The Rise of Russian Christendom II

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Welcome back. In the first segment of this episode on the rise of Russian Christendom, I discussed the baptism of Vladimir, and with him, Kievan Russia, talking about the first steps of the Church in the life of Russia during the late 10th and early 11th centuries. I also discussed a bit the process of conversion and the way in which Russia began the process of assimilating traditional Christianity in her culture. So Russia was converted, beginning with Vladimir, in a relatively peaceful way, to Christianity, to traditional Christianity. And her culture now came under the influence of this faith. And we can find in examples of this first stage in the history of Christian Russia, a stage that can be called Kievan Russia, even though Kievan Russia had pre-existed Vladimir’s conversion—the culture that we have to study really begins with Vladimir—we can find in examples from that culture a real transformation.

One of these elements is Christian statecraft. We know, of course, that Christian statecraft had been pioneered in Byzantium, beginning with Constantine, and worked out by later emperors like Theodosius and then Justinian, and that it had also come to the West, especially among the Franks like Charlemagne, and later rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, who, as in Byzantium, applied a principle of close episcopal political relations so that the ruler always oversaw the life of the Church. As a matter of fact, it was under the influence of first Charlemagne and then subsequent Frankish and then German rulers of the Holy Roman Empire that the preferred form of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, including the filioque, was finally brought to Rome itself, under the influence of Roman power. And back in Byzantium, royal power had also brought tremendous influence to bear on ecclesiastical life, especially in the detrimental experience of iconoclasm. So caesaropapism was always a tendency, not only in the Christian statecraft of Byzantium, but of the West as well.

It’s interesting to note that in the case of Russia, her early Christian state resisted caesaropapism in interesting ways. Vladimir passed, for instance, an ecclesiastical statute that established independent ecclesiastical courts so that the Church in Russia always enjoyed freedom from intervention from civil courts, from the influence of the ruler. Furthermore, insofar as for the first centuries, the metropolitan or primate of the Russian Church, residing in Kiev, was under the direct oversight and accountable to the patriarch of Constantinople meant that the Grand Prince in Kiev, or any other city of Russia, could not intervene in Church affairs the way the Byzantine emperor had so often done in the affairs of the patriarch of Constantinople.

So in Russia we have a series of rulers in the Kievan period, which period, by the way, lasts from the time of Vladimir all the way up until the Mongol invasions in the early 1200s, so about 250 years, and during this period of time, caesaropapism was a very rare phenomenon, so unlike the case of Byzantium and even the Franks. Probably the most famous ruler of the time was Vladimir’s son Yaroslav, who, driving Svyatopolk out in 1019, became Grand Prince of Kiev and ruled from 1019 to 1054, the very year of the Great Schism.

And he supported the clergy, he passed legal reforms, he helped establish monasticism, he built many churches, including churches modeled on Hagia Sophia in Constantinople itself, the Church of Holy Wisdom in Kiev as well as Holy Wisdom in Novgorod, probably the most famous and important of Kievan Russia’s rulers. Yaroslav had tried, interestingly, to assert a kind of autonomy for the Russian Church in relationship to Constantinople, largely without success, but it was Yaroslav who placed the first Russian bishop on the throne of the metropolitan of Kiev, even without the full agreement of Constantinople.

A more dramatic case of efforts to assert royal leadership in Church life, and therefore to tend toward a kind of caesaropapism, drifting away from the ideal of symphony, which we discussed in Part I of this podcast, was found in the case of the Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky. Andrey Bogolyubsky reigned from 1157 to 1175, so toward the end of the Kievan period, and admittedly beyond the Great Schism, and he did a lot of different things to try to build up Christendom in Russia, but one overall policy he had was to try to centralize the state using the Byzantine model of a centralized, even autocratic, political system. To do this he went to war against Kiev and then against Novgorod from his capital, from his base, in the city of Suzdal.

He built many churches, famous ones, including one of the most famous and often photographed, a church called the Intercession of the Mother of God on the Nerl River, near his palace-town of Bogolyubovo. He also built the biggest church in Russia of the time, the Cathedral of the Dormition in the city of Vladimir, which was not far from Suzdal. He not only built churches, but he also influenced the development of the liturgical calendar.

