MILLENNIUM

religion-in-the-new-russiaopening chapters in my book Religion in the New Russia (NY: Crossroads, 1989)

by Jim Forest

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.7

Then on April 29, 1988, five weeks before the Millennium celebration was to begin, Gorbachev received Patriarch Pimen 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.8

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’9 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.”10

As there were no more Millennium events that day, 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 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 the model for Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov.

The Russian Church has always given special attention to 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.”11

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.12

“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 “travelling” 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.14

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!”15

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 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.”16

“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.

THE ORTHODOX

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.”17

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 Stadniouk, 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 Stadniouk. 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.”

Six months later, in January 1989, we met again 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.”

Kiev

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 unjustly 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.”

What about the prospect for improved relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Catholics? “This problem has been exaggerated. Those campaigning for legalization are a small group driven more by political than religious interests. Their method is not peaceful but aggressive. Under such circumstances how can relations be improved?”

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.18

Siberia

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 equalled 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.”19

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 eduction. 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 greatly deteriorated. It used to be atheists could do whatever they wanted — discharge clergy, publish 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 pushed 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.

* * *

Thomas Merton’s Affinity with Albert Camus

albert-camus
Albert Camus

A paper presented at the Thomas Merton conference in Prades, France in May 2006.

by Jim Forest

Where would we be without our friends? Friends who glimpse our true face? Friends who help us see doors we hadn’t noticed? Friends who accidentally reveal possibilities in ourselves that, left to ourselves, we might never have found? Thomas Merton was friend to many and also the beneficiary of many friendships.

One of his friends was the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz. The Merton-Milosz correspondence started in 1958. What sparked Merton’s first letter to the Polish author was reading Milosz’s The Captive Mind. It’s a grand tour of the human mind caught in a labyrinth of lies provided by any totalitarian society. Milosz observed that the intellectuals who became dissidents “were not necessarily the ones with the strongest minds, but those with the weakest stomachs, for the mind can rationalize anything, but the stomach can only take so much.”

Milosz was living in France when his correspondence with Merton started but soon after moved to the United States, teaching Slavic literature at the University of California at Berkeley.

Not surprisingly, Milosz was an admirer of the writings of Albert Camus. It was Milosz who encouraged Merton to read Camus who in turn became an intimate part of Merton’s intellectual and spiritual life during the last decade of his life.

The two most important Camus novels were The Stranger, published in France during the German occupation, and The Plague, published two years after the occupation ended.

Let me refresh your memory about both books. Afterward we can consider at what made these books so important to Merton.

The Stranger is a tale of two murders, with the narrator of the book guilty of the first killing. As we read the book, we soon become aware that the narrator is so minimally socialized as to be nearly autistic. His act of deadly violence is committed on impulse while in a dazed condition brought on by the fierce heat of the Algerian day. He shoots a man who is unknown to him, a stranger who was threatening him with a knife. As is always the case with murder, it’s an ugly crime, yet the killer can never comprehend why society reacts as it does to this event; he was under threat, and, after all, the victim was “only an Arab”. Had a more skillful defense been offered, he would have escaped a guilty verdict on the grounds that he had acted in self-defense, but he is badly defended and unfairly prosecuted. In the trial, the crime is of less consequence than the defendant’s social failings. The accused is condemned to death less for shooting a man than for smoking a cigarette while on nighttime vigil at the side of his mother’s coffin. He has also failed to have a religious faith or to exhibit regret. Clearly, the prosecutor argues, this man is a criminal type. Even while awaiting his execution, with seemingly endless days to reflect on what he has done, our narrator remains a two-dimensional man, unable to empathize, love, or repent. His chief virtue, one that has cost him dearly, is that he is a man who seems incapable of lying or pretending. A few tears might have saved his life.

It is, as I mentioned, a book about two murders. The second is worse than the first. It is a murder prepared with the utmost premeditation, a judicially-sanctioned murder, a murder that is carried out for “the good of society” and in the name of society. It is cold-blooded murder done cleanly and by the clock, a well-ordered murder with doctor and priest in attendance, a murder arranged by people who, in their domestic lives, may be the soul of kindness. A man’s head is cut off in what is regarded as a socially therapeutic action.

The Stranger was published in 1942. Five years later, Camus’ next novel appeared, The Plague. In it, the reader discovers that Camus was far from finished with the question of the outsider, the exile, the stranger — and not only the stranger from afar; Camus reminds us that it is quite possible to be a stranger even when living in the place where one was born. We also find Camus still wrestling with the issue of killing, and not only when it is carried out by the state, but when committed by revolutionary organizations whose manifestoes call for the creation of a more humane, less murderous society.

