Система Orphus
The Orthodox Church
(Church History)

by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)

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Moscow and Petersburg

"The sense of God’s presence - of the supernatural - seems to me to penetrate Russian life more completely than that of any of the western nations" (H.P. Liddon, Canon of Saint Paul’s, after a visit to Russia in 1867)


Moscow the third Rome

After the taking of Constantinople in 1453, there was only one nation capable of assuming leadership in eastern Christendom. The greater part of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania had already been conquered by the Turks, while the rest was absorbed before long. Russia alone remained. To the Russians it seemed no coincidence that at the very moment when the Byzantine Empire came to an end, they themselves were at last throwing off the few remaining vestiges of Tartar suzerainty: God, it seemed, was granting them their freedom because He had chosen them to be the successors of Byzantium.

At the same time as the land of Russia, the Russian Church gained its independence, more by chance than from any deliberate design. Hitherto the Patriarch of Constantinople had appointed the head of the Russian Church, the Metropolitan. At the Council of Florence the Metropolitan was a Greek, Isidore. A leading supporter of the union with Rome, Isidore returned to Moscow in 1441 and proclaimed the decrees of Florence, but he met with no support from the Russians: he was imprisoned by the Grand Duke, but after a time was allowed to escape, and went back to Italy. The chief see was thus left vacant; but the Russians could not ask the Patriarch for a new Metropolitan, because until 1453 the official Church at Constantinople continued to accept the Florentine Union. Reluctant to take action on their own, the Russians delayed for several years. Eventually in 1448 a council of Russian bishops proceeded to elect a Metropolitan without further reference to Constantinople. After 1453, when the Florentine Union was abandoned at Constantinople, communion between the Patriarchate and Russia was restored, but Russia continued to appoint its own chief hierarch. Henceforward the Russian Church was autocephalous.

The idea of Moscow as successor of Byzantium was assisted by a marriage. In 1472 Ivan III "the Great" (reigned 1462-1505) married Sophia, niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. Although Sophia had brothers and was not the legal heir to the throne, the marriage served to establish a dynastic link with Byzantium. The Grand Duke of Moscow began to assume the Byzantine titles of "autocrat" and "Tsar" (an adaptation of the Roman "Caesar") and to use the double-headed eagle of Byzantium as his State emblem. Men came to think of Moscow as "the Third Rome." The first Rome (so they argued) had fallen to the barbarians and then lapsed into heresy; the second Rome, Constantinople, had in turn fallen into heresy at the Council of Florence, and as a punishment had been taken by the Turks. Moscow therefore had succeeded Constantinople as the Third and last Rome, the center of Orthodox Christendom. The monk Philotheus of Pskov set forth this line of argument in a famous letter written in 1510 to Tsar Basil III:

I wish to add a few words on the present Orthodox Empire of оur ruler: he is on earth the sole Emperor (Tsar) of the Christians, the leader of the Apostolic Church which stands no longer Rome or in Constantinople, but in the blessed city of Moscow. She alone shines in the whole world brighter than the sun.... All Christian Empires are fallen and in their stead stands alone the Empire of our ruler in accordance with the Prophetical books. Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands and a fourth there will not be. (Quoted in Baynes and Moss, Byzantium: an Introduction, p. 385).

This idea of Moscow the Third Rome had a certain appropriateness when applied to the Tsar: the Emperor of Byzantium once acted as champion and protector of Orthodoxy, and now the autocrat of Russia was called to perform the same task. But it could also be understood in other and less acceptable ways. If Moscow was the Third Rome, then should not the head of the Russian Church rank senior to the Patriarch of Constantinople? In fact this seniority has never been granted, and Russia has always ranked no higher than fifth among the Orthodox Churches, after Jerusalem. The concept of Moscow the Third Rome also encouraged a kind of Muscovite Messianism, and led Russians sometimes to think of themselves as a chosen people who could do no wrong; and if taken in a political as well as religious sense, it could be used to further the ends of Russian secular imperialism.

Now that the dream for which Saint Sergius worked - the liberation of Russia from the Tartars - had become a reality, a sad division occurred among his spiritual descendants. Sergius had united the social with the mystical side of monasticism, but under his successors these two aspects became separated. The separation first came into the open at a Church council in 1503. As this council drew to its close, Saint Nilus of Sora (Nil Sorsky, 1433?-1508), a monk from a remote hermitage in the forests beyond the Volga, rose to speak, and launched an attack on the ownership of land by monasteries (about a third of the land in Russia belonged to monasteries at this time). Saint Joseph, Abbot of Volokalamsk (1439-1515), replied in defense of monastic landholding. The majority of the Council supported Joseph; but there were others in the Russian Church who agreed with Nilus - chiefly hermits living like him beyond the Volga. Joseph’s party were known as the Possessors, Nilus and the "Transvolga hermits" as the Non-Possessors. During the next twenty years there was considerable tension between the two groups. Finally in 1525-1526 the Non-Possessors attacked Tsar Basil III for unjustly divorcing his wife (the Orthodox Church grants divorce, but only for certain reasons); the Tsar then imprisoned the leading Non-Possessors and closed the Transvolga hermitages. The tradition of Saint Nilus was driven underground, and although it never entirely disappeared, its influence in the Russian Church was very much restricted. For the time being the outlook of the Possessors reigned supreme.

Behind the question of monastic property lay two different conceptions of the monastic life, and ultimately two different views of the relation of the Church to the world. The Possessors emphasized the social obligations of monasticism: it is part of the work of monks to care for the sick and poor, to show hospitality and to teach; to do these things efficiently, monasteries need money and therefore they must own land. Monks (so they argued) do not use their wealth on themselves, but hold it in trust for the benefit of others. There was a saying among the followers of Joseph, "The riches of the Church are the riches of the poor."