It was probably under Andrey Bogolyubsky that the Feast of the Protection, the Pokrov, was established for October 1 in the liturgical calendar. What is more, he acquired what’s probably the most famous icon in Russia, the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. He acquired it from Kiev. It had originally come from Constantinople, and brought to Kiev and then brought, in turn, to Vladimir, which he ruled over.

Interestingly, Andrey tried to establish a new metropolitanate, a new center for a metropolitan, in Suzdal, where he ruled from. And it was in this effort that he ran up against the autonomy of the Church, and it’s a very interesting thing to see how the patriarch of Constantinople responded to this effort by Andrey. The patriarch wrote a letter of remonstrance to Andrey. The circumstances for the letter were that Andrey, in trying to establish his own independent metropolitan Suzdal, was immediately opposed by a local bishop who appealed to Constantinople, and that was the occasion for this letter. So this is what the Ecumenical Patriarch wrote:

If you disobey his teachings and admonitions [those of the local bishop] and moreover begin to persecute your bishop and teacher, embracing other doctrines against the law, you must know, my blessed son, that even if you fill the whole world with churches and build innumerable towns but persecute your bishop, the head of the church and the people, those will be no churches but sties, and you will have no reward nor salvation.

So very stern words of warning from the Ecumenical Patriarch against Andrey Bogolyubsky. We see, then, the limits of any tendency towards caesaropapism built into Russia’s early ecclesiastical system.

Another element of interest in the statecraft, the Christian statecraft of early Christian Russia, was what can be called the “saintly ruler” ideal that began to appear in the culture of Russia during this time. The best example of this “saintly ruler” ideal is perhaps Vladimir himself, who, after his conversion in 988, demonstrated what might be called an evangelical zeal for the faith, one that was so strong and permeated so broadly his entire reign that soon after his death he, too, like his sons Boris and Gleb, was canonized as a saint.

After his conversion, his way of life changed dramatically. One will recall how caught up he was in the paganism of Russia before his conversion, but after his conversion that changed radically. He married a Byzantine princess named Anna, and subsequently dismissed all of his concubines and remained monogamous in his relationship to Anna for the rest of his life. He also showed a concern for the poor and for the hungry, sending bread wagons throughout Kiev on Saturdays for their sake. I can quote here a passage from the Primary Chronicle that speaks of this.

Vladimir invited each beggar and poor man to come to the prince’s palace and receive whatever he needed, both food and drink, and money from the treasury, with the thought that the weak and the sick could not easily reach his palace. He arranged that wagons should be brought in, and after having them loaded with bread, meat, fish, various vegetables, mead in casks, and kvas, he ordered them driven out through the city. The drivers were under instruction to call out: “Where is there a poor man or a beggar who cannot walk?” To such they distributed according to their necessities.

So Vladimir is showing a real zeal to care for the poor according to the Gospel. Vladimir, whose early reign was marked by wild parties at his court in Kiev, converted those parties to feasts, feasts which even bore the name “love feasts,” where people were invited to come and share in fellowship the generosity of Vladimir. The drinking continued, but it was now part of [an] experience of joy and mutual compassion and love to which even the poor of Kiev, as we heard in that previous quote, were invited.

Perhaps the most stunning, the most striking example of Vladimir’s evangelical response to his conversion was his intention to abolish capital punishment. He actually sought to abolish the death penalty in Russia in response to his reading or hearing the Gospel. It’s interesting that he was dissuaded by bishops sent from Byzantium, where capital punishment and many different forms of punishment that were quite cruel continued, having been inherited from the pagan Roman Empire. But in Russia, there was such a dramatic break with the pagan order that preceded Vladimir’s conversion that such a response to the Gospel as seeking to abolish capital punishment was possible in a way that it wasn’t in Byzantium.

Vladimir also supported German missionaries who came from the West. This was, of course, the time before the Great Schism, and Vladimir made his court open to Western Christians as well as Eastern ones. And in fact there was even missionary work supported by Vladimir by German bishops in the Eastern borderlands of Vladimir’s Kievan realm. So Vladimir, showing this evangelical zeal, was ultimately canonized as a saint, just like Boris and Gleb, his sons, and he was given the title “Equal of the Apostles,” which is the same title, of course, borne by St. Constantine.

