Category Archives: Russian Spirituality

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.

Fr. Zosima & Alyosha, Part II

We continue our reflection on Dostoevsky’s  Fr. Zosima and his novice monk Alyosha.  The heart of Fr. Zosima’s teaching is actually very difficult for the modern mind to penetrate.  Words like “guilt,” “sin,” “forgiveness,” etc are difficult in any context, but here they come right at you undiluted, and if you find them an obstacle or even worse, perhaps this language is not for you.  One hesitates to say this, but given the contemporary state of mind, there are a lot of people for whom this kind of language is very problematical, and another way must be found.  However, one should be encouraged to try and penetrate the meaning of this language before walking away from it because it holds profound truths, unspeakable liberation and the gateway to Paradise.

Consider the following words from Fr. Zosima:

“Love one another, fathers.  Love God’s people.  For we are not holier than those in the world because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, but, on the contrary, anyone who comes here, by the very fact that he has come already knows himself to be worse than all those who are in the world, worse than all on earth…. And the longer a monk lives within his walls, the more keenly he must be aware of it.  For otherwise he had no reason to come here.  But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then well the goal of our unity be achieved.  For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth.  This knowledge is the crown of the monk’s path, and of every man’s path on earth.  For monks are not a different sort of men, but only such as all men on earth ought also to be.  Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and that knows no satiety.”


“There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men.  For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.”

And this kind of language is repeated several times in various ways.  Now there is a kind of neurosis, a pathological feeling of guilt that begins and ends in self-hatred and self-rejection.  This is definitely not what Fr. Zosima is talking about.  There is also the question of “how can I feel guilty about the sins of others–that’s their problem.”  This comes from a purely moralistic approach to sin and from a totally individualistic sense of our identity.   There are these rules, and if you break a rule then guilt comes as a psychological consequence. Also, goodness in this case is a matter of how one looks in the “mirror” of self-reflection–in other words, goodness is something one bestows upon oneself when one doesn’t break these rules and one does certain other prescribed things.  Here goodness is a “self-manufactured” thing and guilt is merely the flip side of this.   However, Fr. Zosima’s “guilt” is of another order, and it is something which is at the heart of the Russian hesychast tradition.

Let us begin with that parable in the Gospel of the Pharisee who comes to the temple to pray(Luke 18: 11):  “God, I thank you I am not like other people…I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income…  But the tax collector standing far off,  would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  From the standpoint of Fr. Zosima and Russian hesychasm (and so many other spiritual traditions), the fundamental mistake of the Pharisee is that he has an erroneous sense of identity as this isolated self that can “polish” his image up by “doing good thing”–he has broken his real solidarity with his fellow human being, his communion, his onenes at the level of the heart.  Now what makes Fr. Zosima’s teaching so trenchant is that we are most prone to break our solidarity with our fellow human being when we see him/her doing “something wrong,” especially if that wrong is directed at ourselves.  That’s when we see “the other” as truly other than ourselves, but it is precisely then that Fr. Zosima says we should see him/her as our very selves.  If someone slaps you in the face as it were, it seems silly to ask forgiveness and to assume “responsibility” for that act, but if one does, then “the doors of Paradise open up in one’s heart.”  It is not a kind of psychological trick of make-believe or pretending, but a matter of the heart.  It is also not a matter of “not seeing” the evil people do–that’s another kind of pretending–no, it is rather a living from a fundamental sense of oneness and unity.  There is a Hasidic story about a very holy rabbi who one day was walking with some of his associates and a woman came up to him and struck him with her umbrella.  The associates started to threaten the woman, but the holy rabbi told them to let her go for she had done no wrong.  He told them, “She has not struck me but the man who abandoned her many years ago.”  While not exactly what Fr. Zosima teaches, this story illustrates a spiritual insight close to it.  The holy rabbi does not say, “Thank God I am not like this woman who does this wrong,” but he sees the pain and hurt she is carrying in her heart–it is an indirect way of pointing to a fundamental solidarity that he has with her.

“Solidarity” is actually a weak word to convey the meaning of what is meant.  There is a Russian word, “sobornost,” which comes closer in meaning and which is really untranslatable, but it still is not fully adequate to convey the reality of this oneness.  We shall reflect on this word in a later posting. “Solidarity,” especially, seems to indicate a more external form of bonding–like we hold hands in solidarity.  But this reality is at the very core of our being, at the center of our identity, the real source of our personhood and at the same time our oneness and unity with even the “great sinner.”  Thus it is not unusual for one spiritually awake to “feel the guilt” of the sinner, etc.  In fact, this “fellow feeling” should extend “in every direction” and is one of the central axioms of all religious traditions.  As D.T. Suzuki put it:  “Vimalakirti’s words, ‘I am sick because my fellow beings are sick,’ expresses the essence of religious experience.  Without this there is no religion, no Buddhism, and accordingly, no Zen.”

But as Fr. Zosima puts it this oneness extends to all of creation:

“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth.  Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light.  Love animals, love plants, love each thing.  If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things.  Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day.  And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire , universal love.  Love the animals: God gave them the rudiments of thought and an untroubled joy.  Do not trouble it, do not torment them, do not take their joy from them, do not go against God’s purpose.”

And: “My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world.  Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier.  All is like an ocean, I say to you.  Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin.  Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.”

Here Fr. Zosima seems connected to the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, the great Western saint who is considered heretical to many Orthodox monks.  Of course in Dostoevsky’s own time, the views he put in the mouth of his character, Fr. Zosima, were also rejected as heretical by many Orthodox monastic figures.  Thus it is not surprising that in the novel Dostoevsky shows this rejection by many of Zosima’s fellow monks led by the “super-monk” Fr. Ferapont.

One final point to consider: Fr. Zosima’s disciple, the novice-monk Alyosha.  The young monk seems ideally suited for the monastic life.  His piety and goodness are manifold and obvious.  Yet Fr. Zosima sees that “God’s ways are not our ways,” and the “obvious thing” in becoming a monk is not Alyosha’s  journey.  Fr. Zosima sends Alyosha away from monastic life, but his departure is to take place after Fr. Zosima’s death for the old staretz still has one more very important lesson for the young monk.  As good as Alyosha is, he is still, not surprisingly, caught up in his own self-image and in a kind of psychological transference–if he is a disciple of a holy man, he himself is therefore “special”.  And if so many people and so many monks question Zosima’s holiness, it will be vindicated after his death and Zosima will be victorious over his enemies and Alyosha as his former disciple will share in the victory.  Of course Alyosha does not put it that way, but it shows in the “shadows” of his inner thoughts.  Dostoevsky puts it like this:  “The conviction that the elder, after death, would bring remarkable glory to the monastery, reigned in Alyosha’s soul perhaps even more strongly than in anyone else’s in the monastery.  And generally of late a certain deep, flaming inner rapture burned more and more strongly in his heart.  He was not at all troubled that the elder, after all, stood solitary before him: ‘No matter, he is holy, in his heart there is the secret of renewal for all, the power that will finally establish the truth on earth, and all will be holy and will love one another…and the true kingdom of Christ will come.’  That was the dream in Alyosha’s heart.”

