Tag Archives: Russian Orthodoxy

Praying with Icons

Praying with IconsPraying with Icons by Jim Forest

Sometimes arguments are not won by logic or reason or even by words. Sometimes the best case for certain beliefs is made by a story, an experience, or the testimony of beauty. How many people have chosen to create a marriage by following a logical argument to its conclusion, for instance? With our evangelical theological heritage though, we often tend to think our religious beliefs play out almost exclusively in the realm of logic and reason. Or at least we act like we do. (This is where you get the modern ugliness of young earth creationism and strict Biblical literalism.) Theology though—or at least the religious life—is the testimony of beauty played out through history. One of the ways this is most apparent in Orthodox Christianity is in the heritage of icons.

As Jim Forest’s book illustrates, the concept of the icon itself is in some ways an icon of the Church itself. Theologically, icons are a symbol of the Incarnation—that what before was ineffable has now become flesh. They are also a representation of sanctity: saints whose lives have been transfigured by holiness into Christ-likeness remain not simply as a concept or memory but as an abiding spiritual presence. And again: they are windows into the historical life and testimony of the Church— who these people were, how they lived, how they have been cherished. This historic testimony is alive in all its forms and hymns, in its music and liturgy, but it is perhaps most present in the vivid, luminous faces of its icons (both on wood and in flesh).

Because of all these reasons, though Forest does not lay them out systematically, his work, Praying with Icons, is not as much a manual of praxis or a straightforward study in iconography (though there are introductory chapters on these topics as well as on the creation of icons). Instead it becomes in some sense a primer on the Church itself. The bulk of the book is a series of meditations on several important icons. Though to me the selection seemed a bit haphazard and heavily Russian-influenced, these chapters introduce a wide array of Church tradition, history, and belief through the lenses of icons. The feeling of an introductory primer to Orthodoxy in general was also born out by the selection of prayers included at the conclusion of the volume.

Praying with Icons was published as part of an ecumenical series of texts aimed at all believers, so the feeling of a presentation of Orthodox spiritual practice through icons is apt and accessible. My primary complaint with the book is the low quality of images throughout. Though the book is built on the concept of their great beauty, the images reproduced (including the image chosen for the cover of the volume) are poor quality and do little to communicate visually their richness. Though Forest has seen many of these famous icons in person, some images seemed simply too low quality for high-resolution reproduction. Having seen other books where the icons were reproduced with great clarity and color, this was disappointing.

This is a book I would pass along to others curious about Orthodox practices or even to fellow parishioners looking for a simple, accessible adjunct to their own spiritual practice. The meditations Forest writes on each icons are lovely and concise and would be useful to those looking for basic “devotionals” built around these silent but somehow expectant witnesses in color and light to the life of the Church.

Saint Siluoan the Athonite

Saint Silouan the AthoniteSaint Silouan the Athonite by Sophrony Sakharov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What does it mean to be holy? I’ve asked this before, in a previous review of the theology of Archimandrite Sophrony. Sophrony was a monk who lived for a time in the monastic community of Mount Athos and served as an assistant of sorts to an older monk, St. Silouan. Sophrony saw Silouan as a great spiritual leader, and this volume is an account of Silouan’s life by Sophrony (which takes up the first half of the large book), followed by the collected writings of Silouan himself.

Silouan was a Russian peasant who came to Mount Athos as a monk in the early twentieth century and who lived there in poverty, prayer, and ascetic practice for decades. In the minds of many, this is a waste: a life of chastity, cut off from the rest of the world, without practicing good deeds or serving others, simply a life of “navel-gazing”—fretting about one’s own spiritual life and a constant, morbid attention to death, to unworthiness, to begging for repentance and the love of God. As some of my students would point out, this seems very much like a “works-based” salvation.

But I’ve already argued for the merits of something like this, so I won’t go down that road again. Let’s just make the assumption that the ascetic life is a recognized and integral part of the Christian tradition, and once that assumption is made let’s see what we might learn from it. Because I doubt many who read this book will actually be called to that life (and Silouan is careful to point out that no one should embark on such a life unless they are called by God). Rather, there’s the idea that maybe folks who go up the mountain have some wisdom for those who remain below. And if nothing else, anyone who’s interested in diversity of views and perspectives (and what could be stranger than someone who self-consciously rejects what most of the rest of us spend our lives pursuing?) should occasionally peruse the writings of the Christian mystics.

For Siluoan, prayer and repentance are central to the life of the Christian. For those who claim that the life of a monk is one of inactivity, Siluoan (and tradition) would argue that prayer is the most essential, ontological reality of the world, and that this is thus the action of all true monks, the center of their existence. Indeed, there is the idea that if prayer ceases, the world itself ends. Prayer is the proper orientation of reality to God, the source of all reality, and for women and men like Siluoan, learning to pray—disciplining the mind and the will so that ceaseless prayer becomes a reality—is the primary task of the monk (or nun).

