The Northern Thebaid — The Russian “Desert”

“What Orthodox Christian is not exalted in heart and mind at the thought of the Egyptian Thebaid — the place of struggle of the great St. Anthony, first among monastic Fathers and model of the anchoretic life; of St. Pachomius, the coenobiarch, who received the monastic rule of the common life from an Angel; and of the thousands of monks and nuns who followed them and made the desert a city peopled with Christians striving towards the heavens in the Angelic way of life?
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Few, however, are those who know of Orthodox Northern Thebaid — the Russian “desert” of the forested, marshy North — where no fewer thousands of monks and nuns sought out their salvation in the footsteps of the great monastic Fathers of more recent times: St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Cyril of White Lake, St. Nilus of Sora, and hundreds of others whose names have been entered in the Calendar of Orthodox Saints.
Little has been published in English about these saints, and most of what has appeared thus far is of little value. No work in English has even been attempted to present the Orthodox monastic tradition which inspired and formed the great Russian Fathers. Indeed, the Russian religious intelligentsia of the Diaspora has been largely at fault for spreading false ideas about these Saints and their tradition. The most accessible works on Russian Saints in English [those of Fedotov and de Grunwald] are so filled with inaccuracies and distortions, with a Roman Catholic terminology totally foreign to Orthodoxy, and with an astonishingly fanciful notion of Orthodoxy, sanctity, and monasticism — as to be more a hindrance than a help to the serious student of the Russian monastic tradition.

One Orthodox scholar of the Russian Diaspora — Ivan Michailovich Kontzevich [†1965] — devoted his life to a serious study of the Orthodox spiritual tradition.
Unlike the Westernized Russian intelligencia, he was not an “academic” scholar, but proceeded rather from the living Orthodox tradition. Even while living in the Diaspora in the 1920’s, he continued to receive spiritual guidance from Elder Nectarius of Optina, and to mold his life and thought , not on the heterodox “wisdom” of the West, but on the age-old tradition of Holy Russia. Having acquired a theological education, he planned to write [in Russian] a trilogy of works on this tradition.
The first, on the spiritual tradition of ancient Russia, before Peter I [“The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia”, Paris 1952]; the second on Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky [which was never completed]; and the third, on the Optina Elders [“Optina Monastery and It’s Epoch”, published posthumously by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, N.Y., 1973].

The present work, which was inspired by Professor Kontzevitch, is a kind of “source book” in English for the first volume of his trilogy in Russian on ancient Russia, and utilizes above all two of his key ideas regarding the Orthodox spiritual tradition: [1] that the Lives of the Saints are the chief source of our knowledge of the Russian spiritual tradition of this period,and a careful examination of them will give a clear idea of this tradition to one who is well versed in the phenomena and the vocabulary of true Orthodox spirituality; and [2] that it is evident — as a result of such an examination — that the Russian spiritual tradition is not at all something “uniquely Russian,” or something novel in Orthodox history, but is identical in essence with the whole Byzantine tradition of spirituality, which in its monastic formulation comes down to us from the Fathers of the Egyptian desert. Indeed, the Orthodox reader of these Lives — which have been taken from sources in Russian and Slavonic as close to the original Lives as possible — will find that they breathe the same spiritual fragrance as the Lives of the great Fathers of the Egyptian desert, and have the same signs of true Orthodox monastic life: the “mental activity” of the Jesus Prayer, spiritual guidance by Elders, “revelation of thoughts” to the Elder, spiritual labors joined with love of neighbor. The Introduction by Professor Kontzevitch consists of excerpts from his book, “The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia”, referring to the period of the “Northern Thebaid” — the great spiritual current which proceeds from St. Sergius of Radonezh in the 14th century [and behind him, from Byzantine Hesychasm] to the end of the 17th century, when Russia, although outwardly in spiritual decline, was preparing its forces for a spiritual current which has come down to our own times — that of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky and the great Elders of the 18th century to the 20th centuries.
It was in the mid-19th century that a pious Orthodox Russian, Andrew Muraviev, undertook a pilgrimage to the almost-forgotten monasteries of the North and brought them back to olive for the readers of his book, giving the whole region the name by which we now know it. At that time most of these monasteries still existed.
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Today, however, these monasteries have been closed and destroyed, and most of them removed from the face of the earth. Why speak of them any more, and give the Lives of their founders and the history of their monastic tradition, as we attempt to do in these pages — and that not merely as an example of dead history, but of living tradition, as is our definite intention? While these Lives were being printed separately in “The Orthodox Word”, one of the leading modernists “Orthodox theologians” chastised in print “those who call to non-existent deserts,” evidently regarding such Lives as an appeal to a religious “romanticism” and idealism totally out of step with contemporary conditions of life. Why, indeed, should we inspire today’s Orthodox youth with the call of the “Northern Thebaid,” which has in it something more attractive and somehow more accessible for a 20th-century zealot than the barren desert of Egypt?

