Saturday, May 3, 2014



After the Turkish conquest of what remained of the Eastern Roman world in the mid-15th century, the only Orthodox countries not under Islamic rule were those of the Slavic and Balkan north; and, among these, Russia soon emerged as the most powerful.

In many significant respects, Moscow became the chief city in the Eastern Christian world, and the Russian empire became the successor of the Byzantine - so much so, indeed, that it came to refer to itself as the 'Third Rome'. In 1547, on the occasion of his coronation, the grand prince of Moscow, Ivan IV 'the Terrible' (1530—84), even assumed the title of  'Tsar' - that is, 'Caesar'.

Tsar and Patriarch

Until 1448, the head of the Church in Russia wore the title of 'Metropolitan of Kiev' (though the metropolitanate had actually resided in Moscow for more than a century) and was under the nominal governance of the patriarch of Constantinople. In that year, however - in part, as a response to Constantinople's 'shameful' capitulation to Roman demands at the Council of Florence - the bishops of Russia appointed a Bishop Jonas (d.1461) as the 'metropolitan of Moscow', thereby declaring the Russian Church's 'autocephaly' (that is, self-government). In 1589, with Constantinople's approval, the title became 'Patriarch of Moscow.'

Tensions between tsar and patriarch were often quite severe, though inevitably, when anything approaching an actual conflict arose, the tsar was the victor. When Metropolitan Philip II (1507-69) publicly reproached Ivan the Terrible (quite justly) for perpetrating massacres, he was deposed, imprisoned and strangled. The energetic, reforming Patriarch Nikon (1605-81) was perhaps the most powerful patriarch in Russian history; Tsar Alexei I (1629-76) was his ardent admirer; but when Nikon - an imperious character at the best of times — began to overshadow the tsar, he was deposed and reduced to a common monk. And, in 1721, Tsar Peter I 'the Great' (1672-1725) abolished the office of patriarch altogether, and — in imitation of the Lutheran establishments in Sweden and Protestant Germany — replaced it with a synod that functioned as an office of the state. There would not be another patriarch of Moscow until 1917.

The history of the Church in the Ukraine — old Kievan Russia - took a somewhat different course, especially after 1569, when much of the Ukraine belonged to Roman Catholic Poland. In 1596, the Union of Brest-Litovsk —which placed the Kievan metropolitanate under Rome - was imposed on the Orthodox population. And though in 1620 an Orthodox metropolitanate was re-established, and in 1686 was placed under Moscow, Ukrainian Christianity remained divided thereafter between Orthodox and 'Eastern Rite' Catholic Churches.

The Love of Beauty

It is not an exaggeration to say that one of the most important events in the early modern history of the Eastern Orthodox Church was the publication in 1782 of a book called the Philokalia, which means 'the love of beauty'. It was an anthology of Eastern Christian mystical texts, from the fourth to the 14th centuries, assembled by two monks of Mount Athos: Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1748-1809) and Macarius of Corinth (1731-1805). The book was notable in part for its comprehensiveness, and in part for making available many texts never previously printed. It was significant, as well, for somewhat rehabilitating Evagrius Ponticus, whose condemnation as an Origenist had relegated his works to something very near oblivion for over a thousand years, but whose writings on the spiritual life were both too brilliant and too important for the Eastern contemplative tradition not to be included. And it is fair to say that the book established Hesychasm once and for all as the dominant form of Orthodox spirituality.

The true significance of the Philokalia, however, lay in the contribution it made to a movement of spiritual renewal throughout the Orthodox world. On its publication, many saw it as a uniquely powerful expression of the heart of Orthodoxy. It was especially influential in Russia and the greater Slavic world. In 1793, the Athonite monk PaissyVelichkovsky (1722-94) issued a Slavonic translation in St Petersburg; it was Paissy also who was largely responsible for introducing the Greek institution of spiritual 'elders' to the Slavic Church. An elder (geron in Greek, staretz in Russian) was a master of the spiritual life, responsible for the formation of young monks and acting as a confessor and guide to the laity; and these startsi (the plural of staretz) were a vital part of the renewal of the Orthodox monastic life.

