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Types of Religious Lives – 4: Ascetic piety

The ascetic type of religious life is not unique to Christianity. It has existed at all times and in the history of absolutely every religion. This by itself shows that it is the expression of some essential characteristics of the human psyche. Thus Christianity is not alone in being characterized by the presence of asceticism. Asceticism is a common characteristic of Hinduism and Islam and is present also in ancient paganism. Moreover, asceticism was a typical feature of the nonreligious milieu so characteristic of nineteenth-century revolutionary movements. One could even say that those periods in the life of the Church which have not been imbued with asceticism have been periods of decline and decay, stagnant and undistinguished. It might also be said that even periods of secular history which have not borne the imprint of asceticism have given evidence of sterility and a lack of creative talent. Since religious life demands of man sacrifice in the name of higher spiritual values, it is always ascetic. At the same time, at its deepest, creative life is also a way of asceticism, since it also demands total sacrifice in the name of higher creative values. It can be said that asceticism has never died out within the Church. There have been periods when it was dormant, when it was the achievement only of solitary souls, while the most common and the most characteristic type of religious life was actually anti-ascetic.

Bearing this in mind, it seems to follow that it is almost impossible to speak about the ascetic type of piety on the same basis as the other types which are more or less elective, whereas asceticism touches upon the eternal depths of religious life. But apart from such genuine and eternal asceticism, there is another extraordinary phenomenon about which we must speak and which we must isolate and distinguish somewhat from the ascetic tendency in general.

This special ascetic type has its roots not in Christianity but rather in the Eastern religions and has entered Christianity as a sort of a special influence from these religions, modifying the original understanding of asceticism. The difference does not lie in the methods of carrying out the ascetic ideal in life. These can be of various kinds, but all these variations are applicable everywhere and do not point to a basic difference in their inner purpose. The basic differences are to be found in what motivates an individual to enter upon the path of asceticism. There can be any number of motivations, many of which are, in varying degrees, incompatible with Christianity. There are even motivations which are in radical contradiction to Christianity. We will start with these.

These are especially characteristic of Hinduism, and on their basis the yogis have arisen. These days they sound like the fundamental principles of all kinds of occult teachings, of theosophy and anthroposophy. Their aim is the acquisition of spiritual power. Asceticism is a known system of psycho-physical exercises which control and modify a person’s normal behavior and are directed toward the attainment of special attributes of power over the soul and over nature. It is possible, by determined and repeated efforts, to subject the body to the will. One can achieve tremendous psychic changes within oneself and a mastery over matter and spirit. Just as a gymnast must exercise to achieve dexterity, just as a wrestler must follow a specific regimen to develop his muscular strength, just as a singer must practice scales in order to perfect his voice, so must an ascetic of this type follow specific directions, must exercise, must repeat the same routine over and over, maintain a special diet, sensibly schedule his time, curb his habits, order his life — and all this to develop to the maximum those forces with which he has been endowed by nature.

The task of such asceticism is determined by the principle of consolidating one’s natural talents, developing them and being able to apply them. It does not look for any kind of transcendence, nor does it expect the inspiration of any kind of supernatural power. It neither considers this nor believes in it. Above it at a certain level a curtain-like firmament is tightly stretched, and there is no way to pass beyond it. But it knows that in this circumscribed world of nature not everything is fully utilized, that there is tremendous potential, that it is possible, within its confines, to attain power and control over all living and existing things, with but a single, limited exception — over all, that is, that is found beneath that tightly drawn, impenetrable firmament of heaven. Nature’s powers are immense, but even they have their limits. For an occult asceticism of this kind there exists no unlimited or inexhaustible source of power, and thus its task is to accumulate, consolidate, preserve, expand and utilize all natural possibilities. And on this path tremendous achievements are possible.

What answer can be given to this particular form of spiritual naturalism? The only thing in this world more powerful than this is the Church’s teaching about spiritual poverty, about the spending, the squandering of one’s spiritual powers, about the utmost impoverishment of the spirit. The only definition of self which is more powerful than it are the words: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Although these words in themselves define both the essence of the Christian soul and the whole of the Christian response to the natural powers of the human being, there is no doubt but that an occult relationship to asceticism which is contrary to Christianity has been introduced into our piety by way of ancient Eastern influences, through Syria and her particular type of religiosity. There is no need to overrate this influence of asceticism on Christianity, but nonetheless, it exists.

There is also another respect in which asceticism can cease to be a method for attaining higher spiritual values and become an end in itself. An individual may carry out one or another form of ascetic exercise not because it frees him from something or because it offers him something, but simply because it is challenging and demands an effort. It provides him nothing in the outer world, nor does it contribute anything to the content of his spiritual experience, nor does it advance him on his inner path. It is unpleasant for him to limit himself to one particular sphere — so it is in the name of this unpleasantness that he must do this. The surmounting of an unpleasantness, as the only goal, exercise for the sake of exercise, is at best a working-out of a simple submission to disciplinary challenges and is, of course, a distortion of the ascetic path.

All of the above are mere trifles when compared with the fundamental conflict of world view which now characterizes Christianity. This conflict concerns the most essential, the most fundamental understanding of the goal of the Christian life and divides, as it were, the Christian world into two basic points of view. I am speaking here of the salvation of the soul.

There is no doubt but that the salvation of the soul is the mature fruit of a true and authentic Christian life. The Church crowns her saints and martyrs, her passion-bearers and confessors with the incorruptible crown of eternal life. It promises Paradise, the Kingdom of heaven and eternal blessedness. The Church teaches that the Kingdom of heaven is taken by violence, by force. This is confessed by Christians of all convictions and persuasions. And as a result, the question of the salvation of the soul proves a sword which cuts through the whole spiritual world of Christianity. Here we find two completely different conceptions which lead to different moral laws, to different standards of conduct, etc. It would be difficult to deny that both concepts have notable and saintly champions, that both views enjoy incontrovertible authority within the experience of the Church.

There have been whole periods when Christian asceticism has been colored by one or the other shade of understanding. Both schools have their systems, their principles and their practical rules. Open up the massive volumes of the Philokalia, read the Paterikon, listen — even in this day — to sermons about ascetic Christianity. You will see at once that you have there a serious school of asceticism, with a massive weight of tradition. You need only to accept its ordinances and follow its path. But what is it like? What are its teachings?

Someone who bears in himself all the stain of Adam’s sin and is called to salvation through the blood of Christ has before him just one goal: the salvation of his soul. By itself this goal determines everything for him. It determines his hostility toward anything that stands in the way of salvation. It defines all the means used to attain it. A human being here on earth is placed, as it were, at the start of an endless path toward God. Everything is either a hindrance or a help along that path. In essence there are two polar entities: the eternal Creator of the world, the Redeemer of my soul, and this miserable soul of mine which must strive toward him. What are the means for progress along this path? The first step is the ascetic mortification of one’s flesh. It is prayer and fasting. It is the rejection of the values of this world and of all attachment to them. It is obedience, which mortifies the sinful will just as fasting mortifies the sinful, passionate flesh.

From the point of view of obedience, all the movements of the soul and the whole complex of external activities which are the responsibility of that particular person must be examined. He cannot decline to do them, for he is obliged to carry them out conscientiously if they are given to him as an obedience. But he should not immerse his soul in them completely, since the soul should be filled with one thing only: the striving for its own salvation. The whole world, its woes, its suffering, its labors on all levels — this is a kind of a huge laboratory, a kind of experimental arena, where I can practice my obedience and humble my will. If obedience demands that I clean out stables, dig for potatoes, look after leprous persons, collect alms for the Church, or preach the teaching of Christ — I must do all these things with the same conscientious and attentive effort, with the same humility and the same dispassion, because all these things are tasks and exercises of my readiness to curb my will, a difficult and rocky road for the soul seeking salvation. I must constantly put into practice virtues and therefore I must perform acts of Christian love. But that love is itself a special form of obedience, for we are called and commanded to love — and we must love.

That love should be used as a standard is self-evident: it is the measure of all things. But while I love I must remember at all times that the fundamental objective of the human soul is to be saved: to the extent that love assists me in my salvation, to that extent it is beneficial for me. But it must immediately be curbed and curtailed if it does not enrich but robs me of my spiritual world. Love is the same kind of devout exercise, the same kind of activity, as any other external act. One thing alone is important: my standing obediently before God, my relationship with God, my turning toward the contemplation of his eternal goodness. The world may abide in sin, it may tear itself apart with its own sicknesses — but all these things are utterly insignificant when compared with the immovable light of the Divine Perfection, while all this world is simply a trial field — a whetstone, so to speak, on which I can hone my own virtue. How can I even think that I might give something to the world? I who am nothing, wounded by ancestral sin, covered with sores because of my own personal vices and sins? My gaze is turned inward on myself, I see only my own loathsomeness, my own scabs and wounds. It is about these that one must think, for these that one must repent and weep. One must eliminate everything that stands in the way of salvation. There is really no room to worry about the misfortunes of others — unless by way of the exercise of virtue.

That’s how it is. In practice, you will not immediately figure out that this is how such a person understands Christ’s teaching about love. He is merciful, he visits the sick, he is attentive to human misery, he even offers people his love. And only if you pay close attention will you perceive that he is not doing this out of self-renouncing and sacrificial love, laying down his life for his friends: he is doing it as an ascetic exercise, for this is how he will nurture, this is how he will save his own soul. He knows that, as the Apostle said, love is the greatest thing of all, and that for the salvation of the soul in addition to any other virtues there must be love. And he will train himself in this, along with the other virtues. He will teach himself, he will force himself to love — so long as it does not lay him waste, so long as it is not dangerous. A strange and fearsome holiness — or likeness of holiness — unfolds itself along this path. You will see a genuine and clear line of real ascent, of refinement, of development. But along with this, you will feel a certain coldness, an extraordinary spiritual stinginess, a kind of miserliness. The other person, the other person’s soul — a stranger’s, of course — becomes not the object of love, but a means for the benefitting of my own soul. Such an understanding of Christianity is often the lot of strong and manly souls. It can prove a temptation for the more worthy, more self-sacrificing souls, for those closest to the Kingdom of heaven. The temptation lies in its extraordinary purity, its intensity, in its deceptive and yet attractive type of holiness. What can one say? How can one compare one’s own lukewarm state, one’s own lack of heroic action with this vast and vigorous spirit, striding forward with giant steps? How can one possibly avoid being tempted?

There is only one thing that can shield you against such temptation: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

If you judge the true essence of things by this criterion, you will begin to perceive that such ascetic renunciation of the world is an extreme form of egoism, an improper and inadmissible act of self-preservation. And then there will be some strange comparisons, some surprising coincidences. For such a diametrical opposition of one’s “I” to the whole world can and does take place for other, non-ascetic — and even non-religious — reasons. Are not the true representatives of “this world” cut off from the world by an impenetrable wall of absent love? No matter what their particular concern in life may be, within their conscience there always exists that impassable chasm between their “I” and the world. The more egotistical — the more “secularized” — such people are, the further removed they are from the genuine life of the world, the more the world is for them a kind of inanimate comfort or inanimate torment over against which they set their animate “I.” In this sense we see that opposites do coincide. We see here at both extremes the affirmation of one’s own unique “I,” the affirmation of a grasping, greedy and miserly love of one’s own property, be this property what one acquires through spiritual experience of the ascetic path or through the external and material benefits of worldly success. What is significant here is the possessive and miserly relationship toward that property.

What can be said, then, about the role such an asceticism can play in the life of the Church? Perhaps this question needs to be approached from the opposite direction. The more horrible and sinful is the world, the more passionate is the desire to get away from it, the more difficult it is to love its image, distorted by hate and suffering, and, in general, the greater is the rejection of love. The more difficult the path within the distorted life of this world, the greater is the nostalgia for the heights. Today the world is extremely unhealthy and even dangerous for an ascetic who is seeking salvation. Prudence therefore clearly demands that one avoid contact with it so as not to expose oneself to danger. The fervent intensity, however, of the ascetic spirit which has been present in the human soul in all periods of history has always borne off individual souls toward those heights where they can go to shake the world’s dust from their feet, performing the one task worthy of man — the saving of one’s own soul.

Here I would like to pause and touch upon some of the unique characteristics of today’s world which makes it even more unbearable for someone who thirsts for ascetic detachment and heroic effort (podvig) for the salvation of his soul. There is no doubt as to the inner and outer unhappiness and misery of the world today. There is the threat of impending war, the gradual dying out of the spirit of freedom, the revolutions and dictatorships which are tearing the people apart; there is class hatred and a decline in moral principles. It would appear that there are no social ills which have not affected contemporary life. Yet at the same time we are surrounded by crowds of people who are oblivious to the tragedy of our age. At the same time we are surrounded by boundless self-satisfaction, a total lack of doubt, by physical and spiritual saturation, by an almost total overdose of all things. But this is no “feast during the plague.” [endnote: The Feast during the Plague is the title of a play by Pushkin, published in the 1830s and based on John Wilson’s City of the Plague.] To feast during a plague carries with it its own enormous tragedy. It is just one step, one hair’s breadth from religious contrition and enlightenment. In it there is something of the courage of despair. And if someone happens to be there who wants to give his love to the world, it will not be hard for him to find words of denunciation, of summons, and of love.

Today, in a time of plague, one as a rule counts one’s daily earnings and in the evening goes to the cinema. There is no talk of the courage of despair because there is no despair. There is only utter contentment and total spiritual quiescence. The tragic nature of the psychology of contemporary man is self-evident. And every fiery prophet, every preacher will be in a quandary: on which side of the caf table should he sit? How can he cast light on the nature of today’s stock market gains? How can he break through, trample and destroy this sticky, gooey mass that surrounds the soul of today’s philistine? How can he set the people’s hearts on fire with his words? [endnote: A reference to Pushkin’s poem, “The Prophet,” which ends with “and set the hearts of men on fire with your Word.”] The trouble is, they are covered with a thick, impenetrable, fireproof substance that you cannot burn through. Will he provide answers for their doubts? But they have no doubts about anything.

Will he denounce them? But they are quite satisfied with their modest acts of charity. After all, they don’t feel worse than anyone else. Should he depict for them the coming judgement and the eternal blessedness of the righteous? But they don’t really believe in any of this — and anyway, they are completely satisfied with the blessings of this age. But this stagnation, this inertia, this self-satisfaction and feeling of well-being which characterizes contemporary man is something very difficult to take into one’s heart and to love, since it provokes perplexity rather than compassion. And this produces still more reasons for wanting to shake the dust from one’s feet, since it is obvious that no amount of participation in such a petty life can change anything in it.

At this point there develops a particularly elevated type of spiritual ego-centrism. And with it all other types of ego-centrist likewise appear. One is crushed by one’s own impotence; one has come to know clearly and attentively all one’s sins, all one’s faults and failures. One sees the nothingness of one’s soul and constantly unmasks the snakes and scorpions that are nesting there. Such a person repents of his sins, but his repentance does not free him from thoughts of his own nothingness. He is not transfigured because of it, and again and again he returns to the one thing that interests him — the spectacle of his own nothingness, his own sinfulness. Not only the cosmos as a whole and all human history, but even the fate of an individual person, his suffering, his failures, his joys and his dreams — all these fade away and disappear in the light of my own downfall, my own sin. The whole world is colored by the glow from the fire of my own soul. More than that — the whole world is somehow consumed in the conflagration of my soul.

This particular understanding of Christianity, at that very moment, demands a most profound analysis of self, a struggle against the passions, a prayer for one’s own salvation. Only one kind of prayer to the Creator of the universe, to the Pantocrator, to the Redeemer of all mankind is possible for such a person — a prayer for oneself, for one’s own salvation, a prayer for mercy for oneself. Sometimes this is a prayer for what are really awful and frightful gifts. And sometimes the Creator of the universe is required to fulfil my prayerful petitions for something which is not very great — I am only asking him for “sleep peaceful and undisturbed.”

