After some aggravation thanks to Friday’s snowstorm, I made it back last night only about five hours later than I should have been here. The delay from my cancelled flight wasn’t that terrible (especially compared to the epic incompetence of JetBlue a few weeks ago), so I suppose I shouldn’t complain, but let me just say that I’m not a big fan of La Guardia. The airport, that is. Judging from the absurd-looking statue of old Fiorello that they have put up in the Marine Air terminal, I would say that the people who run the airport don’t much like the former mayor. Neither am I pleased with the horrid Northeastern habit that people have of automatically putting milk in your coffee. I didn’t even ask for a ‘regular’ coffee, which I understand is Northeasternese for, “Please ruin this perfectly good coffee with some milk.” No, apparently it’s simply taken as a given that coffee should never be good and there is no need to consult the person ordering the coffee. Even leaving aside the question of Lent, such coffee will go from an unpleasant ordeal to being simply undrinkable in a matter of minutes. This is one of those amusing regional customs, rather like the default of putting sugar in tea in the South, that I find a little tiresome after a while. (Southerners, being generally more hospitable, do understand that they should ask whether you would also like to have your tea ruined.) I don’t begrudge people their regional customs, but I do reserve the right to point out that they are ruining their coffee and tea. I should say that Brookline was very nice, and I’d be glad to go back there anytime. Boston, however, left a different, sour taste in my mouth.
The conference itself was a great time. As I had briefly mentioned in one of the comments, it was on the campus of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Theological School. It is an unusual experience for me, as I imagine it is for most people, to be able to go to a campus chapel and find an Orthodox church. The daily Orthros (albeit in a very shortened form) and Vespers were very good ways to start and end a couple of the days. The weather was not entirely cooperative with us, leading to the later problems of traveling home, but the atmosphere of the conference, which was one made up entirely by graduate students, was very cordial and pleasant. There was one contentious session on Hesychasm, which didn’t surprisingly create an argument between Orthodox and non-Orthodox participants (since Palamite theology is usually seen in all Orthodox-Catholic exchanges as a fundamental disagreement). Ironically, it was a paper arguing that St. Gregory of Thessalonika had turned what could have been a “dialogue” into a “polemic,” which was unfortunately the effect of the paper on that topic. Instead of sparking confessional dispute, it set off a strong intra-Orthodox quarrel between one Orthodox speaker (who, curiously enough, had also gone to my alma mater) and the other Orthodox students. The poor Protestant seminarians and other non-Orthodox in the room seemed to be mostly at a loss as to why this paper had generated such intense feelings. Gatherings of Orthodox academics should come with a warning label: “Danger: Converts and Greeks may create a combustible and unstable situation.” However, this particular debate wasn’t one of converts vs. cradle Orthodox or Americans vs. Greeks, but really was a debate between the one speaker, who was taking a very hard line against Palamas over a single response that he had made to Barlaam the Calabrian, and everyone else fairly sputtering and gasping in disbelief. Several of the people in the audience did make what I considered quite solid replies to the paper’s argument, but the session had definitely gone from being a venue for exchange and inquiry and had become a more fundamental and visceral argument over the place of monks in the Church.
My own session generally went very well, and I think the session in which I was giving a response was fairly productive. All of the papers I heard were interesting, though the one mentioned above would undoubtedly have done better with some less provocative language about St. Gregory, and it made for a good opportunity to meet some of the rising early Christian studies, patristics and Byzantine scholars. What was remarkable was how many had either previously gone, were currently going or were considering going to Chicago. Officially, we had four speakers participating in the conference, which put us behind the folks at Notre Dame, but our “unofficial” representation including former students and other attendees put us closer to nine out of a group of roughly forty-five. Somehow or other Chicago attracts or produces quite a few people interested to one degree or another in church history. I have no idea whether this is actually above average or not, but it certainly seems unusual for a place normally associated with its economists, lawyers and businessmen.
The strangest thing I saw on the entire trip was on the Boston T on the Blue Line. As I was riding in from the airport, I looked across the way to see a big, prominently displayed advertisement for “Guaranteed Swahili.” Is there a great need for Swahili speakers in the greater Boston area? It wouldn’t exactly surprise me, given that there is plenty of immigration from Africa in several of the major Eastern cities (as I understand it, Washington is the largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia), but I am a bit more used to seeing ads for learning Spanish where I’m from. I suppose some gradual cultural takeovers seem a bit less bizarre than others.
An interesting discovery was a new academic press, Gorgias Press, that had put some of its books out at the conference. I was looking at their book collection last night after returning, and they have an impressive number of publications or reprints of many things related to Syrian and Persian Christianity and early Christianity generally. The reprints are often quite expensive, but in the case of the book I found at the conference, The Maronites in History, it would have been worth the full, non-conference price. The book on the Maronites is a recent reprint of a 1986 work that apparently went out of print (how could that have happened when the book talks extensively about monotheletism?). In it, the author, Matti Mousa, lays out quite clearly and, I think, mostly accurately the history of the Maronites as a distinct religious community. I assume that many Maronites do not like this book, because it is a pretty relentless debunking of the extremely shaky myths Maronite apologists have woven around their origins as a religious group. Mousa’s control of the Byzantine material is a little shaky, and therefore his dating sometimes just follows that of the Syriac sources, but it would appear that he knows the Arabic and Syriac sources very well. From all of this he reconstructs the duration of monotheletism in the Maronite church, which was actually much, much longer than I had ever thought. Most accounts seem to assume that monotheletism ended soon after the Maronites submitted to Rome in the 1180s, but Mousa claims, based on ongoing Italian missionary work to Lebanon, that Maronite service books and doctrines remained formally and materially monotheletic into the late sixteenth century, if not longer. This is an even longer duration than Fr. Louth allowed for in his fine book on the Damascene, but unfortunately the footnote for this particular point is actually missing from the bottom of the page (even OUP makes mistakes, I suppose). If that is accurate, it is even more important for the historian of monotheletism (who, at this point, seems to me, given that there are so very few competitors for the title) to get into the study of the Maronites, who represented the continuation of monotheletism for more than ten times as long a time as monotheletism existed in Byzantium. It is fascinating to think that monotheletism endured well into the early modern period in at least one small corner of the world. Perhaps if there were more attention paid to this continuation a greater interest in understanding monotheletism would develop.