The “rapture” in Alyosha’s heart is a counterfeit rapture; the expectation that he is living for will be shattered.  It is all clothed in religious sentiment, religious feeling and religious language, but it is counterfeit–not the real thing.  But Fr. Zosima will lead his young disciple to the truth, but the way there is only through the valley of death.  Both Fr. Zosima’s own death, and something that must die within Alyosha himself.  The whole novel is prefaced by this line from the Gospel of John:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

During his life Fr. Zosima had both kinds of people around him in the monastery–those who admired him and considered him a holy man, and those who criticized him for his teaching, for his “soft” life, and who considered him a phony.  The first group believed that they would be vindicated through Fr. Zosima’s death.  There is a traditional belief among some Russian Orthodox and some Catholic circles that one of the marks of  a holy life is that the dead body of the person in question will not decompose–indeed, there might even be a fragrant odor emanating from the corpse.  It is as if Heaven indicates its approval of the life lived through some such sign.  So the  supporters of Fr. Zosima had this high expectation and seeking vindication for their teacher–in fact they were secretly hoping that miracles would happen in connection with the dead holy man.  However, quite the opposite happened!  Fr. Zosima’s corpse, as it was laid out in his cell, began to stink even more rapidly than normally expected.  This was a shock.  The smell was so bad that they had to keep the windows open.  Most of Fr. Zosima’s “fan club flees” and his enemies and critics seem to win the day.  Needless to say this is a deeply traumatic moment for the young monk, Alyosha.  However, as Dostoevsky masterfully points out, Alyosha’s crisis is not about doubting Fr. Zosima’s goodness and holiness but rather the way God is present in the world:

“And now he who, according to his hope, was to have

been exalted higher than anyone in the whole world, this

very man, instead of receiving the glory that was due him,

was suddenly thrown down and disgraced!  Why?  Who had

decreed it?  Who could have judged so?  These were the

the questions that tormented his inexperienced and virgin

heart….  Let there be no miracles, let nothing miraculous

be revealed, let that which was expected immediately not

come to pass, but why should there be this ignominy, why

should this shame be permitted, why this hasty corruption…?

Where was Providence and its finger?  Why did it hide its

finger at the most necessary moment(Alyosha thought)….?

That was why Alyosha’s heart was bleeding, and of course,

as I have already said, here first of all was the person he

loved more than anything in the world, and this very person

was ‘disgraced,’ this very person was ‘defamed.'”

Dostoevsky depicts Alyosha going through his “dark night” in a masterful yet subtle way.  He cannot show directly what is going on in Alyosha’s heart; only indirectly and in a very subtle depiction can he show the young monk emerging into a profoundly new awareness.  The culmination is depicted in one of the great scenes in all of world literature: the Cana of Galilee chapter in the novel.  Alyosha comes back to the monastery late at night(the night darkness is symbolic of the darkness that Alyosha finds himself in where there seems to be no trace of God, and yet something unexpected is emerging), and Fr. Paissy, the remaining loyal disciple of Fr. Zosima is reading out loud the Gospel of John over the dead body–this was the custom.  Fr. Paissy is precisely at the Cana of Galilee account in the Gospel.  Let us listen a bit to Dostoevsky’s narration:  “It was very late by monastery rules when Alyosha came to the hermitage…. Alyosha timidly opened the door and entered the elder’s cell, where his coffin now stood.  There was no one in the cell but Father Paissy, who was alone reading the Gospel over the coffin….  Alyosha  turned to the right of the door, went to the corner, knelt, and began to pray.  His soul was overflowing, but somehow vaguely, and no single sensation stood out, making itself felt too much; on the contrary, one followed another in a sort of slow and calm rotation.  But there was sweetness in his heart, and strangely, Alyosha was not surprised at that.  Again he saw this coffin before him, and this dead man all covered up in it, who had been so precious to him, but in his soul there was none of that weeping, gnawing, tormenting pity that had been there earlier, in the morning.  Now, as he entered, he fell down before the coffin as if it were a holy thing, but joy, joy was shining in his mind and in his heart.  The window of the cell was open, the air was fresh and rather cool–the smell must have become even worse if they decided to open the window, Alyosha thought.  But even this thought about the putrid odor, which only recently had seemed to him so terrible and inglorious, did not now stir up any of his former anguish and indignation.  He quietly began praying.…”

Then, over the space of several pages, Dostoevsky portrays Alyosha entering into an almost trance-like encounter with the Cana of Galilee gospel.  It is as if the whole cosmos, all of reality, all of creation is the wedding feast and Jesus is there transforming the “water into wine,” so that human hearts can be glad.  Everyone is invited to this wedding feast and everyone is drinking the new wine of a new and great joy.  Let us conclude with Dostoevsky’s own words:

“For about half a minute Alyosha gazed at the coffin, at the covered up, motionless dead man stretched out with an icon on his chest….suddenly he turned abruptly and walked out of the cell.  He did not stop on the porch, either, but went quickly down the steps.  Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness.  Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly…. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth…. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars…. Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.  He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages….  What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.  It was as if threads from all those innumberable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, ‘touching other worlds.’  He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself, but for all and for everything…. But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul….  ‘Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ he would say afterwords….  Three days later he left the monastery, which was also in accordance with the words of his late elder, who had bidden him to ‘sojourn in the world.'”


Some Thoughts On Tolstoy

At 4am on October 28, 1910, Tolstoy slipped out of his house at Yasnaya Polyana, took a carriage to a nearby station, bought a third-class ticket, and jumped on a train heading for a town nearest to the monastery known as Optina Pustyn.  At the age of 82, with just 10 days to live, Tolstoy was renouncing everything–his wife, his children, his family home in which he had lived for nearly 50 years, and his literary career.  He was seeking refuge in a monastery.  He had felt the urge to flee many times before.  Since the 1880s he had got into the habit of setting out at night to walk with the pilgrims on the Kiev road that passed by his estate–often not returning until breakfeast time.

