Standing Naked before God: Russian Spirituality & the Prayer of St. Philaret

St. Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow

My morning prayer rule includes two prayers from Russia: the prayer of the Holy Elders of Optina and the prayer of St. Philaret of Moscow. These are the only two prayers in my prayer rule that are not rooted in the Byzantine tradition or associated with the early Church Fathers. They are, consequently, the most modern prayers I recite each morning, if you count the nineteenth century as “modern.” This shift from the first half of my prayer rule, which includes standard troparia to the Holy Trinity and two prayer of St. Basil the Great, to the Russian prayers is pretty dramatic. When I say the first several prayers, I feel that I am reciting the words of the Church. When I say the Russian prayers, I feel that I am talking directly to God.

The experience is actually a little uncomfortable.

Russian spirituality reflects all dimensions of the Orthodox faith but also adds its own unique accents. Chief among these is the dispersal of asceticism from the near-exclusive domain of monastics to the broader Christian community. Russian Orthodoxy is just a bit harsher, a bit tougher, than other iterations of the faith. Of course, we can easily make too much of temperamental distinctions between the various Orthodox jurisdictions, especially given the much-publicized political divisions between the Greek and Russian churches. That’s a mistake. But I do think we can make some generalizations.

Greek culture balances the hierarchy and dogmas of the Orthodox Church with the Greek philosophical tradition and its emphasis on individual identity and human freedom. This dynamic has influenced Greek spirituality for centuries. Russian culture, meanwhile, is much more hierarchical than Greek culture. Historically, Russians have frequently subordinated the individual to the community and the state. In general, Russians express their piety and patriotism through total conformity to their religious and political leaders.

This famous Russian conformity can become a vicious stereotype, especially when commentators prattle on about how Russians possess some deep psychological need for despotic leadership. But the stereotype of Russian conformity is grounded in some truth. The Russian church, therefore, foregrounds Orthodox teachings about immoderate self-denial. Russian monastic life emphasizes unquestioning obedience to one’s elders. The Russian version of theosis entails the total obliteration of the self. In Russian spirituality, the individual is stripped away, reduced to absolute nakedness and vulnerability before God.

Russian culture has shaped Orthodox spirituality as a whole. Its influence is incalculable. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the center of gravity in the Orthodox world shifted from the Greek, Arab, and Coptic churches—now subjected to Ottoman rule—toward the Slavic churches. A year before Constantinople’s fall, the Metropolitan of Moscow—a man called Zosimus the Bearded—anointed the Muscovite prince Ivan III as “the New Tsar Constantine.” The title “Prince of Moscow” became “Tsar of Russia” a century later with Ivan the Terrible. The tsars began expanding their territory and describing Moscow as “the Third Rome.”

Today, the Greek Orthodox Church remains the most visible iteration of the Orthodox faith. The Greek Church is tied to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and presides over a vast network of churches in non-Greek countries like the United States. But I would argue that pan-Orthodox practice and spirituality are more influenced by Russia and the Slavic jurisdictions than by the Greek Church. The Russian Church is, after all, the largest jurisdiction in the world, home to nearly half of the world’s Orthodox Christians. Westerners may associate Orthodoxy with the Greeks, but their image of Orthodox practice is Russian. The books of the Philokalia were part of Greek Orthodoxy for centuries, but the influence of the Philokalia was not really felt until its translation into Church Slavonic in 1793.

St. Xenia of Petersburg

In my experience, Russians offer the most austere and challenging expression of Orthodox Christianity. Russian spirituality is frequently expressed through apparent madness and feats of extreme physical endurance. Three of the most prominent Russian saints—St. Basil the Blessed, St. John of Moscow, and St. Xenia of Petersburg—were called “fools for Christ,” a moniker that plays a significant role in Slavic culture. Throughout the Orthodox world, fools for Christ are known by a Russian name: юродивый (yurodivyy). The юродивые are a distinct Slavic type, appearing throughout history and rising to special prominence during the nineteenth century. Thirty-six fools for Christ have been canonized in the Russian Church. They appear everywhere, from the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Both St. John and St. Basil, for whom Russia’s most famous cathedral is named, wandered the streets of Moscow in heavy chains; St. John wore an iron cap to further weigh himself down. St. Xenia roamed the streets of Petersburg in her late husband’s military garments and she insisted that people refer to her by her husband’s name. All the юродивые flouted social conventions and spoke harshly to their social betters. Consequently, they were subject to verbal and sometimes physical abuse.

