Orthodox America

  Looking Ahead: 988-1988

Riassophore-nun Paisia Reid 

    Amid so much anticipation of, and preparation for, the coming celebration of Russia's baptismal millennium, what meaning does this feast hold for the Orthodox Christian of today, who may be an exile from a lost homeland, or a child of the Diaspora, or a convert, who may feel little or no intimate ethnic connection with the cultural preparations surrounding the festivities planned for 19887 Is there a common spiritual reality which can and should make the millenary celebrations an expression of a spiritual vision shared by all who have a humble love of true Orthodoxy and a genuine thirst for the Kingdom of Heaven? 

    Vladimir, the Russian Viking, [1] a historical biography of St. Vladimir the Great, is a skillful and noteworthy retelling of the life of the Enlightener of the Eastern Slavs, and should therefore be of interest to Orthodox readers as the millennial year approaches. But more than this, Volkoff's book may help serve as a reminder to us that the story of St. Vladimir's conversion, and the conversion of the people of Rus, is an image of, and a call to, the conversion of every man and every nation. Although we cannot endorse all Mr. Volkoff's ideas, nonetheless the book was written in gratitude to St. Vladimir, the author's patron saint, and shows a sensitive understanding of St. Vladimir's significance for the tenth century and the twentieth. In addition, the book admirably introduces certain themes whose elaboration may usefully help prepare us for the approaching spiritual Feast.

    The first theme, the eschatological significance of Russia's conversion at the beginning of this millennium, and her martyrdom by the Communists near the end of it, is of profound import to all who must face these latter times as conscious Orthodox believers. The point of our struggle, the whole reason for being Orthodox, the very hope of our Faith, is made clear by the experiences of Russia at her conversion and in the present hour. Volkoff's narration includes a brief consideration of the missionary principles which guided the first teachers of the Slavs. Some of these well express the tone we must seek to preserve, and the obligations we must meet, in our witness of true Orthodoxy. Finally, as Volkoff says, "Russia has the vocation of martyrdom, and the blood of martyrs achieves apparently impossible results."

     When the exiles living in China lamented their harsh life, Archbishop John preached a sermon in Harbin, reminding them that they, like all the Russian people, had been guilty to one degree or another not only of spiritual indifference, but of the far more grievous crime of regicide. By their worldliness before the Revolution, and their failure to acquire within their hearts the light of true Orthodoxy, they were guilty of the death of Holy. Russia and the blood of the Tsar. Therefore he admonished them to bear the sorrows of exile as a means of repentance and regeneration, and to reap the reward of spiritual almsgiving by spreading the seed of Orthodoxy throughout the diaspora, teaching others to value what they had nearly lost themselves.

     But even while rebuking his flock, Archbishop John consoled them with a moving comparison of fallen Russia and the valley of Jezreel, whose dry and scattered bones were raised up by the power of God, and with this he strengthened his children with the hope that one day the same merciful Hand would move across captive Russia. 

Life in Christ is not a birthright It is not an ethnic preserve...

      If the promise of Russia's resurrection is in part a promise extended to all who long for true Orthodoxy of life, the manner of her conversion is a reminder of what we must strive for in the effort to plant and nourish the vine of True Faith in the neo-paganWest.

     What principles characterized the work of Russia's first enlighteners and determined its success?

     1) Fidelity to the teachings of Byzantine Orthodoxy was fundamental to Sts. Cyril and Methodius, and all the missionaries to the Slavs, but this fidelity was accompanied by an ability to distinguish the essential from the optional, the spiritual from t h e merely cultural. Imbued with the spirit of true Orthodoxy, they clearly understood what must be preserved in toto from the Greeks and what must be adapted to the needs of a new people.

     Therefore they knew that all fruitful missionary labors beyond the borders of Byzantium must be rooted in the development of a vernacular Orthodoxy auited to each. new race. It was clearly wrong, and impossible, to expect spiritual fruit to be borne if Orthodoxy remained a "Greek" religion. Volkoff's remarks on this point are of interest.

