Raskol: The Schism of the Old Believers

The raskol, or great schism, of the Old Believers, or Old Ritualists, from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1666-7 is one of the most important events in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. As the only major schism in the history of Russian Orthodoxy, the raskol has had a significant effect on the self-image of the Russian Orthodox Church. In addition, a study of the history of the schism is also helpful in illuminating certain aspects of the nature of faith and worship in Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole.

Beginning early in the 17th century, leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church recognized the need for a reform of morality and liturgy in Russia. Just as in most of Europe, in spite of “the political successes of Christianity and the Church … the inculcation of Christian belief among the people” remained incomplete in Russia throughout the Middle Ages.1 This incomplete Christianization, according to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, led the “the often less than knowledgeable laity” in Russia as elsewhere in Europe “to mix Christian and traditional folk beliefs and practices.”2

In attempts to address this problem, reformers such as the Archpriest Avvakum “sought to improve the celebration of the liturgy and to bring a higher moral and spiritual tone to parish life.”3 Known as “the Zealots of Piety,” “they advocated better preaching, proper celebration of the liturgy, and bringing the moral teachings of Christ into everyday life.”4

To this end, the Church began to use the new technology of the printing press to print and disseminate educational materials for Russian Orthodox Christians, including prayer manuals and service books. A concern developed, especially in the light of certain differences between the Russian and Greek practices, that these new printed books be as accurate as possible. As historian of Russia Bernard Pares points out, if there were any errors in the Russian practices these “errors would become far more harmful from the moment when they were widely circulated in print.”5

“The matter” of correcting the service books “was taken up … with great vigour by the Patriarch Nikon.”6 In 1653 and 1654, Nikon led the push to correct the Russian service books, bringing them into conformity with contemporary Greek Orthodox practice. Among the changes made were altering the way the sign of the cross was performed by a believer from using two fingers to using three, changing the number of loaves of bread used for the Eucharist from seven to five, changing the way that bows and prostrations were done during prayers, and altering the Russian spelling of the name of Jesus.

These changes in important and common Orthodox practices such as the sign of the cross and the sacrament of the Eucharist caused a major backlash among many Russian Christians. Reformers like Avvakum, who had formerly seen Nikon as an ally, now turned against him and particularly against his heavy-handed implementation of the new practices. Finally, in 1666 and 1667, church councils were called to consider the matter. While ruling against Nikon, they ruled in favor of his reforms. Simultaneously, Nikon was deposed from the Patriarchate and the schism of the Old Believers, those who refused to accept the new service books, was solidified. A widespread and harsh persecution of the Old Believers promptly followed the decisions of the councils; even Avvakum himself was burned at the stake in 1682.7

“The raskol,” because it “constituted the only major schism in the history of the Orthodox Church in Russia,” has had a profound impact on the self-image of the Russian Orthodox Church.8 A clear example of this impact can be seen in a passage from the still widely popular early 19th century Russian spiritual novel The Way of the Pilgrim. In the passage, the anonymous pilgrim encounters a Raskolnikov, a member of one of the Old Believer sects who launches into a criticism of the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, alleging that their liturgy is filled with distractions, distortions, and disorder, concluding that “in your Church it is not clear whether one is in the house of God or at a market!”9 The pilgrim’s response is, interestingly, not to argue; instead, he writes,

When I heard all of this, I realized that the man was an Old Believer, but because he spoke to the point I could not argue with him or try to convert him. I only thought to myself that at this time it is impossible to convert Old Believers to the true Church. First we must improve our church services, and the clerics especially should take a lead in this. The Old Believers are preoccupied with the external aspects of worship and they don’t seem to be aware of the interior man, while we are careless about the externals.10

This new self-awareness following the raskol allowed the Old Believers, in the eyes of Russian Orthodox, to act in a manner similar to the “virtuous pagan” in medieval Christianity, as a source of inspiration through shame which should prompt the Christian to better behavior.

