Russian Along

Living at Nashotah House—if you haven’t been, trust me—makes one curious about Rasputin. While on the faculty there, his name was used as a common slur. When Brian Moynahan’s Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned came out in 1997 my wife and I bought it and read it together. Two decades on the details had become fuzzy and, having read about Aimee Semple McPherson and her faith healing reminded me of the famous Russian scallawag. For all his personal faults, Rasputin did seem to have genuine healing abilities. He was more shaman than orthodox, to be sure, and Siberia was the home of shamanism as well as Rasputin. For those who don’t know the story, in pre-Revolution Russia Grigory Rasputin rose from a Siberian peasant family to the most trusted advisor to the Empress of Russia, Alexandra Romanov. Her weak-willed husband, Nicholas, also gave credence to the mystic, despite the latter’s well known drunkenness and womanizing.

The fascinating aspect of Moynahan’s treatment is that it brings out the saintly side of this figure who’s grown such a notorious reputation. That’s not to whitewash his extreme lifestyle, but it is to acknowledge that he was far more complex than many critics make him out to be. He seems to have been sincere in his faith, and perhaps a little mentally imbalanced. He was kind to the poor, and charitable. He wasn’t a bigot, a sin quite common in his day. He was a working class mystic who took advantage of being inebriated with power. His influence over Alexandra was so strong that he could appoint Prime Ministers even in the midst of a world war. This is a fascinating personality.

Reading the book at this point in history, however, proved strangely unsettling. Many of us wonder how a rational, fairly educated and prosperous nation could tolerate the buffoons who inhabit Washington, DC. Daily we see insanity—with no exaggeration—on the level of the throes Tsarist Russia, or even of Rome under Caligula. Instead of taking steps to right the course, the Russian, excuse me, I mean Republican, Party does any and everything in its power to keep the illusion of normalcy alive. Even while foreign ministers of his own party tell the European powers to ignore their own president, American Rasputins just can’t survive without their daily power fix. The sad thing about that last sentence is that after writing it I felt as if I were somehow being unfair to Rasputin. And I lived at Nashotah House long enough to know what I’m talking about.

Faith Healing

Having dissociative reading habits sometimes leads to fortuitous coincidences. My interests have always been widely dispersed, and although I have a few perennial favorites that I keep coming back around to, reading about new interests predominates. One of my favorite reading topics is science. Apart from the requisite intro courses in college, I have unfortunately had little formal training in the sciences, so I read extensively in the field. A number of my recent reading projects, books on widely divergent areas of science, have coincidentally mentioned faith healing. Being books written by scientists, there is little by way of physical explanation except that people who believe they are improving generally do. The mechanism remains undiscovered, but the phenomenon is well documented.

Faith healing has long lain among the taboo subjects of snake handling and snake oil hawkers. Those who approach the phenomenon from a religious angle claim that it is no less than divine power that causes a person to heal. Physicians and scientists who rely on empirical evidence, however, declare that a physical cause must exist, albeit a yet undiscovered one. With no way to test results, the objective approach simply must accept that it happens, we know not why.

A number of years ago I read a book about Rasputin (Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned by Brian Moynahan). At the time I was teaching at Nashotah House, a monastery-like seminary heavily influenced by Orthodox pretensions. “Rasputin” was a common slur on campus, particularly for a slovenly prelate-in-training. I had no idea who Rasputin was until I read this book. Apart from the distinctly creepy vibes his photographs give off, there are many documented cases of Rasputin’s ability as a faith healer. Few today would consider the “mad monk” as any kind of saint, but he apparently had a salubrious effect on those who believed in his power. This would shift the cause from supernatural to the suspect, unwashed hands of a notorious sinner.

Who wouldn’t want the ability to heal and make the world a place with a little less suffering? While faith healing has become a kind of holy grail for scientists, there are some not-so-holy religious folk who’ve unlocked a door that many never even suspected was there in the first place.