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From the Notebooks

The Russian has always loved the Earth, venerating her black depths, the crops that spring from her lungs, and the resting home she gives at death. She's the Russian's embodiment of kindness and mercy in a land that has seen too much of these virtues' antitheses. The Russian's devotion to Mother Earth is so strong that the phrase “Cult of Mother Earth” is used to describe its fervor.

The Cult and Father Zossima

The fervor is beautifully illustrated in Dostoyevsky's Father Zossima, the Starets of Alyosha Karamazov's monastery in The Brothers Karamazov. Father Zossima was graphic in his love for Mother Earth. He urged his disciples to prostrate themselves on the earth, to kiss it tirelessly, to love it insatiably, to water it with tears of joy.

Fr. Zossima strongly felt the foundational assumption underlying the Cult of Mother Earth: There exists an unbreakable bond between the divine world, man, and creation. This bond creates an intimate link between each person and other creatures, as illustrated by Fr. Zossima in this anecdote:

A dying youth asked the birds to forgive him. That may sound absurd, but when you think of it, it makes sense. For everything is like the ocean, all things flow and are indirectly linked together, and if you push here, something will move at the other end of the world. . . Understand that everything is like the ocean. Then, consumed by eternal love, you will pray to the birds, too. In a state of fervor you will pray to them to forgive you your sins.

This unbreakable bond, Fr. Zossima taught, makes every man responsible for every man: “Every one of us is responsible for all men and for everything on earth, not only responsible through universal responsibility of mankind, but responsible personally–every man for all people and for each individual man who lives on earth. Such awareness is the crown of a monk's life and, indeed, the crown of any human life on earth.” He urged his disciples to make themselves “answerable for all men's sins. . . For as soon as a man sincerely accepts the idea that he is answerable for the sins of all men, he will recognize that that is, indeed, the truth, that he is answerable for everybody and everything.”

The Cult and Scholasticism

The Cult of Mother Earth's uniqueness as found in Fr. Zossima rests more in its passionate emotional fervor rather than its intellectual coherence. Western philosophy, especially Scholasticism, reached staid intellectual conclusions regarding the earth's sanctity and finality that parallel the emotional poetic conclusions of Fr. Zossima.

According to Scholastic philosophy, the earth is God's creation and therefore all things in the universe bear traces of divinity. This gives the world, in the words of Cardinal Newman, a sacramental character, making it a sacred world with a relation to God inscribed in its very being and in every law that rules its functioning.

The Scholastics also taught that the earth is imbued with finality, in the Aristotelian sense of having a final cause, an ultimate goal. Although we can never know exactly why God created, He must have created out of love. He wanted to create beings that rejoice in His glory, analogous to parents who, in unadulterated love, prepare a birthday party for their child solely to see the joy on the child's face. All things, accordingly, are directed toward the final cause of glorifying God. And the glorifying starts by appreciating His creation.

Man plays a particularly important role in this appreciation. As the only creature with reason and body, he alone is equipped to participate in God's creation, to increase God's earthly glory through his actions. For this reason, the Pseudo-Dionysius taught that there is nothing more divine in this world than to become a cooperator with God in His creation. And man cooperates with God in His creation by imitating God's motive for creating: Love. We love the animals and rocks because God made them; we particularly love other men because they are made by God in His image; we immensely love God because He first loved us and there is, ultimately, nothing else for us to do.

The result is a ternary structure–creation, man, God–all tied together. Just like the Russian Cult of Mother Earth, tied together in an unbreakable bond. Seen in this light, Father Zossima's words should be understood literally, and, depending on our emotional fervor, followed, like St. Francis, who had a loving relationship to everything. We should water the earth with tears of sadness in sorrow for our fellow man's sins and with tears of joy in celebration of creation. We should condemn ourselves when we sin, for our sins will reverberate throughout creation. We should not judge a person when he sins, for our earlier sins contributed to his sin.

The Cult and Marxism

The Cult of Mother Earth had been an enduring staple of Russian religious life for over one thousand years. But the Cult, at least at any visible level, came to an abrupt halt under Communism.

As an uncompromisingly atheistic system, Communism attempted to rob the world of all sacramental character, effectively ejecting God from the earth by denying any relevancy to transcendence. Marx, for instance, prohibited any discussion of first things, realizing that they ineluctably lead to God. In order to squelch them, Marx taught that such questions are mere abstractions and, accordingly, for the socialist man, impractical and irrelevant. Marx was so fearful of questions about transcendence that Eric Voegelin described him as a spiritually diseased man who suffered from “logophobia.” Lenin similarly detested religion.

