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Alexei Khomiakov

Fifth Letter to William Palmer

8 October 1850

Letter of Pius IX to Eastern Christians * Reply of the Orthodox Patriarchs * The Church consists of totality of ecclesiastical body, not only the hierarchy * Orthodox theory of the Church vindicated * Hopes for future in Russia and in England * Ecclesiastical news from Oxford

Most Reverend and Dear Sir, —

More than a year has elapsed since I have received your kind letter, and I should confess myself guilty of a great tardiness in answering it if I had not a sufficient justification in a violent inflammation of the eyes which has confined me for weeks in a dark room, and made me for months unable to take a pen, or even a book, in hand. For a long while, medical aid was not only of no use, but seemed rather to augment the intensity of the malady, till at length, homeopathy was recurred to and achieved the cure in a very short time and only left a slight weakness in the eyes which does not hinder me in my habitual occupations.

The condition I was in during these ten months of involuntary and almost complete idleness was very disagreeable. Among many privations, I consider as one of the most painful the impossibility of answering your letter, and of calling your attention to a very important event in the history of the Church. So many political events of high, or seemingly high, importance have troubled the last two years and engrossed the thoughts of all Europe that the one I mean has probably either passed quite unobserved or has been noticed by only a very few persons, and that rather accidentally than otherwise. No opinion is more common than that the abstract questions of religion are less interesting and less important than the practical questions of diplomacy and politics. I think that opinion very natural, and yet, I believe there is none more erroneous and false, not only from the philosophical point of view (as religions questions refer to eternal truths, and to the only true welfare of man), but even from the historical point of view. For example, no man that is not altogether blind to the light of historical science can doubt for an instant that the Arian doctrine and its rejection at Nicaea have for centuries given a peculiar course to the destinies of European nations by having united the interests of Catholicism with some of the German tribes and having put them in opposition to other German tribes which were broken down in the conflict; or that the separation of East and West by a religious question has been of the most vital importance to the whole history of Europe by causing the western nations to sacrifice the Eastern Empire, and by reducing the East to an isolated, tardy, and insufficient development of its energy. The common answer to such examples is that they are exceptions; but in reality, instead of being exceptions, they are only manifest illustrations of the common rule. Even in our time the greatest part of the European commotions, though seemingly produced by material interests, sometimes of the lowest character, is indeed nothing but a veil to the deep religious questions which, without his being conscious of the fact, direct the actions of man. I am sure this opinion will find your approbation, and I hope that you will likewise admit that I was right in considering the following fact as a very important and remarkable event.

You have probably heard of the inroad the pope attempted in the East when as yet he had not so much ado with Italy and his own rebellious subjects. This inroad was made in the form of an address directed to the Latin subjects of the Sultan, but was indeed an evident, though perhaps not quite fair, attack on Eastern Orthodoxy. The Patriarchs and bishops of the East considered themselves called upon for an answer, and they gave an answer signed by thirty-one bishops. This fact is important in itself as being the only instance for more than a hundred years of a declaration of Faith coming so near to an ecumenical act, and as giving a splendid example of Unity; but some expressions contained in the answer are still more worthy of notice. I cannot quite approve of its general form and style. The phrases have a strong tendency to Byzantine rhetoric, but then it should be considered that, however strange to us, such a style is natural to men nurtured under the influence of a tasteless school. The polemical part, though not without merit, might certainly have been more powerful; but again, that seems to be of only secondary importance. The expressions of the Synod, when speaking about their Latin adversaries, might have been milder, but this last circumstance, if not quite excusable, should not be judged too severely. In the last ten years or more, the expressions of the Latin writers when attacking the Eastern Church have been peculiarly harsh; it has even been very common for them to compare her with Arianism. No great mildness could have been expected in the reply. But a still more weighty excuse is to be found in the danger which seemed to threaten Orthodoxy in the East. Never had the Latin missionaries been so active and, in some instances, so successful. The pope had acquired a great personal celebrity; he seemed to be on the best terms with the Divan, and the energy of his mind and character were supposed to be bent towards attaining a political, as well as a spiritual, ascendancy. There was much of fear in the harshness of the Greek bishops. Still, I do think that a milder tone would have been more dignified. But polemics belong to individuals, and never can have an ecclesiastical or ecumenical character. The only truly important part of the Patriarchal Encyclical is to be sought in the expressions which the bishops use in speaking of their own Symbol and Dogmas. These are of an immense importance, and have been a cause of joy to many of us, and indeed, I think, for all those who take a serious interest in religious matters. I daresay you have felt long since, as have most of us, that the difference between the Eastern Church and all the Western communities, whether Latin or sprung out of the Latins in the form of Protestations, lies not so much in the difference of separate dogmas or portions of creed as in something else which has not been as yet clearly defined or expressed. This difference consists in the different manner of considering the Church herself. I have tried in some straggling essays, and still more in some as yet unpublished historical disquisitions, to state that difference clearly and explicitly; still all explanations given by a solitary individual and by a layman had no authority whatever, and could not be considered as serious expressions of the Church's own self-notions. Doubts and direct negations were natural, and the more so as I must confess that my explanations were in evident opposition to many definitions of the Church and its essence given by some of our divines, educated, I fear, under the influence of Western tendencies and science, which are rather predominant in Russian schools. The expressions used by a Synod of three patriarchs and twenty-eight bishops have a very high authority, and may be considered, now that they have been reprinted in Russia with the assent of our Church authorities, as something very near an Ecumenical decision of the Eastern Church. These expressions, as worded in section seventeen, are of the following import: The pope is greatly mistaken in supposing that we consider the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy to be the guardian of the dogma [of the Church]. The case is quite different. The unvarying constancy and the unerring truth of Christian dogma does not depend upon any Hierarchical Order; it is guarded by the totality, by the whole people of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. The webmaster has been unable to find this quote in the Encyclical, perhaps due to various processes of translation, or perhaps because, as he admits below, Alexei Khomiakov was quoting from memory. But the meaning is certainly in that section of the Encyclical, viz., ...neither Patriarchs nor Synods could then have introduced novelties amongst us, because the protector of religion is the very body of the Church, even the people themselves, who desire their religious worship to be ever unchanged and of the same kind as that of their fathers... Examples follow. The same idea is still more clearly illustrated, I think, in section eleven (I have not the Encyclical with me, and can only quote from memory); the meaning of the passage is as follows: No Hierarchical Order nor Supremacy is to be considered as a guarantee of truth. The knowledge of truth is given to mutual love. The webmaster has been unable to find this quote. It would be difficult to ask for explanations more positive and more clear. The gift of truth is strictly separated from the hierarchical functions (viz., from Sacramental and Disciplinarian power), and the essential distinction from the Latin notion is thus established; the gift of unvarying knowledge (which is nothing but faith) is attributed, not to individuals, but to the totality of the ecclesiastical body, and is considered as a corollary of the moral principle of mutual love. This position is in direct contradiction to the individualism and rationalism which lies at the bottom of every Protestant doctrine. I am happy to say that I consider one of the most important bases of our Catechism to be duly and solidly established for ever; and this fact I am inclined to deem almost miraculous when I reflect upon the deep ignorance, and perhaps moral debasement, of the Greek clergy, and upon the tendency to spiritual despotism which I cannot but suspect in our more learned and enlightened churchmen. The strength of the vital and latent principle, when called upon, bears down before it all the obstacles which to our eyes and reason would seem unconquerable. I hope you will not blame me for my rather triumphant style; the joy we have felt in reading the Encyclical was the more intense inasmuch as it was quite unexpected. I am sure you will sympathise with us in this as you would sympathise in the many and many painful impressions which we daily experience.

