.ortodox tro

The Light of Being

Föredrag hållet vid Sophiaseminarium mars 2008

Ruslan Loshakov

   In my report I would like to tell about some specifics features of Russian religious tradition. My report is based on ideas of our poetess and thinker Olga Sedakova.
   At the beginning of my report I put the question: what is a Christian perception of the world?  We know the most important condition of any perception is a light. We see nothing in darkness. But Christian perception
is not a physical act. It is this specific way of seeing the world as a whole that finally distinguishes a saint. But it would be a great mistake to see this practice as a system of some psychological training for its own sake. The principle thing, which differs the Orthodox ascetic school from various systems of elaborating the human psychics is its presumption, that no one could correct one’s mind and sensibility by one’s own power. The light which helps us to see the wold as a whole is given by the Holy Spirit.  This process is seen as the cooperation (Greek synergia) of the human will and the work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time we can see the world as a whole only in our own soul. Therefore this contemplative activity of “listening to yourself” or “learning yourself” is elaborated by the hermits and monks.  This activity was proposed as the best way of salvation to every member of the Church, including lay people: the Orthodox tradition did not care to create any special type of religious practice for those who live in the world.
   One could describe the general principle of this inner work as the permanent critics of one’s perception; a constant effort to “change aspectus”, to use the words of L. Witgenstein. The principal difference from Witgenstein however, lies in the fact, that it is not intuitions which one needs to observe the things of our world. Christian perception has ontological state. It is not the perception of things, but it is the perception of the world.  The critical point of this change is called here “metanoia” in Greek (literally; change of mind); in Russian it is “umilenije”, a great revealing shock of tenderness, or “breaking of heart”.  It is the collapse of some inner walls which help us remain in an isolated position and which “defend” us from the look of Truth. Now, when our inner space is open (our heart is broken), when we are disarmed and  knows ourself absolutely helpless (in the “spiritual poverty”) and have nothing to do but hope and pray for help, we can start acquiring the right perception. For a “normal” adult person it seems to be a seer catastrophe, nearly the death his Self. But it is the same helplessness and absolute confidence in something Other which constitutes a happy state of an infant. In the course of a long process of purification we must not lose the feeling of being open and helpless. This state is in fact what one calls a “heart’s prayer”.  One needs first to “place his intellect into his heart”, that is the first rule of this prayer. It means to stop all reasoning - for it keeps one out of touch with the centre of one’s own existence - and to start comprehend everything from the point of the heart.  One can remember here the famous words of Pascal: heart has reasons about which reason knows nothing.
   The “heart” means here the very center of the human person, it is not only emotional, but cognitive and physic at once, and it is not placed in the anatomical heart. “Heart” (“serdze”) in Russian is of the same root as the words “middle”, and “core” (“seredina”, “serdzevina”). It is the paradoxical center, center of personality. In its heart the human being comes to its limit and to its “being-with” or “being-between”, to its participation in The Other. Thus, heart must not be seen as the center within some closed psychic structure – but, on the contrary, as the central point of disclosing of such a structure and its meeting with the revelation of The Other. In this sense the heart is organ of whole vision of the world.
   The progress into the depth of heart consists in destroying the obstacles which block the open meeting with Divine Being and isolate a person in his “my own world”. Being internal the heart is an inter-mediate between Divine Being and the human being. The heart is the centre where the border is open, where the other is met.  Among the main obstacles of the person’s purification we can call here hubris and self-preservation, the egotistic work of imagination and abstract rational thought instead of immediate contemplation.

