Gillian Crow, This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony (Review)

Gillian Crow, This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006).

When I first picked up Gillian Crow’s biography of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, I was surprised at the title “This Holy Man.” My surprise was twofold: first, it seemed to me a marketing mistake to use such a title insofar as many modern readers may likely dismiss with a smile or complaint any biography with the word “holy” in the title, a book thereby marked as hopelessly hagiographic. The second source of my surprise was my own study of the metropolitan’s life and works, which have attracted a not inconsiderable number of detractors, some of whom have forcefully and publicly said that Bloom was far from being a saint. This surprise, was, happily, short-lived, for when I opened to the first pages of the introduction, I was relieved to read the author’s explanation that “this book is not a hagiography, for he was not a saint but, like everyone, a human being with his sins and weaknesses, which could be irritating and at times distressing to those with whom he had dealings” (xi). Such is the promising beginning to a needed study of Bloom’s life.

The inheritance left to the Church by Anthony Bloom has not yet been sufficiently discovered. All his published books – over 25 – deserve careful theological consideration. Scholars of Bloom have their work cut out for them: he was not a systematician, and most of his publications are not monographs but simply compilations of talks, homilies, and speeches he had given, and given in his customary way without notes. Only a handful of studies and documentaries on his life currently exist. The bulk of his work awaits serious study. To the extent that he is known at all in North America, it is through his books Living Prayer, School for Prayer, Courage to Pray and God and Man.

Who was Metropolitan Anthony? He was born in 1914 in Lausanne, Switzerland to Xenia Scriabin, a well-educated polyglot, and Boris Bloom, a diplomat who was sent to Persia as consul. Parts of his early childhood were spent in traveling and discovering life in the Middle East. His early life was marked with suffering and insights into fear and loneliness. After settling in Paris, he was sent as a boy to a rough school where only one word ruled – “fight” – and one emotion, terror, seemed to predominate, both leaving deep and long-lasting impressions on Bloom. This atmosphere of terror and suspicion was compounded by the divorce of his parents, and got so bad at one point that he contemplated suicide. As a teenager, Bloom participated in the Student Christian Movement. Until 1929, he did not believe in God, and once during a camp he heard Sergei Bulgakov speak on Christianity. Bloom disliked this speech and decided to make sure that Christianity was worthless nonsense, so he began to read the Bible. Selecting the shortest gospel, Mark, he began to read. Then, as Crow tells us, he “realized Christ is standing here, without doubt…. [I]f Christ is standing here alive, that means he is the risen Christ … and everything that is said about him in the Gospel is true.” This was not a sensory hallucination or mystical experience or the product of his emotions. Rather, it was a sober encounter with reality. He used to say about this event that “God for me became a fact.”

Another important thing that struck him from the first reading of the gospels was Christ’s “godlessness” on the cross. “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” – these words became a motto later in life as Metropolitan Anthony would constantly preach that Christ suffered not only all consequences of sin, including death, but also experienced separation from the divine presence of His Father. This experience and its insights changed Bloom’s life. Now he had found a raison d’etre. He asked Fr. Afanasy Nechaev, who was a monk living an eremitic life, to be his spiritual father. The influence of Fr. Afanasy was immense. Bloom would later describe him as a “profound yet very simple man, not a saint, just a man of our times – but a man who was free, with that incomparable, sovereign freedom of which Christ speaks.”

Under Fr. Afanasy’s influence, Bloom became a monk, choosing the new name of Anthony, after Saint Anthony Pechersky. Bloom also trained as a physician before later becoming a priest, bishop, and metropolitan. His early religious life was marked with not untypical zealousness, but later he would come to realize that such zeal can sometimes choke out what he realized was “the supreme Christian principle of love. That was a valuable lesson for him to learn, and as a bishop he would warn against such excess of piety.” Once he forbade one woman all her pious activity and insisted she had to spend time each day just sitting quietly enjoying the peace of her room. “Sit and knit before God. But I forbid you to utter one word of prayer1” he said.

When Bloom was elected by the Moscow Patriarchate as an auxiliary bishop, it was neither because of his cooperation with the Russian government nor because of his religious life, but because of his talent as an organizer. He had become a famous preacher not only within Orthodox Church but also beyond the bounds of it, being regularly invited by the BBC World Service to broadcast in both Britain and the Soviet Union. (Bloom’s relationship with Russia and the Russian Church was mixed. On the one hand, he felt how everything was close to him because Russia was “Holy Mother Russia” for him; but on the other hand he once said that “modern Russia is alien to me.”)

Bloom’s episcopal tenure was not without controversy. He began as archbishop of Sourozh, the ancient name given to his territory in the British Isles to avoid using the names of Western sees, and later was appointed as exarch of Western Europe. He was sacked from this latter position when he took part in a prayer service for Solzhenitsyn. As bishop, his methods of administration were not always typical. Bloom never had a formal theological education and evidenced a dislike of seminaries. Thus he preferred to ordain men of “solid faith who had leadership qualities, good experience of life and whom congregations felt they could trust.”

Bloom’s views on ecumenism were unconventional. He was a member of the Russian Church‘s Ecumenical Commission and yet found formal ecumenical dialogue uncongenial. He could, however, generously see holiness and virtue in communions other than his own. He once said that “the greatest thing that the Catholic Church produced was the period of mysticism from about the 16th-19th century,” including such outstanding figures as Saint Theresa of Avila and Saint Jean Vianey, figures whom most Orthodox knew nothing about but should, according to Bloom.

Bloom’s views on ecclesiology were also unconventional. He saw the Church as an inverted pyramid, resting on the shoulders of Christ. “On Christ’s shoulders stood patriarchates and above them the metropolitans, the bishops, the clergy and the people, directed upwards; each rank bearing the burdens of those above him in this inverted pyramid.” Bloom understood that hierarchs had the vocation of service and no more. Bloom put this into practice, too, and was not averse himself to cleaning the church, scraping the worst of the candle wax off the floor, and washing dishes. For Gillian Crow, these examples were a manifestation of “his conviction that the sacramental priesthood and episcopate had genuinely to share the characteristics of Christ’s life of humility and service, not by making the occasional grand gesture … but by living the basic, simple life.”

Who was Metropolitan Anthony? Does Crow provide an adequate answer to this question? I would say yes. It is her accomplishment not only to show the positive sides – as we have seen – of one of the most significant Orthodox personages of the twentieth century, but also his weaknesses. She is not afraid to be critical. Bloom was not the living saint that his

more sycophantic admirers took him to be. He could often be dictatorial, inconsistent (treating people as though they alone existed for him at one minute but then turning away from them as though he did not know them the next), and muddled in his administration. He liked to be surrounded by a clique of admirers, especially women.

Such, then, is the complex human being – at once charismatic, warm, and joyful while also someone who fought hard with inner demons, including depression – whom Crow compellingly presents. It is her accomplishment to show the lights and the shadows of Bloom – though it is not surprising if the lights predominate: Bloom was Crow’s spiritual father for part of her life after she converted to Orthodoxy. Her biography, then, should be read with this in mind. What we are still awaiting, after this commendable first attempt at bringing together the data about this unusual churchman in popular form, is a more scholarly consideration of Bloom’s works in connection with his life and the politically, ecumenically, and ecclesiastically convoluted, complex context of the twentieth century. There is much work to be done.

Originally published at: Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies VOL. 47, (2006) Nos. 3-4, pp. 134-138.

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