My Reply to the Synod

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My Reply to the Synod
by Leo Tolstoy

"He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all."

Coleridge.

At first I did not wish to reply to the Synod's Edict about me but it has called forth very many letters in which correspondents unknown to me write — some of them scolding me for rejecting things I never rejected ; others exhorting me to believe in things I have always believed in ; others, again, expressing an agreement with me which prolaably does not really exist, and a sympathy to which I am hardly entitled. So I have decided to reply both to the Edict itself — indicating what is unjust in it — and to the communications of my unknown correspondents.

The Edict of the Synod has, in general, many defects. It is either illegal, or else intentionally equivocal ; it is arbitrary, unfounded, untruthful, and is also libellous, and incites to evil feelings and deeds.

It is illegal or intentionally equivocal ; for if it is intended as an Excommunication from the Church, it fails to conform to the Church regulations subject to which Excommunications can be pronounced ; while if it is merely an announcement of the fact that one who does not believe in the Church and its dogmas does not belong to the Church — that is self-evident, and the announcement can have no purpose other than to pass for an Excommunication without really being one ; as happened^ in fact^ for that is how the Edict has been understood.

it is arbitrary, for it accuses only me of disbelief in all the points enumerated in the Edict ; whereas many, in fact almost all educated people, share that disbelief and have constantly expressed and still express it both in conversations, in lectures, in pamphlets and in books.

It is unfounded because it gives as a chief cause of its publication the great circulation of the false teaching wherewith I pervert the people — whereas I am well assured that hardly a hundred people can be found who share my views, and the circulation of my writings on religion, thanlcs to the Censor, is so insignificant that the majority of those who have read the Synod's Edict have not the least notion of what I may have written about religion — as is shown by the letters I have received.

It contains an obvious falsehood, for it says that efforts have been made by the Church to show me my errors, but that these efforts have been unsuccessful. Nothing of the kind ever took place.

It constitutes what in legal terminology is called a libel, for it contains assertions known to be false and tending to my hurt.

It is, finally, an incentive to evil feelings and deeds, for, as was to be expected, it evoked, in unenlightened and unreasoning people, anger and hatred against me, culminating in threats of murder expressed in letters I received. One writes : ^ Now thou hast been anathe- matized, and after death wilt go to everlasting torments, and wilt perish like a dog . . . anathema upon thee, old devil ... be damned.' Another blames the Government for not having, as yet, shut me up in a monastery, and fills his letter with abuse. A third writes : ' If the Government does not get rid of you, we will ourselves make you shut your mouth,' and the letter ends with curses. ' May you be destroyed — you blackguard !' writes a fourth ; ' I shall find means to do it . . . and then follows indecent abuse. After the


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publication of the Synod's Edict I also noticea indica- tions of anger of this kind in some of the people I met. On the very day (February 25) when the Edict was made public, while crossing a public square I heard the words : ' See ! there goes the devil in human form/ and had the crowd been composed of other elements I should very likely have been beaten to death, as happened some years ago to a man at the Panteleymon Chapel.

So that, altogether, the Synod's Edict is very bad ; and the statement, at the end, that those who sign it pray that I may become such as they are, does not make it any better.

That relates to the Edict as a whole ; as to details, it is wrong in the following particulars. It is said in the Edict : ' A writer well known to the world, Russian by birth. Orthodox by baptism and education — Count Tolstoy — under the seduction of his intellectual pride has insolently risen against the Lord and against his Christ and against his holy heritage, and has pub- licly, in the sight of all men, renounced the Orthodox Mother Church which has reared him and educated him.'

That I have renounced the Church which calls itself Orthodox is perfectly correct.

