Orthodox America

  The Anatomy of a Conversion

(From a lecture delivered at the St. Herman Winter Pilgrimage, Feb. 1984)

     A modern Russian novel may seem to be a rather strange choice as a topic for a lecture to a group of English-speaking Orthodox-especially on the eve of Great Lent. This particular book is a work of some 550 pages written in rather difficult Russian, and it is doubtful if it will be translated into English in the near future--if ever. it is, however, an unquestionable masterpiece of Orthodox literature, perhaps the most "Orthodox" novel written in the last two centuries, even more Orthodox than the novels of Dostoevsky. And it is precisely for its spiritual value that I have chosen to speak about it today.

"Open to Me the Doors..." Translated into English, the title of the book is "Open to Me the Doors." This does not make much sense. The original title, however, is not in Russian but in Church Slavonic, and here--to those familiar with the life and language of the Orthodox Church --it is immediately recognizable as the first words of the pre-Lenten prayer: "Open to me the doors of repentance, O Giverof life..." This title is of great significance, as the whole theme of the book is linked with repentence. The entire novel takes place in the space of some two weeks, just prior and into the period of Great Lent. It is the story of the conversion of a Jew to Orthodoxy--not from Judaism, but from a religion of nothingness, from that phony plasticity which characterizes not only contemporary Soviet society, but, alas, so much of the world today.

     The book was smuggled out to the West some years ago where it was published in 1973in Paris. The author, Felix Svetov, is perhaps better known as the husband of Zoya Krakhmalnikova, a writer of no small talent who was arrested two years ago for having published in the West the priceless anthologies of Christian readings, "Hope" Nadezhda). Both Felix Svetov and his wife are Russian-born ethnic Jews who converted to Orthodoxy under the difficult conditions of Soviet life. The book "Open to Me the Doors" is written with such penetrating psychological and spiritual perception that even without knowing the background of the author, one cannot but assume that it must be at least partially autobiographical. The step by step analysis of the hero's conversion, conducted throughout the course of the novel, reveals a discernment which could only have come through experience, here the author conveys a spiritual reality which pulls at the heart of the Orthodox reader who, if he immerses himself in the novel, experiences together with the hero the wondrous rebirth of his soul.

     For the Orthodox Christian the book is of unique educational value. Fully impregnated by the Orthodox mentality, it forces the reader to adopt this same point of view-without which he is easily lost. Certain passages, for example, may seem rather obscure and one is tempted to criticize the author for their having been poorly written. But no, a more careful examination will show that it is the reader who is at fault, having slipped out of this Orthodox frame of reference and reading instead from the perspective of an ordinary modern novel--which cannot be done if one desire s to fully grasp the meaning of this particular book. This is made more challenging by the fact that the setting of the story is utterly contemporary; there are scenes full of worldly conversation; the protagonist himself is a product of the contemporary non-religious Soviet Jewish society. The reader must, therefore, be careful to follow the action of the story where it takes place--in the internal .workings of the hero's mind and heart.

     It is impossible to adequately examine a book of such length and depth in such a short space of time. I have, therefore, selected certain passages [kindly translated by Xenia Zavarin] to illustrate the more salient points, hoping they will convey at least a small part of the novel's deeply Orthodox sentiment.

    For ease of discussion, I have put events in chronological order. Approaching the narrative in this way, we come upon a dialogue which occurs in a dream of our protagonist Lev Ilyich. The dialogue takes place between God and Satan in which the latter is charged with an assignment to try and tempt Lev llyich who had been chosen for Holy Baptism. Satan is scornful of such a task: "Me, worry over that Jew? He's always been in my hands; why bother tempting someone who is running directly towards you? Some time ago You sent me to a Jew by the name of Job --he was pure, God-fearing, avoided evil; now that was work, pure tragedy I call it. Forgive me, Lord, but in this case I see only a joke..." Here we see that God does not call a soul on the basis of any rational justice or external moral worth, but from sheer love for His creation, and the desire that all men be saved.

    The reader meets the protagonist as he is returning home to Moscow from a business trip. Here we must say a few words about Lev flyich who, as we have said, is a typical product of our century. His ideas are those of having fun; he likes parties, women; he likes to drink, to be merry. But underneath is a void, an abyss which he himself does not recognize. He had been out of town on business many times and always looked forward to his return home to the city, to his friends and family. But this time, something happens. He feels a certain indifference--quite unlike the elation which usually accompanies his return. He brushes this aside as a fleeting mood, perhaps the result of an oncoming cold. The real cause of the indifference never crosses his mind. How could he understand that a spark of God had fallen into his heart? From that moment he no longer belongs to the world; what he senses as indifference is nothing but that estrangement from the things of the earth, that otherworldliness which is the essential nature of Christianity. God had chosen him, had placed him in adiffarant world. This vague feeling of indifference signaled a profound internal change which only much later he recognizes as the beginning for him of a new life. Here there fell into his heart a ray of light which was gradually to illumine his darkened mind to the knowledge of the true light of Christ.

