As I continue to process my trip to Moscow this summer I thought, perhaps, to share some of my reflections with you.Over the next month or so I will write some short reflections for the bulletin that I hope will be to your benefit. -Fr John
I’ve already mentioned in a previous reflection that one of the most striking juxtapositions of my recent trip to Moscow was our first Sunday with the patriarchal Divine Liturgy followed by a trip to Butovo shooting range, the site of a series of mass graves of some 20,000 people executed during the Great Terror of 1937-38. I don’t want to recap that here, except to say that as I continue my reflections, the first thing that comes to mind is simply this: life in this world, and no less for the church in this world, is often hard and at times brutal. What sustains us?
For much of the Soviet era in the Russian Orthodox Church, preaching was curtailed or severely limited, as well as much that we would think of as Church life: Christian education, fellowship, etc. So what sustained Christians and the Church in that time?
The first and most fundamental answer to this is the Liturgy. The Liturgy is our life. It was not uncommon in the first decades after the revolution for the faithful to gather in church on Sunday morning not knowing if there would be a priest to serve the Liturgy. As the Soviets were busy killing priests - by some estimates over 40,000 in the first 20 years after the revolution - a priest might not appear and so there would be no Liturgy, maybe only the chanted psalms by a reader if that.
But often a sort of miracle would happen: from among the crowd one would step forward, a priest in civilian clothes, who would quietly say his prayers, come into the altar, vest, and proceed to serve the Divine Liturgy. Unfailingly he would be arrested the next day and taken away to prison without trial, in many cases never to appear again. Like Saint Mary of Egypt receiving Holy Communion only to disappear into the desert, that one final Liturgy must sustain him for the rest of his life “in the desert”, whether he was shot the next day or sent to the Gulag. To serve that Liturgy was to truly - finally - offer his life to God.
But it was not only priests. Throughout the Soviet period, to attend the Divine Liturgy was to be marked, in many cases, and to put your life, your job, or perhaps your child’s education at risk. Even if you were not killed, to attend the Liturgy meant risking everything. And still they came.
Just what must the Liturgy be if priests and people risked their lives and their jobs, their comfort, just to serve it one last time? Is the Liturgy worth my life? Is it worth our life?
Or, let us ask this another way. What is my life without the Liturgy? Today, in my time and place, could I live without the Liturgy?
A second answer to the question “What sustains us?” is what I will simply call churchly beauty: icons, architecture, music, vestments, etc. This might be harder for us who don’t worship in a 400-year-old cathedral with professional choirs and beautiful frescoes to appreciate.
When the Soviets were confiscating church valuables and even demanding the sacramental utensils, very many of the faithful, though themselves poor, resisted. The church was, for them, Heaven on earth, an experience of the glory of God. They might be poor, their homes humble, their provisions limited. And yet the glory that they glimpsed in the church sustained their souls, offering them a vision of real life, spiritual life.
The Soviets declared this vision of the Kingdom of God an opiate, a sort of drug-induced dream that prevented believers from living in this world. But the truth was just the opposite: it was this vision of the Kingdom that sustained them in this life, giving them the courage and the faith to love God and their neighbor as themselves.
Our world is much different than their Soviet dystopia, but we must realize that one thing is the same for them and us: an all-pervading materialism that says that this world is the true reality and that we must live only for this world.
If our faith is going to be sustained then we must cultivate the same spiritual aesthetic that they did, a love of churchly beauty that compels us to sing well, to pray well, and to give sacrificially to build and beautify our temples, no less than our own homes.
With love in Christ,