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The five types

By St. Mother Maria Skobtsova

(…continued from here)

ThreeAesthetical Devotion

St. Mother Maria SkobtsovaIt is difficult to trace the genesis of the aesthetical type of piety. One can imagine that it had its representatives during all ages, easing off slightly only at times when the Church was faced with challenges of great spiritual tension, when the Church was in the grip of a struggle, when it was persecuted and when it was forced to lose touch with the very essence of Christianity. Even the origin of Christianity in Kievan Rus, according to the ancient legend, was determined by an act of well-known esthetic piety. St. Vladimir made comparisons between religions not by the substance of their inner content but by the strength of influence of their external forms. Thus he chose Orthodoxy for the beauty of its singing, for the grandeur of its rites and for that tremendous esthetic experience which so moved him. The authors of Muscovy Rus produced long and moving descriptions of Orthodoxy’s beauty. Even the nineteenth Century, not known for special aesthetical sensitivity, produced such a great model of an esthetic Orthodox personality as Konstantin Leontiev for whom beauty contained a special measure of truth and who rejected the religiously empty bourgeois world because it was monstrous, and he reached out to Orthodoxy where he saw beauty.

It is no wonder that in the twentieth century when there was a convergence of two factors — a bright and talented outpouring of esthetics upon the cultural upper strata of Russian life and the entry of a large number of people from that cultural stratum into the Church — and the aesthetical type of piety was almost overpowering in determining many things. In the first order, it singled out very significant treasures. Esthetics was always linked with a type of a cult of antiquity, with a kind of archeology. It is not surprising that during the period when it flourished, ancient Russian art was rediscovered; ancient icons were found, restored and studied; museums of iconography were established; schools of iconography were defined and described; Rublev and others began to be appreciated; ancient chant began to be restored. Kievan and Valaam chants found their way into the repertoire of Church singing; church architecture became better known thanks to a great number of publications on the history of art. These are, without a doubt, positive achievements.

But along with this aesthetical approach to religion there was the growth of a particular moral mind-set, characteristics of which are easily found. Beauty and its appreciation is always the lot of a small minority — this explains the unavoidable cultural aristocracy of any esthetics. In defending the values of esthetics, a person divides the whole world into friends, who understand and appreciate its values, and into profane enemies. Imagining that the foundation of Church life is its beauty, the person will then divide all mankind into a small flock having a special esthetic sensitivity, and a crowd of those unworthies to be kept beyond the walls of the churchyard. The mystery of the Church, in that person’s imagination, is to be grasped only by the elect. Not only would the sinners and the prostitutes be excluded from sitting at the feet of Christ, but all those who are too simple and naive would likewise be excluded, in order that he alone could find satisfaction from the highly esthetic beauty of Divine Services, etc.

Having esthetics as the sole criterion of what is proper, the sole measure of things, that person imagines himself as a part of some kind of a complex composition and feels obliged not to spoil it, not to displace it. He adapts to its general rhythm but he introduces that rhythm into his own inner life. He, like the strict ritualist, organizes his own special way of life and sees within it his own magnanimous virtue. The esthete is always attracted to the archaic. At times he may even be attracted to a type of rustic artistry. From this he develops an attraction towards specific segments of ritual, of individual hymns, Andrew of Crete’s Canon, etc. Often the artistic value of that material is singled out, and if there isn’t any, that is taken into account and then he is entranced by its antiquity, or struck by its stately composition, or by the rhythmic success of the whole of the Divine service.

The esthetic criteria displaces the spiritual and eventually pushes out everything else. The people in the Church are looked upon as either a crowd of worshipers, essential as props for the proper rhythm of worship, or as annoying and tedious barbarians who, by their ignorance, clumsiness and occasionally by their personal sorrows and special needs, encroach upon the general grandeur and arrangement of the service. The esthete loses himself in clouds of incense, is moved by the ancient chants, admires the severity and understatement of the Novgorod style of iconography. He will condescendingly take note of the somewhat naive wording of a hymn. He has partaken in everything, he is satiated, he is afraid to spill his treasure. He is afraid of tasteless detail, of human woes which may lead to sympathy, he is afraid of human weakness which may lead to squeamishness. In all, he doesn’t like the petty, disorganized, confused state of the human soul. Without a doubt it would be difficult to find love within the esthetic type of religious life. Perhaps there is not even a place for hate in it. There is only that cold, highly exacting contempt for the profane, and an ecstatic admiration of beauty.

