Two figures dominate the story of late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Russian Orthodox Church: Joseph Volotsky (a.k.a. Joseph of Volokalamsk) (1440–1515) and Nil Sorsky (d. 1508). Both are revered as saints, but their religious visions contrasted sharply, though perhaps not as sharply as some histories suggest. Joseph advocated the cooperation of the church with the state, perhaps to the point of accommodation and compliance, in exchange for wealth, influence, and great tracts of land. Nil championed the independence of the church, or at least of the monks, from state control and advocated evangelical poverty, hermitic seclusion, fierce asceticism, and holy silence. In the short run, Joseph’s policy won the day. But the increasing secularism of the czarist state, followed by the official atheism of the Soviets, relegated the Church to the margins of Russian society and led to the exile or martyrdom of many thousands of the faithful. Today, as this volume’s publication suggests, it may be the views of Nil that prove more enduringly valid.
Nil’s spirituality is a Russian adaptation of that great school of Eastern Christian monastic piety known as hesychasm. This tradition goes back to the fourth century Desert Fathers of Egypt, was developed and codified by the monks of the Byzantine Empire (especially those of Mount Athos), and came to Eastern Europe after the mass conversion of the Slavs to Orthodoxy in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Hesychasm sought the stilling (hesychia = quietude) of the carnal passions by rigorous ascetic discipline and assiduous contemplative prayer. (In this context, the “passions” refer not only to insurgent bodily appetites, such as gluttony, lust and covetousness, but also to the disordered aims of any soul whose attention is not fixed on God, such as anger, sadness, acedia [sloth, despondency], vainglory, and pride.) Because of its emphasis on silence and mental prayer, hesychastic spirituality is especially suitable to anchorites, although it has also flourished in cenobitic monasteries, and was eventually adapted to the needs of lay people. It was Nil’s achievement to adapt these techniques for the skete-monks of Transvolgian Russia, that is, for those monks who lived in tiny, secluded forest communities, consisting of an experienced starets (elder) and one or two disciples. Yet Nil did not think of himself as a monastic innovator. He repeatedly emphasizes his indebtedness to “the Fathers,” and his works are peppered with long quotations from Scripture and from earlier hesychastic masters, such as John Climacus, Isaac the Syrian, Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory of Sinai. But these quotations are judiciously selected and skillfully interwoven with Nil’s own shrewd commentary, and the result is a fresh synthesis, not a mere anthology. He lays particular stress on holy poverty—and in this he was chiding the followers of Joseph for their acquisitiveness—and emphasizes the crucial role of “tears” in the stilling of the passions.
The two major works in this volume are The Tradition, which briefly describes life in a Russian skete, and The Rule, which is not, as one might presume from its title, a piece of monastic legislation, but rather a guide to contemplative prayer and ascetic discipline. Also included are Nil’s four surviving letters of spiritual counsel to brother monks and his Last Will and Testament. These works are rendered here into English for the first time. George Maloney’s translation is superb, demonstrating a thorough mastery of the surviving manuscripts and published editions of Nil’s writings, and beautifully conveying both the stateliness and the deep but understated emotionalism of his prose. In addition, Maloney offers a brilliant introduction to the volume, which summarizes the hesychastic tradition, sets Nil’s life in its political, social and ecclesiastical context, and highlights the major themes of Nil’s writings. Maloney also furnishes fine notes to the texts (although not all of Nil’s quotations have been tracked to their sources).
Church historians will find this volume an excellent counterpoint to Tarkovsky’s classic film, Andrei Rublev, as an introduction for undergraduates to the ethos and pathos of late Medieval Russian Christianity. Teachers of Eastern Christian theology might profitably use it along with The Way of the Pilgrim to show how hesychasm took root in the Russian soul, both among monastics and among the laity.