Spiritual ego-centrist replaces the goal of true asceticism. It cuts off such a person from the universe and makes him into a spiritual miser — and then this miserliness quickly begins to develop and grow, because he begins to notice that the more he acquires, the emptier his soul becomes. This occurs because of a strange law of the spiritual life, whereby everything that is not distributed, everything that is saved, everything that is not lovingly given away somehow degenerates, becomes corrupt, is consumed in flames. The talent is taken away from the one who buries it and is given to the one who will lend it at interest. Further accumulation makes one more and more empty. It leads to dryness, to spiritual numbness, to the complete degeneration and destruction of one’s spiritual essence. A unique process of self-poisoning by spiritual values takes place.

Every type of ego-centrist always leads to self-poisoning and a certain satiation, to the impossibility of any true understanding. It can be boldly stated that spiritual ego-centrist is completely subject to this law. And this self-poisoning can sometimes even lead one to absolute and total spiritual death.

This is perhaps the most frightening phenomenon that can await anyone. And it is especially frightening because it is difficult to discern, because it imperceptibly replaces true spiritual values with false ones, because at times it requires that one rise up against profound, exalted but improperly understood Christian values without which such a rising up is impossible — it requires that one rise up against asceticism.

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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.

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Types of Religious Lives – 2: Ritualism

The next type of religious life, that of the strict ritualist, bears traces of an entirely different origin. Compared to the synodal type it is archaic, but it has never died out. It intertwined itself with the synodal piety, standing over against it, but never struggles with it. Synodal piety encountered strict ritualism in the Church from the moment of its own origin, since the whole of Muscovite Rus’ was permeated with its spirit. The Old Believer Schism grew out of it and absorbed its strengths into itself. By modifying itself and becoming more complex, it has endured even down to our time. It is, perhaps, the most frightening and inert remnant inherited from Muscovite Rus’.

There is no doubt that the creative and theological level of Muscovite piety was extremely weak. Moscow adopted many things from Byzantium, but somehow managed to miss its creative intensity. Moscow reforged all the turbulent and antinomian vibrancy of the Byzantine genius into an immovable form, a cult of the letter, a cult of tradition, a repetitious rhythmical gesture. Moscow was able not only to freeze its Byzantine heritage, but even managed to dry up its Biblical heritage, ossifying it and depriving it of its grace-filled, living spirit. In the words of an ancient prophet, it started to pile up “commandment upon commandment, rule upon rule.” It perceived the splendid flow of Byzantine rhetoric as something that should not be touched, introducing it into its own obligatory order of service, ritualizing every impulse, enveloping every religious lyric with the form of law.

The extreme expression of this stagnant, splendid, immovable, protective spirit was the Old Believer Schism. In a sense it has great merits: it has preserved for us examples of ancient icon painting, it has preserved the ancient chant, it has kept in a safe place, away from the flow of life, one moment in the development of piety and fixed it once and for all. But with all this it confused the hierarchy of values of the Christian way of life, preferring torture and even death not only in defense of the two-fingered sign of the cross, but for the right to write “Isus” instead of “Iisus.”

Here it is not a question simply of illiteracy. The issue is much more serious, as became obvious in the following period. We are dealing here with belief in a particular kind of magic, not just of a word, a name, but of each letter which makes up the name [i.e. Isus]. A frightful retribution has been visited upon the Old Believers for their treatment of Christ’s truth. Go inside an Old Believer meeting house. It contains everything which they have held dear throughout their whole history. It has priceless icons in the ancient style; it has ancient books; it resounds to a special chant sung according to the old kriuk or “hook” notation — all those things for which they struggled and endured martyrdom. It lacks only one thing: its magnificent iconostasis, completely covered with icons in massive metalwork covers, shelters nothing, it preserves nothing. For behind the iconostasis is a blank wall, to which the iconostasis is fixed. There is no sanctuary, no altar table, no table of oblation, since there is no Mystery, no Sacrament.

Everything has been preserved except the living spirit of the Church, its theanthropic, deifying sacramental life. Only the splendid form remains.

One must give some thought to this phenomenon. Here people have received a punishment for their victory, for having attained their aims. Having once distorted Christ’s truth, they were left with its empty shell. One should think about this every time we are tempted to replace spirit with form, love with ritual. In this temptation the same danger lies in wait for us: to be left with form and ritual, but to forfeit spirit and love. It is very likely that this symbol of a Church without a sanctuary is often reflected in human souls.

While losing the living spirit of Christianity, the Church of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has not been able to extirpate within itself that Moscow spirit of ritual correctness: what is prescribed, what is permitted, what is to be preserved. Moreover, the human soul, frequently stifled in the official, cold, State-sanctioned Synodal Church and not finding any way to some kind of living source of faith, would flee from the Synodal understanding of piety into the arms of ritual correctness, placing this in opposition to official conventionality. Ritual correctness has something in common with ecclesiastical aesthetics and asceticism, but in its essence it is something different. It is simply that the stress is not placed there.

What is the moral temper of the strict ritualist? What is his spiritual make-up? His greatest desire is for absolute spiritual order, the complete subordination of the inner life to an external rhythm which has been elaborately worked out in the minutest detail. This external rhythm encompasses everything within itself. Outside the Church he knows the spiritual significance of every detail of life. He keeps the fast. He lives day in and day out following the Church’s cycle of services. He lights vigil lamps at prescribed times. He makes the sign of the Cross correctly. In Church he likewise stifles any impulse, permits no deviation from the established gestures. He kneels at the proper moment during services, he bows and crosses himself at the proper time. He knows for certain that it is a crime to kneel from Pascha to Pentecost, he knows how many times he will go to Confession during the year and, above all, he has mastered the Order of Services to the minutest detail. He is angry and indignant if anything is omitted during Church services, because that is not to be done. Yet at the same time he is completely indifferent when what is being read is incomprehensible or when it is being read too rapidly. This is not the person who prefers memorial services, services of intercession and akathists over others. No, his most loved services are the rarest ones, above all those of Great Lent. He especially delights in the complexity of services when a fixed feast coincides with a movable one; for example, when the Annunciation falls during the last days of Holy Week.

For him the form and structure of the service frequently overshadows the inner content of individual prayers. He most certainly is a fanatical champion of Church Slavonic. For him the use of Russian in Church is almost blasphemy. He loves Slavonic because he is used to it, and does not want to change even the obviously unsatisfactory, ungrammatical and inaccurate translations from the Greek. The lengthy readings by the psalomshchik immerse him in a particular atmosphere of piety, giving a specific rhythm to his spiritual life. This is what is important, what he really wants. The content does not really interest him. His prayers are lengthy, and he has an established and unchanging ‘rule’ for them. This rule frequently requires the repetition of the same prayers, and always in the same place.

The Gospel and the Lord’s Prayer are not singled out within the general structure of his rule: they are merely a part of a harmonious whole established once and for all.

If you tell him that you don’t understand something, either in essence or because the psalomshchik is reading too rapidly, he will answer that it isn’t necessary to understand, it is only necessary to achieve a particular atmosphere of piety during which occasional words come through clearly which are understandable and necessary for you.

Such a person’s spiritual life is worked out in the smallest detail. He knows the special technique for bringing oneself to a particular spiritual state. He is able to teach you how to breathe, in what position to maintain your body during prayer, and whether the legs should be near a warm or near a cool place.

If one analyzes this special phenomenon, it becomes clear that basically it does not depend on Eastern Christianity, for one senses here the distinctive forms of Dervishism and echoes of Hinduism and, more significantly, a passionate belief in the magic of the word and of combinations of words, of gestures and sequences of gestures. There is no doubt but that this belief in magic has beneath it very real roots. Much can be achieved with this method: a very great degree of self-discipline, a large measure of control over oneself and over all the chaos of the human soul, even control over others, a complete structuring of one’s inner and outer life — even a certain kind of inspiration under the law.

But one thing which this way of life does not achieve is, of course, love. One can “speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love” (1 Cor. 13:1). To be sure, acts of love and benevolence enter into the rhythm of the strict ritualist’s life. The strict ritualist knows that he must help the poor, especially during Great Lent. In his time he has sent kalachi [wheatmeal loaves] to those confined in prison. He might even organize a benefit, build almshouses and put on dinners for his poorer brethren. But the basic motive for such activity is that it is prescribed, that it enters into the general rhythm of his life, that it has become part of his ritualist concept of things. In this sense he has a greatly developed feeling of obligation and obedience. Thus his relationship to others is determined by a self-imposed obligation and not on a spontaneous feeling of love toward them.

At the present time this type of piety has rather a tendency to grow and spread. This expansion can easily be explained if we take into account all the misfortune, abandonment, neglect and exhaustion of the contemporary human soul. This soul is not looking for a challenge: it is afraid any challenge will be a burden beyond its strength; it can no longer either seek for anything or accept the possibility of being disenchanted. The austere and rarefied air of sacrificial love is beyond its strength. If life has passed it by and given it no external well-being, no external stability, then it turns with special zeal toward internal well-being, toward the utter determinacy and legitimacy of its inner world. It throws over the chaos a solid cover of what is prescribed, what is permitted, and the chaos ceases to torment it. It knows the effectiveness of magical incantations, often expressed in incomprehensible syllables. Like the dervish, it knows the power of a gesture or a pose. It feels protected and tranquil. All these particularities of the strict ritualist path determine its growth in our times. In all likelihood a long period of development awaits it.

It must be noted here that from another point of view also our era may expect to see the further development of strict ritualism. We can see today an almost universal thirst for definite, concrete directives of some kind: how to believe, what to fight for, how to behave oneself, how to speak, how to think. We see that the world has a thirst for authoritative leaders who can lead a blind and loyal mass behind them.

We know of the existence of the most frightful dictatorship that ever existed, a tyranny over ideas. The infallible center — the Party, for example, or the Leader, the Fhrer — wills that we think and act in one way, and the individual, who believes in the infallibility of the directive, easily, with astounding and incomprehensible ease, restructures his inner world to correspond with this directive. We know of the presence of State-imposed philosophies and world-views. If we grant that somewhere the Church might become, if not supportive then at least tolerant of this, it will then be inundated with new cadres of people who have been brought up on mandatory directives, and strict ritualism will immediately teach them which path they must follow, where there is less doubt, where the directives are more precise and better regulate one’s whole life, where finally, the entire chaos of the human soul is tamed and driven into the allotted cages. Here the success of ritualism is absolutely foreordained.

But at the same time it is impossible to speak of its creative possibilities. Its very principle, a constant repetition of rules, words and gestures, excludes any possibility of creative tension. From ancient times strict ritualism has been opposed to prophesy and creativity. Its task was to preserve and to repeat, and not to tear down and rebuild. If it does, in fact, come out on top, then this will mean the extinction of the creative spirit and freedom in the Church for many decades.

The main question, however, which should be addressed to strict ritualism is this: how does it respond to Christ’s commandments concerning love for God and love for other people. Does it have a place for them? Where within it is the person to whom Christ came down? If it can be granted that very often there is expressed in it its own kind of love for God, it is difficult to see in what way it expresses itself in love for people.

Christ, who turned away from scribes and Pharisees, Christ, who approached prostitutes, publicans and sinners, can hardly be the Teacher of those who are afraid to soil their pristine garments, who are completely devoted to the letter, who live only by the rules, and who govern their whole life according to the rules. Such people consider themselves in good spiritual health because they observe everything that is prescribed by spiritual hygiene. But Christ told us, it is not the healthy who are in need of a physician, but the sick. In fact, we have today two citadels of such an Orthodoxy — traditional, canon-based, patristic and paternal Orthodoxy: Athos and Valaam. A world of people far removed from our bustle and our sins, a world of faithful servants of Christ, a world of knowledge of God and contemplation.

And what do you suppose most upsets this world of sanctity? How does it regard the present calamities which are tearing us apart, the new teachings, heresies perhaps, the destitution, the destruction and the persecution of the Church, the martyrs in Russia, the trampling down of belief throughout the whole world, the lack of love? Is this what most alarms these islands of the elect, these pinnacles of the Orthodox spirit? Not at all. What strikes them as the most important, the most vital, the most burning issue of the day, is the question of the use of the Old or New Style Calendar in divine services. It is this that splits them into factions, this that leads them to condemn those who think other than they do, this that defines their measure of things.

It is difficult to speak about love against this background, since love somehow falls outside both the New and the Old Style. We can, of course, state that the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath, and that he violated that Sabbath precisely in the name of love. But where they do not violate it, where they cannot violate it, this is because there is no “in the name” nor is there love. Strict ritualism reveals itself here to be a slave of the Sabbath and not the way of the Son of Man. And truly there is something threatening and ominous here, precisely because in Athos and Valaam, the ancient centers of traditional Orthodox spirituality, a person can find an answer to only one question out of all those which are raised by life: whether the Church must live according to the Old Style or the New. Instead of the Living God, instead of Christ crucified and risen, do we not have to do here with a new idol, a new form of paganism, which is manifested in arguments over calendars, rubrics, rules and prohibitions — a Sabbath which triumphs over the Son of Man? Idolatry in the world is frightening when it betrays Christ in the name of the State, the nation, a social idea, or petty bourgeois comfort and well-being. Still more frightening, however, is idolatry within the Church, when it replaces Christ’s love with the preservation of the Sabbath.

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Types of Religious Lives – 1: Synodal piety

The Russian emigration flowed into Europe, one might say, before it had cooled down after its struggle, still seething with passionate fury at having been deprived of the ideals of that great Russian land, of the “White” idea, etc. It carried with it not only its own miserable baggage, not only its bayonets and regimental banners, but portable churches with iconostases made out of cloth stretched over wooden frames, sacred vessels and vestments. And having landed on foreign soil, it set up not only branches of the All-Forces Union, but its own churches. For many the Church was a vital requirement for their souls. For many, a kind of inescapable attribute of the idea of Russia as a Great Power, without which it was difficult to speak of nationalism, of loyalty to the traditions and ordinances of the past. The Church was a reliable and recognized political and patriotic symbol. Somehow its inner meaning did not attract much attention. The important thing was to commemorate the anniversaries of the tragic deaths of national heroes or the anniversaries of the establishment of glorious regiments. In church it was possible to organize solemn, sober demonstrations of one’s unity, one’s loyalty. One could participate in services of intercession for the departed, kneel on one knee during the singing of Memory Eternal [endnote: Kneeling on one knee, instead of both, was the accepted military stance, eagerly imitated by boys and any other male with even the remotest — real or imagined — connection with the military. (Translator)], gather around the senior officer present. Very often a considerable degree of ingenuity and energy were expended in fashioning a censer or seven-branched candle stand out of empty food tins, or in converting some drafty barracks into a church. The existence of the Church was essential, but the motivations for this need often were of a national rather than ecclesial character.

If we try to discover the origin of such an attitude, it isn’t hard to find its roots in the previous ecclesiastical epoch, the so-called “Synodal Period” of the Church. From the time of Peter the Great our Russian Orthodox Church became an attribute of the autocratic Russian State, one department among other departments, and took its place in the system of government institutions, absorbing into itself the government’s ideas, experiences, and the taste of power. The State granted it protection, punished offenses against the Church, and in return demanded condemnation for offenses against the State. The State appointed the Church’s hierarchs, kept an eye on their activities with the help of the Chief Procurator, assigned administrative tasks to the Church, and made it a party to its political expectations and ideals.

