Fr Deacon Andrei Kuraev (1963- ), professor at the Moscow Theological Academy (MDA)
We were afraid too. There was a time when we were indignant over things that seemed “absurd”, “ignorant”, or “outdated” in the life of the Orthodox Church. We, or, perhaps, most of us who were born in atheist families and in atheist times, looked at Orthodox churches from the outside thinking that we had outstripped them and that we knew more than the “grandmothers” did. We were afraid that the Orthodoxy with its “dogmas and canons” would deprive us of our freedom. We were afraid of being locked in a dungeon and of being torn out of the modern world and thrown into the “darkness of the Middle Ages”. We were afraid that as soon as we let an Orthodox sermon reach our souls, it would drive all the joys of life out of them.
Now, we are afraid too. However, we are afraid of other things. We’re afraid of our former sinfulness overtaking us again. What if some twist happens in our souls and in our lives to make us slaves again? Indeed, a slave is not only someone literally put into irons. The strongest irons are those we don’t see. The most terrible bonds are those that are inside us. Contact lenses are hardest to find in one’s own eye. So, as long as we were in the world of impiety, we didn’t even know that, right from the cradle, we had “contact lenses” implanted in our eyes, or, to be more correct, in our hearts and minds, that substantially distorted the perception of the world’s colours. Those lenses showed emptiness where there was something important, as we found out later. Sometimes, they miniaturised important things, but because of them, something truly minuscule inflated to cover the entire sky.
Ideology and advertising, which dictates to us what we must be keen on, what must become of us, and how we must measure our success in life, were carefully robbing us of our freedom. To be correct, they did not even let it emerge. It was decided for us that the “young generation” must choose only “Pepsi-Cola”. However, all of a sudden, we discovered that the real choice is not between Pepsi and kvas, or between one make of TV set and another. It is a choice between sense and nonsense. If my life is just an accumulation of objects, if my mind is immersed in shopping catalogues or TV gossip, then I am the same kind of disposable item as Goods and Prices magazine.
Therefore, a human being is just a “dead person on vacation”. I didn’t exist before my birth. I will soon cease to exist, this time forever. Non-existence has let me out for a stay, and it will erase me once again. The world won’t even notice the disappearance of yet another “consumer”, “shopper”, and “TV viewer”. Consequently, it’s nonsense. Thus, it is worthwhile to pose some final questions to yourself. “Why didn’t you die yesterday? Why are you still alive? What’s your reason for living?”
Sense is given to life only by something that is above life itself. One can live only for the sake of something that one is willing to serve unto death. We are told repeatedly, “You deserve it”. What is “it?” What if this “it” is everything you “deserve?” If the measure of your life, of its merits and failures is just a commodity, then, it turns out that a human being “deserves” being just a puppet in the hands of advertising. Clean, delicately scented, well groomed, but only a puppet… that’s why our entry into the Church became a step into another dimension. It gave us a chance to look at ourselves through different, ad-free eyes. It is obvious that the eyes of those depicted on St Andrei Rublyov’s icons can see much more than the eyes of “Dear viewers”. Do you want to stay the same forever? Don’t you want to move away from stereotypes and change yourself?
This is the most complex thing that can happen in life. Wise men of the previous centuries used to say that a silly man aims at changing things that are beyond him, whilst a clever man aims at changing things that are within him. Am I free from myself? In my life, I had instances and states when I could hardly be taken for a human being. The Church has given us an opportunity to repent, i.e. to disassociate ourselves from those moments. A young man inserting a needle into his vein, is he free at that moment? Or, is he under the command of some dictate or bent that he can’t overcome? He can ruin his life for just one minute of “getting high”. Is it freedom or slavery? By stepping into the Church, we have simply chosen the object of serving. Will we be slaves of a minute or of Eternity? Will we serve something that is above us, or something that is below, somewhere on the level of beasts? Will we rejoice at something that is the most humane and superior in us (soul, conscience) or look for pleasures in something that is the least humane in us?
As for living in the Church, it’s hard to live in it, indeed. To grow in your soul is as hard as to grow in sports, science, or music. However, such growth brings about the joy of changing. We could say that it is the joy of contact with God, but we are afraid of falling into obscurity. Still, we want you to believe us. Not one of us could remain in the Church with all its fasting and long services if it did not, at least sometimes, have such joy that makes all the joys of partying seem just tasteless when compared to it.
Indeed, the Church has demanded denial or self-restriction from us. By taking vodka or drugs away from us it has given us a chance to gain our inherent freedom, to get to know ourselves, God and… The Orthodox Church has also given us a chance to stop being foreigners in our own country. Konstantin Kinchyov (a Russian rock star) expressed our experiences in one phrase, “I walk on my land towards the heaven I live by”. Russia has ceased to be “this country” to us. It has become “our country”. We have come to understand its faith, its pain, and its fate. Orthodoxy has given us Heaven, and it returned our Land to us.
If an interest towards religion has sprung up in your life, most probably, you… just like we once did… take interest in horoscopes, astrology, “unknown phenomena”, “healers”, magic, yoga, or voodoo cultures. Show your independence! Instead of worshipping some Power or nameless “energies” that over-saturate even present-day cartoon films, take interest in Orthodoxy! There were times when we thought “all religions were the same, and that it was not important which path you take to reach God”. Too many of us were wounded in the spiritual war. Too many of us fell into abysses the very existence of which we had formerly denied with vehemence. “Those Orthodox fanatics blame everyone and ban everything, but we won’t put blinders on our eyes, and we’ll go our own way!”
That is why the experience of not only our joys, but also of our former follies, prompts us to tell you, don’t repeat our mistakes! We won’t summon anyone. The Church isn’t a parade ground where well-ordered ranks of “young fighters” march out towards misty ideals. “Disbanded generation, in loneliness we drag on to the Truth”. Nevertheless, we can witness to Orthodoxy as the space of life. Here you can be a Man; here you can gain a reason for living. Here you can think and love.
Still, frankly speaking, it was hard for us to be loners all the time. It was hard to tolerate the bewilderment and sneers of our unbelieving mates and the peremptory shouts of “believing” old women. It was hard for us to conceal our faith and keep our blessings to ourselves. It became hard for us to be Christians only in church. That is why we decided to meet with each other. We decided to demonstrate to everyone that the Church does not consist entirely of old women, but of us as well. We decided to become not only Orthodox, but also young Orthodox.
We don’t know whether we’ll succeed in it or not. Nevertheless, we’re ready for trial and error; we’ll try to endure the errors of ours and of our friends. We aren’t a sect. We’re the only people who know that “under the blue sky there is a golden city”. We know that these words of a poem are not about some made-up dream, but about a Heavenly City, the Heavenly Jerusalem described in the Apocalypse. Its author is Apostle John, the one symbolised on Orthodox icons as a heavenly golden eagle whose unforgettable gaze is so transparent. We’re about to start on a trip to this City.
Are you going with us?
23 October 2005
Fr Deacon Andrei Kuraev
Translated by G. Vasiliev