Types of Religious Lives by Mother Maria Skobtsova.htm
- Types of Religious Lives by Mother Maria SkobtsovaTypes of Religious Lives
by Mother Maria Skobtsova
If we study carefully the historical situation in which we find ourselves or, more accurately, those types of piety which our present-day situation has produced, we can discern, objectively and dispassionately, various categories of people who do not understand man's religious calling in the same way. Each category has its own positive and negative characteristics, and it is entirely possible that only the sum of them would give a proper overview of the multifaceted nature of Christian life. On the other hand, when classifying types of religious life within Orthodoxy one must always bear in mind that alongside the completely distinctive representatives of one or another type, the majority of people will represent some kind of combination of two or even more types of religious life. It is very difficult to remain within the framework of impartiality and objectivity when classifying and defining these types, because in reality each individual is attracted to his own concept of Christianity and repels any understanding that is not his own. In this article I can only say that I wish to make every effort to avoid such partiality.
The five types
If, while observing Orthodox believers, you enter into conversation with them and read the various Orthodox books and journals devoted to religious issues, you are at once struck by the incredible multifacetedness of their understanding of the spiritual life. If, however, one makes an attempt to classify this variety into more or less closely defined categories, then I would say that at this given moment within Orthodoxy there are five types of piety: (1) synodal; (2) ritualist; (3) esthetical; (4) ascetical; (5) evangelical.
To be sure, such a classification is to some extent arbitrary. Life is much more complex than this, and it is very likely that there are other categories which I was unable to discern. But even this arbitrary classification is of great help in understanding many events in our lives. To a certain degree, it also permits one to understand one's own personal sympathies and antipathies, one's own spiritual path. Each spiritual type has its own, at times very complicated history, its own coming into being; each is determined by the diverse circumstances of its origin. A person finds himself in one or another group not only as the result of some internal inclination, but also because he is, to some extent, predetermined for it by the milieu from which he comes, by his upbringing, education and other influences. I will attempt to characterize each category from the point of its historical origins, its moral attributes, its way of life (and even its special skills), the extent of its spread, the creative potential contained within it, and its relationship to the current problems of Church life.
The Russian emigration flowed into Europe, one might say, before it had cooled down after its struggle, still seething with passionate fury at having been deprived of the ideals of that great Russian land, of the "White" idea, etc. It carried with it not only its own miserable baggage, not only its bayonets and regimental banners, but portable churches with iconostases made out of cloth stretched over wooden frames, sacred vessels and vestments. And having landed on foreign soil, it set up not only branches of the All-Forces Union, but its own churches. For many the Church was a vital requirement for their souls. For many, a kind of inescapable attribute of the idea of Russia as a Great Power, without which it was difficult to speak of nationalism, of loyalty to the traditions and ordinances of the past. The Church was a reliable and recognized political and patriotic symbol. Somehow its inner meaning did not attract much attention. The important thing was to commemorate the anniversaries of the tragic deaths of national heroes or the anniversaries of the establishment of glorious regiments. In church it was possible to organize solemn, sober demonstrations of one's unity, one's loyalty. One could participate in services of intercession for the departed, kneel on one knee during the singing of Memory Eternal [endnote: Kneeling on one knee, instead of both, was the accepted military stance, eagerly imitated by boys and any other male with even the remotest -- real or imagined -- connection with the military. (Translator)], gather around the senior officer present. Very often a considerable degree of ingenuity and energy were expended in fashioning a censer or seven-branched candle stand out of empty food tins, or in converting some drafty barracks into a church. The existence of the Church was essential, but the motivations for this need often were of a national rather than ecclesial character.
If we try to discover the origin of such an attitude, it isn't hard to find its roots in the previous ecclesiastical epoch, the so-called "Synodal Period" of the Church. From the time of Peter the Great our Russian Orthodox Church became an attribute of the autocratic Russian State, one department among other departments, and took its place in the system of government institutions, absorbing into itself the government's ideas, experiences, and the taste of power. The State granted it protection, punished offenses against the Church, and in return demanded condemnation for offenses against the State. The State appointed the Church's hierarchs, kept an eye on their activities with the help of the Chief Procurator, assigned administrative tasks to the Church, and made it a party to its political expectations and ideals.
After two hundred years of such a system's existence the inner structure of the Church was itself changed. Spiritual life was pushed into the background, while on the surface one had an official State-sanctioned religiosity, with certificates being issued to civil functionaries certifying that they had been to Confession and Communion, since without such a certificate the functionary could not be considered a loyal subject from the State's point of view. This system led to the creation of a special religious psychology, a special religious type, with a particular kind of moral foundation, a particular kind of churchmanship and a special way of life. For generation after generation people were schooled in the idea that the Church is of utmost importance, something absolutely necessary, but still it was only an attribute of the State. Piety was one of the State virtues, necessary only because the State had need of pious people. The priest was an overseer appointed by the State to look after the correct performance of religious functions by loyal Russian subjects. As such he was a respected figure, but nevertheless as an individual he enjoyed no more respect than did other functionaries who looked after social order, the armed forces, finances, etc.
The Synodal Period saw a completely defeatist treatment of the clergy, the utter absence of any distinctive status, and even a tendency to treat them as inferior, not allowing them entry into so-called "society." People went to Confession once a year because this was what was required. They got married in Church, they baptized their children, buried their dead, stood through prayers of intercession on royal festivals, and -- when they were particularly pious -- served Akathists. But the Church was something quite separate from the rest of life. People went there when it was called for -- and it was certainly not called for to overdo one's churchiness. This was perhaps done only by the Slavophils, who by their conduct slightly modified the established, formal, official tone of polite relationship toward the Church. It is only natural that the synodal type of piety was grounded, in the first instance, on the cadres of the Petersburg ministerial bureaucracy, that it was linked specifically with bureaucracy and so was spread throughout Russia through provincial bureaucratic centers to the local representatives of State authority.
