Faith, Unbelief, and Doubt: Part I. Children’s Faith, Chapter 1

This is the beginning of the serial publication of the book Faith, Unbelief, and Doubt by Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenkov) (1880-1961), an extraordinary bishop who wrote a number of directly autobiographical memoirs and other books that include many interesting facts from his life (concerning not only his own life but also different aspects of Russian culture), which was lived, according to his aptly-named autobiography, At the Turn of Two Eras.

Part I. Children’s Faith

Chapter 1

I have been accumulating material on faith and unbelief already for a long time. You could even say that almost all of my life was intertwined with these issues in one way or another. And even now I live in the atmosphere of these issues: everything else is revolving around them or intersects with them. I read lectures about these topics at the St. Petersburg Academy, the Paris Theological Institute, and in various public addresses. I also have notes and sketches, and now during this free week I will write down what I am able.

* * *

This will certainly not be a “lecture” but rather “autobiographical” notes. Since I have experienced questions about faith in my life and what I thought about them, this is like a “confession of faith.”

And I want it to be lively, for I really lived through it all. These are notes or observations of the heart then shaped in the mind.

* * *

And it will prove useful for someone, for people are similar.

* * *

I will begin from the time that I remember having faith.

* * *

Of course I do not remember how and when the first words and the thought of faith were cast into my heart by my mother… My memory already found me a believer, as were my parents, just like everyone around us, “simple” people, almost village class. My father, who had been a serf as a boy, was a clerk in the estate of B’s and my mother was the daughter of a deacon from the village of Sofinki [Footnote 1]. My father as a boy had been a serf. I did not see any atheists in my childhood nor did I even hear about them. Everyone around me believed unequivocally, and God’s world, the supernatural, was as real as the earth. There was absolutely no difference. And I do not even remember when I first learned that there were atheists. I also do not remember the impressions of this new knowledge. But in any case, it evidently did not make any impression on me for the very reason that it did not remain in my memory as something peculiar… And thus, I always remember myself as a believer! And I can say that I have never been an unbeliever. However, I know about the states of doubt and unbelief; but I will write about that later.

[Footnote 1 (of editor of Russian text): After graduation from academy (1907-1908), Hieromonk Benjamin became a professorial fellow at the Department of Biblical History and then held the position of dean of students of the St. Petersburg Theological Seminary. Bishop Benjamin taught in 1925-1927 and 1929-1931 at the Paris Orthodox Theological Institute. Bishop Benjamin’s father, Afanasii Ivanovich Fedchenkov, came from serfs of Smolensk province; he was a servant for the Baratynskys, the descendants of the famous Russian poet E.A. Baratynsky. When he was 13-14 years old, he was sent as a clerk to the Tambov estate.]

… So as not to forget later, I will write down a conversation on this subject (in general, I will not concern myself with a “system” of notes, because it is not very important). One day I visited a friend in Moscow, Vladimir Aleksandrovich Kozhevnikov, that I esteem [Footnote 2]. He was a man of great erudition, an academic. His library contained thousands of books. He knew all the major European languages. He wrote several books on Buddhism (without finishing them)…

[Footnote 2 (of editor of Russian text): Vladimir Kozhevnikov (1852-1917) was the author of books and articles on the history of religion, theology, and moral issues and was a public figure. The following is a small list of his works on the subject of faith and unbelief: “The Philosophy of Feeling and Faith in Its Relationship to Literature and Rationalism of the 18th Century and to Critical Philosophy,” Moscow, 1897; “On Conscientiousness in Faith and Unbelief (For Young Students),” Moscow, 1908; “Confessions of an Atheist (On the Book of Le Dantec “Atheism”),” Moscow, 1911; “Modern Scientific Unbelief. Its Growth, Influence, and Changing Attitudes Towards it,” Moscow, 1912.]

Shortly before his death, he contracted a terrible type of fever that flung him around his bed like a feather… I went to see him. He completely peacefully carried on a conversation while he lay. And, by the way, he said, pointing to the thousands of books standing on the shelves (with irony, but innocently):

“I read all these fools, and yet I did not lose faith. I have always been a believer.”

He died peacefully. My your soul be granted the Kingdom of Heaven, servant of God Vladimir…

Among his books, he wrote several pamphlets on faith: they are simple in presentation, but very profound… I have now forgotten the exact contents. But I will look for them and write them down: they are worth reading for anyone interested in these issues; there would doubtlessly be use in reading them.

* * *

The first impression connected in my memory with faith was, perhaps, Pascha. All of our family was preparing for it, as everyone else, a still long way off. And this expectation grew and grew.