There is a dryness, more often than not concurrent with formalism. There is a concern for the preservation of oneself and one’s world, which is so well harmonized and structured, from the encroachment of everything that might offend and upset that harmony. This unavoidable chill of esthetics will gradually cool even the fiery souls (Konstantin Leontiev for example, had a fiery soul by nature). They demand a chilling of everything surrounding them. They look for some kind of an eternal ice, an eternal pole of beauty, eternal Aurora Borealis.

The most incredible and strange thing is the possibility of the spread of the esthetic type amongst Russians whose souls as a rule, lack harmony, form and rhythm. Their fiery temper, their pithy expressions and at times chaotic character would, one could imagine, serve as a sure guarantee that they would be spared from esthetics. Perhaps there is a kind of a law of contradiction in effect here, forcing a person to seek within his world outlook, what will supplement his inner characteristic rather than express it. Perhaps he finds it impossible to get along with his inner chaos, to bear it, and as a result, to move into another extreme. But one often sees— oh, much more often than one can imagine— a peculiar extinction of that flame, almost a spiritual suicide which changes fire into ice, a surge towards an immovable stance, an intense search, and a fall into a rhythm of strange forms.

There is no doubt that the esthetic type of Orthodox piety, which by its very nature belongs to the upper cultural levels of Russian people, can not count on widespread dissemination. However the case here is not about numbers but precisely in that cultural quality of the bearers of Orthodox esthetics. In spite of their small numbers they could have and still can have a strong influence on the life of the Church in all its phases. What kind of influence? How strong is its creative effort? Here one must speak about an extraordinary paradoxical fact. The true preservers of creative works in the most diverse ages, nations and people, always valued someone else’s genius or talent. The subtle critics and experts in the most minute details and trends of various artistic schools, these esthetes were never and nowhere creative themselves, and it might be because they so subtly and so intensely rated the works of others. This always resulted in a special kind of psychology shared by museum curators, collectors, experts and catalogers, but not by creative artists.

Creativity, even that which produces the finest works of art, is in its essence rather crude. Creativity aims to achieve something, to affirm something, always pushing something aside, rejecting something, breaking something. It clears a place for something new, it thirsts so strongly for newness that it would ignore everything that has previously been created, anything that’s old, turning it into nothing in comparison with what it has wrought. The museum curator’s psychology is not compatible with creative psychology: one is conservative, the other revolutionary.

What kind of conclusions can we draw about the future of this type of ecclesiastical piety? Our coarse, excruciating and tense life experience turns us towards the Church with all its aches, with all its coarse intensity. To be sure, our life demands creativity, which is capable not only of reviewing and changing that which is old but to create anew, to respond to new problems, to enter into the novel and frequently crass and traditionless strata. The Church will be swamped with simple people. The Church will be overwhelmed with their problems. The Church must descend to their level. This would seem to seal the fate of the esthetic elite.

But precisely because an elite is unique, precisely because it is capable of formulating its ideas and expressing them and because it considers itself the guardian of all of the Church’s treasures and truth, and is incapable of betraying, lowering or changing its own conception of the Church’s beauty, it is incapable of self-sacrifice in love. Its understanding of the Church’s foundation will fall behind, it will guard with body and soul the Church’s gates against invasion by the profane. The crowd will shout: “We are being devoured by sores, the social struggle and hate have poisoned us, our way of life has been corrupted, we don’t have answers for the questions of life and death— O Jesus have mercy on us!” But between Christ and the crowd will stand the preservers of Christ’s seamless robe and will announce to the crowd that hate and struggle has distorted your faces, your daily labors have destroyed your gift to admire beauty.

But life itself is great beauty which cannot be seen by those who have not been tested by it. Sweet singing, emotional reading, the odor of incense, the beatific semi-dormant sensation wrapped in beauty will cloud over the sorrowful image of Christ, will force the stifling of laments, will force heads to bow, will force hope to be forgotten. For some this comfortable piety is a temporary lullaby; others will be repelled by it, leaving a great chasm between the Church and real life. The esthetic custodians of that piety will guard that chasm in the name of harmony, in the name of rhythm, harmony and beauty. The profane ones, left on the other side, will not try to leap across the chasm because they will be left with pain, struggle, misery, the horrors of life— and they will stop believing that it is possible and necessary to come towards the Church even with such heavy baggage. And then, within that godless and melancholy world, there will arise, if they have not arisen already, false Christs and false prophets, sectarian preachers in various forms and in various manifestations of mediocrity and shallowness, Baptists, Evangelicals, Adventists etc., who will offer to the hungry people some kind of an elementary and simplified message, some substitute for religious life of a rather poor quality, a small measure of good intentions and hysterical elocution. Some will respond to this. They will respond first of all to a basic human concern for their needs, but they will not be able to discern immediately that instead of the true and traditional Orthodox Christianity, they are receiving a questionable, semi-literate hodge-podge of starry-eyed idealism and charlatanism. The opiate will have its effect. And it will further deepen the chasm between the Church and the world. Under the careful protection of the lovers of beauty, under the protection of worldly delusion and detestation, the chasm may be there for ages.

