Types of Religious Lives – 3: Aesthetic piety

It is difficult to trace the origins of the aesthetic type of piety. It has probably had its representatives during all ages, easing off slightly only at times when the Church was faced with challenges causing great spiritual tension, when the Church was being shaken by internal struggles, when it was being persecuted, and when it was obliged to vindicate the very essence of Christianity. Even the origin of Christianity in Kievan Rus’, according to the ancient legend, was determined by a well-known act of aesthetic piety. St. Vladimir compared religions not on the substance of their inner content, but on the strength of the impression made by their external forms. Thus he chose Orthodoxy for the beauty of its singing, for the grandeur of its rites and for that aesthetic experience which so shook him. The writers of Muscovite Rus’ have produced long and moving descriptions of Orthodoxy’s beauty. Even the nineteenth century, not known for any special aesthetic sensitivity, produced such a great example of an Orthodox aesthete as Konstantin Leontiev, for whom beauty contained within it a measure of truth and who, having rejected the religiously empty bourgeois world because it was monstrous, reached out to Orthodoxy because in it there was beauty.

No wonder, then, that in the twentieth century, when two factors converged — a bright and talented outburst of aestheticism among the cultural upper strata of Russian life and the entry of a large number of people from that cultural stratum into the Church — the aesthetic type of piety was almost overwhelming and determined many things. For a start, it identified very great treasures from the past. Aesthetics has always been linked with a kind of cult of antiquity, with a kind of archaeology. It is not surprising, therefore, that during the period when it flourished, ancient Russian art was rediscovered. Ancient icons were found, restored and studied; museums of iconography were established; schools of iconography were defined and described; Rublev and others began to be appreciated. The ancient chant began to be restored. Kievan and Valaam chants found their way into the repertoire of Church singing; church architecture became better known thanks to a great number of publications on the history of art. Without a doubt, all these are positive achievements.

But alongside this aesthetic approach to religion there began to grow up a particular moral mind-set, whose characteristics are quite easy to detect. Beauty and the appreciation of beauty are always the province of a small minority. This explains the unavoidable cultural elitism of any aesthetic stance. When defending aesthetic values, a person divides the whole world into friends who understand and appreciate its values, and enemies, the profane crowd. Imagining that the foundation of Church life is its beauty, this person then divides all mankind into a “little flock” with special aesthetic sensitivity, and the mass of those unworthies to be found beyond the pale. In the mind of such an individual, the mystery of the Church belongs only to the elect. Not only will prostitutes and sinners never sit at the feet of Christ, but all those who are too simple and unrefined will likewise be excluded, so that he himself may find satisfaction through the lofty aesthetic beauty of the divine services, etc.

Because he takes aesthetics to be the sole criterion of what is proper, the sole measure of things, this person thinks of himself as part of some kind of intricate composition and feels obliged not to spoil it, not to disturb it. He accepts its general rhythm, but then introduces that rhythm into his own inner life. Like the strict ritualist, he structures his own personal way of life and sees in this his greatest virtue. The aesthete is always attracted by the archaic. At times he may even be attracted to a type of popular, peasant artistry. From this there develops a subtle attraction toward specific portions of the services, toward individual hymns, the Great Canon of Andrew of Crete, etc. Often the artistic value of that material is assessed, and, if there isn’t any, that is taken into account and he is then entranced by its antiquity, or struck by its stately composition, or by the rhythmic success of the whole of the divine service.

Aesthetic criteria gradually replace the spiritual and eventually displace all other considerations. The people in the Church are looked upon as either a crowd of worshipers, props needed for the proper rhythm of worship, or as tedious and annoying barbarians who, by their ignorance, clumsiness and, occasionally, by their personal sorrows and special needs, encroach upon the general grandeur and orderliness of the service.

The aesthete loses himself in clouds of incense, delights in the ancient chants, admires the severity and restraint of the Novgorod style of iconography. He will condescendingly take note of the somewhat naive wording of a hymn. He has partaken in everything, he is sated, afraid to spill his treasure. He is afraid of tasteless detail, of the human woes which provoke sympathy, he is afraid of human weakness which provokes disgust. All in all, he doesn’t like the petty, confused, disorganized world of the human soul. No doubt it would be difficult to find love within the aesthetic type of religious life. Nor, would it seem, is there even a place in it for hatred. There is only that cold, exacting contempt for the profane crowd and an ecstatic admiration for beauty. There is a dryness, often verging on formalism. There is a concern for the preservation of oneself and one’s own world, which is so well structured and harmonized, from the intrusion of anything that might offend or upset that harmony. Even fiery souls will gradually cool down through the inescapable chill of aestheticism (Konstantin Leontiev, for example, had a fiery soul by nature). They insist on putting a chill on everything that surrounds them, looking for some kind of an eternal ice, for some eternal pole of beauty, for an eternal Northern Lights.

