With this text, Another City inaugurates a new feature of our journal, in which we offer the reader substantial portions (typically chapters) of books (many of them recently published) that we believe hold a particular importance for Orthodox Christians. Here, thanks to St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, we encounter one of the most important but strangely neglected saints and devotional writers of Russian Orthodoxy, St Dimitri of Rostov.
St Dimitri presents us here with exceptionally powerful meditations on the suffering of Christ in the hours before and during His crucifixion, events whose significance rivet our attention on Holy Friday like the earthquake that shook the earth itself during that dark hour. These are meant as private meditations, and their compelling, colorful, pious rhetoric has the power to stir even the coldest hearts to repentance and praise.
St Vladimir’s Seminary Press has just published a fine collection of his writings, Jesus Crucified: The Baroque Spirituality of St Dimitri of Rostov (2017), from which this selection is taken, and that is reviewed more fully above. It serves as a fine introduction to his unique synthesis of Eastern and Western spirituality, and it is the first in their new series entitled “Treasures of Orthodox Spirituality.”
By St. Dimitri of Rostov
Every truly believing son of the Church should recall the death of Christ, which he endured in the flesh for our sake without guilt, for he committed no sin, and there was no lying in his mouth.1 Therefore, O God-loving soul, be thankful to the one who suffered and died for your sake. Take up the beginning, starting from the timeless birth of the Son of God, meditating with faith alone on his unsearchable, ineffable, and incomprehensible birth from the Father before the ages, and how the Word of God—-born before the ages from the Father, the priceless treasure of the Father’s heart, whom the Father bore from the womb before the morning star2—[how] the very Word of God, the most beloved Son of God the Father, consented, by the good will of the Father and the co—activity of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of our salvation to take up human nature and to arrange our salvation in it. He was born from the most immaculate Virgin Mary in time, he took up human nature from her most pure blood, he created for this nature a rational soul, he became a perfect man, and with respect to this humanity he grew up to a perfect stature.3 When the fore—appointed time of our redemption arrived, then Christ, our Savior and God, at his mystical supper, handed down a most terrible and most dread mystery to his disciples and apostles, and through them even to us, for taking bread in his most exceedingly holy and divine hands, blessing it, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and apostles, saying, “Take, eat, this is my body“4 Giving thanks for this beneficence, everyone ought to say the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father,”5 with this ending: “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory6 together with your unoriginate Father and your Most Holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”7 And a bow.
And at this, his mystical supper, Christ, the Son of God, taking the cup in his most divine and most holy hands, offering praise, gave it to his disciples, saying, “Drink from it, all of you: this is my blood of the New Covenant, which is poured out for you and for many for the remission of sins.”8 Giving thanks for this beneficence, that Christ our Savior made us worthy of these most dread mysteries not on account of some service of ours, but rather on account of his own extreme and unspeakable mercy and love toward the human race, [and] that he looked down on our corrupted nature, and renewed again that which was fallen for the better, and recreated it, and reconciled it to himself, and made us of one blood and of one body—-giving thanks for this, say the prayer “Our Father.” And a bow.
After the mystical supper, Christ, the Son of God, out of his exceedingly deep humility and ineffable love, standing up from the supper, laid down his garments and, taking a towel, girded himself. Then, pouring water into a washbasin, he began to wash his disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel with which he was girt.9 Wondering at his exceedingly deep humility and strange appearance, let everyone try to read the prayer “Our Father” with tenderness of heart. And a bow.
Then Christ, the Son of God, went out with his disciples to the Mount of Olives, according to his custom, and, bowing his knees there, he prayed to God the Father, saying, “Father, if you be well disposed, pass this cup away from me! However, not what I will, but what you [will]; your will be done.”10 He prayed three times,11 and was in struggle: fervently he prayed! And his sweat became like great drops of blood dripping down to the ground.”12 Recalling this, his fervent prayer, let even us try to pray to him with great attentiveness and say, “Our Father.” And a bow.
