Thursday, December 6, 2012

#142. Communion With the Heart of Creation

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Post #142 is some notes and reflections I wrote in 2004 about a book by the famous Russian genius, Pavel Florensky. The book is Salt of the Earth, or, A Narrative on the Life of the Elder of Gethsemane Skete, Hieromonk Abba Isidore.

The original Russian edition was published around 1908. The first ever English version did not appear until 1988 (Saint Herman Press, ISBN-10: 0938635255), with second revised edition published in 1999 (ISBN-10: 0938635727).

The English version contains an Introduction by an Abbot Herman and a Fr. Damascene, about whom no further information is given. While Florensky’s biography of the monastic Elder Isidore, who one of the last of such elders in the thousand-year history of Russian monasticism, is fascinating, the Introduction is even more interesting.

Florensky (1881-1937) had no religious upbringing. He got started on his religious journey by experiences of awe and wonder at nature. He was married in 1910, ordained in 1911, and wrote his famous text, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, as an extension of his MA thesis.

He taught theology for a while, but became depressed at the boredom of those who have “lost touch with the mystical truth of church life.”

He hated the seminary texts: “there is the smell of death about them; they all were written by eunuchs. This is not life.”

He said, “I could kill (repress) my sexual life instincts, but that would also kill my (scientific) creativity.”

For him, everything had to be based on real life experience. His basic personality orientation was against conventionality, comfortable social norms and prescribed behavior. He was, as the authors say in the Introduction, “in revolt against the world.”


It is these authors ways of talking about truth, reality, life that are of great interest to me here. They "the world,” for example, to contrast with “truth” and “real life.”

They say Florensky “loved the genuine and unaffected” and that Isidore exemplified it for him. Florensky himself, while he said of Isidore that he was the “salt of the earth,” also said that he “lived on another plane” or “ in the other world,” that he was “an inheritor of the Kingdom.”

And this otherworldliness is called “spirituality,” “asceticism,” “saint-ness” and “evangelical Christianity.” Its ideal is said to be monasticism and it is contrasted with people whose lives are “carnal” and “fleshy.”

It all sounds so negative to contemporary ears.

And yet, it’s not.


For Florensky, the ideal of monastic spirituality is essentially characterized as “freedom from conventional norms.” [2012 note: Today we would say "political correctness."]

“Isidore was himself," says Florensky; "he was not artificial.”

Authentic piety, Florensky says, means being at home with the poor, peasants, prostitutes, etc., as was Jesus. It is this which is “the mystical truth of church life.” And this (mis-named) "otherworldly" piety shows itself not via conventional morality but by beauty, as in Isidore’s radiant and “light-giving personality.”


Florensky was born in January, 1881, and died in early December, 1937. He was executed in a Soviet concentration camp. (That was just five weeks after I was born.)

He had no religious upbringing. Awe and wonder about nature got him started on his religious journey. His basic personality was oriented against conventionality, against comfortable social norms, against prescribed behavior-- all of which Florensky contrasts with “the Truth,” meaning basic reality, rock bottom reality.

He loved the genuine and unaffected, and the Elder, Isidore, exemplified this for him.


In 1937, the year he was killed, Florensky wrote, “I have spent my life looking at the world as a whole, one picture at a time” (i.e., from many different perspectives).

“Truth” is that one, single coherent worldview, the absolute basis and reference point “for everything,” he says. And beauty, the criterion for the authenticity of truth, spirituality and asceticism, he describes as “communion with the heart of creation.”

“Spiritual beauty” means “union with all creation.” What’s “ortho” about Orthodoxy is its “right use of what’s available for loving union with God’s created world.”

Regarding religious education, Florensky says there should be none at all in schools: “Let things speak for themselves. Let everyone have the chance to learn by experience what life is all about. Forcing religion on children only creates ‘god-less ones’.” (Such a reverence for “things”!)


The title itself is fascinating. At first, "Salt of the Earth" sounds trivial or trite, but in calling Elder Isidore “the salt of the earth” Florensky is saying “Here is a manifestation of communion with God’s creation."

He says, "Isidore allows us to get a taste of the real, to know truth by experience.” And he adds that this is the only kind of “monasticism” that can survive; this is the spirituality of the future: simplicity, not caring about what other think, no fakery. The criterion is beauty.

Florensky says, “The elder listened to God’s creation and God’s creation listened to him. I’m not interested in anything else.”


Florensky himself had wanted to become a monk, but his spiritual father advised against it; it would be too restrictive of his creative personality.

He married his roommate’s sister in 1910, was ordained in 1911; wrote Pillar and Ground of Truth as an extension of his MA thesis.

After his ordination he taught theology for a while, but was depressed at the boredom of those who have “lost touch with the mystical truth of church life.”

Much of his language has common dualistic meanings but which apparently Florensky did not use at all in that sense. (The authors of the Intro definitely did, however!)

So, again, this is a major issue (for interpreters/teachers): finding the right contemporary words for the depths of what Florensky meant by “real life” and “the mystical truth of church life.”


The authors don’t say, but from what I can see Florensky shared that same orthodox arrogance in his writings that so many Orthodox “Byzantine” RC writers seem to. “If only those people would see things the right way,” they seem always to be sighing.

The focus of Florensky's life, however, was not theology but liturgy, the enactment in awe of the eucharistic mystery where reality is manifest, life is made real, in the sense of “manifested.”

The criterion for authenticity of life/reality is beauty: the beauty of spirituality, asceticism, etc. Important note: Florensky defines these things as “communion with the heart of creation.”

“The elder listened to God’s creation and God’s creation listened to him.” “Spiritual beauty” means “union with all creation.” Florensky says, “I’m simply not interested in anything else, not eternity, not the salvation of my soul,” but loving communion with God’s created world.


Florensky was a universal genius: math and science, art, music, languages, philosophy and theology... He taught at an art school, worked as a research scientist, wrote a still-used text on electronics, edited theological journals, and continued working as priest during the Soviet era.

He was arrested several times, eventually sent to a concentration camp in Siberia (1933) and executed in 1937. He was canonized with the “New Martyrs” in 1981.

He apparently had at least two sons. The authors of the Intro don’t mention anything about what might have happened to them or his wife. (We know of the sons because each appears in a photo in the book.)


His emphasis is on simplicity and beauty, and the criterion for all this is nothing less than “communion with the heart of creation.” For him, “spiritual beauty” means “union with all creation.”

How literally he intends all this is clear from his views about religious education in schools. There should be none, he says. “Let things speak for themselves.”

By calling the Elder Isidore “salt of the earth” he is saying, Here is a taste of the real, here’s how we know truth. By experience. The elder listened to God’s creation and God’s creation listened to him. And this is the spirituality of the future.


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