Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Russian Orthodox Church

Ever since I read the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevski as a young man, I’ve dreamt of going to Russia. That dream came true a few weeks ago as I enjoyed a ten-day trip to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I immersed myself in the history of this remarkable country which, in less than one hundred years, had passed from the autocratic rule of the tsars to the totalitarian régime of soviet communism, through the painful adventure of perestroika and glasnost to the present muddle of state-directed capitalism.

As I became more aware of this history, I also came to realize the central role of the Russian Orthodox Church in its development. In many ways, Russia emerged as a nation through the unifying dynamism of this Church. It all began in what is now Ukraine, centered its capital of Kiev, in the year 988. The local Grand Prince, Vladimir, had sent envoys to various parts of the world to advise him which religion he should adopt. They came back extolling the virtues of the liturgy at the cathedral of Saint Sophia in Constantinople, the head church of Orthodoxy. So Vladimir chose to be baptized into the Christian faith in its Byzantine form along with all his people, and the history of Russian Orthodoxy was launched.

Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, just as Russia was throwing off the rule of the Mongols and becoming an independent state. The leader of the Russians, now called a tsar, took upon himself the role of protector of Orthodoxy in the world. And in 1589, the Patriarch of Constantinople recognized the bishop of Moscow as a Patriarch in his own right, thus setting up Russian Orthodoxy as a self-administered, independent body.

The Russian Orthodox faith was deeply held by practically all Russians until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Before then, each little village had its church, distinguished by its “onion domes” meant to replicate the form of a candle’s flame as it stretches up to heaven. Each Russian home had its “red corner” where candles were kept burning before icons of Christ and of the saints. Hundreds of monasteries, both of men and of women, dotted the landscape. The relationship of the tsar to the Russian Orthodox Church was similar to that of the English monarch to the Church of England.

The Bolsheviks put an end to all that. According to Fr. Ronald Roberson, a specialist of Eastern Christian Churches, some 136,000 clerics were arrested in 1937 alone, and 85,000 of them killed. Over eighty percent of the clergy disappeared in the first twenty years of communism. Church persecution was intensified under Khrushchev’s rule in 1959. Churches were destroyed, icons burned, seminaries abolished, monasteries closed.

Only since 1990 has the situation begun to improve. Churches are being rebuilt and renovated. Monasteries are opening up their doors. Theological institutions are being founded. Indeed, polls indicate an extraordinary growth of religious faith in Russia since the end of communism. Thirty percent of young adults say they have converted from atheism to belief in God.

My tour guide was a young university teacher. As we visited a church, I asked her if she could help me buy a candle so that I might light it before one of the icons as a sign of prayer. Not only did she help me do so, she bought one for herself and, lighting it in front of an icon, stood in silence for a moment of prayer. It spoke powerfully to me of the rebirth of the great Russian Orthodox Church in its native land.

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