That the Old Believer could be seen in such a way is due to the peculiar nature of their schism, a nature which also highlights important aspects of Eastern Orthodox faith. In contrast to Christians “in the West” at the same time as the raskol who “turned against their ecclesiastical authorities because they wanted changes; in Russia, believers revolted because they refused to accept even minor modifications of the traditional religious usage.”11 In other words, the Protestant schism from Roman Catholicism was a schism of those who wanted significant changes in their Church’s beliefs and practices, whereas the schism of the Old Believers from the Orthodox Church was a conservative one in protest against changes; they held “that it was the Church which had departed from them and not they from the Church.”12 This difference in the nature of two contemporary Christian schisms highlights the conservative nature of Orthodox belief as one that intrinsically resists change. In another example of the kind of self-awareness fostered by the schism of the Old Believers, and still present today in the Orthodox Church, Timothy (now Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware uses the example of the Old Believers as a warning against allowing conservativism to lead to stagnation in his book The Orthodox Church, stating that they “fell into an extreme conservativism which suffered no change whatever in traditions” that were of relatively little importance.13

That most of the changes against which the Old Believers caused a schism in protest were so apparently miniscule is another element of the raskol which helps to shed light on Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole. The importance of liturgy and ritual can be seen throughout the history of Russian Orthodoxy and of Eastern Orthodoxy in general. The root words for the Greek word “orthodox” are “orthos,” meaning “right,” and “doxa,” which can mean both “belief” and “glory.” This latter meaning of the word “doxa” is reflected in the Slavonic translation for the word “Orthodox”: “pravoslavie,” meaning “right praise.” Similarly, it is significant that the story most commonly told about St. Vladimir’s decision to convert Kievan Rus’ to Orthodox Christianity is a story about Orthodox worship.

This focus on correct worship in Orthodoxy, and especially in its Russian tradition, seems also to be reflected in the schism of the Old Believers. If theirs was indeed pravoslavie, right praise, then these changes must of necessity, they thought, be wrong praise. Any of even the slightest change in the manner of worship is ultimately a change in the faith itself, hence why they called themselves “Old Believers” rather than “Old Ritualists” as their opponents referred to them. A passage from Avvakum’s autobiography demonstrates this understanding; according to Avvakum, he was brought before a group of bishops who appealed to him:

“Why are you stubborn? All our people of Palestine, and the Serbs, and the Albanians and Valachians and Romanians and Poles, all cross themselves with three fingers. You alone in your obstinacy cross yourself with two fingers. This is not fitting.” And I, miserable wretch, how bitter I felt! But I could do nothing. I reproved them as well as I could, and my last word was: “I am uncorrupted, and I shake the dust from my feet, for it is written: ‘Better is one that feareth God, than a thousand ungodly.’”14

It is only with an awareness of the profound importance with which the act of worship is regarded by Eastern Orthodox believers that passages like this and the raskol as a whole become understandable, and the raskol in turn highlights this aspect of Eastern Orthodox faith just as it highlights its essentially conservative nature. The Old Believers, in all of this, have been able to act as a mirror for the mainstream of the Orthodox Church by which it has been able to measure itself in comparison. Their continued existence in Russia and elsewhere to this day continues to allow them to be seen this way by the mainstream of Orthodox Christianity.


1 Andrew Sorokowski, “Christianization, De-Christianization, Re-Christianization,” RISU, 20 January, 2011 (accessed 18 February 2012) http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

2 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia, Eighth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 196.

3 Ibid., 197.

4 Ibid.

5 Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 164.

6 Ibid.

7 Riasanovksy and Steinberg, 199.

8 Ibid., 200.

9 Helen Bacovcin, trans., The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 112.

10 Ibid.

11 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 200.

12 Pares, 167.

13 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: New Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 198.

14 Thomas Riha, ed., “Avvakum’s Autobiography,” Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 139.


Bacovcin, Helen, translator. The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia, Eighth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Riha, Thomas, editor. Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Sorokowski, Andrew. “Christianization, De-Christianization, Re-Christianization.” RISU. 20 January, 2011 (accessed 18 February 2012) http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church: New Edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

