Sobornost vol.27:2, 2005


The eucharist in the theology of Fr Sergii Bulgakov

Andrew Louth


‘The Eucharist in the theology of Bulgakov’ — rather than more directly Bulgakov’s Eucharistic theology — because it becomes clear if one tries to get some sense of Fr Sergii Bulgakov’s importance that so much of his impact was as a person and a priest, much more so than what he wrote, for all its bulk. In a recent, excellent issue of that fine journal, St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Alexis Klimoff records how one of Bulgakov’s students at St Serge, Alexander Schmemann, later Dean of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, spoke of ‘the incomprehensible gulf which he and many others perceived between the saintly and luminous personality of Bulgakov on the one hand, and his ponderous philosophical edifice on the other’1. Quite how negatively Schmemann viewed Bulgakov’s theological oeuvre is clear from the remarks he confided to his diary, which only enhances his perception of Bulgakov’s ‘saintly and luminous personality’2. That personality found expression in the priest and pastor and spiritual counsellor that Bulgakov was. Quite how powerful that personality was is evident from the fact that echoes of it can still be perceived more than sixty years after his death, and one of the reasons, I would suggest, that the works that gave expression to his ‘ponderous philosophical edifice’ are now being published in English translation is that something of his personality breathes through these works. So this is where I want to begin: with Bulgakov the priest. A priest, deeply committed to the Eucharistic Liturgy, which he celebrated every morning, at last at some periods of his life.


1. Alexis Klimoff, ‘Georges Florovsky and the Sophiological Controversy’, SVTQ 49 (2005), pp. 67-100, here p. 81.

2. Cf. The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983, SVSP 2000, pp. 261-2, cited by Klimoff, art. cit., p. 81, n. 47.



Bulgakov the priest

I have not been able to find many reminiscences of Bulgakov the priest that do more than mention the power of his priestly presence, but I cite three. First, from Metropolitan Evlogii’s address at his funeral, in which he addressed the departed priest in these words:

Dear Father Sergii: You were a Christian sage, a teacher of the Church in the purest and most lofty sense. You were enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Wisdom, the Spirit of Understanding, the Comforter to whom you dedicated your scholarly work. He transformed the Saul in you into Paul. He guided you to your last breath. Twenty-six years ago you partook of His gracious gifts in the sacrament of ordination, and you bore the cross of the priesthood in the Holy Spirit. It is significant that you received this gift on the day of the Holy Spirit—when he descended upon the holy apostles in tongues of fire. Thus you had a share in them. You were an apostle in your life [...]. It is significant, too, that you celebrated your last Liturgy on earth on that very day of the Holy Spirit, the anniversary of your ordination as a priest [...] How bright your countenance was on that day! Your soul was conscious of its last triumph in this world.

And it was on that day that the Lord called you to cease your priestly service on earth so as to continue it there, at the throne of God, in the choir of holy Angels and Apostles3.


We have, from another hand—Sister Joanna Reitlinger’s, who tended Bulgakov in his last days—an account of that final Liturgy:

The stroke occurred on the night from the 5th to the 6th of June, Monday to Tuesday, after the feast day of the Spirit. On the eve of this feast day, as always on this day which was the anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, Father Sergii performed the liturgy in an especially inspired manner. His closest spiritual children, all those who could make it, were present at this liturgy and took Communion.

It is amazing that, although Father Sergii did not have a specific premonition of his imminent end (to be sure, he expected the end to come at any time), many of his spiritual children later noticed how particularly significant was this final confession, as if it were a ‘farewell’ confession in which Father Sergii left us his testament and


3. Quoted in James Pain’s introduction to A Bulgakov Anthology. Sergius Bulgakov 1871-1944 (London: SPCK, 1976), p. xvi-xvii.



synthesized the main thing that he wished to say to each of us [...].

All this was imperceptible, and it was fall of trepidation—a trepidation that was a constant feature of Father Sergii’s whole tremulous life, to which all self-assurance was so foreign despite the defmitiveness and magnitude of this life4.


A further indication of the impact of his priestly ministry that I have been able to find (or remember—there must be many better examples I haven’t come across or have forgotten) comes in the section of Fr Alexander Elchaninov’s Diary of a Russian Priest called ‘Advice to Young Priests’. There we find a section called ‘Advice by Father Sergii Bulgakov (from Father John of Kronstadt)’5—the fact that Elchaninov felt moved to include this brief section speaks volumes for his respect for Bulgakov as a priest.

I have gathered these together, because it seems to me that at the heart of everything Bulgakov had to say there lies his own experience as a priest, and in his perception of priesthood the role of the priest in the celebration of the Liturgy was central (almost all the advice recorded by Fr Elchaninov is about how to celebrate the Liturgy). Bulgakov doesn’t write about the Eucharistic Liturgy so much as write out of the Eucharistic Liturgy. This means that we shall find the place of the Eucharist in his theology not just in the, comparatively few, works in which he expressly considered the Eucharist, but really throughout his theology. Sister Joanna Reitlinger goes on to say, in the passage already quoted,

After the liturgy, Father Sergii invited everyone to tea in his quarters. Several tables were placed in his study, and traditional refreshment was set out. He wished to do this very well, inasmuch as there was


4. From Sister Joanna Reitlinger, ‘The Final Days of Father Sergius Bulgakov: a Memoir’, in Sergius Bulgakov: Apocatastasis and Transfiguration, trans. Boris Jakim, Variable Readings in Russian Philosophy, N° 2 (New Haven: The Variable Press, 1995), pp. 31-53, here p. 39.

5. Alexander Elchaninov, The Diary of a Russian Priest (London: Faber & Faber, 1967), p. 219.



always something holy in this, a continuation of the ‘common task’ of the liturgy in ordinary life, in the everyday human community [...].6


Just as for Bulgakov the Liturgy spilled over into ‘ordinary life’, so the Eucharist spilled over everything he wrote, and informed his whole theology. One can find this in the way his theology always presses beyond the strictly theological into reflections about the Christian life, and the impact of the Christian mystery, through the lives of Christians, in their society—‘towards a political theology’, as the present Archbishop of Canterbury has it.7 But there are other, more unmistakable ways in which the Eucharist shapes his theology. An example can be found in the subjects of his so-called Tittle trilogy’— The Burning Bush, The Friend of the Bridegroom, Jacob’s Ladder— on the Mother of God, John the Baptist, and the Angels. The choice of the Mother of God and St John the Baptist is certainly influenced by the iconographic tradition, and especially the icon called the Deisis— ‘Intercession’—in which a seated Christ is flanked by the Mother of God and St John with their hands raised in an attitude of prayer. They are the two who are closest to Christ, and this closeness is manifest in prayer. These considerations are already liturgical, but the final volume on the Angels makes these considerations more precisely eucharistic, for all these volumes are concerned with the conjunction of the two worlds—the earthly and the heavenly—a conjunction manifest in different ways in the Mother of God and St John, but realised most immediately for us in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, when we join together with ‘thousands of Archangels and ten thousands of Angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged and many-eyed [...]’. But considering together the Mother of God and the Baptist has a more precisely Eucharistic reference, as Bulgakov himself makes clear when he recalls that in the preparation service, the proskomidi, as the priest cuts fragments to set beside the Lamb, the bread to be consecrated, the first two fragments are in honour of the Mother of God and then of the Baptist. Similarly in the Eucharistic prayer, after the epiclesis, first to be commemorated is the Mother of


6. Reitlinger, op. cit., p. 39.

7. In the title of his recent book on Bulgakov: Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1999).



God, followed immediately by St John the Baptist.8 The way in which such precise liturgical references feed Bulgakov’s theological reflection is something very striking, and I don’t really know anyone else of whom this is true to the same extent. It may, perhaps, have something to do with the fact that Bulgakov was already approaching fifty by the time he was ordained priest, for it is especially the priest’s part of the liturgy—the actions not seen by the people and the prayers said quietly—on which Bulgakov seems to draw, and it may be that coming to all this late in life meant that it made a peculiar impact on him. A final recollection: several times Fr Boris Bobrinskoy, who arrived at the Institut St Serge just after Bulgakov’s death, records a saying of Bulgakov’s to the effect that ‘the whole of his theological vision he had drawn from the bottom of the eucharistic chalice’.9 I think that remark may be a traditional priestly proverb, but, even if that is so, it is striking that Fr Bobrinskoy specifically attributes it to Bulgakov.


Eucharist and Incarnation

The Eucharist is, then, not just an isolated theological topic alongside others; it is, for Bulgakov, something all-embracing. But it is also a specific topic to which Bulgakov addressed himself several times, notably in an article, ‘The Eucharistic Dogma’, first published in Put’ (‘The Way’) in 1930. But before we look at what is, in fact, a rather difficult essay, let us look briefly at what he says elsewhere explicitly on the Eucharistic Liturgy. In The Bride of the Lamb, Bulgakov says that

One should always remember that, although the eucharist is one of the ‘seven’ sacraments (according to the present count), it actually has a


8. S.Bulgakov, The Friend of the Bridegroom, trans. by Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2003), p. 136.