After two hundred years of such a system’s existence the inner structure of the Church was itself changed. Spiritual life was pushed into the background, while on the surface one had an official State-sanctioned religiosity, with certificates being issued to civil functionaries certifying that they had been to Confession and Communion, since without such a certificate the functionary could not be considered a loyal subject from the State’s point of view. This system led to the creation of a special religious psychology, a special religious type, with a particular kind of moral foundation, a particular kind of churchmanship and a special way of life. For generation after generation people were schooled in the idea that the Church is of utmost importance, something absolutely necessary, but still it was only an attribute of the State. Piety was one of the State virtues, necessary only because the State had need of pious people. The priest was an overseer appointed by the State to look after the correct performance of religious functions by loyal Russian subjects. As such he was a respected figure, but nevertheless as an individual he enjoyed no more respect than did other functionaries who looked after social order, the armed forces, finances, etc.

The Synodal Period saw a completely defeatist treatment of the clergy, the utter absence of any distinctive status, and even a tendency to treat them as inferior, not allowing them entry into so-called “society.” People went to Confession once a year because this was what was required. They got married in Church, they baptized their children, buried their dead, stood through prayers of intercession on royal festivals, and — when they were particularly pious — served Akathists. But the Church was something quite separate from the rest of life. People went there when it was called for — and it was certainly not called for to overdo one’s churchiness. This was perhaps done only by the Slavophils, who by their conduct slightly modified the established, formal, official tone of polite relationship toward the Church. It is only natural that the synodal type of piety was grounded, in the first instance, on the cadres of the Petersburg ministerial bureaucracy, that it was linked specifically with bureaucracy and so was spread throughout Russia through provincial bureaucratic centers to the local representatives of State authority.

This whole system foreordained that the most religiously gifted and fervent believers would find in it no place for themselves. They either went to monasteries, seeking to separate themselves completely from all superficial Church activity, or they simply revolted, frequently protesting not only against the Church’s institutional system but against the Church itself. This is the origin of the anti-religious fanaticism of our revolutionaries, which so resembled, in its earliest manifestations, the flaming passion of true religious life. It attracted to itself all those who thirsted for an inner ascetic challenge, for sacrifice, selfless service and disinterested love — all of which the official State Church could not offer. It must be said that during the Synodal Period even the monasteries succumbed to this general process of disintegration of the spiritual life. The all-powerful arm of the State was extended over them, over their morals and way of life, and they were turned into official cells of the overall ecclesiastical establishment.

Thus there remained in the Church for the most part either those who were lukewarm, those who could keep their religious impulses under control, or those who could channel their spiritual needs into the system of State values. In this way a system of moral ideals developed. No doubt what was held in the greatest esteem was good order, a respect for the law, a certain reserve, along with rather firmly expressed feelings of obligation, respect for one’s elders, a condescending concern for one’s juniors, honesty, love of Fatherland, a reverence for authority, etc. No special exertions were required. Creativity was suppressed in the interests of good order and the general purposes of the State machine. Podvizhniki somehow failed to appear in provincial cathedral churches. Here there were people of a different sort: rectors, calm, businesslike cathedral archpriests thoroughly familiar with the Divine Services who made every effort to conduct them solemnly and with grandeur in splendid and magnificent temples, superb administrators and organizers, custodians of Church property, official functionaries of the synodal establishment, honorable people, conscientious, but uninspiring and uncreative.

And the cathedrals — the crowning expression of the synodal architectural craftsmanship — were overwhelming in their massiveness, their spaciousness, their gilt and marble, with huge cupolas, resonant echoes, immense royal doors and costly vestments. Colossal choirs performed special Italianate and secularized ecclesiastical chants. The images on the icons could hardly be seen, having been encased in gold and silver covers. The deacon could hardly lift the book of the Gospels, with its heavy binding, and he read it in such a way that at times it was impossible to understand a single word. But it was not his job to make the reading understandable: he had to begin with a kind of unimaginably low rumble and end in a window-rattling bellow, showing off the mighty power of his voice. Everything had but a single purpose, everything was in harmony with each aspect of the epoch’s churchmanship, everything had as its aim a display of the power, wealth, and indestructibility of the Orthodox Church and the great Russian State which protected her.

How widespread was this kind of ecclesiastical psychology? Certainly, one ought not to imagine that this was the only type of religious consciousness, but without a doubt any other kind would have to be searched for diligently, since the “official” type was so overpowering. This is especially clear if we take into account that alongside such a understanding of ecclesiastical life and religious ways, we developed our own intense form of atheism. These people, as Soloviev accurately observed, laid down their lives for their friends while believing that man evolved from apes. Thus it was possible to find an outlet for love, sacrifice and heroic deeds outside church walls. But within the Church anything which was different, was, by that fact alone, in opposition: it flowed against the current and was persecuted and belittled. This ecclesiastical psychology was based on a very solid way of life, and this way of life, in turn, was nourished by it. Tradition permeated everything, from prayer to the kitchen. From what has been said it should be obvious that on such soil one could hardly expect to see creative forces grow.

Here everything is channeled toward conservation, to the preservation of the foundations, to the repetition of feelings, words and gestures. Creativity demands some new kind of challenge; here there was none, neither in the field of ideas, nor in the field of arts, nor in the way of life. Everything was strongly guarded and protected. Innovation was not permitted. There was no need for any creative principle. The synodal type of religious life, which promoted other values along with spiritual ones, namely those of the State, of a way of life and of a particular tradition, not only distorted and confused the hierarchy of values, but often simply replaced Christian love with an egotistical love for the things of this world. It is difficult, even impossible to see Christ, to experience a Christianization of life, where the principle of the secularization of the Church is openly proclaimed. This type of piety was not up to the difficult task of rendering to God what is God’s and what is Caesar’s to Caesar.

During its lengthy existence it more and more frequently let Caesar triumph. Through it the Roman emperor conquered Christ, not in the circus arena, not in the catacombs, but at the very moment when he recognized the Heavenly King: at that very moment the subversion of Christ’s commandments by the commandments of the secular State began. One can acquire synodal piety through one’s education, through habit and custom, but in no way can one acquire it through a desire to follow in the footsteps of Christ. From a historical point of view this orderly system had already begun to show cracks by the end of the nineteenth century. Suddenly a guest appeared in the Church, and not an entirely welcome one: the Russian intelligentsia. We shall speak more about his role later, but at first this role was only shallowly rooted in the Church’s life. It was more a phenomenon on the fringes of the Church.

Everything changed decisively from the moment of the February [1917] revolution and, in the Church, these changes were reflected in the All-Russian Church Council [of 1917-18] and the restoration of the Patriarchate.

However important these changes were to the Church’s historic way of life, they could not, of course, suddenly change people’s psychology and refashion the temper of their souls. Because of this the emigration brought with it into foreign lands memories of the Russian Church’s Synodal Period, its way of life, its art, its clergy, its understanding of the Church’s role and significance in the overall patriotic scheme. It is very likely that even now the synodal type of piety predominates. This is easy to demonstrate if we bear in mind that the whole of the Karlovci group [endnote: The group of bishops, priests and faithful, based in Karlovci, Serbia, who after 1921 declared themselves administratively independent of St. Tikhon, the Patriarch of Moscow. They went on to form the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.] in our Church lives precisely in accordance with this ideology, uniting Church and State, preserving the old traditions, not wanting to take cognizance of the new conditions of life and continuing to preach Caesaro-papism. Not everyone who belonged to the synodal psychology was attracted exclusively to that special group.

Everywhere, in spacious cathedrals and in provincial makeshift churches, we can find people who confess their membership in the Orthodox Church and along with this, believe that the Church is simply a necessary attribute of Russian sovereignty.

It is difficult to have two views on whether this psychology has any correlation with the current problems of the Church’s life. In the first place, life today demands creative efforts from us so urgently that no grouping which lacks a creative agenda can expect to succeed. Moreover, there is no doubt but that on the historical plane the Synodal period has come to an end with no possibility of return; there is no basis for assuming that the psychology which it engendered can survive it for long. In this sense it is not important how we assess such a religious type. Only one thing is important: without a doubt it is dying and has no future. The future challenges the Church with such complex, new and crucial problems that it is difficult to say off hand to which religious type it will give the possibility to prove itself and reveal itself in a creative manner.

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Types of Religious Lives

Mother Maria Skobtsova
Mother Maria Skobtsova

[note: This is one of the essays included in Essential Writings: Mother Maria Skobtsova published by Orbis Books.]

by Mother Maria Skobtsova

Mother Maria Skobtsova died on Good Friday, 1945, in Ravensbrck concentration camp near Berlin. The “crime” of this Orthodox nun and Russian refugee was her effort to rescue Jews and others being pursued by the Nazis in her adopted city, Paris, where in 1932 she had founded a house of hospitality. (For a detailed life, see Fr. Sergei Hackel’s biography, Pearl of Great Price. For a short biography, see Jim Forest’s “Mother Maria Skobtsova: Nun and Martyr.”) The following essay was written in 1937 and discovered in 1996 by Helene Klepinin-Arjakovsky in the archive of S.B. Pilenko. The Russian text was published in the summer of 1998 by the Paris-based journal, Vestnik, No. 176 (II-III 1997), pp. 5-50, and is also posted on the St. Philaret web site in Moscow at:

If we study carefully the historical situation in which we find ourselves or, more accurately, those types of piety which our present-day situation has produced, we can discern, objectively and dispassionately, various categories of people who do not understand man’s religious calling in the same way. Each category has its own positive and negative characteristics, and it is entirely possible that only the sum of them would give a proper overview of the multifaceted nature of Christian life. On the other hand, when classifying types of religious life within Orthodoxy one must always bear in mind that alongside the completely distinctive representatives of one or another type, the majority of people will represent some kind of combination of two or even more types of religious life. It is very difficult to remain within the framework of impartiality and objectivity when classifying and defining these types, because in reality each individual is attracted to his own concept of Christianity and repels any understanding that is not his own. In this article I can only say that I wish to make every effort to avoid such partiality.

The five types

If, while observing Orthodox believers, you enter into conversation with them and read the various Orthodox books and journals devoted to religious issues, you are at once struck by the incredible multifacetedness of their understanding of the spiritual life. If, however, one makes an attempt to classify this variety into more or less closely defined categories, then I would say that at this given moment within Orthodoxy there are five types of piety: (1) synodal; (2) ritualist; (3) esthetical; (4) ascetical; (5) evangelical.

To be sure, such a classification is to some extent arbitrary. Life is much more complex than this, and it is very likely that there are other categories which I was unable to discern. But even this arbitrary classification is of great help in understanding many events in our lives. To a certain degree, it also permits one to understand one’s own personal sympathies and antipathies, one’s own spiritual path. Each spiritual type has its own, at times very complicated history, its own coming into being; each is determined by the diverse circumstances of its origin. A person finds himself in one or another group not only as the result of some internal inclination, but also because he is, to some extent, predetermined for it by the milieu from which he comes, by his upbringing, education and other influences. I will attempt to characterize each category from the point of its historical origins, its moral attributes, its way of life (and even its special skills), the extent of its spread, the creative potential contained within it, and its relationship to the current problems of Church life.

Because of the length of this essay, we have divided this into several pages:

Two Types of Love

by Mother Maria Skobtsova

Mother Maria Skobtsova died on Good Friday, 1945, in Ravensbrck concentration camp near Berlin. The “crime” of this Orthodox nun and Russian refugee was her effort to rescue Jews and others being pursued by the Nazis in her adopted city, Paris, where in 1932 she had founded a house of hospitality. Here is an extract from a lengthy essay, Types of Religious Lives, written in 1937 and discovered in 1996. The complete Russian text was published several months ago by the Paris-based journal, Vestnik, and is posted on the St. Philaret web site in Moscow at: The copyright of the English text is jointly held by Vestnik and the translator, Fr. Alvian Smirensky. Fr. Sergei Hackel has written a biography of Mother Maria: A Pearl of Great Price (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

There are two types of love in the world: one that takes and one that gives. This is common to all types of love — not only towards man. Each person can love a friend, family, children, scholarship, art, motherland, one’s idea, oneself, and even God — from either of these two points of view. Even those types of love which by common acknowledgment are of the highest category can carry this dual character.

Take maternal love for example. A mother can often forget herself, sacrifice herself for her children. This does not as yet warrant recognition as Christian love for her children. One needs to ask the question: what is it that she loves in them? She may love her own reflection, her second youth, an expansion of her own “I” in other “I’s” which become separated from the rest of the world’s “we.” She may love her own flesh and blood that she sees in them, traits of her own character, reflections of her tastes, the continuation of the family. Then it becomes unclear where is the principal difference between the egotistical self-love and a seemingly sacrificial love for her children, between “I” and “we.” All this amounts to a passionate love of what is one’s own, which restricts one’s vision, forcing one to ignore the rest of the world, what is not one’s own.

Such a mother will imagine that the worthiness of her own child is incomparable with the worthiness of other children, that his mishaps and illnesses are more severe than those of others and finally, that at times the well-being and success of other children can be sacrificed for the sake of the well-being and success of one’s own. She will think that the whole world (herself included) are called to serve her child, feed him, quench his thirst, train him, make smooth all paths before him, deflect all obstacles and all rivals. This is a symptom of a passionate maternal love.

Only that maternal love is truly Christian which sees in her child a real image of God inherent not only in him but in all people, given to her in trust, as her responsibility, which she must develop and strengthen in him in preparation for the unavoidable life of sacrifice along the Christian path, for that cross-bearing challenge facing all Christians. With this kind of love the mother will be more aware of other children’s misfortunes, she will be more attentive towards their neglect. Her relationship with the rest of humanity will be in Christ as the result of the presence of Christian love in her heart. This, of course, is the most radical example.

There is no doubt that the love towards every being is divided into these two types. One may passionately love one’s motherland, working to make sure that she develops gloriously and victoriously, overcoming and destroying all her enemies. One can love her in the Christian manner, working to see that the image of Christ’s truth is more and more evident within her. One can passionately love knowledge and art, aiming to see oneself expressed in them, to be proud about them. Or one can love them, being conscious of one’s service, one’s responsibility for the exercise of God’s gifts in these spheres.

One can love one’s idea of life only because it is one’s own — and to oppose it, enviously and jealously, to all other ideas. Even in this one can see the gift granted to me by God in order for me to serve His eternal truth during my earthly sojourn. One can love life itself passionately and sacrificially. One can even reflect upon death in two ways. One can direct two ways of love towards God. One can see Him as the heavenly protector of mine or our earthly desires and passions. The other love will humbly and sacrificially offer one’s small human soul into His hands. Other than the appellation — love — other than external similarities, these two expressions of love have nothing in common.

In the light of this Christian love, what must be the ascetical challenge to man, what is this true asceticism which is inevitably called for by the very presence of spiritual life? Its measure is self-denying love for God and for our fellow man. But an asceticism which places one’s own soul in the center of things, looking for its salvation, shielding it away from the world, narrowly moving towards a spiritual egocentrism and fearing to diminish oneself even by withholding love — this is not Christian asceticism.

What can be used to measure and define the types of human lives? What are their prototypes, their primary symbols, their boundaries? This is the way of Godmanhood, Christ’s path upon the earth. The Word became flesh, God became incarnate, born in a Bethlehem stable. This alone should have been fully sufficient to speak of the boundless, sacrificing, self-denying and self-disparaging love of Christ. Everything else is present in this. The Son of Man humbled His whole self, His whole divinity, His whole Divine nature and His whole Divine hypostasis beneath the arches of the Bethlehem cave. There are neither two Gods nor two Christs — one who abides in blessedness within the bosom of the Holy Trinity and another, who assumed the image of a servant. The Only Son of God, the Logos, became Man, lowering Himself to humanity. His later activity — preaching, miracles, prophesy, healing, enduring hunger and thirst, suffering Pilate’s judgement, going the way of the cross to Golgotha and death — all this is the path of His humbled humanity and along with Him the condescension of the Godhead to humanity.

