Synodical period (1700-1917)

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By: Timothy Ware ( Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)
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The Synodical period (1700-1917)

Peter [the Great] was determined that there should be no more Nicons. In 1700, when Patriarch Adrian died, Peter took no steps towards the appointment of a successor; and in 1721 he proceeded to issue the celebrated Spiritual Regulation, which declared the Patriarchate to be abolished, and set up in its place a commission, the Spiritual College or Holy Synod. This was composed of twelve members, three of whom were bishops, and the rest drawn from the heads of monasteries or from the married clergy.

The constitution of the Synod was not based on Orthodox Canon Law, but copied from the Protestant ecclesiastical synods in Germany. Its members were not chosen by the Church but nominated by the Emperor; and the Emperor who nominated could also dismiss them at will. Whereas a Patriarch, holding office for life, could perhaps defy the Tsar, a member of the Holy Synod was allowed no scope for heroism: he was simply retired. The Emperor was not called “Head of the Church,” but he was given the title “Supreme Judge of the Spiritual College.” Meetings of the Synod were not attended by the Emperor himself, but by a government official, the Chief Procurator. The Procurator, although he sat at a separate table and took no part in the discussions, in practice wielded considerable power over Church affairs and was in effect if not in name a “Minister for Religion.”

The Spiritual Regulation sees the Church not as a divine institution but as a department of State. Based largely on secular presuppositions, it makes little allowance for what were termed in the English Reformation “the Crown rights of the Redeemer.” This is true not only of its provisions for the higher administration of the Church, but of many of its other rulings. A priest who learns, while hearing confessions, of any scheme which the government might consider seditious, is ordered to violate the secrecy of the sacrament and to supply the police with names and full details. Monasticism is bluntly termed “the origin of innumerable disorders and disturbances” and placed under many restrictions. New monasteries are not to be founded without special permission; monks are forbidden to live as hermits; no woman under the age of fifty is allowed to take vows as a nun.

There was a deliberate purpose behind these restrictions on the monasteries, the chief centers of social work in Russia up to this time. The abolition of the Patriarchate was part of a wider process: Peter sought not only to deprive the Church of leadership, but to eliminate it from all participation in social work. Peter’s successors circumscribed the work of the monasteries still more drastically. Elizabeth (reigned 1741-1762) confiscated most of the monastic estates, and Catherine II (reigned 1762-1796) suppressed more than half the monasteries, while on such houses as remained open she imposed a strict limitation to the number of monks. The closing of the monasteries was little short of a disaster in the more distant provinces of Russia, where they formed virtually the only cultural and charitable centers. But although the social work of the Church was grievously restricted, it never completely ceased.

The Spiritual Regulation makes lively reading, particularly in its comments on clerical behavior. We are told that priests and deacons “being drunk, bellow in the Streets, or what is worse, in their drink whoop and hollow in Church”; bishops are told to see that the clergy “walk not in a dronish lazy manner, nor lie down in the Streets to sleep, nor tipple in Cabacks, nor boast of the Strength of their Heads” (The Spiritual Regulation, translated by Thomas Consett in The Present State and Regulations of the Church of Russia, London, 1729, pp. 157-158). One fears that despite the efforts of the reforming movement in the previous century, these strictures were not entirely unjustified.

There is also some vivid advice to preachers:

A Preacher has no Occasion to shove and heave as tho’ he was tugging at an Oar in a Boat. He has no need to clap his Hands, to set his Arms a Kimbo, nor to bounce or spring, nor to giggle and laugh, nor any Reason for Howlings and hideous Lamentations. For tho’ he should be never so much griev’d in Spirit, yet ought he to suppress his Tears all he can, because these Emotions are all superfluous and indecent, and disturb an Audience (Consett, op. cit., p. 90. The picturesqueness of the style is due more to Consett than to his Russian original).

So much for the Spiritual Regulation. Peter’s religious reforms naturally aroused opposition in Russia, but it was ruthlessly silenced. Outside Russia the redoubtable Dositheus made a vigorous protest; but the Orthodox Churches under Turkish rule were in no position to intervene effectively, and in 1723 the four ancient Patriarchates accepted the abolition of the Patriarchate of Moscow and recognized the constitution of the Holy Synod.