9. B. Bobrinskoy, La compassion du Pere (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2000), p. 160, cf. p. 173; La mystere de la Trinite (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1986/1996 imprint), p. 149 (presumably from an oral tradition, as no reference is given).



significance that is greater than that: it is the sacrament of sacraments, the central sacrament of the Church [.. .]10

It is more than just a sacrament of communion, to which Protestantism has often reduced it, and even to think of it as sacrament and sacrifice, as Aquinas did, is to start to divide up what is a seamless mystery. The holy Eucharist, ‘given by the Lord, in remembrance of me', is, in an utterly real sense, ‘the power of the Incarnation, the realised and abiding divine-humanity, including all the faithful’; it is the ‘abiding of Christ in the world, his connection with the world, despite the ascension’; this ‘mysterious abiding of Christ in the world through the Divine Eucharist lasts “until he come”, when the mysterious “remembrance” will be replaced by the new coming of the Lord and the abiding with Him: “and so shall we ever be with the Lord’”.11

Communion with the body and blood is therefore not yet all that the Eucharist signifies as the divine ‘It is finished’, as the sacrificial and abiding Incarnation. It is the sacrament of sacraments, the foundation of all the sacraments, and its accomplishing power is Pentecost, the coming into the world of the Holy Spirit, who ‘shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you’. ‘In remembrance of me’ and ‘to bring [...] to your remembrance’ are closely connected, which is expressed in the fact that the ‘breaking of bread’ appears in the life of the Church only after Pentecost, as the accomplishment of divine-humanity.12


Bulgakov’s consideration of the Eucharist starts from the Incarnation and the way in which the Eucharist continues to make accessible the Incarnation: it is the way Christ abides with us. Christ’s presence in the eucharistic gifts, the bread and wine, are important, as we shall see, but it is not where Bulgakov starts. He starts with the Church, attentive to the Spirit, looking to the second coming of Christ: it is there that we shall see the significance of the Eucharist. What he has to say about the Eucharist in his book, The Orthodox Church, complements what we have just heard:


10. S. Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2002), p. 286.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., p. 286 f.



During the Eucharist not only are the holy gifts consecrated, but by symbolic acts, readings and prayers, the whole mystery of the Incarnation is renewed from the Grotto of Bethlehem to the Mount of Olives, from the Nativity to the Ascension. The consecration of the holy gifts attributed by Western theology to the moment when the priest pronounces the words of Christ, ‘this is my Body’ [...] ‘this is my Blood’, this consecration is effected—according to Orthodox thought—during the whole liturgy, beginning with the ‘preparation’. It is completed at the moment when the words of Our Lord are pronounced and when the Holy Spirit is invoked (‘epiclesis’) [...]13


For Bulgakov, the theology of the Eucharist is about the whole of the Divine Liturgy, not just the way in which the gifts of bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.


The Eucharistic transmutation

However, the question of that change is a theological matter, and ‘The Eucharistic Dogma’ is largely devoted to it. This is, as I have said, a difficult article. This is mainly because, like his book The Burning Bush, in it Bulgakov is concerned to engage with Roman Catholic theology, so his presentation of Orthodox theology tends to become a reverse image of what he sees the Roman Catholic doctrine to be. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that his grasp of Roman Catholic theology in this case is much less astute than in The Burning Bush: bluntly, I don’t think that Bulgakov really grasped what the doctrine of transubstantiation is trying to say.

For Bulgakov, the eucharistic dogma is about the transmutation of the holy gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. ‘Transmutation’ is the word Boris Jakim uses to represent the Russian words prelagiutsia and prelozhenie.14 What this transmutation means (as Bulgakov will go on to expound) is that the bread and wine become other than themselves—become the Body and Blood of Christ—without ceasing to be what they are themselves as things in


13. S. Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (London: The Centenary Press, 1935), pp. 154-5.

14. S. Bulgakov, The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, trans. by Boris Jakim (Hudson NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1997), p. 63 n.



this world. This transmutation is, as Bulgakov puts it, ‘not a physical, but a metaphysical event’.15 A word Bulgakov is fond of in this (and other contexts) is ‘antinomy’, a dignified (and Kantian) word for a contradiction, but a contradiction in which we are reluctant to abandon either term of the contradiction. This ‘antinomic’ transmutation, that takes place in the Eucharist, means that there is a real change—the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ—but in this change the bread and wine are not destroyed as things in this world.

