From the halls of churches in which they stood to worship,1 Russian Christians looked up into great domes from where Christ’s likeness, serene on his rainbow throne, shone down upon them. Byzantine artists depicted Christ for them as the Ruler of the Universe, surrounded by the martyrs and prophets of both Testaments, patriarchs, apostles, and heavenly hosts in the glory and light of the Resurrection. For centuries following, all Russian believers (long after they left the Greek church) stood in awe of Christ’s majesty and worshipped him. But they knew that Christ, like David, grew up among common people and he did not intimidate them.
Russian Christians remembered how Christ suffered helplessly on the cross: the “Good Friday Christ.” But they saw him in their day as a mighty warrior, standing victor over Satan, death, and hell: the “Christ of the Resurrection.” Ilaryon of Kiev wrote in 1050:
Christ was a true man, not in appearance but truly in our flesh. Yet he was perfect God. . . . He suffered for me as man, but as God remained incorruptible. He died, even though he was immortal, to bring me to life from the dead. He descended to Hell to rescue my forefather Adam and to bind the devil. Then Godly majesty came back to him. After three days he rose from the dead. He arose the victor. He arose to be Christ the King!2
Russian Christians did not only see Christ as a victim of God’s justice. They saw him as God’s pride and joy, his brave Son who dared break down the gates of hell, bind the devil, and rescue them from Satan like David rescued his lambs from the lion and the bear. Kirill Turovsky, presbyter in a small town near Kiev, wrote in the mid-1100s:
Our Lord Christ was crucified as a man, but as God he eclipsed the sun, and changed the moon into blood, bringing the whole earth into darkness. As man, he cried and yielded up the ghost, but as God he shook the earth and tore the rocks in two. As man he was pierced in his side. But as God he tore the veil apart. . . . He darkened the sun, shook the earth and made all creatures lament, to destroy the hidden battlements of hell. Souls living there saw the light and Eve’s tears turned to joy. . . . Then the Angel hosts, running with him, shouted, “Lift up your heads, O you gates, and the Kin of glory shall come in.” As he freed bound souls and chained the hostile powers they sang, “Where is your sting, oh death? And hell, where is your victory?”
Christ as Lord and Master
Next to his rising from the dead, the Russians celebrated Christ’s ascending to heaven—the feast of his eternal coronation.
Christ is our brother. But he is much more than a common fellow-family member—someone always around and to whom one has little responsibility. He is our Joseph, now placed by the King of Heaven in direct command over us. Even though he likes to do us special favours, the Russians felt like falling on their faces when bringing petitions before him. For the muzhiks, in particular, that came naturally.
For as long as they knew, the muzhiks had served powerful masters. If they had a good master they lived happily. Everything and everyone depended on him. But if they had a bad one they suffered. They considered themselves fortunate, therefore, to have a good master like Christ in heaven. They believed that Christ, like David, was a good shepherd while on earth. But like David he fought the boasting giant (Satan, Goliath) and won. Now, like David in Jerusalem, he sits on his golden throne.
With King David/Christ for their master—commanding them wisely, taking care of them and easily able to protect them from their enemy (Satan)—Russian believers gladly lived as slaves. Slaves of Christ they entertained no thought of sinning and getting by. Kirill Turovsky wrote:
You are a candle for another to light and use. Only to the doors of the church may you have a will of your own. Do not examine how and what you are made of. You are a cloth. Only until someone picks you up may you be conscious of yourself. Do not worry if they tear you up for footwear.
From the Greek (Byzantine) Church, Russians learned that two birds sing in paradise: the bird of sorrow and the bird of joy. Only through the sorrow of repentance, tribulation, and bodily death, they believed, does it become possible for us to discover everlasting joy. An eleventh century believer, a man who signed his name “Vasily” wrote:
Have a meek gait, a meek way of sitting, a meek glance. . . . Lower your voice. Eat and drink without shouting and with moderation. Keep silence before old people. Do not argue. Do not laugh easily. Hold the eyes low and the soul high. My child, always remember death. Thinking about death will teach you what is good and how you are to live in this short space of life.3
Living precarious lives in a vast, cold, isolated land, no Russian could take death lightly. Georgy, a tenth century celibate of Zarub, wrote to a friend:
Avoid foolish laughter. Do not bring jugglers, clowns, or musicians into your home for amusement. That is pagan, not Christian. Those who must be amused are unbelievers.