The system of Church government which Peter the Great established continued in force until 1917. The Synodical period in the history of Russian Orthodoxy is usually represented as a time of decline, with the Church in complete subservience to the State. Certainly a superficial glance at the eighteenth century would serve to confirm this verdict. It was an age of ill-advised westernization in Church art, Church music, and theology. Those who rebelled against the dry scholasticism of the theological academies turned, not to the teachings of Byzantium and ancient Russia, but to religious or pseudo-religious movements in the contemporary west: Protestant mysticism, German pietism, Freemasonry (Orthodox are strictly forbidden, on pain of excommunication, to become Freemasons), and the like. Prominent among the higher clergy were Court prelates such as Ambrose (Zertiss-Kamensky), Archbishop of Moscow and Kaluga, who at his death in 1771 left (among many other possessions) 252 shirts of fine linen and nine eye-glasses framed in gold.

But this is only one side of the picture in the eighteenth century. The Holy Synod, however objectionable its theoretical constitution, in practice governed efficiently. Reflective Churchmen were well aware of the defects in Peter’s reforms, and submitted to them without necessarily agreeing with them. Theology was westernized, but standards of scholarship were high. Behind the façade of westernization, the true life of Orthodox Russia continued without interruption. Ambrose Zertiss-Kamensky represented one type of Russian bishop, but there were other bishops of a very different character, true monks and pastors, such as Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-1783), Bishop of Voronezh. A great preacher and a fluent writer, Tikhon is particularly interesting as an example of one who, like most of his contemporaries, borrowed heavily from the west, but who remained at the same time firmly rooted in the classic tradition of Orthodox spirituality. He drew upon German and Anglican books of devotion; his detailed meditations upon the physical sufferings of Jesus are more typical of Roman Catholicism than of Orthodoxy; in his own life of prayer he underwent an experience similar to the Dark Night of the Soul, as described by western mystics such as Saint John of the Cross. But Tikhon was also close in outlook to Theodosius and Sergius, to Nilus and the Non-Possessors. Like so many Russian saints, both lay and monastic, he took a special delight in helping the poor, and he was happiest when talking with simple people — peasants, beggars, and even criminals.

The second part of the Synodical period, the nineteenth century, so far from being a period of decline, was a time of great revival in the Russian Church. Men turned away from religious and pseudo-religious movements in the contemporary west, and fell back once more upon the true spiritual forces of Orthodoxy. Hand in hand with this revival in the spiritual life went a new enthusiasm for missionary work, while in theology, as in spirituality, Orthodoxy freed itself from a slavish imitation of the west.

It was from Mount Athos that this religious renewal took its origin. A young Russian at the theological academy of Kiev, Paissy Velichkovsky (1722-1794), horrified by the secular tone of the teaching, fled to Mount Athos and there became a monk. In 1763 he went to Romania and became Abbot of the monastery of Niamets, which he made a great spiritual center, gathering round him more than 500 brethren. Under his guidance, the community devoted itself specially to the work of translating Greek Fathers into Slavonic. At Athos Paissy had learnt at first hand about the Hesychast tradition, and he was in close sympathy with his contemporary Nicodemus. He made a Slavonic translation of the Philokalia, which was published at Moscow in 1793. Paissy laid great emphasis upon the practice of continual prayer — above all the Jesus Prayer — and on the need for obedience to an elder or starets. He was deeply influenced by Nilus and the Non-Possessors, but he did not overlook the good elements in the Josephite form of monasticism: he allowed more place than Nilus had done to liturgical prayer and to social work, and in this way he attempted, like Sergius, to combine the mystical with the corporate and social aspect of the monastic life.

Paissy himself never returned to Russia, but many of his disciples traveled thither from Romania and under their inspiration a monastic revival spread across the land. Existing houses were reinvigorated, and many new foundations were made: in 1810 there were 452 monasteries in Russia, whereas in 1914 there were 1,025. This monastic movement, while outward-looking and concerned to serve the world, also restored to the center of the Church’s life the tradition of the Non-Possessors, largely suppressed since the sixteenth century. It was marked in particular by a high development of the practice of spiritual direction. Although the “elder” has been a characteristic figure in many periods of Orthodox history, nineteenth-century Russia is parexcellence the age of the starets.