What was Christ’s love like? Did it withhold anything? Did it take note of or measure its spiritual gifts? What did it regret, where was it ever stingy? Christ’s humanity was spit upon, struck, crucified. Christ’s Divinity was fully incarnate to the end in his spit-upon, battered, degraded and crucified Humanity. The Cross — an instrument of shameful death — became a symbol of self-denying love for the world. And at no time nor place — from Bethlehem to Golgotha, neither in sermons nor parables, neither in the miracles performed — did Christ ever give any indication allowing one to think that he does not completely and fully, sacrifice Himself for the world’s salvation, that He had some reservation, some Holy of Holiness which He would not want to nor need to offer. He offered His own Holy of Holies, His own Divinity, for the sins of the world, and this is precisely where lies His Divine and perfect love in its fullness.

This is the only conclusion we can come to from the whole of Christ’s earthly ministry. But can the power of such love be Divine because God, in offering Himself, remains God, that is, He does not empty himself, does not perish in this fearsome sacrificial dissipation? Human love cannot be completely determined by the laws of Divine love because along this path man can become devastated and lose sight of what is important: the salvation of his soul.

But here one need only to be attentive to what He taught us. He said: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross.” Self-denial is important, without which one cannot follow Him, without which there is no Christianity. Withhold nothing, lay aside not only material wealth but also spiritual wealth, changing everything into Christ’s love, taking it up as one’s cross. He also spoke — not about Himself and not about His perfect love, but about the love which human imperfection can assume. “Greater love has no man than the one who lays down his soul for his friends.” How miserly and greedy it is to understand the word “soul” here as “life.” Christ spoke here precisely about the soul, about giving up one’s inner life, about the complete and unconditional self-sacrifice as the example of the obligations of Christian love. Here again is no place for the harboring of one’s spiritual treasures, here everything is given up.

His disciples likewise followed in His path. This is quite clear, in an almost paradoxical expression by Apostle Paul: “I wanted to be estranged from Christ to see my brothers saved.” He said this, having stated that “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” For him such an estrangement from Christ is an estrangement from life not only in the transient, worldly sense of the word, but from the eternal and incorruptible life of the age to come.

There are enough such examples to let us know where Christianity leads us. Truly, love here does not seek its own, even if this be the salvation of one’s own soul. This love takes everything from us, deprives us of everything, as if ravaging us. Where does it lead? To spiritual poverty. In the Beatitudes we are promised blessedness for being poor in spirit. This precept is so far removed from human understanding that some attempt to read the word “spirit” as a later interpolation and explain these words as a call for material poverty and a rejection of earthly benefits. Others almost fall into a fanaticism, understanding this as a call for intellectual poverty, a rejection of thought and of any kind of intellectual substance. How simply and clearly are these words interpreted in the context of other Evangelical texts. The poor in spirit is the one who lays down his soul for his friends, offering this spirit out of love, not withholding his spiritual treasures.


Want to add a useful word to your vocabulary? The term etho-phyletism (meaning love of the race, tribe or ethnically-defined nation) was coined at the Holy and Great pan-Orthodox pan-Orthodox Synod that met in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) in 1872. The meeting was prompted by the creation of a separate bishopric by the Bulgarian community of Istanbul for parishes only open to Bulgarians. It was the first time in Church history that a separate diocese was established based on ethnic identity rather than principles of Orthodoxy and territory. Here is the Synod’s official condemnation of ecclesiastical racism, or “ethno-phyletism,” as well as its theological argumentation. It was issued on the 10th of August 1872.

We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which “support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness.”

A section of the report drawn up by the special commission of the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople in 1872 reviewed the general principles which guided the Synod in its condemnation:

The question of what basis racism that is discriminating on the basis of different racial origins and language and the claiming or exercising of exclusive rights by persons or groups of persons exclusively of one country or group can have in secular states lies beyond the scope of our inquiry. But in the Christian Church, which is a spiritual communion, predestined by its Leader and Founder to contain all nations in one brotherhood in Christ, racism is alien and quite unthinkable. Indeed, if it is taken to mean the formation of special racial churches, each accepting all the members of its particular race, excluding all aliens and governed exclusively by pastors of its own race, as its adherents demand, racism is unheard of and unprecedented.

All the Christian churches founded in the early years of the faith were local and contained the Christians of a specific town or a specific locality, without racial distinction. They were thus usually named after the town or the country, not after the ethnic origin of their people.

The Jerusalem Church consisted of Jews and proselytes from various nations. The Churches of Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Rome and all the others were composed of Jews but mainly of gentiles. Each of these churches formed within itself an integral and indivisible whole. Each recognized as its Apostles the Apostles of Christ, who were all Jews. Each had a bishop installed by these Apostles without any racial discrimination: this is evident in the account of the founding of the first Churches of God….

The same system of establishing churches by locality prevails even after the Apostolic period, in the provincial or diocesan churches which were marked out on the basis of the political organization then prevailing, or of other historical reasons. The congregation of the faithful of each of these churches consisted of Christians of every race and tongue….

Paradoxically, the Church of Greece, Russia, Serbia, Moldavia and so on, or less properly the Russian Church, Greek Church, etc., mean autocephalous or semi-independent churches within autonomous or semi-independent dominions, with fixed boundaries identical with those of the secular dominions, outside which they have no ecclesiastical jurisdiction. They were composed not on ethnic grounds, but because of a particular situation, and do not consist entirely of one race or tongue. The Orthodox Church has never known racially-based churches… to coexist within the same parish, town or country…

If we examine those canons on which the Church’s government is constructed, we find nowhere in them any trace of racism. … Similarly, the canons of the local churches, when considering the formation, union or division of ecclesiastical groupings, put forward political reasons or ecclesiastical needs, never racial claims…. From all this, it is quite clear that racism finds no recognition in the government and sacred legislation of the Church.

But the racial principle also undermines the sacred governmental system of the Church…

In a racially organized church, the church of the local diocese has no area proper to itself, but the ethnic jurisdictions of the supreme ecclesiastical authorities are extended or restricted depending on the ebb and flow of peoples constantly being moved or migrating in groups or individually… If the racial principal is followed, no diocesan or patriarchal church, no provincial or metropolitan church, no episcopal church, not even a simple parish, whether it be the church of a village, small town or a suburb, can exist with its own proper place or area, containing within it all those of one faith. Is not Christ thus divided, as He was once among the Corinthians, by those who say: “I am for Paul, I am for Apollo, I am for Cephas” (1 Cor. 1:12)? …

No Ecumenical Council would find it right or in the interests of Christianity as a whole to admit an ecclesiastical reform [whose membership was based on ethnic identity] to serve the ephemeral idiosyncrasies of human passions and base concerns, because, apart from overthrowing the legislative achievements of so many senior Ecumenical Councils, it implies other destructive results, both manifest and potential:

First of all, it introduces a Judaic exclusiveness, whereby the idea of the race is seen a sine qua non of a Christian, particularly in the hierarchical structure. Every non-Greek, for instance, will thus be legally excluded from what will be called the Greek Church and hierarchy, every non-Bulgarian from the Bulgarian Church, and so on. As a Jew, St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, could only have been a pastor in one nation, the Jewish. Similarly, Saints Cyril and Methodius, being of Greek origin, would not have been accepted among the Slavs. What a loss this would have entailed for the Church! …

Thus the sacred and divine are rendered entirely human, secular interest is placed above spiritual and religious concerns, with each of the racial churches looking after its own. The doctrine of faith in “one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” receives a mortal blow. If all this occurs, as indeed it has, racism is in open dispute and contradiction with the spirit and teaching of Christ.

Reprinted from For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism, edited by Hildo Bos and Jim Forest.

The Given and the Unknown

by Sergei Chapnin / Nezavisimaia gazeta, 18 March 1998

“The question of the participation of the church in the ecumenical movement remains open,” according to Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin.

We continue the discussion of the problems connected with the ecumenical contacts of the Russian Orthodox church. In the previous issue of NG-Religion (18.02.98) the opposing points of view of the chief editor of Rus Pravoslanvaia, Konstantin Dushenov, and the director of the secretariat on inter-Christian relations of the Department of External Church Affairs of the Moscow patriarchate, monastic priest Ilarion Alfeev, were presented. The conversation continues with Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin, teacher of the Moscow Ecclesiastical Academy and leading specialist on canon law in the Russian Orthodox church.

Q: Father Vladislav, recently in the church press the broad polemic about ecumenism has grown. Many Orthodox participants in inter-Christian contacts, including bishops, have openly been called heretics. Should the Russian Orthodox church participate in the activity of the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical organizations, or not?

The question of our participation in WCC now and in the near future is not one of the grand questions of the existence and fate of our church, but rather whether this participation is beneficial or not. As regards the accusations of heresy against representatives of the Russian Orthodox church within WCC, I am sure that not one of the official representatives of our church has made declarations which could be labeled as heretical. But I can admit that the personal theological views of some participants of the ecumenical forums may be doubtful to a certain extent. There is the adage: you are known by the company you keep. It is possible that someone has not stood fast and has adopted non-Orthodox views, but when official declarations are made in the name of the church, they fully conform to Orthodox doctrine.

Sometimes misunderstanding arises: documents of WCC may, of course, contradict Orthodox doctrine and tradition. From this one could deduce that inasmuch as the Russian Orthodox church is a part of WCC it bears responsibility for these documents. This, however, is not the case. In WCC there is no right of veto, and if some decision is adopted, that does not by any means mean that all churches that participate in WCC support it and thus take responsibilty for it. Decisions are adopted by a majority of participants and do not have binding force obligating the member churches of WCC. It is well known at the same time that the majority of documents are composed primarily under the overwhelming influence of protestant theology, since the greater part of the WCC participants are protestants. Thus our church is now posing the question of a change in the forms of participation of churches in WCC.

Which arguments “for” and “against” participation of Orthodox in the ecumenical movement do you consider most weighty?

As regards arguments “against” I would say: for a long time we participated in ecumenical contacts, as it was represented to me, with the single main idea of having protection from WCC during the time of the communist regime. Now circumstances have changed. This, of course, is not an argument “against” in the proper sense, but a loss of the former significance which was a very strong factor pushing us toward participation in WCC. Another argument. We have declared and continue to declare that our participation has the goal of drawing that part of the Christian world that thinks differently to embrace the truths of Orthodoxy. We must frankly acknowledge that we have not succeeded notably in this. Locally, perhaps, the experience of the Orthodox churches has gotten a response, but this response has not assumed a substantive character for protestant churches that draws them toward Orthodoxy.

There is another conception. WCC has entered a crisis stage. Obviously this is connected with the general political situation in the world. Interest in WCC on the part of influential political circles has notably decreased. Nevertheless we should not undertake hasty steps for withdrawal from WCC. First, because various Orthodox churches view participation in WCC differently. I am sure that the more united and consistent the position of the Orthodox churches is on the matter of participation in WCC, the better. Unilateral actions by any of the local churches can evoke complications within the Orthodox church itself.

Further, we should nevertheless recall that although we have made little progress in witnessing for Orthodoxy to those who think differently, the church always retains the task of witnessing about the truth of Christ to the whole world, and this means about the truth of Orthodoxy to Christians who think differently, and it is possible to do this in particular through WCC. Finally, WCC is one of those forms of fellowship with other churches which does not bind us very much. Although, of course, there are phenomena in individual protestant churches who are members of WCC that were not imaginable twenty years ago and these, to put it mildly, evoke confusion and legitimate objections.

In the Russian church press the extreme antiecumenical position is most widely represented.

In newspapers there can be various publications, but I would not begin to generalize. Extreme antiecumenical statements frequently have not a specifically theoglogical, but an ideological and even overtly political motivation. Sharp politicized statements seem to me inappropriate in church publications. The point is not that the church should be indifferent to the life of society, including the political life, but it is called to judge what is happening in the world in the light of the gospel and not from the point of view of separate groups, classes, and social strata, and not from the point of view of political benefit. The harsh political position of church publicists, for example in Rus Pravoslavnaia, is inappropriate because, in expressing it, the writers willy-nilly are drawn into the political struggle. The church does not approve political struggle and sees in it one of the dark but inescapable aspects of our life.

It is interesting that you consider politicization to be the chief characteristic of Rus Pravoslavnaia. Does that mean that everything else is playing a subsidiary role? And if so, what can be the goal of such publications?

It is difficult for me to answer a question about the goals of such publications, but as a reader I must say that I am disturbed by reading various issues of this newspaper. I don’t know whether the writers wish it or not, but they can cause disorders in the minds of those church readers who are still not very firmly established on church soil, for example, new converts, that is, those who have been drawn into the church and are not yet freed from political inclinations. In the articles of the chief editor of Rus Pravoslavnaia, Konstantin Duchenov, there is an attempt to evaluate the activity of the bishops and hierarchy of the church. It seems to me that Dushenov sometimes does this to arrogantly. It becomes quite evident that he is trying to set some bishops over against others. Indeed, there can be disagreements among bishops on particular matters, but to set out in his articles the struggle of the camps, to take the side of one camp, and to fight against the other–this is not the church’s approach.

Sharply criticizing the participation of Orthodox in the ecumenical movement, Konstantin Dushenov appeals to church canons. You are one of the few specialists in canon law. How persuasive are Dushenov’s conclusions?

The canonical argument in Dushenov’s articles, at least in those I know, bears a too diffuse and inexact character. He brands ecumenism as heresy, and the canons, it seems, condemn heresy. It is necessary first of all to establish what kind of ecumenism we are talking about. This term has various, incommensurate meanings. In one of its meanings ecumenism may be called heresy. It would be undoubted ecclesiological heresy to claim that none of the churches now represent the church of the Creed, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and that the true church is not a given but an unknown quantity. To be sure, the Orthodox church firmly believers that it is the church of the Creed, but I do not know a single case when an official representative of our church–bishop, clergyman, layman–using the word “ecumenism” in a positive context would assign it this significance. In references to ecumenism in official documents, RPTs invariable understands as ecumenism the textimony to the truth of Orthodox to Christians who think differently with the goal of leading them through dialogue into a recognition of the truth. As far as I know, the official position of RPTs, participating in WCC and other ecumenical contacts, is precisely this. In this there is nothing that is dubious from a canonical point of view. To categorize such a position as heretical means either to commit deliberate slander or to be in profound delusion. It is possible to evaluate the fruits of our participation in WCC and other ecumenical organizations in various ways, optimistically or critically, but to hurl an accusation that any kind of ecumenism is betrayal of the church and heresy is an unsubstantiated and absurd position. It is too insubstantial to be seriously discussed. However it is not hard to understand the origin of such a mood. What’s hard is something else: to separate out what in the Orthodox publications of this type in the theological and church terminology is essentially concealing other, obviously political, goals.

Doesn’t it seem to you that there are too few official documents dealing with the problems of ecumenism? Given the shortage of materials various interpretations become possible.

I am sure that there simply are no secret materials on ecumenism which our church has at its disposal. Ther are materials, in process, but practically all of them dealing with this subject have been published in the church press, if not in full at least in reliable form. There is no sense in looking for a false bottom, some kind of secret, which the Orthodox church has covered up. I do not think that there is a shortage of material that prevents a correct orientation to this problem. Besides, this is a special question which it would be appropriate for someone who knows its essence to deal with. Serious analysis obviously requires competence. However, as regards a secret plan, actually there has been one for a rather extended period. But this is not a matter of secret documents but of such things on which documents are silent but which are real. Nowhere in the church press has there been a mention of what really was the chief motivation for our participation in ecumenical contacts. Overtly or covertly the church sought in them protection from the hostile state power. A multitude of cases are known where representatives of other churches saved church buildings and monasteries from closure. This started from the very beginning of the Russian church’s membership in WCC and continued to the end of the communist epoch.