The Non-Possessors argued on the other hand that almsgiving is the duty of the laity, while a monk’s primary task is to help others by praying for them and by setting an example. To do these things properly a monk must be detached from the world, and only those who are vowed to complete poverty can achieve true detachment. Monks who are landowners cannot avoid being tangled up in secular anxieties, and because they become absorbed in worldly concerns, they act and think in a worldly way. In the words of the monk Vassian (Prince Patrikiev), a disciple of Nilus:

Where in the traditions of the Gospels, Apostles, and Fathers are monks ordered to acquire populous villages and enslave peasants to the brotherhood? ...We look into the hands of the rich, fawn slavishly, flatter them to get out of them some little village... We wrong and rob and sell Christians, our brothers. We torture them with scourges like wild beasts (Quoted in B. Pares, A History of Russia, third edition, p. 93).

Vassian’s protest against torture and scourges brings us to a second matter over which the two sides disagreed, the treatment of heretics. Joseph upheld the view all but universal in Christendom at this time: if heretics are recalcitrant, the Church must call in the civil arm and resort to prison, torture, and if necessary fire. But Nilus condemned all forms of coercion and violence against heretics. One has only to recall how Protestants and Roman Catholics treated one another in western Europe during the Reformation, to realize how exceptional Nilus was in his tolerance and respect for human freedom.

The question of heretics in turn involved the wider problem of relations between Church and State. Nilus regarded heresy as a spiritual matter, to be settled by the Church without the State’s intervention; Joseph invoked the help of the secular authorities. In general Nilus drew a clearer line than Joseph between the things of Caesar and the things of God. The Possessors were great supporters of the ideal of Moscow the Third Rome; believing in a close alliance between Church and State, they took an active part in politics, as Sergius had done, but perhaps they were less careful than Sergius to guard the Church from becoming the servant of the State. The Non-Possessors for their part had a sharper awareness of the prophetic and other-worldly witness of monasticism. The Josephites were in danger of identifying the Kingdom of God with a kingdom of this world; Nilus saw that the Church on earth must always be a Church in pilgrimage. While Joseph and his party were great patriots and nationalists, the Non-Possessors thought more of the universality and Catholicity of the Church.

Nor did the divergences between the two sides end here: they also had different ideas of Christian piety and prayer. Joseph emphasized the place of rules and discipline, Nilus the inner and personal relation between God and the soul. Joseph stressed the place of beauty in worship, Nilus feared that beauty might become an idol: the monk (so Nilus maintained) is dedicated not only to an outward poverty, but to an absolute self-stripping, and he must be careful lest a devotion to beautiful icons or Church music comes between him and God. (In this suspicion of beauty, Nilus displays a Puritanism - almost an Iconoclasm - most unusual in Russian spirituality). Joseph realized the importance of corporate worship and of liturgical prayer:

A man can pray in his own room, but he will never pray there as he prays in Church... where the singing of many voices rises united towards God, where all have but one thought and one voice in the unity of love.... On high the seraphim proclaim the Trisagion, here below the human multitude raises the same hymn. Heaven and earth keep festival together, one in thanksgiving, one in happiness, one in joy (Quoted by J. Meyendorff, "Une controverse sur le rôle social de l'Église. La querelle des biens ecclésiastiques au xvie siècle en Russie," in the periodical Irénikon, vol. xxix (1956), p. 29).

Nilus on the other hand was chiefly interested not in liturgical but in mystical prayer: before he settled at Sora he had lived as a monk on Mount Athos, and he knew the Byzantine Hesychast tradition at first hand.

The Russian Church rightly saw good things in the teaching of both Joseph and Nilus, and has canonized them both. Each inherited a part of the tradition of Saint Sergius, but no more than a part: Russia needed both the Josephite and the Transvolgian forms of monasticism, for each supplemented the other. It was sad indeed that the two sides entered into conflict, and that the tradition of Nilus was largely suppressed: without the Non-Possessors, the spiritual life of the Russian Church became one-sided and unbalanced. The close integration which the Josephites upheld between Church and State, their Russian nationalism, their devotion to the outward forms of worship - these things were to lead to trouble in the next century.

One of the most interesting participants in the dispute of Possessors and Non-Possessors was Saint Maximus the Greek (1470?-1556), a "bridge figure" whose long life embraces the three worlds of Renaissance Italy, Mount Athos, and Muscovy. Greek by birth, he spent the years of early manhood in Florence and Venice, as a friend of Humanist scholars such as Pico della Mirandola; he also fell under the influence of Savonarola, and for two years was a Dominican. Returning to Greece in 1504, he became a monk on Athos; in 1517 he was invited to Russia by the Tsar, to translate Greek works into Slavonic and to correct the Russian service books, which were disfigured by numerous errors. Like Nilus, he was devoted to the Hesychast ideals, and on arriving in Russia he threw in his lot with the Non-Possessors. He suffered with the rest, and was imprisoned for twenty-six years, from 1525 to 1551. He was attacked with particular bitterness for the changes which he proposed in the service books, and the work of revision was broken off and left unfinished. His great gifts of learning, from which the Russians could have benefited so much, were largely wasted in imprisonment. He was as strict as Nilus in his demand for self-stripping and spiritual poverty. "If you truly love Christ crucified," he wrote, "...be a stranger, unknown, without country, without name, silent before your relatives, your acquaintances, and your friends; distribute all that you have to the poor, sacrifice all your old habits and all your own will" (Quoted by E. Denissoff, Maxime le Grec et l'Occident, Paris, 1943, pp. 275-276).