Bulgakov then turns to the Western doctrine of the Eucharist. What is wrong with this doctrine (and really, he argues, there is little difference between Catholic and Protestant here) is that it has been reified: it is concerned with what happens to the things, the bread and wine, as a result of the transmutation. The doctrine becomes, as he puts it, a question of ‘sacramental natural science, so to speak. The thing itself, that is the eucharistic matter, stands at the centre of the question here’.16 This approach fits well with what we have already seen of Bulgakov’s own approach to the Eucharist, which does not concentrate on the ‘eucharistic elements’ but takes in the whole liturgical action. He then embarks on a more specific criticism of the doctrine of transubstantiation, which he interprets as asserting that, while the accidents of bread and wine remain, the substance or inner core of them is destroyed and replaced by the Body and Blood of Christ. He talks of the ‘cosmism’ of the doctrine of transubstantiation.17 It is very difficult to think ourselves back to 1930, when this article was written. Roman Catholicism has changed a good deal as a result of Vatican II, and many of these changes bear on liturgical matters. Modern Roman Catholicism makes much less of the service of Benediction (with the reserved host) and exposition of the consecrated host (though they have by no means vanished) than would have been the case in Bulgakov’s day, so when he accuses the Roman Catholic doctrine of asserting a ‘direct dwelling of the Lord in the


15. Ibid., p. 63.

16. Ibid., p. 70.

17. Ibid., p. 79.



host’,18 which involves both a denial of the Ascension and finds its expression in the cult of the eucharistic presence, he is reflecting an aspect of Roman Catholic eucharistic devotional practice that is much less evident nowadays. It is in these terms that he sees the doctrine of transubstantiation, for even though he refers to Aquinas’ exposition of transubstantiation in the Summa Theologiae, he undertakes no careful reading of this doctrine.19 He sees the doctrine as a way of explaining the ‘how’ of the eucharistic presence, whereas Karl Rahner, for example, argues that it should be understood as really affirming unmistakably the ‘that’ of the presence.20 Rahner’s reading of transubstantiation seems to me to be difficult to distinguish from what Bulgakov means by ‘transmutation’, but how far Bulgakov’s reading of transubstantiation really reflects the (or even an) understanding of transubstantiation to be found among his Roman Catholic contemporaries I am not in a position to judge.

Bulgakov then acknowledges that Orthodoxy has itself tended to get caught up in the false presuppositions of the Western position, and sets out how Orthodoxy needs to respond on this question. His proposed methodology is worth quoting in full:

But Orthodoxy has not yet said its word here. For this, it is necessary, first of all, to return to the theology of the fathers (one thousand years into the past), to the patristic doctrine, and to use it as a true guide, creatively to unfold it and apply it to our time. Secondly, it is necessary to make a total change in the statement of the question, where one gets away from Catholic cosmism, which reifies the eucharistic problematic, and in the unfolding of this problematic to rely not on Aristotle’s Metaphysics but on the Gospel. In other words,


18. Ibid., p. 81.

19. Cf. ibid., p. 69. The fact that the reference to Aquinas is completely wrong does not inspire confidence. The reference should be: Summa Theologiae III. 73- 83.

20. Karl Rahner, ‘The Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper’, in Theological Investigations IV (London: DLT, 1966), pp. 287-311, esp. 302-3.



the question must be returned to the domain of Christology, for it is essentially and wholly a Christological question.21


That sounds to me a good outline of a ‘Neopatristic’ approach, not usually associated with Bulgakov: back to the Fathers and arguing ἁλιευτικν, λλ’ οκ ριστοτελικῶς‘like the fishermen, and not like Aristotle’, in St Gregory the Theologian’s words!22


Eucharistic communion

We cannot here follow the detail of Bulgakov’s appeal to the Fathers over the question of the Eucharist, but his essential point is that, according to the Fathers, in this following the clear witness of the New Testament, the purpose of the Eucharist is not primarily to effect Christ’s presence, but rather to offer the faithful communion in the Body and Blood of Christ. What the holy gifts become is, first of all, divine food.23 In partaking of this divine food, we feed on Christ’s body and blood, but not—if this were possible or even if it made sense—on the historical body and blood of Christ, but on his now glorified body and blood. To quote Bulgakov:

The transmutation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist is not accomplished in the personal presence of Christ, for the ascended Lord, having departed the earth, abides in heaven at the right hand of the Father. A new, different relation is thereby established between the bread and wine as things of this world, as earthly food, and the body and blood of the Lord in the glorified state of resurrection, ascension, and the sitting at the right hand of the Father, that is, in the state of supramundane, supracosmic, or supraphysical abiding. Of course, in its essence, this Body is identical to the Body that was conceived in Mary’s womb [...]. But this self-identity is united with such a change of the glorified body compared with the earthly body that this is also manifested in the glorified body’s relation to the world: the body of the Lord, which


