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Intellectual Russia






Some remarks on the Russian Orthodox perception.




1. What  does a Saint see?

            Some years ago I happened to be at the service in a distant village church. It was the day of commemoration of “All the Saints Who Shined in the Russian Land”, as our official Church calendar  calls the second Sunday after the Pentecost. At the end of the service, as the rule prescribes, the priest said his homily. The priest was in his sixties and looked rather tired and not too healthy (later I was told that he came to Tula region from Chernobyl).  He said: “As a rule, people adore a Saint only after his or her death. Yes, when they are dead and glorified, we love them so much: they are our Saints! We are proud to be their compatriots, to be born in the same land, or city, or village. We even expect them to protect us much warmer and with better care than they do the others,  because  we are their neighbours and almost their relatives.  But in their lifetime Saints, normally, are not held in respect, they do not enjoy either support or sympathy on behalf of their neighbours. Just the opposite: people are disposed to scorn and laugh at such persons. People, as a rule, find them miserable and foolish, and the mode of their life - absurd: it’s unheard of, nobody behaves like that! But the chief thing in all of this is that everybody is sure that a Saint (their future Saint) looks at everything in a wrong, fantastic, stupid way. In people’s mind, a living Saint can’t appreciate the real state of things in  “our world” which they pretend to know perfectly; he (or she) proves to be less experienced, than a child. And his (or her) fatal blindness is sad,  ridiculous and irritating.

- But, my dears! - the priest went on, and his tone suddenly changed and now it was almost triumphant, - there are just Saints who see everything in the right, realistic and practical way. They, and nobody else, do see  our world as it is.  And what do they see? They see our Earth – and all our world – flying towards the Lord. Flying, like a bird, staring at one point, her wings outstretched  like that (he tried to mimic the flight) -  to the dear final Meeting.”

            He pronounced these words, as every good Russian priest generally does, in an absolutely undemanding  and simple tone, without any emphasis or agitation, speaking first to himself and then to the others. Rather a personal confession, than preaching. It was evident, nevertheless, how happy he was to have made such a confession – or to have made such a discovery (the thought could be entirely new for himself) – in our presence. I never met before this image of the  world on the wing in the writings of the Russian Orthodox teachers (“The  Fathers”, as they are usually called). But it had, so to say, an undoubtedly traditional taste.


2. Saint, not a hero

            I would like to take this episode as an epigraph for my further attempt to discuss  the way of perception, which the Russian Orthodox tradition forms (or aims to form) in a person. The collision of a Saint and his neighbours (or, to put it in other words, the crucial conflict between two types of faith: the childish faith of the “common people”, “a Christian flock”,  looking for protection and guidance – and the “grown-up” daring faith of “the servant of God”, whose  only wish is to please his Lord) has nothing specially Orthodox in it. We may remember well the same basic conflict  in the dramatic structure of  “The Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S.Eliot. nevertheless there is quite a significant distinction which we can feel very easily. What tragically singles out the central character in the Eliot’s play, what differs him from the others and provokes their hostility is his decision to take a great risk, to act at the price of his life: since for the others, for “ the poor flock” the first and perhaps the only value is to survive in any conditions. But the priest from the Tula region  whom I cited above, contrasted a Saint with “us”, “the others” very differently: in his collation he did not speak of the promptness to act, not even of the readiness to sacrifice, but first and foremost of the different way of seeing  the world. For him that was the main thing. And that – I dare say – is the main thing for the  Russian Orthodox tradition as a whole.

            It is this specific way of seeing the world around that finally distinguishes a saint. And any deed or action of his (no matter how strange or heroic they may seem to “the others”) are just as natural an outcome  - “right, practical and realistic” – of his perception as any “normal” action of any other human being. The most beloved Russian saints are not heroic, they would always have this unmistakably human, mild and truthful quality about them which the popular taste recognizes at once.

            On the whole one could try and define the main task which the Orthodoxy suggests for the believer as his or her Christian duty as the acquiring of the clean heart (which one is preparing for the habitation of the Holy Spirit, since He will never communicate with anything dirty). But it would be a great mistake to see this practice as a system of some psychological training for its own sake. The clean heart gives us the  only chance of fulfilling God’s will: because  one needs to recognize this will before trying to follow it. And there is a great risk of taking one’s own fantasy or wish for the God’s command. The Orthodox tradition studies the varieties of self-deceptions, blind spots and illusions in the human heart (all the realm of “lukavstvo”, the slyness: the customary name for the Satan is in Slavonic “Lukavyj”, the Sly) with exceptional care. Thus, the fulfillment of God’s first will  - to love Him and to love each other – becomes possible only on the last step of the ‘spiritual ascent’, when a human being gets free from all the inner self-deceptions, fantasies and blindnesses.

The principle thing, which differs the Orthodox ascetic school from various systems of elaborating the human psychics is its presumption, that no one could correct one’s mind and sensibility - or even recognize one’s sins and illusions by one’s own power. The light which helps us to see our darkness  is given by the Holy Spirit.  All the process of purification is seen as the cooperation (Greek synergia) of the human will and the work of the Holy Spirit.


3. To purify the heart

            The great spiritual Orthodox school of  “trezvenije” (sobriety), of  “acquiring the spirit of peace” tends, in fact,  to work with the instrument of perception in a human being, to “restore”  that right, realistic sight which was darkened by Adam’s Fall – or to transfigure[1] the natural faculties of a person. With the words of Simeon the New Theologian,  “With the help of the Spirit, who makes everything new, let him (a human being) attain new eyes and new ears  and look not in the ordinary human manner, as the sensual one looks at the sensual things: but he, who grew more than a human being, let him look at the sensual things as the immaterial one”.