     What happens next in this internal chain of events is that he becomes, as though suddenly, convinced that chance no longer exists in his life. The people he meets, where he goes, what happens to him...in all of this he feels he is somehow being guided. He has no understanding, no particular thought of where? by whom? why? Nevertheless, this feeling overwhelms him and persists. Again this is the result of the mysterious spark of God descending into the human soul.


A Spiritual Odyssey 

    Propelled by these feelings ordinarily so alien to him, Lev Ilyich begins his spiritual odyssey. It is a dangerous and difficult journey, full of many discouraging obstacles and times of intense struggle. God's grace, however, helps him to endure these trials and to get up after he falls. The further he progresses, the more clearly he understands the impossibility of turning back. The eyes of the blind were opened.

    In terms of the external action of the novel, Lev Ilyich meets various people--both old friends and new acquaintances--with whom he invariably ends up discussing religion. Here the author skillfully introduces an assortment of characters representing different points of view widely held in contemporary Soviet society: we meet the convinced Marxist, the humanist, the Slavophile, the Zionist, the atheist-intellectual, and...the small group of believers--the priest Fr. Kyrill in particular--who are a lifeline keeping Lev Ilyich from losing himself in the abyss of worldly arguments and rational reasonings with which Satan has baited his traps.

    The women in the novel are generally sympathetic, though not very strong characters. Lev Ilyich is placed in the midst of three of these women: Vera, Nadia and Liuba--Faith, Hope, and Love. Obviously the choice of names is not fortuitous. The author, however, is not Dostoevsky, and the women do not exactly reflect the virtues which their names express. This may disappoint some readers who might expect the women to act as vehicles of salvation. As if deliberately refusing to conform to such an expectation, the author has created a much more realistic situation. It is in the midst of the characters' weaknesses that the reader recognizes himself. Furthermore, the weight of Lay's conversion is thus placed not on any rational process or human initiative, but on the mysterious spark of God's grace.

    The most bitter antagonist in the novella an old friend of Lev Ilyicb by the name of Kostya, who may claim a certain kinship to the character of Stavrogin in Dostoevsky's The Possessed. He is flamboyant, strong-willed and has brilliant ideas which can easily influence others. But like Stavrogin, his outward beauty and charm are only “the frozen tragic mask, under which hides a terrible spiritual wasteland, a loss of all norms and ethical principles" (G.M. Friedlaender). His ideas are contradictory, lacking direction. Satan enters this inner void and Kostya becomes a tempter, trying to seduce Lev Ilyich away from Christianity with his eloquence and erudition. Fr. Kyril, however, whose authority Kostya tries to undermine, is planted firmly upon the unshakable foundation of Christianity, and helps Lev to see the emptiness of his friend's arguments. The clarity and absolute simplicity of his explanations contrast sharply with Kostya's delusion.

    Among the positive group of characters are Lev's friend Masha, Fr. Kyril and his matushka Dusta. They meet "as if" by accident. Taken to Fr. Kyrill's house, Lev is at once struck by the amount of greenery; there is even a tame pink parrot. This obviously symbolizes a sort of paradise which is set in clear juxtaposition to the cold, lifeless asphalt of the city streets. Although Lev Ilyich is rather perplexed at being found in the house of a young Orthodox priest, whose religion he had once so readily mocked, he feels a strong attraction to that genuine warmth, that knowledge of truth which emanates from Fr. Kyril, and thus his brief visit opens the door to his entry into the Church,

    Returning to his own apartment, he finds a party in progress. This world, so familiar to him. now brings him into a state of depression. The mysterious spark of God--at once so incomprehensible, so illogical, is at the same time so powerful as to cause him to feel an aversion to his old life, to see the emptiness ef the party chatter; the scales have fallen from his eyes; he feels so estranged, as if he belongs to another world, not quite understanding what this "other world" is all about.

    After a time he cannot bear it any longer and runs out into the streets. Wandering as if aimlessly, he comes again to the house of Fr. Kyril. He surprises himself as much as anyone when he suddenly asks Fr. Kyril "Can you baptize me?" Such an unpremeditated approach to this solemn Sacrament may appear to some readers as a dramatic device. It is, however, not so unusual in the context of the Soviet experience, as we see in the writings of Fr. Dimitri Dudko and others. One might be tempted to see here alack of seriousness, the whim of a passing moment. Lev Ilvich himself is almost embarrassed by such an illogical, impulsive decision; his mind argues against the promptings of his spirit. Fortunately, however, his genuine thirst for an entry into that "other world" this mysterious, almost magnetic attraction which he still cannot fully articulate--overpowers his doubts with the help of Fr. Kyril's immediate consent and the joyful reaction of the women present: Matushka Dusia, Vera and Masha.

