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Alexei Khomiakov

First Letter to William Palmer

10 December 1844

The sign of the Cross * Communion of prayer between living and dead * Misrepresentations of Khomiakov's opinions about England * Reunion of Christendom * Different views of Rome and the Orthodox Church * Obstacles to Reunion between Eastern and Western Communities * Palmer's eyesight * Report of Newman's secession

Sir, —

The elegant and faithful translation of some stanzas written on the death of my first children, which you have had the goodness to include in your letter to Mr. Redkin, has been received by me with the utmost gratitude and pleasure. Yet give me leave to say, that, highly as I value the honour conferred on my poetry, I rejoice still more in the consciousness that it has been paid rather to the human feeling which has inspired my verses to the merit of the expression. It is indeed a great joy for me to have met with your sympathy, and the more so as I have met with it in the highest of all regions, in the communion of religious sentiments and convictions. In one respect it is even more than I could have anticipated, [inasmuch] as the sign of the Cross and the belief in communion of prayers between living and dead are generally rejected by the over-cautious spirit of the Reformation.

You are, methinks, very right in approving of them. Those who believe that the Holy Cross has been indeed the instrument of our salvation cannot but consider it as the natural symbol of Christian love; and if they reject a most natural and holy sign for fear of idolatry, they seem to be almost as inconsistent as a man who should condemn himself to voluntary dumbness for fear of idle words. In the like manner I think [it] rather reasonable to believe that no bond of Christian love can be rent asunder by death in the spiritual world, whose only law is love. The Episcopal Church of England seems in the last times to have adopted that principle.

Perhaps I should add a few words for my own justification, as some ridiculous calumnies have been circulated in Germany about my having expressed sentiments of hate towards your noble and highly enlightened country, and may have found their way to England. These calumnies originated in the writings of an Oratorian (Theyner), and were repeated by Jesuits and reprinted in some newspapers. It was a strange thing to see England's cause defended by unlooked-for champions seldom considered as her friends. But a deep and implacable hatred towards Russia and the Eastern Church had inspired them suddenly with a fervent love towards England. Yet, I will not attempt a justification; I am sure that English good sense and justice will always prove a sufficient defence against the brazen-faced hypocrisy of an Oratorian or a Jesuit. Permit me rather to add some few observations on the last passage of your letter to Mr. Redkin, which he has communicated to some of his friends.

You say: Those who desire to be true patriots and true cosmopolites should repeat, not with their lips only, but from their inmost heart, the words "о соединеніи веѣхъ" For the union of all, taken from the third clause of the Great Litany: For the peace of the world, for the welfare of all the holy Churches of God, and for the union of them all, let us pray to the Lord. ℟ - Lord, have mercy. The Great Litany is said at the Divine Liturgy and many other services of the Orthodox Church. whenever they occur in the services of the Church. Indeed, sir, I think that many are the cultivated Russians who repeat that part of the Divine Liturgy not only with their lips and breath, but with their heart and soul. I, for my part, having been educated in a very pious family, and particularly by a pious mother, still living, have been taught to join sincerely in that beautiful prayer of the Church. When very young, almost a child, my imagination was often delighted by a hope of seeing al the Christian world united under one banner of truth. Later, that became less vivid as the obstacles grew more and more visible. At last, I must confess it, what was a hope has dwindled into a desire relieved from despair by nothing but a faint glimmering of a possible success after many and many ages. The South of Europe, in its dark ignorance, is out of the question for a long while. Germany has in reality no religion at all but the idolatry of science; France has no serious longings for truth, and little sincerity. England with its modest science and its serious love of religious truth might give some hopes; but — permit the frank expression of my thoughts — England is held by the iron chain of traditional custom.

You add that most serious people in England think only of union with Rome.

This conclusion seems to me very natural. Union cannot be understood by any Orthodox Christian other than as the consequence of a complete harmony, or of a perfect Unity of Doctrine. (I do not speak of rites, excepting in the case when they are symbols of a dogma.)

The Church in her structure, is not a state, and can admit of nothing like a conditional Union. It is quite a different case with the community of Rome. She is a state. She admits easily of the possibility of an alliance even with a deep discordance of doctrine. Great is the difference between the logical slavery of Ultramontanism and the illogical half-liberty of Gallicanism, and yet they stand both under the same banner and head. This was written before the suppression of Gallicanism by Pope Pius IX. The union of the Nicene Symbol and Roman obedience in the Uniates of Poland was a thing most absurd, and yet those Uniates were admitted by Rome very naturally, because the community of Rome is a state, and has a right to act as a state. The Union with Rome seems to me the more natural for England, [since] England in truth has never rejected the authority of the Latin doctrine. Why should those who admit the validity of the Pope's decree in the most vital part of Faith — in the Symbol — reject it in secondary questions or in matters of discipline?

Union is possible with Rome. Unity alone is possible with Orthodoxy. It is now more than a thousand years since Spanish bishops invented [the] Inquisition Khomiakov explains this more clearly in his Third Letter to Palmer   (in the time of the Goths), and an addition to the Symbol. It is almost as much since the Pope confirmed that addition the Filioque by his own authority and words. Since that time, the Western communities have nurtured a deep enmity and an incurable disdain for the unchanging East. These feelings have become traditional and, as it were, innate, to the Latin-German world, and England has all the time partaken of that spiritual life. Can it tear itself away from the past? There stands, in my opinion, the greatest and invincible obstacle to Unity. There is the reason why so many individual attempts have met with no sympathy and no success at all, and why communications on points of theological science not unknown to many of your divines (as, for example, the Bishop of Paris Bishop Luscombe, consecrated at the request of British residents in France, with the consent of the English hierarchy, by bishops of the Scottish Church. to Dr. Pusey and others), have not even been brought forward to the knowledge of the public. It is an easy thing to say: We have ever been Catholics; but the Church, being sullied by abuses, we have protested against them, and have gone too far in our protest. Now we retrace our steps. This is easy, but to say, We have been schismatic for ages and ages, even since the dawn of our intellectual life, is next to impossible. It would require in a man an almost incredible humility to adopt that declaration.

These, sir, are the reasons why, in Russia, the most ardent wishes for universal unity are so little mixed with hope, or why hope (where it exists) turns itself rather to the Eastern communities, Nestorians, Eutychians, and so forth. They are certainly further from Orthodoxy than the communities of the West, but are not withheld from a return by feelings of proud disdain.

Now, my dear sir, permit me to turn to a question more individual, but extremely interesting for me, as it concerns a man for whom I feel the sincerest esteem, and who has had the goodness to give me a never-to-be-forgotten proof of sympathy and goodwill. You complain of the weakness and irritation of your eyes, a terrible complaint for one who loves study as you do. I am somewhat of a physician (a quack doctor, if you like it), and though I am sure you have had the counsels of men by far more able than I am, I will take the liberty of proposing to you a remedy of which I have made many experiences with the best and most astonishing effects. The remedy is simply a dilution of one part of alum with one hundred and fifty parts of water, to be applied to the eyes on very fine linen three or four times a day. If you find it worth trying, I hope it will do you good; if you do not, I am sure my good intention will excuse the absurdity of the proposition. I forgot to say that the first application is a little irritating, but generally the amelioration is very remarkable in the space of a few days.

I pray you, my dear sir, to excuse the barbarous style of a foreigner and the indiscretion of a man who has taken the liberty of addressing himself to you without having the honour of a personal acquaintance, and to accept the assurance of the most sincere respect and gratitude of, you most humble and obedient servant,

Alexei Khomiakov

P.S. Since this letter was written, I have seen in the newspapers the conversion of Mr. Newman and many others to the Latins, and must confess that I think a critical moment very near at hand for the Church of England. My address is [omitted]. Perhaps the way indicated by yourself, through the medium of Mr. Law, will yet be the surest and best. Knowing the interest you take in Russian literature, I take the liberty to send you a little selection of verses by Yazikov.

10 December 1844

 

 

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