This system of  “vnimanije sebe”, “listening to yourself”, “learning yourself” or “umnoje delanije”, inner contemplative activity,  was elaborated by the hermits and monks, but it was proposed as the best way of salvation to every member of the Church, including lay people: the Orthodox tradition did not care to create any special type of religious practice for those who live in the world. As the old proverb says, “for a monk an angel is a model, for a lay person – a monk”. The numerous practical guides to such everyday purification used to be the most favorite  reading of the believers. And there should be nothing strange if in this central point  - as in many others - the Russian Christian tradition coincides with the Greek one (and with some other East Christian traditions). The ascetic, contemplative and  - in a sense - aristocratic bias of the  Russian Christianity was  learned from the Byzantine teachers.

            One could describe the general principle of this inner work as the permanent critics of one’s  perception;  a constant effort to  “change aspectus”, to use the words of L. Witgenstein. The principal difference from Witgenstein (as well as from all the European post-Kantian critics of the human perception) however, lies in the fact, that it is not the reason and its presumptions and intuitions which one needs to observe and purify. It is one’s existential (or rather ontological) state. The critical point of this change is called here “metanoia” in Greek (literally; change of mind), repentance or conversion; in Russian it is “umilenije”, a great revealing shock of tenderness; or “sokrushenije serdtsa” - “breaking of heart”.  It is the collapse of some inner walls which help the individual remain in an isolated position and which “defend” him from the look of Truth. Now, when his inner space is open (his heart is broken), when he is disarmed and  knows himself absolutely helpless (in the “spiritual poverty”) and has nothing to do but hope and pray for help, he can start acquiring the right perception. For a “normal” adult person it seems to be a seer catastrophe,  nearly the death of everything which is “his own” in him, the death of his Self. – But it is the same helplessness and absolute confidence in something Other which constitutes a happy state of an infant. In the course of a long process of purification (which we can’t analyze here in details) he/she must not lose this feeling of  being open and helpless. This state is in fact what one calls an “uninterrupted silent (wordless) prayer”, or  “heart’s prayer”.  One needs first to “place his intellect into his heart”, that is the first rule of this prayer. It means to stop all reasoning - for it keeps one out of touch with the centre of one’s own existence - and to start comprehend everything from the point of the heart

The “heart” means here the very center of the human person, it is not only emotional, but cognitive and physic at once, and it is not placed  in the anatomical heart; it must be felt in the middle spot under the chest and above the belly. “Heart” (“serdze”) in Russian is of the same root as the words “middle”, and “core” (“seredina”, “serdzevina”). It is the paradoxical center, center of personality which  is, at the same time, its border, and the broken one. In its heart (or even “in the heart of heart”,  as the Orthodox mystics say) the human being comes to its limit and to its “being-with” or “being-between”, i.e. to its participation in The Other. Thus, heart must not be seen as the center within some closed psychic structure – but, on the contrary, as the central point of  disclosing of such a structure and its meeting with the revelation of The Other.

The progress into  the depth of heart consists in destroying the obstacles which block the open meeting with Divine Being and His world and isolate a person in his self, for the “law of sin” which works in the soul, could be realized as the longing for the self-centered and hermetically isolated “my own world”. Being internal the heart is an inter-mediate between Divine Being and us, and not that place where an individual “ego” feels blocked away and saved from the world. The “ego” tries to withdraw into its well-protected “centre” from the border, where it could meet the other, as if from the death-line. But heart is the centre where that border is laid open, where the other is met.

Among the main obstacles on the path of purification we can call here hubris and self-preservation,  the egotistic work of imagination and abstract rational thought instead of immediate contemplation. At the end of this long path one is expected to acquire the integrity of self-giving ( that means, divine) creature, the simplicity of the child and the direct heart’s vision of the uncreated Light, which is Life itself. “In Him was life; and the life was the light of men” (John, I, 4).


5. To see the light

            In the concrete implications of this general premise we must be ready to meet lots of varieties. What each tradition of Orthodoxy actually means by “pure”, “healthy”, “right” sensibility, can diverge quite largely, although incorporating the common source, realizing the same set of patterns – just like the different styles of icon painting do.

As an attentive observer of the different schools of icon-painting would  remark the most striking point of divergence  between them is a great difference in  the general representation of light and its work in the visible world. Say, the sharp, coming from the outside light of Feofan the Greek, and a mild, radiating, inward light of Andrej Rublev. The perception of light (the visible light, which in its turn is perceived as an image or a symbol of the invisible one) and its representation are in no way a question of the painter’s technique: it is the implicit, practical theology of an icon[2]. With all the difference it is the light that lies at the core of the “normative” Orthodox experience. As it is described in the numerous guides to prayer the  very sense and the last meaning, which a human being  can hope to attain (or, rather, to be awarded with),  is  nothing but light,  the light without images, “the light not flickering, apart from any darkening”, “the light not created”, “the light inaccessible”, as the liturgical hymnography speaks of it.  We can add also, that “light” is the traditional technical term for the background in the icon painting. All the figures are represented and contemplated against this background,  “the incorruptible light”, or glory.


