Theology and Spirituality in the Work of Vladimir Lossky

Article excerpt

Vladimir Lossky was an exile in the tree sense of the term, not an emigre. His father, the philosopher Nicolas Onufriyevich Lossky, professor in the University of St Petersburg, was expelled from Russia with all his family in November 1922, aboard what came to be known as the famous "philosophical ship". The Lossky family had no intention of emigrating from Russia after the Revolution, considering it only natural that they should share the fate of their people.

In this connection, it is very important to know that as a young student Vladimir Lossky attended the trial of one of the very first martyrs of the Russian Revolution, Metropolitan Benjamin of St Petersburg, now canonized. The young man was profoundly touched by the sight of the crowd of believers prostrating themselves as their bishop was led to his death. My sister Catherine Aslanoff has recently written that "this image of the church, the bishop and his people, united by the blood of the martyr, deeply moved the future theologian".(1) This was the image that rooted him firmly in the church and was at the origin of his faithfulness unswerving, throughout his life, to the persecuted Russian church.

Vladimir Lossky was born on 8 June (new style) 1903, the Monday of Pentecost, the day of the Holy Spirit, in Gottingen, Germany, where his father was spending some time on university business. Although he was only 19 when his family was expelled from Russia, he had already completed two years of studies at the University of St Petersburg. Interested in the French middle ages, he became in Pads the student and friend of the great mediaevalist Ferdinand Lot, professor at the Sorbonne and "agnostic" husband of a well-known Russian theologian, Myrrha Lot-Borodine. Later, he quite naturally became a disciple of Etienne Gilson, with whom he remained close until his death. Gilson wrote the preface of the posthumously published edition of Lossky's thesis on the German mystic Meister Eckhart.

Vladimir Lossky's interest in Eckhart was already aroused during his days at the University of St Petersburg, where Prof. Ivan Mikhailovich Grevs, a specialist in the Western Christian church fathers, drew the young man's attention to Eckhart who was to become the main object of his research, literally until the last day of his life. At the same time, another professor and friend of the family, Lev Platonovich Karsavine, introduced him to the Eastern Christian church fathers. All this, together with N.P. Kondakov's teaching in Prague, where Vladimir Lossky stayed with his family until 1924, forms the source of his attachment to patristic theology (as distinguished from knowledge of the church fathers).

Vladimir Lossky was thus an exiled Russian, and he remained very Russian all his life, though he would say that he had always been a convinced "Westernist" and that being Russian for him meant having a cosmopolitan feeling for the marriage of cultures, being "at home" everywhere in the world. Exile though he was, however, he chose to study and live in France, this very ancient Christian land whose saints he venerated -- as he did St Francis of Assisi, about whom he gave an outstanding lecture while he was still in Prague (thus before 1924). Moreover, all of Vladimir Lossky's theological works were written in French, at the request of his Catholic, Anglican and Protestant friends, that is, in a context of ecumenical dialogue. Similarly, the courses he taught (in dogmatics and church history) at the Institut Saint Denis until 1953 (when P. Eugraphe Kovalevsky broke with the church of Russia) were always given in French, as were his pastoral courses in the Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate from then until his death in February 1958. This was done in a spirit of witnessing to an Orthodoxy that was universal and not tied to one culture. Along with Fr Georges Florovsky (with whom he was very close), Vladimir Lossky was clearly among the people who fruitfully developed the heritage of the patristic renaissance which began to take shape in Russia in the mid19th century and which gained momentum in the preparations for the council of Moscow in 1917-18. …