Sobornost: A Concept Whose Time Has Come – Part 2

by Miriam Stulberg

Part 1 can be found in our March 2023 issue and at www.madonnahouse/restoration

Sobornost is at the opposite end of the spectrum from both individualism and group identity. Sobornost is the “polar” opposite of polarization.

In sobornost we find our identity together, and we find it together in God.


“Sobornost,” Catherine says, “originates with the Blessed Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are completely one and they draw us to become one with them and with each other. We are to become as united as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

“Sobornost demands that strange thing that we in the West call ‘dying to self.’ But it should be ‘living to self,’ because I am not fully alive while I am not one with my brethren.” (Local Directors’ Meetings, 1971)

“It’s something like, ‘You are me and I am you and we’re all one in each other and all in Christ. We are becoming the body of one another, since we are his Body.’” (Spiritual Reading, December 1968)


If “I am you and you me” sounds like a co-dependent nightmare, try this: “In sobornost, the ‘I’ is grounded in the ‘we.’” (Fr. Sergei Bulgakov quoted in A Life Together: Wisdom from the Christian East by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist).

The point is, sobornost rests on a very different conception of the human being and of human fulfillment: “I am not fully alive while I am not one with my brethren.” This is the assumption on which sobornost is based.

Russians have a deeply embedded sense of this interrelationship—the sense that my identity is not complete in separation from my brother or sister. Catherine writes that they have “breathed” this for generations.

It is a consciousness rooted in the Christian truth that we are all sons and daughters of the Father, all one in Christ. The Communists took it and turned it into the doctrine of the “brotherhood of nations,” but its roots are Christian.

This is illustrated in an incident which occurred during World War II.


The Germans were retreating from Russia during the war and they burned to the ground the village they were leaving. It was the dead of winter. Only a few houses were still standing.

Two German soldiers got lost and were freezing to death. They knocked on the door of one of the houses. When someone opened it, the room was filled with villagers, and a terrible anger arose among them.

They were about to kill the Germans when the mother of the house came out. She saw what was happening and said, “Oh, let them in. We’re all people, after all.”


 “We are all people.” We heard that phrase so often in Magadan, Russia, where we had a Madonna House. “Myi vsye lyudi.”

We are all people, we’re all human beings. This overrides nationality, ethnicity, political differences, all that divides people on a natural level.

It probably had something to do with the phone calls we received in Magadan on 9/11 when the twin towers were destroyed, not only from our friends, but from people we hardly knew. It was a sincere, heartfelt, expression of condolences. “Myi vsye lyudi.” We are all people.

This way of moving isn’t natural to most of us. But—as I was working on this article the other day, I suddenly remembered something that had happened to me many years ago. This was before I’d entered Madonna House, before I was baptized, when I was just working my way towards faith.

I was working in the slums of Boston as a social worker with the Welfare Department. I had absolutely no training as a social worker, no experience or expertise. At one point, I asked myself what right I had to be there, with no qualifications, interfering, as it were, in people’s lives?

And it came to me that: if God existed and he was our Father, and Jesus was his Son, our Brother, then we were all brothers and sisters in him. I did have a right to be there, not as a would-be professional but as a sister. I not only had a right to be there, but a responsibility to help people, as their sister, in any way I could.

It was part of a yearning in my own heart for interconnectedness with the human race.

I found it in Madonna House as I learned that “little things done with love” were a prayer uniting me with people all over the world.

Years later, Marie Javora, Alma Coffman, and I were sent to Magadan to open the first Madonna House mission in Russia.

In Russia, Magadan is synonymous with Stalin’s gulag (slave labor camps). Camp survivors were among our close friends, and we were haunted by the memories of the suffering that had taken place there.

I thought, it wasn’t possible that on one side of the globe people were undergoing such terrible suffering, dying from cold, starvation, exhaustion and mistreatment, while on the other side of the world, we were all going about our happy little lives. There had to be a connection.

This, I think, is what Paul Evdokimov meant when he wrote in his book Struggle With God: “Every baptized person is invisibly stigmatized, since he bears within him the deep wound of the destiny of others.”

Why are we in Madonna House trying to live in sobornost? Because it is so needed.

We aren’t trying to be something we aren’t. We aren’t trying to take on another mentality. I think that there is, in all of us, deep in our hearts, a yearning for unity with other human beings. This is what we lost with original sin, but it’s in our spiritual DNA. We are wired for it.

We touch this yearning sometimes when relationships go awry, when we can’t manage to connect with each other.  We live in a broken world, and the fragments of that broken unity are in our hearts. It is as if a precious vase has been shattered, and the shards are piercing our hearts.

This is what Catherine’s great trilogy, Poustinia, Sobonost, and Strannik are about.

It is also the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, as expressed in the doctrine of the Mystical Body. We are members of one body, with Christ as our head.

The unity for which we strive in sobornost actually comes into being when we receive the Eucharist. In Holy Communion, we experience the spiritual reality of sobornost in its most perfect form.

It is part of the Gospel. May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me (Jn 17:21).

For all these reasons, and because of the call we have received through Catherine to “restore the world to Christ,” in Madonna House, sobornost is our way of life.

to be continued