What follows is an original interview conducted with Dr. Donald Nicholl during a seven-day stay at his Betley home in 1996. While it was abbreviated for the Mercury News and published a few months before his death, the unedited version is only available on this blog.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox church has experienced a dramatic renewal, seemingly picking up the pieces after seventy years of Communist rule. While no one can be certain of its future, some experts are concerned about recent developments in the church. I had the great fortune last month to spend a few days with such an expert during a pilgrimage of sorts in the north of Wales. The journey was intensely enriched with conversation and seasoned with stories of a man whom I found attuned to the culture as well as to its people. We stayed the first night in Aberdaron, a town at the tip of the northern peninsula. At the top of the region’s highest hill, overlooking the coast of Wales, something engulfed me.
It was not Bardsey, the sacred place known as the Island of 20,000 saints, that seized me, though clearly this was one of the most profound places on earth, nor was it the dimly lit coast of Ireland visible through the mist across the sea. It was the presence of my distinguished guide, Donald Nicholl, former Rector of the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies at Tantur, near Bethlehem, and retired Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For several years, he has been writing a monumental volume on Russian spirituality, and a portion of his insight was spoken in the breezes overlooking sea. He offered the following observation.
“As we look across the Lleyn Peninsula, its beauty reminds us of the profound differences of interpretation between the East and the West. It is especially apparent in the creation narrative of Genesis, where it says that God saw that the world was “good.” The Hebrew word is tob, which not only involves a moral good but also a sense of the fullness of life and of beauty. The West translated this term into “good” in the moral sense, while the East chose a Greek equivalent for “beautiful.” For the Eastern church, and for Russians in particular, goodness is only a part of beauty. One famous poet and philosopher, Dostoevski, said that the world would be saved by beauty. This is consonant with the whole Russian tradition.”
Where was “beauty” preserved in the Russian Orthodox church?
The Russians became Christians because they experienced the beauty of the liturgy in Constantinople. This is quite relevant for the story of the Soviet Union, although the Kremlinologists do not seem to understand it. What preserved the church in the Soviet Union during the times of persecution under the last regime was not her hierarchy but her liturgy. This liturgy was mainly attended by old women, old men, and poor people. That which permitted the church to survive was her liturgy, because it soaked up the suffering, the insight, the love, and all types of human passions. This made them available from generation to generation. While the KGB penetrated everywhere, it could not penetrate the liturgy.
Next Post: Part Two of the Interview