Although the victory of the Possessors meant a close alliance between Church and State, the Church did not forfeit all independence. When Ivan the Terrible’s power was at its height, the Metropolitan of Moscow, Saint Philip (died 1569), dared to protest openly against the Tsar’s bloodshed and injustice, and rebuked him to his face during the public celebration of the Liturgy. Ivan put him in prison and later had him strangled. Another who sharply criticized Ivan was Saint Basil the Blessed, the "Fool in Christ" (died 1552). Folly for the sake of Christ is a form of sanctity found in Byzantium, but particularly prominent in medieval Russia: the "Fool" carries the ideal of self-stripping and humiliation to its furthest extent, by renouncing all intellectual gifts, all forms of earthly wisdom, and by voluntarily taking upon himself the Cross of madness. These Fools often performed a valuable social role: simply because they were fools, they could criticize those in power with a frankness which no one else dared to employ. So it was with Basil, the "living conscience" of the Tsar. Ivan listened to the shrewd censure of the Fool, and so far from punishing him, treated him with marked honor.

In 1589, with the consent of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the head of the Russian Church was raised from the rank of Metropolitan to that of Patriarch. It was from one point of view a triumph for the ideal of Moscow the Third Rome; but it was a qualified triumph, for the Moscow Patriarch did not take first place in the Orthodox world, but fifth, after Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem (but superior to the more ancient Patriarchate of Serbia). As things turned out, the Moscow Patriarchate was to last for little more than a century.


The schism of the Old Believers

The seventeenth century in Russia opened with a period of confusion and disaster, known as the Time of Troubles, when the land was divided against itself and fell a victim to outside enemies. But after 1613 Russia made a sudden recovery, and the next forty years were a time of reconstruction and reform in many branches of the nation’s life. In this work of reconstruction the Church played a large part. The reforming movement in the Church was led at first by the Abbot Dionysius of the Trinity-Saint Sergius Monastery and by Philaret, Patriarch of Moscow from 1619 to 1633 (he was the father of the Tsar); after 1633 the leadership passed to a group of married parish clergy, and in particular to the Archpriests John Neronov and Avvakum Petrovitch. The work of correcting service books, begun in the previous century by Maximus the Greek, was now cautiously resumed; a Patriarchal Press was set up at Moscow, and more accurate Church books were issued, although the authorities did not venture to make too many drastic alterations. On the parish level, the reformers did all they could to raise moral standards alike among the clergy and the laity. They fought against drunkenness; they insisted that the fasts be observed; they demanded that the Liturgy and other services in the parish churches should be sung with reverence and without omissions; they encouraged frequent preaching.

The reforming group represented much of what was best in the tradition of Saint Joseph of Volokalamsk. Like Joseph they believed in authority and discipline, and saw the Christian life in terms of ascetic rules and liturgical prayer. They expected not only monks but parish priests and laity - husband, wife, children - to keep the fasts and to spend long periods at prayer each day, either in church or before the icons in their own homes. Those who would appreciate the severity and self-discipline of the reforming circle should read the vivid and extraordinary autobiography of the Archpriest Avvakum (1620-1682). In one of his letters Avvakum records how each evening, after he and his family had recited the usual evening prayers together, the lights would be put out: then he recited 600 prayers to Jesus and 100 to the Mother of God, accompanied by 300 prostrations (at each prostration he would lay his forehead on the ground, and then rise once more to a standing position). His wife, when with child (as she usually was), recited only 400 prayers with 200 prostrations. This gives some idea of the exacting standards observed by devout Russians in the seventeenth century.

The reformers' program made few concessions to human weakness, and was too ambitious ever to be completely realized. Nevertheless Muscovy around 1650 went far to justify the title "Holy Russia." Orthodox from the Turkish Empire who visited Moscow were amazed (and often filled with dismay) by the austerity of the fasts, by the length and magnificence of the services. The whole nation appeared to live as "one vast religious house" (N. Zernov, Moscow the Third Rome, p. 51). Archdeacon Paul of Aleppo, who stayed in Russia from 1654 to 1656, found that banquets at Court were accompanied not by music but by readings from the Lives of the Saints, as at meals in a monastery. Services lasting seven hours or more were attended by the Tsar and the whole Court: "Now what shall we say of these duties, severe enough to turn children’s hair grey, so strictly observed by the Emperor, Patriarch, grandees, princesses, and ladies, standing upright on their legs from morning to evening? Who would believe that they should thus go beyond the devout anchorites of the desert?" ("The Travels of Macarius," in W. Palmer, The Patriarch and the Tsar, London, 1873, vol. II, p. 107). The children were not excluded from these rigorous observances: "What surprised us most was to see the boys and little children... standing bareheaded and motionless, without betraying the smallest gesture of impatience" (The Travels of Macarius, edited Ridding, p. 68). Paul found Russian strictness not entirely to his taste. He complains that they permit no "mirth, laughter, and jokes," no drunkenness, no "opium eating," and no smoking: "For the special crime of drinking tobacco they even put men to death" (ibid., p. 21). It is an impressive picture which Paul and other visitors to Russia present, but there is perhaps too much emphasis on externals. One Greek remarked on his return home that Muscovite religion seemed to consist largely in bell-ringing.

In 1652-1653 there began a fatal quarrel between the reforming group and the new Patriarch, Nicon (1605-1681). A peasant by origin, Nicon was probably the most brilliant and gifted man ever to become head of the Russian Church; but he suffered from an overbearing and authoritarian temper. Nicon was a strong admirer of things Greek: "I am a Russian and the son of a Russian," he used to say, "but my faith and my religion are Greek" (ibid., p. 37). He demanded that Russian practices should be made to conform at every point to the standard of the four ancient Patriarchates, and that the Russian service books should be altered wherever they differed from the Greek.