While юродивые broke with Russia’s hierarchical conventions, the nineteenth-century старцы (startsy) were monastic elders who commanded absolute loyalty from their followers. The most famous старец is the fictional Father Zossima of The Brothers Karamazov, whose followers (including the novel’s protagonist, Alyosha) express their unquestioning obedience to Christ through unquestioning obedience to Zossima. The most famous saint of the старец period, and perhaps the most beloved saint of Russian Orthodoxy, is my own patron saint, St. Seraphim of Sarov. As a monastic, St. Seraphim lived according to the rule of his старец; he only left the monastery after receiving permission to become a hermit, living alone in the forest for twenty-five years. According to Orthodox teaching, St. Seraphim consumed only bread and vegetables during this period; for three years, he ate only vegetables. He was perpetually malnourished and frequently struggled to walk. He was once beaten nearly to death with his own axe by bandits. When the bandits were caught and tried, St. Seraphim attended the trial and asked the judge to excuse their crime.

St. Seraphim of Sarov

In his most well-known feat of asceticism, St. Seraphim became a stylite, or one who commits themselves to live on a pillar or stone in a state of constant prayer. He famously spent one thousand nights on a rock in the forest praying to the Mother of God. He is frequently depicted feeding a bear, a symbol of his life in the Russian wilderness and also a sign of his lack of fear before God’s creation.

So Slavs are tough. Slavic spirituality is tough. Orthodoxy in general, but especially the Russian Orthodox tradition, demands that adherents look to monks, fools for Christ, and other ascetics not merely as exceptional or eccentric people who committed themselves to a life of service, but as an example that all Christians should aspire toward.

Yes, Orthodoxy does emphasize moderation. Orthodox practice is not dissimilar to mainstream Buddhism, which teaches a kind of “extreme” moderation; the Buddhist concept of “the Middle Way” could easily be an Orthodox concept. But Orthodoxy is also emotionally, mentally, and physically demanding. It can be bitter medicine. Orthodoxy tests the limits of a person’s comfort in the world. It It pushes us as far as we can go and then, with God’s grace, it pushes us a little further.

Perhaps the one thing that everyone knows about Russia, besides the adage about not invading the country during winter, is that Russian culture and politics swing perpetually between Europe in the West and Russia itself. Russia always seems either to conform to European influence or to cultivate a uniquely Russian civilization. In the late seventeenth century, after the cultural upheaval called the Time of Troubles, Russia began to turn westward. Nikhon, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, enacted major liturgical reforms, prompting a split between Nikhon’s Church hierarchy and the Old Ritualists, also called “Old Believers,” who followed tradition. Bloody disputes raged over simple practices like crossing oneself with three fingers instead of two. Many Old Ritualists were burned alive by the Russian authorities. During this period, Russian icon painters began to shed the influence of Byzantine and medieval Russian iconography and, instead, reflected the Western influence of Albertism and Renaissance perspectivism.

Boyarynya Morozova” by Vasily Surikov, 1887. The painting depicts the arrest of the Old Ritualist monastic Feodosia Morozova. She was subsequently tortured for encouraging Old Believer practices and for refusing to accept the authority of Patriarch Nikhon. The Russian government eventually imprisoned her in a cellar, where she was starved to death in 1675.