Perhaps those eyes, capable of seeing love, will be able to see how Christ himself comes out, quietly and invisibly, from the sanctuary shielded by a splendid iconostasis. The singing continues to resound, clouds of incense still rise, the faithful are overcome in their theoria [ecstatic contemplation] of beauty. But Christ goes out to the porch and mingles with the crowd of the poor, the maimed, the cast off, the embittered, the holy fools. Christ goes to the streets, to prisons, to hospitals and into the shacks. Christ again and again gives his life for his friends.

How can we compare our beauty and our ugliness to his eternal truth and eternal beauty? Doesn’t our idea of beauty look ugly compared to his eternal beauty? Or conversely, does he not see his Divine image, a reflection of eternal Glory and eternal Beauty in our ugliness, in our miserable life, in our festering sores, in our crippled souls? He will return to the temples and bring with him all those called to the wedding banquet, gathered from the highways, the poor and the maimed, the prostitutes and the sinners.

The most frightful thing is that it might happen that the guardians of beauty, who study and admire the world’s beauty, will not understand and will not respect Christ’s beauty, and will not let him inside the temple because he will bring with him the crowd deformed by sin, foolishness, drunkenness, debauchery and hate. Then their singing will dissipate in the air, the clouds of incense will be blown away and Someone will say to them: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Idolatry, which has an affinity for the esthetic type of piety, will bring this about. It has within itself that which should serve only as Christ’s outer garment, as an offering of human genius brought lovingly to Christ, but when the Church’s splendor, beautiful singing, good order of services, becomes an end in itself, then that displaces Christ himself. When people render service to grandeur itself, it becomes an idol to which human souls are sacrificed— one’s own and others. All the world’s ugliness, its wounds and agony, is pushed aside and replaced, in order that they may not blemish that correct piety. Even the suffering and death of the Lord himself, his human exhaustion, is replaced by an aura of beauty, calling forth admiration and emotion.

Love is a very dangerous thing. At times it must reach down into the endless depth of the human spirit, it must expose itself to distortion, to a violation of harmony. There is no place for it where discovered and affirmed beauty reigns forever.

The esthetes make demands upon Christ’s servants, upon the successors of the Apostles and disciples, upon priests, that they need not follow in the steps of the Apostles and disciples— to heal, to preach, to spread the Lord’s love. They demand only one thing: that they be servants of the cult, be priests almost in the pagan meaning of that word. The priest is judged as how much he loves and knows the Ritual, how musical he is, how good is his voice, how coordinated are his movements, etc. It isn’t important whether he, as pastor, knows his flock and whether he will leave the ninety nine to find the one lost soul and whether he will rejoice greatly that he has found it.

There is now a sinister phenomenon occurring in Soviet Russia. There, everything is forbidden to the Church— to preach, to teach, to carry out works of charity, to organize anything, to unite the believers for a common life. One thing only is permitted— to perform Divine services. Is this something the Soviets overlooked? However, could this be a very subtle psychological gambit, based on the fact that Orthodox Divine services, without acts of love, without a deliberate life of holiness, without the possibility of preaching God’s Word to sustain the hesitant believers, the newly tonsured— will be helpless in trying to be a witness to Christ’s Truth before the secularized and God-deprived humanity. A spiritually hungry person will cross the temple’s doorstep and will respond properly to the beauty of the services within it but he will not receive sustenance for his spiritual hunger, because he needs not only beauty but love and answers to all his doubts. This is how the authorities barricaded the doors to the Church. How often does it happen that, as a result of the wants of a particular group of faithful, the doors of the Church are virtually locked, where no secular authority demands it, but where the cold hearts of her children sets it away from the world in the name of a detached, measured, cold, beauty and form. In this case, perhaps it would be better if the Church did not have official permission to conduct Divine services and instead it would gather clandestinely in catacombs. For in having permission only to worship, the Church has no opportunity to bring to the world Christ’s love in all phases of the world’s life. 

(…to be continued)

Freedom from the Tyranny of Fashion