Always remember ferocious death, its suddenness, how many it ravishes without giving them time to say a word. And what comes after it? Is it not judgment and various torments, cruel, endless . . . and thrones of glory and crowns in heaven for the righteous? . . . Bear the fear of God in your heart and love him.
A believer who signed his name “Gennady” wrote:
It is most profitable for repentance to visit the dying. Who is not struck to the heart by seeing one of his own kind descend into the grave, his name stroked out, and the glory of fortune rotting away?
Straight-forward talk about death did not, however, make Russian believers gloomy or affectedly “pious.” They wept easily—especially in church—but foreigners who came to know them reported their outstanding friendliness, their spontaneity and good humour.
Neither did thinking about death bring Russian believers to morbid fear. It brought them to peace and trust in God. The anonymous author of the Introduction to Repentance wrote:
Jesus Christ who takes away the sins of the whole world will take away yours as well—if you repent with all your heart and do what he wants you to do.
If you have stolen, go and return what you stole. Make things right with those you have wronged—at once. Then come in true repentance and your sins will all be forgiven.
Grace and Truth
Russian believers did not make much of grace meaning “God’s unmerited favour.” Neither did they limit grace to the sacraments. Starting with John 1:144 they ordinarily spoke of grace in connection with truth (pravda, which included for them the concept of fairness or social equity) and believed it to be God’s enabling power. It took grace, they said, to live the truth.
Grace and truth transforms sinners into saints and prepares them for eternal life. Ilaryon of Kiev wrote:
Moses’ law was a forerunner and pointed to grace and truth. In the same way grace and truth point to the world to come and eternal life. . . . Moses and the prophets led men to Christ. Christ and his apostles (full of grace and truth), lead us to the resurrection and the world to come.
The Jews were made righteous by laws and pictures of future things. Christians are saved by grace and truth. For the Jews, justification is in this world. For us salvation will be in ages to come.
Justification, for Russian believers, was much more than knowing oneself to be “just as if one had not sinned.” Righteousness was much more than to be doctrinally “right” like the Pharisee in the temple. Neither justice nor righteousness, for them, had moral value apart from human experience. To be “just” was to give beds to strangers and food to the poor. To be righteous was to think little of oneself, and to deny oneself of unnecessary luxuries.
Believers and the Poor
Though they served Christ as the King of Heaven, Russian believers did not forget how he lived on earth. In Judaea—before his victory and heavenly coronation—they knew he had lived among slaves and the poor. His followers, they believed, should do likewise.
The man who signed his name “Gennady” wrote:
Do not say, “I am the son of a rich man and poverty is a shame for me.” Nobody is richer than Christ, your heavenly Father who engendered you in baptism. Yet he walked in poverty with nowhere to lay his head.
Without a doubt, two Greek Christians, John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea had much to do with the Russian’ feeling for the poor. The writings of both men, translated to Slavonic soon after the time of Cyril and Methodius, got widely circulated in Russia. The Russians loved to hear them read and to this day, innumerable parents name their baby boys Ivan or Vasily, the Russian forms of the good men’s names.
John Chrysostom, one of the last “early Christians” to speak of community and Christ’s view of wealth, not only advocated helping the poor. He rejected the idea that people could be rich and Christian at the same time. The Russians translated what he wrote about the Rich Man and Lazarus and used that theme for innumerable songs and stories. Basil of Caesarea wrote in the same spirit:
Are you not a robber, you who consider your own what you received only to distribute to others? The bread you set aside is the bread of the hungry. The garment you have locked away is the clothing of the naked. The shoes you let rot are the shoes of him who has none. The riches you hoard are the riches of the poor.
Gennady of Kiev wrote in the eleventh century:
When you are sitting at a table loaded with many kinds of food, remember those who eat stale bread and cannot fetch water because they are sick. . . . While enjoying your drinks remember the one who drinks warm water, heated by the sun and mixed with dust. . . . Lying in featherbeds and stretching out your limbs, remember the one who sleeps on the bare earth under rags, with his legs curled up for the cold.
Russians did not look down on people who handled their money recklessly, particularly not if they did so because of Christ. The wayward son of Christ’s parable was not described as prodigal (something that did not seem evil to them) but as profligate in their Slavonic Bibles. An early example of this attitude was Fyodor Pechersky.
