Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

World War One and the Russian Diaspora:

The Westward Spread of Truths and Errors

(The Angelus, The Angelus, March - April 2018)

One of the major consequences of the First World War was the tearing away of many people from the embrace of Mother Russia. Most of these men and women actually left that embrace quite happily, creating the independent nations of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in doing so. Prominent among those ripped from the bosom of the old Empire very much against their will were faithful members of the Russian Church, forced out due to Bolshevik persecution. Their numbers included fervent clerical and lay supporters of an Orthodox religious revival that had seriously begun in the 1790’s; believers who had been greatly encouraged in their hopes for ever more significant national spiritual growth since the relaxation of state controls over ecclesiastical life began with the first Russian Revolution in 1905.

Although this diaspora grew to be active in many places in Europe and America, France and England were its most important intellectual centers after the Great War. Especially notable in this regard were both the community of exiles in Paris, where the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute was founded in 1925, as well as émigré centers in Britain, which became home to the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, a product of the Anglo-Russian Student Conferences of 1927 and 1928. The names of those connected with these eclectic circles and institutions constitute a “who’s who” of Russian Orthodox influence in the entirety of the West from the 1920’s to the present, with the “founding fathers” of Sergii Bulgakov (1871-1944), Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948), Alexander Elchaninov (1881-1934), Georgii Florovsky (1893-1979), Lev Zander (1893-1964), Nicholas Zernov (1898-1980), and Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958) preparing the way for the next Orthodox wave, including Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983), Oliver Clement (1921-2009), John Meyendorff (1926-1992), and Timothy Kallistos Ware (b. 1934).

I must confess that this Diaspora exercised a positive influence on my own development. Nicholas Zernov, probably the chief inspiration behind the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, was one of my tutors at Oxford in the 1970’s, where he had taught since 1947 and long been in charge of St. Gregory and St. Macrina House, the chief center for Orthodox life at the University. Zernov was a fine Christian man, reflecting that concern for the liturgy, the Church Fathers, and the doctrine of “divinization”---which westerners tend to prefer to speak of as “transformation in Christ”--- that were central to the discussions of the local Russian Orthodox community. I look back fondly upon his forthright encouragement of a young Roman Catholic student struggling with the disaster of Second Vatican Council, despite the disagreements that appeared through my participation in these discussions.

For disagreements there were, and of a type that I can only relate here very broadly, with reference to the “tone” coming through the diaspora message in general. That “tone” involved a marked tendency to denigrate the role of reason and communal authority in the Christian dispensation. This Russian Orthodox tendency, which was not without its influence over developments in the Roman Catholic Church from the end of the First World War onwards---and in those realms of spirituality, dogma, and ecumenism where the role of reason and communal authority were perhaps most seriously needed. Moreover, such influence seemed to me to be all too painfully manifesting its dangerous character in that first and most dreadful post-conciliar decade, which happened to coincide with my interaction with the Russians in Oxford. A brief treatment of two of the diaspora’s great concerns, hesychasm and sobornost, regarding which its teachers felt something of an evangelical commitment, underline the tone and its impact neatly.

Hesychasm can be translated from the Greek as meaning “to keep still”. It is an essentially quietist mystical approach, based upon both very early eastern monastic writings as well as those of Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022) and gaining its most influential expression in the work of Gregory Palamos (1296-1359). Many hesychasts claimed to have found a method for achieving individual union with God based upon continual employment of a simple “Jesus Prayer”, along with a cultivation of the proper physical position and environment in which to recite it. They argued that commitment to their method allowed for a quiet divinization of its individual mystical practitioner, the depiction of whose sanctity, which was said to glow with the kind of light that illumed Christ on Mount Tabor, provided endless stimulation for iconographers.

Hesychasm became very strong in eastern monastic circles, gradually driving the earlier, communal-minded Stoudite monastic tradition into the shadows. Although they generally looked upon all things western with suspicion, hesychasts of the Palamos variety nevertheless shared with many late medieval Latin mystics a similar contempt for scholasticism and the role of any logical, speculative theology in paving a pathway to union with God.

But eastern critics of Palamos joined with their Latin counterparts in criticizing a spirituality one of whose main effects was abandonment of the mental tools needed to distinguish an erroneous from an acceptable form of mystical union. They were horrified by his apparent claim that the hesychast could achieve a union with God while on earth equivalent to that to be experienced in eternity. Worse still, they insisted that the unity he spoke of was not a complete one. Rather, it was limited to a union with God’s so-called “operations”; the “uncreated light” that was said to shine down from Mount Tabor.

Palamos, in their minds, thus appeared to recoil from the idea that even the blessed in heaven could touch the actual “core” of divinity and see God fully, in His very essence. Separating the essence of God from His uncreated light was tantamount to positing the existence of two divinities: one that man could fully reach, even in this life, but through one particular anti-rational path to transformation in Christ alone; and another “god” who would remain forever unknown and unknowable. Whatever the outraged objections the passionately icon-friendly hesychasts might hurl at their opponents, this meant that such mystics once again had thrown the doctrinal work accomplished through the defeat of Iconoclasm into jeopardy. For the total divinization of man in Christ and the proper estimation of the glory of the universe was therefore precluded, with both the individual and the fullness of nature shut off from the truly inclusive, transforming embrace of God.

