"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Orthodox Church -- The Third Rome: Russia; The Role of the Fool

The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware  -- I have questions for you at the end of this post! :)


The beginning of chapter 6 speaks of the rise of the Third Rome.  You may recall that Byzantium had just fallen to the Turks, the Muslim Sultan was the new "protector of Orthodoxy" and the Hagia Sophia had been converted into a mosque.  Russia thought Rome had fallen to barbarians and heresy; Byzantium too - by allowing the Florentine Union - had fallen into heresy and was punished by the Turks.  Now it was Russia's turn to champion the cause, to become the true protector of Orthodoxy. And they believed they were the Third Rome.  And a fourth would never be needed.

At a church council in 1503, the social and mystical sides St.Sergius brought together in his teachings, became a source of division among his followers. Two groups arose and came to be known as

The Possessors lead by St. Joseph, Abbot of Volokalamsk

vs.

The Non-Possessors lead by St. Nilus of Sora

The main issue was possession of land.  You may recall St. Sergius had founded monasteries by blazing paths through the forests.  When people followed and settlements built up, he would soon move further into the forest to find another spiritual retreat.  At the point of this conflict, monasteries owned about one third of the land.

The Possessors argued that monks were supposed to take care of the poor and sick; to teach and do good works.  The land would be used to further these causes and were not in possession for the monks' personal prosperity.  "'The riches of the Church are the riches of the poor,'" they said.  (pg.105)

The Non-Possessors argued that the laity could provide for the poor. Monks were needed to help others by praying for them.  They did not need any connection to land and the burdens this would inevitably bring.  Monks needed be detached from the world and vow themselves to "complete poverty."


A second issue between the groups: the use of torture for heretics.  Remember the close tie between Church and State in Byzantium? This had carried over to Russia, therefore, for many heresy against the Church equaled treason against the State.  (Sounds like what I've learned about early Islam and why they had harsh penalties for apostates.)  So Joseph found the use of prison and torture acceptable, whereas Nilus condemned all forms of it.  He thought of heresy as a spiritual matter in which the Church alone should involve. 

Joseph's group was very patriotic and nationalistic, whereas the followers of Nilus thought of the Church with universality in mind. They "saw that the Church on earth must always be a Church in pilgrimage." It was not the kingdom of God on earth! 

Even the two sides differed on their ideas of Christian piety
with Joseph emphasizing rules and disciplines and the "place of beauty in worship" whereas Nilus stressed "the inner and personal relation between God and soul" and "feared beauty might become an idol."  Joseph liked liturgy and corporate worship. Nilus, mystical prayer.

The Russian Church liked both men and felt they both had aspects worth implementing, however, the Russian Church became "one-sided and unbalanced" and their nationalism and close alignment of Church and State lead to trouble in the next century.


The author then talks of the period of reconstruction and reform in the 1600s. Unfortunately for some, the reforms went too far. In their effort to curb drunkenness and other things of which they disapproved, additions of prayers, fasts and lengthy services were introduced in an effort to return to more righteous behavior.  The author told of seven-hour services where even little children were forced to stand and take part! It seemed the Church was losing its joy by this forced pious living. The author says the reforms made "few concessions to human weakness, and [were] too ambitious ever to be completely realized."

A new Patriarch, Nikon, admired the Greek ways of doing things so much that he wanted to change the sign-of-the-cross ritual from being performed with two fingers to three fingers such as the Greeks were now doing.  For the very ritualistic Russians this was tantamount to changing the faith!  This dispute gradually lead to a schism with the Raskolniki ("sectarians") or "Old Believers" splitting.  The reforms had gone too far for them!

Nikon also tried putting the Church over the State with the Church having power to meddle in secular affairs. Remember from a past post that the two had interdependent powers. The Church did its thing while the State enforced it and protected it.  But Nikon tried to take more power which eventually backfired.  Tsar Alexis began to resent Nikon's involvement and soon Nikon found his Greek policies, his reforms accepted,but himself rejected. He was deposed and another took his place.

One last thing in this section that I found of great interest is:

The Role of the Fool

"Particularly prominent in medieval Russia: the 'Fool' carries the ideal of self-stripping and humiliation to its furthest extent, by renouncing all intellectual gifts, all forms of earthly wisdom, and by voluntarily taking upon himself the Cross of madness.  These Fools often performed a valuable social role: simply because they were fools, they could criticize those in power with a frankness which no one else dared to employ. So it was with Basil, the 'living conscience' of the Tsar. Ivan listened to the shrewd censure of the Fool, and so far from punishing him,treated him with marked honour."  (pg.108)


QUESTIONS FOR YOU:  Do you tend to agree with the Non Possessors or Possessors or segments of both? Why?  What is your favorite parts of each? Least favorites?   How could the Russian Church have been more balanced in your view? Do you think Nikon's reforms went too far? What do you think of the reforms towards more outward piety and those seven-hour church services? Do you think they would backfire or help the people get into shape spiritually?  What do you think of the role of the Fool in Russian society?  Why would someone considered "mad" and stripped of all wisdom be taken seriously by a tsar?  What does this say about the Fool? About the Tsar?  Any other thoughts or observations?

10 comments:

Amber said...

I tend to think that both the Possessors and the Non-Possessors were a little right. The main 'job' of a monk should be a life of prayer. But if they do have property (which would be held in common anyway) why shouldn't it be used to help the people? Isn't that also a Christian virtue? We have to care not just for the souls but also the bodies. The laity should take care of the poor - it's a part of their Christianity as well. But that doesn't preclude the religious being able to contribute in a more material way as well.

The outward forms are important (imho), but to put all the emphasis on ritual and not belief is a mistake. It doesn't matter if you do things the exact right way if you don't have the faith behind them.

re: the Fool: My understanding is that it's not just 'craziness'. The Fool for Christ has emptied themself of themself and that allows them to be a conduit for Christ in a way that other people are not able to be. They're...like empty vessels. They've died to themselves to the point where even pride in the most base of forms means nothing to them.

sanil said...

I think the two focuses serve different purposes. The place of worship provides a visible identity, community, and comfort while you can afford to have it. The focus on inner relationship means that that community can survive if those things are taken away, but may leave people lost and wanting if they never get the rest back. There should be a balance, with each recognizing the benefits of the other and trying to adapt those.

The reason there was a problem with changing the ritual seems to be because ritual was forced in the first place. You can't tell people it's very important to do things a certain way and then change that on them. I think a focus on ritual and outer piety is fine, but it should be about the way that ritual reflects the inner piety, rather than the outward being the entire point. Otherwise, when it has to change for whatever reason, there are going to be problems.

Is there more to the Fool comments? Does it say that they were called that or called themselves that? I assume it relates to the Fool as in a Jester, the way I'm reading it now, but can't see how these people became equated with it. A jester has license to say things that no one else would be allowed, that little bit of chaos that makes the people feel they're no being ruled, that it is ok to make fun of their rulers as long as it is in this context. So the Fool/Jester gets to point out political shortcomings safely. A tsar who listens is just being responsible and recognizing the concerns of the subjects in this accepted format.

I think the Fool is given that identity and therefore gets leniency specifically because by that title, they are placing themselves well below those they criticize. It's not a condemnation or haughty insult, it's the innocent complaint of one who doesn't know better. He's already humbled himself. If Basil and whoever else went at it in a similar way, I can see how it might be accepted.

Lat said...

Amber makes the Fool sound like a Sufi dervish :)

Interesting bits on possession of the land,seven hr service and 2-finger and 3-finger.What does it mean? Why not use just one finger? Is it possible that it was used before it got superceded?

I prefer inner beauty so I like Nilus :)

Susanne said...

Amber, great comment! Thank you for explaining your understanding of the Fool. I thought it great that leaders took them seriously. Perhaps they respected what these individuals had done and recognized their closeness to God and felt they were getting advice from above.

Susanne said...

Sanil, yes, I agree with your thoughts on the balance between the two perspectives and enjoyed what you added re: the rituals and outward piety.

Interesting thought re: the Jester/Fool connection. Perhaps this is what was meant and the author just "religisized" it since this book is religious in nature!

Do you recall the verse about being a fool for Christ? I think Paul wrote about it to the Corinthians. Well Fool was in that context...not the same way it's used in Proverbs where it talks so negatively about foolish people. :)

Susanne said...

Lat,thanks for your feedback! I thought Nilus would appeal more to you. He did to me in many ways also. :)

I don't know the reasons for the different numbers of fingers being used since I've never made the sign of the cross unless I was just trying to mimic things I saw on TV. :)

Amber said...

re: Sign of the Cross: It's the symbolism involved. As I recall, two fingers is meant to symbolize the Incarnation - the dual nature of Christ - both fully God and fully man. Three fingers symbolizes the Trinity.

Funny thing: Want to be able to spot the Roman Catholic in a group of Orthodox? Watch how everyone makes the Sign of the Cross. Even if you're not paying attention to how many fingers they're using, Roman Catholic's cross themselves left to right and Orthodox cross themselves right to left. And it's *hard* to change the habit. :D

Susanne said...

Aha! Symbolism! Who would have thunk it? Thanks for that tidbit. I had no idea.

And funny about how to spot an Orthodox or Catholic! I need to keep that in mind and see if I can point them out of a crowd! :)

Becky said...

I tend to think there is truth in both the Possessors and Non-Possessors arguments. I do think that it's important for the church not to gather riches - for the sake of showing them off, but having land enables the church to help the poor, something that might not otherwise be done. At the same time, I do like the Non-Possessors idea of piety over a church that is just "for show".
I think the reforms for more outward piety went too far. I don't think it's ever possible to force people to become more pious. It might seem like it works, from the outside, but on the inside I don't think there'll be any change. Spiritual growth has to come from inside each individual.
The role of the fool is interesting. It is a role that most kings in Medieval Europe (at least in Scandinavia) had someone to fill. Could be a fool, a dwarf, someone else. They used sarcasm and jokes, and were basically the only one who could tell the King/Tsar/Emperor the truth without fearing for his life. I am happy that there were people who filled out that role, but sad that it was necessary. That instead of open dialogue, everyone were just smooth-talking the Tsar.

Susanne said...

Becky, thank you for your very interesting comment!

I love what you said about "Spiritual growth has to come from inside each individual." That's how I feel. If it's merely outward...ehhhh. I think a lot of people can fake it when real change has to come from within.

I appreciate your sharing about the role of the fool/jester according to your understanding. Yes, it's interesting that open dialogue was not OK and it took this person to do the job.

Thanks again for your comment!