Orthodox America

  Two Offspring of Holy Russia - Abbot Damascene of Valaam and Fyodor M. Dostoevsky

Abbot Damascene of Valaam
BUILDER OF ORTHODOX SANCTITY 1795 -- 1881(January 23)


In the northern part of Russia a thousand years ago, on an island in the huge lake of Ladoga, was founded the monastery of Valaam. And ever since, with relatively short intervals, holy monks have labored there for Christ. Their influence was immense in the building of Holy Russia, when daily life was lived according to the ascetic principles, of the Christian world-view,

Now that we are celebrating a thousand years of Valaam's monasticism, the hundred years since the death of One of its major builders, Abbot Damascene, seems such a small time. He was a spiritual giant with a loving heart, and he was the primary force which shaped the last flowering of Valaam sanctity, something that lasted up to the middle of this .century.

Father Damascene was of simple peasant stock. He came ara young age to Valaam and at once became the disciple of Elder Euthemius, a direct link with Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky. He brought up his apprentice in the strict desert-loving tradition. Valaam always had the three types of monasticism, and Damascene "graduated" from all of them, spending fourteen years as a recluse on a forest island, in addition to knowing the life of the sketes and the coenobitic monastery. Another offspring of the Paisian tradition, Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, insisted on placing him as abbot in Valaam, and he was not mistaken; for this timid simpleton became the general of thousands of Christ' s warriors establishing numerous sketes around the fortress of the main monastery as spiritual watchtowers on the surrounding islands.

The magnitude of his personality and influence came from his total openness, simplicity, humbleness, and love, which worked miracles and made him a clairvoyant elder in the midst of a number of holy elders. He knew how to forgive, conquering with a burning love the hearts of all who came within the sphere of his influence.

His talks were not eloquent or abstract. His advice was always brief, practical, to the point, and highly effective, for he spoke without calculation, but from heart to heart. When he met a responsive soul, in his able hands that soul would reach the heights of spiritual perfection through the narrow path of absolute humility and self-renunciation. This made him not only a builder in the out-f ward sense (indeed, no one erected more buildings or established more sketes than he in the whole history of Valaam), but even more a bzzi2de, of sanctity on his island lavra, whose influence spread far and wide, making him one of the greatest spiritual leaders of the Orthodox Church in recent times.

But the spirit of Valaam's monasticism still calls men of good will and inspiration to the resolve to wage war within oneself against the spirit of this world, against sensuality and self-pity. And the spirit of Abba Damascene can still be a builder of the life of sanctity so needed by Orthodox Christians today.

Holy Abba Damascene, pray to God for us !

Fyodor M. Dostoevsky ORTHODOX CONVERT '1821 -- 1881 (January 28)

 January 28/February 10of this year marked the hundredth anniversary of the death of Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, the great Russian writer who was probably the most powerful Orthodox voice in the world literature of recent centuries. In marking this anniversary with an Ukase decreeing the celebration of memorial Services for him in all dioceses, as well as recommending gatherings and lectures devoted to him, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Outside of Russia noted that "his creative activity was highly valued by outstanding church thinkers. His burial is remembered as an extraordinary event, and in the name of the St. Alexander Neysky Lavra (in Petersburg) his widow was asked to bury him precisely there, since Fyodor Michailovich was a defender of Orthodoxy."

Unlike most Russian novelists and writers of the 19th century, Dostoevsky's intent in his creative activity was precisely to exemplify Orthodox principles. After a youthful fascination with Western ideas and his involvement with a socialist-revolutionary group, Dostoevsky returned from a term of exile in Siberia fully converted to the truth of Orthodoxy and resolved to use his literary talent to defend this truth against its many enemies, and to illuminate with its light the spirit of his times. In The Possessed (literally, “The Demons”,), he made a devastatingly precise analysis of the radical revolutionary mind and foresaw the hundred million people it would be necessary to kill to make the revolution successful in Russia (Solzhenitsyn has noted the exact correspondence to the number of victims of Soviet Communism). In Crime and Punishment he traces the effect of the philosophy of nihilism (the foundation of the revolution) on one person’s soul, and its salvation by Christianity. In “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamozov, he set forth the difference between the Western. distortion of Christianity and true Orthodoxy, and in The Diaspora of a West he showed further the underlying unity of papalism and socialism and their ultimate merger in the reign of Antichrist. In these and other books he laid bare the intent and the final goal of modern secular humanism: a society without God. He expressed the "theological'' definition of this goal several years before Nietzche in the West: There is no God (or: there is no immortality), therefore everything is permitted. But unlike Nietzche, whose inability to believe drove him insane, Dostoevsky with his diagnosis gave also the answer to this modern sickness of the soul: a return to the fundamentals of Orthodox Christianity.

Dostoevsky was a passionate man and had many falls and mistakes. But he is remembered as one who, being a thoroughly "modern'' man who had come to see the "one thing needful" in life, offered a sincere struggle against his passions and helped us all to see more clearly the nature of the workings of passion and sin in fallen man. Elder Ambrose of Optina said of Dostoevsky, after he visited the monastery, that he was "one who is repenting.'' Thus he is closer to today's Orthodox converts than many more perfect men, such as the great Russian ascetics of the 19th century, and can help to open up to them the way to the saving truth of Orthodoxy. Above all, his compassionate portraits of the suffering and downtrodden, and even of those possessed by passions, can help Orthodox converts to develop the basic Christian concern and compassion which are so often lost sight of in our overly intellectual times.

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