Reform and Westernization continued through Peter the Great’s reign, culminating in Catherine the Great’s mass secularization of nearly all Russian institutions. Her policies closed half of all Russian monasteries, forced priests to subsist on their own labor, and completely subordinated the Church to the state. Following Catherine’s death and Napoleon’s invasion, Russia swung back toward its Slavic identity. Under the influences of St. Paisy Velichkovsky and St. Philaret of moscow, the Russian Church underwent a traditionalist revival. St. Philaret reformed the seminary at the Moscow Academy by emphasizing patristics, deemphasizing Western scholasticism, and changing the language of instruction from Latin to Russian. Monasteries and lavras flourished, particularly the famous monastery of Optina. Within this rich monastic culture, старцы began to emerge. Asceticism and hesychasm became central to Russian spirituality. The Way of the Pilgrim appeared, increasing the popularity of the Jesus Prayer and the Philokalia (first published in vernacular Russian in 1857). Icon painters returned to the medieval style, developing the flattened, reverse perspective, dark-hued Russian icons we know today. Fyodor Dostoevsky, the archetypal Orthodox novelist, began his career during this period.

The perpetual swing between Westernization and slavicization continued throughout the Soviet era. Lenin emphasized multi-nationalism; Stalin russified the Soviet government; Khrushchev attempted to liberalize the Stalinist state; Brezhnev inaugurated a new wave of russification; and Gorbachev became the most famous of the Soviet Union’s Europe-leaning leaders.

One needn’t ask where Russia stands today, three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yeltsin’s market reforms. Putin’s russification campaigns have accompanied and encouraged an explosion in Russian Orthodoxy. Although fewer than 15% of Russians attend church more than once per month, over 70% of Russians identify as Orthodox—up from 31% in 1991, the year that the Soviet Union dissolved (monthly church attendance was only 2% that year).

Putin’s government has responded to this new wave of religiosity and the lack of corresponding church attendance by funding a massive project of church construction. Consequently, the Orthodox Church in Russia opens more than eighteen new churches each week. In 1988, Russia was home to 6,893 parishes. By 2016, that number grew to 34,764. The number of dioceses increased from 76 to 293. Russia’s most famous new religious structure is the Cathedral of Resurrection of Christ, a military cathedral in Moscow’s Odintsovsky district.

Two Russian YouTubers recently posted a video mocking these trends. They visited the new Russian burger joint (called Вкусно – и точка; Vkusno i tochka or “Tasty, period”) that replaced McDonald’s following this year’s sanctions. The shift from McDonald’s to Вкусно occurred seemingly overnight—the restaurants were repainted, the logos were replaced, but the food remained unchanged. French fries were served in blank white boxes. The Golden Arches on sauce packets were blotted out with black ink. One of the YouTubers shows her audience a Вкусно cheeseburger, indistinguishable from a McDonald’s cheeseburger. She jokingly calls it a “traditional, Christian, Orthodox, truly Russian burger,” mocking the nationalist, ultra-Orthodox rhetoric that permeates Russia today.

So amid the invasion of Ukraine and its isolation from the world, and despite lackluster church attendance, Russia continues to undergo an Orthodox renaissance. As its cultural and political pendulum once again swings east, Russia is turning inward and cultivating a revival of its Orthodox traditions. Russian priests and bishops seem full of vigor and confidence. Churches pop up everywhere. Huge swaths of the population identify as Orthodox. But it remains to be seen whether this era will bear the same fruit that the nineteenth-century renewal of Russian Orthodoxy, which so invigorated the spiritual life of Russia and of the Orthodox world.

In a study of Russian Orthodoxy since the end of the Cold War, Gregory L. Freeze of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace describes the “this-worldliness” of Russian spirituality: “The Russian Orthodox Church, long before the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, emphasized the duty to engage this-worldly problems—that is, worry about this life, not just the afterlife.” Freeze describes “this-worldliness” in the context of the Church’s involvement in Russian politics. Russians, he points out, do not accept Western notions about the separation of church and state. Such notions are simply not indigenous to Eastern Christendom. When Jordan Peterson expresses his shock and disgust over Patriarch Kirill’s support for and involvement in the invasion of Ukraine, he fundamentally misses the point of Russian Orthodoxy (a topic on which he fancies himself an expert). Authority is not something against which Russians define their identity, as Westerners do. Authority is a central component in most Russians’ self-conception. Government and church are not isolated spheres of Russian identity: they undergird Russian identity, and they go hand-in-hand.

