The Roots of Identity
By Dr. Robert Moynihan
MOSCOW, Russia, July 17, 2008 (www.insidethevatican.com) -- Outside my window, a light rain is falling and distant thunder rumbles as I write this from the Danilovsky monastery, the five-century-old complex where the central offices of the Russian Orthodox Church are located (it is, one might say, the "Vatican" of the Russian Orthodox Church).
The rain softens the edge of today's July heat, a heat so intense that this afternoon it turned the three great churches of the Sergiev Posad monastery complex in the country outside of Moscow into three boiling cauldrons, though hundreds of Orthodox faithful still crowded inside and stood for hours to celebrate one of the holiest days in the Russian Orthodox calendar, the Feast of St. Sergius of Radonezh (c. 1314-1392), the patron saint of Russia.
Last night, I wrote about attending a Requiem Concert in memory of the last Romanovs and all the other Christians persecuted by the communists in Russia in the 20th century. Yesterday evening, I heard the proclamation of Russia's spiritual renewal since 1991.
But how profound is that renewal in fact? I cannot say; no one can.
And there are certainly many signs that suggest that that renewal is incomplete, imperfect, even feeble. Having discarded an avowedly atheist system, many Russians have seemingly embraced a life without any spiritual orientation.
But today I saw evidence of faith in Russia.
St. Sergius is one of the most revered of all Russian Orthodox saints. His life is considered a model of Christian holiness for Russian Orthodox the way the life of St. Francis of Assisi is considered a model of Christian holiness by Catholics. His relics are preserved at Sergiev Posad monastery, and the casket they are contained in is opened so that his bones may actually be kissed by those who wish to venerate him, I was told, only on this day each year.
"Come with me, stay close behind," Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev said to me.
If I had not been with Hilarion, the composer of the text and music for the Requiem the night before, I would not have been able to even enter the door of the crowded church of the Holy Trinity.
Inside, men and women, bishops, priests and laypeople, the elderly and infants, moved in a slow line toward an open casket. Inside the casket, covered by a cloth, was the 600-year-old body of St. Sergius.
One by one, the believers blessed themselves with the sign of the cross, then bent to venerate the saint by kissing the cloth which covered his skull.
"What is the Orthodox teaching on the veneration of relics?" I asked my Russian colleague, Leonid Sevastianov, who lived for four years at Sergei Posad as a student at the national Russian Orthodox seminary, which is part of the monastery complex. At that time, Sevastianov served as Bishop Hilarion's sub-deacon.
"Our teaching is the same, in essence, I believe, as the Roman Catholic teaching," Sevastianov said. "It emphasizes, perhaps a bit more than you do, the concept of divinization.
"We believe, as you do, that humanity suffered a great loss through the fall of Adam. Through sin, human beings lost the capacity to be 'God-like,' and only through Christ was this capacity restored.
"We believe Christ's Spirit, the Holy Spirit, fills the hearts and minds, and also the bodies, of holy men and women, who through much prayer and self-denial, and acts of charity, seek to draw close to God.
"And we believe that very holy men and women sometimes are given the grace to become so filled with God's holy spirit that they become true images of God. This is the process we call divinization, becoming like God, that is, holy.
"And we believe that even after death, the earthly remains of these saints, having been, as it were, transfigured by God's holiness, become themselves holy.
"And so we venerate these holy relics, and even bow to kiss them, thinking that, by drawing close to them, we may in some way obtain or partake of that same quality of holiness which characterized the saints. It is thought that the veneration of the relics of St. Sergius of Radonezh on his feast day is an act of great spiritual power and fruitfulness. We believe that many believers receive the answers to prayers that they pray as they venerate the saint's remains."
These words prompted in me a series of reflections, which I thought I would try to summarize here, and which are all rooted in a prayer for my country, and for Russia, and the world today.
There is considerable disagreement among political, socio-economic and religious analysts, in America, and in Rome, about the path Russia is on and will choose.
There is much distrust of the Russians, just as there is much admiration and affection for them. And this is why many are hesitant to believe that a true spiritual renewal may be occurring in Russia.
And they are right to be hesitant.
Russia, as I wrote yesterday, remains a divided country, still seeking to come to grips with its communist and pre-communist past.
And the few sights a foreign visitor is able to see are inevitably too few to be able to form a fair and complete judgment on the direction of an entire people or nation.
But what a visitor can see, he can see.
And what I saw at Sergei Posad today were crowds of faithful, the women with their heads covered, bowing and kissing the relics of a Russian saint.
Hundreds then stood for hours, completely still, in broiling heat, chanting the verses of the saint's feast in an all-night vigil service.
A friend who was with me, Father Lancelot McGrath, a Catholic priest born in Ireland who now pastors a parish in New Jersey, stood beside me for nearly two hours during the service, despite an aching knee which has required seven surgeries. At one point, moved by the steadfastness of the Orthodox believers, he turned toward me and whispered, "I think our relativistic Western society has done a more effective job of destroying the Christian faith than atheist communism was able to do..."
People are shaped by the ideals they aspire to. They conform their characters to a model, seeking to imitate the attitudes and actions of men and women they admire, and, however imperfectly, becoming what they seek to become.
The same is true of nations. If a nation sets consumption of the maximum number of "goods" as the measure of its health and success -- its "gross national production" and its "gross national consumption"
-- then the national character will be marked by this decision. The nation will become known for the number of bananas, or beers, or barrels of oil, it consumes. The national character will become concentrated on what is "worldly," the things of this world and time.
But if a nation sets for itself the goal of producing as many souls as possibly who share in the holiness of God, that nation will become known for the number of holy souls it brings forth, and the number of actions of goodness, truth and beauty those souls perform during their earthly lives.
Two ways are set before nations, as before individuals. One leads toward holiness, and life. The other... in a different direction.
During the liturgy, a priest carrying pieces of paper with names written on them moved through the crowd. A Russian Orthodox priest standing next to me, his long hair knotted in a pony tail, beads of sweat on his brow, reached out and took about 20 of the pieces of paper.
I wondered if he would pray for all of the people whose names were written on the sheets. And I even thought, seeing that dozens of names were written on the sheets, "In this heat, given natural human weakness, perhaps he will skip over a few of the sheets, and not read and pray for all the names..."
So I watched the priest, as the choir chanted, and the members of the congregation bowed and blessed themselves, keeping vigil by the body of St. Sergius.
And the priest read all the names. He looked at each page, moved his finger down the list, bowed his head, and then went on to the next page, page after page.
How does one measure such human activity? Is prayer something one can account for in a modern economy? Do hours of prayer "produce" anything measurable for the "gross national product"?
This is the deep question beneath the cultural and economic crisis looming over the West, and the world.
In Russia, on this day, I saw evidence of another type of "economy," in which human charity and human concern for others can weave a mystical web, unmeasurable by ordinary, pragmatic, secular standards, and yet revelatory of a higher nature, and destiny, for human beings, than the one our secular icons propose to us.
In this sense, the renewal of religious faith in Russia, in light of the long night of atheism the nation passed through in the 20th century, is remarkable even if it is incomplete, and a cause of hope for our world.
Here is a link to an article about the life of St. Sergius.