CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

The Center of Our Lady and Counterculture

by Boris Falikov (Russian State University of Humanities, Moscow) - A paper presented at CESNUR 14th International Conference, Riga, Latvia, August 2000. Preliminary version: please do not reproduce without the consent of the author.

It’s a common thing to say that there are two kinds of new religious movements in Russia: those of Russian origin and new arrivals from abroad. But are the first ones purely Russian in origin? There’s no doubt that the founders and their followers are Russian nationals but the teachings and principles of an organization are often influenced by ideas from abroad. This paper explores one of such hybrids - the Center of Our Lady.

The Church of the Transfugurating Mother of God (CTMG, as it is officially named), also known as the Church of the Third Testament, the Church of the Paraclete, etc. became popular in the beginning of the 90-s. The founder, father Ioann (Bereslavsky), was ordained in the "Sekachev" branch of the catacomb Genuine Orthodox Church. In 1984 he claimed to get the revelation of the Mother of God by the famous icon Odigitria in Smolensk. Since that time the revelation has been allegedly going on and resulted in 20 prophetic books. Soon after 1984 he was excommunicated from the Genuine Orthodox Church and founded the Center of Our Lady together with some of the former members of the catacomb church and numerous new converts. In 1994 this Center was also condemned by the official church.

The trouble-making activity of the Center in the beginning of the 90-s was widely covered by the press. We were told the numerous stories about its street scandals, fist fights with rival sects, kidnapping the children, etc. But very little is still known about the genesis and essence of "spiritual orthodoxy", as father Ioann calls his teaching. This paper intends to fill the gap. First, I shall turn to Ioann's sermons and then to the prophecies. The former will help to understand the psychological and social conditions under which the new teaching was born. The latter, its ideological and maybe spiritual contents.

The sermons of father Ioann are rather revealing as far as his person is concerned. We can clearly see behind them the Russian intellectual of the recent past disgusted by the Stalinist inheritance of his fathers and grandfathers who rejected God and "became like the Biblical tribe of Rephaims". He is repelled by everything in them from their outlook to everyday habits. The more father Ioann criticizes them the more he reveals about himself.

The most loathsome Rephaims' doing is "the sealing of their sins in the subconscious of their heirs". But the heirs opened in their souls "sealed urns and scattered the fetid ashes". Unfortunately this quasi-psychoanalytical procedure has driven them to "nihilism". It couldn't be otherwise, as Rephaims did exactly the same to their own ancestors. "The Axis Mundi was shattered and the bond of times destroyed", concludes father Ioann discovering the school knowledge of English classics.

This hamletesque reflection seasoned with home-made Freudism finally makes him denounce "the Mother Figure". Rephaim mothers weakened their sons by pathological passion "secretly making love to them and keeping this incestuous bond till their very death". Such accusations, as wild as they are, reveal a lot about Ioann's state of mind and make understandable his frequent escapades against "feminine men" and "masculine women". I shall take the risk to suggest that the image of the Mother of God is dear to him as an antithesis of "the feminist rebellion" and a heavenly ideal of the genuine motherhood.

?However, Russian Hamlet soon parts ways with his Danish prototype. He chooses not the action but the deep spiritual underground. It is from this hiding place that he shoots critical arrows at "Raphaims with grey auras" who want to steal the energy of their children murdering them with "psychological poison".

Thus the parental lot is a moral and bodily degradation, secret fornication and barbaric meat diet. But what is left for children? Severe fast and humble penitence. Choosing asceticism they atone for the sins of society at large, dropping out of it they save it from outside, taking the low jobs they stay the real secret elite. But now it is time to leave the underground and pass over the spiritual experience to the people as the end of the world is approaching. It is here that the sermon ends and the prophecy starts. But we'll stay with the sermon for a while.

Behind this sermon we can distinctly hear the voice, or rather one of the voices, of the Russian countercultural underground heavily influenced by its western counterpart. Political criticism takes turns with the metaphysical one, social fears and hopes turn into eschatological expectations, occult terminology (auras, subtle bodies, etc.) is entirely at peace with Christian repentance. But we can feel that this syncretic uncertainty wavers on the brink of an existential choice. For father Ioann this choice was the catacomb church.

This particular choice is not surprising in itself. It is always difficult for the children of counterculture to overcome hostility to the official religion. The catacomb church with its uncompromising condemnation of "Sergianism" (the collaboration of the official church with communists) seemed closer to them as psychologically so spiritually. The pathos of opposition to the "Godless regime" strongly attracted those who "scattered the fetid ashes" of the communist inheritance. Probably, the populism characteristic of the Russian intelligentsia has also played its role here. The catacomb church survived in the lower classes of Russian society, in the poverty of god-forsaken places. The holy old men secretly keeping Truth in miserable wooden cabins are the frequent guests of father Ioann's sermons.

