With the ROCOR Delegation in Russia (Part One)
Wednesday 16 May
After the second meeting of the working group for co-operation between our two parts of the Russian Church, I feel the strength of our personal relations with the Department. These are genuine people. Though, for historical and cultural reasons, we may be on different trains and on different lines, both our direction and destination are identical. We have a clear vision of where we want to go. All is positive, fruitful and frank. I am touched by the dedication of all to the memory of Metr Lavr in both Moscow and Washington.
Again I feel sorry for those few who did not come with us out of political or sectarian prejudice. In Russia, even more quickly than among the Greek old calendarists, those tiny groups immediately split into six or seven sects, all accusing and hating each other – abroad they split into, I think, at least four sects, all out of communion with each other. There is no Love there.
Afterwards I spoke in private to Archbishop Mark (Yegor’evsky), who is in charge of all the parishes in the far abroad, apart from our own. I had a very positive impression.
I ask how many bishops there are now in the Church. I estimate 250. I am told the exact number - 260, however next week it will be more. I ask when the increase will stop. I am told: ‘Only when the world ends’. And actually, why should the number not go up to 1,000 or more? That is what is needed.
Our Delegation of ten goes to the airport. Our passports are Canadian, Australian, German, French, American and British. I see that the Church is a reality in contemporary Russia. It is no longer under cover. We are heading for Diveyevo, in many ways, a spiritual centre of the Reborn Russian Church – Moscow is only the (very necessary) administrative centre. In Diveyevo there are the relics of St Seraphim of Sarov and it is from here that the worldwide preaching of Orthodoxy must go out, according to the prophecies – which are taken very seriously here. I reflect that probably London is nearly midway between Diveyevo and New York.
The flight is about 1 hour 20 minutes to Nizhny Novgorod then there are 2 hours 20 minutes by road. We are met at the airport by Metropolitan George of Nizhny Novgorod and a Church delegation. Then, with police escort to go faster, we are taken to Diveyevo. In the late evening, we are met at the Convent gates by the Abbess and a choir, as well as many clergy and people and we venerate the relics of St Seraphim. This is the largest Convent in Russia, with 400 nuns.
Thursday 17 May
The morning starts with a service of intercession and akathist before the relics. I pray again for many who have asked for prayers. I remember my parents and eldest brother who have departed this life. I never thought that I would be able to do this. This is higher than any dream – this is both grace and reality. Then comes the Liturgy, then another service of thanksgiving. I feel that our unity has been renewed through St Seraphim.
I speak to the Metropolitan, who takes a genuine interest in me, as, of course, in others. He is a large, very kind man, perhaps aged 50, originally from Belarus, a monk from Trinity St Sergius Monastery, with long hair and a huge beard – clearly very dynamic. He exudes faith and the strength that comes from faith. He tells us that although virtually everyone who is born and dies in his vast Metropolia (250,000 square kilometres) is baptised and buried by the Church, only 10% of weddings take place in Church. He sees clearly the awful legacy of the atheist period. He is intent on changing it, intent on the desovietisation of life.
Looking around the Convent, I notice even more sharply than what I notice in Moscow. This is the division of the sexes. Russia has never been through the awful 1960s, when the distinction between the sexes became blurred. Here men are men and women are women. This is healthy; if this continues there will not be that disastrous sexual confusion of the West, and we know how that is ending.
In the afternoon we all visit the Kazan Church and the two Cathedrals in the Convent and venerate all the relics. The Churches are very spacious, about the size of our Church in Colchester, though the Kazan church has thirteen altars. A huge hole in the ground marks the site of the third Cathedral which is to be built here. It too will be magnificent. The Convent is a very large complex and expanding. It includes a school. We walk around the rampart (kanavka), praying to the Mother of God, as pilgrims do.
The abbess, Mother Sergia, was a doctor in the world. She is very talkative, in a good way, and very hospitable. The nuns tell me that there are still bears (as well as wolves) in the forest around, just as in the time of St Seraphim (Sarov is only a few miles away).
