eastern and oriental orthodox
Knowledge of the Greek Fathers does not,of course, guarantee that someone will become an open-hearted proponent of ecumenism, but there has been a number of Russian Orthodox saints who not only absorbed the words but also the spirit of the Fathers.
St Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) who translated the Philokalia into Russian, had an open mind and an open heart that were both nourished by a lengthy stay in Jerusalem where he not only studied Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, but also met with Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Oriental Orthodox clergy. Despite fierce opposition in Russia he seriously evaluated Roman Catholic spirituality, reminding his opponents that the 18th century St Paisius Velichkovsky, who spent time on Mt Athos, who translated the Philokalia into Church Slavonic, and who performed the great task of renewing Russian hesychastic spirituality, did not oppose the spirituality of the Roman Church, but rather its dogmatic schematicism.
St Theophan's most powerful opponent, St Ignacy Brianchanninov (1807-1867) was so violently anti-ecumenical that he described St Francis of Assisi and St Teresa of Avila as "western lunatics"! It is interesting to compare their spiritual writings. Both wrote extensively and powerfully, but
whereas St Ignacy is formidably 'upright', it is St Theophan who displays the greater sense of mercy.
St Nil Sorsky(c1443-1508) was so dissatisfied with the laxity of his Russian monastery that he went to Mt Athos, where he was taught the mysteries of the Jesus Prayer and studied such Church Fathers as St Basil
the Great, St Makarios of Egypt, St Isaac the Syrian, and St John Klimakos. He returned to Russia and founded a monastic community dedicated to living the truths he had learned on the Holy Mountain. Despite his deliberate "otherworldliness", he did become involved in important controversies. He opposed western-style monasticism in Russia
which owned not only vast tracts of land, but also enormous numbers of serfs. Monks, he said, should devote themselves to prayer, not the administration of agriculture and finance. he resolutely opposed the common practice of his time of burning heretics at the stake, proclaiming
the need for forgiveness and charity, controversially emphasizing that the
human conscience should be left free to choose.
St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) was a Russian peasant who, at the age of 27, went to Mt Athos, where he spent the rest of his life. The essence of his understanding and his teaching was love for one's enemies:
"The soul cannot know peace unless she prays for her enemies..."
"If you pray for your enemies, peace will come to you... whereas,
if you revile your enemies, it means there is an evil
spirit dwelling inside you..."
So, three Russian Orthodox saints (and there are many more) who espoused open-hearted spiritual enquiry, forgiveness and charity, and the absolute need to love one's enemies. Of such is the ecumenical spirit.
Unfortunately the dictates of the world, the demands of patriotism (that old, old lie, to paraphrase Wilfred Owen) which require eulogies for one particular state power, have decieved many with chimerical notions of theocracy. "The power of the monarchy resides in faith in God, and the strength of the state resides in faith and devotion to one's own rulers,"
wrote St Philaret of Moscow (1782-1867). And: "Only an earthly empire united with God's Kingdom can be strong and truly happy." Here the differences between this world and the next, so clearly defined by the great spiritual Fathers, have been blurred, resulting in a eulogy of an illusory "Orthodox state". Such distortions have led to Churches not only supporting, but also advocating so-called 'civilising', 'crusading' wars.
However, "many are they who reign and rule over peoples, yet who are themselves slaves to sin and prisoners of their own passions," wrote
St Tikhon Zadonsky(1724-1783), another Russian who opened his heart to experience western spirituality. And while puncturing myths about earthly rulers, St Tikhon also continued to advocate obedience, not because the powers of this world can be trusted, but because obedience is an essential part of obtaining humility, of removing ourselves from the vain contentions of this world, enabling us to concentrate more clearly on
the King who is "not of this world."
The Church in Russia has, alas, never been able to free itself from the acute tensions between the so-called 'westernizers' and the 'asiatics', the
consequence of which has often been civil war. Yet God's powerful implements of peace, the examples of such saints as Theophan the Recluse, Nil Sorsky, Silouan the Athonite, and Tikhon Zadonsky, are great sources of light with which to illuminate the heart of the Russian Church.
Through their example and through their prayers they summon the faithful of Russia to the Body of Christ, where they become neither
'westerner' nor 'asiatic', but joyful citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.