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Winter Books
Issue Date:  October 10, 2003

DISCERNING THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES: THE VISION OF ELISABETH BEHR-SIGEL
Edited by Michael Plekon and Sarah E. Hinlicky
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 202 pages, $13.95
French grandmother pushes the envelope of Orthodox theology

Reviewed by JERRY RYAN

Elisabeth Behr-Sigel has received the unofficial title of “the grandmother of Western Orthodoxy.” At the age of 96 she certainly satisfies the generational requirement. She does not, however, entirely conform to the stereotype of the “babushki,” the zealous protectors and transmitters of ancestral beliefs and customs. Behr-Sigel is still an active theologian (and swimmer) fiercely attached to the “essential tradition” proclaimed in the gospels and lived in the Spirit down through the ages but at the same time intolerant of stagnant mindsets and archaic practices. She questions, challenges and provokes, yet always with respect, almost humbly. She has taught both at the St. Sergius Institute and the Catholic Institute of Paris. She reminds one of the scribe versed in the Kingdom who brings forth both the old and the new.

It is only recently that her works are appearing in English: The Ministry of Women in the Church (1991), The Place of the Heart (1992), her monumental biography of Lev Gillet, A Monk of the Eastern Church (1999), The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church (with Bishop Callistos Ware, 2000), and in 2001 Discerning the Signs of the Times: The Vision of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel edited by Michael Plekon and Sarah E. Hinlicky.

The subtitle is well-chosen. The book is a collection of conferences and essays on diverse topics rather than a systematic treatise -- a series of compact intuitions that intertwine and suggest, in fact, a vision broader than the sum of the parts. As practical and concrete as many of her observations might be, one senses an underlying contemplative dimension, a unifying peace and balance.

Three themes are prominent in this anthology; the challenges of modernity, the kenotic tradition, and the role of women in Orthodoxy. There are two essays dedicated to relatively modern “fools of Christ” -- Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945) and Alexander Bukharev (1822-1871) -- both of whom envisaged a monastic life without cloister or defense, among the poor and despised, in imitation of the humble and vulnerable Christ. As original and “revolutionary” as these personalities might seem, Behr-Sigel anchors them in the deep mystical tradition of Christian Russia. And because a Skobtsova and a Bukharev were willing to dialogue with the real world in which they found themselves, they point the way for Orthodoxy to open itself to the new situation that confronts it by adapting itself, reinventing itself, in continuity with its essential truth. It is no secret that there is a tendency in certain sectors of contemporary Orthodoxy to flee to the cloister of the “sacred,” to the haven of tradition, far from the ambiguities of modern pagan secularism. For Behr-Sigel this is neither a viable nor realistic option. It is this contemporary world that is to be evangelized and saved and Orthodoxy must learn to dialogue with it, love what is positive in it, learn from what is most authentic in its continual evolution. The liberation and valorizing of women is certainly one of the more positive cultural trends and this leads Behr-Sigel to challenge Orthodoxy, in the name of the gospels and the authentic tradition of the Fathers, on the role of women in the church’s ministry. Her argumentation is refreshingly theological, without polemic or stridence. She proceeds respectfully but confident that her perspective is worthy of consideration.

Discerning the Signs of the Times concludes with a brief biography of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel by Lyn Breck and an evaluation of her work by Sarah Hinlicky, which combine to situate Behr-Sigel and her role in Western Orthodoxy.

When she embraced Orthodoxy at the age of 24, Behr-Sigel already had the equivalent of a masterís degree in theology (she would later receive her doctorate) and had been appointed by the Reformed Church of Alsace-Lorraine to preach and exercise a pastoral ministry. She was the first woman in France to officially receive such a charge. The Orthodox community of which she became a part was composed mainly of Russian immigrants and centered around the newly founded St. Sergius Institute of Paris. The evolution of this community was to be of critical importance for the concept of a “Western Orthodoxy” and the ecumenical movement. Freed from the constraints of a church-state relationship, immersed in a culture very different from their own, often socially poor and humiliated, the intellectuals in exile began to reevaluate their concept of Orthodoxy and rediscover values that had long been dormant. The encounter with Neo-Thomism, represented by Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, inspired a similar revival of the Eastern patristic heritage -- and this, in turn, led to insights that had a profound influence on such Catholic theologians as Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou and Jean Tillard. Without undue exaggeration, it can be said that much of what is best in modern theology and authentic ecumenism can be traced to this meeting of East and West in what was to become the Orthodox church in France. Converts such as Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Lev Gillet and Olivier Clement played an important role in the realization that Orthodoxy cannot be a ghetto religion, that it has a universal dimension and a place in all cultures. Behr-Sigel’s biography is intimately linked with the history of this movement, which has benefited greatly from her proverbial feistiness, radical fidelity and youthful enthusiasm; in brief, all that a woman theologian with a pastoral zeal and a profound spirituality could bring over a period of 70 years to an ancient and sometimes stagnant church.

Behr-Sigel is, in fact, a real grandmother with a mischievous sense of humor, who does her best to keep up with her ever-growing brood. She is still very much in demand for workshops and conferences and continues to participate in the publication of Contacts, the French language quarterly revue of Orthodoxy. Although she writes mainly for an Orthodox public, Behr-Sigel’s work transcends all sectarianism and treats of problems and perspectives common to the universal church. It is good that she is becoming accessible to the English-speaking world.

Jerry Ryan is a freelance writer in Chelsea, Mass., who has worked 22 years as a janitor at the New England Aquarium.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 2003

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