Here it befts this godly contemplation to consider [the following]: then the traitor Judas came with the given sign, with the soldiers who were sent with him: “He whom I kiss, this is he.”13 Our Savior and Redeemer, seeing his main enemy and traitor coming up to kiss him deceitfully, said, “Judas, do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”14 Then the soldiers, binding him, dragged him away like an evildoer, and they led him first to Annas, for he was Caiaphas’ father-in-law, and he was interrogated concerning his teaching and disciples. Jesus answered, “I spoke to the world directly. I always taught in the synagogue and the temple where the Jews always come together, and I said nothing secretly Behold, these know what I said to them.” And when he said this, one of the hearers standing nearby struck Jesus on the cheek, saying, “Is this how you answer the high priest?”15 On account of such a great and inhuman blow, our Christ fell; he was not able to remain standing. He fell. O wonder! Our Savior fell. Our hope fell from this powerful blow, enduring for us this violent pain in accordance with his endless love for us. And then much blood flowed from his most holy mouth, from his nose, and from his ears on account of such an inhuman and merciless blow. Indeed this blow was heard throughout the whole high-priestly house. But, at this, to the one who slapped him he meekly answered these words: “If I have spoken wrongly, show what is wrong; but if [I have spoken] well, then why do you strike me?”16 He said this as if [to say], “Why do you, O man, wound me, your Creator, so violently? Why do you harm my health [and] take away my life? Why do you place death before my eyes? Why do you make my dwelling in a tomb?” After such a powerful blow it would not have been possible to live, if humanity had not been made mighty by the power of divinity. Considering all these things, you, God-loving and Christ-loving soul, should, with bitter tears and tenderness of heart, bring to him the prayer, “Our Father.” And a bow.
Holy godly contemplation, come once again behind Jesus, and see him bound to the pillar,17 and there beaten and bloodied, all wounded, naked, and abused, blood flowing from his most holy wounded body, just as I said. But Jesus was silent, [and] for the sake of you, O man, he endured all of this with great disgrace and pain. The prophet Isaiah, seeing him suffering from afar, says, “And we saw him having neither appearance nor beauty.”18 One of the doctors testifed this about him, interpreting the evangelical words:19 “Behold the man!”20 It was as if Pilate said, ‘Look, ferocious Jewish race, on your king, who has not even the appearance of a man, but is rather all torn, bloodied, all in wounds; from feet to head there is no wholeness in him; know this and cease your fury. Should I not release for you him who is already sufficiently tortured?’ But they cried, ‘No. If you release him, you are not a friend of Caesar. Seize him, seize him, crucify him!'”21“ Contemplating this, bow down to the earth, God-loving man, saying this prayer to the Son of God who suffers for you so violently: “Our Father.” And a bow.
Holy godly contemplation, not much farther from the pillar, with noetic eyes see Christ, your Creator, Savior, and God, naked, in violent wounds beyond telling, trembling both from pain most extreme and from cold (for then it was winter22), putting his garment on himself. How great then, do you think, was the shame and dishonor with which the suffering Son of God was guiltlessly fulfilled, stripped and wounded before all? O heaven! O earth! Senseless creation! Look and see your Creator, [and] how sensible and rational creation causes such great and unendurable offense to its Creator. Tarry no more, take up arms. Heaven, strike them with lightning and thunder. Sea, drown them with a dread flood. Sun, moon, and stars, and the rest of the fiery essence, carry out your activity, burn to ash those who are ungrateful and full of malice toward their benefactor. And you, earth, open your bowels, bring down into your depth not only the bodies but also the souls not only of those who commit the murder, but also those who are ungrateful for this suffering. And you, fiery kin, burn them unto endless ages with the fire of hell, and do not grant them relief for a short hour or a short interval, but always multiply [and] stretch long the ferocious torments. And this would have been done, had not God, suffering in the flesh, held it back with his all-accomplishing power, bearing the grave pains on account of love for the human race, for he desired the salvation of all, not their perishing. Therefore, if someone is a lover of Christ, let him, meditating on this, say to him the prayer, “Our Father.” And a bow.
