"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Asceticism in the Twilight of the Romanov Dynasty

Finding the proper place for asceticism has long been a challenge. Applied too harshly it quickly veers into a kind of crypto-gnostic self-loathing and disdain for the flesh; applied via heavy-handed social and political pressure, it quickly becomes a tool of abuse designed to inculcate a kind of escapist eschatology at the expense of pursuing earthly justice and reconciliation; applied too leniently or not at all, and Christians become flabby both physically and spiritually.

That tension is clearly at work in the last century of the Romanov dynasty in Russia, as a new book by Patrick Lally Michelson argues: Beyond the Monastery Walls: The Ascetic Revolution in Russian Orthodox Thought, 1814–1914 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), 288pp.

Here is the publisher's blurb:
During Russia's late imperial period, Orthodox churchmen, professionally trained theologians, and an array of social commentators sought to give meaning to Russian history and its supposed backwardness. Many found that meaning in asceticism. For some, ascetic religiosity prevented Russia from achieving its historical destiny. For others, it was the means by which the Russian people would realize the kingdom of God, thereby saving Holy Russia and the world from the satanic forces of the West.
Patrick Lally Michelson's intellectual history of asceticism in Russian Orthodox thought traces the development of these competing arguments from the early nineteenth century to the early months of World War I. He demonstrates that this discourse was an imaginative interpretation of lived Orthodoxy, primarily meant to satisfy the ideological needs of Russian thinkers and Orthodox intellectuals as they responded to the socioeconomic, political, and cultural challenges of modernity.
I noted one of Michelson's earlier works here.

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