Among those we meet in The Plague is Jean Tarrou. He enters the book very quietly as a man of private means who is newly arrived in the Algerian port city of Oran, which Camus describes elsewhere as “a labyrinth where the wanderer is destroyed by the minotaur of boredom.” Tarrou is a man who enjoys life’s pleasures without being their slave. His diary, often quoted in The Plague, is striking for its acute insights and observations and also for the author’s compassion. As the people of Oran fall victim to the plague and are forced to isolate themselves from the surrounding world. It is Tarrou, stranger though he is, who organizes a corps of volunteers, the Hygiene Squad, to assist the afflicted and to attend to all the unpleasant, often dangerous, chores imposed by the plague. Each volunteer, of course, stands a good chance of falling victim to the plague himself.

Another key figure in the novel is Bernard Rieux, one of the city’s physicians. He and Tarrou set the highest standard for selfless response to the plague. For the reader, both men are heroes, and all the more impressive for their profound modesty. Yet neither man for a moment regards himself as a hero. In their own eyes, and in Camus’ view, they are simply being decent, modest human beings. Their response to the plague is no more remarkable than that of a teacher before the blackboard explaining that two plus two equals four. They do not regard themselves as exceptional. Neither do they harbor any resentment for those who respond less bravely, try to escape, who make money on the black market, who do little or nothing for those around them. But the two of them give nearly every waking hour in fighting what seems an utterly futile and endless battle. When at last, after ten months, the plague lets go of its grip of Oran, they take no credit for having speeded the day when the city gates are re-opened. Though they have been warriors along the lines of St. George, they still see the dragon as undefeated. The beast has only gone into temporary retirement. He has not even been scratched by his opponents’ lances.

Many of those who battled the plague are outsiders or strangers in one way or another. Tarrou is a recent arrival in the city with no obvious reason to risk his life for his newly acquired neighbors. He seems to have come to Oran more for the sun and beach than the people. Though Dr Rieux is a native of Oran, he seems by temperament to be a man who stands at a slight distance from others. He even takes distance from the book he is writing — only in the final pages does the reader discover that Rieux is the book’s narrator. He has written it in the third person, with himself just one of diary’s participants.

Both Rieux and Tarrou are outsiders in another sense: neither professes the religious faith of their neighbors in Oran. In a town in which most people, however atheistic in their day-to-day behavior, profess belief in God and identify themselves as Catholic, neither Rieux nor Tarrou is able to make a similar confession. Neither calls himself an atheist, yet they are not believers. When a local Jesuit, Fr Paneloux, preaches that the people of Oran deserve the plague and describes it as harsh but soul-saving medicine, both Rieux and Tarrou find his views deeply repellant. If the God Christians worship is the organizer of plagues, they want nothing to do with Him. They refuse to worship a deity who arranges the agonizing death of even one child.

Tarrou tells Rieux about a pivotal experience in his life when he was seventeen, a story that echoes Camus’ first novel. Tarrou’s father was a prosecutor. One day Tarrou attended court to witness his father in action on the closing day of a murder trial. His father, an entirely decent and caring man at home, becomes, in his blood-red robes, a passionate advocate of the death penalty. Calling on the jury to send the accused to the guillotine, it seems to Tarrou that snakes are gushing from his father’s mouth.

Meanwhile, the man in the dock makes no effort to justify his crime. He is resigned to his grim fate. “The little man of about thirty,” says Tarrou, “with sparse, sandy hair, seemed so eager to confess everything, so genuinely horrified at what he had done and what was going to be done with him, that after a few minutes I had eyes for nothing and nobody else. He looked like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light. His tie was slightly awry, he kept biting his nails, those of one hand only, his right… I needn’t go on, need I? You’ve understood — he was a living human being.”

For Tarrou, until that moment such a person had only been the accused, the defendant, a criminal. He had been a blurry man of inky dots in a newspaper photo, not a human being. Now a revolution occurs in his perceptions. It’s a change of heart which will help shape the remainder of his life. “I can’t say I quite forgot my father,” Tarrou tells Rieux, “but something seemed to grip my vitals at that moment and riveted all my attention on the little man in the dock. I hardly heard what was being said: I only knew that they were set on killing that living man and an uprush of some elemental instinct, like a wave, had swept me to his side.”

Tarrou’s bond with his father, now seen as a man swimming in blood, is irreparably damaged. Not many months pass before Tarrou leaves home, an event that coincides with the day of the condemned man’s execution. A head is separated from a body and a boy is separated from his family.

