The Religious Spirit of the Slavs (1916)
by Nikolai Velimirovic




That is the principal feeling of the Slav soul: we are neither alone in
this world nor destined for it. Whether I wander in the streets of London
or stand in the green fields outside, I have always the same feeling of
human loneliness and helplessness on one side, and the company of some
overwhelming and invisible powers on the other. I say the _feeling_ and not
_thought_, because I feel they touch me and I am unhappy because I cannot
touch them. They seem to be like shadows, and still I am sure they are
greater realities than I am. My life is dependent on theirs and their lives
are connected with, but not dependent on, my life. My being is quite
transparent to these higher intelligences, while their beings I can feel
only in the most lucid moments of my life. The dreamy nature around me is
pervaded by them, and my own life, I feel, is pervaded by them also. In
some way they disindividualise me, but on the other hand they give me
strength, light and inspiration.

What is the number of these powers surrounding us? "Many," answered
Paganism. "One only," answered Judaism and Islam. "One in Trinity,"
answered Christianity.

So–_Christianity is a viá media_ between limitless Polytheism and absolute
Monotheism. Professor Haeckel of Jena, in his hatred of Christianity,
instanced Mohammedanism as a better religion and scornfully called the
Christian religion "Polytheism." The definition is not altogether untrue.
Paganism was not wholly false. The Christian dogma of the Trinity in
relation to this world symbolically means unity in multitude. This dogma
expresses a principle, an idea, rather than a number. As we cannot define
God’s being chemically, historically, psychologically, etc., how can we
hope to define Him mathematically? God is beyond numbers; He is beyond
scientific research; beyond all expression. _One in three_, that is
half-way to Polytheism and to Monotheism. _One in three_ gives the
substance of God’s life and binds Him to His own work, the created world.

God’s own life is dramatic internally, and externally (in relation to the
world). That is the real meaning of the dogma of the Trinity. God is
somehow one, and yet not one; rather He is a pluralistic unity. He can take
part in the human drama and still remain the God of the Universe. He can
suffer and still remain perfect. He can be omnipresent in the world and
still not be wholly immersed in it. "I cannot understand it; it is a
mystery to me," exclaimed Tolstoi. Certainly he could not understand it;
who could? We cannot understand our own beings. Modern biology discovered
that a human body consists of millions and millions of corpuscles, minute
organic cells which live their life and go their way unconscious of the
human person formed by themselves. New discoveries may open up new
problems, but the ancient mysteries about everything in the world continue
to be omnipresent. How could we have more knowledge about God except some
few glances, some imperfect allusions, some symbolical combinations?

However, lacking a clear and perfect understanding, we still feel that we
are not alone in the world. God is all round us like the atmosphere that we
breathe. The more we try to escape from this atmosphere, the closer it
seems to pervade us. Tolstoi felt this as strongly as the most orthodox
Fathers of the Church. Yet his doctrines on God, vague and pantheistic as
they are, slow to ascribe to God any traditional qualities and trying in
vain to invent new ones–his doctrines on God are less comprehensible than
the dogma of the Trinity–less comprehensible, less applicable, and


Not Napoleon, but God; not London, but God. Tolstoi analysed Napoleon’s
life and character, and found that he was no better or greater than
thousands of other men who followed him. Why should London be called great?
Yes, perhaps it can be called great compared with anything on earth, except
God. I say, _except God_, because after a thousand years, i.e., after one
God’s day, God will be surely the same, and London? Will it be in existence
a thousand years hence? Who knows? Walking in the streets of London I look
round me and see nothing great except God.