However, the threat of the persecutions was not the only one haunting the catacomb church. It was more difficult with each year to keep the spiritual lineage of the church unbroken. The catacomb church came across the same problem which had tormented Russian Old Believers. It was the lack and sometimes the complete absence of the legitimately ordained priests. Add to it a spiritual exaltation inevitable in the religious underground and you will get the ideal conditions for the appearance of sects. Once, it has happened in the Russian history already when the Khlysty and Dukhobory originated among the Priestless - the Old Believers who rejected the church hierarchy.

The scantiness of the catacomb church and the old age of the members saved it from the same destiny. However, the young intellectual entering it in the beginning of the 80-s could easily become the leader of the schism or founder of the new sect. It is exactly what seems to have happened to father Ioann. Excommunicated from the catacomb church he found himself in the vortex of changes coming all over the Russian society. The religious feeling suppressed for many years came to the surface taking various rather unexpected forms. The Center of Our Lady being a weird mixture of counterculcural underground and "genuine catacombs" easily found its place among them. This hybrid nature of the new sect is obvious at the semiotic level. Its members are either ageless women wrapped into the grey shawls or young people with all the attributes of "holy fools" of counterculture. The stylistic dissonance going from archaic Church Slavonic to occult "subtle bodies" permeates father Ioann's sermons. The heterogeneity of the new teaching is also obvious at doctrinal level. In order to analyze it we have to pass from Ioann's homiletics to his prophecies.

The coming end of the world occupies the major place in them. The time is approaching when all of us have to answer before the Almighty. But the traditional protectress of Russia, Mother of God, gives it the heavenly protection again. If we "swear allegiance" to the Mother of God we can expect a "blissful light dream, absolution and radiant ascent to paradise". But if we don't repent the Antichrist will come, the monstrous cataclysms will follow and millions perish in horrible torments.

To prove our loyalty to the Mother of God, one million of signatures has to be collected in Russia alone and two hundred million more all over the world. Our Lady secretly rules over many countries. Only in this century She repeatedly appeared before believers in Europe. But only in Russia the secret will be finally revealed. Russia is the chosen one and its repentance is the token of the salvation of the world. However this sublime role of Russia puts it under certain obligations. The Mother of God should be crowned as the queen of Russia and thus the foundation of the world theocracy will be built. The subjects of the heavenly queen will have to fast severely. Only two meals a day are permitted, "meat is excluded from the diet and milk can be used only by the sick".

The official church, according to father Ioann, is so much sinful that it can't be absolved even by repentance. "Genuinely orthodox" Center of Our Lady is to take its place. Church ritual will be replaced by a new one. As the result of this liturgical reform the inheritance of the Church Fathers will be abandoned and "new hymns" introduced into its place. But the major change will happen to the sacraments - they will be dissolved by the tears of the Mother of God. Thus the new epoch will begin when the Holy Spirit will rule together with Our Lady: "the epoch of the Paraclete, the kingdom of the Mother of God". The world matter will be spiritualised and transfigured by Her.

But what do we have to expect if Russia does not repent till the end of the century? "The negative scenario" is given its due in the Ioann's prophecies. The coming of Antichrist is described in such disgusting details that they overshadow the eschatological nightmares of early Christian apocrypha. Ioann's Antichrist is an intellectual, an expert in philosophy, theology and pagan religions. His teaching, "the utmost slyness of Lucifer", will conquer, first of all, intelligentsia. The essence of the teaching is "the new version of the earthly paradise obtained without much effort".

The great role will be played by television which will let Antichrist's teaching quickly spread to many countries. It will be his "alive iconostasis", the TV screens "will regularly emit special narcotic substance possessing of great hypnotic force". In conclusion, "the world channel" will show in all details the mass executions of Christians.

But really original feature of this "scenario" is the new role of the mother of Antichrist introduced into it by father Ioann. It was she who has been fighting with mother of God for thousands of years "leading the race of human devils, the civilization of eternally condemned".

However, the triumph of Antichrist will be temporal. In the last battle in heaven he will defeat both Elijah and Enoch but will be struck by the punishing hand of the Almighty. It will be the first sign of the Second Coming followed by the Last Judgment and "final separation of light from darkness, lambs from goats". The former will be saved and transfigured, the latter perish for ever "in the dark of the hell".

