MYSTICISM: The Mysticism Of Human Communion by Mother Maria Skobtsova

The Mysticism Of Human Communion by Mother Maria Skobtsova

The most doubtful, disputable, and satisfying thing about all the concepts of “Christianity turned toward the world,” “social Christianity,” and similar trends that have been put forward in modern times, is their secondary character, their incommensurability with the idea of Christian life understood as communion with God.  Something of the “second sort,” applied, appended, is not bad in itself, but is also not necessary – and in any case cannot exhaust the fullness of Christian life.  Primary Christianity, on the other hand, exhausts everything, because it is oriented toward authentic spiritual life, that is, toward communion with God.  In this characterization there is undoubtedly a portion of truth, because all the trends of social Christianity known to us are based on a certain rationalistic humanism, apply only the principle of Christian morality to “this world,” and do not seek a spiritual and mystical basis for their constructions.

To make social Christianity not only Christian-like but truly Christian, it is necessary to find one more dimension for it, to bring it out of flat soulfulness and two-dimensional moralism into the depths of multi-dimensional spirituality.   To substantiate it mystically and spiritually.  It seems to me that this coincides precisely with what Orthodoxy – which has not yet spoken in this area – can and must say; it will give greater depth to Catholic and Protestant attempts to turn a Christian face to the world.


An extraordinary similarity of extremes can be observed in regard to the question of the world.  On the one hand, worldly people are essentially separated from the world by an impenetrable wall.  However much they give themselves to the joys of the world, whatever bustle they live in, there is always an impassable abyss in their consciousness: “I” and the world, which serves me, amuses me, grieves me, wearies me, and so on.  The more egoistic a man is, that is, the more he belongs to the world, the more the world is some sort of inanimate comfort for him, or some sort of inanimate torture, to which his uniquely animate “I” is opposed.  If he loves the world, science, art, nature, family, friends, politics, it is with what may be called lustful love – “my family,” “my art,” “my nature,” “my politics.”  All this reveals, embodies, reflects, realizes a single excessive “I.”  In this relation to the world there exist insuperable, high walls that separate man from man, nature, and God.

We may boldly say that the most worldly man is the most separated and disconnected from the life of the world.  But in Christianity, where two God-given commandments – about the love of God and the love of man – should resound, we often run into the same separation from man and from the world.  It would seem that a Christian cannot say: “I love God, and therefore man is indifferent for me.”  The apostle John answers him severely: “Hypocrite, how can you love God whom you have not seen, if you scorn your brother who is near to you?”  But even if the Christian does not put it so crudely, still there is certain possibility of harming one’s love of man because of one’s love of God.  Love of God – that is the chief and only thing.  All the rest is just obedience, just a “job,” which in any case should not diminish the chief thing.  As a result, man has his own monastery – in his spirit, behind high white walls.  There he abides in the fullness and purity of his communion with God, and from there, by way of some sort of condescension, some sort of patronizing, he descends into the sinful and suffering world.  He fulfills his duty of obedience before it, a duty that has a very strict and precise boundary.  It must not disturb the inner rhythm of his life in God, a certain sacred comfort; it must not captivate him in the depths of his spirit, because in those depths abides the divine Holy of Holies.  Pity, love, work, responsibility for the human soul, willingness to sacrifice – these are all necessary elements of obedience, but one must know moderation in them.  They should not be allowed to overwhelm and disperse the spirit.  Compared to the chief thing, it is all not a deed but a job.  Otherwise, one might lose one’s “I,” scatter it through the world.  This “I” is, in a certain sense, opposed to the world.  And the world either simply lies in evil, or is the field where we exercise our virtues – in any case, it is outside the “I.”  Separation from the world occurs on different principles here than with worldly people, but it is no less complete for all that.  In this isolation of the “I” from the world, opposites meet.

Here we must add the reservation that there is, of course, work that can essentially be called a “job.”  When hermits wove mats and fashioned clay pots, it was a job.  When we peel potatoes, mend underwear, do the accounts, ride the subway, that is also a job.  But when the monks of old, by way of obedience, buried the dead, looked after lepers, preached to fallen women, denounced the unrighteous life, gave alms – that was not a job.  And when we act in our modern life, visiting the sick, feeding the unemployed, teaching children, keeping company with all kinds of human grief and failure, dealing with drunkards, criminals, madmen, the dejected, the gone-to-seed, with all the spiritual leprosy of our life, it is not a job and not only a tribute to obedience that has its limits within our chief endeavor – it is that very inner endeavor itself, an inseparable part of our main task.  The more we go out into the world, the more we give ourselves to the world, the less we are of the world, because what is of the world does not give itself to the world.