     "Whereas Western nations had to wait for Luther and the Renaissance to have access to the Bible in their own languages, Cyril, in spite of some Greek opposition, translated it into a...language based on a Macedonian dialect which could be understood by all Slavic tribes. 'I had rather speak five words with my understanding,' said St. Cyril, in St. Paul's spirit, and wrote the following poem: 

Now with your understanding hear,
Thus hear, you Slavs,
The Word which feeds the soul of men,
The Word which strengthens heart and mind,
The Word prepared to fathom God.

    "His work, executed in the best practice : of Orthodoxy, was appreciated by the converted barbarians, and Metropolitan Hilarion [of Kiev] summarized their feelings when he stated that 'New faiths demand new tongues, just as new wine requires new skins.'"

    2) The development and spread of a sober vernacular Orthodoxy had yet another intent and effect: confirming Russia's persistent refusal to be only a political and spiritual suburb of Constantinople. The dangers inherent in permitting Russia to fall under an exaggeratedly Greek influence' were clearly apparent to the Slavs, and St. Vladirnir gave even stronger encouragement to the labor of making his people's Orthodoxy fully vernacular. Despite Byzantine purists who considered Slavonic too spiritually immature to be a worthy vehicle for Scriptural and spiritual texts, the Russians pressed on. They felt from the beginning that Orthodoxy must be firmly rooted in Tradition, strengthened by its bonds with the best of Byzantine spiritual experience, yet nonetheless free to develop in accord with the needs and nature of a new people. Had Orthodoxy in Russia remained a predominantly Greek, largely inaccessible Faith, it would probably have borne little fruit among the Slavs.

    3) Orthodoxy in Russia became something ineffably distinct from that found in Byzantium, while retaining complete oneness of Faith. This was because converted Russia brought to God all the "talents" given her-nascent gifts of soul which would soon, in Christ, flower into those qualities most characteristically thought of as "Russian" Orthodox. Some of the most profound aspects of Russia n soul are visible, in "bud" form, in the Slavic pagans of Kiev and Novgorod: primacy of the communal ideal over "autonomy," the image of the temporal prince as spiritual leader of his people, the sense of delight in life and the created world, the awareness of intimate ties to an earth entrusted to the care of man, the expansiveness of both soul and emotion, even the capacity for intense passion, which is the springboard of both sanctity and sin.

    But, perhaps more than all of these, Russia was given the talents of joy and suffering, and these found the deepest expressions and highest fulfillment only in Orthodoxy. The vocation of martyrdom and the charism of joy may almost be twin wellsprings of the Russian soul; both burst forth almost immediately after the conversion of the Slavic heart, What pagan Kiev first noticed, and continued to marvel at, in their newly-baptized Grand Duchess Olga was the profound joy that dominated her spiritual life and overflowed in works of active mercy and intense personal spiritual effort. And when her grandson, St. Vladimir, sent his envoys to the religions of the world, they noted above all the absence of true joy in heterodox Christianity, while the welling triumph of Orthodox worship in Hagia Sophia pierced the hearts of the Kievan ambassadors and transported them to a glimpse of the Eighth Day of the New Creation.

     The vocation to martyrdom and to suffering, heralded by the Passion-bearers, Sts. Boris and Gleb, also appeared close on the baptism of the Russian soul. In this respect one can add little to Volkoff's observation that: "One new generation had scarcely had time to reach maturity since the baptism of the land. and already its values had radically changed; violence, pride, courage, which had so recently held first place, were now relegated to second; non-violence, humility, submission, had suddenly become more admirable, and more admired…the very fact that [the Passionbearers’] sacrifice was under stood (and not despised) shows that something basic had changed in the Russian people."

     The passing of centuries only confirmed this transformation. Today, the witness of a martyric endurance is borne by sons and daughters of R ussia who labor under the cruel yoke of the Soviets. One shining result of this martyrdom is seen in the deep renewal of Orthodox faith behind the Iron Curtain (see pp. I2-13). Baptized by water in the loth century, Russia is now experiencing a baptism of fire, burning away the poisons of materialism, of worldliness and spiritual indifference which had infected her soul. And through this cleansing power of suffering she is being prepared for her future resurrection, when she will be re-united with her first Love and eternal Lord, Jesus Christ.


