Sunday, November 24, 2013

Witness at the edge of night

…I was told over and over, “But the deeper I went into the Church, the more deeply I felt myself as belonging to the people of Israel,” and, “The more I am Christian, the more I feel myself a Jew.” What is more, this Jewish identity had become positive and internal, rather than the negative, externally reinforced anti-Semitism that was their basic identification with Jewishness before entering the Church. They did not become ‘Russian’ in the Russian Church, but ‘Jewish.’

Father Alexander Men' probably needs no introduction to many of you. He is the late priest in the Russian Orthodox Church who was found murdered by an axe in September 1990, and whom the late academic Sergei Averintsev called "The man sent from God to be missionary to the wild tribe of the Soviet intelligentsia."

This post about hieromartyr Alexander Men' consists entirely of quotes from an online article sent me by a dear sister in the Lord. To read the entire article, click HERE. Father Michael is an Orthodox priest of Russian Jewish origin. Photo is of Alexander Men' as a youth.

It was an issue of how to maintain your difference. ... To stay a spiritual personality. Not to be completely engulfed. In this sense, the Church helped to support the human personality, the personality of the intelligentsia, for whom personhood is extremely important. Not to be completely dissolved into the aggressive Soviet mass. … It was the power that I found to stay myself. (Father Michael)

For another Russian-Jewish intellectual affected by the wave of baptisms in the late sixties:

… Living in the Soviet Union, and always being bothered by the constant lie, you had the sensation that there must be a great deal that they are simply hiding. I was led to a sense of readiness, readiness to believe in something else. I didn't know what that something was, but the readiness was there. ("Osip")

There were and are, of course, many ways to respond to such inner "readiness." They could have sought out Judaism, to the extent that was feasible in the Soviet Union of the time. They could have become Zionists, and tried to go to Israel. Or they could have followed the secular dissident pattern of, say, Sakharov. Indeed, in the sixties, these paths did not seem so disparate, as one interviewee acknowledged:

From the same underground came the dissident movement and the Zionist movement. Discussions would take place in the same house…
I didn't hide the fact that I went to church. For those Jews in those days the fact that we were Christians was not an issue. Most of them had been in Stalin's camps. Christians were not enemies. They were all allies. In those days we were a minority of outcasts.
(Father Michael)

For many of these "outcasts," as I have said, it was Father Alexander Men', by both example and word, who showed them the way out of what has been variously called the ideological lie, the vacuum, the cellar, or the prison of Soviet culture. Born a Jew, thus an outsider, a "dissident" by birth, trained as a scientist in a Soviet institute, Men' came to represent for these intellectuals the best of all worlds.

Men' clearly had charisma. But he also had a message that appealed to a generation straitjacketed in their institutes for Historical Materialism and Marxism-Leninism. The way out of the cellar that he showed them celebrated the highly sensual ritual, the materiality of Russian Orthodoxy not as a utilitarian end, but as the incarnation of mystical Truth and as a sign of the possible deification of creation. Spirit and matter, religion and secular knowledge were not so far apart, after all. Engineers, historians, and mathematicians were attracted by Men's readiness to build a bridge between the Church and secular society, between science and religion: "This idea of dialogue with the world has stuck with me all my life," wrote the Jewish priest [Fr Michael].

…perhaps the most radical, and controversial of the followers of Men' now gather to pray in the basement of the building housing the Center for Human Rights, near the Nikitskie Gates [in Moscow]. To be clear, this small community is not part of the Patriarchate of Moscow. It belongs to the so-called Apostolic Orthodox Church, founded in May of 2000 through the authority of the True-Orthodox (Catacomb) Church, a body that never reunited with the Moscow Patriarchate since the 1920s. It is sometimes called Gleb Iakunin's Church, for its founder, the famous dissident from the 60s. At the recommendation of Iakunin, this dissident Church's synod canonized Father Aleksandr on September 8, 2000.

The canonization of Men' was, and still is, highly controversial. Many followers of Men' with whom I spoke agreed that the canonization was perhaps deserved, but nonetheless, in this form and by this splinter Church, nothing more, and nothing less than an unnecessary provocation: We split with them over this, Men's brother explained. I understand their views, but it was all done on their own, which only disturbs the situation. Men's son, Mikhail, currently the deputy major of Moscow and a controversial figure in his own right, wrote: "I look on this as a provocation directed against all my family. ... by an organized group of people having no relationship to the Russian Orthodox Church."

But a saint he is, say some. The makeshift Church of the New Martyrs, led by Father Yakov Krotov [photo right], is divided by an iconostasis with only three icons: the Mother of God, Christ, and one of Father Aleksandr. The wall is punctuated by wide arches in place of the closed royal doors of a traditional icon stand, thus making the altar fully visible, and accessible, to the congregation. The services are conducted in Russian, rather than the Church Slavonic recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church, and, thus, also easily accessible to the worshippers. There is no choir; the congregants themselves are expected to chant the entire service, and Father Iakov recites all prayers aloud, rather than mumbled as is usually done in the Orthodox Church. All of these innovations, Krotov believes, make his service more democratic, more inclusive, and more in the spirit of Father Aleksandr Men's own teachings.

Does he deserve sainthood for this legacy, as those in Gleb Iakunin and Iakov Krotov's Church believe?

According to one of Men's Russian Jewish Christians:

I do think that according to the Orthodox definition of a saint, Fr. Alexander is a saint. There are a few different types of saints. One of these types is a person who lived a great life, was extremely important for his time and people around him, bravely preached about faith in the time of danger, wrote beautiful books about faith, and died as a martyr. Who will fit this definition better then Father Alexander Men?

The OCA [Orthodox Church of America] website gives the following definition:

It means only that, within the context of his age, he manifested the image of God in himself in some way — that he was an ikon, an original creation, a new creature in Christ.

Canonization does not make a man a saint. Rather, it establishes the fact, publicly and for all to see, that the man is already a saint…

Was Father Alexander Men' such a man? I don't know. I never met him. I don't believe in saints. I don't even believe in Jesus Christ. And I'm crazy about Jews converting to Christianity. I do know, however, that his ministry, and, even more, the presence of his spiritual children, grandchildren, cousins, and fellow travelers, especially among the Jews, continue to press the case of his significance, and in so doing, to test the saintliness of the contemporary Church itself. "In his day," in the "cellar" of the Soviet Union, he did something unusual. He was an "original creation" as an intellectual in the Church.

"Pasha," a Russian Jewish Christian now living in New York suggested the following:

To show you are a Jew in Orthodoxy is a kind of litmus paper. Jewry is the verification of faith for a Christian. Why? If you take this paper, Jewry, and you immerse it in someone's faith, and the paper changes color, even just a little, then that is a marker that something is not right in his faith. True Orthodoxy, the Orthodoxy his followers believe was preached by Men', is thus associated with tolerance and ecumenism, with what they see as the true message of the gospels. And any Orthodoxy that does not accept Jews, that flunks the litmus test, must have abandoned its true ecumenical form and become intent only on its own ritualistic laws. Did Men' revolutionize the Russian Orthodox Church? By no means. Was he a messiah? Absolutely not. Does his legacy point out to the Church how it might "heal itself"? In a quiet, sometimes defeatist and always paradoxical way: Yes.

No comments: