Beauty Will Save the Church

by Fr. Isaac Skidmore

Holy Wisdom Icon: Sophia – Holy WisdomI have recently begun visiting the works of Orthodox “sophiologists,” a group of theologians in nineteenth and twentieth-century Russia who focused their attention on the mysterious, personified sophia (Greek for wisdom) that appears so often in Scripture. Early festal materials and names of churches, including the great Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, also attest to awareness of this figure in Orthodox tradition. These thinkers have been largely peripheralized due to the suspicion that they describe sophia in ways that make it nearly a fourth divine person. While it is not my intention to rehabilitate them, I find in them an insight germane to much turmoil that we face within our modern Orthodox churches, as well as to the seeming incapacity of worldwide Orthodoxy to pull together in a cohesive witness to the world. They lay particular emphasis on beauty, seeing it as a correlate to truth and love, in God’s self-revelation and in creation. While beauty’s importance is affirmed throughout Orthodox theology, it is stated most emphatically by these sophiologists, and described by them in ways that highlight its implications for our own creative activities. Their insight is captured in several statements: one, by Dostoevsky, who by at least some accounts stands within the sophiological lineage, says, “Beauty will save the world”; others, by Nikolai Berdyaev, saying, “For God’s purposes in the world the genius of Pushkin is as necessary as the sainthood of Seraphim” and “Revelation demands a creative act.”

These statements call attention to an aspect of the Church which receives little notice these days: the role of the aesthetic in embodying and conveying truth. Counter to the notion of ecclesiology that has developed in the West, the Orthodox Church does not experience authority primarily as a structural force that hangs, in hierarchical fashion, from a chief potentate. We know this and delight in describing our conciliar self-understanding, in which authority is expressed as mutual agreement and indwelling, affirmed and renewed by each council’s immersion into holy tradition, resulting in a unified, doxological confession of faith. We are mistaken, though, if we believe this distinction of our ecclesiology, or even the omission of the filioque, is sufficient to bring about Orthodox life in a way that is meaningful to members and onlookers. It seems obvious that, in our modern efforts to be Orthodox and transmit Orthodoxy, we are missing “something.” Try as we might, coherency escapes us. Our endeavors rarely come together in a wholeness that resembles the image of the Church we hold in our hearts. No matter how much we adjust the recipe, some critical ingredient seems lacking.

Looking for this missing element, we grasp at some of the more obvious possibilities. Surely, we think, the desired harmony will appear if we have leaders who are responsible and accountable. At other times, we look to structural dynamics themselves, wondering whether our form of governance should be more hierarchical, more congregational, more (or less) democratic, or more synodal. We focus on questions about autocephaly, autonomy and “maximal autonomy.” In the Western Hemisphere, we wonder about the implications, if any, of the transition from our former Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas to the newly formed Episcopal Assemblies. We eye the development, and the failure in development, of committees that promise to bring about a pan-Orthodox consolidation of resources and that point, dimly, to the possibility of jurisdictional unity in the future. We yearn for a kind of reform – a return to one or another of periods in which integrity prevailed. Alternately, we long for a future which feels itself free to shake off the past as though it were dust. All of this is well and good, as these are matters – each one and many more – that eventually have to be settled.

In all of this, the missing ingredient remains missing. The more we seek the manifestation of the Church’s divine pedigree, mandate and hope, the more we encounter our human inability to see it to completion. This is no minor crisis, as it seems our spiritual effort, individually and collectively, is consumed by these questions.

It also evokes further questions:

  • While the future may bring resolution of these issues, can we get there by way of the road we are on now? Doesn’t it seem as though the solution, at some point, must involve ceasing to push forward in the direction we are going and turning onto a different path altogether?
  • Until these matters are set in order, are we destined to put our Orthodox lives on hold?
  • Also, if and when these issues begin to resolve, will we be in a state to then start living the life we claim to be seeking, or will we merely continue to focus on the imperfections of our churchly condition?

We are failing, I have come to believe, not because we do not expend effort in good and necessary ways; nor because we are made cynical by the operations of our church administration and life; nor because there is not often sincere repentance. I believe we are failing because, alongside all of our present activities, we are not simultaneously sustained by a creative vision of Orthodoxy that is capable of encompassing and transcending the present morass.

The take-home lesson of the sophiologists, I believe, is that we can have correct dogma, ritual and even administration, yet still lack the substance, if we do not also have beauty. More than that, when beauty is present, we find that even the deficits our humanity inevitably introduces into the expression of dogma, ritual and administration are bearable, and do not suffice to sever us from hope, communion and even joy. The upholding of beauty is one of the most truthful and life-affirming declarations we can make. Beauty is not empty. It contains the fullness of hope, and holds in secret all that hope anticipates.

Holy Wisdom, 16th century, NovgorodThe symptoms of our malady are apparent. Our language has become dominated by bureaucratic words that are foreign to the soul in its depths. Ecclesial conditions in nineteenth-century Russia, where the idea of sophiology was developed, were more challenged than our own; yet, faith flourished, being fed by a eucharist that could be consumed even outside the warmth of the churches. The spiritually sustaining food was an image of earthly-heavenly beauty that informed the aesthetic experience of the people who lived through hard events. They could not have pointed to structures of church administration that were less fraught with fallibility than our own; yet, at the same time, they had Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky. We, on the other hand, have become anemic, administrative, and at times puritanical in our conception of spiritual life. We need a breath of fresh air.

