In his eulogy to the holy martyrs, saint John Chrysostom writes: “The death of the martyrs was for them the acquisition of the Heavenly crown. Because the martyrs loved Christ more than all earthly goods and even more than their lives, the Lord bestowed upon them such great rewards that no word can depict them: «What no eye has seen, – says the Apostle, – nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him» (1 Cor. 2: 9).
Those who, fulfilling the commandment of Christ, gave their lives for the salvation of their neighbours, Christ calls His friends, saying: «You are my friends» (John 15:14), for «greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends» (John 15:13).
Such a great sacrificial love was shown in his life by the holy martyr Avvákum, who now, according to the Lord’s vow, enjoys the eternal glory of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Today there is no persecution and torment for the faith. Saint John Chrysostom, finishing his sermon on martyrs, says, as it were, about our time: “Now do you not regret that now is no longer the time of torment?” – and instructs us: “But we also can do great deeds, as in the time of martyrdom. The martyrs despised life; despise pleasure. They cast their bodies into the fire; now cast your possessions into the hands of the poor. They trampled hot coals under their feet; extinguish the flame of lust. This is difficult, but also useful. Look not at the regrettable present, but at the pleasant future, not at the existing disasters – but at the goods, which are hoped for, not at the sufferings – but at the rewards, not at the labours – but at the crowns, not at the feats – but at the recompense, not at the sorrows – but for consolations, not at the burning fire – but at the forthcoming Kingdom, not at the surrounding executioners – but at the crowning Christ.”
The life of hieromartyr and confessor Avvákum, crowned by Christ for his sufferings and sorrows with the crown of bliss, strikes the imagination by his incredible patience, steadfastness and endurance with which he endured the deprivations and afflictions that fell to his lot. He accepted this cross of his, the cross of the confessor of faith, and carried it, not retreating before trials and not bending under its weight.
The name “Avvákum” in translation from Hebrew means “the love of God”, as well as “a strong fighter”, which very significantly reflects his entire life. Avvákum himself wrote about the destination of the difficult life path of a clergyman: “If he wished to serve God, he should not grieve for himself.”
No suffering and torment on this path could separate him from Christ: “The mind will not engulf the feat of sufferings,” said Avvákum in the “Word Full of Tears” about the three confessors (Theodora Morozova, Yevdokiya Urusova, Máriya Danilova) – these words can also be attributed to his feats of martyrdom, about which he, as if jokingly, writes: “It will be long to wait for another such time: the Kingdom of Heaven is falling into the mouth by itself.”
The reasons that led to the church schism in Russia in the 17th century will, perhaps, seem insignificant and minor to someone today, or even unimportant; the uncompromising resistance to these innovations – idle and reckless, as if it was not worth going to the torment and giving your life for that. To people of little faith, the differences between the two-fingered and the three-fingered sign of the cross, between the spellings ‘Isus’ and “Iisus” for the name of Jesus, between the formulas «True and Life-giving Lord» or simply “Life-giving Lord” in the Creed; double or triple Hallelujah; the use of seven or five prosphoras at the proskomedia; the procession around a church following the sun or against it, and so on, — seem to be petty and insignificant
However, if those were really insignificant trifles, then what sense was there for the reformers to persecute the adherents of the old rituals, torture and execute them?
Christ, who in humility brought His saving teaching, prophetically warned His followers: «They will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake» (Matt. 24:10). And He also spoke about the times of persecution: «Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death» (Mark 13:12).
Only the demonic obscuration of the proud mind of those who carried out the Church reform by violence can somehow explain the cruelty with which the Old Faith and its supporters were destroyed. Writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn writes with bitterness about the reform of the 17th century: “Oppression and destruction of the established ancient piety, persecution and reprisals against twelve million of our fellow-believers and compatriots, cruel tortures for them, tearing out of tongues, tongs, rack, fire and death, deprivation of churches, exile thousand miles away to a foreign land – for those steadfast faithful ancient Orthodox Christians who never rebelled, never raised weapons in response.”
