Friends, I was asked to write a reflection on my trip to Moscow and I thought I would share it with you. -Fr John
An eight hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean gives one time for reflection. And coming off of a ten day, jam-packed visit to Moscow, reflection is as inevitable as it is essential.
The trip was part of an exchange program in which ten OCA priests, one deacon, and Bishop Daniel of Santa Rosa, were the guests of the Ss Cyril and Methodius Theological Institute. For ten days we visited numerous monasteries, parishes, institutes, academies, drank gallons of tea, prayed, served, and learned of the past and present of the Russian Orthodox Church. We prayed in churches older than our nation, venerated icons and saints that most of us had only read about in books, and experienced through it all the warm hospitality of our hosts and the Russian Church in general.
So how does one process this? To say it was amazing, even overwhelming, is trite and inadequate. On our first Sunday, for example, we attended the hierarchical Divine Liturgy on St Vladimir’s day with hundreds of people in the Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin, a church filled with history, medieval icons, the relics of countless saints. Then, after the splendor of the Liturgy, we drove to the Butovo Firing Range, a small piece of ground on the outskirts of Moscow where, in 1937-1938, Stalin had over 20,000 people summarily shot and buried in mass graves with earth movers, among them over a thousand Orthodox clergy and monastics. To speak easily of “history” in regard to these two - seemingly disparate realities - is not only trite, it is impious. But it is also an error. For the Divine Liturgy of that morning was not a historical re-enactment, a well performed, costumed reproduction of an elaborate medieval rite. It was, quite simply, the Church alive, the Kingdom of God come down amongst us. For the reality of that Liturgy in a city where a few decades ago the Soviets had killed the Church’s clergy and faithful and turned churches and monasteries into museums, means not simply that the Soviets failed, it means that gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church.
These sorts of juxtapositions were the rule for our trip, not the exception. Another afternoon, for example, we visited and prayed at the site where, in 1990, Fr Alexander Men, a charismatic and courageous priest, was struck down with an axe. Then, the next day, we visited a Moscow parish where the disciples of Fr Alexander not only sell his books and revere his memory, but where they have formed a community that, along with the Divine services, has dozens and more of small groups and ministries to serve the sick and poor and needy. In other, words, where they live the commandments of Christ.
To state it simply, although we visited lots of old churches and monasteries, viewed medieval icons and frescoes, we were not tourists, and the Russian Orthodox Church is not the museum that the Soviets sought to create. The Church in Russia is alive, growing, praying, serving, and, yes, also struggling to find its way forward in a world no less secular than ours. It is a creative work that must done in faithfulness to Tradition and in the freedom of the Spirit, to discern how to appropriate a thousand years of history and practice, all while emerging from one of the most brutal periods of persecution in the history of the Church. But freedom and creativity are not easy, and they reveal tensions and conflicting visions of how to move forward. Thus it has always been, thus it always will be in this world. But if our experience was genuine, then it seems to me that the Russian Orthodox Church has the spiritual, historical, and academic resources at its disposal to not only make sense of her past but also to discover her future under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
With love in Christ,