Orthodox America

  An Extraordinary Pastor - Fr. Alexander Men

Walking early Sunday morning to catch the train which would take him to his church where he was to serve Divine Liturgy, as he did virtually every day, Fr. Alexander Men' was struck from behind with an ax. News of his death loosed a flood of recollections.

      Hundreds of people no doubt consider themselves to be his spiritual children. Thousands consider themselves lo be his friends. I count myself as one of these thousands.

       He was the happiest person I ever met. He was extremely gifted, and all that was given to him--profound faith, a "forgiving heart" (spoken of by St. Isaac the Syrian), mind, will, courage, tact, many talents, a phenomenal intellect, an inexhaustible sense of humor, and, Lord, how much more besides!--all this was harmoniously united in him. And all this-together with the beauty of his spiritual and physical countenance---he placed in the service of his pastoral calling. It was as if he were born a pastor, as if he were a pastor from the first day of his life until his final hour.

       This calling always has its cross and its joys. That Fr. Alexander had a cross one could guess only from fleeting moments, in meeting his eyes, during confession, but joy was something he radiated constantly. To sec, him for a quarter of an hour (he rarely could spare more than that) was for each person a joy. One might hold different theological views, one might hold different convictions altogether, but one could not escape the charm of his personality, his friendship, inner strength, gentle humor, the ability to say a needed word at a needed time. Back in the seventies I asked if he found it oppressive to talk for hours on end with his interrogators. "Understand, V.," he replied," I am after all a priest. I can converse with anyone. It's never burdensome." It seems to me that even his assassin, had he stopped to talk with Fr. Alexander for even five minutes, might have changed his mind. But he struck him in the back, without having spoken with him...

       When, in 1958, at the age of 23, Pr. Alexander was ordained to the priesthood, it was quite an extraordinary event. At a time when according to the powers that be it was high time that even the most elderly babushki forget the road to Church, a young man full of knowledge and energy, a biologist by education (at a time when biology was considered one of the most atheistic sciences), and a Jew besides, dedicates himself to Her service. Fr. Alexander, as always with a smile, related how this caused quite a stir in komsomo1 circles.

      From the beginning he was no ordinary priest; he did not fit the standards set by the authorities: the priest comes, he serves the Liturgy, takes care of "needs," and disappears. From his first years as a priest, Fr. Alexander established that which has always had an ephemeral existence in the persecuted Russian Church: a living parish. It was composed primarily of converts, those returning to the Church, or rather discovering the Church in that milieu where the very subject of God was rarely heard. Of course, such revelation is always given by the mercy of God, but this mercy or grace most often finds itself a human tongue, words, hands. It is impossible to count the number of people who were led to the Church, to meet Christ, by the hands, the words or the books of Fr. Alexander.

      Now, however, when thousands of kilometers away from here in Novaya Derevnya, the words of the burial service are heard, I should like to turn to the very essence of his individuality, without speaking about what is well known and obvious. Or to speak of this only briefly, about the fact that in his lifetime Fr. Alexander accomplished more than was humanly possible. He established the greatest and, however one looked at it, the most active parish in Moscow--perhaps in all of Russia. He generated a movement of small brotherhoods or groups, gatherings for common prayer and study of the Gospel. He baptized thousands of people ("You know," he once said to me, "each time I perform a baptism something unpleasant happens lo me. The enemy is forever obstructing."). He held discussions with tens of thousands.    He wrote countless articles, gave numerous lectures, recorded sound-tracks for films used in catechetical instruction.. And then there are his books: The Son of Man; Word, Image and Mystery, a six-volume history of religion--its own kind of catechetical and historical introduction to Christianity; commentaries on the Bible; works on the Old Testament; a six-volume encyclopedia on biblical studies--still awaiting its publisher... This is only what we know.

       I remember the words of one very good priest: "I, too, am a pastor, and I am very busy from morning till evening. And each time I happen upon a book by Fr. Alexander there is one thing I can't understand: how, when is he able to do all this?" "I have a contract," answered Fr. Alexander with a smile, and his eyes turned to the icon. "I give everything I have, including all my time, and in return I am given whatever measure of strength I need to get everything done."

