Nikolai Velimirović.

The Religious Spirit of the Slavs (1916) Sermons On Subjects Suggested By The War, Third Series online

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*St. Margaret's, Westminster*







_Priest of the Serbian Church, and Professor of Theology in the
University of Belgrade_





The Holy Synod and Tolstoi.

When Count Tolstoi was excommunicated by the Holy Synod of Russia because
"he preached the teachings which are contrary to the Christian faith," the
world was divided in opinion and sympathy into two parts. The partisans of
Tolstoi were in the majority in the Western world; those of the Holy Synod
in Russia and the Orthodox East. Yet Holy Russia rejected Tolstoi with much
more compassion than Western Europe approved of him. It was a human tragedy
which is not often repeated in history and was understood only by Russia.
The conflict was more stern than appeared on the surface. The problems in
question meant not less than the dilemma: either the Christian world was to
continue or it must return to the starting point of human history and begin
all anew. A little blade of grass in the field said to its green
neighbours: "Why do we grow up? It is nonsense and pain. In growing up we
grow in complications, which enhance the darkness and pain of our lives. I
propose, therefore, to go back into seeds, from which we have grown big and

So spoke one blade of grass to the field. And the field replied: "Although
perhaps we are growing in nonsense and pain, still we cannot return, we
must grow and go our way in the belief that we are not mistaken."

That is the simile of Tolstoi and the Holy Synod.

A Circle or a Drama.

Tolstoi perceived life as a circle, with the beginning everywhere and with
the end everywhere. The Holy Synod, representing Slav Orthodoxy, perceived
life as a drama with a beginning and an end in space and time. From his
point of view, Tolstoi thought it possible for mankind to stop a mistaken
course of things and to begin anew, to cast away all the burdens of
culture, of State, Church, militarism, worldly ambitions, the vanities of
towns, to draw the curtain on the past and to come back to the field and
forest, to plough and sow, to listen to the life of Nature and to live with
Nature and God in unison.

The Holy Synod, from their point of view, thought that the past is the very
foundation of the present and future, and that in separating us from the
past we were as an uprooted plant, condemned to inevitable death, while in
continuing the world-drama we are going the only possible way. The
beginning of sin in this drama is in Adam, the beginning of salvation is in
Christ. We cannot live without taking notice even of the life of Adam and
without connecting our life with Christ's. And all the other millions of
human beings between those two milestones, between Adam and Christ, and
Christ and us, are greater or smaller foundations, or conditions, or even
disturbances of our own life.

"My understanding is against your traditions," said Tolstoi.

"Our traditions are against your understandings," replied the Holy Synod.

But that was not all.

The difference existed also in views on


Tolstoi was much troubled by the suffering of men. He himself saw, felt and
described an immense amount of this suffering in various forms. The problem
of happiness was his most cherished problem. He believed that men can be
made happy in this life, and even more - that they are created in order to
be happy. He refused quite definitely the idea of atonement as
inconceivable and contrary to the idea of God. Human life has been normal
and happy as long as men lived their simple life without towns and without
all urban complications. Life can again be made a normal and happy one as
God wills, if we only return to the primitive simplicity of the peasants.

The Holy Synod was not opposed to the happiness of men, but they did not
believe either that happiness is attainable in this world or that it is the
aim of our life on earth. Did it not occur quite in the beginning of the
world's history that there lived on earth two brothers, Cain and Abel, two
farmers, without any burden of culture, and with all the Tolstoian
simplicity of life? Yet is it not reported that one killed the other?

Life is a drama, a tragic drama even, and not at all a metaphysical
immobility or a quasi-mobility, or even an eternal _circulus viciosus_.
There are three stages of human life: the first stage before the sin, in
God-like _naïveté_, the second in sin, and the third after the atonement,
life in perfection, when there will be "a new earth and a new heaven." We
are in the middle stage, where life means sin and atonement, therefore in
the most tragic stage. Life in the first and third stages may consist
entirely in contemplation, but the life which we are actually living
consists of deeds, of sins and virtues, _i.e._, of the struggle between
good and evil, of suffering and purification, of a tragic heroism, of


