Alexander Rzewuski (1893-1983): The Catholic Church viewed with 'fresh eyes'

Alexander Rzewuski (1893-1983): The Catholic Church viewed with 'fresh eyes'

Fr Peter Knowles OP

Few if any 'AD2000' readers would be familiar with the extraordinary life story of Alexander Rzewuski, one of the most unlikely individuals ever to join a Catholic religious order. Rzewuski was, among other things, of Polish-Russian aristocratic background, closely connected with Europe's rich and famous and involved in the world of art in Paris. With his cultured, cosmopolitan, Russian Orthodox background he was well placed to view the world of Catholicism with an outsider's "fresh eyes".

Fr Peter Knowles is a regular contributor to 'AD2000', being formerly Master Of Mannix College, Monash University, Melbourne, and now active at the Russian Catholic Centre in Kew, Victoria.

A Polish nobleman came to the rather splendid Dominican Priory of St Maximin (south of France) in 1926. Already in his mid-thirties, Alexander Rzewuski (pronounced Zhay-voo-ski) was unlike the other young men who entered the novitiate with him. He differed in religious experience, family background, education and artistic talents. Even his unusual height set him apart.

Alexander was descended from a long line of Poles who had played a prominent part in the history of their country as hereditary "Hetman of the crown." At the last partition of Poland in 1795, they passed over to the service of the Russian Empire. Rzewuski's grandfather was in the personal suite of four Tsars, and his father, General Adam Rzewuski, born in Ukraine, was military Governor of the Caucasus region at the time of Alexander's birth there in 1893.

Alexander's mother was a Russian, from the St Petersburg aristocracy. He was baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church and spent his childhood partly in the Caucasus (with forays into Azerbaijan and Chechnya) and partly in Ukraine, where a series of French and English governesses educated him and his sisters at home.

As an adolescent of 14, he was sent north, far from the mountains of the Caucasus, to school in St Petersburg at the Imperial Alexander Lycée. Schooling completed, he passed on to the University there. As an undergraduate, he was profoundly, if imperceptibly, affected by the philosophy lectures. A cast of mind which was to stay with him until his student days as a Dominican, was introduced.

It is hard to imagine the life of careless comfort and extreme wealth lived by the nobility and aristocracy of the Russian Empire. It is even harder to try to depict it: a society multi-lingual, yet with a bias towards French, reverencing the values of personal honour and family tradition, possessed of a broad education in the humanities, but not a noticeably deep one. This was the world to which Rzewuski belonged, and it all came tumbling down after June 1914 with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo.

Rzewuski served during the war as an officer in command of organising fleets of ambulances for the wounded.

Two events, one public and universally cataclysmic, the other personal and hidden, set the pattern for his future career. The personal event was his sudden reception into the Catholic Church. With scant knowledge of religion, and lacking any insistent habit of church attendance, he could justify this sharp turn, only by stating that the idea of joining the Catholic Church would not leave him. He had very little knowledge of Orthodoxy, and less of Catholicism.

One night, towards the end of the war (at the very time when his friend Prince Felix Yussoupoff was planning the assassination of Rasputin), he knocked at the door of Italian Capuchins in Trebizond (of all places!) demanding to be received into the Catholic Church on the spot.

October Revolution

The Italian friar was startled at the demand so peremptorily put by the gigantic Russian Imperial Officer. Strictly speaking it was against the law for a Russian Orthodox subject of the Tsar to become a Catholic. To accede to the request could have unhappy repercussions for the small Italian mission. However, Rzewuski must have been persuasive as he left the friary that same night as a member of the Catholic Church. The amazing thing is that having done so, he allowed this change to lie dormant in him for ten years, when its true meaning was awakened in him in Paris by Jacques Maritain.

The other event, of course, was the disaster of the October Revolution. This changed the fate, not only of Rzewuski and his family and friends, not only of Russians, but the whole course of history was distorted by this catastrophe, and its evil effects are with us all to this day, and will be for the foreseeable future.

In 1918, just as the Kerensky Government was about to fall, and be succeeded by Lenin's coup d'état, Rzewuski undertook a dangerous journey to St Petersburg to recoup some of the family's money from the floundering banks. Successful in this, he threaded his way back south to Kiev, where his family had sought refuge.

At a family council it was decided that they all should flee to the West - but where precisely? Finally they decided on Italy where they had members of their wide family, and (including?) the Princess Caetani. Three weeks later, after criss-crossing through Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria, they were all ensconced in the Palazzo Caetani in Rome.

However, Alexander was starting his painting career - he had already been studying art under Leon Bakst - and for this Paris promised greater opportunity than Rome. He moved there and soon had won a reputation as a portrait painter and illustrator. His successes multiplied, and for seven years he spent his life immersed in the social and artistic world of Paris in what he himself used to call "the crazy twenties."

This whirl of success came to a sudden halt when he was introduced to the Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain. One day in conversation with him Maritain said quite simply: "I think that you should see a priest, and I recommend Msgr Chika." This was extremely shrewd of Maritain, since Vladimir Ghika came from the same background as Rzewuski. A Romanian nobleman and a member of the Orthodox Church, he had finished the complete course of scholastic philosophy and theology at the Angelicum in Rome (where his brother Dmitri was the Romanian Ambassador) while still remaining a member of the Orthodox Church.