Fyodor, born into a family of boyars did not care for senseless games and the diversions of the wealthy. He put on simple clothes and worked with his father’s serfs in the fields. When his friends and family made fun of him he said, “Our Lord Jesus Christ humbled himself and allowed others to degrade him. Shall we not follow his example?” After his father died (he was only thirteen) he escaped from home and set out to be a wandering pilgrim. But his mother caught him and put him into chains.
Even then, Fyodor could not be restrained. As soon as he was on his own he went to live in caves the Varangians had dug for a hideout years before in chalky heights above the Dnepr, south of Kiev. A friend, Nikon, and others joined him. Over the years, Christian celibates had lived in the caves, digging them deeper and adding tunnels until they become like the catacombs. Fyodor liked living there, but he strongly disapproved of Christians hiding away and not serving others. “Remembering Christ’s command,” he told the cave dwellers, “I tell you that it is good for us to feed the hungry and care for the homeless with the fruits of our labour. . . . If God were not to lift us up and feed us through the poor, of what value would be our work?”
Fyodor got the cave dwellers to live together in community. Together they built a guest house for travelers, a hospital for the sick, and set up a soup kitchen for the hungry. Fyodor established a pattern by being the first to volunteer to chop firewood, peel onions for the soup, or weed the community garden. Nikon (with many eager helpers) began to translate, copy books by hand, and bind them for distribution. The community’s members baked bread for the hungry in prison and when they heard of people in trouble anywhere, they risked their lives, if necessary, to assist or intercede. To explain their actions, Fyodor wrote:
Should the words of the Gospel not cause our hearts to burn? . . . What did we do for Christ that he chose us? What motivated him to rescued us from our precarious situation? Have we not all strayed from the way and become useless to him? . . . Yet he did not leave us alone in our predicament. He did not despise us. Rather he took the form of a servant and became like us.
He looked for us until he found us. He carried us on his shoulders and took us back to sit at our Father’s right hand. Do you not see his mercy and love for man? We did not look for him. He found us! . . . Christ, the Word of God, came to earth not for himself but for others. He suffered and died for all. He excludes no one from his love, so why should we?
Another earnest Russian, a believer named Yakov, wrote to a young man:
If you wish to imitate the apostles’ miracles it is within your power. They made the lame walk and healed dried-up hands. You can raise up the lame in faith and start them walking to church and religious events again. You can make their hands, dried up from avarice, flexible again by giving to the poor.
Along with sharing with the poor, the Russians counted it a sacred opportunity to give lodging or food to strangers. They had frequent opportunity to do so. They lived far apart on bad roads and long winters made travel difficult in the snow. But in the villages they needed no hotels. Gladly, even though her pantry was bare, the wife of the poorest muzhik would share her last piece of bread with whoever came to the door.5 The last and greatest sin to keep people out of heaven, the Russians believed, was to have treated a beggar unkindly.
Christ rules heaven and earth. God has highly exalted him. But he reached his high position, Russian believers taught, through poverty, humility, and love.6 It looked like a mystery. How could a person by choosing the way down, come out on top? How shall the meek subdue the mighty, the weak overcome the strong, and the poor triumph over the rich? The Russians could not answer, but they knew Christ walked this way and determined to follow him. Even to the cross.
Kirill Turovsky wrote to a friend:
You should take the example of Christ who suffered from birth to death. You should remember how people laid things in his way. They slandered him. They tried to insult him, and in the end he was wounded for your sake.
Yakov, in a letter to Dmitry his “spiritual son” described the sufferings of Christ:
He was almighty. Angels carried him. But look at him now in bonds, with soldiers leading him around. In heaven he sat at his Father’s right hand. But look at him now, standing before the archpriest and the Roman governor . . . He had shone, on the mountain, more brightly than the sun. But now the ungodly beat him and spit into his face!
The fact that Christ never fought back deeply impressed Russian believers, and his patience in suffering—turning the other cheek—became their ideal. Two of Prince Vladimir’s sons were among the first to live up to it.
Before his death, Prince Vladimir dispatched his twelve sons to the twelve main settlements of Russia. He hoped they would become Christian leaders for the Russian people and show them how to live. But his hopes could not have resulted in greater disappointment.
Svyatopolk, the oldest son who took his father’s place at Kiev was a scoundrel. As a young man he already got into trouble, but Vladimir punished him lightly and forgave him. The second son, Yaroslav, a kind and thoughtful man, went to Novgorod. Everyone left home, even the two youngest sons, Boris and Gleb.
