Orthodox America

  From the Bookshelf Listen, Prison! 

by Zoya Krakhmalnikova, 

Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society, 1995; 133 pp., 

Zoya Krakhmalnikova's name has long been familiar to those concerned with the plight of suffering Christians in the former Soviet Union and other communist nations. Both she and her husband grew to maturity under Stalin, lived under Krushchev, converted to Orthodoxy, and became permanently unemployable, because stubbornly Christian, under Brezhnev and Andropov. They participated in Orthodox life and published Orthodox journals knowing that one day they would very likely find themselves in prison.

That time came in 1982 when Krakhmalnikova was arrested for her work in publishing the Christian journal "Nadezhda," an anthology of patristic texts and articles about spiritual life. She was sentenced to prison and then to exile in the Altai region. Ultimately she was joined there by her husband, who had also been arrested and convicted for "anti-Soviet slander." In 1987, on the feastday of the Royal Martyrs, they returned to Moscow, and resumed their work.

Listen, Prison is not a prison memoir, a diary of searches, interrogations and torments. The long reign of godlessness in the modern world has brought forth an abundance of such literature, and though Krakhmalnikova recognizes her indebtedness to Solzhenitsyn, Goricheva and all those who passed before her along the muffled, glaring corridors of the Gulag, she does not emulate their work.

"A lot has been written about that," she says. "I mean to write about the awareness of freedom, about Christianity as freedom in the Holy Spirit, freedom against which, according to the Lord, the gates of hell cannot prevail."

Of course, there can be no discussion of freedom without discussion of its opposites: fear, cowardice, anger, despair, falsehood-in short, sin. This book, comprised of "Notes from Lefortovo Prison" and "Letters from Exile," is an extended meditation upon sin and freedom in the life of the soul and of the Church. As such it offers many valuable insights for readers who feel the need to wrestle with the events unfolding in our own society, our own Church life.

Once cast into prison, Zoya Krakhmalnikova struggles first with her own fear. The questions of the interrogators are as nothing to the examination she sets herself. Why has she suddenly lost all sense of faith? What hidden error made her Christianity so apparently fragile? How can she feel so alone? Searching for the reasons for her sudden darkness, she becomes aware of two truths-that "all God's commands are bound up with the need to realize one's freedom-not only in overcoming fear, but also in finding oneself," and that "the Church's prayers got through to my mind when I was tormented by fear, and the fear began burning down within me. I was not alone." This sudden awareness turned her cell into "holy ground" from which she could face the fire of temptation in search of the answers hidden with the flames.

Perhaps three landmarks in the author's journey toward freedom can serve to highlight the book's bearing upon our lives in the West: the difference between "Old Testament faith and New Testament faith," the difference between the Church as institution and the Church as spiritual organism, and the enslaving power of lies.

She is at first confused by the ease with which her faith crumbles when she most needs it. After painful self-examination she comes to feel that she has been defeated by her "Old Testament faith, pride in the law which had replaced faith. . . the worship of rites, of the letter, of substantialized religiosity, of form. . . . Repentance had to provide an answer to this primary question: either that what I called Christianity was impotent in the face of moral and physical torments or it was not Christianity. Of course it was not Christianity. It was the Old Testament faith, faithfulness to the Law, pride in the Law given by God."

With courage born of desperation, she pursues this realization to its end, along paths familiar to any honest Orthodox Christian who knows the easy certainties, the deceptive "safety" found in scrupulous "Churchianity": "We, Christians, do not know how to live in this world as Christians. We select from the Old Testament that which is easy to fulfill and, at best, we dream about fulfilling the New Testament. . . [therefore] our encounters with one another are empty, we have nothing to offer one another except non-committal words. . ."

"The Church is not an institution, nor is it merely a gathering of believers meeting for the purpose of attending Divine services. The Church is a spiritual organism. God rests in His saints and any betrayal of Him and His saints strikes the spiritual organism with impotence. Where the Church concedes to the world, there She suffers loss of freedom, because She is the Pillar and Ground of the Truth and is called to assert this Truth in the world."

One need not always agree with the author's politics, or her opinions of particular priests, or even her ecclesiology, but the painful truths of her ana-tomy of false Christianity are valuable and should not be ignored. Here is a searing indictment of the kind of Orthodoxy that is, even in the West, already only too common, an Orthodoxy that "preserves the form: the services, the icons, churches. We baptize our children and sing requiems for our dead. Be it semi-Christianity, Renovationshim, neo-Christianity, or a comfortable Christianity. The main thing is that it should be safe."

Have we not seen, here in America, the sorrowful fruitlessness of parish life conducted with formal propriety masking depths of incivility, shallowness, self-seeking, and outright wrongdoing? How does this happen? Because of the pervasive, seductive power of lies.  "When I listen to a lie I cannot hear the truth." In fact, much of contemporary life is conducted upon a false foundation bound together by the "energy" of such lies-an "energy transmitted to all without exception."

The truth of Krakhmalnikova's musings on the atmosphere of lies that surrounds us today cannot be dismissed, nor can the grave consequences of this universal spirit of deception be minimized. We are increasingly seduced and lulled into taking "virtual" shadows of life for life itself, and this willing self-anesthetization renders us barren and passive. Let us not fool ourselves into making the most fatal error of all by imagining that we shall, on the last day, find rest if we have spent all our lives thinking that life "in the Church" is the same as life in Christ.

Listen, Prison is by no means a dreary jeremiad against "all that is." The author herself passed through a fiery trial yet found fire to be a cleansing and healing agent, and she offers her readers hope for that same freedom, a freedom that culminates in love.

". . . The path to Christ begins, I think, not when man wants to find salvation both 'here and there,' but when he first becomes conscious of his love for Christ. The longing for his beloved God keeps him away from all lies. The mystery of love is unfathomable. It is revealed in a fiery furnace. God does not send fiery trials to those who do not make an effort to love Christ. May the Lord grant us strength and love for Him, that we may leave the abyss of lies unharmed."

May we too, by the prayers of all the New Martyrs, pass safely through the abyss and attain to such love.

Nun Michaila

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