Scholar Fridays is a weekly series on Bearings Online where we interview 2017-18 Resident Scholars. Susan Sink spoke with Nicholas Denysenko, who spent the Fall 2017 semester at the Collegeville Institute. Denysenko is currently the Jochum Professor and Chair at Valparaiso University. To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Tell us about your project.
I’ve been working on two projects. First, I devoted ample time to completing a draft of a forthcoming monograph titled The People’s Faith. This book puts the testimony of lay women and men of four Orthodox parishes in America about liturgy in dialogue with the official theology of the Church. My thesis is that theologians need to draw from the lived faith of the people of the Church in engaging the work of the liturgical enterprise.
I have also been examining manuscripts in Church Slavonic from L’viv, Ukraine, at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML). I discovered a handwritten songbook containing numerous paraliturgical hymns dated to 1901, and the manuscript introduced me to the rich history of the emergence of paraliturgical singing in the life of the Eastern Church from the 16th to 18th centuries. I hope to translate the songbook and analyze its contents. I also discovered two texts of the “rite of communion from the Theophany waters,” a fascinating component of the Eastern tradition of blessing waters on the Theophany feast. The rite of communion of the Theophany waters is a model for learning about the Eastern Christian tradition of drinking Theophany waters for the remission of sins as a way of renewing Baptism.
In addition to teaching and scholarship, I see you were also the director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount for the past 6 years. Tell us a bit about your work there. Will you continue in these dialogues?
During my tenure as Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute, I organized conferences, lectures, and events designed to promote Christian ecumenical dialogue, especially to the clergy and people of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Institute seeks to make a substantial contribution for the healing of divisions and the restoration of Eucharistic communion between the two Churches, and also to serve as a unifying force for all Christians. I was fortunate to work with colleagues who were fully committed to promoting ecumenical dialogue, and during my tenure, we secured two grants, from the Henry Luce Foundation and the Virginia Farah Foundation. The Institute made a significant contribution toward educating the public on the realities of the inner lives of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
A gifted graduate student of mine remarked that it is hard for a committed Catholic to desire the restoration of communion with the Orthodox Church when one simply knows very little about Orthodoxy. I reflected on her observation while interacting and conversing with the people who attended our events. It’s one thing to be aware of the historical and doctrinal issues dividing the churches, but it’s another to be aware of the faith confessed and the lives conducted by the people who belong to these churches. So, it is essential to engage in dialogue, and the rules of engagement do not require representatives of the churches to apologize for their positions or abandon them for the sake of Communion.
That said, it may be that experiencing a life of faith and worship together is a more feasible way to Communion. I hope to continue to contribute to this dialogue, and also to expand it by engaging Lutherans and other Christians in dialogue as well. In fact, I’m convinced that the only way for Eastern Orthodox Christians to take a step toward communion is to experience life with non-Orthodox Christians. For me, this entails sharing substantial aspects of the lives of Western, non-Orthodox Churches.
Have there been any surprises during your stay at the Collegeville Institute this semester?
Most of my research has revolved around the examination of manuscripts collected and digitized by HMML. The collection of manuscripts from Eastern Churches is transforming HMML into a first-rate research center for scholars of the Syriac and Ethiopian Churches. But HMML also has a robust collection of manuscripts in Church Slavonic, including hundreds of tomes from libraries in L’viv, Ukraine. I do not view this as an academic enterprise only: it is a way to sustain the legacy of Eastern Christianity through study, an enterprise dependent on the relationships with Eastern Churches established by HMML.
I already know that I will miss the environment of the Collegeville Institute. The Institute convenes people of diverse traditions for prayer, fellowship, reflection, debate, and study: these activities are icons of daily life, so the Institute promotes a model of coming together in a safe space for the stuff of daily life. Sharing one’s creative projects and scholarship is the cornerstone, but all of the other aspects of life are folded into the work of the Institute. The opportunity to rehearse this model is short, but formative, because during one’s time here, the people of the Institute become community.