Let us try to substantiate this theologically, spiritually, and mystically.  The great and only first founder of worldly endeavor was Christ, the Son of God, who descended into the world, became incarnate in the world, totally, entirely, without holding any reserve, as it were, for his divinity.  Did he hold back his divinity and himself?  Was he in the world merely as the obedient son of the Father?

In his worldly obedience he emptied himself, and his emptying is the only example for our path.  God who became a child, God who fled into Egypt to escape Herod, God who sought friends and disciples in this world, God who wept from the depths of his spirit over Lazarus, who denounced the pharisees, who spoke of the fate of Jerusalem, who drove out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, who finally, and most importantly gave his flesh and blood as food for the world, lifted up his body on the cross between the two thieves – when and at what moment did his example teach us about inner walls that separate us from the world?  He was in the world with all his Godmanhood, not with some secondary properties.  He did not keep himself, he gave himself without stint.  “This is my body, which is broken for you” – shed to the end.  In the sacrament of the eucharist, Christ gave himself, his God-man’s body, to the world, or rather, he united the world with himself in the communion with his God-man’s body.  He made it into Godmanhood.  And it would sound almost blasphemous if he had wanted to isolate some inner, deep Christ who remained alien to this God-man’s sacrifice.  Christ’s love does not know how to measure and divide, does not know how to spare itself.  Neither did Christ teach the apostles to be sparing and cautious in love – and he could not have taught them that, because he included them in the communion of the eucharistic sacrifice, made them into the body of Christ – and thereby gave them up to be immolated for the world.  Here we need only learn and draw conclusions.  It might be said paradoxically that in the sense of giving himself to the world, Christ was the most worldly of all the sons of Adam.  But we already know that what is of the world does not give itself to the world.


I think that the fullest understanding of Christ’s giving himself to the world, creating the one body of Christ, Godmanhood, is contained in the Orthodox idea of sobornost.  And sobornost is not only some abstraction, on the one hand, nor is it, on the other hand, a higher reality having no inner connection with the individual human persons who constitute it: it is a higher reality because each of its members is a member of the body of Christ, full-grown and full-fledged, because he is that “soul” which is worth the whole world.  Each man, manifested to us from the moment of the first Old Testament revelations as the image of God, in Christ discloses still more strongly and concretely his connection with God.  He is indeed the image of God, the image of Christ, the icon of Christ.  Who, after that, can differentiate the worldly from the Heavenly in the human soul, who can tell where the image of God ends and the heaviness of human flesh begins!  In communing with the world in the person of each individual human being, we know that we are communing with the image of God, and, contemplating that image, we touch the archetype – we commune with God.

There is an authentic, and truly Orthodox, mysticism not only of communion with God, but also of communion with man.  And communion with man in this sense is simply another form of communion with God.  In communing with people we commune not only with like-minded people, friends, co-religionists, subordinates, superiors – not only, finally, with material for our exercises in obedience and love; we commune with Christ himself, and only a peculiar materialism with regard to Christ’s appearing and abiding in the world  can explain our inability to meet him within the bustle, in the very depth of the human fall.  Here indeed the point of the matter is not only the symbol of meeting with Christ – an act limited in time – but the reality of feeling our connection with the body of Christ, of being in Christ all the time, of associating ourselves indissolubly with him in his God-manly abiding in the world.  He foresaw our rationalistic and proud lack of faith when he prophesied that, to his accusation, people would ask in perplexity: “Lord, when did we not visit you in the hospital or in prison, when did we refuse you a cup of water?”  If they could believe that in every beggar and in every criminal Christ himself addresses us, they would treat people differently.  But the point is precisely that our communion with people passes mostly on the level of Earthly encounters and is deprived of the authentic mysticism that turns it into communion with God.  And we are given a perfectly real possibility in our communing in love with mankind, with the world, to feel ourselves in authentic communion with Christ.


And this makes perfectly clear what our relations to people, to their souls, to their deeds, to human destiny, to human history as a whole should be.  During a service the priest does not only cense the icons of the savior, the mother of God, and the saints.  He also censes the icon-people, the image of God in the people who are present.  And as they leave the church precincts, these people remain as much the images of God, worthy of being censed and venerated.  Our relations with people should be an authentic and profound veneration.

There are notions in Orthodoxy that attract our hearts but are not always clear to us, are not revealed to the end.  We are like it when the “churching” of life is discussed, but few people understand what it means.  Indeed, must we attend all the church services in order to “church” our life?  Or hang an icon in every room and burn an icon-lamp in front of it?  No, the churching of life is the sense of the whole world as one church, adorned with icons that should be venerated, that should be honored and loved, because these icons are true images of God that have the holiness of the living God upon them.

