The 16th century was an important but troubled time in Eastern Orthodoxy.
You will recall that Constantinople — the chief city of the Eastern Orthodox world — had fallen to the invading muslim Turks in 1453. In the view of the Russians, that was the punishment of God — destroying the “Second Rome” And the Russian monk Filofey wrote the defining phrase of the future in a letter of praise to the Russian Tsar Vasili III (1479-1533): in 1510:
“For two Romes have fallen, the third stands, and a fourth there shall not be.”
ꙗ҆́ко два̀ ри̑ма падо́ша, а҆ тре́тїй стои́тъ, а҆ четве́ртомꙋ не бы́ти.
Filofey held that the Latin Christianity of Rome had fallen into false doctrine and the arms of the Devil; Constantinople, for its sins, had fallen to the Turks; so the new center of the “true” Christian world — he thought — was now Muscovy (Russia), with Moscow at its head. Filofey said the Tsar was the only earthly emperor over Christians, centered in Moscow at the Uspenskiy (Dormition) Church, and that all Christian kingdoms would finally fall — according to the prophetic books — to the Russian Empire.
We see here the mixture of Church and State that has plagued Eastern Orthodoxy through its history. It was believed that the Tsar received authority from God both to rule the empire and to protect the Orthodox Church. The Tsar was the “icon of God” — the visual representative of God on earth.
Now there was in Russia at this time a very devout monk named Nil Sorskiy (after the Sora River, where he settled). He had learned the mystical meditation system called Hesychasm, and had even spent time in the Greek monastic center, Mount Athos. In Russia he formed a community based on the Athos skete or “hermitage” model, which had a dwelling for the “elder” — the spiritual guide — and his disciples lived around him. Here is an old illustration of Nil and his community:
They spent their time in religious pursuits, and those who came to them for counsel helped to support them. This system began to spread, and soon a number of such ascetic communities existed, which became collectively known as the Заволжские старцы — Zavolzhskie startsui — the “Trans-Volga Elders.”
The kind of monasticism Nil and his followers advocated stood in stark contrast to the conventional monasticism existing in Russia at that time. The Russian monasteries were then holders of vast tracts of land, including whole villages of peasants that were virtual slaves to the monasteries, because the monasteries owned the land, the crops and animals, and had slave master rights over the poor peasants — all supposedly by the authority of God and Tsar.
That leads us to another noted (or notorious) monk of this time — Iosif Volokolamskiy — Joseph of Volokolamsk. Here is an icon of him:
The inscription reads:
ПРЕПОДОБНЫ ИОСИФЪ ВОЛОКОЛАМСКИЙ
PREPODOBNUIY IOSIF” VOLOKOLAMSKIY
“Venerable Joseph of Volokolamsk.”
Joseph — also known as Joseph Volotskiy — was the abbot of the Volokolamsk monastery (where he insisted on absolute obedience), and a severe opponent of a religious movement in Russia that became known as the so-called “Judaizers.” They criticized the wealth of the Russian Orthodox Church and its monasteries, did not accept the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the divinity of Jesus or the veneration of icons, and rejected the formal clergy of the Orthodox Church in favor of selected elders. Their services were held in homes rather than church buildings, and consisted of reading and singing verses from the Bible and Psalms. They worshiped on Saturday instead of Sunday, and taught the children of peasants to read and write. They wanted a return to a simple form of spirituality and service.
All of this infuriated Joseph, who was something of a control freak.
In 1503 there was a church council (synod) at Moscow to decide what to do about the “Judaizer” movement. Joseph was a leading voice there, and his solution to the “Judaizer” controversy was simple; he said they should be declared heretics, then arrested, then burned to death. He reminds me of the Protestant Reformer Jean Calvin, who was also a control freak and had Michael Servetus, who disagreed with him on the doctrine of the Trinity, burned at the stake in Geneva. Nonetheless, in Eastern Orthodoxy, Joseph is considered a saint, commemorated in the Church calendar, and venerated in icons.
Those who shared the views of Nil Sorskiy stood up to Joseph at the council, saying that only God had the right to judge, and that no one, Church or State, had the right to punish them. Nil held that if one wanted to convince the Judaizers, one should do so by forgiveness and by living a holy life as an example.
Joseph was unrelenting. His views on the Judaizers gained the upper hand at the council, and so he eventually succeeded in having their leaders imprisoned and burned alive — some in Moscow, some at Novgorod.
Nil Sorskiy had also opposed Joseph on another important issue — the matter of the wealth of the monasteries. Because he was opposed to the monastic accumulation of wealth, land, and virtual slave peasants, Nil and those who supported his views became known as the “Non-possessors” or “Non-acquirers.” They felt that monastic wealth was contrary to a monk’s life of spirituality, work, poverty, and contemplation.
Those like Joseph, who favored monastic wealth and property, were known as the “Possessors” or “Acquirers.” He felt that the wealth and lands of the monasteries were part of the order that God wanted to exist in the world, and that the monasteries needed such wealth to do their appointed work. To Joseph, those who would take away the wealth and lands of the monasteries were opponents of God’s order, and thus heretics.
One “Non-possessor” was a nobleman become monk named Vassian, who challenged the “Possessor” viewpoint:
“Where in Gospel tradition, the Apostles, and the Fathers are monks ordered to get populous villages and enslave peasants to the brotherhood? …. We look to the hands of the rich, fawn on them slavishly, flatter them to get some little village from them. … We wrong, rob and sell our brother Christians; we torture them with scourges like wild beasts.”
But again, it was Joseph of Volokolamsk and the “Possessors” who won. It is paradoxical that both the murderous Joseph of Volokolamsk and the more merciful Nil Sorskiy became saints of Russian Orthodoxy. But Eastern Orthodoxy has a long history of glossing over contradictions and paradoxes — the reasons for which are often unknown or forgotten by the average “believer.”