ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Russia’s Rocky Road to God

Confused and unsure in their new post-Communist land, Russia’s Orthodox Christians turn to their church for guidance.

Despite the communists’ often violent attempts to destroy it, the Russian Orthodox Church, the only prerevolutionary institution to survive somewhat intact, albeit scarred, is striving to bring hope to this nation’s confused and bewildered populace.

“The worst thing is despair, and if despair could be alleviated, it would solve 98 percent of Russia’s problems,” says the Rev. Alexander Borisov, pastor of the Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, located across the street from Moscow’s city hall.

“Despair is a principal sin: it is to be without God,” the priest continues.

Despair controls the lives of many ordinary Russians. Yet coupled with this sense of despondency is a resurgence of interest in the Orthodox Church. The Mysteries of Initiation – Baptism, Chrismation and Eucharist – are once again a rite of passage for most Russians.

But do parents and godparents understand their responsibility to rear their children as Christians? With its elaborate forms of worship, most of which date to Russia’s medieval past, Orthodoxy often seems incomprehensible to Russia’s nascent Christian community.

Today, Russia’s prerevolutionary symbols, whether Christian or secular, have lost their meaning – Russians no longer know who or what to believe.

The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II, has repeatedly called for “an intensive evangelization aimed at filling the enormous spiritual vacuum in the people, the descendants of former Orthodox Christians.”

One priest tackling this challenge is Father Borisov.

A believer since his late teens, young Borisov worked as a geneticist in the Soviet Academy of Sciences until he was 33. That year he entered into religious life at the renowned monastery of Sergei Posad in Zagorsk, near Moscow. The novice was ordained to the diaconate in Moscow one year later.

For 16 years, Deacon Borisov served the church in a variety of pastoral ministries, including a brief stint as a deputy in the Soviet Politburo. However it was Borisov’s book, The Fields Are White for Harvest, circulated in the 80s in samizdat, or underground form, that brought attention to the young deacon.

Critics of the book claim the author paints a dismal picture of the Russian Orthodox Church, a church more suitable for the uneducated masses of pre-revolutionary Russia than the highly educated populace of modern Russia. And indeed the book cites the lack of catechesis given to those who seek baptism as well as the general unfamiliarity of believers with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the nature of the church.

With the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, the restrictions placed on the Orthodox Church, which included conditions on lay catechesis and seminary instruction, were relaxed. In 1989, Deacon Borisov was ordained a priest. Two years later he was assigned to the central Moscow parish of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, then only recently returned to the patriarchate. With this assignment, Father Borisov was given the opportunity to implement the practices he called for in his provocative book.

But first the priest had to restore a church. Stripped of its icons, frescoes and furniture, Sts. Cosmas and Damian had been used as a print shop in the Soviet period. Constructed in the Moscow Baroque style, the shell of the former church was crumbling. Paper, garbage and broken printing equipment cluttered the floor of the interior.

At first, the community used a small room for the Divine Liturgy and other services. Gradually the sanctuary was transformed. One Sunday last September, I attended liturgy at Sts. Cosmas and Damian. The interior had none of the glittering icons and shrines normally associated with the Russian tradition. A simple wooden screen, enhanced with lithographs of ancient icons, served as the iconostasis. A painted three-bar cross, on which hung the dead Christ, and a few brass candle stands completed the ornamentation.

When I arrived near the end of the first of two Sunday services, the church was packed with worshippers, Voting and old, single and married. Within an hour after the completion of the first liturgy, the church began to fill for the second.

The service began with a homily, delivered by an associate priest of the parish. The cleric gathered the congregation into a corner of the church and, in Russian, he began to speak of despair and how they might defeat it. Post-Soviet Russia may be free of oppression, but this nation’s widespread poverty, high unemployment, soaring inflation and falling wages have created a sense of hopelessness.

After the 20-minute homily, the focus of the liturgy shifted to the iconostasis, from which the sacred mysteries were celebrated. Judging by the attentiveness of the people, the words of the liturgy, chanted by priest, cantor and choir, struck a responsive chord. Beams of sunlight, streaming through the clear glass of the clerestory windows, illuminated the printed responses of the liturgy. At the service’s climax, a substantial portion of the parish received the Eucharist.

Many members of the community remained in the church after the conclusion of the liturgy. Assisted by a few priests, Father Borisov chatted with the people, discussed problems, answered queries, arranged baptisms, weddings and other sacraments. One sensed the strength of this parish family; how it acted as a force in the lives of the people.

While enjoying a cup of tea and a piece of cake with the parishioners, I asked a few of them what they gained in attending the Divine Liturgy. For most of my new friends, who were eager to talk, the answer was simple: “The church is perhaps the only answer to help us face the problems confronting Russia today.”

Others said that they had experienced despair or felt helpless:

“We were at a loss to know which way to turn. In church we found solace.”

Later Father Borisov explained how his parish reaches out to the larger community. Alcoholism, always the scourge of the Russian peasant, has reached epidemic proportions. Alcoholics Anonymous, and support groups for the families of those affected by this disease, hold meetings in the church. Once a year a special Divine Liturgy is celebrated for those Muscovites who have died of AIDS, an event requested by a journalist. Funds collected in the parish assist single mothers and the elderly, most of whom barely survive on the meager pensions granted by a cash-poor Russian government.

The parish also supports a catechetical program with special emphasis on the study of the Bible – perhaps a response to the well-financed Bible study programs sponsored by the evangelical sects pouring into Russia from the West.

When I asked Father Borisov about the controversy surrounding his book, he dismissed it. He has received numerous requests to have it translated and published in the West. But to keep distractions to a minimum, he has thus far refused:

“We must be flexible to re-evangelize Russia effectively,” the priest stated softly. “And,” he continued, “we must work for reconciliation among faiths and nations while maintaining our own identities. We must be good neighbors.”

Russia’s road back to God is a long and rocky one indeed.

Sean Sprague, a freelance photojournalist, travels throughout “our world.”

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