Father Alexander Men, of whose life and martyrdom I’ll speak today, was killed on the ninth of September 1990 early in the morning on Sunday, when he went out of his house to reach the church where he was to serve the Sunday Liturgy. The Liturgy was not celebrated. An assassin’s axe took his life. My aim is to tell you about this man, who became the first Christian martyr in the history of post-Soviet Russia.
In Soviet times the Church was suppressed by regime, and priests didn’t dare preach the Gospel. They served the Liturgy and public prayers for old women who visited churches, and that’s all – that was the end of their activity. It was the Church of Silence as John Paul II once called it. In contrast to his confreres father Alexander Men did preach sermons, and young people, university students, intellectuals came to his services – came not on foot but by train, for he served in a village at a distance of 30 kilometers from Moscow. And not only did he preach during the services, but he organized small meetings at home, in houses and apartments of his parishioners who thus formed prayer groups, and it was the only parish in Russia where parishioners were not afraid of one another but knew one another and were friends.
Thus for example one of his parishioners, sculptor Zoya Maslennikova says, “In the times when Father Alexander served in his churches it was impossible even to imagine any officially accepted work with parishioners besides confession during church services or occasional religious rites.” All he did, his entire communication with the believers had no legal sanction. In better times he met people in a church-house, in worse times it was forbidden and he met his parishioners in their houses/apartments and conversed with them on their way home from church or in a suburban electric train. It was not just a parish, but community, spiritual family, fraternity.
“All his life,” Vladimir Ilyushenko writes about Father Alexander, “secular and spiritual authorities persecuted him. The freedom of his thought was inadmissible and suspicious for them.” “You were called to freedom, brethren”, this quotation from apostle Paul was one of Father Alexander’s favorite expressions. And he went on bitterly, “People don’t want freedom. There are different reasons for that, but it’s a fact.” “I’m convinced,” Father Alexander said in his interview prepared in case of his arrest, “that freedom should grow out of spiritual depth of a human being. No external changes will give anything radically new, if people do not live through freedom and respect to opinions of other people in their personal experience.”
In the ’70s it often happened that young people who came to believe in God gave up their work, gave up science or arts (in general, all they were engaged in) and, having adopted some very simple job like night guard, for example, they dove into purely ritual life: special prayers in praise of our Lady and different saints, pilgrimages, fasting, etc. Father Alexander was not satisfied by such kind of Orthodox Christianity. He thought it necessary for people who trust in God to work in schools and university, in libraries etc., and to be engaged in arts, science, literature. He considered escape from reality especially dangerous for believers who ought to be “salt of the earth” as Jesus Himself called them in the Sermon on the Mountain.
Not only did Father Alexander preach during the service, but he also wrote books. Thanks to Asya Durova, Russian Catholic and nun, who worked in French Embassy, the typescripts of the books were carried over to Brussels, where they were turned into books and published by a small Catholic publishing house “Life with God” or Foyer Oriental Chretien. Its founder and director, now deceased Irina Posnova, founded this ecumenical center with the support of cardinal Eugene Tisseran right at the end of the war. The purpose of the center was to help Orthodox Russia and Orthodox believers in the USSR.
It is in this very publishing house that Father Alexander’s book, In Search of the Way, the Truth and the Life, in 7 volumes was published under a pen name. In this work Father Alexander shows how God Himself acts in the world history, precisely to say, in the history of philosophy and religion, how His presence, step by step, gradually and in a most difficult way, but more and more clearly, reveals itself to human beings.
The last 7th volume is entitled “The Son of Man”. It’s the story of Jesus. Now this book exists in French, Italian, Spanish and other languages. In Russian the editions are spread in huge amounts of copies. Is it just because in Russia former atheists do not know anything about Christ? Giovanni Guaita, an Italian writer and the translator of this book into Italian answers the question why it is such a success. It appears that on the West the man who psychologically seems to have nothing in common with Russians who lived through Soviet times, no less needs Father Alexander and his word.
When Giovanni Guaita decided to translate the book “The Son of Man” into Italian, one of Father Alexander’s French friends immediately noted that he would better not, for on the West anyway they had a great amount of such books where the life of Jesus was described both popularly and on a high level. But he was mistaken. When “The Son of Man” was published (first in Italian, and later in French, also in his translation) it appeared that the book was sold out excellently. It appeared that the book was needed not only in Russia, but in other countries as well, probably because there is something completely unique in it. What is it? Probably, “total oneness with the One he was speaking about” – with Jesus from Nazareth. The effect of His presence… The reader of the book, like the one who practises spiritual exercises according to the system of St. Ignatius, is brought to those places where Jesus preaches, he becomes a witness of each step of His and, as St. Luke states it at the beginning of his Gospel, – an eyewitness (aujtovpth") of Jesus’s sermon.