One final example of an evangelical response by Russia’s rulers in the Kievan period can be found in the person of Vladimir Monomakh—not Vladimir the first, but another Grand Prince named Vladimir Monomakh, who ruled in the twelfth century, from 1113 to 1125. What’s interesting about him is that he left behind a testament before he died, in which he admonished his Christian sons to rule like Christian princes, following the teachings of the Christian Scriptures. So he brought attention to a variety of important Christian doctrines about morality, about values and behavior, that he wished his sons would follow. This evangelical spirit of it, consistent in some passages with the Sermon on the Mount, the counter-cultural values of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, can be found in passages such as the following. He wrote:

Verily, my sons, understand how merciful and over-merciful is the loving God. We men, being sinful and mortal, if someone wrongs us, wish to lacerate him and shed his blood, but our Lord, Master of life and death, endures our sins which are above our head, over and over, until the end of our life.

In other words, follow the example of Christ and forgive and love and be patient with those who oppose one. How different these values are from the princes that before Vladimir’s time and, to be sure, long after Vladimir’s time, when they weren’t following the example of the Gospel, acted violently toward those that opposed them!

Vladimir Monomakh repeatedly speaks even of monastic experiences and values. He wrote also about the experience of tears—tears of humility, tears of sorrow, tears of joy—that is so much a part of traditional Christian monastic literature. He also called his sons to care for the poor and the weak, rather like Vladimir I had done. Here’s something he said to them about that.

First of all, do not forget the poor, but in the measure of your possibilities, feed them and make presents to the orphan. Give justice to the widow, and do not permit the mighty to ruin any man. Visit the sick. Walk behind the dead, for we all are mortal. Do not pass a man without greeting. Say a kind word to him.

These are the words of the very Grand Prince himself, humbling himself and calling his sons to humble themselves, even as they rule Kievan Russia. And as Vladimir I had done, so Vladimir Monomakh, in the following century, also upholds a value of mercy toward those who committed crimes, and like Vladimir resisted the imposition of the death penalty for those who are convicted of crimes. Here we have Vladimir Monomakh speaking to his sons.

Do not kill either the just or the guilty. Do not order a man to be killed. Even if deserving death, do not destroy any Christian life.

These were the words of Vladimir Monomakh, a century after the conversion of Russia under St. Vladimir. With the evangelical transformation of Kievan Russia’s political culture went an evangelical transformation of the cosmos, of the world, at least as her Church leaders understood it. There are a number of documents from the Kievan period that show that the traditional Christian understanding of a cosmos transformed, transfigured, by the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, in the life of the Church, became a central doctrine, a central theme throughout the Kievan and early Russian period. We will remember that this theme, at the heart of traditional Christianity, and its understanding of paradise was found in early Christendom, East and West.

It was particularly strong in Byzantium where, as listeners will recall, it was expressed in the prayers of St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, accompanying the Great Blessing of Waters at Theophany, one of the Great Feasts of the Incarnation. When Sophronius spoke about how “today,” to quote him in that prayer: “Today the entire universe, the earth, the stars, the moon, the heavens, everything—all material elements are transformed by the incarnate God and his presence on earth through his baptism.”

The same theme was to be found in the West, though, as I noted in a more recent episode, under the influence of the Franks it began to decline, so that, according to the historian Peter Brown, the pre-eminent historian of Western Christendom, by the eleventh century, Western Christendom no longer saw the entire cosmos as transfigured by the incarnate God but reserved only certain areas or spaces of the world, especially those associated with temples and shrines of the saints and their relics, only certain spaces, as manifesting this divine presence in the world.

Well, Russia, of course, received her Christianity from Byzantium, and so the theme of heavenly immanence was very strong in Russia and can be found in certain documents we have from the Kievan period, especially homilies. One such homily was delivered by a bishop named Cyril of Turov in the twelfth century, the 1100s, and it was clearly influenced by Byzantine prototypes. Cyril was really adding nothing very new in his homiletics, but was adapting and bringing the Byzantine inheritance into the life of the Russia Church. Being shaped by this Byzantine-Eastern inheritance, it is a homily that is really quite beautiful. I’ll quote it here, and, again, one will want to recall the content of that prayer by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem that accompanied the Great Blessings of Water at Theophany, the feast of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan, where the emphasis is upon today, now, this time, this place, as being one transformed by the presence of the incarnate God. These are the words of Cyril in a homily on the feast of Thomas Sunday, the first Sunday after Pascha.

