In a remarkable introduction to his enduringly attractive Orthodox Spirituality, The Monk of the Eastern Church rehearses an appreciative litany of great mystic saints of the Church, East and West, ancient and modern, institutional and marginal. He does not neglect the ‘deeply Christian, and therefore Orthodox’ insights of such ‘Evangelical’ Christians as George Fox, Nicholas Zinzendorf, John Wesley, William Booth and Sadhu Sundar Singh. He speaks with approval of the early Anglican Franciscan, ‘Father William, the saintly hermit of Glasshampton’ as an ‘Eastern spiritual type’.
His deeply inclusive vision of spiritual unity across traditions is matched in the Anglican world by another quietly remarkable spiritual teacher of the 20th century, Canon Donald Allchin. I’ll say more about him some other time.
Gillet succinctly summarises his approach to spiritual ecumenism thus:
A genuine and intense spiritual life is the shortest and safest way to re-union.
Always balancing scripture, theology, liturgy and the practice of contemplation, Gillet offered a view of ecumenism which was ahead of its time and is perhaps only now beginning to come to the fore. His was a deeply evangelical mysticism, a deeply mystical gospel-based spirituality. He was well-known for his reflections on Gospel texts, delivered simply, directly and from a place of contemplative stillness (he advised preachers to say one thing only – take heed!). It is from shared silence and shared reflection on the Gospels that ecumenism must not only begin but always return. Gillet used to advise inquirers to remain in their own church because Christ was to be found there.
If, as Gillet insists, the aim of human life is union with God and deification, then our union as churches separated by the events of history must flow from this primary aim. Surely, those who are drawn closer into union with God are thereby drawn closer into union with one another and with all.
Over these last few months, I’ve found myself revisiting writers whose works on prayer and faith have been a constant inspiration to me throughout my adult life. There are relatively few of these, and it won’t surprise those who know me to hear that Thomas Merton is one of them, along with William Johnston. But perhaps the most constant of these constant companions is Lev Gillet, who wrote under the pseudonym, A Monk of the Eastern Church, and this is for one very simple reason. He wrote a short book called, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus which was and is for me a concentrated, practical, scriptural and wise guide to the practice of the Jesus Prayer, a prayer which has also been a constant companion since my early 20s. Of course, Gillet wrote many more books, and among the ones I cherish most are his commentary on the Christian Year; The Year of Grace of the Lord, his excellent introduction to Orthodox Spirituality and his reflections on priestly ministry; Serve the Lord with Gladness.
But I knew only the outlines of his life until I recently began to read the excellent biography by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, who knew him well. She introduces us to the fertile milieu of the community of Russian exiles in Paris in the ’20s and ’30s which produced so many remarkable figures – Lossky, Bulgakov, Evdokimov, Schmemann, Mother Maria – and to the rich ecumenical context of Gillet’s own ministry. Of course, his writings show his continued appreciation of the Western Catholic tradition of his birth and early ministry, but I was less familiar with his contact with radical Protestant figures like Wilfred Monod, founder of the Fraternité spirituelle des Veilleurs. He was also deeply shaped by his contact with the early psycholanalytical movement and his appreciation of the wider intellectual landscape of the time. His embrace of Orthodoxy was not a retreat into an exotic enclave but an expression of his profoundly ecumenical and evangelical calling, a calling to find in Christianity’s common early roots a revitalisation based on an encounter with the living Christ within the spirit-filled life of the liturgical community. He found there a warmth and an authentic voice of a Christianity that was at once scriptural and mystical, ritually patterned and free.
Gillet also engaged very closely with Anglicans, not least through the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, and his quiet influence is still palpable among those Anglicans who treasure their contact with the Eastern churches.
In this uncertain time of lockdowns and restrictions, Gillet’s teaching on the Jesus Prayer offers hope and substance – a means of continuing the church’s Eucharistic offering internally: ‘We shall present the Holy Name to God as though it were bread and wine’ (On the Invocation para. 48) and ‘Jesus always remains the bread of life which we can receive as food, even when we do not partake of any sacramental elements’ (para. 50). It is a means whereby we invoke ‘the breaking-in of Christ into our earthly existence’ (para. 51). I thank him for his wisdom and encouragement in these hard times. Memory Eternal!