First of all, the monastic life here described has not entirely disappeared from the earth; it is still possible to find Orthodox monastic communities which teach the spiritual doctrine of the Holy Fathers, and to lead the Orthodox monastic life even in the 20th century — with constant self-reproach over how far one falls short of the Lives of the ancient Fathers in these times. True Orthodox Christians have preserved the living monastic tradition of Holy Russia and are linked directly to Optina, Valaam, St. Seraphim’s Diveyevo, St. Job’s Pochaev, Lesna, and of course to the monastic citadels of the Holy Land and the Holy Mountian of Athos. The wise seeker can find his “desert” even in our barren 20th century.
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But this book is not intended only for such fortunate ones.

Every Orthodox Christian should know the Lives of the Fathers of the desert, which together with the Lives of the Martyrs gives us the model for our own life of Christian struggle. Even so, every Orthodox Christian should know of Valaam, of Solovki, of Svir, of Siya and Obnora and White Lake, of the Skete of Sora, and of the Angel-like men who dwelt there before being translated to heaven, living the Orthodox spiritual life to which every Orthodolx Christian is called, according to his strength and the conditions of his life. Every Orthodox Christian should be inspired by their life of struggle far from the ways of the world. There is no “romanticism” here. The actual “romantics” of out time are the reformers of “Parisian Orthodoxy” who, disparaging the authentic Orthodox tradition, wish to “sanctify the world,” to replace the authentic Orthodox world -view with a this-worldly counterfeit of it based on modern Western thought. The spiritual life of the true monastic tradition is the norm of our Christian life, and we are called to account for our lax life. We shall not be judged for our ignorance of the vocabulary of contemporary “Orthodox theology,” but we shall surely be judged for not struggling on the path of salvation. If we do not live like these Saints, then let us at least increase our far-too-feeble struggles for God, and offer our fervent tears of repentance and our constant self-reproach at falling so shot of the standard of perfection which God has shown us in His wondrous Saints.”…

The great monastic movement which began with St. Sergius, the great Abba of the Northern Thebaid, came to an end with the conclusion of the 17th century. New historical conditions — chiefly the Old Believer schism and the Westernizing reforms of Peter I — made no longer possible that harmony between the ascetic fervor of the best sons and daughters of Russia, and the profound piety of the believing Russian people, which led to the creation of innumerable new monasteries and convents under the inspiration of the Byzantine monastic ideal. We have seen, indeed, that the end of the period of the Northern Thebaid is one of decline — but it is a decline only by comparison with the astonishing monastic blossoming of the 14th to 16th centuries; by comparison with almost any other Orthodox land or period, the 17th century Russian monastic movement would have to be called a flourishing one that produced at least 45 canonized Saints [and many were never canonized owing to 18th century conditions] and a large number of new monasteries.

At the end of the 18th century, a new great epoch of monasticism began with the great Elder Paisius Velichkovsky, the Abba of a new monastic movement whose current has not entirely died out even in our times. That must be the subject of another book.
What, then, of the 18th century itself? Was the true monastic tradition dead in Russia? Did Peter and Catherine actually destroy monasticism, as has sometimes been said? The answers to these questions will do much to illuminate not only the continuity of the monastic tradition in Russia, but also the condition of Orthodox monasticism in the 19th century, and even today.

Some of the decrees of Peter I regarding monasticism to be sure, were directed against abusers in an institution which at that time had become very large and,in places where the monastic rule and spirit were not carefully preserved, there were unquestionably disorders which needed regulation. But several of the decrees were directed against the free existence of monasteries, and they smothered the very spirit of monasticism. Thus, in 1703 Peter forbade the building of new monasteries; a decree of 1724 turned monasteries into refuges for sick soldiers; and in 1734 it was forbidden to tonsure anyone except widowed priests and retired soldiers. Finally, under Catherine, in 1764, the Government appropriated monastic property altogether and assigned a monetary salary to the monastic clergy; of the 953 monasteries then existing, 568 were closed entirely and 160 more were left totally without income; and “quotas” we reestablished of the number of monks allowed in each monastery. It can be imagined what a blow these reforms gave to Russian monasticism: what room was there for desert-loving fervor in State-supported and supervised institutions whose abbots were often transferred and too often had the function of administrators rather than spiritual fathers?

