One of the ways to understand Tolstoy’s relationship with the Orthodox Church is in the context of his search for certainty, certainty regarding truth. Tolstoy’s relationship with the Orthodox Church is paradoxical, that is, very Russian, quite Orthodox.
In 1878 at the age of 50, Tolstoy was experiencing a kind of religious awakening during which he frequently attended the village Church wanting to absorb the spirituality of the people. However in the year before, the Russo-Turkish war began and this year the Tzar commanded all of the churches to pray for the troops (sounds like this could be the U.S. today). However, part of the prayer, apparently, contained references to the Turks being destroyed by “sword and exploding shell.” This was too much hypocrisy for Tolstoy. How can the priest proclaim the Gospel of Christ and at the same time pray for the death of enemies?
Tolstoy had never been a fan of the Church hierarchy. His Orthodox Christianity had always been of the sort that focused on the piety of the people, the monks and the hermits. But with this latest moral outrage, Tolstoy quit the Church all together and for good--sort of. It is important to note that Tolstoy’s rejection of the doctrine of the Orthodox Church was not based on rationalism. That is, he did not reject it because he couldn’t accept it rationally. He rejected it because of the hypocrisy, because of his moral outrage that the same body that proclaimed to message of Jesus also promoted class distinctions, oppression of the poor and weak, and violence in many forms (particularly wars, pogroms, and capital punishment).
And when you look at the state of the Orthodox Church in Russia in the latter half of the 19th century, it is hard to blame Tolstoy for being outraged. Since the the collapse of the Russian Empire, Russian Orthodox theologians have been trying to sort out what of that period was indeed Orthodox and what was corruption. But don’t just take my word for it. Let me read to you the words of St. Maria Skobtsova, or St. Maria of Paris, a Russian Orthodox Nun living among the Russians in France who had fled the religious persecution of the Communists. She died in Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945 where she had been interred for smuggling Jews out for France and providing them with false baptismal certificates. In the camp she took the place of another woman, a mother, who was about to be gassed and died in her place. (Her life is significant in this context because it vouchsafes the quality of what she says, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective, which I believe Tolstoy would share.)
This is what St. Maria wrote in 1938 about the state of the Orthodox Church in Russian during the18th and 19th centuries:
The Church reformers of Peters time [Peter the Great, 1720] were least of all religious reformers. They never felt themselves to be prophets or saints. They laicized and secularized the Church; they took the world [out] from under her jurisdiction and drove her fire into the wilderness, the forest, the [hermitages], into remote, isolated monasteries.
We should not close our eyes to the fact that [the reformers] achieved a great deal. Synodal Orthodoxy [headed by a layman appointed by the Tzar] ... actually became one of the departments of the great State of Russia. The hierarchy, decorated with state medals and ribbons, often had the psychology of an important imperial bureaucracy.
There is no need to enumerate the countless facts that speak of this secularization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We may say only that it is precisely what led to the falling away from the Church of the entire searching, educated part of the nation--the Russian intelligentsia.
Like I said, even devout Orthodox Christians find it difficult to be too harsh on Tolstoy because the Russian Orthodox Church had slipped quite a bit from its own ideals. However, Tolstoy did not make it easy to take it easy on him. When he rejected the Orthodox Church he threw the whole weight of his intellect, writing ability, wealth and fame into the effort. He not only denied the efficacy of the Church’ sacraments and the legitimacy of its hierarchy, he claimed that the sacraments were even harmful and that the hierarchy was indeed the exact opposite of what Christ intended Christianity to be. Particularly, Tolstoy railed against the Church for its supposed claim to infallibility.
This is an interesting matter and has ties to Tolstoy’s own search for certainty. Infallibility was an important issue for modern thinkers, especially if those modern thinkers are concerned about truth. In 1870 the Roman Pope was declared to have infallible powers under certain conditions. This, I think, was the logical consequence of the development of scholastic theology: theology along the lines of Aristotelian logic: something either is or isn’t, yes or no, on or off, fallible or infallible. Such thinking was not much a part of Christian theological reflection before the twelfth century; and after the twelfth century, it took hold only in the Latin Church and her rebellious or reforming children (depending on your perspective). The Eastern Orthodox Church continued to peruse theological reflection based on mystical experience for which words and concepts could only at best serve as icons pointing to something beyond themselves. Therefore, in the Orthodox tradition, yes and no are not necessarily mutually exclusive. That is, due to human limitations, one saint’s yes and another saint’s no could point to the same mystical reality. (I am making gross generalizations for the sake of giving the reader a sense for the difference between Eastern Orthodox Christian thinking and the thinking of the Christian Scholastics that became dominant in the west after the twelfth century.)
This is important because in the 18th century, Russia came under the influence of western Christian theological trends so that Russian seminarians were required to learn Latin, not Greek, and many western concepts and categorizations influenced the theological world of the Russian Orthodox Church. All this is to say that the Church in Russian at the time of Tolstoy was in many ways sick with the western tendency to minimize mystical experience and maximize scholastic logic, and for logic to work, there must be undeniable, infallible givens. The Latin Church claimed the infallibility of a person, the Pope; Russian Orthodox Theologians of this period claimed the infallibility of the Ecumenical councils. Tolstoy, in a sense, rejects all Churchly claims to infallibility. Ironically, however, he elevates his own interpretation of Christ’s moral teachings to the level of infallibility. This, I think, is part of the irony of Tolstoy’s religious thought.
But here’s a greater irony: infallibility is not an Orthodox Christian category. It is a category that entered the Russian Orthodox Church during it’s period of Latinization (sometimes referred to as the “Western Captivity of the Russian Orthodox Church”). So in rejecting the 19th century Russian Orthodox Church’s claim to infallibility, Tolstoy was not actually rejecting any Orthodox Christian doctrine.
