Theology is a subject which traditionally formed the foundation of education in the universities of Europe. In Russia, there is a discussion on what theological education should be and if there is justification for including theology in the list of academic specialties. Nun Vassa (Larin), Doctor of Theology and teacher at the Institute of Liturgical Studies of the Theological Department of Vienna University, talks about the European traditions of teaching theology in an interview with the publication “Tatianin den’” (Day of St Tatiana).
— Sister Vassa, tell us how you came to study liturgics and theology? Were you helped by the fact that you were raised in the family of a priest, that you knew divine services and teachings of the Church through experience rather than from books?
— Yes, I suppose, life in the Church awakened an interest in me for liturgics and theology.
When I was 13 years old, my father’s parish in New York was left without a choir director. My father instructed me to assume that role, simply because there was no one else. I had sung in the church choir as a child, but didn’t know anything about the Ustav, or how to set the tone and lead a choir. With the help of a few parishioners, I somehow learned to direct and began to love doing it. When I was 19, I entered the convent in France, and they gave me the obedience of leading that choir. The daily monastic cycle of divine services forced me to learn the Typikon, which I read every day. The Typikon intrigued me: I wished to find out exactly how it resolved the problem of coordinating feast days, why the Lenten periods function in the way they do, why there are minor contradictions within it, etc.
In response to my questions, my father sent me the Tolkoviy Typikon (Analytical Typicon) by Skaballanovich, which I read almost ecstatically. Before that, in the convent, I had not read very much, only a little ascetic literature (Abbot Dorotheus, The Ladder) and the Typikon. But from Skaballanovich I came to understand that in order to comprehend our theology even a little, one must understand both the history of the Church, and the Greek language. I read the History of the Ecumenical Councils by Bolotov, then The History of the Ecumenical Councils and Notes on the History of the Russian Church by Kartashov, and asked that Greek language textbooks be sent to me from America.
In our little monastery, the younger nuns had many obediences—in addition to the kliros, I was responsible for the garden, I baked prosphoras, worked in the refectory and sometimes tended to the sick. So today I can’t figure out how I was able to read a fair amount at the time, but I remember that in my free time, after my obediences and prayer rule, I brushed up on the Greek language and read a great deal, including five whole tomes of St John Chrysostom.
Much of what I read, whatever seemed important, whatever I wished to remember, I would copy. So I have a number of notebooks filled with outlines and quotations from the books I read, which I consult to this day. I would have no more than an hour or an hour and a half per day (or night) for this. But even if you spend only an hour a day on something (for instance, learning a foreign language), as long as you do this consistently every day, you will learn to subject much faster than you might expect.
Then I met Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany, who became my spiritual father. Vladyka told me not to read Chrysostom any longer, but the Lives of Saints, an hour a day, pausing after a half an hour to do prostrations to the saint about whom I was reading. So I gradually read through the 12 books of St Dmitry Rostovsky twice. It is well known that reading the Lives encourages zeal for the spiritual life and love for the saints. But in addition to this, the Lives reveals a great deal about the history of the Church; it seems impossible to study the history of the Church without studying the biographies of the saints of each period. Upon reading the works of St Dmitry of Rostov a second time, I would make brief notes in my large notebooks on the feast day, name and main details of the life of each saint, in order to remember these by heart. I wished to read them a third time, but Vladyka did not bless this, saying that reading the Lives of Saints “should not be turned into a passion.”
During my sixth year of monastic life, he blessed me to move to Munich, where I led the cathedral choir, and I read the Holy Fathers under his guidance, and studied the German language. In Munich, I found more time to read. Vladyka would lend me book after book of the Russian translation of the works of St Basil the Great, St Athanasius of Alexandria, St Irineos of Lyon, all from his own library. Then he gave me everything else—St Gregory of Nyssa, St Gregory the Theologian, St John Cassian, St Theodorite (his Analysis of the Psalter and Church History), St Maksim the Confessor, St John Damascene, St Simeon the New Theologian and St Gregory Palamas.
He also gave me readings of some of the Russian holy fathers—St Nil Sorsky (a small but very important book, I believe it is Skitskoy Ustav [The Skete Rule]), the complete works of St Ignatius Brianchaninov and something by St Theophan the Recluse. For these readings, too, Vladyka blessed me to pause in order to make prostrations to the holy father I was reading. I don’t remember if he gave me the Philokalia to read, but he did give me something on the Jesus Prayer. Vladyka always stressed that the main thing in any discipline is prayer. One must learn, he would say, in prayer.
