14 July 2017

They’ve always been with us

Reading Gyorgi Fedotov on the religious history and psychology of Kievan Rus’ has been a fascinating and enlightening exercise. One of the things he shows, is that for those of us in the Slavic Rite of the Holy Orthodox Church, there are very few new things under the sun, and many of the issues we face have been debated at length before. The human condition being what it is, this shouldn’t be surprising. But here are some accounts from Fedotov’s account of the priest Kirik and his interactions with Saint Niphont the Bishop of Novgorod:
The best-known and the most embracing of the question-and-answer compositions [on the subject of canon law] belong to a group of Novgorodian priests in the middle of the twelfth century, among whom Kirik takes first place. The answers are given by the bishop Niphont and other prelates. The questions and answers are reflections and sometimes verbatim reports of real conversations between the bishop and the priests who come to him, canonic collections in hand, to solve their practical difficulties…

If a priest consults his bishop about the complicated detail of the ritual only recently adopted in a newly-converted country, it is in itself no indication of his ritualistic tendencies. It is simply a part of his professional training… But even in this liturgical interest Kirik goes beyond the limits of reason, revealing a spirit of narrow bigotry and ritualism in a pejorative sense; many times he deserves the rebuke of his somewhat more broad-minded bishop.
If you see already in Kirik, a native priest among the recently-converted Finns and Russians of Novgorod, some parallels among the American konvertsy, particularly those of a certain legalistic frame of mind, rest assured that you aren’t alone in that. It’s noteworthy that Saint Niphont, though he upholds most of the dietary and fasting restrictions (including very severely that against eating fowl or game that had been strangled), the saintly bishop is much more lenient when it comes to condescending to the needs of married couples.
Bishop Niphont cites an ancient canon of Patriarch Timothy, which was read to all newly-married couples and which prohibited copulation on Saturdays and Sundays. Very soon Friday was added to these days. The Precepts to the Confessing enjoins this prohibition with a curious warning: the child conceived during these three days risks becoming ‘thief, or robber, or fornicator’, and then his parents have to do a penance. The liberal Niphont is indignant about these exaggerations. When referred by Kirik to this, or similar, canonical authority he gives his opinion: ‘Those books are fit for burning’. Nevertheless, the prescription of ‘those books’ prevailed, and the superstitious view rejected by Kirik became a general belief of the Russian people.

The Precepts won over Niphont’s judgement also in another point: in the extension of sexual prohibition to all feast days and to Lent. This seems to be the practice of the Novgorod priests, which angered Niphont. ‘Do you teach abstinence from wives during Lent? You sin in this.’ Obviously, the Bishop considered this abstinence beyond the capacity of laymen. The Precepts insists upon abstinence, at least, during the first and the last weeks of Lent. The canons of the Muscovite period are more intransigent in this point as in many others…

A particular case of conscience was the perplexity of ‘being with one’s wife’ in the presence of icons or of the holy cross. From the context it can be inferred that in Kievan Russia, unlike during the Muscovite period, the icons were not kept in inhabited heated chambers but in separate cold rooms. But these rooms could also be used as bedrooms. This explains the question: ‘If one keeps icons or the precious Cross in a room (
клеть), is it lawful to be with one’s wife?’ Niphont is as liberal and peremptory as usual: ‘The wife is not given to one for sin… Do you take off your cross when you are with your wife?’ In this last point the bishop is seconded by the Precepts: ‘A layman must keep the Cross upon himself if lying with his wife.’ The Muscovites were of another opinion. But the fact that such questions were raised in the earliest times is evidence of the widespread view that all sexual life was unclean. The pre-Mongolian Church tried to oppose this conviction by stressing the sanctity of marriage. But the dual attitude toward sex was too deeply rooted in the Christian past. The ancient canons bear witness of it; and it was only natural that one of these currents, the negative one, should start a new development in Russia.
I find it highly interesting that a sainted hierarch, an accomplished ascetic cœnobite of the Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra with a firm doctrinal formation and a careful cultivation of personal holiness and virtue, had to rein in the legalistic tendencies of his spiritual sons, particularly the presumably-married Father Kirik (whose razor-keen mathematical mind, sketched here so diligently by Fedotov, was clearly drawn toward the harsher, more maximalist view of canonical rigourism). I also find it remarkable that the Russian Church, which had no interest in Hellenistic speculative theology but was instead more drawn toward the rabbinical ‘Judaïsing’ pole and toward theologies of history, swung so heavily at the grassroots to the guidance of the ‘Hellenists’ on matters of practical lay ethics. I’m sure there’s a reason for this, and I’m much mistaken if Fedotov will not see fit to mention it later in the book. Still, such a passage shows that convertitis and Hyperdox Hermans have always been with us; and have a history of trying the patience even of saints!


  1. Good post, but one nitpick. It should be konverty (конверты) instead of konvertsy (конверцы), which is bad Russian.

  2. Aah. Thank you, Deacon John - and indeed, welcome to the blog!

    I'll be sure to use that construction from now on.