Since Dan’s death two months ago I have been haunted by the memory of his reading, soon after his release from Danbury prison, the following poem, “The Risen Tin Can.” I just tried to read it aloud to Nancy but — Dan’s voice so fresh and clear! — tears got in the way. So Nancy took over the reading. Let me share it with you, wishing only that it was Dan’s own voice you would be hearing.
30 June 2016
The Risen Tin Can
By Daniel Berrigan
Toward the rear end of the prison graveyard
stands a frantic caterwauling machine that flattens tin cans.
Its iron flail beats the air to death
even when no forage intervenes.
Let us consider as poets do, the rightful synecdoche of the
We prisoners are, so to speak, tin cans
emptied of surprise, color, seed, heartbeat, pity, pitch, frenzy
molasses, nails, ecstasy, etc., etc.
destined to be whiffed and tumbled into elements of flatland
recycled, dead men’s bones, dead souls—
Now the opposite of all this is the shudder and drumming feet
of the risen tin can over the hill, into the sunrise
The tin can contains, grows wings, he writes poetry!
This is the year of the RISEN TIN CAN, in the Vietnamese sense.
REVOLUTION REFUSAL REBUTTAL POETRY.
When I was a tin can I thought like a tin can I looked like a tin can
I spoke like a tin can
now that I am a man I have put away the things of a tin can
tin armaments tin hearts tin bells rin-tin-tin gross national tin
It is expedient that the glory of God be
not melted smelted milled rolled.
It is required that mere men
even though with hanging head and drooping codpiece
persuaded in contrariety to nature
of the intrinsic genetic inferiority
and O so cheap definitive solution
It is expedient
that mere men and women prevail
in face of the Idol of Scissors Alley
that hundred pincered crustacean can-and-man opener.
But I digress.
The unforgivable sin against the unholy spirit
is the metamorphosis of tin
Of which one instance: the writing of a poem.
Shaking of foundations! It is not to be borne
that sounding and tinkling tin
unzipped, emptied of its regal redoutable guts brains gore
should arise to the phoenix form of the twice born.
Celebrate it! An ivory stick on the Ethiopian drumhead
the sweet tactile frenzy of B.B. King.
The puma’s maeeeooow of a steel band
catgut reborn! tin renascent! us resurrected!
the Neanderthal triumph of the century beyond reasonable doubt is Homo Danburiensis
On the one hand
the starched ars and starved brain of the cosseted correctionist barking violations of the penny ante whipping out his tape measure against the turds of the circus flea.
the raddled crook, unselfknowledgeable as an ass’s elbow, rounding the dice, squaring the roulette, night and day stuffing his kicked tail into his parched mouth. Prayer; O keep me from Chrissake awakening!
It is recounted in the old legends that a child came unannounced among the uncopacetic beasts who thereupon discovered unlikely good things in one another, and wrath laid aside, fed, slept, foraged, wandered together, claw to fleece, tooth to feather.
The moral by gentle implication; the great Braggart and Beast himself, in comparison with whose ravenings the bestiality of beasts is a rare and mystic dance, might one day make peace as he perennially has made war.
Meantime the claims of the kingdom of death are beyond doubt total. They totalize and mobilize Unman for their surrogate. Henceforth in tribute to the GREAT PRETENDER, one must walk on garbage, feed on ugliness, break stones by day and grind his molars by night.
His keepers march like articulated tin can sandwich men parading the First Command of the Lost Way; BE LIKE ME!
Let a blade of grass intervene, a vagrant lustful loving frenetic stammer arise in one; let him remember his lost friends, the cords of Adam, let a single bird cross his starved sight—
Let a single countervailing voice, color, feeling, sound—
All is undone
The sweet world is suddenly at hand, a NECESSARY ANGEL;
BE UNLIKE CONNECT I AM THE WAY FREE EVERYONE
the Great Amortizer is at the door, syringe in hand.
He parts his face like a dead sea
into: benevolence or murder.
When he looks benevolent he means murder
When he looks murderous he means business
Business is good; you or someone else; viz—
He freezes your rent, he is burning someone’s hut
He cures your cancer, he is filling his germ bottles
He worships on Sunday Buddhists die for it.
This is called Caesar’s karma. It says: when you’re a god, you got responsibilities to your constituents. Or
some eggs may hatch but kitchens are for omelets or if you can’t take the heat don’t lay an egg. Thus the GREAT EQUALIZER decrees that some be tranquilized and others freneticized, that there be generals and hoplites, winners and losers, Caesars (1 each) and slaves
And keepers (of course) and kept.
Now it is a matter of imperial indifference whether you and I, cits, dimwits, midges, near zeroes, non heroes, whether we exist or no. But one thing is clear; in our regard the myth of Genesis has been turned around. Henceforth to read:
In the beginning was Skinner’s labyrinth. The furry humanoids, deloused, decorticated, lobotomized, housed, fed, schooled by the state
a synthesis of formally partial structures (university, madhouse, prison, cinema, food trough, sex bed, church) these scamperers and scavengers by dint of expertise and electrode have learned
when to fear when to love when to piss when to feed when to praise when to—
What one might miss in their makeup (were he a backward looker, did he dare search for certain nearly submerged characteristics of the tribe)
is a certain
light in the eyes (‘like shining from shook foil’) a plumbless interiority, a tease and come on, something funky in youth, wrinkles as of laughter about aged brows, a sip in your eye look of fire and ice
OR at the least a glimpse of Edens lost a look of scarce contained grief, as for other shores horizons estuaries, ‘blue remembered hills’, yes — outraged love.
Bugged brainwashed buggered beggared besotted
Out of head and heart
or let us say, so nearly out of head and heart
as to make no whit difference to cast no grain of grit
in the armored almighty progress
of the warmongering worm
HIS ALTITUDINOUS ARSITUDE, SPITTLE THE FIRST,
ANNOUNCES FROM THE IMPERIAL BUNKER: THE ALTERNATIVES ARE HEREBY
Well almost. Then again hardly.
Let us coolly, hardily
to fields away
make hay under the arc
that fans out, dawn
after hit and run dark.
No to their NO. Yes to all else.
It is Christmas
the pride of peacocks
the birth of a child
his many forms
rising swaying around him
like eyes in feathers
dances harvests brides
Pray; those eyes
touching our eyes
make us that man.
— from Prison Poems by Daniel Berrigan,
Greensboro, NC: Unicorn Press, 1973 , pp 32-37
The book contains poems Dan wrote while under lock-and-key at Danbury Federal Prison, August 1970-February 1972.
Thomas Merton is one of the most influential religious figures of modern times, yet many readers remain unaware of his deep preoccupation with the theme of peace — a subject that runs throughout his life, from his early stance as a conscientious objector to his prophetic writings on nuclear war and nonviolence. Drawing in large part on the letters Forest received from Merton, the book offers spiritual encouragement and guidance for those engaged today in efforts to rid the world of war and violence.
Jim Forest became one Merton’s correspondents in the 1960s. He is the author of many books, including Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, and Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment. He lives in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.
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Winner of the International Thomas Merton Society’s “Louie” award.
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From the book’s introduction
The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions. — Pope Francis
Just as I was finishing this book, Pope Francis, speaking before both Houses of Congress in Washington, D.C., on 24 September 2015, described Thomas Merton as one of four Americans he especially admired. The other three were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day. Probably only the names of Lincoln and King were familiar to most of the pope’s audience. In the hours and days that followed many newspaper articles and web postings sought to answer the question: Who was Dorothy Day? Who was Thomas Merton?
Hoping their curiosity lingers, I’d like to think some members of Congress and other puzzled people might become readers of this book.
Anyone who searches the name “Thomas Merton” will quickly discover that he was a famous convert, a man of the world who amazed his friends by entering a more-or-less medieval Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky, who wrote an autobiography that became a surprise bestseller, and helped acquaint a modern audience with the living monastic tradition as well as the practice of contemplative prayer. They will learn that through his many books he became one of the most widely read and influential spiritual writers of his time. They might also learn that in his later years he branched out beyond traditional “spiritual” themes to address the burning social issues of the day — particularly the threat of nuclear war, racial injustice, and the war in Vietnam. Many people, including members of his own religious order, were surprised or shocked by this turn, which put him far outside the mainstream of Catholic opinion at the time. During the last decade of his life his advocacy of peace, disarmament and nonviolence made him controversial to the point of his being silenced on the topic of war by the head of his monastic order.
It was through Merton’s engagement with these contentious themes that I came to know him. First through the Catholic Worker community, and then my engagement in the emerging Catholic peace movement, I engaged in frequent correspondence plus two visits with Merton during the last seven years of his life. The topics involved not only Merton’s thoughts on peace and nonviolence, his own struggles within the church and his order to express his views, but also his critical eye on peace activism. Not everything done in the name of peace, for Merton, truly advanced the spirit of peace. Merton’s spiritual discernment was not only focused on what he saw as the pathologies of modern ideology and power, but also on the spiritual temptations and risks faced by those who, seeking peace, were struggling to build a less destructive world.
Would that the major themes that were at the core of our conversation were less relevant in the present world! Yesterday’s “cold war” has evolved into today’s “war on terrorism” — contrasting phrases animated with a similar idea: that because “our side” stands for freedom, democracy, reverence for life, whatever we do (torture, mass bombing, etc.) is good, while whatever our enemies do is evil.
We find ourselves in the midst of what Pope Francis has aptly described as “a piecemeal world war three.” Wars are being fought and innocent blood being shed in the Middle East, large parts of Africa, areas of Asia and Latin America as well as parts of the former Soviet Union. Countless innocent people, mainly the most vulnerable members of society, die or are gravely wounded each day. The non-physical damage of even “minor” wars also has to be considered — Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a dry clinical phrase for the psychological, moral and spiritual damage suffered by countless people, whether soldiers or civilians, who have found themselves caught in the hurricane of military violence. Weapons of mass destruction stand poised for use. The possibility confronts us of war using nuclear weapons, a war of incalculable destruction that would dwarf the two world wars fought in the twentieth century, a war in which not only vast numbers of people are targeted but the planet’s environment becomes a casualty of war.
While Merton’s writing ended with his death in December 1968, the subtitle of this book, Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, is intended to stress that the guidance Merton offered social activists half a century ago remains timely. The question is how can I, drawing on Merton’s advice, become a better peacemaker in today’s world?
Re-reading his many letters to me not only revived memories of Merton and myself as we were in the tumultuous Sixties but also awoke a feeling that what Merton shared with me then could speak intimately to a new generation of those inspired to take up the struggle for peace and justice.
Merton’s witness for peace is more urgent than ever in a world becoming rapidly more insane and feverishly impatient. His analysis of the cost of war not only to lives but to minds and imaginations, to the integrity of whole societies, is still unsurpassed. In this vivid and compelling book, Jim Forest — who has already contributed so much to our understanding of Merton — weaves together a comprehensive reading of Merton’s own thinking with personal testimony and reflection. A book of enormous richness and serious challenge.
— Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge University
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When Dorothy Day handed her young co-worker, Jim Forest, a letter from Thomas Merton and asked him to answer it, a transforming journey began. The monk and the activist bonded in a profound correspondence and friendship. Its latest fruit is Jim’s beautiful exploration of his friend Tom’s passion for peacemaking and the abolition of an evil, war, before it abolishes us. Forest goes to the heart of Merton’s understanding of our fearful predicament. May we have the courage to go with them into the light.
— Jim Douglass
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In these times marked by seemingly endless war, organized selfishness, systematic irresponsibility, entrenched indifference, incessant distraction, and increasing social alienation and isolation, Jim Forest gives all who yearn for peace a much needed “word” from the Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton. Jim’s echoing of Merton’s advice to peacemakers not only shows us with purgatorial truthfulness who we have become and who we are in danger of becoming, it prophetically names the problems and dangers that beset us in this present age and marks war as our common enemy. Rather than leaving us frozen in despair, this text casts out the fear that it names and asks us to answer God’s call to radical spiritual purification and a total conversion of heart. This wise and hopeful book calls each of us to undertake the apostolic work of patiently pursuing, praying, and sacrificing for peace by directing us to live in communion with the Truth — the perfect love who is our peace — Jesus Christ.
— Shawn T. Storer, Director, Catholic Peace Fellowship
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Here is one of the best tributes honoring Merton as a contemplative peacemaker, written by someone who is himself a faithful ‘living text’ on non-violence.
—Jonathan Montaldo, former director of the Thomas Merton Center, Louisville
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Jim Forest has written a stunning work focused on Thomas Merton as a pastor to peacemakers. Written in an inviting style, carefully researched, and rich in insight, thanks to Forest’s friendship with Merton, this book introduces a new generation to Merton’s legacy as one of American Catholicism’s most dynamic advocates of nonviolence in the nuclear era. Not only does Forest share a generous serving of Merton’s spiritual nourishment, but he ably illuminates the tensions faced by Catholic peacemakers in the crucial years before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. The Root of War Is Fear is destined to become a classic study of Merton’s contribution to American Catholic social and religious thought.
— Anne Klejment, Professor of History, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN
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Jim Forest’s lucid account of Merton’s advice to social activists illuminates how relevant the monk’s ideas are to our time. Forest’s own long engagement in the struggle for justice and peace, as well as his close friendship with Merton, make him the ideal chronicler of this important aspect of Merton’s thought.
— Bonnie Thurston, New Testament scholar, founding member and former president of The International Thomas Merton Society
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Jim Forest’s new book is as timely and needed now as Thomas Merton’s antiwar writings were in their own day. If anything, our fears and our conflicts have only increased since the Vietnam era, and our contemporary age is faced with the potential of even more catastrophic wars to come. Jim Forest has given us both a useful history of the peacemaking efforts that engaged Merton half a century ago and, through the lens of that history, a relevant vision of how we can apply Merton’s wisdom to our own age of unrest. But Forest does even more than that. He was himself also directly involved (even jailed for his stand), knew Merton personally (and many other of the key figures about whom he writes), has spent many years since in peacemaking work in the US and Europe, and consequently, from that experience, he provides us with the sort of authoritative account that few others could have. I found The Root of War is Fear utterly absorbing from start to finish, and — more — it gave me the sort of encouragement and guidance that I need to face these current grim days with renewed hope.
— Addison H. Hart, theologian whose books include Knowing Darkness: Reflections on Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God, Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World
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Receiving Jim Forest’s new book feels something like how Forest must have felt to receive mimeograph copies of Merton’s “Target Equals City” and other censored Cold War materials in the early 1960s. It is a serious, at times playful, and utterly breathtaking work. In light of recent events here in the US, it comes to me like cave paintings on a wall speaking of some beautiful secret language — the imagination of peace, in Denise Levertov’s words — that our nation knows almost nothing about. The Root of War is Fear is a field manual for courage and hopefulness in a time of desperation.
— Christopher Pramuk, author of Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, awarded the International Thomas Merton Society’s 2011 Thomas Merton Award
[introduction for the Romanian edition of The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell]
A few years ago I was thinking of sending a copy of C.S. Lewis’s book, The Screwtape Letters, to a dear friend who lives in a culture in which Christianity is the opposite of trendy. The Screwtape Letters is a classic that has sold millions of copies and helped countless people either become Christians or become better Christians.
Before sending the book, however, I decided to re-read it and only then realized it would probably not be a good match for my friend. The world in which The Screwtape Letters had been written is hugely different than the world we live in today.
Lewis would be astonished at how much change, in many ways for the worse, has occurred since the publication of The Screwtape Letters in 1943. Ours is a world in which, in many countries, most marriages fail, in which the lives of many unborn children are ended before birth, in which pornography is available to anyone able to make use of the internet, in which we bury ourselves in consumer products while ignoring those who lack the necessities of life, in which computers and television challenge us all in a wide variety of ways, and in which war has become even more destructive than it was in Lewis’ day.
This inspired me to think of a new book similar to The Screwtape Letters — correspondence between an apprentice demon and a far more experienced elder — but addressing some of the issues we face in the highly-secularized world that challenges us each day.
My premise was simple: What if Lewis’ Wormwood, the demon-in-training in The Screwtape Letters, had not, after all, been dismissed from his position as an up-and-coming tempter and had now himself become mentor to junior devils, as Screwtape had been to him?
In the actual writing of the book, it was disturbing to see how easy it was to look at things from a demonic point of view — almost as easy as clicking a switch. I didn’t have to dig deeply within myself to hear Wormwood’s voice loud and clear.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. How quick we human are to find arguments that justify whatever it is we want to do. This is one of the main themes of Dostoevsky’s novels, especially Crime and Punishment.
A friend recently asked what my favorite chapter was in the book? This is like asking someone what’s their favorite color or their favorite movie. These things change according to mood and circumstances. Today the answer is Wormwood’s message 4 on “true religion.” But ask me again tomorrow and I may have a different answer.
The same friend wanted to know which chapter was the most difficult to write? Here I can be more definite. It was hardest writing about abortion — see message 8 on choice.
“Choice” is a hot word in our culture. We like “to keep our options open.” Those in favor of abortion rarely describe themselves as “pro-abortion.” That would be putting things much too plainly. Instead, at least in the English-speaking world, they call their position “pro-choice” and that works. The reality is the same with either term — an unborn child is killed — but “pro-choice” sounds morally neutral, even positive.
Yet in speaking plainly about what abortion really means, a Christian writer has at the same time to be compassionate about the incredible pressures a young woman often faces if she become pregnant, especially if she isn’t married — pressure from parents, friends, her boyfriend, social workers, not to mention herself. It’s easy to give in to others, and it’s easy to give in to one’s own panic. The reader also must also be reminded, even if she has had an abortion, that the only unforgivable sin is to reject God’s mercy.
We live in a culture that pays a lot of attention to packaging. Finding the right words to wrap around killing is an activity no less popular among politicians than pro-abortionists. Today wars are mainly presented as actions in defense of human rights.
Another question I have been asked: Do I have special hopes for what the reader will take away from this book?
Perhaps the main thing is that we live our entire life on a battlefield. This is true for everyone no matter how poor or well off they happen to be, even if lucky enough to have loving parents, food on the table, a sense of security, and abilities and talents that suggest a promising future.
In fact every day we have hard choices to make, and the fact is that there are powerful temptations to make wrong choices, choices that are destructive for ourselves and others. As people who are attempting to live a more Christ-centered life, we need to equip ourselves spiritually and intellectually to resist the arguments and slogans that in fact drag us away from the Gospel.
This is a book about becoming more aware of how easily we are influenced, not only by the seductive whisper of unseen demons, but by the economic and political structures in which he happen to live. We tend to be much like fish — swimming in schools. We are inclined to make choices decided for us and either imposed by threats or infiltrating our thoughts through advertising, propaganda and peer-group pressure.
A final word about laughter: Perhaps the thing I like best about The Wormwood File is that it’s built on the premise that one of the best ways to deal with demons is to laugh them off. Demons really don’t like being laughed at. While I was writing the book, every time a chapter was finished, before we went to bed I would read it aloud to my wife Nancy. The more she laughed, the more pleased I was. And we had some really good laughs.
[For a long time I have had in mind to put on our web site those parts of an out-of-print book I wrote in 1988-89, Religion in the New Russia, that have to do with the Russian Orthodox Church at the time of the millennium events — the thousand-year anniversary of the foundation of Christianity in Ukraine and Russia. The extracts encompass about half the book. If you have an interest in the Orthodox Church in Russia at a moment when a long dark night of repression was ending, you may want to read at least parts of it. Religion in the New Russia was published in 1989 by Crossroad, New York. — Jim Forest, 13 June 2016]
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” — Matthew 5:11-12
Standing in front of me was Father Mikhail Zhakov, a monk with a reddish beard that was long and rather wild. His uncut hair was tied in a knot. Though with difficulty, he spoke in English. “Will you tell the truth in your book?” I doubt I will stand before a stricter face even at the Last Judgment. Father Mikhail was a living outpost of uncombed, God-centered old Russia. “It isn’t easy to know the truth,” I answered, “and even harder to tell it, but I will try to know it and to tell it.” With the gaze of an icon, he charged me, “Truth, truth, but only truth!”
His words have come back to me again and again in the months since we met during Easter week in Petrozavodsk. The pages that follow are my attempt to tell the truth about the current state of religious life in the Soviet Union.
The undertaking is, nonetheless, the work of a blind man feeling an elephant. The Soviet elephant is eleven time zones wide. I have done my best to explore as much of the elephant as I could, traveling from Russia’s Orthodox north to the Islamic south, from Catholic Lithuania in the west to a Buddhist datsan near the Mongolian border in the far east.
Much of the book is an account of conversations with a wide range of Soviet citizens whose lives center on their faith. I have also talked with state officials who still decide many matters affecting religious life. I have watched Soviet television to see what the religious content was — there has been quite a lot — and been attentive to the Soviet press.
Belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church gives me an intimate feeling for religious life in the Soviet Union, and not only for Orthodoxy. I also have the blessing of two decades of work in interfaith organizations, especially the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and the World Council of Churches.
Another great advantage for such a project is that the Russian elephant has become much more talkative. When I first started writing about religious life in the USSR six years ago, the possibility of someone like Gorbachev coming to power hadn’t entered anyone’s imagination. The words perestroika and glasnost had no place in public discourse . Except for a few brave dissidents who felt they had little to lose and perhaps something to gain by candor with strangers from the west, Soviet citizens discussed the more important subjects only with their most trusted friends. It was rare to hear Stalin’s name and rarer still to hear anyone mention the Great Terror. Everyone knew where certain churches, synagogues and mosques had once stood but no one pointed to those empty spaces. Every family had its large helping of tragedy but talked only of those losses caused by war, not purges. Many believed in God but few were willing to say so. Many hated the political order and its values but kept silence or even said it wasn’t so bad.
Especially in the past year or two, one commonly hears complete and honest answers, whether talking to a babushka, a student, a priest or even someone in a government job. It isn’t only that the answers are honest; the present climate encourages questions a journalist might once have hesitated to ask out of compassion for the person being interviewed.
A key word in many conversations is dukhovnost, a term that should be added to our growing Russian vocabulary in the west. Dukhovnost has profound significance for anyone wishing to understand current events in the USSR. Literally it means “quality of Spirit.” Unfortunately “spirituality”, its English equivalent, though identical in actual meaning, is usually understood to mean either the private relationship between the individual and God or a method of prayer. It has lost its social and ethical dimension.
Dukhovnost, while also referring to the intimate life of prayer, also suggests moral capacity, courage, wisdom, mercy, social responsibility, a readiness to forgive, a way of life centered in love. Used by believers, it means all that happens in your life when God is the central point of reference.
The word also has a significant place in the vocabulary of non-believers. For them dukhovnost means whatever it is that draws one toward a moral life, a life of integrity and courage. Georgi Arbatov, addressing the Communist Party Conference in Moscow in June 1988, commented that the first three years of perestroika, while not resulting in significant economic progress, had created the “political, spiritual and moral preconditions for economic reform.” In few other countries would the spiritual element of economic life be stressed, or even mentioned, in political debate. To many Russians, even those who seem estranged from religious belief, the idea of a non-spiritual life is incomprehensible.
My children ask me why I spend so much time in the Soviet Union and why I write so much about religion. The answer is that I am drawn by the intensity of spiritual life I encounter among believers despite Soviet attempts to destroy religious life and even the idea of God. I have never experienced anything like it and didn’t dream such communities of prayer existed, east or west. I wanted to know how it was possible.
I was more than half afraid the answer was persecution — disturbing news, if true, as it would mean the main blessing for religious life is a government hostile to religion.
It is true that persecution has done much to purify religion in the Soviet Union, especially by driving out those who were drawn into the local church or synagogue by family pressure or peer expectations. Persecution has also graced the Church with many martyrs. But I have learned that dukhovnost gains its strength not from enemies but from God. In fact one of the great discoveries of spiritual life is that one needn’t look to the KGB to find the adversary.
The enemy is much closer. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn has written of his conversion while in the gulag:
“It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke under its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. . . . Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil.” [The Gulag Archipelago, “The Ascent,” volume two, part four (London: Fontana, 1975), pp. 597-8.]
I have learned from Soviet believers how important it is to love of one’s enemies, and that it is possible. Though this hard teaching is common to both Judaism and Christianity, in the west we seem to have put it on some remote upper shelf and forgotten about it.
In the Book of Exodus we are instructed, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under a burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it.” (23:4-5) In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he wrote, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. . . . Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink.” (Romans 12:14; 17-20)
Such biblical love has been widely practiced by many Soviet believers, love not in the sentimental sense but rather the rejection of revenge and the will to do good to an adversary, hoping always for his or her conversion. The person “on the way” — a typical Russian phrase for someone living the life of the Spirit — realizes that spiritual purification is never a private event but involves even one’s enemies.
Such love is linked to a readiness to forgive. “I must forgive,” a Russian Christian told me. “Otherwise I am already in hell and I am not permitted to receive Christ.”
I have discovered that underneath the political and economic surface of Soviet life is an intense but largely invisible spiritual life. Believers waiting in line are often people at prayer. I have also come to realize that the strength of soul which has empowered people to retain their faith despite so many heavy blows has much to do with what the Russian Orthodox call bytovoe blagochestie: the art of ritual living. Nicolas Zernov wrote about this:
“They way people greeted each other, or expressed their sorrow or joy, the various kinds of meals they ate at different seasons, the decoration of their houses, and the architecture of their churches — all these were used [and are still used] by the Russians as parts of their corporal effort to transform this world into the temple of the Holy Spirit. The material and the spiritual were treated as two sides of the same reality, and for this reason the smallest details of daily life were charged with religious significance.”[The Russians and their Church (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978, third edition), p 106.]
Most believers in the Soviet Union, whatever their nationality and faith, have preserved their particular variety of the art of ritual living, not only retaining ancient rituals of worship but maintaining an intense sense of sacred time and space.
“Why change the way we pray?” asked a woman in a Moscow church. “Beauty takes many generations. And why hurry at prayer? All good things take time and are best done slowly.”