This policy was bound to provoke opposition among those who belonged to the Josephite tradition. They regarded Moscow as the Third Rome, and Russia as the stronghold and norm of Orthodoxy; and now Nicon told them that they must in all respects copy the Greeks. But was not Russia an independent Church, a fully grown member of the Orthodox family, entitled to hold to her own national customs and traditions? The Russians certainly respected the memory of the Mother Church of Byzantium from which they had received the faith, but they did not feel the same reverence for contemporary Greeks. They remembered the "apostasy" of the Greeks at Florence, and they knew something of the corruption and disorders within the Patriarchate of Constantinople under Turkish rule.

Had Nicon proceeded gently and tactfully, all might yet have been well: Patriarch Philaret had already made some corrections in the service books without arousing opposition. Nicon, however, was not a gentle or a tactful man, but pressed on with his program regardless of the feelings of others. In particular he insisted that the sign of the Cross, at that time made by the Russians with two forgers, should now be made in the Greek fashion with three. This may seem a trivial matter; but it must be remembered how great an importance Orthodox in general and Russians in particular have always attached to ritual actions, to the symbolic gestures whereby the inner belief of a Christian is expressed. In the eyes of simple believers a change in the symbol constituted a change in the faith. The divergence over the sign of the Cross also raised in concrete form the whole question of Greek versus Russian Orthodoxy. The Greek form with three fingers was more recent than the Russian form with two: why should the Russians, who remained loyal to the ancient ways, be forced to accept a "modern" Greek innovation?

Neronov and Avvakum, together with many other clergy, monks, and lay people, defended the old Russian practices and refused to accept Nicon’s changes or to use the new service books which he issued. Nicon was not a man to tolerate any disagreement, and he had his opponents exiled and imprisoned: in some cases they were eventually put to death. Yet despite persecution, the opposition continued; although Neronov finally submitted, Avvakum refused to give way, and after ten years of exile and twenty-two years of imprisonment (twelve of them spent in an underground hut) he was finally burnt at the stake. His supporters regarded him as a saint and martyr for the faith. Those who like Avvakum defied the official Church with its Niconian service books eventually formed a separate sect (raskol) known as the Old Believers (it would be more exact to call them Old Ritualists). Thus there arose in seventeenth-century Russia a movement of Dissent; but if we compare it with English Dissent of the same period, we notice two great differences. First, the Old Believers - the Russian Dissenters - differed from the official Church solely in ritual, not in doctrine; and secondly, while English Dissent was radical - a protest against the official Church for not carrying reform far enough - Russian Dissent was the protest of conservatives against an official Church which in their eyes had carried reform too far.

The schism of the Old Believers has continued to the present day. Before 1917 their numbers were officially assessed at two million, but the true figure may well have been over five times as great. They are divided into two main groups, the Popovtsy, who have retained the priesthood and who since 1846 have also possessed their own succession of bishops; and the Bezpopovtsy, who have no priests.

There is much to admire in the Raskolniki. They numbered in their ranks the finest elements among the parish clergy and the laity of seventeenth-century Russia. Historians in the past have done them a serious injustice by regarding the whole dispute merely as a quarrel over the position of a finger, over texts, syllables, and false letters. The true cause of the schism lay elsewhere, and was concerned with something far more profound. The Old Believers fought for the two-finger sign of the Cross, for the old texts and customs, not simply as ends in themselves, but because of the matter of principle which was herein involved: they saw these things as embodying the ancient tradition of the Church, and this ancient tradition, so they held, had been preserved in its full purity by Russia and Russia alone. Can we say that they were entirely wrong? The two-finger sign of the Cross was in fact more ancient than the three-finger form; it was the Greeks who were the innovators, the Russians who remained loyal to the old ways. Why then should the Russians be forced to adopt the modern Greek practice? Certainly, in the heat of controversy the Old Believers pushed their case to extremes, and their legitimate reverence for "Holy Russia" degenerated into a fanatical nationalism; but Nicon also went too far in his uncritical admiration for all things Greek.

"We have no reason to be ashamed of our Raskol," wrote Khomiakov. "...It is worthy of a great people, and could inspire respect in a stranger; but it is far from embracing all the richness of Russian thought" (See A. Gratieux, A.S. Khomiakov et le mouvement slavophile, Paris, 1939, vol. II, p. 165). It does not embrace the richness of Russian thought because it represents but a single aspect of Russian Christianity - the tradition of the Possessors. The defects of the Old Believers are the Josephite defects writ large: too narrow a nationalism, too great an emphasis on the externals of worship. Nicon too, despite his Hellenism, is in the end a Josephite: he demanded an absolute uniformity in the externals of worship, and like the Possessors he freely invoked the help of the civil arm in order to suppress all religious opponents. More than anything else, it was his readiness to resort to persecution which made the schism definitive. Had the development of Church life in Russia between 1550 and 1650 been less one-sided, perhaps a lasting separation would have been avoided. If men had thought more (as Nilus did) of tolerance and freedom instead of using persecution, then a reconciliation might have been effected; and if they had attended more to mystical prayer, they might have argued less bitterly about ritual. Behind the division of the seventeenth century lie the disputes of the sixteenth.

As well as establishing Greek practices in Russia, Nicon pursued a second aim: to make the Church supreme over the State. In the past the theory governing relations between Church and State had been the same in Russia as in Byzantium - a dyarchy or symphony of two coordinated powers, sacerdotium and imperium, each supreme in its own sphere. In the Assumption Cathedral of the Kremlin there were placed two equal thrones, one for the Patriarch and one for the Tsar. In practice the Church had enjoyed a wide measure of independence and influence in the Kievan and Mongol periods. But under the Moscow Tsardom, although the theory of two equal powers remained the same, in practice the civil power came to control the Church more and more; the Josephite policy naturally encouraged this tendency. Nicon attempted to reverse the situation. Not only did he demand that the Patriarch’s authority be absolute in religious matters, but he also claimed the right to intervene in civil affairs, and assumed the title "Great Lord," hitherto reserved to the Tsar alone. Tsar Alexis had a deep respect for Nicon, and at first submitted to his control. "The Patriarch’s authority is so great," wrote Olearius, visiting Moscow in 1654, "that he in a manner divides the sovereignty with the Grand Duke" (Palmer, The Patriarch and the Tsar, vol. II, p. 407).