Tarrou’s struggle with executions has one more crisis. After he leaves home, he is drawn into radical political associations. Not wanting to be part of a social order based on the death sentence, he becomes an agitator, active in movements which, though left unlabeled in The Plague, appear to be some form of communism. Here too he is faced with the problem of killing, for revolutionaries also pass death sentences. “But I was told,” says Tarrou, “these few deaths were inevitable for the building up of a new world in which murder would cease to be.” Tarrou attempted to embrace such sloganistic thinking but ultimately failed, in part because he was still haunted by “that miserable ‘owl’ in the dock.”

What finally exiles him from revolutionary movements is witnessing an execution.

“Have you ever seen a man shot by a firing squad?” Tarrou asks. “No, of course not. The spectators are hand-picked and it’s like a private party. You need an invitation. The result is that you’ve gleaned your ideas about it from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn’t a bit like that. Do you know that the firing squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of the heart and their big bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No, you didn’t know all that. These are things that are never spoken of.”

Camus’ description, by the way, was not second-hand. He had witnessed the execution of an anti-Nazi journalist by the Germans in December 1941. The event galvanized Camus’ horror with the intentional killing of any human being. Until his death, Camus sought a way of life in which one is neither a victim nor an executioner.

Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)
Thomas Merton
(photo by John Howard Griffin)

Merton felt a deep bond with Camus, nor was it one that fizzled out. Camus, he wrote, “was one with whom my heart agreed.” [a quotation cited by George Woodcock in Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet, p 116]

An obvious contrast between Camus and Merton was that one had rejected Christianity while the other embraced it. Indeed Camus, as Merton notes in one of his essays, regarded The Plague as his most anti-Christian book. Yet the difference between Camus and Merton is less substantial than it appears at first glance. In fact what Camus rejected was not the person of Christ but a pseudo-Christianity that had become a mechanism for blessing the established order, a religion of accommodation that provides chaplains to witness executions without raising a word of protest, a religion committed to the status quo rather than the kingdom of God. What Camus was missing in the world were Christians who reminded him of Christ.

Merton was equally troubled with such a pseudo-Christianity. Far from blessing the guillotine or the hangman’s rope, Merton was drawn to the Christianity of the early centuries, when one could not be baptized without renouncing bloodshed, whether in war or as a means of punishment, a Christianity of care for the poor, a Christianity of hospitality, mercy and forgiveness — a Christianity in which sanctity is normal.

In one of the key passages in The Plague, Tarrou confesses to Dr. Rieux that he aspires to a form of sanctity. “What interests me,” he says, “is how to be a saint. But can one be a saint without God? — that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.” [p 219] (Another key word in the novel is a synonym for saint: healer. Tarrou and Rieux are both healers, fighting, as Merton notes, “against disease and death because living man remains for [them] an ultimate, inexplicable value. (“The Plague of Albert Camus: A Commentary and an Introduction,” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, p 186)

Camus died at an early age, not yet 50. In his writings, the question of the post-Christian saint is left unresolved, though we see in his notebooks and correspondence that it remained a burning question. One also notes the ongoing dialogue Camus had with various Christians beginning with his encounter with a community of Dominican Friars not long after the war, while he was writing The Plague, in which he made the remarkable statement that “the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians.”

What Camus hoped to find in Christians was the kind of radical social witness that had been so notable in the early Church. At the very least, he hoped that Christians would, if not reduce evil, then not add to it. But he wished for more than that: “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?” [Resistance, Rebellion and Death, p.73]

Merton also sought a renewed, Christ-revealing Christianity in which Christians would neither justify torture nor become torturers, a Christianity that rejected not only capital punishment but the use of murderous methods to advance any social goal. For him a Christian lacking a sensibility about the horror of bloodshed had hardly begun to know Christ. As he wrote in Seeds of Destruction:

“The Christian does not need to fight and indeed it is better that he should not fight, for insofar as he imitates his Lord and Master, he proclaims that the Messianic Kingdom has come and bears witness to the presence of the Kyrios Pantocrator [Lord of Creation] in mystery, even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.” (p 129)

It was, however, more than a question of standing aside from war and conflict. In common with Camus, he was searching for a way of life in which one was neither a victim nor an executioner. This is what drew him to Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. It is what stood behind his engagement with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. The question is not simply what can we do to keep our hands clean from human blood but what can we do to defend our neighbors without become killers in the process? How can one overcome the plague of bloodshed and those things which cause bloodshed? This became one of the main areas of meditation, study, correspondence and writing in the last ten years of Merton’s life. (But this side of Merton had deep roots. We see it as early as his high school days when he took Gandhi’s side — by no means a popular side at the time — in a student debate at Oakham in England.)