But the aims of the Westernizing rules were not achieved: the monastic spirit, still very much alive in all classes of Russian society, was not snuffed out. Desert-loving monks and nuns simply went again to the desert, whether in Russia of outside her borders, avoiding the “established” monasteries; new communities were established, despite the laws; and there rose up a number of powerful monastic leaders, new Abbas of Holy Russia, who were not afraid to defy the authorities in order to preserve the free monastic spirit, and who sometimes endured a trial hitherto unknown in the history of Russian monasticism, revealing the extent of the disharmony between the monastic ideal and the corrupted leading society: they were placed in prison.

Here it will be possible to mention only very briefly some representatives of the genuine Orthodox monastic tradition in the 18th-century Russia — enough to show that t he monastic “revival” of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky was not at all something imported from abroad, but something which had deep roots in Russia itself and only awaited more favorable conditions to burst forth into the glorious flowering of 19th-century Orthodox monasticism.

Blessed Job [Joshua in Schema] of Solovki [†1720, March 9], the first monastic victim of the reforms of Peter I, humbled himself to such a degree that he was vouchsafed to converse with the Most Holy Mother of God. She blessed him to found the Golgotha hill in Soviet times.

Blessed John of Sarov [†1737, July 4], founder of the great 18th-century monastic center of Sarov, lived at first in caves, fought the schism of the Old Believers, and was finally placed in prison, where he had a righteous death, leaving behind a whole host of disciples and successors: the Blessed Demetrius, Ephraim, Pachomius, Joachim, Joaseph, Mark, and the great St. Seraphim.

Abbess Alexandra of Diveyevo [†1789, June 13] founded her convent under the close spiritual direction of the Sarov Elders, especially St. Seraphim, and nurtured a real Larva of 3000 righteous nuns and fools for Christ; the Convent continued to exist until the Soviets closed it in 1927.

Blessed Nazarius of Valaam [†1809, Feb. 23 and Oct. 14] was the re-founder of the great Larva on Lake Ladoga, using the Typicon in which he had been trained in his native Sarov, leaving behind him a great tradition and holy disciples: Blessed Patermuthius, Innocent, Barlaam, Abel the Prophet, Cyriacus, Euthymius, and St. Herman of Alaska.

Blessed Theodore, Macarius, Theophanes, Ignatius, Basil, Martha … [22 more are mentioned] …

The new monastic movement which sprouted from the fertile Orthodox soil of 18th-century Russia under the favorable conditions given by the truly Orthodox Tsars of the 19th century, was to rival the epoch of the Northern Thebaid itself. But now there was to be a subtle difference in tone, one not affecting the changed historical circumstances of the whole Orthodox world: the new monastic revival is no longer dependent on Byzantium. There are no more pilgrimages to the East in search of the Orthodox monastic tradition; or, to be more precise: the few pilgrimages thus undertaken, such as that of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky to Mount Athos, meet with failure. The Orthodox monastic tradition is more alive in Russia than in Greece, and it is the Russians themselves who, in the 19th century, are responsible for a great monastic flowering on Mt. Athos, led by great Elders such as Jerome and Arsenius, who had their spiritual roots firmly in Russian soil. Even the great Greek Fathers of the Patristic revival of this time, Sts. Macarius of Corinth and Nicodemus the Hagiorite, are not monastic founders as were Blessed Paisius and his disciples, but only transmitters of the Patristic doctrine and its texts.

What all this means is one thing: Orthodox monastic Russia, in the epoch of the Northern Thebaid, had come of age. Just as once Byzantium itself had humbly absorbed the spirituality and tradition of Palestine and Egypt and had transmitted it to other peoples, so now Russia had thoroughly absorbed the Orthodox tradition of Byzantium and made it her own. There is no longer any need to travel outside of Russia to find it. Whether one says “Byzantium” [the earlier phase] of “Holy Russia” [the later phase], the same thing is meant: the tradition of unadulterated Orthodoxy.