This whole system foreordained that the most religiously gifted and fervent believers would find in it no place for themselves. They either went to monasteries, seeking to separate themselves completely from all superficial Church activity, or they simply revolted, frequently protesting not only against the Church's institutional system but against the Church itself. This is the origin of the anti-religious fanaticism of our revolutionaries, which so resembled, in its earliest manifestations, the flaming passion of true religious life. It attracted to itself all those who thirsted for an inner ascetic challenge, for sacrifice, selfless service and disinterested love -- all of which the official State Church could not offer. It must be said that during the Synodal Period even the monasteries succumbed to this general process of disintegration of the spiritual life. The all-powerful arm of the State was extended over them, over their morals and way of life, and they were turned into official cells of the overall ecclesiastical establishment.
Thus there remained in the Church for the most part either those who were lukewarm, those who could keep their religious impulses under control, or those who could channel their spiritual needs into the system of State values. In this way a system of moral ideals developed. No doubt what was held in the greatest esteem was good order, a respect for the law, a certain reserve, along with rather firmly expressed feelings of obligation, respect for one's elders, a condescending concern for one's juniors, honesty, love of Fatherland, a reverence for authority, etc. No special exertions were required. Creativity was suppressed in the interests of good order and the general purposes of the State machine. Podvizhniki somehow failed to appear in provincial cathedral churches. Here there were people of a different sort: rectors, calm, businesslike cathedral archpriests thoroughly familiar with the Divine Services who made every effort to conduct them solemnly and with grandeur in splendid and magnificent temples, superb administrators and organizers, custodians of Church property, official functionaries of the synodal establishment, honorable people, conscientious, but uninspiring and uncreative.
And the cathedrals -- the crowning expression of the synodal architectural craftsmanship -- were overwhelming in their massiveness, their spaciousness, their gilt and marble, with huge cupolas, resonant echoes, immense royal doors and costly vestments. Colossal choirs performed special Italianate and secularized ecclesiastical chants. The images on the icons could hardly be seen, having been encased in gold and silver covers. The deacon could hardly lift the book of the Gospels, with its heavy binding, and he read it in such a way that at times it was impossible to understand a single word. But it was not his job to make the reading understandable: he had to begin with a kind of unimaginably low rumble and end in a window-rattling bellow, showing off the mighty power of his voice. Everything had but a single purpose, everything was in harmony with each aspect of the epoch's churchmanship, everything had as its aim a display of the power, wealth, and indestructibility of the Orthodox Church and the great Russian State which protected her.
How widespread was this kind of ecclesiastical psychology? Certainly, one ought not to imagine that this was the only type of religious consciousness, but without a doubt any other kind would have to be searched for diligently, since the "official" type was so overpowering. This is especially clear if we take into account that alongside such a understanding of ecclesiastical life and religious ways, we developed our own intense form of atheism. These people, as Soloviev accurately observed, laid down their lives for their friends while believing that man evolved from apes. Thus it was possible to find an outlet for love, sacrifice and heroic deeds outside church walls. But within the Church anything which was different, was, by that fact alone, in opposition: it flowed against the current and was persecuted and belittled. This ecclesiastical psychology was based on a very solid way of life, and this way of life, in turn, was nourished by it. Tradition permeated everything, from prayer to the kitchen. From what has been said it should be obvious that on such soil one could hardly expect to see creative forces grow.
Here everything is channeled toward conservation, to the preservation of the foundations, to the repetition of feelings, words and gestures. Creativity demands some new kind of challenge; here there was none, neither in the field of ideas, nor in the field of arts, nor in the way of life. Everything was strongly guarded and protected. Innovation was not permitted. There was no need for any creative principle. The synodal type of religious life, which promoted other values along with spiritual ones, namely those of the State, of a way of life and of a particular tradition, not only distorted and confused the hierarchy of values, but often simply replaced Christian love with an egotistical love for the things of this world. It is difficult, even impossible to see Christ, to experience a Christianization of life, where the principle of the secularization of the Church is openly proclaimed. This type of piety was not up to the difficult task of rendering to God what is God's and what is Caesar's to Caesar.
During its lengthy existence it more and more frequently let Caesar triumph. Through it the Roman emperor conquered Christ, not in the circus arena, not in the catacombs, but at the very moment when he recognized the Heavenly King: at that very moment the subversion of Christ's commandments by the commandments of the secular State began. One can acquire synodal piety through one's education, through habit and custom, but in no way can one acquire it through a desire to follow in the footsteps of Christ. From a historical point of view this orderly system had already begun to show cracks by the end of the nineteenth century. Suddenly a guest appeared in the Church, and not an entirely welcome one: the Russian intelligentsia. We shall speak more about his role later, but at first this role was only shallowly rooted in the Church's life. It was more a phenomenon on the fringes of the Church.
Everything changed decisively from the moment of the February  revolution and, in the Church, these changes were reflected in the All-Russian Church Council [of 1917-18] and the restoration of the Patriarchate.
However important these changes were to the Church's historic way of life, they could not, of course, suddenly change people's psychology and refashion the temper of their souls. Because of this the emigration brought with it into foreign lands memories of the Russian Church's Synodal Period, its way of life, its art, its clergy, its understanding of the Church's role and significance in the overall patriotic scheme. It is very likely that even now the synodal type of piety predominates. This is easy to demonstrate if we bear in mind that the whole of the Karlovci group [endnote: The group of bishops, priests and faithful, based in Karlovci, Serbia, who after 1921 declared themselves administratively independent of St. Tikhon, the Patriarch of Moscow. They went on to form the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.] in our Church lives precisely in accordance with this ideology, uniting Church and State, preserving the old traditions, not wanting to take cognizance of the new conditions of life and continuing to preach Caesaro-papism. Not everyone who belonged to the synodal psychology was attracted exclusively to that special group.
Everywhere, in spacious cathedrals and in provincial makeshift churches, we can find people who confess their membership in the Orthodox Church and along with this, believe that the Church is simply a necessary attribute of Russian sovereignty.
It is difficult to have two views on whether this psychology has any correlation with the current problems of the Church's life. In the first place, life today demands creative efforts from us so urgently that no grouping which lacks a creative agenda can expect to succeed. Moreover, there is no doubt but that on the historical plane the Synodal period has come to an end with no possibility of return; there is no basis for assuming that the psychology which it engendered can survive it for long. In this sense it is not important how we assess such a religious type. Only one thing is important: without a doubt it is dying and has no future. The future challenges the Church with such complex, new and crucial problems that it is difficult to say off hand to which religious type it will give the possibility to prove itself and reveal itself in a creative manner.