21. Bulgakov, The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, p. 82.

22. Gregory ofNazianzus, Or. 23.12.

23. As the Council of Trent said in its decree on the Eucharist, this sacrament was instituted by Christ ut sumatur (‘to be consumed’: Denzinger-Schonmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Rome: Herder, 361976, § 1643).



belonged to this world prior to the Resurrection and even prior to the Ascension, now no longer belongs to it, but is supramundane, metacosmic. The formulation of the eucharistic problem derives from this.24


The key to this lies in understanding correctly the mystery of the Ascension of the Lord, or more correctly, His Assumption— Άνάληψσις, Vosnesenie—into heaven. This is a bodily assumption— Christ’s body is no longer to be encountered on earth—but it is not the end of the Incarnation, rather it is the making eternal of the Incarnation.25 The kontakion for the Feast makes this clear:

When you had fulfilled your dispensation for us, and united things on earth with things in heaven, you were taken up in glory, Christ our God; in no way divided, but remaining inseparable, you cried to those who loved you: I am with you, and there is no one against you.


The dispensation, the oikonomia, has been fulfilled and its purpose achieved in the reunion of earth and heaven. Christ is taken up into heaven, but is now ‘in no way divided’ from us, but ‘remains—or abides—inseparable from us’—inseparable from each of us in a way that was not possible during the days of his earthly life—as he says: ‘I am with you, and there is no one against you.’ The kontakion itself contains the Bulgakovian ‘antinomy’: ‘taken up’—‘in no way divided, but remaining inseparable’. Bulgakov comments:

Here, we once again have an antinomic determination, the two terms of which [...] are inseparably joined: the body of Christ, which belongs to human nature and this world, ascends, departs this world; that which is of the world becomes supramundane, already belongs to divine life, manifesting both a perfect deification of human nature and a perfect incarnation26 of the divine nature. It is here that we find the foundation of the eucharistic dogma.27


24. Bulgakov, The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, p. 90 f.

25. Ibid., p. 97.

26. Jakim has the ugly ‘inhumanization’, presumably a rather too literal translation of vochelovechenie.

27. Ibid., p. 104.



How this works itself out in the Eucharistic dogma can again be developed by starting from a liturgical text: this time the words— redolent with antinomy—spoken by the priest as he divides the consecrated lamb in preparation for communion:

The Lamb of God is broken and distributed, broken yet not divided, ever eaten yet never consumed, but sanctifies those who partake.


The consecrated bread is broken up for communion, and in receiving it, we partake of the glorified body and blood of Christ, and are thus drawn into union with Him—and also with one another—and sanctified and deified. The main part of the article ends by referring to the troparion said after communion, before the consecrated gifts:

O Christ, great and most holy Passover! O Wisdom and Word and Power of God! Grant that we may more perfectly partake of you in the unfading day of your Kingdom.


For Bulgakov the truth represented by the Ascension is fulfilled, not contradicted, by the Eucharist and our communion in the Body and Blood of Christ, and that means, too, that we partake of Christ as the ‘one who comes’, or, the better to bring out the force of the present participle, ὁ ἐρχόμενος, the ‘one who is coming’, whom we shall finally encounter in the ‘unfading day of the Kingdom’.

In the article, there is a lot of detail that I have passed over, much of which consists of biblical-liturgical meditation of great interest, but this is probably enough for the moment. Let me just repeat, as Bulgakov does himself, that, for him, the question of the transmutation of the eucharistic elements is a Christological question, not a cosmological one: it is not about what happens to the material reality of the holy gifts, but who it is that we encounter when we receive them as the food of the Kingdom, the ‘bread of heaven’, the ‘medicine of incorruptibility’.


The Holy Grail

A couple of years after the article ‘The Eucharistic Dogma’, Bulgakov published, again in Put’, an article on ‘The Holy Grail’. Were it not for the fact that Boris Jakim prefaced his translation of ‘The



Eucharistic Dogma’ with this other article, I would probably not have thought it worthwhile discussing it (and indeed, would probably have not known of its existence at all), but Jakim’s putting them together means that anyone reading the one might well read the other, and could well be puzzled, as the article on ‘The Holy Grail’ is a pretty unusual text. So I thought I would include a discussion of it here.