But I renounced it not because I had risen against the Lord, but, on the contrary, only because with all the strength of my soul I wished to serve him. Before renouncing the Church, and fellowship with the people which was inexpressibly dear to me, I — having seen some reasons to doubt the Church's integrity — devoted several years to the investigation of its theoretic and prac- tical teachings. For the theory, I read all I could about Church doctrine, and studied and critically analyzed dogmatic theology ; while as to practice, for more than a year I followed strictly all the injunctions of the Church, observing all the fasts and all the services. And I became convinced that Church doctrine is theoreti- cally a crafty and harmful lie, and practically a collec- tion of the grossest superstitions and sorcery, which


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completely conceals the whole meaning of Christ's teaching.*

And I really repudiated the Churchy ceased to observe its ceremonies,, and wrote a will instructing those near me, that when I die they should not allow any servants of the Church to have access to me^ but should put away my dead body as quickly as possible — without having any incantations or prayers over it — ^just as one puts away any objectionable and useless object, that it may not be an inconvenience to the living.

As to the statements made about me, that I devote the literary activity and the talent given to him by God, to disseminating among the people teachings contrary to Christ and to the Church,' and that, ' in his works and in letters issued by him and by his disciples in great quantities, over the whole world, but particularly within the limits of our dear fatherland, he preaches with the zeal of a fanatic the overthrow of all the dogmas of the Orthodox Church and the very essence of the Christian faith ' — this is not true. J never troubled myself about the propagation of my teaching. It is true that for myself I have expressed in writings my understanding of Christ^s teaching, and have not hidden these works from those who wished to become acquainted with them, but I never published them

  • One need only read the Prayer- Book, and follow the

ritual which is continually performed by the Orthodox priests, and which is considered a Christian worship of God, to see that all these ceremonies are nothing but different kinds of sorcery, adapted to all the incidents of life. That a child in case of death should go to Paradise, one has to know how to oil him and how to immerse him while pronouncing certain words ; in order that after child-birth a mother may cease to be unclean, certain incantations have to be pronounced ; to be successful in one's affairs, to live comfortably in a new house, that corn may grow well, that a drought may cease, to recover from sickness, to ease the condition in the next world of one who is dying, — for all these and a thousand other incidents there are certain incantations which, at a certain place, for a certain con- sideration, are pronounced by the priest. — L. T.


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myself. Only when they have asked me about it, have I told people how I understand Christ's teaching. To those that asked, I said what 1 thought, and (when I had them) gave them my books.

Then it is said that '^ he denies God worshipped in the Holy Trinity, the Creator and Protector of the universe ; denies our Lord Jesus Christ, God-man, Redeemer and Saviour of the world, who suffered for us men and for our salvation, and was raised from the dead ; denies the immaculate conception of the Lord Christ as man, and the virginity before his birth and after his birth of the Most Pure Mother of God.' That I deny the incomprehensible Trinity ; the fable, which is altogether meaningless in our time, of the fall of the first man ; the blasphemous story of a God born of a virgin to redeem the human race — is perfectly true. But God, a Spirit ; God, love ; the only God — the Source of all, — 1 not only do not deny, but 1 attribute real existence to God alone, and 1 see the whole meaning of life only in fulfilling his will, which is expressed in the Christian teaching.

It is also said : ' He does not acknowledge a life and retribution beyond the grave.' If one is to understand, by life beyond the grave, the Second Advent, a hell with eternal torments, devils, and a Paradise of per- petual happiness — it is perfectly true that I do not acknowledge such a life beyond the grave ; but eternal life and retribution here and everywhere, now and for ever, I acknowledge to such an extent that, standing now, at my age, on the verge of my grave, I often have to make an effort to restrain myself from desiring the death of this body — that is, birth to a new life ; and I believe every good action increases the true welfare of my eternal life, and every evil action decreases it.

It is also stated that I reject all the Sacraments. That is quite true. I consider all the Sacraments to be coarse, degrading sorcery, incompatible with the idea of God or with the Christian teaching, and also as infringements of very plain injunctions in the Gospels. In the Baptism of Infants I see a palpable perversion of


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the whole meaning which might be attached to the baptism of adults who consciously accepted Christ- ianity ; in the performance of the Sacrament of Mar- riage over those who are known to have had other sexual unions, in the permission of divorce, and in the consecration of the marriages of divorced people, 1 see a direct infringement both of the meaning and of the words of the Gospel teaching.

In the periodical absolution of sins at Confession I see a harmful deception, which only encourages im- morality and causes men not to fear to sin.