Boris and Gleb particularly liked one another. Boris loved to read and entertained Gleb with stories from the Bible and early Greek Christians during winter evenings. When he married in his mid-teens and had to leave for Rostov, and Gleb (still an adolescent) for Murom, they missed one another.
Soon afterward they learned of their father Prince Vladimir’s death—and on the heels of it that Svyatopolk, the new prince, intended to kill all his brothers. Boris was already traveling to Kiev when he discovered that a party of murderers was already on its way and about to fall upon him. “What shall I, as a Christian, do now?” Boris asked his companions. “Now that we know, shall we defend ourselves?”
For a long time at night, in their camp by the Alta River Boris struggled with temptation. He went out to stand under the stars alone. He prayed, until he remembered the words of John: “If a may say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar. For he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”
Suddenly it became clear to him. “Of course, as a Christian I will suffer wrong like Christ. I cannot defend myself. If God wants to protect me that is up to him. But if not I will die like Christ, unarmed.”
With a sense of imminent victory already upon him, Boris returned to his companions and said:
Supposing I should take my father’s place in Kiev the people would no doubt pervert my heart and I might well treat my brothers like I am now being treated. . . . I might do wickedly for the sake of glory and the kingdom of this world which passes away—a kingdom that hangs on less than a spider’s web. . . . What, after all, did my father and his brothers gain? Where are they now? Of what value is the glory of this world: the purple robes and ornaments, the silver and gold, the wine and mead, the tasty food, swift horses, high and stately houses, many possessions, tributes and honour without measure and the pride of those who served them? All this is like it never existed. Everything disappeared with them . . . For this reason, Solomon, having passed through all and acquired everything, said: vanity of vanities, all is vanity.7
Before he sent his companions away so he could meet his brother’s murderers alone, Boris prayed, “Lord Jesus, you came to earth like a man and let men nail you, unjustly, to the cross. You accepted that suffering patiently. Now I ask you, give me grace to accept mine. I must suffer not from my enemies but from my brother. Lord, do not count it against him.”
With such calm did Boris meet his murderers when they arrived that they hardly knew what to do. But a rough youth among them threw the first lance. One of Boris’s companions, a Magyar who could not bring himself to desert him, threw himself in the way. But the men, once they began, could not be deterred. They rolled Boris’s body in a mat and brought it back to Kiev in a cart.
Gleb, coming down the Dnepr in a boat met the murderers near Smolensk, coming upstream. When he discovered their intentions he cried, “Don’t harm me brothers, please don’t! I did you no evil. . . . Have mercy on my youth. Have mercy, lords! You may be my masters and I your slave, but do not reap me from my immature life. Do not reap the unripe ear. Do not cut down the vine-shoot that has not grown up. . . .”
Svyatopolk’s men took no mercy on him. Spotting one of their comrades on Gleb’s boat (the man who did his cooking) they got him on their side. He jumped on Gleb and cut his throat.
“You forsook the perishable glory of this world,” wrote the chronicler about Gleb. “You hated the kingdom of this world and loved purity. You have suffered a wicked death without resisting your murderous brother in any way. . . . You were killed for the sake of the perfect Lamb, the Saviour of our Souls who was sacrificed for us.”
No doubt the chroniclers who wrote the story of Boris and Gleb somewhat “standardized” the account to give it literary form. But the murder of the two boys and their nonresistant response shook Russia to its foundations. What, in fact, was this strange new Gospel that came with Anna from Byzantium? Such a thing had not happened before. That fair-haired Kievan princes who discovered a death plot against them would choose not to defend themselves—it was unreal! All over Russia people began to ask: How seriously should Jesus’ Gospel be taken? To some it became steadily clearer that if allowed free course, the Gospel would not stop until it totally changed their lives.
After the boys’ death, Yaroslav returned from Novgorod. Svyatopolk, for whom the people felt nothing but horror and shame, fled to Poland. But multitudes who visited the graves of Boris and Gleb, the “holy sufferers,” in Kiev left with a strange new flame burning in their hearts.
To live like Christ—to follow him through suffering and death—it dawned on them, is the way to triumph with him in heaven. This led them, even in deepest poverty and distress, to . . .