The strangest and most incredible thing of all is the possibility of the spread of the aesthetic type of piety amongst Russians, whose souls, as a rule, are lacking in harmony, measure and form. One might think that their fiery temperament, their pithy sayings and, at times, chaotic style would serve to guarantee that aestheticism is no danger for them. Perhaps there is a kind of a “law of contradiction” in effect here, forcing a person to seek in a world outlook what will supplement his inner characteristics rather than express them. Perhaps he finds it impossible to get along with his inner chaos, to endure it, and as a result, moves toward the other extreme. And yet one often sees — much more frequently than one might imagine — a strange suppression of that flame, almost amounting to spiritual suicide, which changes fire into ice — an impulse toward immobility, an all-out search for a rhythm of external, given forms. There is no doubt, of course, that the aesthetic type of Orthodox piety, which by its very nature belongs to the higher cultural levels of the Russian people, cannot count on a numerically widespread dissemination.

The issue, however, is not numbers, but precisely the quality, in a cultural sense, of these repositories of Orthodox aesthetics. In spite of their small numbers they could have and still can have a strong influence on the life of the Church in all its aspects. What is the nature of this influence? How great is its creative impulse? Here one must speak about one extraordinary, paradoxical fact. The true guardians of creative activity, throughout the most diverse ages, nations and peoples, have always valued the genius or talent of others. These aesthetes, who were subtle critics and experts in the most minute details and nuances of the various artistic schools, have never at any time or anywhere provided creative leadership themselves, perhaps just because they were so subtly and so intensely assessing the works of others. This has always resulted in a particular personal psychology shared by museum curators, collectors, experts and catalogers, but not by creative artists.

Creativity, even that which produces the most subtle works of art, is in its essence something rather crude. Creativity, which aims at achievement and affirmation, is always discarding something, rejecting something, demolishing something, and clearing a place for something new. It thirsts so strongly for the new that it regards everything that has already been created, everything that is old, as nothing in comparison with the new, and often destroys the old. The psychology of a museum keeper is incompatible with that of the creative individual: one is conservative, the other revolutionary. What conclusions can we draw about the future of this type of ecclesiastical piety? Our harsh, stressful and agonizing life experience turns to the Church with all its aches and pains, with all its harsh intensity. Our life today certainly demands creativity, a creativity which is able not only to reconsider and change what is old, but also to create something new, respond to new problems, penetrating new and often uncultured, traditionless strata of society. The Church will be swamped with simple people. The Church will be overwhelmed by their problems. The Church must descend to their level. This would seem to seal the fate of the aesthetic elite.

But precisely because it is select, elite, precisely because it is capable of formulating its ideas and expressing itself and considers itself the guardian of all the Church’s treasures and truth, and is incapable of betraying, lowering or changing its own conception of the Church’s beauty, and is incapable of sacrificial love — for all these reasons it will defend its understanding of the Church as a fortress, it will guard the Church against invasion by the profane masses with its very life. The crowd will shout: “We are being eaten up by sores; we have been poisoned by hatred and the social struggle; our way of life has been ruined; we have no answers to questions of life and death: O Jesus, save us!” But between Christ and the crowd will stand the guardians of Christ’s seamless robe, who will announce to the crowd that hatred and struggle have distorted their faces, that their everyday labors have destroyed in them that exalted gift, the ability to admire beauty.

But life itself is a thing of great beauty, of which only those are capable who have been instructed by it. Mellifluous chants, however, and softly modulated reading, the odor of incense and a blessed, somniferous atmosphere of beauty will wrap in mist the sorrowful image of Christ, will bring lamentation to an end, will cause heads to be downcast, will cause hope to die. For some this enveloping grandeur will be a temporary lullaby, others will recoil from it — and a great chasm will appear between the Church and real life. The aesthetically-minded custodians of grandeur will preserve that chasm in the name of harmony, rhythm, order and beauty.