Do you consider anti-ecumenical attitudes to be dominant today in the church?

Church people have a rather healthy attitude not to engage in this polemic of extreme positions. Our church even in church political questions has not been subject to variability depending upon ephemeral circumstances of the present. I think the question of our further participation in WCC can be considered open, but whether contacts with other churches will continue I figure is not an issue. Contacts will continue in some form. I would add that in order to keep our flock steadfast with respect to intrigues of those who are trying to sow suspicion, we must have the most complete, logical, and frequent explanations of the position of our church on matters of contacts with the world of those who believe differently that are possible, and we must show persuasively that our Orthodox church and its hierarchy stand on the position of strict, pure Orthodoxy. Then there will be no opportunities for those who are looking for occasions to disturb the flock.

(posted @ on 3 March 1998)

posted April 15, 1998

The Orthodox Church and Peace

Some Reflections

By Olivier Clément

The spiritual and eschatological meaning that Scripture and Christ Himself give to the word “peace” characterizes the Orthodox Church as it does all Christian communities, although she is perhaps more wary than others of secularizing reinterpretations. The Biblical shalom which the Septuagint translates as eirene indicates the gift, the coming, the presence of God himself, for God is the one and only source of peace. The Messianic title ‘Prince of peace’ that we find in Proto-Isaiah1 applies in its fullness to Christ, the ‘king of peace’.2 In the New Testament, the ‘peace of Christ’ is a synonym for that life stronger than death which is brought to us by the Resurrection. Peace, life and joy are thus almost synonymous. ‘Peace on earth’, the message of the angels, is in fact accomplished by Christ — and in Him — for He reunites God and humanity by triumphing over death and hell. He ‘makes peace by the blood of his cross’.3 In rooting Himself in the Church, Body of Christ, place of an ever-continuing Pentecost, the Christian, to the extent of his ascesis, an ascesis of trust and humility, is able to experience — whatever the changes and chances of his life, despite ‘wars and rumours of war’4 — that deep peace which is the foreshadowing within him of the Kingdom. ‘May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly, and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’, writes St Paul to the Thessalonians.5 Similarly, Peter points to the ‘gentleness’ and ‘peace’ of the ‘hidden man of the heart.’6

Nevertheless this peace is not a withdrawal into oneself. Man is called to share in the very life of the Trinity: ‘That they may be one, even as we are one,’7 said Jesus to His Father whom He has made ours. Our personal peace is realized in the peace of communion. The Christian, wherever he finds himself, has to become a peacemaker of human and cosmic existence — ‘Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’, we are told in the Epistle to the Hebrews.8 The eucharistic community, which in the first centuries was called agape in Greek, caritas in Latin, ought to become, perhaps above all, a seed of peace in the world. The key text here is the Beatitude about the peacemakers, those who work to make peace9 — who ‘shall be called sons of God’, adopted in the Son, therefore literally ‘deified’. Thus the disciples of Jesus are ‘to be at peace with one another’10 and with all men.11

The first Christian communities are to be found in a ‘universal’ Empire which is a vast area of peace. They pray therefore for its preservation, while refusing to divinise the power of Rome and of the Emperor. But this refusal, which discloses the area of the free personal conscience between the Kingdom of God and that of Caesar, does not express itself through rebellion but through martyrdom, that is to say, through a non-violent stance, which has remained characteristic of the Christian East to this day.

The following text from the First Letter to Timothy12 has been almost entirely integrated into the eucharistic liturgies of St Basil and of St John Chrysostom which are still used today in the Orthodox Church: ‘I exhort… that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and for all that are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.’ The Christians of the first centuries felt very strongly, as do many Eastern Christians today, that the Church covers the world through her presence and her prayer (Paul Evdokimov goes as far as to say that ‘in the mystery’ it is the world which is in the Church and not the other way around); that she preserves peace, delays the Parousia in its aspect of destruction, hastens it in its aspect of transfiguration. ‘What the soul is in the body, such are Christians in the world’, says the second century Letter to Diognetes.13 They sustain and support the world of which they are a fundamental element of its internal cohesion, life and peace. ‘I have no doubt at all that it is because of the intercession of Christians that the world continues to exist’, writes Aristides in his Apologia.14 Such is the priestly role of the entire Christian people, plainly indicated by the Sermon on the Mount: ‘You are the salt of the earth,’15, which refers back to Leviticus: ‘With all your offerings you shall offer salt,’16 and through to Revelation and the First Letter of Peter, which applies to the members of the Church the promise once made by the mouth of Moses to the chosen people: ‘You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’17

The Fathers of the Church, of whom, as is well known, the Orthodox are always very much aware, emphasized that peace, as the anticipation of the Kingdom, had not only a spiritual but also a dynamic and communicable character. St Clement of Rome in his Letter to the Corinthians18 insists that ‘peace is the aim that has been proposed to us from the beginning.’ ‘A deep and joyful peace has been given to us for all men, with an insatiable longing to do good and an abundant outpouring of the Spirit.’ St Basil recalls that ‘Christ is our peace’, and hence ‘he who seeks peace seeks Christ… Without love for others, without an attitude of peace towards all men, no one can be called a true servant of Christ.’19 ‘The love which Christ bears for mankind spreads his peace among them,’ writes St Dionysius the Areopagite.20 Barnabas describes Christians as ‘children of love and of peace.’21 The saying of Christ is quoted constantly: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you; not as the world gives do I give to you,’22 — that peace ‘which passes all understanding’.23 The peace of Christ comes to birth in man’s heart, it flows forth, becomes responsible and creative love, acquires a social dimension. Christians are the peaceable race (eirenikon genon) remarks Clement of Alexandria.24 Christ calls them to be ‘soldiers of peace’.25 ‘Nothing is more characteristic of a Christian than to be a worker for peace,’ writes Saint Basil.26 The fight for peace cannot be separated from the fight for justice. The great boldness of the Fathers in social matters is well known. For St John Chrysostom, the ‘sacrament of the altar’ is nothing if it does not extend itself in the ‘sacrament of the poor’.

In the period before Constantine, the Church expected Christians to adopt a position that was fundamentally pacific (but not pacifist in the systematic and ideological sense that the word has taken on). In the second century, at the height of the Roman Peace an apologist like Justin could take the view that the Messianic age prophesied by Isaiah, when swords would be beaten into ploughshares, had arrived with Christianity, for Christians, he says ‘refuse to make war with their enemies’.27 The army is a professional army and ecclesiastical authors, for the most part, consider that the military profession is among those that Christians should not take up. Tertullian gives two reasons for this: because the cult of Rome and of the Emperor is obligatory for legionaries and because the ‘sons of peace’ cannot be soldiers, ‘Can a son of peace take part in a battle?’28 In the third century, when Christianity was beginning to become a widespread religion and there were Christian soldiers, the Apostolic Tradition acknowledges that they maintain order and guard the frontiers, but forbids them to kill. If they do so, they must be excluded from the Church.29 Origen mentions that although Christians can pray for the Emperor in wartime — the situation had become dangerous for the Empire — ‘they may not themselves bear arms against any nation nor learn the art of war. For the fact is that Jesus has made us sons of peace’.30 However, it should be noted that from the third century, the Church prays for the authorities engaged in defensive wars when it is a matter of preventing invasion, chaos and the shedding of innocent blood.

The psychological climate changes with the conversion of the Emperors, the end of persecution, state support for the Church (without which the Ecumenical Councils could not have taken place) and the embedding of Christian values in imperial legislation. Christians are to be found in the highest positions, and the Church is called upon to take, as it were, direct responsibility for the course of events. However, an overriding requirement for peace continued to be a vital element in the Christian conscience. ‘God is not the God of war,’ writes St John Chrysostom. ‘To make war is to declare oneself against God as well as against one’s neighbour. To be at peace with all men is what God, who saves them, requires of us. “Blessed are those who work for peace, for they shall be called the sons of God.” How are we to imitate the Son of God? By seeking peace and pursuing it.’31 The pacific stance of the early Church then falls back to liturgical prayer and to the role of exemplars and intercessors allotted to monks (still laymen in the East), and to the clergy. Fr Michel Evdokimov has already very well presented the theme of peace as it appears in the Orthodox Liturgy. As for monks and clergy, not only must they refuse to serve in armies but they must also forgo the right of legitimate self-defence. The 5th canon of Gregory of Nyssa, which is still in force, states that should a priest ‘fall into the defilement of murder even involuntarily (i.e. in self-defence), he will be deprived of the grace of the priesthood, which he will have profaned by this sacrilegious crime.’

The prohibition32 against clergy and monks serving in the army is paralleled by the canons forbidding them to take office in the administration or government of the State.33 These two injunctions of non-violence and of non-power are combined in the 7th canon of the Council of Chalcedon: ‘Those who have entered the clergy or who have become monks must no longer serve in the army or accept civil office.’ Henceforth, it is the monks who take upon themselves the universal priesthood of working for peace among mankind and the whole of creation, which formerly fell to all Christians. From the mid-fourth century, Serapion of Thmuis, the friend of St Antony, did not hesitate to apply to monks that saying of Christ: ‘You are the light of the world.’ ‘Because of you’, he comments, ‘by your prayers, the universe is saved.’34

Or rather the peace-making service of the universal priesthood is ascribed both to the monks and to the Emperor. The myth of Christian Empire meant a lot to the Orthodox Church, at least until the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. The conversion of Constantine, linked to the apparition of a ‘sign in the sky’, has been thought of as an inauguration of the eschaton. For Eusebius of Caesarea, the union of the Church and Empire ‘converted the whole human race to peace and friendship, since from now on, men mutually recognize one another as brethren and discover their natural unity (in the sense of one human nature gathered up in Christ)’. This for Eusebius is a sign that the Scriptural prophecies have been fulfilled.35 In the Byzantine view, Christian mankind, constantly extended through missions, ought to constitute a kind of ‘city’ politeuma, headed by the Emperor, which he had to keep in peace. His role was to be fulfilled symbolically and by reciprocal agreement rather than by domination. For example, the Emperor sent Clovis, the King of the Franks, consular titles, which integrated him into the politeuma without calling into question his independence. In the Middle Ages, when the Slav and Caucasian nations asserted themselves — thanks in part to evangelization from Byzantium in their own languages — the Empire organized the politeuma as a kind of Christian ‘commonwealth’. It is also true, unfortunately, that the confrontation of Bulgarians and Byzantines, and later of Serbs and Byzantines, for the imperial title led to exhausting wars.

After the fall of Constantinople the Empire passed to Russia. In the nineteenth century, she made very great efforts — and often disinterested ones — for the protection and freedom of the Orthodox of the Balkans. Even so, the division of Christendom was a major obstacle to the reconstitution of a politeuma. After the defeat of Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I entered Paris and all he asked in compensation for the burning of Moscow was that the Easter Liturgy should be celebrated in the very square, now called ‘La Place de la Concorde’, where King Louis XVI had been guillotined. And he tried to reconstitute the politeuma by the creation of a ‘Holy Alliance’ (which should not be confused with the Realpolitik of Metternich’s reactionary Quadruple Alliance). The idea was to bring lasting peace to Europe through an understanding — in all but words an ‘ecumenical’ understanding — between Orthodox Russia, Lutheran Prussia, Anglican England and Catholic Austria and France. The dream was of a Christian society of European nations capable of reconciling tradition and liberty. The rise of secular nationalism in Europe doomed the project to failure. However, it should not be forgotten that in 1901 Tsar Nicolas I proposed and obtained the creation of the International Tribunal of The Hague, to which he would have wished to give a greater capacity to act to prevent future conflicts

This whole long history, as is well known, has not gone by without wars. The Orthodox Church has become intimately linked to every people among whom she has taken root, to whom she has given a script, whose language she has blessed by using it for her Liturgy, whose culture she has safeguarded, and whose Christian ways she has upheld during periods of foreign domination (e.g. of the Ottomans in South East Europe and of the Mongols in Russia). She has thus been totally involved in movements of resistance and wars of liberation. To limit oneself to Greece (although analogous examples could be found in the history of Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria), the banner of insurrection during the terrible war of independence was raised by the Archbishop of Patras. Half the Athonites left the Holy Mountain, monks though they were, to fight the Ottomans (oppressors and, I shall return to the point, Muslims). One should not forget that under Turkish domination (the ‘Turkokratia’) the bishops were regarded, in the Islamic conception of the occupying power, as religious and civil leaders, without distinction, of the milet, namely of the Christian ‘people’. This explains the role assumed by Archbishop Makarios as virtual ‘ethnarch’, i.e. ‘leader of the people’, during the liberation of Cyprus!

However the Orthodox Church has never elaborated a doctrine of the ‘just war’ as the Christian West did following St Ambrose and St Augustine. The latter, let us not forget, designated as Manichean heresy — and he was a past master in the field! — the affirmation that war is intrinsically evil and contrary to the Christian understanding of love. The Christian East, on the other hand, has always thought of war as an evil but a sometimes necessary evil for the defence of justice and freedom. The only normative ideal is that of peace, and hence the Orthodox Church has never made rules on the subject of ius belli and of ius in bello. To kill in war is permitted by a kind of commiseration but, for the Fathers, it is still a sin which must be forgiven! In his 13th canon, St Basil notes: ‘Our fathers have not, in fact, held the homicides committed in warfare to be murders, thus pardoning, it seems to me, those who have taken up the defence of justice and of religion. However, it would be good to advise them to abstain from communion for three years since their hands are not pure.’ Killing in war is relevant to a significant concept of Eastern canon law, that of ‘involuntary sin’.

From this point of view, the only war permitted by the Church as a lesser evil is a defensive war, or a war of liberation. Byzantine treatises on tactics and strategy begin by affirming that war is an evil. Thus, an anonymous sixth century author writes: ‘I am well aware that war is a great evil, and even the greatest of evils. But because enemies shed our blood…, because everyone has to defend his homeland and his fellow citizens…, we have decided to write about strategy…’36 However, the work is concerned only with defensive strategy. It recommends ruses, manoeuvres and subterfuges to avoid battle and to lead to the enemy’s withdrawal. The Strategikon of Maurice, another handbook on the art of war,37 advises against complete encirclement, which would drive a cornered enemy to fight to the end, and recommends always allowing him an outlet to take flight. For the aim is to get him to withdraw, not to slaughter him.

Byzantium, the Balkan countries, Russia at the time of the Mongols, have all been attacked by Islam, an Islam rougher, often far more opaque, than that of the Arabs. Nevertheless it would be wrong to speak of ‘crusades’, but rather of a difficult and painful defence of the Cross. This attitude is imprinted in the liturgical texts and they still have a strange actuality, I have been told, for Greek Cypriots. Certainly, there was a great temptation to identify the Christian people with a particular historic nation. For example, on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, on 14 September, we sing: ‘Lifted up of Thine own will upon the Cross, O Christ God, do Thou bestow Thy mercy upon the new commonwealth that bears Thy Name. Make our faithful kings glad in Thy strength, giving them victory over their enemies: may Thy Cross assist them in battle, weapon of peace and unconquerable ensign of victory’.38 In this context, where eschatology runs the risk of being borne off to the advantage of national Messianism, the ancient canon distancing the warrior from communion is quite forgotten. He who fights in defence of his land and his faith is henceforth regarded as a martyr. ‘God will account our blood as that of the martyrs’, said one of the ‘holy Princes’ of Russia, to whom it went against the grain to take up arms, and yet who fought to save their people, and sometimes accepted humiliation and death at the court of the Tatar Khan by freely offering themselves as hostages. In 1380, the Khan marched on Moscow. The Grand Prince Dimitri went to ask the advice of St Sergius of Radonezh, the restorer of the monastic life and therewith of the moral and cultural life of Russia. ‘Your duty demands that you defend your people’, said Sergius. ‘Be ready to offer your soul and to shed your blood. But go first of all before the Khan as his vassal and try to hold him back by submitting to him in all loyalty. Holy Scripture teaches us that if our enemies require our glory, if they want our gold or silver, we can let them have it. We only give up our lives and shed our blood for the faith and in the name of Christ. Listen, Prince, let them have your glory and your wealth, and God will not let you be defeated. Seeing your humility, He will come to your aid and will abase their indomitable pride.’ The Grand Prince made it clear that he had done all that he could to appease the Khan, but in vain. ‘So fight then, they will perish. God will come to your aid. May His grace be with you.’ And he gave Dimitri two of his monks to fight with him. The Russian victory at Kulikovo was decisive. What we have here is neither a theology of violence nor a theology of non-violence, but the unmistakable savour of the Bible, which becomes evangelic when history becomes tragic.

