Attard’s book so soon after Orthodoxy in Dialogue published his own summary, I strongly urge the readers of this review to click on the link in the preceding paragraph and to give it an attentive reading.)
In terms of published books, Closest to the Heart represents the latest of seven significant moments in English-language Florensky scholarship over a span of almost four decades. In chronological order, these consist of the following titles: Father Robert Slesinski’s Pavel Florensky: A Metaphysics of Love (1984); Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev’s translation of Florensky’s Iconostasis (1996); Boris Jakim’s translation of Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth (1997), the catalyst for all subsequent Florensky studies in English; Avril Pyman’s indispensable biography, Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius (2010); Jakim’s translation of Florensky’s Early Religious Writings 1903-1909 (2017); Jakim’s translation of Florensky’s analysis of Platonism, The Meaning of Idealism: The Metaphysics of Genus and Countenance (September 2020); and Attard’s Closest to the Heart (October 2020).
(I would be remiss if I failed to mention—not without some hesitation—Florensky’s Letters from the Gulag. Printed on demand by Amazon, this book contains no date of publication or other front matter, no critical apparatus, no translator’s name and credentials, and no indication of whether the letters come from a published Russian volume or directly from the Florensky archives curated by Florensky’s grandson, Archimandrite Andronik Trubachev. We have no basis on which to be assured of the authenticity of the letters or the quality of the translation.)
For readers primarily interested in contrasting interpretations of Florensky’s theology of friendship, I suggest a shorter list, to be read in the following sequence: Pyman’s A Quiet Genius, with attention to Florensky’s nonnormative sexual and gender identity (forgive the anachronism) from earliest childhood through his early thirties; “Introduction to the Translation” (by Richard F. Gustafson), “To the Reader,” “Two Worlds,” “Friendship,” and “Jealousy” in Jakim’s translation of Florensky’s Pillar and Ground; and Attard’s Closest to the Heart. I recommend that these be read in conversation with my aforementioned doctoral thesis proposal to equip readers to form their own judgment not only on Attard’s conclusions, but just as importantly, on the evidence in plain view which he chooses inexplicably not to acknowledge, let alone address.
For sheer magnitude, scope, and erudition, Closest to the Heart now occupies its rightful place in the annals of Florensky scholarship as Attard’s own magnum opus. I congratulate him on his achievement, even as I note the book’s significant flaws.
Closest to the Heart impresses on several counts, not least in being bookended by a foreword by the doyen and an afterword by the doyenne of English-language Florensky studies, the aforementioned Robert Slesinski and Avril Pyman.
Attard possesses fine gifts as a writer. His prose combines the erudition expected of a scholarly monograph with the accessibility that can hold—for the most part—the attention of the generalist reader. Only at a few junctures does his text become tedious, belabouring points that seem tangential at best, irrelevant at worst, to his stated purpose of “deconstructing” and elucidating what he considers the only correct reading of “Friendship.” One sometimes has the impression of a youthful eagerness to dazzle his doctoral examiners with the breadth of his reading, whether or not certain references actually relate to his topic or help him to build his case for how to interpret “Friendship.”
As anyone must do who works with Russian names in English, Attard was confronted with how best to transliterate them and make them pronounceable to his readers. His decision to utilize the ISO system in lieu of more conventional spellings—a system largely unknown to anyone but professional linguists—has the effect of making some names completely unpronounceable to an ordinary English reader. Case in point: Troickij for Troitsky. An unsuspecting reader can be forgiven for pronouncing the surname of Florensky’s intended life-companion and the most important person in his spiritual and intellectual life as troi-kee, or worse, troi-kidge. Attard’s decision to spell intelligentsia (a word that exists in English) as intelligencija defies explanation and just looks silly. Even I, who have worked with Slavic languages my entire life and know the ISO system (I’m Ukrainian and Lemko on my mother’s side, and have worshipped on and off in Slavonic since my mid teens), found these unconventional if technically correct spellings a constant distraction. I mention this more as an observation than an actual criticism.