The African Roots of Christian Spirituality

Today, Christianity is generally thought of as a largely European and, due to European immigration and influence, North American religious and cultural movement. Christianity’s recent and ongoing remarkable growth in the so-called “Global South” of Latin America, Africa, and southern and eastern Asia, however, coupled with a significant decline in adherents to Christianity in Europe, poses a significant challenge to that assumed European hegemony of Christendom.1 There are many new questions that have arisen as a result of these recent changes, including what the decline of Christianity in Europe means for the future of the Western Civilization which it shaped and what new forms Christianity will take as it becomes fused to new cultures. The most central question being asked by Christians from both Europe and Africa is whether these forms will be faithful to the Christianity the world has known for the past 2000 years or will become something else entirely.2

Too often overlooked in these discussions are the monumental contributions that non-Europeans have already made to the Christian faith, even in its supposedly European forms. This is especially true of Africa, whose residents played a central role in Christianity’s first several hundred years. Great early and early Medieval Christian figures like the apologist Tertullian, the first Christian to write extensively in Latin, Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, whose Christology became the dominant understanding of the nature and role of Jesus to the vast majority of Christians throughout the world, and Augustine of Hippo, arguably the single most influential Christian thinker after the apostle Paul, were all Africans.3 The greatest contribution that Africa made to Christianity, though, was in the practice, piety, and intense devotion of the pioneers of Christian monasticism. Men and women like Anthony the Great, Pachomius the Great, and Syncletica of Alexandria, remembered by subsequent generations of Christians as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, developed a unique ascetic and mystical approach to Christianity which has been a major influence on all subsequent Christian history and continues to shape Christian practice, belief, and culture today.

The roots of Christian monasticism, a dedication to the practices of ascetic struggle and constant prayer coupled with a rejection of normal social expectations like marriage and family life, reach back to the faith’s earliest days and even beyond. Judaism, from which Christianity emerged as a new religion, already possessed monastic traditions “like the Essenes or the group at Qumran from which the Dead Sea Scrolls come, or the Therapeutae of Egypt described by Philo of Alexandria.”4 It is not to be overlooked that the latter monastic group was specifically located in Egypt, near Alexandria, the same geographic location in which Christian monasticism would first spring up in its fullest form.

In writings that would later become part of the New Testament, the apostle Paul, writing in the middle of the first century, counseled widows, virgins, and unmarried men to remain unmarried and to use the freedom this afforded them to serve and worship God.5 Bart D. Ehrman, a scholar and professor of early Christian writings, suggests “it may have started with Jesus himself, who anticipated that this world and life as we know it would all come to an abrupt end when God appeared in judgment to overcome the forces of evil in control of this earth and set up his own Kingdom.”6 “If this world is soon to disappear, why be attached to its pleasures?” Ehrman goes on to ask, inviting us into the thought of the early Christians, and concluding, as many of them did, “It is better to prepare for the coming Kingdom, living simply and humbly in expectation of that final day.”7 This was certainly the thinking that led Anthony the Great, the earliest major figure of Christian monasticism, to take up the ascetic way of life.

According to the biography of Anthony written by Athanasius of Alexandria, an influential fourth century bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, Anthony entered into a church one day, “and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, ‘If thou wouldest be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor; and come follow Me and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.’”8 Antony, so Athanasius relates, went out of the church immediately and gave away the entirety of the inheritance he had received from his parents, who had recently died, commended his young sister into the care of an order of Christian virgins in Alexandria, and sojourned to the wilderness to take up the life of a hermit and ascetic.

Though not the first to retreat into the deserts of Egypt, Anthony’s example gained such reverence and notoriety that he inspired thousands more to imitate him. After the legalization of Christianity by the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, in 313 and the elevation of Christianity from the status of a persecuted minority religion to that of one with official imperial favor throughout his reign, which lasted until his death in 337, and beyond, ever larger numbers of former pagans began to flock to the churches for conversion. Very often, perhaps more often than not, these conversions were halfhearted and for the purpose of attaining political, social, or economic gain, keeping up with the changing times and trying to remain with the “in-crowd,” rather than being inspired by any real adoption of or devotion to the tenants of Christianity.9 According to Michael A. Smith, a scholar of early Christianity and Baptist minister, this dramatic “growth in numbers was accompanied by a lowering of standards.”10 “The monks,” on the other hand, “aimed to live the Christian life to the full, and felt that continued residence in the ‘world’ hindered this. They tried to achieve a pure Christianity and a deep communion with God which they considered unattainable in the existing churches.”11 According to scholar and philosopher David Bentley Hart, “enthusiasm for the monastic life became so great that, as a famous quip put it, the desert had become a city.”12

