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
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
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
“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
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.
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.