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from issue no. 11 - 2003

CHRISTIAN EAST. An interview with Cardinal Tomás Spidlík

The Rosary and the prayer of Jesu

“In the East the great renewal came with the so-called “prayer of Jesus”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!” It is a prayer analogous to the Latin Rosary. And, when I speak about the Rosary, I always say that one needs to learn to recite it as the prayer of Jesus is recited in the East”. A meeting with one of the greatest experts of the spirituality of the Christian East

by Pierluca Azzaro

Tomás Spidlík has been teacher to generations of students in many universities, among them the Gregorian and the Pontifical Oriental Institute where he taught for more than forty years. Born in 1919 in Boskovice, in Moravia, since 1991 he has lived and worked at the Ezio Aletti Center, a house of the Society of Jesus where the tradition of the Christian East is studied in its relations with the contemporaneous world and where co-existence is encouraged between the Orthodox and Catholics of Latin and Eastern rite. The work of the Jesuit Father Spidlík, created Cardinal at the last Consistory, is the outcome of years and years of careful research and reflection, united with great artistic sensitivity to contemporaneous culture. These gifts Father Spidlík has spread widely, introducing people to Eastern spirituality and theology.
Tomás Spidlík kissing the Pope’s hand after receiving the cardinal’s hat during the Consistory of 21 October 2003

Tomás Spidlík kissing the Pope’s hand after receiving the cardinal’s hat during the Consistory of 21 October 2003

Your Eminence, you are unanimously recognized as one of the greatest experts in the theology and spirituality of the Christian East, whose essential traits you see in the beauty of the liturgy – considered an excellent apostolic method for the conversion of hearts - and then in the very notion of heart that is expressed in the prayer of simple people. And you often refer in these matters to Serafin of Sarov, perhaps the greatest of Russian nineteenth-century mystics whose canonization, in 1903, was attended by an immense crowd…
TOMÁS SPIDLÍK: The greatest… best not to award prizes. In front of God who is the greatest? Maybe the mother who has brought up five children. It’s certainly true that Serafin of Sarov was a simple man and, for example, loved to repeat a simple prayer: «My God, have mercy on me a sinner»; and to the ever more people who went to ask his counsel, he, by then an old man and with an «incomprehensibly radiant» smile – as one reads in biographies of him - after welcoming them with a Paschal greeting - «Good day, my joy! Christ is risen!» – recommended the most simple practices: prayer, contrition, frequent communion, the fear of God, forgiving offenses, works of mercy. But on this subject there’s another thing I’d like to say, that concerns my cardinalate…
Please, Your Eminence…
SPIDLÍK: I answered the Pope very sincerely. As for me, I told him, it’s not clear why I should receive this title, since I can’t lead the Church anymore. And so I asked dispensation from being ordained bishop. Yet, on the other hand, I was very sincerely grateful for this, let’s say, approval from the universal Church of the spirituality that I work to make known. And I’ve been accepted in the East in the same way as well. How many things I receive from them, how many times they tell me that this spirituality is a part of the spirituality of the universal Church.
Your Eminence, can one say that one of the dominant motives in your teaching over so many years is precisely the hope that the spirituality of the West would rediscover Eastern spirituality?
SPIDLÍK: In the West a technical mentality has led to rationalism and, as reaction, the contrary has appeared: irrational spirituality. In the end the Pope has had to write an encyclical on the healthy use of reason. The spirituality of the heart must be a remedy, a medicine for the rationalism that leads to irrationalism. I’ve had to fight a great deal on the notion of heart, on the prayer of the heart. At the beginning, the notion encountered some resistance from these rational men. But now it’s accepted, and the translation from the French of a book of mine on the prayer of the heart is shortly to be published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, of all things. So I really thank the Church for the sign it has given, getting it understood that the work we do is useful. And as for the work, in the context of the spirituality of the heart, I often stress the value of art.
The washing of the feet, a mosaic in the Redemptoris Mater chapel, Vatican City. The mosaics in the Redemptoris Mater chapel were designed by Father Mark Ivan Rupnik, Director of the Ezio Aletti Study and Research Center

