Imperial Russia has always been a land of pious people, devotional traditions, and many saints
By Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest
This year marks exactly 300 years since the proclamation of the Russian Empire. This truly momentous and hugely influential historical event was undoubtedly already subject of discussion in the writings of many scholars. The Russian Empire, as the heir of Constantinople, the Orthodox State par excellence, as the continuation of a great, more than a thousand-year long history of Christian Statehood. “Moscow is the Third Rome” – this once largely naive and previously seemingly unrealisable theory of the Russian Middle Ages became reality at the same time as Russia became an empire. “Moscow is the Third Rome and there will be no fourth” – this axiom has been refuted by reality itself, because the first, decisive, valid, universal, and global, and therefore a real and realistic embodiment of this eternal Russian dream became Saint Petersburg.
In this perspective it is no accident that the abolition of the Empire, as a consequence of the February Revolution of 1917, is referred to by Church historians and theologians as the end of the Constantinian period of Church history. The time from Constantine the Great (+337) to Nicholas II (+1918), when the Orthodox Church, first in Constantinople, then in Kiev, Vladimir, Moscow and finally in Saint Petersburg enjoyed the special patronage and care of the State, found in the Orthodox Empire constant support and backing, and felt itself invincible. The time of Imperial Russia is a period of state churchliness. Often criticised by many, but truly unique, in many ways glorious and special time, equal to which, more, will never be. State Churchhood as a blessing, as an attempt, naive and daring, to realise here and now, once and for all, in a visible way that which the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer proclaims: “For Yours is the Kingdom, and Power, and Glory”.
The time of Imperial Russia was also a time of glory for the Russian Church, or as its name was then officially used: the Greek Eastern Russian Church. For this period of its history was marked by an incredible Mission which reached even the North American Continent, China, and Japan; by the highest quality of higher spiritual education; by a fruitful dialogue with the Anglican and Old-Catholic Churches; and by many other factors. It also became a time of saints. It was in this, the Synodal Period of the history of the Russian Church, that such great saints lived, worked, served people and prayed, as: Saint Joasaph of Belgorod (+1754), Tikhon of Zadonsk (+1783), Seraphim of Sarov (+1833), the Holly Elders of Optina, who so deeply influenced Dostoevsky, to whose personality is also dedicated this edition of the Russian Mind, and John of Kronstadt (+1909), a priest and a prophet of the last time of the Empire, who performed miracles and also entered into a tragic confrontation with Leo Tolstoy.
There is a very ancient tradition in Orthodoxy to celebrate the All-Saints Day on the Sunday after the Pentecost, to underline the work of the Holy Spirit in the human holiness. By the same logic the saints who belonged to nations, countries or regions on the Sunday immediately following the All-Saints.
Thus, All Russian Saints are commemorated by the Church on the second Sunday after Pentecost. It is noteworthy that this feast was finally established in 1918. In this way it became a kind of farewell to previous eras, an important moment of thanksgiving, including, if I may say so, to ‘imperial holiness’.
The peculiarity of the remembrance of the saints who shone forth in the Russian Empire, as our country was called from 1721 to 1917, is that the memory of the ‘Saints of the Russian Empire’ is not commemorated separately. This is, of course, very regrettable, for it contributes to the distortion, above all, by the secular world and the western people, of the special and unique face of our country. Thus, not many people know that, in addition to the prosperity, constant willingness to reform and perform country, the aspiration to make changes, the unique and often harsh climate, and the amazing nature, Imperial Russia has always been a land of pious people, devotional traditions, and many saints. Even the old anthem of pre-revolutionary Russia, “God Save the Tsar”, is a prayerful and audacious appeal to God. A prayer, a hymn, a church psalm.
As we remember and thereby celebrate the honor of the great host of saints of the Russian Empire, we remember all of them, whose presence, preaching, and labours blessed our blessed country. The innumerable saints who enlightened and interceded for ‘the native land so kept by God’, as it is already sung in today’s Russian Hymn, and for our entire planet, are now, especially to the outside world, to be forgotten. In oblivion by modernity, but not only. For oblivion is the fate of our God and our Faith. Christianity as the union of the visible and the invisible, the great and the small, the tangible and the inaccessible, the invisible and the present identifies itself with reflection on the tragic nature of the Journey of the Universe towards Redemption. To the tragical wandering of the Church towards the Heavenly Homeland correspond the unpredictable roads of life of every man in Christ.
Our perception of the great Commemorations of Saints is almost always unwittingly aimed at singling out, setting apart, glorifying before God those who, in this or that country, land or nation are commemorated as saints. Looking at them, God’s people as if to exclaim: “Not we, not we, Lord, but they: they embody all that is righteous, upright, faithful and holy, they embody and bear in themselves that which is so lacking in all others, including us”. This was the case in antiquity, in centuries gone by, and it is also the case in modern times, for example, in the veneration of the New Martyrs.
What does the word holiness mean? In my understanding, it is the becoming reality of the Work of God for the Redemption of every man in Christ Jesus. But by venerating saints, one gets the impression that human ordinariness, profanity, and everyday life and, in more recent times, secularism leave us unattached to holiness. As if blocked the way for every human soul to enter the communion of saints.