Another distraction, bordering on affectation, lies in Attard’s habit of referring to himself with the now obsolete we. I have not seen this usage in academic writing in decades. It gives the presumably false impression that Attard did not reach his conclusions alone, but that consensus was formed within some sort of collaborative working group. By today’s standards, we stands out—whether intended or not—as a literary device to lend weight artificially to one’s arguments. It anonymizes the author and conceals his aforementioned personal “positionality,” considered to be a crucial element in postmodern humanities scholarship.
With one fateful, indeed fatal exception, to which I return below, Attard acquits himself masterfully as a consummate researcher. His bibliography runs to some sixty pages, with primary and secondary sources in several languages, conveniently organized chronologically (i.e., in order of publication date) and thematically. One of the greatest strengths of Attard’s research manifests itself in his helpful summaries of the several Western philosophers with whom Florensky presupposed familiarity on the part of his intellectual peers—the audience for which Pillar and Ground was written—at the height of Russia’s Silver Age.
For the purposes of my own doctoral project, Attard’s research is most useful in introducing important biographical details about Florensky, Troitsky, and other principal players in the story which were either unavailable to Pyman or insufficiently addressed in her otherwise excellent biography. Unwittingly on his part, the new biographical material in Attard’s study serves to reinforce all the more the incontestable fact that we are dealing with a homosexual subject (Florensky), in a homosexual relationship (with Troitsky), who produces a homosexual theological text (Pillar and Ground, and especially “Friendship”). But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on this immediately below.
The cordial tone of Attard’s initial correspondence with me in February 2018, and again in December 2020 and March 2021—when he requested my sources for a homosexual reading of “Friendship,” expressed his sympathy for the torrent of vicious ad hominem attacks provoked online by my “Conjugal Friendship,” shared his pastoral concern for the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in the Church’s life, and lastly, discussed and submitted his book summary to Orthodoxy in Dialogue at my invitation—did not prepare me for his ungracious treatment in his book. He begins, “Along the same lines, while it is simply absurd [emphasis mine] to think that adelphopoiesis and marriage are two rites celebrating the same kind of bond (or fulfilling the same function) in the Church…” (p. 461). This sets the stage for a lengthy endnote (pp. 522-24, n. 171) in which, citing my “Conjugal Friendship” at Public Orthodoxy and my Conjugal Friendship: An Appeal for a Conversation at the University of Toronto Press Blog—mere blog posts running to no more than 1600 words combined, and lacking any of my sources—Attard charges me with “forc[ing] [emphasis mine] the Pillar into being a manual of same-sex love in its contemporary connotations” (p. 522). As a Roman Catholic moral theologian vowed to lifelong sexual abstinence, he seems to become especially prickly at my mention of “some form of bodily intimacy” (p. 523) between two Orthodox men united in an exclusive bond such as Florensky envisions.
Attard does not, it seems significant, engage with my annotated article (with sources) in The Wheel, even though informed of its publication eight months before he defended his thesis. The article served to introduce my readers to my doctoral research more substantively than blog posts can do. I might mention that it earned a word of praise from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware in his Foreword to that issue (p. 4 of the PDF, 9 of the hard copy).
In short, Attard devotes these two pages to characterizing my contribution to Florensky scholarship as possessing nothing of value. He certainly sees no application whatever of “Friendship” to the theological, spiritual, and pastoral question of same-sex desire and its place in the life of more traditionalist ecclesial communities. Incomprehensibly, Attard goes so far as to deny what is patently obvious to everyone but himself: Florensky wrote “Friendship” unambiguously about male pairs. We can apply his theology of friendship to female pairs by extension, as I noted in “Conjugal Friendship,” while a male-female pair must simply get married to enjoy the shared life, home, finances, “preliminary consubstantiality,” and “bodily closeness” (as “when kissing” and cuddling) (all words in quotes are Florensky’s) described in “Friendship.” In fact, “Friendship” explicitly devalues marriage and procreation as a vestige of paganism assumed by the Church, and prioritizes exclusive male friendships—“dyadic molecules”—as uniquely Christian, after the likeness of the pairing of the Twelve, the Seventy, and male saints in Orthodox hagiography.