Each year, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy, yet may be far from grasping that day’s special meaning. Orthodoxy has flourished, even under occupation by Tartars and Turks, owing to its ability to hold onto its image of glorified creation. This has provided it with a poetic sensibility that turns even bitter experiences into things that can be borne.

Holy Wisdom, 18th century, Russia

Much of our present dilemma comes from the fact that we consistently appraise creative expression and imagination as secondary in importance to administrative integrity, ascetic effort or prayer – and to almost anything else – assuming that fulfillment of these conditions will lead naturally to beauty, and that, prior to that, beauty is a vain indulgence.

I think this order should be reconsidered. We need to cultivate the image, sustain it, believe in it and celebrate it, even in the absence of external confirmation. We can survive years, even decades of ill-defined administrative structures. The church has done so before, embodying a spirit that evokes wonder. This church of the past, though, was not so soulless as we have become. They were capable of enduring much more than we, because they understood that their enduring took place in the context of beauty.

I am not suggesting we should cope by trying to escape into a golden past. This will only confirm our despair. Nor am I suggesting that we cease with our internet banter, even in the name of our Lenten seasons, or that we give up our efforts to improve church structures. I am suggesting that we take up the task of articulating, writing, and “writing,” in the iconic sense, the vision of God’s beauty in our present world.

We have failed, with few modern examples to the contrary, to articulate a story that captivates people in their craving for life. It’s not that our words fall on deaf ears but that they are not words that enchant the heart. We have botched the task of telling people a story they can be inspired by.

It is said the icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev, in an ineffable, imagistic way, answered the tensions of dogmatic disputes regarding the nature of the divine persons and essence, and calmed the passions of feuding sects. Rivals let go their opposing positions, finding themselves stammering “Amen,” lips trembling, before the breathtaking landscape of God’s Holy Trinity that had been laid before them. In all our words, strategic plans and investigative committees, let us not overlook the scandalous possibility that a single icon, conveying unspeakable grace of the order of Rublev’s Trinity, perhaps written tomorrow by some now-unknown hand, could turn the century around. And let us imagine that it not merely be such for the something-odd number of people who currently call themselves Orthodox, but for everyone who has capacity to be moved, to feel, to cry.

What will assist each of our Churches, around the world, through the struggles, predicaments and controversies that have become commonplace? What will rejuvenate worldwide Orthodoxy in the fulfillment of its universal calling? Only in part does the answer consist of administrative reforms that we necessarily pursue. Only in part does it consist in the transformation of millennia-old sensibilities regarding jurisdiction and barbarian lands.

More than that, it involves the bringing forth of a vision that renders the world breathless, telling a story that embraces every sinner in the birthright of a God whose name they don’t yet know, spreading a canopy that covers the earth as lovingly and solemnly as though it were covering the holy gifts. The world-changing, creative acts we celebrate within our Tradition were born in just such a doxological vision, and will be sustained by nothing less. Then, they will come. “And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).

Beauty will save the world.

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Fr. Isaac Skidmore is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and is rector of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Ashland, Oregon. He is also a counselor, and is pursuing doctoral studies in psychology.

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A note on the Holy Wisdom Icon: Sophia – Holy Wisdom – appears in intimate relation to Christ, and betweenthe most-glorious saints, the Theotokos and John the Forerunner. In these three, creation realizes itself as anexpression of the divine prototype, which existed in God’s eternal Wisdom, even before it was granted its ownlife. Of these mysterious images, Sergei Bulgakov writes: “These icons have been accepted and authorized bythe Church and are preserved to this day. But these memorials of symbolic sophiology remain dumb, and thoughtheir meaning must have been clear when they were composed, in our time, which lacks sophianic inspiration,they often remain enigmatic and partially incomprehensible relics of a former age.” We might find ourselvescurious about an aspect of theology that was once understandable but now seems so esoteric. What riches mightwe be leaving behind, if we continue to marginalize something the Church once saw fit to celebrate? – I.S.

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On Divine Beauty:

By virtue of their creation in the image and likeness of God, all persons participate in the Divine Beauty. While this is true of every human being without exception, however outwardly degraded and sinful, it is true pre-eminently of God’s holy ones, the saints…

So it is also with every expression of beauty in created things: such beauty is symbolic, in the sense that it makes manifest the Divine. In this way beauty brings God to us, and us to God; it is a two-way door of entry. Beauty is therefore endowed with sacramental power, acting as a vehicle of God’s grace, an effective means of sanctification and healing. And that is why it can justly be claimed that beauty will save the world…

Despite the effects of the Fall and despite our deep sinfulness, the world continues to be God’s creation. It has not ceased to be “altogether beautiful.” Despite human alienation and suffering, the Divine Beauty is still present in our midst and still remains ever active, incessantly performing its work of healing and transfiguration. Even now beauty is saving the world, and it will always continue to do so. But it is the beauty of a God who is totally involved in the pain of the world that He has made, of a God who died on the Cross and on the third day rose victorious from the dead.

— Metropolitan Kallistos / Sobornost, vol. 30:1 (2008)

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60