The next type of religious life, that of the strict ritualist, bears traces of an entirely different origin. Compared to the synodal type it is archaic, but it has never died out. It intertwined itself with the synodal piety, standing over against it, but never struggles with it. Synodal piety encountered strict ritualism in the Church from the moment of its own origin, since the whole of Muscovite Rus' was permeated with its spirit. The Old Believer Schism grew out of it and absorbed its strengths into itself. By modifying itself and becoming more complex, it has endured even down to our time. It is, perhaps, the most frightening and inert remnant inherited from Muscovite Rus'.
There is no doubt that the creative and theological level of Muscovite piety was extremely weak. Moscow adopted many things from Byzantium, but somehow managed to miss its creative intensity. Moscow reforged all the turbulent and antinomian vibrancy of the Byzantine genius into an immovable form, a cult of the letter, a cult of tradition, a repetitious rhythmical gesture. Moscow was able not only to freeze its Byzantine heritage, but even managed to dry up its Biblical heritage, ossifying it and depriving it of its grace-filled, living spirit. In the words of an ancient prophet, it started to pile up "commandment upon commandment, rule upon rule." It perceived the splendid flow of Byzantine rhetoric as something that should not be touched, introducing it into its own obligatory order of service, ritualizing every impulse, enveloping every religious lyric with the form of law.
The extreme expression of this stagnant, splendid, immovable, protective spirit was the Old Believer Schism. In a sense it has great merits: it has preserved for us examples of ancient icon painting, it has preserved the ancient chant, it has kept in a safe place, away from the flow of life, one moment in the development of piety and fixed it once and for all. But with all this it confused the hierarchy of values of the Christian way of life, preferring torture and even death not only in defense of the two-fingered sign of the cross, but for the right to write "Isus" instead of "Iisus."
Here it is not a question simply of illiteracy. The issue is much more serious, as became obvious in the following period. We are dealing here with belief in a particular kind of magic, not just of a word, a name, but of each letter which makes up the name [i.e. Isus]. A frightful retribution has been visited upon the Old Believers for their treatment of Christ's truth. Go inside an Old Believer meeting house. It contains everything which they have held dear throughout their whole history. It has priceless icons in the ancient style; it has ancient books; it resounds to a special chant sung according to the old kriuk or "hook" notation -- all those things for which they struggled and endured martyrdom. It lacks only one thing: its magnificent iconostasis, completely covered with icons in massive metalwork covers, shelters nothing, it preserves nothing. For behind the iconostasis is a blank wall, to which the iconostasis is fixed. There is no sanctuary, no altar table, no table of oblation, since there is no Mystery, no Sacrament.
Everything has been preserved except the living spirit of the Church, its theanthropic, deifying sacramental life. Only the splendid form remains.
One must give some thought to this phenomenon. Here people have received a punishment for their victory, for having attained their aims. Having once distorted Christ's truth, they were left with its empty shell. One should think about this every time we are tempted to replace spirit with form, love with ritual. In this temptation the same danger lies in wait for us: to be left with form and ritual, but to forfeit spirit and love. It is very likely that this symbol of a Church without a sanctuary is often reflected in human souls.
While losing the living spirit of Christianity, the Church of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has not been able to extirpate within itself that Moscow spirit of ritual correctness: what is prescribed, what is permitted, what is to be preserved. Moreover, the human soul, frequently stifled in the official, cold, State-sanctioned Synodal Church and not finding any way to some kind of living source of faith, would flee from the Synodal understanding of piety into the arms of ritual correctness, placing this in opposition to official conventionality. Ritual correctness has something in common with ecclesiastical aesthetics and asceticism, but in its essence it is something different. It is simply that the stress is not placed there.
What is the moral temper of the strict ritualist? What is his spiritual make-up? His greatest desire is for absolute spiritual order, the complete subordination of the inner life to an external rhythm which has been elaborately worked out in the minutest detail. This external rhythm encompasses everything within itself. Outside the Church he knows the spiritual significance of every detail of life. He keeps the fast. He lives day in and day out following the Church's cycle of services. He lights vigil lamps at prescribed times. He makes the sign of the Cross correctly. In Church he likewise stifles any impulse, permits no deviation from the established gestures. He kneels at the proper moment during services, he bows and crosses himself at the proper time. He knows for certain that it is a crime to kneel from Pascha to Pentecost, he knows how many times he will go to Confession during the year and, above all, he has mastered the Order of Services to the minutest detail. He is angry and indignant if anything is omitted during Church services, because that is not to be done. Yet at the same time he is completely indifferent when what is being read is incomprehensible or when it is being read too rapidly. This is not the person who prefers memorial services, services of intercession and akathists over others. No, his most loved services are the rarest ones, above all those of Great Lent. He especially delights in the complexity of services when a fixed feast coincides with a movable one; for example, when the Annunciation falls during the last days of Holy Week.
For him the form and structure of the service frequently overshadows the inner content of individual prayers. He most certainly is a fanatical champion of Church Slavonic. For him the use of Russian in Church is almost blasphemy. He loves Slavonic because he is used to it, and does not want to change even the obviously unsatisfactory, ungrammatical and inaccurate translations from the Greek. The lengthy readings by the psalomshchik immerse him in a particular atmosphere of piety, giving a specific rhythm to his spiritual life. This is what is important, what he really wants. The content does not really interest him. His prayers are lengthy, and he has an established and unchanging 'rule' for them. This rule frequently requires the repetition of the same prayers, and always in the same place.
The Gospel and the Lord's Prayer are not singled out within the general structure of his rule: they are merely a part of a harmonious whole established once and for all.
If you tell him that you don't understand something, either in essence or because the psalomshchik is reading too rapidly, he will answer that it isn't necessary to understand, it is only necessary to achieve a particular atmosphere of piety during which occasional words come through clearly which are understandable and necessary for you.