The plague in Camus’ novel is depicted in quite vivid terms, yet it would be a dull reader who failed to see that the plague Camus was writing about was less about an epidemic of a highly contagious, often fatal illness than a parable about life in the modern world. The Plague, Merton wrote, “is a protest against all forms of passive submission to unhappiness and unmeaning. It is a protest against the passive acceptance of alienation.” (“The Plague of Albert Camus: A Commentary and an Introduction,” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, p 182)

Merton carefully studied Camus’ notebooks when they were published and noted that the idea that grew into The Plague for began to form in 1941 while France was under Nazi occupation. Camus spent the war as part of the French Resistance, one of the editors of the underground journal Combat, work in which he literally risked his life for every sentence he wrote.

During those testing years, he witnessed the countless ways that the great majority of French people made their peace with the occupation, many actively collaborating, often with enthusiasm, and many others reluctantly,. Through most of the war, the Resistance was small. Not until the approaching collapse of the Third Reich was obvious did the ranks of the Resistance suddenly swell — but by then such a step was less an act of courage than of prudence. It would be in one’s interest, after the war, to have been part of the Resistance. (Merton witnessed a similar accommodation to the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear war on the part of Christians in the US; for refusing to join the militaristic parade, Merton was accused of being a communist, or, at the very least, “a communist stooge,” and for a time was forbidden by his Abbot General to publish essays or books on war and peace.)

The Plague stands for a social order whose foundation is killing or the threat of killing. The plague is a life in which freedom is increasingly circumscribed by fear — fear of death or fear of pain and poverty. Fear of death, as Merton observed, “lashes the self to externals in a relentless search for security.” [Ross Larie, Thomas Merton and the Inclusive Imagination, p 69] Few medical conditions are so contagious as fear and yet recognized with such reluctance. It is an important moment in our spiritual lives when we become aware that we too are infected with what Camus and Merton call “the plague.”

In Camus’ novel, it is Tarrou who says, “And thus I came to understand that I … had had plague” — here meaning especially an ideology which justifies bloodshed — “through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I’d believed with all my soul that I was fighting it. I learned that I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I’d even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way.” [p 217]

The writings of Thomas Merton in the sixties often address the state of plague we are facing and do so in a way that reveal how much Merton had in common with Camus. As Merton wrote in one essay:

“The awful problem of our times is not so much the dreams, the monsters, which may take shape and consume us, but the moral paralysis in our own souls which leaves us immobile, inert, passive, tongue-tied, ready and even willing to succumb. The real tragedy is in the cold, silent waters of moral death, which climb imperceptibly within us, blinding conscience, drowning compassion, suffocating faith and extinguishing the Spirit. A progressive deadening of conscience, of judgment and of compassion is the inexorable work of the Cold War [or any social matrix driven by fear and enmity].” [Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace, p 81]

Concern about the horror of war and what it does not only to the bodies of its victims but to the souls of all who in various way participate in war, even if only as its cheerleaders or passive collaborators, was one of the constants in Merton’s life from early adulthood until his death.

Not many years later, when the war in Europe was well underway and the US moving steadily toward joining the war, Merton was coming to the conclusion that, as a follower of Christ, he could not take part in the killing. When he registered with the Selective Service, it was as a conscientious objector. Though prepared for noncombatant service on the battlefield as an unarmed medic, he would have nothing to do with killing enemies. In such a role, he wrote in his journal, “I would not have to kill men made in the image and likeness of God” but could obey the divine law of “serving the wounded and saving lives.” Even if it turned out that he would only dig latrines, he regarded such activity as “a far greater honor to God than killing men.” [St. Bonaventure Journal, March 4, 1941]

Writing his autobiography fifteen years later, Merton expanded on his decision:

“[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel …. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do …. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” [The Seven Storey Mountain, pp 311-12]

How startling — also challenging — these words must have been to most of his readers, appearing as they did in the early days of the Cold War. When The Seven Storey Mountain appeared, it was only three years since the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki while countless millions had been killed by more conventional methods or in death camps. Now the H-bomb was already being developed, a weapon with much greater destructive power, while huge sums were being spent on developing other weapons of mass destruction, both chemical and biological. It was a very grim period in the history of sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. The club with which Cain killed Abel could only kill one person at a time — now millions could be killed in a flash. One need not even known the victim’s name, age or sex or ever have seen his or her face. Every human being had become a target of war. And, on the whole, American Christians didn’t seem to mind. Were we not actually keeping our fingers on the nuclear button on God’s behalf? Was not the killing of Communists a God-pleasing activity? (One of the popular slogans of the day was: “The only good Red is a dead Red.”

