05 October 2017

Synaxis of the Holy Hierarchs of Moscow


The fifth of October is the feast on which we commemorate the holy hierarchs of Moscow, the foremost among whom are: Holy Father Pyotr, Aleksiy the Wonderworker and Holy Father Iona. It is worth considering on this day the manner by which Moscow came to be, through the caritative and social labours of these three saintly hierarchs, the ecclesiastical centre – confirmed over and over again in the history of the universal and conciliar Orthodox Church – of the Russkiy Mir, the world of the Rus’. To give an example that will illustrate the point herein, let us take an example from one of the great hierarchs commemorated today: the first Patriarch of Moscow, Saint Iov, who himself established this feast for the remembrance of his saintly predecessors Pyotr, Aleksiy and Iona.

Upon being elevated to the exalted status of Patriarch – the first time a Patriarch of the Orthodox Church was recognised on Russian lands – one of the first things Saint Iov did in his new office was to recognise officially two of Moscow’s ‘social justice’ saints: Blessed Basil, Fool-for-Christ, and Saint Iosif the Abbot. The subtext here is that Saint Iov, in spite of having been an official for much of his life, understood the essence of Muscovite spirituality as caritative. Both Saints Basil and Iosif represented an ideal of spirituality as care for the poor, sick and dispossessed – Basil to the point of absolute renunciation even of all social standing and claim to honour.

To her enemies and detractors, Moscow is a Jezebel – an ecclesiastical usurper, drunk on imperial power and mad with delusions of grandeur, an ‘Orwellian’ embellisher of history who paints herself up to ‘look more exotic, more like a great prize to be wooed at all costs’. But the first acts of the first Patriarch – who is attacked by the schismatic priest in First Things for his late arrival – show that characterisation to be a lie. Moscow became the centre of the Russian world – the Russkiy mir – through several twists of irony and tragedy, and the messiness of politics under the Mongol yoke. But she could not have stayed as the centre of that world if not for the kenotic holiness of the men who lived and worked there, despite being part of the chaos.

As long as we are speaking of timelines, here is a good one to remember. Moscow is an ancient city of Kievan Rus’ which predates the Mongol invasion. The city herself first appears in 1142, a small border outpost for Knyaz Yuri Long-Arm of Kiev and his son, Knyaz Saint Andrei of Vladimir. She was sacked when the Mongols invaded, and her inhabitants put to the sword. For a long time she was poor and rustic – a river fort in the lonely backwoods.

The political changes preceded the ecclesiastical ones, though the two of them were wrapped up in each other in typically-ironic ways. Kiev’s abdication of her own kenotic ethics for the ethics of pride and revenge became apparent when her Metropolitan Konstantin II, who had been insulted by the Bishop Fedor of Vladimir, had Fedor thrown in prison, and cruelly tortured, mutilated and killed. The half-Qypchaq Knyaz of Vladimir, no stranger to revenge himself, visited his wrath upon Kiev with fire, burning the town and not even leaving the churches intact. (Later chroniclers in Kiev would even call this episode a just punishment for the hubristic pride of their Metropolitan.) The ecclesiastical and sæcular power of Kiev had been irrevocably broken, and the ecclesiastical title of the Metropolitan of Kiev thereafter existed in name only.

How Moscow became the ecclesiastical centre of the Rus’ is a different story. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Athanasios I, whose predecessors had supervised all of the Metropolitans of Kiev to this point, was basically blackmailed into appointing a Galician to the post, as the princes of Galich were threatening to break off and form their own church. The Galician he chose, in the end, was a meek, gentle and generous monk named Pyotr.

Saint Pyotr’s ascension to the Metropolitanate of Kiev (located in Vladimir) was opposed by the Knyaz Mikhail of Tver, such that his life was endangered. Unsurprisingly, he asked for protection from the court of Ivan Kalita, then the Knyaz of Moscow, who was in good odour with the Mongol khaghans. Ivan, who could very well understand the benefits of sheltering the Metropolitan of Kiev, assented. On Saint Pyotr’s part, to be sure, this was very much a realist act of self-preservation in the face of princely persecution. But Saint Pyotr’s entire ministry thereafter was one of self-renunciation and peacemaking. In spite of his quarrels with Knyaz Mikhail, he worked relentlessly for the conciliation of the princes. He made a dangerous journey alone into the heart of the Mongol Horde to beg the khaghan to leave the Rus’ in peace and to allow the clergy of the Rus’ to attend to the people unmolested. His self-giving holiness was uncontested during his life, and after his repose his relics continued to work miracles. But the most important thing he did in terms of ecclesiastical politics, was to move the see of Kiev permanently into Moscow. Even though the Metropolitans of Kiev all still bore that title-of-honour, they lived, worked and died in Moscow from Saint Pyotr’s time forward.