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks carried out Marx's fear and hatred of transcendence. In 1918, legislation excluded the Orthodox Church from participation in the educational system and the State confiscated all Church property. In the following years, huge numbers of bishops, priests, monks, nuns and Orthodox laity were sent to prison or concentration camps and tens of thousands were martyred. The clergy were prohibited from engaging in charitable or social work. They were not permitted to hold catechism classes or Sunday school for children. Church youth groups were prohibited. Clergy and church-goers were watched, harassed, persecuted. Churches were closed on a massive scale. The Communist Party conducted an elaborate anti-religion campaign, forming the “League of Militant Atheists,” holding offensive anti-religious processions in the streets (especially at Easter and Christmas), and opening Museums of Religion and Atheism, often in former churches such as Kazan Cathedral of St. Petersburg. The persecution continued into the late 1980s, possibly into the early 1990s.

The Cult and Post-Marxism

Now Communism has collapsed and a vacuum exists. It's uncertain how the vacuum will be filled. It's unlikely that a straight dose of another culture–like western culture as found in the United States–will fill the void, unless Russia, in the process of assimilation, transforms the dose into something similar but different. Russia has always been a country that takes ideas and practices from the outside, then twists and turns them into something uniquely Russian. This tendency seems endemic to Russia, perhaps ingrained in its inception when its Slavic parents continually expanded from the western side of the great European plain into the north and east, resulting in no fixed boundaries between them and their neighbors, with the consequence that they relentlessly absorbed other cultures.

At this point, Russia, like the rest of the world, is turning to the West for guidance. It's turning to western political systems (democracy), western economic systems (capitalism), and even shallow western culture. If it does this without transforming the western ways that it's assimilating, Russia will continue the Communist rejection of God.

This is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's fear. Shortly after arriving as an exile in the United States in 1974, Solzhenitsyn offended his American guests by bemoaning the weakness and spiritual torpor of the West. Although he had previously admired the West, upon arriving here he immediately knew the West could offer no cultural guidance. He was disappointed by the moral relativism, lack of self-restraint, hastiness, superficiality, and unbridled capitalism that had worked its way from the pocketbook to the heart. He was dismayed by the grabbing materialism of the consumer, widespread television stupor, and love for intolerable music. Solzhenitsyn located the source of western stultification in the Enlightenment.

Solzhenitsyn hated the Enlightenment. And for good reason. The Enlightenment denied any relevance to God. It thoroughly despised and ridiculed the entire religious Middle Ages, especially Scholastic philosophy and the pragmatic cornerstone importance Scholasticism placed on God. The Enlightenment gave birth to our secularized western culture, and, though it's not as widely realized, also led to the militantly-atheistic Russian Revolution in 1917. For Russia to turn again to the West at this point would merely be to return to the rotten roots that put it into its current state.

And the rotten roots, because they deny God, also disregard Mother Earth and the sacramental nature of creation, as evidenced by the pollution of Mother Earth in the name of progress–from Chernobyl to the fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. It's an unhealthy disrespect, for it cuts against our nature as the middle link in the ternary structure of God-man-earth. It's not surprising that pollution accompanied our decline into moral decadence and spiritual torpor; it's not surprising that the river that caught fire due to the garbage in its lungs flowed through the city that now houses the hall of fame for intolerable music. And it's not surprising that the disgrace of Mother Earth has resulted in the backlash of the extremist elements in the environmental movement, elements that exhibit a hysteria and fanaticism that are best explained as the unleashing of dark forces gathered by a long-lasting and thorough act of repression–here, a repression that denied the sacramental nature of our world.

Conclusion: A Transforming Cult?

While wandering silently through the streets of Moscow following the 48-hour crumbling of Communism in August 1991, an American heard the people constantly repeating the word chudo (miracle) and quietly marveling that Russia had been transformed on the Feast of the Transfiguration. That's Russia, a country where sometimes it seems everything is holy because God is seen in everything. If Russia turns again to the West, hopefully it will transform whatever it adopts by injecting into it a measure of holiness. Maybe it will even capture the truth behind the West's environmental concerns, and, perhaps also by retrieving the western Scholastic tradition that understands the sacramental character of creation, twist together something uniquely and religiously Russian, presenting it back to the world in apology for Communism's savage, God-hating sins that reverberated through creation for seventy years.

The unique Russian genius could do it. And in this way Russia could become a Starets to the whole world, a Starets that returns us to an understanding of the sacred nature of the earth, a mother to be loved, because she is the offspring of a God who loves–a mother to be revered, because she is the offspring of a God otherwise to be feared.