Monthly Archives: December 2009

Russian Spirituality: Coming Attractions

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

the heart


cosmo-theandric mysticism


sophianic theology

Divine Wisdom

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.

Merton and Christmas

There is a beautiful meditation on the meaning of the Christmas Gospel by Thomas Merton.  It comes in essay form, and it can be found in one of his lesser known books: Raids on the Unspeakable.  The title of the essay is: “The Time of the End Is the Time of No Room.”  With his usual acuteness Merton reflects on the Christmas Gospel and hits a bullseye on two important points.  First of all, he realizes that the narrative is a mythopoetic presentation and not just a collection of historical details that may or may not be significant.  No, every detail, no matter how seemingly trivial,  and every image in the narrative resonates with deep meaning–there are no “throw-away lines.”  Secondly, he also, in a brilliant theological move, reflects on the eschatological character of the Christmas Gospel.  The Christmas Gospel is NOT primarily a reflection on some past event, but rather it is an announcement of the beginning of The Great End.  The Christmas Gospel proclaims that the time of fulfillment has arrived, the fullness of time has come.  Therefore it is also the time of decision; the time of repentance.  Note that  after the Christmas narrative, the Gospel jumps to take us  out into the wilderness where John the Baptist is preaching repentance,  and Jesus as an adult goes out into the wilderness to be tempted.

Merton latches on to one seemingly very insignificant statement in the narrative:  There was no room for them in the inn.  With the coming of the end a great bustle and business begins to shake the nations of the world.  The time of the end is the time of massed armies, wars and rumors of wars, of huge crowds moving this way and that…the time of the end is the time of the crowd.  And the eschatological message is spoken in a world where, precisely, because of the vast indefinite roar of armies on the move and the restlessness of the turbulent crowds, the message can be heard only with difficulty.

So the inn was crowded–because of the census, the eschatological massing of the “whole world” in centers of registration to be numbered, to be identified with the structure of imperial power.  One of the purposes of the census was to discover those who were eligible for service in the armies of the empire.  As Merton points out, the Bible had not taken kindly to a census when God was the ruler of Israel (2Sam24).  Truly the Son of God had emptied himself to take on humanity, but not simply to fall into a faceless mass, a crowd.  It is a sign that he is born outside that crowd.  But who can read that sign?

Another detail of the Christmas Gospel of significance: the tidings of great joy are not announced in the crowded inn.  Merton:  “In the crowd news becomes merely a new noise in the mind, briefly replacing the noise that went before it and yielding to the noise that comes after it, so that eventually everything blends into the same monotonous and meaningless rumor.  News?  There is so much news that there is no room left for the true tidings, the “Good News,” “the Great Joy.”  So the Great Joy is announced in silence, loneliness, and darkness, to shepherds living in the fields and apparently unmoved by the rumors or the massing of the crowds.  And the Great Joy is not to be confused with all the little joys that are offered by a consumer culture to those who “have.”

Even though the “whole world” is ordered to be inscribed, the shepherds do not seem to be affected.  They remain outside the agitation and untouched by the vast movement.  “They are therefore quite otherwise signed….  They are the remnant, the people of no account, who are therefore chosen–the anawim.”

So there was no room for Him to be born in the inn.  The time of the End is the time of “no room.”  No room for nature.  No room for a human being in his/her own heart.  No room for quiet, for solitude.  No room for thought.  No room for awareness, for attention.  People are worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, filled with gadgets and stuff.  A human being finds no space to rest within his own heart but is constantly driven out–he simply becomes part of “the crowd.”

Merton: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited.  But because he cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room.  His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power…. those who are discredited who are denied status of persons, tortured, exterminated.  With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.  He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.”

Dickens & Christmas

One of the most famous Christmastime stories is by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Several different movie versions of the story were produced over the years, and now it is a standard and still  a favorite at this time of year.  Set in Victorian England, “a long, long time ago,” it seems almost like a fairy tale, and its happy ending makes people feel good and “somehow” it feels right for Christmas. For some it simply is part of the “sap crap” surrounding Christmastime.  However, there are disturbing elements in the story–disturbing in a good way–things that should awaken us, not lull us into a sentimental slumber.