6. Who sees the light?

            As the Orthodox ascetics teaches, every human being is intended to be able to see this  mysterious, “having no beginning” (i.e. non-created) light even in this, “fallen”  world, even in his (or her) mortal body. This “true light, the light of Christ, lights up and illuminates every human being who is coming into the world”, as the liturgical prayer says.

Thus the first illumination is supposed to be our physical birth itself, our passing to the existence from the non-existence, from nothingness. In the very spirit of this traditional view Boris Pasternak in his novel says, that we already have resurrected once: in the moment, when we were born.  As some Orthodox theologians put it, the image of God in the human being is its simple existence, its being not nothing (thus, nobody can lose this image while he remains alive; what he can easily lose, is his likeness to God).

The “second birth”, the Baptism, communicates  a  new force to participate in the Divine Light: another term for the Sacrament being Illumination. Thus, every person (and every Christian in a special way) is supposed to be provided  with all the necessary equipment for seeing things in their right (that means: eschatological) way: in their light or glory.  Nevertheless, the way to this “first vision” (the vision of a human being as it was intended and created by God)  lies through a hard and dramatic process of the cardinal “purification of senses”, which we tried to sketch above.  “Let’s purify our senses to see the inaccessible light of Resurrection”, as the ancient Easter hymn says. 


7. Icons

            But we would be mistaken if we were to think that this light is the sole thing the elevated person will be seeing from now on. Seeing this light is a rare moment which arrives at the deepest core of prayer.

It is worth noting that the highest moments of one’s spiritual experience are understood very differently in the Western  and the Eastern Christian traditions. The former speaks of ekstasis, the leaving of oneself, the latter – of coming back to oneself, if descending into one’s heart. After that a human comes back to the world. But his perception of the sensual things can be called “changed”. And the very character of this perception makes it clear whether the light which was seen was godly, true - or false, demonic. If a person after such an experience sees the world around as something so much more beautiful than he/she has ever seen, than  the person was taken to the right place. If the only feeling he or she has is a disgust – that he or she was  tempted.

We have started our discussion of the Orthodox perception with icons. And the angle we chose is not arbitrary: the icon in the Orthodox tradition  is suggested to be the best mirror of the “right”, “pure” perception of reality. The contemplation of icons, or rather communication with them, frequently  repeated, was always recommended as the best way of forming the soul. The great authority of 19-th century St. Theophan the Recluse answers to the parents, who asked him, how to educate a child in the true Christian spirit: “Let a baby since its first days see  the holy images around it”: the soul, even involuntary and without reasoning, will reproduce the beauty, i.e. integrity and inner balance, of the images. Significantly, the great Church feast, which is called “The Triumph of Orthodoxy”, is dedicated to the victory over the iconoclasts (which took place in Bysantium in 842) and the restoring of adoration of icons, which was interrupted for more than 100 years. As the most respected historian of icon painting L. Uspensky remarks,  “the Church sees in icon not one of the aspects of the Orthodox doctrine, but the representation of the Orthodoxy as such”.  This statement needs to be unwind, but we can’t now dwell on this theological position. What is important for our discussion, is the implications of this priority of icon in the Russian Orthodox mentality. Icon is the sample of the pure perception.  And we must underline a  very interesting aspect of this perception (clean heart[3], in the traditional terms): it is definitely quite close to the great artist’s vision of reality – and it is even  closer to the perception of a child, of an infant.


8. Beauty

            First, because it is the perception of some magnificent astonishing beauty: the beauty, which ravishes a human soul. As the old chronicles report,  it was just beauty  - the solemn beauty of the Byzantine worship – that turned out to be the last argument for the Knight Vladimir’s “choice of faith”: “And we could not recognize whether we were on earth or in heaven”, as Vladimir’s ambassadors, back in Kiev, described their impressions of the liturgy in Constantinople’s Cathedral. Thus, for the Ancient Rus’, beauty  proved to become the main testimony to the real presence of God in the world, or, rather,  a sort of His epiphany. Nearly ten centuries later,  the brilliant Russian theologian fr. Pavel Florensky will adduce the same argument where beauty again will be proposed as the last ground for faith: “As far as we can see this incredibly beautiful light-blue colour (Florensky  minds the colour of the cloak of the central figure on the “The Most Holy Trinity” icon by Andrej Rubliov), God surely exists[4]”. 

This unique feature of the Russian Orthodox tradition, its deep devotion to beauty, “the beauty’s sacred thing”, as Alexander Pushkin put it, remains constant in the course of all its history. Thus, in the liturgical hymns the Salvation of the human kind is described as the “restoring of the first (or ancient) beauty”, Adam’s beauty: “and You (Christ) elevated me, who  slipped into the sin, back to the ancient beauty”. Now and then  hymnography  praises  Christ’s beauty:  “ Where did Your beauty go away, you, the most beautiful among the sons of man?”, asks the liturgical hymn of the Good Friday;  and again: “O Jesus, more beautiful than the Paradise!” – while everybody knows, that not a word of the Christ’s beauty  is said in the New Testament, which does not portray Him or anybody else[5]. The famous Dostojevsky’s  maxim (to be exact,  his hero’s saying):  “Beauty shall save the world” (the words, which the Pope John Paul II reminded many times in his encyclicals and homilies) reflects the thousand years of the Russian spiritual experience. We could collate this Orthodox enthusiasm for Beauty with the ardent ravish from Justice (or Rightness) of God,  as it is expressed in the King David’s Psalms.


