The God Who Lives and Works and Plays in Russia
Fifteen years after glasnost and perestroika opened the borders to Christianity without and within, I'm looking for God in Russia.
Can he be seen wandering amid the broken beer and vodka bottles around the monuments of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, bottles thrown by young people wanting something more? How many residents of Moscow's ubiquitous skyscrapers thank him as they see the wind moving through the tall leafy trees that save their lungs from suffocation by smog? Is he more alive than I'm able to comprehend to gold-toothed babushkas kneeling for the duration of long Baptist church services, praying for permits to build sanctuaries?
One of the most bizarre places I find the indelible fingerprints of grace is a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Moscow. Here, East meets West, modernity meets history, ceremony meets informality, and the Jesus who said give to Caesar what is his meets the Christ who called the religious establishment a brood of vipers.
The small living roomabout 12 by 15 feethas been transformed into a sanctuary. There's an altar by the balcony and side altars with icons of Mary and the child, and Christ. Incense wafts in the air. Five bearded priests are wearing festive robescrimson, gold, turquoise. They are about to ordain a young man.
The schismatic Apostolic Orthodox Church, founded in May 2000, has two dozen priests and several bishops, and not many more parishioners. They meet in private spaces because they don't recognize the Moscow patriarchate, which in turn doesn't recognize them. Not registered with the state, they can't own a building.
Glasnost made way for the group's moral badge of honoror dishonor, depending on who's talkingwhen in 1991, Fr. Gleb Yakunin dug up in the newly opened KGB archives evidence that many bishops and high officials either came to the Orthodox church as atheist KGB agents commissioned to infiltrate it or collaborated to keep their posts. Many of them remain in power today. Some of them have even become Christians! Even so, Yakunin, who is present at the ceremony, tells me he and his followers "refuse to work with the bishops in power today who during the Soviet era did not protest the closings of the churches ordered by secular powers."
As the ceremony starts, the interpreter and I decide to rely on my atrophying Russian instead of having his whispering disrupt the ceremony. Dulcet chants fill the room, drowning out the noise of traffic coming from outside. I recognize some phrases sung repeatedly, with a calming beauty, throughout the service: Khristos voskres"Christ is risen"; Gospodi pomilui"Lord, have mercy"; and Voskresenie"Resurrection." I worship along.
Everyone's facing east, the traditional direction of prayer in the Orthodox church. But this orientation turns the balcony into a holy of holies, so the situation is ripe with irony for anyone who sees through the sheer drapery McDonald's golden arches and a neon sign that says "World Trade Center." Other signs of modernity intrude on the liturgy as the priests themselves whisper freely and occasionally laugh; sometimes there are three conversations going on. Occasionally they answer their cell phones, talk, and then go on with the liturgy.
I like this group, especially when one of the priests tells me he's a fan of Philip Yancey's. But I wonder: What self-respecting Russian Orthodox would choose to go to church in a small apartment? Who would have the discipline to overlook the idiosyncratic and concentrate on the timeless? And if one has that capacity, why wouldn't one just go to a registered Orthodox church, where, too, Christ can be found?