With Father Alexander’s participation the so-called Bruxelles Bible was prepared, which is, in fact, the only Russian edition of the Bible with comments, analogue of the Jerusalem Bible. It is used in seminaries of the Russian Orthodox Church and by those who want to penetrate deeper into the biblical text.
Then the epoch of perestroika comes, the end of ’80s. Almost every day Father Alexander delivers lectures in the halls of different clubs, in the university and other educational establishments. He gains great popularity. Youth long for faith in God. In Russia, Orthodoxy is often said to be the traditional faith of the Russian people; in the minds of many Orthodoxy is the Russian faith, national religion. And Father Alexander spoke about faith in Jesus, about the Gospel, about the new birth experienced by a human being who becomes a Christian. Now these texts are turned into books by Father Alexander’s brother and they are published. They are sold out and they are a success. And after his death people are coming to Christ because of his words.
At the beginning of perestroika Father Alexander with a few parishioners comes to the Russian Children’s Clinical Hospital. He baptizes children, he comforts mothers, he gathers financial aid among his parishioners in order to support the sick and their families. This is how the charity group is born, which has now grown into a big Orthodox charity service. It was then that three dimensions became evident in the life of Father Alexander’s community: Liturgy, reading of the Gospel and praying in small groups, and charity work.
You can’t but talk about Father Alexander’s ecumenism. He always stressed timeless and eternal value of the world religious experience. “There is experience of some indefinite mysticism,” Father Alexander wrote, “there is experience of all religions, and in each there is its own value, all this is wonderful, all hands raised to heaven are marvelous hands, worthy of the name of human being, for these are hands of the creature made in the image and according to the likeness of God and they are stretched to seek their Primal Image”. I recall how interested he was when I told him that there is an Italian book where all prayers of all peoples and all religions are gathered. And nevertheless he constantly emphasized the uniqueness of Christianity. “But Christ,” he said, “is the Hand stretched out to us from above, as you may see on some ancient icons – from there the Hand is stretched down to us”.
Father Alexander Men was a staunchest supporter of peace among Christians of different confessions. In it he saw conditio sine qua non for future Christianity. Father Alexander would have utterly supported a participant of one of Christian forums in today’s Internet who has recently invoked, “It’s enough for interreligious struggle. It’s not a secret that due to these internecine “wars” many people do not take Christianity seriously at all. They say if they can’t understand even one another, why should they preach to others?” However when during radio broadcast one of the listeners asked if we could call Father Alexander ecumenist and the presenter of the program answered her that certainly we could, French writer Yves Hamant, the author of Father Alexander’s best biography, noted, “I do not know if you can or cannot, for it depends on what you put into this word, especially now. But in general Father Alexander was never engaged in ecumenical activities as they are. He didn’t participate in ecumenical movement”.
Definitely, as distinct from his contemporary metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov), as a common priest he didn’t conduct any talks with Catholic hierarchs, and was not present at the pope’s receptions, but he was fully devoted to the path of Christian unity, no less than the metropolitan. As Yves Hamant said during the dialogue in radio broadcast, “He was open to other confessions and recognized the riches they possessed”. Now it is often said (especially by representatives of the Orthodox youth) that ecumenism of ’60s to ’70s was dictated by entirely tactical goals, because in the atmosphere of the atheist state, constant strengthening of antireligious propaganda and severe struggle with religion, it was the support of the leading Western countries with Catholics and Protestants in their governments who lobbied interests of Orthodoxy in Russia that saved the Church from devastation.
It is not exactly so. Certainly, support of Catholics and Protestants, of Vatican and the World Council of Churches was extremely important for us then, for the Soviet regime had to take international public opinion into account. It was perfectly well understood by such a great personality as metropolitan Nikodim Rotov, who thus derived maximum benefit for Orthodoxy in Russia and other Republics of the former USSR from these relations. On the other side Catholics (for example, Brussels Centre “Life with God” and its chiefs Irina Posnova and Father Anthony Iltz) and Protestants, presumably from the United States, helped believers in Russia in a simple and utterly unselfish way as Christians.