It is presented as a ‘dogmatic exegesis’ of John 19.34: ‘But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it bore witness, and his witness is true’. It is significant—Bulgakov himself draws attention to the fact28—that this verse is recited by the priest when, during the proskomidi he pierces the lamb and pours wine and water into the eucharistic chalice. What catches Bulgakov’s interest is what happened to the blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ on to the ground at the foot of the cross, and what is the meaning of this blood and water—part of the physical reality of the Incarnate Christ— that remains part of the world after the resurrection of Christ. The Eucharistic Blood is the Blood of the Risen Christ, but there remains in the world—after the Resurrection and the Ascension—the physical blood and water that flowed from the side of the dying Christ. The main way in which Bulgakov seeks an interpretation is clear from the title of the article: it is in terms of the Holy Grail, the sacred chalice in which Joseph of Arimatheia collected the blood of Christ (the only interpretation of the identity of the Grail of which Bulgakov seems aware), that he seeks the key to this mystery.

That Bulgakov takes this line is interesting. So far as I am aware, the legend of the Holy Grail has no place in the Russian (or any other Orthodox) tradition; it is very much a Western legend, emerging in written form first in the late twelfth century in the verse of Chrétien de Troyes, and slightly later in the mediaeval Welsh of the Mabinogion, though these are doubtless based on oral tradition of, maybe, some antiquity (especially, perhaps, in the case of the latter). From then on the legend is taken up in various forms, the standard English version being Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. In the various written


28. Ibid., p. 31.



forms, it belongs to the stories of courtly romance, connected with King Arthur and his knights. All this, of course, has English, or rather British, links: it is part of the ‘matter of Britain’, the legends that preserved, or created, a sense of Christian identity with the British inhabitants of Britain prior to the pagan Anglo-Saxons. What even such a brief account reveals is how little use, despite the title of the article, Bulgakov makes of the Grail legend. So far as I can see, the only literary source that he mentions is Tennyson’s Idylls of a King.29 It is the link between the Grail legend and the supposed fate of the blood from the side of Christ that interests Bulgakov, not the history of the Grail legend itself. This is odd, for in the Russian emigre community in Paris where Bulgakov was writing, there was one Russian emigree who was a genuine expert on the Grail legends— someone Bulgakov certainly knew, if only from the so-called Berdyaev Colloquium in which they both participated.30 For Myrrha Lot-Borodine, well-known to theologians for her articles on deification, her translation of St Maximos the Confessor’s Mystagogia, and her book on Nicolas Kavasilas, was a scholar who specialised the Arthurian romances. This interest mostly found expression in articles and translations; her book—a fine one—De l’amour profane à l’amour sacré. Études de psychologie sentimentale au Moyen Age, was only published posthumously in 1961, the year after Vladimir Lossky’s similarly posthumous Théologie négative et connaissance de Dieu chez Maitre Eckhart, and like it with a preface by Étienne Gilson.31 What Bulgakov learnt from Lot-Borodine, if anything, it is hard to say for he is very sparing with references to sources for the Grail legend in his article.

Bulgakov’s interest is really confined to the question as to what the significance could be of the blood and water (both the water from


29. Ibid. p. 31, n. 9.

30. See Andrew Blane’s ‘Sketch of a Life of Georges Florovsky’, in idem (ed.), Georges Florovsky: Russian Intellectual — Orthodox Churchman (Crestwood NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), p. 54.

31. Myrrha Lot-Borodine, De l’amour profane à l’amour sacré. Études de psychologie sentimentale au Moyen Age (Paris: Librairie Nizet, 1961).



his side and the ‘bloody sweat’ of the Agony, as Bulgakov specifies)32 that remains in the world, and was not raised up with the body of Christ in His resurrection.

The blood and water that flowed into the world abide in the world.

They sanctify the world as the pledge of its future transfiguration. Through the precious streams of Christ’s blood and water that flowed out of his side, all creation was sanctified—heaven and earth, our earthly world, and all the stellar worlds. The image of the Holy Grail, in which the holy blood of Christ is kept, expresses precisely the idea that, even though the Lord ascended in His honourable flesh to heaven, the world received His holy relic in the blood and water that flowed out of His side; and the chalice of the Grail is the ciborium and repository of this relic. And the whole world is the chalice of the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is inaccessible to veneration; in its holiness it is hidden in the world from the world. However, it exists in the world as an invisible power, and it becomes visible, appears to pure hearts who are worthy of its appearance.33


