The late fifteenth, early sixteenth centuries saw a conflict arise in Russia that had some parallels to events and movements in Western Christianity of the time. As the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing against insincere converts to Christianity, and the dissolution of monastery property was successfully killing Catholic monasticism in some northern European countries, the existential question of “to have or not to have” was reaching like an aftershock the comparatively sheltered religious life of Orthodox Russia. Those asking this question in the realm of Rus’ found themselves also inescapably defending their own views on the problem of insincere Christians and their role in politics.
Just as the Franciscans and later Cistercian orders in the Catholic Church had begun as a reaction to a weakening of monastic discipline and a longing for Gospel simplicity, a number of monastic elders in Russia, mainly in the north, felt very strongly that monks are much better off if they do not own property. Wealth is a temptation for any Christian, but especially for people who have taken a vow of poverty. This simple Gospel principle has always held true, but such simplicity has likewise always proven to be a real boon to those who have not taken a vow of poverty, and have the power to confiscate the property of those who have.
Both of these schools of monastic practice lead us back to the work of the “Abbot of All Russia”, St. Sergius of Radonezh (†1392). St. Sergius’ monastery grew around him, due to his hard-working, strict monastic discipline. This diligent spiritual and physical labor under severe conditions caused the monks to develop a well-functioning monastery economy in order to provide for the needs of a large brotherhood. The monks owned no property individually, but their collective labor, along with St. Sergius’s own good reputation among the laity, built the foundation of what is now the great Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra—a monastery incalculably dear to Orthodox Russian Christians, and which still thrives today.
Under the conditions existing in Rus’ at the time, monasteries were often granted large agricultural territories, along with the peasants living on these lands, so that the monasteries could be self-sufficient. As a result, the monasteries came to possess such wealth as to exceed many times over what was reasonably necessary to the monks’ own life. This was happening already during the time of St. Savva of Storozhev and St. Cyril of White Lake, but these abbots were able to combine their own personal sanctity with the economic success of their monasteries. These capable economic administrators and strong organizers had the means to support the impoverished strata of the population, and they highly valued these possibilities. Meanwhile, those who inclined more to the spirit of St. Sergius’ poverty looked on in dismay, and preferred to refrain from any property ownership—individual or collective. A conflict arose between the two sides, which had far-reaching consequences for the entire Russian Church.
At the Council in Moscow in 1503, St. Nilus insisted that monasteries should limit themselves to their own necessities and not acquire large agricultural territories with villages and peasants. (This was during the time of serfdom in Russia, when peasants were unpaid workers attached to the land.) The example of St. Sergius and many other ancient Russian ascetics spoke in favor of this. The “non-possessors” highly valued Christian education and preserved fidelity to the ancient Christian and Byzantine heritage and the spirituality of St. Sergius better than the Josephites.
Thus, in Russia two camps were forming—one more connected with the powerful of this world, poised to influence them for the greater good of an Orthodox land, and the other more inward-looking, wary of owning any property at all—never mind peasants—as incompatible with monasticism, and loathe to get involved in politics.
But we have no comment from St. Maxim or St. Nilus on the tendency taking hold at the time in northern Europe and England to dissolve monasteries altogether and confiscate their property. There were many wars being fought in Europe, and revenues needed to be found. An article in Wikipedia on the dissolution of the monasteries in England and Europe describes how this happened:
News of these events did not take long to spread among Protestant-minded (and acquisitive) rulers across Europe, and some, particularly in Scandinavia, moved very quickly. In Sweden in 1527 King Gustavus Vasa secured an edict of the Diet allowing him to confiscate any monastic lands he deemed necessary to increase royal revenues; and to force the return of donated properties to the descendants of those who had donated them. In one fell swoop, Gustav gained large estates and a company of diehard supporters. The Swedish monasteries and convents were simultaneously deprived of their livelihoods, with the result that some collapsed immediately, while others lingered on for a few decades before persecution and further confiscations finally caused them all to disappear by 1580. In Denmark, King Frederick I of Denmark made his grab in 1528, confiscating 15 of the houses of the wealthiest monasteries and convents. Further laws under his successor over the course of the 1530s banned the friars, and forced monks and nuns to transfer title to their houses to the Crown, which passed them out to supportive nobles, who were soon found enjoying the fruits of former monastic lands. Danish monastic life was to vanish in a way identical to that of Sweden.
