The Patron Saint of What?

“He who dwells in peace collects spiritual gifts as it were with a scoop, and he sheds the light of knowledge on others.” - St. Seraphim of Sarov

The students in my Christian Mysticism class at XU recently took their mid-term exam. One young woman in the class chose as one of her “identifications” to describe the life and contributions to Orthodox spirituality of St. Seraphim of Sarov. Many of you know of this great Russian Orthodox saint (+1833) and his incredible life and profound experience of God through his life of interior prayer. This young woman is a fine student and her answer was coming along fine until she added: “He is the patron saint of nuclear weapons!” That sentence jumped out at me as not only terribly inaccurate, but as completely incongruous when applied to St. Seraphim. The saint was something of a “pacifist” on the personal level at least, regardless of any loyalty he may he felt for the tsar. In one well-known incident from his life, he was badly beaten and left for dead in the forest (something like the fate of the good Samaritan in the parable). He was eventually discovered and brought to the monastery for care and recovery. St. Seraphim did recover, but he remained quite stooped over for the remaining years of his life, as he is often depicted in his icons. But the point being made here is that the saint refused to bring any charges against his assailants once they were apprehended. In the spirit of Christian charity, he simply forgave them.  St. Seraphim, therefore, chose not to “nuke” the robbers.

Getting back to my student, I wrote in the margins something like: “I have never heard of this before!” But I made sure to ask her about her source for this rather absurd claim, because I had an uneasy feeling about where it may have come from. And sure enough, she told me that when she had - of course - “googled” St. Seraphim in preparation for the exam, she read about his patronage of nuclear weapons on a Wikipedia article about him. A different site she shared with me, a site that claims to keep track of news coming from Eurasia, had the following statement: “The Russian Department of Defense’s 12th Directorate, which is responsible for Russia’s nuclear weapons, has been assigned a patron saint by the Russian Orthodox Church: St. Seraphim of Sarov.”  She was therefore simply passing on what she assumed was accurate information from these two sites. So now we have the utterly incoherent claim that this great “mystic,” who was actually transfigured before one of his disciples, is extending his heavenly"blessing” to nuclear bombs or, as we now like to call them, “weapons of mass destruction!” This is unfair to the legacy of the saint, and an embarrassing misappropriation of that legacy for the Orthodox Church or for any Orthodox Christian who would have to explain or apologize for it. According to the Gospel, a saint simply cannot be the “patron” of nuclear weapons! That is not simply a non-Christian attitude; it is an anti-Christian attitude.

Yet I have to admit that I am not that surprised. It has been some years now, but I distinctly recall a photograph that was circulating on the internet of a Russian bishop sprinkling missiles on a fighter jet with holy water. That was shocking, to say the least. Within the post-communist Russian Orthodox Church there are definite signs of such an aberration. Key figures within the Church and a sizable portion of the faithful are nostalgically looking back to a “golden age” of the Church’s existence when Church and State were closely bound together in a vision usually described as “holy Russia.” After the horrors of the dreadful and deadly communist regime following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, such nostalgia is understandable. But that “golden age” never really existed in the harsh light of historical analysis. The scholar Dimitri Pospielovsky likened that era actually to a “golden cage.” The pre-revolutionary Russian Orthodox Church lacked any real independence under the Russian monarchy, having its status diminished to a position of compromised passivity dating back to the time of the ecclesiastical reforms of Tsar Peter the Great (who much preferred being called the “emperor”). Nevertheless, after the “gates of hell” were unleashed against the Russian Orthodox Church by Lenin and Stalin, and the militantly atheistic regime of communist totalitarianism, the former Church-State relationship that existed under the Romanov dynasty could only seem like a long-lost era of freedom of religious expression and a status worthy of eventual recovery. However, in both eras under discussion - pre and post communist - the Church suffers from this relationship, as a privileged position vis-a-vis the State comes at a heavy price: that of offering moral support to the State even when that support compromises the integrity and prophetic voice of the Church.

Another way of explaining this is to employ the phrase used by the scholar Fr. Cyril Hovorun from the title of his book Political Orthodoxies - The Unorthodoxies of the Church Coerced. As Fr. Cyril writes: “Modern political Orthodoxies can also be presented as ideologies dressed in the robes of theology ... The difference between the two is that for theology the unseen is the uncreated God, while for ideology, the unseen is the world of ideas confined to the human mind.” (p. 7) Only amidst such a confusion between theology and ideology could St. Seraphim of Sarov be designated the “patron of nuclear weapons.“After a book full of dreary case studies wherein this confusion is chronicled within the contemporary Orthodox world, Fr. Cyril offers a clear choice on this issue:  “Political Orthodoxies distract the Church from its original Orthodoxy - bringing people to God in the straight and unimpeded way. Deconstruction of false Orthodoxies is possible through the reconstruction of Orthodoxy as the apostles and the fathers of the Church taught and lived in it. An alternative to the politicization of the Church is the apostolic and patristic way of believing, behaving, and belonging.” (p. 200-201) It is not that difficult to embrace his conclusion.

It is my modest opinion, shared, I am certain, by many others - including Orthodox believers in Russia and elsewhere - that this poorly-conceived retrieval of the old Byzantine symphonia within the context of both a post-communist and postmodern world will not serve the Russian Orthodox Church - or any of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches - well. This lesson could have been learned from pre-revolutionary Russia, for the temptation to restore an idealized “status"to the Church as the moral and spiritual bulwark of the State confuses theology, ideology, nationalism in a way that only obscures the Gospel of Jesus Christ.