For there they were to publish religious literature for Russia, and then in diplomats’ suitcases it crossed the border to be brought illegally to the territory of the USSR. They prepared those books for print, among them the books of Father Alexander, which certainly couldn’t be printed and published in Russia. This constant help and support had no reasons except their faith in Christ. And here it should be mentioned that in the ’60s and ’70s all of us, believers in Russia, felt somehow very clearly that we were close to one another not only due to the fact that one and the same enemy was constantly struggling against us – CPSU with its Marxist ideology – but also due to the fact, which is much more important, that they (Communists) were struggling against their numerous enemies in this country and abroad, and we were struggling for the human right to trust in God freely and to have possibility to perfect oneself in one’s faith.
Andrey Eremin writes, “Practical approach is the main characteristic of Father Alexander’s ecumenism.” In the words of Christ, “May all be one” (Jn. 17:21), Father saw the call to action, not to theological philosophizing. That’s why he demonstrated tolerance and interest toward any positive beginning of Christians who belonged to other confessions”. “Father Alexander,” Andrey Eremin said, “constantly reminded us, that Christ hadn’t come to teach us Filioque, but life with God, given to us in communion with the Born, Embodied, Crucified and Resurrected Lord.” Father Alexander constantly stressed that as Christians of different confessions we are united by something infinitely greater than anything that separates us from one another.
Once discussing the reasons for such a variety of confessions in the world of today he said, “Contradictions among different Christian confessions – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox – are not a sign of destruction, split, but they are revelation of parts of the whole, one whole, that we should reach, in its depth.” When asked by a journalist about his attitude as an Orthodox to other confessions, Father Alexander replied, “I didn’t get my attitude ready-made, once and for all. By thinking a lot, by developing contacts and research I came to a conclusion that the Church is one in its essence, while Christians are separated mainly through their limitedness, narrow-mindedness, sins. This pitiful fact has become one of the main reasons for crises in Christianity. It is only on the path of brotherly unity and respect to various forms of church life that we may hope to gain strength, peace and God’s blessing anew”. It was precisely in those years that Father Alexander wrote, “We arrive at an idea of our need for integral Christianity that would include the whole gamut of spiritual paths and experiences.” “The causes of schism lie beyond purely spiritual sphere.”
I can’t but say a few words about spiritual genealogy of Father Alexander. As a small boy he became an Orthodox Christian in catacombs of the ’30s when religion was totally under a ban. There he assimilated traditional Russian Orthodoxy, but at the same time he was a perfectly contemporary man. Father Alexander came from a Jewish family. It probably explains his very special love to the Holy Scripture, to the Word of God. This is important, because orientation toward asceticism, fasting and prayer to the prejudice of reading the Scripture, is characteristic of Russian spirituality in general.
There is open Christianity and there is Christianity that may be called restricted, closed. Open Christianity is based on the sensation of Christ Resurrected being present invisibly, yet truly, among those who believe in Him. “The way toward open Christianity goes through everybody’s participation in the Revelation of God’s love,” says the writer Andrey Eremin setting out Father Alexander’s position, “When openness and freedom disappear and give place to propensity for secure maintenance, then faith and hope disappear either. And the man walks not ‘on the water’, but ‘on the pavement’.” In this connection Andrey Eremin recalls a French theologian Father Pierre Thivollier, who writes, “A Christian should not hide in his faith as if it were some unassailable fortress. Decidedly no. We’d rather say he is in a boat rocked by lifestorms and capable of sinking. But the boat is piloted by Christ, Whom he trusts.”
The restricted model of Christianity is characterized by tendency to possess truth in a ready-made form, and therefore, as Vladimir Ilyushenko writes in his book “Father Alexander Men: Life and Death in Christ”, “by putting one’s faith in religious observance, intolerance to dissent, conserving national antiquity.” This model is grounded on traditional values, xenophobia and chauvinism.” These thoughts of Vladimir Ilyushenko are similar to what Father Alexander repeated time and again on the eve of his tragic death. Thus a few days before his death in his interview to a Spanish journalist Pilar Bonet among other things he said, “Well, if the rise of Russian fascism is not alarming, then what is alarming? But it is! And it is very actively supported by very many in the Church… Of course, it is a disgrace to us, believers, for society somehow expected to find support in us, and what we have is support for fascists. Certainly, not all are orientated in this way, but it’s not a small percent anyway. I can’t say what this percent is, for I haven’t studied it, but wherever you go, whoever you speak to, you see: this one is a monarchist, that one is anti-Semite or anti-ecumenist and so on.”