In Switzerland, too, monasteries came under threat. In 1523 the government of the city-state of Zurich pressured nuns to leave their monasteries and marry, and followed up the next year by dissolving all monasteries in its territory, under the pretext of using their revenues to fund education and help the poor. The city of Basel followed suit in 1529 and Geneva adopted the same policy in 1530. An attempt was also made in 1530 to dissolve the famous Abbey of St. Gall, which was a state of the Holy Roman Empire in its own right, but this failed, and St. Gall has survived.
St. Nilus of Sora and St. Joseph of Volokolamsk lived during a complicated era of heretical sectarianism making its way into Russia. there were a large number of Bogomils, who followed a philosophy similar to the Manichean heresy brought a long time ago to Rus’ from Bulgaria, even before Kievan times. There is little known about them except that in the northern lands they comparatively easily found a common language with the pagan shamans, hid from the Orthodox, preached dualism of light and darkness, made an appearance of being strict monk-ascetics, infiltrated monasteries, and sometimes even became Skoptsy (a sect that practiced self-mutilation and total abstinence from marriage). There were actually more problems from them in Europe than in Russia. In Southern France, the spread of Catharism, which also had its roots in the Bogomils, instigated the use of inquisition as a means of rooting out heresy. As we know, this escalated into the Spanish Inquisition, which took the practice to an infamous extreme.
The non-possessors’ inward-looking asceticism naturally set them against any violent means of dealing with sectarians, and they favored education and enlightenment. They insisted that heretics must not be tortured or executed but rather persuaded by knowledge and example to come to the true faith. But when the “Judaizer” heresy began to penetrate the prince’s court and threatened to influence policy, St. Joseph’s followers took a more head-on approach.
The Protestant Reformation with its both anti-hesychastic and anti-monastery vein would have essentially affected both the possessors and the non-possessors had it taken root in Russia. It is possible to talk to (or persecute) a heretic if he openly admits his beliefs. But if he is bent on taking control of an Orthodox country by pretending to be Orthodox, he becomes a slippery contingent, a fifth column. While the inquisition against the “Judaizers” in Spain was bound up with Jews who had not sincerely but rather by coercion converted to Christianity, the “Judaizer” heresy in Russia had little to do with actual ethnic Jews.
It began in Novgorod, where some of the clergy had fallen under the influence of a doctor named Zachary and his followers, two members of the court of the Lithuanian-Russian Prince Alexander Olelkovina, who had arrived from the West. These new arrivals followed a modernized form of Judaism, and were highly educated. Flattered by the attention of erudite foreigners, and disillusioned by the ignorant state of much of the Russian Orthodox clergy at the time, an unorganized conspiracy arose in Novgorod, which, although put down by Prince Ivan III from Moscow, continued to act through intrigue until it reached the Kremlin. Eventually two of the conspirators were able to gain favor with the prince by not revealing their entire abandonment of Orthodoxy; they had in fact denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, blasphemed His name, mocked the veneration of the Mother of God, Christian spiritual practices, monasticism, and icons, and accused the Orthodox hierarchs and monks of barbarity. Joining them in Moscow was the prince’s scribe, Feodor Kuritsyn, a foreign minister who had brought back from Hungary a doctrine which denied the Orthodox teaching on the Holy Trinity.
Archbishop Gennady of Novgorod set out to stop these intrigues that would be so damaging to the nation and the Church if allowed to spread. He began sending letters to other hierarchs warning them of the danger, and finally succeeded in calling a council and having the Novgorod Judaizers condemned. Russia did not take the lead of the Spanish Inquisitors at that time—the heretics were imprisoned and not executed. But the spread of the heresy to the prince’s court proved to be beyond Archbishop Gennady’s powers. His main argument was that schools should be opened in Moscow to raise the education level of the faithful, for the learned foreigners were usually able to out-talk the simple Orthodox believers who mainly followed their hearts, and thus succeeded in bringing some to doubt. But Archbishop Gennady was not successful in this endeavor, due to political inertia.
St. Joseph deemed it more prudent to act less directly, using his own influence at the court. Finally Metropolitan Zosima of Moscow, who was sympathetic to the Judaizers if not working actively on their side, was caught in drunkenness and sodomy. This helped St. Joseph win a victory against this ambitious heretical crew—who would surely have unleashed persecutions against the Orthodox had their power finally consolidated.
