“The whole heart is a world, and that world is a temple. Every step and every movement is mysterious, every procession is a rite, a word, or a letter in a word, of the great poem which God reads, which is man’s life.” — Stephen Graham
Life – it is a journey that finds its heart and meaning not substantially in frolic and detour, but in pilgrimage of body or soul to the places of the past that inform our present and can guide our future. That it is not only good practice, but a matter of necessity, is a bold assertion with which many may disagree. I hold to it nonetheless.
Recently, I was at the small Orthodox Church in Middlebrook, Virginia, near the cabin, and a woman of the church told me about a recent addition to the parish’s library collection. In fact, she went to the library, brought the book to me, and had me sign it out. It looked interesting enough – the story of a man who traveled with Russian pilgrims to Jerusalem in the early 20th century. I flipped through it, looked at the interesting photographs of the writer’s travels, and set it aside.
In between preparing to teach class sessions this semester, I picked up the book and began to read it. Interestingly, “With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem” was written by a Russian-speaking English Christian who was completely comfortable among common Russians. Stephen Graham told the Russian peasants that he was Orthodox when he boarded the steamer in the port of Constantinople, and the peasants welcomed him and believed him to be one of their own as they set off for Jerusalem.
Immediately I was struck with the realization that I was reading a travel diary from a previous age. For those who have had particular – or perhaps peculiar – conversations with me, you know that I subscribe to a theory that humanity exists in terms of significant Ages of varying length, and that 1913 seems an appropriate point at which to mark the last year of a prior Age. While there are transitions over periods of years, of course, there are also distinct markers based in great discoveries or cataclysmic events. Life for humanity took a markedly new course after 1913 – in ways both miraculously good and fearfully bad. As I was reading the Prologue to “Pilgrims,” I was amazed to hear a voice from the past chronicling lives lived in ways different from today and who conceived of a future world that would continue on that same path, not realizing the dramatic change that was to come. I quickly flipped to the beginning to find the copyright date: “1913.”
Graham found in his Russian pilgrims heading to Jerusalem something that he could not find in his homeland or among his own people.
That it should be with the Russian peasants that I came to Jerusalem is also symbolically true. In the larger pilgrimage of life it is with these simple people that I have been journeying. It was the wish of the heart, the genius of seeking, that taught me to seek Jerusalem through Russia, that brought me to her simple people living in the great open spaces, lighting their candles in the little cottages and temples. At Jerusalem…I stood next to rich tourists from my own land; they hadn’t the remotest idea that I was other than a Russian peasant, and I thought, “What luck that I didn’t come with these!” But really it was not luck, but destiny.
In seeking or finding Jerusalem, we do not mean necessarily the physical city, although there is no reason why the physical can not also present the spiritual. In journeying to the Jerusalem of our hearts, what we seek is connection, communion, with the merger of this physical world in which our lives play out, and the spiritual dimension of perpetual Creation and interaction – the manifestation of which we sometimes only glimpse. As unique as each person is, are the innumerable manifestations of our pilgrimages to reach Jerusalem. The imagery of a large mass of people on the road demonstrates that we take this path with others by our side. But a snapshot of time belies the reality that there are those who will join us or depart from us on the way; some will lag behind, some will move on ahead, and others will stay by our side no matter the difficulties of the road.
Just as the mass of pilgrims on the road is a collection of distinct individuals into a mass so, too, does humanity operate as nations, civilizations, and the world. That each – from individual to mankind as a whole – plays a role on this journey can not be denied.
It is hard for any one to realise himself and the appalling mystery of his steps upon the world. No matter how truly one describes the others who are journeying to Jerusalem, it is always, nevertheless, only one person who is journeying. …. I remember how, when night came down upon the steamer, … [t]he passengers would be settling down for the night. [B]ut up in the stern would be two hundred Russian men and women with gleaming candles. In the midst of them a peasant would be reading, his deep voice resonant in a general silence, “Glory to Thee, God-chosen Mother, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven and earth, glory to Thee!” two hundred voices responding “Glory to Thee!” Then the reader again, and after him the chorus, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!!” …. At last the singing dies away, the band disperses, and there is silence; nought is heard but the pounding of the engines and the wind in the cordage. It may be four o’clock in the morning you get up to take a look at the sea once more; in the east the stars are turning pale, the silent boat goes forward with the regularity of a beating heart, and you feel that every one is asleep. Yet look down into the mysterious hold, go down the ladder, and step over sleepers; away in the dark corners … you see little pictures of Jesus are hung up and candles burn before them, and the unsleeping pilgrim kneels with his bare white brow on the dark floor. In a sense it is Russia that is kneeling; in a sense it is you and I and every one.