Metropolitan Saint Aleksiy the Wonderworker was the third Metropolitan of Kiev to reside in Moscow, after Metropolitan Saint Pyotr and his successor Metropolitan Saint Theognostos, an ethnic Greek who also distinguished himself as a peacemaker with the Mongols and as a ‘social justice’ saint who worked to restore the city of Moscow after a devastating fire. Saint Aleksiy, a pupil and protégé of Saint Theognostos, continued very much in this tradition as a good student ought, healing the sick, calling for the princes to cast aside their petty quarrels, and making dangerous journeys – more than one – into Mongol territory to beseech them for lenience on behalf of the Church and on behalf of the people. The first three Muscovite Metropolitans all stand as models – not of political wheeling-and-dealing or of ideological wrangling or of the imperialistic hubris of which she now stands, along with her entire history, wrongly accused – but instead of meekness, true peacemaking and self-giving love. Such is the essence of Muscovite spirituality that Saint Iov pointed to, when he glorified Blessed Basil and Saint Iosif the Abbot.

But we come to the crux of the argument of the schismatic priest in First Things: that issue of the Metropolitan Isidore of Thessaloniki, that issue of the vacant seat, that issue of the kinda-sorta-maybe-canonical election of the saintly Metropolitan Iona to fill the vacancy of the Metropolitanate of Kiev and All Rus’. Metropolitan Isidore, who had attended the Council of Florence and there joined the Latin Church, perjured himself before the Church of the Rus’, attempted to impose an outward uniformity on them, and was promptly deposed by the bishops of the Church in Moscow. There was no Metropolitan of Kiev from 1441 to 1448, and it was only under the extremity of need that Saint Iona was selected – unanimously, and with the blessing in absentia of the Patriarch of Constantinople (whose office was at that time also contested). Saint Iona faced the same problems with the Mongols that his predecessors had, and like them, he used, not the weapons of empire, but the prayers of peace. He led a procession around the walls of Moscow, entreating the Most Holy Theotokos to protect the city and its people. Although the Mongols shot to death one holy monk, named Antonii, the city was spared when the Mongol ranks were miraculously thrown into confusion, and they left Moscow unmolested.

When Abbot Filofei of the Eleazarov Monastery in Pskov first floated the idea of the ‘Third Rome’ in reference to Moscow in 1510, he was not propounding a political theory. As Robert Crummey states, ‘[The Third Rome theory] contains no concrete political or diplomatic programme and no recommendations on the form which their government should take’. It was, indeed, a warning to the Tsars in Moscow that if they failed to uphold the caritative duties of Christians and their responsibilities as rulers to uphold social justice, an age of apostasy and apocalypse would follow: there will be no fourth. (Remember that Pskov is, along with Novgorod, considered one of the two centres of proto-democratic thought in Russia. Also, remember that Constantinople had fallen less than three generations before.) The later intentional misreading of the Third Rome theory, both by Moscow’s supporters and her enemies, as some sort of call to imperial power, is thoroughly off-base. The idea of the Third Rome carries a wholly moral dimension – the obligations of care and hospitality.

Despite what its sæcular leaders have done – and several conscientious historians, including Crummey and Fedotov, have upbraided those leaders thoroughly for their veniality and machiavellian cynicism – the Muscovite Church has always held forth this kenotic, caritative and peacemaking witness to the world. A dutiful and humble younger sister, the crown of the Church of All Rus’ was placed on her head precisely for her irenicism, through the Saints Pyotr, Aleksiy and Iona. And despite the lies and artfully-worded doubts that are thrown with monstrous injustice upon the entirety of the Muscovite legacy today, this kenosis and peaceable witness still shines forth. Today on the celebration of the Synaxis of the Hierarchs of Moscow, we ought to remember and embrace that witness.

Holy Saints, Fathers and Hierarchs Pyotr, Aleksiy, Iona, Filipp, Makariy, Iov, Germogen, Innokentiy, Filaret, Pyotr Krutitskiy, Tikhon and Makariy, pray to God for us sinners!
O Russian Hierarchs,
Guardians of the Apostolic tradition,
Firm pillars, guides of Orthodoxy,
Peter, Alexis, Jonah, and Philip,
Pray to the Lord of all,
To grant peace to the world and great mercy to our souls.

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