A researcher as thorough and meticulous as Attard knows that I did not pull a homosexual reading of “Friendship” out of thin air. Even the casual reader of Jakim’s translation of Pillar and Ground will note how Attard’s senior in Russian language and studies, Richard F. Gustafson, characterizes “Friendship” in his “Introduction to the Translation:”
In this context [the “visibility and sometimes tolerance…of homosexuality” in turn-of-the-century Russia] Florensky’s notion of friendship has a decided homophilic, if not homoerotic, tinge. All dyadic friendships in his discussion are same-sex unions. […] To my knowledge, Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth is the first Christian theology to place same-sex relationship at the center of its vision (PGT, trans. Jakim, p. xx).
The question of why Attard must have deliberately chosen not even to acknowledge, let alone pursue, this lead (Gustafson is absent from Attard’s bibliography); or Pyman’s unequivocal evidence of Florensky’s (and, by extension, Troitsky’s) homosexuality (Pyman’s word), especially as recorded in a diary entry by the later renowned priest, Alexander Elchaninov; or the woodcut of two naked male cupids with their little penises exposed, shooting their arrows at each other at the head of “Friendship” as the personification of the “happy battle” described in that chapter; or Florensky’s homoerotic love poems to Troitsky (especially his shocking “Two Knights”); or Florensky’s threat to commit suicide at age 27 and his descent into alcohol and drugs when Troitsky ended their relationship by marrying Florensky’s sister (for reasons too complex to analyze here); or Berdiaev’s mockery of “Friendship” as soon as it was published in 1914 for its “Orthodoxization” of ancient Greek homosexuality; or Florovsky’s disgust with “the dark sediment of erotic temptation” in “Friendship;” etc. etc.—this question remains completely unanswered from beginning to end of Attard’s book.
Finally, Evgenii Bershtein (also absent from Attard’s bibliography), born and raised in Russia, attests to the enduring relevance of Florensky’s “Friendship” to discussions of homosexuality in 21st-century Russia (“The Notion of Universal Bisexuality,” Understanding Russianness, eds. Alapuro, Mustajoki, Pesonen). How could Attard not know this?
One is left with little choice but to infer that Attard intentionally ignored, and failed to inform his readers of, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence inconvenient to his thesis. He even goes so far as to skip over the more awkward passages in Florensky’s own text. This strikes me as all the more unusual in that he could have ignored me, too, but elected to go out of his way to try to prove me wrong. If one is going to disagree with my approach to Florensky’s life and writings, we must at the very least argue from the same primary and secondary sources. One must show me from my sources where I went wrong, where I misunderstood. Attard’s quarrel is not with me, but with these others mentioned above, and with the many more to be cited in my own thesis when it finally reaches completion.
In the preface to her biography, Pyman asks the rhetorical question why she would embark on such a project at her age. (She was 80 when her book was published in 2010.) In partial response to her own question, she writes of the “objective reason why it is important to set Florensky’s work firmly within the chronological framework of his biography now without further delay…simply because any such undertaking may soon be complicated by the demands of hagiography” (A Quiet Genius, p. xxii). Attard’s study succumbs, in part, to “the demands of hagiography” in his perhaps misplaced enthusiasm to christen Florensky—a member of a Church to which Attard does not belong—with the superlative epithets of mystic and mystagogue. We Orthodox reserve these descriptors for the likes of a St. Maximus the Confessor, a St. Symeon the New Theologian, a St. Gregory Palamas, a St. Seraphim of Sarov. Everyone celebrates Florensky’s extraordinary intellectual gifts, his deep piety, his wholehearted embrace of the Orthodox faith as a young member of the returning intelligentsia, his status as one of the greatest representatives of the Russian Religious Renaissance and Russian religious philosophy. But when was he a “mystic,” a “mystagogue?” When he was poeticizing about two naked knights kissing on the mouth as they played with their swords and sap dripped onto their discarded armour from the trees overhead? When he was threatening to commit suicide at the devastating loss of his boyfriend to his sister? When he started drinking too much and smoking pot after their breakup?
