Monthly Archives: June 2010

Sobornost, Umilenie, etc.

  1. Sobornost  is a Russian word and for all practical purposes untranslatable.  Yes, it is often translated into English as community or some such variant, but all these are weak, watered-down presentations of the meaning this word carries.  Sobornost has to do with a sense of unity, of oneness, at a spiritual and metaphysical level.  This is not a unity that is imposed externally or simply manifested externally.  Nor is it an emotive “kumbaya” kind of thing– as often presented by Westerners.  The term evolved and developed among 19th Century Russian theologians and spiritual writers, but its roots go back into Russia’s spiritual past.  It has to do with that deep Russian mysticism concerning the Christian mystery of the Trinity.  Indeed, the most profound and beautiful “translation” of the term is in a Russian icon:  Rublev’s Trinity icon.

In more abstract terms, sobornost has to do with multiplicity and unity.  In the West, multiplicity is emphasized and with that it is individualism that is most basic in the human reality.  Unity is here simply something that is imposed by cultural commonality or by law.  In some cases it is a tribal unity or unity through blood.  In the Asian East, unity is what is emphasized–that’s why for Asians the doctrine of the Trinity is so difficult to deal with.  In a lot of Asian religious philosophies, multiplicity is almost an illusion or a lower form of “perception” or existence. Human differences are viewed as a surface thing that has no real substance.  However, in Russian mysticism, in the term sobornost, both multiplicity AND a most profound unity are affirmed.  This has all kinds of implications and not the least of which is in our understanding of “church” or “spiritual community.”  More about that in another post.

  1. Umilenie.  Another Russian word equally untranslatable!  It is something like a “tenderness of the heart”–Russians speak of a “melting of the heart” and here we must be careful for the intended meaning is not some emotional or psychological state that one works oneself into.  In Western terms the word “heart” has this unfortunate connotation, whereas in Russian mysticism it has more to do with the center of one’s being, one’s personhood.  And precisely here this center is not some fixed individual possession, but rather a radical openness to all reality, even pain and suffering.  And this “melting” takes place when one’s ego-centered identity drops off and one discovers that one’s heart and the “other’s heart” are really the same.  In quite another world of thought, D. T. Suzuki, who was often accused of being too intellectualist in his approach to Zen, said that the essence of Zen enlightenment was when you felt the pain of the other as your own pain.  Can’t fake that!  Finally, umilenie also has a great iconic representation–the icon known as Our Lady of Vladimir.  It radiates with the sense of umilenie in a very silent and mysterious way.  I will leave that for the reader to discover for him/herself.

Postscript:  There are two recent items that speak of these Russian words in terms that are closer to us Westerners:

Michael Moore in one of his recent movies makes this statement:

“At some point we have to decide whether we are a “me” society or a “we” society.”

This hints at sobornost.

Jeremy Rifkin has written a social/economic critique of Western society entitled:  The Empathic Civilization The book tells us in a very complicated and sometimes boring analysis that:

“Only empathy can save us.”

This hints at umilenie but in a watered down way.  At least it points to the fact that the profit motive driving our culture at present will destroy all human values and tear up the bonds human beings need to experience in order to be truly human.  Solidarity and compassion are not very compatible with maximizing profits.