    Russia was offered the pearl of great price, and accepted it sincerely. She was entrusted with many talents and turned some of them to great profit in the service of her Lord. We know only too well what befell her; when she began to lapse from vigilant struggle to preserve the spirit of true piety. What has all this to say to us as we approach the millennial year? 

If we grieve over the captivity of a temporal fatherland we should feel far more sorrow for the weakness of our desire to achieve the Heavenly fatherland. 

    If we wish to rejoice in the conversion of the Russian nation we can do so only from a desire to experience the joy of a truly converted heart ourselves. If we earnestly hope for the restoration of Russia, we must not hide from the knowledge that our sins, our` worldliness, our rejection of Christ, are signs of a captivity as real and as deadly as that now gripping Russia. If we wish to mourn her sufferings, we cannot ignore our part in bringing these sufferings to pass. Whether "cradle" Orthodox or convert, we can have no rightful part in the celebrations ahead if we accept no share in the responsibility for what has happened and will continue to happen in Russia and all the world, as Orthodoxy is more and more embattled by the enemy of our salvation, and more and more enfeebled by our own worldliness and lack of love. Our first duty, and our only real means of sharing meaningfully in the millennial commemorations, is to labor within ourselves for the acquisition of that "one thing needful" whose inspiration and possession made of a barbarian tribe a truly Holy Russia.

    It is certain that we shall not see a second millennium. Therefore let us strive with all our strength to make this more then a spectacular pageant glorifying ethnic and cultural achievements. In celebrating a thousand years' development of the "Russian soul," let us not forget that what created in Russian life a "soul" worth preserving for a thousand years was True Orthodoxy. not a self-admiring preoccupation with majestic services, with beautiful icons and compunctionate chant, with "liturgical correctness" and cultural "purity," still less with human or national custom. None of these are inherently sacred or worth saving if they are not for us a ladder by which we are led to life everlasting.

    For Russians, true celebration of this milestone is to redouble the effort to do for their convert brothers and sisters what Byzantium-and St. Vladi mir--did for Russia. Since that first mass Baptism in the Dneiper River in 988, the Russian Church has had an active history of missionary work, spreading the Faith throughout her homeland and abroad.

The work of the Russian mission on this continent at the turn of the century (when  in the San Francisco diocese alone there were 1279 baptisms in one year) offers an inspiring contrast to the attitude which prevails in the ethnic enclaves of so many parishes today. The resentment felt by many Russians confronted with the need to introduce and extend the use of English in church life and in services, and the often-expressed idea that English "cannot" be a suitable vehicle of Orthodox thought and liturgy is no different from the same argument used by the Byzantine Greeks resentful of the use of Slavonic vernacular. And it springs from precisely the same roots: racial prejudice, spiritual pride, and a serious failure to understand our Christian duty to do all possible to bring the maximum number of souls into the saving fold of Orthodoxy before our rapidly dwindling time and freedom run out altogether. This failure is illustrated time and again in parishes where scenes are made if a priest tries to introduce the Gospel reading in English, and is more deplorable when those who complain the loudest don't understand Slavonic.

    This failure is all the more grievous if one takes into account the expansive Slavic soul with its gifts of warmth and hospitality--and this is characteristic of many Orthodox peoples: Greeks, Serbs, Ukrainians, Syrians. How readily they could give themselves to missionary work if only they realized the essentiality of Christ's command: "Go and preach..." And there are those who do, who have a profound understanding of the universality of Christ's Church, of His desire that all men be saved, and of His saving grace which awaits mankind within the bosom of holy Orthodoxy. These are worthy heirs of St. Vladimir and the founders of Holy Rus.

    At the inaugural meeting of the English speaking Mission of St. Joseph of Arimathea, Metropolitan Vitaly counseled the members: I do not expect you to be Russians or Greeks, but to develop your own ambiance.  