However, this perception is wrong. For today, like any other celebration in honour of the saints glorified by the Church, the Church, the Society of the Faithful, the Wandering Body of Christ, is in fact celebrating its own holiday – the day of the Christian vocation. It is the vocation of which the texts of the ancient liturgies speak. It is the predestination to holiness, to stand before God, to find – or better – to see oneself before God, with God and in God in Jesus Christ. Faith is believing God, believing in God, walking together with God – as St Augustine wrote and preached about it.
To look at the saints is a duty to investigate Him who, according to the authentic biblical word, once and for all, forever became the authentic image, the first image of all holiness. “One holy, one Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father”, as it says during the Divine Liturgy before communion.
The Lord Jesus is indeed holy. By His holiness we are sanctified. Generations of biblical men and women, Christians of the New Testament era, people of all times that have passed, have gazed upon the Lord Jesus, and always turned their eyes to Him anew: He who is to come, who has come, who must come (cf. Rev. 1:8).
Often, when we read the name of a saint in the liturgical calendar, we find no knowledge or remembrance of him or her and we seem to pass him or her by. It is as if there is nothing in common between us and them, the saints of God, at that moment. There is a sense of non-attachment of the righteous to the sinfulness and profanity of the common people.
Biblically spoken, the saints were nothing but sinners. But the power of grace lifted them by the power of grace the way of the righteous to holiness in a very infallible way.
Let us proceed to a much greater because much greater analogy. The people of ancient Israel looked upon the Lord Jesus exclusively as the Messiah. But seeing much in Him that they were convinced did not correspond to their ideas of Messianism, and they turned away.
The generations at the time of the Ecumenical Councils saw Jesus as God. Those who saw man, in time, founded a new religion without Him.
The Modernity, who believed with Luther and Calvin, defined Jesus as unmistakably calling man from damnation and death by a predestination to salvation. Some later saw Him as a Teacher, some simply as a Friend, others, in the last century, tried to approach Him or, better yet, to bring Him closer to themselves in the image of a liberator of the oppressed, kind of a “Palestinian Che Guevara” or even a “rock star” … But contrary to all these human, too human expectations, there was too much in the Lord Jesus, for in Him was everything!
It is important to remember that God truly became human. God did not become “Messiah”, neither did he become “Priest” or “Teacher of righteousness”. So here we are forced to invent things to express the essence of the misunderstanding of things. Surprisingly we are to denote a way of perceiving the Lord that is not real, not realistic, not consistent with the truth, the fullness of the truth or even part of the truth, which is – unfortunately – tragically characteristic of everyone or almost everyone. Perhaps everyone tends to simplify the mystery, to see the Lord as a tool with which God could redeem history from the snare of its wrong course.
The mystery, the paradox and, in a way, the very essence of the Christian faith is that in Christ Jesus God himself became incarnate in human flesh, soul, body, and blood, breath and skin. God is like the skin in which I live…
The language of the Bible is almost always poetry. “But the word of God is alive and effectual, and sharper than any sword: it penetrates to the division of soul and spirit, compounds and brains; it judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from Him, but everything before His eyes is open and naked” (Hebrews 4:12-13).
God is an infinite self-addressing. Infinitely addressed in history. And therefore, no infinite and more complete way has been found for this infinity to address, give, transfer, and bestow itself, except in the human self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The human being, the being of man, the Story of the One Living, whose name is Christ Jesus. The fullness of God was revealed in Him precisely because in Him, and only in Him, the fullness of a human being became visible. Tangible, visible, received by the Church in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
In the Eucharist, this simple sacrament containing bread, wine, and very little water, but infinitely much of the Word of God, Prayer and Blessing, the capacity of the infinite God to become infinitely finite is visible. Tangible. But at the same time to remain infinite. As the ancient Church Fathers, Teachers, writers, and theologians said about it: He has taken upon Himself all our things. He has given us all that is His.
In the union of all that is human with all that is divine, the essence of the celebration in honor of the saints is revealed. For no one, never saw God. God and the Father was revealed and is revealed by the Son of God (John 1:18). No one can call Jesus Lord unless moved by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). This reveals the Biblical Truth about the Revelation of God. About the very essence of His Being. And just as Jesus is only revealed by the Spirit and in the Spirit, so the Spirit Himself – will be revealed in the saints. “He will come to be glorified in His saints, to appear wondrous on that day in all who believe” (cf. 2 Thess. 1:10). In man’s ability to manifest the Lord and express His Essence is revealed the great biblical meaning of holiness as looking at us through the eyes of God. This is also the essence of the Church’s constant request and need before God for the prayerful intercession of the saints.
“O land of Russia, holy city, adorn your house, in which the divine great hosts of saints are glorified. O Russian Church, be decorated and exult; behold, behold, your children rejoice in the glory that reigns before the throne of the Lord. O, choir of the Russian saints, divine regiment, pray to the Lord for your earthly fatherland and for those who honor you with love. The new House of Bethlehem, the promised land, Holy Russia, keep the Orthodox faith, in it to you the statement”.