One of the most incredible features of this new enthusiasm was the nature of the practices which so many flocked to the Egyptian deserts to engage in. According to Athanasius, Anthony

kept vigil to such an extent that he often continued the whole night without sleep; and this not once but often… He ate once a day, after sunset, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four. His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only… A rush mat served him to sleep upon, but for the most part he lay upon the bare ground.13

The monks who followed Anthony’s example sought to imitate his extreme asceticism. According to Smith, “the main routine of the hermit was prayer and meditation, supplemented by reading of the Bible. Fasting was also important and they attempted many other rigorous feats such as standing for hours while praying.”14 This “extreme deprivation taught self-mastery, and was itself a physical form of prayer.”15

In addition to continuing the typical Christian prayer practices, such as the recitation of psalms and liturgical Eucharistic rituals, however infrequently the monks were able to gather for the latter, the monks also developed a new form of prayer, to which they attributed especially great spiritual efficacy. This new method of prayer was first fully described by John Cassian, a European Christian who traveled to Egypt to speak with the monks there, in the late fourth century. In his Conferences, a record of interviews he conducted with some of the most renowned monks of Egypt, Cassian wrote that “every monk in his progress towards continual recollection of God, is accustomed to ponder” a short prayer, “ceaselessly, revolving it in his heart.”16 Though a variety of short prayers were used by the monks, the most commonly used in Cassian’s time in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, according to Cassian, was the opening verse of Psalm 70: “O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me.” The monks recited this and other short prayers like it continuously as they worked and ate, and even spoke, read, and slept. The purpose of the extreme ascetic practices, they said, was to train the body in order to make this continuous repetitious prayer possible, “for he cannot possibly keep his hold over it unless he has freed himself from all bodily cares and anxieties.”17

The final goal which the monks set before them was one of union with God via continuous and automatic prayer and recollection of him. In the words of Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, “Anthony – and others like him – sought the shape of his own soul, hoping to accept the terrors and ecstasies of direct and unremitting encounters with himself and, having mastered himself, to discover his relationship to the Infinite God.”18 This was, ultimately, the purpose behind the asceticism and constant prayer of the monks. John Cassian related that the monks believed that through these practices

our mind will reach that incorruptible prayer … [which is characterized by being] … not merely not engaged in gazing on any image, but is actually distinguished by the use of no words or utterances; but with the purpose of the mind all on fire, is produced through ecstasy of heart by some unaccountable keenness of spirit, and the mind being thus affected without the aid of the senses or any visible material pours it forth to God with groanings and sighs that cannot be uttered.19

One of the stories of the Desert Fathers, recorded in one of the several collections of the sayings and doings of the early Egyptian monks which made very popular reading throughout the Middle Ages, records an even more vivid description of the spiritual goal the monks set forth for themselves. According to the dramatic short story,

Abba20 Lot went to Abba Joseph and said, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?’ Then the hermit stood up and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten flames of fire, and he said, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’21

The effect that this vibrant new Christian spirituality, intensely ascetic and mystical, had upon the popular consciousness, faith, and practice of Christians of later generations cannot be overstated. The Egyptian monks provided inspiration to men like Benedict of Nursia, whose Rule, based in large part on the ways of the Desert Fathers as recorded in the collections of their sayings and in the writings of John Cassian, became the standard monastic discipline in Western Europe through the Middle Ages and beyond.22

Their influence extended well beyond the cloister as well. Their technique of repetitious prayer gave birth to the Rosary and the Jesus Prayer,23 popular extra-liturgical devotional practices in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity respectively, both involving the repetition of short prayers whose number is tracked by counting on a set of beads, in the case of the former, or knots in a rope, in the case of the latter.24 In addition to this outward introduction of new practices into the repertoire of Christian spirituality, the Desert Fathers also had a remarkable impact on Christianity’s core, centering the goal of the Christian life in inner prayer, stillness, and mystical union with God.25 This emphasis on the mystical side of Christianity had a great impact on such influential Christian mystics as Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, George Fox, Seraphim of Sarov, and Thomas Merton; in fact, the mystical tradition of which these and dozens of others were a part and the monastic tradition of which all but one of these was a part would not have existed at all had it not been for the influence of the Desert Fathers.

In addition to their impact on Christian spirituality, the Desert Fathers also had a significant impact on European popular culture throughout the Middle Ages and later times. According to Benedicta Ward, herself a Christian nun in the Anglican tradition, “they have inspired poetry, drama, opera and art as well as withdrawal into solitude and prayer.”26 Whereas the first several centuries of Christians had found both inspiration and entertainment in the accounts of the deaths of the martyrs, such as the famous account of The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, perhaps written by the African Christian apologist Tertullian in the early third century, after the legalization of Christianity and the end of the age of the martyrs, the sayings and hagiographies of the Desert Fathers and other monastic saints who followed in their footsteps became standard Christian literary fare.27 Throughout the Middle Ages, the sayings and lives of the great monastic saints were popular Christian literature. “The first and most influential of such biographies” was, according to scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, “Athanasius’s Life of Saint Anthony,” the original fourth century account of the original Desert Father.28

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the place of the Desert Fathers in more recent European popular culture is the 1647 painting of The Temptation of St. Anthony by the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger.29 Though Teniers’ painting is one of the most famous, this same scene has also been depicted by such great artists as Fra Angelico, Hieronymous Bosch, Michelangelo, and Salvador Dalí. The Temptation of St. Anthony also became the title and subject of a novel by the famous author Gustave Flaubert and, more recently, an opera, based upon Flaubert’s book, by Bernice Johnson Reagon.30

The Egyptian monks and their brand of Christian spirituality have also shown up in some rather surprising places in Western popular culture. One very recent example is the 1961 novel Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, the author most famous for writing The Catcher in the Rye.31 In the novel, Franny, one of the title characters, carries around a copy of the 19th century anonymously written Russian book The Way of a Pilgrim, a story of a wanderer who travels throughout Russia reading and discussing the writings of the Desert Fathers and practicing their method of repetitive prayer;32 Franny also reveals that she herself prays the Jesus Prayer in a search for mystical experiences and spiritual enlightenment.

The Desert Fathers also had a number of unintended and unexpected effects on the subsequent developments of Christian theology. The most significant of these indirect consequences of the early Egyptian monks’ pioneering ways may be the conversion to Christianity of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important and influential Christian thinkers in all of Christian history, and himself a fellow African. Augustine, whose theology would later become the standard understanding of the Christian faith for the majority of Christians, originally struggled with acceptance of Christianity, wavering in his decision to join the Church. He was deeply impressed, however, by the example of Anthony. He relates his own reaction to first hearing about Anthony in his Confessions, writing as if speaking to God that “we were amazed, hearing Thy wonderful works most fully manifested in times so recent, and almost in our own, wrought in the truth faith and the Catholic Church.”33 Later, in deep emotional turbulence over his indecision in his religious beliefs, he recalled the example of Anthony. According to Augustine,

I had heard of Anthony, that, accidentally coming in whilst the gospel was being read, he received the admonition as if what was read were addressed to him, “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” And by such oracle was he forthwith converted unto Thee. So quickly I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I put down the volume of the apostles, when I rose thence. I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell.34

The passage which Augustine opened up to and read, Romans 13:13-14,35 struck him deeply and finally convinced him to convert to Christianity. The Desert Fathers, then, were indirectly responsible for inspiring one of the most important figures in Christian history to become a Christian in the first place.

The Desert Fathers also served the world indirectly by creating a system which would ultimately save European literature, heritage, and culture from destruction. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, the monasteries of Europe became repositories of learning, preserving art, literature, and the art of literacy through a period of rapid and dramatic European cultural decline and rampant warfare.36 It was because of the monastics in Europe, part of that tradition founded by their forerunners in Africa, that Europe was able to save the Classical heritage of the Romans and Greeks from being destroyed.