Such begins a description of Tolstoy’s last days.  This man was a giant of literature, a symbol of so much of what it means to be Russian, a spiritual seeker, a moral reformer, indeed a revolutionary, and also an amazingly complex and conflicted human being.  During the Stalin era, the darkest period of Russian history, Communist Party officials called Tolstoy’s work “counter-revolutionary.”  But Stalin refused to suppress it.  Tolstoy’s country home was turned into a state shrine and in a pamphlet the great Russian writer Gorky reminds the visitor:  “Tolstoy is a profoundly national writer who with astounding fullness embodies in his soul all the peculiarities of the complex Russian psyche: he has the turbulent mischief of Vaska Buslayev and the gentle thoughtfulness of the chronicler Nestor; he burns with the fanaticism of Avvakum; he is a sceptic like Chaadayev, no less of a poet than Pushkin and as clever as Herzen–Tolstoy is a whole world”

Tolstoy fathered at least 13 children–we say “at least” because in his younger days and even in middle-age he seduced a number of peasant girls.  He was not exactly a model of sexual self-control.  That’s why so many people find it hard to take him seriously when in his 60s he becomes an advocate of celibacy and sexual abstinence! And his wife claimed that even then he did not live up to his ideals!   And this was meant for the general populace if they wanted to live a religious life according to Tolstoy.

On Feb.24, 1901 Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Orthodox Church–a rare thing to achieve!  After 20 years of excoriating the Orthodox Church AND the Tsar and pretty much rejecting most of Church doctrine, he finally went “over the brink” with his novel, Resurrection. It was an all-out religious attack on the institutions of the tsarist state–the Church, the government, the judicial and penal systems, private property and the social conventions of the aristocracy, of which he was a member. It was by far the most popular of his novels in his own time. You would think, though,  that in a society where the Church played such an enormous role, such a condemnation would be the end of him.  Hardly.  On the day that the edict was pronounced, the Government forbade any mention of Tolstoy in the press.  But crowds gathered around a painting of him in a St. Petersburg gallery.  People adorned it with flowers.  It had become an icon!   He did get death threats from reactionaries and Orthodox fanatics and the Bishop of Kronstadt even wrote a prayer for his death which was circulated in the right-wing press.  Yet for every threatening message, Tolstoy received a hundred letters of support from villages across the country.  They thanked him for his condemnation of the Tsar in his famous article, “I Cannot Remain Silent,” written in the wake of the Bloody Sunday massacre which sparked the revolution of 1905.

Excommunication did have some consequences.  Because he never did reconcile with the Church, even though he had visited Optina  and the holy staretz there, he was denied a Christian burial.  However, as one biographer put it:  “But if the Church refused to say a mass for the dead man, the people said one for him in another way.  Despite the attempts of the police to stop them, thousands of mourners made their way to Yasnaya Polyana where amid scenes of national grief that were not to be found on the death of any Tsar, Tolstoy was buried in his favorite childhood spot…  As Tolstoy’s coffin was lowered into the ground, the mourners started singing an ancient Russian chant, and someone shouted, in defiance of the police who had been instructed to impose the Church’s excommunication of the writer to the end, “On your knees! Take off your hats!”  Everyone obeyed the Christian ritual and, hesitating for a moment, the police kneeled down too and removed their caps.”

Tolstoy in his own words:

“Life is the minute by minute living of it, that’s all isn’t it?  And loving all things.”

“I stumbled this way and that way looking for this or that secret of life, little did I know that I’d find it through suffering.”

Very Russian!! (But the Greek tragedians knew this long ago!)

About 1880 he wrote a little tract called What Then Shall We Do?.  Its recommendations are anarchist and pacifist.  He advocates the abolition of every aspect of modern society and a return to communal subsistence farming.  He sees the way to his utopia in passive resistance to draft boards, tax collectors and all the blandishments of modern civilization.

Tolstoy made several pilgrimages to the Optina Monastery.  On June 10, 1881, he set off with an old peasant coat, bark shoes and a staff in his hand.  Being unused to walking such long distances and having home-made shoes which were quite inadequate for  the journey, he arrived covered in blisters.  The return journey was done by train!  In general, Tolstoy was very attracted to monasteries.  One of his sisters was a nun and he loved visiting her.  One time he said that he would love to live in a monastery, carrying out the most humble and difficult tasks, as long as they didn’t compel him to go to church!  What’s striking about this is that most people find the Orthodox liturgy so beautiful and so attractive–it is this which draws them to Orthodoxy, but Tolstoy’s heart was elsewhere.

One commentator put it this way:  “Tolstoy had a mystical approach to God.  He thought that God could not be comprehended by the human mind, but only felt through love and prayer.  For Tolstoy, prayer is a moment of awareness of divinity, a moment of ecstasy and freedom, when the spirit is released from the personality and merges with the universe.  Not a few Orthodox theologians have compared Tolstoy’s religion to Buddhism and other Eastern religions.  But in fact his mystical approach had more in common with the hermits’ way of prayer at Optina.  Tolstoy’s division from the Russian Church, however, was a fundamental one, and not even Optina could satisfy his spiritual requirements.  Tolstoy came to reject the doctines of the Church…and instead began to preach a practical religion based on Christ’s example as a living human being.  His was a form of Christianity that could not be contained by any Church.  It went beyond the walls of the monastery to engage directly with the major social issues–of poverty and inequality, cruelty and oppression….  Here was the religious basis of Tolstoy’s moral crisis and renunciation of society from the end  of the 1870s.  Increasingly persuaded that the truly Christian person had to live as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy vowed to sell his property, to give away his money to the poor, and to live with them in Christian brotherhood.  Essentially his beliefs amounted to a kind of Christian socialism–or rather anarchism, insofar as he rejected all forms of Church and state authority.”