[The cathedral of Saint Basil the Blessed on Moscow's Red Square was commissioned by Tsar Ivan IV ('the Terrible') and built between 1555 and 1561]

The Slavonic Phihkalia — already immensely popular — was translated into Russian by Theophan the Recluse (1815-94), one of the most beloved of modern Russian saints. A perfect (if somewhat stylized) picture of the effect of the anthology on the devotional life of the laity can be found in two anonymous narratives written in the 19th century (possibly by an Athonite monk): The Way of a Pilgrim and its sequel The Pilgrim Continues Upon His Way, which tell the story of a wanderer who undertakes to practise the Hesychastic method of constant inward prayer.

Orthodox Missions

The 18th century was also the great age of Russian missions, not only into the wild interior of Siberia, the far north, and Central Asia, but even to North America. Among the most revered of the Russian missionaries was St Herman of Alaska (c. 1758—1837), a devout and gentle Russian monk who in 1794 arrived on Kodiak Island — at that time a Russian possession - with six other monks to establish the first Orthodox mission in the New World. Herman not only ministered to the native Aleuts and made a great many converts; he soon found himself obliged to act as an advocate for and protector of the native peoples against the abuse they suffered at the hands of the Russian colonists. In 1808, Herman created a hermit's retreat for himself on Spruce Island, a little more than a mile away from Kodiak Island. He also had a school built on the island, as well as a chapel, and devoted much of the remainder of his life to caring for orphans and for the ill.

Of the next generation of Russian missionaries to the Aleuts, St Innocent of Alaska (1797-1879) perhaps accomplished the most. He was a married priest who, in 1824, arrived with his wife and family on Unalaska Island, where he promptly built a church and began to study the native languages of his parishioners: the native inhabitants not only of Unalaska, but of the Pribilof and Fox Islands. As his mastery of Aleutian dialects increased, he devised an Aleut alphabet and began translating the Bible into Unagan, the most important of them. In 1829, he undertook a mission to the coasts of the Bering Sea, and in 1834 moved to Sitka Island, where he learned the language of the native Tlingit people.

Innocent lost his wife in 1838, and was persuaded in 1840 to take the vows of a monk. That same year he was made a bishop with a diocese comprising the Aleutian Islands, the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Kurile Islands northeast of Japan. He did not cease, though, to work as a travelling missionary, a scholar of native North American tongues and a translator. He was elevated to the Moscow Synod in 1865, and became its head in 1868.


f   .     :   ft.

Of all the startsi who arose during the years of Russia's great spiritual renewal, none is remembered more fondly than St Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833). Born Prohor Moshnin to a merchant family in Kursk, he was marked from an early age by a pious, mild and even somewhat mystical temper. In 1777 he entered the Sarov Monastery, taking his final vows and his monastic name Seraphim in 1786. From the beginning of his novitiate to his death, he lived an ascetical life, never eating more than was required for bare sustenance, and spending most of his hours in prayer before the altar ofthe monastery church. He was made a hierodeacon in 1793, and soon after - with the blessing of his staretz - retreated into the forest to pray in solitude.There he was occasionally visited by monks and nuns seeking spiritual guidance, as well as by (if the stories are to be believed) the beasts of the forest; one nun witnessed him feeding a bear from his hand.

He was set upon one day by brigands who mistakenly thought he had possessions they might steal; he had been cutting wood at the time, but made no attempt to defend himself, even when they began bludgeoning
him with the handle of his own axe; they ceased beating him only when they thought him dead.The staretz recovered - though never entirely - and when the men were caught and brought to trial, Seraphim implored the judge to show them mercy.

Not long after his recovery, he embarked on 1000 nights of continuous prayer, standing on a rock with bare feet and his hands raised to God.Then, in 1815, supposedly in response to a vision of the Mother of God, he opened his hermitage to all who wished to come to him for spiritual counsel, and to learn from him how to 'acquire' the Holy Spirit through the practice of Christian love. Reports of his wisdom, his 'miraculous' power to see into his visitors' hearts and his great cheerfulness, charity and gentleness soon spread, and pilgrims came constantly.

The most famous account of such a visit is that of Nicholas Motovilov, who not only recorded many of Seraphim's teachings, but claimed to have been present when the elder was transfigured by the 'uncreated light'.

Seraphim died peacefully in 1833, while praying before an icon of the Mother of God.




Keith Hunt 

No comments:

Post a Comment