The Desert Fathers were a ragtag group of men and women who came from a variety of backgrounds and had a diversity of characteristics and personalities, as can easily be seen from the titles attached to the names of many of them, such as John “the Dwarf,” Moses “the Strong” (also known as Moses “the Robber” and Moses “the Black”), and Paul “the Hermit.” Some, like Moses, had been outlaws before venturing into the monastic life in the desert, others, like Abba Arsenius, had been educated men of the Roman upper classes, others, like Pachomius, had been soldiers and civil servants, and still others, like Anthony the Great, had been peasants and farmers. As diverse a group as they were, what they all had in common was that they retreated into the deserts of southern Egypt in a search for a more intimate and personal relationship with their God and, in so doing, pioneered a new Christian way of life, one that would spread out through and from Africa and conquer the whole of the Christian world.

The Christian monastic, mystical, spiritual, and devotional traditions of today all trace their lineage back directly to these men and women in the deserts of Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries. As Christianity continues to dwindle in numbers in Europe, with which continent it has come to be associated in the modern mind, and rises in prominence and numbers in other places in the world, especially Africa, it is in fact not going somewhere new but returning home.

1 Philip Jenkins, “Believing in the Global South,” First Things, December, 2006, accessed 11 November 2011, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/believing-in-the-global-south-17.

4 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1986), 176.

5 For instance, 1 Corinthians 7.

6 Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 44.

7 Ibid., 45.

8 Athanasius, “Life of Antony,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4: Athanasius: Selected Works and Letters, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004), 196.

9 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 113-4.

10 Michael A. Smith, “Christian Ascetics and Monks,” in Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Herts: Lion Publishing, 1977), 205.

11 Ibid.

13 Athanasius, 197-8.

14 Smith, 205.

15 Frederica Matthewes-Green, The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2009), 4.

16 John Cassian, “The Conferences,” part 10, chapter 10, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11: Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 405.

17 Ibid.

18 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 82.

19 John Cassian, 408.

20 “Abba” is the word in many Semitic languages for “father.” It is still used by most Middle Eastern Christians as a form of address for their priests and monks and is the origin of the English word “abbot,” used for the head of male monasteries.

21 Benedicta Ward, tr., The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 131.

22 Ibid., xx.

23 “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

24 Matthewes-Green, 5.

25 Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 122.

26 Ward, xxii.

28 Ibid., 135.

29 Hart, 58.

30 Lydia Mann, “Toshi Reagon: Music for Your Life: Temptation of St. Anthony” (2011) http://www.toshireagon.com/parisTemptation.shtml (accessed 12 November 2011).

31 J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (New York: Back Bay Books, 2001).

32 Helen Bacovcin, tr., The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

33 Augustine, “The Confessions of St. Augustin,” Book 8, Paragraph 14, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1: The Confessions and Letters of Augustine, with a Sketch of his Life and Work, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 122.

34 Augustine, Book 8, Paragraph 29, 127.

35 As quoted by Augustine in his Confessions, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

36 Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), 159.


Athanasius of Alexandria. “Life of Antony.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4: Athanasius: Selected Works and Letters. Editors Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004.

Augustine of Hippo. “The Confessions of St. Augustin.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1: The Confessions and Letters of Augustine, with a Sketch of his Life and Work. Editors Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Bacovcin, Helen, translator. The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

Cassian, John. “The Conferences.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11: Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian. Editors Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. New York: Dorset Press, 1986.

Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Jenkins, Philip. “Believing in the Global South.” First Things. December, 2006. Accessed 11 November 2011. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/believing-in-the-global-south-17.

Mann, Lydia. “Toshi Reagon: Music for Your Life: Temptation of St. Anthony” (2011) http://www.toshireagon.com/parisTemptation.shtml (accessed 12 November 2011).

Matthewes-Green, Frederica. The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2009.

Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. New York: Back Bay Books, 2001.

Smith, Michael A. “Christian Ascetics and Monks.” In Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity. Editor Tim Dowley. Herts: Lion Publishing, 1977.

Ward, Benedicta, translator. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Ware, Bishop Kallistos. The Orthodox Way. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995.

