We are Moving into an Age of Love

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This is an article published in 2005 in Moscow giving a general overview of the work of Fr Alexander Men. The author Irina Yazikova is an iconologist.

On the 22nd of January, Father Alexander Men’ would have been 70 years old. His life was filled with multifaceted service: a superb pastor, an eloquent preacher, a talented writer, an active missionary, enlightener, a student of the Bible. Even though it is already 15 years that Fr. Alexander left us, his powerful gift of word even now reaches people’s hearts.

The life of this pastor was tragically broken on September 9, 1990, he was only 55, and was so full of energy and new plans, it seemed that he would be with us for a long time and would accomplish much. But those who killed this priest, evidently, hoped that his death would put an end to his activities, that the word of the pastor would be silenced. However, the opposite happened: his service not only did not cease, it continued and even expanded. Today, books by Fr. Alexander Men’ are printed in ever larger quantities, they are translated into many of the world’s languages, they are published all across the globe, his name is known far from the borders of his country, many of the charitable initiatives he began, and his projects for teaching, live and grow.

Over the 15 years that passed since his death, the Foundation of Archpriest Alexander Men’ has published all his major works. This includes the books “The Son of Man,” “The First Apostles”; six volumes on the history of religion, “In Search of the Way, of Truth and of Life,” a series of books on “Life in the Church”, collections of lectures, sermons, conversations at home, and talks before general confession, answers to questions, the textbook “Hesagogics: A course of study in the Old Testament”, and the three volume dictionary of the Bible. His correspondence is being published. From the wide treasure of his correspondence, his letters with John Reutlinger (“The Smart Heaven”), and with Fr. Vsevolod Roshko (“On Contemporary Issues Facing the Church”), and with Diana Vinkovetskaya (“Your Father Alexander”). In general, books by Fr. Alexander Men’ number over 6 million copies in print just in the Russian language. Restoration work is being done on the audio- and videocassettes of his lectures, sermons, and talks, and they are also being issued in large numbers, and enjoy enormous popularity. The living word of Fr. Alexander has not lost its power or its relevance today.

At the same time, many books about Fr. Alexander Men’ have seen the light of day: the recollections of those who knew him, a biography and a history of his family, books devoted to his pastoral activities and theological views, etc. Of them, the most well known is the book by the leading French writer Yves Aman “Alexander Men’: A witness to his time.” The book has had many editions, and has been translated to other languages. Dozens of films have been made of the famous pastor, as well as a series of radio and television programs. Every year the are conferences dedicated to his memory, and, it should be noted, not only in Russia, but also in Europe and America. Interest in the work of Fr. Alexander Men’ has long passed confessional boundaries: his name is widely known and respected outside of the Orthodox Church.

Nevertheless, aside from the books, articles and films that highly value the contribution of Fr. Alexander’s evangelical sermons, the study of the Bible, and Christian enlightenment, there also over these years have been critical articles and books about him. His opponents, as a rule, are critical of the breadth of his views, his liberal interpretation of tradition; they accuse him of shifting away from the foundations of Orthodoxy. The works of Fr. Alexander can often be found in secular book stores, yet in Church stores they are practically absent. In many parishes his name generates a negative reaction. This is while the hierarchy highly valued his pastoral and missionary activities. Patriarch Alexii II spoke of him highly, and we as Pimen, the previous patriarch, as well as Metropolitan Yuvenaly of Krutitsa and Kolomena, in whose diocese Fr. Alexander served, and many other bishops, among whom, for example, was Archbishop Mikhail Mudyugin. It is sufficient to say that Fr. Alexander a candidate in higher theological studies, was published in the “Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate,” and in “Theological Studies,” had many Church awards, and bore the rank of Mitrophor Priest (the highest rank for married clergy), and was the pastor of a parish church. Leading churchmen wrote introductions to his books: Archbishop John Shakhovskoy wrote an introduction to “Mystery, Word, Image”; Metropolitan Anthony Surozhsky penned an introduction to “The Difficult Path to Dialog”, Archbishop Mikhail Mudyugin introduced his Bible dictionary, noting that Fr. Alexander is given high marks as Biblical scholar. Nevertheless, the middle level of priests, generally not as educated as Fr. Alexander, suspect his works are heretical and categorically forbid their parishioners to read his books. Alas, more time is needed before our society will be better able to appreciate this modern man fully: things are seen clearer in hindsight.

