Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Glory of the Eastern Liturgy: The Eastern Liturgy and Russian Literature

by Dom Jerome Gassner, O.S.B.


This article on the glory of the Eastern Liturgy is the second installment of three by Jerome Gassner. Here the author demonstrates how some of the greatest Russian philosophers and writers (Tolstoy, Dostojevsky, and Berdiaev to name a few) reflect the theology of the Eastern Liturgy.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


631 – 635

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, May 1949

II. The Eastern Liturgy and Russian Literature1

The Russians classify themselves as "Apocalypsists" and "Nihilists."2 Their psychological constitution drives them towards extremes. The same tendency for excess, the same desire of final conclusion, forces them to opposite poles. What Dostojevsky said about his own temper, is typical for Russian psychology: "The worst thing of all is that my nature is too passionate and unrestrained. I always go to extremes; I have exceeded the limit all my life." But this is only a feature from the psychological point of view.

The distinction of "Apocalypsists" and "Nihilists" says more: the Russian mind has an immense thirst for metaphysical problems. The Russian does not think in terms of superficial materialistic humanism: his idealogy is metaphysical, even theological. Dostojevsky once complained of a "metaphysical hysteria" that obsesses his nation; Berdiaev terms it as "living in an atmosphere of apocalyptic obsession." The Russian boy already is absorbed with the problems: God, immortality, a new heaven, a new earth, Messianism of the Russian people, a worldwide brotherhood.

The primary questions of philosophy and literature since the time of Skovorda (18th century) are: God, destiny of man, God vs. Satan, Christ vs. Antichrist, immortality, resurrection, redemption, glorification. The Russian philosophers and poets are, in regard to the subjects they prefer, rather theologians than philosophers. We illustrate this fact with some notes about Skovorda, Pushkin; about Tolstoy, Dostojevsky, Soloview (the three greatest Russian philosophers and writers); about Chomiakov and Berdiaev (the leading Russian philosophers of our own age).

Russian Philosophy Centered in the Mystery of Christ

Although Skovorda is at times inclined to a gnostic-pantheistic mysticism, he finds the meaning and climax of philosophy in the mystery of Christ. His sources are Holy Scripture and the Liturgy. Many of his sayings are remembrances of liturgical hymns. His mentality is characteristic of the entire Russian spirituality.

Pushkin, by many considered as the greatest Russian poet, was so enamored by the little poem of St. Ephraim of Syria, "The Lord and Master of My Life" (which is repeated over and over again in the Liturgy of Lent), that he put it into a delightful little poem which captivated the pensive soul of the Russian. Every schoolchild could recite the verses from memory.

Tolstoy (with Dostojevsky, the highest genius of Russian literary art) rebelled against all historical and religious traditions. He denied Orthodoxy, declared himself a nihilist, a destroyer of sacred relics. At the same time he admires Christ, and dreams about the Resurrection and the Beatitudes. In his colossal epic drama, "War and Peace," the powerful prayers written in preparation for the climax, for the conflagration of Moskow, are intercessory prayers of the Eucharistic Anaphora. Knowing the magic effect of "Resurrection" upon the Russian soul, his novel of his conversion, his "Confessiones," was given the title of "Resurrection." It concludes with reflections about the Kingdom of Heaven, with the Sermon on the Mount, with the Beatitudes (sung by the choir on every Sunday in the Liturgy as introduction to the Lesser Entrance).

Soloviev, Most Christian Russian Philosopher

Soloviev, the most Christian Russian philosopher, is the prophet of the universal union. His first criteriological principle is: "We must acknowledge that philosophy receives its content from theology." His philosophical system is an image of the system of divine mysteries as proposed in Holy Scripture, in the Liturgy and art. His world-vision starts from the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. The world was created according the ideas of the Logos. Because of sin there followed disorder, division, disintegration, atomization. Through the Incarnate Word the road to unity in Christ is opened. The Church as a mystical body is a quite familiar term for Soloviev. The end of all events is the All-Union, the free Theocracy. "The goal of the mission of the God-Man is the salvation of all men without distinction; glorification and conversion of universal mankind into a royal and prophetic priesthood; a divine society, in which all men are in immediate relation with Christ and need no sun, no moon, no stars."

Chomiakov meditates on the mystery of the Church with particular relation to the Liturgy. "We know that, if someone falls, he falls alone, but no one can reach beatitude alone. Beatitude is only in the Church as a member of her, and in the union with all the other members. All the Angels and Apostles and Martyrs and Patriarchs pray for us, and above all of them the Mother of our Lord . . . And this holy Union is the true life of the Church. The Church comprises all the glorified Saints, as can be seen from the Divine Liturgy . . . That one only understands the Church, who understands the Liturgy."