At the same time, I studied the books by Florovsky, The Fathers of the First Centuries, The Eastern Fathers of the IV Century and Paths of Russian Theology, the works of Professor Spassky on the dogmatic disputes of the IV century; something on canon law—the two-volume analysis of the Book of Laws by Bishop Nikodim (Milas), also his textbook on canon law, the Greek writers of the middle ages Zonaras, Balsamon and Aristhenes. In general, I developed a passion for canon law; I read out the entire Book of Laws to cassette tape and learned the canons by heart. Vladyka would also give me books of Dmitrievsky (on the Typikon of the Holy Sepulchre and the pre-Nikon divine services of the Russian Church), and finally the massive History of the Russian Church by Metropolitan Makarii. It took me three years to read it; slowly, because I copied a great deal of it. And this reading was regularly interrupted by prostrations and the Jesus Prayer.
So thanks to Vladyka, when a few years later he sent me to study at the Orthodox Institute of Munich University, I already had some preparation for the university curriculum.
— Scholarly work in the area of theology in Russia to this day is not taken seriously by practically anyone in our lay system of education. In the West, as far as I know, theology is a highly-regarded field, upon which the universities were first founded. Can you explain why theology is in no way inferior to the other scientific disciplines, and how does one study it?
— It is not only in the West but in Russia too that the foundation of education was laid by the Church itself, by people of the faith. In addition to this, it is known that before there were even schools in Russia, children learned reading and writing by studying Holy Scripture: they read the Psalter, the Book of Hours—that is, theological books.
It is more important to point out that if theology cannot be studied “scientifically,” then it is impossible to study history in general “scientifically.” Those who doubt the “science” of theology are troubled first of all by the “subjectivity” of theology: that is, it is founded upon faith in God, but faith cannot be proven and so belongs to the field of a subjective, mortal world view. But the history of philosophy, too, and the history of art, and of literature, and history itself study human perception of events.
As Nietzche noted, “there are no facts, only interpretations.” So history is always subjective, that is, it is written by people, and they write selectively, choosing that which they deem important. This is obvious to anyone who does critical study of historical sources. Therefore, since any science which studies human thought or human creativity is “not scientific,” one must admit that the history of philosophy, and art, and history in general are “not scientific.” Those who reject the “science” of theology should be consistent and speak out against the study of history itself, since it is subjective.
If one means by “unscientific” the incomplete knowledge of the sources and incompetent use thereof, insufficient knowledge of the secondary literature and the inability in some degree to work in an interdisciplinary method, then all the aforementioned disciplines can be “unscientific” in a way not exclusive to theology per se. One can study the theological sciences competently, or incompetently. There is, of course, a higher sense to the word “theology,” which the fathers called “the science of sciences,” that is, comprehended only through successfully “contemplating God.” But attacks on the “unscientific” nature of theology have in mind another kind of “science,” so I refer to it as a more temporal “science.”
I would note that all writers, artists, philosophers and historians of the past comprehended every event through the eyes of faith either in God, or in gods, or the absence of any kind of divinity. Even atheism presupposes some “unscientific” faith, because it is impossible to “prove” the inexistence of God. Therefore it cannot be denied that our cultural legacy is suffused with faith, and in particular, with contemplation of God, that is, theology. To understand this legacy (if we desire to understand our roots), is impossible without at least some acquaintance with theology. But to be “acquainted with theology,” we need experts in this field, and, of course, competent specialists.
— Does faith influence research in the area of theology or liturgics? Must a teacher or student be a believer (Orthodox, Catholic…), or does this not have any special significance? Maybe it is better that he knows Greek, Georgian, Syrian, the manuscript tradition of the sources, than be a believer and yet incompetent in, say, the languages.
— It happens sometimes that unbelievers study theology or liturgics for some reason. Personally, I don’t entirely understand this, since I was never interested in studying a subject that has no practical application in daily life. In any case, there are philological, historical and other studies written by unbelievers, or heretics, which could be useful for a believing scholar. In our day, due to various circumstances, Orthodox theology in various fields (for instance, Biblistics), clearly lags behind that of the non-Orthodox. But conclusions for the purposes of the Church from non-ecclesiastical researchers can only be drawn by those for whom these conclusions have meaning in life, that is, believers who live the life of the Church. It is one thing to accept that church tradition had its own historical development and context, and another thing entirely to make some sort of conclusions through the eyes of faith in the Church.
