Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia

John Nelson's Khalwa
The cell-like study and retreat of the early Methodist preacher and holy man John Nelson, whose autobiography is featured below.

In what follows, I have juxtaposed accounts taken from one end of Eurasia (here including North Africa) to the other, each of which dates from the seventeenth or eighteenth century: we begin with an account by an early English Methodist, next hear from a Moroccan sufi shaykh and saint, followed by an Ottoman Syrian self-taught shaykh, finally ending with an Edo-period Japanese Zen master- lives I doubt have ever been placed in such proximity before! Yet they are all united by at least two major common themes in addition to their chronological proximity: one, each is autobiographical, either as part of a stand-alone account, or embedded in some larger biographical project. Two, each has to do with narrating a moment or period of conversion from one way of life to another. We might be tempted to call all of these religious conversions, but I think it’s best to avoid the term ‘religious’ here since while it’s accurate in some ways it does not really quite reflect how these various writers or those around them thought about the world and the nature of the experiences and lives we might label ‘religious.’

There are other shared features that I think are significant and which might point to some of the shared, interconnecting features of early modern life on a global scale. Each of these accounts reveals not just a sense of subjectivity and inwardness, but a surprisingly assertive sense of subjectivity- reflected in, to begin with, the very act of writing and circulating in some fashion an autobiographical account. Related to this subjectivity and self-fashioning is the stress laid on reading and encountering books, often through one’s individual act of reading. This is significant given the emphasis placed in many cultural contexts in medieval Eurasia upon the oral, face-to-face, hand-in-hand transmission of knowledge and religious practice. Yet most of these figures not only were shaped by their own personal readings and encounters with texts, they in turn produced texts for others to encounter in a similar fashion. That is not to say that these authors were ‘individualists,’ and certainly none of them would have embraced the idea of the ‘autonomous’ self. Each in his own way was a part of religious communities, textual genealogies, and shared collectivities of practice and worship and belief.

I encourage you to read these excerpts in sequence and to think about commonalities or differences and the possible reasons for them, as well as what they may or may not say about shared early modern histories beyond my brief comments above. For each excerpt I have given a minimal introductory note, followed by the account and the citation (of the four not originally in English, I have translated one, while the others are translations by other scholars).

1. John Nelson (1707-1770): A stone-mason by trade, John Nelson would become an early convert to the Methodist movement within the English Anglican Church led by John and Charles Wesley. I have selected two sections from his Journal, an autobiographical rendering of his spiritual journey and labors on behalf of the Wesleys’ pietistic movement. In the first, Nelson describes a formative childhood experience, while in the second he narrates the pivotal moment of his adult conversion from a state of emotional insecurity and distance from God to that of being ‘saved.’

When I was between nine and ten years old, I was horribly terrified with the thoughts of death and judgment, whenever I was alone. One Sunday night, as I sat on the ground by the side of my father’s chair, when he was reading the twentieth chapter of the Revelation, the word came with such light and power to my soul, that it made me tremble, as if a dart were shot in my heart. I fell with my face on the floor, and wept till the place was as wet, where I lay, as if water had been poured thereon. As my father proceeded, I thought I saw everything he read about, though my eyes were shut; and the sight was so terrible, I was about to stop my ears, that I might not hear, but I durst not: as soon as I put my fingers in my ears, I pulled them back again. When he came to the eleventh verse, the words made me cringe, and my flesh seemed to creep on my bones while he read… Continue reading “Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia”

An Early Modern Monastic Baking Disaster

Over the course of the eighteenth century Orthodox monasticism and spiritual life would undergo a considerable revival, beginning in various parts of the Ottoman Empire and spread north into the borderlands along the Dniester River, regions contested between the expanding Russian and Austrian Empires and the contracting Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in addition to the maneuverings of local forces such as the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the various nobility of the Ottoman semi-autonomous principalities of Wallachia and Moldova. In time the currents of spiritual revival would make their way into Russia, contributing to the re-formation of the starets tradition in Russian monasticism and spiritual life, known to many readers in the West through Dosteovsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

One of the key figures in this spiritual revival was St. Paisius Velichkovsky (20 December 1722 – 15 November 1794). Born in what is now Ukraine, Paisius made his way as a young man to various monastic settlements in Wallachia, followed by a stay at Mount Athos, then a return north to Moldavia at the invitation of Prince Gregory III, the Ottoman-appointed ruler of the principality. The story below comes from his sojourn at the monastery and hermitage of Trǎisteni in what is now Romania. He later moved to a monastery at the northern edge of Moldavia, in the region of Bucovina, only to see the Austrians invade and annex Bucovina to their expanding empire. Due to the hostility of the Catholic Austrian polity to Orthodoxy, Paisius and many of the brothers retreated to Ottoman lands, settling at the monastery of Neamţ, where Paisius would die in 1794. Before his death, Paisius would devote much of his time to translating the now beloved spiritual classic The Philokalia into Slavonic, allowing its transmission throughout the northern Orthodox world. He also helped to introduce the practice of the Jesus Prayer to the same Slavonic lands, as part of his emphasis on reinvigorating older forms of Orthodox spirituality. In addition to these efforts, he began, though did not complete, an autobiography, which describes his travels and labors. The 17th and 18th centuries of the Ottoman world saw an explosion of travel narratives, autobiographical accounts, and personal chronicles or diaries, of which this account is no doubt an example, as well as being part of a West Eurasian-wide increase in literacy and authorship. As the excerpt below makes clear, Paisius wished to relate the mundane in addition to the sublime, and in so doing, reveals precious details of everyday life- in this case, an attempt at bread baking gone very wrong!

