This blogger will be re-visiting the Russians (an old favorite of his) this coming year, and a number of postings will reflect an ongoing reflection on this tradition. Yes there are all these great spiritual traditions within the world religious scene, and within each of the great global traditions there are as it were “subtraditions.” So within Christianity there are the Spanish Mystics, the Flemish Mystics, Benedictine Spirituality, Ignatian Spirituality, Celtic Spirituality, Franciscan Spirituality, and a large number of others. Among these, within Eastern Christianity, there is Russian spirituality. And perhaps it is a debatable point, but in the opinion of this blogger there is no deeper spiritual tradition or religious body of thought.
Now every spiritual tradition is embedded in a certain cultural matrix and is carried within a particular history. The religious mind both shapes the cultural “container” and also in turn is shaped by it. Russian spirituality is perhaps an example of this to an extraordinary degree. To really get into the Russian religious mindset, one will have to touch base with people like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, etc., just as much as with explicitly religious and theological writings. One will also have to get a feel for the cultural forms in which that religious thought expresses itself. This is, of course, true for all the traditions, but it is claimed here that this is more true of Russian spirituality–a claim that is certainly debatable.
There is a further difficulty. Russian institutions, social relations and general way of life cannot be explained in terms familiar to the Western reader. The Russian is neither European nor Asian and not something in between either. But Russian culture has always felt a deep attraction to Western ideas, trends and styles. In the 18th and early 19th Centuries the focus of that was France; today it is the U.S. As this complex relationship unfolds there is both imitation(sometimes to a ludicrous degree) and at the same time an emphasis of its “difference” from the West(sometimes to an exaggerated degree). That love/hate relationship distorts the usual presentations of Russian culture and religious thought.
Russian spirituality has a power and a beauty and a depth and a sweep that cannot be surpassed–certainly not within Christianity. Having said that, it must almost immediately be pointed out that Russian culture and the Russian character has the “other stuff” also to an extraordinary degree. On the one hand Russian history is filled with incredible cruelty and brutishness, anti-semitism, fanatical irrationalism and emotionalism, authoritarianism and excessive passivity, etc, etc. On the other hand, you will never find human compassion or fellow-feeling or human solidarity run any deeper anywhere else; you will not find more beautiful religious forms of worship; you will not find a deeper contemplative spirituality; you will not find a theology that is both most creative and most traditional at the same time. How these contradictions can coexist must be part of the story.
There are various topics and themes within Russian spirituality, and some of them are very particular to this tradition. During the year the blog will reflect on all of these themes:
the spiritual father or staretz
kenosis/ the self-emptying of Christ
the role of suffering
the fool for Christ
salvation and mysticism through beauty – a very controversial and misunderstood topic
sobornost and umilenie
These themes can be found more or less in the other religious traditions in one way or another, but there is a certain combination of these themes within the Russian religious mind that makes this tradition so exceptional.