Volume > Issue > Probing Russian Orthodox Spirituality

Probing Russian Orthodox Spirituality


By Alphonse Vinh | May 1993
Alphonse Vinh, who was born in Vietnam, is a re­search librarian at Yale University, a teaching Fellow at Yale's Berkeley College, and a Catholic layman.

A key figure in the Russian Orthodox spir­itual experience is the staretz, a grace-filled in­dividual, usually a monk, who possesses the special charism of starchestvo, or spiritual direc­tion. The staretz acquires this charism through heroic ascetical labors which culminate in a total dying to self followed by a rebirth in Christ. For his disciples, the staretz is like a dear mirror in which each disciple can see his true face. And as a living icon, as it were, of Christ, the staretz radiates divine grace and wisdom.

Sincere Orthodox men and women have yearned to live lives more fully touched by fel­lowship with God. Whenever they began their first feeble steps on the path to God, the Fathers of the Orthodox Church advised them, “Find the Map.” This “Map” is the precious accumulated Tradition of spirituality left be­hind by the Fathers of the Orthodox Church through their writings, oral teachings, and liv­ing disciples. The staretz, as someone with extraordinary insight into the human heart, helps inexperienced pilgrims correctly interpret the Map, in order for them to journey in the direction God has individually planned for them.

The startsii assiduously stuck to the Map in their own spiritual teachings. When staretz Amvrosii of Optino (Dostoevskii’s spiritual teacher) began his starchestvo, he always limit­ed his advice to the opinions of the Fathers. It was not until much later, when Amvrosii had traveled all the regions of the Map, had per­sonally acquired the Mind of the Fathers, that he was genuinely free to act on his own spontaneous, patristically molded intuition. Nonetheless, Amvrosii constantly referred to the Map of the Fathers.

When Amvrosii was a young monk, he was carefully groomed to become a staretz by his predecessor and master in starchestvo, sta­retz Makarii. One day the latter joyfully per­ceived his future successor’s progress in attain­ing the Mind of the Fathers. Makarii chuckled and remarked, “Look, look, Amvrosii is taking away my bread, taking away my bread!” This story illustrates another facet of the character of a true staretz: a complete absence of pro­prietorship in being a spiritual master. Above all, this is supremely important: True spiritual guidance is devoid of self-interest. A staretz cannot be anything but an impostor and is in fact a spiritual murderer if he desires his spir­itual children to remain dependent on him for life.

There are four basic tenets to the teaching of the Russian startsii. The first and most important is this fact: Jesus is savior. Of all the prayers taught and practiced by the Russian staretz, none reflects more clearly the totality of his starchestvo than the Jesus Prayer, the fundamental words of which are: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.” Father Seraphim of Sarov, the Russian people’s best-loved staretz and a great master of the Jesus Prayer, said, “God is a fire that warms and kindles the heart…. If we feel in our hearts coldness, which is from the Devil — for the Devil is cold — then let us call upon the Lord, and He will warm our hearts….”

The Russian startsii spoke often to their disciples of the need to acquire umilenie (ten­derness of heart or genuine inner warmth) fired by love of God, sincere repentance, and heartfelt prayer. When a Christian acquires umilenie, he can attain the state of theo­sis, or god-likeness.

To illustrate this condition, we have an eyewitness account of a remarkable occurrence involving staretz Amvrosii. One evening Am­vrosii had an appointment with a couple. He was dressed in a white monastic mantle and cap. In his hands was a chotki, or Orthodox prayer rope. Suddenly the staretz’s normally gaunt, sickly face became transfigured by a beautiful light. Everything in the staretz’s cell had a solemn air about it. Just at this time, the young couple entered Amvrosii’s cell. At first they felt uneasy upon seeing this strange phenomenon; however, at the same time, an indescribable feeling of joy overwhelmed them. The couple had intended to ask many important questions about their life together. But somehow they found themselves unable to utter a single sound. And so the young couple stood awestruck, not quite knowing what was happening, experiencing simultaneously the supreme peace of the Holy Spirit which Christ said passes all understanding. They stood there for an indefinite length of time, com­pletely oblivious to everything on earth, contemplating the beautifully illumined face of their beloved staretz. Everything was quiet and peaceful. Finally, the young couple approached Amvrosii to receive his blessing. Without say­ing a word, he made the priestly sign of the cross over them. Amvrosii remained immersed in prayer, his face transfigured by uncreated light. The young couple, witnesses to this profound miracle, departed from the staretz’s cell with their secret questions answered. Am­vrosii had not said a word to them; however, as a living, transfigured icon of Christ, he had uttered volumes. Such is the power of a warm heart kindled by the fire of God.

The second tenet of the staretz’s teaching is the existence of the Devil, who holds sway over persons unable to die to self. The startsii taught that the Devil can possess a man’s soul to the point of even becoming visible to the naked eye. But more commonly, said the startsii, the Devil prefers to hide behind more subtle façades of possession. He and his de­monic minions trick spiritually inexperienced persons with their deceptive beauty.

For this reason alone, the startsii taught inexperienced disciples continuously to humble themselves. They should never “go for the gold,” as a modern American athlete would olympically phrase it. In other words, the dis­ciples were discouraged from seeking prophetic dreams or visions. Should some naïve, albeit enthusiastic, disciple encounter a “vision,” he was immediately to begin recitation of the Jesus Prayer. Furthermore, he was firmly to ignore the vision, and go directly to his staretz for the revelation of thoughts.