Such a person's spiritual life is worked out in the smallest detail. He knows the special technique for bringing oneself to a particular spiritual state. He is able to teach you how to breathe, in what position to maintain your body during prayer, and whether the legs should be near a warm or near a cool place.
If one analyzes this special phenomenon, it becomes clear that basically it does not depend on Eastern Christianity, for one senses here the distinctive forms of Dervishism and echoes of Hinduism and, more significantly, a passionate belief in the magic of the word and of combinations of words, of gestures and sequences of gestures. There is no doubt but that this belief in magic has beneath it very real roots. Much can be achieved with this method: a very great degree of self-discipline, a large measure of control over oneself and over all the chaos of the human soul, even control over others, a complete structuring of one's inner and outer life -- even a certain kind of inspiration under the law.
But one thing which this way of life does not achieve is, of course, love. One can "speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love" (1 Cor. 13:1). To be sure, acts of love and benevolence enter into the rhythm of the strict ritualist's life. The strict ritualist knows that he must help the poor, especially during Great Lent. In his time he has sent kalachi [wheatmeal loaves] to those confined in prison. He might even organize a benefit, build almshouses and put on dinners for his poorer brethren. But the basic motive for such activity is that it is prescribed, that it enters into the general rhythm of his life, that it has become part of his ritualist concept of things. In this sense he has a greatly developed feeling of obligation and obedience. Thus his relationship to others is determined by a self-imposed obligation and not on a spontaneous feeling of love toward them.
At the present time this type of piety has rather a tendency to grow and spread. This expansion can easily be explained if we take into account all the misfortune, abandonment, neglect and exhaustion of the contemporary human soul. This soul is not looking for a challenge: it is afraid any challenge will be a burden beyond its strength; it can no longer either seek for anything or accept the possibility of being disenchanted. The austere and rarefied air of sacrificial love is beyond its strength. If life has passed it by and given it no external well-being, no external stability, then it turns with special zeal toward internal well-being, toward the utter determinacy and legitimacy of its inner world. It throws over the chaos a solid cover of what is prescribed, what is permitted, and the chaos ceases to torment it. It knows the effectiveness of magical incantations, often expressed in incomprehensible syllables. Like the dervish, it knows the power of a gesture or a pose. It feels protected and tranquil. All these particularities of the strict ritualist path determine its growth in our times. In all likelihood a long period of development awaits it.
It must be noted here that from another point of view also our era may expect to see the further development of strict ritualism. We can see today an almost universal thirst for definite, concrete directives of some kind: how to believe, what to fight for, how to behave oneself, how to speak, how to think. We see that the world has a thirst for authoritative leaders who can lead a blind and loyal mass behind them.
We know of the existence of the most frightful dictatorship that ever existed, a tyranny over ideas. The infallible center -- the Party, for example, or the Leader, the F�hrer -- wills that we think and act in one way, and the individual, who believes in the infallibility of the directive, easily, with astounding and incomprehensible ease, restructures his inner world to correspond with this directive. We know of the presence of State-imposed philosophies and world-views. If we grant that somewhere the Church might become, if not supportive then at least tolerant of this, it will then be inundated with new cadres of people who have been brought up on mandatory directives, and strict ritualism will immediately teach them which path they must follow, where there is less doubt, where the directives are more precise and better regulate one's whole life, where finally, the entire chaos of the human soul is tamed and driven into the allotted cages. Here the success of ritualism is absolutely foreordained.
But at the same time it is impossible to speak of its creative possibilities. Its very principle, a constant repetition of rules, words and gestures, excludes any possibility of creative tension. From ancient times strict ritualism has been opposed to prophesy and creativity. Its task was to preserve and to repeat, and not to tear down and rebuild. If it does, in fact, come out on top, then this will mean the extinction of the creative spirit and freedom in the Church for many decades.
The main question, however, which should be addressed to strict ritualism is this: how does it respond to Christ's commandments concerning love for God and love for other people. Does it have a place for them? Where within it is the person to whom Christ came down? If it can be granted that very often there is expressed in it its own kind of love for God, it is difficult to see in what way it expresses itself in love for people.
Christ, who turned away from scribes and Pharisees, Christ, who approached prostitutes, publicans and sinners, can hardly be the Teacher of those who are afraid to soil their pristine garments, who are completely devoted to the letter, who live only by the rules, and who govern their whole life according to the rules. Such people consider themselves in good spiritual health because they observe everything that is prescribed by spiritual hygiene. But Christ told us, it is not the healthy who are in need of a physician, but the sick. In fact, we have today two citadels of such an Orthodoxy -- traditional, canon-based, patristic and paternal Orthodoxy: Athos and Valaam. A world of people far removed from our bustle and our sins, a world of faithful servants of Christ, a world of knowledge of God and contemplation.
And what do you suppose most upsets this world of sanctity? How does it regard the present calamities which are tearing us apart, the new teachings, heresies perhaps, the destitution, the destruction and the persecution of the Church, the martyrs in Russia, the trampling down of belief throughout the whole world, the lack of love? Is this what most alarms these islands of the elect, these pinnacles of the Orthodox spirit? Not at all. What strikes them as the most important, the most vital, the most burning issue of the day, is the question of the use of the Old or New Style Calendar in divine services. It is this that splits them into factions, this that leads them to condemn those who think other than they do, this that defines their measure of things.
It is difficult to speak about love against this background, since love somehow falls outside both the New and the Old Style. We can, of course, state that the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath, and that he violated that Sabbath precisely in the name of love. But where they do not violate it, where they cannot violate it, this is because there is no "in the name" nor is there love. Strict ritualism reveals itself here to be a slave of the Sabbath and not the way of the Son of Man. And truly there is something threatening and ominous here, precisely because in Athos and Valaam, the ancient centers of traditional Orthodox spirituality, a person can find an answer to only one question out of all those which are raised by life: whether the Church must live according to the Old Style or the New. Instead of the Living God, instead of Christ crucified and risen, do we not have to do here with a new idol, a new form of paganism, which is manifested in arguments over calendars, rubrics, rules and prohibitions -- a Sabbath which triumphs over the Son of Man? Idolatry in the world is frightening when it betrays Christ in the name of the State, the nation, a social idea, or petty bourgeois comfort and well-being. Still more frightening, however, is idolatry within the Church, when it replaces Christ's love with the preservation of the Sabbath.
