Orthodoxy is not just a system of parishes, monasteries, not just bishops, priests and laity of this or that canonical or non-canonical jurisdiction. Orthodoxy is first of all spiritual tradition, a very special one and, if I can say so, the one that reveals for us a specific side of Christianity which was either unnoticed or sometimes lost by Catholics and Protestants. That’s why in England, in France, in the USA or elsewhere Orthodoxy still remains Russian, although divine services are held not in Old Slavic, but in French or English.
At the same time we should bear in mind that there were situations (including those in antiquity and in Russia in the Soviet time) when very few separate people, who by mere accident were not subjected to repressions, preserved the Orthodox faith. And in all those cases Orthodoxy remained not as a social force but as spiritual truth of God, man and Christ Who is invisibly yet truly with us “always, even to the end of the age”. Such is the experience of Russian martyrs of the twentieth century, of their hidden Christianity, catacomb life in Christ and hidden service. Such is the experience of spiritual life in Stalin’s concentration camps, first of all, in Solovki, which has become the most precious contribution of Orthodoxy to the world spirituality.
If we speak about today, we should note that spiritual situation in Russia is very complicated. During Soviet times there remained very few believers, especially educated believers who comprehended the true essence of faith, its depth and the meaning of Orthodox spirituality. And even now such people are rather few either, because the majority of us have adopted religion presumably as a system of protection against evil forces and so-called “evil eye”, against diseases etc. Many “folk” prayer books bear witness of this reality. Of course, the Russian Orthodox Church does not approve of them, but they are usually sold in bookstalls at railway stations. Here we may see a mixture of the Psalms of King David, “Our Father” and other texts taken from an ordinary church prayer book with folk and purely pagan magic conjurations and inсantations. This is something distinctly medieval, but it is much in demand and popular among people.
Fifteen years passed since the day when religion was released out of the ghetto where it had been driven in and kept by the Soviet power.
What was this ghetto like?
Churches were open (in Moscow it was approximately about one tenth of the churches that had been functioning before revolution, while over the country percentage of open churches was much lower), monasteries were almost none except Troitze-Sergieva Lavra.
Each young person who used to visit church became an object of special interest of Komsomol or party bodies or KGB automatically.
The Gospel and other religious literature were totally inaccessible. Catholics from the Publishing House “Life with God” in Brussels published Orthodox books that were spread among Muscovites, but they hardly ever reached province.
Whenever a baby was baptized it was reported to the working place of his or her parents in order to punish and if possible discharge them.
No preaching was permitted outside church walls and in case of any it was immediately equated with anti-Soviet activity. In churches priests shunned from preaching in order not to be deprived of their right to hold services. All kept silence except a few people with father Alexander Men standing out against this background.
At the same time the church was officially under patronage of Soviet power. The late patriarch Pimen was treated in the same hospital with members of the Politbureau and used to be on vacation in the sanatorium of the CPSU Central Committee.
That situation was left behind fifteen years ago.
Today thousands of old churches are being restored and hundreds of new ones are being built all over Russia. Not only is the bishop highly esteemed in each region of Russia but also people see him almost as person number two after the governor. Adults and even elderly people come to be baptized and become believers although throughout their whole life they had never imagined they would become believers. For example in our parish the majority of parishioners except children under ten are people who were baptized as adults. There are people who became Christians at the age of 60 etc.
Not only in Moscow now, but also all over the country icons, little crucifixes etc. are sold everywhere and also books – prayer books and hagiographic descriptions. These books can be found everywhere in great amount. The Bible or just the New Testament is not everywhere on the contrary; though thanks to the efforts of the Russian Bible Society it is published in big editions in Russia today. At the same time the books for Bible-study (exegesis) or profound spiritual reading of the Bible (lectio divina) are almost none. They have just started emerging in Russia and are accessible only in Moscow and St.-Petersburg.
I hope that even from this extremely brief characteristic you may catch a glimpse of an idea that even today the situation of the Orthodoxy in Russia is not a simple one.
On the one hand you can’t but look deeply touched at how new parishes are being opened. I often go to a suburb about 40 kilometers from Moscow. Last spring they started building a church there, a very small one, out of logs, right on the bank of a little brook on a forest clearing. It looks like a landscape of some Russian painter of the 19th century or like a landscape poem by some poet of pre-revolutionary epoch.
But there is a rather complicated content at the background of this outward and heart-cheering picture indeed. To make it easier for you, dear listeners, to comprehend the heart of the matter I would rather give an account of it point by point:
God-services are held everywhere in the medieval Slavic language almost incomprehensible to parishioners who are almost 100 per cent neophytes, which I want to specially emphasize once again. As distinct from the parishioners of Soviet times who had come to church as children, our new parishioners are not used to the Slavic language: for them it is sacred, but incomprehensible. As for myself I love the Slavic language very much and I know it from my childhood, but at the same time I clearly understand that this analog of Catholic Latin which I had been teaching at the University for 20 years and thus know very well, today has become an obstacle on one’s way to God. The Slavic language makes long services of Byzantine rite just beyond the reach of the majority of people who are unable to understand their contents, or to comprehend what is being read or sung during a God-service.
