Russian Sophiology has returned. For decades, speaking of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov or any of the Russian Sophiologists was usually to invoke a niche interest. Yet today, judging by translations and secondary literature, Fr. Bulgakov in particular has emerged as a force in systematic theology that far exceeds mere historical or confessional interest. His contemporary relevance as a daring theologian and religious thinker par excellence has not only caught the eye of contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians, but (arguably even more so!) from Roman Catholic and Anglican thinkers as well. And while the major works of his systematic and experimental thought are now largely translated, we are only now getting the first glimpses of the more personal writings.
Roberto De La Noval has previously translated Bulgakov’s harrowing encounter with terminal throat cancer in The Sophiology of Death: Essays on Eschatology, and now he has teamed up with Mark Roosien to present Bulgakov’s spiritual diary from 1924-1925, a time of exile for him and his family, in translation and theological context. It should provide, even if implicitly, one of the greatest possible defenses of Fr. Bulgakov’s theology. The spiritual diary does not paint a portrait of someone addicted to novelty; it paints a remarkably ordinary picture of conventional spiritual topics and moods. He records the cycles of the spiritual life assiduously, marking all the difficulties of cultivating gratitude, patience, and forbearance. He speaks constantly of love for God and the great labor and joy that is prayer. He encounters the same cycles of joy, tedium, despondency, and contentment that would be familiar terrain in most spiritual writers East or West. This diary presents a man of extraordinary intellectual gifts and vision encountering the same everyday duties and tasks of any husband, father, and priest.
While much of the diary is prosaic, the secretly smoldering embers of Bulgakov’s creative spiritual vision occasionally burst into full flame. In one passage he writes that “Holy Week and Christ’s Pascha are marvelous and manifest miracles of God that appear every year, like the stirring of the waters at the pool of Siloam. ..The soul is aflame and burns everything with a blazing fire in the marvelous days of Holy Week, and in dying it experiences bliss, and in bliss the soul dies. And afterwards this flame suddenly and immediately transforms and turns into the paradisiacal, luminous, and gladdening white Paschal fire, neither scorching nor burning.” These reveries punctuate the diary but never to an excessive degree. The next page after this passage, for instance, is dominated by how needful it is to love the work of prayer and fight through any laziness or spiritual cold when attending church services. His audacious theological creativity was clearly rooted, sustained, and in one sense nother other than the Orthodox liturgical and ascetic practice.
It is no surprise then, that Bulgakov’s writing teems with passages exulting in the angels and saints of God. And it positively overflows whenever he considers the Mother of God. He describes her consecration in the Holy of Holies “the greatest consecration possible for man”. It was a consecration which initiated her immediately into sorrow, first in separation from her parents, and later at Golgotha in separation from her son. Bulgakov’s sophianic Mariology is clearly an extended reflection on the Akathist hymn and his passionate exaltations of her combine the traditional epithets with his own insights. He calls her the “salvation of the world, You are the soothing of the groaning creation, You are the bearer of the Holy Spirit. You are the Holy Spirit manifested as a human being. You are the Mother of our God and of the entire human race.” De La Noval explains further:
“It is not that Mary’s humanity is an incarnation of the Spirit, as Christ’s humanity is for the divine Word. Rather, what is in view here is the maximal transparency of Mary’s humanity to the Spirit, so that if you have seen the Mother, you have seen the Spirit; conversely, where the Spirit is, there too is the Theotokos. Thus at the eschaton, she will manifest the Spirit as Christ’s Co-Judge, and through her compassion and the Son’s purifying, just fire, she answer the prayers of the faithful: ‘Through the intercessions of the Theotokos, Savior, save us.’”
The diary also displays the anguish of a man in exile. Bulgakov’s heart and mind often returned to the violent turmoil taking place in his native Russia. Like his theological forerunner, Vladimir Solovyov, Bulgakov thought Russia did have a unique spiritual destiny of world-historical significance. That most Russian of saints, Seraphim of Sarov, forms a central point of his meditation. In Bulgakov’s ruminations, St. Seraphim is the whole nation contracted into an individual and at the same time a titanic figure that spiritually towers over the whole nation protecting her. Yet unlike his Slavophile contemporaries, this unique love of homeland did not cause him to embrace a parochial nationalism or to identify pre-revolutionary tsarist Russia with a divinely willed order. As Mark Roosien explains, Bulgakov found the dichotomies of “rational individualistic West” and “organic exotic East” peddled by the Eurasianists distinctly lacking. Nor would he, to speak of our own time, look favorably on the Neo-Eurasianism of Aleksandr Dugin and others. All of the major Russian Sophiologists hoped that Russia could chart a course beyond the increasingly techno-capitalist Europe while avoiding a crude pan-Slavist revanchism.
But while his dear friend Pavel Florensky attempted to find those “sacral coordinates” for a future society from inside the currently existing government, Bulgakov was forced to wander further and further away from home. He saw in Christ the exemplary exile. Christ longed for Jerusalem yet had no place to rest his head. In a sense, we must all learn to make our natural loves strange and avoid that subtle form of self-worship that masquerades as patriotism. Bulgakov wondered if the apostles also felt that mixture of sadness and the intoxicating newness as they were scattered to the ends of the earth. “Thanks be to God that He grants us to know both the anguish and the sweetness of this separation and this freedom. We would not be citizens of His world and His land if we remained merely citizens of our own land.” It is even possible to glimpse, in this deeply Eastern Orthodox reflection on wandering, a theological bridge leading to the practices of Western mendicant orders. Stability and exile can both be apostolic. That is as much a political as it is a spiritual meditation: Bulgakov’s reflections on this are as relevant for us now as it was for Europe and Russia in the 1920’s.
Andrew Kuiper enjoys reading and writing about German philosophers, Russian theologians, and Italian Kabbalists. He lives in Michigan with his wife Catherine and their three children. His essays and poetry have been published in Church Life Journal, Jesus the Imagination, and The Lamp.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.