Berdiaev's anthropology is perfectly apocalyptic. The last end of man is for him the deification and glorification of man through Christ. The coming of Christ and the glorification through Him is becoming reality through the mysteries of the Church: "The religious anthropology can be only eschatological, apocalyptic. The problem of man can find satisfactory solution only by turning to the coming of Christ, to the new coming of Christ."

Dostojevsky the Prophet of the Russian Revolution

Dostojevsky, with whom we conclude our essay, was the greatest Russian genius, the herald of Russia, but also the prophet of the Russian revolution. He is the principal source of the apocalyptic movement in Russia. His personal religiosity is most profound. He loved Christ consumingly, and was immersed in the mystery of the passion, ideologically as well as by personal experience. All his thoughts, all his writings, develop in concentric circles around Christ. His work is the climax of Russian literature and the finest expression of Russia's earnest, religious character, with Christ seen as the light in the darkness. Dostojevsky's creed is seen in what he wrote in "The Possessed." Stavroguin asks: "Do you know which is at the present moment the only God-bearing people in the whole world? . . . That one God-bearing people is the people of Russia." And Slatov stammers excitedly: "I believe in Russia — I believe in her Orthodoxy . . . I believe in the body of Christ . . . I believe that a second coming will take place in Russia."

No wonder, therefore, that all his works draw inspiration from Holy Scripture and the Liturgy, the Resurrection being most usually the central idea and end of his poetic compositions. The masterpiece of his art is "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" contained in his "The Brothers Karamazov," with Christ and Antichrist as the central figures. The miracle of the raising of a girl from death is the occasion on which they meet on the square before the Cathedral of Seville. The representatives of Russian spirituality in its most noble form are for Dostojevsky monasteries. Representing Old Russia, the monk Zosima receives his first religious experience during the Divine Liturgy of Lent. Zosima's brother Markel and the youngest of the brothers Karamazov, the hero of the novel (Alyosha), are Dostojevsky's ideal of young Russia, of the Russia of the future. The formation of both to personifications of Russian spirituality takes place under the radiating influence of the Liturgy: the Easter celebration in the one case and the heavenly vision in Eucharistic colors in the other. We put both the respective passages at the end of the article.

Surprising Influence of the Liturgy on Russian Literature

Summarizing the main reasons for the surprising influence of the Liturgy upon Russian philosophy and literature, we can state:

The East has a continuous uniform tradition, coming down from the Church of the Fathers. The Renaissance and Reformation are practically unknown in the East, and therefore did not cause a break in culture as in the West.

For Dostojevsky the God-bearers for the future are monks and peasants. The educational system of governmental Russia of the past was very deficient. The Church with her Divine Liturgy was for the large part — at their best — the exclusive Alma Mater and only source of spiritual nourishment.

The liturgical language, although not the vernacular, is nevertheless not quite unintelligible. The Russians celebrate the Liturgy in Old Slavonic.

The participation of the faithful in the dramatic rites is very close, and extends even into the words of consecration. After the consecration of the host as well as of the chalice, the congregation answers: Amen.

The Eucharistic Liturgy, although considerably longer than in the Latin Rite, is on the other hand much more uniform. It is practically the same throughout the year. The variations within the Liturgical Year with the historical aspect of them, so much emphasized in the Latin Rite, are rather minor and accidental in the Eastern Liturgy. As the whole Liturgy throughout the year is so emphatically a celebration of Easter, it presents a very clear ideological unity.

Such is the glory of the Eastern Liturgy, such its characteristic features. Such are the "Heavenly Liturgy" and its far-reaching influence upon Byzantine art and Russian literature; such its part in the formation of Russian mentality and culture. What may we conclude from it for the future of Russia? Leontiev does not offer much hope. He longed vainly till the end of his life to see the birth and growth of a new type of culture reminiscent of that of the great past, but sank into despair; it seemed to him in his anguish that "Russia has only one religious mission, and that is to give birth to Antichrist." Others, with the late Holy Father Pope Pius XI, are optimistic and can see "immense spiritual possibilities." Addressing an audience of Italian undergraduates in 1927 the Holy Father remarked: "Catholics are sometimes lacking in a right appreciation of their separated brethren, and are even wanting in brotherly love, because they do not know enough about them. People do not realize how much faith, goodness, and Christianity there is in these bodies now detached from the age-long Catholic truth. Pieces broken from gold-bearing rock themselves bear gold. The ancient Christian bodies of the East keep so venerable a holiness that they deserve not merely respect but complete sympathy."