Hesychasm entered dramatically into the life of the Russian Church in 1793 with Paisius Velichkovsky’s (1722-1794) translation into Church Slavonic of a number of writings on the subject, most importantly, the so-called Philo kalia or “love of the beautiful”, put together by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain of Athos (1749-1809) and St. Makarios of Corinth (1731-1805). Velichkovsky’s writings were passed down through the Optina Monastery where he lived and worked, in nineteenth century vernacular Russian translations, by means of a popular book entitled The Way of the Pilgrim, and also in novels of Dostoevsky. But so was the criticism of hesychasm’s seemingly non-dogmatic, non-sacramental approach to holiness, with its Russian mixture of individual mystical effort and obedience to the guidance of the lay monastic spiritual directors known as startsy. And love for the Philokalia, The Way of the Pilgrim, hesychasm, the Jesus Prayer and the anti-rational, quietist mysticism of its individual practitioners migrated to France and England with the Russian Diaspora, promoting twentieth century translations of their basic literature into western languages, prompted by men like T.S. Eliot among many others.

The westward movement of hesychasm, with its focus on individual mystical effort, was paralleled by that of the concept of sobornost, which aimed at explaining the nature of the “spiritual community of many jointly living people”, as its name indicates. First associated with the Russian thinkers Aleksey Stepanovich Khomyakov (1804-1860) and Ivan Vasilyevich Kireyevsky (1806-1856), sobornost was intended to contrast an Orthodox vision of catholicity---diversity in unity---with a western presentation of the same vision that was castigated as being theologically and legally precisionist and hidebound on the one hand, yet anarchically individualist in character on the other. Supporters of the concept said that Orthodox believers forming a truly catholic community inspired by sobornost were united by a free and loving abandonment of themselves to the absolute values and the society that they cherished, whose bonds were cemented by a consciousness of being one, by common prayer, and by a common liturgy; not by their dull recitation of intellectual dogmatic formulae and their bending of the neck to communally-enforced legal precepts.

But critics of sobornost were baffled by a number of historical anomalies that the concept seemed to ignore. Why in heaven’s name was the accusation of theological and legal perfectionism laid at the doorstep of a rather sleepy western world that was only awakened to the need for precision in these matters from the intellectually much more picky East of the first eight Ecumenical Councils? How was it that bending the fingers into the absolutely precise liturgical position was less legalist than accepting the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception? In what way could the “free communities of Orthodox believers” be compared to the papal “tyrants” and Catholic “robots” who so often fought heroically against the will of the Caesaro-Papists to which the Eastern Churches repeatedly subjected themselves? And how would you know if you were truly united as a loving community committed to absolute values if intellectual and legal precision regarding what these values actually might be were disdained? One was left with merely celebrating, liturgically, a union that in practical terms might not really exist.

It seemed to me, the more that I learned about the phenomenon while at Oxford, that there was no wonder that the hesychasm and sobornost promoted by the Russian Diaspora were of interest to supporters of the Ecumenical Movement, Personalists, New Theologians, and enthusiasts for esoteric spiritual insights of the years leading from the end of the First World War down to Second Vatican Council. The anti-rational, anti-legal, anti-communal authority approach that such mysticism and such a vision of Christian society embraced allowed all of them to escape the “dry, hidebound, dogmatic and spiritual legalism” of a Roman Church bewitched by the call for clarity demanded by the modern Papacy since the days of the Syllabus of Errors. How much easier it would be for them to unite Christians in both a spirit of love as well as in a fight for the true faith if all that Roman fuss and bother regarding what such a spirit love and truth faith actually meant were to be abandoned! And what better way was there of humbling Rome’s parochial pettiness by calling up the example of good willed fellow believers who had so obviously been persecuted by secularist totalitarians!

Alas, the more I argued with precisely such good-willed, persecuted, fellow Christians at Oxford---along with their Anglican and Roman Catholic fellow travelers---the more I grew confirmed in my still embryonic traditionalist conviction that everyone succumbing to the lure of the anti-rational, anti-dogmatic, anti-legalist, anti-communal authority message that their “tone” and “tendency” dictated were doomed; doomed to see their substantive Faith and its morals dismantled around them by whatever forceful presence in the group could impose itself as an electrifying spiritual director or community guide. Any stepping back to determine whether such a force de la nature and his followers were rationally and morally on the right path would reintroduce the bogeyman of dogma and law back into the picture, disturbing the celebration of their community of prayer, love, and spiritual union. I know this for a fact, because having attempted to probe some of the things that I heard brought me up against the immediate reproach of “trying to pin the spirit down according the lifeless precepts of Roman Law”; of “not allowing the Holy Spirit to speak His message to me”; of “not opening my heart to the superior (and somehow never to be judged) spirituality and special mission of the East”; of “failing to grasp the special lessons the an inspired Russian Church had learned about the evils of relying on the state to protect her”---as though the western concept of legitimate authority were the same as the exercise of Czarist, Caesaro-Papist power.

Once again, I am grateful for what I have learned from Eastern Christianity---and Russian Christianity in particular. I agree with the argument that the Church breathes with two lungs---one from the East and one from the West. But that means that I can take pride in a Western Church that has indeed inherited a Roman concern for law and put this to work in her understanding of authority, community, and spiritual transformation in Christ; a Western Church that has done so in union with a dogmatic rigidity whose importance she very much first grasped under pressure from her Eastern Sister of the early Ecumenical Councils. And it is these two lungs together that tell me to use all the tools of my Faith and Reason to ensure that Russia spreads her truths---and not her errors---to the rest of the globe.

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