   The Christian practice of the vision is its purification. But what is pure perception? Answering this question I would like to introduce here the philosophical distinction between the being and reality.  For example, answering the question “what there is it?” I say “It is a book”.  I call here the reality “book”. But, what is it “is”? One can answer: it is being. But, what is being? It is possible to tell that the being is a light. The being enables us to see the thing, to tell something about it. The Christian perception is not perception of things but its perception in the Light of Being. This perception is in no way a question of the painter’s technique: it is practical theology of icon. The icon in the Orthodox tradition is suggested to be the best mirror of the “pure” perception of reality One can remember here that more two thousands years ago Plato told that the Being and the Beauty is the same. We can say also that the matter of icon is Light as a Beauty.    
   Beauty proved the real presence of God in the world. The brilliant Russian theologian  Pavel Florensky told that if we can see the incredibly beautiful of the Andrej Rubliov’s icon God surely exists.  This unique feature of the Russian Orthodox tradition, its deep devotion to beauty, remains constant in the course of all Russian history. The famous Dostojevsky’s  words:  “Beauty shall save the world” reflects the thousand years of the Russian spiritual experience.
         But beauty is comprehended by the whole person, both by his corporeal and the mental parts. As long as we keep in mind the theological premise which insists on the salvation of “the entire human being” we can better appreciate the particular Orthodox love for the “holistic” affect of Beauty. The Beauty is whole and vital Truth of our world.
   But all the vital truths are supposed to be represented in images.  One can’t contemplate a concept, one can’t communicate with a concept nor have a personal contact with it. But any iconic image speaks “from the first person”.
   What represent the image which we see on icon? In fact any image represents the visible thing. Paradoxically, the icon gives us an impression of looking at the invisible. How is it possible? We can suggest that it is because the images depicted on it are themselves plunged into the contemplation of the invisible. They are shown in a state of prayer. Through contemplating them we follow the contemplation which is in them, while they contemplate something that can not be seen on the icon. It is not a picture.  It is a mirror.  What they see is the presence of Divine Light. The iconic image is in fact a depiction of the unseen light. Any iconic image seems to say: only now representation is possible, because of Christ’s incarnation. So what we see is the representation of the unrepresentable.
   Whether is it possible to define iconic image as a symbol? Certainly not. Any symbol hides reality, in iconic image it is open.  The Incarnation of Christ is not symbol of divine being; it is the divine being itself.
   We can take as an example the Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov”, which is well known to the European reader. Two persons of the novel – Ferapont and Zosima – are two types of Russian religiousness. Ferapont is typical “fundamentalist” in today’s terms. Ferapont’s type of perception is highly symbolic. He sees but signs and cryptograms. The entire natural world is for him but a great and rather chaotic collection of the casual secret. The sensual reality of things has no autonomic value for him; everything natural is but a sign of something “supernatural”. The mysterious signs flash out in the deep darkness of the earthly reality.
   The perception of “Zosima’s” type is radically different. All the world, the world of God is for him an unbroken miracle, full of meaning, which overcomes any interpretation, that we could propose, but this immense meaning can be easily grasped by “the broken heart”. Zosima advises his pupil Aliosha to kiss the earth – just as one kisses the icon. Zosima is not interested in reading signs and looking for meanings; he knows something else. For him, “the other world” does not need to appear in the form of some extraordinary sign. He feels that “this world” is alive just because it is penetrated with the divine energy. Certainly he knows the disastrous power of pride and self-will. But he knows also this mysterious capacity to change which is planted into the human heart, just as a gardener knows the capacity of the seed to grow. His peaceful and all-forgiving attitude is not idyllic or sentimental. It is the Christian perception, the holistic vision of the world.  However to see the world as a whole means seeing it in light of being. In Russian it is
«умиление», the shock of tenderness.
   The poem of Russian poet Ivan Bunin will help us to feel what the shock of tenderness is. The poem is addressed to a girl who died young and long ago; the hero loved her: now he comes to visit her grave. Thus the poem deals with death and life, absence and memory.

There is the culmination (traduction of Olga Sedakova).

The summer wind is swinging
The leaves of the long branches
And I know what reaches me:
The light of your smile.

Not a gravestone, not a cross -
I see, as I saw once
The dress of a boarding schoolgirl
And the shining eyes.

   The smile is not there, it seems to remain in its distance; it is but its light that comes. But what we immediately feel is that death does not matter. Nothing is lost, nothing can be lost. Those who were together remain together. The shock of tenderness reveals this truth. What Bunin’s poems describe is not a mystic apparition of the dead girl; it is the apparition of the world in its glory. The same quality of light we can recognize in the icons painted by Andrej Rublev: the light of smile.

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