The first and greatest of the startsi of the nineteenth century was Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), who of all the saints of Russia is perhaps the most immediately attractive to non-Orthodox Christians. Entering the monastery of Sarov at the age of nineteen, Seraphim first spent sixteen years in the ordinary life of the community. Then he withdrew to spend the next twenty years in seclusion, living at first in a hut in the forest, then (when his feet swelled up and he could no longer walk with ease) enclosed in a cell in the monastery. This was his training for the office of eldership. Finally in 1815 he opened the doors of his cell. From dawn until evening he received all who came to him for help, healing the sick, giving advice, often supplying the answer before his visitor had time to ask any questions. Sometimes scores or hundreds would come to see him in a single day. The outward pattern of Seraphim’s life recalls that of Antony of Egypt fifteen centuries before: there is the same withdrawal in order to return. Seraphim is rightly regarded as a characteristically Russian saint, but he is also a striking example of how much Russian Orthodoxy has in common with Byzantium and the universal Orthodox tradition throughout the ages.

Seraphim was extraordinarily severe to himself (at one point in his life he spent a thousand successive nights in continual prayer, standing motionless throughout the long hours of darkness on a rock), but he was gentle to others, without ever being sentimental or indulgent. Asceticism did not make him gloomy, and if ever a saint’s life was illuminated by joy, it was Seraphim’s. He practiced the Jesus Prayer, and like the Byzantine Hesychasts he was granted the vision of the Divine and Uncreated Light. In Seraphim’s case the Divine Light actually took a visible form, outwardly transforming his body. One of Seraphim’s “spiritual children,” Nicholas Motovilov, described what happened one winter day as the two of them were talking together in the forest. Seraphim had spoken of the need to acquire the Holy Spirit, and Motovilov asked how a man could be sure of “being in the Spirit of God”:

Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “My son, we are both at this moment in the Spirit of God. Why don’t you look at me?”

“I cannot look, Father,” I replied, “because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look at you.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “At this very moment you yourself have become as bright as I am. You yourself are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God; otherwise you would not be able to see me as you do.”

Then bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: “Thank the Lord God for His infinite goodness towards us.… But why, my son, do you not look me in the eyes? Just look, and don’t be afraid; the Lord is with us.”

After these words I glanced at his face, and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his body, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and lighting up with its brilliance the snow-blanket which covers the forest glade and the snow-flakes which continue to fall unceasingly…

“What do you feel?” Father Seraphim asked me.

“An immeasurable well-being,” I said.

“But what sort of well-being? How exactly do you feel well?”

“I feel such a calm,” I answered, “such peace in my soul that no words can express it.”

“This,” said Father Seraphim, “is that peace of which the Lord said to His disciples: ‘My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you’ [John 14:27], the peace which passes all understanding [Phil. 4:7]… What else do you feel?”

“Infinite joy in all my heart.”

And Father Seraphim continued: “When the Spirit of God comes down to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His presence, then the man’s soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Holy Spirit fills with joy whatever He touches…” (Conversation of Saint Seraphim on the Aim of the Christian Life, printed in A Wonderful Revelation to the World, Jordanville, N.Y., 1953, pp. 23-25).

So the conversation continues. The whole passage is of extraordinary importance for understanding the Orthodox doctrine of deification and union with God. It shows how the Orthodox idea of sanctification includes the body: it is not Seraphim’s (or Motovilov’s) soul only, but the whole body which is transfigured by the grace of God. We may note that neither Seraphim nor Motovilov is in a state of ecstasy; both can talk in a coherent way and are still conscious of the outside world, but both are filled with the Holy Spirit and surrounded by the light of the age to come.

Seraphim had no teacher in the art of direction and he left no successor. After his death the work was taken up by another community, the hermitage of Optino. From 1829 until 1923, when the monastery was closed by the Bolsheviks, a succession of startsi ministered here, their influence extending like that of Seraphim over the whole of Russia. The best known of the Optino elders are Leonid (1768-1841), Macarius (1788-1860), and Ambrose (1812-1891). While these elders all belonged to the school of Paissy and were all devoted to the Prayer of Jesus, each of them had a strongly marked character of his own: Leonid, for example, was simple, vivid, and direct, appealing specially to peasants and merchants, while Macarius was highly educated, a Patristic scholar, a man in close contact with the intellectual movements of the day. Optino influenced a number of writers, including Gogol, Khomiakov, Dostoyevsky, Soloviev, and Tolstoy. (The story of Tolstoy’s relations with the Orthodox Church is extremely sad. In later life he publicly attacked the Church with great violence, and the Holy Synod after some hesitation excommunicated him [February 1901]. As he lay dying in the stationmaster’s house at Astapovo, one of the Optino elders traveled to see him, but was refused admittance by Tolstoy’s family). The remarkable figure of the elder Zossima in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov was based partly on Father Macarius or Father Ambrose of Optino, although Dostoyevsky says that he was inspired primarily by the life of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk.

“There is one thing more important than all possible books and ideas,” wrote the Slavophil Ivan Kireyevsky, “to find an Orthodox starets, before whom you can lay each of your thoughts, and from whom you can hear not your own opinion, but the judgment of the Holy Fathers. God be praised, such startsi have not yet disappeared in Russia” (Quoted by Metropolitan Seraphim [of Berlin and Western Europe], L’Eglise orthodoxe, Paris, 1952, p. 219).

Through the startsi, the monastic revival influenced the life of the whole people. The spiritual atmosphere of the time is vividly expressed in an anonymous book, The Way of a Pilgrim, which describes the experiences of a Russian peasant who tramped from place to place practicing the Jesus Prayer. For those who know nothing of the Jesus Prayer, there can be no better introduction than this little work. The Way of a Pilgrim shows how the Prayer is not limited to monasteries, but can be used by everyone, in every form of life. As he traveled, the Pilgrim carried with him a copy of the Philokalia, presumably the Slavonic translation by Paissy. Bishop Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) during the years 1876-1890 issued a greatly expanded translation of the Philokalia in five volumes, this time not in Slavonic but in Russian.

Hitherto we have spoken chiefly of the movement centering on the monasteries. But among the great figures of the Russian Church in the nineteenth century there was also a member of the married parish clergy, John Sergiev (1829-1908), usually known as Father John of Kronstadt, because throughout his ministry he worked in the same place, Kronstadt, a naval base and suburb of Saint Petersburg. Father John is best remembered for his work as a parish priest — visiting the poor and the sick, organizing charitable work, teaching religion to the children of his parish, preaching continually, and above all praying with and for his flock. He had an intense awareness of the power of prayer, and as he celebrated the Liturgy he was entirely carried away: “He could not keep the prescribed measure of liturgical intonation: he called out to God; he shouted; he wept in the face of the visions of Golgotha and the Resurrection which presented themselves to him with such shattering immediacy” (Fedotov, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, p. 348). The same sense of immediacy can be felt on every page of the spiritual autobiography which Father John wrote, My Life in Christ. Like Saint Seraphim, he possessed the gifts of healing, of insight, and of spiritual direction.

Father John insisted on frequent communion, although in Russia at this date it was very unusual for the laity to communicate more than four or five times a year. Because he had no time to hear individually the confessions of all who came for communion, he established a form of public confession, with everybody shouting their sins aloud simultaneously. He turned the iconostasis into a low screen, so that altar and celebrant might be visible throughout the service. In his emphasis on frequent communion and his reversion to the more ancient form of chancel screen, Father John anticipated liturgical developments in contemporary Orthodoxy. In 1964 he was proclaimed a saint by the Russian Church in Exile.

In nineteenth-century Russia there was a striking revival of missionary work. Since the days of Mitrophan of Sarai and Stephen of Perm, Russians had been active missionaries, and as Muscovite power advanced eastward, a great field was opened up for evangelism among the native tribes and among the Mohammedan Mongols. But although the Church never ceased to send out preachers to the heathen, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries missionary efforts had somewhat languished, particularly after the closing of monasteries by Catherine. But in the nineteenth century the missionary challenge was taken up with fresh energy and enthusiasm: the Academy of Kazan, opened in 1842, was specially concerned with missionary studies; native clergy were trained; the scriptures and the Liturgy were translated into a wide variety of languages. In the Kazan area alone the Liturgy was celebrated in twenty-two different languages or dialects.

It is significant that one of the first leaders in the missionary revival, Archimandrite Macarius (Glukharev, 1792-1847), was a student of Hesychasm and knew the disciples of Paissy Velichkovsky: the missionary revival had its roots in the revival of the spiritual life. The greatest of the nineteenth-century missionaries was Innocent (John Veniaminov, 1797-1879), Bishop of Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands, who was proclaimed a saint in 1977. His diocese included some of the most inhospitable regions of the world; it extended across the Bering Straits to Alaska, which at that time belonged to Russia. Innocent played an important part in the development of American Orthodoxy, and millions of American Orthodox today can look on him as one of their chief “Apostles.”