It is difficult to trace the origins of the aesthetic type of piety. It has probably had its representatives during all ages, easing off slightly only at times when the Church was faced with challenges causing great spiritual tension, when the Church was being shaken by internal struggles, when it was being persecuted, and when it was obliged to vindicate the very essence of Christianity. Even the origin of Christianity in Kievan Rus', according to the ancient legend, was determined by a well-known act of aesthetic piety. St. Vladimir compared religions not on the substance of their inner content, but on the strength of the impression made by their external forms. Thus he chose Orthodoxy for the beauty of its singing, for the grandeur of its rites and for that aesthetic experience which so shook him. The writers of Muscovite Rus' have produced long and moving descriptions of Orthodoxy's beauty. Even the nineteenth century, not known for any special aesthetic sensitivity, produced such a great example of an Orthodox aesthete as Konstantin Leontiev, for whom beauty contained within it a measure of truth and who, having rejected the religiously empty bourgeois world because it was monstrous, reached out to Orthodoxy because in it there was beauty.
No wonder, then, that in the twentieth century, when two factors converged -- a bright and talented outburst of aestheticism among the cultural upper strata of Russian life and the entry of a large number of people from that cultural stratum into the Church -- the aesthetic type of piety was almost overwhelming and determined many things. For a start, it identified very great treasures from the past. Aesthetics has always been linked with a kind of cult of antiquity, with a kind of archaeology. It is not surprising, therefore, that during the period when it flourished, ancient Russian art was rediscovered. Ancient icons were found, restored and studied; museums of iconography were established; schools of iconography were defined and described; Rublev and others began to be appreciated. The ancient chant began to be restored. Kievan and Valaam chants found their way into the repertoire of Church singing; church architecture became better known thanks to a great number of publications on the history of art. Without a doubt, all these are positive achievements.
But alongside this aesthetic approach to religion there began to grow up a particular moral mind-set, whose characteristics are quite easy to detect. Beauty and the appreciation of beauty are always the province of a small minority. This explains the unavoidable cultural elitism of any aesthetic stance. When defending aesthetic values, a person divides the whole world into friends who understand and appreciate its values, and enemies, the profane crowd. Imagining that the foundation of Church life is its beauty, this person then divides all mankind into a "little flock" with special aesthetic sensitivity, and the mass of those unworthies to be found beyond the pale. In the mind of such an individual, the mystery of the Church belongs only to the elect. Not only will prostitutes and sinners never sit at the feet of Christ, but all those who are too simple and unrefined will likewise be excluded, so that he himself may find satisfaction through the lofty aesthetic beauty of the divine services, etc.
Because he takes aesthetics to be the sole criterion of what is proper, the sole measure of things, this person thinks of himself as part of some kind of intricate composition and feels obliged not to spoil it, not to disturb it. He accepts its general rhythm, but then introduces that rhythm into his own inner life. Like the strict ritualist, he structures his own personal way of life and sees in this his greatest virtue. The aesthete is always attracted by the archaic. At times he may even be attracted to a type of popular, peasant artistry. From this there develops a subtle attraction toward specific portions of the services, toward individual hymns, the Great Canon of Andrew of Crete, etc. Often the artistic value of that material is assessed, and, if there isn't any, that is taken into account and he is then entranced by its antiquity, or struck by its stately composition, or by the rhythmic success of the whole of the divine service.
Aesthetic criteria gradually replace the spiritual and eventually displace all other considerations. The people in the Church are looked upon as either a crowd of worshipers, props needed for the proper rhythm of worship, or as tedious and annoying barbarians who, by their ignorance, clumsiness and, occasionally, by their personal sorrows and special needs, encroach upon the general grandeur and orderliness of the service.
The aesthete loses himself in clouds of incense, delights in the ancient chants, admires the severity and restraint of the Novgorod style of iconography. He will condescendingly take note of the somewhat naive wording of a hymn. He has partaken in everything, he is sated, afraid to spill his treasure. He is afraid of tasteless detail, of the human woes which provoke sympathy, he is afraid of human weakness which provokes disgust. All in all, he doesn't like the petty, confused, disorganized world of the human soul. No doubt it would be difficult to find love within the aesthetic type of religious life. Nor, would it seem, is there even a place in it for hatred. There is only that cold, exacting contempt for the profane crowd and an ecstatic admiration for beauty. There is a dryness, often verging on formalism. There is a concern for the preservation of oneself and one's own world, which is so well structured and harmonized, from the intrusion of anything that might offend or upset that harmony. Even fiery souls will gradually cool down through the inescapable chill of aestheticism (Konstantin Leontiev, for example, had a fiery soul by nature). They insist on putting a chill on everything that surrounds them, looking for some kind of an eternal ice, for some eternal pole of beauty, for an eternal Northern Lights.
The strangest and most incredible thing of all is the possibility of the spread of the aesthetic type of piety amongst Russians, whose souls, as a rule, are lacking in harmony, measure and form. One might think that their fiery temperament, their pithy sayings and, at times, chaotic style would serve to guarantee that aestheticism is no danger for them. Perhaps there is a kind of a "law of contradiction" in effect here, forcing a person to seek in a world outlook what will supplement his inner characteristics rather than express them. Perhaps he finds it impossible to get along with his inner chaos, to endure it, and as a result, moves toward the other extreme. And yet one often sees -- much more frequently than one might imagine -- a strange suppression of that flame, almost amounting to spiritual suicide, which changes fire into ice -- an impulse toward immobility, an all-out search for a rhythm of external, given forms. There is no doubt, of course, that the aesthetic type of Orthodox piety, which by its very nature belongs to the higher cultural levels of the Russian people, cannot count on a numerically widespread dissemination.