Easter Glory According to Dostojevsky

Markel is the ideal of young Russia for Dostojevsky. His spiritual development is typical for Russian mentality from Nihilism: to the glory of Easter. In the center of the process is found: Easter and the Sacraments. Hence the use of the terms: Easter, glory of God, transformed, glorify, heaven, ocean of unity and love.

Markel, a youth of seventeen, was exposed to nihilistic influence and lost his faith. During Lent he laughed at the Christian practices. In the sixth week of Lent he became sick — with consumption. The mother asked him to go to church. At first he refused, but on Tuesday in Holy Week he went. He was not able to go to church long; brought to bed, he had to confess and to receive the Holy Eucharist at home.

Zosima narrates: "It was a late Easter, and the days were bright, fine and full of fragrance. I remember he used to cough all night and sleep badly, but in the morning he dressed and tried to sit up in an armchair. That's how I remember him, sitting, sweet and gentle, smiling, his face bright and joyous, in spite of his illness. A marvellous change passed over him, his spirit seemed transformed. The old nurse would come in and say: 'Let me light the lamp before the holy image, my dear.' And once he would not have allowed it, and would have blown it out.

"'Light it, light it, dear, I was a wretch to have prevented you doing it. You are praying when you light the lamp, and I am praying when I rejoice seeing you. So we are praying to the same God.'

"'Mother, little heart of mine' (he began using such strange caressing words at that time), 'little heart of mine, my joy, believe me, every one is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything. I don't know how to explain it to you, but I feel it is so . . .'

"So he would get up every day, more and more sweet and joyous and full of love. 'My dear ones, why do we quarrel, try to outshine each other and keep grudges against each other? Let's go straight into the garden, walk and play there, love, appreciate, . . . and glorify life.'

"The windows of his room looked out into the garden, and our garden was a shady one, with old trees in it which were coming into bud. The first birds of spring were fluttering in the branches, chirruping and singing at the windows. And looking at them and admiring them, he began suddenly begging their forgiveness too: 'Birds of heaven, happy birds, forgive me, for I have sinned against you too.' None of us could understand that at the time, but he shed tears of joy. 'Yes,' he said, 'there was such a glory of God all about me: birds, trees, meadows, sky; only I lived in shame and dishonored it all and did not notice the beauty and glory.'

"'You take too many sins on yourself,' mother used to say, weeping.

"'Mother, darling, I like to humble myself before them, for I don't know how to love them enough. If I have sinned against everyone, let all forgive me, too, and that's heaven . . ." He died the third week after Easter.

Zosima added: "My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side — a little happier anyway — and children and all animals, if you yourself were nobler than you are now. It's all like an ocean, I tell you."

Heaven as Consummation of Russian Dream

Alyosha takes the place of the dead Market as the ideal of Russia of the future. The testament of Zosima to his beloved disciple is the vision of the heavenly banquet. Zosima died. Alyosha is praying at night at the open coffin. There the vision takes place. Note the terms: wine of new great gladness; the Sun — for Christ glorified, terrible in His greatness, awful in His sublimity, but infinitely merciful; He has made Himself like unto us from love; the mystery of earth . . . the mystery of the stars.

"The elder raised Alyosha by the hand and he rose from his knees. 'We are rejoicing,' the little old man went on. 'We are drinking the new wine, the wine of new, great gladness; do you see how many guests? . . . Do you see our Sun, do you see Him?'

"'I am afraid . . . I dare not look,' whispered Alyosha.

"'Do not fear Him. He is terrible in His greatness, awful in His sublimity, but infinitely merciful. He has made Himself like unto us from love and rejoices with us. He is changing the water into wine that the gladness of the guests may not be cut short. He is expecting new guests; He is calling new ones unceasingly for ever and ever . . . There they are bringing new wine. Do you see they are bringing the vessels? . . .

"Something glowed in Alyosha's heart, something filled it till it ached, tears of rapture rose from his soul . . . He stretched out his hands, uttered a cry and woke up.

"Alyosha gazed for half a minute at the coffin, at the covered, motionless dead man . . . with the Icon on his breast. He was listening, still expecting other words . . . He left the cell.

"The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him. The milky way ran in two pale streams from the zenith to the horizon. The fresh, motionless, still night enfolded the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral gleamed out against the sapphire sky. The gorgeous autumn flowers, in the beds around the house, were slumbering till morning. The silence of earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of earth was one with the mystery of the stars.

End Notes

  1. The third and final installment of this series will discuss the Scriptural background of the Eastern Liturgy.
  2. N. Berdiaev, "Dostojevsky: An Interpretation" (New York City, 1939).

See also:

Part I: The Glory of the Eastern Liturgy: The Heavenly Liturgy

Part III: The Glory of the Eastern Liturgy: The Scriptural Background

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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