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
As I continue my reflections on my trip to Russia this summer I thought, perhaps, it would be worthwhile to think a bit about the idea of “Holy Russia”. In recent years, as American and western cultures have become increasingly secularized and moved away from what is often called “traditional values”, many religious believers of different churches and religions have begun to look to the past and to other ages and places longingly. Some Orthodox speak romantically of Byzantium, some Roman Catholics of the High Middle Ages in the west, while some Muslims look to a caliphate or the Ottoman Empire, all as a better, holier time in which religious faith and practice were more normative and not as threatened and fragile as they seem today.
For some Orthodox Christians the idea of Holy Russia, or Holy Rus, seems to fill this need. The appeal is understandable. For centuries Russian princes and tsars reigned over their lands as those anointed by God to protect their people all the while safeguarding the Orthodox Faith by working closely with the church (often too closely). The culture that emerged from this sought-after synergy was unquestionably remarkable for its spiritual and artistic qualities. Countless saints, resplendent icons and churches, heavenly music, and a rich folklore are but some of the fruits of this world. All of this is commendable, and a romantic longing for this sort of time and place is understandable.
Critics, of course, like to point out that this sort of romanticizing of the past is naive, that the reality “on the ground” was often not as blissful as imagined and that a closer look at history reveals much that was not only not very romantic but not even very Orthodox. Numerous anecdotes could be given to illustrate their point, but there is no space or need for that here.
The simple point that I would like to make, however, is not concerned with historical examples - pro or con - for the reality or the success of Holy Rus. It is more basic than that, and as such, I believe more fundamental.
The shortest way to say it is simply to quote the scriptures: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (Heb 13.14) In this world we are “sojourners and exiles.” (1 Peter 2.11) “... our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ….” (Phil 3.20) In other words, no country or empire, no matter how holy, is our true homeland; we are citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Since the 1970s and the rise of the Religious Right, there has been a concerted effort by many to identify America as a Christian country that has been pulled from its moorings by liberals, the sexual revolution, etc. In this narrative the work - the duty, even - of Christians is to engage in a culture war against these liberalizing forces to return us to our more traditional values. Now, this work is undertaken by primarily political means, electing the right politicians to office, fighting against abortion, etc. The sad result of all of this, however, has not been the hoped-for restoration of traditional values (if you need proof just turn on your TV), but, ironically, the politicization of conservative churches (without a doubt the liberal churches are just as politicized). Thousands of sermons are preached every year, voters guides are distributed in churches, and millions of dollars spent by religious organizations on political topics, with the unhappy result that many churches and Christians have equated the Faith with “family values” (or, on the left, with “social justice”) and lost sight of the Kingdom of Heaven in the process.
If we want to take a lesson from the faithful and the saints of Holy Rus in all of this it perhaps should be that political absorption is undesirable and that culture wars are not our real struggle. We think of people like St Sergius or St Xenia as part and parcel of Holy Rus, but they never lived or struggled for Holy Rus but for the Kingdom of Heaven. “Holy Rus”, whatever one makes of that ideal, was a this-worldly fruit of their struggle, a beneficiary of it, not their focus.
Likewise, our work as Orthodox Christians is not to build a holy kingdom in this world, whether it be a monarchy, a democracy, or any other form of government. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, however holy or unholy they may be. But the Church survives. Even in Russia today the work of the Church is not to rebuild Holy Rus, but to simply be the Church. If the Church, here or there, is able to affect the broader culture then so be it. If not, she exists as a witness to and a manifestation in this world of the Kingdom of Heaven, as she did for much of the 20th century.
With love in Christ,