Last week (Cyril writes) there was a change of all things, for the earth was opened up by heaven, having been purified from its satanic impurities. All creation was renewed, for no longer are the air, the sun, the fire, the springs, the trees thought to be gods.

Recall how Russian paganism before the baptism of Vladimir had had within it a very high and strong reverence for the material creation, for the earth.

No longer does hell receive its due infants, sacrificed by their fathers, nor death its honors, for idolatry has come to an end, and the satanic power has been vanquished by the mystery of the Cross.

Cyril’s Paschal reflection is not only on the physical creation but on the sanctification of time as well, as he now directs attention to the transformation of time, to the transformation of the calendar, of the place of Sunday now in the life of Christendom now in this world.

The Old Testament (he wrote) has become impoverished by the rejection of the blood of calves and sacrifices of goats, for Christ has given himself to the Lord as a sacrifice for all, and with this, Sunday ceases to be a holiday, but the Sunday was sanctified on account of the Resurrection, and Sunday is now supreme, for Christ arose from the dead on that day.

It’s perhaps interesting and worth pausing here to reflect on the detail of the Russian language—the modern Russian language, not the language used in Kiev at the time in which Cyril composed his homily, but of the modern Russian language with time—how it came to use the word voskresen’ye for the day Sunday. In Russian, voskresen’ye means “resurrection”: the day of the Resurrection. And to my knowledge, it’s literally the only language in world history which, influenced by the transformative effect of Christianity, names the first day of the week after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ itself.

All other languages influenced by Christianity that reflect a Christian stamp on timekeeping, a development I explored in Part I of the podcast in an episode on the transformation of time and space, all other languages influenced by Christianity used a variant of the word “Lord’s Day”: Kyriakē in Greek, the Lord’s Day. Languages like English and German kept their pagan associations for this first day of the week, in English “Sunday,” day of the sun, s-u-n; but most European languages under the influence of traditional Christianity and its theme of the transformation of time as part of its cosmology, adopted the term “the Lord’s Day.”

However, the Russians, with time, and as I say, it didn’t occur during the Kievan period, but this might be a good time to introduce the point, with time the Russians even went further and named this day “the Day of the Resurrection,” so that even in Soviet times, when the atheistic state tried to destroy traditional Christianity and with it Christendom, they could not escape every time Communist officials spoke about the day of the week that was known as, in English, Sunday, they had to acknowledge this fact, that it was on that day, voskresen’ye, that Jesus rose from the dead. We can already see this tendency in this early Kievan Russian document by Cyril of Turov. And he continues, echoing the beautiful prayer of St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, from Byzantium and its experience of paradise in this age.

Today the heavens have been cleared from the dark clouds that enshrouded them as with a heavy veil, and they proclaim the glory of God with a clear atmosphere. Today the sun rises and beams on high and, rejoicing, warms the earth, for there has arisen for us from the grave the real Sun (s-u-n), Christ, and he saves all who believe in him. Today the moon descends from its high place and gives honor to the greater lights. The Old Testament, as had been prophesied, has stopped with its sabbath (the seventh day of the week), and with its prophets gives honor to the testament of Christ with its Sunday (the first day of the week).

Today the winter of sin has stopped in repentance, and the ice of unbelief is melted by wisdom. Today springs appear spruce and enlivens all earthly existence; the stormy winds blow gently and generate fruits, and the earth, giving nurture to the seed, brings forth green grass. For spring is the beautiful faith in Christ which, through baptism, produces a regeneration of man, and the stormy winds are the evil, sinful thoughts that, being changed to virtue through repentance, generate soul-saving fruits; but the earth of our being, having received the word of God like a seed, and passing through an ecstatic labor, through the fear of him, brings forth a spirit of salvation.

