19 November 2015

Remembering Holy Father Filaret of Moscow

When I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church, one of the gifts given to me by the man who welcomed me into the Church, Fr. Sergiy, was a book of Select Sermons by Metropolitan Saint Filaret (Drozdov) of Moscow. His sermons bore the mark of an experienced and forceful orator, but one who was at the same time singularly judicious in his choice of words. Even in their translation, which was singularly Victorian in its verbiage, each clause and each parallel structure, punctuated by prayers, strike you suddenly with their contemplative and poetic power. At the same time, Metropolitan Saint Filaret can be somewhat difficult to quote, indeed because he spends a great deal of time carefully exploring grand mysteries through his prose; his writings do not lend themselves to pithy bon mots, and it strikes one that his writings would be impoverished if they did.

Holy Father Filaret, born Vasiliy Mikhailovich Drozdov in Kolomna in 1782, was the son of a deacon who later became a priest; the son, following in the footsteps of his father, studied in seminary in the Moscow oblast’ between 1791 and 1803, when he graduated from Moscow Holy Trinity Theological Seminary. He was educated in Latin, in Greek and in Hebrew; the latter languages he taught as a professor at Holy Trinity, and his lectures and homilies on the Orthodox faith were so profound and so well-regarded that he began to be known as ‘the new Chrysostom’. He took the tonsure in 1808 and joined the clergy the same year; by 1812 he had been made rector of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. It was at this time that Holy Father Filaret was witness to Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia, and was called upon to compose a special liturgical prayer for the occasion; it was at this time that he began to preach on the need for Russian Orthodoxy to re-found itself upon its own Patristic basis, rather than continue trying to keep up with the scholarship happening in the West. This was, at the time, a highly controversial opinion, and one at odds with an upper-class and a nobility which was still looking to France and Germany for cultural and spiritual guidance. Later he would also come to champion and contribute to the task of translating Holy Scripture into contemporary Russian, himself authoring translations of several books of the Old Testament; this was also a highly-controversial project, opposed at times by the Tsar and by other Church hierarchs.

Holy Father Filaret continued in his tireless efforts for the Church, and the time he did not spend in writing and in study, he spent on charitable works within the Church, including a shelter for orphans and the children of poor clergy. It was remarked by his staff that they didn’t know when he slept, but that he was always to be seen writing at his desk. In 1821 he was appointed Metropolitan of Moscow, and as Metropolitan of Moscow he would continue in office for the remainder of his earthly life: forty-six years. His intellectual efforts bring the Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers directly into the lives and minds of the common people of Russia corresponded and even overlapped in certain ways with the thought of the Slavophils who were his contemporaries: people like Yuri Samarin, Aleksey Khomyakov, Ivan Kireevsky and the Brothers Konstantin and Ivan Aksakov. Though he had been a defender of the institution of serfdom earlier in his career, and though as the emancipation was being discussed he voiced grave reservations about the possible repercussions to the social order, he nevertheless came to draft the 3 March Manifesto of Tsar Aleksandr II. which, on that day in 1861, freed all the Russian serfs.

Metropolitan Saint Filaret’s insistence that the Church existed ‘on behalf of all and for all’, and thus that the message of the Church must be communicated to all for the benefit of all, and his additional project of keeping Orthodox theology grounded in the teachings of the Church Fathers rather than looking to a modernising West as a spiritual and cultural signpost, had a considerable impact on the contemporary direction of Russian thought. It might be wrong to claim Metropolitan Saint Filaret as a Slavophil himself, but it cannot be denied that he and his cultural projects had an indelible influence on Slavophilia.

At the same time, Holy Father Filaret was very far from being reflexively anti-Western! The following prayer, often attributed to him, was in fact written by the French Roman Catholic archbishop François Fénelon, but Holy Father Filaret had no problems introducing it to into an Orthodox prayer life:
O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with the firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of this coming day with all that it will bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray You Yourself in me. Amen.
Divinely wise and holy hierarch Filaret, pray to God for us!

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