The Madness of the Cross

Russian historical novelist Natalya Irtenina examines the very modern phenomenon of Christian conviction without faith – an attribute of those who struggle toward God in a godless age, a world suffocated by rationalist constructs and eviscerated by nihilism. The brilliant poet and diplomat Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev (1803-1873) embodied such longing, and is a symbol of hope for those who would only cry out to the unknown God to help their unbelief. Translated by Mark Hackard.

Russian life in the past two centuries has borne among other things a strange type of man – he who has within himself an at-first-glance paradoxical conjunction of beliefs. He isn’t religious, he doesn’t believe in God, and he does not seek refuge for his soul in the Church. Yet for all that, he is convinced of the importance of Christianity, the significance of the social institution of the Church, and the necessity of all the characteristics of Orthodox religiosity for the entire people and the private individual.

In the 19th century, Slavophile Ivan Aksakov expressed this contradiction in his book on Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev: he was a man “not of Christian belief,” but “Christian convictions.” Tyutchev’s younger contemporary, the philosopher Konstantin Nikolaevich Leontiev, was for half his life indifferent to the essence of Christian belief and remained just an observer of the exterior side of Orthodoxy. Sensitive, attentive, and admiring, but still an outsider. “To my aesthetic, Russian love for the Church I had to add that which I lacked before a full confession of faith: fear of sin…fear of God, spiritual fear…,” he would later write. In other words, “beards, pussy-willows, icons, the poetry of prayer and fasting,” but not one’s own participation. An aesthetic satisfaction from contemplation, but not personal faith.

Village Church

And it would be in vain to think that this psychological paradox is the attribute of only higher philosophical minds like those of Tyutchev and Leontiev, or a quality attained with higher education. In our 21st century, the possessor of an internal mechanism replacing faith with Christian convictions can be a factory worker, a novelist, or a university professor. It is not the level of intellect that plays a role, but that common factor that unites our conditional worker, novelist, and professor, one described by Tyutchev in the line, “Not the flesh, but the spirit has been defiled in our day.” A lack of giftedness toward faith and a non-aspiration to it.

Tyutchev himself was one of these men and extremely honestly, with ingenious simplicity and clarity expressed this quality:

Scorched and seared by unbelief,

He bears today the unbearable,

And conscious of his death,

It is for faith that he thirsts, but he requests it not.  (Our Age)

That he doesn’t request is the key here, for it is not a gift.

He will not say with prayer and tears

However he might grieve before the shut door:

‘Let me in! – I believe, my God!

Come to the aid of my unbelief!”

And the same is found in Tyutchev’s prose about himself:

In the depths of my soul is tragedy, for often I feel a deep revulsion toward myself and at the same time I sense how fruitless this feeling of revulsion is, since this unprejudiced evaluation of myself derives exclusively from the mind – the heart has no place here, as there is no admixture that would resemble a burst of Christian repentance…

Whence appear “Christian convictions” outside of faith, outside of recognition of Christ as the Son of God, outside of the walls of the Church? What soil grows them, how are they fertilized? And whence the enormous disparity between the number of those who today count themselves Orthodox (65-75%) and those who are at least minimally taking part in Church life (10-20%)?

One must think that the matter is not in the moral authority of the Patriarch alone and ascetic fathers in the parishes. Moreover, the factor of “Church authority” didn’t work in the coldly rational 19th century.

Rus Departing by Korin

The Russian perception of Christianity was from the beginning, from the first introduction, an aesthetic one. From an infant’s first inhalation of the scent of sandalwood in a church full of burning candles and song in a Capella. From the first encounter of ancient Rus with Byzantine Orthodoxy, the amazement of Prince Vladimir’s emissaries before the warm luxury of the Divine Liturgy in the Hagia Sophia: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth: for there is no sight and beauty such as this…”

And then we have Leontiev’s “poetry of prayers and fasting,” his “aesthetic and childlike adherence to the exterior forms of Orthodoxy” (from his letter). It is that same joy before beauty – not just of ritual, but also of what is behind its coverings, the internal transfiguring sacrament: of prayer, of fasting.