But, alas, Tolstoy never really did divest himself totally of his possessions–unless you count those last days of his life.  He was a truly wealthy man–all of it inherited–huge estates with numerous peasant villages on them.  From his writings he got a good income so he could live off that, but what to do with all his family wealth?  Here, as elsewhere, he was truly conflicted.  He sincerely yearned to be “one with the peasants,” but somehow he never went the whole way as it were.  He thought that they held the secret of life and a special closeness to God–certainly it was not the aristocracy whom he knew quite well.  He also used his wealth to support a number of religious and reforming groups and movements.  Gandhi, for example,  got a good amount from him when he was starting to build his ashram in South Africa–he corresponded with Gandhi and they became good friends irregardless of their great differences.  Certainly Tolstoy was not like the fictional character Lady Marchmain  in Brideshead Revisited, who is one of the richest women in England and a devout Catholic but quite smug in her religion and in her wealth.  According to Lady Marchmain, the rich have this special burden and calling to not envy the privileged position of the poor in the Gospel.  Hey, it’s tough taking a back seat to the poor in the Kingdom of Heaven–tough job but somebody has to do it!!  No, Tolstoy was far from that–there was no smugness in him but only anxiety and anguish over his belongings, over celibacy, over the mystery of just living life.  One is also reminded of well-to-do people today who dabble in spirituality.  How much of this has any reality, only God knows!  But there are all these workshops, retreats, “experiences,” etc.–all costing a goodly sum–but hardly any life is disturbed out of its somnabulistic state, more likely made to feel ok with its privileged position in our society compared to the billions who live in misery in our world.  At least Tolstoy was not like that.

In A Confession, Tolstoy attempts to give an account of his life up to about 1879.  It is the story of a thoughtless sensualist, who had put all thoughts of God, the meaning of life, soul or goodness aside.  He had pursued first, as a young soldier, the sins of the flesh, and the cruel pleasures of war.  Then, as a literary man, he had pursued fame and money, and had enjoyed the didactic role thrust upon the Russian writer, even though he had nothing to teach.  Then he had got married and become wholly absorbed in his family.  He had, however, been haunted by a terrible sense of the pointlessness of existence in upper-class society.  He had known both the anguish of ennui so profound that he had often been tempted to commit suicide.  He had turned this way and that for a solution to the questions Who am I? and What is the point of living?  Finally, he had discovered that while the pampered intelligentsia and aristocracy were leading lives which were indeed pointless, and which led only to despair, there was a huge category of persons who had faith, who were able to live and who did know life’s secret.  These were the peasants.  Although he could not accept their church–and maybe his pride and lack of humility was still an obstacle there–but he did find some semblance of peace as he resolved to live the Sermon on the Mount.

One of Tolstoy’s lesser known stories is Father Sergius.  Sergius is a famous staretz.  In his youth he had been a nobly born army officer, who abandoned his fiancee when he discovered that she had been the mistress of the Emperor.  Sergius does not merely become a monk, he becomes a famed master of the spiritual life, who eventually leaves his monastery to become a hermit.  The first powerful moment of sexual temptation in the story occurs when he is 49 years old.  A passing group of frivolous rich people see if they can get the hermit seduced by a member of their party.  When this beautiful girl “makes her move,” he is so tempted by her that the only means by which he can resist is through the infliction of physical torment on himself, and so he takes an axe and cuts off a finger from his left hand.  She is so impressed by this demonstration that she herself is converted and becomes a nun.  Well, the story does not stop at this conventional point.  Sergius is not really a saint.  He became a monk because he was jealous and hurt, not because his heart loved God.  And he recognizes that the spiritual reputation he now has, although not really faked by him, is not truly real either.  Then one day he is visited by a merchant whose daughter had a nervous disorder–her father brought her hoping for a cure.  When they are alone, she tells Father Sergius that she has had erotic dreams about him, and it is only a matter of minutes before she embraces him.  He wanders out of his cell, a completely disillusioned man; disillusioned, that is, with his own self-image.  After a spell of wandering, he comes upon his former fiancee, now an old babushka and very poor.  He realizes that his renunciation of her has been priggish and ultimately ungodly.  It is she who must bless him, and not the other way around.  After this, he becomes a wandering pilgrim, and little by little God starts to reveal Himself to him.  The real meaning of holiness and life is finally discovered by him.

Tolstoy greatly influenced a number of significant figures in the 20th Century–like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of lesser known people who would lead resistance to war and injustice all over the world.  Typically Tolstoyean, this is not a simple story either–he also was an influence on such figures as that young man who went out into the Alaskan wilderness a few years ago and ended up starving to death.  The rhetoric of Tolstoy’s zealousness needs careful discernment.

Eight years after Tolstoy died, his wife remarked:  “I lived with Lev Nikolayevich for 48 years, but I never really learned what kind of man he was.”  This may be said even more of his many critics and admirers.  But at the very least we can say that Lev Tolstoy was “totally Russian”!

Fr. Zosima and Alyosha, Part I

One of the most remarkable figures in all of literature is Dostoevsky’s Fr. Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. It is unique in that it is a portrait of a holy monk, indeed of a spiritual guide. Fr. Zosima plays such an important role in this major work of literature and in Dostoevsky’s mature vision that it is worth spending some time pondering this figure.

Fr. Zosima is an “elder” or spiritual guide, a “spiritual father,” in Russian a staretz. This is a universal type that is found in most traditions–most notably, the shaman, the guru, the zen master, the lama, the spiritual director, etc. There is a certain commonality to all these figures, but it is also important to point out that each is not reducible to this commonality and that each carries a particular uniqueness that emerges from their tradition. This is all the more so for the Russian staretz–this is true to such an extent that one almost wants to take the staretz out of this list. He is SO different from the others. This is a debatable assertion but perhaps it will become more convincing as we go on.

In 19th Century Russia, in the Optina Skete, a few hundred miles from Moscow, this tradition of the staretz was in full bloom. In a sense this tradition goes back to the Desert Fathers of Egypt and the beginnings of Christian monasticism when someone would come to one of the holy older, more experienced monks for a “word”–which was not just good advice but a matter of life and death for the spiritual journey of the one seeking the “word.” Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and so many other big names in Russian culture visited Optina at that time and had lengthy encounters with the staretz. There were a number of them through the century until the Communist Revolution in 1917 destroyed all that. But among these there were 3 giants: Leonid, Macarius, and Amvrosy. The last one is the one both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy got to know in several visits, and he is the one who is Dostoevsky’s model for Fr. Zosima. Now what is important is not that Fr. Amvrosy met all these big figures, but that in fact most of his visitors were common people, indeed mostly peasants, and there were hundreds of them every day, and they came for a multitude of reasons, hardly any of them would pertain to what we would call “spiritual practice”–in other words most came not with some question about “spirituality.” In a sense it was all very simple, there is God and there is life, and that’s your spiritual practice! Some of the great zen masters were like that, but here the spiritual practice is even more immanent in daily life and its pains and aches and enigmas and problems. The important thing is to focus on them in the right way. Both the staretz and the zen master would agree that there is no secret teaching here–“the Way” begins with your next step right in front of your nose. But the staretz often brings “more heart” to the situation as it were. Dostoevesky witnessed a peasant woman who had lost her child and had come to Fr.Amvrosy. Dostoevsky portrays this encounter in the novel with his fictional Fr. Zosima. First of all, Zosima unites his heart with her heart, so she is not alone in her sorrow and grief. He acknowledges the sorrow and grief–it is legitimate and true. He then unites her heart with the heart of her dead child. She and the child are in a communion that transcends death. All this takes place in a matter of minutes. Then comes a woman who has killed her husband who had been extremely abusive to her. Again what is striking is the calmness and compassion of the staretz. In both cases the person who presents themselves before the staretz feels themselves in deep trouble. In both cases the operative dynamic is communion, so that neither person is left isolated in their darkness. And it is no ordinary communion, but the realm of mercy and forgiveness and understanding and tenderness. In other words, the most important thing the staretz does is open up to each person the nearness of God to their own heart no matter what predicament they are in. This is a special gift of Russian spirituality.

Consider this scene from early in the novel. The Karamazovs, the three sons and the Father, and several friends come to the monastery to meet with Fr. Zosima ostensibly to settle a dispute between the father and one of them, Dmitri. This is a dysfunctional family to say the least. Old man Karamazov, Fyodor by name, is abusive, manipulative, lecherous, greedy and a buffoon on top of it all. Dmitri is a total hothead ready to explode in emotion and on the verge of being out of control. Ivan seems to be a cold intellectual, the best educated of them. Alyosha, the youngest, has become a novice monk and has come under the wing of Fr. Zosima. He seems to be the only one with his humanity still intact. So they are there with all the other people who have come to see Fr. Zosima. He gives them a private meeting during which the father, Fyodor, makes a total ass of himself and Dmitri explodes as usual and so much more happens. The staretz takes it all in even as he seems very tired and sickly. Then, in the words of Dostoevsky:

“But the whole scene, which had turned so ugly, was stopped in a

most unexpected manner. The elder suddenly rose from his place.

Alyosha, who had almost completely lost his head from fear for him

and for all of them, had just time enough to support his arm. The elder

stepped towards Dmitri…and having come close to him, knelt before him.

Kneeling in front of Dmitri Fyodorovich, the elder bowed down at his

feet with a full, distinct, conscious bow, and even touched the floor

with his forehead”

The meaning of this gesture is the key to understanding the spiritual meaning of this novel. Dmitri is enmeshed in a deep darkness; he is on the verge of killing his own father–he is very much tempted, driven to such a thought. He is certainly very capable of doing such a deed. In the Russian hesychast tradition, God is MOST present in the deepest and darkest places in the heart and in the most trying moments. Recall the mysterious words of the Lord to Staretz Silouan on Mt. Athos: Keep your heart in hell and despair not. A more mundane expression of this is the old Pauline adage: where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. For the Russian staretzi this was not a trite expression but a profound spiritual truth, and so Fr. Zosima intuits Dmitri’s heart and the overwhelming presence of God there in the form of unspeakable mercy and forgiveness and nearness–or better yet, oneness. He does not preach to Dmitri, but uses his whole body in this gesture to open Dmitri’s heart to an awareness of the reality of God within Dmitri’s tortured heart. Dmitri is totally shaken by this gesture and he runs out of the monk’s cell.

The staretz is very much able to read a person’s heart, but sometimes the medicine that is applied is a bit more analytical. When the old father is ranting and raving in front of the gathering and being abusive under his buffonery, Fr. Zosima does not get sharp with him but calmly and peacefully tells him: “Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself.” This is an acute analysis of Fyodor’s problem, which really is a problem at the level of the heart. True Fyodor should give up his drunkeness, his lechery, his greed, his abusiveness, but all these are merely symptoms of his real problem. Incidentally, Gandhi made the same kind of analysis with regard to violence–the root of it was lying to oneself and to others.

Another encounter along this same line takes place with an upper class lady that comes to Fr. Zosima. She is benevolent in her actions; engages in charitable activities; engages in all kinds of movements “for the benefit of humanity.” However, she confesses to Zosima that she has the hardest time tolerating people close to her, those she has to deal with in close encounters–how they “rub her the wrong way.” She can’t stand people who don’t show gratitude to her. She actually shows a grasp of her state of heart:

“In short, I work for pay and demand pay at once, that is, praise and a return of love for my love. Otherwise I’m unable to love anyone.”

Zosima leads her into still greater depths of self-knowledge and then beyond that into an awareness of the Lord who is Love and who is leading her to a place she does not want to go:

“Never be frightened at your own faintheartedness in attaining love, and meanwhile do not even be very frightened by your own bad acts. I am sorry that I cannot say anything more comforting, for active love is a harsh and fearful thing, compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science. But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment–I predict this to you–you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.”

Then there is the pathos of what Fr. Zosima tells his young novice monk, Alyosha. As Zosima is dying, he sends Alyosha away from the monastery–he reads Alyosha’s heart as one who will discover oneness with God in another way: “For the time being your place is not here. I give you my blessing for a great obedience in the world. You still have much journeying before you. And you will have to marry–yes, you will. You will have to endure everything before you come back again. And there will be mujch work to do. But I have no doubt of you, that is why I am sending you. Christ is with you. Keep him, and he will keep you. You will behold great sorrow, and in this sorrow you will be happy. Here is a commandment for you: seek happiness in sorrow.”

So we can see something of the authentic spiritual guide in Zosima. The two absolute criteria for authenticity in a spiritual guide are compassion and freedom. And one of the existential ways that freedom manifests itself is that the authentic spiritual master does not seek or hold disciples–he/she only seeks the good of whoever comes to them. The hesychast staretz is so immersed in prayer and so totally surrendered to God that he now becomes merely an instrument in God’s hands to facilitate the work of God in every situation and with every person. This is far beyond being a teacher of a spiritual practice. Everything else is secondary or tertiary!

In Part II of our reflection, in a later posting, we will consider the heart of Fr. Zosima’s teaching to his monks, and very importantly, Alyosha’s trial and breakthrough with Fr. Zosima’s death.