    Not having experienced the agony of a religious search themselves, many cradle Orthodox are insensitive to the needs of those who come to the Church with a desperate thirst for Truth--those whom Christ would welcome with outstretched arms, but who are often turned away by a cold shoulder and made to feel that because they aren't Russian or Greek they don't "belong." On the other hand, a kind word can make the difference between life and death. The greatest witness of Christianity is love. Each year at the Liturgy held in Vladika John's sepulchre on the anniversary of his repose, a Russian woman would seek out American converts and invite them to her home for lunch where she would recount her experiences as a member of his Shanghai flock; it was an act of true Christian love which sank deep into the hearts of these converts, never to be forgotten.

     Unfortunately, Orthodoxy is sometimes distorted into an ethnic appendage, where what is "loved" is, too often, not Christ at all. The extreme of this tendency is amply demonstrated by a recent incident which actually occurred in a large city parish. One day a middle aged Russian came to the church and, on introducing him self to the priest, was genuinely astonished to find the priest to be a convert. The Russian admitted he rarely came to church and said that for him, as for many he knew, "services are high art, great theater, and that is why we come." Many of us have little interest in the Lord, but we wish to hear and; see the things we remember from childhood, because these are the expressions of a great culture for us." Such a person is no more related to Holy Russia than an American devotee of the “Grateful Dead,” and the Millennium will be for him no more than an ultimately lifeless piece of cultural nostalgia.

    What have converts to gain from their adopted millennial heritage? As author N. Zernov points out in his book, The Russians and Their Church, Kiev Rus understood Christianity "neither as a system of doctrines, nor as an institution, but primarily as a way of life." This is the gift of Holy Russia which every convert must cherish and strive to make his own. By entering into the 1000-year continuum of Russian Orthodoxy, a convert can develop a wholeness and a steadfastness which those raised in the fragmented American lifestyle so often lack. An appreciation of the suffering history of Russian Orthodoxy can help converts to be less critical, less judgmental of those Russians desperate to preserve their ethnic roots, or who may be victims of cultural pride--a disease to which converts are no less prone, frequently exhibiting an infatuation with Orthodox aesthetics.

    For converts, then, let this millennial feast be a reminder of the duty to strive as sincerely, as humbly, and as manfully as the first converted Slavs, that we might acquire the spirit of true piety from our links to Russia's living spiritual past, taking care not to confuse the essence of this piety with the accidentals of cultural expression, lest we lose our way altogether.

    Perhaps the most important lesson that the approaching Millennium holds for both native and convert Orthodox is the reminder of the vocation of martyrdom so much in evidence in Russia today. Through our sins, our spiritual indifference, we participated in the crucifixion of Holy Russia. Her sons and daughters behind the Iron Curtain are being cleansed by the fire of suffering in preparation for a new resurrection. We too must be cleansed. Spared of sufferings imposed from without, we must take upon ourselves a voluntary martyrdom--stripping ourselves of all pretenses, selfish illusions, spiritual pride, intellectual self-opinion, prejudices and excuses, and all that is not Christ. Thereby we shall prepare ourselves to worthily celebrate the Millennium and to enter into the paschal joy of the forgiven soul--the promise of Holy Rus.

    The lessons given to our time, our world, have been already harsh, and will become only more so if we will not hearken to the voice of True Orthodoxy crying in the wilderness of our modern wasteland. We must realize that, convert or native, all of us are as the lifeless bones of Jezreel, trapped in the spiritual desert that bred us. We all await, no less desperately than Russia, the hand of God to raise us from the deadly plague of sin and futility.

    We have been offered that Hand. We have been offered the chance given St. Vladimir and all his Kiev--the chance to gather the fragmented powers of heart and soul into a concentrated whole, to be knit together in a second life, "born of water and the Spirit," and with one heart to take our journey together upon the saving path of holy Orthodoxy.

    May Christ our true God, by the prayers of His Most-pure Mother, and of all the Saints of Russia, preserve us on the Royal Path of True Orthodoxy unto the end. Amen.

 Riassophore-nun Paisia Reid

[1] V. Volkoff; Overlook Press, NY:, 1985;, 400 pages

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