But after a time Alexis began to resent Nicon’s interference in secular affairs. In 1658 Nicon, perhaps in hopes of restoring his influence, decided upon a curious step: he withdrew into semi-retirement, but did not resign the office of Patriarch. For eight years the Russian Church remained without an effective head, until at the Tsar’s request a great Council was held at Moscow in 1666-1667 over which the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch presided. The Council decided in favor of Nicon’s reforms, but against his person: Nicon’s changes in the service books and above all his ruling on the sign of the Cross were confirmed, but Nicon himself was deposed and exiled, a new Patriarch being appointed in his place. The Council was therefore a triumph for Nicon’s policy of imposing Greek practices on the Russian Church, but a defeat for his attempt to set the Patriarch above the Tsar. The Council reasserted the Byzantine theory of a harmony of equal powers.

But the decisions of the Moscow Council upon the relations of Church and State did not remain long in force. The pendulum which Nicon had pushed too far in one direction soon swung back in the other with redoubled violence. Peter the Great (reigned 1682-1725) altogether suppressed the office of patriarch, whose powers Nicon had so ambitiously striven to aggrandize.


The Synodical period (1700-1917).

Peter was determined that there should be no more Nicons. In 1700, when Patriarch Adrian died, Peter took no steps towards the appointment of a successor; and in 1721 he proceeded to issue the celebrated Spiritual Regulation, which declared the Patriarchate to be abolished, and set up in its place a commission, the Spiritual College or Holy Synod. This was composed of twelve members, three of whom were bishops, and the rest drawn from the heads of monasteries or from the married clergy.

The constitution of the Synod was not based on Orthodox Canon Law, but copied from the Protestant ecclesiastical synods in Germany. Its members were not chosen by the Church but nominated by the Emperor; and the Emperor who nominated could also dismiss them at will. Whereas a Patriarch, holding office for life, could perhaps defy the Tsar, a member of the Holy Synod was allowed no scope for heroism: he was simply retired. The Emperor was not called "Head of the Church," but he was given the title "Supreme Judge of the Spiritual College." Meetings of the Synod were not attended by the Emperor himself, but by a government official, the Chief Procurator. The Procurator, although he sat at a separate table and took no part in the discussions, in practice wielded considerable power over Church affairs and was in effect if not in name a "Minister for Religion."

The Spiritual Regulation sees the Church not as a divine institution but as a department of State. Based largely on secular presuppositions, it makes little allowance for what were termed in the English Reformation "the Crown rights of the Redeemer." This is true not only of its provisions for the higher administration of the Church, but of many of its other rulings. A priest who learns, while hearing confessions, of any scheme which the government might consider seditious, is ordered to violate the secrecy of the sacrament and to supply the police with names and full details. Monasticism is bluntly termed "the origin of innumerable disorders and disturbances" and placed under many restrictions. New monasteries are not to be founded without special permission; monks are forbidden to live as hermits; no woman under the age of fifty is allowed to take vows as a nun.

There was a deliberate purpose behind these restrictions on the monasteries, the chief centers of social work in Russia up to this time. The abolition of the Patriarchate was part of a wider process: Peter sought not only to deprive the Church of leadership, but to eliminate it from all participation in social work. Peter’s successors circumscribed the work of the monasteries still more drastically. Elizabeth (reigned 1741-1762) confiscated most of the monastic estates, and Catherine II (reigned 1762-1796) suppressed more than half the monasteries, while on such houses as remained open she imposed a strict limitation to the number of monks. The closing of the monasteries was little short of a disaster in the more distant provinces of Russia, where they formed virtually the only cultural and charitable centers. But although the social work of the Church was grievously restricted, it never completely ceased.

The Spiritual Regulation makes lively reading, particularly in its comments on clerical behavior. We are told that priests and deacons "being drunk, bellow in the Streets, or what is worse, in their drink whoop and hollow in Church"; bishops are told to see that the clergy "walk not in a dronish lazy manner, nor lie down in the Streets to sleep, nor tipple in Cabacks, nor boast of the Strength of their Heads" (The Spiritual Regulation, translated by Thomas Consett in The Present State and Regulations of the Church of Russia, London, 1729, pp. 157-158). One fears that despite the efforts of the reforming movement in the previous century, these strictures were not entirely unjustified.

There is also some vivid advice to preachers:

 A Preacher has no Occasion to shove and heave as tho' he was tugging at an Oar in a Boat. He has no need to clap his Hands, to set his Arms a Kimbo, nor to bounce or spring, nor to giggle and laugh, nor any Reason for Howlings and hideous Lamentations. For tho' he should be never so much griev'd in Spirit, yet ought he to suppress his Tears all he can, because these Emotions are all superfluous and indecent, and disturb an Audience (Consett, op. cit., p. 90. The picturesqueness of the style is due more to Consett than to his Russian original).

So much for the Spiritual Regulation. Peter’s religious reforms naturally aroused opposition in Russia, but it was ruthlessly silenced. Outside Russia the redoubtable Dositheus made a vigorous protest; but the Orthodox Churches under Turkish rule were in no position to intervene effectively, and in 1723 the four ancient Patriarchates accepted the abolition of the Patriarchate of Moscow and recognized the constitution of the Holy Synod.