The point of this is that the blood and water from the side of Christ sanctify the world naturally: it has nothing to do with grace, it is an inescapable fact. Although the blood and water fell on a particular place on the earth—save for the blood caught in Joseph’s chalice—it is the whole world that receives it; in a way, it is the whole world that is the Grail. There is a kind of natural sacrament alongside the Church’s sacrament of the Eucharist, which is why in the Western legend the Grail is full of eucharistic overtones. Bulgakov’s article is brief and allusive, and I am not sure that I have fully grasped what he is saying. But this parallelism between the receiving of Christ through the fruits—or perhaps better, the by-products—of his passion and Christ’s presence in the world as a result of the Ascension which, we have seen, is the basis of Bulgakov’s eucharistic theology means that this natural presence can be interpreted in terms of his supramundane presence—with implications for all human striving after God, especially through suffering. He quotes a verse of Tyutchev:


32. Bulgakov, The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, p. 26 n.

33. Ibid., p. 33.



In the form of a slave the King of Heaven

Traversed all of you, blessing all,

My native land34


seeing in this another way in which the presence of Christ in the world through ‘natural’ means is given expression.35 There are other legends, or stories, that express much the same idea—like the Russian children’s story, ‘Babushka’, about a woman who, having been too busy to go with the wise men to see the child king, goes after them with her presents, always arriving when Christ has gone on, and is still searching for the Christ child. But because the natural connexion is through the by-products of suffering, it is suffering in which the world finds its identity as the Grail.

Our life participates in His life in His humanity; our sufferings participate in His sufferings [...]. The Golgotha mystery continues invisibly in the world. This thought is terrible and staggering in its significance, but it is sweet and elevating in its comfort. It truly places us before the face of Christ, makes His presence not distant and abstract but near and concrete. Because of his love of creation, Christ took upon Himself the sin and sorrow of the world. To human suffering He, God, responds with His own suffering. God is with us!36


And there follows a moving paragraph on the sufferings of Russia (written, remember, in 1932).37

There is much that is odd about this, though it perhaps appears less odd, if one recalls something of the motivation behind Bulgakov’s


34. Ibid., p. 52, n. 23.

35. Though he—characteristically—gives a eucharistic illustration of this presence—‘a certain reality, and not merely a case of poetic liberty’—in the words exchanged by the clergy at the kiss of peace: ‘Christ is in our midst’ — ‘He is and He will be’.

36. Ibid., p. 54.

37. I also wonder whether there is not a connexion here with the fact that shortly after his arrival in the West he was diagnosed as suffering from sclerosis, with the likelihood of a stroke or heart attack at any time. As Sister Joanna has revealed, this awareness was always with him (op. cit., p. 31).



sophiology, namely the conviction that everything, simply by existing through the divine Sophia, is touched with holiness—nothing is beyond the presence of God. But here is not the place to pursue that. What I want to do, in my final words, is to reflect on what seems to me the underlying purpose in Bulgakov’s reflections on the Holy Grail, and see whether there is anything there that we might want to embrace, even if in a rather different form.


Our identity as Christians

As I mentioned earlier on, the group of legends connected with the Grail are to do with ways of affirming identity over time. For us British—to keep it simple—the ‘matter of Britain’ is about our Christian roots as a nation. It is actually a British way of doing something that all the Orthodox nations have accomplished in their own way: finding an identity in which being British—or Russian or Greek or Romanian or Georgian or Bulgarian or Serbian and so on— and being Christian are the same thing. It is no mistake that Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur appeared at the beginning of the Tudor period, pre-eminently a period when the English were seeking a new identity. It is interesting how often these legends find the source of identity in defeat. This is an old insight: it is the point of Virgil’s Aeneid, giving the Romans a lineage that found its origins in the sack of Troy—the lacrimae rerum, the ‘tears of things’. The death of Arthur is the beginning of the history of the Britons, as the death of Prince Lazar is the defining moment in the history of Serbia. Suffering is ennobled; it becomes creative. Bulgakov wanted to provide such an insight with a Christian, theological justification; it was not, for him, simply a truth of nature. It is interesting, too, to note how Orthodox in the West have tried—are trying—to find an identity that fuses their identity as Orthodox and their identity as members of Western nations. The diary Vladimir Lossky wrote at the beginning of the Second World War shows how Lossky sought to find an identity as Russian Orthodox and French by looking to the saints of the Undivided Church,38 which is closely parallel to what many English Orthodox do by reviving devotion to the saints—British and Anglo-Saxon—of the


38. In his Sept jours sur les routes de France, juin 1940 (Paris: Cerf, 1998).



first millennium.39 There are dangers: the close proximity of 1054 and 1066 easily leads Orthodox to embrace the kind of romanticism about the Saxons found in Scott’s Ivanhoe—and the Celtic fringe beckons alluringly! It is this fusing of natural categories—race, nation, culture, language—with the categories of the Christian faith that transcend nature that Bulgakov is seeking to justify in his reflections on the Holy Grail. The biggest theological question mark we may put against this would be whether the Christian vocation is not precisely to be peregrini, resident aliens, the ξένοι κα παρεπίδημοι π τς γς of Hebrews 11.13, who have no patria, but are seeking one, looking for a ‘city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Hebrews 11.10).