Holy godly contemplation and God-loving soul, remembering and considering these things, I pray you, do not stoop down to wordly vanity, which bears no benefit for you, but rather wait and be roused a little: look on the face of your Christ, and see with noetic eyes that it was not enough for malicious men to see him all wounded, but rather they took hold even of his face, already spat upon, and they covered his face and struck it.23 Certain doctors24 of the Church, considering why they covered his most holy face, propose this: “Inasmuch as the face of Christ, our Savior and God, was filled with ineffable beauty, in accordance with the words of the Psalmist, ‘Beautiful with comeliness above all the sons of mankind,’25 and was filled tenderness, therefore they did not simply beat it, but also covered it, until they made the face itself disfigured, for it was all bruised and bloodied from violent blows.”
Come and stand here, all sensible creation, and look on your King: can you know who this is? He is all mercilessly wounded, all in blood he has no appearance or comeliness,26 and he suffers all this on account of your lack of self-control, for your sins have grievously wounded the King of glory. Therefore cease from now on to vex him, make peace through holy repentance, and do not again begin to wound your most beloved Redeemer, for he has suffered everything on account of your sins, in accordance with the prophecy spoken concerning him: “Taking up our sins, he was hurt for us, and we considered him to be pained, wounded, and afflicted by God. But he was wounded for our sins.”27 Considering this, say the prayer, “Our Father.” And a bow.
And do not abandon godly contemplation yet, Christ-loving soul, but rather hear Christ the Savior speaking through the prophet: “All you who pass by along the way, look and see whether there is a pain so great as the pain which befell me.”28 Still this torment was not enough for the malicious Jews. Even though they saw his whole body was like one wound, nonetheless that malicious stepmother,29 the assembly of the Jews, crowned his holy head with a crown made not from precious stone, but from thorns, and with prickly thorny spines they pricked his holy head so much that they penetrated to the brain, [and] they caused unspeakable pain to the unmalicious Lamb of God, our Savior and Redeemer. Considering all of this with your mind, God-loving soul, be terrifed and, falling to the earth with trembling, with tears say the prayer, “Our Father.” And a bow.
Holy godly contemplation, let us go again after Christ on his way; for, when the evil tormenters seized Jesus, they commanded him, and he went forth bearing his cross, on which he wished to be crucified.30 This cross was very heavy, for, as some doctors31 of the church say, it was fifty feet in length, that is, fifty paces. And this then was the heaviness the Son of God bore on his shoulders. Consider how great his pain must have been when his wounds were caused to ripped open anew, chafed by such heaviness of the wood of the cross. But even so they set upon him, striking and shoving. They tormented him so much that he could bear no more, and he fell on the way. Then they ordered Simon of Cyrene to bear his cross to the mount of Golgotha, where he was to be.32 So you, right-believing soul, going after your teacher, unite yourself to his mother, the most blessed Virgin Mary, going after Jesus with the other women, weeping and lamenting. Do you yourself weep and lament also. Rend your hardened and stony heart, so that the Son of God, going to the voluntary Passion, may comfort even you, so that he may say even to you, as to those who followed him, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep over me, but over yourselves and your children.”33 O our delightful comfort, Christ our Savior, make us worthy joyfully to behold you when you come with your glory to judge the living and the dead. Then receive even us, who call to mind your holy sufferings, into your kingdom, and make us worthy joyfully to delight in sight of your countenance“ unto unending ages. And so saying this, or meditating, say the prayer, “Our Father” And a bow.