9. Beauty: Power

            One could ask,  why  the Russian Christian psyche favored so strikingly  Beauty in the classic triad  (Truth, Good and Beauty)?  We can but presume, that Beauty is perceived here as the less “violent” among the three. It would be really strange to revolt against the power of Beauty – just like to revolt against the power of  Happiness. Its is the soft power: it does not command, it endows. A human heart meets Beauty (like Happiness) as the fulfillment of  its own wish and the meeting has a taste of  Plato’s  anamnesis.

Then, Beauty – normally in a more obvious way than Good or Truth - is comprehended by the whole person, both by his/her corporeal (“the simple five of our senses”,  as a prayer calls it) and the mental parts. Even when it is the immaterial, spiritual Beauty, the sense of one’s immediate looking at it (now, looking with the immaterial “eyes of heart”) somehow remains. As long as we keep in mind the theological premise which insists on the salvation of “the entire human being” (“and You saved everything in me, in a human being”, as an ancient prayer says) we can better appreciate the particular Orthodox love for the “holistic” affect of Beauty.


10. Think or see?

To continue our comparison of the “pure perception”, as it is intended in the Orthodox tradition, with an artist’s and an infant’s view, we can remark the next, and  no less important point of resemblance. This type of mentality  definitely prefers  image  to concept as the most (if not the only) proper form of representing the perceived meaning. All the  vital truths are supposed here to be represented in images.

This preference seems to be quite natural in the system of Orthodox perception. One can’t contemplate a concept, one can’t communicate with a concept nor have a personal contact with it, as one usually does with the  open, dynamic and inexhaustible presence of an image. We have to keep in mind that “contemplation” in Russian means not “thinking”, but “seeing with greatest attention and being “plunged”  into what one sees”. And every real, vitally important meaning – in this system - is supposed to be contemplated and communicated with. One needs to let them speak “from the first person”, so to say. Any notion estranged from the concrete experience, which has a form of dialogue, any “objectified” knowledge has no real worth here[6].  “We speak about things which are to be contemplated, and not to be thought of”, as Simeon the New Theologian says in full accordance with the first lines of the First Epistle of John (whom the Orthodox tradition calls John the Theologian[7]): “which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life (…we declare unto you)”. To think of something here does not mean to have a real contact with it. One can think whatever he likes – but one can’t contemplate whatever he likes: first he needs a thing to contemplate. He needs something present.


11. Image/symbol

            Contrary to what one could expect, image is preferred not only to concept – but to symbol  as well (we mean here symbols of allegorical character). One has but to recall the strict prohibition (made by the Sixth Ecumenical Council in Trull) to depict real persons and real events in a symbolic form e.g. to represent Christ as a Lamb or Apostles as Sheep (just as we see it on the early mosaics in Rome and Ravenna), or represent Him as The Good Shepherd or the Warrior (as  was customary in the Palaeochristian art). All the visible things had to be represented in their real visible form, in their images. Symbols had to be used with great care, and merely in connection with the invisible reality (which, in fact, was not recommended to be depicted at all, to follow the precept of the Old Testament).  All this is for one simple reason that the visual symbols must be “read” (that is, one sees a lamb and deciphers Christ), and this intellectual activity destroys in the observer his immediate, face-to-face contact with the image. The symbolic visual language bars the fundamental message of the icon – the Incarnation of God and the new task of the human being: to become god (as St. Gregory the Great formulated it: “Human being is a creature, but he has a command to become god”) .

            With it all symbols and allegories were absolutely welcomed in the Church poetry: they found their place in the  sophisticated composition of liturgical hymns and prayers with its technique of ploke (Greek, “the weaving words”). What is vital is that they must not be represented in the visual form! Thus, in the “Akathistos” the Mother of God is called  “the fertile mount” (the symbol taken from the Psalms), but nobody is recommended to depict this symbol instead of Her image. The invasion of the symbolic or emblematic figures into the  late Russian icons (approximately since the end of 17th century) can be regarded as but one of the symptoms of the general decay of the icon painting. The chief function of  the holy image  was forgotten.


12. What creates an image? Presence of the Absent

            Surely, symbolism participates in the visual language of the icon: there are, e.g. symbolic colours of clothes, which help to recognize the represented person, there are  symbolic gestures, which help to recognize the meaning of the represented scene and so on. But nevertheless, the principal  device of transforming the physical reality into the reality of the holy image, is not the symbol. We may look for such an instrument  rather in the realm of space-time-light structure of the icon.  We can but announce this theme now – unfortunately, we can’t dwell on it.

Another clue may be seen in the character of the image itself. Paradoxically, the icon which is visible gives us an impression of looking at the invisible. How is it possible? We can suggest that it is because the images depicted on it are themselves plunged into the contemplation of the invisible. They are shown in a state of prayer. Through contemplating them we follow the contemplation which is in them, while they contemplate something that can not be seen on the icon. It is a depiction of a prayer that gives birth to a prayer. It is not a picture.  It is a mirror. [8]

What they see is not something what one usually thinks a saint sees in an “ecstatic vision” (“no figures, no scenes”). It is just the presence of Divine Light. The iconic image is in fact a depiction of that unseen light, the light which can never be portrayed. As L. Uspensky’s deep insight shows: the predecessor of the iconic image is not a pagan cult  image of, say, Egyptian kind. Those sublime but realistic images are of a different source: they arise out of the very same prohibition of representation of God that drew the images out of the Hebrew tradition. Iconic images seems to say: only now representation is possible, because of Christ’s incarnation. So what we see is the representation of the unrepresentable, the apophatic depiction of that which can not be depicted otherwise.

