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Metropolitan Korniliy – Why do Old Believers preserve the rite?

Dear brothers and sisters!

Old Believers are often reproached for “ritualism”, that is, stubbornly holding onto rituals and that their respect for the rite is seen almost as idolisation. However, these critics do not understand that the rite is very important in the matter of spiritual salvation.

The reasons that led to the split in Russia in the 17th century, might for someone today seem minor, secondary and even foolish and ridiculous, and resistance to changes – vain and reckless, “Was it really worth it to be tortured and deprive yourself of life for this?” they say.

However, if, indeed, the rites are “minor trivialities”, then for what purpose did the reformers commit such cruel persecutions against the adherents of the old rites? And if the rites, which now the former oppressors have “removed anathemas” from, are significant and saving, then it is essential that these rites must be returned to.

After the split, the ruling church through violence demanded for the people to abandon the customs and rites performed in Russia for centuries, and instead, recognize the superiority of the Greek rites, which were already distorted under the influence of Catholicism. At the beginning of the split, Greek Church opportunists and conmen were invited to Moscow where they announced with impudence that the ancient Russian rite (approved by the Stoglav Council of 1551) was “the fruit of darkness and ignorance”. The faith with which the rites are inextricably linked, the faith that saved the Russian people, the faith by which they triumphed over conquerors, the faith that presented to the world a host of Russian saints – this faith, together with the rites, was declared the result of “mistakes and ignorance”.

The Church tradition reflects the spiritual life of many generations of Christians. The rite in its time was engendered by great faith and the thoughts of the holy fathers and their immense spiritual experience. When the Holy Church created the rite, in it was consolidated the experienced spiritual tone of the God-inspired fathers of the ancient Orthodox Church and our righteous ancestors – the ascetics of Holy Russia.

When a person is not indifferent to religion and their soul does not sleep, then, when fulfilling the rite, they again and again experience a spiritual state during prayer. When performing an external ritual, their soul fills with inner life-giving grace, spiritualized by that power of the Spirit, which led faithful ancestors to God for many centuries.

This is why, Apostle Paul persistently writes on preserving the church traditions: “Stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15), and writes to his disciple: Keep the tradition (1 Timothy 6:20), and to withdraw from those who do not observe the church tradition (2 Thess. 3: 6).

Nowadays, for a person of little faith who regard the church rite with neglect, it may seem strange to want to die for a “single word”; however, for a sincerely faithful person there can be no compromise in the affairs of faith. They will not be allowed to consciously “for appearances” cross himself with three fingers, but “in the soul believe” in the old rite and pray with two-fingers around the corner. It must be understood that at the time of the split in Russia, every step in the life of a Christian was permeated by faith, and the believing family was a pious home church.

What is a rite and what is its meaning? A rite is an external expression of inner religious feeling. The church sacraments and the liturgical rite spiritually and physically are united as inseparable ties, like the combination of the two natures of the Divine and the human in Christ, residing in Him “inseparably and indissolubly,” as defined by the Council of the holy fathers. In the sacraments, God sanctifies our souls with the grace of the Holy Spirit, but our bodies are sanctified by physical water, oil, bread and wine, transfigured into the Body and Blood of the Lord – and all these together grant us salvation. In religious understanding, the spiritual idea is inextricably linked with the physical form of expression – they coalesce together.

Before the split, the Russian people had their own spiritual and everyday traditions – centuries-old worked out, entrenched rituals, which fully corresponded to the religious feelings of the Russian soul. However, the reformers of Russian society began forcibly and thoughtlessly introducing western foreign customs. For example, in Tsar Peter’s time, introducing new clothes that were not appropriate to the severe Russian climate and also establishing a law enforcing men to shave their beards or otherwise they pay a beard tax.

The Old Believers “rose in spirit”, in the words of bishop Mikhail Semyonov, against the blasphemous attempt on the holy rites.

In the article “Are the rites necessary?” bishop Mikhail Semenov writes: “The rite is the visible veil of an invisible mystery, an invisible truth, the living body of a living soul. And together with that, it is the steps by which millions of believers over centuries and centuries ascended to God. Those who are indifferent to religion itself, visiting the church only from time to time, staying for the service for only a few minutes and deaf to what is hidden behind the ritual cloth, are not in the spiritual condition to be able to comprehend its being and spirit.

The church is a community of people, united by one faith, by one set of dogmas and rituals, and if this is so, then there must be a general discipline that does not allow for an arbitrary change and destruction of these dogmas and rituals. If we indulge those for whom traditions and rituals are insignificant, then soon we will have as many religions as there are people.

