Listening to the Holy Trinity

Catherine Doherty

When Catherine introduced the concept, “sobornost,” to the members of her community, she struggled mightily to make this Pre-Revolutionary Russian concept understood.
The following is excerpted from the first chapter of her book,
Sobornost, a book in which she continued to struggle to convey this concept.


Sobornost. What does this strange word mean? Like other Russian words which I have written books about—poustinia, strannik, molchanie, and urodivoi—it is part of my life, part of my soul, part of my Russian heritage.

Poustinia (meaning “desert”) has become a more or less familiar word. But sobornost—what does it mean?

Literally, it means unity. An English publication dedicated to unity calls itself Sobornost because it seeks unity among all denominations.

To Russians, however, the word “sobornost” carries a much deeper concept than just unity. People can be united on political or economic policy. But the word “sobornost” goes much deeper than this. It means a unity that has been affected through the word of the Gospel.

The word “sobornost” has some kinship with the English word “collegiality,” but it has a much more profound meaning for the people of the East.

For those who are geared to democracy, the word “collegiality” seems to translate into “the will of the people”: “Vox populi, vox Dei.” The voice of the people is the voice of God. But sobornost reverses the process:

“Vox Dei, vox populi.” The voice of God is the voice of the people. Sobornost is you and me constantly listening to God and, with an open heart, asking him, “What is Your will?”

Sobornost is certainly not a word to be used flippantly; this is a special hazard today when so many foreign words are coming into our language.

It is a holy and awesome word which has great depths, and its incarnation into the lives of people is something like a spring that wells up from the very heart of the Holy Trinity.

Perhaps this reality of the Holy Trinity is the best context in which to approach the true meaning of sobornost.

When the people of God become truly “bound”—as all Christians should be—by the will of the Father, into a community, they take on the obedience of the Son. And they rely for total unity of mind and heart on the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, whom the Father sent to remind us of all that the Son has taught.

Sobornost is born in the heart of people who love God and follow him totally and completely, and who love their neighbor.

Where this is so, and because this is so, each member of such a family, community, nation or whatever the group, will, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, think alike [in deep matters of the Spirit]. This strange phenomenon of “thinking alike” comes from the depth of prayer.

When people behold such a group, it seems that they are looking at an icon of Christ. Each face is a part of the composite of that icon, and the unity is soul-shaking.

Having said all this, I feel I haven’t said anything.

I do not know how to explain or express this total unity in which all who are drawn into this sobrania or gathering are of one mind on some immutable ideas—for example, on living the Gospel, without compromise.

For us in Madonna House, it is The Little Mandate [a summary of Madonna House spirituality]. On this we are in sobornost.

How difficult it is to translate words and ideas from one language to another!

Still, I am forced to translate “sobornost” because we must begin to know it; for, as I have mentioned, it is part of the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is from them, the perfection of sobornost, that we learn it.

The ingredients of sobornost come from generations of experiencing a certain way of life.

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky tried to describe it; but unless their writings are approached in grave humility, they become mere pieces of literary beauty, and their very essence escapes the Western mind.

In the West, which grew more and more individualistic since the so-called Renaissance, unity among people has become rarer and rarer. Just to desire such a unity, however, is already a gift.

Let us face the fact that, unless we live the Gospel—not only preach it, but live it—there can be no unity among us, no sobornost, no gathering of like minds. But few can agree on the Gospel.

In order to live the Gospel, one has to move through the life of Jesus Christ. That means abandonment, being rejected, being crucified.

There is no sobornost without crucifixion; it is through pain that one acquires a deep knowledge not found in books or by education. This deep knowledge, given by God and by God alone, builds the foundation of unity. And it is in those depths that one finds the foundation of sobornost, of unity.

Sobornost is never superficial. It is never temporary. It is always there like cool water offered from the cup of one’s heart to all of one’s brethren. People united in sobornost are transparent.

Yes, there is much more to be said about sobornost. God has given us in sobornost a strange unity that could really shake the Church. Sobornost is the manifestation of that unity which Christ asked us to live and reflect, when he prayed to the Father that we “might all be one… as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:12)

Excerpted from Sobornost, (1992), pp. 13-17, available from MH Publications