The extremely dangerous task of the staretz was to recognize, expose, and above all pray against the enemy of mankind in the name of Jesus Christ. Staretz Seraphim of Sarov himself fought with demons, but dis­liked discussing them. To the curious person who would ask him what they actually looked like, the staretz would answer curtly, “They are hideous.” According to the startsii, indi­viduals should cast aside any sort of sensa­tional, psychically dangerous dabbling in the occult world. Evil is not a game or some kind of intellectual curiosity — it is a very real and destructive force.

The third tenet of the staretz’s teaching is the concept of synergy. St. Paul defined it as the co-operation of divine grace and human will. The supreme synergic example is Mary, the Mother of God. God works through man, but His Holy Spirit will work through us only if we fully accept God and permit Him to guide our lives. This incredibly hard ascetical labor completely cuts off one’s highly esteemed self-will; it is a valiant dying to self in order to emerge as a more deeply integrated human being. True self-liberation cannot be achieved without this cutting off of the deluded self-will. The Russian staretz fought this deadly self-will within his disciples with the powerful weapon of humility. The staretz began the battle by serving as a per­sonal example to his disciples.

Staretz Leonid always took the last place among the brethren. He never declined a re­quest from the abbot. On the eve of the great feast days when the other monks hurried to church, Leonid was sent to collect hay for the horses of visitors. Because of his perfect obedi­ence and cutting off of self-will, Leonid be­came the transfigured vehicle for the synergic workings of the Holy Spirit.

Seraphim of Sarov showed us how he was a true staretz when he said in answer to a question about his spiritual teachings, “I give only what God tells me to give.” He taught his disciples only what the Holy Spirit enjoined him to teach. One cannot easily accomplish this without having undergone tremendous labors of prayer, self-denial, and humility. He was so in touch with God that he knew exact­ly what people needed to hear before their opened their mouths. After the staretz’s death people went to his cell and discovered large piles of unopened mail from thousands of men and women asking for Seraphim’s help. The most shocking thing about this was that during his life the staretz had already sent his replies to these troubled correspondents, whose mail he did not need to open! It was precisely due to his humility, to his warm heart, and to his cutting off of self-will that the Holy Spirit was able to work intimately with the staretz and tell him what guidance he needed to give his many spiritual children.

Abbot Moisseii of Optino was another great staretz who modeled humility. He often said, “I’m worse than everybody else. Others only think they are worse than others, but I, in actual reality, found out from experience that I am worse than everybody.” The blessed abba Dorotheos of Gaza spoke of men like Seraphim of Sarov and Abbot Moissei when he said, “The holy ones, the closer they come to God, the more they see themselves as sinners.”

If we observe American society closely, we can see how our culture devalues genuine humility. Assertiveness training workshops are vastly popular with many companies and organizations. Our society rewards those who aggressively strive to be number one, rack up the sales, grab the business. Humble, warm­hearted people, like Seraphim of Sarov and Abbot Moisseii, would be regarded by many modern psychologists as being afflicted with inferiority complexes, lacking proper ambition, and self-esteem. And yet it is precisely those individuals who have found inner peace and authenticity, who do not feel the need to enhance themselves at the costly price of their fellow human beings. Only tormented individ­uals haunted by a deep sense of emptiness are driven to wage war against themselves and others by the frantic — not to say demonic — mania to climb the ladders of worldly success. This is not to suggest that God does not wish for us to strive for genuine excellence. But the latter goals belong to the liberating world of the spirit, creativity, and love.

Recently I chanced to leaf through a major evangelical Protestant magazine. The slick pages were crammed with dazzling, eye-catching advertisements selling cassettes and videotapes by well-known preachers who promise to teach us how to achieve “power” and “fulfillment in Christ.” I saw advertisements for management plans designed for the hyperactive modern pastor who wants to build a big, beautiful, successful church. In reading these confident pages, I felt a profound sad­ness. It was a sadness for the loss of the origi­nal revolutionary ideal of the Gospel; it was a sadness for the worldly accommodations the church often makes when it confuses its divine identity with some secular behemoth like IBM Inc. When the church becomes The Church Inc., genuine religious experience dies.

The fourth tenet in the spiritual teaching of the staretz is personal relationship. “Man is free,” says the Russian staretz, free to choose whether to live his life according to God’s will or his own. The Russian staretz cannot help his spiritual children until they freely desire to change, to cut off their egoistic self-will. The greatest gift the Russian staretz can give his spiritual children is his personal relationship. This is a relationship closer than the most intimate blood ties.

Staretz Zakarii, a modern Russian elder, told his disciples that he would not cease in working on their behalf until “I and all my spiritual children stand together before God.” This is love in its profoundest manifestation. If you love someone profoundly, you know that the eternal fate of the beloved is a life or death matter. One must take responsibility for the person one loves. Thus, the Russian staretz battles for the souls of his spiritual children. There is a haunting story about how not even a great staretz like Seraphim could save a spiritual child who chose self over God. One day Seraphim was entertaining visitors at his hermitage. He joyfully said he was certain that God had heard his prayers and that all for whom he had prayed on that occasion would be saved. Suddenly, the staretz’s usually cheerful countenance clouded up. He gloomily said, “But three will perish.”

We do not need a Ph.D. in social psychology to perceive the mass spiritual hunger of people living in the opulent West. Many attempt to escape their painful psychic empti­ness, their gnawing spiritual hunger, by des­perately pursuing the illusory pleasures of drugs, promiscuous sex, wealth, power. But ultimately, the result is only greater anguish and desperation. Man cannot obliterate the divine image within his heart; he cannot es­cape his need for the transcendent. Clearly, people in our alienating and dissolute world need to search for spiritual direction. In these times it is not easy to find a spiritual director. Yet, for the sincere pilgrim, the Holy Spirit will provide. He who seeks, finds.

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