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From Conversations with Father Men

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Selected and translated by Steve Griffin from "Kultura i dukhovnoe voskhozhdenie (Moscow 1992)"

The Human Quest

What is the meaning of life?
The question is simple, brief and clear. Made in the image and likeness of the Creator, man finds meaning in life as he draws near to his Prototype. This is both the meaning and the goal. You see when we open up the Kingdom within us, Eternity begins to speak in us. And then we raise ourselves above vain pursuits, we cease to be slaves of circumstance, and we bravely stand against misfortunes which bring us down. This is not because we're indifferent or cold. The Christian isn't a stoic; he can suffer, but endures his sufferings through God's strength and not his own. In this way the meaning and goal of life is a forward and upward progression. It is not complacency,as some might think. We think of complacency as a rose-colored attitude towards our surroundings, when we close our eyes to evil and think that everything is wonderful. That's not how it is. Man must understand the tragic nature of life; he must look upon this tragic nature with his eyes open and at the same time remain standing—indeed not only remain standing, but move ever onwards and upwards. Our life becomes meaningful only as we move upwards, despite the fact that physically and mentally we descend as we grow older and weaker.


Do you find the notion of self-perfection attractive?
Christianity takes a rather skeptical attitude towards the idea of self-perfection. We believe that man's growth comes about not only through his own efforts, but by Grace, which is the power given to us from above. You can read about this in St Paul's letters to the Galatians and Romans.


What is “faith without religion”?
The faith of a non-religious person is unconscious, almost instinctive. While denying Ultimate Meaning to existence, that person still tries to live as though that Meaning did exist. Religious faith is the soul's openness to ultimate or cosmic Reason, universal love, and to God, while atheistic faith puts something limited and lower in God's place, such as the blind forces of nature, social utopias, political leaders, etc. Such faith has been called idolatry since olden times, and has invariably led to ruin because idols cannot, in fact, take the place of the Creator.

Christianity and the Modern World

In your view how should Christianity relate to the contemporary world?
I don't sympathize with those efforts attempted in the West to create a “secular Christianity.” The way of compromise associated with Bishop (John A.T.) Robinson and other “modernists” has nothing modern about it. It's all very naive and superficial. People become charmed and deafened by the spirit of the age, quite simply. This is hardly new, and will pass like any other fad. On the other hand, I cannot regard the Church as some relic of the past. As Christians we're in the modern world—this governs the entire program. So we should be contemporary people, in the good sense of the word, and not suffer from nostalgia for the past, but remain real Christians in spirit, thought and life. This is difficult. But it's the honorable task given by God to this generation.


Do you think that technological civilization is a threat to Christianity?
It's not a threat to Christianity, but to people in general. The Gospel, as in all ages, remains Christ's eternal call to us. The Church was not founded by people. The One who founded it said that difficult times of struggle would come. But he is Victor over this world, and in this we find the guarantee of hope. The stone on which the Church is founded cannot be moved. The task which Christ gave to the world cannot be accomplished by any one civilization or group of civilizations, for the Gospel ideal is only partially brought about as one civilization yields to another. That's why I think that the history of the Church has only just begun. We are still children, despite the ages that have gone by since Pentecost. After all, these two thousand years to God and to history?


Are you optimistic about the future?
I always quote Albert Schweitzer here, because his words are very appropriate for today: my knowledge is pessimistic (I don't think this requires elaboration in our day), but my faith is optimistic. I don't derive this optimism from facts, but simply from the conviction that the origin of goodness is creative and divine. Evil is a caricature of God's creation: everything that torments or has ever tormented humanity—totalitarianism, fanaticism, chauvinism, narrow-mindedness, stagnation, sloth, self-conceit, the lack of desire to create (but instead cleverly to redistribute)—all of this will in the end burst like a soap-bubble. Even though these illnesses have always been around and continue to be reborn, they are still dead. Today, when social tension has reached a nearly critical point, I wouldn't want to give people any reason to suspect that I'm under some illusion—I'm one without illusions. But I believe that Divine Providence will not allow us to perish, and call on all who have God's spark in their hearts not to yield to terror and panic. I am convinced that we shall, in the end, make it through these times. We've seen wars and catastrophes before; we'll make it through these trials too. I would add this: I feel that the torments of our day are not the birth pangs of some new world—that is a fiction—but simply the birth of normal human life, which has been denied us.


As an Orthodox believer what is your attitude towards other confessions?
My attitude was not formed immediately. After considerable thought, interaction and research I've come to be convinced that the Church is in essence one and that divisions have come about through the sin and narrow-mindedness of Christians. This sad fact is one of the greatest reasons for crises in Christianity. Only through brotherly unity and respect for diverse forms of church life can we hope to find strength, peace and God's blessing once again.


Can divisions in the Christian Church be overcome?
Over the centuries of division many differences have accumulated in the areas of doctrine, canon and worship. But I'm convinced that the schism between East and West is bound up with political, cultural and national conflicts. Today only a miracle could bring about real unity. Bur it is still possible to overcome misunderstanding and aggressive attitudes towards one another. If the members of different communities got to know one another better, in time this will bear good fruit.

