Eastern Spirituality: An Interview with the Russian Orthodox Tradition
Updated: Jul 29, 2019
by Justin O'Brien
In northeastern Pennsylvania, a small monastic community quietly prays and studies in the mountains of South Canaan. St. Tikhon Monastery, founded at the turn of the twentieth century, is a Russian Orthodox seminary and community of monks and priests. It continues an ancient path of spirituality that dates back to the pre-apostolic period. Most notably, this tradition traces its lineage through the writings of the Desert Fathers as partially translated in the Philokalia, and the more popularly read,The Way of a Pilgrim.
An interview with one of the faculty, Reverend V. Borichevsky, discloses this heritage that involves ritual and asceticism. Fr. Borichevsky explained the history and development of this Eastern Christian tradition for us. We hope to afford our readers an introduction to a meditative spirituality that is rarely found in North America.
Justin O'Brien: Father, what is the origin of your spiritual tradition?
Father: You have to begin in the ascetic tradition with Christ himself going to the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. Actually the practices are a continuation of the Jewish Old Testament tradition of fasting, prayer, and meditation. I don’t know about the meditation techniques of the Jewish tradition, but of course you can make educated guesses that there were such techniques. The whole ascetic tradition would have to be seen as directly related to those practices by some Jews, the Essenes, and others. These were used by the Christians and then practiced within a Christian cast. Egypt seems to be one of the early centers of monasticism. Early monastic communities were concerned with prayer and meditation primarily and a very definite-you might say individualized-community life. The more sophisticated and modern form of monasticism, with the rule and with the community life that ultimately developed, comes with St. Basil’s rule. There you have the beginning of monasticism in the Orthodox church.
If you go to the Benedictine monasteries, you find Latin monasticism in the West as it first developed. Later, the fragmentation of Western monasticism into religious orders, with their variety of purposes other than pure prayer and meditation, was started. Western monasticism later developed into monastic orders which have a specific task to perform: missionary orders, teaching orders, nursing orders, all these other special tasks which we might call social work. Eastern monasticism with few exceptions never deviated from the original form of monasticism. The only deviation in the East is just a slight compromise or acceptance of Western monasticism in the order of Martha and Mary founded in this century in Russia. It was a monastic community that established a hospital. Its primary purpose was distributing medicine to the poor of Moscow. It was founded by the Grand Duchess Elizabeth who was the sister of the Czarina. But that is clearly an exception.
Justin O'Brien: What authentic writings reveal your spiritual tradition?
Father: The most authentic are the writings of the fathers in terms of monasticism found in the Philokalia of which two volumes exist in English. In its original form it is about six volumes. The Philokalia is really an encyclopedia of spiritual writings of the Fathers of the Church as it was compiled in the Greek edition by Nicodemus the Recluse. Living on Mount Athos, he took all the ancient texts which were available—anthologies and commentaries—and compiled them.
The Philokalia, as it was published in English, has no basic theme, but simply quotes various fathers. Another volume is organized around the Jesus Prayer. Both give us a smattering of the Philokalia. Newer writings from contemporary monks, including early Russian mystics, are continuously added.
Justin O'Brien: In the Philokalia there are some writings that speak of meditating and combining breath.
Father: I’ve read about it and heard about it. There was a historical dispute on this matter during the Middle Ages. Generally speaking, the agreement is that the technique, a methodology, and the prayer of Jesus does not depend on that particular technique to be exercised. It is one of the many techniques and it has many sources. It comes from an older technique developed by mystics, probably in the desert, probably even in the Qumran community and in the Jewish communities and in St. Anthony’s time. Anthony of Egypt speaks about the Jesus prayer techniques, and he certainly applied them. The Ladder of Ascent by St. John Klimakos mentions it briefly, like many other writers. A very late treatise called the Unseen Warfare and more recently, The Way of the Pilgrim are others.
Justin O'Brien: What role does meditation play in the Russian spiritual and ascetic life?
Father: Our meditative techniques are quite startlingly different from those of Western Christianity. If I remember correctly, the techniques used in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, are bound or tied down by imagery. Eastern monasticism considers imagery as a form of confining to a great degree. The first volume of the Philokalia deals with the world prelest, meaning “beguilement.” Imagery here is explained as similar to the Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius. The technique visualizes Christ suffering in death and the meditator pictures himself in that experience and so forth. Imagery is seen in our tradition as a beguilement, and to be avoided. The true meditation is simply standing and waiting on god, so to speak, and not to create one’s own imagery or one’s own idol in the imagination. That can be a form of idolatry. You create an image and then you worship it! The meditative techniques of the East emphasize emptying oneself of images and waiting on the Lord—something of the idea of what happened to Elija in the Jewish scriptures. The Lord appeared to him in the silence, in the quiet and silence.