Now Tyutchev with his profound feeling for history, the cosmic greatness of creation moving in time:

On the day of my departure, which came on Sunday, there was Liturgy, and after Liturgy the unavoidable prayer service, then a visit to one of the most revered chapels in Moscow, where there is the miracle-working icon of the Iverskaya Mother of God. In a word, everything transpired according to the rites of a most exacting Orthodoxy… And so what? For the man who encounters it only in passing and at his convenience, there are in these forms so deeply historical, this Byzantine-Russian world, where life and sacred service comprise one – in this world so ancient that even Rome in comparison smells of innovation, for the man endowed with sensitivity to such phenomena, there is a greatness of incomparable poetry.

Again poetry. Can we reduce everything to the fact that Tyutchev was a poetic genius and Leontiev among other things was a man of letters, a man possessing an extraordinary aesthetic sense and desiring beauty in everything, from everyday life to the sovereign order and politics? No. Prince Vladimir’s ambassadors were neither poets, artists, nor some manner of unique aesthetic gourmands. Rather, take contemporary “visitors” from that numerical disparity between Orthodox by self-identification and those active in the Church. What brings them to suddenly drop by the cathedral, light a candle, stand with bowed head before the icons? The poetry of churchliness. “Beards, pussy-willows, icons.” The scent of sandalwood, the shine of candles, the bass of the deacon, faces of the saints. And a vague melancholy and momentary hope begetting anxiety, the movement of a stagnant soul.

Tyutchev: “And man longs desperately. He tears toward light from the night shadow.” Aleksandr Blok, having called Tyutchev “the night-soul himself,” had his poetry in mind. But therein lies Tyutchev’s entire sense of life. The poet sought a way out of his melancholy state of constant disquietude and psychological despair. Many times in contemplation he confronted the necessity of faith for man.

When you stand face to face with a reality that offends and crushes all your moral being, can we truly have the strength to not, for a time, turn away our gaze and not stupefy ourselves with illusion?

But illusions are too temporary and fluid. A multitude of diverse illusions can be replaced by strong faith alone, the necessary condition of life’s stability. For “man, deprived of familiar beliefs, betrayed to the mercy of life’s realities, cannot experience a state other than an unending seizure of demonism.” For Fyodor Ivanovich himself the power of this ‘seizure’ was doubled by his inability to personally come to faith in Christ. But the poetry of Christianity lived within him.

Poetry plays in the Russian soul. The poetry of churchliness is only a part of the whole. In the Soviet Union, deprived of the spirit of churchliness, people lived by another poetry – the feverish and seething poetry of the workbench, the opening of the virgin soil, of turning back rivers, of subduing the Cosmos. The hydrogen bomb is the terrifying poetry of total destruction, absolute evil and chaos that served the good. The bomb was a Soviet “Katechon” restraining us from death, the end of the world, and the “mystery of iniquity,” a pseudo-biblical poetry (2 Thes. 2:7).

After the death of the Soviet Empire, the people sensed that the poetry of Russian horizons and the Russian land had been stolen from them. A poetry of the heavens only began to heal and spread its wings broken in the anti-religious frenzy. And without poetry, the people took to dying out.

Yet when poetic elements play in the soul, Russians are capable of much and the diametrically opposite. We can organize the Antarctic and not put a farthing toward the poverty of our own lives, or master the Cosmos while habitually not noticing the impassable mud of Russian roads…

These poor settlements,

This meagre nature,

This native land of long-suffering.

Take churchliness from the Russian land, and not only the “foreigner with his proud gaze,” but we ourselves soon will cease to see and understand what “is seen and secretly shines/In your modest nakedness.” Today many do not see and understand this other hypostasis of a great Russia. “Tragic,” “peaceful and dark,” but the living, authentic, and fulfilled existence of Rus. Even Tyutchev, the frequenter of the capitals’ salons, was once made to look differently upon man’s purpose. The religious free-thinker, the poetic pagan who alone stood against the “deaf heavens” and was wearied by hopelessness, suddenly saw life full of higher meaning. Its meaning was to “suffer, pray, believe, and love.”

Cross Procession - Illarion Pryanishnikov

Leontiev: “I love the Russia of Tsars, monks, and priests, a Russia of red blouses and blue tunics, the Russia of the Kremlin and equable despotism.” Take away the Tsars, monks, and priests, and will there be a Russia left? She will remain, but not for long. The “shining nakedness” will soon cease to be modest, and “long-suffering” will be squandered. And the people will want to jump into the last carriage of a wholly different civilization’s departing train, a non-Russian civilization with other elements in its soul, purely prosaic and ponderously material. Elements for whom dirt nearby and poverty are an absolute evil, and for whom beauty is found in rainbow feathers and glitter.