For more on Paisius’ life and historical legacy, see John C. McGuckin, “The Life and Mission of St. Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794): An Early Modern Master of The Orthodox Spiritual Life,” in Spiritus 9.2. (2009).

A detail from the Gospel manuscript of Luke the Cypriot (active 1583-1625), who worked in various places in the Ottoman Empire before settling in Moscow, where this Gospel was completed.
A detail from the Gospel manuscript of Luke the Cypriot (active 1583-1625), who worked in various places in the Ottoman Empire before settling in Moscow, where this Gospel was completed.

When everyone had gone off to the forest, then, to do the aforementioned work, the superior called one of the brethren who was the most experienced of all in the baking of bread and ordered him to show me the procedure for baking bread; and he ordered me to bake the bread, that it might be ready for the meal. This brother showed me in detail the procedure: pouring water into the cauldron, he showed me the pans of flour and the jug of kvass. He told me, ‘After you have heated the water, pour it into the flour in the pans and begin to knead it; then pout all the kvass from the jug into the dough and knead it all together.’

Having said this, he went off to the brethren in the forest. But wretch that I was, after his departure I heated the water and poured in the flour, completely forgetting to add the kvass. When I began to knead it, there was too little water, and too much flour. Having no experience, I did not know that it was possible to heat more water and add it, but thinking that once the brother had measured out so much water and flour it was in no wise possible to add or take away from it, I labored with great toil to knead all the flour; and the dough became so hard that it was impossible to put my fingers in it. At a loss for what to do with all the remaining flour, I cut the dough in pieces with a knife and placed it on the table. Sprinkling flour upon it, I beat it with a piece of wood and thus scarcely managed to knead in all of the flour; and placing all the dough in the pans with the greatest of difficulty, I scarcely managed to set them on the oven, so that the dough might rise more quickly in the warmth.

I waited for quite a while, and then I lit the oven so that it might be ready, but after I had burnt a great quantity of wood, the dough had still not risen. I was grieved by this, not knowing why it would not rise, but remained hard and immovable like a rock. In the afternoon one of the brethren came from the forest, not the one who had shown me how to bake the bread, but another, sent by the superior to learn whether the bread was ready or not. He asked me, ‘Why is the bread still not ready?’ Answering him with a sigh, I told him that it still had not risen. He and I then took the pans off the oven and, feeling it with his hand, found that it had been kneaded as hard as rock. Learning the reason for this, he smiled and said,’ You ignoramus! When you saw that there was too little water you ought to have added more without hesitation, or else taken away some of the flour, and thus you wold have kneaded the dough as one needs do.’ Then he asked me, ‘Did you add kvass to this dough?’ What fear and shame came upon me when I heard this! I scarcely managed to answer that I had forgotten to add the kvass. But seeing that I was terrified, and being a sensible man, he began to console me with spiritual words: ‘Do not grieve over this,’ he said, ‘for it was not from contempt, but from your inexperience in this work that you have erred.’ He heated some water and pour it upon the dough, and he and I began to knead it, adding the kvass. With great difficulty we scarcely managed to knead it somewhat, though it was impossible to knead it thoroughly on account of its great hardness.

Then, having given me instructions what to to do, he went back to the forest. I waited a rather long time, and when I thought the dough had risen somewhat, I made it into loaves and placed them on the table. After sufficient time I built up the fire in the oven, and it grew so hot that it emitted sparks. I swept these up carefully and, allowing the oven to cool a little, though not as much as was necessary, I put the bread into it, thinking that it would bake well. But because of the oven’s great heat it turned black forthwith and began to burn, and it was burnt nearly two fingerbreadths from the top and bottom. At a loss for what to do, I fell into great despair, firstly because through my ignorance I had made such a mess of things in the bakery of the holy hermitage, and secondly because the holy fathers would not find anything to eat when they came back from the forest. Taking the bread, then, completely burnt, from the oven, I awaited with fear the arrival of the brethren. And when they returned from the forest and saw what I, wretch that I was, had done in my ignorance, what great fear and shame came upon me! Not knowing what to do, I fell down at their holy feet with tears and asked forgiveness. The father superior and all the brethren, imitating Christ’s mercy, forgave me. Cutting one of the loaves, they saw that it was in no wise fit to be eaten; and they boiled corn mush (mǎmǎligǎ) and made a meal of this. No more did they bid me to bake the bread. But once having endured this, I thereafter watched diligently how the bread was baked and, with God’s assistance, I learned to do this. I describe here how I suffered because of my inexperience in this matter for the sake of the brethren who come now to our community, that they may not be frightened because of their inexperience in this or a similar obedience. For through God’s help and their own fervor they will be able to gain experience in the obediences assigned them.

Paisius Velichkovsky, The Life of Paisij Velyčkos’kjy, trans. by J.M.E. Featherstone (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1989), 70-72.