N. A. BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV)
A Conference in Austria
(1927 – #323)
On 30 April to 6 May in the Austrian mountains occurred the SouthEastern Conference of Christian Youth, under the auspices of the World Christian Federation. I was quite pleased, that I happened to attend this conference, and the days spent there remain one of the pleasant memories in my life. I saw throngs of a great number of fine and sympathetic people, the likes of which one rarely chances to meet in life. And these fine and sympathetic people, belonging to tens of various nationalities and to three faith-confessions, came together amidst a beautiful natural setting. upon the mountains lay snow, and in the mountain valley the trees were in full bloom. The general mood of the conference was cordial. Russian congresses, comprised of only Orthodox people, sometimes become difficult to take, in them is sometimes found spiritual fractiousness. The interacting of various nationalities and faith-confessions created moreso a pleasant atmosphere, since the will was directed towards unity. My intent was not to write an account of the conference proceedings, I want only to share some of my impressions and thoughts. First of all, it is impossible not to feel emotion, when one sees a Christian youth movement arising from amidst all sorts of nationalities. A span of generations together had descended down from the mountains into the valleys and had forgotten about the light of the mountainous world. Like the Master Builder Solness in Ibsen they might be wont to say, we are not yet building a belfry nor likewise are we building a church, we are building an habitation for people. A series of generations of youth all farther and farther have strayed off from Christ and the Christian faith, have instead prepared the way for this, to convey into the world atheism and materialism. But now a reverse movement is beginning, a movement towards Christ. A new generation is growing, a generation of Christian youth, which will bear into the world the light of Christ, the Truth and Rightfulness of Christ. This is a fact of tremendous importance, as yet insufficiently appreciated by contemporaries. And another fact of extraordinary importance: the encounters, the interaction and cooperation amongst Christian faith-confessions, an oneness of the Christian world. At the Austrian Conference, Catholics for the first time took an active part and this has very great a significance. The number of Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants was distributed approximately equally. Predominant was the Austrian group, Catholic by faith-confession, and it was chaired by a Catholic from Graz, Dr. Theiss, a charming fellow. The first of two days there involved the priest Pfligler, heading the Catholic Youth in Austria, and the remaining days involved Monsignor Schauhofer, likewise having come from Vienna. There were three papers: — “Jesus Christ and the Social Question”, presented by Catholic Monsignor Schauhofer (filling in for Monsignor Seipel [Ignaz, 1976-1932], who was unable to attend, since in the capacity of Chancellor of Austria he was busy these days forming a cabinet of ministers); “Jesus Christ and Contemporary Intellectual Life”, given by the Protestant, Pastor Zele, and “Jesus Christ and Contemporary Spiritual Life”, presented by me, i.e. an Orthodox.
Besides this, daily was considered the so-called ecumenical question, i.e. the issue concerning Christian unity. And there was a feeling, that there is ensuing a start of times towards unity, that the times of discord within the Christian world were passing. The Protestants were ceasing to still live as protestors and were striving towards a greater plenitude of churchliness. One quite sensed this in our endearing elder, Pastor Zele. It was pleasant a thing to see, how the Protestant pastor and the Catholic hierarch sat side by side and conversed amicably. The historical strife betwixt Protestantism and Catholicism had ended and new times begun. And the Catholic world was becoming less shut in upon itself, less exclusionary and intolerant, though this does not come easily for Catholics. The Orthodox world likewise was emerging beyond its condition of detachment from Western Christianity, it was turning towards the Western spiritual world, becoming acquainted with it and making it acquainted with the Orthodox, who were for the West an unknown world. Russian Orthodox youth became acquainted and interacted with the Protestant and Catholic youth, and its horizons broadened, it became accustomed to be attentive to spiritual worlds, which earlier for it were closed. The unification of Christians of the East and Christians of the West will occur outside of the official-channels framework, not through formal concordats of churchly administrators and not by means of artificial unia-unions, and the issue was presented thus at the conference. The needful thing is to be concerned about is not the issue of the reunion of churches, which usually gets put insincerely, but rather the issue of the unification of Christians, their common interaction, mutual recognition and human brotherhood. Only the Holy Spirit can reunite the churches. But from the human side of things we can prepare for this. The division has not occurred in the Church, but within sinful mankind and the blame lays on all sides of the sundered Christian world. I can regard it, that dogmatic truth is on the side of Orthodoxy, but this does not mean, that no culpability and blame lay with us. There has to inwardly get changed the attitude of the Orthodox towards the Catholics and Protestants, just as on the contrary, i.e. there has to be engendered a Christian sense of co-friendship within the world. Interconfessionalism, as an abstract minimum for Christianity, as though an uniting of Christians of all faith-confessions, is an idea sterile and harmful. It is impossible to diminish away and ignore the fullness of one’s faith — this is morbid an approach. But there is possible the cooperation and interaction of various Christian confessions, such as remain true to themself. I have always purported such a point of view, and my impression was, that it likewise prevailed at the conference in Austria. Although certain Protestants did call for an uniting upon the basis of Christian ethics, putting aside dogmatic questions. But it was desired, that the World Christian Federation should ultimately assume the perspective of a cooperation of confessions, fully each representative of their type.
