What is it with Russian spirituality? Maybe there’s something to be said for caviar and red wine, or for a drink of vodka as long and as cold as Russian winter, to say nothing of a hot cup of strong tea sweetened with raspberry jam. Brown rice and lentils with lemon water sound more ascetic, but, having tried them, I’m not convinced they work any better.
As a young man, my spiritual journey was characterized by an ethos comparable to a cross between John Lennon’s song “Imagine” (before I, at Elvis Costello’s urging, deconstructed the notion of a millionaire bidding me to “imagine no possessions”) and Ray Stevens’ schmaltz classic “Everything is Beautiful.” Sing out, children!
But life eventually delivered me one of its major league ass-kickings and I was left with a bagful of idealism beyond its shelf-life and a bunch of unanswered questions. It was time to look somewhere else.
After wandering around, more or less aimlessly, I stumbled into a book that really did change my life. The book, its author unnamed, was called ‘Meditations on the Tarot,’ a text of profound and wide-ranging erudition enlivened by what can only be described as a spiritual gravitas informed by the author’s extraordinarily deep familiarity with prayer and meditation. The book made me rethink everything, particularly who I thought I was. “Organized religion,” which I had spoken of with such disdain since my late teens, started to appear in a much better light, and the testimonials from respected clergymen on the dust jacket only worked to further disrupt my all-too-cozy self-assurance about what was or was not Truth. In time, I learned that the author was Valentin Tomberg, a Russian Estonian who had been a popular Anthroposophist in the 1930s before his spiritual and historical experiences during World War II brought him to the Catholic Church.
Reading Tomberg led me to Vladimir Solovyov, the philosopher, poet, and theological thinker who (re)introduced an understanding of Sophia into Christian theology. Solovyov held that a renewed understanding of Sophia—simultaneously unfallen nature, the human nature of Christ, and embodied in the Virgin Mary—offered a way to think of creation as an integral whole made so by the fact of the Incarnation of Christ. Solovyov was also a visionary mystic who had encountered Sophia (whom he called his “Eternal Friend”), once as a child during the Divine Liturgy in Moscow, once while researching in the British Library as a young man, and again while in the desert near Cairo, the accounts of which he recorded in his poem “Three Meetings.” Solovyov was a friend of the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the latter based both Aloysha and Ivan Karamazov of The Brothers Karamazov after him.
From Solovyov, I found my way to Nicholas Berdyaev, Sergius Bulgakov, and Pavel Florensky who, for me at least, continued to challenge my ideas about religious philosophy and theology. Berdyaev and Bulgakov had been Marxists for a time in the early years of Bolshevist Russia, but before too long they rejected Marxism’s complete materialism and elected instead for a recommitment to the spirit. Berdyaev fled to France from where he wrote his heavily existential religious philosophy. Bulgakov and Florensky were both ordained priests in the Russian Orthodox Church and both further developed and expanded upon Solovyov’s intuitions concerning Sophia (which sometimes brought them into conflict with Church authorities). Bulgakov, like his friend Berdyaev, escaped to France, where he became rector of the Saint Sergius Theological Institute in Paris.
Florensky, a polymath of staggering abilities and often called “the Russian DaVinci,” remained behind in Russia. In addition to his work in theology and his standing as a mystic, he was also an accomplished electrical engineer and designed Russia’s first electric grid. Though he remained behind, he never appeared in public unless dressed in his cassock, a silent affront to the anti-Christian Bolsheviks. His book ‘The Pillar and Ground of the Truth’ stands alongside ‘Meditations on the Tarot’ as one of the most incredible books I have read. On 8 August 1937, the Bolshevik authorities executed him. May his memory be eternal!
This Russian spirituality—-existential, esoteric, creative, deeply philosophical, and theologically complex—-attests to the oft-quoted (but not as often contemplated) assertion of Dostoevsky that “Beauty will save the world.” If this statement is taken as it is usually presented, then other banalities like those of John Lennon and Ray Stevens are true. But if it is taken in its original context—existential, esoteric, creative, deeply philosophical, and theologically complex—-then we might be on to something. The spiritual cannot survive unless it tastes of blood.
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