Moreover, holy godly contemplation, recall how it was for him, our Savior, when they nailed his most pure hands and feet to the cross with long, sharp, iron nails, with the greatest violence; what sort of pain he endured then, and how much of his blood was shed. Then, I think, he shed it for us all the way down to the last drop. So this is how they raised him on the cross. Then it was possible to number all his bones, just as the prophet David says in his person: “They numbered all my bones.”35 Certain doctors36 of the church consider three of Christ’s pains to be the gravest. The frst is when they stretched him on the cross so violently that all his members opened up and it was possible to number them. The second is when, during these most violent sufferings of his, he saw many who were ungrateful for his good deed, and unbelieving. On this account he was violently pained at heart and prayed to God, his Father, as the apostle said: “In the days of his flesh, with a powerful cry and with tears, he brought prayers and supplications to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his piety.”37 The third pain was when our Savior was extremely crushed in his heart when he saw his Mother standing before the cross, wounded with sorrow and pain in her heart, as with a sword, in accordance with what was said to her by Simeon: “And a sword shall pierce your own heart also.”38
When our Savior saw her then, as if dead from sorrow, lamenting, in pain, and calling out to him with tears, “O my Son, how do you endure this violent and dishonorable death? I cannot endure seeing you suffering so!” When our Savior heard this and saw her suffering very violently in her maternal heart and devoured by sorrow, he was pained in his heart. Certain doctors39 speak of this in this way, and testify that if it were possible to gather into one the sufferings of all the martyrs who suffered for Christ, however much they be, and, gathering together all of these, to compare them with the suffering of the most pure Virgin Mary, yet she suffered more than all, even if not in body, but rather in soul, co-sufering guiltlessly with her suffering Son and God. Reading about these things, or meditating, say to the Theotokos, “Rejoice, Virgin Theotokos.”40 And a bow.
Holy godly contemplation, do you not wish to be present before our crucified Savior on the cross and hear his final, most sweet words, which he spoke on the cross, which are seven in number.
O sweetest Lamb Jesus Christ!
O Sladchaishij Agnche Iisuse Khriste! [O Sweetest Lamb Jesus Christ!].
Illustration from St Dimitri of Rostove, Sochinenija [Works], vol, 1 (Moscow: Sinodal’naja Tipografija, 1839), 254.
The Words of Christ Spoken on the Cross
Praying for those carrying out the crucifixion, he said this to his Father: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.41
Considering this, God—loving man, do you also forgive your enemies their transgressions, and pray for them, that their transgressions be forgiven. Then do you yourself ask forgiveness of God with tenderness and tears, and say: “I have sinned, forgive me!”
When some passing by blasphemed him, wagging their heads, they said, “Lo! You who destroy the church42 and in three days raise it up, save yourself; if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.43 Then the thieves who were crucified with him abused him also. Jesus, hearing these things, how abuse from the ungrateful nation sorrowed him even on the cross with their ingratitude, and how his enemies abused him all day long, cried out in a loud voice, saying, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”44
Recalling these word of Christ, cry out to him with great tenderness of heart; cry out to him, crying to God the Father and also to God the Holy Spirit: “God the Son, Word of God, Christ my Savior, suffering for my sake on the cross in the flesh, hear me crying out to you, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Lift up the one who is fallen, vivify the one mortified by a multitude of sins, lest I perish in sins, but rather receive my repentance and have mercy as the lover of mankind.”
One of the evildoers hanging with him blasphemed him, saying, “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.”45 But the other answered, preventing him, saying, “Do you not fear God, when you yourself are condemned to the same? For we are condemned rightfully, since we have received what befits our deeds, but he has done not one evil thing.” And he said to Jesus, “Remember me, Lord, when you come in your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise.“46
Meditating on this merciful word of Christ to the penitent thief, let us also approach him with fervent repentance, confessing our sins, just as the thief of good understanding did not hide his sins, but rather confessed that it was according to his desserts that he suffered for his sins, and simultaneously confessed the innocence of the Son of God, and believed he was not a simple man, but the Lord, and he let out this cry to him, believing him to be King and Lord, true God. And this execution that was carried out upon [the thief of good understanding] was accounted to him [as suffering] for his sins, and he departed, in accordance with the word of the Lord, into his kingdom. And therefore let us also cry out to him, repenting just like the thief: “Remember me, Lord, when you come in your kingdom.”47
