The Sorrowful Epistles

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, in a time when the West seemed coming apart amid social divisions and radical movements, the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Philaret, issued three “sorrowful epistles” highlighting the spiritual dimension of the turbulent era amid historically Christian countries, in the heresy of modern ecumenism as a form of chiliasm. Vladyka Philaret had survived persecution during his loyal stay with his flock of exiles from Bolshevik Russia in China after the Communists came to power there, throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. Not long after his final departure from China he was elected, as the youngest Bishop of the ROCOR Synod, to be the new First Hierarch of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the free diaspora. His holy care for his flock was attested by his incorrupt remains, now in a vault below the altar at Holy Trinity Church in Jordanville, NY.

Then-Archimandrite Philaret in 1953 during his time of trial in Communist China caring for his flock.

Linked directly below is a copy of the Sorrowful Epistles, in pdf form for reading in sequence online or printed out, and another copy that can be printed out double-sided for stapling as a booklet.

Some further context and background thoughts follow below the links.

PDF in sequence

PDF for back-to-back booklet printing

Two famous historical figures from twentieth-century American Orthodoxy in particular commented in different ways on the Sorrowful Epistles.

The influential American convert, writer, and American monastic pioneer Fr. Seraphim Rose wrote in 1976, in relation to the epistles and other issues: “Among the primates of the Orthodox Churches today, there is only one from whom is always expected–and not only by members of his own Church, but by very many in a number of other Orthodox Churches as well–the clear voice of Orthodox righteousness and truth and conscience, untainted by political considerations or calculations of any kind. The voice of Metropolitan Philaret of New York, Chief Hierarch of the Russian Church Outside of Russia, is the only fully Orthodox voice among ail the Orthodox primates. In this he is like to the Holy Fathers of ancient times, who placed purity of Orthodoxy above all else, and he stands in the midst of today’s confused religious world as a solitary champion of Orthodoxy in the spirit of the Ecumenical Councils.” (Orthodox Word, vol. 12, No. 1, Jan .-Feb., 1976).

By contrast, Archpriest Alexander Schmemann, who became a leading force in the Orthodox Church in America, which attained its autocephaly in 1970 from the Moscow Patriarchate in the Soviet era, had criticized Metropolitan Philaret’s first Sorrowful Epistle in an article in The Orthodox Church journal, in 1969. He called the epistle in effect the product of a schismatic group, and that its contents encouraged further schism. He set Metropolitan Philaret’s view at odds with the presence of celebrated Orthodox figures, like the scholar Fr. Georges Florovsky, at World Council of Churches gatherings. Fr. Schmemann concluded, in condemning the Metropolitan for writing the letter, that “to use this issue [of ecumenism] for adding new divisions to our Church, for creating an atmosphere of suspicion, hatred, accusations and ultimately, schisms, seems to me a tragedy and a sin.”

The test of time, however, has been kind to Metropolitan Philaret’s letters as works of spiritual guidance, strongly yet calmly criticizing the expanding and immersive mindset of global ecumenism, as the latter has accelerated in influence, at odds with traditional Christianity, in subsequent generations. Fr. Schmemann framed much of his criticism by referencing the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad as an isolated body in world Orthodoxy. But with the subsequent reunion of ROCOR with the Moscow Patriarchate after the fall of Communism, it was Schmemannn’s jurisdiction that arguably had a more awkward position in world Orthodoxy, given the lack of the Constantinople Patriarchate’s full recognition of the grant of its autocephaly. In addition, controversy over the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s heightened emphasis on primacy in recent years, in relation to schism in Ukraine, its stepped-up diplomacy with the Roman Catholic papacy, and its controversial 2016 gathering at Crete, underscored the significance of Metropolitan Philaret’s arguments. Finally, retrospective awareness of Vladyka Philaret’s saintly life of trial has given him now a kind of authority that (without obscuring the academic achievements of Archpriest Schmemann or those he cited) today backgrounds the spiritual and historical importance of his Sorrowful Epistles to the Orthodox Christian world, which today may seem like letters to us from a modern past nonetheless foreshadowing anti-Christian upheavals in the world today.


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