For he who feels kinship with Russian elements, life in the Church is one a central one. For Leontiev the authenticity of Russia was in autocracy and Byzantine Orthodoxy. And the practical faith of Tyutchev was Russia herself. In his obituary this faith was described:

A feeling within which are concentrated all of his soul, his nature, both intellectual and moral – this is his patriotism, his limitless faith in Russia’s future, her fate, her mission both historical and providential.

When at the beginning of the 1840s, after 22 years of service in Germany, Tyutchev returned to Russia forever, it was expected that he would be a consummate Westernizer, a European in mind, tastes, and views. What general surprise there was when from under the irreproachable European appearance and Western gloss, he revealed a Russian nature to the tips of his fingers, a nature devoted to Russia unto selflessness. According to the words of Aksakov, Tytuchev was one of “a small number of bearers, even movers, of our Russian, popular consciousness.” Russia, by Tyutchev’s conviction, should become the center of the Greco-Slavic world, of a world Orthodox Empire and “show the world a force earthly, sovereign, enlightened or defined by the principle of faith, serving only the cause of self-defense, liberation, and voluntary unity” (in Aksakov’s formula). Immersed in policy, Fyodor Ivanovich considered himself personally responsible for the enactment of this supra-objective.

In Tyutchev’s poetic mythology there was no place for a religion of salvation or faith in Christ, but along with this he himself was a passionate apologist of Orthodoxy. “Christian convictions” speak of the necessity of the Church for Russia, of the measure of churchliness as the measure of stability of the country’s backbone.

Who loves Russia with all their heart and mind, namely Russia in herself, and not oneself within Russia, will understand and love her Orthodox spirit. Sooner or later he will plunge himself into this love. He will love the fasts, the monks and priests, and the very fear of God, the fear of sin – and he himself will beg for this love and faith for himself, or this gift will be sent to him suddenly and by all appearances undeservedly, perhaps even in the last moments of life.

Holy Confession

What is lacking along with “Christian convictions” to be able to believe in Christ? Humility. We must “bow our knees before the Madness of the Cross or negate all.” Thus did Tyutchev formulate the problem of faith in his philosophical dispute with Friederich Schelling in Munich. Fyodor Ivanovich himself could do neither one thing nor the other – neither bow his knees, nor negate everything.

“The supra-natural lies in the depth of all that is most natural in man,” he continued in that same conversation. “He has his roots in human consciousness, roots that are much stronger than that which we call reason, this pitiful reason that recognizes only what is understandable to it, that is, nothing.” His Christian convictions “of the mind” clashed with a pagan worldview, begetting melancholy. With all his soul Tytuchev desired faith, but he could not give it to himself. Only when death crept closely toward him did faith began to win back space in a soul “poisoned by reason.”

Leontiev was able to conquer himself at the peak of life. After he had simultaneously acquired the personal experience of revolt and humility before the inevitability of death, his own helplessness in the face of death by cholera and an unexpected healing after prayers to the Mother of God divided his life in two. “And from that time I cannot reject faith and the fear of the Lord, even if I wanted to… Religion is not always consolation; in many cases it is a heavy yoke, but who has truly believed will never part with this yoke for anything!” This he would write not long before taking his monastic vow.

All of his life Tyutchev sought out the key to death, and he could not find it. “In the face of such a spectacle you ask yourself: what does all this mean and what is the meaning of this terrifying mystery – if, however, there is any meaning?” Aksakov, visiting him after his first stroke, then reproached the poet in absentia:

Man is given a dreadful forewarning… The shadow of death passed over him. Time is given to prepare, repent, be sanctified… It seems to me, though, Fyodor Ivanovich…did not sense the proximity of death, its mysterious breathing near him.

Again, a few days later, Aksakov related: “Yesterday he took Communion… He didn’t know how, but the matter was done much more simply. At the first hint, he readily agreed.” And in a month Tyutchev’s wife would write: “The disease will have that positive aspect of having returned him to the religious path he left from the time of his youth… He eagerly listens to the number of Gospel chapters I read him daily, and the nurse says that during the nights they tend to have very serious religious conversations.”

“Never was his face more beautiful, illuminated, and triumphant,” than at the moment when Tyutchev’s soul left his body. It may be that then he finally beheld “the good heavens” and head “the life-creating voice” of the Lord for Whom he longed all his life.

Men come to faith through various paths, but they depart to its Source by the same road.