Both in Extreme Unction and in Anointing I see methods of gross sorcery — as in the worship of icons and relics, and as in all the rites, prayers and exorcisms which fill the Prayer-Book. In the Sacrament I see a deification of the flesh, and a perversion of Christian teaching. In Ordination I see (beside an obvious pre- paration for deception) a direct infringement of the words of Jesus, which plainly forbid anyone to be called teacher, father, or master.*

It is stated, finally, as the last and greatest of my sins, that, ' reviling the most sacred objects of the faith of the Orthodox people, he has not shrunk from sub- jecting to derision the greatest of Sacraments, the Holy Eucharist. 't That I did not shrink from describing simply and objectively what the priest does when pre- paring this so-called Sacrament is perfectly true ; but that this so-called Sacrament is anything holy, and that to describe it simply, just as it is performed, is blasphemy, is quite untrue. Blasphemy does not con- sist in calling a partition a partition, and not an icono-

  • Matt, xxiii. 8-10 : * But be not ye called Rabbi : for

one is your teacher, and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father on the earth : for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters : for one is your Master, even the Christ.'

t See chapter xxxix., book i., of Resurrection; but see also, as a probable provocative of Tolstoy's Excommunica- tion, the description of the Head of the Holy Synod in chapter xxvii., book ii., of that work.


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stasis^* and a cup a cup, and not a chalice, etc. ; but it is a most terrible, continual, and revolting blasphemy that men (using all possible means of deception and hypnotization) assure children and simple-minded folk that if bits of bread are cut up in a particular manner while certain words are pronounced over them, and if they are put into wine,t God will enter into those bits of bread, and any living person named by the priest when he takes out one of these sops will be healthy, and any dead person named by the priest when he takes out one of these sops will be better off in the other world on that account ; and that into the man who eats such a sop — God himself will enter.

Surely that is terrible !

They undertake to teach us to understand the per- sonality of Christ, but his teaching, which destroys evil in the world, and blesses men so simply, easily, and undoubtedly, if only they do not pervert it, is all hidden, is all transformed into a gross sorcery of wash- ings, smearing with oil, gestures, exorcisms, eating of bits of bread, etc., so that of the true teaching nothing remains. And if, at any time, some one tries to remind men that Christ's teaching consists not in this sorcery, not in public prayer, liturgies, candles, and icons, but in loving one another, in not returning evil for evil, in not judging or killing one another — the anger of those to whom deception is profitable is aroused, and with incomprehensible audacity they publicly declare in churches, and print in books, newspapers, and catechisms, that Jesus never forbade oaths (swearing allegiance, or swearing in courts of law), never forbade

  • The iconostasis in Russo-Greek churches corresponds,

somewhat, both to the Western altar-rails and to a rood- screen.

f In the Greek Church the priest mixes the sacramental bread with the wine before administering it to the com- municant. The reader will note in this article allusions to several practices (baptism by immersion, unction, etc.) which do not exist, or are differently carried out, in the Church of Encjland.


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murder (executions and wars)^ and that the teaching of non-resistance to evil has with Satanic ingenuity been invented by the enemies of Christ.*

What is most terrible is that people to whom it is profitable, not only deceive adults, but (having power to do so) deceive children also — those very children con- cerning whom Jesus pronounced woe on him who de- ceives them. It is terrible that these people for such petty advantages do such fearful harm, by hiding from men the truth that was revealed by Jesus, and that gives blessings such as are not counterbalanced even to the extent of a one-thousandth part by the advantages these men secure for themselves. They behave like a robber who killed a whole family of five or six people to carry off an old coat and tenpence in money. They would willingly have given him all their clothes and all their money not to be killed ; but he could not act otherwise.

So it is with the religious deceivers. It would be worth while keeping them ten times better, and letting them live in the greatest luxury, if only they would refrain from ruining men with their deceptions. But they cannot act differently. That is what is awful. And, therefore, we not only may, but should, unmask their deceptions. If there be a sacred thing, it is surely not what they call Sacraments, but just this very duty of unmasking their religious deceptions when one detects them.