A word of appreciation: This book would not have been possible without the help of Sergei Afonin, my companion in travels in the USSR in January and May 1989. Though he appears only occasionally in the narrative, he merits an introduction.
Sergei is a balding former athlete turned heavy smoker and linguist. Besides being an almost tireless translator and enthusiast for this project, he frequently pulled genies out of bottles, again and again getting us to the remote places I wanted to go, no easy thing in a country where even a phone call is not so simple and where one gets a seat on a plane only by good luck, close friendship or major battle.
Having in common a love of books, we rarely went past a book shop without slipping in. In Leningrad in May, on a side street off Nevsky Prospekt we discovered a black market in books. Even Sergei, well used to the Soviet Union’s shadow economy, was shocked by the high prices. An illustrated children’s Bible of about a hundred pages was 100 rubles — most of a month’s pay for many people.
What most attracted Sergei was a recently published book about Vladimir Vysotsky, a Soviet poet-singer, now dead, who has become a secular saint. “He was more than a singer,” said Sergei. “He was an actor, a poet, a great human being — and so was disliked by officialdom in Brezhnev’s era. But he was loved by the people. His popularity cut across generational lines. He lived intensely, drank dangerously, and at age 42 died of a heart attack. It was a terrible loss. His wife, the French film star, Marina Vladi, wrote a book that was published in France. Now finally it will be published here.” The book Sergei had picked up, a photo-biography of the singer, was 40 rubles, ten times what it had been sold for when published a few months before. It was too much for Sergei. He reluctantly gave it back to the seller.
Sergei remembered when good books were plentiful and cheap. “As a kid with my small allowance, I could buy one or two classics every week and have enough left over to go to the movies. Now books are a luxury — not only much more expensive, but good books, especially classics, are very hard to find.”
Afterward we sat for a long while on the embankment looking across the Neva to the Fortress of Peter and Paul, water slapping against the stone wall. It was a sparkling day with a huge lapus lazuli sky and a few creamy clouds.
“If you could have lived at another time,” I asked him, “when would it have been and what would you have done?” He thought for quite a while. “I would rather have lived here in Saint Petersburg in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. There was a sustained burst of creative energy in Russia at that time. If I had my choice, I would have been an artist, musician or composer — something in the arts.”
Like most Russians, he is deeply troubled by what has happened in his homeland, not least to words. “After the revolution,” he said, “many words lost their former significance — for example, the word ‘mercy.’ We hardly know what it means. We destroyed mercy. We also destroyed courtesy. In Pushkin’s time a letter began with some term of respect, not just ‘comrade,’ but ‘Respected, distinguished Alexei Alexyevich.’ It might close, ‘and now I am always your obedient and most devoted servant.’ Now we have ‘efficient’ letters that sound like a machine talking to a machine. The atmosphere for real communication is profoundly damaged.”
He pointed out the religious content that still survives in certain words. “The word for thanks, spasiba, means God save you. The word for Sunday means the day of the Resurrection. We still refer to a person doing good — someone who is always near by, always blessing, whose example gives you courage — as an angel of mercy.”
One of our main foes in the course of our travels was Aeroflot, the world’s largest but possibly least humane airline. It treats its ordinary Soviet passengers like cattle and, despite efforts to handle foreigners with velvet gloves, domestic Aeroflot flights often have much in common with travel by rural bus in India. Like many Soviet citizens with language skills, Sergei had once worked for Aeroflot. “Its problem, as in so many Soviet institutions, is a total absence of a sense of co-responsibility. Everyone does his own segment of a job and nothing more.”
Of the places we traveled together, he suffered most in the country where many visitors would have been most comfortable, Lithuania. Every hour he was reminded of injustice done to Lithuania by the imperial Russia that became the imperial Soviet Union — a feeling not unknown to Americans too, especially those living or traveling abroad.
“There is radical disagreement within me about being Russian,” he said on our last day in Vilnius. “Sometimes I agree with Dostoyevsky that Russia will save the world. Other times I am convinced that Russia is lost forever. Sometimes I am proud to be Russian, sometimes miserable and deeply ashamed. Sometimes I would rather belong to any people in the world except this one. Other times I can’t imagine being anything else. But it impresses me when I remember the priest who said that no Russian priest sent to serve in another country has chosen to remain abroad.”
Though not engaged in the Church, he is fascinated by religion and drawn to Orthodoxy. One of the more intimate moments we shared was a priest’s blessing of a small icon he had purchased in May in Petrozavodsk — a story told in the chapter on Orthodoxy.
Sergei is at home in an Orthodox church but often uncomfortable among Protestants. After a Baptist service one day, I remember an old woman from the congregation scolding Sergei for smoking on the dirt road in front of the church. “She was right,” he told me later. “I know I shouldn’t smoke, especially near a church, but I needed that cigarette. I felt uncomfortable in that atmosphere. I don’t like that way of preaching. It’s like political speeches. It makes me feel irritated and indignant. The pastor’s topic was love. What a way to teach love!”
Sergei smoked more than usual that day. The next morning at breakfast he had a headache which he attributed to too many cigarettes the day before but he declined my offer of aspirin: “The headache is a penance. I should mobilize my inner forces.”
We occasionally shared our dreams. In one of these Sergei was visited by his father, dead many years. “He was a military officer, medical doctor and Communist Party member,” Sergei said. “Though baptized as a child, he had abandoned religious ideas early in his life and, so far as I know, never thought about God. Yet in the dream my father said, ‘What you must do is repent and forgive.'”
Sergei was deeply impressed, regarding the dream as a word from heaven. We talked about it for days afterward.
When I last saw Sergei he told me that helping me with the book had been good for him. “I was thinking recently about the seven deadly sins,” he told me. “I found that I am guilty of three of them, maybe three-and-a-half. But it used to be seven so I feel I am on the right way.”
The Feast of Saint Sergius of Radonezh / October 8, 1989
* * *
A SPRING BREEZE
While in Leningrad in February, 1987, I had met Nicholai Preobrajenski, a nuclear physicist who had become a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was serving as assistant rector of the Leningrad Theological Academy. It was just four years since Brezhnev’s death. Andropov and Chernenko had in turn briefly reigned in the Kremlin, neither having exhibited any vital life signs between election and burial. It was only 23 months since Gorbachev had become head of the Soviet Communist Party. The words glasnost and perestroika still needed to be translated as openness and restructuring. President Reagan was still describing the Soviet Union as the evil empire. After Father Nicholai and I had talked about his decision to leave a prestigious civil position to become a priest, I asked him what impact Gorbachev and perestroika were having on church life. “A new wind is blowing,” he told me. “It hasn’t yet touched religion but we believe it will and we are beginning to live as if it had already touched us.”
“A new wind is blowing . . . and we are beginning to live as if it had already touched us.” Despite all the blows believers had received in the past, in 1987 a remarkable sense of expectation had begun to flourish within Soviet churches. While Gorbachev had as yet said nothing about a new religious policy, something fundamental had changed. One smelled it rather than touched it. What used to be unsaid was being said, what used to be hidden was on the screen, what used to be unprintable was being published, and what used to thought hopeless was being eagerly awaited.
But the rules and institutions governing religious life were exactly as before. The actual situation for religious life was still appalling. The Law on Religious Associations, signed April 8, 1929, revised in 1932 and 1975, remained in force as did the structures of enforcement. Under the law religious associations lacked a juridical personality and could operate legally only if registered. Local authorities were required to impede or prevent registrations. (Especially among protestant churches, there was often a principled refusal to seek registration, while other some churches had no possibility of registration, most notably the eastern-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church.)
Many obstacles were erected to make application for registration unlikely, including the rule that at least twenty persons must make a collective application. Those applying were well aware that a variety of costly actions might be taken against them — investigations, a job lost, a permit not given, even false criminal charges filed.
Associations of believers, having no legal standing as such, had no right to own property. Buildings used for worship were leased to believers by the Council for Religious Affairs. (The dining hall of a Russian monastery was officially listed as a restaurant by local authorities, the monks paying a monthly rent for its use.)
Religious rites could only be performed in places designated for worship. Religious associations had no right to sign contracts or to take action in court. Religious education of children and young people was forbidden. Neither could there be any special program of any kind for minors — no social activities, no excursions, no participation in choirs, no playgrounds. Libraries were banned from religious premises. The only books permitted were those recognized by state authorities as essential for ritual purposes.
The role of priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, and Buddhist lamas (“cult servants” in marxist terminology) had been greatly diminished. A decree of March 1961 deprived clergy of any direct control over the functions of the local church, reducing them to the status of employees of the church council. Those employed in pastoral positions were placed in the highest tax bracket, paying far more than other members of society.
All religious bodies were under the administrative control of the Council for Religious Affairs, whose role went far beyond the registration of religious communities and the leasing of buildings for religious use. The 1961 decree permitted state authorities to remove individual members from the executive body of churches and install “non-fanatical persons who sincerely fulfill Soviet laws.” At times the “non-fanatical person” — in fact someone actively hostile to religion — might be inserted as chairman of a local church council. The same decree urged that “priests, choir directors, church watchmen . . . and other persons working for the church should not be included” in the membership of the parish council.
Religious associations had only the most limited possibilities for publishing. On the rare occasions when Bibles were published, the editions were pitifully small. Neither were religious associations permitted to import religious books from abroad. Bibles, Korans and prayer books brought to the USSR by visitors were confiscated at the border during grueling searches at points of entry.
Only a few institutions of religious education were permitted. The Russian Orthodox Church, with its many million members, had three seminaries. The Old Believers and the various protestant churches had none. The Catholics had one. The Moslems, the country’s second biggest religion, had two. The Jews and Buddhists had none. Nor could the seminaries freely accept whomever they wished. The total number of students allowed was decided by the state. No applicant could be accepted without specific approval from the Council for Religious Affairs which in turn had the KGB check every name.
While the 1929 law did not explicitly ban religious engagement in charitable service, in practice believers were excluded. In addition they were forbidden to operate hospitals, old-age homes, orphanages, day care centers, etc., or to assist public institutions involved in meeting human needs. Religious life was defined exclusively in terms of worship activity.
Despite these and other oppressive regulations, religious associations were required to signal their support of the political establishment in a variety of ways. It was expected that a substantial portion of church income would be contributed to the Soviet Peace Fund. It was anticipated that religious associations, at the national level, would play an active role in supporting the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, in any event never opposing the government’s actions. No Soviet religious body protested the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan nor was there ever any public protest made by religious leaders of actions taken against believers, though a number of courageous individuals spoke out at the cost of arrest and imprisonment. Bishops and their counterparts in other religions often praised the state for its attitude toward believers.
A huge establishment of state-sponsored atheist education was operating at full steam. Members of the Communist Party were required “to wage s decisive struggle against religious prejudices.” There were obligatory courses on atheism in every school and university as well as atheist lectures at places of employment. In addition there were frequent articles in the press and programs on television, not so much making the case for atheism as attacking religion. Atheist posters were commonplace. Atheist museums were to be found in every city, normally in some former cathedral that had been confiscated. Perhaps the last form of atheist education the most impressive, with their vivid displays of heretics being tortured and a highly selective exposition of history that sought to show that religious associations were led by greedy hypocrites while the institutions they led were a central part of the machinery of oppression.
While it had been years since clerics and lay believers were arrested en masse, imprisonment remained a distinct possibility for anyone daring the slightest resistance. While the exact numbers at a given moment were never known, in 1986 Keston College had reported nearly 300 imprisoned for reasons that had a religious basis. Though arrests were declining in early 1987, individuals like Alexander Ogorodnikov, founder of the Christian Seminar in Moscow, remained in labor camps.
There had been more than a thousand Orthodox monasteries and convents in 1914 in Russia and its territories; in 1987 there were 18, most of them near the country’s western border. The others were in ruins — many churches and monasteries had been dynamited in the thirties — or were being used for other purposes. Some had been made into prisons and reformatories.
Once a land renowned for its countless churches and bell towers, in 1987 thousands of towns and even whole cities lacked any building in which prayer was permitted. Many Christians were hundreds of miles from a living church, while for Jews, Moslems and Buddhists the distances could be even greater. Occasionally believers gathered in cemeteries to pray. In the whole of eastern Siberia and the Soviet far east churches were “as rare as pigs with gold feathers.”
This was the situation in the USSR in 1987, one year before Christians were to celebrate the Millennium — the thousand-year anniversary of the baptism of the people of Kiev.
And yet Father Nicholai, with countless other believers, felt some softening of the frozen earth. I felt it too, though it wasn’t until the Millennium events in June 1988 that the spring breeze could be really felt.
While he let it be known that he had been baptized as a child, during his first three years as General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev seemed to ignore the churches. He had been preoccupied with strengthening his leadership position within the Politburo, inaugurating positive relations with the United States and other western countries, promoting disarmament, launching programs to revive the stagnant Soviet economy, and coping with the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. His main gesture to believers had been the release of numerous prisoners.
Then on April 29, 1988, five weeks before the Millennium celebration was to begin, Gorbachev received Patriarch Pimen (earlier in his life a prisoner of the Gulag) and five Orthodox metropolitans in the Kremlin. Apart from Gorbachev and the clerics, two others were present: Gorbachev’s friend, the philosopher Ivan Frolov, and the Chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs, Konstantin Kharchev.
That night Soviet television viewers witnessed Gorbachev’s warm welcome to the Patriarch, saw the bishops sitting with him around a circular conference table in the ornate Saint Catherine Hall, and heard Gorbachev express regret for past “mistakes made with regard to the Church and believers in violation of the Constitution and socialist principle.” He cited the recent return to the Orthodox Church of several monasteries and said a new law was being drafted to protect freedom of conscience.
Patriarch Pimen responded: “Esteemed Mikhail Sergeyevich, I pledge support to you, the architect of perestroika and the herald of new political thinking. . . . We pray for the success of this process and are doing everything we can to promote it.”
While most of what he said was unremarkable, the Patriarch used the occasion to say that, though much had improved, “not all the problems of Church life are being resolved or duly attended to.” The comment, despite its brevity, was as unprecedented as the meeting. In the past church leaders routinely denied troubles existed even when the situation they faced was much worse.
The informal exchange that followed was not broadcast but press articles reported that the bishops raised “a number of specific questions connected with guaranteeing the normal activity of the Orthodox Church.” According to an interview with Konstantin Kharchev published late that year in Ogonyok, the bishops expressed their desire to open new seminaries in Belorussia and in other republics of the Union, to re-establish nine dioceses suppressed in the sixties and to reopen religious associations closed in the same period. They also raised a group of questions relating to publication work. Gorbachev promised he would “pass on the requests and considerations to the government which would carefully examine them and make appropriate decisions.”
It was the second time that religious leaders had been received by the head of state since the Bolshevik revolution. The other occasion was on September 4, 1943, two years after the German invasion. Realizing that a change in policy toward religion would be a positive factor in the war with Hitler, Stalin had met with Metropolitan Sergei (soon after elected Patriarch) and two other Orthodox bishops. But it was a private meeting. No photo was published. The image of Stalin and the Metropolitan together was never communicated to the public. Accounts of what occurred vary. All that is certain is that the situation for the Church changed drastically. A Council for the Affairs of the Orthodox Church (later the Council for Religious Affairs) was set up. Many churches were re-opened and anti-religious propaganda sharply curtailed. The Patriarch, formerly exiled to a log cabin on the outskirts of Moscow, was given a mansion in the Arbat district of central Moscow, a residence previously occupied by the German ambassador. The Holy Trinity-Saint Sergius Monastery forty miles north of Moscow became a living monastery again and a seminary was opened within its walls. During the fifteen-year period that followed, religious life was partially restored in many parts of the USSR. It wasn’t until Khrushchev’s anti-church campaign, launched in 1959, that the Soviet state resumed full-scale war with religion.
“Until Gorbachev received the Patriarch,” an official of the Council for Religious Affairs told me in May 1989, “it was BC. Afterward it was AD.”
When I arrived in Moscow on June 2, 1988 — the fifth week of this new AD — it was immediately evident that the state was celebrating the Millennium of the baptism of Kievan Rus’ nearly as much as the faithful. At Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport Millennium guests were taken directly to the VIP lounge and served a cup of coffee while awaiting delivery of their baggage. There was no border guard comparing and re-comparing my visa photo with my face, no long wait by the baggage carousel, no searching of luggage. I felt more like a visiting prime minister than a religious journalist poking around in a society where God’s obituary had been published long ago.
At the Ukraina Hotel, where most Millennium guests were housed, an exhibition of church photography had been mounted in the lobby. One flight up, in front of the hotel’s hard-currency store, a large stand was set up for the sale in rubles of icon reproductions, crosses, church badges and other religious articles manufactured by the Moscow Patriarchate. (It proved even more popular with the hotel staff than with the Millennium guests. For every bishop in line, there seemed to be at least two cleaning women.)
In Moscow the center of Millennium celebration was the Danilov Monastery, located in an industrial district a mile south of the Kremlin. Founded in the Thirteenth Century, the monastery had been closed in stages between 1929-32 until all that was left to the monks was the Resurrection Church outside the walls, and finally that was taken away as well. The monastery became a prison for juvenile delinquents. Then in 1983 the badly-damaged monastery was returned along with the Resurrection Church and several adjacent buildings including a former umbrella factory.
After five years of restoration work in which many believers volunteered their labor, the monastery no longer showed any trace of political vandalism. Walls, bell towers, churches and other buildings — everything looked as good as new. Several new buildings were still under construction, including a hotel-sized hostel for church guests.
Metropolitan Pitirim and his staff at the Church’s Publishing Department had set up a Press Center within the former Resurrection Church. On June 4 it was packed with reporters and TV film crews, most of them still recovering from the just-ended Moscow Summit meeting.
Metropolitan Filaret, Exarch of the Ukraine, announced the major news item: the return of part of the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, the oldest monastic community in the Russian Orthodox Church. Founded in 1051, it was closed in 1929 and reopened in 1941 during the German occupation. In 1961 the monks, having been limited to a small section of the monastery, were ordered out altogether on the grounds that the buildings were in danger of falling down. Given the neglect the structures suffered afterward, it is a wonder that the pretext didn’t turn into a prophecy. The section being given back was the Far Caves consisting of two churches and the caves beneath, a bell tower and various buildings. “We are on the verge of resuming monastic life after a pause of 25 years,” said the Metropolitan. The keys were to be turned over at a ceremony June 7 in Kiev.
Konstantin Kharchev of the Council for Religious Affairs, a participant in the press conference, was asked about new legislation being drafted that will protect religious rights. All he would say was that the law would be published soon, depending on “the relevant parliamentary commissions.” When asked by a reporter about how an atheist state can undertake such positive actions on behalf of churches, Kharchev insisted that the changes occurring did not mean that the government was giving up its “materialistic outlook.” The changes only indicate “that constitutional guarantees of religious rights will be fully protected.”
As there were no more Millennium events that day, Sergei and I drove out to Peredelkino, a village on the edge of Moscow made famous by the writers who lived there, among them Boris Pasternak. His grave is in the cemetery near the Transfiguration Church. Three women were sitting on a bench at the foot of Pasternak’s grave. One of them pointed out the branch of pale lavender orchids lying in front of the tomb stone. “Nancy Reagan put them there. I saw her do it with my own eyes.” She asked what I was eating at my hotel. I mentioned the various kinds of meat and fish. “Well that’s not real Moscow food. You should go into one of the local produckti [food stores] and buy two rubles’ worth of sausages. Cook that and see how you like it! There was an article in the press recently about sausages. They found insects, hair, paper and many other things — everything but meat.” She had a copy of the Russian-language edition of Moscow News. She pointed out a back-page interview with a young village priest. “We never used to see anything like that in our press. I only wish they would do to the sausage what they are doing in the press.”
The Millennium celebration began the following day with the celebration of the Holy Liturgy in Moscow’s Epiphany Cathedral. The chief celebrant was Patriarch Pimen, who stood more easily than when I had last seen him sixteen months before. At that time I doubted he would live another year. After the Liturgy he placed a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier next to the Kremlin wall.
The main Millennium event for the Russian Orthodox Church was to be the Pomestny Sobor — the Local Council — set to start the next day, June 6. The only others in this century had been in 1917, in the midst of the revolution at which time the first Patriarch was elected since the time of Czar Peter the Great; 1945, after Patriarch Sergei’s meeting with Stalin; 1961, when Khrushchev wanted the priest’s parish role restricted; and in 1971, in the midst of Brezhnev’s “years of stagnation.”
The day turned out to be a fiercely sunny and hot, Moscow’s hottest weather in 109 years. I was reminded of New York in August.
We were received at the Holy Trinity-Saint Sergius Monastery by large crowds and the constant ringing of bells in the monastery belfry. For years church bell-ringing was suppressed by Soviet officials but the skill survived. Russians again were ringing bells with the joyous abandon of children skipping rope.
The Council meeting place was the monastery’s colorful refectory, normally used as a winter church. The light in the large room was nearly blinding. While the Church’s last Council in 1971, also held in this hall, was completely ignored by Soviet television, this time television crews were not only present but had set up five camera platforms around the hall as well as installing klieg lights.
From additional TV platforms outside cameras followed the parade of church leaders whom the bells were welcoming: heads of other branches of the Orthodox Church, several Roman Catholic cardinals, the Archbishop of Canterbury, representatives of the World Council of Churches, leaders of National Councils of Churches from many countries, and bishops and lay people from the various dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Gogol wrote in Dead Souls, “Russia likes to assume large dimensions: mountains, woods, steppes, faces, lips and feet.” This applied to millennium celebrations as well. With its cast of thousands, the event could have been designed by Cecil B. DeMille.
The last to arrive was Patriarch Pimen, walking slowly and with the support of two young, sturdy clerics. The Council began in sung prayer, the sound of the monastic choir bursting on us with the refreshing force of sudden rain.
Sitting at the side of Patriarch Pimen was Konstantin Kharchev of the Council for Religious Affairs, conspicuous in his grey suit amid all the ecclesiastical raiment. One also was struck by the stillness of his hands when, during the opening prayers, all around him were crossing themselves. One of the first to address the Council, Kharchev spoke of the state’s responsibility “to protect the rights of all citizens, whether believers or unbelievers.”
Patriarch Pimen expressed his satisfaction with the meeting a few days earlier of Gorbachev and Reagan. Supporting perestroika, he called on “all the children of our church to be honest in labor and pure, humble and loving in their service to others.”
One of the Council’s first items of business was to review the past. Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev said that many participants in the Church Council held in Moscow in 1917 were “closely bound up with” the czarist and economic system and “were altogether alienated from the real socio-political questions affecting the life of the people.” Thus “the majority of the Council members did not understand the real meaning of the fundamental changes which took place in our homeland and the positive effect they had on life.” Proceeding to describe initial Church resistance to the Bolsheviks, Filaret referred to the “hostile actions undertaken by the Council with regard to the newly-established people’s power.” These “led to tension and even confrontation between Church and State which became especially strong during the Civil War and made a dramatic and lasting imprint on their relations.” With the separation of church and state established by the revolution, “the Orthodox Church lost the privileged position she had enjoyed,” a separation begun under the conditions of “famine, economic dislocation, anti-government conspiracies and civil war.” Filaret described the unfolding tragedy: confrontation between believers and atheists, the mass closure and destruction of churches and monasteries, the killing of many believers, lay and clerical. In the early years of the revolution “the clergy often supported the adversaries of Soviet power.” At the same time Soviet laws on religion were often and brutally ignored. He concluded that “every departure from democratic principles . . . dealt a blow to the common cause of building and developing our socialist society.”
Among other speakers at the morning session was Cardinal Willebrands, head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Christian Unity. He rejoiced in “the holy act of God” that had brought the people of Kiev to the Christian faith, from whom it “rapidly spread across huge territories.” A thousand years ago, he recalled, Christians of east and west, despite dissension, were still in communion with one another. But estrangement reached the breaking point. “Catholic and Orthodox fought each other in word and with sword. It is time to overcome division, to develop a sense of being together as Church.” He mentioned various ways in which dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox has developed and deepened in recent years, becoming a “dialogue of charity.” One consequence of the encounter was the “struggle of churches for disarmament and peace to prevent the catastrophe of nuclear war.” He pointed out that several points of division still remain, especially questions of church structure — an allusion to Orthodox criticism of the lack of conciliarity (the Russian word is sobornost) in the Catholic Church. Common reflection was needed on the special role in the Church of the Bishop of Rome, understanding that “unity does not mean conformity of one group to another but the recovery of unity around the eucharistic table.” Moving on to more controversial subject, he expressed regret that there was still no recognition of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. “Nonetheless,” he said, “a new climate has been created in which we can heal old wounds.” He extended to the Council and the entire Russian Orthodox Church “the greetings and blessing of His Holiness John Paul II.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, described the Russian Church as “an icon of the resurrection.” Despite severe persecution, it has risen from the tomb to celebrate its millennium. “The martyrs have been the seed of new church life. We honor the suffering that you have borne, we honor those who have testified to the faith that was in them with their own lives both during the time of the ‘cult of personality’ [as the Stalin years are called] and in more recent times.” Russia offers a witness that “when we take God from the center of our lives, the god-substitutes are deadly.”
The main event of the afternoon session was the addition of nine names to the calendar of saints. The most renowned name was Andrei Rublev, the Fifteenth Century monk whose icons of the Holy Trinity and the Savior have made their way to churches and homes throughout the world. Also canonized was Father Amvrosi, staretz (holy elder) of Optina Pustyn, a monastery south of Moscow recently returned to the Church. Amvrosi’s wisdom and holiness were so renowned in Nineteenth Century Russia that pilgrims walked hundreds of miles to seek his advice and guidance. Among the pilgrims was Dostoyevsky, who used Amvrosi as a model for Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov.