The Holy Fathers of the “golden age” of Patristics were able to bring into the Church the discoveries and terminologies of the greatest non-Christian thinkers of the ancient world. And so must we learn to draw from non-ecclesiastical sources when we lack our own knowledge. Self-satisfaction and blindness to ones faults are indecent for a Christian, they are also unworthy of Church study.
— In your opinion, should the approach to education change in this world of informational overload, when one can find everything through Google? How are you able to prevent students from muddling through the internet, and to teach them to think and use the information they receive?
— The approach to education changes and must constantly change in accordance with the specifics of the time and the situation of the students. But the ease with which one can obtain information on the internet is no obstacle to acquiring knowledge or developing scholarly thought. In fact, only “muddling” in useless internet sites, excessive checking of one’s email account and other temptations of the internet represent a danger to scholarly development in that people lose precious time that way.
When I wrote my doctoral thesis, my academic counselor, Fr Robert (Taft), said “If you wish to be a scholar, you must first of all be disciplined. You must always go to bed at the same time—the earlier, the better, say, nine o’clock—and rise at the same time every day. During the daytime, work in the library and turn off your cell phone. Check your e-mail only once a day, no more, and after six o’clock, set your work aside and rest.” It is very important to help students learn self-discipline. I acquaint them with internet sites useful for their work, with open access to manuscripts or secondary sources. I use PowerPoint in my seminars, which aids in teaching the material.
The learning and absorption of the material and preparation for exams are the duties of the student and require effort—despite the ease of transferring information. In discussions during lectures and seminars, one must formulate questions so that they would force the students to think. When necessary, you must point out simplifications, lack of foundation or other errors in their thinking, in order to, let’s say, “provoke” them to deeper thought. One must learn alongside them, and not lose the piety, as it were, a degree of awe before one’s subject.
Active communication with one’s students is very important, and active participation in the process of their education. I share my research with them, tell them about conferences that I attend, of recent important publications in the field of Liturgics, so that the most serious of them become drawn into what is happening in the field.
When you teach, you must love those whom you teach, and wish for them what you wish for yourself—everything else will hint at that love to them.
— The path you chose, being an Orthodox nun and a scholar—is a rare one, and probably puzzling for some in our pragmatic, secular world. Do you consider yourself a happy person?
— I am not a nun, but a rassophore novice, that is, I did not make monastic vows, which include good deeds, and the so-called stabilitas loci, life in one place, in one monastery. At the same time, I would not say that I “chose” my path; it opened itself before me, and the hand of God often led me to a place completely different from where I expected to be. I know that my path is not the loftiest, nor does it foster “contemplation” (in the sense of life remote from the world, in a convent). But this is what God has sent for me, and glory to Him for all things.
As far as my “happiness” in concerned, I never really thought about it. But to answer your question, I would say that a long time ago, when I was still in high school in New York, I thought about Pushkin’s poem “It is time, my friend, it is time…” but in the end, Pushkin did not quite succeed when he wrote: “There is no happiness on earth, but freedom’s there, and peace.” It seemed to me that he would have done better to write: “There is no happiness on earth, but the work of God’s will.” To what degree this is comprehensible to people, or not, to wonder about that is pointless, and useless.
Nun Vassa was born in 1970 to the family of a priest, Protopriest George Larin, Rector of Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack, NY. In 1987-89, she studied at Bryn Mawr College. In 1990, she entered Lesna Convent of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in France. In 1996, she was transferred by Archbishop Mark of Berlin, Germany and Great Britain to Munich, where she carried the obedience of being the choir director in the cathedral. From 1996-2004, she studied the archives of the history of ROCOR in New York, Munich and Moscow. In 2003-2006, she studied at the Institute of Orthodox Theology at Munich University. From 2006-2008, she worked as an assistant to Professor Robert Taft in the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. In 2008, she defended her doctoral dissertation at Munich University on the subject: “The Hierarchal Divine Liturgy in the Proskinitaria of Arseny Sukhanov.” Since January 2009, she has taught at the Institute of Liturgical Studies at the Theology Department of Vienna University.