The problem of restricted Christianity worried not only Father Alexander. The eldest Orthodox theologian of France Olivier Clément wrote down his thoughts on this subject, “You can’t isolate yourself and turn into ghetto. Orthodoxy should radiate tremendous energy, energy of freedom and light. Unfortunately it too often fades out in ritual piety, putting faith in religious observance.” Here is an exact definition of this “ritual piety” from the official site of Belgorod Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, “It is such a spiritual state of a believer, when following the spirit of the Gospel becomes secondary for him, while rites and rituals are brought to the forefront.”
In one of his lectures Father Alexander pointed out, as if he were developing Olivier Clément’s thought, that the most powerful texts against traditional religious piety do not belong to such contemporary theologians as, for example, Father Alexander Schmemann, but they can be found in the Holy Scripture. “Prophets spoke against tyranny, injustice, oppression, against religious formalism, against ritualization of faith, against national haughtiness, chauvinism, against wars or violence. That’s why we can say that Peter Chaadaev was right, when he wrote that the teaching of the prophets is not something left in the past and precious to us just due to the fact that the prophets predicted the coming of Christ – no, but their teaching as it is remains no less urgent today.”
Another thing highly typical for restricted Christianity is the magic. Once it was perfectly depicted by metropolitan Cyril (Gundyaev), who said, “On the day when the Church celebrates the Lord’s Epiphany thousands and thousands of people come to take holy water. And it often happens that people who do not believe altogether come to take holy water. And I asked those people what their feeling when they came to church was and what they were taking holy water for. I asked them if they hoped that it would save them from sin or from trouble or from disease automatically? This is magical attitude toward sacred thing. As if they were thinking, ‘I can be a rascal, I can do whatever I want, I can rob and kill and commit adulteries and say lies, but when I drink some holy water – it becomes OK.’ Such attitude is the magic.”
“Religious approach on the contrary,” as metropolitan Cyril emphasizes, “consists in human responsibility for being a participant in the act either of his salvation or of his spiritual death. Magic presupposes influence of material objects, words, numbers that produce irresistible force and may cause human death or salvation. Here is the difference between magic and religion.” As Father Alexander tirelessly repeated, “Magic carries blind and almost frantic belief in the omnipotence of rituals and magic formulas into religion,” that’s why almost always magic leads to ritualization of religion. And as Father Alexander continued, “It’s important to understand that in magic the same spiritual tendency is secretly present that is rooted in the original sin of the humanity: that’s the tendency to put oneself into the center of the universe.” Therefore it’s not a mere coincidence that both magic and ritual piety, originated from it, get along well with national egocentrism, chauvinism and xenophobia.
Restricted Christianity is a religion of static type if we remember the famous book “Two sources of morals and religion” by Henry Bergson whom Father Alexander mentioned as a philosopher who undoubtedly influenced him. Such a religion is characterized by the presence of collective ideas that as a rule “perplex individual mind,” by the central role of the ritual and the whole system of knowledge and acts that would protect a human being from the influence of the evil. To possess a figure of the enemy is also typical for the static religion. This sort of religion is characteristic of traditional societies. In contrast to it dynamic religion is characterized by a vivid mystical sense, aspiration so typical of Old Testament prophets and love that according to Bergson, “constitutes the very essence of God for a mystic.” Dynamic religion is impossible without personal penetration of a believer into living communion with God, without his personal mystical experience. Thus love here is contrasted with corporative restrictedness of static religion. Such love fills a human being, for it is not, as Bergson statets it, “just love of one person to God – it is God’s love to all people.” Here the truth of faith is verified by the personal feeling of a believer. Such is true piety announced in the New Testament, such is free piety of the great Christian mystics such as St. Francis or St. Seraphim of Sarov in Russia. Static religion “ties an individual to society,” while dynamic religion opens the way to heaven for everybody and gives everybody enough strength to love the whole mankind.
“Can we”, Father Alexander questioned, “stepping on the threshold of the third millennium … return to medieval state of Christian mentality: some people today, especially among the young are ready for it. They are ready because of inertness of their thought and ignorance”. Horrified he said, that “people want unfree Christianity”, “that people seem drawn to nothing other than slavery.” It is frightful and we see it every day, we are constantly confronted with it.” Why does it exist? Where does this longing for unfreedom, ritualization, spiritual blindness come from?