On Saturday evening, we were talking about the Matins of Pascha. I had still never been to it: I was too small… I was perhaps 4 years old at the time… And I really wanted to be at the service. And I began to ask my mother to take me also to the church… I was expecting something amazing. My small heart fluttered from the approaching joy. Mama (she was the mistress of the family) promised me, but she advised me to go to bed early. With hopefulness, I immediately fell asleep, but I woke up when it was already dawn. Our family had already come from the church (usually a horse was given from the estate for this occasion) …

It turned out that I was only comforted by the promise but was not taken. And my older brother, Michael, had already received this joy. It was painful, but I soon forgot about my sadness. Paschal joy took hold of me and carried me forward. Children’s grief, like the morning dew, is short-lived… But the next year I was together with all of our family… I do not remember everything, but the joy was extraordinary… And among other things, during the singing of “Christ is Risen” and the procession around the church, a cannon (with powder) preserved at the landlords, God knows from where, was fired [Footnote 3]. It was frightening but also breathtaking. Everything merged into total elation, and barrels of tar were even burned… which was beautiful at night… I remember how old women set “Pascha” (cheese), Kulich, and painted eggs in packages around the church, and penny candles were stuck in the Pascha cheese. “Batushki” (priest, deacon, and reader) walked, sang, and sprinkled them with holy water (after the liturgy); the old women immediately tied up their packages and hurried home… The fires became smaller and smaller. Bonfires were sleepily burning, as if exhausted by the night… Dawn was beginning to shine… We rode in the cart. Under the wheels and hooves of horses, ice crunched in places; it must have been an early Pascha. At home, father and mother sang Christ is Risen three times, and we began to joyously break the fast and with sweet Pascha cheese, kulich, and eggs… My little heart was filled with joy… Then we immediately went to sleep after an almost sleepless night. Around 11, we woke up for lunch. But already the same trembling joy was absent. Some kind of peaceful silence caressed my soul … Then there was a game of eggs on the street, where all the “gentlemen’s” [Footnote 4] servants gathered. There was, clearly, no thought about any “social” inequality: the heart was joyful, the food was delicious, the soul was pure, and everyone around was glad. What could be better? I was oblivious to the whole world! It was a happy time…

[Footnote 3 (of editor of Russian text): In Russia, there was a custom (of secular origin) to accompany the procession on Pascha night with fireworks, illumination, and a cannon or rifle salute. Immediately after completion of the procession, when Paschal Matins began, the fireworks and shooting stopped.]

[Footnote 4 (of translator): Here he’s referring to the landowner.]

* * *

Much later, I turned my attention to the visit of the clergy to even our hut at Pascha… After the service at the landowners, the priest walked down the “court” [Footnote 5] and we waited. A green votive burned in front of the icons. Everything was neat and clean… We children watched for when the “icons” [Footnote 6] would appear.

[Footnote 5 (of translator)]: Metropolitan Benjamin explains this word and concept in more detail in his autobiographical work At the Turn of Two Eras: “Everyone called us ‘servants,’ probably from the word ‘court,’ ‘courtiers.’ [Translator note: The word used for servants, ‘dvornya,’ is derived from the word for ‘court’: ‘dvor.’] The landowner’s house was like the tsar’s palace in the middle, while we who surrounded it made up his ‘court’ or ‘servants,’ to speak more humbly. Neither we ourselves nor even farmer-peasants highly respected us, so that the word ‘servants’ was probably pronounced with contempt, although we really were an intermediate layer between the highest, inaccessible class of lords and peasants, muzhiks.”]
[Footnote 6 (of translator)]: This procession of the clergy was apparently called “icons,” which does make sense as they would probably be carrying icons.]

…They’re coming, they’re coming!… Bending in through the low door, the “batushki” sang a minute-long moleben, we exchanged Paschal greetings, papa quietly put something (probably a silver five-kopek piece), embarrassedly, into the priest’s hand and invited them to have a seat. We offered treats: they declined… Two or three words, and everyone left…

And only then I felt that the feast had “reached” even to our home. Something was particularly still lacking until the “icons.” What it was, I do not know, and I will not even explain; but that recollection was etched in my memory forever… And after I thought: how foolishly people behave that they refuse to receive “batushki” on this day! What joy they deprive themselves… Batushki probably do not even suspect what joy it is that goes with them, they are used to it. But to me it was like God visiting…

Maybe even now when we clergy visit people with a moleben at feasts they also feel joy from us or via us from God!

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