A Few Words About Nothing & The Mystery of God, Part I

Shakespeare’s King Lear says, “Nothing will come of nothing.”  In common terms, so true; but in the classic Christian doctrine of creation–“creatio ex nihil”–creation out of nothing–the whole universe, the whole of reality comes out of nothing.  This is not a Biblical account but a spiritual and philosophical intuition and result of a certain line of reasoning.  Here we are in the antechamber of a great mystery.  Of course one can deny the whole thing by saying that this whole always existed, never not-existed.  We are merely a random rearrangement of elements that always existed–ultimately we are the result of chance.  Between these two positions there are some philosophical choices about what line of reasoning one finds more plausible.  Ultimately of course the choice is never made without other directing influences.  But in either case, there is this annoying and mysterious reality of “nothingness” still hovering around.

Let us clarify:  there is nothing, and then there is “nothing”.  By “nothing” we do not mean just an empty space.  Afterall, an empty space is still something!  So “nothingness” here will mean  a lot more than just emptiness in the normal sense.

There is a nothingness that is beyond all our conceptions of nothing. It is not just non-being as opposed to being.  No it transcends the opposition of being and non-being.

There is a poverty that is beyond poverty.

There is a silence which is beyond all silence.

There is a  solitude that is beyond all solitude.

There is a communion beyond all community, togetherness and connectivity!

There is a Name beyond all names and it cannot be named.

Such is the spiritual and mystical intuition that inhabits a number of traditions.

The cawing of the crow in the freshness of the morning stillness emerges out of this Nothingness and returns to it.  When your log fire goes out, this is where it goes to.

One of the deep metaphysical fears lurking in the thought of death is that we will slide into nothingness.  Even some of the saints have reported that at the approach of death there was this chilling, cold feeling of nothingness opening up before them.  They go beyond this, of course, but some will say this is simply a delusion; others will say that they transcend this fear of non-being that death signifies and they transcend into the Nothingness beyond non-being.

The Christian notion of God is beyond both being and non-being, and this is the beginning of the mystery of God.  Classic Catholic mystical theology has always said that we know God most when we realize that we do know God.  St. Augustine said: “If we can grasp it, it’s not God.”

Most Christians rely on the figure of Jesus in the New Testament, both artistically and in the ideas and images in their minds.  They also may rely on the images of Mary and the saints.  This seems to bring the reality of God close to them in a comforting way.  All this is absolutely true and good.  However, what too often happens is that a person never really encounters the awesome mystery of God which abides in their hearts and surrounds their lives on all sides.  Without some such encounter of this awesome Mystery, our common piety is apt to deteriorate into something trivial and superficial.  Mystery is the essential foundation of the spiritual life.  When our spiritual senses are alive, we sense that our lives are immersed in a holy mystery that is closer to us than we are to ourselves.  It is also a Mystery that offers itself to us as Gift in every concrete encounter with every concrete reality.  And yet it is also at the same time a Mystery that is Wholly Other–so other that it best be left described as Nothingness.

When we say “mystery” we do not mean the word in the usual sense.  It is not something to be solved, a puzzle or a riddle that we can solve given enough time and resources.  No, the mystery of God is something much. much deeper.  The great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, spoke of “the human being in the presence of Absolute Mystery.”  Some Christians might balk that after Jesus we have this knowledge of God and that’s it.  This is a delicate theological point, which we will ponder in Part II, in a later posting.  Suffice it to say now that even after the revelation of Jesus Christ, there still remains the absolute incomprehensible mystery of God. The incomprehensibility of God is an infinite richness that we will never exhaust, and it remains even after God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ–Mystery remaining Mystery, not because of a lack of intelligibility, but because of an excess of intelligibility.

There are all kinds of images of God in the Bible.  Some of them profound; some of them good, enticing, inviting; some of them not so good, even repellent.  Not all images of God are equal.  A fundamentalist approach makes each image equal and each image basically infallible–not realizing how humanly constructed they are.  Mystery takes us beyond all images, both the good and the not good.

Apart from the Bible, people of all kinds have promoted all kinds of other images of God.  And everyone, including atheists, have an image of God whether they care to realize that or not.  New Agers often have this sense of God as somekind of universal force; old and modern deists have this image of God as the Great Clockmaker–somewhat scientifically acceptable.  Often personal images of God are reduced to someone who doles out punishments or treats/rewards.  In that case you try hard to appease this entity.  Then Mormons have this image of God that is very peculiar coming from the Christian side–God is seen as being in the form of a man, physically so.

And what do you mean when you say the word “God”?

Property, Ownership, and Poverty

In Catholic monasticism there is a vow of poverty.  Something similar can be found in the other monastic traditions. Also even for people not under vows but who are trying to live a serious spiritual life the dynamic labeled here “poverty” takes on a critical importance.  Right at the outset it should be said that there is both an external and an internal dimension to this notion of poverty.  And it should also be noted that ultimately the internal dimension is the most important–it is where one’s sense of identity abides, who you are, and what is the point of it all.  This latter shall be extensively discussed when we get to Ash Wednesday and Lent in a later posting.  Furthermore, nothing said here should be construed as a cosmetic overlay on the misery and social poverty of billions who are exploited and abused by economic and social systems that preach “a world of plenty.”  In fact if the rest of us simply practiced a humane poverty that problem would be partially solved.

Before we get to the notion of poverty in the spiritual journey, a few words are needed about the notions of “ownership” and “private property.”  In the modern West we have practically made a god out of these ideas. Tolstoy said that all property is theft–a typical Tolstoyean exaggeration, but you see what he is getting at.  It is at the very least a social construct, perhaps one could say a fiction, or to be more kindly and comprehensive, a myth.  In the Republic Plato says that at the core of every society there is this thing which he calls a “noble lie.”  It is something which is at the foundation of that society, a basis for its cohesion, yet it is also a fiction.  And every society has a “noble lie.”  And only those who are truly enlightened by what Plato calls “philosophy”–which is not the modern meaning of that word–truly “know the score.”  So for the modern West perhaps this notion of “private property” is at least one aspect of our “noble lie,” the myth that holds things together in our culture.

It is so arbitrary, isn’t it–I mean you draw a line here and you say stuff on this side of the line is “mine” and stuff on that side of the line is “yours.”  And I have a piece of paper that says this stuff is “mine.”  The sociologist Robert Bellah has pointed out the deeper psychological and spiritual implications of ownership(in his masterly study Habits of the Heart).  Say I want a car to get from point A to point B on some regular basis(already questionable to start with, but let us proceed on that assumption).  I could easily buy a Ford or a Chevy but I am “well off” and I buy a Mercedes.  The average Joe Blow can afford a Ford or Chevy but he cannot afford a Mercedes.  The whole point of owning a Mercedes, paying that extra amount, getting that leather, etc.,  is deep down, unmasked, a desire to say: “I am not like you; I am different; I am well off.”  I own a Mercedes because Joe Blow cannot own one, and when I drive around I proclaim that difference and I establish my sense of identity in that difference.  A total spiritual fiction.  Perhaps even to say, “I am a better human being.”  In any case,  the  notion of ownership has a very real bearing then on our sense of identity at the core of our being.  In the modern West this is simply a matter now of “you are what you own,” or “the one with the most toys at the end wins.”