Still it is instructive that interest in the legacy of Fr. Alexander Men’ does not fade over the years. If someone reads, as a rule, just one of his books, the accusations of heresy lose their strength, and suspicions that he had slipped away from Orthodoxy cease to have meaning. All these accusations are groundless, prejudicial, and without merit. Few have done as much for Orthodoxy in the 20th century as has Fr. Alexander Men’. Living in the land of victorious atheism, he actively preached the Gospel with all available resources. This was his main contribution. During his earthly service, Fr. Alexander led hundreds of people to Christ, for which he was constantly pressed by the government with threats and repression. After his tragic death, not hundreds, but thousands of people find faith through his books; they discover for themselves the Gospels, they become Christians with active lives founded on service, sacrifice, and good works.

Father Alexander Men’ had an ability to speak in such a way that his words were accessible both to the simplest village grandmother and to refined intellectuals. Many plain people were among his parishioners, some of whom never read his books, and there were outstanding people like Nadezhda Mandelshtam, Maria Yudina, Alexander Galich, Nikolai Karetnikov, etc. The secret of Father Alexander’s pastoral successes chiefly was in how he was able to awaken in people their uniqueness, and helped his spiritual children to live faith as a personal encounter with Christ. Christianity, he often repeated, is not a collection of dogmas or moral commandments, it is in fact Jesus Christ Himself. “Notice,” he said in his last lecture, “Christ did not leave one written verse, he didn’t leave tablets of commandments, he didn’t dictate a Koran, he didn’t found orders, instead He said to his disciples: “I will remain with you in all the days that remain to the end of time.” All the deepest Christian experience is built on this.” His last lecture, called “Christianity”, was read on September 8, 1990, on the eve of the terrible tragedy that took away his life. That day he opened the Orthodox Sunday University (it was renamed a year later to Generally Accessible). Father Alexander wanted people (who turned to faith after decades of a godless regime), to become knowledgeable Christians, capable of conceiving faith in all the many aspects of spiritual, intellectual and cultural experience as gathered by the world and the Church. It is for this he wrote his books, for this he read lectures and created the Orthodox University.

He himself received his faith from the hands of people who were very educated and in the highest degree spiritually aware, and who were connected with the religious renaissance of the beginning of the 20th century. He was baptized by archimandrite Serafim (Batyukov), who also was his first spiritual guide. Father Serafim belonged to the same generation of Russian intellectuals as did Father Sergey Bulgakov, he received a secular higher education and could have found his way in the world, but instead he consciously picked the path of priestly service during the difficult years of trials and persecution against the Church (he was ordained in 1919). Father Serafim was a disciple of the Optina elders, and was a friend of Father Alexei Mechev, he was highly valued by Patriarch Tikhon, who knew him personally. From the beginning of the 1930s, Father Serafim entered the catacomb church, and secretly lived and served in a small house near Zagorsk. Such secret parishes were connected with one another and they were nourished by Vladyka Afanasy (Sakharov). He was arrested repeatedly and sent into exile. People constantly came to visit Father Serafim, and many were educated, for whom going to the Church in those times was not easy. Among them was Vera Yakovlevna Vasilyevskaya, the aunt of Father Alexander Men’, and his mother, Yelena Semyonovna, who, thanks to Father Serafim, discovered their Faith, were baptized and became fervent Christians and bore their faith through many trials. Despite his young age, the future pastor remembered clearly his contacts with Father Serafim.

Alexander Men’ was educated not quite like millions of other Soviet children, the minds of which were annually brainwashed by Soviet propaganda. Even though he studied in an ordinary Moscow school, and then in a Soviet college, his world views were founded on Christian values. He discovered Christ as a child, he became captivated by the Bible when he was 7, and by 12 he already knew he would be a priest, and submerged himself in the study of the Bible, theology, the history of the Church and other religions, and at fifteen he already wrote the first version of his book “The Son of Man.” He understood the nature of his calling in his early years, yet he all the same decided to receive a secular education before anything else. From early childhood biology was an interest, and he entered the Fur Institute, finished it, but was not allowed to graduate: the institute’s management became aware of his religious convictions, and that he served as an altar boy. After being expelled from the Institute, only one path remained open—the priesthood. In 1958 he is ordained deacon, in 1960 he becomes a priest. In parallel he studied at the correspondent division of the Leningrad Seminary, and finished it with honors. He then finished correspondent courses at the Moscow Seminary, and defended work for a candidate of theological studies. In those times, by a secret order of the Committee for Religious Affairs, educated clergy were to be kept far from Moscow. As such, the priestly service of Father Alexander became tied with suburban Moscow parishes: he served in Alabino, Tarasovka, and the last 20 years in Novaya Derevnya, next to the city of Pushkino. But regardless of where he served, people came to him from Moscow, and from all across the country, and even from foreign countries.