Father Alexander’s disciple Valentina Kuznetzova answered this question perfectly well (probably the same way Father Alexander himself would have answered it), “Any single priest reads the Gospel very little now. Akathistos hymns and hagiographical stories and apocryphal stories are spread much more. I’m not against them, yet they are already “digested food”, which yields much to the New Testament in its ideas and merits. Such state of affairs is partly connected with the fact that the Gospel is not a book for peaceful reading before going to bed, if only a person believes sincerely that the Sermon on the Mountain or parables will excite him. For it’s not enough just to take out a handkerchief and dry a tear after reading them. One should make efforts and change one’s own life instead. Otherwise the place that should be occupied by the Holy Scripture alone becomes filled with other texts. There is only one way out – “reaching out people, helping them to acquire taste and interest for the New Testament.” Vladimir Ilyushenko shares this opinion, when he mentions that Father Alexander realized, that “the task is to Christianize anew the country which is seriously ill, because it’s possible for Russia to break an impasse only on the path of its new evangelization.”
Not just a feeling of God and awe of God lay at the heart of his religiousness, but the Holy Scripture – the Word of God, “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebr. 4:12) (New American Standard Bible). In this sense Father Alexander bore much resemblance to a prophet, especially to prophet Isaiah, who taught nothing to anybody but brought to the hearts of men the very thing the Lord says – “ko amar Yahve”, what the Lord says, as Father Alexander enjoyed repeating in Hebrew.
The most significant thing for a person is to understand what living contact with God is. And this living contact becomes possible when the Word of God is revealed to you, when you find out what it means to stand before God, what is the means that Abraham “walked with God.” When you understand this you will become free of any restrictedness once and for all. “To know God is not a one-sided process, like the study of nature for example – it is always an encounter,” Father Alexander said. To experience this encounter, he continued, there is no need to be a sort of religious genius: “Every human being has an opportunity for the profoundest mysterious personal encounter with the Supreme Reality.”
Theology of “encounter”, so perfectly developed by metropolitan Anthony Bloom, a well-known Russian bishop who lived in London and became famous for his sermons on prayer (written down by his parishioners), was truly clear and close to Father Alexander. He personally didn’t meet metropolitan Anthony often, but he was always happy to learn that during metropolitan’s another coming to Moscow several of his parishioners visited his divine service or participated in talks with him, organized secretly in someone’s apartments. The words of the church hymn “Christ is my strength” characterize both metropolitan Anthony and Father Alexander equally well.
The essence of Christianity from Father Alexander’s point of view is not in traditions and their sacralization, not in church antiquity and admiring it, but in the living presence of Resurrected Jesus. “He remained,” Father Alexander said shortly before his martyr death, “the greatest motive power of history – secretly, deeply He remained in the world. ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ He is risen from the dead to be present everywhere inside our life. And today each of us can find Him. He is not just a historical figure whom you may remember only to forget later. True, He lived 2,000 years ago. True, in 10 years we’ll celebrate 2,000th anniversary from His birth. But it’s not just so that He was – He is – and this is the whole mystery of Christianity, the clue to its power.”
Father Alexander was one of those people who are not afraid. He was not afraid of visiting hospitals, of visiting those who were seriously ill or dying, though it was strictly forbidden by the Soviet regime. He was not afraid of preaching and speaking about faith to unfamiliar people (the thing almost none of parochial priests did). More than that, he was not afraid of speaking about faith to children, which was considered a crime altogether. He was not afraid of the language of his epoch and unlike his confreres, other priests, he could (like apostle Paul) speak about Christ with “pagans” in the language of those “pagans”. Father Alexander was not afraid of synthesizing his predecessors’ experiences, though they were so different from one another and sometimes incompatible, and he did all this miraculously well, for he did it not on the level of a human being, but on the level of God’s love.
Deeply rooted in the tradition, knowing Orthodoxy not by a sort of bookish knowledge, but having grown in the catacombs of pre-war time, he was utterly directed toward the future. In his hands the Bible turned into a compass that rightly indicates the way to the times to come. This is indeed his feat.
“Our country,” as his closest disciple Father Alexander Borisov said, “will in the majority of its people be proud of the fact, that under the circumstances of the Soviet regime, under those circumstances when all was against the emergence of such people as Father Alexander Men or such books that he had written, under those circumstances nevertheless such a wonderful man lived and revealed to us God’s love. Through love that God poured into his heart he has led and will still lead thousands and thousands of people to Christ, to the truth, to the good and to creation.”