Think of land, of Mother Earth, and this notion of “owning” it is even more bizarre.  Most aboriginal peoples have a founding myth where the territory they inhabit is given to them by the Great Spirit or a Deity, but it is a matter for the tribe’s use or thriving, not for ownership in the modern sense.  Everything of that land is seen in relation to that original gift.  Needless to say complications can arise as people did migrate and climactic conditions forced some tribes out of their territories into another place, etc. Conflicts could and did arise.  In the movie, Grapes of Wrath, based on Steinbeck’s novel, there is a scene early on where a sharecropper’s cabin is demolished by a bulldozer sent by the bank who now owns the land the sharecropper is sitting on.  The movie and the book raise the question of ownership of land–whose land is it anyway, and what does it mean to “own” anything?

All religious traditions have a very mixed record with regard to this point.  Institutionally they participate in the ideology of the culture in which they are situated.  This is reflected then in something like their notions of ownership and property and the meaning of poverty.  Monasteries have owned serfs and huge amounts of land and stuff; religious groups have owned slaves and have been very powerful in terms of their wealth.  Incidentally, in a related matter, monks have also been associated with violence and war at times as they succumbed to the ideology of their society–there is a new book coming out soon which details this even for Buddhist monks who normally are considered to be non-violent.  However, alongside this, in a kind of contrary and subversive spirit, each tradition has also had its holy men and women who have deconstructed their society’s  and their tradition’s notions of ownership and have redefined the value of poverty.  In the Christian tradition we find figures like St. Francis and Dorothy Day among so many others, and these stand in contrast not just with Wall Street greed, but also in contrast to folk like the European Protestants who theologized that wealth was a sign of blessing from God–the conclusion being then that those who had wealth were “blessed” and those who didn’t, well,…..   They seem to have ignored the Sermon on the Mount and followed one vein of Old Testament theology, which in itself was critiqued  by other voices within the Old Testament.  Today we see some of this in modern America in the so-called Gospel of Prosperity.  Also in some of these mega-churches where the member is offered all kinds of ministry in order to prosper, to invest well, to be healthy, to be happy, to be successful, etc. Everything except for the thirst for holiness.  Leon Bloy’s famous quip is forgotten: “The only sadness is the sadness of not being a saint.”

In any case, there is a peculiar problem within Catholic monasticism(which probably also afflicts other monastic groups like the Buddhists).  The Catholic monk, if he/she is a member of an officially recognized order will take a vow of poverty.  That means he/she will give up ownership of stuff–everything is owned by the community as it were.  The problem is that so many of these official communities are so well-endowed–often they sit on enormous land holdings, and often the monks have “all the comforts of home” at their fingertips while never having to worry about paying any bills or where their next meal will come from.  Some will even have access to “Our Lady of Visa” and can go shopping on the monastery’s bill–of course with the abbot’s blessing.  Now the standard reply to this kind of criticism is that with the vow of poverty the monk lets go of controlling his belongings, that there is a check on any human urge to own and possess, and that primarily the vow is meant as an interior work–or as often it is put, spiritual poverty is what counts.  Now this is largely true, and we shall get to the significance of interior poverty in a later posting, but it still must be said that this apologia for a comfortable life while professing “poverty” sounds dubious to many people.  There is a connection between external, material poverty and so-called spiritual poverty, but that connection is very difficult to articulate except in the context of a whole spiritual theology.

We won’t attempt that now, but it is striking that almost all reform movements within Catholicism and within Eastern Orthodox monasticism have called for a return to a real external, material poverty as an expression of something deeply spiritual and authentic.  St. Francis, for example,  did not preach just an interior poverty–his Lady Poverty was one tough lady to be sure!  For those not in official monastic life but who are serious about a spiritual life, there are many other prophetic figures.  There is Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.  There is the even more interesting and more significant figure of Gandhi, about whom we shall have to reflect at another time.  And there is our own American Henry David Thoreau, who summed up the whole dynamic of ownership and property for someone who seeks spiritual health: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Ok, you will probably want to point out some inconsistencies on the part of any of these figures, as if that would vitiate their teaching.  Inconsistencies granted.  As Emerson put it:  “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Irregardless of who our role model may be we will find ourselves somewhere along this spectrum that ranges from St. Francis(or St. Nil) to the Tsar of Old Russia(or maybe to one of our billionaires)–the Tsar’s winter home in St. Petersburg had 1050 rooms, 1886 doors, 1945 windows, and 117 staircases–there is an Indian billionaire that is building his own skyscraper in Mumbai that will probably top this!).  Doubtless we are much closer to St. Francis than to these other folk, but whatever be the case we need to keep a critical eye on the dynamic that is really operative in our lives and social situations.  Do not let any communal ideology or cultural ideology or national ideology or religious ideology blind us into making ownership and property some kind of hidden deity–in other words, we really must have that, we absolutely need that, we have earned that–or it belongs to the community, not to me, so that’s ok….etc. etc.   There is a big difference between having the stuff that makes life humane and decent and a felt need to live in huge homes, gated communities, drive expensive cars, have all the latest toys, etc. etc.  To be in this condition is to be dangerously blind  to our real condition, to our relationship to others, to our true identity.  Recall Jesus’s parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man(Luke 16: 19-31).  Amen.

Enoch & Paradise: An Introduction to Russian Spirituality

There is a line in the Book of Genesis that is easy to miss considering the monumental nature of what is presented there.  One translation reads:  “And Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.”(Gen5:24)  Another translation: “And Enoch walked with God, and he vanished for God took him.”  A simplistic reading of this would be:  Enoch was a good man and then he died.  No, this line has a lot more to say than that!