The Russian Church has always had a special appreciation for iurodivii: fools for Christ’s sake, people in whom Christ wears the guise of madness. These are ascetic Christians living outside of the borders of conventional social behavior. At the beginning of the Seventeenth Century there was even one holy fool who ruled Holy Russia, Czar Theodore, the son of Ivan the Terrible. Regarded by western diplomats sent to Moscow as a weakling and idiot, he was adored by the Russian people. Brought up in an environment of brutality, disliked by his father, regarded with scorn by courtiers, he took shelter in simplicity, prayer and devotion to his wife. Much of his time was spent in church. Throughout his fourteen years as czar he never lost his playfulness or love of beauty. A gifted bell-ringer, he often woke the people of Moscow in the hours before dawn by sounding the great bells of the Kremlin, a summons to prayer. “He was small of stature,” according to a contemporary account, “and bore the marks of fasting. He was humble, given to the things of the soul, constant in prayer, liberal in alms. He did not care for the things of this world, only for the salvation of the soul.”
“This simpleton,” writes Nicholas Zernov, “robed in gorgeous vestments, was determined that bloodshed, cruelty and oppression must be stopped, and it was stopped as long as he occupied the throne of his ancestors.”
The best known of the iurodivii beyond Russia, if only by name, is Saint Basil, from whom the cathedral on Red Square takes its name. Basil walked the streets of Moscow naked and dared to condemn the behavior of Ivan the Terrible.
The Council canonized one of the more recent iurodivii, Xenia of Saint Petersburg, who had lived in a cemetery, worn the clothing of her dead husband and answered only to his name. To the irritation of Leningrad officialdom, her grave continued to be a place of pilgrimage and prayer in the Soviet period.
After each canonization was solemnly declared, a newly made icon of the particular saint was used by the Patriarch to bless all those present.
So ended the Council’s first day.
While the Council continued at Zagorsk, during the second and third day non-delegates were invited to visit local churches. I joined a bus-load of people heading south. Our first stop was the town of Maloyaraslavets, 75 miles from Moscow. At least a thousand people were waiting outside the church with their young pastor, Father Vladimir Makheev, red-bearded and with grey-blue eyes. After being welcomed by bells, bread and salt, we went into the church, also full of people, the kind of crowd that the church might contain on Easter when, as they say, “not an apple can drop.”
Father Vladimir told us something of the town and church’s history, recalling that Gogol had once stayed in a local house and pointing out that the church is a replica, though on a smaller scale, of Moscow’s Cathedral of the Savior.
“Thanks to local believers,” said Father Vladimir, “our church is being restored — in fact now the restoration is nearly completed. Not long ago this church was in danger of falling down.” Gifts were distributed. I received an Easter egg with a painting of the restored church.
As we stood on the church steps in the intense sun to have our picture taken, a lean middle-aged man who hadn’t shaved in several days asked me where I was from. “America,” I said, skipping the part about living in Holland. “You are the first person I have met from America. Our countries have been enemies but I want to tell you that I have never been your enemy.” He said he had read Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. I told him I read Dostoyevsky and Gogol. He gave me a scratchy embrace, kissing me on the cheek.
In the city of Kaluga, another 50 miles to the south, I had lunch with Father Vladimir. I asked him if perestroika was having much impact outside of Moscow.
“Yes,” he said, “finally the parish priest is being allowed to play an important role in society. Also perestroika is happening in the church. Take our church in Maloyaraslavets. Because of the structure of church control imposed in the time of Khrushchev, the head of our parish council was a government appointee, a man named Vasili Osimin, an atheist who had no respect for the church. He was typical of the period of stagnation [the standard phrase used for the Brezhnev period]. All he wanted to do was scratch the backs of the local authorities. The parish priest’s word meant nothing — he was simply considered an employee whose job was to stand at the altar. The head of the parish council was doing all he could to cause the death of our church, and having such a head of the Parish Council isn’t rare. Many churches have this problem. But now we can be sure that this situation will be put right. In our case money raised for the preservation of our church, 18,000 rubles, simply disappeared. I wrote to the bishop and also to the head of the local Council for Religious Affairs. Still the man wouldn’t resign.
“Finally, because of the new processes in our society, I was able to summon a parish meeting and 216 people turned up. All but 16 voted to kick him out. That was December 13, 1987, a day I will never forget. On that day a real believer was elected to head the parish council. And since then we have repaired the church and restored our parish community. It is a period of restoration, at least the beginning of it. Since that day in December, I feel I have wings on my back. We are celebrating not only our church’s millennium but the resurrection of Christianity in the Kaluga region. There are many times in these months when I have cried for joy. There are many times when I couldn’t believe what was happening in front of my eyes.”
It so happened that, as we talked, new church legislation making the priest the head of the parish was being submitted to the Council in Zagorsk. But already its norms were being taken up locally.
I asked him what led him to become a priest.
“It was, I think, mainly my god-father. He was always watching me, caring about me. He was a priest. He celebrated the last Holy Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Savior in Moscow before it was destroyed. More than anyone, he inspired me to belief. He taught me to believe, to hope, to love. Because of him I came to realize that, when you believe from the depth of your heart, there are no obstacles in life.”
The next morning we joined in the Holy Liturgy at a church near our hotel, the large building packed to capacity and the church itself embraced by huge crowds.
Afterward we were taken to meet the local political leadership. After a long review of Kaluga’s history and economy, the chairman of the City Council mentioned the recent return of three local churches as well as the famous Optina Pustyn monastery elsewhere in the Kaluga district, now undergoing restoration. Inviting responses from us, he was probably as surprised as I at the passion and depth of what was said by some in the audience. Speaking with a shaking voice, a woman from Australia said she had been born in this district but left as a child in 1925.
“I will not tell you what our life was like,” she said, “or why we left, only say that we knew much suffering. Now I see things happening here which I thought I would never live to see. Every time I go into a church, I find myself crying.”
Father Vladimir expressed regret that the bishop of Kaluga couldn’t be here, as he was today at the Church Council. In his absence, he thought it might be appropriate to appeal to city authorities to authorize an apartment for the bishop.
A woman representing the Russian Orthodox Church in Paris gave the City Council a small, finely made “traveling” icon cast from brass of Saint Vladimir. “The gift of icons to political leaders,” a neighbor commented drily, “is not traditional. New times!”
In the hotel restaurant afterward, Allan Boesak of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the South Africa Council of Churches gave a brief, impromptu speech. “Christian love and Christian solidarity,” he said, “recognize no limits in time or space. We have no borders. Apart from the ties of Christian love, there is another bond between my people and the people of Russia — your solidarity with our struggle for freedom in South Africa. My church thanks you for a thousand years of grace and mercy.”
Driving back to Moscow, we stopped in a village lucky enough to have its own church. It appeared that every local inhabitant was there to receive us. At the door of the church stood a babushka offering the traditional Russian sign of welcome, bread and salt. Inside the church, Dr. Fairy von Lilienfeld from West Germany, a professor of Slavic studies, spoke to the villagers. Her roots are Russian, she said. Her family fled to the west after the revolution. One of the great gifts of Orthodoxy, she said, was its emphasis on repentance and forgiveness. She said it was her prayer that German repentance would insure that never again would another war come from Germany.
“The Russians have an extraordinary capacity to forgive,” she told me on the bus afterward. “They understand that you should never receive communion until you have forgiven everyone. First you forgive, only then do you come to the altar. This is one of the reasons why receiving communion is infrequent in the Russian Church. Believers prepare for it, sometimes for weeks or months. In a Russian village, it is understood that once someone has gone to confession and received communion, there will never again be the renewal of an old enmity. This is part of what we Christians in the west have to receive from the Christians in the east.”
I recalled how, in 1943, when German prisoners of war were marched across Red Square, Russian women broke through police lines to give food to German soldiers, an astonishing scene that the poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko describes in his autobiography.13 At the time Moscow was hungry and many of the sons and husbands of the women in Moscow were dead in the war. But when the women saw the pathetic condition of the German soldiers, compassion took precedence over grief and hatred. I cannot imagine such a thing happening in any other country.
Back in Moscow, Boris Chapchal, one of the two Dutch participants in the Council, told me about what had happened at the Council during our two days away.
The highlight was acceptance of the new Statute of the Russian Orthodox Church. The existing church law, said Archbishop Kyrill of Smolensk, head of the drafting commission, was completely inadequate. It was written in 1945 while the war was still being fought, then amended in 1961 under pressure from the Khrushchev government.
“One can say with conviction,” Archbishop Kirill declared, “that the amendments to the [Church’s] Regulations of 1961 were provoked not by the internal needs of the Church but by the complicated external situation in which our Church lived in the late fifties and early sixties. . . . The regulations the government forced on the Church were provoked by social ideas which can no longer be tolerated in today’s society since they are in principle in opposition to the process of democratization, the growth of glasnost, and the struggle for perestroika.” The 1961 amendments “separated the clergy not only from parish administration but from the parish itself. The relation of the clergy and the parish was based upon a contract which formally fixed the non-participation of the clergy in the life of the parish in which they celebrated the worship.”
The new Statute assumed that sobornost (conciliarity) must be the basis of Church administration “from top to bottom.” While the new statute was far from perfect, still it provided “a realistic organization of Church administration and a system that corresponds fully to Orthodox ecclesiology and canon law.”
After several hours of discussion, the Statute was adopted without dissent. “Still,” one Orthodox priest told me, “there must have been some not happy with it. Now the parish priest is going to have to work much harder. Most are eager to do so, but there are still too many who like to take it easy. The priest can no longer say, ‘It isn’t my job.'”
Another highlight was a speech by Metropolitan Anthony from London: “The Millennium is a glorious feast,” he said, “but when we speak of the triumph of Orthodoxy, we must realize that it is the triumph of God over the Orthodox, of truth and light over our sinfulness and our lack of understanding. We must approach the Millennium with a sense of wonder and gratitude. Also we must offer to God and to the people around us both historical and personal repentance for the fact that, historically, the Russian Church failed the Russian nation throughout ten centuries, because otherwise millions of people would not have fallen away from their faith in Christ at the first challenge. This was because baptism was given but education was not.”
Arriving at Zagorsk the next morning, I joined the procession into the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity to venerate the body of Saint Sergius, the monastery’s founder, who taught that contemplation of the Trinity would dissolve all discord.
Among events at the Council’s final day was a call by the head of the Orthodox Church in America, an independent church that grew out of the Russian Orthodox Church, for the canonization of Tikhon, elected to lead the Russian Orthodox Church just as the revolution was occurring in 1917. While opposing the Bolsheviks, he also refused to give his blessing to those who went to war against Red rule. Eventually he became a prisoner before deciding that the Church should provide the same degree of cooperation to the Communists that it had offered the state when it was led by the czars. His name is linked with the severe persecutions Russian Christians have suffered.
The morning session ended with a panikhida (memorial service) for soldiers who had died in Afghanistan. They had, said Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev, “fulfilled their civil and patriotic duty and had given witness to the teaching of Jesus that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another.” It is true, as Filaret said, that “thousands of mothers are left in grief.” No doubt it is hard to say to those mothers that their sons fought in an unjust war forced on the population by a handful of old men far from the battlefield. One longs for the day when the Russian Orthodox Church will grieve for all who fall in war, cry out against military interventions by the Soviet army, and support those who refuse to fight such wars.
After lunch in the seminary, I wandered around the grounds of the Holy Trinity Monastery, a “city of churches” that has never ceased to be a place of pilgrimage even in those years when the monks had been driven out. “There are still those who walk here even if it is a walk of thousands of miles,” a Russian friend told me. But the main body of pilgrims could have stepped off the Moscow Metro, people of every age and condition of life, including many teenagers and young adults.
The Council ended with a closing service of thanksgiving and a brief speech by Patriarch Pimen in which he expressed confidence that the Russian Orthodox Church would continue to develop and grow stronger in its task of “sanctifying her children.”
The next day Millennium events shifted to the Bolshoi Theater. When the curtain opened about a hundred people were sitting in tiers on the stage. In the center of the first row was Patriarch Pimen. Raisa Gorbachev was sitting a few places to his right, next to Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, head of the External Church Affairs Department of the Russian Orthodox Church. During some of the more tedious speeches they took to conversation. I counted eight whispered exchanges between them during the four-hour meeting.
Among those on stage was Georgi Arbatov, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and an architect of Soviet foreign policy. He had recently told a Time reporter, “We are going to do something terrible to you. We are going to deprive you of an enemy.”
The main speech was by Metropolitan Yuvenali of Krutitsky and Kolomensky. I have warm feelings for him. In 1986 we exchanged rosaries — he gave me the one he wore on his wrist, and I gave him one I had received from Pope John Paul II.
Talking about the cultural impact of Christianity, Yuvenali spoke of the improvement in the status and security of women, the introduction of book publishing, the Russian Church’s contribution to the spread of Christianity, the commitment to the poor, and Church’s role both in the defense of the nation and as a peacemaker. He reaffirmed the Church’s hope that the celebration of the start of Christianity’s third millennium in the year 2000 would be a celebration of the “elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.” He said the ecumenical commitment of the Russian Orthodox Church “is inseparable from its peacemaking responsibility.”
The speech lacked the triumphal note one might have expected. Yuvenali noted that the Church has also contributed to division in the world, adding, “We ask God and the people to forgive us for our imperfections.”
It was the first speech by a Russian Orthodox leader providing statistics about the Church’s population. Yuvenali estimated that 50,000,000 Soviet citizens were active in the Russian Orthodox Church (out of a population of 285,000,000) and reported that 30,000,000 Russians have been baptized since 1971 Council. It may be the figure was not provided in the past because the state required that baptisms be officially registered. Many of the 30,000,000 were not. A few months ago the requirement was dropped.
Stressing the connection of faith to social responsibility, Yuvenali quoted Dostoyevsky: “Our Church should be in us, not merely in our words but in our entire life.”
Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev spoke of the trials the Church had passed through, all the while sharing the fate of the people. “As a result of perestroika and glasnost, we have a much better relationship with the state.” He hoped the new developments could help overcome historic divisions among Russian Christians. “The longing for unity is a characteristic quality of our people.”
No doubt responding to widespread disappointment that the Council had not canonized any of the martyrs who had perished in the period of Communist rule, Metropolitan Mefodi of Veronezh said that “the times were not ripe” — suggesting by implication that the Church anticipates a time when such canonizations will occur.
Cardinal Casaroli, Secretary of State for the Vatican, said that “Christianity is an undisputed fact of reality, one that cannot be ignored in any country without ill effect.” In every society, Christianity offers, even to those without specific religious belief, certain ethical standards. “For many difficult questions, it is impossible to find a solution without morals.” Noting the “new winds blowing here,” he called for “new legislation to safeguard freedom of conscience.” (Sitting next to Cardinal Casaroli was Cardinal Glemp, Primate of the Polish Church. A Vatican adviser on the Russian Orthodox Church told me in 1987 that Glemp’s visit should precede that of the Pope.)
Arie Brower of the National Council of Churches in the United States gave thanks to God “for the victory of the resurrected Christ witnessed in the thousand-year history of the Russian Orthodox Church. We remember those who have lived and died in the Lord, especially those who have given witness with their blood.”
He had learned that the destinies of Americans and Russians “are bound up with one another” and was glad that the Millennium celebration was providing the occasion “for American Christians to learn more about Christianity in the Soviet Union.” One consequence was a campaign of young people in American churches to send birthday greetings to Christians in the USSR. Of the tens of thousands of hand-made cards that have been sent so far, Brower presented Patriarch Pimen with a birthday card six yards long, filled with crayon-drawings of a thousand burning candles made by many young hands.
Among the other American speakers was Billy Graham. “I had many letters from people in the U.S. who were praying in support of the meeting of President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev in Moscow,” he said. “Most people never dreamed a person of such conservative convictions as President Reagan would participate in a breakthrough like this. We have been too isolated from each other.” The Baptist paid his respects to Orthodoxy: “The Russian Orthodox Church has much to teach us. One of the great experiences of my life has been getting to know Russian Orthodox Christians. They have deepened my life, made me more aware of the power of the resurrection, and that the crucifixion and resurrection are the central facts of history.”
The day ended with a Millennium concert at the Bolshoi with Patriarch Pimen seated in a box adjacent to the stage. Raisa Gorbachev again was present. The event was broadcast live throughout the USSR and in several other countries. While many famous choirs and orchestras took part, the most sustained applause was given to the non-professional choir of monks and seminarians from the Holy Trinity Monastery at Zagorsk. No choir of believers had ever sung on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater since at least 1917. The next night the event was repeated in the presence of Mikhail Gorbachev.
The next day, June 11, police cars shepherded our buses through one of the gates in the Kremlin walls where we were taken to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet near the Kremlin’s Savior Tower. The main hall is a high, windowless chamber of clinical white marble with gold trim decorated only with the gilded emblem of the USSR.
Our host was Andrei Gromyko, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet and President of the Council of Ministers of the USSR — in other words head of state, but in a country where it is the head of the Party who is really in charge. Patriarch Pimen was sitting at his side. On the other side was Konstantin Kharchev of the Council for Religious Affairs. Gromyko, as poker-faced live as on film, gave a welcoming address in which he recognized the celebration of the Millennium of the baptism of Kievan Rus as having universal significance. Christianity has influenced “every aspect of life — economics, education, and social care.” The Church had played a crucial role in periods of crisis and had contributed to the unity of the nation. It had shaped the nation’s spiritual values and given birth to new art, sculpture, architecture, music and literature. While church and state were separated after 1917, they had found a meeting point in their common concern for peace in the world. “We want a world without war, a world without violence. We want policies based on the integrity and inter-dependence of the world. All of us, whether believer or unbeliever, have to ask what the coming generation will inherit from us?”
In the question period that followed, Gromyko said he could offer few details about the new legislation being written on freedom of religion. “The draft is being developed and I hope will be ready before long.” The separation of church and state, a basic constitutional principle, will remain, but religious organizations will be permitted to engage in charitable public service. Bibles and other religious literature can be imported into the country. In cooperation with local authorities, religious bodies will be able to play a role in the conservation of historical monuments (these are mainly churches which, everyone realizes, will eventually be used for the purposes for which they were originally built).
Cardinal Willebrands, noting appreciatively what had been achieved already, expressed his hope that “under perestroika there will be further developments” in the protection of religious rights. In particular “we are concerned about our Church in the USSR, in the Baltic states, White Russia and the Ukraine. It would be a great help in promoting friendship and unity if we could resolve the question about the organization of our Church in your country and find the way to form priests and maintain church structures.”
The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Casaroli, asked if representatives of the different confessions could present comments to the new religious law while it was still in draft form. “It would be quite logical to know the view of the churches in the preparation process,” Gromyko said. Casaroli added that never before had the Vatican sent such a delegation to the Soviet Union. “It is unprecedented, a sign of special respect for the Russian Orthodox Church and the people of the Soviet Union.” Casaroli spoke of Moscow as the “third Rome,” referring to the Russian idea that the mantle of religious leadership moved from Rome to Constantinople, and from Constantinople, after the Moslem conquest, to Moscow. While one assumes Casaroli sees no need for a second or third Rome, it was striking that he admitted religious leadership has more than one address.
Patriarch Pimen, the last to speak, expressed his joy that such a meeting could occur in the Kremlin. There had been nothing like it since Lenin came to power. He pledged to do “everything we can to encourage Soviet and American cooperation in disarmament.”
At the end of the meeting Gromyko invited us to a meal. This turned out to be a sumptuous buffet in the most handsome of all Kremlin locations, the majestic Saint George Hall, last used for a reception honoring President Reagan. While we ate, a priest described the Russian family. “The husband is like the government, and the wife is like the Party.” So far in Russia, he said, the government has all the honor while the Party makes the decisions. “The government and party will be re-negotiating the terms of their not entirely happy marriage at the coming special meeting of the Communist Party.”
I talked briefly with Cardinal John O’Connor from New York. He was in a fairly hot state, annoyed that the car, driver and translator he had been promised were in fact rarely to be found. “This isn’t how they are taking care of Cardinal Casaroli,” he said. “You can bet he has a car and translator when he wants it!”
One of the high points of the Millennium happened that night. It occurred neither in a church nor monastery but on Soviet television screens with the nationwide broadcast of a film about Russian Orthodoxy called “Church.”
The sixty-minute film began with scenes of the reconstruction of a village church. “Everybody is happy about our church,” said a member of the parish council, “and everyone is helping, even the elderly and the sick. A lot of people are giving money to help — 10 or 20 kopeks, even a ruble.”
A priest in Vladimir, Father Dimitri, spoke about religious life in his large family. “My wife is in charge of the spiritual upbringing of the children. She starts reading the Bible to them the moment they are able to understand.” There were scenes of a name-day celebration for two of the children, Olga and Vladimir. “After the revolution,” he said, “many things changed, but moral principles remain always the same. The question is still what is the point of departure in your life. For us it is God.”
There were black-and-white film clips about the campaign against churches and believers in the twenties and thirties: icons being thrown into bonfires, church crosses being cut down, onion domes and bells being pulled off church tops and smashed, the dynamiting of the Savior Cathedral in Moscow: scene after scene of cultural barbarism.
The longest interview was with Father Nicholai, a priest who seemed as old as Russian Orthodoxy. He sat at the kitchen table in his small wooden house holding a cup of tea in his hand, his face shining with unaffected love.
“The time goes fast,” he said. “Hour after hour — it goes and you can’t get it back. Be thrifty about time! You only get so many hours. It is like sand pouring through your fingers. I stand near the doors of death. I am 78. Not bad. I have been a priest for many years. I love my work. I love God.” He paused to cross himself. “With God a person is able to do a lot.”
He serves an island church on Chudskoye Lake northwest of Pskov. “Our fishermen work hard. They go out even in bad weather. They do good work. We pray and ask God to save us from calamity, sickness and war. Save us, Lord!” The camera showed a woman standing under grey skies at the water’s edge, a chapel nearby.
“The old people die and the young people leave. Not so many of the young go to church any more.” He paused and gazed out the window, speechless with grief.
The screen faded from him to kids on motorbikes roaring through a cemetery. The adjacent church had been turned into a youth club. Hard rock pounded in the former sanctuary. The din gave way to a solo male voice singing a hymn of mourning. The night club was replaced by birds flying in the cupola of a church crumbling into ruin.
The camera returned to Father Nicholai. “My father died in 1914,” he said. “I stayed with my brothers. They went to war and never came back. But we are still alive.” He crossed himself. “For this I thank the heavenly Father. We live in abundance. We have bread and sugar, work and rest. For this I thank God. I give money to the Peace Fund. By doing it I hope all acts of war will end. I hope it helps. War shocks young people. Life is just beginning for them and then suddenly it is over.”
As he spoke about war, the screen shifted to a Leningrad cemetery where those who died in the siege are buried. A young mother was showing her child how to cross himself.
Father Nicholai’s gentle face returned. He offered tea to the interviewer and the cameraman. “Please! Don’t be embarrassed. But it’s probably cold.”
In another interview a young woman said, “You have to believe in God. Without God, you are dead. Religious faith is life itself.”
A nun was shown praying while making bread. She explained, “Human work that isn’t framed by prayer has no meaning. Prayer is the only answer to the industrial age. Otherwise the machine will destroy us.”
Father Zinon of the Monastery of the Caves near Pskov was questioned about icons. Those he paints are already regarded as treasures of Orthodoxy. “Icons aren’t meant for museums,” he said. “The Vladimirskaya [the most famous of Russian icons, now part of the Tretyakov Gallery collection] isn’t for a museum! It is nonsense to call them a cultural expression. Icons are an expression of the spiritual life. They relate us to love and peace and mercy. The creation of God is beauty itself. In the icon the beautiful is seen in the light of holiness. Icons should be returned to the places for which they were blessed.”
“I am amazed they showed it,” said a friend watching the film with me. “It was shown in a few cinemas but millions will have seen it on television who could never have seen it in the theater. A few months ago there was an article about whether it was safe for atheists to see it!”
The next day, Sunday, was cool and windy, not ideal for an outdoor Liturgy, but the rain that threatened never came. A specially erected platform in the courtyard of the Danilov Monastery held both the altar and the more prominent church representatives, including nine Catholic cardinals, more than I had ever seen in one place before. “Actually there are nine-and-a-half Cardinals,” Etienne De Jonghe, General Secretary of Pax Christi International, pointed out. “The Archbishop from Hungary is soon to get the red hat.”
Presiding at the Liturgy with Patriarch Pimen were the heads of other Orthodox Churches: Patriarch Diodorus I of Jerusalem, Patriarch Ignatios IV of Antioch, Patriarch Iliya of Georgia, Patriarch Teoctist of Cyprus, and Patriarch Maxim of Bulgaria.
Communion was distributed at ten points among the crowd — estimated at 10,000 — that filled a large area within the Danilov walls. While there are long lines for everything in Russia, usually the communion lines are short, but not on this occasion. I had never seen so many people receiving communion in Russia, where a profound awe for the presence of Christ in the Eucharist inspires preparation involving days or even weeks of prayer, searching out any trace of enmity in one’s life, and finally confession.
The body language for receiving communion is quite special: both arms folded cross-wise on the chest, a simple gesture that suggests both submission and presence with Christ on the cross. Orthodoxy has not given up the body language of prayer: crossing oneself, kneeling, bowing down to the ground, kissing icons, and many other gestures in which body and soul are knit together. Communion is given slowly and by name: “The servant of God, [name], partakes of the holy precious body and blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, unto remission of sins and everlasting life.” To receive communion anywhere in the world is immensely significant, but for it to happen for an American in a monastery in Moscow within a long line of Russians, is — as Thomas Merton once said about a certain ancient monk on Mount Athos — “to be kissed by God.”
Speaking after the Liturgy, Poland’s Cardinal Glemp welcomed the newly canonized Orthodox saints, a suitable stress as it was the Feast of All the Saints Who Illumined Russia. “How wonderful that these new saints are added to your iconostasis, and such a variety of people.” He drew attention to one of the most recently canonized Catholic saints, Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish priest who gave his life to save a Jew when they were both prisoners in Auschwitz. “Father Kolbe went to a place of suffering to bring God’s love, to pray, and to offer his service.” The Cardinal expressed his special feelings for “the people of this land, who have experienced so much suffering yet have always overcome their difficulties.”
