Holiness as a National Ideal (Pt. I)

In this first half of her essay, science-fiction author and Orthodox traditionalist Natalya Irtenina shows how Russian sainthood is not only the defining heritage of that great culture, but the key to its survival and flourishing. Long has modernity driven to annihilate all evidence of transcendence and salvation, but its fury is in vain. The proud and godless spirit of the age is powerless against the message of humility and repentance in Christ shared so fruitfully by St. John of Kronstadt. Translated by Mark Hackard.

The saints of ancient and modern Russia comprise a most extensive stratum of history and culture, one reluctantly and with difficulty introduced into the circulation of academic and public thought. Studies equal in significance to the work of G. P. Fedotov, The Saints of Ancient Rus, have not appeared up to this time, while in his book, research of the phenomenon of Russian sainthood is taken only up to the 17th century.

Collections of the lives and biographies of Russian saints are released, including thematic works (dedicated, for example, to the new martyrs and confessors of the 20th century), and numerous ascetics’ life stories from the modern period (18th-20th cc.) exist. However, all of this still cannot lay claim to an overall comprehension of the theme of Russian sainthood, the occurrence of this phenomenon in Russian culture, or its influence, direct and indirect, upon the nation’s spheres of spiritual, moral, social and even political life. Meanwhile, Fedotov would write in his book:

If we are not deceived in the conviction that in the final account, all of the people’s culture is determined by its religion, then in Russian sainthood we shall find the key that explains for much, even in phenomena of contemporary secularized Russian culture.

Modernity has in fact lost understanding of the phenomenon of holiness, this universal language that our ancestors spoke, and most importantly, lived. If we were to ask any man off the street to give a definition of a saint, in nine cases out of ten, the answer would be such: a certain strange subject who practices torture of the flesh and starving himself for the sake of achieving a “special spirituality,” which is composed of who knows what. One could probably also hear about “enlightenment” and “expanded consciousness,” as well as hermits outright hallucinating the divine. And precisely no one is able to reasonably explain why Aleksandr Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy or Fedor Ushakov became saints.

The “classical” definition of holiness (which is the natural goal of the life of a Christian), formulated by Seraphim of Sarov as gaining the Holy Spirit, is understandable only to people educated within the Church. A more simplified formula – uncovering within man the image and likeness of God, following and standing for God’s truth – is overall impenetrable and mysterious to the secularized masses. More intelligible to the masses is Danila Bagrov’s motto in the gangster film Brother: “Force is not in money, but in truth,” a conjectural reboot of the Christian knowledge that “Not in force is God, but in truth.” On this basis, Danila Bagrov can be canonized as “a saint of our time,” which seems to have been done (with attempts at consecutive de-canonization, however).

In other words, Russian saints have been wholly undeservedly forgotten and ousted beyond the frontiers of modern non-Church culture. They’ve become but another “tradition out of deep antiquity.” And this is not only a misunderstanding; in the final analysis, it is a crime against Russian history and culture, from which the heart has practically been excised. Should anyone attempt to remove the whole Golden Age of Russian literature from school programs, and with it the Silver – from Pushkin to Gumilev – they would be met with laughter. But in order to incorporate into these programs ten silver and golden ages of Russian sainthood, there has been a battle with the Ministry of Education over many years, even taking into account that the significance of a multitude of our saints is hardly any less for Russia, and still greater, than the meaning of Pushkin for Russian literature.

However strange it may be, we must explain that Russian saints are our national inheritance, along with statesmen, geniuses and folk heroes. “Their ideal sustained the life of the people for centuries; from their fire all of Rus lit their icon lamps.” (G.P. Fedotov) Holiness, striving for heaven and to God’s truth, gaining the Holy Spirit – all this was the primordial language of being understandable to all, from peasants to princes, and it united all in common service to a civilizational supra-value: the Holy Trinity of the Orthodox faith. Due to this language common to everyone, a genuine democratic ethos was possible as one of the auxiliary instruments of authority, and also possible was the symphony between people and authority. The people, through revered elders and monks, taught princes and boyars, engaged in conversation with them, and not simply about the weather, their health or the harvest, but about how to govern the land, how to live in the world with the people and one’s conscience, how to arrange a just trial, and how to build the Russian state.

Theodosius of the Caves, Sergius of Radonezh, Kirill of the White Lake, Pafnutius of Borovsk and Joseph of Volotsk were all interlocutors and authors of instructive addresses to princes, while in the imperial age we count Prelate Mitrofan Voronezhsky, whom Peter the Great rather highly respected, Metropolitan Filaret (Drozdov), to whom three emperors confided, Seraphim of Sarov, who wrote a letter addressed to Nicholas II – one that the Tsar would read seventy years after the Venerable’s passing. Quite often the saints were made to directly intervene in political matters, time after time proving that politics has no right to be a dirty affair, and that only a house built with stability over centuries in mind will have brotherly love and moral cleanliness set into its foundation. Holiness reconciled princes in their frequently bloody feuds and acted as a denunciation of untruth and lawlessness (Metropolitan Philip at the time of Ivan IV’s Oprichnina). The moral and spiritual authority of the saints was very high: they could give orders to rulers, and by the force of their words and personality subdue rebellious tempers. And, of course, it is impossible to compare anything with the spiritual and moral influence of the saints on the Russian people as a whole.