That our collective history illuminates the roles played in the past so that we can understand our present and prepare for our future should be understood as a great treasury for humanity. Returning to the turning of the Age almost 100 years ago, one can not overstate the role that Russia was playing in the early 20th century in terms of both international politics and in worldwide Christianity. Once in Jerusalem, our pilgrim noted that “[e]very year this chorus of Russia goes up to God at the shrines in Jerusalem,” and he believed that “it will be repeated year after year into the centuries, or until the peasantry is no more.” What the man on his journey and the Russian peasant pilgrims could not know is what was coming in a few short years that would end such pilgrimages and change not only Russia, but the entire world. Shock waves would spread from St. Petersburg and Moscow that, when combined with the after-effects of The Great War and scientific technological innovation, would transform mankind and life as we know it. One can wonder at the words of those prayers from a century ago.
In a striking precursor of what was actually to come, our pilgrim tells the story of the gospels of the monk and the ship’s carpenter (the ship’s crew being Russian). Father Yevgeny preached to the Russian pilgrims on board the steamer a gospel of simplicity and to avoid the seducing philosophies of the West that were making their ways into Russia. He argued that there was no need for the new ideas and that such ideas will be destructive.
And all the while the monk was preaching this true-blue sermon of Russian conservatism up above, the ship’s carpenter was preaching red-hot social democracy below. …. The crew might have been thought to be revolutionary conspirators to judge by their serious conversation. They never missed a chance to propagandise among the peasants, trying to engender hate of the Tsar and disbelief in the Church. ….
Then a peasant would answer: “I don’t know. You speak too fast. It seems God didn’t make man only to work and earn money, like a horse or a cow. And did not God live and die in the land that we are going to? …. It is the places that we are going to, not the people. …. The priests in Russia often oppress us, are often very drunk and very evil. But that doesn’t make God less holy. ….”
The peasants were of too antique a type to be good ground for propagandism. They were believers. ….
No, it was the gospel of the monk and not that of the carpenter that prevailed. The monk’s gospel, be it said, is the only one allowed to be heard effectively among the Russian peasantry. And only on board ship, far from the police, could such socialistic artillery as that of the ship’s carpenter be brought to bear on the peasants: if such were allowed in Russia among the people already infected with such ideas, the day of the success of social democracy [meaning: “the programme of the Social Democratic Party, the Russian revolutionaries”] would be strangely hastened.
It was the monk’s gospel that carried that day among the pilgrims, true believers, who did not know that calamity was waiting in the very near future. And, in fact, it was the carpenter’s gospel that would be strangely hastened in just a few short years and would certainly have its day – with a terrible vengeance.
In the years leading up to the Great War, the ending of which is how Americans mark Veterans’ Day each year, the world was racing toward some undefined mark. Notions of “destiny” were firmly embedded in the policies of European empires, while liberal democratic and underground socialist revolutionary activity swirled. For Russia, the largest nation on earth, the theories embedded in autocracy and Orthodox Christianity, combined with a blindness to the changes taking place in humanity, led to the notion of a manifest destiny of sorts that failed to take the individual into account.
The English author J.R.R. Tolkien in his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy emphasized the importance of the mythological story for mankind, and in particular the need for it in Christendom. In “Return of the King,” when the destiny of man hangs in the balance, the great city in the East, Minas Tirith, withstands the siege only after help comes from the West. In our history, the great capital of the Christian empire, Constantinople, fell in 1453 after a long and valiant defense while awaiting help from the West, which never came. This loss, which gave rise to the idea of Moscow as the “Third Rome,” is never far from the minds of Orthodox Christians, and certainly was in the Tsar Nicholas II’s mind. Occupied by a weakening Ottoman Empire, the liberation of the great city of Constantinople (also known to Russians as “Tsargrad” – the City of the King) became a matter of great interest to the Tsar.
During the period of the author’s pilgrimage, the Turko-Italian war broke out, a precursor to the Great War. For Europe, this was a demonstration of the weakness of the Ottomans and was an opportunity to test out new technology in weaponry. For Russia, it was a demonstration that Constantinople may soon be within their grasp. As one Russian peasant said, “The Turks are an impudent people, thank God the are being beaten!” But the mindset went even further, and was in part prophetic:
Every one was talking about the war. A monk expressed the opinion to me that there was only one reason for the Turkish-Italian war—the nations were beginning to fall upon one another without cause, in anticipation of the Last Judgment. This year Tsargrad (Constantinople) would fall, as by prediction, Easter and the Feast of the Annunciation coinciding this year; next year by the Dead Sea the dreadful Judgment would take place. I thought how triumphant he would be when the coming eclipse of the sun took place and what the pilgrims would think.
Again, no one could see what was really coming, although nations would fall upon one another without cause. Russia was on the upswing across the board economically. Religiously, it saw itself as the protector and leader of the True Faith. In America, it was tasked with firmly establishing, uniting, and administering the Orthodox Faith. In the Holy Land, at Jerusalem, the Imperial Palestine Society established by Grand Duchess Elizabeth (now St. Elizabeth the Newmartyr) was having a tremendous impact on the Russian presence in what is now modern-day Israel. As our pilgrim stated:
If the Russian nation continues of the upgrade in the Powers of Europe the Sepulchre may fall into their hands, and indeed all the power of ministration at the shrines of Palestine. From the point of view of Christianity such a change would benefit every one.