The famous Russian literature from Gogol to Dostojevsky is the finest
psychological analysis of men. The result of this analysis was: there
exists no great man. No one is great: neither Shakespeare nor Napoleon,
neither Peter the Great nor Kutuzov, neither the Russian landlords nor the
Czar himself, neither Prince Bolkonsky nor Raskolnikov, neither Nero nor
St. Paul, neither Beaconsfield nor Osman Pasha, neither Pope nor Patriarch,
neither Dalai-Lama nor Sheik-ul-Islam. How could they be great since they
must sleep, and eat, and be sick and disappointed, and despair, and die? A
review was made by the Russian authors–a review of ancient and modern
great men–and a verdict arrived at. For a thousand years Christian Russia
kept silent and listened to the hymns to the ancient and modern great men,
to the heroes whom they worshipped. She listened to the hymns and worship
of the great men while she begrudged praise to the good and saintly and
suffering men. Russia is called "Holy," not because she pretends to be
_holy_, but because her ideal is holiness–not greatness but holiness. She
first made use of the word in the nineteenth century. The poet Pushkin
first used it, and he used it in the customary way, like Lord Byron, or
Goethe, praising the great men, although still alluding here and there to
the true Russian ideal–to the good and saintly man. But he spoke not in
order to say a new, an original word to the world, but only to break the
silence and to attract the attention of the world to Russia. He was the
first of a series of preachers. He was listened to and applauded, but he
said nothing new. After him followed the preachers: Gogol, Tolstoi,
Goncharov, Tchehov, Turgeniev, Dostojevsky, and many others, like a choir,
in which three voices are still the strongest and most expressive: Gogol,
Tolstoi, Dostojevsky. What did they say?

They held a grand review of the souls, of the ancient and modern souls, and
found that there exists no great man among them. That was their verdict. In
all their writings they tried to show in the clearest manner, and to the
smallest detail, that there is no great man in the world. They analysed
everyone who was mentioned and adored by worldly society or by tradition as
a great man, and proved that he was not a great man at all. It was very
courageous indeed to speak like that in a world which was accustomed from
the beginning, in the pagan as in the Christian epoch, to adore greatness,
to divinise great men, to imitate and to worship heroes. It was still more
courageous to speak like that in the nineteenth century, when the worship
of great men found so many advocates, when the name of the demi-god
Napoleon filled every corner of the earth; when German philosophy, poetry
and music emphasised personality and individuality when the whole
continental theology followed the way of Cæsar and interpreted Christianity
as a teaching and promotion of individualism in human life. Yea, it
happened in the time when Carlyle, fascinated by German theories, ended the
matter and pressed the whole world’s history into some few biographies.
Carlyle’s "Heroes and Hero-Worship"–curiously enough–was published about
the same time as Tolstoi’s "War and Peace." Two antipodes! Dostojevsky’s
"Brothers Caramazov" was published nearly at the same time as Nietzsche’s
"Zarathustra" with its message of the Superman. Again two antipodes! You
will in vain try to find such contrasts in the world as the Russian and
Germano-Carlylean literature. Petronius and Seneca could read and
understand very well Goethe and Carlyle, but they could not read and
understand Tolstoi and Dostojevsky, nor could they understand the
Christianity of their own time.

"Great men!" exclaimed the Roman world on their dying beds.

"Great men!" exclaimed rejuvenated Western Europe in the nineteenth
century. History consists of great men. The very aim of history is to
produce great men.

"No," answered Holy Russia, who kept silent for a thousand years. The ideal
of the great man is the fast ideal of the childhood of mankind, of the
youthful Pagan world. We are grown up in the Christian spirit; we can no
longer live in the childish illusions and dreams of great men. We see them
as they are. There has never existed and does not yet exist a great man. No
one great man ever existed.

On this point Tolstoi and the Holy Synod were in agreement with each other
and with the common spirit of the Russian people. They all agreed with
their whole heart in the denial of the Greco-Roman worship of great men,
which worship was everywhere revived in modern Europe in poetry,
philosophy, politics, art and even in theology. For eighteen hundred years
Western Europe was the spokesman of the Christian world and Russia kept
silent. When, after eighteen hundred years, Russia came to the world, her
answer was a decisive _No_. But that was not all she had to say. She had
also to say a decisive _Yes_.


_No_ and _Yes_. There is in the Slav religious conscience a _No_ and a

_No_–for a great man; _Yes_–for a saintly man.

_No_–for pride; _Yes_–for humility.

