Russian Orthodoxy was born towards the end of the first Christian millennium.
According to the chronicle, Vladimir (or Volodimer) Prince of Kiev - whose conversion inaugurated Russian Orthodoxy - sent envoys to his neighbouring nations which embraced some form of monotheism such as Judaism, Islam, Western and Eastern Christianity. What convinced these nations of the superiority of the Eastern Orthodoxy of Constantinople was their worship: ‘we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth... We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer that the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.’
The Russian Orthodox Church is one of the family of Eastern Orthodox Churches—Greeks, Slavs, Romanians, mostly. Tthese Churches owe their faith to the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern part of the Christian Roman Empire. Today they are all national churches with their own hierarchies who worship in their own languages each sharing the same faith which is defined by the seven ‘worldwide’ (or Œcumenical) Synods convoked between the fourth and the eight centuries. The Churches also share the same pattern of liturgical worship; they are as it were, different dialects of a commonly shared language.
It was the beauty of Byzantine worship that struck the envoys and came to mark Russian Orthodoxy. Particularly the splendour of our worship and the solemnity with which Russians perform their liturgical actions, for example making the sign of the cross, bows and prostrations.
When Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin thought that ‘beauty will save the world’, he expressed an authentically Orthodox insight, one that is a fundamental conviction about the nature of God. God is not thought of, first of all, as a final metaphysical principle, nor as an ultimate moral sanction but rather as the ‘God, before whom we stand in awe’ (as one of our prayers puts it). He is the One whom we worship and to whom we pray, because he is the source of all brought into being in love, and cares for everything he has created.
The church buildings in which we worship are not just utilitarian structures, but places of beauty. They are symbolic structures that represent the created order, the cosmos. From the dome of the church, Christ the Pantokrator the ruler of all, gazes down in mercy and love.
In our human prayer we embrace the whole cosmos, because we have been created by God in his image. We have been created as miniature versions of the cosmos (‘microcosms’), on the frontier between spiritual and material realms.
Our role, placed as we are in God’s cosmos, is to fulfil the role of priest of nature (the shepherd of being) and interpret the mysteries of the divine meaning of the cosmos. The amazing discoveries of modern science can only be welcomed by such an interpretation of humans in relation to the cosmos.
But the world, as we know it, is also marred by ugliness. Its beauty is torn by cruelty. Prince Myshkin spoke of beauty saving the world from ugliness, distortion and brokenness. He talked about saving it from a mystery of iniquity that we hardly understand, but which we see reflected all too clearly in our human failings, those of greed, pride, lust for power and all the ways in which we fall short of being human.
This beauty that will save the world is the beauty of God, perceived by the human, in the human and in the human face of Christ which looks down in compassion from the domes of our churches.