Jesus, seeing his Mother and the disciple whom he loved standing before the cross, said to his Mother, “Woman, behold your son.” And then he said to his disciple, “Behold your mother.”48
A sermon of St John Chrysostom on the crucifxion of the Lord, concerning the lamentation afthe most holy Theotokos.49
“Why did the Mother, who bore the most pure one, suffer unendurably? For what reason? Because she is a mother. What pities did not wound her soul? Which arrows did not pierce her inner parts? Which lances did not tear at her being? Therefore she could not contain herself together with [her] companions standing with her around the cross, co-aflicted and weeping with her over the misfortune—-she could not stand even a little distant. Not having the strength to endure the shuddering of heart and wishing to hear the last words of her beloved Son, she came forward and, standing before the cross and lamenting, she cried out, ‘What is this strange sight, unendurable to my eyes, Master? What is this wonder that darkens every thought and the very brightness of the sun, O my Son? What is this inconceivable mystery, sweet Jesus? I cannot endure seeing you naked who are clothed with light as with a garment!50 And now what do I see? For your garment the soldiers cast lots—for the garment that I wove with my own hands. I am torn in my inner parts, seeing you hanging in the midst of the whole universe on a high tree in between two evildoers. You lead one into paradise, revealing an image of the conversion of the nations, and you suffer long the other who blasphemes, who possesses an image of Jewish cruelty O envy! You have passed over all the righteous who have lived from the age and have touched my sweetest child! O supermundane and bodiless powers! Come together with me and lament. O sun! Have compassion on my child, change into darkness, for already the light of my eyes shall quickly pass away under the earth. O moon! Hide your beams, for already the ray of my soul enters into the tomb. Where has your comeliness been hid, you who are the most exceedingly beautiful of all the sons of men?51 How has the brightness of your eyes darkened, eye that dries the deeps?’ Saying this, the Theotokos was spent, and, standing before the cross, covering her face with her hands, she was exhausted in despair. So Jesus, bowing his head to the right side and quietly opening his mouth, declared, ‘Woman! Behold your Son,’ indicating his disciple, John the Theologian.” Meditating on all of this, right-believing soul, with tears pray to God, saying, “Lord, have mercy!”
After this, Jesus, knowing that all was fnished, said, so that the scripture might be fulflled, “I thirst.”52 A vessel full of vinegar stood nearby. Filling a sponge with vinegar, they put it on a reed and raised it to his mouth. Recalling this, with tenderness of heart let us cry out to him: “You who are crucifed for us, Christ our Savior, our sweetness, give us a drink of sweetness to drink from the abundance of your house, and when you come with glory to judge, let us be satisfed when your glory is manifest. And do not despise us here, who hunger and thirst, but grant us to be worthy communicants of the most pure mysteries of your body and blood, which you have poured out for us—-make us worthy, and show us to be uncondemned unto ages of ages.”
When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is fnished!”53 Recalling this word, say: “Christ, our Savior and Redeemer, show us perfect54 before you unto the ages, so that, walking the path of your commandments, we may be revealed perfect55 in good deeds and hear that most-desired voice: ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.'”56
Crying out with a great voice, Jesus said, “Father! Into your hands I commend my spirit.”57 Saying this, and so bowing his head, he gave up the spirit.58 Here, godly contemplation, stand in meditation: Who commended the spirit? The Son of God, our Creator and our Redeemer. Therefore, with great desire of heart, speak to him in this way: “When the dread hour of the separation of my soul from the body comes, then, my Redeemer, receive it into your hands and keep it free from all afflictions, lest my soul behold the dark gaze of the wicked demons; but rather may it pass saved through all the tollhouses, O our Savior. We faithfully hope to receive this from your love for mankind and loving-kindness.” Inasmuch as it was Friday, and lest the bodies remain on the cross on Saturday, since that Saturday was a great day, the Jews prayed Pilate that they break their knees and take them down. So the soldiers came and broke the knees of the first and of the other one crucified with him. But coming to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, [and] his knees they did not break. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and at once there came forth blood and water:59 blood for our sanctification, and water for washing. Then the whole creation was changed with fear, beholding the life of all hanging dead on the tree. And Joseph of Arimathea came, requested the body of Jesus and, taking it down from the tree, he laid it in his own new tomb. Arise, Lord our God, and deliver us for your name’s sake!60 Amen.
1. 1 Pet 2.2 (cf. Is 53.9).
2. Cf. Ps 109.3.
3. Cf. Lk 2.52 and Eph 4.13. I thank Fr Ignatius Green for pointing out the second of these allusions, which helped me to recognize the first.