This whole idea of seeing things or visions was taken with great caution. Any vision among the ascetics was always viewed with great suspicion. It’s noted in the Philokalia that even a true vision has to undergo all kinds of tests before it’s accepted as a true vision, because the devil uses imaginings and visions to beguile us, drawing us away from Christ or from God. God, after all, cannot be seen and cannot be visualized. We can only wait on him to speak to us and reveal himself to us in whatever way he chooses to reveal himself. Thus, the meditative techniques in the East are sharply different from that of the West.
Justin O'Brien: Does the monastery here endorse any particular meditative techniques?
Father: I think that the monastic community here sticks pretty much to the traditional prayer: meditation in prayer and the ascetic life. The meditative techniques are taught by elders, by teachers who themselves have practiced. You’ll even notice in the Philokalia that they always warned a novice not to experiment with the techniques of which he has no knowledge, but to go to an experienced teacher who can guide him, so that he can avoid the temptations of various techniques that can actually lead him away from knowledge of God. The ultimate purpose of asceticism, after all , is to come to know God, come closer to God. And the evil, the devil, is always developing shortcuts as he did for Eve in the Garden of Eden. “You can go to heaven, but this way,” as he told Eve, suggesting a way of disobedience.
An ideal in asceticism is obedience; obedience to the elders is very essential for a monastic to grow and to develop. Reading of the Fathers and reading of the mystical texts is also encouraged, but under the guidance of an experienced teacher. The key to the whole of Eastern monasticism is a teacher who knows the way and has himself the experiences, and to avoid innovative methods and experimentation. In fact, I would say that any new method was always put under tremendous pressure for testing in order to prove itself. Monastics generally discourage that as being subject to opening up the door to temptations and of the devil as a simple term, evil.
Justin O'Brien: How do you determine whether the “elder” or spiritual teacher is truly qualified?
Father: He has to be consistent with the tradition of the Church, and what has been in the past. An elder proves himself by the fact that he speaks of the Fathers, and of the scriptures, and of the tradition of the Church, and stands in that tradition. He has no value outside of it. If he tries to deviate from it, if he tries to develop a technique that is different, he has to, in effect, prove that it’s consistent with what has been taught up until then. The relationship to what has already proceeded is very important. We build upon a foundation. Consequently, all sorts of innovations were always looked upon with great suspicion. Yet they weren’t discouraged, understand, but they had to prove themselves under tremendous pressure because you have to say in effect just where does the scripture teach it. How is this innovation consistent with what the Church of Christ has taught? How is this consistent with what the Fathers have taught? How is this consistent with what the ascetic tradition has been up until now? In fact, the Essene terminology describes elders as the trumpets of the faith. The elders proclaimed what was already the deposit of faith.
The theologians were able to express in contemporary language what was already the faith of the Church. There is this very important tradition that means that it’s a living thing. It’s not a dead kind of passing on of old techniques and so forth. It’s a thing that has to be tested continuously and the elders are the ones who in all their personal experiences lived this technique, used this technique and proved themselves in measuring up to the tradition. He is the exponent of the tradition. If he cannot relate himself to the total tradition he is considered an offshoot, maybe of some value but not within the context of the old tradition. Of course, this is part of the conservatism of the East.
Justin O'Brien: Sometimes one reads of theosis or apotheosis, a transformation in terms of spiritual development.
Father: Although that term is part of the theology of the Church, theosis is not simply a theological concept. It’s what occurs in the sacramental life of the Church. This is the life in Christ in which man is divested of the “old man” and puts on the “new man” of Christ. Now he is like Christ himself, both human and divine. And ultimately he becomes God-like, for the term theosis means “God-like.” The aim of the person is to become like unto god, but through obedience to Christ. You’ll find much of this in St. Paul’s theology: “except for Christ I am nothing.” It is important to relate oneself to Christ because he is the perfect image of the Father revealed to man. When we put on Christ, we put on a new image and a new nature. This human-divine nature guarantees actually our ultimate resurrection of the body and ultimate entrance into the kingdom of heaven. But the experience of the kingdom of heaven does not begin sometime in future after we die. It means the experience of the kingdom of heaven has begun the moment we put on Christ. When we have become Christ-like, our whole life divests itself of the error of Adam who tried to attain godliness by disobedience, and now through obedience in Christ we become once more directed in the proper way which Christ revealed to us in his own person, in his own life. Sharing the divine nature begins from the first moment of the sacramental act of putting on Christ-Baptism. Communion is the continuous nourishment in that relationship. Each sacramental act is a continuous reaffirmation of this and the Church begins its liturgy with the words, “Blessed is the kingdom” in the sense that the kingdom is now and we’re living in it and our purpose is to move in this way. Theosisis the process leading to the ultimate end, the kingdom. We are in the process of theosis the moment we put on Christ. We can either do this harmoniously, really participating in this process of transfiguration or transformation or we can resist it. Many of the ills of man occur when he resists it, he tries to take the shortcut, the easy way out.