Christianity in Russia

In your view does Russia have a specific vocation?
The Bible teaches that nations which play an important role in history have a vocation given to them from above. I think that this applies ot Russia. Chaadaev thought that Russia's vocation was to synthesize the depth and contemplative way of the East with the dynamism of the West. This thought is very close to my heart.


What role do you think religion will play in the life of the Russian people in the years to come? Do you have any particular speculations?
Here we don't even need to speculate. Everything is so obvious. Even the cave man connected his life and culture with his sense of the Eternal and his orientation towards a Higher existence. The first attempts to depict the Universe, in fact were connected with religious cults. After all one didn't sit there in the caves and just mess along with art: these were ritual drawings. In one form or another religion has always been inseparable from humanity; it has been the soul of humanity. One need not think that something unprecedented has now taken place, that a new form of humanity has been born. Nothing has changed! Rather, the old humanity needs a chance to develop normally. We don't need to invent some new form! Human culture has its own natural course of development, with advances and retrogressions. But when men have tried to snatch God from human minds, whether in Nazi Germany, here, in China or wherever, an idol has come quickly to fill the void. This shows that man, culture and spirit cannot be severed from the Eternal. Otherwise everything becomes worthless, and we begin to create and idolatrous system which eventually collapses. In our country, thank God, idolatry is on a decrease. I think that we live in a time when the hope of an earthly paradise without Heaven is dying. In fact, it is probably dead.


What has changed in the Russian Orthodox Church since Gorbachev came to power?
Gorbachev brought about a revolution in the realm of Church-State relations. The Bolshevik system was conceived as one with absolute authoritative power. But absolute authority is possible only when there is no other authority. That's why institutions which represented other, specifically spiritual, authorities needed to be destroyed from the start. For this reason the regime, right at the beginning, was anti-religious—indeed militantly anti-religious—and did not change in its relationship, essentially, throughout the entire seventy years. But Gorbachev resolutely changed the course of things. It's an historical fact. Not only details were changed, but the history of the Church in our country.


How do you react to the notion of “Patriotism”?
I disagree with Tolstoy when he says that patriotism is evil. To love one's home, street, city, and country is natural and wonderful. But to do this we don't have to belittle other countries, cultures, or peoples. In a multi-national state it's particularly important that we learn to respect one another. I find any form of chauvinism repulsive, very unpleasant. In any case, it's antithetical to the heart of Christianity and the precepts of Christ and his apostles. I pray that patriots of all the nations in our country will flee from chauvinism and internally overcome it.


What currents are there to be found now in the Orthodox Church?
The conservative current which sharply opposes the West, relates to all manner of reform with hostility, idealizes the past, and takes from history the most rigid (in my view Medieval) patterns, is quite powerful, and very popular among certain circles (in Western language we could refer to this current as “the right” because of its right wing inclination). You might ask, why is this so in the Church? One of the reasons is artificial selection. All the living, experimental movements within the Church were mercilessly destroyed over the course of several generations. If a bishop manifested a spirit of freedom, independence or experimentation, he was immediately re-assigned to the provinces or simply retired.


Do you see signs of renewal in Russian theology at present?
It seems to me that renewal began about a hundred years ago, when the old methodology (the so-called “scholastic theology”) ceased to be satisfactory. At that time Vladimir Soloviev pioneered a movement which in our century came to be led by prominent and diverse individuals such as Florensky and Tareev, Berdyaev, Bulgakov, Nesmelov, and Fedotov. But at that time their fresh and probing thought did not find a place in the Church, specifically in its academic tradition. That tradition was unable to re-structure itself,and the theological schools were subsequently closed and the tradition was interrupted. In my view what we most need now is to return to the works of that remarkable Pleiad which make up what has come to be called the “Russian Religious Renaissance of the Early 20th Century.” This will stimulate not so much renewal, but development and greater depth in theology. We possess a vast spiritual inheritance whose complete extent we can yet scarcely imagine. This is true even for professional scholars writing about Florensky or Bulgakov, whose legacy is made up of literally dozens of volumes.


How likely is reform for the Russian Orthodox Church and its parishioners?
First, I'll say a word about language, because for many parishioners it is unintelligible. This makes the situation quite a serious one. As it happens, at the beginning of this century Patriarch Sergei indicated a way in which this problem could be resolved by editing the Church Slavonic liturgical texts in such a way as to make the language more like contemporary Russian. One can, after all, make Church Slavonic approximate the Russian language, and such editing and careful “modernization” is quite admissible. When it comes to Church reforms, certain changes that represent more of a return to ancient church practice might be possible. I don't consider it my place to make any pronouncements on church reforms, but my personal opinion on one thing is that the Royal Doors should always remain open during the liturgy—opening them is no violation of dogma. Liturgy is corporate prayer, a corporate sacrament. If the Royal Doors are closed, then the altar and laypeople are divided, and the very essence of worship is violated. But such questions should be dealt with by the Council and the Patriarch of course.