The Conversion of Kievan Rus’

The decision of St. Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, to convert both himself and his people to Orthodox Christianity in 988 is arguably the most important event in the history of Russia and one of the most important in the history of Christianity. Vladimir’s conversion, ostensibly the result of an exhaustive search for truth and a prolonged deliberation, altered the course of the history of Russia by fundamentally metamorphosing the culture of the East Slavs. In so doing, it also significantly affected the course of Christianity’s history in a number of important ways.

Early in his life and reign as Grand Prince, Vladimir was, in the words of historian Bernard Pares, “a savage and zealous heathen” who “began his reign with an orgy of paganism,” building statues of and temples to pagan gods throughout Kiev and ordering lavish pagan festivals.1 In addition to his devotion to the pagan deities, his appetite for cruelty and for worldly pleasures was insatiable. According to John Julius Norwich, he “killed his own brother and … boasted at least four wives and 800 concubines: a fact which in no way discouraged him from creating havoc among the matrons and maidens of any town he happened to visit.”2

What caused Vladimir to abandon the Slavic paganism he passionately practiced early in his reign in favor of a very different faith is a matter of debate among historians. Pares locates the primary impetus in a particular incident not long after Vladimir’s accession. To celebrate his triumph, Vladimir ordered the sacrifice of nearly a thousand people to the pagan gods. One victim chosen as a sacrifice was the son of a boyar, a member of the Kievan aristocracy, who had converted to Christianity. The child’s father vehemently protested and refused to hand over his child to be sacrificed, mocking and deriding the pagan gods. The offended pagan crowd responded by killing both the boyar and his son in an angry frenzy. After witnessing this, according to Pares, “Vladimir himself came to be convinced of the need of choosing a new faith.”3

Whether or not it was indeed this particular event that prompted Vladimir to search for another faith, the story does contain some clues as to what was going on in Vladimir’s mind. Kiev stood at the crossroads of a variety of nations which had adopted various forms of ethical monotheism, including the Judaism of the Kazars, the Roman Catholic Christianity of the Poles and the Germans, the Islam of the Volga Bulgars, and the Orthodox Christianity of Byzantium. Just as with other pagan religious systems which had disappeared before it, Slavic paganism, as a loose set of semi-mystical superstitions and coarse rituals with no developed theological, moral, or philosophical system, could not long survive under the pressure of these more highly-developed ideas. Vladimir seems to have recognized this and saw the need for a new direction for his people.

Whatever the impetus, in 987 Vladimir set out earnestly on a search for “a respectable religion” “for himself and for his people.”4 In addition to inviting missionaries to his court to plead their case, according to the famous account of the Russian Primary Chronicle, he also sent out emissaries to the nations around Kiev to witness their religious practices and investigate their beliefs. In the course of their research, Vladimir and his agents found reasons to reject each faith about which they heard, except for one.
Vladimir immediately rejected the Jews as a stateless people, concluding that their loss of their homeland meant they had been abandoned by God. He found the Muslim bans on pork and alcoholic beverages objectionable, as well as the Islamic practice of circumcision. In describing their religious rituals in the mosques, Vladimir’s emissaries said that the Muslim at prayer “bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench.”5 They concluded, “their religion is not good.” After visiting the Bulgars, the emissaries continued on to observe the Roman Catholic religious practices of the Germans. While there, the emissaries reported, they “saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there.” Finally, they traveled to Constantinople where they attended the Divine Liturgy with the Byzantine emperor. While there, they told Vladimir,

we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.6

Though Vladimir responded favorably to his emissaries’ impressions, he continued to wait to accept baptism.

The Russian Primary Chronicle seems to record some hesitation or perhaps indecision on Vladimir’s part following the reports of his emissaries. On three separate occasions over the succeeding year, the Primary Chronicle records, Vladimir agreed to accept Christianity contingent upon some desired event. During the siege to take the city of Cherson, he prayed that if he were granted victory he would be baptized. Later, in a dialogue with the Byzantine emperor, he agreed with him to be baptized if the emperor would give his sister, Princess Anna, to be Vladimir’s wife. And yet again, after the arrival of the Byzantine princess, he stated that he would finally believe in the God of the Orthodox Christians if his baptism cured him of a disease of the eyes from which he had begun to suffer. All three requests were granted and Vladimir converted to Christianity.

