20 March 2010

'The Harp of the Seraphim'—St Philaret & Pushkin

In a paper on ‘Filaret of Moscow as an Ascetic’, Robert L. Nichols says of St Philaret (Drozdov), Metropolitan of Moscow, ‘Filaret of Moscow (1782-1867) is arguably the greatest Orthodox churchman in modern times. His name is inextricably linked with the reawakening of Orthodox life in Russia and abroad in the past two centuries.’ [1] As Nichols notes, he was an ascetic who thought that ‘the only adequate means for combating a new irreligious and secular age could be found in the healing power of the Holy Spirit most effectively mediated through those perfected by asceticism, prayer, and silence.’ [2] But he did not have a narrow-minded, combative view of the secular or extra-ecclesiastical world. As Fr Florovsky has observed, even behind the troubling currents of contemporary ‘spirituality’, St Philaret ‘could recognize a vital need for religion, a thirst for religious instruction and enlightenment’, [3] and he was able to ‘find a common language’ with such seekers. [4]

I can think of no better illustration of this capacity than in St Philaret’s dealings with Pushkin. The icon above depicts the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, in poetic dialogue with St Philaret. According to an account of the latter’s life (here) at the website of St John the Baptist Cathedral (ROCOR) in Washington, DC:

In May 1828, a despondent Pushkin wrote the famous stanzas: ‘A gift in vain, a gift by chance.’ [5] Elizabeth Khitrovo, a spiritual child of the Metropolitan, gave them to him. The Moscow Hierarch, who appreciated the poet’s talent, read in those verses ‘the cry of a lost soul, the murmuring of self-destructive despondency’, and as a spiritual physician, he responded with an uplifting missive:

Not in vain and not by chance
Was life granted me by God
And not without God’s hidden will
Has it been condemned to death.

I myself through willful power
Summoned evil from the dark abyss
And my soul I filled with passion,
Stirring up my mind with doubts.

Remember Him whom I’d forgotten
Pierce through with light the gloom of thoughts
Then it will be, through You created
A heart that’s pure, a mind that’s clear.

This inspired outpouring of prayer for the poet suffering from gloomy thoughts is a living expression of the needs of a soul which has not yet entered into the life-giving light of God it has forgotten, and which [is] therefore tortured by the gloom of bewilderment and error. At the same time, it points to the main source of healing. Pushkin understood this. Moved and brought to his senses, he expressed his gratitude to his healer with the following poem:

In hours of amusement or idle boredom,
Once upon a time, I used to confide
To my lyre the cosseted sounds
Of madness, indolence and passion.

But even then I would arrest
The vibration of the treacherous string
When your majestic voice
Suddenly struck me.

I poured forth streams of sudden tears,
And to the wounds of my conscience
The balsam of your fragrant words
Was a pure delight.

And now from a spiritual height
You extend a hand to me
And with meek and loving strength
Becalm restless dreams.

Set afire by your flame my soul
Has thrown off the darkness of earthly cares,
And in a state of holy awe
The poet listens to the harp of the seraphim. [6]

I thought this a fascinating instance of the Church’s frequent interaction with secular culture, as well as an eloquent testimony to the power of what Mikhail Bakhtin calls ‘the penetrated word, that is, a word capable of actively and confidently interfering in the interior dialogue of the other person, helping that person to find his own voice.’ [7] Clearly, St Philaret was not merely a great ‘churchman’, but something like a God-bearing elder working in the world.

[1] Robert L. Nichols, ‘Filaret of Moscow as an Ascetic’, The Legacy of St Vladimir: Byzantium, Russia, America, ed. Fr John Breck, Fr John Meyendorff, & E. Silk (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1990), p. 81.

[2] Ibid., p. 83.

[3] Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology, Pt. 1, tr. Robert L. Nichols, Vol. 5 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1979), p. 206. Yes, Nichols is both the author of the article and the translator of Fr Florovsky—a funny coincidence I didn't notice until I started to write this citation!

[4] Ibid., p. 205.

[5] The first line of the poem, ‘On My Birthday’ (tr. Eugene Mark Kayden, The Sewanee Review 50.4, Oct.-Dec. 1942, p. 530):

Gift of chance, a favor aimless,
Why the gift of life to me?
By what law divine or nameless
Doomed in dark infinity?

Who, and why, without compassion
Called me out of nothingness?
Filled my soul with doubt and passion,
Wasted me with loneliness?

All my ways are dim and dreary;
Vain the mind, the heart is bare;
Days monotonous and weary
Trouble me with dull despair.

[6] Rather than the unknown translation of nine lines from the St John Cathedral page, I have taken a translation of the full poem from Andrew Kahn, Pushkin’s Lyric Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford U, 2008), p. 60.

[7] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. & tr. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994), p. 242.


elizabeth said...

Recently discovered your blog. Really enjoyed this post - thank you. Do you know if St. Philaret wrote more poetry?

Aaron Taylor said...

Elizabeth> (That's my daughter's name as well!) Thank you for your kind words. I don't know much about St Philaret's writings, but I don't remember reading anything else about him writing poetry. Unfortunately too, my one expert friend on such matters is completely off the grid these days and can no longer be contacted.

elizabeth said...

Hi-thanks! Well, as least we currently have this one poem; it is really lovely. A good poem is worth perhaps at least 5000 words as a painting is worth 10 000 - but perhaps a poem is worth even more! I myself would think so!

Too bad about your expert friend being off the grid these days; though I hope and pray that it is for reasons of health and salvation that the person is uncontactable.

Nice that your daughter's name is Elizabeth! Which Saint is she named after? My Mom is a protesant and named me after a friend with the name but my spiritual father gave me St. Elizabeth the Mother of the Forerunner; of course I also love St. Elizabeth the New Martyr.

Glad you are here in the blog world; you are really forturnate to have the time to study as you do; have a blessed weekend! May Holy Saint Mary pray for us all.

Unknown said...

Can you cast more light on the connection between Pushkin and St Philaret? Was there actually a face-to-face interaction as the icon might suggest? Or was it a correspondence connection only?

Aaron Taylor said...

Elizabeth> 'Reasons of health & salvation' is probably a good way of putting it.

My daughter is named primarily after St Elizabeth the New Martyr, though we teach her to acknowledge the Mother of the Forerunner as well.

Steve> As far as I know it was a correspondence connection only.

elizabeth said...

How lovely. May your friend be protected by God and St. Elizabeth the New Martyr always look after those who love her and call her their patron!

ps: love the new post w. poem of rural roots! :)