Father Alexander was far from being an ordinary country priest, even though he served his entire life in the country. He was even farther from the stereotype of the uncouth superstitious churchmen so common in Soviet atheist propaganda (and even today, people far from the Church often conceive priests to be just like this). Father Alexander rejected the enforced image of Church people being old-fashioned and out of touch. He united in himself true faith and deep knowledge, living sense of mystery, and a sharp analytical mind, high spirituality, and a wide range of interests. He did not preach a religion divorced from the life of people and their problems, he avoided fanaticism in faith, “we must not hide from the world in a monastic cell under a pine tree,” said Father Alexander. On the contrary, he wanted believers to be capable of accepting the challenges of contemporary life, and to find adequate answers. This can only be accomplished by someone who is deeply conscious of his faith, is well educated and open to all the good in the world.

“True Christianity,” he said, “is, if you wish, an expedition. An expedition that is both unusually difficult and dangerous. Accepting Christianity, we take on risk. We do not receive guaranteed spiritual states.” He taught his spiritual children to see God’s presence in the world, and in every person. “Everything that is wonderful and good in people, all the good things that they do, all that is from God, even if they are not aware of it. We should never reject good, even if it is done by a nonbeliever. On the contrary, we should rejoice in it,” exhorted Fr. Alexander. He himself was an example of unusual openness, acceptance, and good will. He deeply knew and loved Orthodoxy, but he was also open to the experience of other confessions, he studied other religions, finding in them valid spiritual paths. Christianity and xenophobia were incompatible for him.

Immediately after ideological prohibitions were lifted, Fr. Alexander began to publicly speak in schools, colleges, and houses of culture, he was invited to appear on radio and television. His audience was huge, sometimes it filled entire stadiums (e.g., his Paschal sermon in the Olympic stadium in 1990). His first public lecture was delivered in the House of Culture of the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys on May 11, 1988. It was devoted to the thousand-year anniversary of the Baptism of Rus. After the lecture he was inundated by a storm of questions. At that time it was considered to be a miracle or a general spiritual revolution that a priest could speak in a college, in a hall overflowing with students and teachers. Other lectures followed this one, their number constantly grew. Fr. Alexander used this time of freedom with maximum effectiveness. Over the three years that were granted him from above, he managed to do much. Aside from the lectures and speeches, he laid the foundations for many long-ranging projects. By his initiative the Russian Biblical Society was reborn (it was closed in 1826), he planned and developed the first issue of the journal “The World of the Bible” (it appeared after his death, in 1993, by the RBS, from 1995 it is published by the BTI). He founded the Orthodox University, the “Cultural Renaissance” society, the almanac “Christianos” (it is published in Riga), and a series of other publications; he also led the organization of many groups that took on charitable and humanitarian work. One such group took on itself the care of seriously ill children in the Children’s Republic Clinical Hospital in Moscow, where Fr. Alexander began visiting when not one priest would dare to do it. All of his initiatives were taken up by his spiritual children, and in one way or another continue to operate and expand to this day.

The Biblical-Theological Institute of the Holy Apostle Andrew also owed its existence to Fr. Alexander Men’. It traces its existence to the lecture that became the last in the pastor’s life. In 1995 BTI became a separate educational institution from the Generally Accessible University, in order to continue the educational process in the framework of higher education.

All the initiatives of Fr. Alexander Men’ bore witness to the deep understanding of the spiritual challenges that stood and stand before the country, now exiting a 70-year imprisonment. At the same time, he was full of sober optimism. He did not share the dark feeling that we live in the vestibule of the end of time, and that a post-Christian epoch was approaching. “The Church is still young. Christianity is only just beginning” said Fr. Alexander. And that inspired people: if genuine Christian history is still in the future, then each of us can do much for the blooming of the Church, for science and culture, for the spiritual rebirth of our country and the whole world.

Fr. Alexander often repeated that the Gospel has not yet been fully read or understood by mankind, since history is full of wars, revolutions, catastrophes. Each person must discover Christ and believe that God is Love. And when the Good News enters his heart, he will look at the world, at people, and his mission in the world with different eyes. And if this happens, then evil, hatred, conflicts will disappear from the world of man. Love teaches us to look on the other as a part of ourselves. Mankind is one, and therefore every enmity against the other is waged against us as well. Christ came in order to put an end to this chain reaction of hatred, in order to teach people to love. “We are moving to an age of Love,” said Fr. Alexander Men’. His entire life was a powerful striving to it and a witnessing to that fact, that already here on earth man can realize in complete fullness God’s plan, and to make near the Kingdom of Heaven.