At the beginning of the church schism, the holy hieromartyr Avvakum said: “If they begin to change, then there will be no end to the changes.” The disregard for the pre-schism church traditions and ancient piety led the Synodal Church to an anomalous church life. As bishop Andrei Ukhtomsky wrote about in his time: “Nikonianism (the Nikon reforms) is not just new rituals, it’s a marked down level of spiritual life, earthiness. Catholicised, with non-canonical icons, architecture – it’s more soulfulness, but not spirituality. This is a legitimate right to “spiritual carelessness” (with the church charter – if the priest is pleased)… “. Everything which bishop Andrew wrote about, he knew well from within his church.

It is gratifying that today the interest in ancient traditions is growing even among non-Old Believers. In an interview with metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, one can read encouraging remarks: “The old rite is the standard for church life,” and “The Russian church antiquity is not only in demand today, but also in need of rehabilitation”.

Any sin, particularly the sin of division and violence, is able to be redeemed by repentance. Steps towards this repentance on the part of the New Rite Church can be a historical objective assessment of what happened and, most importantly, can lead to actions to return to the pre-schism church system and the redemptive, healthy, Russian piety. Removing anathemas from the rites in 1971 confirmed that the New Rite were mistaken, and that the Old Believers, commanded by pre-schism Russian saints, defended and saved the true faith from alien influence.

The New Rite metropolitan Filaret Drozdov wrote: “The Old Rite Church saved Russia from Catholicism in the 18th and 19th centuries”, although this statement did not prevent him from referring to the Old Believers as apparent “schismatics”. Unfortunately, the low spiritual state of our present-day society, which passed through decades of atheistic destruction, could not but affect the Old Believers. The time-honoured foundations and customs sometimes do not have such power and strength as in the old days, and thus, many imitate the manners and fashion of the surrounding unspiritual society, not wanting among to stand out as the “black sheep” in the crowd. This applies to both everyday and church life.

It is sad and disheartening to look at those Old Believers who, with negligence, perform the sign of the cross and nod their heads instead of bowing. In the name of maintaining church piety, priests need to be a personal example or tactfully correct the worshipers so to maintain and preserve the customs and rites of our righteous ancestors.

Unfortunately, there are Old Rite women today who do not follow the pious customs of covering their heads, of not wearing men’s clothing and of not cutting their hair. Apostle Paul reminds women that the covered head of the wife is the [sign of the] power [over her] by her husband (1 Cor. 11, 10), and then he reasoned whether it is comely for a woman to pray unto God [with an] uncovered [head]. (1 Cor. 11, 13). Doth not even nature itself teach you – writes Apostle Paul – that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering (1 Corinthians 11, 14-15).

Today, many of the Old Rite men also do not want to obey the word of the Church. The law given to people by God through Moses, states: “He who cuts his beard, is an abomination to the Lord” (The Rudder, chapter 47). The apostles state that the shaving and cutting of the beard is a sign of heresy and forbids it to those who are faithful, and for the departed – forbids singing a church burial for them. “He who nurtures his beard to his liking and resists the Church law, will be abominable to God who created you in His image,” says the apostolic decree. Saint John Chrysostom wrote on this issue: “What is worse and more contrary to the fact that the beard – the image of a man – is cut and the hair on the head is grown”.

We see that the apostles and saints name those who shave and cut their beards vile and repugnant to God, therefore those who are not strangers to Orthodoxy should not frivolously

violate the teachings of the Holy Church. Obedience of the Church’s rules speaks of the spiritual progress of man, of his humility and meekness, and this is important even for angels, as the apostle asserts, because angels are able to appreciate more than humans the ability to submit to divine virtue.

In conclusion, I would like to retell an profound legend included in bishop Mikhail Semenov’s sermon: “Do we need rites?”: “They carried a vessel with precious liquid, everyone fell down before it and kissed the vessel, holding this precious life-giving liquid, but critics rose and started shouting: “Blind people, why do you kiss a vessel, only the life-giving liquid contained in it is precious, only the contents are valuable, but you kiss the glass, plain glass and you attribute holiness to the glass… Idolaters, drop the vessel. Love only the living liquid, not glass”.

And so they broke the vessel, the living liquid spilt over the ground and of course, disappeared into the ground. The vessel was broken and the liquid was lost…

This excellent legend is directed against the enemies of the rite.”

Glory to our God, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages, amen!