The ruling tsarist and ecclesiastical authorities, implementing reforms, demanded that the Russian people to abandon the customs and rituals sanctified by centuries in Russia, and to recognize instead the superiority of modern Greek rituals, which by that time had lost succession and truthfulness. After the union of the Greeks with Rome (1439), there had been no more metropolitans of Greek origin at the head of the Russian Church. And the Greek ecclesiastical adventurers and crooks, who appeared 200 years later at the beginning of the schism, declared the ancient rite preserved in Russia the fruit of darkness and ignorance – for political and economic reasons, with conceit and impudence. In fact, the whole faith that was adopted by Russia from the ancient Greek Church and by which the Russian people were saved for centuries, with the help of which they won victories over enemies and adversaries, nurtured and showed to the world the saints, and strengthened Holy Russia – this whole faith was declared by the “new” Greeks a false product of superstition and ignorance.
The Tsar and Nikon implanted the new faith according to the Western model, trying by force to break, intimidate, humiliate the human dignity of those who did not want to accept the innovations. For believers at that time there was a big difference between the traditional, salvific, their own faith, coming from the depths of the soul and centuries, and the strange “faith”, imposed from outside by force. The acceptance of another “faith” meant not a change of faith, but the betrayal, loss and desecration of any faith, trampling on one’s own convictions, the situation when “the salt has lost its saltiness ” (Luke 14:34), that is, the rejection of the possibility of saving the soul.
Avvákum understood that perfectly. He firmly believed that Holy Russia with its capital Moscow – the “Third Rome” – preserved its faith uncorrupted by any changes, and it is not fitting for it to look for other patterns of faith in those lands where, under the onslaught of enemies and “Latin heresies”, the purity and salvificacy of Orthodoxy had long been lost, where only an empty form remained from the Church and the faith.
The God-loving people, zealots of ancient piety and old rituals, were accused of “ritualism.” But they adhered to the old rituals, because they clearly saw that the attack on the rituals and their trampling is an attack on the saving faith, and they rejected the new rites precisely because they were the distortion of the faith, trampling on the faith, the rejection of the faith. In this, Avvákum and his followers were farseeing, for they saw the approach of the terrible era of unbelief, the “era of the antichrist”. It was important for them to tell their descendants that the time is coming when the good and the evil would be mixed with each other, the time of the “substitution” of faith and its extinction. Deacon Theodor wrote to Avvákum about this: “Do you see, lover of God, the malice of the devil, how many-coloured he has made the difference and armed it against the Church of God, wanting to extinguish the seed of faith and the faithful.”
We should not think that Avvákum and his like-minded people were generally against good and right changes in the Church. The circle of the “Zealots of Piety” was the first to start correcting errors in books, but they considered not the Greek books of their day, but the primary sources – the ancient Greek and Slavic manuscripts – to be the reliable sources for corrections.
Avvákum and his supporters were against those changes and “corrections” which, according to the historian Zenkovskiy, the Tsar and Patriarch Nikon introduced in order to “offend and humiliate the Russian faith and the Russian Church,” proclaiming that it had not kept the true faith, but had abided in mistakes and superstition. Thus the Acts of the Council of 100 Chapters (1551), which confirmed the two-fingered sign of the cross and the double hallelujah, was characterized in the following way: “It was written unreasonably with simplicity and ignorance”. Metropolitan Macarius, who was the leader of that Council, was also accused of ignorance: “For that Macarius Metropolitan, and those with him, reasoned in their ignorance, without discernment…”
It is also important to note that Nikon started to “correct” books and rituals at such a time when, according to the “Zealots of Piety,” it was necessary to correct not the books in the first place, but everyday life of the church and the social morals. They urged the clergy and laity to return to the observance of Christian commandments and norms of spiritual life. Archpriest Avvákum writes very frankly about the mores of that time in his autobiographical narration: “My father was priest Piotr … he was diligent in drinking alcohol.” The mores that were implanted in Russia by the tyranny of Nikon and his accomplices, corrupted the clergy even more, for they sought to imitate their “great sovereign” in everything.