In the field of theology, nineteenth-century Russia broke away from its excessive dependence upon the west. This was due chiefly to the work of Alexis Khomiakov (1804-1860), leader of the Slavophil circle and perhaps the first original theologian in the history of the Russian Church. A country landowner and a retired cavalry captain, Khomiakov belonged to the tradition of lay theologians which has always existed in Orthodoxy. Khomiakov argued that all western Christianity, whether Roman or Protestant, shares the same assumptions and betrays the same fundamental point of view, while Orthodoxy is something entirely distinct. Since this is so (Khomiakov continued), it is not enough for Orthodox to borrow their theology from the west, as they had been doing since the seventeenth century; instead of using Protestant arguments against Rome, and Roman arguments against the Protestants, they must return to their own authentic sources, and rediscover the true Orthodox tradition, which in its basic presuppositions is neither Roman nor Reformed, but unique. As his friend G. Samarin put it, before Khomiakov “our Orthodox school of theology was not in a position to define either Latinism or Protestantism, because in departing from its own Orthodox standpoint, it had itself become divided into two, and each of these halves had taken up a position opposed indeed to its opponent, Latin or Protestant, but not above him. It was Khomiakov who first looked upon Latinism and Protestantism from the point of view of the Church, and therefore from a higher standpoint: and this is the reason why he was also able to define them” (Quoted in Birkbeck, Russia and the English Church, p. 14). Khomiakov was particularly concerned with the doctrine of the Church, its unity and authority; and here he made a lasting contribution to Orthodox theology.

Khomiakov during his lifetime exercised little or no influence on the theology taught in the academies and seminaries, but here too there was an increasing independence from the west. By 1900 Russian academic theology was at its height, and there were a number of theologians, historians, and liturgists, thoroughly trained in western academic disciplines, yet not allowing western influences to distort their Orthodoxy. In the years following 1900 there was also an important intellectual revival outside the theological schools. Since the time of Peter the Great, unbelief had been common among Russian “intellectuals,” but now a number of thinkers, by various routes, found their way back to the Church. Some were former Marxists, such as Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) (later ordained priest) and Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948), both of whom subsequently played a prominent part in the life of the Russian emigration in Paris.

When one reflects on the lives of Tikhon and Seraphim, on the Optino startsi and John of Kronstadt, on the missionary and theological work in nineteenth-century Russia, it can be seen how unfair it is to regard the Synodical period simply as a time of decline. One of the greatest of Russian Church historians, Professor Kartashev (1875-1960), has rightly said:

The subjugation was ennobled from within by Christian humility.… The Russian Church was suffering under the burden of the regime, but she overcame it from within. She grew, she spread and flourished in many different ways. Thus the period of the Holy Synod could be called the most brilliant and glorious period in the history of the Russian Church (Article in the periodical The Christian East, vol. xvi (1936), pp. 114 and 115).

On 15 August 1917, six months after the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II, when the Provisional Government was in power, an All-Russian Church Council was convened at Moscow, which did not finally disperse until September of the following year. More than half the delegates were laymen — the bishops and clergy present numbered 250, the laity 314 — but (as Canon Law demanded) the final decision on specifically religious questions was reserved to the bishops alone. The Council carried through a far-reaching program of reform, its chief act being to abolish the Synodical form of government established by Peter the Great, and to restore the Patriarchate. The election of the Patriarch took place on 5 November 1917. In a series of preliminary ballots, three candidates were selected; but the final choice among these three was made by lot. At the first ballot Antony (Khrapovitsky), Archbishop of Kharkov (1863-1936), came first with 101 votes; then Arsenius, Archbishop of Novgorod, with 27 votes; and thirdly Tikhon (Beliavin), Metropolitan of Moscow (1866-1925), with 23 votes. But when the lot was drawn, it was the last of these three candidates, Tikhon, who was actually chosen as Patriarch.

Outside events gave a note of urgency to the deliberations. At the earlier sessions members could hear the sound of Bolshevik artillery shelling the Kremlin, and two days before the election of the new Patriarch, Lenin and his associates gained full mastery of Moscow. The Church was allowed no time to consolidate the work of reform. Before the Council came to a close in the summer of 1918, its members learned  with horror of the brutal murder of Vladimir, Metropolitan of Kiev, by the Bolsheviks. Persecution had already begun.

 From the book The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware (Now  Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)