The charm of Florensky for modern readers, his irresistible lovability as a human being and not as some distant saint, resides in his being just like us, entirely accessible to us in the details of his life, very like our own lives, on his and our stumbling, winding path to God. Gay Christian men in particular love the little boy who wished he was a girl, who dreamed of brides and princesses, who skipped joyfully to the milliner’s alongside his auntie to help her pick out a hat with a hummingbird; the teenager who, in high school, fell in love with his first boy, and who read Plato to figure out his feelings; the 23-year old who thought that falling asleep in a cold train station with his head on his boyfriend’s lap was like being with an angel, whose heart pounded in his chest as he ran to fetch his boyfriend-angel to introduce him to his father; the 27-year old who would have rather died when he realized that his angel would never again come back to kiss him and nestle in his arms against his breast; and yes, the 28-year old who gave up on men and resigned himself to marrying a woman he did not love, and devoted himself to her and to their children without looking back—and yet, even then, publishing his radiant theological and spiritual testimonial to the love that he and his angel had shared. We might not see a “mystic” or a “mystagogue” in the classical sense of these words, but we do see a man just like us, striving to love God and neighbour and the Orthodox Church to the best of his ability in the emotional rollercoaster of modern life and passionate human relationships, and who struggles to reconcile homoerotic love with piety in a sincere heart.
Attard, in his repeated use of “antinomic” and “mystagogical” as his main descriptors of friendship à la Florensky, portrays a “relationship” that is purely academic, largely devoid of human warmth, with no resonance for anyone real in the real world, and no actual pastoral application. Who among us, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, consciously seeks an antinomic relationship, a mystagogical relationship? I find it noteworthy that Attard quotes none of Florensky’s most touching, most humanly poignant passages in “Friendship.” I would give my life to have a friendship such as Florensky describes; such as Attard exegetes it, not so much, because his presentation ultimately lacks any specificity, any real-life context, and perhaps most significantly of all—“most significantly” because Florensky himself assigns primacy to direct human experience—Attard’s presentation comes from a place of no experience of being Orthodox, or a husband, or a father, or a committed same-sex partner who can attest to the asceticism of same-sex monogamy and to the chastity of monogamous same-sex love, even in its range of bodily expression, no different from the asceticism and chastity of marriage.
Of course, from the point of view of the Orthodox Church’s lex orandi, the liturgy of marriage and the liturgy of brother-making are not identical, nor do they create and sanctify identical relationships. Yet Florensky himself, explicitly and implicitly, insists upon their very close analogy on every page of “Friendship.” Over the years I have often commented, in writing and in conversation, that he could have changed the title of the chapter to “Marriage,” substituted “husband and wife” for “friends,” gotten rid of those cupids, and been obliged to make very few edits to the text.
Closest to the Heart comprises a goldmine of research and information, for which I am deeply grateful to Father Attard. It strengthens my thesis, in ways perhaps unanticipated by him, early enough in my writing to make the necessary changes. However, as an interpretive guide to Florensky’s life, to Pillar and Ground, and to “Friendship,” its few shortcomings are of such a magnitude as to nearly outweigh the many positive things that can be said about its insights.
Closest to the Heart: A Mystagogy of Spiritual Friendship in Pavel A. Florenskij’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth can be purchased from BDL.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian, PhD candidate in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue, father of five, grandfather of three, and former priest. He holds an MA in Theology (2015) from Regis College/St. Michael’s College and a BA in Sexuality Studies (2013) from York University, is an alumnus (2014) of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, and completed the course requirements for the MDiv (1989) at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Several of his theological papers are available at academia.edu. Follow him on Twitter @GiacoSanfilippo.