The washing of the feet, a mosaic in the Redemptoris Mater chapel, Vatican City. The mosaics in the Redemptoris Mater chapel were designed by Father Mark Ivan Rupnik, Director of the Ezio Aletti Study and Research Center

Do you mean the art of the icon?
SPIDLÍK: The art made manifest in icons, in the sacred image and in the liturgy. When the doctrine of faith is taught only through rational concepts, obviously the mystery is always very limited. Whereas the symbol leaves the full wealth of meanings. The symbol is not to be understood as decorative attribute. The word symbol is to be understood to the letter, as the visible and immediately perceptible sign of the reality it points to. That’s why Jesus always spoke in parables, in symbols; and the Eastern liturgy is full of symbols, it’s a living icon. Once, in Saintpetersberg, we put on an exhibition of the pictures of Father Marko Ivan Rupnik [director of the center, ed ] and of a Russian artist; and I spoke at the National Museum, and I said: «We live in the time of the image, and people don’t know how to read images that express spiritual things». We must learn from the icons, not slavishly imitate them, but get inspired by them to do something very similar. Now, breathing with two lungs doesn’t mean wondering which is best, whether the Western or the Eastern one, but knowing how to take what under certain aspects is better in Eastern or Western. And above all I say: by now the new peoples who convert, the Africans, the Asians and so on, they don’t ask themselves what Italian theology or German theology is, but what European theology is; in a thousand years, what has Europe brought as positive contribution? We still haven’t made that synthesis. We must therefore make a synthesis of European spirituality, i.e. of the best values that Europe can furnish. Because each nation and each culture brings something new to the Church, to the ongoing revelation.
As you see it, can the recital of the Rosary, of which the Pope has reminded all the faithful this year, be considered an example of the prayer of simple people?
SPIDLÍK: In the East the great renewal came with the so-called “prayer of Jesus”: «Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!» It’s a prayer analogous to the Latin rosary. And when I speak about the Rosary, I always say that one needs to learn to recite it as the prayer of Jesus is recited in the East. I remember a Protestant pastor in Holland who wanted to do everything with us Catholics, bar reciting the Rosary, because, he said, it’s an absent-minded prayer, since nobody can follow the whole recital in their heads. That is, there’s the urge always to understand, understand with the intellect; instead the intellect can serve in developing the real feeling of the heart.
Which seems to mean that, for you, the rediscovery of the “faith of simple people” can be the most effective cure – maybe the only one – for what you call «the most grievous heresy the Church has had to fight against from the beginning of its existence»: Gnosticism, which – I quote from your book Russian spirituality –«reduces the revelation of Jesus Christ to mere abstract ideas».
SPIDLÍK: The old Councils wrote: symbol of faith. Modern man says: definition of faith. It’s not the same. The Creed is not the definition of the faith, the Creed is symbol of the faith; and in that symbol I must understand my own faith. I say further that, in a certain sense, we have falsified the Creed. Not with the Filioque, but with a comma.
With a comma?
SPIDLÍK: Yes, because we sing: «Credo in unum Deum» comma, and then «Patrem omnipotentem». At that time there were no atheists, but the first article of faith was «I believe in one sole God the Father». I believe that God is Father, that is the profession of faith; fatherhood, and one speaks with the Father. «Credo in unum Deum» can in itself mean something else, because I can also believe that God is an idea or a law of the world. Instead the Christian truth is «I believe that God is Father». Hence the first source is the prayer to the Father.
Your Eminence, the ecumenical dialogue seems to have reached another of its moments of difficulty…
SPIDLÍK: I have many friends in the East and when I go to Romania, for example, I’m asked on my return: «How did the Orthodox receive you?» And I answer: «Look, I’ve never been to visit the Orthodox, I’ve been to visit friends, and the friends received me well!» In ecumenicalism, as against discussions, precedence needs to be given to personal contacts. Because personal friendship is truly worth something. Look at our so-called “Casa Aletti”. In these ten years we have had more than a thousand people here, Christian intellectuals, both Catholics and Orthodox. The strange fact is that the world doesn’t know them, and so there is the impression that they don’t exist, that contacts no longer exist, because these things don’t get spoken of. We must shatter the illusion of the newspapers that speak only of scandals and opposition. There’s no preaching, no lesson at the Aletti Center. If people come here, they come just to meet. During mass, in the chapel, there’s no asking whether someone is Catholic or Orthodox, nothing is said, we don’t know, and taking communion is something left to the liberty of each. A Russian, for example, wanted to take communion, but his spiritual Father forbade it; so he continued to come, always making the sign of the cross before the Eucharist. That is spiritual communion, which authority recognizes.