The Love of Beauty
When Fyodor Dostoyevsky made what perhaps became his best-loved statement, “The world will be saved by beauty,” he put more to words than what meets the eye. Nine centuries before him, the believers of Russia already began to discover that truth.8
The love of beauty (called by the Greeks philokalia) came to Russians in hard circumstances. Scattered in settlements hundreds if not thousands of verst removed one from another, they spent months at a time with little else but God. Frightful winters came upon them. Snow fell thick and fast in the fall and came to stay—obliterating trails and loading birch trees and houses alike with a deep blanket of silence. People died in the winter, from sicknesses no one knew, from cold and hunger. The sun grew small and pale above the southern horizon.
But in the spring, in the time of the Holy Celebration9 when snow disappeared, the sun shone warmly, and fields of young wheat turned green in its heavenly light, the people of Russia revived. They prostrated themselves to the east. They closed their eyes—overwhelmed in the goodness of deep black soil, bees in the plum blossoms, and white clouds like wool floating once more above the steppes and awakening forests.
In the late tenth century David, a man from Smolensk on the Dnepr tried to put his feelings to words:
God immortal! I praise you for everything you made. You are the only King. You give all good things for your creatures to enjoy. You made this earth and watch over it, waiting for those you have placed on it to return to you. You honour with heavenly grace those who lead a good life. . . . All your judgments are fair. You are forever alive. You give your grace to all who look to you.
Vladimir Monomakh wrote:
Who would not praise you God? Who would not glorify your power and your great wonder and beauty visible on this earth? We are amazed Lord, how you rule the heavens, the sun, the moon and the stars! We are amazed at darkness and light, and the earth that floats on water Lord, by your goodness! We are amazed at how you adorned the animals, the birds and the fish! This wonder we admire: how you created man out of dust and how varied are the looks of human faces! Even if we brought the whole world together, no two faces should be found exactly alike. In your wisdom you gave us all a personal image. We stand amazed at the birds! The birds from paradise that do not stay in one country but fly, both the strong and the weak, over all countries by your command. They fly over all the forests and fields. All this Lord, you gave for our food and joy! . . . And you teach the birds to sing for our delight as well as yours!
To notice beauty is to notice God. Russians saw beauty and rejoiced, even where others drew back in fear. “I love thundershowers in the spring,” wrote Fyodor Tyutchev. “From east to west joyful thunder rumbles through the sky. Water nimbly courses down. In the forest birds cannot be silent. Their twittering conversation, water running—all things echo thunder’s heavenly joy!”
Worship and the love of beauty became one in Russian experience. Umilenie, they called it, a word they sometimes equated with the Greek, katanuxis (a tingling sensation, inner experience heightened to the point of reeling or dizziness). To have umilenie was to become conscious of God to the point that one’s heart changed. It came to Russian believers in the repentance attitude. In umilenie they got grace to live in truth. In umilenie they freed themselves from earthly things. Once I began to understand this, and as umilenie became a part of my own experience, I knew how Russian believers survived persecution. They did far more than just “follow Christ.” They walked . . .
1 Eastern Orthodox churches are divided into three sections: the “hall” where the audience stands, the “altar” where the Eucharist is consecrated, and the sacristy.
2 Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind (remaining quotations in this chapter from this work unless identified otherwise)
3 Vasily’s epistle, a letter of instruction written before his death, is usually called “Pseudo-Vasily” because its author, following a Byzantine and Russian tradition, remained anonymous by using a pseudonym.
4 The Word was made flesh , and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
5 Mennonites, who settled in Russia in the 1700’s, gave testimony to this.
6 2 Corinthians 13:4: “He was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power.”
7 Quotations on Boris and Gleb taken from translations of Skazanie (The Legend), written not long after the boys’ death and translated by Georgy Fedotov.
8 A Russian legend tells how Prince Vladimir sent his men to the Khazars, to the Turks, and to Byzantium to find the best religion. The men found Judaism dull. They did not like Muslim worship. But in Byzantium, they reported “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. On earth there is no such splendour or such beauty. We are at a loss to describe it. We only know that God lives there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. We cannot forget that beauty. Every man, once he has tasted the sweet, refuses to settle for the sour any longer.” The legend is definitely fictitious. But its depiction of Russian character—seeking God in the beautiful while leaving rational judgment out of the picture—is true to form. Russian believers, even after they knew Christ and the Bible, tended to operate this way.
9 The Feast of the Resurrection