The system of Church government which Peter the Great established continued in force until 1917. The Synodical period in the history of Russian Orthodoxy is usually represented as a time of decline, with the Church in complete subservience to the State. Certainly a superficial glance at the eighteenth century would serve to confirm this verdict. It was an age of ill-advised westernization in Church art, Church music, and theology. Those who rebelled against the dry scholasticism of the theological academies turned, not to the teachings of Byzantium and ancient Russia, but to religious or pseudo-religious movements in the contemporary west: Protestant mysticism, German pietism, Freemasonry (Orthodox are strictly forbidden, on pain of excommunication, to become Freemasons), and the like. Prominent among the higher clergy were Court prelates such as Ambrose (Zertiss-Kamensky), Archbishop of Moscow and Kaluga, who at his death in 1771 left (among many other possessions) 252 shirts of fine linen and nine eye-glasses framed in gold.

But this is only one side of the picture in the eighteenth century. The Holy Synod, however objectionable its theoretical constitution, in practice governed efficiently. Reflective Churchmen were well aware of the defects in Peter’s reforms, and submitted to them without necessarily agreeing with them. Theology was westernized, but standards of scholarship were high. Behind the façade of westernization, the true life of Orthodox Russia continued without interruption. Ambrose Zertiss-Kamensky represented one type of Russian bishop, but there were other bishops of a very different character, true monks and pastors, such as Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-1783), Bishop of Voronezh. A great preacher and a fluent writer, Tikhon is particularly interesting as an example of one who, like most of his contemporaries, borrowed heavily from the west, but who remained at the same time firmly rooted in the classic tradition of Orthodox spirituality. He drew upon German and Anglican books of devotion; his detailed meditations upon the physical sufferings of Jesus are more typical of Roman Catholicism than of Orthodoxy; in his own life of prayer he underwent an experience similar to the Dark Night of the Soul, as described by western mystics such as Saint John of the Cross. But Tikhon was also close in outlook to Theodosius and Sergius, to Nilus and the Non-Possessors. Like so many Russian saints, both lay and monastic, he took a special delight in helping the poor, and he was happiest when talking with simple people - peasants, beggars, and even criminals.

The second part of the Synodical period, the nineteenth century, so far from being a period of decline, was a time of great revival in the Russian Church. Men turned away from religious and pseudo-religious movements in the contemporary west, and fell back once more upon the true spiritual forces of Orthodoxy. Hand in hand with this revival in the spiritual life went a new enthusiasm for missionary work, while in theology, as in spirituality, Orthodoxy freed itself from a slavish imitation of the west.

It was from Mount Athos that this religious renewal took its origin. A young Russian at the theological academy of Kiev, Paissy Velichkovsky (1722-1794), horrified by the secular tone of the teaching, fled to Mount Athos and there became a monk. In 1763 he went to Romania and became Abbot of the monastery of Niamets, which he made a great spiritual center, gathering round him more than 500 brethren. Under his guidance, the community devoted itself specially to the work of translating Greek Fathers into Slavonic. At Athos Paissy had learnt at first hand about the Hesychast tradition, and he was in close sympathy with his contemporary Nicodemus. He made a Slavonic translation of the Philokalia, which was published at Moscow in 1793. Paissy laid great emphasis upon the practice of continual prayer - above all the Jesus Prayer - and on the need for obedience to an elder or starets. He was deeply influenced by Nilus and the Non-Possessors, but he did not overlook the good elements in the Josephite form of monasticism: he allowed more place than Nilus had done to liturgical prayer and to social work, and in this way he attempted, like Sergius, to combine the mystical with the corporate and social aspect of the monastic life.

Paissy himself never returned to Russia, but many of his disciples traveled thither from Romania and under their inspiration a monastic revival spread across the land. Existing houses were reinvigorated, and many new foundations were made: in 1810 there were 452 monasteries in Russia, whereas in 1914 there were 1,025. This monastic movement, while outward-looking and concerned to serve the world, also restored to the center of the Church’s life the tradition of the Non-Possessors, largely suppressed since the sixteenth century. It was marked in particular by a high development of the practice of spiritual direction. Although the "elder" has been a characteristic figure in many periods of Orthodox history, nineteenth-century Russia is par excellence the age of the starets.

The first and greatest of the startsi of the nineteenth century was Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), who of all the saints of Russia is perhaps the most immediately attractive to non-Orthodox Christians. Entering the monastery of Sarov at the age of nineteen, Seraphim first spent sixteen years in the ordinary life of the community. Then he withdrew to spend the next twenty years in seclusion, living at first in a hut in the forest, then (when his feet swelled up and he could no longer walk with ease) enclosed in a cell in the monastery. This was his training for the office of eldership. Finally in 1815 he opened the doors of his cell. From dawn until evening he received all who came to him for help, healing the sick, giving advice, often supplying the answer before his visitor had time to ask any questions. Sometimes scores or hundreds would come to see him in a single day. The outward pattern of Seraphim’s life recalls that of Antony of Egypt fifteen centuries before: there is the same withdrawal in order to return. Seraphim is rightly regarded as a characteristically Russian saint, but he is also a striking example of how much Russian Orthodoxy has in common with Byzantium and the universal Orthodox tradition throughout the ages.

Seraphim was extraordinarily severe to himself (at one point in his life he spent a thousand successive nights in continual prayer, standing motionless throughout the long hours of darkness on a rock), but he was gentle to others, without ever being sentimental or indulgent. Asceticism did not make him gloomy, and if ever a saint’s life was illuminated by joy, it was Seraphim’s. He practiced the Jesus Prayer, and like the Byzantine Hesychasts he was granted the vision of the Divine and Uncreated Light. In Seraphim’s case the Divine Light actually took a visible form, outwardly transforming his body. One of Seraphim’s "spiritual children," Nicholas Motovilov, described what happened one winter day as the two of them were talking together in the forest. Seraphim had spoken of the need to acquire the Holy Spirit, and Motovilov asked how a man could be sure of "being in the Spirit of God":

Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: "My son, we are both at this moment in the Spirit of God. Why don't you look at me?"