But the prayer Siluoan speaks about might be a bit foreign to those of us who are used to saying a few prayers on behalf of our own interests and the interests of our friends and family each day. True prayer, for an Orthodox monk like Siluoan, springs from repentance, which is not a “once and done” kind of thing. Rather, repentance is a constant posture before God: a sort of humility that borders on self-hate, a realization that the monk is the least in the kingdom of God, that others are sure to be saved but that there is no hope for the penitent, no excuse. It is for the monk an echo of the humility of Christ, that one must consider himself the least of all, must descend in humility and brokenness as Christ did, must shed bitter tears.

Like so many things in Orthodox Christianity, this is balanced in paradox: this deep repentance cannot give way to despair, because in the midst of all there is the hope of the mercy of God. This is the source of Siluoan’s famous statement, which he said he was given by the Lord Himself: “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” That is, keep your mind on your own wretchedness and brokenness, keep a posture of ultimate humility and depth of need in prayer, but trust in the mercy of God.

There is a purpose to this disposition. It is not self-flagellation or psychological masochism in order to earn some kind of salvation; rather, it is the path to true prayer, because only from such a posture of humility can one begin to bear the burden of the world, can one begin to shed tears of compassion not simply on behalf of one’s own sins but for the sins of the world. And this, Siluoan argues, is the ultimate purpose of the monk’s life in prayer: to offer up the world itself to God, to ceaselessly intercede with tears and compassion for everyone.

It is in this context that Siluoan makes what I think is perhaps his most powerful (and helpful) claim regarding prayer and the presence of God. In today’s climate of religious fervor and fundamentalism, of preaching and emotivist appeals, Siluoan claims there is one true way to know whether the Spirit of God is actually present. In Siluoan’s world, this sort of discernment was necessary for monks who claimed to have received a word or a vision from God. I think it holds equally true for us outside of the monastery, surrounded by people who claim to speak for God.

Siluoan’s statement is this: where the Spirit of God is, there is true humility, true love for enemies, and tears for the whole world. That is, if you claim to have any sort of deep experience with God, and the results are pride, derision, or division, this is a false claim. The true marks of the presence of the Spirit of God, according to Siluoan, are recognition of one’s own unworthiness (humility) and a compassion that extends to even those you thought you hated. Siluoan emphasizes this multiple places in his work, arguing that Christianity is never violent, never cajoling, but always something built on humility and compassion.

This struck me as incredibly profound: that an encounter with God brings about, not confident fiery preaching or denunciations or clearly-defined lines between us and the other, but rather tears, compassion, and a reticence to speak because we’ve finally realized how broken we actually are. Replace our confidence to denounce others we believe are wrong with a heartfelt compassion for our enemies and a humility that says they are more deserving of God’s grace than we ourselves, and Siluoan says you have a much more genuine Christianity and the true marks of encountering God.

For those who might immediately protest that God hates sin and that we have a responsibility to speak about the righteous judgement of God, I’d offer the saying of another monk, St. Isaac the Syrian, who, hundreds of years ago, offered this advice: “Do not speak of the judgement of God. His judgement is not evident in His dealings with you.”

What this thread of Christian thought is speaking to is this: Christianity is praxis, and the center and the goal of the Christian life is to know the love of Christ. Learn the love of Christ, these fathers would say. This knowledge is not book-knowledge. This is not a system of thought to be absorbed and repeated. This is an experiential knowledge, one arrived at through action, discipline, and the grace of God. Focus on that, bend your energies to that, to learning the love of God in Christ. Then and only then, these writers would say, worry about the implications of your theology for the life and practice of others. And then what you will find, according to their testimonies, is that you’re more interested in serving them, in serving even your enemies, in humility and love and compassion, then you are in condemning them.

Siluoan’s work is a hard read. The book is long and repetitive, and for a Western reader the nuggets of profundity seem buried in a lot of chest-beating and woe-is-me rhetoric. But for Siluoan, that’s the point. You have to do the hard work of self-abnegation to arrive at true knowledge of the love of God. The first portion of the book is a difficult go because it’s written by Siluoan’s protege and the tone is very hagiographic; it’s hard to see where the actual person was in the midst of all this. And then the second portion is Siluoan’s own writings, which, as the editor explains, are the occasional, unorganized scraps of a barely-literate peasant. So this portion is very repetitive and lacks a certain polish, but if anything it provides a more genuine glimpse into the mind and heart of someone who would forsake the world and spend a lifetime in the desert for love of God. Along the way, you also get some anecdotes about life on Mount Athos, which at times seems like another planet or at least another time period. And in the midst of this all, you get a sense of the things outlined above, of the goal of prayer and the life of repentance for the monk.

