Sobornost: A Gospel Response to a Polarized Culture

by Miriam Stulberg

Ours is an age where everyone is expected to have an opinion on just about everything. Unlike ideas, opinions don’t lend themselves to rational discussion; they are “held,” and most often reinforced by association with the likeminded.

A startling alternative to the prevailing polarization is the Russian concept of sobornost. Pronounced with the accent on the second syllable and introduced to the West by Catherine Doherty, sobornost denotes a deep unity of mind, heart, and soul among members of a family or community.

It calls us to listen together to the Holy Spirit in order to know the will of God.

Traditionally, the word “sobornost” was used to describe the functioning of the Russian Orthodox Church in contrast to the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church.

But in introducing sobornost to North America, Catherine Doherty extended its meaning. To her it was a way of life in which all members of a given group listen to the Holy Spirit for answers to important questions.

How is this possible?

“Sobornost,” Catherine wrote, “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.”

And, “Sobornost is born in the hearts of people whose prayer life is spent before the Trinity and who become, as time goes on, a reflection of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is a unity of mind, heart, and soul.”

“Sobornost is born in the hearts of people who love God and follow him totally and completely, and who love their neighbor. Where this is so, each member of such a family, community, or whatever the group, will, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, think alike. This strange phenomenon of thinking alike comes from the depth of prayer.”

“Sobornost is you and me being melted into God and having the same mind, because our minds are totally plunged into him, melted into him.”

Sobornost is not democracy. It has nothing to do with majorities, but with unanimity. “It is neither dependence nor independence, nor even interdependence—it is far more than that.”

Sobornost is not “the will of the community,” but God’s will for this community. They are two different things.

“It rises from the heart of the Most Holy Trinity. It is there that sobornost can be found in its perfection, for there a complete and total unity of minds reigns. One cannot visualize the Father deciding something against the Son, or the Son against the Father, or the Holy Spirit saying, ‘I’m going to straddle this one’ or ‘I’ll reserve my opinion.’ ”

“We must remember that as Christians, we are never alone before God. We are always united with other human beings. We are an integral part of one another. What binds us together is love and love alone, for love is a Person. Love is God.

“When you love, you serve each other. You put yourself in third place. God comes first, your neighbor second, and then yourself.”

“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 alive while I am not one with my brethren.”

“Yes, love is unity in action. In daily living, sobornost means service towards everybody. In moments of need, it becomes a special type of service.

The group—whether a community, a family, or a religious institution—gathers together in unity and love,  and decisions are made according to Christ’s teaching.”

Sobornost is the opposite of rugged individualism—”that is, the kind  of individualism where I am so wrapped up in myself and my own ideas that I fail to become one with my brothers and sisters. Sobornost doesn’t eliminate individualism when it is used in the service of God, but unity with God must be the spirit behind it. Always it pertains to our relationship with God.”

How is one to preserve one’s identity by being totally one?

In the mind of the Western world, since the Age of Reason, man desires to be an individual. In the Fioretti of St. Francis of Assisi, it is told how one of the brothers came and confessed to St. Francis, and St. Francis said, “I will fast because when you have sinned, I have sinned.” Now that is not acceptable in our society: your mistakes are your mistakes; they are not my mistakes.

The reality, however, “is something like, “you are me and I am you, completely.’ 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. What I do, or what I have left undone, affects you tremendously.”

Does this seem impossibly utopian? At the Last Supper, Christ prayed that we might all be one, Father, as you are in me and I am in you (Jn 17:12) and he promised us the help of the Holy Spirit. If Christ has asked this of us and has given us the means, then it lies within our reach—if we are willing to surrender our own ideas and our own will, if we are ready to offer our lives in love and service to each other, to embrace the cross and receive our life from the Resurrected Lord.