Today the newborn lambs and calves frisk and leap about joyfully and, returning to their mothers, gambol about so that the shepherds, playing on their reeds, praise Christ in joy.

What a beautiful image of the Resurrection that all Christians experience during the Paschal season.

Today there is a feast of regeneration for the people who are made new by the Resurrection of Christ, and all new things are brought to God, from heathens, faith; from good Christians, offerings; from the clergy, holy sacrifices; from the civil authorities, God-pleasing charity; from the noble, care for the Church; from the righteous, humility; from the sinners, true repentance; and from the unhallowed, a turning to God; from the hating, spiritual love.

One can recall Vladimir Monomakh’s statement in his admonition, his testament, about turning from hatred to spiritual love in admonishing his children to rule as Christians. So this is the homily on Thomas Sunday, the second Sunday of Easter season, the Sunday after Pascha, that was delivered by Cyril of Turov and preserved by the Church in Russia.

Now this understanding of a cosmos that’s been transformed by the presence of the Church was not limited to the natural creation, but applied very specifically to the Russians themselves as a nation made holy by their embracing of the Faith, a nation that now took her place within a historical account of the salvation of the world and a nation in which, now with temples and shrines built within her cities like Kiev, where Yaroslav the Wise erected Holy Wisdom Cathedral in imitation of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, it was in this very land now, inhabited by the Christian Russians, that the transformed cosmos could be experienced, that heaven itself could be experienced.

We find this message, we find this conviction, in another sermon by another Church leader of the Kievan period, one even more famous than Cyril of Turov, and this Church leader is in fact the very first Russian metropolitan of Kiev, Ilarion. Sometimes his name is Latinized as Hilarion. Ilarion became metropolitan of Kiev during the reign of Yaroslav the Wise. He reigned as metropolitan from 1051 to 1055, and his major contribution to the development of Christian literature in Russia is a sermon entitled, “Sermon on the Law and Grace.” This sermon is a reflection, a Christian reflection, on the experience of Old Testament Israel and the coming of the Church, the dawn of Christianity, and the spread of the Church throughout the entire cosmos, throughout the entire world. In this reflection, Ilarion places the Russian people as a holy nation: a holy nation, taking its place among all the other holy nations and peoples of the world, under the influence and within the life of the Church. This is what he wrote.

This blessed faith spreads now over the entire earth and finally it reached the Russian nation. Whereas the lake of the law dried up, the fount of the Gospel became rich in water and overflowed upon our land and reached us, and now, together with all Christians, we glorify the holy Trinity.

So this is Ilarion of Kiev writing about Russia’s inheritance, the inheritance of the entire Church in the course of salvation history. With this conviction that history finds a kind of fulfillment in the baptism of Russia—and he praises, by the way, in his sermon, Vladimir as a great saint, bringing Russia to the faith—with this conviction that Russia plays a role in the history of the spread, the evangelical spread of Christianity throughout the whole cosmos, we begin to perceive a theme in early Russian Christendom that we can call “holy Russia.”

Holy Russia: this term, Svyataya Rus’ in Russian, was not actually used by Ilarion or by any—to our knowledge—writers for many hundreds of years. Nevertheless, clearly there is an understanding that the nation of the Russians has somehow been sanctified and transformed even while on earth by their contact with traditional Christianity according to its understanding of cosmology.

So, by way of concluding this episode on the rise of Russian Christendom, I will quote Ilarion again in talking about how Russia now has been transformed, and the material, earthly, worldly experience of Russians living now in this world was one of contact with God, contact with paradise.

The darkness of the demonic cult of paganism perished, and the sun of the Gospel shone over our land. The temples of idols were destroyed, and the churches were built. The idols were broken, and the icons of the saints appeared. Demons fled away; the Cross sanctified the towns. As shepherds of spiritual lambs came bishops, priests, and deacons, offering the immaculate sacrifice. They adorned all the sanctuary and vested holy churches with beauty. Angel’s trumpet and Gospel’s thunder sounded through all the towns. The incense, rising toward God, sanctified the air. Monasteries stood on mountains. Men and women, small and great, all people filled holy churches.

Join me next time, when finally I will reach the point of the Great Schism, describing how Eastern Christendom and Western Christendom tragically and permanently became separated.