At a meal afterward in the Praga Restaurant at the end of Arbat Street, Patriarch Pimen expressed gratitude. “From all our hearts we thank the leaders of our country for their understanding of the needs of believers. . . . One can hardly overestimate the importance of what has been done by the state to help our Church conduct this celebration in the proper way.”
Over the meal a young Russian translator asked, “Please explain God to me.” She told me about the joy of having a child and her longing to have another despite the numerous obstacles to family life and parenthood in Moscow. After a little while we were talking about the words from John: “God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him.” She copied down the verse, entirely new to her. “I don’t know if I am Orthodox,” she said, “but I know I am a believer. I have so much to learn.”
The next day, Monday, was the ground-breaking ceremony for what will be the first new church in Moscow since 1917. Just as important is the fact that it is in a modern part of the city on the city’s southeast edge where there are no churches. Though dedicated to the Holy Trinity, perhaps it will be nick-named Perestroika Cathedral. The word was used over and over again as we stood around the church’s huge cornerstone. Konstantin Kharchev, speaking on behalf of the government, said that the new church will be “a symbol of perestroika and a symbol of the right of religious believers to have the churches they need.” Patriarch Pimen said that the new church represents the fulfillment of his life’s hopes. “Thanks to perestroika, relations between church and state are changing for the better, as this cathedral will bear witness.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa rejoiced in the new church and all it stands for. “It is a sign that Christianity has a contribution to make in each society, especially in affirming the infinite worth of each person.”
The location of the new church is stunning. The site is within a large park, just above Tsaritsino Ponds. The ground is high — the church will be visible for miles in every direction. “The sound of its bells will carry far,” a priest standing at my side said with satisfaction. “Even more important,” said one of the translators, “it is near a Metro station, the Orechovo stop.”
The Americans taking part in the Millennium celebration were invited to Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. Ambassador, where we discovered not only the embassy staff and trays of hot pizza awaiting us but several prominent dissidents, among them Father Gleb Yakunin.
Father Gleb had been among the most outspoken opponents of state interference in Church life and Church compliance with state direction. In 1965 he wrote an open letter to the former Patriarch, Alexi, describing the Russian Orthodox Church as dangerously ill largely because the bishops were compromised by their obedience to atheist directives. Soon afterward the Patriarch suspended him. In 1975 he co-authored an appeal to the World Council of Churches asking it to increase its attention to Christians suffering for their faith. In 1976 he was a founder of the Christian Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights, sending reports west about violations of the human rights of believers. In 1979, arrested on the charge of anti-Soviet agitation, he was condemned to five years at a strict-regime labor camp. Internal exile in Siberia followed.
Freed in 1987 and permitted to return to the capital, he was assigned a parish north of Moscow near Zagorsk by the Orthodox Church. In April he had signed an open letter urging Patriarch Pimen to retire so that a younger person could lead the church “more energetically.” (One priest in Moscow said that this proposal saddened him. “The Patriarch’s legs and kidneys may not be well but his mind and heart are strong. Does your father have to be healthy to be your father?”)
A few days before Father Gleb had been one of three people invited to address President Reagan at a meeting in Spaso House. Afterward he told reporters, “It is only after meeting the President that you realize how deep is his commitment to human rights.” Reading this, I hoped that Father Gleb would one day have the chance to look at the U.S. from the perspective of those whose human rights were a matter of slight concern in the White House. But talking with him in the Ambassador’s residence, our conversation was instead entirely about the situation in the Soviet Union. He described recent events in the USSR as “miraculous.” At the same time he was worried that “the celebration will screen awareness of the problems that remain to be solved.”
“There is much vitality at the parish level,” he said. “Last Sunday we had twenty baptisms. The Church is attracting many people, but there is a desperate need for religious education. We don’t have religious literature. The Church has recently published a new edition of the Bible but it is very expensive and there are not nearly enough copies.”
At the airport waiting for our flight to Kiev, I asked Billy Graham what had led him to undertake his first trip to the USSR in 1982 despite advice from Vice President Bush not to go. “I had been briefed at the Pentagon about what would happen if there was a nuclear war,” he replied. “I had been to Auschwitz and seen how limitless is our capacity for evil. And I was thinking about Paul saying in his first letter to the Corinthians that he was called to be all things to all people. I realized I had closed myself to the people in the Soviet Union. So I felt I had to say yes to the invitation I received from the Russian Orthodox Church inviting me to take part in a peace conference they were preparing in Moscow.”
We arrived in Kiev the night of June 13. At the hotel where we were staying I found some of the birthday cards American children had sent for the Millennium via the National Council of Churches. Shawn White in Anderson, South Carolina, wrote, “I am interested in knowing if you are a Christian. Happy 1000th birthday, Russian, whoever you are!” Kristi Matochi in El Campo, Texas, wrote in white letters on heavy black paper: “Hi, I’m Kristi, 13 years old, a girl! I like Heavy Metal and boys and my favorite color is black. Please write to me. Happy birthday.”
The next morning there was a meeting in the Kiev Opera House that was similar to the one held a few days before at the Bolshoi. By choosing a back row seat, I was able to read Gogol’s Dead Souls during some of the more boring or repetitive speeches. Gogol seemed to have the face of a local official of the Council for Religious Affairs when he wrote: “There was absolutely nothing in him: neither wickedness nor goodness, and there was something terrifying in this absence of anything.” What was most striking about the official’s face was his utter lack of enthusiasm. One assumed he had received word from on high that he must now to do all sorts of things that previously it was his job not to do. More impressive were the entirely benevolent faces of Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev and Metropolitan Yuvenali, who could easily be turning victor’s grins toward those officials who for so many years blocked the way.
Cardinal Willebrands was among the speakers, an important moment for the Catholics in the Ukraine. “The feast we are celebrating is an occasion for dialogue,” he said, “a requirement that unfortunately is very often neglected. We need a dialogue between the believer and the non-believer, between faith and atheism. The state has tried to humiliate religion, to reduce it to a pathology. Now it offers signs of respect and a readiness to engage in dialogue.” He noted that often believer and non-believer interpret the same facts differently, for human understanding often centers on oneself rather than on others. “Glasnost, the clarity of words expressing faith and wisdom, is the basis of a healthy culture. A new epoch is emerging in our world, an epoch that admits that it has not got all the answers but has the courage to hear the answers.”
Vespers was at Saint Vladimir’s Cathedral. The streets around were crowded. Inside, the huge church was filled to bursting and only those with invitations were being allowed to join the congregation. Even showing my plastic-encased Millennium identity card, I was told, “Nyet, nyet, nyet!” With all the authority I could muster, I said, “Da, da, da!” Then the gate opened enough for me to slip inside. I was lucky to find a bit of space right against the iconostasis. The television lights made it painful to look toward the congregation.
Billy Graham was invited to speak. Metropolitan Filaret stood at his side. It was a vintage Graham sermon: “My grandfather never dreamed of the changes that have happened in our world — space travel, color television, travel from continent to continent in a few hours by jet airplane. But some things never change. Interest in religion never changes. The nature of God never changes.” He spoke about God’s love for each person, a love we cannot damage by our sins. Graham recalled a Moscow lady who told him, “I am a great sinner.” He responded, “I too am a great sinner, but we have a great savior.” He recalled Prince Vladimir and his conversion. “He turned away from idols and destroyed them, opening a new path in life not only for himself but for millions of others right down to our own time. God never changes, but you and I must change just as Prince Vladimir changed a thousand years ago.” He ended his sermon saying, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The congregation replied in one voice, “God save you!”
That night Soviet television again caught me by surprise with “Mother Maria,” a film dramatizing the life of a Russian woman who surely one day will be canonized. Though among the revolutionaries in her youth, she finally had to flee the Bolsheviks, finding refuge in Paris. After the disintegration of the marriage, she became a nun and founded a refuge in Paris for homeless Russians. There was a scene in the film where she is talking to a young exile who wants to fight the Communists. “But you will be fighting your brothers, not Communists,” she says to him. During the war, because she hid Russian soldiers who had escaped from the Germans, she was arrested by the Gestapo. She died in Ravensbruck March 30, 1945, taking the place of another prisoner.
“However hard I try,” she said, “I find it impossible to construct anything greater than these three words, ‘Love one another’ — only to the end, and without exceptions: then all is justified and life is illumined, whereas otherwise it is an abomination and a burden.” Her reasons for centering her vocation on hospitality had a profound theological basis: “The bodies of fellow human beings must be treated with greater care than our own. Christian love teaches us to give our brethren not only spiritual gifts, but material gifts as well. Even our last shirt, our last piece of bread must be given to them. Personal almsgiving and the most wide-ranging social work are equally justifiable and necessary. The way to God lies through love of other people and there is no other way. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked if I was successful in my ascetic exercises or how many prostrations I made in the course of my prayers. I shall be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners: that is all I shall be asked.”
“It is the third time this film has been shown on television,” a pastor in Kiev told me. “It is amazing. She was a most cultured person. She knew Berdyaev and Blok — her book on Blok is finally going to be published here, forty years after she wrote it. She loved colors and flowers. She had a gift for breathing life and hope into despairing people. Of course what she did in the war made her a hero, but it is clear that what gave her the courage to do what she did was not political ideology but religious faith. In fact her political ideology was all wrong from the point of view of marxism!”
The Holy Liturgy at Saint Vladimir’s the next morning brought out an even larger crowd than had been there for Vespers. A good sound system had been installed outside the church so that those unable to get inside could listen. In fact they had a better chance to hear everything than those packed together within the walls.
Cardinal Willebrands and two other cardinals were present. Willebrands has a round, pink face without a trace of guile. He seemed not to be familiar with the Orthodox Liturgy, which, if so, is remarkable, given the fact that he heads the Vatican’s Secretariat for Christian Unity. But at least there was no air of condescension or boredom — rather complete fascination. He watched with the eyes of a child at the circus. At appropriate moments, taking cues from other worshippers, he shyly crossed himself.
There was a long line of people for communion and I happened to be standing close by. I was freshly impressed with how the human face shines brightest at moments of deep prayer and love.
“It is not a coincidence,” a local priest, Father Boris Udovenko, told me over lunch, “that perestroika in our country coincides with the millennium. In fact I think it is out of the spiritual life of our country that perestroika was born, and that the anticipation of the millennium gave the country an inspiration to look at everything from the point of view of spiritual values. But we are very far from realizing what we now dare to imagine. There are still thousands of officials who don’t want to change and don’t want to step down, who like being little czars.” He said the man who is curator of the museum at the Monastery of the Caves is one of those who is quite unhappy to see the church receiving back even a minor part of the monastery. “This man claims to be a historian, but he is actually a former restaurant manager. He likes having a famous museum better than having a third-rate restaurant.”
“Many powerful civilizations have perished because they lost their moral foundations,” said Metropolitan Filaret in a luncheon speech. “Under perestroika, the spiritual and moral foundations of society are of tremendous importance. Our guests are seeing with their own eyes what is happening because of perestroika. They can see how perestroika has touched relations between Church and State. It would have been unimaginable ten years ago. Ten years ago we could also not imagine that there would be the destruction of a whole class of nuclear weapons. We can now have the hope that we can meet the year 2000 without weapons of mass slaughter. One or two people cannot do this, but it can happen if we all play our role. If something tragic should happen — God forbid! — we will all be victims, and we will all face the judgment of God where we will each receive according to our deeds. Let us hope for the best. Faith, hope and love give us the force to overcome evil in the world. Let us raise our glasses to the possibility of the long-awaited peace. May we recognize each human being as a brother or sister.”
The evening concert at the Opera House, featuring the choir of Saint Vladimir’s Cathedral, was shown live throughout the Ukraine. A number of the hymns had been composed at the Monastery of the Caves when it was still active. The painted backdrop was of a church setting under a huge icon of the Savior’s face and an Orthodox cross.
The next morning, June 16, Kiev’s gaze was centered on the three hills above the Dnieper River which support the Monastery of the Caves. The highest hill, with the largest complex of churches and buildings, remains a museum, but the two lower hills plus the caves were returned to monastic use June 7. The monks had set up an outdoor chapel in front of one small church.
By 9 o’clock clergy shining in gold and green liturgical vestments stood around the altar. Close at hand were foreign guests, the press and a choir. Beyond them, stretching half-a-mile away until heads disappeared over the crest of a hill, were thousands of people from Kiev and beyond. The geography of the hillside and monastery complex was such that lines of participants unfolded in other directions so that, from the air, the crowd took the shape of a tree with budding branches, the altar marking the point where the tree was rooted in the earth.
Among those around the altar was a wiry old man with wispy white beard, one of the monks who had been driven away from the monastery a quarter-century ago. His face constantly attracted my gaze. He has lived long enough not only to return to his home but to see hatred of religion give way to respect. One local woman who managed to get near the altar through a back gate spent most of the Liturgy with her knees on the cobblestones, her thick fingers folded together and her lips moving in constant but silent prayer. Her attention never wavered from the direction of the altar though all she could see were the backs of priests.
After the distribution of communion, I wandered toward the back of the crowd exploring faces. Attention was so focused on the Liturgy that I was hardly noticed, though in most cases when I asked to take a photo of a particular person or family assent was given and friendly eyes were turned my way.
“The lamp of the monastery that was extinguished in this sacred place is lit again,” Metropolitan Filaret told the crowd. “The monastery was built by faith, and after many trials and tribulations, we have received back part of our holy cloister. We will immediately resume the work of being a monastery where believers can bring their griefs, their joys, their plea for forgiveness and all their needs.” Twenty monks have moved in already.
The Millennium event that will still be talked about a century from now was the commemoration of the Baptism of Rus that occurred late that afternoon at the foot of the monumental Saint Vladimir statue above the Dnieper River. What made this much more than it might have been was bad weather. Half an hour before the ceremony was to begin, rain began to fall, not just rain but a torrent that turned the steep streets of Kiev into spillways. It was a kind of rain I have rarely known in twelve years of living in grey, wet Holland where one should be born wearing a rain coat.
The rain had no impact at all on Russian involvement in the baptismal celebration. People who had been standing on the hillside above the towering statue of the cross-bearing Saint Vladimir since eight in the morning remained rooted to their spots. With or without protection, no one budged except some of the foreign guests. After an hour in the rain I was more than ready to seek shelter in the bus, but hung on because of the example of Father Alexis Voogd, pastor of the Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. It was he who made me notice some of the faces around us: “Look at how they are praying!” They were praying with such absorption that they seemed oblivious to the downpour.
An old monk and three nuns were by our side, kept somewhat dry by a big sheet of transparent plastic they used as a common umbrella. Their black clothing was worn thin, looking as old as themselves. On the other side was a family clustered under one large umbrella. I realized that for most of the people present, the rain wasn’t a burden but a blessing. The baptism of Rus’ was being renewed. As we hadn’t waded into the river, the water had risen to us, and all Kiev was being doused anew: believer and unbeliever, Orthodox and Baptist, atheist and agnostic, journalist and policeman.
Then, perhaps fifteen minutes before the end of a ceremony centering on the blessing of water, just when prayers of thanksgiving were being sung, the grey clouds parted and we were in the spotlight of the sun. It was as if we were on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow rather than the steep hillsides above the Dnieper River in Kiev.
According to the Primary Chronicle, Saint Nestor’s Tale of Bygone Years written at Kiev’s Monastery of the Caves, Prince Vladimir realized that the time had come to embrace a religious tradition of world standing. Taking great care to make the right choice, he sent emissaries to investigate the religions of neighboring countries. They went to synagogues, mosques, and to both Latin and Greek Christian churches. Receiving Vladimir’s representatives in Constantinople, the Patriarch brought them to a service in the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) Cathedral. Incense filled the air, choirs sang, the clergy wore vestments radiant with candle light, icons gave witness to the link between earth and heaven, time and eternity. The emissaries wrote to Vladimir: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells among these people and that their services are fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. We can never forget that beauty.”
On a June day in 988, the people of Kiev, carrying banners and icons, went in procession into the Dnieper River and were baptized. “Joy was seen throughout heaven at the sight of so many souls being saved,” the Chronicle records. That same summer the Christian faith spread to the cities of Novgorod, Rostov, Vladimir and Belgorod.
Before his conversion Vladimir was, says Nestor, “a man insatiable in vice.” Afterward he became renowned for his care of the poor, of orphans and the sick. The palace gates were opened to the hungry. He built hospices for the aged. Rejecting the views of his Orthodox mentors from Greece, he prohibited torture and execution of criminals. He was named a saint not only for bringing Christianity to the ancient land of Kievan Rus’ — thus given the title Equal of the Apostles — but because of his wholehearted devotion to the teaching of Jesus.
Among the fifteen Orthodox Churches, the Russian Church is fifth in rank (after the four ancient Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria) and largest in size: 50,000,000 was the estimate given at the Millennium celebration.
Charity in Moscow
On June 20, 1988, Moscow’s evening television news program reported that Patriarch Pimen’s church, the Epiphany Cathedral, had become linked with a local hospital. An agreement had been signed providing the opportunity for church members to offer volunteer service.
“The Christian religion teaches care of neighbor,” said Doctor Anatoly Soloviev, the hospital’s director. “This is a concrete way of doing it. Now we have our first contact with a religious group. We think it can help with problems we have offering health care. Some of the patients need constant care, and we don’t have the staff to offer that. The feeling you get from believers is compassion. Patients need that. They need the support of faith and love.”
The interviewer asked Father Matthew Stadniuk, dean of the Patriarchal Cathedral, what led the Church to help in this way. “Our Orthodox people are part of society,” he answered, “and I’m very glad that now the opportunity has come to help people. It is perestroika and democratization at work. The time has come for common feeling. It means seeing what you can do today. Tomorrow may be too late. This work is a moral reward for the people. The way people respond already shows that the conscience of our people has not been destroyed. We expect that many in our church will take part. The hospital is our neighbor. We hope to give help every day. After all, to have any success in healing you have to have love.”
“If you have a feeling of mercy in your heart, ” said one of the volunteers at the hospital, “you will do this.” A priest was shown making the sign of the cross over a woman too ill even to raise her head. In another room a nurse was standing next to a frail patient. “Do you feel pushed aside by these volunteers coming from the church?” the nurse was asked. “Oh no,” said the nurse, immediately crossing herself, “I am a believer myself!”
“It is the first time,” said an astonished Orthodox priest who was watching the news with me, “that anything like this has happened since Lenin. In the past it has been said that the state provides social services and needs no help in doing it. But it is far from true. At most hospitals the nursing staff is much too small.”
Assisted by a Muscovite teacher of English, three days later I visited Clinical Hospital Number Six a few blocks west of the Epiphany Cathedral. We hadn’t been able to get through by phone so had come in the hope the director might be there and could find the time for a visitor. Though repair work was underway, the buildings had fallen into appalling condition: broken doors, cracked or missing glass, faded, ancient paint. We searched through several buildings surrounding a small park until we found the appropriate office.
The only decoration in Anatoly Soloviev’s dimly lit office were side-by-side pictures of Lenin and Gorbachev. He was a man in his late thirties who six months earlier had been elected by his colleagues.
I asked how many hospitals were involved in the volunteer initiative. “This is the only hospital so far with people coming as volunteers from a local church.”
What sort of volunteers are coming? “Ordinary people. There is no pay for it and there are no qualifications needed except the willingness to help.”
He laughed when I asked about the history of the hospital’s engagement with the local church. “It is so new that it is hard to say there is any history! We began just ten days ago during the celebration of the Church’s Millennium. There were talks between the staff of the church, Father Matthew and Father Nicholas, and the chief doctors of the hospital. Then it was announced at the Cathedral during morning prayer June 8 that we would welcome volunteers. The first one to show up was a man named Sergei Leonidovitch Timofeev. Then came a nun, Mother Marianelle, who brought a group of believers with her. We can say these people are the founders. So far, except Sergei, they are all women. They come when they have time. There’s no schedule.”
What do they do? “They clean wards, change linens, take care of bed pans, talk to the patients, sit with them, read the newspaper or a book aloud. They make contact with the believers among the patients and, in case the patients ask, they invite a priest to bring the sacraments or to come and pray for them.”
How is it going? “We are happy about it. We see how much it means to the patients, and it is good for the staff also. One of the patients, an old man who has had five heart attacks, asked if he can give his money to the hospital to help others. This is something we never heard from a patient before. You see, you are watching the very beginning. We don’t know where it will lead. I have no prognosis. But I have hope. We are in a new period of our history, we are starting a new life. Both the clergy and the doctors have hopes that this will develop. From our side, we are ready to do our best. But we have no experience in it and are learning as we go.”
What sort of response are you getting from higher up? “All the responses are positive. I want to believe, in fact I am almost sure, that the church is going to play a big role in health care work in this country. It is time. The Millennium is a good time to start. We have many believing people in our country. It is good that they play the part they deserve to play.”
He asked if there were pastors in legislative roles in the United States. I said there were. “I hope,” he responded, “to see the day when priests will become People’s Deputies. They are also Soviet people. They are close to the people. It may seem like a crazy idea but I would like to suggest that Father Matthew should be a People’s Deputy. He has the life experience. He is honest. He is a helpful man. He is qualified. We need people like that helping to lead our country.”
The next day I went to the Patriarchal residence near Arbat Street to meet Father Matthew Stadniuk. His desk was covered with papers and books and there were several icons on the wall. He had a short white beard and a shy manner.
“Our Russian word for such acts of care is miloserdia — works of a merciful heart,” he said. “It means any action done for others out of Christ’s love. In her long history the Church was always taking care of people. There is nothing new in the task, but the possibility in our situation is new. We are just starting to put seeds in the ground. It is too early to say what will come from them. But the Church should do whatever she can, that is the thing, especially for those who are sick and need our help. We hope that the possibilities to do this will improve, especially now that we have a good relationship with the government. As you know, perestroika is going on. But this renewal of structures comes from dukhovnost — the spiritual life of the people. Our country and every country need dukhovnost. In fact I think America needs it even more than we do. Dukhovnost is the reason the Church survived so many centuries. We should thank God.”
How are members of the congregation responding? “One person asked whether it was more important to go to the church for services or to go to the hospital to volunteer. Well, normally we don’t have to choose between one and the other, but I said sometimes it may be more important to go to the hospital. Sometimes the needs there may be the most urgent. We have 300,000 people living in our area.”
Was he surprised at this new opening in society? “No, not that it happens, only I did not know when it would happen. It is something I expected sooner or later. The government knows that the Church has always been with the people. We have lived with them, suffered with them, shared their fate, never abandoned them, and we are always ready to serve in whatever ways we can.”
What did he think would happen next? “I can’t say. God is giving us such help. All we can do is thank God and pray that this new atmosphere will last for the next thousand years. Now we should try to show our people, not only here but in other countries, that the next Jubilee, the Second Millennium of Christianity, will be in peace and love and mercy and understanding.”
In the short time we were together, Father Matthew spoke repeatedly of gratitude: “We are grateful. . . .We should gives thanks. . . . Thanks be to God! . . . We should say thanks to God!” It was his deep gratitude that I felt even more than his words. He is a man with a radiant face. That such a person shares the Patriarch’s home and serves as pastor of patriarchal cathedral provides significant clues to the character of Patriarch Pimen himself.
When leaving, I gave him a copy of a biography I had written of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, whose houses of hospitality in the United States have been a place of welcome for so many abandoned people. He was amazed. “Dorothy Day! Did you know her?” I said I had worked with her on the Catholic Worker staff in the early sixties and that it was she who first brought me to visit a Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the church on East 97th Street in New York. “We have met before! I remember you when you were a young man!” said Father Matthew. “I was serving in that church. Dorothy used to visit me, and I once went to the Catholic Worker farm. I remember her bringing you to our church.”
“I believe,” said Father Matthew, “that there are no accidental meetings. Please come and see me again when you return to Moscow.”
Responding to that invitation, six months later, in January 1989, we met again, this time in an office tucked into the rafters of the Epiphany Cathedral. A Christmas tree stood in the middle of the office, a battered couch to one side, a small wooden desk to the other. While Father Matthew prepared tea, I studied the photos over his desk. One was of the Savior Cathedral, the church near the Kremlin that was dynamited in 1931. After the tea was served in cups of various sizes and colors, I asked how the miloserdia was coming.
“More parishes are involved, more volunteers, more patients. Similar work is being done by other churches in Moscow and Leningrad and we anticipate it will develop quickly throughout the country. We have just established the Federated Society of Charities. Next we will set up the Moscow Society of Charities. So there has been much progress.”
What about new churches in Moscow? “One week ago a church building was returned to us and two months ago we received one located in the north of the city near the Sheremetyevo Airport. In the near future we will build a cathedral in southern Moscow dedicated to the Holy Trinity, with a second altar dedicated to the Holy Saints of Russia. The ground was blessed during the Millennium. Little by little, the needs of believers are being met.”
Isn’t it hard to find people with the skills needed for church construction? “We want the church to be built in a traditional way so of course there will be problems. It will not be easy to find the builders. Yet we notice that in earlier centuries people had no education but they made beautiful churches. In the whole of Russia we hope to find both the people and resources needed.”
Can the Church could afford to put back into service so many buildings in derelict condition? “Money is a big problem. Restoration costs a lot. It is not easy to do so much at the same time. We are now restoring many churches and also two monasteries. But we know our people will give whatever is needed, even everything they have. We find support from many people not belonging to the Church. During the Jubilee a good atmosphere was created throughout society. Many writers and scientists wrote good articles about church history — what the Church has done for the country. They also wrote about the importance of the art and architecture that has been created by believers. There has been much on television and in the press, and this didn’t stop with the end of the Jubilee year. It is still going on. We feel the respect and affection of our neighbors. It is amazing how things can change so quickly! I thank God.”