David Jones

Such a fusing together of the legends of national identity, memory embedded in language, and the salvific force of the Christian Gospel is the stuff of great art—as the genre of courtly romance and its use of the Grail legend indicates. And all this makes me think of a great artist and poet of the last century, David Jones, who drew together many of these themes both in his visual art—paintings, etchings, drawings, engravings—and in his poetic and quasi-poetic works, the greatest of which is his book-length poem, The Anathemata.40 A Londoner of Anglo-Welsh descent, perhaps the greatest experience of his life—one that he spent the rest of his life trying to get to the bottom of—was his service in the British Army during the First World War. There he experienced all the horror of trench warfare, but also the raw humanity and camaderie that it called forth. After the war he converted


39. See Metropolitan Makarios (Tillyrides)’s contribution to Bishop Kallistos’ Festschrift, Orthodoxy in Britain: Past, Present and Future’: Abba: the Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West (Crestwood NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), pp. 135-55.

40. David Jones, The Anathemata (London: Faber & Faber, 1952).



(– picture –)



to Catholicism, and this put him in touch with a whole symbolic universe, on which he drew in his art. He often sets the Great War against what he came to learn about the experience of Roman legionaries, amongst whom he imagined those involved in the events of Christ’s crucifixion, and developed a complex of allusive symbolism, in which everything that he had experienced began to make some sense, or at least fall into some pattern. In this the Grail legends were important, not least as providing a bridge between the Christianity of the Roman Britons, brought to Britain probably, at least in part, by Roman legionaries who had embraced Christianity, and the nation, including Celtic Wales, to which he belonged. Without embarking on at least another paper, if not a whole course of lectures, it is difficult to illustrate this, as David Jones’ vision is elaborately allusive, but at its centre stands the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church pre-Vatican II, which he saw stretching back with little change to the Christianity the Roman Britons knew. I want to end by taking one passage, introducing it and then reading it. It is the closing section of ‘The Sleeping Lord’, a poem in a last collection of work prepared by David Jones, but published posthumously.41 The ‘sleeping Lord’— the lord who is dead but will, when the occasion demands, rise again to come to the defence of his people—contains some kind of allusion to the Resurrection of Christ, and is also an extraordinarily widespread and tenacious piece of mythology, woven in various ways into the legend of the Grail: the Danes have it with Holger the Dane, sleeping beneath the great tower in Copenhagen; the Greeks have it in the legend that the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, did not die in defence of the city, but vanished into the walls of Hagia Sophia and will emerge again when the time comes; the Britons have in the legend of the inscription on Arthur’s tomb—Rex quondam rexque futurus,


41. David Jones, The Sleeping Lord and other fragments (London: Faber & Faber, 1974).



‘the once and future King’. It is a legend rooted in the place and people that makes me, or you, or anyone else, who we are. David Jones’ sleeping Lord seems to fuse with the landscape, the very landscape he depicted in some of his pictures of the 1920s, forty-odd years before the poem was written (‘November 1966 to March 1967’42). It reminds me of the kind of antinomy, the holding together of opposites, to which Bulgakov keeps on returning as he meditates on the Holy Grail.


Yet he sleeps on

very deep is his slumber:

how long as he been the sleeping lord?

are the clammy ferns

his rustling valance

does the buried rowan

ward him from evil, or

does he ward the tanglewood

and the denizens of the wood

are the stunted oaks his gnarled guard

or are their knarred limbs

strong with his sap?

Do the small black horses

grass on the hunch of his shoulders?

are the hills his couch

or is he the couchant hills?

Are the slumbering valleys

him in slumber

are the still undulations

the still limbs of him sleeping?

Is the configuration of the lands

the furrowed body of the lord

are the scarred ridges

his dented greaves

do the trickling gullies

yet drain his hog-wounds?

Does the land wait the sleeping lord

or is the wasted land

that very lord who sleeps?43



42. Ibid., p. 96.

43. Ibid.





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