4. Mt 26.26.
5. Cf. Mt 6.9—i2.
6. Mt 16.13b.
7. Note, given the form of the doxology (“your Father. . . your. . . Spirit“), that St Dimitri here takes the Lord’s Prayer to be addressed to Christ rather than the Father. This remains apparent throughout the work.
8. Mt 2617-28.
9. Cf. In 134-5.
10. Cf. Lk 22: 39-44.
11. Cf. Mt 26.39,42.44.
12. Lk 22-44.
13. Lk 22.48.
14. Lk 22.48.
15. Jn 18.13, 18-22.
16. Jn 18.23.
17. Mk 15.15.
18. Is 53.2.
19. I have failed to identify the source of the quotation.
20. Jn 19.5.
21. 19.12 and 15.
22. Cf Jn 10.22.
23. Cf. especially Mk 14.65 and Lk 22.64, but also Mt 26.67-68.
24. This quote has defied my attempts to identify its source.
25. Ps 44.3.
26. Is 53.2.
27. Cf. Is 53.4-5.
28. Lam 1.12.
29. This implies, then, that the Church is the true mother (cf. Gal 4.26).
30. Cf. In 19:17.
31. I have not been able to identify the “doctors” of whom St Dimitri speaks here.
32. Cf. Mk 15.21, Mt 27.32, Lk 23.26.
33. Lk 23.28.
34. Cf. Ps 4.7.
35. Ps 21:18.
36. Once again, these “doctors” have escaped my identification.
37. Heb 5.7.
38 Cf. Lk 2.35. St Dimitri substitutes the word “heart” for the scriptural “soul,” suggesting, if only vaguely, a possible devotion to Mary’s heart parallel to or inspired by Latin devotion to the (Immaculate, or Holy) Heart of Mary.
39. This idea has a long history in the Roman Catholic Church. See the discussion in Alphonsus de Liguori, The Glories of Mary (New York: P. ]. Kennedy 8: Sons, 1888), 515ff. Alphonus was active a generation after St Dimitri, but he provides the testimony of many earlier writers.
40. See above, p.75, footnote 13.
41. Lk 23.34.
42. See above, p. 57, footnote 4.
43 Mt 27.40, Mk 15.29.
44. Mt 27.46.
45. Lk 23-39.
46. Lk 23:40-43.
47. Lk 23.42.
48. Jn 19.27.
49. I have been unable to identify the source ofthis quotation.
50. Ps 103.2.
51. Ps 44.3.
52. Jn 19.28.
53. Jn 19.30.
54. There is a pun here. In Slavonic, “It is finished” is sovershaetsjn, and “perfect” is sovershennyj, the passive participial form of the perfective of this same verb. My thanks to Fr Ignatius Green, who suspected, on the basis of Greek, that such a play on words might be present here (in Greek, “it is finished” [tetelestai] and the word “perfect” [telos] are also related).
55. See footnote immediately above.
56.0 Mt 25.34.
57. Lk 23.46.
58. Jn 19.30.
59. Jn 19.31-34.
60. Ps 48.27.
About the Author
Born into a Cossack family in 1651 near Kiev, Our Father Among the Saints Dimitri of Rostov was, in the words of St Nikolai Velimirovich, “a great light of the Russian Church and of Orthodoxy in general.” Tonsured as a monk at an early age, he soon became the abbot of several major monasteries in Ukraine as his preaching gained widespread renown, and at the age of 50 he was appointed Metropolitan of Rostov-on-Don in Russia. Throughout his episcopacy, he was known for his kindness and cheerfulness, and for being a foe of schism and a friend of the poor.
An eloquent writer—even in his lifetime he was known as “the Russian Chrysostom”— along with his many other publications, St Dimitri was the author of a magnificent Menalogion or Lives of the Saints, eight of whose twelve volumes have been published in English by Chrysostom Press. He was also a composer of note, whose works have been incorporated into the Ukrainian folk-song tradition. Having predicted his own death, he reposed during the night while kneeling in prayer before an icon of the Savior.