Is the climate still positive? “God sent us Mister Gorbachev to give good leadership to our country and now many things are possible. We thank God that we have been given the right man. The atmosphere in society is very good. We pray and the whole country prays that perestroika will continue. It helps us and it helps the whole world. Your country and my country no longer criticize each other so much. Neither country is trying to be the judge of the whole world. This is as it should be for no one gave us such a right. What we have been given is the right to help each other.”
Our conversation turned to the subject of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is based on Jesus’ saying, ‘If you are going to pray and you remember that you have a dispute with your neighbor, leave the gift at the altar, go and make peace with your neighbor, and then return.’ The Apostle John says that, ‘Whoever says he loves God but hates his brother is a liar.’ You know in Russia we have the tradition of Forgiveness Sunday just before the beginning of Great Lent. This is a day when all people go to the church and forgive each other. Of course you cannot forgive everyone in one day but you can make a beginning that goes on throughout Lent. Everyone understands that when you go to the Holy Chalice you must have forgiven everyone from your heart. To live in Christ is to forgive. But this is very hard sometimes. To forgive is not easy. If someone killed your brother it is not easy to forgive the killer. We have to take the example of our Savior who said, ‘Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’
“Forgiveness is at the heart of the transformation happening in our country. This rejuvenation is impossible without forgiveness. Perestroika cannot happen by itself, without a spiritual life. Just one man can do much evil. We know from our history how much evil one man can do. With one small match you can burn down a big building. But with the light of forgiveness you can do even more. With spiritual fire you can heal.
“I think everywhere in the world people are realizing the need to find some solution to the crisis we are facing and they see the answer isn’t some machine. People are asking: Where are we going? Does this direction not lead to destruction? They come more and more to the Church to find an inner direction, and also to find the inspiration to forgive. But of course still there are people who think you are crazy if you speak about forgiveness, people who think humility is a very old fashioned word. Yes, there are still many people thinking like that.”
Sharing our compartment on the night train to Kiev was a babushka named Olga on her way home after a Christmas visit with one of her sons and his family in Moscow. “They almost killed me with food,” she said, “and then they gave me this big bag of food to take on the train. You have to help eat it, please. All that God gives is blessed.” She crossed herself and opened the bag. “So you’re welcome!” We ate brown bread, hard-boiled eggs, bologna and cookies.
Christmas in Moscow didn’t please her. “Young people don’t know what Christmas is. There used to be a real Christmas. Now it hardly exists. There was no feeling of Christmas in Moscow. In our town, we still have it but not as it used to be. We have two churches in our town, one Orthodox, one Catholic. I am Orthodox.”
She talked about her three sons and their families. “My sons are good to me, and their wives. Praise be to God!” She crossed herself.
I was the first American she had ever met. “It’s good that it is going better between America and our country. Our children should never know what we had to know.” She crossed herself. “I pray for peace and friendship.”
While Olga got ready for bed, Sergei and I went out into the corridor. “She is a true babushka,” said Sergei, “the real thing. She is what we miss so much in our lives. The babushka created the soul of Lermontov and Pushkin. She is so plain but she has her special beauty. We have the proverb, ‘Of course we are astonished by the beauty of a beautiful woman, but our heart belongs to a nice woman.’ Real beauty comes from inner goodness.”
Arriving at Metropolitan Filaret’s three-storey house on Pushkin Street, we found a crowd of people — among them several women who reminded me of Olga — gathered in the back yard, lined up to receive Bibles that were being distributed inside.
Apart from his neatly trimmed snow white beard, Metropolitan Filaret has a child’s face — pink, hardly lined, with clear, expectant eyes. Neither while presiding at the Liturgy nor in private conversation does he ever seem in a hurry.
He opened the interview with a general overview of the current situation of the Russian Orthodox Church. “We have got to have changes in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church, changes linked with the general changes in our society, glasnost and perestroika. When Mikhail Gorbachev received the Patriarch and members of the Holy Synod last April 29, he told us that perestroika concerns everything, including the Church.
“Speaking about how it is manifested for believers, I would point first of all to the Millennium last year. This event was celebrated not only by believers but by everyone. For non-believers it was a celebration of national identity and culture. It showed that the wall between church and state is being erased. Churches that were closed are being opened, new churches are under construction. In the past year we registered over 800 new Orthodox communities, 420 of these in the Ukraine. There are many new churches serving other religious communities have also opened — Catholic, Baptist, Adventist, Armenian, also Jewish synagogues, Moslem mosques and Buddhist temples. The weather is good for everyone.
“Part of the Monastery of the Caves has been returned. Please go and visit the monks living there. Now there are eleven monasteries on Ukrainian territory, four for men and seven for women, and we expect the return of the Holy Trinity Monastery at Chernigov. In Russia the Optina Pustyn Monastery and the Tolga Convent are being restored and we anticipate the return of the Holy Trinity Monastery in Kolomna [40 miles from Moscow] and the Gethsemane Monastery near Zagorsk. We are discussing the return of the Valaam Monastery in Karelia [near the Finnish border] and another monastery in the Ryazan region. We will have the chance to re-open still other monasteries in the near future. The problem is staff, finances, and the extensive restoration work that needs to be done.
“We have three seminaries with approximately 2500 resident students at Zagorsk, Leningrad and Odessa. Now we plan to open seminaries in the Ukraine and Byelorussia and another either in Siberia or the Volga River region. Possibly there will be one in Moscow. The Ukrainian one will be in Kiev. We also plan to open theological schools in Minsk, Smolensk and in Chernigov in the Ukraine to train psalm singers, readers and other church staff.
“We still have the problem of providing faithful people with Bibles. You saw the line of people waiting for a copy. Many Bibles were given to us by the Scandinavian churches, others from the Bible Society in Great Britain. The Ukrainian Exarchate has also published a Ukrainian edition. A Russian prayer book is being distributed and we plan a Ukrainian edition. The publishing activity of the church is rapidly expanding. We plan to open a church publishing house. The most serious problem we face is the shortage of paper. We are hoping that publishers and churches in other countries will help us with paper. If we had the paper we could issue a short presentation of our faith, for example, a church history and other much needed publications and books.
“Fortunately we now have the opportunity to participate in the mass media. Radio and television programs are broadcast about church life. Orthodox people are being interviewed and also being invited to participate in discussion programs.
“Church workers are active at all levels in many public organizations — the Cultural Fund, the Children’s Fund, the Peace Fund, and so forth. Now we have launched a structure for charity work around the country. The Church is ready to collaborate with any civic organizations. Again there are still problems to be solved, however. We still have old-fashioned laws limiting the activities of the Church, but step by step the barriers are being removed. We are expecting a new law for religion in the new future. The separation of church and state will remain as well as the separation of church and school, but we expect that faithful people will be allowed the right to fully participate in social life. We hope the draft of this new law will be openly discussed. By all means the church will present it opinions about the law.
“Society is expecting the Church to play her part in the moral and spiritual education of the people and this is the mission and longing of the Church. In the past religious education took place within the family and at church. We would like to address ourselves to the wider character of religious education in the life of this people. We don’t want to impose religious instruction at school but we look for other ways to meet this need, perhaps by providing the opportunity for private religious education. We don’t yet know how this will work. It is under discussion.
“There is also the Church’s peacemaking work. This is worldwide and it will continue.
“Another important development is that religious workers have the chance to be elected to Soviet legislative bodies. Religious workers have been nominated by several public organizations. The Holy Synod discussed this opportunity at its recent session and gave its blessing to church workers to participate in the legislature. The Patriarch and Holy Synod hope that this will be beneficial to the people, the state and the Church.
“Another point: You know about the process of rehabilitation now going on of people killed in purges in the Stalin period. The Holy Synod, at its meeting December 28, decided to set up a committee to collect material about those who perished, who were repressed or who suffered in that period.”
The interview continued over lunch — fish in jelly, kvass, lemon flavored vodka, caviar, bread and butter — prepared by a sister from the Pokrovsky Convent.
I mentioned the criticism Konstantin Kharchev had made in Ogonyok magazine about the resistance of local Councils for Religious Affairs to the new direction taken by the Council in Moscow. “He is right. Some local authorities are still resisting the registration of local religious communities. Often the authorities do not want to return old churches that are being destroyed by the weather or being used for secular purposes. When faithful people want to take over a church, it should be given to them. This would be good both for believers and society. The church would be used once again for the purpose for which it was built and at the same time a cultural landmark would be restored.”
I asked how money for church restoration is being raised. “We are collecting money to build the new cathedral in Moscow. Partly this money comes from the sale of Bibles. While we give some away free we also sell them in order to raise money for the new church. For example they are on sale at the cathedral here in Kiev. We would welcome any help that churches in the west can offer. We are trying to raise money to rebuilt the Assumption Cathedral and to restore the Pokrovsky and Florensky Monasteries here in Kiev. The Dormition Cathedral at the Monastery of the Caves was blown up by the Nazis in the war. We want it to be a place both for divine services and to serve as a cultural landmark for tourists to visit. We will also restore the Holy Intercession Krasnogorsky Convent in Zolotonosha.”
What about the church’s new opportunities for social service? “Now believing people are able to found charitable societies. This is a welcome development. We see a difference between civil charity and charity in response to the Gospel. Our faith stresses the importance of charity in the heart. In the Gospel story about the woman who gave two kopeks, the reason her small gift was more precious to God was that it came from her heart. Orthodoxy tries to cultivate the heart and this deep feeling of charity.”
The conversation turned to the approach the Orthodox Church has to confession, repentance and forgiveness. “Orthodoxy emphasizes careful preparation for communion — prayer, repentance, forgiveness of others, confession, fasting. We understand repentance to be a rebirth that comes from deep within. The violent person who confesses must end his violence, the drunkard should stop drinking. What you confess you should stop doing. Repentance means a process of renovating your whole life.”
I asked what he saw as special characteristics of Orthodoxy. “More than churches in the west, which seem to deal more with civic issues, we concentrate on religious and spiritual issues. We also put special stress on love of enemies. Consider those who suffered under Stalin’s purges. You can easily have a feeling for revenge. Many of those who were responsible are still alive yet in the Orthodox Church you hear no one calling for revenge. Also many suffered terribly from the Germans. We suffered very much in the Ukraine. Yet you do not find longing for revenge. I have been told by German visitors that they feel more welcomed here than in any part of Europe that was occupied by the German army.”
He talked about the religious programs on Soviet television. “One of the most important was the film ‘Church.’ Its basic message was that the destruction of places of worship is the destruction of everything that is holy, the loss of a sense of the sacred. You recall the scene where some young people are riding their motorbikes through a graveyard around a church that has been made into nightclub. There is a lot of noisy dancing inside. This is contrasted in the film with the beauty of church singing. In the Orthodox Church, when you have committed a sin, you must repent before you can improve yourself. The film shows the evil that has been done — the violence against believers and the desecration of places of worship. We can see the film as itself a confession, an act of repentance, a plea for renewal of the soul. The public disclosure of your evil actions is a sign of repentance. It is a way of saying that we don’t want to be this way anymore.”
For Vespers Sergei and I went to Saint Vladimir’s Cathedral. A large church of the Byzantine style built in the last century, it is one of the most ravishing churches in Russia. In a religious goods shop in back, in addition to inexpensive crosses and silk-screened icons, the Bible was on sale for 80 rubles. Hand-painted icons were 300 rubles.
The Dean of the Cathedral, Father John Chernienko, was eager to show the iconography covering the cathedral walls, much of it the work of Victor Vasnetsov. “He had a wonderful gift to reveal holiness,” said Father John. Just within the main entrance, we looked at a Vasnetsov fresco of Prince Vladimir’s baptism. On the facing wall was a painting of the people of Kiev being baptized in the Dnieper River.
“The cathedral is named for Saint Vladimir, whom we call Equal to the Apostles because he led our people to Baptism,” said Father John. “In an old manuscript it says Prince Vladimir was blinded but in baptism his eyes were re-opened. You get this impression in the way Vasnetsov shows Vladimir’s face as he comes out of the baptismal water. He has an expression of profound wonder. He is looking at the world with new eyes. But notice that some of the people standing around watching the baptism have very old eyes — some of his warriors are clearly displeased at what their prince is doing.”
As Father John’s talked, a crowd gathered to listen. “Christianity was not new to Kiev but many had opposed it. There had been baptized people in Kiev for generations. There was already the Church of Saint Elijah. Among the prominent people who converted to the new faith was Princess Olga, grandmother of Vladimir. But it was because of the conversion of Vladimir that Christianity became the state religion. In the painting of the baptism of the Kievan people, you can see that while the mass of people are accepting baptism with joy, some are displeased. You can see that our people are only at the beginning of the process of conversion.”
Over the entrance doors, between the two baptismal paintings, was a fresco of the Last Judgment, a work in which the crack of doom is almost audible. “If you look at the details, you can sense Vasnetsov’s theological depth. He almost graduated from a seminary before taking the path of art.” By now the crowd around us was large and pressing hard. “The Last Judgment is a mystical subject — not historical in the sense of the other two but the portrayal of an event we await rather than one we remember. Any sensitive viewer can penetrate the church’s theology by looking at it. You see Christ in the center. He is holding the Gospel. This means he will judge us by the law of the Gospel. You see Mary’s head almost touching his — the halos are touching. There are tears in her eyes. She is pleading for mercy. You also see John the Baptist making appeals. The condemned are those who failed to maintain the moral level they were called to — people who committed actions against conscience. There is the Archangel. What strict and just beauty! He is holding the scroll with the seven seals described in the Book of Revelations of Saint John. Its text is the history of the world and what each has done or failed to do. There is the scale. You can see among the condemned many who were supposed to be leading others to salvation — notice the priest tearing his clerical garments. And there is a king — you see him grabbing for his crown as it falls from his head. The painting says that salvation cannot be bought by money or authority or ecclesiastical vocation. Your clothes and titles do not excuse you from living a moral life. You also see in the painting the strength of prayer. There is one woman falling toward hell. But you see she is being rescued from damnation by the intercession of someone praying for her. You see in this painting that nothing disappears. The same God who made you from nothing will reform your body at the end of history even if there is nothing left of your body but ash scattered across a desert. You will be raised from death, body and soul, and be held responsible for how you lived.”
Later, away from the crowd, I asked Father John if the cathedral had managed to stay open through the Stalin years. “It was closed from 1931 to 1941, but since that time it has been a working church. It has served not only the needs of believers but people coming to belief. Many visitors come in just to look and begin to discover the treasures of faith. Sometimes we have an entire family to baptize. Through art, architecture and music, through the witness of our Liturgy, the hearts of many people, especially young people, have been opened. In this church many people have committed themselves to goodness.”
Was perestroika having a positive effect? “We are feeling it. It gives our people the chance to live in conformity with our conscience. Believers are supporting the process in every way. We only want it to go faster.”
Back at the hotel, I gave a Bible I had been presented with that morning to a cleaning woman. She took it in her hands and kissed it.
At the Liturgy the next morning in the lower church at the Pokrovsky (Protection of the Mother of God) Convent, Father Timothy Shaidurov’s sermon occasioned a vocal response. “Are you going to consent to a life of materialism?” Several people said, “Nyet!” “Are you going to be careless about prayer?” “Nyet!” Blessing the faithful at the end of the Liturgy, he affectionately tapped some of them on the forehead with the bronze cross in his hand.
Afterward the abbess, Matushka (Mother) Margarita, took us into the upper church, a building consecrated in 1911, now restored except for its missing cupola. “Not so many people were at the Liturgy today,” she said. “They are tired after being in church so much during the last two weeks. During the Christmas celebration, there were real crowds. Our four priests and one deacon were kept busy.”
She paused in front of an icon of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. “He inspires much devotion. He showed that it was possible to lead a life of constant prayer while loving and serving all those around him. He devoted his life to repentance in such a way that many ascended to God. Such a saint attracts God by the absence of pride in his heart. His eyes are opened and he can see what others fail to see. He can see the thoughts and souls of others. This power is given to him by God. He does not need a car or tram to go somewhere. He can go anywhere without taking a single step. Other people travel a lot but see nothing. To travel is not necessarily to see. The great saints labored hard in the spirit — it is hard to overcome yourself! — and God gave them eyes that were truly open. God gave them a sanctified life. This was God’s gift. We come to live in the convent in the hope of obtaining just a spark of such grace. We will not be great saints but perhaps we can have a spark of the fire of sanctity. This is what we seek. Just a spark. We may not be great saints but we want at least not to fall into hell. Our will isn’t strong but we rely on Christ.” She crossed herself. “He is our hope. He was incarnated into a man’s body. He was crucified. He saved us from eternal death. He gave us the spark of longing for eternal life and made us want to pray and to work and to live a tender life.”
Over tea in the convent, she told me that fifteen nuns had joined the community since my last visit at Easter in 1987. “One sister dies, another arrives. We have 82 in our community now.” I wondered if the sisters are all Ukrainian. “No, also Russian, Moldavians and others. All nations are here.”
We talked about the convent’s history. Founded in 1889 by Grand Princess Alexandra Petrovna, who was called Sister Anastasia in the convent, the community stressed charity work from the beginning. The nuns opened a school for blind girls, an orphanage, and a hospital with a free out-patient department. The convent was closed by the Soviet government in the late twenties and reopened in 1941 during the German occupation, though a smaller, older church remains closed. Damage to the buildings in the years of persecution included removal of the larger church’s cupola, once a landmark of Kiev.
“While the worst things are in the past, still we face obstacles,” said Father Timothy. “We have asked permission to rebuild the cupola and to reopen the original church of this community but so far there is no answer to our letter. Also we hope someday to be able to do more of the charity work that Matushka Anastasia intended when she founded the convent. Of course the sisters have never ceased, no matter what circumstances, to live a life of mercy and charity.” He talked about what the nuns had done during the war, opening a scrap book to show a photo of a nun caring for injured soldiers. “Today some of the sisters work in the Kiev hospitals.”
I asked if there were other current difficulties. “The sisters would like to re-open a building which was taken away in the twenties and now used as a government office building,” Father Timothy responded. “There are several agencies here on the territory of the convent — the Society for Planting Trees, for example. Also the local authorities have constructed some garages on the convent grounds. We feel besieged by inappropriate structures and would like to see them moved to a more suitable location. The idea of monastic life is to maintain some degree of isolation. We see what the authorities have done in the past as an injustice and we would like to put things right. So you see we have faced and still face hardships, a lot of labor and pain. Despite all our difficulties we survived, thanks be to God! But it was a hard life.”
“There is a new climate now,” said Matushka Margarita. “We are getting more letters than ever from people who want to lead a more faithful life. People not only write to us but to the Council for Religious Affairs saying they want to be monks and nuns. But we still have trouble to get the necessary city residence permits for those we are willing to accept into community. Konstantin Kharchev has publicly spoken about the problem of red tape, all the artificial problems created by bureaucracy. It’s true. Our sisters have to spend hundreds of hours to get residence permits. You face all these useless walls! You can smash your head on them. We see that the government is trying to fight the problem and has ordered big cuts in bureaucracy, but the functionaries try to escape the reductions. They move people whose job is only red tape from one section to another and the red tape survives.”
I asked about community life. “To be in such a community,” said Matushka Margarita, “you need to love prayer and the Liturgy and be willing to get up early. There is morning prayer at five a.m. and Liturgy at seven. On feast days there is a second Liturgy at ten. We often have very large crowds. Orthodox people are praying people! On feast days the Liturgy lasts three or four hours, longer than in a normal parish because we do everything, and take a little more time. Vespers begins at five and lasts until about eight-thirty. At eleven or twelve we go to bed, but not everyone. Some sisters are praying in turn around the clock.
“There is a lot of work to do. We have orchards, gardens, the kitchen. Some take care of the sick. We have twenty sisters in need of care. We have a sewing workshop where we make clothing and liturgical garments. We send some sisters to work in local hospitals. And we have guests, many guests — sometimes five, sometimes a hundred — and so we have sisters doing hospitality work. Some of our sisters are caring for the residence of Metropolitan Filaret. Here at the convent there is cleaning to be done, and restoration work. All the art and decoration that you saw in the church is the work of our sisters.
“I think for non-believers it seems very odd that we live this way, but for us it is logical. Our life is centered on prayer. We believe that to pray for someone is important. We believe if a person’s name is mentioned in prayer, that prayer will ascend to our Lord. If we remember a dead soul, we believe our Lord will hear our prayer and respond. Our Lord teaches us, ‘Pray for each other.’ And he said, ‘You will have what you ask for in prayer.’ Our Lord gave us ears. We are sure that he hears what we ask him. He gave us a heart. We are sure that he feels what we pray for.”
“At the Liturgy,” said Father Timothy, “we pray for many people, living and dead. With each name, we put a small piece of prosphora [bread specially made for use at the altar] in the chalice, asking God to forgive the person named. The Holy Liturgy is at the very center of life. Our Lord said, ‘Eat my body, drink my blood, and you will have eternal life.’ During the great feasts, thousands of people receive communion here. We hear thousands of confessions. People come to us with their tortured consciences, seeking forgiveness. To forgive and be forgiven is part of communion. Before we receive the body and blood of our Lord, we purify ourselves with confession and fasting.”
Father Timothy told the story of a certain person who walked to the Pochayev Monastery in the western Ukraine to bring back some water from a healing spring for a Jewish friend who had an eye disease.
“The Mother of God once appeared at this place and caused a spring to flow from the stone where she was standing. Its water is associated with many miracles. But it was a hot day. On the way back the woman became so thirsty she drank the water she was carrying and then put water from the tap into the bottle when she got home. She gave this water to her sick neighbor. The neighbor believed it came from the special spring and her eyes were healed! Faith is what is important. All water is holy water if you have faith. But faith is not just what you think. It is what you do. Faith is linked with deeds. Read the scripture. Follow the regulations of Christian life. Faith is encouraged by good deeds.”
“It isn’t enough to believe in God,” said Matushka Margarita. “The devil knows God exists. You have to live according to the commandments of God. You should believe and act with goodness, and also without pride. If we have pride in our good deeds, they are useless. The effect disappears. You must know that good deeds come to us from God. Our hands are used by God. There is a story from the early years of Christianity about Saint Anthony of the Desert. A devil came to him and said, ‘You fast often but I fast always. You sleep little but I never sleep. Still you are victorious over me. How do you do it?’ ‘Because I am meek,’ Saint Anthony said. We need meekness. With meekness, any ordinary person can be accepted into the Kingdom of God. A Christian never abandons respect for science or loses interest in reading, but heaven is not only for the clever. Anthony of the Desert was asked by some philosophers, ‘You are illiterate and we read a lot but your name is on every tongue. Why?’ ‘Which came first,” the saint asked, “science or mind?’ The philosophers said, ‘Mind.’ Anthony said, ‘If I have mind, what need have I for science?’
“This is not to criticize science,” said Father Timothy, “but it is clear that science without faith brings destruction. Perhaps it is because of all the destruction caused by science that today many scientists are turning back toward faith. They begin to see that there is a divine force ruling creation.”
Before my departure I was able to talk with three nuns in the community, Sisters Anne, Nina and Tatiana.
I asked Sister Anne Rudenko, the oldest, what had brought her to the convent. “Faith! Faith in God! Love towards God!”
How long have you been here? “Thirty years.”
How did you choose this community. “My father brought me to visit when I was a child. I liked the services. I always wanted to live here.”
What are you doing in your work? “I help clean the church but I am glad to do anything that is needed.”
Sister Nina, a young woman with a round face and large dark eyes, was still a novice. She told me she also came from a family of believers. “My mother sang in the choir so I was in church a lot. I fell in love with singing! I am Ukrainian. We Ukrainians have a deep, ancient tradition of singing. When I grew up I became interested in monasticism. I began visiting different convents, studying details. First I went to the Pochayev Monastery. This was where my interest in monasticism started. Then I went to the Krasnagorsky Convent. When I met the sisters of that community I felt love in my heart. But this one was my favorite. I loved everything about this convent — the way ritual was done, the choir singing. I was accepted here and then I was sent to Leningrad to learn choral direction at the Choral School at the Theological Academy. Now my main work is our choir.”
The youngest was Sister Tatiana, 25. “My parents were deeply believing people interested in Christian spirituality and tradition. Because of them I also came to love the church. My being here is really thanks to them. Since childhood I had a feeling in my heart of wanting to devote my life to God. Coming here was a response to my soul’s longing.”
In an old building near the city center, we stopped to talk with Boris Ilyich Oleinik, a much loved Ukrainian poet who is now chairman of the Ukrainian Culture Foundation. “Personally, I am Orthodox. As I see it, the Orthodox Church always tried to cultivate enlightenment,” he said. “In all these years, the Church was one of the few forces in society never to waver. It has passed through many adversities still bearing the soul of our culture.”
The Foundation was set up in 1987 to protect architecture, art, music and literature and is, he said, “not only very democratic but is among those groups working to revive the nation’s spirituality.”
“The highest sensibility is in the spirit,” he continued. “Both the artist and the Church are preoccupied with the soul. Look at the writing of Dostoyevsky and his attention to the interior man. His goal was beauty, the spiritual perfection of the human being. The road of religion and literature converges in his writing. You see this also in our Ukrainian author, Gogol. He was a devout Orthodox believer. It was Gogol who caused a thaw in Russian literature. The Russian language was bookish while Ukrainian speech was rooted in folk language. I don’t want to insult the Russian language but it was a little cold and heavy. Gogol helped to warm it up. After Gogol, the Gulf Stream flowed into the Russian language.”
Arriving at the Monastery of the Caves the next day, I was impressed with how much had been transformed since my first visit two years earlier. In 1987 many of the buildings on the “far hill,” the part since returned to the Church, were almost derelict. The renewal of monastic life on these hilltops above the Dnieper seemed a distant dream. Now they were either fully restored or the restoration was well underway.