Just as fascinating, though enigmatic, for us is the expression “liturgy outside the church.”  The church liturgy and the words spoken in it give us the key for understanding this notion.  We hear: “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess….”  And further on: “Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee, on behalf of all and for all.”  These “others” whom we love with one mind in the church also work with us outside the church, rejoicing, suffering, living.  And those who are his and of him, offering unto him on behalf of all and for all, are indeed “all,” that is, all possible encounters on our way, all people sent to us by God.  The wall of the church did not separate some small flock from them all.  On the other hand, we believe that the eucharistic sacrament offers up the Lamb of God, the body of Christ, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.  And, being in communion with this sacrificial body, we ourselves become offered in sacrifice – “on behalf of all and for all.”  In this sense, the liturgy outside the church is our sacrificial ministry in the church of the world, adorned with living icons of God, our common ministry, an all-human sacrificial offering of love, the great act of our God-manly union, the united prayerful breath of our God-manly spirit.  In this liturgical communion with people, we partake of a communion with God, we really become one flock and one shepherd, one body, of which the inalienable head is Christ.

To clarify everything, we must make a few more reservations.  Only this approach to the world and to man makes it impossible to say that the world distracts us, that man devours our concentration with his bustle.  It is our own sinful distraction that distracts us and our own sinful bustle that devours our concentration.  We get from the world and from man what we count on getting from them.  We may get a disturbing neighbor in the same apartment, or an all-too-merry drinking companion, or a capricious and slow-witted student, or obnoxious ladies, or seedy old codgers, and so on, and relations with them will only weary us physically, annoy us inwardly, deaden us spiritually.  But, through Christ’s image in man, we may partake of the body of Christ.  If our approach to the world is correct and spiritual, we will not have only to give to it from our spiritual poverty, but we will receive infinitely more from the face of Christ that lives in it, from our communion with Christ, from the consciousness of being a part of Christ’s body.

And it seems to me that this mysticism of human communion is the only authentic basis for any external Christian activity, for social Christianity, which in this sense has not been born yet, for a Christianity turned toward the world, and so on.  Social endeavor should be just as much a liturgy outside the church as any communion with man in the name of Christ.  Otherwise, even if it is based on Christian morals, it will merely be Christian-like, essentially secondary.  Everything in the world can be Christian, but only if it is pervaded by the authentic awe of communion with God, which is also possible on the path of authentic communion with man.  But outside this chief thing, there is no authentic Christianity.

Such, it seems to me, are the difficult demands Christianity must place before all attempts at building life.


Having begun with what is biggest and most absolute, let us throw a bridge across to our everyday destiny, to each fact of our small, concrete lives – and they are emigrant lives, which means that we cannot really talk about any great perspectives.

However, each of us is given a destiny which is no whit smaller and no less tragic because it is given us in Paris and not in Moscow.  It was given each of us to be born, to love, to have friends, to thirst for creativity, to feel compassion, justice, a longing for eternity, and to each of us will be given death.  We stand before the truth of the Lord and want to fulfill its commands.

And the truth of the Lord tells us that the heavens cannot contain it, but it is contained in the manger in Bethlehem; that it creates and upholds the world, and falls under the weight of the cross on the way to Golgotha; that it is more than the universe, and at the same time does not scorn a cup of water offered by a compassionate hand.  The truth of the Lord abolishes the difference between the immense and the insignificant.  Let us try to build our small, our insignificant life in the same way as the Great Architect builds the planetary system of the immense universe.

People make a choice between the sorrowful face of Christ in the name of the joy of life.  He who rejects the sorrowful face of Christ in the name of the joys of life believes in those joys, but tragedy is born at the moment when he discovers that those joys are not joyful.  Forced, mechanized labor gives us no joy; entertainment, more or less monotonous, differing only in the degree to which it exhausts our nerves, gives us no joy; the whole of this bitter life gives us no joy.  Without Christ the world attains the maximum of bitterness, because it attains the maximum of meaninglessness.

Christianity is Paschal joy, Christianity is collaboration with God, Christianity is an obligation newly undertaken by mankind to cultivate the Lord’s paradise, once rejected in the fall; and in the thicket of this paradise, overgrown with the weeds of many centuries of sin and the thorns of our dry and loveless life, Christianity commands us to root up, plow, sow, weed, and harvest.

Authentic, God-manly, integral, sobornoe Christianity calls us in the Paschal song: “Let us embrace one another.”  In the liturgy we say, “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess….”  Let us love – meaning not only one mind, but also one activity, meaning a common life.

It is necessary to build our relations to man and to the world not on human and worldly laws, but within the revelation of the divine commandment.  To see in man the image of God and in the world God’s creation.  It is necessary to understand that Christianity demands of us not only the mysticism of communion with God, but also the mysticism of communion with man.

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