Patriarch Kirill, presiding bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been trashed in many columns, editorials, news reports and blog postings lately, portrayed as corrupt, vengeful, un-Christian, President Putin’s dance partner, etc. Few of those making these and similar charges seem to have met him or even to know much about Russia or the Orthodox Church.
I don’t want to argue that there is nothing about Patriarch Kirill to criticize (which of us is above criticism?), but I do want to share a few memories of him that go back to the summer of 1987, when Nancy and I were his guests in Smolensk for two days. At the time he was both Bishop of Smolensk and rector of the Theological Academy in Leningrad, as the city was still named in those Soviet days. At the time I was writing a book published the following year as Pilgrim to the Russian Church. Here are extracts from the book’s Smolensk pages.
— Jim Forest, August 2012
Smolensk, Sunday, July 26, 1987:
Smolensk, “the key and gate of Russia,” is the most western of ancient Russian cities. On the north end of the River Dnieper, it is at the source of the water
highway that leads past Kiev to the Black Sea.
Father Victor, a quiet young priest, met us when the train pulled into the station at dawn. After checking into the hotel and having a brief rest, we went to Holy Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Assumption, the principal Smolensk landmark, a five-domed green and white building standing at the top of a steep hill in the center of the city. Inside the cathedral is a mammoth, heavily gilded iconostasis from the Eighteenth Century that includes not only icons but statues. There is also a baroque pulpit, not an element of Russian church architecture until the time of Peter the Great.
Archbishop Kirill was presiding, a man in his forties, among the youngest bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has a greying black beard and a clear, direct manner. For ten years before coming to Smolensk he was rector of the Leningrad Theological Academy where he is credited with many of the innovations that happened there, including the introduction of women students.
While he stood in the center of the church with his arms outstretched, attendants vested him. It as though he were no longer himself, but a moving, praying, singing part of the liturgy, all connected with the church, the icons, the music, the incense, the Eucharist.
The church was crowded. There were the usual deeply pious old women, among them one woman on her knees at the front rail, eyes fixed on an icon, crossing herself and bowing over and over again. Russian tourists moved in and out, watching rather than participating. Despite the almost continuous motion among the people and the clergy, and the constant music from the choirs, there was a powerful sense of attentiveness and stillness.
No one hushed the children in the church. They obviously enjoyed being there. We noticed a priest and his family in a vacant choir stall. One daughter looked to be twelve and her little sister about four. The older sister was holding the little one up on the rail and they were hugging and stroking each other. All the while, the older girl joined in singing the words to all the prayers and hymns.
The day’s Gospel was the story of Jesus healing two blind men. A sermon followed by Archbishop Kirill. As he began to speak, the congregation gathered around him, standing with their hands relaxed at their sides, completely attentive.
“Our Savior said to the blind men, ‘Do you believe I can heal you?’ They said, ‘Yes, Lord.’ And then he healed their blindness.
“This story makes me wonder about wonders. A wonder is something that surprises. It goes past the border of usual experience. We see wonders and we call them miracles. But there are people who reject the possibility of miracles or anything that goes beyond their own experiences. They say, ‘It cannot be.’
“What the Church teaches is that wonders are special expressions of the love and power of God. When we experience or contemplate wonders, they inspire wonder in us.
“St. Augustine says that the normal growing of wheat is akin to the multiplication of loaves. So much of the beauty of the natural world awakens wonder: sky, sun, plants, water. ‘Look at these things,’ says St. Augustine, ‘and see that they are beautiful. Their beauty is their confession of God.’
“Most wonders stand on laws that are the foundation of the world, in which everything is developed. And isn’t this too a wonder? When God does things beyond our understanding, even then he is acting within the laws of the universe.
“Not to see beauty, not to be aware of wonders — this is to be blind and deaf. The French scientist Pasteur said that the more we contemplate the world, the more we are filled with wonder.
“Some people can see wonders, some not. Why? What makes it possible to become aware of the actions of God in the world? Do we need special education? Some special wisdom? No, dear brothers and sisters, the Gospel shows us otherwise. Christ said to the two blind men, ‘Do you believe I can heal you?’ Only when they confess that they do believe does he heal them.
“They were healed, but there were even at that time people who were not moved to wonder by what he did. There were those who said, ‘Jesus casts out devils only because he is the prince of devils.’ What he does, they said, isn’t a miracle. It is magic. And so they dismissed what Jesus did.
“Faith is the condition of wonder, not the other way around. Perhaps here at this moment there could be a miracle. Even then there would be people present who would leave saying, ‘Yes, there was something strange, something we need to clarify.’ In fact we find in the press stories about events for which there seems to be no natural explanation. But this doesn’t mean people reading these stories are led to faith. Miracles don’t give birth to faith. Perhaps that is why Our Lord in this Gospel forbids people to publicize what he did for the blind men. The news would add nothing to people’s faith. It was not with wonders but with his words that he tried to soften people’s hearts. A heart filled with love and faith can distinguish good and evil. The believer can cross any boundary with God.