Seeing all this, Avvákum could not remain silent, his conscience prompted him to denounce the evil, to teach, to preach the truth, as he himself said: “to grumble about my heart’s pain.” This courageous heart was in pain from the fact that they encroached on the holy of holies – the pious antiquity and the ancient Russian tradition, which elevated Russia to the height of holiness. Therefore, with such grief and pain, Avvákum writes about Nikon’s reforms: “They say themselves, taught by the devil: somehow, only not in the old way! Oh, dogs! How did the antiquity disturb you? Perhaps, it is hard to fornicate — for the old holy books forbid it? … Press yourself close, brother, to that antiquity, persecuted by everyone, with your heart and with all your soul! Here is all our life hidden in God.”
Nikon’s reforms, which threw away the experience of faith and holiness, broke the link between times, the spiritual succession. Instead of striving for the union of the soul with God, they affirmed the union of the soul with the earthly and perishable, and, hence, the break with the Heavenly and eternal. This is why, sensing this rupture, Avvákum, who was not afraid of anything but God, writes in confusion and trembling: “My heart grew cold and my legs shook.” From this insight of a spiritual catastrophe, prophetic words about the reform are born in his soul: “And that alleged correction of yours will not have an end, until not even the smallest part of Christianity remains in you.”
The reforms of the foundations of the Church, the motives of which were rather political than spiritual, destroyed the pious old traditions, replacing them with distorted new Greek ones. The tradition of the Church and the Russian antiquity were sacrificed to the reform. A great multitude of non-obedient opponents of the innovations were burned and tortured to death, but not broken by the cruelty of the new-born Russian “Inquisition”.
The Christian spirit of meekness and humility, which the Savior commanded to His followers for the establishing of the faith, was trampled by the reformers, and therefore Avvákum writes with bitterness: “… my Christ did not order our apostles to teach this way, to bring into the faith with fire, with a whip, and with a gallows.”
To those lovers of the antiquity who endured torment and executions for the faith, in contrast to their persecutors, who, according to Avvákum, lived “with the sweetness of this world and bodily joy,” the Lord, Who «loves righteousness and hates wickedness» (Ps. 45:7), undoubtedly granted the delights the future age.
The reform of the 17th century split the Russian people into those who for the sake of the earthly goods renounced the Orthodox saving path, and those righteous who, for the sake of Heaven, considered everything earthly nothing, who saved their souls, enduring all their hardships to the end. The latter include the most part of the common Russian people, out of which came the holy fighter and sufferer for the faith, Archpriest Avvákum.
Avvákum Petrovich was born in 1621 (1620) in the village of Grigorovo of the Nizhny Novgorod region in the family of priest Piotr. Orphaned early, Avvákum was brought up by his mother Máriya, “a woman great in fasting and prayer.” The little village-dweller came to know the sorrows of life early on. He grew up in a family where he saw the moral fall of his alcoholic father, and at the same time the example of his mother, who knew how to illuminate the dark everyday life of work and hardship with the light of faith and love. She prayed day and night, enlivening her prayers with tears, perhaps wishing to atone in that way for the sins that she saw in the life of her husband. Every morning and evening, little Avvákum prayed with the whole family, being imbued with unshakable faith in the almighty and omnipresent God, getting to know His severity and mercy. His heart warmed up in prayer, tears flowed freely. He knew from his mother that without tears there is no true prayer and therefore throughout all his life he did not hide, nor was ashamed of tears, giving full vent to his feelings.
During this childhood time, an incident happened to him, insignificant in itself, but which became decisive for him. In his “Life” he says: a neighbor’s cow, which nurtured all the family, died. The cow’s death was a great disaster. Of course, screaming and crying arose. Little Avvákum saw the motionless body of the animal, and that first encounter with death made him think about the meaning of life. With his whole being he felt the truth, which his mother had repeatedly spoken about: we will all die and the strict Judge – the Lord – will meet us in order to settle us either in heaven or in hell. “I will die too!” – he thought, and decided once and for all to live exclusively for God. That night he got up to pray and burst into sobs with words of remorse. On that night, in fear, hope and awe, a new spiritual man was perhaps born in him, who already knew in what arrangement of the soul he had to go through life to the salvation.