We were met by the vicar of the monastery. Archimandrite Jonathan Eletskih was tall, young, energetic, and very dashing in his flowing black robes. I recalled the vast crowd that had been at the monastery for its first Liturgy the previous June. “We had many outdoor Liturgies after that and want to have more,” said Father Jonathan, “to make it a tradition. Anyway for major feasts it is impossible to fit all those who come within the church. We also like it because it means good contact between clergy and people.” He regretted that I hadn’t been at the monastery for Christmas. “There was a nativity play in the courtyard. It was the first time. Formerly religious plays were forbidden. Next Christmas we hope to perform the play all around the city.”
He was proud of the repairs so far accomplished. “You saw how these building were last year. Everything was falling down. Look how it is now! We have still a lot to do but already you can see the difference. Come back next Easter and see what it’s like then!”
The change was impressive. Despite scaffolding, the area returned to the monks had a new-born quality. What had been dull or rotting when I first saw it was now shining. “If you tried to do something like this under a state plan,” he said, “it would take at least three years, but we have religious enthusiasm on our side and that’s a big factor.”
He showed us a newly restored church. “It is dedicated to the Mother of God. It was a museum for more than a quarter century. The restorers were the same ones who restored the czar’s palace at Pushkin near Leningrad. The icons have been given to us by faithful people who were saving them until the monastery was brought back to life. They are real treasures. We consider some of them miracle-working icons — they are linked with specific miraculous events. In hard times they had to be hidden. There are other icons that should be returned but are still in museums, but we believe that just as God has returned part of this monastery, in time icons will be returned to their rightful places.”
I asked about the condition of the caves. “We have much work to do there as well but the chapels are now used for services and the bodies of the saints are no longer tourist curiosities but places of prayer. Also we have even experienced what we consider a miraculous sign. There are several skulls that were formerly dry bone and are now continuously exuding a myrrh-like oil. You will see it yourself. To protect the monastery from the charge of falsification, I had the oil tested. Scientists found a high percentage of protein, 72 percent. They have no explanation for how this can happen. We accept it as a miracle. A lifeless skull is giving birth to a living substance. It is a holy event, an action of the Lord, a blessing for a monastic community that has been restored to life.”
Father Jonathan led us up a staircase. “Before you go into the caves, I want you to see our pilgrim church.” He pointed to bedding piled up along the walls. “Not only is this a place for worship but a place for pilgrims to sleep, although in fact many of them pray more than sleep at night. But it is too small. When the restoration gets further and other churches are restored, we plan for this room to be a refectory.”
He pointed to an icon of a bishop. “This is the image of Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev who was killed by a member of the Anarchist Party in 1918. We are permitted to venerate his memory in this church. He is one of the New Martyrs [martyrs of the Soviet period] already regarded as a saint by Orthodox of the Synodal Church [Russian Orthodox believers outside of the Soviet Union who have no bond with the Patriarch in Moscow]. Please let them know that we have this icon here. The proposal that he should be canonized is under consideration, as is true for others who gave witness to their faith with their lives. This is a manifestation of the deep change going on in our country.”
I asked if he expected the rest of the monastery to be returned. “We are optimists! We are waiting for the second perestroika when the rest of the monastery will be returned. But until then we have a lot to keep us busy.”
With the arrival of another guest, Father Jonathan put us in the care of a younger monk who led us into the caves, the final resting place for the bodies of 116 canonized saints plus thousands of other who took monastic vows.
The last time I entered those narrow, damp passages deep within the hill above the Dnieper River, they were lit by electric lights installed after the monks were evicted. The light fixtures remain but have been switched off. One hand holding a candle, the other the thin railing, I made my cautious way downward step by step.
In 1987 a museum guide passed by the bodies of saints like someone avoiding beggars on a city street. Her bored voice reverberated in the caves. Today we were engulfed in silence.
The bodies of the saints lay in glass-topped coffins. Their mummified hands are all that was visible of these remarkable ascetics of Kiev who did so much to shape the spirit of Slavic Orthodoxy. The monk leading the way quietly named them and then gently kissed the glass above their silk-covered faces.
“Some pilgrims are overcome by tears,” the monk said. “They start crying and they can’t stop. They fall down on their knees.”
Carved into the rock was the Church of Saint Theodosius, named after the monastery’s founder. “This is a living church again,” the monk said. “We have the Holy Liturgy here at 7 a.m. every Thursday. Also we have the ceremony here for tonsuring new monks. Before the revolution there were more than 40 Liturgies a day in the caves. Only one other place in the world had so many, Mount Athos. Before 1922 there were still twelve a day.”
I entered Saint Theodosius’ narrow, low-ceilinged cell. Touching the rock shelf that had been his bed, I tried to imagine what it would be like to pray day after day deep in the earth, truly buried with Christ. “The relics of Saint Theodosius aren’t here,” the monk said. “We hope to find them when we excavate the Dormition Cathedral.”
In a cabinet in a small alcove nearby there were a number of cylindrical glass jars holding skulls. “These are remains of saints whose names we do not know,” he said. Several were dark and glistening, partially submerged in an amber oil — a wonder and blessing to Orthodox believers, a puzzle to scientists, and a source of revulsion to those for whom the spiritual life ought to be rational, well ordered, and disembodied.
We venerated the body of Saint Nestor the Illiterate whose teaching is summed up very simply: “You will not find the truth in books, only in your heart.”
Kiev’s caves also hold one of Orthodoxy’s most literate figures, the biographer of Theodosius and author of The Tale of Bygone Years, Saint Nestor the Chronicler who died in 1113. His body was in the part of the caves that remains a museum.
When we stepped back into the world above the caves, it was a kind of resurrection from the dead. Perhaps it was to better celebrate Easter that the Kievan monks spent so much of their lives hidden in the earth.
As we left Father Jonathan was yet receiving another guest.
Our approach to Irkutsk was by air, a flight from Tashkent that began with a vista of the Tien Shan range, China’s border. A thread-thin road disappeared under the snow. The land was quickly stripped of all trace of a human presence. We were flying over an eternally frozen ghost world that seemed to have been done in finger paints by a cosmic child working in dark purple and lavender white. Darkness fell and with it came a blackness below that more than equaled the night sky. Occasionally there was a sprinkling of light: a town on the edge of a lake or river. More provocative were the rare pricks of orange light in a sea of blackness. What would it be like to live in that kind of vast, fierce solitude? Are there still hermit monks in the Siberian wilderness? Finally there was the urban neon glow of Irkutsk and we were on the ground.
The word Irkutsk means “fast-flowing,” referring to the Angara River, the one body of water flowing out of Lake Baikal. A wintering camp for fur traders set up in 1652 became a town in 1686. The Irkutsk shield granted that year displays the basis of its frontier prosperity: a sable in the jaws of a Siberian tiger. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, gold was found, bringing a new wave of wealth to Irkutsk, but great suffering too. Many political prisoners spent long years — often their last years — in the mines. The wealth was so immense that Irkutsk’s governor plated his carriage wheels with silver and shod his horses with gold. For “unheard of theft,” he was hanged in 1771 at the order of Peter the Great. The first school in East Siberia, at the Resurrection Monastery, was just outside the city. In 1898 the city became linked to Moscow by the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Though Irkutsk has become the industrial, administrative, and educational center for eastern Siberia, much of the old city remains unspoiled. Log buildings have not only survived but proved better suited to the Siberian environment than concrete.
In the heart of the city, on the shore, is the Church of the Savior, now a museum. Built in 1706, it was Siberia’s first stone structure. Three other museum churches stand near by. Two were Orthodox: the Church of the Apparition of the Lord and the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross. A third was Catholic, built by some of the 18,600 Poles exiled to Siberia after the 1863 Polish uprising. The Tikhvin Cathedral is gone, dynamited in the thirties.
There are only three working Orthodox churches left in Irkutsk and nineteen in the Irkutsk diocese — an area bigger than Texas, encompassing 300,000 square miles and 2,500,000 people.
The bishop of the diocese, Archbishop Chrysostom, has his residence next to the gleaming white Cathedral of the Holy Sign, originally part of the Znamensky Convent. Two old nuns still live there though the convent was closed half a century ago.
The Epiphany Liturgy was in progress when Sergei and I arrived at the Cathedral. With several other late arrivals, we stood shivering on the church porch. When the Liturgy ended we were invited into the watchman’s room in the corner of an adjacent building, a dingy space with a bed in the back that doubled as a couch, a table in front covered with magazines and newspapers, a hot plate and radio on a small cabinet near the door, a small icon on the upper back corner. Our host, the watchman, turned out to be a scholar. Items of reading on the table included recent issues of Novi Mir [New World], the prestigious Soviet literary journal. I noticed a Russian-Chinese dictionary. He was interested in herbal medicine and so was learning Chinese. “Being a watchman is a good job for scholars,” he said, serving us tea.
Word came that the Archbishop was waiting.
A 1974 report by the Council for Religious Affairs identified three categories of bishops in the Russian Orthodox Church. In the first category were those who “in words and deeds” demonstrated “not only loyalty but patriotism towards the socialist state, strictly observing the law on cults and educating the parish clergy and believers in the same spirit, [and who] realistically understand that our state is not interested in proclaiming the role of religion . . . and . . . do not display any particular activeness in extending the influence of Orthodoxy among the population.” In the second category were those who, while having “a correct attitude to the laws on cults,” in “their everyday administrative and ideological activity strive toward activating servants of the cult and active members of the church [and] stand for the heightening of the role of the church in personal, family and public life . . . and select for priestly office young people who are zealous adherents of Orthodox piety.” Finally there were those who “have made attempts to evade the laws on cults” and who are “capable of falsifying the position in their dioceses and the attitude which the organs of authority have formed towards them” and might even attempt to bribe officials in order to gain concessions for the church.
In this third category the report’s author placed Archbishop Chrysostom, at the time Bishop of Kursk. Shortly after arriving in Kursk, the CRA report said, he had undertaken “zealous activities to revitalize religious life,” ignoring “the recommendations of commissioners of the Council and the local authorities.” He was bold enough to say to his interrogator, “I am a bishop, I am forty years old. I don’t intend to leave the Church. I’ve heard a good many insulting and offensive things from atheists, but these are the times we live in, there’s nothing to be done about it.”
The Archbishop’s office was impressive for its austerity. A small icon of Mary and Jesus hung over the door behind his desk. Archbishop Chrysostom was as plain as his office: a thin man with a long beard and black rosary around his wrist. His beard is just beginning to grey. The lack of an autocratic quality was striking. An old ink stand was on the desk, the crystal ink pots empty, a brass woman’s head shining between them. A jar of pencils and a telephone stood to one side. Resting against his desk calendar was a post-card icon of the Baptism of Jesus.
Hearing that I had come into the Russian Orthodox Church from Catholicism, he expressed surprise. “I was part of a Russian Orthodox delegation that visited Jerusalem in 1966,” he recalled. “Jerusalem is the center of all Christian churches, and we visited many of them not only in Jerusalem but also in Nazareth and Bethlehem. I have to say I was shocked by the attitude of the Greek Orthodox toward other churches. We saw negligence and a lack of purity in the Greek churchmen — greed and carelessness. Many of them were highly educated yet they were proud and inaccessible. They showed superiority. This wasn’t pleasant to observe. Yet when we visited churches in the care of Catholics, we were pleased. The clergy were also well educated but they weren’t snobs. The churches were neat and beautifully maintained. I left full of gratitude for the care Catholics took of these places of pilgrimage. Since then I am imbued with a deep respect for the Catholic Church. I have now had much contact with Catholics, all sorts of people of various ranks including members of the hierarchy. The Catholic Archbishop in Athens was the one who impressed me most of all — he has a face shining with love, deeply sensitive, generous to everyone, the kind of pastor that attracts all kinds of people, old and young.
“In 1974 I met Pope Paul VI — a small man, very thin, modest, but a man of character, not only someone of great intellect but with the strength of holiness. Also in Rome I was impressed by the human diversity of those receiving communion — so many people and with every color of skin, yellow, black and white. I also liked the masses for young people. They were playing guitars and singing. The climate was impressive. I felt the Holy Spirit was present. I was educated in a different way, but I have come to understand that both churches have spiritual treasures.”
We moved on in our discussion to Russian Orthodoxy. “The Russian Orthodox Church has a deep tradition of iconography. Our Holy Trinity icon by Rublev is now known throughout the world. And we have a special tradition of church architecture. When you see our icons and church buildings, you cannot help but feel proud of artisans who were capable of such masterpieces. We descend from such people. Yet our pride in them can be dangerous.
“When we celebrated the Millennium of our Baptism last June, of course we felt this pride. Our Church Council occurred in such a good climate. There was the canonization of the new saints, who remind us of what has been achieved. But even in such a moment we shouldn’t close our eyes to ourselves. We have to ask ourselves what have we contributed to this treasure trove? What will we leave to coming generations? At a certain moment I looked around the Council hall and was stunned. I saw so many empty faces, empty eyes. I thought, ‘Selfish fools!’ Their gazes were selfish and senseless. If this is our condition, how can we take care of the faithful?”
I mentioned a translator I had talked with just after the Council who had been disappointed with the faces of many bishops. She asked me, “How many of them do you think are really believers?” Her guess was about half while I said one can’t judge such a thing so easily and that, in any event, many of them would be quite different if they weren’t surrounded by other bishops.
“I understand well what she felt,” said Archbishop Chrysostom. “I felt so strongly the same thing that I took the floor at the Council and spoke out against many present, and against myself as well. It was a criticism of the clergy, especially the higher clergy. It wasn’t well received!” He laughed. “In fact many in the hall showed their irritation. There were some evil eyes focused on me, I can tell you. This anger mainly came from those who have no pastoral responsibilities — rather the ones close to the Council for Religious Affairs, that so-called ‘linking body’ that is really a chaining body. Some of our clergy are willingly in conformity with the demands of these atheists.
“The years of stagnation [the Brezhnev years] were very hard — more deadly for us than the years under Stalin. In the Stalin years we had martyrs and confessors. Some died. Others gave witness in their suffering. But the years of stagnation drove us down. These were years of real degradation of mind and morality, degradation of personality. It was a time especially hard on the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was hard also for the Catholics and Protestants but they resisted more successfully. The Baptists had their ‘grass root groups.’ The most slavish people were Russian Orthodox bishops. True, we had some great personalities like Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad, a great ecumenical figure. But these were exceptions. In the years of stagnation, at a lower level, there were many priests doing their job — a hard job! — to resist those deadly trends. They helped to prepare the way for the fresh winds now blowing — perestroika, glasnost, democratization.”
I asked him about his former assignment. “I was bishop of a diocese in the Kursk region. We had 108 churches to serve a population of five-million people. But it was even worse than it sounds because 45 percent of our parishes were without a parish priest. There were 45 churches that hadn’t had divine services for two to five years. There were 159 priests. Among them the average age was 70. I had the challenge to rebuild the local church. I don’t want to be a modest liar. In five years I managed to fill the gap. We didn’t have a single parish without a priest. I left 182 priests serving 108 working churches. The average age of a priest when I left was 30 years old. More than 20 of them had a higher education. But in order to ordain them, one had to have a serpent’s wisdom! All the administrative authorities and party bosses were absolutely against what I was trying to do. Somehow it happened anyway. [laughter] Also I was able to deprive of their posts those occasional rotten people who had penetrated the church and who were discrediting it by their faithless attitude and their immoral behavior. This was my second task. Such people had to be kicked out. The passage of the Helsinki Final Act helped me in doing this. When it was signed, the climate was more favorable. I was able to succeed in this cleansing work. I deprived two scoundrels wearing clerical garments. They were stripped of their ranks and the right to serve as priests. But this proved to be the last straw. In 1984, after ten years as bishop in that diocese, I was sent, as you see, to Siberia, to Irkutsk. I wasn’t able to last in the Kursk region until the first years of perestroika. Now of course, the climate has changed in a way that no one could imagine a few years ago. Last year, 700 Orthodox churches were opened. In the former time, the officials wanted to send to Moscow statistics every year showing that there were fewer churches than the year before. So you can imagine how the officials felt about me! I was a blank spot, or worse.”
How is the situation now? “Our Church is facing the most difficult and complex period in her history. Atheism has been greatly weakened. It used to be atheists could do whatever they wanted — discharge clergy, publish hostile articles. Of course people didn’t take very seriously what they said. Their ideas weren’t respected. But they had power. They were able to keep the Orthodox Church under strict surveillance. They were able to make sure that only politically reliable people entered the seminaries, and also to make sure that only the most slavish people were promoted. True, there were capable people among those promoted, but these were exceptions and morally they didn’t fit. Or they were nice people but useless, without courage. But we found ways around all this vigilance. Sometimes people can be ordained without entering the theological schools. And one must add that, after so many years in power, the atheists were sometimes complacent. They were lax in their vigilance. In various ways it was possible to ordain good people to service in the church. But our problem is that, at this moment, we don’t have unity. The higher ranks of the clergy are very far from the lower clergy, and from the rank and file people in the church.”
Have you particular people in mind? “I wouldn’t like to single out anyone. In any event, all of us are compromised, all of us are sinners, none of us is adequate. Although all of us were anointed with the same chrism [holy oil], we became obedient slaves, doing what was ‘recommended’ by the civil powers — bowing down, bending our backs. Nor were we prepared by our theological schools to answer the hard questions that people increasingly bring to those with pastoral responsibility. There is very little purposeful preaching. There are few pastors who can evangelize those who are educated. The one seminary rector who tried to prepare clergy for evangelical work was Archbishop Kyrill. For ten years he was the rector in Leningrad. He was preparing people not only to be capable of doing the rituals correctly but to be pastors. You know what happened. He was sent away from the seminary to head the Smolensk diocese! The civil authorities were disturbed at his success in preparing thinking pastors. He and I were like the Decembrists20 sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. We were removed and sent to remote places.”
Aren’t you painting too dark a picture? “It is true that despite our problems we have many people of deep faith and real intellect, priests and monks with an appropriate inspiration. Still there are barriers on the way to their promotion. We also have many faithful people among the Soviet intelligentsia. Though it is widely thought that Soviet intellectuals are all atheists, this is far from true. Many are believers. But few of them have contact with the Orthodox Church. In fact many of them don’t trust the clergy. Some had built up unofficial contact in the past and then got into trouble — it seems the clergy informed on them. The intellectuals were betrayed. So there is a residue of distrust. Nor do we have any publications within the church that can serve as a point of encounter. The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate is published every month but it is mainly church news, ecumenical news, news about peacemaking activities. You find nothing about the problems within the church or the society we are part of. If you want to find writing about spirituality or the real history of this century, you had better look in the secular publications — the literary journals or certain magazines and newspapers. There you will find classic essays by Florensky or Solovyov, pieces that are thrilling to read. Or look on the television screen. Recently there have been many good films and documentaries on television in which religious life is presented in a thoughtful and positive way. The problem is that these films may raise up expectations in those who see them that will not be met by our clergy. A passionate interest has taken hold of many people about their history, their lost culture, their religious roots. This is now a focus of national attention. Society is prepared to offer its repentance. But all they find in the Russian Orthodox Church is complacency! We are suddenly on the stage, face to face with the people. But we have a blank face! We are not ready for the dialogue that is offered to us, a dialogue between believer and non-believer, a dialogue not to convert but to make contact, to illuminate, to help each other.”
What is the situation of the church in Irkutsk? “For three years I knew only our babushkas. Many were frail and sick. Yet we grew very close. I think they found in me an open window into the sky, into life. It was very nice. 1988 was a strong year, a productive year. We built up contacts with local institutions, with the local branch of the Academy of Sciences, with all kinds of informal organizations. There were some meetings where we had an audience of a thousand people talking about all sorts of issues. We still have far to go. In the immense territory of this diocese we have only 19 parishes. Although there are 700 churches newly opened in the last year throughout the Soviet Union, none are in this diocese. There are three Orthodox churches serving this large city. We badly need a fourth, but where would we get the funds to restore a church?”
What about the condition of the Russian Orthodox Church following the Council? “We have a much better church law now. The priest is the head of the parish once again, not someone forced on the church by those who have no love for us. At the same time there are also some disturbing signs. There was one bishop appointed recently, Gavriel, who now heads half of my former diocese, the eastern part. He was Father Superior of the Monastery of the Caves near Pskov where he was criticized for his rough manner. There were many complaints about him and his disgraceful behavior. Yet now he is made a bishop! If in this period of perestroika and glasnost the Russian Orthodox Church nominates disgraced people to high pastoral responsibilities, it is likely that we will have a schism. In fact we can see indications of such a trend. Here we are, in a society returning to Lenin’s Period. Remember that in Lenin’s time there were many splits within the church. The Russian Orthodox Church was under great pressure then, and it is under pressure now. But the times have changed. Now the people can express themselves freely and can act freely. If the civic leadership controls the activities of the church in such a time, those who cooperate with them will cause a schism. But let us hope that we’ll not have it and that instead the perestroika process will start in the Russian Orthodox Church.”
Doesn’t the consecration of bishops like yourself indicate that there are people of integrity and courage leading the Russian Orthodox Church? “Yes, there are good people in the Holy Synod. They work hard. They are faithful people, believing people. The only major failure is a lack of courage and will. I don’t condemn them. I wouldn’t disgrace them. But I cannot understand how they can appoint someone unsuitable to head a diocese.”
What brought you to serve the church? “I was born in 1934 into a believing family. My parents were passionate in their faith. My father was director of the church choir. I started going to church early in life. Then I cooled down because of the severity of church regulations — the strict fasts, the ban on going to the movies — but that period in my life lasted only two years. I returned to church and began working as an assistant icon painter. From 1948 to 1961, I almost lived in churches, helping to gild and doing ornamental work. We were restoring churches in many parts of Russia. In 1961 I entered the Moscow Theological Seminary. I was 27. That was a very hard year for the church, a year many churches were closed. Until that time I had little education. I hadn’t completed high school. My meager education actually helped me get into the seminary — the less promising you were, the more willing the civil authorities were for you to take a place in the seminary! They would have been happy if we were all insane and illiterate. People like me. In 1972 I was consecrated a bishop. At the time few realized my thinking was on the wrong path, though Metropolitan Nikodim placed high hopes in me. It was he who wanted me to be a bishop. But I never wanted it. I wanted to be a parish priest. In fact that is what I still want. I am ready today to stop being a bishop and just to be a local pastor.”
Serving at the Cathedral with Archbishop Chrysostom was Father Evgeni Kasatkin who took time to show us around. After the tour we sat on a bench in a chilly corner where restoration work was underway.
I asked what had brought him to religious belief. “While visiting the church I was more and more filled with a feeling of veneration. The will to serve the Church penetrated to the depth of my soul.”
Did your parents sympathize? “My mother died in the siege of Leningrad so didn’t live to see it happen. My father was against it.”
What brought you to the priesthood? “I wanted to be a priest since I was a boy. Before entering the seminary I had studied rigorously by myself. I had a diploma from the University of Leningrad and so had the right to use the Leningrad Public Library where all the books printed since Peter the Great are in the stacks. I was accepted by the Moscow Theological Seminary during the time Metropolitan Filaret [at the time of the interview head of the Church’s External Affairs Department] was rector. He was much loved by all the students. He knew us all.”
Has perestroika had any impact on the Church in Irkutsk? “After the Church Council at the Holy Trinity Monastery last summer we had a public concert of church music. This had never been possible in the past. Any interested person could come. It was a charity benefit.”
Is the local Church undertaking charity work? “It is beginning. We founded a Charity Society just a few days ago. It is too early to say what we will be able to do but I think believers can play a role in the local hospitals.”
Are there new churches opening in this diocese? “Throughout the country many have opened though so far there are no new ones in this diocese. But the process of change is started and is moving in one direction, even if very slowly.”
Do you sense more people moving from disbelief to belief? “Yes! Of course! Many. We have many adult baptisms here.”
The next day we drove to Listvianka, a village of log houses on the shore of Baikal. The lake draws one’s attention from the village. Here is one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water, nearly as much water as flows out of all the world’s rivers in one year. We broke the ice and drank a glass full.
Baikal is fed by 336 streams but has only one outlet, the Angara River, a tributary of the Yenisei River. The legend is that the tyrant Baikal had 336 sons and one daughter. The sons did as they were told, giving all the wealth they collected to Father Baikal, but the daughter, Angara, was strong-willed and independent — in other words a true Siberian. She fell in love with Yenisei. As Baikal opposed their wedding, they eloped, thus creating Baikal’s one exit point.
While the pure water of Baikal is one of the wonders of the world, a less noticed miracle is the fact that the village of Listvianka has its own church, St. Nicholas’. There are whole cities without churches in Siberia. The pastor, Father Sergei Kozlov, was 35 years old. “Orthodoxy is not just a faith,” he said. “It is a unified way of life. But in modern society there is no unified life. The ordinary believer today is likely to have two lives running side by side — a civic, ‘Soviet’ way of life, and a private life that includes a religious area. At work you are one person, at home and in church another. But, as the Gospel says, you cannot serve two masters. Yet how can you do otherwise? This is the tragic tension we are experiencing today.”
What can be done about it? “Russia needs to become Russia again. This doesn’t mean that all Russians will be believers. There will continue to be atheists because there will continue to be freedom of will. But atheism would no longer be the dominant religion. It would no longer be imposed.”
Are perestroika and glasnost moving society in this direction? “Yes, yes! Increasingly people are moving toward belief and toward the Church. But still we have many serious problems. Too many people are thinking primarily about the economic problems and neglecting spiritual ones. Our main attention — even the attention of political leaders — should be focused on religious problems. There is an urgent need to remove all the impediments that stand in the way of religious education and religious formation. Before we can recover our economic health we must recover our spiritual health.”
Did you grow up a believer? “I was an atheist until I was 27. Neither was Irina, my wife, a believer. We moved to belief together.”
What led you toward the Church? “There were so many things, so many personal religious experiences. A crucial event was my first reading of the Gospel. It stirred me deeply.”
How did you prepare for the priesthood? “In the monasteries. I didn’t go to a theological school. I was what is called an ‘obedient’ [a guest sharing in the monastic life without taking monastic vows] at several monasteries including the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. Then two years ago Archbishop Chrysostom ordained me in Irkutsk.”