"I cannot look, Father," I replied, "because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look at you."

"Don't be afraid," he said. "At this very moment you yourself have become as bright as I am. You yourself are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God; otherwise you would not be able to see me as you do."

Then bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: "Thank the Lord God for His infinite goodness towards us.... But why, my son, do you not look me in the eyes? Just look, and don't be afraid; the Lord is with us."

After these words I glanced at his face, and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his body, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and lighting up with its brilliance the snow-blanket which covers the forest glade and the snow-flakes which continue to fall unceasingly...

"What do you feel?" Father Seraphim asked me.

"An immeasurable well-being," I said.

"But what sort of well-being? How exactly do you feel well?"

"I feel such a calm," I answered, "such peace in my soul that no words can express it."

"This," said Father Seraphim, "is that peace of which the Lord said to His disciples: My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you [John 14:27], the peace which passes all understanding [Phil. 4:7]... What else do you feel?"

"Infinite joy in all my heart."

And Father Seraphim continued: "When the Spirit of God comes down to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His presence, then the man’s soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Holy Spirit fills with joy whatever He touches..." (Conversation of Saint Seraphim on the Aim of the Christian Life, printed in A Wonderful Revelation to the World, Jordanville, N.Y., 1953, pp. 23-25).

So the conversation continues. The whole passage is of extraordinary importance for understanding the Orthodox doctrine of deification and union with God. It shows how the Orthodox idea of sanctification includes the body: it is not Seraphim’s (or Motovilov’s) soul only, but the whole body which is transfigured by the grace of God. We may note that neither Seraphim nor Motovilov is in a state of ecstasy; both can talk in a coherent way and are still conscious of the outside world, but both are filled with the Holy Spirit and surrounded by the light of the age to come.

Seraphim had no teacher in the art of direction and he left no successor. After his death the work was taken up by another community, the hermitage of Optino. From 1829 until 1923, when the monastery was closed by the Bolsheviks, a succession of startsi ministered here, their influence extending like that of Seraphim over the whole of Russia. The best known of the Optino elders are Leonid (1768-1841), Macarius (1788-1860), and Ambrose (1812-1891). While these elders all belonged to the school of Paissy and were all devoted to the Prayer of Jesus, each of them had a strongly marked character of his own: Leonid, for example, was simple, vivid, and direct, appealing specially to peasants and merchants, while Macarius was highly educated, a Patristic scholar, a man in close contact with the intellectual movements of the day. Optino influenced a number of writers, including Gogol, Khomiakov, Dostoyevsky, Soloviev, and Tolstoy. (The story of Tolstoy’s relations with the Orthodox Church is extremely sad. In later life he publicly attacked the Church with great violence, and the Holy Synod after some hesitation excommunicated him [February 1901]. As he lay dying in the stationmaster’s house at Astapovo, one of the Optino elders traveled to see him, but was refused admittance by Tolstoy’s family). The remarkable figure of the elder Zossima in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov was based partly on Father Macarius or Father Ambrose of Optino, although Dostoyevsky says that he was inspired primarily by the life of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk.

"There is one thing more important than all possible books and ideas," wrote the Slavophil Ivan Kireyevsky, "to find an Orthodox starets, before whom you can lay each of your thoughts, and from whom you can hear not your own opinion, but the judgment of the Holy Fathers. God be praised, such startsi have not yet disappeared in Russia" (Quoted by Metropolitan Seraphim [of Berlin and Western Europe], L'Eglise orthodoxe, Paris, 1952, p. 219).

Through the startsi, the monastic revival influenced the life of the whole people. The spiritual atmosphere of the time is vividly expressed in an anonymous book, The Way of a Pilgrim, which describes the experiences of a Russian peasant who tramped from place to place practicing the Jesus Prayer. For those who know nothing of the Jesus Prayer, there can be no better introduction than this little work. The Way of a Pilgrim shows how the Prayer is not limited to monasteries, but can be used by everyone, in every form of life. As he traveled, the Pilgrim carried with him a copy of the Philokalia, presumably the Slavonic translation by Paissy. Bishop Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) during the years 1876-1890 issued a greatly expanded translation of the Philokalia in five volumes, this time not in Slavonic but in Russian.

Hitherto we have spoken chiefly of the movement centering on the monasteries. But among the great figures of the Russian Church in the nineteenth century there was also a member of the married parish clergy, John Sergiev (1829-1908), usually known as Father John of Kronstadt, because throughout his ministry he worked in the same place, Kronstadt, a naval base and suburb of Saint Petersburg. Father John is best remembered for his work as a parish priest - visiting the poor and the sick, organizing charitable work, teaching religion to the children of his parish, preaching continually, and above all praying with and for his flock. He had an intense awareness of the power of prayer, and as he celebrated the Liturgy he was entirely carried away: "He could not keep the prescribed measure of liturgical intonation: he called out to God; he shouted; he wept in the face of the visions of Golgotha and the Resurrection which presented themselves to him with such shattering immediacy" (Fedotov, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, p. 348). The same sense of immediacy can be felt on every page of the spiritual autobiography which Father John wrote, My Life in Christ. Like Saint Seraphim, he possessed the gifts of healing, of insight, and of spiritual direction.

Father John insisted on frequent communion, although in Russia at this date it was very unusual for the laity to communicate more than four or five times a year. Because he had no time to hear individually the confessions of all who came for communion, he established a form of public confession, with everybody shouting their sins aloud simultaneously. He turned the iconostasis into a low screen, so that altar and celebrant might be visible throughout the service. In his emphasis on frequent communion and his reversion to the more ancient form of chancel screen, Father John anticipated liturgical developments in contemporary Orthodoxy. In 1964 he was proclaimed a saint by the Russian Church in Exile.