At the age of seventeen, Avvákum married the daughter of a rural blacksmith – Anastásiya, who later became his faithful “helper to the salvation.” It was not a marriage of convenience or by the compulsion of parents, but of love based on the same life principles. Anastásiya Markovna proved to be a reliable support and helper to Avvákum throughout his heroic and arduous life.
With the marriage Avvákum’s new life began. The willingness of the spouses to selflessly serve God and people allowed Avvákum to become a deacon at 21, a priest at 23, and an archpriest at 30. Labour, tireless prayer and passionate preaching gave him the strength to heal the sick, protect the weak, help the oppressed – in general, according to the word of the Gospel, «lay down his life for his sheep» (John 10:11). All this attracted numerous parishioners to the young priest. But three years after his appointment as a priest Avvákum was compelled to flee the village in which he served, because of the animosity of those who did not like the denunciation of their despotism and moral licentiousness. In Moscow, where he went, seeking protection from the persecutors, Avvákum became close with the circle of the “Zealots of Piety” headed by the Tsar’s confessor Stephan Vnifantyev. The goal of the God-lovers, as they were called, was to put in good order church services, to republish liturgical literature, and, most importantly, to correct the morals of clergy and laity.
Priest Avvákum carried out the program of the circle of God-lovers conscientiously and zealously, for which he again incurred the wrath of the “governors”, and therefore was compelled to move to the town of Yuryevets-Povolskiy, and then back to Moscow, where he began to serve in the Church of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God on the Red Square.
Nikon’s reforms, which violated the traditions of the Holy Fathers of the Church, compelled Avvákum to join the struggle against the heretical innovations.
The courageous archpriest did not become afraid of the “inventions” of the patriarch-despot, who, with violence and power, imposed his “innovations”. After he refused to serve according to the new rite, Avvákum was forced to transfer the service from the church to a “dryer”, that is, a shed. There, during an all-night vigil, he was seized and imprisoned in the Moscow Andronikov monastery. By the order of Nikon, he was severely beaten, chained and starved, and then, together with his family, exiled to the Siberian city of Tobolsk. After a while, he was sentenced to another exile – even further east, to the wild Trans-Baikal land Dauria, under the command of “fierce commander” Pashkov. For ten years Avvákum and his family lived in incredibly difficult conditions, experiencing hunger and cold, beatings and humiliation by the cruel commander. During his exile, Avvákum lost his two small children, however that did not break him, he did not lose heart and wrote about his persecutor Pashkov: “For ten years he tortured me – or did I torture him?”.
To his faithful associates and close friends he sends messages from Siberia, in which he inspires them for martyrdom, calls for perseverance: “Blessed is the one who has accomplished, not the one who began,” writes Avvákum. Before the council of 1666 Avvákum was brought to Moscow to convince him to accept Nikon’s innovations. To convene the Council Tsar Alexey Mikhaylovich invited foreign hierarchs – immoral, greedy for money, despising Russian “barbarians”. Paisios Ligarides was appointed the main protagonist of the Council. He was a rogue and Latinist who had been defrocked. With the help of that corrupt team the Tsar managed to humiliate and trample the old faith, slander everything Russian, punish those who tried to resist the reforms. For ten weeks at the Council Avvákum was persuaded to reconcile with the reforms, to give up the struggle, but it was all in vain. Answering the threats of his judges, who unlawfully anathematized and defrocked him, he boldly declared: “I believe and confess in this way, with this I live and die.”