Standing silently at Father Sergei’s side while we talked was Ivan Ilyich, the church warden. He had a sober face, white beard and wore a traditional embroidered Russian shirt under his jacket. I expressed my hope to him that the day would soon come when no Russian town or village would be without a church. “Let’s hope!” he said. “But it is God’s will that decides.”
Orthodoxy in the Far East
Although I went to Ulan Ude to meet the Buddhists who live beyond Lake Baikal, on the Sunday I was in the city I went to the Holy Liturgy at the Church of the Ascension. The church was crowded, the congregation singing with the choir in the more familiar places, while in the side chapel baptisms were going on.
The 21 who were baptized ranged in age from Anastasia, age four, to Georgi, about 30. A girl of 14 was Buryat; the rest were of European descent. About half were teenagers or adults, the rest children. Among them was a mother and her two grown daughters. Together they renounced Satan, spat on him, and expressed their will to be united in Christ. Father Andrei, the young priest, after explaining how to cross oneself, made the sign of cross with oil on the brow, breast, between the shoulders, the hands and feet of everyone being received. A bit of hair was cut off, an ancient symbol of dedication to God. Each person was then baptized by the pouring of water on the head, a real dowsing that was as close as one could get to total submersion without going into a river, and then given a white ribbon — symbolic remnant of a baptismal garment — and a small cross to wear. Each of the god-parents was blessed as well.
Father Andrei spoke about the meaning of baptism and the responsibilities that come with membership in Christ’s Church. “This is your second birth. First you were born from your mother’s body. Now you are born into Christ’s body, a spiritual rebirth. You have started a new life. Live it worthily. Love God with your whole heart and soul and love your neighbor, even your enemy, as yourself. By ourselves we are powerless to love. How can we love an enemy? This is the major challenge. Many fail. We are blind. But God can open our eyes and show us how to love.” The service ended in reception of Communion.
The pastor, Father Martiri Torchevski, asked about my impression of his church. I told him I had never seen so many baptized at once or seen such an assembly line method. Neither had I expected such a large portion to be students or adults. “This is normal,” he said. “We get at least 20 every Sunday. I wish it could be done more slowly but we haven’t enough priests and everything is done in too much of a rush.”
I asked about the history of this church. “This used to be a graveyard church. It was dedicated in 1786 and was brought back to life in 1945. Our main church in Ulan Ude, the Church of the Mother of God, Consolation of the Sorrowful, is used as a storage building for the museum. It was taken away many years ago. We have hopes of it being returned but even if we had it, I don’t know how we could restore it. Just a few years ago we put a great deal of money and time into restoring this building.”
I asked about his background. “My parents were believers. I grew up in the far east beyond the Amur River. After serving in the army I worked with a local publisher. In that province there was no church. Perhaps that is why I was a little slow in realizing I wanted to serve in the church. I went to the theological school in Odessa and was ordained in 1970 when I was 32.”
How did you go to church if there was none in your province? “There was one in the next province. I could get there by bus. Every four or five weeks I went for confession and communion.”
As we left, Father Andrei was presiding at a wedding in the main part of the church. The young couple were wearing the crowns that are the most remarkable symbol in the Orthodox marriage service.
I had visited the Baikal region in January. Back in the USSR in late April, I went to the arctic north to celebrate Easter.
Six months of the year, Archangel’s harbor on the White Sea is frozen in ice, but — at a time when Russia had no access to the Baltic — Peter the Great saw in the remaining half year a maritime opening to western Europe. A statue of Peter, the first beardless czar, stands on the Archangel embankment. Peter seems to be peering out not only toward London and Amsterdam but also towards the Dutchified Russia he was determined to build no matter how many Orthodox whiskers he had to shave in the process. Despite Peter’s later conquests on the Baltic and the establishment of Saint Petersburg (now Leningrad), Archangel remains a busy working port, though the modern city is mainly a timber center
At Saint Elijah’s Church, the celebration of the resurrection began an hour before midnight and lasted until dawn. The church was filled to capacity with many standing outside. For the first time local television covered it — with a crew that was more engaged in the Liturgy than I expected. I noticed the sound man holding a microphone in one hand and a burning candle in the other.
After the all-night service Sergei and I were invited to join in Easter breakfast — a feast of eggs, meat and vodka — at the nearby apartment of one of the parish priests, Father Alexander Kozaruk, and his wife Maria. I asked them what perestroika had meant for them. “More freedom!,” said Father Alexander. “Bell ringing! More publishing!”
The day after Easter was May Day, a national holiday. In Archangel the observance seemed routine at first — crowds parading into the city’s central square, kids riding on fathers’ shoulders, mothers pushing baby carriages, balloons in the air, clusters of teenage girls laughing. There were the standard red-and-white banners with texts praising the Communist Party and its goals. But there was much that was without precedent. Many carried home-made green-and-white banners bearing environmental messages: “Save Life, Save the Fish, Save the Ecology of the North,” “Protect the Dvina River,” “Preserve Nature for Our Children,” “Full Glasnost in Ecology,” “The Fate of Our River is Our Fate,” “Open the Way for Alternatives to Nuclear Power,” and “We Call for a Referendum on Nuclear Power.” A Polish flag was held aloft at the edge of the crowd. I smelled the scent of Solidarity. “I never saw anything like this,” Sergei said.
One of the speakers was Vladimir Kasakov, an actor who chairs the regional environmental group founded last November. “For nature there are no borders,” he said. “Whether we are atheists or believers, rich or poor, Russian or Georgian, we have one common home. We share the same fate as the environment. The issue is how to live together, and this means how to end the violence against nature. Nature will not accept this violence against her. The main victims of ecological devastation are our children. It is in our power to save nature — to purify the water, the air and the soil. To save nature means to save our children and our grandchildren. We claim to be reasonable. Let us prove it by our actions.” His speech drew lively and sustained applause.
After the assembly in the square dispersed, there were informal gatherings in the city center where people set up signs and exhibitions on topics ranging from housing problems to the forthcoming meeting of Deputies to the Supreme Soviet. A display about state cruelties in the past included a quotation from a letter written by a prisoner to his wife: “What I am leaving to you is very modest. My wealth is my love for you. I have never done anything wrong. I am guilty of nothing. For no reason at all they made me a criminal. I know that you do not doubt this. Be proud and never, never, not even for one moment think that I could possibly cast a shadow of disgrace on you. Hold your head high.” It was the last letter from a prisoner in the Davidov Camp near Ertsevo, Barrack Three, in the Archangel district.
Sergei spoke of the awful way Maxim Gorki had allowed himself to be used for deception by Stalin. “For example Stalin sent Gorki to visit a prison on Solovetsky Island, a former monastery in the White Sea to the north of Archangel. Everything was made clean and humane for his arrival. They even set up a reading room. When Gorki entered the room, there were prisoners on display reading newspapers. One of them had the courage to hold his newspaper upside down. Gorki put it right. He must have understood what such a gesture meant. But he wrote what Stalin wanted about the ‘humanitarian treatment’ of prisoners on the island. This was because Stalin wanted an answer to a book about the island that had been published in the west by an escaped prisoner.”
The environmentalists gathered in front of the cultural center, former site of Archangel’s cathedral, destroyed in the thirties. Amid signs protesting nuclear power, Vladimir Kasakov was selling tickets to a meeting to be held a few days later. “We have ecology groups in various plants, offices and schools. A lot of people are preoccupied with environmental problems, especially the negative impact of nuclear plants on the environment. There are ecology groups all over the country and we have ties with similar groups in West Germany and Norway. We realize that we can’t solve environmental problems alone — it requires international solidarity.”
I asked how he got engaged in this. “The writer Vladimir Rasputin and his campaign to save Lake Baikal was a big impetus for me. I came to know him in 1977.”
I commented on the reference he had made in his speech to cooperation in the movement between believers and atheists. “You find many believers active in the environmental movement,” he said. “This is because there is a deep connection between ecology of the soul and ecology of nature.”
We had lunch with the pastor of Saint Elijah’s Church, Father Vladimir Kuzov. Father Vladimir, a Ukrainian, was born in 1947. He has a long face, fine features and a closely trimmed beard. He gestures constantly with his hands, Italian-style. Outsider the church he wears a dark suit with a small gold cross on his lapel. He studied at the Leningrad Theological Seminary, was ordained in 1977, served for a time in Petrozavodsk and Leningrad, then came to Archangel in 1981.
“At present I am both pastor and chairman of the church council. The council is a small group that makes decisions about everyday matters. If there is an important matter, then we have an assembly which any regular church-goer can attend. If we want, we can elect someone else in the congregation as chairman. It doesn’t have to be the pastor. But no one is imposed from the outside.”
Did he miss the Ukraine? “No, I feel at home here. The north has been a good for believers. There were many monasteries in the northern wilderness. In the old times monks would go to the forest because they were the Russian desert. They found the forests were a creative place to pray. The singing of the birds was good for the soul. Most monasteries were built in the forests. You might be walking through the forest and suddenly discover a beautiful scene — churches with golden domes, white bell towers. Seraphim of Sarov went to a staretz [holy elder] for advice and was directed not to an existing monastery but to the forest.”
He was nostalgic about village life — real Russian stoves, babushkas, mushroom picking, an unhurried way of life with a religious core. “But now the villagers are mainly old people. They are the ones carrying on the traditional way of life.”
Is the church attracting young people? “It’s common to hear a young person say, ‘I don’t pray very much but I am a believer.’ You saw yourself how many in church Easter night were young. With perestroika, many more are coming. The number of young people being baptized is growing fast. There have been documentaries about church life on television, especially during the Millennium. These stirred interest. It isn’t as easy for young people to get involved in church — they have their studies or their jobs — but they come on weekends. When you ask how they came to belief, many of them say it was their grandmother who taught them to pray and to be aware of God and the fundamentals of religion. We see a number of teachers and doctors coming to church, being married in church and bringing their children to be baptized. There is a big demand for literature about church life — calendars, Bibles, prayer books.”
And what about older people? “You could say the same. A few days ago a man of about 40 came to ask me about sacraments, the eucharist, God. He said, ‘I wouldn’t yet say I am a faithful person but I feel interest. I want to learn.’ Some people ask about parts of the Bible — what does a certain story and commandment mean. The picture is encouraging. It is a big change. The only problem is that it is very hard to meet all the needs.”
Can you manage? “Yes, but it is a huge job. We have three priests in our church and this isn’t enough when you think of all the services to conduct, the confessions, baptisms, marriages and funerals, the people who are sick, all those who need to talk to you, those who are preparing to enter the church. You need to call on the help of others. Otherwise it would be impossible. You have to keep time for your wife and children.”
Are there study groups for those who want to know more? “It isn’t ideal but now we can educate people in the back of the church. We teach basic prayer, the meaning of baptism and marriage, how to prepare for confession, information about fasting, the meaning of certain symbols. It’s very basic instruction. Also there are occasional opportunities in places where we were never invited. Last summer I was able to speak about the meaning of Christianity and the Orthodox Church before students in a local school. There is now another invitation — somehow I have to find the time. I was interviewed twice in the local newspaper. My picture was in the paper! My hope is that the new legislation on freedom of conscience will increase the possibilities for religious education.”
Is your church involved in charitable work? “Not yet on a regular basis, but we have made some gestures. We went to a local orphanage and presented a television set. Now we are preparing ourselves for regular engagement.”
What about the local Council for Religious Affairs? “We find it easy working with Mikhail Feodorovich [the head of the local Council for Religious Affairs]. We like him. He has a warm heart. He respond quickly to any requests. If we have any troubles involving civic organizations, we turn to him for help.”
While in Archangel, I twice happened to catch religious programs on Soviet television. On the afternoon before Easter, the documentary, “Church”, first aired during the Millennium the previous June, was rebroadcast. On the evening news two days later there was a feature about Saint Xenia of Petersburg, a member of that peculiar tribe of saints especially beloved in Russia, the iurodivii — fools for Christ’s sake. Age 26 when her husband died, Xenia felt as it was she who had died. Afterward she gave away everything she possessed, saying, “The Lord feeds the birds of the air. I am no worse than a bird.” Relatives attempted to prevent the distribution of her husband’s estate on the ground that she was insane but the physician who examined her declared that she was of sound mind. For eight years she disappeared from the city. When she returned she was wearing her husband’s old uniform, now reduced to rags, and would only answer to his name, Andrei Theodorovich. She was often seen on the streets of the poorest districts. The copper kopeks she was given — she never accepted more than a kopek — she in turn distributed to others. She became a source of solace and guidance to many people. Workers building a church at the Smolensky Cemetery noticed that someone was carrying many bricks to the top of the scaffolding at night — it was discovered she was responsible. She refused all offers for indoor lodging yet managed to live her wandering life for forty-five years. Throughout that time she always radiated a deep happiness, meekness, humility and kindness. When she died at the age of 71, she was buried in the Smolensky Cemetery where her grave became a place of pilgrimage. Eventually a chapel was erected over her body.
In recent years the Smolensky Cemetery was designated by city planners as a site for apartment buildings. The people of Leningrad, wanting to protect the grave of Xenia, protested. Finally the city council agreed to erect the buildings elsewhere.
The reporter interviewed various people who had come to pray at her grave — old and young, men and women. “I come for consolation,” said one woman. “Does she help you?” “Yes! Of course!”
Karelia — the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic — is part of the Russian north. Most of the land is forested. The Karelian economy is centered on wood products and paper manufacture. The eastern region has been part of Russia since the Fourteenth Century but the border with Finland was not established until 1947. The capital, Petrozavodsk (Peter’s Foundry), was founded on the western shore of Lake Onega by Peter the Great in 1703 to provide armaments. The foundry has since become a huge tractor factory. There are hundreds of lakes. In January, when I was there, ice on Lake Onega blocked access to Kizhi Island, location of the most famous wooden church in Russia, the many-tiered Church of the Transfiguration with its ascending ranks of twenty-one silvery grey cupolas. In the summer connections between lakes and rivers make it possible to go by boat not only from Petrozavodsk to nearby Kizhi but all the way to southern Europe.
In Stalin’s time the statue of Peter the Great that used to stand in the center of the main square was replaced by a bronze Lenin. “Now there is a desire to put the statue of Peter the Great back where it was,” said a city guide. “That would mean moving Lenin’s statue. The city council has put this off on the grounds of expense. The statue of Peter has been moved twice so far — from the central square to an inconspicuous courtyard and then, ten years ago, down to the lake front.”
Archimandrite Manuil Pavlov, Vicar of the Diocese of Karelia, is a large man with sympathetic eyes and wispy black beard streaked with grey. On the walls of the living room, apart from the icon corner, were pictures of old churches. A small model of Kizhi’s Transfiguration Church stood on the upright piano.
His grandfather, Pavel, now 85, shares the house with him. He laid stones for the first churches built in the north after the last world war. Thirty years ago he helped restore the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Leningrad.
“Easter is the real time,” said Father Manuil after we exchanged the traditional Easter greeting. “Truly these are bright days. Whether people believe or not, heaven and earth are celebrating the resurrection. During the Easter days, we experience an natural closeness.”
What effect has perestroika had on Karelia? “If you drop into a shop, you don’t see changes. On the other hand we have changed. The most important thing is that we have lost the feeling of fear. It used to be that I didn’t care what newspapers were saying. Now I do care. I want to read them. Of course I am especially happy about what is happening for believers. The government no longer thinks of the church as a foreign land within the country. We are now recognized as an important part of our country, people able to do something for the improvement of society. It used to be that the role of the Church was limited by the law of 1929. In fact it is still the law. But life advances before decrees. The activity of the Church is beyond the 1929 limits. We await the new law on freedom of conscience that is being considered right now.”
What sort of changes are occurring in Karelia? “Valaam Monastery is in this region, in Ladoga Lake. It hasn’t yet been officially returned but we anticipate having it back. Its restoration is underway. A lot must be done. People with the skills for the indoor repairs and fresco restoration are rare. At least we have managed to prevent further decay of the structures. I was amazed by the sense of sacred space when I visited Valaam last year. Even after these many years without a living monastic community, it is still a blessed place. There is a halo around it. I long for the day when Valaam is a living monastery again.
“We now have a Charity Fund in Karelia. I am on the committee that decides how to use the funds. Members of my parish are now helping in local hospitals and our priests are able to visit patients. I participated in the opening of a new home for elderly people.
“Another change involves education. A year ago I would never have imagined that I would be invited to give lectures on the history of the Russian Orthodox Church before history students at the Petrozavodsk University. It used to be that some students would come one by one for private conversation, just to communicate on matters of faith. Others wanted to come but were afraid. To a large extent the clergy were kept separate from the people, even from believers. I could give a sermon but otherwise I had no contact with my own flock. Konstantin Kharchev commented that by cutting off the priest in this way, we were unable to do much to raise the level of public morality, and thus it was a stupid policy on the state’s part.”
I asked about rumors that Kharchev would not continue in his post. “Now he is in the hospital but next he will be appointed an ambassador. He did a good job. The two interviews with him in Ogonyok were excellent. They expanded the horizon. But I don’t think his departure means a set-back for religious developments. The Council for Religious Affairs is going in a new direction. It used to block the way. Now it actively helps in protecting religious rights. Their staff in Karelia are active reformers. They say yes even before they are asked.”
What is the role of the Orthodox Church in the new situation? “We have accumulated traditions and values important not only to believers but to all human beings. The time has come to open these treasures to everyone. Not that everyone will become believers. But they can use our store of knowledge and moral values to improve themselves and society as a whole and move closer to a life in peace. This will be a benefit to all.”
How can the church prepare more people to respond to the possibilities that now exist? “Archbishop Kyrill has just opened a school for readers in Smolensk. He is a good man. He was much loved when he headed the seminary in Leningrad. He has done a lot to prepare people to bring the message of belief to others. There will be another similar school in Minsk next year.”
I commented that there seemed to be more attention in Orthodox churches to the importance of sermons. “When I am giving a sermon, I look and see what sort of people are there. If they are young, I try to explain things that may be strange to them. The church shouldn’t be foreign.”
On Bright Thursday — all the days of the first week after Easter are prefixed “bright” — we drove together to Olonets, a small city near Lake Ladoga.
On the way out of Petrozavodsk we stopped to visit the Church of Saint Catherine the Martyr, a cemetery church in an old part of the town where the old wooden houses survive. With tears in her eyes, an old woman praying in the church, Lidiya, told me that she “listens every day to God’s Word on the Voice of America.” She instructed me to kiss my wife.
“There used to be 38 Orthodox churches in this city,” said Father Manuil as we drove away. “Three are still in use. One had its domes removed. The main periods of destruction were 1930-32 and 1934-38. After the war some churches could reopen but then there was another big wave of church closing in the sixties, the Khrushchev time. Now we are in a period where not only city churches are being reopened but churches in towns and villages. There are many places where new churches are under construction or are planned. Under the new legislation we expect that local authorities will have no right to retain a church building that is empty or only used for storage purposes. This will make it easier to start new parishes. But there is often the problem that a confiscated church is used for another purpose — a club or office. Then it can be quite difficult to get it back. And there is the problem of all those churches that were destroyed. New ones must be built and even if the local authorities are willing for this to happen, it isn’t easy to get the money and materials needed. Even though we expect many positive changes in the new law, at the moment all we have is the old law which denies religious communities the right to get loans. Even the diocese is not supposed to loan money! On the other hand life is going beyond the limits of the old law. Our diocese is helping local churches. In such matters you depend on the good will of local authorities and their willingness to consider the old law dead. But not all local authorities are like that. We are among the lucky ones.”
What are the statistics for the diocese as a whole? “Besides the three in Petrozavodsk, we have three other working churches — the fourth opened five years ago in Segisha and the fifth opened last year in Olonets. Another church is near the Finnish border at Sartavala. In addition to the six, now we have permission to use a number of local chapels for services. These aren’t full-time churches and so under the present law can’t be registered. They are in a new category altogether. We haven’t enough priests and the villages near the chapels are very small, but we can have occasional services at these places — liturgies, weddings, baptisms, funerals. In the former times such chapels couldn’t be used. It was impossible. They just stood there rotting. Now priests can come on certain dates — perhaps once a month — so faithful people won’t have to travel to the city. Local believers have been given keys to the chapels. They are cleaning and repairing them and bringing back the icons they were keeping in their homes. There are now nine chapels like this in the territory. We hope to have use of another six but there are still problems to be solved in a few places. Not everything goes smoothly but we have no problems with the Council for Religious Affairs.” Passing through the village at Novinka, we stopped to see a chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael, now used for occasional services.
Bells were ringing in welcome as we arrived at the Church of the Dormition, in a wooded area outside Olonets. The pastor was a tall young man, Father Alexander Varlamov. He led us into church to sing Easter prayers before the iconostasis. “We celebrated the two-hundredth anniversary of our church this year,” said Father Alexander. “It’s a graveyard church with many icons of the old style of the Northern Russian School from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.”
He introduced an old woman who, for 52 years, took care of the church, helping to safeguard it through the years, first from the early thirties until after the war, then again in the sixties until last year.
“In the years the church was closed we lost some of the festal icons and also the Royal Doors of the iconostasis. The new doors were carved by a local with love in his heart. The Dormition icon has a text at the bottom recording the visit by Catherine the Great for the church’s consecration May 28, 1788. Local people have brought us many ancient icons that were handed on within their families for generations. Collectors would pay a lot for them but believers want them to be in the church. Many people are coming here. We know each other. It is like a family. We are well-disposed to each other. There is a climate of sympathy, a feeling of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not every church is so blessed. One problem faced in many places is that the church is too small for the many people who come — it’s hard to develop a spirit of community in such circumstances. In former times people would say, ‘We are going to our church.’ They didn’t say the church. They felt at home there.”
Back in Petrozavodsk that night, I talked with Nikolai Stepanov, Father Manuil’s assistant, recently graduated from the Leningrad Theological Seminary but not yet ordained. He mentioned that there is already a small monastic community at Preoversk, near Valaam, “a seed of the revived Valaam.”
I mentioned to him how impressed I had been in 1987 to notice the large number of people receiving communion at the seminary church in Leningrad. “This is the merit of Archbishop Kyrill from the time that he was rector. He often explained what the eucharist is and encouraged more frequent communion. He also did much to restore a closer relationship between the priest and the people. For many years the priest was cut off from his flock, allowed no role except to stand at the altar. He could explain things in a deeper way only with a trusted inner circle. Now every Sunday we meet the church-goers and seminary students explain the meaning of Orthodox faith and many other things. This is not only for believers but for anyone who wants to come. Many people in Leningrad show their interest. The seminary hall holds about a hundred and that really isn’t big enough. People come from all walks of life — workers, people with desk jobs, intellectuals. Every week there is a special topic decided after consultation with the participants and students — sacraments, history of the Church, how Orthodoxy differs from other confessions, the place of faith in the life of writers like Gogol and Dostoyevsky. One week we discussed the Optina Pustyn Monastery and the writers who visited there. Whatever the topic, first we present a report which can be accompanied with slides or a film and then there is a general discussion. The seminary choir performs. Sessions last about two hours, until Vespers.”
What happens if there is no longer a hall big enough? “Maybe eventually it will become a television show.”
The next day, with two local priests, I had lunch with a local Orthodox family living in a large log house. “In our house you find many old traditions of Karelia,” said my host, an old man with a white beard. “Here my wife and I have been living for forty years. Here our children have grown to adulthood. Here we have prayed. Here we have known death. Today we are remembering Anastasia’s death. Many have been guests at this table, and not only those who share our Orthodox faith. We welcome you! Today we have eternal joy. All of us know that if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, our hope would be in vain. Christ is risen! May God protect you and your family and send you his bliss.”
One of his daughters, a teacher, told about recent events at the music school where she works. “We have started a choir that is singing classical religious music. More and more people want to hear this and even to sing it. Right now we are singing many works by Saint John of Damascus and Easter music.”
One of the priests, Father Vladimir, whose greying beard had enough room inside to give shelter to a hibernating bear, told the story of a Russian who, late in the Nineteenth Century, went to the west for his education, entered business, married a German woman, and built up a fortune. “Late in his life he became deeply restless. His wife understood that his unhappiness had to do with his homeland and convinced him to return to Russia for a visit. He finally agreed. When he had crossed the border his carriage had a minor accident — the driver had to stop for repairs. The man went for a walk. It happened the path he followed brought him to a church. There was no service going on but the door was open. Inside an aged woman was praying in front of a respected icon. She cried. She groaned. Her prayer took the plank away from his eyes. He understood the emptiness in his life. It was crystal clear. He lost his blindness and fell in love with Orthodoxy. He brought his family to Russia and lived a faithful life, not seeking wealth but serving God and his neighbor. Finally he passed away in peace.”
Late that afternoon, at the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Father Vladimir blessed a small icon that Sergei had just purchased, a photo mounted on wood made by a local cooperative and sold for ten rubles the city’s main department store. Father Vladimir gave the icon the maximum benediction rather than the quick blessing I had anticipated. In his hearty voice, he sang and prayed for a quarter hour, finally splashing both the icon and ourselves with blessed water. Boris Feodorovich Detshiev of the Council for Religious Affairs, who witnessed the blessing, says Father Vladimir is deeply loved by local believers. I could well believe it.
It happened that a group of teachers was in the church at the same time, the Friday group I had heard about who come after school to better understand the Orthodox Church. Father Georgi, a young Ukrainian, was leading the informal discussion. “Christianity teaches tolerance and forgiveness,” he said. “Impatience even about little things can do harm. If someone steps on your foot by accident and you get angry about it, soon everyone around you is snapping. The whole atmosphere is poisoned.”
As we left the church, Boris Feodorovich made the comment that the headache he had had earlier in the day disappeared the moment he entered the sanctuary. “You can believe in God or not believe, but when your headache goes, you know it.”