The profane, on the other side, will make no attempt to leap across the chasm because they have been left with the pain, the struggle, the bitterness, the ugliness of life. They will cease to believe that with such heavy baggage it is possible — and necessary — to approach the Church. And then, within that miserable and godless world, there will arise — if they have not arisen already — false Christs and false prophets, sectarian preachers of various kinds and in varying degrees of shallowness and mediocrity — Baptists, Evangelicals, Adventists, etc. — who will offer to these hungry people some kind of an elementary reformulation of the truth, some impoverished surrogate for religious life, some small dollop of good will and ranting hysteria. Some will respond to this. They will respond first of all to a basic human concern for their needs. But they will not be able to discern immediately that instead of true and traditional Orthodox Christianity, they are being treated to a questionable, semi-literate hodgepodge of starry-eyed idealism and charlatanism. But the opiate will have its effect. And it will further deepen the chasm between the Church and the world. Protected carefully by the lovers of beauty, protected by a sense of delusion and hatred of the world, the chasm may be there for ages.

The eyes of love will perhaps be able to see how Christ himself departs, quietly and invisibly, from the sanctuary which is protected by a splendid iconostasis. The singing will continue to resound, clouds of incense will still rise, the faithful will be overcome by the ecstatic beauty of the services. But Christ will go out on to the porch and mingle with the crowd: the poor, the lepers, the desperate, the embittered, the holy fools. Christ will go out into the streets, the prisons, the hospitals, the low haunts and dives. Again and again Christ lays down his life for his friends.

What is our beauty and our ugliness in comparison with Christ, his eternal truth and eternal beauty? Does our beauty not look ugly when compared to his eternal beauty? Or, is it not the reverse? Does he not see in our ugliness, in our impoverished lives, in our festering sores, in our crippled souls — does he not see there his own divine image and a reflection of his eternal glory and eternal beauty? And so he will return to the churches and bring with him all those whom he has summoned to the wedding feast, has gathered from the highways, the poor and the maimed, prostitutes and sinners.

The most terrible thing is that it may well be that the guardians of beauty, those who study and understand the world’s beauty, will not comprehend Christ’s beauty, and will not let him into the church because behind him there will follow a crowd of people deformed by sin, by ugliness, drunkenness, depravity and hate. Then their chant will fade away in the air, the smell of incense will disperse and Someone will say to them: “I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

It is the idolatry which characterizes the aesthetic type of piety that will bring this about, for it has within it something that should serve only as Christ’s outer garment, an offering of human genius brought lovingly to Christ. But when the splendor of the Church, its beautiful chant, the harmony and order of its services become an end in themselves, they take Christ’s place. People begin to serve this grandeur in itself, and grandeur becomes an idol to which human souls are sacrificed — one’s own as well as others’. All the ugliness of this world, its sores and its pain, are pushed to one side and obscured so that they will not disturb true piety. Even the suffering and death of the Lord himself, his human exhaustion, acquires an aura of beauty, inviting admiration and delight. Love is a very dangerous thing. At times it must reach down into the fathomless lower levels of the human spirit, it must expose itself to ugliness, to the violation of harmony. There is no room for it where beauty, when once discovered and sanctioned, reigns forever.

And here, as a result, Christ’s servants, the priests — the successors of the Apostles and disciples — are not required to follow in the steps of the Apostles and disciples and to heal, to preach, and to spread abroad the Lord’s love. One thing only is required of them: that they be servants of the cult, that they be priests almost in the pagan meaning of that word. A priest is judged by how much he knows and loves the ustav, by how musical he is, how good is his voice, how coordinated are his movements, etc. It isn’t important whether he, like a good shepherd, knows his flock and whether he will leave the ninety and nine to find one lost soul and whether he will rejoice greatly because it has been found.

A sinister phenomenon is occurring now in Soviet Russia. There, everything is forbidden to the Church — whether to preach, to teach, to carry out charitable works or any organized activity, or to bring believers together for a common life. One thing only is permitted: to perform divine services. What is this? Chance? Something the Soviets overlooked? Could this not be a subtle psychological ploy, based on the fact that without acts of love, without a life of open spiritual struggle, without the Word of God our Orthodox divine services are capable of nourishing only those who are already believers, who already to some extent understand — but are powerless to witness to Christ’s Truth before a secularized and God-deprived humanity. A spiritually hungry person will cross the threshold of the church and make the appropriate response to the beauty of the services held in it, but he will not receive sustenance for his spiritual hunger, because he wants not only beauty but also love, and answers to all his doubts. In this way the authorities, with their requirements, have barricaded the doors to the Church. How often it happens that, at the request of a particular group of faithful, the doors of the church are effectively locked, when no secular authority demands it, but where the cold hearts of her children fence it off from the world in the name of an abstract, measured and arid form and beauty. In a sense it might be better for the Church if it did not have official permission to conduct divine services and instead would gather secretly, in the catacombs, rather than having permission only for divine services, and in this way ending up with no possibility of showing to the world the whole extent of Christ’s love in every experience of its life.

Back to the index page of Types of Religious Lives