It was not until the decline of the glorious Byzantine Empire that the
Slavs embraced Christianity. For nine hundred years the Greeks were the
principal representatives, protectors, elaborators and explorers of
Christianity. When the Greeks visited the Slav country with their divine
message, the Slavs were heathens. Their heathenism was like a confusing
dream. Nature stood before them with its contradictory forces. The
primitive Slavs regarded all the forces of Nature encircling a human
creature as being alive and stronger than this creature. All the forces,
whether friendly or unfriendly to man, are man like, anthropomorphic, and
none of them are indifferent to human life and doings. The practical
conclusion come to was: men must give sacrifices to both of them, to the
good and to the evil; to the good in order to encourage them to be more
good, to the evil in order to induce them to be less evil. It was necessary
to pray equally to the good as to the evil gods. The best worship was the
best balance between the good and bad spirits; not to offend any of them,
but to be reconciled with all of them! Skilful diplomacy was indeed needed
in worshipping all the terrible, invisible representatives of the forces of
Nature seemingly fighting around man and because of man. And men are too
weak to take their part decisively in one or other fighting camp.
Everything useful or beautiful for men was regarded as being possessed by a
good god or spirit. Everything dangerous and unfriendly was considered to
be possessed by an evil god or spirit. The supreme god Perun, supreme
because the strongest, was considered as acting equally for good and for
evil. The curious fact is that the supreme divinity in every pagan theology
was imagined to be acting equally strongly for good and for evil, as Zeus
Jupiter, Wothan. You cannot call Zeus or Jupiter or Wothan or Perun a
_good_ god, but only a _mighty_ god. With Christianity came into the world,
including the Slav world, decisiveness, and every confusion disappeared.
The Slavs learned to know that they could not serve two masters, but only
one, and that they had not to balance between good and evil but to go
straightway on the side of _good_.

Reality as a Dream.

The Byzantine Emperors promised to the Serbs peace and land in their Empire
in the Balkans if they accepted the Christian faith. And the Serbs accepted
the Christian faith. The Emperors Basil and Constantine agreed to give
their sister in marriage to Vladimir, King of Kieff, if he would embrace
the Christian faith. And King Vladimir embraced the Christian faith. These
may be considered very petty motives! Yet this was not the price to tie the
mighty idol Perun on a horse's tail and to carry him into the water of
Dnieper. The principal motive was the striking reality of the Christian
foundation. The Christian message was like a dream ("We have been in
Heaven," reported the Russian delegates, returning from Saint Sophia) - the
Slavs loved dreams and poetry very much; but the Christian faith was stated
to be a reality, and the Slavs, as men the world over, considered reality
as more solid than any dream. Instead of a nightmare of youthful dreams, as
the Slav pagan theology was, came now a bright poetry warranted both as a
_past_ and _present_ reality.

It will remain as the greatest wonder in history how a poor Man, who
preached in Palestine for about two years, who scarcely had a hundred
followers at the end of His mission, who was crucified and died a shameful
death, whose cause seemed a quite desperate episode, scornfully rejected or
fearfully abandoned by all those who knew it - how this poor Man replaced
successively the mightiest gods the human imagination ever invented: Zeus
in Olympus, Jupiter in the Capitol, Wothan in the North, and at last also
Perun in Kieff. The secret lies, I think, in the reality of His human life,
in the mystery of His resurrection, and in the amazing enthusiasm with
which thousands of His followers afterwards suffered death for Him and His

However, Christ entered the Slav world in an epoch when, not only one man
after another bowed before Him, but nation after nation. He came to our
ancestors no more as a humble preacher, but as a Lord, under whose feet lay
already conquered Zeus, Jupiter and Wothan. He came to us, not from a poor
Bethlehem cottage, but from the most brilliant temple upon earth, from the
Saint Sophia in Constantinople. He came with a wonderful three-fold
mission, to serve, to fight, to reigning one word, to be "all in all." He
entered the Roman world as a humble servant. I am afraid He remained in
this world for ever only as a servant. But He entered the Slav world as a
Lord, and until to-day He remains there as the Lord.