      He was very likely the greatest biblical scholar in Russia. Besides Latin, ancient Greek and Hebrew, it is hard to name a modem European language he did not read. In the fields of history of religion, philosophy, literature, it's hard to name a book which he hadn't heard of and whose contents he wasn't familiar with. And there was probably no theological or other human wisdom which he could not make plainly intelligible.

      But this is still not the essence of who he was. He was first of all Christ's knight, Christ's ox. For decades he easily---as if was playing--pulled with his incredible might this enormous weight of the parish, this mass of activity, meetings, contacts, books, knowledge and, finally, family responsibilities. Tranquility, harmony, and orderliness began with his soul, with his home, and spread to all whom he met, to all that he did.

      His "real" existence was "hidden with Christ in God", in corporate and private prayer, in the remembrance of death, in the constant awareness that our life is but a fleeting moment in the face of eternity. "Before us lies eternity; we'll have time then to talk," he would sometimes say to those who couldn't tear themselves away from him. We'll have time if only our eyes, too, will open one day to that blessed eternity which is now revealed to him.

      He was a happy man. It was as if unhappiness avoided him. Naturally, such a life in such an era could not leave him altogether without unpleasantness, but could half a dozen searches or some thirty odd interrogations disturb his spirit? or force him in some way to change his ways? With the coming of new times, in the last year or two, all this somehow receded into the past. I don't know if he could write more, but he managed to speak everywhere--at the university, in schools, institutes, in workers' clubs, on television, on the radio... I remember going into a store and hearing his voice: he was preaching, and all the clerks were at the speakers. He was very much aware that the opportunities that were opening were unique and not a day, not an hour must be wasted. No one, it seemed, had such a sense of doom concerning all that was happening. Was this a kind of foreboding or prophetic insight? God knows.

      And God sent this man a sudden martyric death, at a time when it seemed as if the main problems were already in the past and it only remained to work, to preach...

      He did not like to leave the country, economizing his time, but I think he always wanted to see Jerusalem, the city marked by the feet of Christ and His apostles, a city which Fr. Alexander seemed to know all about. Today---so we believe, so our hearts tell us--he is already in the Heavenly Jerusalem~ at the throne of Glory where there is celebrated that final Liturgy, which he did not have time to celebrate here on earth.

Vladimir Zelinsky, Moscow


    In the church where Fr. Alexander serves, one can find such a diversity of people. There are the traditional "pious old ladies" from surrounding villages, urban intellectuals-doctors, poets, mathematicians, biologists; blue collar workers and peasants who live nearby, and, most of all, contemporary youth-college students, school children. Many children, here there is no age distinction, no distinction of class or ideology, no right or left; all are simply Christians, firmly confessing the Orthodox Faith, open to the spiritual treasure of the universal Church. With the natural diversity of human personalities, Fr. Men's parish is striking in its unity, its size, its orderliness, and its purposeful evangelism. in other words, this is not a formal parish; it is a community  
, June 1990. 

In this day and age the forces of darkness are more terrified of a good priest than... 

There is so much work to be done that we simply haven't time for fear or doubt. Fr. Alexander Men' 

     There are many great people next to whom you feel yourself to be puny and insignificant. But truly great is that person in whose presence you feel yourself to be purer, better, more worthy. Such a man was Fr. Alexander. Each person who associated with him received from him not only moral and spiritual support, not only a certain mighty charge of energy; he stood above his weaknesses and sins, understanding that regardless of anything this man does not judge him but sympathizes with him and loves him. From this came the assurance that God loves and accepts him even more. Just as we learn of the wisdom of the Creator through observing the world around us, according to the Apostle, so, too, we come to know His love through meeting this love in another person. This is the kind of love which was Fr. Alexander's gift to his fellow man...

Priest Alexander Borisov, Moscow 

(Selections translated from Russkaya Mysl, September 14 and 21, 1990)