And the worldly powers conspired to make this happen. The Triple Entente ratified secret agreements during the Great War for the division of the Ottoman Empire, which would include Russian control of Constantinople. When France proposed that it gain control of Syria, to include Palestine, Russia balked if that were to include the Holy Places.
But despite all of the signs that the war of 1914 would be one where Russia would fulfill its manifest destiny as the liberator and protector of Eastern Christendom, it was not to be. Instead, Russia’s participation in the Great War (despite warnings from both prophetic monks and the troubled soul Rasputin) gave birth to great evil and a new great enemy of Eastern Christianity – militant atheistic communism. The systems of the world are shaken to their core in the few short years after 1914. It is this cataclysm that gave rise to likely the most quoted poem in modern history – “The Second Coming” written by William Butler Yeats in 1919. In key phrases we see that, despite the conventional wisdom of the preceding day and the observations of our pilgrim, the poet sees that the Age has turned.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
What many did not see was that from within the edifices of power and authority were crumbling. They did not see that the world was changing. Organization, whether it was government or religion, became more important than the souls of those to whom it was to minister or even the souls that composed the structures of society. Communion between people and the structure had been lost. As a poem in “Pilgrims” recounted:
In the days of old
Cross of wood and bishop of gold
But now they have altered that law so good
To cross of gold and bishop of wood.
The result of the decay at the interior of human structures would be that throughout the 20th century strange philosophies and vicious totalitarianism would sweep in to fill the void and bring us the most horrific treatment of man by man the world has ever seen, along with an unimagined escalation in the development of the means of destruction. Remarkably, since 1990, the change in Russia has been equally dramatic in the direction of trying to right the wrongs of the early 20th century. In fact, I noticed yesterday that the cover story of the current edition of the magazine “Russian Life” is “On the March: the Orthodox Church revives mass pilgrimages.” Journeys never cease.
The journey is impacted in a very real way by the powers and organizations of mankind – but it is not dependent on them. The pilgrimage of the heart is to seek our Jerusalem, one with another; it is not to fear the rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. It is to seek and hope in the glory of Easter, the belief that life anew is Truth, despite all of the powers of the world. Our pilgrim was with Fr. Yevgeny at Easter of that year. Fr. Yevgeny saw a dry and weary land, an Easter that was not gloriously in bloom, but one that had left its splendour far behind in the distant past. Perhaps Fr. Yevgeny saw a foreshadow of the Yeats’ rough beast. Our pilgrim, however, saw it differently.
When the sun went down in majesty on Easter eve, as if answering the behest, “Father, glorify Thy Name,” there came a whisper to my ears, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” Easter eve is a sunset, but Easter morning is a celestial sunrise.
“The story was fresh, fresh,” said Yevgeny, turning over the leaves of St. John dreamily, “but now it is dry, dry as a mummy. Once it was real; we must not forget that.”
For me, however, it was fresh and real now, for in myself the first pilgrim had just reached the City.
For this man, unknowing that the world was set on a precipice from which it was about to come hurtling down, he was on a pilgrimage that transcended even the possibility of such great concerns of this world. Our pilgrim mentions that there was talk on board the ship of a “mysterious passenger” – the type of rumour not uncommon among the Russian peasantry. Once in Jerusalem, all through Holy Week and Easter, the man thought “’There is a mysterious pilgrim in Jerusalem.’ When I knelt at the Life-giving Tomb I thought once more, ‘There is a mysterious pilgrim in Jerusalem, there is myself….’” He spoke the truth; we are all mysterious pilgrims as unique aspects of Creation and as part of the creative whole.
Jerusalem is bewildering. Tourists are tired out in three days. Indeed, it is scarcely worth while going there to be a looker-on. Unless one live the life, Jerusalem can mean little or nothing. And even living the life, it is necessary to have the placid, receptive soul—the open house of the soul wishing to be furnished.
We find Jesus really when we cease looking at Jerusalem and allow the gospel to look into us; when we cease gazing questioningly at Jerusalem the earthly, and realise in ourselves Jerusalem the golden; when in the pure mirror of the soul is reflected the living story of Christ. ….
The whole heart is a world, and that world is a temple. Every step and every movement is mysterious, every procession is a rite, a word, or a letter in a word, of the great poem which God reads, which is man’s life.
“Unless one live the life…. when we cease gazing questioningly at Jerusalem the earthly and realise in ourselves Jerusalem the golden….” It is then that the journey to Jerusalem will be understood as the journey to the heart and the merger of the streams of the physical creation and the spiritual Creator, into a mighty river flowing through and beyond time, carrying with it the Ages of Man until even those are transcended and transformed through the love of the Timeless Other.
The whisper can still be heard, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” It is being glorified again. Take care and journey well.
Rdr. Timothy, a sinner.