The issue, however, is not numbers, but precisely the quality, in a cultural sense, of these repositories of Orthodox aesthetics. In spite of their small numbers they could have and still can have a strong influence on the life of the Church in all its aspects. What is the nature of this influence? How great is its creative impulse? Here one must speak about one extraordinary, paradoxical fact. The true guardians of creative activity, throughout the most diverse ages, nations and peoples, have always valued the genius or talent of others. These aesthetes, who were subtle critics and experts in the most minute details and nuances of the various artistic schools, have never at any time or anywhere provided creative leadership themselves, perhaps just because they were so subtly and so intensely assessing the works of others. This has always resulted in a particular personal psychology shared by museum curators, collectors, experts and catalogers, but not by creative artists.
Creativity, even that which produces the most subtle works of art, is in its essence something rather crude. Creativity, which aims at achievement and affirmation, is always discarding something, rejecting something, demolishing something, and clearing a place for something new. It thirsts so strongly for the new that it regards everything that has already been created, everything that is old, as nothing in comparison with the new, and often destroys the old. The psychology of a museum keeper is incompatible with that of the creative individual: one is conservative, the other revolutionary. What conclusions can we draw about the future of this type of ecclesiastical piety? Our harsh, stressful and agonizing life experience turns to the Church with all its aches and pains, with all its harsh intensity. Our life today certainly demands creativity, a creativity which is able not only to reconsider and change what is old, but also to create something new, respond to new problems, penetrating new and often uncultured, traditionless strata of society. The Church will be swamped with simple people. The Church will be overwhelmed by their problems. The Church must descend to their level. This would seem to seal the fate of the aesthetic elite.
But precisely because it is select, elite, precisely because it is capable of formulating its ideas and expressing itself and considers itself the guardian of all the Church's treasures and truth, and is incapable of betraying, lowering or changing its own conception of the Church's beauty, and is incapable of sacrificial love -- for all these reasons it will defend its understanding of the Church as a fortress, it will guard the Church against invasion by the profane masses with its very life. The crowd will shout: "We are being eaten up by sores; we have been poisoned by hatred and the social struggle; our way of life has been ruined; we have no answers to questions of life and death: O Jesus, save us!" But between Christ and the crowd will stand the guardians of Christ's seamless robe, who will announce to the crowd that hatred and struggle have distorted their faces, that their everyday labors have destroyed in them that exalted gift, the ability to admire beauty.
But life itself is a thing of great beauty, of which only those are capable who have been instructed by it. Mellifluous chants, however, and softly modulated reading, the odor of incense and a blessed, somniferous atmosphere of beauty will wrap in mist the sorrowful image of Christ, will bring lamentation to an end, will cause heads to be downcast, will cause hope to die. For some this enveloping grandeur will be a temporary lullaby, others will recoil from it -- and a great chasm will appear between the Church and real life. The aesthetically-minded custodians of grandeur will preserve that chasm in the name of harmony, rhythm, order and beauty.
The profane, on the other side, will make no attempt to leap across the chasm because they have been left with the pain, the struggle, the bitterness, the ugliness of life. They will cease to believe that with such heavy baggage it is possible -- and necessary -- to approach the Church. And then, within that miserable and godless world, there will arise -- if they have not arisen already -- false Christs and false prophets, sectarian preachers of various kinds and in varying degrees of shallowness and mediocrity -- Baptists, Evangelicals, Adventists, etc. -- who will offer to these hungry people some kind of an elementary reformulation of the truth, some impoverished surrogate for religious life, some small dollop of good will and ranting hysteria. Some will respond to this. They will respond first of all to a basic human concern for their needs. But they will not be able to discern immediately that instead of true and traditional Orthodox Christianity, they are being treated to a questionable, semi-literate hodgepodge of starry-eyed idealism and charlatanism. But the opiate will have its effect. And it will further deepen the chasm between the Church and the world. Protected carefully by the lovers of beauty, protected by a sense of delusion and hatred of the world, the chasm may be there for ages.
The eyes of love will perhaps be able to see how Christ himself departs, quietly and invisibly, from the sanctuary which is protected by a splendid iconostasis. The singing will continue to resound, clouds of incense will still rise, the faithful will be overcome by the ecstatic beauty of the services. But Christ will go out on to the porch and mingle with the crowd: the poor, the lepers, the desperate, the embittered, the holy fools. Christ will go out into the streets, the prisons, the hospitals, the low haunts and dives. Again and again Christ lays down his life for his friends.
What is our beauty and our ugliness in comparison with Christ, his eternal truth and eternal beauty? Does our beauty not look ugly when compared to his eternal beauty? Or, is it not the reverse? Does he not see in our ugliness, in our impoverished lives, in our festering sores, in our crippled souls -- does he not see there his own divine image and a reflection of his eternal glory and eternal beauty? And so he will return to the churches and bring with him all those whom he has summoned to the wedding feast, has gathered from the highways, the poor and the maimed, prostitutes and sinners.
The most terrible thing is that it may well be that the guardians of beauty, those who study and understand the world's beauty, will not comprehend Christ's beauty, and will not let him into the church because behind him there will follow a crowd of people deformed by sin, by ugliness, drunkenness, depravity and hate. Then their chant will fade away in the air, the smell of incense will disperse and Someone will say to them: "I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me."
It is the idolatry which characterizes the aesthetic type of piety that will bring this about, for it has within it something that should serve only as Christ's outer garment, an offering of human genius brought lovingly to Christ. But when the splendor of the Church, its beautiful chant, the harmony and order of its services become an end in themselves, they take Christ's place. People begin to serve this grandeur in itself, and grandeur becomes an idol to which human souls are sacrificed -- one's own as well as others'. All the ugliness of this world, its sores and its pain, are pushed to one side and obscured so that they will not disturb true piety. Even the suffering and death of the Lord himself, his human exhaustion, acquires an aura of beauty, inviting admiration and delight. Love is a very dangerous thing. At times it must reach down into the fathomless lower levels of the human spirit, it must expose itself to ugliness, to the violation of harmony. There is no room for it where beauty, when once discovered and sanctioned, reigns forever.