_No_–for individualism; _Yes_–for panhumanism.

_No_–for longing after pleasure; _Yes_–for longing after suffering.

History has proved that a great man is impossible and, even more,
undesirable, and that a saintly man is both possible and desirable. It is
proved also that a so-called great man meant a great danger for mankind; a
saintly man never could be dangerous. We do not need great men at all, we
need good and saintly men. We ought not to seek after greatness, but after
goodness and saintliness. Greatness is no real virtue, but goodness and
saintliness are virtues. Greatness is only an illusion, but goodness and
saintliness are realities. Christianity came to impress these realities on
the human conscience and to sweep illusions away.

The whole history of Christianity is a continual struggle between realities
and illusions. All the wars between Christians and pagans, and between
Christians themselves, from the time of Christ until our time, had always
the same meaning–a struggle between the Christian realities of goodness
and saintliness and the pagan illusions of greatness. The present War has
the same meaning as all the wars since Christ came until Bismarck. This war
was prophesied by Dostojevsky forty years ago. Dostoievsky was the only
contemporary man towards whom Nietzsche felt respect and even fear because
of his deep thought and clairvoyance. With his genial insight into human
nature, Dostojevsky saw clearly the inevitable conflict of the different
camps of Europe, whose apparent and hypocritical peace was only a busy
preparation for conflict. "Everything will be pulled down," he said,
"especially European pride." He had also a vision of what will come after
this great conflict. "Christ," he said, "nothing else but Christ Himself
will come in the form of panhuman brotherhood and panhuman love."


Love the sinner as well! Do not fly away from the sinners, but go to them
without fear. After all–whoever you may be–you are not much better than
they are. Try to love the sinners; you will see that it is easier to love
those whom you despise than those whom you envy. The old Zosim (from the
"Brothers Caramazov") said, "Brothers, don’t be afraid of the sins of a
sinner; but love a sinner also–that is the record of love upon earth." I
know you love St. Peter and St. John, but could you love the sinner
Zacchæeus? You can love the good Samaritan but love, please, the prodigal
son also! You love Christ, I am sure; but what about Judas, the seller of
Christ? He repented, poor human creature. Why don’t you love him?
Dostojevsky–like Tolstoi and Gogol–emphasised two things: first, there is
no great man; secondly, there is no worthless man. He described the
blackest crimes and the deepest fall and showed that the authors of such
crimes are men just as other men, with much good hidden under their sins.
Servants and vagabonds, idiots and drunkards, the dirty _katorzniki_ from
the Serbian prisons–all those people are God’s sons and daughters, with
souls full of fears and hopes, of repentance and longings after good and

Between _saintliness_ and _vice_ there is a bridge, not an abyss. The
saintliest and the meanest men have still common ground for brotherhood.
Your sins are my sins, my sins are your sins. That is the starting-point
for a practical and lucid Christianity. I cannot be clean as long as you
are not clean. I cannot be happy as long as you are unhappy. I cannot enter
Heaven as long as you are in Hell. What does that mean? It means that you
and I are blended together for eternity, and that your effort to separate
yourselves from me is disastrous for you and for me. As long as you look to
the greatest sinner in the world and say: "God, I thank thee that I am not
as that man," you are far from Christ and the Kingdom of God. God wants not
one good man only, He wants a Kingdom of good men. If ninety-nine of us are
good and saintly but one of our brothers is far from our solace and
support, in sin and darkness, be sure God is not among us ninety-nine, but
He has gone to find our brother whom we have lost and forgotten. Will you
follow him or will you stand self-sufficient? Never has there existed in
the world such a social power binding man to man and commanding each to
take and bear the other’s sorrows as Christianity did. Your sins are my
sins, my sins are your sins. Such a conception of the Christian religion
had Tolstoi in common with Dostojevsky and Gogol, with the Holy Synod, with
the popular religious conscience of millions and millions of the living and
the dead, in the orthodox world, and with all the _jurodivi_, the fools for
Christ’s sake. That is the religious spirit of the best of the Slavs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *