Sobornost: Piercing the Walls of Mind & Heart

December 1989By Raymond T. Gawronski

The Rev. Raymond T. Gawronski, S.J. is a doc­toral student in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome.

That most American sounding of sayings — “good fences make good neighbors” — brings to mind the suburban developments of California, full of people who have fled burdensome ties and unresolvable conflicts elsewhere to seek some peace and quiet behind their redwood walls. Of course, the U.S. is not alone in this. The Old World, East and West, is honeycombed with walls. Whether or not they have made good neigh­bors is another matter.

Yet, the craving to overcome loneliness is perhaps the single greatest hunger of our age. Mother Teresa has characterized loneli­ness as the peculiar sickness of the de­veloped world — where one can, perhaps, best afford those high fences. Catherine de Hueck Doherty, in her book Doubts, Loneli­ness, Rejection, explores aspects of this contemporary spiritual malaise. Perhaps because she was born and raised in Russia, her writings bear a particularly anti-technological tone: "TV precludes any type of friendship except the empty greeting, “Hi, how are you? Have you seen the latest program?” …There is the kind of loneliness begotten by machines…. Loneliness is stalking the land."

In her other writings, she used Russian themes to give form to her spiritual mes­sage. A particular pattern emerged for her as she wrote: she came to see that her books Strannik (Pilgrim), Poustinia (Desert), and Sobornost were parts of a dynamic that reached its peak in Sobornost. One has to make a lonely journey of purification, encounter God in the desert of one’s heart, and only then can one experience true community.

Sobornost is a most difficult word or concept to translate. A favorite with Russian theological writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, it indicates the sort of primeval communal unity they felt characterized Russians as against Westerners. Slavophiles were especially fond of the concept, since they felt the Slavic mir (or village commune; the same word also means peace in Russian) was characterized by an intuitive unity the West did not know.

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