With Christ's coming among the Slavs the balance between good and evil
spirits was lost. Quite unlike Perun, Christ was a decisive fighter for
good. He showed only one - exclusively one - way, the narrow way leading to
the kingdom of good, which is the Kingdom of God, the Highest and the Best,
_Deus Optimus_, not only as a dream of Pagan humanity, but as a provable
reality. Although good seems very often to be a weak and losing party in
this world, men must not waver but always take cheerfully the part of good.
Evil spirits in men and around men are very powerful in this world. Christ
Himself was overwhelmed for a time by the evil spirits of this world. But
it was only for a time which is now over. It was at the new beginning of
the world, so to say, when He came to break the power of Pagan men, hold
the balance between the good and evil spirits and to stop the serving of
"two masters." The start was very unpromising; He was trodden down, but He
got up and proved Himself the victor. He came now as a victor to the Slavs
to make new armies of men, who would consent to undertake His burden, and
to go His exclusive way of good, worshipping and serving only one God, His
Father and the Father of all men. He came claiming everyone, telling each
one "not to be ashamed" - as it is wonderfully expressed in the English
Baptism formula - "manfully to fight under His banner, against sin, the
world, and the devil, and to continue to be Christ's faithful soldier and
servant unto his life's end."

Tolstoi exalted only Christ's Sermon on the Mount, _i.e.,_ only Christ's
teaching, or part of Christ's teaching. The Orthodox Church exalted Christ
himself, as an exceptional, dramatic Person, suffering for good; as a
divine hero, fighting against all the evil powers of the world. A teaching
or a life drama - _i.e.,_ Tolstoi or Orthodoxy! The Church thought: there is
something greater than Christ's words, that is Christ Himself. His words
are extraordinary, it is true, no man spoke as He, but His person and His
life were more extraordinary still. Thousands of martyrs died for _Him_,
not for the _Sermon on the Mount_. His words died with His death and came
to life again only with His resurrection. The fate of His words was quite
dependent on the fate of His person. Consequently His words have been only
a shadow of His personal drama, only an inadequate expression of His
individuality and His world mission, only the secondary fascination for the
coming generation. He himself was the essence of the human drama; He
himself - the essence of God and Man; He himself - the incarnated good and
the standard of the good in the world's history. He is incomparably better
than Zeus, Jupiter, Wothan or Perun, because He is a reality, a divine
reality among men.

The "Petrified" Church.

So Professor Harnack from Berlin called the Orthodox Church of the East. I
know his reasons for that very well. Comparing the unchangeable image of
Christ, fixed in the East once for all, with the confusing thousand
_opinions_ of Christ in Protestant Germany, he was quite justified in
calling our Church by a striking name, so differentiating her from his own.
I am glad that he invented the name "petrified." With the proud spirit of a
Protestant scientist, I wonder why He did not invent a worse name for
Eastern Orthodoxy. I wonder much more that Professor Harnack, one of the
chief representatives of German Christianity, omitted to see how every
hollow that he and his colleagues made in traditional Christianity in
Germany was at once filled with the all-conquering Nietzscheanism. And I
wonder, lastly, whether he is now aware that in the nineteen hundred and
fourteenth year of our Lord, when he and other destroyers of the Bible, who
proclaimed Christ a dreamy maniac, clothed Christianity in rags,
Nietzscheanism grew up the real religion of the German race.

What is the fact about the "petrified" Church? If "petrified" means intact,
or whole, or undestroyed or living always in the same dress, but still
living, then the famous Professor may be right. Yet this petrified Church
has always come victorious out of any test to which she has been put. The
Christian Church is always on trial, and I think she is never so much
Christian as when she is being tested. She does not shine or develop or
make progress otherwise than through hard tests. Christianity is founded
upon a drama and not upon a science; therefore its growth and development
are dramatic and not scientific. Let us take an example. Eastern Orthodoxy
was put to the test for centuries to fight for its existence and its ideals
against the ruling Islam. Roman Catholicism was put to a similar test in
Spain. German Protestantism was put to the test of German science. What
happened? Islam was defeated in Russia and in the Balkans, not only
physically, but morally and intellectually. The epoch of the catacombs and
the bloody days of Nero and Diocletian have been repeated once more in the
Balkans, in Russia, and are still being experienced in Armenia and Asia
Minor. The killed and martyred kings, princes, bishops, priests and laymen
from these countries will not be ashamed before the martyrs from the
Coliseum. Orthodox Christianity stood the test very well. It saved itself;
it gave the inspiration for resistance; it showed itself superior even
afterwards when the enslaved countries were liberated. Holy Russia counts
her greatness from the time when she got rid of Islam. During the five
years of their freedom Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria built more than the
Turks built during 500 years of Turkish rule.

