The Church Slavonic alphabet as the divine mystery

Religion and language in postSoviet Russia / Brian P. Bennett.


If it is not an oxymoron, a kind of quotidian mysticism infonns ecclesiastical
literature on Church Slavonic. The notion of some kind of”secret” or “mystery”
hidden within the script is found frequently in catechetical materials. According to
one abecedarium, the letters of the Slavonic alphabet are not mere neutral tools;
rather, their names and fonns convey infonnation about the structure of the universe
(Shumskikh 1998: 62). Another says the letters have a phonetic but also a
spiritual meaning (Shevchenko 2007: 107). The ABC book ofludin (2008: 371-8)
contrasts the divinely mellifluous Church Slavonic with the diabolical vileness of
the language of youth After enumerating some ofthe differences between Russian
and Slavonic letters and pronunciation, ludin says that the biggest secret (taina) of
the special Slavonic language is that each letter is not only a sound but a word.
When you put the letters in alphabetical order, the end result is a secret, encrypted
(tainstvennoe, zashifrovannoe) message from our forefathers encouraging us to
work diligently and to know that knowledge is a gift from God. In a little booklet
on Slavonic inscriptions, Sablina (2001: 7) notes that diacritical markings are
“placed on sacred words to indicate their holiness and the divine mystery [tainu]

and wisdom concealed in them.” She speaks ofthe four-letter cryptogram above
the cross- that is, the inscription I.N.R.I. (Jesus ofNazareth, King of the Jews)which
she says refers to the mysteries (tainy) of the cross. Medieval Slavonic
calligraphy is said to be replete with hidden meanings (Goriacheva 2009: 1 ). Vera
Skibitskaia, editor of the Moscow Patriarchate publications, suggests that retaining
the Slavonic script is important because it connects one in a mystical way to such
great Russian saints of the past as Serafim of Sarov and John of Kronstadt
&id=7818&Itemid=3, accessed 1 September 2010).
Sometimes, the mystical nature of the Slavonic script is formulated in sharper
political terms. In an article published in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate,
Novikova (2003) begins by repeating the standard Orthodox idea that language is
not just a conventional “sign system” but a matter of divine design. The alphabet
communicates information about the universe by means of its names and
figurations. The middle portion of the article concerns the “secret, inner meaning”
of letters. The letter “0,” for instance, is called on” This is a pronoun indicating
someone who is present yet not visible -like the Lord. Its circular form symbolizes
the eternal nature of God. It also reminds us of an egg- which contains life within
it, just as the grave contained Christ before His resurrection. Another example is
the letter iat ‘, which looks like a cross atop a cupola. It is used in dogmatically
important words such as “faith,” “covenant,” and “light.” According to Novikova,
this letter has always elicited strong hatred from the enemies of Orthodoxy. She
criticizes liturgical books published using “Soviet orthography,” calling this script
“perverted” (isporchennoi)- a term that may connote witchcraft and the evil eye.
As we discussed in Chapter 3, the intent of such a typographical device is to make
Slavonic more accessible by using the familiar Cyrillic alphabet; but according to
Novikova, this practice runs counter to the historiosophical meaning ofthe script.
“The house of Slavonic writing was created by the Lord Himself through His
chosen agents,” she writes (Novikova 2003: 65), and it carmot be ruined. It is high
time, she concludes, for a decisive rebuff of these orthographic innovations, for
the grace of the Holy Spirit rests on the letters of the Church Slavonic alphabet.
The idea that the Bolshevik orthographic reform inflicted a kind of spiritual
trauma on the Slavonic alphabet is repeated in traditionalist Orthodox literature.
According to Sablina (2000: 23), the Church Slavonic alphabet is beautiful,
with delicate ligatures, accents, and breathings that help the reader along; but the
secularized alphabet has lost its external beauty and is like the stunted tundra on
which nary a living tree grows. The abecedarium ofDorofeeva (2008) begins with
a poem called “Azbuka” (alphabet) that refers to the reforms of 1918 and laments
the “orthographical storms” that have shaken Russia, excising such beautiful letters
as iat ‘,fit a, and izhitsa. Noting that the original alphabet of Cyril and Methodius
has lost nine vowels under the Petrine and Bolshevik reforms, Miroshnichenko
(1999: 146) remarks: “Such a pogrom no other language in the world has known.”
The script is now corrupted (iskoverkannyi). Thus, alphabet mysticism meets
conspiracy theory, as nefarious forces are blamed for desecrating the people’s
sacred alphabet.

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