Dickens calls his story, A Christmas Carol, and this signals to us that the story is a mythopoetic presentation; it is a kind of “carol,” announcing, celebrating, rejoicing–but what?  The story is not really about Christmas; it is “located” within the context of Christmas.  What it really is about is the transformation of a man’s heart, and Dickens wants us to connect it with the meaning and message of Christmas.

The story begins by presenting us with the figure of Ebenezer Scrooge, and it is Christmas Eve in London.  Scrooge is a person who has spiritually and humanly lost his way–he is more a child of the new Industrial Revolution and the unfettered capitalism of his day, rather than a child of God.   He lives only to make money; only that “which fattens the purse” will he entertain.  This is the social milieu Dickens was living in,  and a lot of his art aimed to bring to light “man’s inhumanity to man” which the prevailing social system enhanced.  The underlying philosophy of the economy was that self-interest is beneficial for all of society, or in the memorable words of Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, “Greed is good.”  One does not just sell a product or a service but sells it at the highest price possible because the accumulation of wealth has become an end in itself and intrinsic to self-identity.  Why stop at being a millionaire when you can be a billionaire.  You are what you own.  Homo Consumerus has arrived.   The New Testament, among various texts, tells us that the accumulation of wealth can be a real problem in our relationship to God, but what Dickens is emphasizing is that this leads to a distortion and concealment of our true relationship to “our neighbor.”  It leads to an atomized view of society where you just have this collection of isolated individuals each acting for their self-interest irregardless of how that affects others(or today we would say the environment also).

Dickens presents Scrooge as very unhappy, a real grouch, and his unhappiness runs very deep. Dickens describes his condition:  “But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone…squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching…. Hard and sharp as flint…secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features….” Scrooge’s isolation and lack of fellow-feeling is most obvious by its contrast with what is present in other characters that Dickens brings on the stage right at the outset of the story.  There is his nephew who comes to visit him at his office and wish him a Merry Christmas.  Scrooge is totally dismissive. He sarcastically asks what profit is there in “keeping Christmas,” and the nephew answers that Christmas is “the only time I know of….when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”  Incidentally, what the nephew is referring to is much more deeply presented in Russian spirituality,  and they have a word for it: umilenie, which translates literally as a “melting of the heart” or “tender compassion,” but which means a oneness of heart.

Then there is his bookkeeper, Bob Cratchit, to whom Scrooge is barely able to give Christmas day off and whom he generally mistreats as a throw-away worker.  Then there are the two gentlemen who come to the office–they are collecting alms for the poor and destitute.  Scrooge dismisses them sarcastically and without hesitation.  He comes home late after work, and there begins the real story of his transformation.  First he is visited by the ghost of his old partner Marley.  Marley appears all bound in chains:  “You are fettered,” said Scrooge trembling…..  “I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost.  “I made it link by link….”  And then the ghost tells Scrooge that Scrooge himself is “bound in chains that he has made of his own free will.”  Scrooge is frightened but also puzzled–what is this all about, you were a good business man, Marley!   “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  “Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”

Then Scrooge is visited by three ghosts or spirits.  First comes the Ghost of Christmas Past, which takes him into his own past to relive both the joys and pains of his past, to open up his heart, to see where things went wrong.  This is the only way to true repentance.  The past is the key to making progress into the future.  Then came the Ghost of Christmas Present, and here Scrooge is taken to see what is going on right under his nose as it were.  He sees the life of his poor worker, Bob Crachit, and his poor family and their crippled little boy Tim, and he sees the lives of those who are poor in London that Christmas Eve.  His heart has already been opened up and now he is more vulnerable to recovering his “connectedness” to his fellow human beings.  Finally comes the Ghost of Christmas Future, and here Dickens is a master spiritual teacher–the reality of death pervades this whole episode, and one might ask how does this belong in a Christmas setting, which is all about birth and new beginnings.  Actually Dickens is in harmony with all the great spiritual traditions in that facing the reality of one’s death in a very concrete way is the great motivator and provider of the energy needed for a transformation of heart.  From this point on Scrooge will live his life with a sense of care for all people but especially those who are already present in his life.  He is no longer motivated by self-interest, but the dynamic of his life will now be an outpouring of self for the benefit of all. This means the using of his resources for the benefit of all and not exploitation. This transformation is both the true celebration of Christmas and the true meaning of Christmas, and from a Christian standpoint it is the Mystery of the Incarnation which opens the door to this transformation.