Roman Catholicism in Spain came through its test very badly. Before the
Islamic invasion, and after it for a long time, the Christian population
showed itself inferior to the Moors, in work, in justice, in progress. But
to the honour of Roman Catholicism I must say that it stood the test very
well in Croatia and in Hungary in its struggle against Islam. German
cathedral Protestantism failed in its test. It is destroyed as a religion,
it exists only as an archival science. It ceased to be what Christianity
really sought to be - a drama; it is transformed into an indifferent
scientific medium for reading, exploring, classifying, comparing,
criticising. It is no more a living, dramatic being - no more the serving,
ruling and suffering Christ. There is very little heroic or divine in it!

Why not then worship Wothan again instead of Christ?

And Anglicanism? It had the worst enemy. That was wealth, comfort, quiet
business, lack of big disturbances and of great sufferings. The English
Church still succeeded in preventing all the misuses and abuses of life
under such circumstances. This success can be appreciated only if the
British Empire is compared with an antique Pagan Empire. Where in this
Empire is there a Lucullus or a Caracalla? The astonishing luxury, the
bestial, insatiable passions? Or the furious competitions in petty things
with which the social life of Rome was daily intoxicated? Yet English
Christianity is neither so dramatic and full of contrasts as Dante's
Catholicism, nor so vibrating a lyric as Dostojevsky's Orthodoxy, but
rather a quiet, smooth epic like Milton's poetry.


The Anglican Church has formulated this dogma much in the same words as
that of the Orthodox Church. Yet it is not nearly so vivid in the daily
faith of the English people as in that of the Slavs. The friends of the
reunion of the Anglican and Orthodox Churches never mention this
difference, which is, I think, the only really great difference between
them. This life on earth for the English Christian conscience is a normal
one with some few objections. Given some correction, and life here on earth
would be quite normal and perfect. Slav Orthodoxy, on the contrary,
emphasises very emphatically the abnormality of human life on earth from
the beginning. Sin is the beginning of life, and sins are the continuation
of it. The first man deviated in some way from God's will; the first
brother killed his younger brother; the first-born nation made war with the
second-born nation, and this bloody business of men, of which, in the
greatest degree, we are the witnesses to-day, continued through many
thousands of years. The development of human virtues is not so obvious as
the development of human sins. Still, nobody has written a work on the
development of sins. The Orthodox Church believes quite seriously in this
fatal development; she believes more than seriously that "the whole world
lies in evil." Suffering is a consequence of sin. Even the righteous man
suffers, not because of virtue, but because of sin. If he himself has no
personal sins still he must suffer because of the sins of other men, no
matter if near or far from him in space or time. For all men from the first
to the last are made from the same piece of clay, therefore they all, from
the first to the last, form one body and one life. Each is responsible for
all, and each is influencing all. If one link of this body sins, the whole
body must suffer. If Adam sinned, you and I must suffer for it. If St. Paul
suffered, it is because his suffering is a consequence of the sins of other
links of the same body. If Christ suffered and died because of Adam, it is
also just. It is not good, but it is just. The suffering of nature around
us is incomparably small compared with the suffering of men. The
abnormality of the animal, plant or mineral world is not nearly so obvious
as the abnormality of our life. God's creatures, who were created on the
sixth day and destined to be the most perfect among creatures, are abased
by sin to an imperfection which is unknown among the creatures made before
the sixth day.