Those who think of apophatic approach as something purely negative are very far from the Orthodox idea of it. Apophatic intention is not only to negate all positive humanly perceived qualities attributed to the Divine reality but to indirectly lead a human to the direct contact with it. This contact can be even stronger than in the case of cataphatic method of definition. As a great representative of the school St. Gregory Palamas says the main word in apophatics is not no but as if –  which may be the best way to describe what an image is.

Orthodoxy in its insisting on the representation of the visual reality in the form of images[9] has realized its fundamental nature: the Church confirmed itself as the religion  of the incarnated God, The God who became a visible human flesh and who laid his message (kerygma) open to the world.


13. Theological silence

            As one of the  consequences of the doctrinally founded preference of image to concept and of contemplative experience to speculative thought, “the theology in colours” (as somebody called the icon painting), and not the theology in form of systematic treatises or “Summas” contains nearly everything that the centuries of Russian Orthodox culture produced. This “theological silence”, almost a total lack of the discursive texts in the Russian Christian thought is but too well-known, and this fact differs Rus’ significantly from her spiritual “Mother” – Byzantine with its great corps of refined and sophisticated theoretical texts.

This silence was broken only in the 20-th century, when “the new religious Russian thought” appears. The precursors of these, for the most part lay, thinkers were the “Slavophiles” of the 19th century. Thus the  Russian Orthodox tradition found its first discursive language in the works of the “Russian Europeans”, well educated aristocrats, influenced by the German philosophy and charmed by their recently appreciated native culture.



            Up till now we were discussing the traditional Russian Orthodox outlook as if it were the self-evident and homogeneous reality. But it is not.  In fact, there are many diverse and sometimes hostile attitudes inside the Russian spiritual tradition, and each of them pretends to be “ the true Orthodox”.   We can recall if only two monk characters in “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoevsky, who must be well known to the European reader: the mild, human and open-minded Elder Zosima – and the gloomy visionary Ferapont, a typical “fundamentalist” in todays terms (not to say about the other religious types in Dostojevsky, especially as outside Dostojevsky, e.g. in the works by Nicolaj Leskov, who was much more experienced in the everyday life of the Russian clergy, or in Leo Tolstoj, who with all his anticlerical attitude had a remarkable intuition of the  Orthodox treasury). But we must stop here. Are they both, Zosima c and Ferapont representative of the Orthodoxy? They surely are, if we are speaking about the empiric reality of the Orthodox society in its history. Do they have the same perception of the world? I am afraid, they have the opposite ones.

            Ferapont’s type of perception is highly symbolic.  He sees but signs and cryptograms. All the natural world is for him but a great and rather chaotic collection of the casual secret ciphers which he pretends to interpret unmistakably, for they are absolutely clear for the “spiritual” person “inspired from above”. The sensual reality of things has no autonomic value for him, everything natural is but a sign of something “supernatural”. The mysterious  (and for the most part threatening) signs flash out in the deep darkness of the earthly reality. Thus, the last prove of one’s holiness must be the incorruptibility of his remains. When after the Zosima’s death his remains started corrupting, Ferapont triumphed: he was always sure, that Zosima was a great sinner (people know he enjoyed jam), and now anyone can make sure of it!

            The perception of “Zosima’s” type is radically different. All the world, the world of God is for him an unbroken  miracle, full of meaning, which overcomes any interpretation, that we could propose, but this immense meaning can be easily grasped without reasoning by “the broken heart” with its “last tenderness”, “umilenije”. In place of the Ferapont’s scorn of whatever is material Zosima, as we can see, experiences strong empathy for everything alive, the impulse to bless all the creatures and to admire “the holy earth”: Zosima advises his pupil Aliosha to kiss the earth – just as one kisses the icon. Zosima  is not interested in reading signs and looking for meanings; he knows something else. He knows the endless independence of every meaning from our suggestions. The apophatic attitude is always present in his judgments. For him, “the other world” does not need to appear in “this one” in form of some extraordinary sign or figure. He feels, that “this world” is alive just because it is penetrated with the divine energy of compassion and pity. One hundred years later Boris Pasternak expressed a similar position in connection with the general idea of meaning: “Everything is symbolic just as it is significant”.

This attitude dramatically changes the very notions of “holy” and “sinful”, “clean” and “dirty” which are so important for Ferapont. Sin should not be viewed as some transgression of God’s will, but it is the reason of such transgression and the result of it: sin is a state of separation from the Divine Being. So that the heaviest sin is understood as a lack of faith in the mercy of God, that has power to overcome whatever sin there may be.

            In the light of all that has been said in the first part of the present essay our reader may conclude, that it is definitely Zosima who represents the “normative” Orthodox  attitude. Without doubt, such was  Dostoevsky’s design: to portray Zosima as the type of the real Orthodox Saint. But there were and there are many supporters of “the genuine Orthodoxy” in Russia who will contest both Dostojevsky and the author of the present essay. They will find this religious type too sentimental and too human to be authentic Orthodox (“the rosy Christianity” , as Konstantin Leontjev sarcastically calls this loving attitude).