That’s why the majority of parishioners are attracted to church not by the contents of the service, but by some detached and purely ritual moments. They come to church to take home some holy water or to kiss a much-venerated icon or to take some oil sanctified in front of it, or to kiss the relics of a saint and nothing else. People feel (and “feel” is a proper word here) the presence of some supreme power in church, but at the same time the meaning of evangelic general calling of Jesus is ousted (sometimes completely) by adherence to the ritual side of Orthodoxy. As a result a great number of people start taking faith in God for something magical. Several years ago St. Panteleimon’s head was brought to Moscow in a special sarcophagus from the Holy Mountain Athos. In order to kiss it (through glass) people had been queuing toward this sarcophagus for a whole month. People were waiting for their turn from early in the morning till late in the evening, for 8 or 10 hours. However when asked what for they had come they could only say that “it was good for health”. For this kind of religiousness it is not our personal relations with God through Jesus that matter, but a material object, a sort of fetish. And religion lacks any meaning for these people without such a fetish.
Such religious “materialism” also explains the position of a priest who while hearing confession frequently constrains himself to learning whether his parishioner has kept fasting before he comes to take part in the communion. It should be noted that fasting in Russia is kept very strictly today. It consists in total refusal from any food containing meat or milk, and refusal from fish either during the Lent. However it is not strictness of ascetic rules as it is that makes up the problem, but turning the Gospel-teaching in certain occasions into a system of bans for parishioners. Thus for instance many consider it a great sin if a woman or a girl enters a church in trousers or without a headscarf.
Eschatological moods and attitudes are also rather strong among Orthodox people in Russia today, while the expectation of the end of the world nearly always has a specific political tinge (as it was peculiar to Russian old-believers at the beginning of the 18th century). Eschatological expectations today are accompanied by rejecting democratic reforms and openness towards Europe and the USA, which is just gaining a foothold in Russia. These people see the sign of approaching end of the world in the fact that Russia is no longer a great power and has lost its control over former Social countries, while NATO has strengthened its positions in Eastern Europe. Thus for example I read in some Orthodox paper that Antichrist is already born – it is Richard C. Holbrooke. It’s clear that we may have different attitude toward this politician and diplomat’s activities, we may have strongly negative attitude either, especially bearing in mind his mission in Yugoslavia, but to think that he is Antichrist means to turn faith into politics.
One form of xenophobia is intolerance to other Christian confessions. While in the years of Soviet power people used to see Catholics and Protestants as brothers whose support helped Christians of Russia to survive in the epoch of state atheism, today they are habitually regarded as enemies.
It seems to me that rejection of ecumenism that is really widely spread today is based on two grounds.
First of all, negative (distinctly negative sometimes) attitude to other confessions is based on the feeling of hurt national pride. Such is the case of recently deceased priest Dimitri Dudko, for example, who was an anti-communist and one of the bravest strugglers for religious freedom in the epoch of Brezhnev, who was in prison etc. Yet he supported communists earnestly in the last years of his life and spoke about Stalin enthusiastically, for Russia had been a great power under Stalin, feared by the whole world. In this context Orthodoxy is interpreted as Russian national religion, while the call to good relations among Christians of different confessions is estimated as something directed against Russia, against its past and future, against its national identity etc. Thus for many people Christianity in Russia turns into a form for expressing national spirit or a banner of national spirituality. Clearly in this case it loses its universal character inevitably.
Second is that aversion to ecumenism is in a sense a defense reaction today. People know very little about their own Orthodox faith, its depths and amazing spiritual riches, therefore they start thinking that they can only fight to prove their rightfulness. And here aggressiveness and contraposition of their own faith to other denominations come out to be at their disposal. Hence is constant pumping up of aversion toward Catholics and Protestants – all this maintains the image of the enemy in one’s own consciousness.
Thus for example a young painter declares over TV, “No other people has icon-painting like ours”. He makes this declaration definitely without a slight idea of religious art of other peoples. Why not say another way round? For instance, “Such is our icon-painting that there is no people who would not admire it”. And it would have been true, very joyously true to us, Russians, for it’s not by chance that a copy of Roublev’s Holy Trinity has become the main holy object of Catholic church Ste Trinite in Paris.
On the one hand, religious situation in Russia today is determined by the fact that society, brought up on Marxism, and above all politicians are now seeking for a new ideology that would be obligatory for all and at the same time “the only true” one, as marxism-leninism had been previously considered to be. As a result in the consciousness of many (pure and truly pious people as well) Orthodoxy has started to be comprehended as a new ideology. Politicians, heads of political parties and state structures, governors and their surroundings are now demonstrating their adherence to Orthodoxy publicly, while it’s clear to anyone that they are not religious people. Transformation of Orthodoxy into a new ideology for Russia seems dangerous to me. Orthodoxy is the truth of the heart, something profoundly intimate that fills our soul, its innermost depths, it is our prayerful spirit, it is the mystery of our personal relations with Christ. That’s why turning Orthodoxy into a PR-technology for contemporary politicians is very painful for a believer.
On the other hand this situation is explained by the low level of knowing one’s faith, God and the Gospel, and above all by the circumstance that believers themselves have an extremely poor understanding of what Orthodoxy is. Thus for a great amount of people the Julian calendar, which lags 13 days behind the contemporary Gregorian calendar seems one of the main signs of Orthodoxy. Loyalty to old calendar seems almost the most important element of their faith to them, despite the fact that majority of Orthodox Churches including the Constantinople Church gave it up long ago. When metropolitan Vladimir in St.-Petersburg said in the context of his sermon that the Russian Church should follow the example of the Constantinople, Alexandrian and Antiochian Orthodox Churches and turn to the new style, a group of parishioners went off into a scandal. Then religious activists declared the metropolitan a heretic through a communist paper “Soviet Russia” and its supplement, which is called «Orthodox Russ». The same paper constantly calls a heretic another member of the Holy Synod metropolitan Filaret of Minsk for his consistent ecumenism. And recently it published an appeal of a big group of writers and several deputies to forbid all Jewish national and religious organizations in Russia. This paper certainly has nothing to do with the Russian Orthodox Church, but its very title (“Orthodox Russ”) makes it the voice of Orthodoxy in the eyes of many. Such are the conditions of political situation under which the truth of Christ and the Gospel is little by little being spread in Russia.
What are the perspectives of development for religious situation in our country? I think they are not so bad in general.
Only during the twentieth century Christianity within the boundaries of Russian Orthodox tradition both inside Russia and abroad gave to the world such people as father Alexiy Mechev and archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), father Sergiy Bulgakov and mother Mariya (Skobtzova), fathers Nikolay Afanasiev and Alexander Schmemann, archimandrite Tavrion, metropolitan Anthony Bloom and father Alexander Men.
I mean joyous Orthodoxy of Alexiy Mechev recently canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church who resembles simultaneously the holy cure of Ars and Padre Pio. I mean the teaching of spiritual life by father Sophrony (Sakharov) and his teacher Russian staretz (elder) Silouan who lived in Athos. I mean the holy life of Mother Mariya, Russian nun from Paris who may be called an Orthodox sister of saint Edith Stein. Mother Mariya, a philosopher, a poet and a scholar, devoted all herself to charity activities and during the war she was saving Jews and for this the Nazi sent her herself to a gas camera.
I mean liturgical revival connected with the works of fathers Nikolay Afanasiev in Paris and Alexander Schmemann in New York, who anticipated in many ways the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on liturgy and the teaching of metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) on prayer. I mean practical ecumenism and life feat of archimandrite Tavrion, who never left the borders of the USSR, and the works of father Alexander Men who was murdered at the beginning of perestroika – his scientific and pastoral activities that synthesized all done by enumerated people and certainly his ecumenism. This great heritage becomes more and more known.
There are quite a few spiritually healthy people in the Church of today either. However it’s important for them not to be afraid, and for this they need support, also from the Christians who live outside our country. In the Russian Orthodox Church charity work is gradually developing to which patriarch Alexiy calls. Not only new churches and cathedrals are built but also Sunday schools, libraries, Orthodox colleges for adults are organized etc.
Society is developing; aggressive nationalism today is not an ideology of the majority. Society gradually pushes aside the ideology of isolation, which attracts presumably marginals today.
The main task is to make serious information in the sphere of religion available for people so that they would become more proficient in the facts concerning the essential matters of faith, the Gospel and Church history. It’s crucial for a person in Russia to be fed not by propaganda myths, but by concrete facts. Each myth loses its attractiveness as soon as man possesses facts. For this we need more encounters with students in state universities, more publications in press. It’s wonderful when Catholic scholars work in Russia as professors of various disciplines in different possible spheres. It’s wonderful when sisters of different congregations work in Russia in hospitals, orphanages, relief centers for drug addicts, handicapped children, homeless people among whom there are quite a lot of children as well, old people etc. It changes immediately the attitude to Christians of other confessions. I know this for I’m involved into such work myself. It is exactly this kind of work among those who are ill, who suffer or who are thrown out of society or out to the street, that heals Christians according to the word of Jesus from the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew from their spiritual ailments and our faith from its distortions. Venite benedicti Patris mei – “Come, you blessed of My Father”...
We need to build open society in Russia and then the situation in Church will normalize too, and rather quickly, I should say.