But Russian “this-worldliness” does not apply only to the Church’s relationship with the state. It permeates every aspect of Russian culture, which frequently privileges the practical, earthy aspects of human existence over the strictly transcendental or idealistic. Russian culture and Russian spirituality occur close to the ground. As anyone who has read Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus can attest, a Russian’s relationship to God is bound up with his immediate experience of the world: with plants, with animals, with dirt, with air, and with his interactions with his fellows. There is a reason, I think, that Communism took root in Russia: the culture was predisposed to value communal labor and the health of society over the concerns of the individual. As my Russian professor taught me, the last letter of the Russian alphabet is Я (ya). Я is also the word for “I.” In Russia, she joked, the individual comes last.

The Holy Elders of Optina

Both the Optina and St. Philaret prayers reflect this aspect of Russian spirituality. I’ve written elsewhere about the first prayer, the morning prayer of the Holy Elders of Optina. The Optina prayer, I wrote, turns us away from our inner life and outward toward the social sphere. The prayer admonishes us to express our faith in our interactions with family and friends. It focuses on small, daily struggles. It offers practical instruction. My priests have continually advised me, as I learn to cultivate a Christlike love for others, that I should always begin with my wife. It’s easier to love distant people in the abstract; it’s much harder to maintain that level of charity for the people with whom you share a home.

The morning prayer of St. Philaret, who presided over Russia’s nineteenth-century Orthodox renewal for four decades as the Metropolitan of Moscow, strikes another note of Russian faith: complete self-denial. Unlike the Optina prayer, which prioritizes the social, St. Philaret’s prayer concerns the individual standing alone before God:

O Lord, I know not what to ask of Thee. Thou alone knowest what I need. Thou lovest me more than I know how to love myself. O Father, grant Thy servant what I myself do not know how to ask. I do not dare to ask a cross of Thee or for comfort; I only stand in thy presence; Thou seest the needs that I myself do not know. Look upon me and work in me according to Thy mercy: smite and heal me, cast me down and raise me up. I am reverent and silent before Thy holy will and thy judgements, which are unfathomable to me. I offer myself as a sacrifice to Thee. I have no desire except to fill Thy Will. Teach me to pray. Do Thou Thyself pray in me.

St. Philaret’s prayer is a prayer of total submission. It subordinates the individual’s needs and desires completely to God’s will. It rejects both our desire for comfort and our equally potent desire for suffering. It instead frames the individual as a vessel for God’s will, which is full of blessings and curses and is ultimately unknowable. It describes self-love and self-care as ultimately insufficient, as mere shadows of God’s love for us. It asks us not merely to pray, but to allow God Himself to pray through us.

The idea that God Himself prays is fascinating. What does it mean for the Holy Trinity to commune with Itself? And how can that be accomplished through us? These concepts are, like much of Orthodox spirituality, mysterious and difficult to understand. I imagine they concern theosis, and the idea of God praying communing with Himself through us is one of the most beautiful descriptions of theosis that I’ve encountered.

St. Philaret of Moscow

I mentioned that the morning prayer of St. Philaret is uncomfortable for me. I am frequently uneasy in myself, and St. Philaret’s prayer draws attention to that unease. It produces discomfort. It acknowledges individual needs and desires, but it contextualizes them within our state of utter vulnerability before the cosmos and before God. This vulnerability cuts to the core of our emotional and mental lives. I feel my entire, fragile identity exposed to the elements and to God. I don’t like it.

But this discomfort in my own mind and my own skin encourages me to release myself. The prayer encourages the total obliteration of my will. As a Westerner, such a prayer cuts two ways:. I am extremely protective of my individuality, which is a Westerner’s most precious possession. Consequently, I am also self-conscious, self-effacing, and self-protective. The prayer instructs me to put all that aside. This is the primary struggle of Orthodox spirituality: to put the world and the individual to death. And when I destroy my whole definition of selfhood, the leftover fragments remain for God to reinvigorate with new life.


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