Human beings were now defined not by the mystery of bearing the image of God but by the fate of being defined by the borders within which they happened to live and the color we assigned to them. The word “red” had become a death sentence. This was the plague with which millions of American Christians were infected and eagerly passed on to others.

How we Christians have changed over the years since Christ’s resurrection, Merton pointed out in essay after essay. The war-resisting, life-protecting, bloodshed-refusing witness given by Christians in the first centuries seems today incomprehensibly remote and scandalously unpatriotic. Among contemporary Christians, there are not many who, in those moments when one has to choose between the example of Jesus, who killed no one, and what is described as patriotic duty, side with Jesus. Better to find some way to explain the Gospel in such a way that it aligns Christ’s teaching with the demands of one’s nation. Time and again the cross is made into a flagpole. In every country and culture one finds pastors and theologians who exhibit a great talent for adjusting the Bible to fit the politics and ideologies of the moment. South Africa had its theologians of apartheid, the United States has had theologians of Manifest Destiny, Nazi Germany had theologians who were rabidly anti-Semitic, and in any country in which slavery existed or thrived as a business, there were theologians who could demonstrate that slavery was God’s will. From the fourth or fifth centuries, there has never been a shortage of bishops and theologians willing to sing the praises of whatever war was underway.

To the end of his life, Merton sought to align himself with the Gospel, refusing to adjust the Gospel to the local flag, or any flag.

The person trying to live according to the unabridged Gospel is sailing by to a different compass than the great majority of his neighbors. That compass is one’s faith-shaped conscience. Under no circumstances can a Christian just “go with the flow.”

In an article that was to get him into quite a lot of hot water, Merton wrote:

“The present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves. There is in reality not the slightest logical reason for war, and yet the whole world is plunging headlong into frightful destruction, and doing so with the purpose of avoiding war…. This is true war-madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world. Of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the most grievously afflicted. On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering. This in a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit. Truly we have entered the “post-Christian era” with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate.

“What is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still should he take a hard-headed and “practical” attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a “first strike” the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic communism for all time and usher in the millennium? I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position may very well be the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.

“What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.

“First of all there is much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.” [The Catholic Worker, October 1961. This was a preface that Merton added to the text for the chapter “The Root of War” in New Seeds of Contemplation.]

This was Merton’s first attempt in the sixties to raise his voice against the plague spirit of the time. He did so in the pages of Dorothy Day’s journal, The Catholic Worker, in the issue published in October 1961; it was one of the first issues that I was involved in preparing for publication. I still recall the excitement I felt to be holding manuscript pages with various corrections penciled in by Merton himself. As it happened, side to side with Merton’s essay when it appeared in print was a drawing of St Francis of Assisi — another disciple of Christ whose conversion led him to embrace the Gospel in its totality and, in the process, to renounce all killing.

Had he not been died in an auto crash four years earlier, Camus would have  appreciated Merton’s role in challenging Christians to struggle against the plague. Indeed I have little doubt the two would have struck up a correspondence. What fascinating letters these would have been!

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Root of War coverJim Forest is the author of The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers and Living With Wisdom: a biography of Thomas Merton.

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Merton on Camus:

“Man is driven to destroy, to kill, or simply to dominate and to oppress comes from the metaphysical void he experiences when he finds himself a stranger in his own universe.” (“The Plague of Albert Camus: A Commentary and an Introduction,” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, p 181)

The Plague “is a protest against all forms of passive submission to unhappiness and unmeaning. It is a protest against the passive acceptance of alienation. (182)

At the center of the book is a stoic “‘healer’ who fights against disease and death because living man remains for him a an ultimate, inexplicable value. (186)

Life, we learn from Camus, “is to be affirmed in defiance of suffering and death, in love, compassion, and understanding, the solidarity of man in revolt against the absurd…” (186)

As he said in his Nobel acceptance speech, Camus wanted to show “how to fashion an art of living in times of catastrophe… (186)

Oran “is a labyrinth where the wanderer is destroyed by the minotaur of boredom (187)

There are more things to admire in man than to despise (189)

“They forgot to be modest.” Modesty is a key word in The Plague. Such modesty is “the sanity of that wholly realistic self-assessment which delivered them from fatal hybris.” Such modesty “ implies a capacity to doubt one’s own wisdom, a hesitancy in the presence of doctrines and systems that explain everything too conveniently and justify evil as a form of good.” (191)

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