The Orthodox people of such kind like to stress the traditional, “canonic” character of their attitude. They are enthusiasts of  “the austere Byzantine type”, which they praise for its counter-humanistic  and counter-modernist zeal. They suggest, the Western post-Enlightment culture has lost any sensibility to Evil, which is the fundamental characteristics of  the state of things in our fallen world and the integral part of the human being and  of all human relations and institutes. Thus, the man-centered culture of the secular humanism is necessarily ungodly, it is the culture of the human hubris. Its only aim is to please a human being, to indulge its spoiled nature – and in this way to prepare for it, and for all the Universe, the last catastrophe. They in their turn are extremely sensitive to Evil (sometimes one could think, that what they describe as the earthly world is situated a little bit lower, in  Hell). They preach that a man is not to be pleased, he needs to be corrected; he must not be left at his own free will, he needs to be guided by some spiritual instance, which can provide him with the “soul’s security”.  The chief virtues for them are humility, obedience, patience and fear of God.

And we can’t  say that these virtues are not Orthodox! They surely are, and Zosima would never  agree with the secular humanists in their optimistic confidence, that a human being is good by nature. He knows  but too well the work of Evil, “the law of sin” in the human heart. He knows the disastrous power of pride and self-will – and the beauty of humility and obedience. But all that is because he also believes that once these qualities are acquired a human being becomes free and happy and radiates freedom around. And it can see the beauty of the world which after its purification resembles a garden made fruitful not a room made empty. He knows this mysterious capacity to change which is planted into the human heart, just as a gardener knows the capacity of the seed to grow. His peaceful and all-forgiving attitude is not idyllic or sentimental. Neither it is a spiritually comfortable position. This peace is the fruit of the endless hard fighting with the “Old Adam” in his heart. As a great Russian Saint of the 20-th century Silouan of Athon said: “To pray for the others is to shed your blood”.

The position of the “Ferapont type” of Orthodoxy has nothing wrong with it. Its values are canonic, its notions are traditional. The only difference is that everything happens here as if the light went out. The light of hope and trust in the human being and in the mercy of God. Nevertheless one can’t deny that this deep misanthropy accompanies as a dark shadow the Russian Orthodox tradition through centuries.

             Zosima and  Ferapont,  Ivan the Terrible (“our hope, the true Orthodox Tzar’”, as the old folk songs address him) and  charismatic St. Serafim of Sarov (the spiritual brother of St. Francis of Assisi)… They all and many others do represent some of the characteristic forms of the Russian Orthodox mentality. Do we need to discuss also the so-called “popular faith”,  the indiscernible mixture of  pagan and Christian beliefs?  Just an example of such quite wide-spread beliefs: one needs to be present at the service dedicated to the cutting off the head of John the Baptist in order not to have headaches during the next year. Is it “typically Orthodox”? Unfortunately, it is – in the empiric sense, as we said before. Surely, every priest would firmly reprove such a belief – but people normally don’t consult priests about their beliefs, they communicate these ideas with dead certainty to those, who happened not to know it yet.

            As far as I know, nobody till now tried  to observe all the varieties of the Russian Orthodox mentality, to draw a map of them and to analyze the picture. Who could undertake such an attempt? It could become a theme for some sociological or ethnological study of religion, but such fields of knowledge do not yet exist in Russia. Which is a pity, for now we have an actual need in the studies of such sort.

            Nowadays the problem of the Russian Orthodox identity turned out to be urgent. After the decades of the official Communist “ruthless struggle against the religious prejudices” the most part of our population, the overwhelming majority of it, proved to be absolutely ignorant in the questions of faith. After the abolition of the official ideology millions of people “are returning to the Church”– often than not, they enter the Church for the first time in their life and try to learn the native tradition, “ the faith of their fathers” (in fact, the faith of their grandfathers or even great-grandfathers: for the fathers and, rather often, grandfathers of our contemporaries professed the “scientific military atheism” of the official ideology). They try to learn the Orthodox tradition as one learns a foreign language, in the impersonal didactic form; in fact, what they try to learn is the long list of instructions and prescriptions:  “in these cases one needs to say this or that… in this case one is kneeling…” Some of these instructions are correct, some are fantastic, as the one I cited above, but the point is, that nobody ever learns the traditional perception of the world in this way.  The natural handing over of the tradition was roughly interrupted. The situation we have now is unprecedented in the  history of the Russian Christianity, which seventeen years ago celebrated its Thousand years Anniversary. It looks almost like the second Baptism of Russia.

            Still this is not a time for complaint or indignation with all these phenomena. As any stage of development of something alive the Orthodox tradition has its inherent possibilities that have never been called to the surface in the course of its history. We see a coming new challenge which has to be responded to. A challenge to make explicit something that has been but semi-consciously handed over from person to person through centuries. We see a great task in elaborating the language of explication of the Orthodox tradition, the language which at the same time doesn’t “taste wrong”. It would be a great pity to loose in darkness this hidden treasure of Orthodoxy but the equal danger lies in trying to make it transparent by using the borrowed models and patterns developed in the spirit of other traditions (e.g. through using scholastic methods which are so fundamental to Catholicism or distributing it within the ready-made set of philosophical categories).  The third danger would be to describe the Orthodox tradition in the polemic perspective, i.e. to contrast it to the “wrong” Western positions which in these descriptions acquire the vulgar, grotesque features. Nobody of the Orthodox apologist seems to have escaped this danger.