The same conception of warfare is found in the strategy of Kutuzov in the face of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. The battle of Borodino was purely defensive. On its eve, everyone fell to their knees before a particularly venerated icon of the Virgin. Kutuzov then abandoned Moscow to the invader. And when Napoleon, overtaken by winter, withdrew, Kutuzov limited himself to harassing him, having no other aim than to drive him back to the frontier. Tolstoy, who was later to become non-violent, has described these events magnificently in War and Peace.

Since the disappearance of the last Orthodox Empire, that of Russia in 1917, and of the last Catholic Empire, that of Austria in 1918 — the latter deliberately destroyed by anticlerical France — the dream of a Christian politeuma has completely vanished. (It is true that a good number of the notions of John Paul II spring from an ‘imperial’ charisma, rather than from a ‘pontifical’ charisma, but that is another story). This has accentuated the national character of the different Orthodox Churches. During the Second World War, they were at the side of their respective peoples. The Patriarch of Serbia was behind the 1941 plot to dismiss the Regent for having granted free passage to the German armies. He was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis. In Russia, on news of the German attack, when Stalin floundered and an attitude of wait-and-see was growing in a good many quarters, it was the head of the Russian Church, the Metropolitan, and future Patriarch, Sergius, who called for national resistance. Subscriptions from the faithful enabled the Church to offer the State an armoured column, which flew the flag of Holy Russia and bore the name of the victor of Kulikovo and friend of St Sergius, Dimitri Donskoy. During the 900-day siege of Leningrad, the Church made a decisive contribution through prayer, exhortation and social assistance. But previously, unlike, for example, the Spanish Church, the Russian Church had refused to participate in civil war. Patriarch Tikhon did not give his blessing to the White armies. He himself offered the State the wealth of the Church to combat the famine, and he simply exhorted the faithful to non-violent resistance; while Lenin, having refused his offer, ordered the confiscation even of the things needed for public worship. This was the time when Starets Alexis Metchev opposed the calls for an anti-Bolshevik crusade made by some emigre bishops, and declared that a powerful spiritual renewal was the only way in which Russia would be able to overcome anti-theism.

So, historically, the Orthodox Church has accepted warfare sorrowfully as a sometimes necessary evil, but without concealing that it is an evil which must be avoided or limited as much as possible. Her spiritual men and women have never ceased to pray for peace. St Silouan, who died in 1938 on Mount Athos, carried the whole of mankind in his prayer; and he, a Russian, interceded especially for the persecutors of his Church; persecutions, to which the response was martyrdom — of tens of millions of Martyrs, many of whom died praying for their tormentors.

Today, in a context which has become global and extremely precarious, there are two signs which appear to make specific the position of the Orthodox Church: one is her stance in the war in Lebanon, and the other is the text on Peace worked on by the Third Pre-conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference, which met at Chambésy near Geneva from 28 October to 6 November 1998.

In Lebanon, the Orthodox community, which is one of the most significant in terms of numbers, economic importance and cultural influence, was the only one to refuse to take up arms and form a militia. The Orthodox Youth Movement of the Patriarchate of Antioch, inspired, above all, by Metropolitan George Khodr, has always put into practice the non-violence of the Gospel, going to the assistance of victims on all sides and developing a dialogue with Islam, which could be of great future importance.

The Third Pre-conciliar Conference has drawn up a long text on ‘the contribution of the Orthodox Church to the achievement of peace.’ This text offers a definition of peace which is that of Scripture and of the Fathers. The basis of peace can be none other than unconditional respect for the human person who, being in the image of God, is rooted beyond this world and, in Christ, becomes irreducible. At the same time, the human person is fulfilled in communion, for the Church as ‘mystery’ of the Risen Christ, makes the person a participant of the love of the Trinity. The Trinity would thus appear, in its radiance of unity and diversity, as the guiding image for a humanity which is unifying but does not want to become uniform. Christ’s Gospel is the Gospel of peace (Eph. 6:15). Christ has become ‘our peace’ (Eph.2:14). The peace ‘which passes all understanding’ (Phil. 4:7), as Christ himself said to his Apostles at the Holy Supper — peace which is broader and more essential than the peace which the world promises. On this point, the Conference quotes the text of Clement of Alexandria on the ‘peaceable race’ to which we have already made reference. Peace is inseparable from justice, which is the social aspect of communion; and from freedom, where the mystery of the image of God is inscribed. The Conference therefore makes a vehement appeal on the one hand, for respect for persons and for minorities and on the other, for justice on the planetary scale.

However, it is only in the Church (and this is why the Church must be the Church) that evil, the root of all discord, can be healed radically by the Life-giving Cross, whose sanctity alone can radiate the strength to do so. Here we discover again the meaning of a peace-making priesthood of all the faithful as in the pre-Constantinian Church. The Church constitutes a force for peace quite different from that of international organizations or States. This ‘force for peace’ is infectious, it is ‘caught’ and spreads through the communion of Eucharistic communities, through prayer, service, and the active love of people who become capable, as St Paul requires, of ‘making Eucharist in all things’ (1 Thess. 5:8).

In this way a creative spirituality is defined which involves all Christians — people of the Resurrection — in the struggle against death as it ravages society and culture in all its dimensions. As regards war in particular, the text reads:

‘Orthodoxy condemns war in general, for she regards it as a consequence of the evil and sin in the world. Out of commiseration she has allowed wars, undertaken to re-establish justice and freedom where they have been trodden underfoot.’

Today, however, the risk of the self-destruction of mankind and of the annihilation of all life on earth through a nuclear war can no longer be a matter of a lesser evil. At this point, politics becomes ‘metapolitical’ and addresses the problem of the meaning of existence itself. The text then condemns armaments of all kinds, especially nuclear and space weapons ‘wherever they come from’. (It is not a question of unilateral disarmament as in pacifist movements).

‘The consequences of a nuclear war would be terrifying, not only because it would cause the death of an incalculable number of human beings, but because the life of those who survived would be intolerable. Incurable diseases would appear, and genetic mutations would occur with dire effects for future generations, assuming that life on earth continued. In the opinion of scientists, one result of nuclear war would be the so-called nuclear winter — climatic disturbances on our planet the end result of which would be the disappearance of all life. Consequently, nuclear war is unacceptable from all points of view, environmental and ethical. It would be a crime against humanity, a mortal sin against God, whose work would be destroyed.’

Confronted by this threat, by the no-less-suicidal progressive destruction of the environment and by famine in so many regions of the Third World, while ‘the economically developed countries live in a regime of opulence and waste, committing themselves to a sterile policy of armaments,’ only a spiritual leap can open the paths of the future. The Conference summons Christians to adopt a new lifestyle based on voluntary limitation, sharing, and sympathetic respect for Nature. The Conference text concludes:

‘Because we know the meaning of salvation, we have the duty of striving to alleviate illness, unhappiness and anxiety; because we have access to the experience of peace, we cannot remain indifferent when peace is lacking in contemporary society; because we are blessed with the justice of God, we have to strive for more complete justice in the world and for the disappearance of all oppression… Because we are nourished by the Body and Blood of the Lord in the holy Eucharist, we feel the need of sharing the gifts of God with our brethren — we understand better what hunger is and we strive for its abolition. Because we are preparing for a new earth and a new heaven where justice will reign, we struggle here and now for the vivifying and the renewal of man and of society.’

First published as “L’Altra Pace” in the volume “La Pace come metodo,” Milano 1991

For the Peace From Above — Table of Contents

The Teaching on Peace in the Fathers

By Fr. Stanley S. Harakas

The following essay will appear as chapter 6 of Fr. Stanley Harakas’ forthcoming book, Wholeness of Faith and Life: Orthodox Christian Ethics, in Part One, “Patristic Ethics.” The publisher is Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Originally published in “Un Regard Orthodoxe sur la Paix”, Chambésy, Geneva: Editions du Centre Orthodoxe du Patriarcat Oecuménique, 1986.


It has been customary when approaching the social teachings of the Fathers of the Church, to speak of the patristic teaching on the topic of war rather than to speak of the Church Father’s teaching on peace. Nevertheless, it is certainly more within the spirit of the tenth topic of the forthcoming Great and Holy Council, as presently formulated, to speak of peace, rather than war, even though the two topics are far from being unrelated.

In 1978, I published a small, popular study on the topics of the forthcoming Great and Holy Council to which I would like to refer briefly in these introductory remarks1.This study referred to an agenda item on the list of topics for the forthcoming pan-Orthodox Council: item ten was “the contribution of the local Orthodox Churches to the adoption of the Christian ideals of peace, freedom, brotherhood and love among the peoples of the world and the elimination of racial prejudice.”

The inclusion of this topic in the list of agenda topics was heartening to me because it reflected a need of the Orthodox Church to address the problems of our age from the perspective of the Orthodox Christian truth, a truth which is not merely a sectarian affirmation, but which the Church teaches is, in fact, the actual description of the human condition and the response of God to it.

Until now, it has been a bit disheartening, however, to note that only two of the Orthodox Churches, Greece and Czechoslovakia, offered to address the topic. To my knowledge only Czechoslovakia’s Orthodox Church has responded to it with a significant and substantial document. In a sense, this is quite sorrowful, for the potential of an Orthodox contribution is significant in this area. Nevertheless, individual studies have been made and conferences have been organised over the past few years on some of these topics, notably on the topic of “Peace,” with the Orthodox Churches in socialist countries taking the lead on this topic.

In some of my comments on the tenth topic after the publication of my little work on the forthcoming Great and Holy Council, I have tried to show the wisdom and balance with which it was formulated, especially as it appealed to the social concern interests shown by the First, Second and Third Worlds. Though all nations in the world have a vested interest in the maintenance of peace and the avoidance of the nuclear holocaust, it is in large part resolvable only by the major First World powers. Anyone who has travelled knows that the Peace topic has become a favourite popular cause in the socialist nations, who accuse the Western democracies of promoting war, a charge denied and reciprocated by the West.

The favourite popular cause in the capitalist countries, in contrast, is the issue of personal freedom. The West charges the Eastern bloc nations with a suppression of freedom, a charge vehemently denied by the socialist nations. Second and Third World nations find themselves particularly resonant with the issues raised in the tenth topic of the forthcoming Great and Holy Council under the rubrics of brotherhood and the struggle against racism, charging both of the blocs with insensitivity to the need for a more corporate world concern for the requirements of the less powerful nations and peoples of the world, and with intemperate and degrading racism.

The topic, therefore, in my judgement is well formulated, and it is particularly welcome at this time that the Patriarchal Centre at Chambésy should choose to focus on one of its chief elements, “Peace.” The topic calls for the “adoption of the Christian ideal of peace….” And so it is appropriate to concern ourselves with its clarification and study.

In my brief discussion of the topic of “peace” in the above mentioned book, I wrote the following words of caution:

There are very few Orthodox writers and thinkers who have dealt deeply and thoughtfully with these issues. Still fewer, if any, have provided the theoretical underpinnings for a consistent and authentic Orthodox Christian Social Ethic. Because of this there is the danger that our social concern will become subject to mere sloganeering and, worse yet, become the tool of alien forces. For example, Peace as an ideal for the Christian Church is almost self-evident. Yet there is no such thing as a coherent body of Orthodox peace studies. Few, if any, Orthodox theologians have concerned themselves with the problems of pacifism, disarmament, nuclear war, just war theory, peace movements, etc. There is a danger on this issue that we will allow ourselves simply to be used as a propaganda outlet2.

It is for this reason that the sustained study of the topic of peace in this seminar is most welcome, and I am sure will supply the Orthodox world with some worthwhile resources for the development of the tenth topic of the forthcoming Great and Holy Council. Without question a development of an uniquely Orthodox Christian approach to the issue of peace in our day cannot take place without some study of the Patristic teachings on peace, and the related issue of the Christian approach to war. In this paper, unfortunately, only the surface can be dealt with; neither can this presentation be one of the “in depth studies” which I called for in the quotation above, because of the breadth of the topic. We are, however, fortunately assisted in our work by a number of new writings on the topic3.

In this paper, I propose to survey the subject by treating the topic in three parts. In the first, I will survey and illustrate the stance of the Fathers of the Church on the ideal of peace, as a normative and determinative patristic stance. Part two will seek to apply the peace bias of the Fathers to its military dimensions. In the third part, the paper will delineate Eastern and Western Church approaches to the peace ideal in the post-Constantinian period. I would remind you that the treatments of these topics cannot be exhaustive, and can only, at this stage, be suggestive and illustrative.

The Pro-peace Patristic Stance

The Background

The concern for peace as a desired spiritual, moral, social and political good did not begin with the New Testament and the Fathers of the Church. Both the cultural environment of the Roman Empire and its Greek philosophical tradition, on the one hand, and the Old Testament and Jewish roots of the Christian tradition, on the other, provided significant antecedents for the Fathers of the Church regarding their views on peace4.

Among the ancient Greeks, the fundamental characteristic of the use of the term eirene was to denote the state or condition of non-war, the interlude, so to speak, between stages of almost continuous war. The Romans provided, with their term “Pax”, an instrumental connotation to the same goal with its understanding as “a reciprocal legal relationship between two parties”, thus used in phrases such as a “treaty of peace”, “the conclusion of peace,” and the “conditions of peace5.” As “absence of war,” peace took on metaphorical meanings as applied to the individual, essentially signifying the absence of hostile feelings, a sort of Stoic Aataraxia.”

The Old Testament term “Shalom” is an extremely rich and variegated word, fertile with multiple levels of meaning. It certainly connotes more than “peace.”

At its root, “Shalom” means “well-being”, with a heavy emphasis on the material side of life. As such, it often refers to bodily health, or to the nation enjoying prosperity. Numerous Old Testament passages use the term — by extension — to indicate a relationship between political entities, as well as among persons, rather than just as a state of being. It follows that the word “Shalom” found occasional use to connote the practice of making covenants. By extension, thus, it referred to the inner dispositions of those involved in them. For example in Isaiah 54:10 we read: “My kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed”.

A few other things need to be noted about “shalom”. It was always seen as a gift of Yahweh, and as such connected with the saving and redeeming work of God. Often genuine prophets would condemn false prophets who were inspired by self-interest and not God, as proclaiming “peace, peace, when there was no peace”, in truth (Jeremiah 6:14). The term, however, also carries with it, in the Old Testament, elements of eschatological anticipation. It expresses an expectation of a final condition of unending peace, both on earth and in heaven. And significantly, the Messianic King in Proto-Isaiah carries as one of his titles, the appellation “Prince of Peace”, but all of the titles can be subsumed or closely related to the broad term “Shalom” (Isaiah 9:6). What is notably missing, however, in the Old Testament, is a specifically spiritual connotation to the word, the inner disposition of the soul as spiritual. In fact, “Shalom” in the Old Testament is an almost exclusive public and social term.

