The famous medieval Russian masterpiece, The Lay of Prince Igor’s Campaign, was discovered by accident. Equally accidental is the discovery of an 18th century mystical manuscript titled Revelation of Fire, which appears to be a rara avis even among books of this type. The credo of the author is spirituality, free of any kind of dogma, which is particularly striking in view of the fact that he is an Orthodox monk, living in a remote Zakharine monastery in the central Russia. How could such a person have emerged there?
This is only one of the many paradoxes which Bert Renes, a Dutch Slavonic scholar, has to confront. Renes comes to Moscow just before the 'perestroika' to work on his dissertation, and tracks this unique manuscript down in the catalogue of one of the State archives. Compounding the mystery of the manuscript’s origins is the fact that its present whereabouts are also unknown. Renes establishes that the manuscript, without any beginning or ending, which was issued to him in the Archive reading-room, cannot be Revelation of Fire. So, when was this unique document substituted, and by whom?
The search for the genuine Revelation is conducted simultaneously by Bert Renes, and the Head of the Manuscript Section at the Archive. Along with the reconstruction of the manuscript’s provenance, and the identification of its various owners, succeeding one another over a period of some 200 years, their quest forms the subject of the novel, zigzagging through time to lead the reader to a new confrontation, in the radically transformed Russia of our own day.
The events began in the 16th century, when a strange monk by the name of Eularios appeared at the Zakharine monastery. With his arrival, there was established a tradition of strict personal seclusion, which was maintained right up until the monastery was destroyed by fire at the end of the 18th century. During all that time certain monks there had lived together in pairs, from one generation to the next, a teacher and a disciple, calling themselves ‘Cenergites’. They occupied a special place in the monastery, no-one was allowed to interfere with their life, and no-one knew anything about it.
Revelation of Fire was written by the last of these Cenergite monks and reveals the meaning and significance of their seclusion. It was a mystic school in embryo, which might have enriched Russian Orthodoxy, but that didn’t come to pass. The line of Cenergites begun by Eularios was cut short, and the manuscript, which encapsulated their beliefs, dropped out of its monastic environment and became further and further removed from it with the passage of time.
While the teachings of Eularios at the Zakharine monastery had been intended for the chosen few, Revelation of Fire, as a book, is accessible to anyone who picks it up. Its various succeeding owners are very far from mystics, but Cenergite manuscipt unquestionably exerts a powerful influence on their lives.