Nevertheless, Tolstoy’s vitriolic condemnation of the Church and her sacraments--what in my opinion was his throwing the baby out with the bathwater—eventually resulted in his official excommunication in 1901. Although much was made of this official act, as though it were a persecution or punishment on the part of the Church. In reality it was merely an acknowledgement of what Tolstoy had been saying for years. Since Tolstoy so publicly separated himself from the Church, the Church made it official. And they had to do this because much of what Tolstoy had written and continued to write was so imbued with a genuine Orthodox Christian ethos, that many supposed that he did indeed represented the Church in his writings.
In fact this ethos is so evident that even as recently as last year, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople referred to Tolstoy as an Orthodox Christian author.
I’d like to illustrate this Orthodox Christian ethos by telling one of Tolstoy’s short stories, the story of the Three Hermits. The first time I heard this story (from a priest) I was told that it was from the “Fathers” (a convenient category for Orthodox Christians that sometimes means no more than “I don’t know where it comes from but it communicates an important Orthodox Christian theme, idea or feeling”). The story goes roughly like this:
A bishop was on a boat crossing a large lake when he overheard a sailor talking about three hermits who lived on a island on that lake. The bishop was intrigued and spoke to the ship’s captain to get more information. When this bishop learned that these hermits had no church or priest--no one to teach them--he asked the captain to stop the boat and that he be rowed over to the island so that he could meet these hermits and perhaps give them an edifying word.
When the bishop had been rowed to the island, he met the three very old and very skinny men and he asked them how they lived. They said that they lived the best they could on their small garden and the herbs of the forest. Then he asked them how they prayed and the oldest said to him, “We are simple men. We do not know the words to big prayers, so we repeat constantly this phrase: ‘We are three, You are three, have mercy on us.’”
The bishop was encouraged that at least they had heard something of the Holy Trinity, but he was concerned that they have a better prayer. The bishop said, I will teach you how to pray the Lord’s prayer. And beginning with “Our Father,” the bishop worked with the hermits until they had memorized the prayer. The hermits were overjoyed at their new prayer. Then the bishop felt that he had done his best and returned to the ship. As the ship was sailing away, one of the sailors noticed a dot on the horizon behind them towards the island. The dot got bigger and everyone was speculating as to what was following them so quickly. In a few moments everyone could see what it was. It was the three hermits running on the water after the ship. When they got to the ship the ladder was let down and they climbed onboard. Everyone, particularly the bishop was dumbfounded.
“Your Grace,” cried the hermits, “we need your help. We remembered the words of the prayer so long as we kept repeating it, but when we took a break, we began to forget one or two words. Then it became a jumble in our minds. Please teach us the prayer again.”
The bishop could only reply, “no. You go back and continue praying as you prayed before I came.”
This story in many ways illustrates a very central aspect of the Orthodox Christian tradition, that of pure prayer of the heart, beyond words and transformation through direct encounter with God. If Tolstoy had stuck to emphasizing this non-hierarchical, non-liturgical aspect of the Orthodox Christian tradition without so vehemently condemning other aspects, he would have fit quite nicely into the Church. The Church is full of critics.
Tolstoy condemned the Orthodox Church of nineteenth century Russia, which in many ways, perhaps, deserved condemnation. However, as (I believe) G. K. Chesterton said, “heresy is truth gone mad.” So Tolstoy, having gotten a hold on a piece of truth and fueled by his rage at the failures of the State Orthodox Church to live up to its own precepts, took his truth and condemned other truths with it. His truth became the sole criterion. Unfortunately, in the end, Tolstoy discovers that condemning others for their failures to live up to their ideals is much, much easier than for one to live up to his or her own ideals. Frustration at his inability to live himself the life he proclaimed to others as ideal, tormented Tolstoy the last years of his life.
Tolstoy was familiar with the mystical tradition of the Orthodox Church, the fire that St. Mary of Paris said above was driven into the remote monasteries. One of the not often mentioned facts relating to Tolstoy and the Orthodox Church is that Tolstoy visited, at least five times, the Optina monastery. Optina was famous for it’s “spirit bearing” elders (called in Russian Staretzi). These men and women were often great ascetics who toward the end of their lives became famous counselors and confessors due to their apparent clairvoyance. In the last month of Tolstoy’s life, according to his diaries, he was re-reading Dostoyevsky’s Karamozov Brothers and specifically mentions elder Zosimos, the fictional Staretz in the novel--fictional, but based on the very real Staretz Ambrosy of the Optina monastery on whom Dostoyevsky based the character. Dostoyevsky says of Staretz Ambrosy, “[He] is a completely holy man. I talked with him and somehow my soul felt light and gay. When one talks with such a man, one feels the nearness of God.”
And so, when Tolstoy begins his self imposed exile a few days before his death, where does he go? He goes to the Optina monastery where, after spending the night, he stands in front of the cabin of Elder Joseph for a long time, apparently debating whether or not to knock on the door. In the end, he does not. A few days later, Tolstoy will be dying of Pneumonia in a train master’s house. Elder Joseph will send Elder Barsanuphius to be with him in his last moments. But alas, Tolstoy’s followers will not allow anyone to see him, not even his wife, until he slips into a coma.
 Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhnsky (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2003) p. 125.
 By “mystical experience” I do not refer to metaphysics, especially as it was discussed in the Latin west. I refer to the direct encounter of the person with God, or what one might term one’s personal relationship with God in the Holy Spirit.
 John B. Dunlop, Staretz Amvrosy (Belmont, MA: Notable & Academic Books, 1988), cover.