In nineteenth-century Russia there was a striking revival of missionary work. Since the days of Mitrophan of Sarai and Stephen of Perm, Russians had been active missionaries, and as Muscovite power advanced eastward, a great field was opened up for evangelism among the native tribes and among the Mohammedan Mongols. But although the Church never ceased to send out preachers to the heathen, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries missionary efforts had somewhat languished, particularly after the closing of monasteries by Catherine. But in the nineteenth century the missionary challenge was taken up with fresh energy and enthusiasm: the Academy of Kazan, opened in 1842, was specially concerned with missionary studies; native clergy were trained; the scriptures and the Liturgy were translated into a wide variety of languages. In the Kazan area alone the Liturgy was celebrated in twenty-two different languages or dialects.

It is significant that one of the first leaders in the missionary revival, Archimandrite Macarius (Glukharev, 1792-1847), was a student of Hesychasm and knew the disciples of Paissy Velichkovsky: the missionary revival had its roots in the revival of the spiritual life. The greatest of the nineteenth-century missionaries was Innocent (John Veniaminov, 1797-1879), Bishop of Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands, who was proclaimed a saint in 1977. His diocese included some of the most inhospitable regions of the world; it extended across the Bering Straits to Alaska, which at that time belonged to Russia. Innocent played an important part in the development of American Orthodoxy, and millions of American Orthodox today can look on him as one of their chief "Apostles."

In the field of theology, nineteenth-century Russia broke away from its excessive dependence upon the west. This was due chiefly to the work of Alexis Khomiakov (1804-1860), leader of the Slavophil circle and perhaps the first original theologian in the history of the Russian Church. A country landowner and a retired cavalry captain, Khomiakov belonged to the tradition of lay theologians which has always existed in Orthodoxy. Khomiakov argued that all western Christianity, whether Roman or Protestant, shares the same assumptions and betrays the same fundamental point of view, while Orthodoxy is something entirely distinct. Since this is so (Khomiakov continued), it is not enough for Orthodox to borrow their theology from the west, as they had been doing since the seventeenth century; instead of using Protestant arguments against Rome, and Roman arguments against the Protestants, they must return to their own authentic sources, and rediscover the true Orthodox tradition, which in its basic presuppositions is neither Roman nor Reformed, but unique. As his friend G. Samarin put it, before Khomiakov "our Orthodox school of theology was not in a position to define either Latinism or Protestantism, because in departing from its own Orthodox standpoint, it had itself become divided into two, and each of these halves had taken up a position opposed indeed to its opponent, Latin or Protestant, but not above him. It was Khomiakov who first looked upon Latinism and Protestantism from the point of view of the Church, and therefore from a higher standpoint: and this is the reason why he was also able to define them" (Quoted in Birkbeck, Russia and the English Church, p. 14). Khomiakov was particularly concerned with the doctrine of the Church, its unity and authority; and here he made a lasting contribution to Orthodox theology.

Khomiakov during his lifetime exercised little or no influence on the theology taught in the academies and seminaries, but here too there was an increasing independence from the west. By 1900 Russian academic theology was at its height, and there were a number of theologians, historians, and liturgists, thoroughly trained in western academic disciplines, yet not allowing western influences to distort their Orthodoxy. In the years following 1900 there was also an important intellectual revival outside the theological schools. Since the time of Peter the Great, unbelief had been common among Russian "intellectuals," but now a number of thinkers, by various routes, found their way back to the Church. Some were former Marxists, such as Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) (later ordained priest) and Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948), both of whom subsequently played a prominent part in the life of the Russian emigration in Paris.

When one reflects on the lives of Tikhon and Seraphim, on the Optino startsi and John of Kronstadt, on the missionary and theological work in nineteenth-century Russia, it can be seen how unfair it is to regard the Synodical period simply as a time of decline. One of the greatest of Russian Church historians, Professor Kartashev (1875-1960), has rightly said:

The subjugation was ennobled from within by Christian humility.... The Russian Church was suffering under the burden of the regime, but she overcame it from within. She grew, she spread and flourished in many different ways. Thus the period of the Holy Synod could be called the most brilliant and glorious period in the history of the Russian Church (Article in the periodical The Christian East, vol. xvi (1936), pp. 114 and 115).

On 15 August 1917, six months after the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II, when the Provisional Government was in power, an All-Russian Church Council was convened at Moscow, which did not finally disperse until September of the following year. More than half the delegates were laymen - the bishops and clergy present numbered 250, the laity 314 - but (as Canon Law demanded) the final decision on specifically religious questions was reserved to the bishops alone. The Council carried through a far-reaching program of reform, its chief act being to abolish the Synodical form of government established by Peter the Great, and to restore the Patriarchate. The election of the Patriarch took place on 5 November 1917. In a series of preliminary ballots, three candidates were selected; but the final choice among these three was made by lot. At the first ballot Antony (Khrapovitsky), Archbishop of Kharkov (1863-1936), came first with 101 votes; then Arsenius, Archbishop of Novgorod, with 27 votes; and thirdly Tikhon (Beliavin), Metropolitan of Moscow (1866-1925), with 23 votes. But when the lot was drawn, it was the last of these three candidates, Tikhon, who was actually chosen as Patriarch.

Outside events gave a note of urgency to the deliberations. At the earlier sessions members could hear the sound of Bolshevik artillery shelling the Kremlin, and two days before the election of the new Patriarch, Lenin and his associates gained full mastery of Moscow. The Church was allowed no time to consolidate the work of reform. Before the Council came to a close in the summer of 1918, its members learnt with horror of the brutal murder of Vladimir, Metropolitan of Kiev, by the Bolsheviks. Persecution had already begun.



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