Regarding the Septuagint let it suffice to say that the Hebrew word was translated in most cases as eirene and that the Septuagint served admirably to convey to the Greco-Roman world the senses of well-being and of salvation characteristic of the Hebrew understanding of the term. The social dimension is strong, as well, however, as the absence of war. The Septuagint conveys as well the source of peace as being God.

“Shalom”, widely used in rabbinical literature as a frequent greeting, connotes “well-being.” Seen as a gift of God, it is a summary word for the blessings of the messianic period, with almost exclusive limitation to concord within Israel. What is new, however, in the rabbinical literature is that peace is also strongly applied to individual relations, and not just as among nations. Thus, the Rabbis frequently refer to the making of peace among men. It is the judgement of some scholars that “peacemaking” in the sense of eliminating strife among persons in Judaism takes on the same significance which the love commandment has for the New Testament and subsequent Christianity. Strife and enmity among people is contrary to God’s will. The rabbinical literature also focuses strife and peace on the relationship of humanity with God. Sin creates strife and the proper relationship of God and man restores peace between them.

In the Apocryphal writings, eirene, of course, is used with variety. Of interest is that in some writings, such as the Testament of the 12 Patriarchs and the Ethiopian Enoch, the opposite of peace is not “strife between God and Israel or humanity”, as is found in the rabbinical literature, but “the judgement of God”, conceived in much more personal terms. Peace is the absence of the judgement of God upon the righteous. Philo, strongly within the Greek philosophical tradition, sees peace as the political state of the absence of war and the inner rest which is the absence of desire, with the inner conflict deemed worse, even, than the outer lack of peace.

In the New Testament, there is a continuation of the rabbinical tradition in terms of greetings. Also, eirene as salvation, as peace with God, and as concord among people, are prominent in the New Testament. Further, the New Testament presents peace as the appropriate and fitting normal state of things under God. The opposite of disorder is peace, for, as in I Corinthians, 14:33, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace”. Eirene is also a catchword for “the eschatological salvation of the whole man”6. Thus the angelic announcement of “peace on earth” is incarnational and salvific peace, neither limited nor primarily focusing on social or political peace. Thus Jesus Christ gathers together for the New Testament the major senses of peace. He is “the King of Peace” (Hebrews 7:2).

In the framework of salvation, sanctification and peace are closely aligned and we are instructed to seek them. “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Eirenen diokete meta panton, kai ton aghiasmon, ou choris, oudeis opsetai ton Kyrion) (Hebrews 12:14). Further, the New Testament closely associates the term eirene with the powerful salvific term zo, life, which serves almost as a summary term for the whole consequence of Christ’s saving work, the very opposite of thanatos, death. Its positive, personal, social, holistic and eschatological dimensions are expressed powerfully in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Rarely, the New Testament understands eirene as “peace with God”, mostly in the sense of salvation and the result of reconciliation, katalage between sinful humanity and God. Not absent, as well, from the New Testament is the sense in which eirene is concord, harmony and order among human beings, for the Kingdom is “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). But there is also the sense of “eirene” as inner peace, much richer than the Greek and Stoic sense of the absence of disturbance, ataraxia. Peter speaks of the “inner person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit” (I Peter 3:4). The wisdom which comes from above is “peaceable,” according to James 3:17.

By its association with joy, hara (Romans 15:13) and in the context of the salvation meaning of peace, as the normative human condition, peace of soul points to the content of the spiritual and moral life, and its reflection in our relations with others. Thus in I Timothy the Christian’s goal is to “lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way (2:2). Thus the disciples are instructed “to keep the peace” (eireneuete) among themselves (Mark 9:50), and with all people (Romans 12:18, 2 Corinthians 13:11). Hebrews teaches that the heavenly Father’s and the earthly parent’s discipline yield “the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). Most significantly, Jesus’ Beatitudes call blessed those who are peacemakers, as establishing peace and harmony among people, in imitation, in the likeness of, and parallel to Christ’s work of salvation and reconciliation, according to which He makes “peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19). Thus the making of peace between God and humanity and among human beings becomes a function of the loving and salvific work of God for us, but also a reflection of the will of God for the relations of human beings among each other. On this basis, the Fathers of the Church build their teachings on peace.

The Patristic Teaching on Peace

The Christian emphasis on love, brotherhood, reconciliation, and peace rooted itself in the moral standards of the Christ-like and Christ-ordered life in the early Church. The Evangelical Ethic7 picks up many of these themes in the focus on peace in the patristic corpus. It must, however, be seen as providing the background for the patristic desire for peace, and also for the sense of its harmony with the spiritual and moral character of Kingdom living. The Sermon on the Mount commandments of non-resistance to evil, the return of good for evil, the spirit of reconciliation and brotherhood underpin for the Fathers the reference to, and the understanding of, peace. In the synoptic account which I am going to present now, I will not focus on the issue of peace as contrasted to war, but on the broader based conceptions as delineated in the background material which we have just surveyed. I will follow this with a more careful attention to the issue of peace and war.

For the Fathers of the Church the source of peace, and its fundamental meaning, come from God as a gift to humanity. Clement of Rome’s 1st Epistle serves as a patristic example:

…let us run on to the goal of peace, which was handed down to us from the beginning. Let us fix our eyes on the Father and Creator of the universe and cling to his magnificent and excellent gifts of peace and kindness to us… Let us consider how free he is from anger toward his whole creation8.

In the same vein, Chrysostom teaches that “the true peace is from God”.9 Clement of Rome also attributes the source of peace to Christ and associates it with the Holy Spirit. He says: “Content with Christ’s rations… you were all granted a profound and rich peace and an insatiable longing to do good, while the Holy Spirit was poured out upon you all10.”

St. Basil says in his Homily on the Psalms “he who seeks peace, seeks Christ, for he is the peace…” When commenting on the Lord’s farewell gift of peace to His disciples, he adds “I cannot persuade myself that without love to others, and without, as far as rests with me, peaceableness towards all, I can be called a worthy servant of Jesus Christ12.” In the Divine Names of Dionysios the “reopagite several paragraphs are committed to the discussion of the name of peace as attributed to God and its embodiment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. There, he writes:

Now, the first thing to say is this: that God is the Fount of True Peace and of all Peace, both in general and in particular, and that He joins all things together in an unity without confusion… There is no need to tell how the loving-kindness of Christ comes bathed in Peace, wherefrom we must learn to cease from strife, whether against ourselves or against one another, or against the angels, and instead to labour together even with the angels for the accomplishment of God’s Will, in accordance with the Providential Purpose of Jesus Who works all things in all and makes Peace, unutterable and foreordained from Eternity, and reconciles us to Himself, and, in Himself, to the Father13.

As such, since God is the source of all good, peace is taught by Gregory of Nyssa to be an essential good, a necessary concomitant to every other good in which the faithful participate14. Thus the Letter of Barnabas calls the Christians “children of love and peace15,” and Chrysostom says that the peace from God is the Christian’s “nurse and mother”, arising from spiritual harmony in the Christian from the “peace which is in accordance with God16 .”

One of the major emphases in the patristic corpus which does not appear strongly in the earlier traditions described above is the patristic emphasis upon peace as a personal spiritual phenomenon. Seen from the perspective of the inner spiritual life, with some clear philosophical overtones, is Origen’s expectation that the mind and reason of Christians must be formed with God’s “free co-operation … when the soul is quiet and in the enjoyment of that peace which passes all understanding, and when she is turned away from all disturbance and not buffeted by any billows17.” Similarly referring to the “peace which passes all understanding,” St. Basil holds that if such a peace “guards our hearts, we will he able to avoid the turbulence… of the passions18.” Thus, for Basil, spiritual peace is “the most perfect of blessings,” which he defines as a “kind of stability of the rational ability19.” The ascetic side of Basil is highlighted, nevertheless, when he emphasises the view that “true inner peace comes from above… and that one should “seek peace, which is the separation from the turbulences of this world… so as to obtain the peace of God20.”

That this inner peace should express itself in outward behaviour and external relationships, as a function of the proper relationship with God, and the control of the passions, as well as love and forgiveness, is the next emphasis of the patristic tradition on peace. Thus the following progression in Theodore of Mopsuestia’s commentary on Romans serves to illustrate the point: “peace is release from invisible enemies, from whom Christ frees us, and for the body not to rebel against the thoughts of the soul’s dispositions, and the pious harmony with others21.”

Thus the patristic understanding of eirene has a decided social and moral application as well. Clement of Alexandria identifies eirene and dikaiosyne in the Stromateis 22. He denotes the Christians as the “peaceable generation”, (eirenikon genos 23) and identifies the moral role of the believer in establishing peace: “man is a pacific instrument … the one instrument of peace, the Word alone by which we honour God is what we employ24.” Therefore, for Clement, Christ uses the Christians as his soldiers of peace:

This is the proclamation of righteousness: to those that obey, glad tidings; to those that disobey, judgement. The loud trumpet, when sounded, collects the soldiers, and proclaims war. And shall not Christ, breathing a strain of peace to the ends of the earth, gather together His own soldiers, the soldiers of peace? Well, by His blood and by the word, He has gathered the bloodless host of peace, and assigned to them the kingdom of heaven25.

As His soldiers, the Christians fight evil for the sake of bringing about a moral and spiritual peace. Thus, writing in his 114th letter, To Cyriacus, at Tarsus, enjoining steps for the reunion of divided Christians, St. Basil opines that “nothing is so characteristically Christian as being a peacemaker, and for this reason our Lord has promised us peacemakers a very high reward”. And before him, the Didache admonished, “You must not start a schism, but reconcile those at strife (eireneueseis de machomenous )26.

The striving for peace among men, of course, is not unconnected with the other virtues, such as justice and righteousness, but in particular, as we have noted above, it is intimately related with the chief of the Christian virtues, love. Chrysostom thus teaches, “if there be peace, there will also be love; if love, there will be peace, also” in his Homilies on Ephesians (24, v.23).

When this range of patristic thought is coupled with the teachings of the Gospels on non-retribution, the avoidance of violence, the returning of good for evil, it forms a holistic view which sees peace, peacemaking, and the harmony of peoples among themselves as a normative good which Christians must seek to realise with God’s help. This is the background for seeking to understand the patristic stance toward civil peace, and peace among nations.

Peace and War in the Early Church

The teaching of the Fathers of the pre- and post-Constantinian Church on War in general, on Christian participation in the military, and on whether the early Church was pacifist or not, has a huge bibliography. Important studies have exhaustively grappled with these issues. Certainly we cannot, nor is there need to reproduce here, what has been fully and adequately described in great detail elsewhere27.

The Pacifist Strand

Let it suffice to briefly document what we can properly call a pro-peace stance of the Fathers of the Church. A few examples are all that is needed for this purpose. Around the end of the first century, in the 1st letter of Clement, there are petitions to God for the civil rulers of the Roman Empire. We read: “It is you, Heavenly Master, Ruler of the Ages, who give to the sons of men glory, honour and power over earthly things. Guide their decisions yourself, O Lord, according to what is good and acceptable in your eyes, so that by dutifully wielding in peace and gentleness the authority you gave them, they may gain your favour28.” Obviously based on the New Testament injunctions regarding the Christian attitude toward the civil rulers in Romans and the pastoral epistles, such prayers focusing on the role of civil rulers in the maintenance of peace are fairly common in the second century. Justin Martyr perceives the messianic period prophesied by Isaiah when the peoples will beat their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning hooks, as having arrived with the Christians, for the Christians, he says, “who formerly killed one another… refuse to make war on (their) enemies.”29 In his treatise On the Crown, Tertullian makes a sustained argument against the idea of Christians serving in the military of the pagan empire. Arguing both from the idolatry connected with that service and the taking of life, he holds that “the sons of peace” cannot be soldiers: “Will a son of peace who should not even go to court take part in a battle? Will a man who does not avenge wrongs done to himself have any part in chains, prisons, tortures and punishments?” Tertullian asks rhetorically30.

In a third century document attributed to Hippolytos of Rome, there is the expectation that lower rank soldiers may not obey orders to kill anyone, and if they do, that they are to be expelled from the Church31.

In his writing To Donatus St. Cyprian of Carthage decries war:

…everywhere wars have broken out with the ghastly bloodletting of the camp. The world is drenched with mutual bloodshed. When individuals slay a man, it is a crime. When killing takes place on behalf of the state it is called a virtue. Crimes go unpunished not because the perpetrators are said to be guiltless but because their cruelty is so extensive32.

In this same spirit, Origen maintains the total impropriety of Christians going to war themselves, but he does commend the rightness of the Roman emperor in waging war “in a just cause”. Nevertheless, Origen notes in his Against Celsus, that Christians do support the effort with their prayers: “We do not go out on the campaign with (the emperor) even if he insists, but we do battle on his behalf by raising a special army of piety through our petitions to God33.”

Elsewhere he says of the Christians, that “we no longer take up the sword against any nation, nor do we learn the art of war any more. Instead,… we have become sons of peace through Jesus our founder34.”

Other pre-Constantinian writers such as Lactantius also clearly present to the reader a sense of the wrongness of war, and a bias toward peace. No less so, does this same predilection for peace and against war continue into the post-Constantinian patristic period. Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine’s staunch supporter, praises the pax Augusti that permitted the uninhibited spread of Christianity35. For Eusebius, the coming together of the Church and the Empire meant that “the whole human race was converted to peace and friendship when all men recognised each other as brothers and discovered their natural kinship,” a sign for him that the Constantinian synthesis was the fulfilment of scriptural prophesies for peace on earth36. Thus, the priority of peace for the Christian conscience remained strong. No less a figure than Chrysostom embodied this patristic bias for peace in his writing and preaching. In his 14th Homily on Philippians, Chrysostom states:

God is not a God of war and fighting. Make war and fighting to cease, both that which is against Him, and that which is against thy neighbour. Be at peace with all men, consider with what character God saveth them. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’ Such always imitate the Son of God: do thou imitate Him too. Be at peace. The more thy brother warreth against thee, by so much the greater will be thy reward. For hear the prophet who saith, ‘With the haters of peace, I was peaceful’ (Psalm 120, 7, Septuagint). This is virtue, this is above understanding, this maketh us near God; nothing so much delighteth God as to remember no evil. This sets thee free from thy sins, this looseth the charges against thee: but if we are fighting and buffeting, we become far off from God: for enmities are produced by conflict, and from enmity springs remembrance of evil37.

The Endorsement of Christian Involvement in War

My purpose in bringing these few quotations is to emphasise the patristic commitment to peace. I have not entered into the debate as to whether the pre-Constantinian Church was pacifistic. I tend to agree with modern scholarship which rejects — as overly simplifying the issue — the view that the pre-Constantinian Church was fully pacifist, and that the post-Constantinian Church compromised its peace principles. Scholarship, which focuses not only on the patristic writings but also on Christian practice, such as that of Helgeland38, Daly and Burns39, Ryan40 and Swift41, seems to show that the early Church had elements in its teaching which supported a pro-peace, but not a pacifist position. Considerations founded on the stories of soldier saints and martyrs, the goodness of the state, the rightness of the exercise of the sword by the state, prayers for the state and spiritual support of military actions of defence, as well as the need for the defence of order and the protection of the innocent, lead to the view that these pre-existing factors came to the fore when the danger of pagan pollution and compromise was eliminated and the Christians and their Church assumed responsibilities of governing.

Nevertheless, my point is that in the patristic mind, the bias for peace continued. How that bias for peace was handled, however, differed in the East and in the West.

Eastern and Western Patristic Approaches to Peace and War

It is clear that the early Fathers saw war as an evil in which it was perceived that Christians should not participate. It is also clear that they recognised the important and necessary role of the state to use “military force for the protection of the temporal order as a function proper to the governance of the empire,” in the words of one new study of the subject42.