“Love is the power of God. May God help all believers to be attentive to the wonders that, because of God’s love, fill the whole universe.”
The congregation replied, “God save you!”
While the Liturgy was going on, Vasili left us for about a half hour. When he returned he said that another priest had been giving a talk in the back of the church on such topics as the reception of communion, marriage and mutual help.
At communion, the children came first — all the children, beginning with babies, held in the arms of their parents or other adult friends. The first in line was the twelve-year-old girl, holding up her little sister to receive the Eucharist. Communion is administered with a spoon while an attendant holds a napkin under the chin of the person receiving. [.…]
Smolensk, July 27:
After a morning of being rained on in the countryside, we visited Archbishop Kirill. He lives in a small house with a view of the Assumption Cathedral. The dining room table was laid with candies, cookies, and a delicious cake. Coffee, tea and vodka were served.
I asked why so few adults had received communion at the Liturgy yesterday. “Yes, it is still very few, but more than used to come. Now it can be fifty on a Sunday when it used to be not more than five. Things change, but slowly. Before the Revolution, it was common for people to receive communion only twice a year. People were overwhelmed by their sense of unworthiness. Patriarch Pimen has made a call to believers to receive communion as often as possible and this appeal is being heard. But with this there has to be a process of religious education. We try to offer that in the church and actually prefer doing it there. We would rather not have something like that happen in a school classroom. Part of the process of religious education in our diocese is to have a priest on duty throughout the day in the cathedral where they can answer questions. We find that if one person asks a question, immediately others gather and you have a group discussion.”
Archbishop Kirill is a member of the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches. “I got into the ecumenical movement as a ‘youth.’ It was the sixties, a decade when everyone was bowing their heads to the young people. The experiences that opened to me through the World Council of Churches have made me realize that the ecumenical movement and work for the renewal of humanity and peace are profoundly linked to each other. What enthusiasm there was for Christian unity sixty years ago! Not that I was there, but what a spirit of youth, power, and passion there is in papers presented at early ecumenical conferences. They are filled with both joy and pain, with longing for unity and sorrow for division.”
Nancy commented on how much more vital churches are in the Soviet Union than in Holland. “The problem in the west is not organized atheism but secularism and the consumer psychology. But we may face the same thing in a few years, so we watch anxiously what the church does in the west as this may help us. But perhaps we also have something to offer the church in the west, some encouragement, some lessons. It is important to know something of the church that exists in the first socialist state.”
I asked about the tendency for more young people to become active believers.
“Certainly there is an encouraging influx of young people right now but we have to be careful not to limit our perception of who is a believer by only noticing who is standing in the church. The process of coming to belief is very complex. We are aware that many people are believers in their world outlook even though they rarely go to church. The tip of the iceberg are the people you see in church, and that tip creates the image. These are people permanently in church, often retired people, mainly elderly women. But the iceberg is one object, not two, even though most of it cannot be seen. Also that babushka that looks older than the world — in fact she is younger than the Revolution. She never attended a church school. She memorized no catechism. As a young woman she never went into a church. But sometime in her life she became part of the visible church. There is always a large group of believers who are struggling with this decision, and slowly, as they become older, they begin attending church. The invisible part of the church is much younger, but today they more quickly become part of the visible church. They aren’t waiting for retirement. The democratic events now going on in our country help this process. We see more and more people coming who never came before, never showed any sign of belief. Now they want to belong to the church. It seems like a fresh development, something completely new, but actually it has deep roots.”
Toward the end of the conversation, Archbishop Kirill said, “Jim, I am disappointed. There is one question every journalist asks but you haven’t asked it.”
“What question is that?”
“How many of the people in church are actual believers?”
“All right, your Grace — one last question: How many people are actual believers.”
“I’m glad you asked. My answer is I don’t know. Yesterday you saw quite a lot of people in the church. You might say that some of them were just tourists. I don’t think more than twenty percent of the people were crossing themselves. Many of the women weren’t wearing scarfs. But a lot of those who seem to be just watching are on the border of belief. They don’t stand there for two hours just because it is a beautiful old building. Something draws them. They are not practicing believers, but they are there. But what about those who crossed themselves? Can we say they are believers? It may be that they were just conforming to norms of church behavior. Who can say who is a believer and who is not? We don’t know. Nobody knows. God knows.”
We said good-bye and hurried to catch the train to Minsk.
(from Pilgrim to the Russian Church by Jim Forest, Crossroads Books, New York, 1988)
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