The Greek Orthodox Church, then, is in itself still more hard-line because it doesn’t recognize the validity of the Latin sacraments. That is the theory. But when the Pope went to Constantinople, he gave the chalice he was celebrating with to the Patriarch; and the Patriarch made a symbolic gesture: he placed the episcopal stole on the shoulders of the Pope. And in so doing he recognized him as legitimate bishop. What does it mean? It means that we mustn’t take too seriously what is said, and not even the so-called official positions. We must instead discover the really faithful believers, and when the “faithful believers” find each other, they become friends. What counts, in friendship, is sincerity. Sincerity must lie at the base of friendship.
How is it you set sincerity at the basis of everything?
SPIDLÍK: A great Waldensian friend asked me: «Would you perform the eucharistic liturgy with us?» I answered: « No! I’d think it contrary to charity, given that my faith in the Eucharist is different from your non-sacramental one; so, engaging in that liturgy would be lack of sincerity». Friends must be sincere to each other, tell each other what they believe and what they don’t believe; but we mustn’t make fake friendships, pretending to be friends when we’re not. Are we friends when we recite the Psalms? Fine, then let’s recite the Psalms together. Ecumenicalism demands a lot of sincerity. Fake unions are as sensational as they’re harmful.
Reading your biography, what immediately leaps to the eye is the large numbers of languages your works have been translated into…
SPIDLÍK: There are a lot of translations, true, but it’s not my fault! My last little book, a book on prayer, came out in Arabic, in Baghdad, with the permission of Saddam Hussein. To translate it at that time government permission was required, and granted. Then, with the war, the mail was blocked, but now the first two copies have finally arrived. Another three books have come out in Egypt, so that at least four of my books have come out in Arabic. The handbooks have been translated into modern Greek, while the Romanians have translated practically everything. In the past, teachers and the students used my handbooks in French, as a second language; then the young ones became English speakers, but now they translate them into Romanian. And soon The Gospels for every day comes out in Moscow.
I’d like to ask you a question precisely about Moscow: from your biography it becomes clear that the value of your work has been recognized not only in academic circles but also in political ones.
SPIDLÍK: I say it again: one has to multiply personal relations. Some years ago I had an hour with the Patriarch, and we spoke about spiritual things, with a great deal of friendly feeling and going nowhere near political questions. If politics then come up, it depends on the individual. We didn’t even mention a possible visit by the Pope, we kept away from such things. We spoke about spirituality, and at the end the Patriarch embraced me and gave me a gold medal.
Do you think that governments can do anything to encourage reconciliation between the Eastern and Western Churches?
SPIDLÍK: I wouldn’t know in truth. The question is complicated, and it doesn’t become any less generic if one speaks of governments. Can Italy, for example, do anything? But in Italy we have a right-wing, a left-wing, and then a centrist Italy. More than anything we need to see what individuals can do in particular
Talking of individuals: in a few days the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, will make a visit of State to Rome. For the closure of the celebration for the seventh-hundred anniversary of the Sapienza University, the University has awarded him an honoris causa degree, as it did for John Paul II at the beginning of the celebrations. As a person who has always worked for dialogue between the two Churches, what wish would you make for the illustrious new graduate?
SPIDLÍK: I received an honoris causa degree from the Orthodox University of Cluj, in Romania. Ok, what does it mean? It means that friends have recognized my work. So, without too much speculation, an honoris causa degree means recognition. An honoris causa degree is, in a certain sense, the lay monsignorate and the lay cardinalate. The value of the work done is recognized.

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