When he did finally accept baptism and the Christian faith, there can be little doubt that he did so sincerely and that he practiced his new faith with at least as much zeal as he had formerly indulged in paganism. After his own baptism, he sent out the priests who had accompanied Princess Anna to “immediately set about proselytizing and converting towns and villages en masse.”7 He also knocked down and destroyed the numerous pagan idols he had erected early in his reign, replacing them with “monasteries and a great many churches, some of them quite magnificent.”8

The remarkable change in Vladimir’s character following his acceptance of Christianity is also noteworthy. He renounced “the previous wives and the concubines,” taking Princess Anna as his only wife, and “henceforth he was to spend his time supervising conversions, standing godfather at baptisms and building churches and monasteries wherever he went.”9 According to David Bentley Hart, he also

built schools, hospitals, almshouses and orphanages; he established ecclesiastical courts and monastic shelters for the aged and infirm; he instituted laws designed to protect the weak against the powerful; and he came to be known as a friend of the poor, a just and gentle ruler and a fervent champion of the faith.10

According to Timothy (now Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware, “nowhere else in medieval Europe were there such highly organized ‘social services’ as in tenth-century Kiev.”11

The conversion of Vladimir and his subjects also prompted what can only be called the first flowering of knowledge, culture, and the arts among the Slavs. As the historian Fr. George Florovsky, himself a Russian Orthodox priest, pointed out, “Christianization was the awakening of the Russian spirit.”12 Vladimir “devoted himself quite earnestly to creating a Christian Kievan culture on the Byzantine civic model.”13 In addition to building numerous churches and importing the Byzantine iconographic tradition, according to the Primary Chronicle, immediately after ordering his people to be baptized, “he took the children of the best families, and sent them to schools for instruction in book learning.”14 The results of this “book learning” as well as its Christian inspiration are apparent in the archaeological record; the oldest surviving manuscripts in Church Slavonic, the language of the period of Kievan Rus’, both date from shortly after the time of Vladimir and both consist of portions of the Bible.15 As historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “Kievan written literature … developed in close association with the conversion to Christianity.”16

Riasanovsky and Steinberg also claim, however, that “theology and philosophy found little ground on which to grow in Kievan Rus and produced no major fruits. In fact, Kievan religious writings in general closely followed their Byzantine originals and made a minimal independent contribution to the Christian heritage.”17 On the contrary, according to historian Jaroslav Pelikan, though “at first” Russian “religious culture … continued to be heavily dependent upon Byzantium,” ultimately “something new came into existence when Byzantine Christianity was exported to Russia.”18 Just as with Russian architectural developments, which “follow[ed] their Byzantine models in their basic form” but developed uniquely Russian traits from a very early point and more over time,19 Russian theology and philosophy relied upon its Byzantine predecessors, but developed into something new to the history of Christianity and with a uniquely Russian character. This indigenous Russian Christianity, initiated by, as he is remembered by Russian Christians to this day, St. Vladimir the Great, continued to thrive for many centuries afterward and to, in turn, exert its own influence on other Christian cultures in the same way that Byzantium had influenced it during its own infancy. Vladimir, in a search for faith, had created a new, powerful, and perennially influential culture.


1 Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 30. 

2 John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 208.

3 Pares, 31.

4 Norwich, 208.

5 Russian Primary Chronicle, year 6495 (987), tr. Samuel H. Cross, University of Kansas, http://web.ku.edu/~russcult/culture/handouts/chronicle_all.html (accessed 10 February 2012).

6 Ibid.

7 Norwich, 210-1.

9 Norwich, 211.

10 Hart, 132.

11 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: New Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 78-9.

12 George Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology (Paris: St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute, 1937), 4.

13 Hart, 132.

14 Russian Primary Chronicle, year 6496 (988).

15 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 80.

16 Ibid., 50.

17 Ibid., 47.

19 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 52-3.


Florovsky, George. Ways of Russian Theology. Paris: St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute, 1937.

Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Russian Primary Chronicle. Translator Samuel H. Cross. University of Kansas. http://web.ku.edu/~russcult/culture/handouts/chronicle_all.html (accessed 10 February 2012).

Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church: New Edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.