The Last Tsar

The Last Tsar the Life and Death of Nicholas IIThe Last Tsar the Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard Radzinsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wrote in an earlier review about the apocalypse that the Russian revolution must have been to Christians who lived through it, those who had come of age in a self-consciously, imperially Christian nation finding themselves citizens of an atheistic regime in active and open revolt against the structures of the faith. But what about the ruling family themselves, the Romanovs? This book is a portrait of the life of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, focusing on the tragedy of his final months and his ultimate execution, along with his family, at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Radzinsky is apparently one of Russia’s most well-known playwrights and has written multiple volumes of popular history, of which this is one. He has given the book a strange format: we get glimpses of the author working through the archives of the royal family and various local Soviet archives (many recently declassified) as he pieces together his story. We also see old soldiers or Soviet officials coming out as glasnost takes hold, sharing with the author their recollections or letters of what happened in those final days. Overlaid on this background is the historical narrative itself, episodic to the point of being fragmentary and dramatized by the playwright’s eye. Knowing how the story ends, everything is foreshadowed by the conclusion, and ominous forebodings are read backward into the first days of the Tsar’s reign and even further, into his courtship and childhood. Radzinsky also often adds his speculations and reflections to the documentary material as the story is being told, giving a view of matters that if accurate still seems sensationalized.

The events of the book though are dramatic enough on their own, and my primary frustration was not the author’s style so much as the book’s lack of scope. It was apparently written for those who already knew Soviet history and who were trying to fill a very specific hole: what exactly happened to the Tsar, his wife, their daughters, and the heir in those chaotic last days. It was written for a Russian audience during a time in which new information was coming to light, but it meant much of the background was assumed.

This was especially apparent in the book’s first half, before the scope collapsed down to the Tsar’s family in their last house of imprisonment. Before this, documenting the last days of the Tsar’s reign, the casual Western reader is faced with a farrago of names unfamiliar and events for which he or she doesn’t have the context. I was still left clueless as to how exactly the Russian forces dissolved along the German front during the First World War and how Russian society turned up-side-down so quickly that the autocrat and commander in chief became a criminal and prisoner in his own palace. The Bolshevik Revolution was a tide that swept him and his family– and an entire social structure– away, and though we are treated to the surreal reversals (the disappearing guards, the palace that becomes a prison) through the eyes of the Tsar’s journals, the broader context is never outlined. For a reader already familiar with Russian history, the tight focus would be fine. For me, it meant I was as lost as Nicholas for much of the work.

The second half, once the old world had been swept away, was an easier read in this respect, and the foreboding and foreshadowing language the author used at times to the point of distraction during his survey of the Tsar’s reign now falls away as Radzinsky can focus on the grim details of their final imprisonment. He has the preoccupations of a playwright here as well: outlining their final setting like a stage, fussing with getting the characters of the final assassins outlined and pinned down, spinning out speculations and motives in the final political maneuverings before the royal family’s deaths. He is deeply sympathetic to the Romanovs, presenting their final attitudes as ones of stoic, Christian resolution and even– especially in the case of Nicholas– self-sacrifice and martyrdom for the greater good of his nation.

My fear was that with the sensationalism of earlier portions of the work, Radzinsky would focus too much on the grisly detail of their execution, but here he takes a circumspect, investigative approach. This was especially interesting in his exploration of events following the execution, as he works with records and clues to reconstruct their burial and reports on subsequent investigations regarding the recovery of the bodies. He lingers as well on the legends that sprang up regarding the possible survival of one of the daughters and the heir, Alexei Romanov, himself. The legends are easy to entertain (though they’ve since been disproven), because the entire story is told through the long, shadowy lens of decades of secrecy and Soviet rule. In some ways, this may be the most effective aspect of the book: illustrating not simply the nature of the regicide itself but the effort it took to piece together the details so long after the fact.

Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius

Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia's Unknown da VinciPavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia’s Unknown da Vinci by Avril Pyman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We seem to have a fascination with imagining the end of society. We like to talk as if we’re at the end of an era, the twilight of Western civilization or something similar. This appears in our rhetoric, but it also appears in the glut of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies and books of late. I often find myself wondering if the Byzantines felt the same way in the late 1300s, or the early Britons in the face of the Norman invasions, or anyone at all during the long twilight of Rome.

The truth seems to be that society goes through transitions– some quite painfully abrupt and others so gradual as to be unapparent until years or centuries later. For Christians, ideas about these collapses or transitions often take the form of fantasies of persecution or monastic retreat. We wonder what the Church might look like, how it would endure or be transformed, in such transitions. Ironically though, we forget that we have examples from the recent past of what the Church looks like when society collapses or transforms abruptly beyond recognition. Besides the more relevant example of Christianity in the Middle East today, we have the story of the Orthodox Church in Russia. It’s a story that I still don’t know all the details of, the collapse of an old order and the transition from one form of civilized society to another very different. What did the Bolshevik Revolution mean for the practicing faithful and for the institutional Church itself?