Thus the final triumph of God is inevitable but the choice of the way to it is up to us. It might be either direct, joyous and bright or roundabout, tragic and terrifying. However, "negative scenario" sounds more convincing than the optimistic one which is not surprising. The descriptions of hell are always more impressive than the ones of paradise.

Being a prophet father Ioann keeps silence about the cultural sources of his teaching. But they are obvious to those who are familiar with Russian religious philosophy of Slavophils, V. Soloviev, N. Berdiaev, S. Bulgakov, P. Florensky and many others. Father Ioann openly borrows from them such ideas as saving mission of Russia among the people of the world, the universal theocracy, the coming revelation of the Third Testament (the epoch of Paraclete), sophiology, etc. However, these great religious thinkers didn't agree with each other in many respects. Soloviev argued with Slavophils about the Russia's mission in the world, Catholicism played a big role in his theocratic projects. Berdiaev declaring the coming age of Paraclete rejected the sophiology of Bulgakov and "stylized orthodoxy" of Florensky. The latter developing the sophiological ideas of Soloviev rejected his Gnostic predilections, etc. They also differed in their evaluation of occultism and oriental religions.

On the contrary, in father Ioann's prophecies all these very different and often contradictory views are not only oversimplified but put together. The theocratic kingdom of the Mother of God stands close to the epoch of Paraclete, sophiological theologemes to catholic Mariology, the condemnation of occultism to occult terminology, the criticism of the oriental religions to appreciation of their wisdom.

The second source of father Ioann's teaching is an inheritance of Russian Folk sects. This is, first of all, the awareness of the world evil so intense and poignant that it rivals the belief in the Good and sometimes even surpasses it. Hence the dualistic mythologemes which abound in the prophecies: the Mother of Antichrist opposing the Mother of God, the tribe of human devils fighting with the Godman - Christ, etc. This is also the source of father Ioann's calls for strict asceticism - the abode of evil, human flesh, should be mortified. It is this religious dualism which from the earliest times gave birth to various folk sects from Bogomils and Cathars to Strigolnics and Dukhobors.

According to the logic of these sects, the evil penetrates everywhere, even in the holy of holies, the Church. It means that the last battle of Good and Evil is at the door. Hence the condemnation of the sins of official church and intense expectation of the end of the world. These leitmotifs of the folk sectarianism are also dominating in father Ioann's prophecies.

The sectarian criticism of church hierarchy is always followed by the creation of its own. The next move is a ritual and liturgical change. "The change" of the substance of sacraments and "new hymns" of the Center of our Lady is the beginning of the ritual development of the new sect. Sectarian consciousness is always suspicious of technological progress and intellectuals who carry it on. In Ioann's prophecies it is exemplified by the fright of television which will be used by Antichrist who also happens to be an intellectual.

The close interrelation of sectarian and elitist motives in Ioann's teaching is the result of his personal experience of a young intellectual who went to the orthodox catacombs and founded his own sect there. The young populists searching God among the common folk is a frequent phenomenon in Russian history and culture. In the beginning of the last century mystically inclined aristocracy of St. Petersburg met with the "prophets" of Khlysty sect in Tatarinova's circle. From theological discussions they soon came to the Klysty rites (radenia) and finally the colonel's widow Tatarinova was declared to be "the prophetess" herself. The emperor Alexander I visited the leader of the Scoptsy sect, Kondratii Selivanov, who, it was rumored, predicted the defeat of the Russian army in the Austerlitz battle. And only when Alexander was told that Kondratii declares himself to be the incarnated Christ, he sent him to lunatic asylum.

The rapprochement of elitist and sectarian religiosity reached its peak in the beginning of the present century. The closeness of the Khlyst Rasputin to the last tsar's family is a well known fact. Sectarians often visited the literary salon of D. Merezhkovsky and Z. Gippius where "the new religious consciousness" movement had originated. A. Bely's novel "The Silver Dove" demonstrates a profound understanding of sectarian psychology. The religious philosopher N. Berdiaev and A. Bely participated in theological discussions in "Iama", the famous meeting place of different sects in Moscow. And, finally, the decadent poet A. M. Dobroliubov founded his own sect among the Volga peasants. Father Ioann, as it were, had a direct predecessor.

This occasional closeness of elitist and folk sectarian religious search was not accidental. Each time it was a symptom of deep religious turmoil in society when elite discovered that it had much in common with "simple folk" in the field of religious experience. The ardent eschatological expectations in such historic periods were not less typical for intellectuals than for the common people. Both shared anticlericalism and search for the new "mystically effective" rites. Finally, the criticism of the "scientific progress" and "high brow rationalism" had long as become a locus communis of intellectual assaults at culture. The Antichrist in "Three Conversations" by V. Soloviev had been already an intellectual spoiled by "sin of rationalism".

