An Encounter with a Holy Russian Elder: Isidore of Gethsemane Hermitage

ELDER ISIDORE (1814—1908) was a vivid representative of the tradition of eldership (starchestvo) in Holy Russia. Radiant with Christ-like love and childlike simplicity, he lived in another world yet kept both feet firmly planted on the ground. He was one of those whom Christ called the salt of the earth — a repository of the rare, otherworldly savor of ancient Christianity. A prophetic witness for the Church, he foretold the Russian Revolution and the second age of the catacombs.

In Salt of the Earth, the life and personality of Elder Isidore have been captured with remarkable clarity by the Elder’s spiritual son, New Martyr Paul Florensky (1882-1937). Called the “Russian Leonardo da Vinci,” Florensky was a fascinating figure unique in Russian history. A master of the most varied disciplines, he was at once a religious philosopher, poet, linguist, art historian, type designer, physicist, astronomer, mathematician, electrical engineer, biologist, botanist, and inventor. During the first decades of the twentieth century, he made several important scientific discoveries and wrote essays which anticipated the development of cybernetics (computers).

When describing Elder Isidore in Salt of the Earth, Florensky strikingly combines the analytical approach of a scientist with the “seeing heart” of a Christian mystic. He is able to take the reader directly into Elder Isidore’s world, so that by the time we finish the book, we feel that the Elder is already a dear friend. Filled with humor and warmth as well as subtle metaphysical understanding on the part of the author, Salt of the Earth is a tour de force among modern Christian spiritual writings, in the same class as The Way of a Pilgrim.