Note that there are three elements in that verse:

  1. Enoch walks with God
  2. Enoch “vanishes” or “he was not”
  3. God took him

The first term, “walking with God,” is not some vague reference to moral uprightness or saying one’s prayers.  It refers us directly back to the state of paradise described in Genesis 3: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…”  Although the situation being presented is the narrative of the Fall, the implication of this line is that the human being’s natural condition “before the Fall” was this “casual intimacy” with God–as if walking in a garden with a friend.  So to “walk with God” is to be present to the Divine Presence which fills all of creation.  Now there are degrees and depths to this “presencing”, and it is not until one “returns to Paradise” that it is in its fullness.  This “return to Paradise” was a great theme of the early monastic fathers and the hesychasts of the Russian tradition.  Once the Fall has taken place; once Adam and Eve have asserted the primacy of their ego identity, not receiving the Divine Life as a gift but thinking they could just “take it” as it were; then we are no longer “in Paradise”; we are no longer “walking with God,” walking within the Divine Presence in its fullness.

The next element is this mysterious vanishing, “he was not.”  The “vanishing” is concomitant to “walking with God.”  The Russian hesychasts saw that the “return to Paradise” was signalled by the stripping off of the masks and disguises of the ego identity, by a kind of nakedness of personhood, so that one could say that one’s ego centered identity has vanished.  The general term they used was “humility,” and this has nothing to do with the psychological posturing of the ego or with the sickness of self-hatred and self-rejection–this is a theme we shall return to again and again.  And this is in harmony with the teachings of all the great traditions in their own terms.  For example, the Sufis talk about fana or annihilation–this is the extinction of that very ego centered sense of self.  When al-Hallaj says, “I am the Truth,” he is not blaspheming as the conservative traditionalists would have it, but what he means is that his sense of “I-ness” now comes from God, not from any egocentric affirmation.  His whole identity is now “of God.”  When one “walks with God” one realizes that only God truly IS–and everything else in relationship to that “Isness” is as nothing.

The third element tells us: “God took him.”  It is God’s agency that accomplishes this–not our own efforts, which in any case would be shot through with egocentric desire no matter how “spiritual” they may seem.  There are no techniques, no methods, no practices that will accomplish this “return to Paradise.”  The story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel is one parable of the futility of “reaching heaven” by our own efforts.  According to the Russian spiritual fathers, the return to Paradise takes place through faith, through humility, through continual repentance, and through total forgiveness.  This is an enormous topic to which we shall return many times during this year, but let us consider just one aspect of this “return” now.

The “return to Paradise” now begins at the “foot of the Cross.”  This will mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people in a thousand different situations, but for sure it is now no longer a matter of our moral uprightness or our spirituality or our knowledge that will bring us “home.”  Consider the following scene from Luke 23:39-42:  “One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!’  But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’  Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov we find several concrete existential depictions of what this “return to Paradise” is like.  It can almost be summarized in three words: forgiveness, responsibility, repentance.  And these three will need an extensive explanation because they are a lot more than the usual surface meanings we give them.  In any case, Dostoevsky presents the early life of his creation, the great spiritual father Fr. Zosima.  As a young man he was a military cadet, and he gets himself into a duel over a girlfriend.  The night before he is in a foul mood and he strikes his servant in the face over a trivial matter.  He cannot sleep very long:

“Suddenly I got up…I went to the window, opened it, looked into the garden–I watched the sun rising, the weather was warm, beautiful, the birds began to chime.  Why is it, I thought, that I feel something, as it were, mean and shameful in my soul?  Is it because…I am afraid of death, afraid to be killed?  No, not that, not that at all….  And suddenly I understood at once what it was: it was because I had beaten Afanasy the night before!  I suddenly pictured it all as if it were happening over again: he is standing before me, and I strike him in the face with all my might, and he keeps his arms at his sides, head erect, eyes staring straight ahead as if he were at attention; he winces at each blow…this is what a man can be brought to, a man beating his fellow man!  …it was as if a sharp needle went through my soul.  I stood as if dazed, and the sun was shining, the leaves were rejoicing, glistening, and the birds, the birds were praising God…I covered my face with my hands, fell on my bed and burst into sobs.  And then I remembered my brother Markel, and his words to the servants before his death: ‘My good ones, my dears, why are you serving me, why do you love me, and am I worthy of being served?’  Yes, am I worthy? suddenly leaped into my mind.  Indeed, how did I deserve that another man, just like me, the image and likeness of God, should serve me?  This question then pierced my mind for the first time in my life.  [I remembered my brother again]: ‘Mother, heart of my heart, truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.’  Lord, I wept and thought, can that possibly not be true?  Indeed, I am perhaps the most guilty of all….  And suddenly the whole truth appeared to me in its full enlightenment: what was I setting out to do?  I was setting out to kill a kind, intelligent, noble man…. I lay there flat on my bed, my face pressed into the pillow….  Suddenly my comrade, the lieutenant, came in with the pistols to fetch me….    ‘Wait a bit,’ I said to him… I ran back into the house alone, straight to Afanasy’s room: ‘Afanasy,’ I said, ‘yesterday I struck you twice in the face.  Forgive me.’  He started as he were afraid, and I saw that it was not enough, not enough, and suddenly, just as I was, epaulettes and all, I threw myself at his feet with my forehead to the ground: ‘Forgive me,’ I said.  At that he was completely astounded: ‘My dear master, but how can you….I’m not   worthy…’  And he suddenly began weeping himself, just as I had done shortly before, covered his face with both hands….  [He goes to the place of the duel]    They set us twelve paces apart, the first shot was his–I stood cheerfully  before him, face to face…looking at him lovingly….  He fired.  The shot just grazed by cheek and nicked my ear….and I seized my pistol, turned around, and sent it hurtling up into the trees….  I said to my adversary: ‘My dear sir, forgive a foolish young man, for it is my own fault that I offended you and have now made you shoot at me….  Gentlemen, I cried suddenly from the bottom of my heart, look at the divine gifts around us: the clear sky, the fresh air, the tender grass, the birds, nature is beautiful and sinless, and we, we alone, are godless and foolish, and do not understand that life is paradise…and we [then] shall embrace each other and weep….'”

This moment of conversion and enlightenment then infuses all of Zosima’s life as a monk and a spiritual father and it is a constant in his teaching.  We shall return to his teaching extensively in later blogs, but suffice it to say now that for Fr. Zosima and the Russian hesychasts, “paradise” was returned to by a radical redefinition of our human identity through our acceptance of “our neighbor” in love, forgiveness, humility and mercy.  First of all, this will inevitably place us “within the dynamic of the Cross.”  Then furthermore this uncovers the real nature of our relationality to all of reality.  And then we are “walking with God.”

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.