The general aspect of things, at least in matters of religion, is very favourable in our country, and would be still more so if we had not too much of political religion, and if the State was more convinced that Christian truth has no need of constant protection, and is rather weakened than strengthened by an excessive solicitude. A greater share of intellectual liberty would go far to break down the innumerable heresies of the worst description which are constantly either springing up or spreading their deleterious influence in the ranks of the common people. But then, all this is nothing but a temporary error of rather timid politicians and will pass; let the principles themselves be more clearly expressed and better understood, and all will go well. I hope such is the case with us. How does it stand with you, or rather with your country? The hopes that had so unexpectedly rewarded your constant exertions, are they likely to be fulfilled, at least in part? If they were, and if I could hear of such a fortunate event, I should consider that day as one of the happiest of my life. Believe me, these are not mere words. The spiritual welfare of England is one of the objects which are nearest to my heart. I do not say that I sympathise with your indefatigable exertions; that expression would be too weak. I can say that they are the theme of constant and anxious thoughts. I suppose that you were scarcely more rejoiced in seeing symptoms of a possible return or approximation to Catholicism during your journey to Scotland than I was in hearing of them. The country to which the world is so much indebted, I will not say for liberal institutions or for progress of sciences, but for the noble efforts of many of her children who have borne far and wide the name of Christ and the blessing of adoring Him, this country seems to me worthy of a clearer insight into the wonder of Christ's Church than any other. Such are likewise the feelings of our Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow. He was strongly moved by the perusal of your letter and highly approved all that you had done and proposed. The last news from Oxford is far from being satisfactory. It seems that some defections have taken place to ultra-Protestantism or to flat Rationalism, which is quite on the verge of infidelity, if, indeed, it is not a total rejection of religion. I think it could not be otherwise. The equivocal position of Anglicanism between Popery and ultra-Protestantism must manifest itself in its consequences. The noble genius of Newman has not avoided one of these deviations; others of less note, but perhaps of sincere tendencies to truth, fall in the opposite extreme. I hope these defections have not had any influence on your nearest friends or on your own energy. I feel it would be not only strange, but completely absurd, if I entertained an idea of giving you any advice, or of forewarning you against despondency. You know better than anybody the obstacles that lie in your way, and a struggle of many years has proved your energy and perseverance; but I could not avoid expressing my opinion on the fact I have heard of (perhaps a false rumour), and some slight anxiety lest this fact should have damped the hopes of your friends. No man is above a momentary weakness, and perhaps, it will not be quite useless to you to know that in a country far distant from your own, there are hearts which feel all the immense importance of the task you have undertaken, and are alarmed at hearing of things which may render it still more arduous, and pray God as fervently as they can for your ultimate success.

A friend of mine has promised to be the bearer of this letter to England, and excellent and very remarkable young man. His family name is Kossovitch; his line of occupation the ancient languages. Without any fortune, without any pecuniary means, without teachers, he has acquired a tolerable knowledge of the Semitic idioms, and has become very proficient in Sanskrit. The object of his journey to England is to acquire a greater perfection in this last branch of his studies, though it is joined to another object of a quite different sort, which is a rather strange idea of mine to take a patent for a new steam-engine of my invention. Very probably he will visit Oxford; a studious man cannot deprive himself of such a pleasure. If he does visit Oxford, he will most certainly call upon you, and I confide in your friendship for a welcome of which he is indeed worthy. But shall I be so happy as to meet you once more under the sweet and thoughtful shades of Oxford? That is one of my hopes and of my pia desideria. Next year, perhaps — but I won't think of the future.

Accept, most reverend and dear sir, the assurance of the sincere respect and devotion. -- Your most obedient servant,

Alexei Khomiakov

8 October 1850

P.S. I hope the book which I join to this letter will afford you some interest.

 

 

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