We return to Nizhny, again with a police escort, along the birch-lined roads. I see the vast expanse of European Russia. Why was such a huge territory – the vast majority of Europe – and added to that all northern Asia (Siberia) - given to Orthodox Russia? There is a reason for all this wealth. Russia is to use it for the good of the whole Orthodox world.
We stop at Arzamas, a town on the way. We see the churches, there are many – all magnificent. Everywhere they sing ‘Christ is Risen’ in three languages, Greek, Latin and Slavonic. This is the pre-Revolutionary Tradition. The Church has been put at the top of society. The New Martyrs captured the high ground, now the middle and low grounds have to be captured. The Church has a huge task before it. Everywhere I see veneration for and icons of the Royal Martyrs and all the New Martyrs. This is most significant.
I reflect on the remarkable destiny of Metr Hilarion, a Canadian farm boy by background. But then who am I, but an English farm boy?
Friday 18 May
We visit the Monastery of the Ascension in Nizhny. I am impressed by this piece of Old Russia by the River Volga and its prior Fr Tikhon, who is also a researcher and writer. He has written a book about Patriarch Nikon. He thanks us for the books from Jordanville on which they depended for decades during the atheist period.
We next go to the seminary (future matushki and choir directors are trained here too, as before the Revolution). Then we visit the magnificent Cathedral. Once more I see how for Russians the Church is Heaven on earth. There is a beautiful fresco of the Royal Martyrs here. It has recently been painted, together with the other frescoes.
I speak to the priest-secretary of the Diocese. He says that there are over 500 churches now and the rate of opening continues to be over twenty per year. There are eight monasteries and seven convents at present, but they are to open another eight. Twenty years ago virtually all lay in ruins after the atheist nightmare. So much has been restored, but there is still much more to do.
Metr George tells us of the different Church publications in Nizhny, including a bimonthly newspaper with a circulation of 22,000. His budget for the Church radio station alone is $140,000 per month. He is an ardent evangelist – in the Orthodox sense, of course. In this City of 1,350,000 he still only has 150 priests (from what I could see – the vast majority of them under 40, an age which is related to the fall of atheism in 1991). The Metropolitan is a dynamic man of vision. For him the re-evangelisation of Russia is only just starting. His Metropolia now has two diocesan bishops, soon there will be a third. Forty-seven Metropolias are being established inside the Russian Church, they are already nearly half way to this. The overwhelming impression is one of energy, youth, dynamism, faith.
It is quite clear that there is no opposition from Communism. The opposition is from the new Western atheism with its secularism and political correctness. There is no doubt that the Church will combat this most vigorously. Unlike in the West, where Non-Orthodox seem actually to encourage secularism. This is unlike the situation when I was here five years ago. The Church has made great strides since then, and that is why Western political forces, often financed from the West and supported by the Western media, have launched their vicious attack against the Church in recent months.
Only this week Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow and all the Russias said: ‘Once again, as 400 years ago, we see hostile acts aimed at undermining our spiritual values, at the weakening of the State. Once again, we see confusion in our society, sowed by those who rebuff our worthy national values, searching for ‘saviours’ from outside Russia. They warn us not to bring our faith, our culture, and our ethics into the public place. They tell us that if we do not shut up, things will get worse for us; they will desecrate our churches and smash our icons. As it was in times past, we can only oppose such if we have a unified Russian society, which they cannot browbeat or ignore. We must base our unity on loyalty to our spiritual and moral traditions.’ Rightly, there will be no compromise here. The Church is spiritual content; the West is spiritual death. We know it, we live in the West.
Metr George explains to us that the period of regeneration of the Church in Russia is over. Now is the period of development, of the Churching of society. The Church must see to education, schools and universities, health, hospitals, orphans, the handicapped, the elderly – everything that the State does so poorly. (In the West it also does it poorly, to such an extent that the State privatises everything. Here it must all go to the Church). The whole of society is to be Churched. In Russia there is no alternative to the Church. The Church is the source of culture and civilisation. Communism was not and the concept that the modern secular West could be is simply laughable.