But, I repeat, the dramatic history of the Russian Orthodox Church over the last decades has not been suited to reforms. They were completely inappropriate. Here we recall the reform efforts of those who sought renewal in the 20's and the tragic consequences those efforts had for the Russian Church: namely schism and discord. These reforms were hasty and insufficiently considered. Their translations of liturgical texts (I've had a look at them) are extremely unsuccessful and their personal tactics and position justifiably evoked much unfavorable criticism. They compromised the idea of Church renewal, so that the word “renewal” itself became offensive. For this reason they carry great historical blame.
However, I'm not inclined to absolutize the “conservative” Russian Church tendency. Part of the Russian Orthodox Church is truly devoted to certain forms and will never agree to changing them. But this by no means includes all believers. If that were the case there wouldn't be a million Baptists in Russia today. This means that there is a specific psychological type within our believing population that is ready to adopt the most radical changes in ritual and outward forms, with a view to returning to earlier Christian practice.

His Work as Pastor and Priest

Could you say something about yourself and the difficulties and joy of your work as a pastor?
I received a Christian upbringing in the home. But if that were the extent of it, faith would be for me just a way into traditions, something like recollections of my childhood. Every person with a religious upbringing at one moment or another encounters God for himself and makes a choice. This happened to me in my early school years.
In school I did not experience any oppression, although many of my classmates and teachers knew that I was a believer. That's why they didn't require me to joint the Young Pioneers or the Komsomol. It was the same in university, where everyone knew that I was Christian. But in the fifth year the administration decided to get rid of me, and they asked the military studies department to “fail” me on the state examinations. When the military studies department refused, I was simply dismissed for “failure to attend lectures.” But I was hoping to enter seminary in any case, once I had fulfilled my service requirement after graduation. My dismissal simply sped up the process, so that within a month Archbishop Makani ordained me as a priest. Until that time I had sung and read in church, and studied theology and Church regulations on my own.
I have experienced no shortage of difficulties and troubles but I don't want to talk about them. When I'm asked, I say that my spiritual mentors spent dozens of years in prisons and labor camps. Compared to what they went through, threatening letters, searches, interrogations, and attacks in the media are not such a heavy ordeal. In those days there was a lot to endure in any case, and I was no exception, and nothing more. I didn't have to make a compromise, for which I can only be thankful to God.
Among my parishioners there were many profound and interesting people, such as the famous psychiatrist D.E. Melekhov, who directed a clinic; M.V.Yudina the pianist; N.Y. Mandelshtam not only came to church regularly, but lived in my home during the summer months; A.Galich was baptized in our church. But I would rather not say any more about them than what I've already mentioned. That belongs to the realm of the spiritual life, and, just as there are clinical secrets, so there are pastoral ones.
I've experienced a great many joys in my life: liturgy, prayer, people whom I love, pastoral work, books, fellowship, research, art, nature—the list is endless. I always thank God for his endless gifts to us. These gifts are magnificent and, perhaps, unmerited.


I understand that your ethnic background is Jewish. Don't you think that in becoming a Christian you have cut yourself off from your people?
Not at all. I consider my membership in God's chosen race an unmerited gift, a sign of additional responsibility before God. He called Israel to serve Him, and Israel's history is sacred history, and it continues today. If the majority of my fellow Jews have not accepted Christianity, that is just the next chapter in the drama which is unfolding between God and the world. It began in Bible times, and it is taking place among other peoples too, many of whom have partially left Christianity. I am happy that with my weak efforts I can serve the God of Israel and his Church. For me the Old and New Testaments are inseparable. In any case, that's an indisputable argument in Christian theology.
As a Christian and simply by nature, I find myself extremely alienated by any form of chauvinism. I value and love the culture in which I was raised and which has given me so much, but I will not forget for a moment the responsibility and vocation laid upon me as a member of the Jewish race.


What is the value of confessing our sins before a priest?
We're quite cunning with ourselves, and always find an excuse for everything. When there's a witness (and a priest is only a witness) we have to carry out our first redemptive, as it were, spiritual feat: we have to name our sin. This can be so excruciating and repulsive that we would sooner repent of a thousand sins to ourselves than to tell a priest (or especially a friend) the truth about ourselves. And then we don't tell it straight, we speak in interjections or empty words, and what's important is obscured. The natural desire to appear better than you are is often at work as well as the natural fear that the priest will think less of you once he knows of your sin. But it's not true, my friends. I have hundreds of friends who make their confessions before me, and their sins have not in the least kept me from loving them. I simply forget their sins; they completely slip straight out of my consciousness. But then, believe me, satan hasn't managed to come up with anything ingenious; all sins are extremely monotonous and can be counted on the fingers of one hand. It seems to us that our sin is a particular one but alas sin is a synonym for banality, they're all commonplace.


What is more important for you, your work as a priest or your writing?
I cannot make that distinction. Everything I write about is intimately related to my work as a priest. I try especially to help the new Christians in my books, as I attempt to disclose the fundamentals of Christian doctrine and the Christian world view in contemporary language. Our pre-revolutionary literature, unfortunately, is not always understood by today's reader, and foreign books are directed to people with a different psychology and experience from our own. That's why there is always a need ot produce our own works, particularly for those who have just begun the life of faith.