Avvákum felt that the Lord guarded him. In exile, subject to various ordeals, to cold and hunger, he remained alive and well. He was beaten with a whip and with sticks, he was within a hair’s breadth from being drowned, burned or impaled – and every time he was miraculously saved by the Providence of God. Once, when he was tormented by thirst in the middle of a frozen lake, the ice suddenly crackled at his prayer, parted, and an ice-hole formed. “And with tears I fell down to the ice-hole and drank my fill of water,” writes Avvákum. Further in the “Life” he writes about himself that once he choked on a small piece of fish, so that he almost died. And only his little daughter Agrippina, “edified by God,” brought him back to life, hitting him hard in the back with her elbows. This incident gave Avvákum a reason to reproach himself “for glorifying himself before God, because he gave me water to drink in the middle of the lake.” He calls this proud “self-glorification” madness, and himself a “fool”, because he did not understand that by that miracle God glorifies His Holy Name through a human being. With great humility and trust in the mercy and protection of God, Avvákum writes about this case: “Look, insane, do not glorify yourself, but expect from God; as God wants, so He does. And you – what a saint: drank from the sea, and choked on a crumb. And you glorify yourself, bad dirt: I drove out demons, did this, that – but you couldn’t help yourself, if only not a child! “
In 1667, the Council passed the final verdict: the “teacher of the schism” Avvákum and his associates should be sent to Pustoziorsk – this is a place near the Arctic Ocean, in the land of permafrost, “tundra, cold and forestless place” according to Avvákum’s own words. Here his fifteen-year “sitting” in an earthen pit took place, about which he wrote: “I sit here buried under the ground. I have not a thread on me, only a cross with a lace and beads in my hand with which I defend myself from demons. What God sends I will eat, and if not, this way is also good. By Christ Jesus feed, our brother, the living dead, with sighing and tears, until the soul is in the body; and when it separates, it is also good, buried alive.” Buried in the frozen ground and deprived of the most necessary things, Avvákum still continued his preaching in the defence of the old faith: “Let us stand, for God’s sake, well, let us stand like men, let’s not betray the good faith!” — he writes from prison to his associates. Through faithful people Avvákum sends letters to his spiritual children, epistles, homilies, petitions addressed to the Tsar throughout the whole Russia.
In his petitions he boldly accuses the Tsar that he “laid down a new erroneous law, but belched out and cursed the paternal true one.” At the same time Avvákum clearly determines that the Nikonian clergy, out of fear and personal gain, went into the service of the secular power, turning from legislators of spiritual morality into the servants of the Tsar, who gave them sops: «What they are told, they do, – Avvákum writes. – They have only learned: Yes, Sire! Of course, Sire! Good, Sire!”
The authorities responded to these petitions with new persecutions against the spiritual children and followers of Avvákum.
This is followed by an inner break with the king, who becomes for him a stranger, an adversary, an enemy, an “instrument of the devil”, and his state — an anti-Christian source of malice and violence, together with a new church subordinate to it.
In Pustozersk he wrote his famous “Life”. Listening to the calls of Avvákum to keep the good faith like men, an increasing number of Russian people stood up to defend the trampled Orthodoxy. After the brutal suppression of the Solovki uprising followed the death of Tsar Alexey Mikhaylovich, who had been cursed by the defenders of Solovki.
Avvákum addressed a petition to the new Tsar – Theodor, in which he wrote: “The Solovetsky monastery broke his proud power” (of the father-Tsar), and admonished him to return to his grandfather’s piety, because of the violation of which his father, Alexey Mikhaylovich, ended up in hell.
In response, an order followed: “for the great blasphemy against the Royal house” the prisoners of Pustoziorsk should be burned. On April 14, 1682, on the Good Friday, Avvákum and his “fellow prisoners” – priest Lazarus, deacon Theodor, monk Yepiphaniy — were burnt.
The whole life of the “fiery” Avvákum was a heroic ministry to God and people. He was one of the first to understand the falsity and perniciousness of the Tsar’s and Nikon’s reforms, behind which their claims to the world domination stood. As a true patriot and defender of the pious faith of the fathers, he went for it to cruel torment and death. At the behest of the voice of his conscience, the reproaches of which he feared more than anything else in the world, Avvákum accomplished the feat, to which the Lord strengthened him in defending the old faith. According to the historian-academician Sergey Platonov, “Ancient Russia did not know a more energetic and bright person than Avvákum, it was an unusually passionate nature, a sharp mind, an imperious will and an ardent faith in God.” The researcher of Avvákum’s life Pierre Pascal in his original work “Archpriest Avvákum and the Beginning of the Schism” characterizes the archpriest in the following way: «Avvákum was a martyr of faith, an apostle, whose example, whose fiery and immediate intelligible word, whose powerful personality, combined with an extraordinary mind, truly worthy of the original church – over and over again throughout his whole life inspired hearts.”
Enduring persecution and torment from the Nikonians, archpriest Avvákum never showed intolerance or hatred towards them, never came to cursing them. Yes, in his epistles to Tsar Theodor Alekseevich Avvákum wrote that if the Tsar had given him freedom, he, like Elijah the Prophet, would do away with all Nikonians in one day…
But one must understand the style of Avvákum’s writings, the style of that time, which often allowed exaggeration, even a joke. When Avvákum is speaking about his attitude to his persecutors seriously, he writes in the following way: “Pray for the adversary, as the Lord Himself wept for Ierosalim and Stephen the first martyr prayed for those who killed him … You also say: Lord, punish (that is, teach, enlighten) those who resist and attract to Your truth, by Your righteous ordinances.” Similarly, the apostle writes about his attitude to the people of other faiths: «If any one refuses to obey what we say … do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother» (2 Thes. 3:14-15).
Isn’t this Christian love?
And even if Avvákum in his prayer wishes that God cut off life of those who do not show any hope of repentance, this prayer is imbued with the kind thought that bodily death is better for a sinner before he his spiritual destruction reaches its end. The desire to enlighten a heretic man, to convert him to salvation, is encountered in Avvákum more than once: “I will not bring my hands down from the Heavenly Heights (that is, I will not stop praying),” he writes to the king, “until God gives you to me,” that is, converts him to the truth.
And if Avvákum writes: «Shun and hate a heretic and a spiritual slanderer» (that is, a seducer)… – it means that he he hates heresy with all his soul, and in a heretic he hates a seducer, but he has a “spiritual anguish” about a heretic man. He teaches to turn away from temptation, as Christ commanded to act in relation to those who disobey the Church.
Bearing in mind his selfless love for his heretic persecutors, we can recall his attitude towards the fierce governor Pashkov, whom Avvákum scolded in his energetic language, calling him “the servant of the antichrist,” but at the same time he was ready to give his life for “man Pashkov”, as also for his cruel servant, whom Avvákum hid in his house from the wrath of the almighty governor. He freed from severe torture the one who almost impaled him, saved the slave from certain death, hiding him under Markovna’s bed.
Avvákum, having forgiven all the atrocities of Pashkov, at the end of his life did him a great good – he tonsured him a monk. It is not without reason that Pashkov, having repented of the atrocities committed, thanks Avvákum for treating his family “fatherly – not remembering evil.”
Avvákum pities the heretic Pashkov for being unhappy and seduced by demon, and therefore writes about him: “Why should I be angry with him? … Demon clearly acts in him. Let God forgive him.” In his phrase of Avvákum about Pashkov the spirit of his attitude towards all heretics-persecutors is expressed: “They are unhappy. They are seduced by demon, how can I not feel sorry for them?” He exclaims: “People are kind to me, but devil is evil.” Therefore, it is necessary to see the real Avvákum not in his exaggerations about “doing away with Nikon and all Nikonians,” but precisely in these serious deeds and words about selfless love for enemies.
For nearly thirty years, the great sufferer Avvákum courageously endured severe hardships, hunger, cold, whip, shaking and other tortures. He was strengthened by the hope that in all trials he was not alone, that together with him many Russian people, zealots of piety, whom he inspired and encouraged with his epistles, were ready to go to torments for their faith.
Today, after 330 years have passed since the death of the preacher of piety, an outstanding writer, fighter for truth, confessor and holy martyr Avvákum, we see that his work has not perished, his spiritual instructions are vital and bring saving power and strength to us, his descendants. The Church, which he defended with all his might and by life itself, the pre-schism Church, pure, pious, with the two-fingered sign of the cross – lives. The three-rank hierarchy has been restored in it and the complete Holy Divine Liturgy is conducted, and no crafty designs of the enemy will overcome it.
As for those changes and innovations with which the church reform started turned out to be not so small and harmless. The post-reform New Rite Church, having accepted them, added to them many new changes, to which, as Avvákum prophetically wrote, there will be no end.
Brothers and sisters! Let us unwaveringly adhere to the pious Ancient Orthodox faith, and then, as the great sufferer and fighter for the faith, the holy martyr Avvákum, bequeathed: “We will not perish forever!”
Glory to our God, now and ever and unto the ages of ages, amen!