Thus father Ioann's prophecies are in the mainstream of Russian intelligentsia's God seeking of the last two centuries. They also testify to the big religious turmoil of the present Russian society which all but equals that of the beginning of the century. However, the Ioann's teaching has something quite original to it.

When Russian intelligentsia used to go to "learn from the people" they couldn't help romanticizing "the folk wisdom". On the other hand, the inherent need of intelligentsia to educate the people made it of necessity to them to supply sectarian practice with a proper theory. In Tatarinova's circle the Khlysty rites soon lost their peasant character. Well-read followers found the rare book "On the Sacred Dances of Early Christians" and explained the genesis of the Khlysty rites with help of it. The place from the New Testament about the descent of the Holy Spirit was also interpreted in an appropriate key. Berdiaev "discovered" very sophisticated sectarian ideas reminiscent of Jacob Boehme in the process of his discussions with folk theologians. In the same vein, A. Bely saw in sectarian activity the proof of the anthroposophic weltanschauung.

It is this theological reflection which is completely absent in Ioann's teaching. On the contrary, the elements of religious philosophy are all but lost in sectarian mythologemes. The artless syncretism inherent to mythological consciousness reigns there. It is not surprising that the ideas of very different Russian thinkers come together and form very strange combinations in Ioann's teaching which is obviously the result of disorderly working unconscious, not cultivated thought.

Now we might lament upon the fall of the Russian culture, remind of Solzhenytsin's exposure of "obrazovanshchina", condemn the Bolsheviks and finish this paper. But there remains one point to clarify. Father Ioann, in difference to his patron saint, doesn't consider himself to be a theologian, he claims to be a prophet. Anyone might have a gift of prophecy from N. Berdiaev to the last village fool. Obviously, such claim should be examined metaculturally. What is the spiritual source of a prophet?

The fright of God and love for a neighbor, phobos and agape, is a well known antinomy of Christian ethics. Ideally, they are in dynamic equilibrium. The trembling before the Almighty doesn't deprive one's heart of love. All too often one of them tips the scales, but it is not surprising. The Creator made us different. The real danger lies in the extremes. The fright of God might increase so much that there will be no place left for love. The absolutization of a part to the detriment of the whole from time immemorial gave birth to sects. The very etymology of the word ascends to the Latin "secare", i.e. cut away (part from the whole). Many times in history people moved by the fright of God waited hypnotically for the end of the world. But this feeling, when not balanced by love for neighbors, may easily transform itself into the fright of them. The collective suicide of numerous sects from the Russian Priestless in the XYIII century to the American Peoples Temple nowadays is a terrible consequence of such a mind set.

On the contrary, the absolutization of love to the detriment of Law has a great danger for those who are simply not able to fulfil its commands. History knows of many such distortions of the famous St. Paul's dialectics of love and they always ended lamentably from Munster anabaptists' orgies to the promiscuity of modern counterculture.

To my mind, the teaching of father Ioann is an extreme example of the absolutization of the fright of God. The horrible prospect of the imminent Doom is the main feature of his sermons and prophecies, the cry of repentance of the deadly frightened soul - their main goal. But the most striking thing about Ioann's revelation of eschatological torments and tortures, reminiscent of the merciless Kali of Hindus, is its attribution to the Mother of God, the humble protectress of humankind.

What caused this absolutization of fright? The analogy from the different cultural context might be appropriate here. Many of the quasi-Christian sects connected with American counterculture started as a call for limitless love. The countercultural antinomianism erased the border between spiritual and physical love. The ascetic need to "discipline" love used to bring forth the opposite extreme and the heavy eschatological fright came to dominate such sects.

It is quite probable that the similar fright and calls for extreme asceticism in Ioann's prophecies are the consequences of antinomianism of the Russian countercultural underground heavily influenced by its western counterpart. The founder of the Center of Our Lady was part and parcle of it

The autochtonous Russian sects were destroyed by the Communist rule. But the type of religiosity they presented is still alive. The founders of "indigenous" movements (White Brotherhood, Center of Our Lady, Church of the Last Testament, Bazhovtsy, etc.) express and appeal exactly to these religious sentiments. At the same time, at least some of them borrow certain ideas from the West. The result is an appearance of odd amalgams of mixed origin. The Center of Our Lady seems to be a good example of this process.

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