The monastic movement of Blessed Paisius completed the monastic foundation which the monks of the Northern Thebaid had begun, by providing Slavonic and then Russian translations of almost all the monastic works of the Holy Fathers which had been written in or translated into Greek. The Northern Thebaid itself richly provided new sources of monastic literature in the numerous Lives of Saints and the spiritual writings of its great Holy Father, St. Nilus of Sora; then in the 18th century, the golden age of Slavonic and Russian Patristic literature begins with the writings of Blessed Basil of Merlopolyani, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Blessed Paisius himself, and many others. The great Greek and Near-Eastern Patristic epoch had already produced the basic texts of Orthodox spirituality and monasticism, but the final Patristic flowering in Russia — where the purity of Orthodox tradition was sealed by the sanctity of the wonder-working Elders – was to provide the connecting link between the Patristic tradition and the Orthodox faithful of today, some of whom have seen the last great Orthodox Elders of the golden chain of Orthodox spirituality which has come down unbroken from the Egyptian desert to us. The spiritual strength of Orthodoxy today, whether Russian of non-Russian, rests directly upon the Saints of the Northern Thebaid, who have bequeathed to the Orthodox faithful their experience of communion with God and the example of their God-pleasing lives.

How can we make use of this holy inheritance in our own lives today? We must not deceive ourselves: the life of the desert-dwellers of the Northern Thebaid is far beyond us in our time of unparalleled spiritual emptiness. In any epoch the monastic life is limited by the kind of life which is being led in the world. At a time when daily Orthodox life in Russian was both extremely difficult and very sober, monasticism could flourish; but in our time when ordinary life has become abnormally “comfortable” and the world-view of even the best religious and intellectual leaders is shockingly frivolous, what more is to be expected than that lukewarm “spirituality with comfort” with which bold voices from inside Soviet Russia even now are reproaching the free West? The situation within enslaved Russia is spiritually much more favorable, because on the foundation of the suffering and hardship which are the daily lot of most people there, something spiritual can come out. From many signs it is evident that a religious awakening is beginning now in Russia, whose result cannot yet be foreseen, but which may well result in the re-establishment of some of the monastic centers mentioned in this book.

And yet, the situation of enslaved Russia and the free West is not as different as it might seem. Everywhere today the disease of disbelief has entered deeply into the minds, and most of all the hearts, of men. Our Orthodoxy, even when it is outwardly still correct, is the poorest, the feeblest Christianity there has ever been. The God-bearing Elders who, comparatively speaking, abounded even in the periods of spiritual decline in earlier centuries, are now conspicuous by their total absence, and the conditions of contemporary life are scarcely likely to give birth to anything but counterfeits.
And still the voice of the Northern Thebaid calls us — not, it may be, to go to the desert [although some fortunate few may be able to do even that, for the forests are still on God’s earth] — but at least to keep alive the fragrance of the desert in our hearts: to dwell in mind and heart with these angel-like men and women and have them as our truest friends, conversing with them in prayer; to be always aloof from the attachments and passions of this life, even when they center about some institution or leader of the church organization; to be first of all a citizen of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the City on high towards which all our Christian labors are directed, and only secondarily a member of this world below which perishes. He who has once sensed this fragrance of the desert, with its exhilarating freedom in Christ and its sober constancy in struggle, will never be satisfied with anything in this world, but can only cry out with the Apostle and Theologian: ‘Come, Lord Jesus. Even so, Surely I come quickly’ [Apocalypse 22:20]. Amen.”
From “The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North”
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Compiled and Translated by Fr. Seraphim Rose and Fr. Herman Podmoshensky (1975).

“Northern Thebaid (Russian: Северная Фиваида), is the poetic name of the northern Russian lands surrounding Vologda and Belozersk, appeared as a comparison with the Egyptian area Thebaid – well-known settling place of early Christian monks and hermits.
Historically Thebaid (Greek: Θηβαΐδα) is the region of Upper Egypt, the term derives from the Greek name of its capital Thebes.
The term was coined by an orthodox writer Andrei Muravyov in his book of reflections about a pilgrimage to holy places of Vologda and Belozersk, which he named “Russian Thebaid in the North” (1855).
“Here in this quiet retreat, where suddenly I found my summer shelter under a hospitable roof of a hospitable owner. Here I am undertaking a description of our native Thebaid which I have just visited around Vologda and Belozersk. Secular people are unlikely to know it, whereas many people have heard about the Thebaid of Egypt and have read in paterikon about the exploits of the great Greek Fathers, who lighted up in the harsh deserts of the Monastery and the Palestine… In a space of more than 500 miles from the Lavra to Beloozero and further, it was like one continuous area studded with hermitages and desert hermits, which lay people were then to settle and build their homes where there were only cells. St. Sergius is the head of all, stands on the southern edge of this wonderful area and sends pupils and companions into the Thebaid, and St. Cyril, on the other side of the area accepts newcomers…..”

See also:

For Ivan Michailovich Kontzevitch (1893-1965), author of “The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia”, Paris 1952 see:

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