When a Tchouvash smears his idol with sour cream, or beats it, I can refrain from insulting his faith, and can pass by with equanimity, for he does these things in the name of a superstition of his own, foreign to me, and he does not interfere with what to me is holy. But when, with their barbarous superstitions, men (however numerous, however ancient their superstitions, and however powerful they may be) in the name of the God by whom I live, and of that teaching of Christ^s whicli has given life to me and is capable of giving life to all men, preach gross sorcery, 1 cannot endure it pas-

  • Speech by Ambrosius, Bishop of Kharkof. — L. T.


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sively. And if I call what they are doing by its name^ I only do my duty and what I cannot refrain from doing because I believe in God and in the Christian teaching. If they call the exposure of their imposture ' blasphemy/ that only shows the strength of their deception, and should increase the efforts to destroy this deception_, made by those who believe in God and in Christ's teaching, and who see that this deception hides the true God from men's sight.

They should say of Christ — who drove bulls and sheep and dealers from the temple — that he blasphemed. Were he to come now, and see what is done in his name in church, he would surely, with yet greater and most just anger, throw out all these horrible altar- cloths,* lances, crosses, and cups and candles and icons and all the things wherewith the priests — carrying on their sorcery — hide God and his truth from mankind.

So that is what is true and what is untrue in the Synod's Edict about me. I certainly do not believe in what they say they believe in. But I believe in much they wish to persuade people that I dis- believe in.

1 believe in this : I believe in God, whom I understand as Spirit, as Love, as the Source of all. I believe that he is in me and I in him. I believe that the will of God is most clearly and intelligibly expressed in the teaching of the man Jesus, whom to consider as God, and pray to, I esteem the greatest blasphemy. 1 believe that man's true welfare lies in fulfilling God's will, and his will is that men should love one another, and should consequently do to others as they wish others to do to them — of which it is said in the Gospels that in this is the law and the prophets. I believe, therefore, that the meaning of the life of every man is to be found only in increasing the love that is in him ;

  • The altar-cloths referred to are those containing frag-

ments of holy relics, on which alone mass can be celebrated. The ' lances ' are diminutive ones with which the priest cuts bits out of the holy bread, in remembrance of the lance that pierced Christ's side.


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that this increase of love leads man, even in this life, to ever greater and greater blessedness, and after death gives him the more blessedness the more love he has, and helps more than anything else towards the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth : that is, to the establishment of an order of life in which the discord, deception and violence that now rule will be replaced by free accord, by truth, and by the brotherly love of one for another. I believe that to obtain pro- gress in love there is only one means : prayer — not public prayer in churches, plainly forbidden by Jesus,* but private prayer, like the sample given us by Jesus, consisting of the renewing and strengthening, in our own consciousness, of the meaning of our life and of our complete dependence on the will of God.

Whether these beliefs of mine offend, grieve, or prove a stumbling-block to anyone, or hinder anything, or give displeasure to anybody, or not, I can as little change them as I can change my body. 1 must myself live my own life, and I must myself alone meet death (and that very soon), and therefore J cannot believe otherwise than as I — preparing to go to that God from whom I came — do believe. I do not believe my faith to be the one indubitable truth for all time, but I see no other that is plainer, clearer, or answers better to all the demands of my reason and my heart ; should I find such a one, I shall at once accept it ; for God requires nothing but the truth. But I can no more return to

  • ' And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites :

for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret shall recompense thee. And in praying use not vain repe- titions, as the Gentiles do : for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them : for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. After this manner therefore pray ye : Our Father,' etc. — Matt. vi. 5-13.


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tliat from which^ with such suffering, I have escaped, than a flying bird can re-enter the eggshell from which it has emerged.

' He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself (his own peace) better than all,' said Coleridge.

I travelled the contrary way. I began by loving my Orthodox faith more than my peace, then I loved Christianity more than my Church, and now I love truth more than anything in the world. And up to now, truth, for me, corresponds with Christianity as I understand it. And I hold to this Christianity ; and to the degree in which I hold to it I live peacefully and happily, and peacefully and happily approach death.