In no other Churches are there so many repetitions, in no other so many
symbols, as in the Orthodox Church. The whole worship is a continual
repetition for thousands of years. In Byzantium was fixed the image of
Christ, His mission, His worship. The whole system of belief and worship
came, fixed and accomplished, over to us Slavs. To keep that system intact
for ever was the first duty taught us by those who brought it. Its tendency
was to impress the image of Christ in the imagination and heart of the
generations as much as possible and always in the same way. We are living
in a world of evil; Christ is leader of the struggle against this evil. Men
lived thousands of years wavering between good and evil, worshipping good
and evil. Now they must be for good. They are educated and accustomed to
weighing things for themselves. Therefore it has become necessary to ask
them every day, every hour even, to confess that they are with Christ. They
must _repeat_ it again and again, in prayers, in signs, in symbols, until
it becomes a new custom, a new education, a new blood and spirit, a new
man, a new earth. They must be reminded in every place and at all times
that they are soldiers of Christ and not of Perun. Churches, shrines,
chapels, ikons, candles, processions, priests, bells, monasteries,
travelling preachers, every day's saints, fast seasons - everything is the
repetition of the same idea, namely, that Christ is the ruler of life and
we are His followers. Christ must be expressed everywhere, indoors and
outdoors. Many Englishmen have remarked that the Bible is read very seldom
in the home in Russia and Serbia. That is true. People read the Bible more
in symbols, pictures and signs, in music and prayers, than in the Book, Our
religion is not a book religion, not even a learned religion. _It is a
dramatic mystery_. The Bible contains the words, but in this dramatic
mystery there is something higher and deeper than words. Slav Christianity
is something greater than the Bible. Looking at an ikon, a Russian _mujik_
perceives the Bible incarnated in a saint's life-drama. Mystery of sin,
mystery of atonement, mystery of heroic suffering, mystery of the daily
presence of Christ among us in holy wine, in holy bread, in holy water, in
holy word, in holy deed, in every sanctified substance, even in matter as
in spirit, mystery of communion of sins and of virtues - all are recorded
once in the Bible, and all are recorded and repeated also in our daily
life - that is what we call our Slav Orthodoxy. We take the mystic outlines
of the Bible and do not care about the details. In those mystic outlines we
put our daily life, with its details of sins and sufferings. We conceive
the Christian religion neither so juristic as the Roman Catholics, nor so
scientific as the Protestants, nor even so reasonable and practical as the
Anglicans, but we conceive it rather as dramatic.


We are quite conscious that our religion is not solely Christ's work. Every
drop of blood of a Christian martyr is a stone in the work. Every suffering
man with heroic Christian hopes, and every dying human being with
optimistic Christian belief is a collaborator of Christ, or is a founder of
our Church. The Church is not at all solely Christ's work, she is the
collective work of many and many millions who, in the name of Christ,
decisively took part in this mystic race of earthly life. That is just what
Christ wanted and prophesied. That is why He washed the feet of His

The work of Tolstoi is the work of a man; Slav Orthodoxy is the work of the
generations. Orthodoxy was first defined by the Christian Jews and Greeks
during the first eight hundred years. During the other thousand years
Orthodoxy was enriched by the Slav Bible, _i.e.,_ by Slav religious
experiences, by Slav martyrs, saints, heroes, by Slav sins and repentances,
by Slav struggles and convulsions for Christ. It is a very large record, a
very large Bible indeed, a wonderful drama, quite new, fresh, original,
although in old forms and words, and signs. Still Slav Orthodoxy is not
self-sufficient. She would become by human inertia self-sufficient, unless
Providence sent her punishment from time to time. Tolstoi was for Orthodoxy
a punishment. He was like a whirlwind which pulls down many things but at
the same time purifies the unhealthy air. He was not at all a demon, but a
man sent by God to help our Church; and he helped very much indeed - as all
the sects and critics of Christianity from the beginning have helped the
Christian cause, ridiculing and exposing the Christian Paganism manifested
in ecclesiastical pride, in superstitions, prejudices, intolerance, etc.

What are the present needs of Slav Orthodoxy? Oh, her needs are great, her
thirst is immense. She does not need so much what Tolstoi proposed for her,
or what Harnack could give her, neither does she thirst after the stricter

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Online LibraryNikolai VelimirovićThe Religious Spirit of the Slavs (1916) Sermons On Subjects Suggested By The War, Third Series → online text (page 1 of 3)