And here, as a result, Christ's servants, the priests -- the successors of the Apostles and disciples -- are not required to follow in the steps of the Apostles and disciples and to heal, to preach, and to spread abroad the Lord's love. One thing only is required of them: that they be servants of the cult, that they be priests almost in the pagan meaning of that word. A priest is judged by how much he knows and loves the ustav, by how musical he is, how good is his voice, how coordinated are his movements, etc. It isn't important whether he, like a good shepherd, knows his flock and whether he will leave the ninety and nine to find one lost soul and whether he will rejoice greatly because it has been found.
A sinister phenomenon is occurring now in Soviet Russia. There, everything is forbidden to the Church -- whether to preach, to teach, to carry out charitable works or any organized activity, or to bring believers together for a common life. One thing only is permitted: to perform divine services. What is this? Chance? Something the Soviets overlooked? Could this not be a subtle psychological ploy, based on the fact that without acts of love, without a life of open spiritual struggle, without the Word of God our Orthodox divine services are capable of nourishing only those who are already believers, who already to some extent understand -- but are powerless to witness to Christ's Truth before a secularized and God-deprived humanity. A spiritually hungry person will cross the threshold of the church and make the appropriate response to the beauty of the services held in it, but he will not receive sustenance for his spiritual hunger, because he wants not only beauty but also love, and answers to all his doubts. In this way the authorities, with their requirements, have barricaded the doors to the Church. How often it happens that, at the request of a particular group of faithful, the doors of the church are effectively locked, when no secular authority demands it, but where the cold hearts of her children fence it off from the world in the name of an abstract, measured and arid form and beauty. In a sense it might be better for the Church if it did not have official permission to conduct divine services and instead would gather secretly, in the catacombs, rather than having permission only for divine services, and in this way ending up with no possibility of showing to the world the whole extent of Christ's love in every experience of its life
The ascetic type of religious life is not unique to Christianity. It has existed at all times and in the history of absolutely every religion. This by itself shows that it is the expression of some essential characteristics of the human psyche. Thus Christianity is not alone in being characterized by the presence of asceticism. Asceticism is a common characteristic of Hinduism and Islam and is present also in ancient paganism. Moreover, asceticism was a typical feature of the nonreligious milieu so characteristic of nineteenth-century revolutionary movements. One could even say that those periods in the life of the Church which have not been imbued with asceticism have been periods of decline and decay, stagnant and undistinguished. It might also be said that even periods of secular history which have not borne the imprint of asceticism have given evidence of sterility and a lack of creative talent. Since religious life demands of man sacrifice in the name of higher spiritual values, it is always ascetic. At the same time, at its deepest, creative life is also a way of asceticism, since it also demands total sacrifice in the name of higher creative values. It can be said that asceticism has never died out within the Church. There have been periods when it was dormant, when it was the achievement only of solitary souls, while the most common and the most characteristic type of religious life was actually anti-ascetic.
Bearing this in mind, it seems to follow that it is almost impossible to speak about the ascetic type of piety on the same basis as the other types which are more or less elective, whereas asceticism touches upon the eternal depths of religious life. But apart from such genuine and eternal asceticism, there is another extraordinary phenomenon about which we must speak and which we must isolate and distinguish somewhat from the ascetic tendency in general.
This special ascetic type has its roots not in Christianity but rather in the Eastern religions and has entered Christianity as a sort of a special influence from these religions, modifying the original understanding of asceticism. The difference does not lie in the methods of carrying out the ascetic ideal in life. These can be of various kinds, but all these variations are applicable everywhere and do not point to a basic difference in their inner purpose. The basic differences are to be found in what motivates an individual to enter upon the path of asceticism. There can be any number of motivations, many of which are, in varying degrees, incompatible with Christianity. There are even motivations which are in radical contradiction to Christianity. We will start with these.
These are especially characteristic of Hinduism, and on their basis the yogis have arisen. These days they sound like the fundamental principles of all kinds of occult teachings, of theosophy and anthroposophy. Their aim is the acquisition of spiritual power. Asceticism is a known system of psycho-physical exercises which control and modify a person's normal behavior and are directed toward the attainment of special attributes of power over the soul and over nature. It is possible, by determined and repeated efforts, to subject the body to the will. One can achieve tremendous psychic changes within oneself and a mastery over matter and spirit. Just as a gymnast must exercise to achieve dexterity, just as a wrestler must follow a specific regimen to develop his muscular strength, just as a singer must practice scales in order to perfect his voice, so must an ascetic of this type follow specific directions, must exercise, must repeat the same routine over and over, maintain a special diet, sensibly schedule his time, curb his habits, order his life -- and all this to develop to the maximum those forces with which he has been endowed by nature.
The task of such asceticism is determined by the principle of consolidating one's natural talents, developing them and being able to apply them. It does not look for any kind of transcendence, nor does it expect the inspiration of any kind of supernatural power. It neither considers this nor believes in it. Above it at a certain level a curtain-like firmament is tightly stretched, and there is no way to pass beyond it. But it knows that in this circumscribed world of nature not everything is fully utilized, that there is tremendous potential, that it is possible, within its confines, to attain power and control over all living and existing things, with but a single, limited exception -- over all, that is, that is found beneath that tightly drawn, impenetrable firmament of heaven. Nature's powers are immense, but even they have their limits. For an occult asceticism of this kind there exists no unlimited or inexhaustible source of power, and thus its task is to accumulate, consolidate, preserve, expand and utilize all natural possibilities. And on this path tremendous achievements are possible.
What answer can be given to this particular form of spiritual naturalism? The only thing in this world more powerful than this is the Church's teaching about spiritual poverty, about the spending, the squandering of one's spiritual powers, about the utmost impoverishment of the spirit. The only definition of self which is more powerful than it are the words: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord." Although these words in themselves define both the essence of the Christian soul and the whole of the Christian response to the natural powers of the human being, there is no doubt but that an occult relationship to asceticism which is contrary to Christianity has been introduced into our piety by way of ancient Eastern influences, through Syria and her particular type of religiosity. There is no need to overrate this influence of asceticism on Christianity, but nonetheless, it exists.