He recalled a story told in the magazine Science and Religion. The author asked an old woman in front of the church, “Why do you stand here so long? What does being here give you?” She said, “It gives me a sense of godliness.”
“You know,” he said, “babushkas don’t waste words!”
The rivers of protesters flowing in the streets of Belgrade were as much a surprise to the world at large as they were to Slobodan Milosevic. Nonviolent Serbians? No less unexpected was the support the government’s opponents received from an institution many regarded as lost in the archives: the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Milosevic had rightly counted on the west looking the other way during Serbia’s elections in November — a reward for his having gone along with the program in Dayton — but he took the wrong measure of his own people. Overcoming years of bickering, opposition political groups forged a coalition called Zajedno (Together) and managed to win all but five of November’s municipal elections, including Belgrade. What to do? Government-appointed judges were hurriedly called upon by the ruling party to declare the results invalid.
Having tasted victory at the ballot box, voters proved to be less cooperative than the judges. They poured onto the streets, waving everything from protest signs to kitchen aprons, and did this every day — not just a few thousand but in numbers beyond counting. There were days when journalists estimated between 400,000 and half-a-million protesters in Belgrade alone.
No less surprising was the Gandhi-like creativity of the demonstrators, who ranged from students to pensioners. Often they threw rotten eggs at government building, among these the headquarters of state television, whose staff had scrupulously ignored the opposition during the elections and now refused to report the street protests. During the evening news broadcast, it became the daily custom for people throughout Belgrade to come to their windows and balconies and make noise — blowing whistles, banging on pots and pans. When street marches were banned for disrupting traffic, the protesters took to their cars, which _really_ disrupted traffic.
“Milosevic has created an image of us in the world as a nation of murderers, outlaws and ethnic cleansers. He has disgraced us as a people, but finally it seems the conscience of Serbia is awakening,” said Milorad Stojakovic, one of the egg throwers. Stojakovic lost his state job after expressing support of the demonstrators.
Perhaps the most unexpected participant in the opposition was the Serbian Orthodox Church. Like bishops nearly everywhere, the Serbian hierarchy has tended to express itself in generalities, but there was nothing vague about the declaration signed by Patriarch Pavle and 34 other bishops on January 2nd. They flatly condemned “the falsification of the people’s votes” and “the trampling on the people’s freedom . . . the beating and murdering of people on the streets.”
Four days later, Christmas Eve on the Serbian Church calendar, several hundred thousand people defied a police ban to gather with Patriarch Pavle and Zajedno’s leaders in front of unfinished St. Sava Church. “Respect for the law and for the spirit of justice,” Pavle said, “requires everyone to honor the freely expressed will of the people, to curb individual self-will and avoid aggression, which neither will nor can bring any good to the people and the state itself.”
Rallies continued in Belgrade the next day. In honor of the Prince of Peace, protesters kissed riot police.”People in police uniforms are also part of the people,” said opposition leader Vuk Draskovic. “It’s Christmas for you too. [The authorities] sent you here today to provoke bloodshed. But I say to you, ‘Divine peace, Christ is born’.”
A reporter covering the Christmas services in Belgrade heard worshipers express relief that the Church had taken on the Milosevic regime. “This is the first time in years that I went to church for Christmas Eve,” said Momcilo Lukic, holding the hand of his four-year-old daughter Maja.
There was a similar scene January 27, the Feast of St. Sava. Carrying bread and salt, traditional symbols of hospitality, Patriarch Pavel led a crowd of an estimated 300,000 people into the heart of Belgrade. Pavle had called for the procession in hopes participants would be allowed to pass through a police cordon that for days blocked students from marching in the center of the capital. After many tense hours, riot police withdrew, opening the way.
“Today,” the elderly monk said to the protesting citizens of Serbia, “eyes are watching us from the sky and ground and telling us to endure on the holy and righteous road.”
What the weeks ahead hold for Serbia remain unclear. Milosevic has counted on the police to obey orders. At their hands at least 100 people were injured, among them one of Zajedno’s leaders, Vesna Pesic. But the next day, Milosevic did an about-face, recognizing opposition electoral victories in Belgrade and other Serb cities. The opposition, having much past experience of unkept promises, seems determined to keep public protest going.
“For anyone visiting from other parts of the country,” writes conscientious objector Bojan Aleksov, “we must look like a city of lunatics, yet it must be said we’re sometimes having lots of fun. With all these actions, Belgrade is the most interesting place in the world right now.”
= = =
Jim Forest, a contributing editor of Sojourners, is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, In Communion. His newest book is Praying With Icons (Orbis).
for Sunday 12 June 2016 / John 17:1-13 at St Silouan the Athonite Church in Toronto
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus praying to the Father for his disciples, that is to say praying for us, for all baptized people and for all those making their way to the Church — once again that’s us, for who can say he or she has yet arrived? Baptism is a border crossing, not a destination. We are each of us on our way, step by step, and sometimes misstep by misstep.
What’s the context of this prayer? It’s just before his passion. In sight of the cross — his execution is only hours away — Jesus tells his Father that he is no more of this world but that those whom he has gathered remain in the world. He calls on his Father to keep them — to protect them — in his name “that they may be one even as we are one.”
The third verse is the declaration that I find most striking: “This is eternal life, that they know you, Father, as the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Knowing the only true God is eternal life.
Let’s look more closely at just a few key words, starting with “knowing”. This is much more than knowing the price of something or knowing the sun rises in the east. It is akin to marital knowing. “Adam and Eve knew each other,” we read in Genesis. Knowing God is living with God and in God. Knowing God is an ever-expanding intimate relationship.
And what about “true”? “True” and “truth” are words with infinite depths — not easy words to take on board.
A few nights ago my wife and I found ourselves reading a poem by Seamus Heaney that includes the line: “Tell the truth. Do not be afraid.” The next day we discovered that Heaney’s last words were in Latin, “Noli timere”, which means “Do not be afraid.”
Tell the truth. Do not be afraid. Not only is fear a potential obstacle for telling the truth — you can get into lots of trouble for telling the truth — but fear is an impediment to knowing the truth. The truth can be upsetting. It can uproot your life. It can make relationships but also destroy them. It can cost your job. It can subject you to ridicule. Just to admit you believe in God will, for some people, put you on their stupid people list.
We believe in the true God and in the one God we see an incomprehensible three-ness — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One God, not a proliferation of gods. We reject as un-true and non-existent all the competing gods of antiquity. We reject the claims of all Caesars, the great and powerful rulers, to be regarded as divine. We have another ruler, the true God. “Put not your trust in princes,” we are reminded Sunday after Sunday in the Liturgy of St John of Chrysostom. Only God deserves our absolute trust.
We are called to center our lives around the one true God. That means we don’t just memorize sentences that reveal what God wants of us to do but we struggle to live those words, to translate them into life. As Metropolitan Anthony used to say, “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”
One does not enter heaven by reciting the Creed correctly or by passing a theology test but by becoming a living channel of the divine mercy. Participating in God’s mercy we already have eternal life.
A major part of living in God’s mercy is not being merciless. That’s no so hard. When others have needs, try to help. When there is war, refuse to be part of it. Where there is deceit, tell the truth. For we know — Jesus made it clear — that what we do to the least person we do to him. For Christ is with us. He is and always shall be.
I am reminded of an exchange between the often-imprisoned Jesuit poet Daniel Berrigan and a reporter. The reporter asked, “Do you believe Jesus Christ will come again?” Dan’s answer was, “He never left.”
One key element of the prayer of Jesus, our gospel reading this morning, is that we, his disciples, will be one even as Jesus and his Father are one. It’s a prayer that requires our active collaboration. God does not force us into unity. What a sad spectacle it is to see how divided we are, not only Christian from Christian but child of God from child of God. Far from obeying Christ’s commandment to love our enemies we don’t even love our neighbor.
The walls that separate us are built of bricks of fear. Fear rather than the Gospel shapes so many of our choices, big and small. The toxic part fear plays in our lives is a point stressed by the prominent Greek Orthodox theologian and bishop, Metropolitan John Zizioulas:
“The essence of sin is the fear of the other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the other … it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat…. The fact that the fear of the other is pathologically inherent in our existence results in the fear not only of the other but of all otherness. This is a delicate point requiring careful consideration, for it shows how deep and widespread fear of the other is: we are not afraid simply of certain others, but even if we accept them, it is on condition that they are somehow like ourselves. Radical otherness is an anathema. Difference itself is a threat. That this is universal and pathological is to be seen in the fact that even when difference does not in actual fact constitute a threat for us, we reject it simply because we dislike it. Again and again we notice that fear of the other is nothing more than fear of the different. We all want somehow to project into the other the model of our own selves.”
What is the antidote for fear? Are there any remedies? How at least can fear play a smaller role in the choices we make? The development of a stronger, deeper spiritual life is surely at the core of an answer. If fear is not to have a dominant role in our lives, a great deal of inner strength is needed. Without it the voice of conscience — and the courage to follow it — will be suppressed.
Let me finish by repeating just six words: Tell the truth — don’t be afraid.
One of the events Saint John dwells on — it’s the whole of chapter nine in his Gospel — concerns a man blind from birth. A beggar, he is sitting on the Sabbath at his usual spot on a street in Jerusalem and becomes the object of a question put to Jesus as he passes by: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The assumption was that a disability had to be a punishment.
You have to imagine the blind man simply listening in his lifelong darkness to the exchange, curious as to what the rabbi will say. He hears an unexpected answer from Jesus: “It was not this man who sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made visible in him.” Then Jesus adds enigmatically, “We must do the works of him who sent me while it is day. Night comes and then no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
The blind man says nothing and asks for nothing. He makes no verbal appeal for a miracle. He is as silent as the grave.
Then Jesus, as if working on the creation of Adam, makes a paste of earth and spit, applies it to the man’s tomb-like eyes, and tells him to wash his face in the nearby Pool of Siloam. The man’s one act of faith is to obey the unseen rabbi named Jesus.
“So he washed and came back seeing,” Saint John records. By then Jesus had walked on.
The miracle is described with economy. The main part of the chapter isn’t about the healing of a blind man’s eyes but how others respond to it.
There are those who doubt this is actually the blind beggar. “Some said, ‘It is he.’ Others said, ‘No, but he is like him.’” The man insists he is himself, then tells what happened, how a rabbi named Jesus made clay and anointed him with it and sent him to wash his face in the Pool of Siloam, and afterward he could see. They ask where is this rabbi, but the man doesn’t know.
The argument becomes so heated that the disputants bring the man before a council of Pharisees, a respected group among the Jewish people for whom the careful observance of the Law of Moses had absolute priority. For them, it was obvious that Jesus was a sinner because he had made mud on the Sabbath, a form of labor, however minor, in violation of the Sabbath statutes prohibiting all work.
To get to the bottom of things and reveal what they assume is an act of deception (we too tend to assume the worst of beggars), the Pharisees call the beggar’s parents. They affirm that he is their son and that he was always blind. Asked how is it possible that he now has his sight, they respond, “Ask him. He is old enough. He can speak for himself.” Saint John explains the parents were afraid. We can take for granted that they were among the city’s poor — otherwise their son wouldn’t have had to beg. They are poor and powerless — people intimidated by lawyers.
The man was questioned a second time. Lawyers know stories don’t always hold up under persistent questioning. They say to him, “Give God the glory. We know the man is a sinner.” “Give God the glory” is similar to the proverb, “Speak the truth and shame the devil,” for God is glorified whenever the truth is told and dishonored whenever the truth is denied.
The man bears witness to what has happened to him: “Whether the man who healed me is a sinner or not, I do not know. One thing I know — I was blind and now I see.”
More than his blind eyes have been healed — he doesn’t share the fear which afflicted his parents. When asked again how Jesus cured his blindness, he tells the interrogators that he has told them the truth, but they didn’t want to hear it. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples?”
The word disciple must have gone off like a firecracker. Those questioning him respond, “It’s you who are his disciple — we are disciples of Moses! We know God spoke to Moses but we do not know where this one is from.”
The beggar is reckless in his response: “This is amazing,” he says. “You don’t know where he is from, but he opened my eyes.” He points out the obvious — God doesn’t listen to sinners but only to the devout. Now here is someone who has healed a man blind from birth, something absolutely unheard of. “If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.”
An uneducated beggar dares to argue with prominent and well-educated men and is rebuffed for his effrontery. “You were born totally in sin,” they tell him, the assumption being that his blindness was proof of that. “Now you try to teach us!” He is shown the door.
All the while Jesus is elsewhere, but he hears what has happened and seeks out the man who had been blind. The striking thing is that once again it is Jesus taking the lead. He finds him and says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Son of Man” is a Messianic title, the new Adam, the long-awaited one who would rescue Israel. The healed man responds with his own question, “Who is he, sir, that I might worship him?”
Now, with this nameless man on his first day of seeing, we stand at the absolute heart of the Gospel. Jesus answers: “You have seen him and the one who is speaking with you is he.”
The healed man’s response is immediate. “He said, ‘I do believe, Lord,’ and he worshiped him.”
Worship is both an attitude and a physical action. We can assume the man either fell on his knees or prostrated himself, actions mirroring the awareness that he was the presence of the Savior.
The key verse in the narrative is Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world.” In icons of Christ holding open the Gospel, this verse is often the text displayed — a one-sentence summation of his identity.
The story can be read on more than one level. First of all it is a faithful account of a remarkable event which happened one day in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago; but it also has to do with us. Putting ourselves in the place of the blind man, we can see ourselves as blind from birth — not blind in the sense of being unable to see the material world around us but blind in our inability to see God, blind in not noticing the Creator in creation, blind in our inability to see God’s image in others. It is usually a worsening blindness; as we get older we tend to become less and less amazed so that things which were once astonishing become ordinary. Boredom can become a constant condition, relief being sought through distraction. We may be far less in touch with the world around us than the blind beggar who was sitting between the Temple and the Pool of Siloam.
Sitting in darkness, I happen to hear a circle of voices discussing why it is that I have this unfortunate condition. Someone is asking if it is my fault or someone else’s? Who is to blame? Then I hear a voice speaking with confidence about “making visible the works of God.”
I can’t understand what he means. What can my disability have to do with making visible the power of God? But as the wet clay is rubbed on my face and washed off in the waters of baptismal awakening, it dawns on me that the answer is not a theory or a principle about light or enlightenment. The answer is a particular person. Jesus is not just another teacher but Christ himself, the Messiah we have awaited, who reveals himself in word and action as the Light of the World.
It wasn’t easier to believe two thousand years ago in Jerusalem than it is here and now. This chapter in Saint John’s Gospel is mainly about people not believing what they had seen or which others had witnessed. It is a story of sighted people being blind and insisting on remaining blind. It is as if they were saying, “We see enough and know enough already. We don’t need any new prophets or street-corner messiahs. We have a lifetime supply of wisdom and rules. Take your miracles and beggars and go away. We have seen enough.”
To climb the ladder of the beatitudes, we need to be climbing toward the living Christ, not a dead body or an intellectual concept. Such climbing is worship, no different from the worship of the healed man who recognized Jesus as Lord. The first part of his healing was that he could see the objects and people around him, but the more important gift was that before the day was over he realized he was in the presence of the Son of Man, the Light of the World, he who had shaped Adam from dirt and spit.
* * *
a chapter from Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest (Orbis Books)
(for the June 2016 Henri Nouwen conference in Toronto — due to illness I was unable to deliver it)
By Jim Forest
You know the story. A blind man named Bartimaeus encounters Jesus and makes an urgent appeal, “Lord, that I might see.” And Christ grants his wish.
“Lord, that I might see.” So simple, but what a prayer! It’s a prayer for each of us, for which of us can claim not to be blind? Yes, most of us can see. We can admire a painting, take photos, drive a car, even read the small type. But, no matter how eagle-eyed we think we are, there is so much we don’t see. Our eyes are open but most of the time not very widely. How often do we look at another human face and recognize the image of Christ?
One of the remarkable things about Henri Nouwen is how much he saw, how attentively, how thoroughly he saw, how unblind he was.
You probably recall the story of how Henri came to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and, hour after hour, gazed silently at Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son. His attentiveness so impressed the museum staff that Henri was brought a special chair so he could gaze at the painting more comfortably.
Henri developed a similar eye for icons. One of Henri’s achievements is that he played a significant role within Western Christianity in rediscovering and re-appreciating — perhaps we can say re-seeing — icons, the main art form of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, though for well over a thousand years icons were simply the liturgical art, East and West, of the undivided Church
The main monument to his love of icons that Henri left to us was his book Behold the Beauty of the Lord. This thin volume remains among the best introductions to icons — very accessible, not at all technical, with a directness and sobriety that one can describe as icon-like. With his usual immediacy, Henri explains how first one icon — Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon — and then several others — an icon of Mary holding Christ in her arms; an icon of the face of Christ; and a Pentecost icon — gained a place in his life and what he had learned from long periods of attentive living with them.
We are so used to what we think of as more realistic paintings — paintings that are more cinematic, paintings with a single vantage point and a single light source, paintings that we think of as three-dimensional — that icons often seem to many of us like kindergarten drawings. At one time it was the same for Henri. In the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Henri found doors to heaven, but in the case of icons those doors were locked.
Of course he had seen icons in art history books, museums, churches and monasteries many times, but it wasn’t until his first visit to the L’Arche community in Trosly, France, in 1983 that he began to see icons with wide-open eyes. Barbara Swanekamp, assistant to L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, had put a reproduction of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity on the table of the room where Henri was staying. “After gazing for many weeks at the icon,” Henri wrote in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “I felt a deep urge to write down what I had gradually learned to see.”
[screen: Chagall painting]
Henri’s sensitivity to the visual arts was a family trait. In the introduction to his book on icons, he recalls a Chagall painting his parents had purchased early in their marriage at a time when Chagall was hardly known — a watercolor of a vase filled with flowers placed on a sunlit window ledge, a simple yet radiant work, one easily recognized as the work of Chagall. (I have no photo of it to share with you but found this somewhat similar nighttime still life.) The painting made one aware not only of color and light and everyday beauty but of God’s silent, radiant life-giving energy. I recall seeing it when Henri brought me to stay with him at his father’s house. There were many other beautiful works of art in the house — the house was a small museum of fine art — but the Chagall watercolor stood out from the rest and still remains a fresh memory. “The flowers of Chagall,” Henri writes in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “come to mind as I wondered why those four icons have become so important to me.”
The connection doesn’t surprise me. In fact Chagall’s work was deeply influenced by iconography. In some of his paintings the link is made explicit, but it is always there in more subtle ways. Chagall’s work was never held captive by the rules of perspective or the physics of gravity. People and animals fly. Fiddlers play on rooftops. Husbands and wives float in the kitchen. Like an iconographer, Chagall made his canvas a window revealing a hidden world charged with the divine presence. The Chagall painting Henri grew up with helped awaken in him a capacity to appreciate icons and understand their special language.
I remember Henri coming to visit us in the Dutch city of Alkmaar following his first stay at Trosly. He was very excited about the house gift he had brought with him, a print on heavy paper of the Holy Trinity icon. He had purchased it that morning at a religious art shop in Paris. Though he had not yet seen the actual icon — it was in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — he was confident that the print came as close to the real thing as print technology would allow.
Though I had seen icons from time to time, until that day I confess I had taken little more than an academic interest in them. I was aware of Thomas Merton’s enthusiasm for them — he sometimes had sent me icon post cards — but for me this side of Merton had been hidden in a fog bank. It wasn’t until Henri’s visit that finally I began to see them with an excitement similar to his own.
[screen: Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon]
I vividly recall Nancy and me sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike fascination, each detail of the Holy Trinity icon. I think he remarked first on the utterly submissive faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other, in a silent dialogue of self-giving love — three young beardless figures, so alike, three and yet in such a state of oneness. Such love. Such submissiveness. Henri spoke of their profound stillness, their deep silence, and yet also their warmth and vitality. Then we looked at the colors Andrei Rublev had chosen, though even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself not long afterward when I first came to Moscow and visited the Tretyakov Gallery.
This icon, Henri reminded us, has its roots in the story told in Genesis in which Abraham and Sarah, under the oak of Mamre, are visited by angels. Their angelic guests are not the Holy Trinity but — in their oneness-threeness — an angelic revelation of the Trinity. Henri traced the perfect circle that invisibly contains the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the triangle it also contained. All this significant geometry reveals the icon’s theology, yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there was the table around which the three figures were placed — no longer just a plank of wood on which Abraham and Sarah ate their simple meals but transformed into the Eucharistic altar with a golden chalice. Above the three figures were three significant objects: a house with a doorless entrance, a tree, and a mountain. The doorless building, Henri said, is the Church, which one may enter without needing a key. The tree is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain bending toward the angels is both Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes.
Henri spoke about the history of this icon, how Rublev had painted it as the principal icon for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity where the body of St. Sergius of Radonezh had been placed. St. Sergius, one of Russia’s most beloved saints, was a monk, woodworker and toy-maker who, in the 14th Century, founded a monastery in the dense forests north of Moscow. He left no writings. The only words that come down to us from St. Sergius are these: “The contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.” Through this icon, which for centuries was placed a few meters from the entombed body of St. Sergius, Rublev sought to provide an opportunity for the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.
It may have been from Henri that I first heard the comment of one of the martyrs of the Soviet era, the physicist, mathematician, theologian and priest, Pavel Florensky, who wrote: “Because of the absolute beauty of Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, we know that God exists.” Henri understood this way of thinking — beauty bears witness to the existence of God.
For Henri, the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never closed. All are invited.
Henri linked icons with the question: “What do we really choose to see?” It is a matter of enormous importance what we look at and how we look at it. “It makes a great difference,” Henri noted, “whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videos, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories. We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. We can make decisions and choices. A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord.”
Henri proposed a theology of seeing — or gazing. Gazing was the verb he preferred. To really see something beautiful, such as a well-painted icon, so that its beauty becomes a sacramental reality, one has to do much more than glance. For Henri, the icon is the primary visual art of the Church. Nor could icons be divorced from the totality of the Church. The icon becomes a dead plant when it becomes simply a “work of art,” a “collector’s item,” an aesthetic object. For both Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, icons were intimately connected with eucharistic life and daily prayer, with the Church calendar and its feasts and fasts.
[on screen: Vladimir Mother of God icon]
Like the Bible, the icon is a multi-generational creation made by the Church and also guarded by the Church. The icon is a witness to the truths the Church lives by. Each icon has dogmatic content.
For example, as Henri pointed out, any icon of Christ in the arms of his mother reminds us that Jesus took flesh in the flesh of her body. Christ’s bare feet, as seen for example in the Virgin of Vladimir icon, are a reminder that he was fully human, a boy and then a man who walked the same earth that we do. Though shown as an infant in size, he has the proportions of an adult. His clothing is metaphorical — he is dressed as an emperor, a reminder that in reality he rules the cosmos and invites each of us into his kingdom of mercy and love.
[screen: Rublev’s Pantocrator icon]
It’s quite a different Christ we see in images of the Savior as an adult. Such icons have in common the living memory of Christ’s face as seen by his disciples. Consider the Savior icon done by Rublev, only the face of which survived the iconoclasm of the Soviet period. It was found in a barn and was lucky not to have been used as firewood. As is always the case in icons of Christ, he has brown eyes, long brown hair parted in the center, a closely cropped beard, prominent cheek bones, Semitic features, olive skin, a high forehead. The quiet intensity of his gaze is both startling and challenging. This version of the icon is sometimes described as “Christ the Peacemaker.” It is certainly not a face of condemnation but rather a face of great expectation, a face that challenges. We see Christ’s face, Henri pointed out, as if we had opened a door and found him standing there. It’s remarkably similar to one of the oldest surviving Savior icons, one from the sixth century that is in the safekeeping of the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert.
[screen: Pantocrator icon from of St. Catherine’s Monastery]
Henri realized that the icon, far from being an artistic image intended to direct our attention away from the world we live in with all its agonies, is a school of active seeing. It helps reshape the way we see and relate to other people. The icon serves as a reminder that each person, no matter how damaged, is a bearer of God’s image and, like those whom we regard as saints, has the capacity to reclaim the lost likeness.
It is one thing to believe intellectually that each person is made in the image of God, no less than Adam and Eve, and yet another to actively seek that image and to relate to the other in ways that bear witness to that awareness. How changed we would be, how changed the world would be, if we saw each other as we really are. But, in glancing at each other, we tend to see the frames, not the paintings.
But not Henri.
[screen: contemporary Pantocrator icon]
Perhaps the most important event in the last phase of Henri’s life was his taking responsibility at Daybreak for Adam Arnett, a young man of twenty-five who could not speak, suffered frequent epileptic seizures and was utterly dependent on help from others. Adam was a person whom many would regard as a first-class case for abortion or, having managed to be born, an excellent candidate for what is euphemistically called “mercy killing.” It was no easy thing for Henri, far from the world’s most practical or physically well coordinated person, a man who had difficulty frying an egg or operating a washing machine, to center his life on attending to Adam’s numerous practical needs. Yet Adam became both physically and spiritually a person at the center of Henri’s life, one of Henri’s most important teachers. As Henri wrote:
“His heart, so transparent, reflected for me not only his person but also the heart of the universe and, indeed, the heart of God. After my many years of studying, reflecting and teaching theology, Adam came into my life, and by his life and his heart he announced to me and summarized all I had ever learned.” [Adam, p 38]
For Henri, Adam was the man of many needs he was but, at the same time, a living icon of Christ.
[screen: Chora Anastasis icon]
Speaking of Adam, let’s end with an icon in which both Adam and Eve are portrayed. It’s an image especially linked with Easter — the harrowing of hell. Having died on the Cross, a triumphant and radiant Christ takes charge of the kingdom of death, overthrowing its governor, Satan, binding him in chains and then letting him fall with all his locks and keys into the abyss, while raising the righteous ancestors, first of all Adam and Eve, from their tombs. Amazing! Adam and Eve, the original troublemakers, the refugees from Eden, are the first objects of Christ’s infinite mercy.