Orthodox America


A Thousand Years 988-1988  


    Several years ago I was privileged to sit down with an example of "incunabula"--one of the first printed books, dating from the 1400's. I shall not forget my amazement in finding that this ancient volume appeared, not old and fragile as I had supposed, but glowingly new--newer than anything I had seen fresh on any bookstore shelf! This is of course characteristic of early books, due to the highly durable materials that were used. But there was an almost otherworldly feel of holding in my hands something in "mint condition", just as it came off the press over 500 years ago, before Columbus even sailed for America--before there was a word "America", at a time when my own ancestors could not be traced. Yet I felt as though I were there... I suppose to put it better, I should say that for once I realized that a distance in time is no greater than a distance in space. What lies on the other side is very real and concrete.

    We are given to thinking of a thousand years as a time so long that whatever is beyond it loses all relevance for us. To the practical child of our age, only the "here and now" means anything. Many of our problems are due to such shortsighted views--as witnessed even by modern psychology, which seeks the causes for today's problems in the events of a distant half-forgotten childhood. A house, after all, stands on its foundations, and buried treasure would not be there for us to dig up unless some long-forgotten figure the past had hidden it!

     I was invited to discuss the millennium of the "Baptism of Rus", and would like to share some thoughts, some explanations, that may not be familiar to everyone.

     According to a certain tradition, there was, in the years before Julius Caesar had begun the Roman conquest of Europe, a Northern barbarian by the name of Rild Ratnose (Rild Myshnos), so named for his distinctive profile, He was remembered for his exploits by a long line of warlike descendants, active in southern Scandinavia and known as Vikings.

     Two of Rild's posterity are of direct interest to us, --Rurik, who became the Grand Prince of Rus, and his kinsman Eric the Red, who colonized Greenland.

     The Vikings with their fierce lifestyle had troubles coming to terms with the spread of Christianity in Europe. Avoiding this new religion, Rurik and his Vikings moved further east into the land inhabited by the more peaceful East Slavs. At first Rurik raided the settlements of Rus', but then an agreement was reached for his and their mutual benefit--Rurik simply was invited to be their ruler or head of state outright, giving him a recognized position and guaranteed rights and income, and enabling the people of Rus' to live in peace and consolidate into an effective and strong state.

     During the following century, Christianity finally triumphed and was made the state religion in Scandinavia--in Denmark under Harold Bluetooth, Rurik's relative, and further north in Norway under the rule of his relative Haakon the Good. In Rus', the Grand Duchess Olga accepted Christianity and was baptized in Constantinople. When her grandson Vladimir sought the hand of the Byzantine Emperor's daughter, he, too, became a Christian and made Christianity the state religion in Rus',

                  It was in the same generation that Eric the Red extended Viking control further into the New World by colonizing Greenland, and his son Leif Ericson, who was a cousin of Vladimir of Rus, introduced the Christian religion and founded both settlements and churches on the North American continent. One of his settlements was recently excavated in Nova Scotia, in what is now New England. Christianity--Orthodox Christianity--for the Latin Church was at that time still part of worldwide Orthodoxy--thus came to America in the same generation as Vladimir made it the state Church of his dominion.

   Now this is a tie we easily can lose sight of. But just as there is a fraternal tie between the House of Rurik and the first European settlers of America, there is also a fraternal primacy of Orthodoxy in the land of the Eastern Slavs and in the New World.

      It has been said that the Millennium should be a time for family feuds to be healed--Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Carpatho-Ruthenians all trace their Christian culture to the Baptism of Rus under St. Vladimir. In practice this has often been a time of separatist strife, but in the common beginning there is a place to find a common voice and a common purpose.

              By the same token we "Yankees" would be very mistaken to write off the Millennium as something "for Russians only". We are not brother Slavs perhaps, but we are cousins, and we have a wonderful atmosphere to rediscover the underlying spiritual family ties.

      And in our generation, if God grants us to live a few more years, we are to see the millennium of the first introduction of Orthodox Christianity here in the Americas. Our task remains to "rekindle the holy fire" and build on the foundations that St. Vladimir's cousin Leif Ericson has left us.

Archpriest John R. Shaw
Holy Protection Cathedral, Chicago


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