Besides the three basic papers and considerations of the ecumenical question there were moreover Bible gatherings, which were conducted in the Russian, German and French languages. The German language predominated at the conference, but everything was rendered also into the French language. Morning and evening cantatas were sung in various languages. All the nationalities and faith-confessions in turn read their prayers. The delegations of all the nationalities gave reports on the Christian Youth Movement in their lands. I noticed, that with those coming closest to Orthodoxy, whether among the Catholic-oriented Protestants, seeking a greater fullness of churchly life, or whether among the freer sort Catholics, they were those who strove to surmount the Roman formalism and externalistic authority aspect. Of particular interest for me was the interaction with the Austrian group, comprised primarily of persons, having come from Graz. Among them were people, who had discovered an exceptional interest in Orthodoxy and in Russian religious and philosophic thought. They questioned me much and the conversations were very interesting. Among the Austrian Catholics from Graz were people highly cultured, as for example, the biology lecturer O. Hartman, just then taking in a Keyserling Conference at Darmstadt, on the theme of “Man and the Earth”. The exchange of opinions as regards the papers read by us stood at rather great an intellectual sophistication and was perhaps rather difficult for the average level of those at the conference. Questions suchlike as the limits of religious cognition, the meaning of dogmas, the types of mysticism. Great attention was given to consideration of the question concerning the relationship of Christianity to the social question and politics. The presentation by Monsignor Schauhofer, who made an impression on me by his impoverished appearance and by his gracious simplicity, was pervaded by the Franciscan spirit and cult of poverty. He well said concerning this, that when the Son of God was incarnated as man, He then happened to assume a certain human social condition, and He chose a condition of poverty as a simple labourer and by this He especially sanctified the condition. About this little tends to be thought. At the time of the exchange of opinions Monsignor Schauhofer expressed the thought, that Christians ought not to form a special [political] party. It vexed and saddened him, when a Christian Party is called bourgeois (in Austria).
On one of the days of the conference there was arranged a children’s celebration in the hills, for the children of the nearby villages. On the final evening the tradition was to set up an enormous bonfire, and around it they sang the songs of various nationalities. After the conclusion of the conference a large number of its participants made the journey to the old Benedictine monastery of Seckau, where they stayed a single day. The church in its foundations was Romanesque from the XII Century, but to the Romanesque style was added in the Gothic and the Baroque. This — is an enormous monastery, but within it were all of twenty monks and twenty novices. The monasteries in Austria are in grievous a position, they are materially in need and with few wishing to become monks. In Germany there is a Catholic renewal and a strong Catholic movement. The Austrian Catholicism however has to deal with the fact, that it was the predominant state religion, whilst pressuring others. In Germany the monarchy was Lutheran and oppressed Catholics. And this created favourable conditions for Catholicism in Germany. The Benedictine monastery at Seckau is connected with the German Benedictine centre of Maria Laach. We attended all the services and it has to be said, that the Divine Services were conducted with great precision. And in the evening the head of the monastery, Father Benedict, read us a lecture on the meaning of the Catholic Liturgy. Certain points in this intellectual and energetic presentation were, perhaps, not fully tactful as regards other faith-confessions. Our sympathetic elder, Pastor Zele, was very apprehensive, that they should allow into the Catholic monastery such an heretic, as himself. But all went well. He spent the night at the monastery itself, and not at the hotel, and at the 4th hour of the night he went with the monks to the service, and made acquaintance with one of the monks, who proved to be quite passionate the botanist, as much as was he. On the day of departure we dined at the monastery with the monks. The setting is quite reminiscent of our Orthodox monastic meals. But the meal from Orthodox a perspective was too fine. It proceeded in complete silence and amidst the reading of Saints-Lives, as with us. The novices, bearded, and with leather belts, were very reminiscent of the Orthodox. In the church and in the monastery it was quite chilly from the stones. In the cold and in the stone is symbolised something quite distinct from our Orthodox churches, in which always has been a certain emotional and physical warmth. But at Seckau there is a sense still from the Middle Ages. When the Benedictine monks don their black cowls upon their head, this provides very acute an impression of preserving and dwelling in bygone ages, and it is striking. In this — is an unfading strength of Catholicism. It is distressing at present to see in the main hall of the monastery, alongside the portrait of the pope, that also of the Austrian emperor. This is here something irrevocably finished and past. The popes have proven more enduring, than the emperors. It is striking a fact, that in post-revolutionary Austria, in a state no longer still Catholic, that the state chancellor has proven to be a Catholic monsignor. I left Austria, having beautiful a memory both about the conference, and about Seckau monastery, and the Austrian mountains, and the people, with whom I happened to meet during these brief days. Wherein thus is initiated an interaction of souls and woven the fabric of Christian community.
© 2009 by translator Fr. S. Janos
(1927 – 323 – en)
SJEZD V AVSTRII. Journal Put’, aug. 1927, no. 50, p. 131-133.