Orthodox America

  A Vision of Universality

by Priest Andrew Philips

And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. - Luke 13:29

In the heart of the Russian capital there stands the magnificent Church of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, known to many as the Church of St. Basil.  Standing on Red Square with its cupolas, it has become the modern world a kind of symbol of Russia and Russian tradition.  And this is surely as it should be, for this church is not, as many think, a monument to exotic or fantastic decoration.  On the contrary, its architecture is symbolically and sacramentally significant of Russia's very calling-to gather the peoples of the earth to Christ in the saving fold of Orthodox Christianity.  Each cupola is artfully designed to represent a different people. One cupola is Mauretanian (African), another Indian, another Roman (Byzantine), another Chinese, and in the center towers the Orthodox cupola of Russia.  The symbolism is clear.  Russia's inner meaning and calling, the very purpose of her existence, her God-given destiny, is to gather the peoples of the world together, each with its own personality and culture, into the Church of Christ.  The diversity and the unity of the Church are the mirror image of the life of the Holy Trinity, Three Persons in One essence, a multitude of peoples united in One Faith.

Historically, Russia was called upon to implement the dream and vision of St. Constantine the Great.  When he transferred his capital to New Rome, the future Constantinople, his purpose was not only to move away from the old capital, so thoroughly corrupted by paganism. His move was also prompted by the desire to unite the 'oikumene' or inhabited world, which according to the knowledge of that time, consisted of Europe and Asia.  The site of the village of Byzantium, on the Bosphorus, between Europe and Asia, was thus perfect.  To symbolize this choice the banner of the double-headed eagle would be chosen-one eagle looking east, the other looking west.  The peoples of the earth would be united into One Church in this Apostolic vision. When, over a millennium later, the New Rome fell, and the Greek Church for the most part lost this vision of the universality of Orthodoxy, falling into compromises with the Papacy and this-worldliness or internecine Balkan squabbling, the vision of the universality of Orthodoxy spread to Russia.  Indeed it had already been carried there by the first Orthodox missionaries in the tenth century, but after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, it was much strengthened.

The first Russian mission, as such, was that of St. Stephen of Perm, who in the fourteenth century preached to the peoples of Siberia and translated the Word of God for them.  In the sixteenth century St. Tryphon of Kola preached in the far north, in Lapland.  In the centuries thereafter missionaries went into Siberia, Alaska, China and Japan, each mission bringing forth its saint or saints.  The Russian territory itself, a melting-pot of peoples, brought forth saints of many nationalities.  Of some 400 saints before 1917 about a tenth are non-Russian.  In bringing forth saints from the north and the south and the west and the east, Russia made the sign of the cross over herself and implemented the Apostolic and Gospel vision of the universality of Orthodox Christianity.

From the NORTH came:

(That so many members of Russia's early nobility and royal family, all of Scandinavian origin, became Orthodox Saints, makes us regret that after the eleventh-century Schism the Scandinavians became enemies of Russia and Orthodoxy.  So does the Devil waste human potential.)

From the SOUTH came:

As we can see, Russia rapidly became a destination for clergy from southern Europe, as the Roman Empire centered in Constantinople declined under pressure from the Papacy, whose troops sacked and definitively weakened it in 1204, and from the Muslim Turks.  Russia, however, served not only as a refuge but also as a land of mission, and many Orthodox from the south brought theological knowledge and understanding to the newly-converted land.

From the WEST came:

Russia acted also as a place of refuge for those from the West who sought to continue in the Orthodox Faith, as it became increasingly clear that the Papacy had led the West into a spiritual fall from grace.  In the seventeenth century under Patriarch Nikon, Russia came for a time out of the temptations of provincial isolationism and xenophobia. The Patriarch attracted monks of many nationalities, including Western converts, to the monastery he built near Moscow, which was called "New Jerusalem."  Here it was his intention to recreate in miniature the sites of the Holy Land connected with Our Lord and people it with Orthodox monks of all nationalities.  The Patriarch sought not purity of race, but purity of faith.  All were equal in the Faith, whatever their origins. As we know, this great project was never to develop fully, for the Patriarch was deposed by slanderers (not without the connivance of the Vatican) and those in the Russian State who wanted to subjugate the Church to the State. And they were to triumph through Peter I ("the Great") and the abolition of the Patriarchate. The way was opened to Protestant and Uniate influence and the attempt to reduce the Church to a State Department and its clergy to mere hired public servants, rather than spirit-bearing revealers of the Kingdom of God.  But before we look at the present situation, we must not forget those who came from the east "to sit down in the Kingdom of God."

From the East came:

Russian missionaries took their missions to Tartars, to Muslims, through Siberia with its shamanism and to the Far East and across the Bering Straits. Had Russia remained faithful to the Light of Christ, would there not today be large local churches in China and India, which, with their two billion population, contain a third of humanity, and which non-Orthodox Christianity has never been able to convert?

The mission of the Soviet State was to spread communism, and it exported its ideology to the four corners of the earth.  Had Russia remained faithful to Christ, we might suppose that she would have sent Orthodox missionaries and not Kalashnikovs to Africa and India, China and Central America, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Cuba; she would have translated not the works of Lenin into a hundred tongues but rather the Orthodox liturgy.

Today the Church in Russia has been compromised by her links with an atheist and imperialist State.  Pagan shamanism returns to Siberia, the Caucasus explodes in hatred, Central Asia is tempted by Islam, and Eastern Europe looks with doubt at a Church in Russia that has not even the courage to canonize her own New Martyrs.  And there is worse.

Russia today is not only missing her vocation to gather the peoples of the world into the saving fold of Orthodoxy, but Russia and her Patriarchal Church is today divided.  On the one hand there are those who wish to reduce Russian Orthodoxy into a xenophobic ghetto of nationalist politics. On the other hand there are those who would see a compromise with the Vatican and the World Council of Churches (the forces of this world that today are intriguing against the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Mother-Church of Orthodoxy).  In fact, these two tendencies are two sides of the same coin.  The belief that Orthodoxy is only for certain peoples, especially Russians, is the perfect justification for not carrying out missionary work and compromising with heterodoxy and leaving missions to it.  If you believe that Orthodoxy is the Gospel Truth, then you are duty bound to preach it to all peoples.  Such indeed was the perspective of Sts. Kyrill and Methodius, Apostles of the Slavs.

How can the vision of the universality of the Orthodox Faith be reclaimed from those who would balkanize it into a mere provincial Eastern European State ideology?  The Russian land made a sign of the cross over herself in drawing to herself (almost in chronological order) men and women from the north, the south, the west and the east, and making saints of them.  In contemporary Russia these saints are virtually unknown, even rejected.  And many of her new saints are likewise rejected, their lives unknown, their relics, like those of St. Olga, lost.  It is our suggestion that Russia will not be saved until she returns to her saints, thus signing herself with the cross of Christ once more.  But for this to happen, Russia must first reject the "Orthodoxy" of nationalist ideology and compromise and return to true Orthodoxy, that of a Christian way of life.  And that surely is the only way.  Russia has been to the left and to the right, and she has been to the bottom of the abyss.  The only way to go now is up, to where her saints are calling.  For it was in the Tomb that the Resurrection came, as it must come now, if the dead is to rise.  May it be so, O Lord.