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Mother Maria Skobtsova
Types of Religious Lives

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Synodal piety

The Russian emigration flowed into Europe, one might say, before it had cooled down after its struggle, still seething with passionate fury at having been deprived of the ideals of that great Russian land, of the "White" idea, etc. It carried with it not only its own miserable baggage, not only its bayonets and regimental banners, but portable churches with iconostases made out of cloth stretched over wooden frames, sacred vessels and vestments. And having landed on foreign soil, it set up not only branches of the All-Forces Union, but its own churches. For many the Church was a vital requirement for their souls. For many, a kind of inescapable attribute of the idea of Russia as a Great Power, without which it was difficult to speak of nationalism, of loyalty to the traditions and ordinances of the past. The Church was a reliable and recognized political and patriotic symbol. Somehow its inner meaning did not attract much attention. The important thing was to commemorate the anniversaries of the tragic deaths of national heroes or the anniversaries of the establishment of glorious regiments. In church it was possible to organize solemn, sober demonstrations of one's unity, one's loyalty. One could participate in services of intercession for the departed, kneel on one knee during the singing of Memory Eternal [endnote: Kneeling on one knee, instead of both, was the accepted military stance, eagerly imitated by boys and any other male with even the remotest -- real or imagined -- connection with the military. (Translator)], gather around the senior officer present. Very often a considerable degree of ingenuity and energy were expended in fashioning a censer or seven-branched candle stand out of empty food tins, or in converting some drafty barracks into a church. The existence of the Church was essential, but the motivations for this need often were of a national rather than ecclesial character.

If we try to discover the origin of such an attitude, it isn't hard to find its roots in the previous ecclesiastical epoch, the so-called "Synodal Period" of the Church. From the time of Peter the Great our Russian Orthodox Church became an attribute of the autocratic Russian State, one department among other departments, and took its place in the system of government institutions, absorbing into itself the government's ideas, experiences, and the taste of power. The State granted it protection, punished offenses against the Church, and in return demanded condemnation for offenses against the State. The State appointed the Church's hierarchs, kept an eye on their activities with the help of the Chief Procurator, assigned administrative tasks to the Church, and made it a party to its political expectations and ideals.

After two hundred years of such a system's existence the inner structure of the Church was itself changed. Spiritual life was pushed into the background, while on the surface one had an official State-sanctioned religiosity, with certificates being issued to civil functionaries certifying that they had been to Confession and Communion, since without such a certificate the functionary could not be considered a loyal subject from the State's point of view. This system led to the creation of a special religious psychology, a special religious type, with a particular kind of moral foundation, a particular kind of churchmanship and a special way of life. For generation after generation people were schooled in the idea that the Church is of utmost importance, something absolutely necessary, but still it was only an attribute of the State. Piety was one of the State virtues, necessary only because the State had need of pious people. The priest was an overseer appointed by the State to look after the correct performance of religious functions by loyal Russian subjects. As such he was a respected figure, but nevertheless as an individual he enjoyed no more respect than did other functionaries who looked after social order, the armed forces, finances, etc.

The Synodal Period saw a completely defeatist treatment of the clergy, the utter absence of any distinctive status, and even a tendency to treat them as inferior, not allowing them entry into so-called "society." People went to Confession once a year because this was what was required. They got married in Church, they baptized their children, buried their dead, stood through prayers of intercession on royal festivals, and -- when they were particularly pious -- served Akathists. But the Church was something quite separate from the rest of life. People went there when it was called for -- and it was certainly not called for to overdo one's churchiness. This was perhaps done only by the Slavophils, who by their conduct slightly modified the established, formal, official tone of polite relationship toward the Church. It is only natural that the synodal type of piety was grounded, in the first instance, on the cadres of the Petersburg ministerial bureaucracy, that it was linked specifically with bureaucracy and so was spread throughout Russia through provincial bureaucratic centers to the local representatives of State authority.

This whole system foreordained that the most religiously gifted and fervent believers would find in it no place for themselves. They either went to monasteries, seeking to separate themselves completely from all superficial Church activity, or they simply revolted, frequently protesting not only against the Church's institutional system but against the Church itself. This is the origin of the anti-religious fanaticism of our revolutionaries, which so resembled, in its earliest manifestations, the flaming passion of true religious life. It attracted to itself all those who thirsted for an inner ascetic challenge, for sacrifice, selfless service and disinterested love -- all of which the official State Church could not offer. It must be said that during the Synodal Period even the monasteries succumbed to this general process of disintegration of the spiritual life. The all-powerful arm of the State was extended over them, over their morals and way of life, and they were turned into official cells of the overall ecclesiastical establishment.

Thus there remained in the Church for the most part either those who were lukewarm, those who could keep their religious impulses under control, or those who could channel their spiritual needs into the system of State values. In this way a system of moral ideals developed. No doubt what was held in the greatest esteem was good order, a respect for the law, a certain reserve, along with rather firmly expressed feelings of obligation, respect for one's elders, a condescending concern for one's juniors, honesty, love of Fatherland, a reverence for authority, etc. No special exertions were required. Creativity was suppressed in the interests of good order and the general purposes of the State machine. Podvizhniki somehow failed to appear in provincial cathedral churches. Here there were people of a different sort: rectors, calm, businesslike cathedral archpriests thoroughly familiar with the Divine Services who made every effort to conduct them solemnly and with grandeur in splendid and magnificent temples, superb administrators and organizers, custodians of Church property, official functionaries of the synodal establishment, honorable people, conscientious, but uninspiring and uncreative.