Justin O'Brien: Do you suppose that a case could be built showing that other personages, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, for example, are very similar in their concerns and their missions towards mankind, which might indicate various kinds of incarnations rather than one absolute unique incarnation?
Father: Traditional orthodoxy believes and teaches that there can only be one ultimate incarnation, that of Christ, in the ultimate sense that he is the only Son of God. We are all called to become incarnate sons of God in some sense because we are called to put on Christ and become Christ-like. And there have been many Christ-like individuals in the human history.
The Old Testament people are seen as a fore-shadow of the New Testament Church. Even prior to that there were individuals who were seen as anticipating Christ. Abraham and Joseph, from the early Jewish tradition, showed certain characteristics that were a pattern of life which could find a similar pattern in Christ. These individuals are all seen as pointing to Christ. If a Buddha or a Krishna or any other such “Christ-like figure,” if you want to use that term, exists, he can only exist for one purpose: to show the true incarnation, the ultimate incarnation. If he doesn’t serve that purpose then he is not seen as being in the tradition.
I guess the whole answer to the question revolves around grace. Where does God’s grade operate? Where there is good there is God’s grace. Where good is being done, it is only being done by God’s grace because God is good. Whether someone is a Jew, a Moslem, a Buddhist or whatever, and he does good, he does it because in some way he is reflecting the grace of God. But the fullness of that grace—and in the first chapter of St. John’s gospel it is made very clear—the fullness of grace was revealed to man in Christ. There’s no doubt about the grace existing in many places in human experience. Even Plato and various philosophers who spoke about God seemed to have had great visions of what God is like. When they did reveal something of the truth about God, they were seen as having been moved by grace.
As far as our tradition is concerned, the ultimate incarnation and the only one that is seen as having the capacity of the fullness of the revelation of God is that of Jesus Christ. It would be very easy from a Christian point of view to defend that position simply from the opening chapters of the Gospel of John, or the epistles of John, in fact any of the Gospels, which show that the fullness of grace was revealed to us in Christ. But in no way does that imply that Christ-likeness cannot be believed outside of the immediate family o the Eastern Christian Church. It is seen that wherever there is good it has some relationship to the goodness that is God. We cannot, we cannot simply say, “well this is evil because there is no relation.” The Fathers continuously pointed out that the sun shines everywhere, on the good and the evil both. Those who are outside the Church can be moved by that same power, that same energy that moves those inside the Church. In fact, there are those Fathers who have even said something as drastic as this: that a person outside the Church who has less grace, but who husbands it and utilizes it for what it has given, may come closer than a Christian to God actually. They say the power of Christ as not being limited to a particular, parochial group of Jews and Gentiles but as a revelation of the whole of the world, and that takes into consideration the cosmic Christ. Christ is like the sun. He’s come to reveal the Father to all of creation. Not just to mankind, but to all creation. Because in a real sense we’re talking about a universal religion that is all-embracing.
Justin O'Brien: Here at the monastery, do you introduce your newcomers into definite techniques of meditation or relationships or how to use food or any other aspects of the ascetic life?
Father: They are given the rules and they are expected to follow the rules established by the monastic community. They follow the example of the older monks who teach them and the teaching is on a one-to-one basis. They’re expected to develop personally their own life but not all by themselves; they’re part of a community, though each one has the right to develop as an individual. The elder monk is the one whose example, whose life, is the one upon which they pattern themselves. I think it generally has to be said of monasticism in the East that they taught it much more through a one-to-one relationship than through books. I’m sure that there were elders who were almost completely self-taught because there are many stories pointing out that the amount of reading that a monk does is not as important as the depth of his studies.A rule was seen as a guideline at best but it was important who you choose for your guide, far more than the guidelines. The individual life is seen as being very important. The elder was, in fact, the staretz. There is a saying among the monastics “If you don’t have a staretz, go out and find one’ if you can’t find one, go out and steal one! This shows his importance. It is important to have someone who embodied these techniques of spirituality. In a limited sense, each elder incarnates that image of God in some way and you follow that particular image.
Justin O'Brien: Do you generally find at least one staretzat each monastery?
Father: Yes. This is the man that everybody follows. He embodies in his person the monastic ideal in some real sense and he is the one that you follow. You don’t spend any time analyzing him; you just follow him. Analyzing would be seen as sort of a, I won’t say blasphemy, but let’s say it’s just like falling in love. If you start analyzing it, it becomes an abstraction, something that has been reduced to the written word. You just follow a person and follow his example. He’s given to you as an icon, as an image. The term “icon” means “image,” something you can see. An icon is an image done by us but it brings you into a relationship. An ordinary icon is simply paper or wood and paint. How much more a person who carries the image and likeness of God, someone who embodies that image? Of course there are always situations in monastic communities when you say, “What do you do when you can’t find an elder?” Well then you study the Fathers, study the scriptures and wait. Wait for what? Wait until someone appears.