Note that none of these ideas taken to their extreme would be beneficial. On one hand, if monks were to entirely abandon their vow of poverty, they would be no monks, and therefore bring no benefit to the Church. Metropolitan Daniel, a follower of St. Joseph, would later persecute the non-possessor monasteries, even confiscating them—a rather ironic turn of events considering their extremes of non-possessiveness. However, for all the moral attractiveness of non-possessiveness it has to be admitted that if taken to an extreme it could threaten the normal functioning of the ecclesiastical and civil organism under real-life historical conditions. Land holdings allowed the monasteries to conduct broad pastoral, charitable, and enlightenment activities, and were a beneficial influence upon life in society. Furthermore, acquisitiveness can be a holy thing—it depends upon the acquisition. St. Seraphim of Sarov, for example, was a diligent acquirer of the Holy Spirit, and thousands have been saved because of it.
The Church has not answered our question, and yet it has. Nilus of Sora, Maxim the Greek, and Joseph of Volokolamsk have all been canonized saints. Furthermore, both spiritual leaders—St. Joseph of Volokolamsk, of the “possessors”, and St. Nilus of Sora of the “non-possessors”, left their own spiritual, social, and monastic legacies in Russian Orthodox Church tradition. St. Joseph’s most well known disciples were also canonized: St. Macarius, Metropolitan of Moscow, and St. Gurius, enlightener of Kazan. St. Nilus left timeless instructions in Orthodox monasticism that are still used as fundamental texts. Therefore, the Orthodox Church apparently has not chosen one saint’s movement over the other, and some sources show that St. Nilus and St. Joseph held each other in the highest esteem.
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The principle of the possessors prevailed in Russia until the time of Empress Catherine the Great, who reigned from 1762–1796. Although the German-born Empress Catherine accepted Orthodoxy as required, her mentality concerning monasteries remained decidedly Western and Protestant, or more precisely, irreligious. Under her leadership, the Church’s lands were confiscated, and the budget of both monasteries and bishoprics were taken under government control. Endowments from the government replaced income from privately held lands. The endowments were often much less than the original intended amount. She closed 569 out of 954 monasteries and only 161 got government money. Only 400,000 rubles of church wealth was paid back. But her anti-monastic policies were not limited to material wealth—under Catherine, Orthodox religious education also suffered greatly. By 1786 Catherine had excluded all religion and clerical studies programs from lay education. By separating the public interests from those of the church, Catherine began a secularization of the day-to-day workings of Russia. She transformed the clergy from a group that wielded great power over the Russian government and its people to a segregated community forced to depend on the state for compensation. These secular reforms also had far-reaching effects, and inexorably led to the one of the cruelest persecutions of all times against the Church—the Bolshevik Revolution and its ideology of militant atheism, because the constructive interrelationship between clergy and the laity had been undermined.
Under the Communists, not only the monasteries, but religion in general was liquidated. This harsh historical experience proved several things pertaining to our question, “to have, or not to have?”
- In the 1930’s, the Russian and Ukrainian heartland was suffering a terrible famine; most evidence shows that it was man-made by the Soviet Government to force collectivization. Church property, including Communion chalices and other church utensils were confiscated under the pretext of relieving the famine. The Church was already active in charitable assistance, but indeed feeding the people was not what the authorities were after. They needed to sell these sacred valuables to Western buyers to finance Communist policies. Thus, government money gained from liquidated Church assets rarely goes to the poor, and the Church is a better distributor of these assets than the state.
- The closure of seminaries attached to monasteries made it very difficult to provide quality education to the clergy.
- The lack of religious education did not eradicate religion, but it did enable the spread of anti-social religious movements—interest in the occult grew in the Soviet Union as people sought for something outside the material world. Moral standards declined across society, and some problems that developed under Communist rule have not been easy to solve, to put it mildly.
- Once the Soviet government fell and the Church was again free, believers rushed to rebuild what they had lost. Had they not lost it, their resources could have gone to other charitable causes. That the people rushed to rebuild, first of all, their beloved churches can be taken as proof of Christ’s words that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, which ever exists in the hearts of the faithful.
- If the Church had not accumulated wealth, there would have been no property to seize, and no stumbling block to the covetous.
- The persecuted Church produced many martyrs, and separated the wheat from the chaff.