We have dinner at the railway station. A huge picture of the Tsar–Martyr is on the wall. It commemorates his visit to Nizhny some 100 years ago. We return to Moscow by train. This is the first time I have taken the train in Russia since 1976. It is quite different now. The head of Russian Railways is a well-known Orthodox and we can feel the presence of his faith here. I notice the presence of English. The announcements on the train (which is superior to anything in Britain) are bilingual. The English is faultless British English.
I reflect on the accusations of the pro-Western, anti-Church campaign that Church clergy and officials are money-minded and seek luxury. This is not the case, with rare exceptions. In Russia, after the humiliations of the Soviet period, the idea is that the Church must have a high profile, must gain respect, must have prestige. Before the Revolution bishops had a black carriage with horses, now they mostly have a smart black car. The only problem is that there can develop a personal attachment to such things. They must never be for personal glory, but for the glory of the Church, for God. The spirit of non-acquisition must be maintained.
Saturday 19 May
We return to Butovo outside Moscow, to the Church of the New Martyrs, where we were five years before, at its consecration. There are about 220 priests and 22 bishops concelebrating with the Patriarch. I admire the discipline, infrastructure and order of the service, the almost military organisation. Here we see the Church Militant; in the West the Non-Orthodox are simply full of self-doubt. Here there is the conviction that comes with real faith. The example of those who really believe is great, indeed essential, for those who are new to the faith. The choir, as usual, is superb. We take communion from many very large chalices. In the sermon our unity is mentioned together with the fact that this is the birthday of the martyred Tsar. The Patriarch commemorates him at the dismissal.
In the evening we go for the Vigil to Sts Mary and Martha Convent, where I stayed for a week five years ago. Afterwards we meet Bp Panteleimon. He is very good. I mention how five years ago I had expressed the hope that the Convent would one day become for our Church a kind of ‘dependency’ for us in Moscow. (Of course, it can never be a real dependency, because we are not a Local Church, but still it can be a home). I say that this evening my hope is being fulfilled.
I reflect on how the Church in Russia has moved on very rapidly from five years ago. We in ROCOR have to do the same. We need to have a sense of urgency, to act before it is too late, to share in the Russian dynamism.
My overwhelming impressions are energy, youth, conviction, example, discipline, finance, order, vision, dynamism, infrastructure, organisation, action inspired by real faith. The Church is going places. I feel sorry, and not for the first time, for those who are not on board with us.
Sunday 20 May
We concelebrate again with the Patriarch at Christ the Saviour Cathedral, just as five years ago. There are twenty-one bishops and about thirty priests. I see that, as elsewhere, they have returned the verse ‘O Lord, save the pious’ to the Liturgy, which before only we had kept from before the Revolution.
The Patriarch speaks to me afterwards, asking where I am from. I reply ‘From England’, but he asks from where, and I say ‘From Colchester’. He appears to know of it. I am impressed by him again, as yesterday. He is generous and grateful and very energetic, a man of great vigour. A weight is taken from me, as the injustice from the past is forgiven.
After the Liturgy I see bishops on their iPhones everywhere.
At lunch I sit next to a young archimandrite. I ask him how many monks he has, if he has a big monastery. He replies, ‘only average’, he adds, ‘about 140 monks’, which is unlike Trinity St Sergius Monastery with 300 monks.
Later in the afternoon we have a round table meeting with His Holiness. There are fifteen of us. It is clear that he will help us in any way that he can. Our Metr Hilarion replies that with regards to dissidents all we can do is pray and be patient. We are all impressed by the understanding and goodwill of His Holiness. He sincerely wants us to prosper. All is positive.
There takes place after this a very impressive concert of singing and music, including Rakhmaninov.
The Patriarchate has done its utmost for us. This is no flattery, no attempt to ‘buy’ us. This is simply love for the Church and unity that is being expressed.