            As far as we know the first attempt of systematical survey of Orthodox Weltanschauung was undertaken in the superb handbook “East Christian Spirituality” written by fr. Thomas Spidlik. It is characteristic that this attempt comes from the outside of the Orthodox tradition. Originally this book was written in Italian  and then it was translated  into a number of languages including Russian. This work is based on the writings of the Orthodox spiritual authors, since the early Byzantine times up to the new Russian religious thinkers (Vladimir Solovjov, Florensky, Bulgakov, Berdyajev and others). This book is very helpful to anybody who wants to find more about Orthodoxy. The only problem with it is, that in full accordance with the prominent Western tradition, it is based on  thoughts and sayings of the saints and fathers of Church as they can be found in various texts attributed to them. But in the Orthodoxy itself these texts do not necessarily have the normative status; they often can be classified as the “opinions”  or “personal suggestions” of this or that Father and don’t hold universally true for the Church, no matter how great the saint may be.

            Let’s take the attitude to virginity and marriage. In the compilation of fr. Thomas we can see that the former is undoubtedly higher than the latter. But this is in no way an official opinion of the Church. To find it one must look at the Orthodox Sacrament of wedding. Everybody who was ever present at the Orthodox Wedding would agree that the magnificent composition of the biblical quotations of the service and the general character of the ritual (the very name of Sacrament, venchanije, literally: “coronation”[10] speaks for itself) are no less triumphant, than the Easter service. Thus one can appreciate how greatly the Church differs in the value it gives to marriage, as it is expressed in the sacrament, from the opinions of the respected religious authors (who are for the most part monks and  naturally prefer chastity to the family life). The attitudes common to the whole Church (sobornyj, conciliar) are represented primarily in the liturgical reality.

            Summarizing our fragmented attempts to describe the Orthodox perception we can say that in its essence it must be the perception shaped by Eucharist as the icon of the Kingdom of God, by icon as the part of liturgical reality and by the “uninterrupted prayer” which purifies the heart. To put it in other words, it is shaped by the real presence of the future plenitude, of the endless Life of Resurrecteion, which can open itself even in this world, before our mortal eyes (Eucharist, icon)  - and by the path to it (prayer).



            Now, rereading everything, that we wrote above we can’t help asking ourselves: does it all answer the question of the Russian  Orthodox perception? We did not even try to describe the concrete traditional perceptions of this or that phenomena. What we were talking about seems to be rather a sort of the practical  Orthodox anthropology or hagiology ( in this case it means almost the same, for the human being, whom the Church  addresses to, is Homo Christi). We know but too well, that the “real”  earthly Church does not consist of the Saints, nor even of the repentant sinners (as one of the Fathers defined the Church). Not to say of those who live outside the Church but are definitely influenced by the Orthodox tradition even in case when their personal position is agnostic or atheist. The great Russian secular culture of the 18th – 20th centuries was in its great part created  by such people. What one can easily recognize e.g.  in the writings by Anton Chekhov  ( the convinced agnostics), is the stamp of  Orthodox sensibility, which is strong and  difficult to catch at the same time.

Should we speak about Orthodox perception in the strict sense of the term here? Of course, not. The term which we could try and suggest here, which seems to be rather adequate because it covers both the everyday reality of the common people as well as the complex reality of the secular culture and art, that elusive something which makes us “recognize at once”, is the term “taste”. “Taste” does not demand faith, or we can say it is unconscious of the faith and its insights that build its foundation. It does not quite know where it takes its “I like” “ I dislike” from. But it’s likes and dislikes, those “blind” forms of perception, are formed by the very same hidden light that comes in the open which we talked about.

            Frankly speaking, it is much easier to describe the Russian Orthodox taste in the “apothatic” manner. What does it dislike?

            It can’t accept anything exuberant – it calls it pretentious; active – it calls it fussy; rhetoric – it calls it bombast; rational – it calls it small-minded; openly didactic – it calls it pain in the neck;  intellectual – it calls it “over-brainy “;  sentimental – it calls it “false”; too specific – it calls it showing off; too clear – it calls it “stupid”… We could go on like that for a long time. It may seem the total sum of such dislikes makes a portrait of a typical and quite unimaginative simpleton. True. But may also find that the exquisite poetics of Pushkin, the ever fresh poetics of Tolstoy and the delicate poetics of Chekhov fully respond to the same ”negative”norms. We can recognize in them the dim and modified traces of the ascetic virtues of measure, humility, sobriety.

            It is much more difficult to catch and formulate the likes of this taste. To give an idea of it, I would cite here the stanza of Ivan Bunin’s  poem, which, in my opinion, comes close to one of the dearest thing in the Russian art: umilenie, the shock of tenderness.

The poem is addressed to a girl who died young and long ago; the hero loved her: now  he comes to visit her grave. Thus the poem deals with death and life, absence and memory. We are ready for an elegy. Let’s see.

The first stanza describes the old distant cemetery with its weeping birches: “not the graves, not the bones, but the kingdom of joyful reveries”. Then the culmination

The summer wind is swinging

The leaves of the long branches

And I know what reaches me:

The  light of your smile.

Not a gravestone, not a cross -

I see, as I saw once

The dress of a boarding schoolgirl

And the shining eyes.