I think the Collegeville Institute symbolizes one of the best qualities of the Benedictine and Catholic heritage: genuine hospitality and inclusion. Speaking from experience, this is not a forced social engineering aimed at creating a utopian community: the Collegeville Institute stretches out a real hand of friendship to all who visit. I can’t think of a better model for creating and sustaining Christian community in our age of polarization.
Tell us about your new position at Valparaiso.
I accepted an appointment as Jochum Professor and Chair at Valparaiso, so I will be teaching, lecturing, and developing scholarship and creative projects aimed at nurturing Gospel values at Valparaiso and beyond. My initial encounters with the people of Valparaiso University have impressed me. My impression is that this is a community devoted to pursuing truth and giving blood to the world through scholarship, with the worship at Resurrection Chapel the heart that functions as the source of that life-giving blood. I found the faculty and students to be intellectually curious, happy to engage material and ideas unfamiliar to them, and incredibly generous during my campus visit. I hope to create connections with Orthodox people in Valparaiso, and will be pleased to share my tradition with them, while also learning the Lutheran traditions from them.
Where do you see the Orthodox Church in America in 10 years?
This is a challenging time for Orthodoxy in America as the Church continues to encounter the challenges of postmodernity, the same issues confronting all other Christian Churches. Orthodoxy is experiencing attrition throughout the world, including the Church in America. Orthodoxy is changing in America, as the Church becomes increasingly composed of converts to Orthodoxy and less dependent on immigrants. If I am to be a realist – not a pessimist – I’d say that the numbers will continue to decline. Parishes will close or combine, and some communities might experience crises in sustaining the financial models that come with owning property and depending on a certain amount of income from parishioners to keep the doors open and the lights on.
There are two primary factors that will continue the attrition: education and employment trends will continue to promote mobility, so people will move to the locations of their jobs. It’s no longer a matter of staying in one place for forty or so years and walking to church. Second, Christian faithful have the freedom to choose their church. Inevitably, some people will choose a non-Orthodox community, regardless of any promise of woes for leaving the Orthodox Church. There is no pastoral strategy one can concoct to alter this reality.
I think that the Orthodox Church can be a life-giving community, a witness to the living God, a pillar of Jesus Christ by recapturing the spirit of brilliant creativity, of courageous engagement of the world, its people, and its issues – even the controversial ones – a spirit that has been adopted by faithful men and women for centuries, especially during down times. When the Orthodox Church is at her best, she reveals the living Christ in image, song, ritual movement, and especially through her people. People will always hunger for God who is the lover of humankind – and one can enter into communion with this God through the Orthodox Church, when Orthodoxy is willing to present the Incarnate God to the local people in images and languages they can comprehend.
What is the best book you read in 2017? And/or what are you reading for pleasure right now?
Let me name a couple of books: Ricky Manalo’s book The Liturgy of Life is a wonderful study of the meaning of liturgy as the source and summit of Christian life in the practices of ordinary people. Manalo excelled at bringing official theology into dialogue with popular religion. I’ll also mention Barbara Brown-Taylor’s memoir, Leaving Church. Her memoir is a series of terrific episodes in a rich life that can’t be summarized by a line in a CV. She masterfully illustrates how everyday life is participation in the life of God with all of its joys and sorrows. I’m now reading Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine, an original narration of Stalin’s campaign of collectivization and dekulakization in Ukraine that claimed 4-5 million lives through a forced famine in 1932-33. I can’t stop reading Red Famine, but it is not a pleasurable book: I’d call it a necessary read, to gain insight into an empire’s attempt to eradicate a nation from the face of the earth.
Is there a question you wish I had asked but didn’t?
What do I do for fun? Besides the library, I have walked for hours on the trails of this campus, and that’s an activity I know I will miss very much. I am grateful for the opportunity to have joined the monks in prayer at the Abbey – I learned a lot from this participation. I also want to add that I was raised in Minnesota, and am a lifelong Vikings fan. It’s been fun to see them win this year and to feel the excitement among fans.