There is also another respect in which asceticism can cease to be a method for attaining higher spiritual values and become an end in itself. An individual may carry out one or another form of ascetic exercise not because it frees him from something or because it offers him something, but simply because it is challenging and demands an effort. It provides him nothing in the outer world, nor does it contribute anything to the content of his spiritual experience, nor does it advance him on his inner path. It is unpleasant for him to limit himself to one particular sphere -- so it is in the name of this unpleasantness that he must do this. The surmounting of an unpleasantness, as the only goal, exercise for the sake of exercise, is at best a working-out of a simple submission to disciplinary challenges and is, of course, a distortion of the ascetic path.
All of the above are mere trifles when compared with the fundamental conflict of world view which now characterizes Christianity. This conflict concerns the most essential, the most fundamental understanding of the goal of the Christian life and divides, as it were, the Christian world into two basic points of view. I am speaking here of the salvation of the soul.
There is no doubt but that the salvation of the soul is the mature fruit of a true and authentic Christian life. The Church crowns her saints and martyrs, her passion-bearers and confessors with the incorruptible crown of eternal life. It promises Paradise, the Kingdom of heaven and eternal blessedness. The Church teaches that the Kingdom of heaven is taken by violence, by force. This is confessed by Christians of all convictions and persuasions. And as a result, the question of the salvation of the soul proves a sword which cuts through the whole spiritual world of Christianity. Here we find two completely different conceptions which lead to different moral laws, to different standards of conduct, etc. It would be difficult to deny that both concepts have notable and saintly champions, that both views enjoy incontrovertible authority within the experience of the Church.
There have been whole periods when Christian asceticism has been colored by one or the other shade of understanding. Both schools have their systems, their principles and their practical rules. Open up the massive volumes of the Philokalia, read the Paterikon, listen -- even in this day -- to sermons about ascetic Christianity. You will see at once that you have there a serious school of asceticism, with a massive weight of tradition. You need only to accept its ordinances and follow its path. But what is it like? What are its teachings?
Someone who bears in himself all the stain of Adam's sin and is called to salvation through the blood of Christ has before him just one goal: the salvation of his soul. By itself this goal determines everything for him. It determines his hostility toward anything that stands in the way of salvation. It defines all the means used to attain it. A human being here on earth is placed, as it were, at the start of an endless path toward God. Everything is either a hindrance or a help along that path. In essence there are two polar entities: the eternal Creator of the world, the Redeemer of my soul, and this miserable soul of mine which must strive toward him. What are the means for progress along this path? The first step is the ascetic mortification of one's flesh. It is prayer and fasting. It is the rejection of the values of this world and of all attachment to them. It is obedience, which mortifies the sinful will just as fasting mortifies the sinful, passionate flesh.
From the point of view of obedience, all the movements of the soul and the whole complex of external activities which are the responsibility of that particular person must be examined. He cannot decline to do them, for he is obliged to carry them out conscientiously if they are given to him as an obedience. But he should not immerse his soul in them completely, since the soul should be filled with one thing only: the striving for its own salvation. The whole world, its woes, its suffering, its labors on all levels -- this is a kind of a huge laboratory, a kind of experimental arena, where I can practice my obedience and humble my will. If obedience demands that I clean out stables, dig for potatoes, look after leprous persons, collect alms for the Church, or preach the teaching of Christ -- I must do all these things with the same conscientious and attentive effort, with the same humility and the same dispassion, because all these things are tasks and exercises of my readiness to curb my will, a difficult and rocky road for the soul seeking salvation. I must constantly put into practice virtues and therefore I must perform acts of Christian love. But that love is itself a special form of obedience, for we are called and commanded to love -- and we must love.
That love should be used as a standard is self-evident: it is the measure of all things. But while I love I must remember at all times that the fundamental objective of the human soul is to be saved: to the extent that love assists me in my salvation, to that extent it is beneficial for me. But it must immediately be curbed and curtailed if it does not enrich but robs me of my spiritual world. Love is the same kind of devout exercise, the same kind of activity, as any other external act. One thing alone is important: my standing obediently before God, my relationship with God, my turning toward the contemplation of his eternal goodness. The world may abide in sin, it may tear itself apart with its own sicknesses -- but all these things are utterly insignificant when compared with the immovable light of the Divine Perfection, while all this world is simply a trial field -- a whetstone, so to speak, on which I can hone my own virtue. How can I even think that I might give something to the world? I who am nothing, wounded by ancestral sin, covered with sores because of my own personal vices and sins? My gaze is turned inward on myself, I see only my own loathsomeness, my own scabs and wounds. It is about these that one must think, for these that one must repent and weep. One must eliminate everything that stands in the way of salvation. There is really no room to worry about the misfortunes of others -- unless by way of the exercise of virtue.
That's how it is. In practice, you will not immediately figure out that this is how such a person understands Christ's teaching about love. He is merciful, he visits the sick, he is attentive to human misery, he even offers people his love. And only if you pay close attention will you perceive that he is not doing this out of self-renouncing and sacrificial love, laying down his life for his friends: he is doing it as an ascetic exercise, for this is how he will nurture, this is how he will save his own soul. He knows that, as the Apostle said, love is the greatest thing of all, and that for the salvation of the soul in addition to any other virtues there must be love. And he will train himself in this, along with the other virtues. He will teach himself, he will force himself to love -- so long as it does not lay him waste, so long as it is not dangerous. A strange and fearsome holiness -- or likeness of holiness -- unfolds itself along this path. You will see a genuine and clear line of real ascent, of refinement, of development. But along with this, you will feel a certain coldness, an extraordinary spiritual stinginess, a kind of miserliness. The other person, the other person's soul -- a stranger's, of course -- becomes not the object of love, but a means for the benefitting of my own soul. Such an understanding of Christianity is often the lot of strong and manly souls. It can prove a temptation for the more worthy, more self-sacrificing souls, for those closest to the Kingdom of heaven. The temptation lies in its extraordinary purity, its intensity, in its deceptive and yet attractive type of holiness. What can one say? How can one compare one's own lukewarm state, one's own lack of heroic action with this vast and vigorous spirit, striding forward with giant steps? How can one possibly avoid being tempted?
There is only one thing that can shield you against such temptation: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing" (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
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