Pyman’s book doesn’t answer all these questions. In fact, it assumes the reader already has the context in which to situate the story she’s telling: that of the life of Pavel Florensky (1882 – 1937), a Russian scientist and intellectual, a father, a priest, and ultimately a declared enemy of the Soviet state. This was one of my primary frustrations with the book: I was dropped into a narrative that I still don’t have enough bearings to navigate. Pyman discusses Florensky’s early work in a plethora of Russian names I don’t know, and when the drama of the cataclysmic revolution that would have such an effect on the Church and Florensky’s life within it take place, again the reader is assumed to already understand the contexts of the events being alluded to. It’s difficult to understand the nature of Florensky’s role and reactions to these transformations if, for instance, you don’t already have a grasp on the role the Church played with respect to the government under the last Tsar and a basic knowledge of its hierarchical structure. All this knowledge is assumed. Indeed, not having much of the context of late Tsarist and early Soviet Russia made Florensky’s eventual brushes with the Soviet authorities seem to me perhaps as arbitrary and obscure as they must have to the new Soviet citizens who found themselves in a wash of acronyms, bureaus, committees, and police services that seemingly sprang up overnight.

But Pyman is not writing a book about social transformation or the plight of the Church after the revolution as it found itself in an increasingly and militaristically atheistic society. (If someone could recommend such a book, I would be interested.) Rather, Pyman’s book is about a man, Pavel Florensky, who came to age in the flourishing of the pre-revolutionary intellectual and literary scene and shocked many of his avant-garde social circle by coming to faith and ultimately joining the Church, an organization thought to embody many of the oppressive, traditionalist forces the young guard were rallying against. His first major work, The Ground and Pillar of Faith, which I have not read, is an intellectual apology for faith (something along the lines of a Russian Mere Christianity) lived in the life of the Orthodox Church and still influential today.

Florensky was also recognized and highly regarded as a scientist, and when the theological schools at which he taught were closed after the Soviets came to power, he worked and published extensively as an electrical researcher on behalf of the state. He ultimately lost his parish and in many ways his priestly vocation, but he famously retained his beard and cassock working and lecturing on science in an increasingly hostile environment. His life is the story of intense learning and service, but also of a rear-guard action, a long defeat, trying (for instance while serving on the board of antiquities for Russia’s most revered monastery) to save the traditions and artifacts of the Church (even, according to this account, smuggling away the head of a saint whose tomb was to be desecrated) in an increasingly grim time.

It’s the story of a long failure, as Florensky is finally arrested, does more scientific work for a time in a Siberian camp, writes his wife and children beautiful letters from a crumbling monastery converted in a labor camp and prison on the North Sea, and is ultimately shot on obscure charges and buried in a mass grave outside Moscow. It is in these final days that Pyman’s account becomes most poignant, balancing a despairing narrative of the wearing away of individuality in the gulag archipelago with passages of hope from Florensky’s letters home.

I’m stuck by the deep Christian heritage there is to draw upon in the Russian tradition. Florensky the scientist and father was a contemporary of the Athonite monk St. Silouan, whose work I’m also reading now. Silouan represents a deeply contemplative, mystical approach to faith lived out in obedience and humility in a Russian monastery on Athos. Florensky, on the other hand, was an intellectual (though also with a mystical bent), a family man, with a wife and five children, writing and teaching in the tumult of Moscow. Florensky and Siouan lived very different embodiments of the common faith, and Florensky’s life gives some hope in the possibility of living in grace in the context of home and science.

As far as Florensky’s actual scientific contributions, Pyman does a good job documenting his career and giving summaries of his theological work, but her treatment of his mathematical and scientific works are less satisfactory. We’re told he was a great mathematician, that he anticipated certain developments in quantum mechanics even, and that he drew on this to construct some kind of theology of number, but none of this is expounded on, and as far as his context among Russian science in general, very little is said. This is likely due to the writer’s background, but it leaves the true extent and lasting influence of Florensky to be taken on faith by those outside the Russian scientific sphere. (The question of Florensky’s influence is one I would have liked to have heard more about. The narrative stops abruptly with his death, offering no discussion of the fate of his family or how his writings and influence began to make themselves felt during the long Soviet thaw.)

For those who are trying to practice a life of faith lived out in writing, in intellectual dialogue, teaching, and service– and this in the spheres of both family and asceticism– the account of Florensky’s life, successes, and long fading will be inspiring and poignant. They will recognize a kindred spirit. And for those who bemoan the uncertainty of the times, the transitions or dissolutions of the culture, and the fate of the Church within all this, they will find an example of what a life of faith looked like played out in a “post-apocalyptic” society.

Take heart, little flock.