Convinced of the validity of the Catholic position, he was waiting his mother's agreement to his leaving the Church of his birth: an event she dreaded. Once a Catholic, Prince Ghika was ordained a priest of the Byzantine Rite, and so it was to him that Rzewuski made his second confession. This time, unlike Trebizond 10 years before, the effect was thorough and definitive. Relinquishing his career, closing his Paris flat and his country chateau, dismissing his Spanish butler, Russian cook, and French boxing instructor (!), he came, yet again at the suggestion of Maritain, to the Dominicans of the Toulouse province. He knew nothing about them, and the lay-brother who opened the door of St Maximin was the first Dominican he had laid eyes on.

The Dominican way of life was much more austere then than it has since become: he must have had to call on enormous reserves of determination and pertinacity to keep abreast of the lither members of his community for whom midnight rising for Matins, a meatless diet and unheated cells were nothing out of the way. The novitiate and course of studies completed, Rzewuski was ordained in 1932. Typically, he invited to this event an oddly assorted trio: Jacques Maritain, Msgr Ghika, and Jean Hugo (great grandson of Victor Hugo, of Les Miserables fame). For his first Mass he was assisted by Msgr Ghika, who being of the Byzantine Rite, was much at sea with the sparse, tidy Dominican Rite, even sparser and tidier than the then current Roman Rite.

His first assignment was to Albertinum at Fribourg in Switzerland as spiritual director to the 200 international seminarians, sent here by their bishops from around the world to study under the Dominicans. Again a new world for him - the world of the secular clergy in an academic surrounding.

Rzewuski was extremely unimpressed with their lack of intellectual passion and their professional ambition to become important in the clerical field of Church politics. He suffered here for 13 years, but he did make some friends, among them the theologian Charles Journet, and frequently sought some refreshment at the Charterhouse of Valsainte. He always considered solitude to be his true calling, and had friends among the Carthusians.

When World War II ended, he returned to France to become novice-master for six years in Toulouse, followed by a time on the Ste Baume - a bare mountain overlooking the Mediterranean, and a place of pilgrimage in honour of St Mary Magdalen. At last some measure of solitude was his in this place of retirement. The final decades of his life were passed caring for the contemplative Dominican nuns at Prouilhe, and in other parts of the world before his death in 1983.

There are some lessons to be learnt from this so atypical religious. (The tragedy is that attitudes such as his are so rare in the Church).

One lesson is the importance of culture, artistic and literary, for church life. He exchanged a world of artistic creativity that was quite irreligious, for a religious world that tended to shut out art and culture. St Maximin is a magnificent architectural achievement, and he exulted in its beauty, but the contrast of the plaster statues and bondieusérie of its 20th century contents proved a penance for him, and appalled him.

What appalled him even more was the self-satisfied attitude of his charges, the clerical seminarians at Fribourg. He was shocked by their mediocrity, cultural and spiritual. He could not understand why these young priests were setting out to make a professional career of clerical advancement. He rarely discovered one with an "authentic passion for study. They were so little curious to understand the ways of God in their spiritual lives." (His own words).

During his lectures he perceived that they were looking at him, not only uncomprehendingly, but as well as this, they had the look of people having no intention to comprehend. At first the study of Aristotelian philosophy as the "ground base" for further theological investigation proved a torture for him. He struggled over the notion of objective being and God as "pure being", as he sat huddled over his Thomistic texts in the cold stone cell at St Maximin, with the wind racing through his ever-open window.

Suddenly it dawned on him where his difficulty lay. He was a product of the Russian university system. The subjectivism and idealism of the German universities permeated this system. As a student at St Petersburg he had unconsciously imbibed this subjectivism, and it had been latent in him ever since. It was his wrestling with Thomistic metaphysics that liberated him from this, giving him an appreciation of the scholastic system in the search for truth.

There is a third thing: Rzewuski always revered the contemplative life. Even more, he regarded contemplation as necessary for a healthy living of the Christian mystery. He wanted to become a solitary, and spent long periods in Carthusian monasteries, and while still at Fribourg had finally received the permission of the Master of the Dominican Order to pass over to the Carthusians.

Family tragedy

A family tragedy stopped him. His brother-in-law, Prince Adam Luborrvirski, was imprisoned and executed by the KGB in Ukraine, just as the Soviet army swept into Galicia and Poland in 1939. His sister, Princess Lubomirska, died as a result of her husband's murder leaving their daughter an orphan. At once, Rzewuski arranged through Queen Elena of Italy, that Stalin let the child go, and she finally came to see her uncle in Switzerland. Taking responsibility for her upbringing meant the sacrifice of his dream of the quiet of a Carthusian cell.

These insights of Rzewuski are noteworthy, because they are the reactions of someone who came to Catholicism, the religious life, and the world of clerics with fresh eyes.

It was all new to him. He had no previous experiences of them, and hence no preconceived ideas. He was utterly unbiased. He held that human culture, an objective philosophy, and the deep waters of contemplation must play their role if the Church's life is to be healthy; these were the elements that could liberate it from Philistinism, introverted subjectivity and that "busyness" that passes for activity.

We have not set ourselves to learn this lesson, much less to master it, although the Church is called to do so in Veritatis Splendor where Pope John Paul says: "In order to protect himself in his specific order, the person must do good and avoid evil, be concerned for the transmission and preservation of life, refine and develop the riches of the material world, cultivate social life, seek truth, practise good and contemplate beauty" (par 51).

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.