John of Kronstadt

God speaks the language of holiness to people through His elect, and when in verbal form, the message from on high becomes the very life of the ascetic who prophesies, sees others’ thoughts, heals, teaches and works miracles through God’s name. Through them The Lord proclaims: I am, I am here, I hear you; I rejoice and am horrified at your works, I wish all salvation and only wait for you to open your hearts to me, so that I would enter into them. By the holiness of his elect, God tells people about themselves, as people by this very holiness of a few righteous ones speak to God of themselves: that the human race is worth saving, for He promised Abraham, “for the sake of ten righteous men, I shall not destroy the city.” By His saints The Lord shows what He wants from us, and we answer Him by the life of the saints, in our love for them and their glorification. And if not everyone can even approach holiness, any man can still pray at the graves of the righteous or light a candle by their icons as an intention for his own soul.

January 2nd, 2009 (December 20th on the Old Calendar) marks one hundred years from the passing of one of the greatest Russian saints of the last two centuries – St. John of Kronstadt, “a father for all Russia,” whom we are fully entitled to call “the interpreter of the divine tongues” to modernity. Namely modernity – an age begun one and a half centuries ago by the first explosions of the humanist bomb-throwers’ “infernal machines,” an age continuing into our own day. An age of decaying minds stuffed with the rubbish of secular “universal” values, of frozen hearts that have forgotten the trembling joy of faith, of musty souls dwelling in the abomination of desolation. One hundred and fifty years ago, having arrived at his church to serve as a priest, John of Kronstadt began a national and spiritual sermon that would be the length of his life. No one coerced him into this; he simply knew that he should become an “interpreter” of God’s language for people who had lost an understanding of it, who will willingly or unwillingly had rejected the very existence of this language. In other words, John of Kronstadt was made a shepherd – authentic, firm, unshakeable, striving toward perfection, loving, and leaving no one, not even the last sheep of his flock, behind. Very soon this flock increased to the size of all Russia; they loved and trusted him unreservedly.

The town of Kronstadt’s “dregs” – the impoverished, drunkards and similar shady personae – were the first to feel the sobering impact of the language of holiness by which their father spoke. Their hearts began to thaw, their souls were cleansed of decay, and their minds gradually rejected the chaff of inhuman values, from debauchery and carousing to godlessness and the “freedom of self-expression.” Father John became a source of the living water of faith, to which many thousands of those parched and wearied by the abomination of desolation would rush: simple folk and aristocracy, illiterate manual laborers and the professors of universities. Holiness drew them all like a magnet. As long as the shepherd of Kronstadt was alive, atheist mockery of Christianity was powerless to interdict this endless human stream, a flood of burning faith. Newspapers and other such rags, preaching “liberty, equality and fraternity” and considering themselves the masters of men’s minds, went hoarse trying to prove the “misanthropy” of Orthodoxy. The Lord God raised a pillar in John of Kronstadt to show who exactly was who: who in fact had love and mercy reinforced by the strength of prayer, and who possessed malice and hatred fed by the Luciferian pride of “lovers of mankind.”

An Englishman and contemporary of the Kronstadt ascetic wrote:

In our time, he evidently approaches the first apostles. He is genuinely a true doctor of the Gospel…For those who believe in Father John – and there’s an innumerable multitude of them – the age of miracles has not yet passed.

John of Kronstadt cured through his prayers thousands of people who traveled to him or sent telegrams. He healed all whom he could help, all whose souls were not dead: Russians, foreigners, Muslims and Jews, whose last hope was the God of Orthodoxy. “Through me,” he said, “in a manifest and tangible way, the force of grace was effected in many, in simple believers.”  And “in this I see God’s directive to me, a special obedience from God – to pray for all those who request mercy from God.” Even the smallest sprout of faith in man the Lord protects by the hand of His saints, all in order that it would not wither.

Yet his wondrous gift of healing was not enough to return the dying Alexander III to life; Father John’s prayers only eased the suffering of the Emperor. Having taken from the people the Tsar who created Russia “the Russian way,” God judged otherwise. Much later Father John would write: “God’s righteous fate is carried out over Russia.” The Christian philosophy of history asserts that the level of society’s moral and spiritual state is directly tied to the material and sovereign state. The condition of morals in Russia was catastrophic and rapidly hastened the catastrophe of the nation and the state.

The language of holiness is the language of the prophets. John of Kronstadt dreadfully prophesied:

The Russian Tsardom is close to falling…If there is no repentance among the Russian people, God will remove from them the pious Tsar and send a scourge to rule in the form of impious and cruel impostors, those who will drown all the land in blood and tears.

The spiritual law of history is implacable, but God is higher than any law. The fire of His love destroys dross and purifies gold. John of Kronstadt, not the first and not the last of God’s heralds, left this hope: “I foresee the restoration of a mighty Russia, even stronger and more powerful,” and reminded us, “Russians have ceased understanding what Rus is – she is the foot of the Throne of The Lord!”

The Old Testament prophets went unheeded by the debauched Israelites, and Russia did not heed its own. The voices of other “prophets” resounded ever louder and with ever more insolence…

Read Part II.