In our translation we’ve lost some important details: the Russian verb, which we have to translate as “reaches”  has also the meaning “flies” and one usually uses it to express the perceiving of a distant and a weak sound. So,  in the image of this smile we comprehend the impressions of flight, light and of something sonoric at once: a hint of visitation. The smile is not there, it seems to remain in its distance; it is but its light that comes. And perhaps, even not the light as such, it may be just the whiteness of the birches. The image is mingled with the landscape: the landscape is filled with the image. But what we immediately feel (as the hero does) is that death does not matter. What the stanza delivers to us is a sudden experience of simple immortality (or resurrection) of what was lost: nothing is lost, nothing can be lost. Those who were together remain together. The shock of tenderness reveals this truth or this reality. If Dylan Thomas says in a prophetic tone: “And death shall have no dominion” than these stanzas say “Death has no dominion”: time present. Or, to say it with Boris Pasternak, “immortality is but a little bit strengthened name for life”. What Bunin’s stanzas describe is not a mystic apparition of the dead girl, it is the apparition of the suddenly transfigured Universe: the world in its glory.

That’s Bunin’s  artistic trade-mark to make us see (and in his  prose pieces even more, than in poems) that life, even in its most revolting forms, never looses its luminous nature. But this is not exclusively Bunin’s taste. It is that intuition, which distinguishes the Russian artist of the “Orthodox taste” up till Andrej Tarkovsky. Everything alive partakes of the light; just because it is alive; because “the life was the light of men” and man is a testimony to it. In its best artistic expressions this “light of life” resembles the light of smile, as we saw it in Ivan Bunin’s poem. The same quality of light we can recognize in the icons painted by Andrej Rublev: the light of smile. Love which  is caught not as some strong affect, but as a strange immortal tenderness.

I would like to say my thanks to Ksenia Golubovich for her generous help in discussing the English version  of the present essay.



July – August 2005




[1] Among the great feasts of the Russian Orthodox Calendar the central place belongs to the feast of Transfiguration: the commemoration of the moment when Christ transfigured on the mount of Tabor, i.e. when He reveals His glory to the pupils. The light of glory, the light of Tabor was laid in the basis and practice of the teaching of contemplation by the Orthodox hesyhasts (“those who keep silence”).

[2] The different comprehension of light  in the Byzantine and Old Russian icons is thoroughly described in the penetrating studies of Olga Popova, the brilliant contemporary historian of the icon painting.  

[3] The verse: “Create in me a clean heart , o God, and  renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51,10) is, perhaps, the most frequent quotation from the Old Testament in the Orthodox prayers and hymns.

[4] And it could be added: “And He surely exists as the Trinity”. We know the fact, that in the times of anti-trinitarian  heresy on Rus’  an archbishop   went out to the agitated people with the Rubliov’s image and showed it to the crowd as the last prove of the dogmatic truth - and everybody get silent:  against such an argument, a pure  Presence,  nothing could be said.

[5] But we must remark: one could hardly find praises to the Virgin’s beauty in the Orthodox prayers and hymns! Her constant characteristics here are chastity and  mercy ( the motherly compassion and intercession) and never beauty, at least in the form, which is so familiar in the Latin hymns (“Pulcherrima Rosa” and  others). It seems amazing in connection with all that was said above about the Beauty-centered Orthodox world. But in fact, it is not strange at all. The Orthodox taste would surely find it too daring and not chaste, to speak of Her beauty. Beauty of the Virgin belongs to God alone. Nevertheless, what is never said in the words, is directly demonstrated in the form of icons. The numerous images of the Mother of God (in the Orthodox calendar there are  260   miracle-working images of Hers, which have their special feast) represent the  amazing type of beauty, clean-cut and tender, attentive and estranged, warm and reserved,  solemn and  modest,  movingly close to those who looked at it - and absolutely distant at once. The habitual (since Longinus) juxtaposition of Beautiful and Sublime does not work here. This type of beauty. which radiates silence and  some chaste consoling power, is not to give to a person an esthetical or erotic pleasure. It is too present to let anybody to feast his eyes upon. It makes him change.

[6] This fundamental principle of the Orthodox gnosiology is thoroughly studied in the works of the contemporary Greek Orthodox theologian and philosopher Christos Yannaras.


[8] This image of a mirror reminds us of a great system if “Celestial Hierarchy’s” by Dionysius Areopagitus where the mirrors of immaterial powers pass the Divine Light that becomes each time weaker  up to a point where it can be perceived by the human eye.

[9] In the non-formal hierarchy of images  the visual, plastic images are definitely preferred. The verbal  images follow them (thus, a psalm can be called “a verbal icon”: “As on the icon David depicted a song”) - and amazingly little is said about the musical images! In the Orthodox hymnography, prayers, popular sayings of the saints we could hardly find anything that would remind us the (platonic) ideas about Musica Mundi. All the musical references seem to be limited to the choirs of Angels, the choirs of the Saints and the sweet tunes which are heard  in the fragrant Paradise. It is really strange, while one keeps in mind the highly elaborated system of the Ancient Russian liturgical music, with its sound symbolism and the strict rules of using this or that glas (a sort of tonality) or popevka (a short motive, a group of two-four tones) in connection with the liturgical time and other conditions (e.g. a deacon can use this or that popevka, a preast – this or that, and so on). The parts of the musical speech resemble a sort of sound hieroglyphs, and the whole composition – a mosaics made of this meaningful particles. With all this, we don’t know  any significant attempt to describe the sacred music in the theological perspective.

[10] There are different interpretations of the crowns of the bride and bridegroom in this sacrament: are they a sign of their King’s and Queen’s dignity – or the crowns of martyrs? Or both?