And the cathedrals -- the crowning expression of the synodal architectural craftsmanship -- were overwhelming in their massiveness, their spaciousness, their gilt and marble, with huge cupolas, resonant echoes, immense royal doors and costly vestments. Colossal choirs performed special Italianate and secularized ecclesiastical chants. The images on the icons could hardly be seen, having been encased in gold and silver covers. The deacon could hardly lift the book of the Gospels, with its heavy binding, and he read it in such a way that at times it was impossible to understand a single word. But it was not his job to make the reading understandable: he had to begin with a kind of unimaginably low rumble and end in a window-rattling bellow, showing off the mighty power of his voice. Everything had but a single purpose, everything was in harmony with each aspect of the epoch's churchmanship, everything had as its aim a display of the power, wealth, and indestructibility of the Orthodox Church and the great Russian State which protected her.

How widespread was this kind of ecclesiastical psychology? Certainly, one ought not to imagine that this was the only type of religious consciousness, but without a doubt any other kind would have to be searched for diligently, since the "official" type was so overpowering. This is especially clear if we take into account that alongside such a understanding of ecclesiastical life and religious ways, we developed our own intense form of atheism. These people, as Soloviev accurately observed, laid down their lives for their friends while believing that man evolved from apes. Thus it was possible to find an outlet for love, sacrifice and heroic deeds outside church walls. But within the Church anything which was different, was, by that fact alone, in opposition: it flowed against the current and was persecuted and belittled. This ecclesiastical psychology was based on a very solid way of life, and this way of life, in turn, was nourished by it. Tradition permeated everything, from prayer to the kitchen. From what has been said it should be obvious that on such soil one could hardly expect to see creative forces grow.

Here everything is channeled toward conservation, to the preservation of the foundations, to the repetition of feelings, words and gestures. Creativity demands some new kind of challenge; here there was none, neither in the field of ideas, nor in the field of arts, nor in the way of life. Everything was strongly guarded and protected. Innovation was not permitted. There was no need for any creative principle. The synodal type of religious life, which promoted other values along with spiritual ones, namely those of the State, of a way of life and of a particular tradition, not only distorted and confused the hierarchy of values, but often simply replaced Christian love with an egotistical love for the things of this world. It is difficult, even impossible to see Christ, to experience a Christianization of life, where the principle of the secularization of the Church is openly proclaimed. This type of piety was not up to the difficult task of rendering to God what is God's and what is Caesar's to Caesar.

During its lengthy existence it more and more frequently let Caesar triumph. Through it the Roman emperor conquered Christ, not in the circus arena, not in the catacombs, but at the very moment when he recognized the Heavenly King: at that very moment the subversion of Christ's commandments by the commandments of the secular State began. One can acquire synodal piety through one's education, through habit and custom, but in no way can one acquire it through a desire to follow in the footsteps of Christ. From a historical point of view this orderly system had already begun to show cracks by the end of the nineteenth century. Suddenly a guest appeared in the Church, and not an entirely welcome one: the Russian intelligentsia. We shall speak more about his role later, but at first this role was only shallowly rooted in the Church's life. It was more a phenomenon on the fringes of the Church.

Everything changed decisively from the moment of the February [1917] revolution and, in the Church, these changes were reflected in the All-Russian Church Council [of 1917-18] and the restoration of the Patriarchate.

However important these changes were to the Church's historic way of life, they could not, of course, suddenly change people's psychology and refashion the temper of their souls. Because of this the emigration brought with it into foreign lands memories of the Russian Church's Synodal Period, its way of life, its art, its clergy, its understanding of the Church's role and significance in the overall patriotic scheme. It is very likely that even now the synodal type of piety predominates. This is easy to demonstrate if we bear in mind that the whole of the Karlovci group [endnote: The group of bishops, priests and faithful, based in Karlovci, Serbia, who after 1921 declared themselves administratively independent of St. Tikhon, the Patriarch of Moscow. They went on to form the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.] in our Church lives precisely in accordance with this ideology, uniting Church and State, preserving the old traditions, not wanting to take cognizance of the new conditions of life and continuing to preach Caesaro-papism. Not everyone who belonged to the synodal psychology was attracted exclusively to that special group.

Everywhere, in spacious cathedrals and in provincial makeshift churches, we can find people who confess their membership in the Orthodox Church and along with this, believe that the Church is simply a necessary attribute of Russian sovereignty.

It is difficult to have two views on whether this psychology has any correlation with the current problems of the Church's life. In the first place, life today demands creative efforts from us so urgently that no grouping which lacks a creative agenda can expect to succeed. Moreover, there is no doubt but that on the historical plane the Synodal period has come to an end with no possibility of return; there is no basis for assuming that the psychology which it engendered can survive it for long. In this sense it is not important how we assess such a religious type. Only one thing is important: without a doubt it is dying and has no future. The future challenges the Church with such complex, new and crucial problems that it is difficult to say off hand to which religious type it will give the possibility to prove itself and reveal itself in a creative manner.

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