Pacifistic Emphasis Retained: Liturgy and the Clergy

The exuberant enthusiasm of Eusebius of Caesaria for the new situation, as it impacted on peace and war perspectives of the newly established Church, did not find much endorsement in the rest of the patristic conscience. On the other hand, the benefits of the end of persecution, the establishment of the Church, the support for the spread of the Gospel, the eradication of heresies, and the incorporation of Christian values into the legal and social system of the Empire, seemed great enough benefits for the Church so as to outweigh some of the concerns which the earlier Church found so ready to promote in a radically different social, religious and moral climate43.

Nevertheless, in both East and West, there were efforts to preserve in the life of the Church a witness to the earlier emphasis which did not approve of military service for Christians. This is to be seen in the Church’s disapproval of military service by the clergy and by the continued heavy emphasis in the liturgy of the Church on the theme of peace. In the latter case, there is an unbroken liturgical tradition based on the Old Testament, Rabbinical, New Testament tradition of the “giving of peace” in the form of blessings. For example, the blessing “May the peace of God be with you all” is to be found in the Liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions. There is no need, I believe, to document the continued tradition of prayer on behalf of peace both within and outside the Church in the liturgies of both East and West to this day.

The continuity of the pro-peace bias of the Church can be recognised in the ready agreement of the consciousness of today’s Church with the early second century sentiments of St. Ignatius. As he was being escorted by a military guard on the way to his judgement, taught, according to his Letter to the Ephesians, that “There is nothing better than peace, by which all strife in heaven and earth is done away44.” Involvement in the empire’s public life meant for the post-Constantinian Church an enhanced appreciation of those elements in the Christian tradition which affirmed the need for order, the punishment of evil doers, defence of the innocent and other such conditions. These new conditions also permitted and even enjoined the involvement of Christians in the military, though there were steps to preserve, in the life of the Church, the earlier pacifistic tendencies of the pre-Constantinian Church.

In addition to the liturgical emphasis on peace, this was accomplished by what I have called elsewhere the “stratification of pacifism” with the canonical requirement that at least the clergy not be involved in military service45.

In seeking to deal with these two tendencies in the revelatory teaching upon which it based its life, that is, the moral repugnance of war and all it stands for, and the need to support order and defend and protect life, one solution was to embody the peace ideal in its fullest sense in the clergy:

…the Church decided to require monks and clergy to be the pacifists in a Church which spoke for the whole of society. Thus, canon 83 of the Apostolic Canons says that a priest or bishop may not engage in military matters. Also prohibited to clergy is government service (Apostolic Canons 6 and 81, canon 3 of the 4th Ecumenical Council and canon 10 of the 7th Ecumenical Council), because one thereby compromises his priesthood. Canon 7 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council combines both injunctions: “We have decreed in that those who have once been enrolled in the Clergy or who have become Monks shall not join the army nor obtain any secular position of dignity. Let those be anathematised who dare to do this and fail to repent, so as to return to that which they had previously chosen on God’s account46.

While a solution of sorts, it also reflects serious problems, not the least of which is the ecclesiological problem of the place of the laity in the Church for whom no such requirement is made, and who must meet the question of participation in war by Christians on the basis of different criteria. This stratification of the pacifistic tendencies of the early Church was common, and continues to be common to Eastern and Western Christianity, at least, to Roman Catholicism.

Variant Responses in East and West

Not shared, however, in my judgement, are the theological rationales used in the East and the West in dealing with the participation of Christian laity in the military. It is not necessary at this point to delineate the development of the “Just War” tradition in the West. I believe that it is sufficiently familiar47. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine are its clear founders. These two Western Fathers drew on the scriptural and patristic sources which in one way or another validate the participation of Christian laity in government and in military service. These two seminal writers led the Western Church, not only to an acceptance of the military role by Christians, but its enhancement into a positive virtue through the development of criteria by which a war could be distinguished from an unjust war, and be called “just.”

It is my contention that the East developed a different approach to the issue. Rather than seek to morally elevate war and Christian participation in it so that it could be termed “just,” the East treated it as a necessary evil. I have previously developed this idea in an evaluation of the United States Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops’ recent encyclical letter on war and peace48. I present here a somewhat revised version of that argument.

Contrary to Augustine, “who called it a Manichaean heresy to assert that war is intrinsically evil and contrary to Christian charity49,” the Eastern Patristic tradition rarely praised war, and to my knowledge, almost never called it “just” or a moral good. Two cases, only, are known to me where it might be implied that, in passing, wars were characterised as possibly just. These references are to be found in Origen and Eusebius. Origen, in an argument specifically rejecting Christian participation in the military service of the Empire, appears to acknowledge the possibility of just wars. He says, “Though they keep their right hands clean, the Christians fight through their prayers to God on behalf of those doing battle in a just cause and on behalf of an emperor who is ruling justly in order that all opposition and hostility toward those who are acting rightly may be eliminated50.” In the same manner, in his Demonstration of the Gospel, Eusebius, while speaking of the distinction of the clergy and laity life styles in the Church, refers by way of illustration only, and in passing to “practical rules for those “serving in the army, according to justice”51.

Whatever meaning and value these passages may have, they do not seem to be in the mainstream of Eastern thinking on the matter. I believe that Louis Swift is correct in substance, but wrong in tone and implication, when he notes that “the whole problem of public and private responsibility in this area and the moral limits surrounding the ius belli and the ius in bello were never serious topics of interest in the minds of eastern writers52.” The East did not seek to deal with just war themes such as the correct conditions for entering war, and the correct conduct of war on the basis of the possibility of the existence of a “just war,” precisely because it did not hold to such a view of war. Its view was different from that of the West. The East’s approach to war was that it was a necessary evil. The peace ideal continued to remain normative and no theoretical efforts were made to make conduct of war into a positive norm.

The locus classicus illustrating this view is the 13th canon of St. Basil from his first Canonical Letter to Amphilochius . The canon struggles to free killing during war from the ethical judgement of being equivalent to murder, while concurrently refusing to call the act good or just. Here is the text:

“Our Fathers did not consider murders committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defence of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that they are not clean handed53.”

The major early patristic passage, which Basil may have been referring to, is found in St. Athanasius’ Epistle to Amun 54. In passing, and by way of illustration, as he seeks to show that circumstances serve to modify moral judgements, St. Athanasius refers to killing in war: “…thus it is not right to commit murder, but to kill enemies in war is lawful and praiseworthy55.”

His conclusion, however, does not place him so far from Basil as might first appear. “Therefore, the same thing on the one hand according to which at one time is not permitted, is on the other, at appropriate times permitted and is forgiven56.”

The inclusion of “forgiveness” needs to be understood as reflective of the strong tradition in Eastern Christianity of the concept of “involuntary sin”. This widely documented teaching acknowledges the lack of direct and willed responsibility for an act, while concurrently acknowledging the involvement of the moral agent in an act which in itself is not good and not in accordance with the divine will. In fact, St. Basil’s 13th canon follows on a canon where this concept is discussed in the context of “involuntary murder”. In the case of “involuntary murder”, Basil imposes a penance of abstinence from communion for eleven years (not a small period, compared to twenty years for a voluntary murderer), because “the man who struck had no intention of killing him”. Nevertheless, he adds, “we deem the assailant a murderer, to be sure, but an involuntary murderer57.”

Clearly, Basil, like Athanasius, evaluates killing in war to be less of an evil than a face-to-face killing between non-military persons, albeit involuntary, since in canon 13 he provides for three years of abstinence from Communion, rather than eleven years of abstinence in the preceding canon58. Other Patristic sources for the concept of “involuntary sin” are the 5th Canon of St. Gregory of Nyssa59, and Canon 23 of Ancyra (c. 314-331)60.

This view is characteristic of Byzantine society, even the military establishment. In an anonymous manual of strategy, written in the sixth century during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, war is acknowledged to be “the greatest of evils”, though often necessary.

I know well that war is a great evil, even the greatest of evils. but because enemies shed our blood in fulfilment of an incitement of law and valour, and because it is wholly necessary for each man to defend his own fatherland and his fellow countrymen with words, writings, and acts, we have decided to write about strategy, through which we shall be able not only to fight but to overcome the enemy61.

A careful study of the chapters of this work will show that most military definitions are couched in defensive language. Further, it will be seen that the majority of tactics espoused seek to embody subterfuge, cunning, deception, tricks, and hoaxes in order to avoid battle, and to cause the enemy to withdraw of his own volition. The Byzantines also preferred the payment of tribute rather than the doing of battle.

This is not the only evidence. Walter Kaegi, a historian of Byzantine military strategy, summarises a late 6th or early 7th century major Byzantine strategic treatise, known as the Strategikon of Maurice, which shows that every means possible was used to avoid open warfare62.

The author of the Strategikon advises his readers to fashion craftiness and cunning in war and to avoid open battles, that it is often preferable to strike the enemy “by means of deceptions or raids or hunger” instead of open battle.

He cautions against using open warfare. The object of warfare is the defeat and disruption, not necessarily the slaughter, of the enemy. In fact, the author of the Strategikon counsels against using the technique of encirclement because it would encourage the enemy to remain and to risk battle. He advises that it is better to allow an encircled enemy to flee to avoid forcing him to take a life-or-death stand, which would be costly in casualties to the encircling party. There is no more eloquent testimony to the desire to avoid decisive battle63.

We are not here primarily interested in Byzantine military strategy, of course. The purpose of quoting the passages above is to show that, both religiously and militarily, the East recognised the necessity for war, as well as its evil and the need and desire to mitigate its consequences. Though one might question the practical outcome of such a view, it is considered by some to have been an important contributing factor to the long life of the Byzantine Empire64. In the last analysis, it would appear that the Eastern approach served to limit and reduce war and its evil consequences, in practice, while neither making it into a good, nor following the path of pacifism.

I believe that these approaches express well the viewpoint of the Eastern Orthodox Church on war. Thus in a strict sense it cannot speak of a “good war”, or even a “just war.” There are, of course, problems on both sides of this issue. For example, seeing war as a necessary evil, rather than as a “just” and thus morally approved practice, raises the question of motivation for the waging of war, since calling it a necessary evil can hardly be encouraging to a strong military élan. Consequently, some might be motivated to charge the Eastern approach as guilty of contributing to the possibility of defeat and failure by fostering the begrudging taking up of arms. Nevertheless, it is perhaps because of some such considerations (with the possible exception of Heraclius’ Persian campaign), that crusades were noticeably absent from Byzantine imperial military policy. All that this does, however, is to re-emphasise the great difficulties for the Church in dealing with the pro-peace bias in a world fraught with sin, evil and injustice. My point is that the East has responded to the issue in a way that is different from that of the West.


All the evidence, I believe, points to the realisation that the patristic sources see peace as an integral aspect of the Christian truth. For the Fathers, whether one speaks of the inner world of the soul, the intimate relationship of the soul with God, the life in the Church, the social relationships among believers, the encounter of believers with the world at large, the enforcement of justice within societies, or the defence of nations from external threat, there is a bias for peace.

That emphasis on peace is an ongoing and permanent focus of the Christian teaching as it addresses the issues of today’s nuclear-threatened world, and justifies its inclusion in the topics of the forthcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church.

endnotes for this essay:

1 Stanley S. Harakas, Something is Stirring in World Orthodoxy. Minneapolis: Light & Life Publ. Co., 1978.

2 Ibid., p. 65.

3 In English, three volumes are of particular interest: Louis J. Swift, The Early Fathers on War and Military Service, Vol.19; 1983 and Peter C. Phan, Social Thought, Vol.20, 1984, in the series Message of the Fathers of the Church. Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, Inc. See also the study, by John Helgeland, Robert J. Daly, and S. Patout Burns, Christians and the Military: The Early Experience. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

4 I am here closely following Gerhard von Rad and Werner Foerster, in Gerhard Kittel, ed Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol.11. Tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964, pp. 400-420.

5 Ibid., p. 401.

6 Ibid., p. 412.

7 Stanley S. Harakas, Toward Transfigured Life: The Theoria of Eastern Orthodox Ethics. Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing Co, 1983, chapter 7.

8 19:2, 3.

9 Homily I on 1st Corinthians.

10 op. cit., 2,2.

12 Letter 203, 2.

13 II,2,4

14 On the Beatitudes, 7.

15 21, 9

16 Against the Jews, 3, 6.

17 Commentary on John, 6, 1.

18 Homily on Psalm 29.

19 Homily on Psalm 28.

20 Homily on Psalm 33.

21 1:7.

22 4, 25.

23 Instructor, 2, 2.

24 ibid., 2, 4.

25 Exhortation to the Heathens, II.

26 4, 3.

27 A few representative titles in English are: Cecil J. Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War, Oxford, 1919; _________,The Early Church and the World. A History of the Christian Attitude to Pagan Society and the State down to the Time of Constantinius, Edinburgh, 1925; C.E. Caspary, Politics and Exegesis: Origen and the Two Swords. Berkeley, 1979; H.A. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine. New York, 1963; A. von Harnack, Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries. Philadelphia, 1980; G. Zampaglione, The Idea of Peace in Antiquity. Notre Dame, 1973.

28 28 61, 1-2.

29 First Apology, 39:3.

30 II, 1-7.

31 Apostolic Tradition, XVI.

32 6.

33 7, 73.

34 5, 33.

35 Demonstration of the Gospel, 3, 7, 140; Preparation for the Gospel 1, 4.

36 In Praise of Constantine, 2, 3.

37 On v. 8.

38 Christians and the Roman Army: A..D. 173-337, Church History, 43, 1974, pp. 149-163.

39 Christians and the Military: The Early Experience, op. cit.

40 “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians”, Theological Studies, 13, 1952, pp. 1-32.

41 The Early Fathers on War and Military Service, op. cit.

42 Helgeland, Daly, Burns, op. cit., p.89 of the page proofs. I am grateful to Fr. Robert Daly who made the page proofs available to me, shortly before the publication of the book.

43 8, 13, 1.

44 13, 2.

45 Stanley S. Harakas, “The Morality of War”, Joseph J. Allen, ed. Orthodox Synthesis: The Unity of Theological Thought. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981, pp. 67-94.

46 Ibid, p.85. See also Swift, op. cit. pp.88,92-93.

47 See bibliographical references above.

48 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. Washington, DC, 1983. The paper, under the title “The NCCB Pastoral Letter: ‘The Challenge of Peace’ — An Eastern Orthodox Response” was published in 1985 by the Catholic University of America Press.

49 Quoted in footnote 31, The Challenge of Peace, Sec. 82.

50 Against Celsus, 8’73

51 1,8.1 do not think that Swift’s translation “practical rules for those fighting in a just war” is adequate.

52 Ibid., p.96.

53 The Rudder, Chicago: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1957, p.801.

54 MPG, 26, 1169-1180.

55 Ibid., 1173B.

56 Ibid. Emphasis mine.

57 Canon 11, ibid., p.800.

58 For more on “involuntary sin”, see Stanley S. Harakas, Toward Transfigured Life. op. cit., p. 84.

59 “Canonical Epistle to Letoius, Bishop of Melitine.” Canon V. The Pedalion. Ibid., pp. 874-875.

60 Ibid., p. 502.

61 “Der Byzantiner Kriegswissenschaft”, 4.2 in Griechische Kriegsschriftsteller, ed. H. Koechly and W. Rustow. Leipzig, 1855, vol. 2, p. 56.

62 Das Strategikon des Maurikios, ed. George T. Dennis and German translation by E. Gamillscheg, and the Dennis English translation, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

63 Walter Emil Kaegi, Jr., “Some Thoughts on Byzantine Military Strategy,” Brookline, Ma.: Hellenic College Press, 1983, p. 8.65.

64 Ibid., pp.9-10.

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