    The scene at the Baptism is very touching; it is viewed through the eyes of Lev Ilyich who is initially plagued by various confusing and very secondary thoughts: he imagines his friends sitting around mocking as he stands there in a pair of shorts--black, too long and two sizes too large. "If he had known, he would have put on some nice ones, swimming shorts... Hm, he stopped himself, 'Where do you think you are, at a beach on the Black Sea?'" He is puzzled by the bustling about of the three women and Fr. Kyril as they make the necessary preparations, although he accepts readily, like a child, whatever he is told to do or say. Out of the fullness of his tradition, the Orthodox reader is able to fill in the gaps left by Lev llyich's bewilderment

 “Like thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of times before and many times in the future, the Sacrament, inexpressible and touching, was taking place. A small church composed of three women stood at his back, and he felt himself not as a spectator, but as a member of this church. And He was among them, Lev Ilyich knew this; he felt His breath .... 'Kiss the cross'--the priest put the chain on Lev Ilyich. 'Make tl'e sign of the Cross.' He anointed his forehead, chest, hands, feet. 'The seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit.' They lit candles. He walked behind the priest, leaving wet marks on the floor; behind him were three women with candies, singing softly, with Lev Ilyich mumbling, repeating after them, guessing the words: 'As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia.'"

     While sealing him as a member of the Church, his Baptism does not provide any kind of automatic protection from temptations which continue to assail him. He is tempted by old habits and falls into sin; he gets into arguments with his friends and becomes depressed. Outwardly there does not seem to be any manifest transformation of life. But a definite change has taken place. Sin, once a matter of indifference, now evokes a flood of repentance; he is keenly aware of having sinned, and desires to sin no more. He has become consumed with a purpose; his life has assumed a definite direction.

    Distressed by his failure to keep spotless his baptismal robe, Lev Ilyich comes to Fr. Kyril who counsels him to prepare for Confession and Communion. Here we should say a few words about Fr. Kyril, a simple, young married priest of no particular outward charisma, but possessed of a strong faith and deeply Orthodox consciousness which give him the key to unlock the mysteries of the human soul. He is, as it were, the voice of the Church, often quoting the Holy Fathers, and giving practical insightful advice which helps Lev Ilyich to keep afloat in the stormy waters of life.

    There follows what is perhaps the most moving incident in the entire novel--Lev Ilyich's first Confession and Communion. And once more, it can be fully appreciated only in the context of life in the Orthodox Church. Lev Ilyich becomes totally absorbed in the service: the priest's every word penetrates his heart as if it were meant for him alone. He is overwhelmed by a sense of unworthiness: "How can one forgive a wan who has spent his entire life walking along that "other" road, laughing at all of this, or rather, indifferently and rudely despising all of this, preoccupied with himself, his own nonsense, endlessly sinning? How is it that instead of being thrown out of the church he was allowed to partake in the communion of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ .... Only if one denied all logic... 'I have no right, O Lord; I have only hope; anyway, let it be Thy will!' ...The Royal Doors opened again and the deacon proclaimed, 'With fear of God and faith draw near...'" Lev Ilyich learns to set aside that logic, that reason to which he had always tried to be so faithful, and to accept God's forgiveness as a gift of His mercy, of His love which embraces even the most wretched sinner, here indeed is a great Mystery of the Christian faith.

    Lev Ilyich continues to be plagued by temptations which center in his conversations with others: One after another, Lev Ilyich tries to convert his friends, to share the light of understanding which God's grace has shed upon his soul. While he is disappointed by his failure to do so, his faith is strengthened as he begins to see more and more clearly the fallacy of their arguments.

    As a Jewish convert to Christianity, Lev Ilyich becomes preoccupied with the question of "chosenness." His conversion opens up to him an entirely new understanding of the Old Testament and its meaning for the Jews. His religious--and even more, Christian-perspective is entirely rejected by his Jewish acquaintances who accuse him of being a traitor to the Jewish tradition: "You don't hear the call of your Jewish blood!" Lev Ilyich is disgusted by the hollowness of contemporary Soviet Jewish society whose Jewishness consists only in some kind of ethnic snobbishness and a worldly attachment to a political state. The accusation makes him explode:

    "...It is not the call of blood that you are hearing, it is only petty bourgeois conceit that is shouting in you .... Yes, I am hearing the call of my blood and because of that I am an Orthodox Christian. Moreover, I am an Orthodox Christian because I hear the call of my Jewish blood .... To hear the call of his blood for a Jew born in Russia is to become an Orthodox Christian, because only then does one obtain the opportunity to repent."

    Lev Ilyich continues in this way, becoming increasingly estranged from his former way of life, his old self. Outwardly he becomes a rather pitiable figure: he loses his job, his wife is thinking of leaving him; in the final scene he sits on a bench outside the church, his mouth still bloody from a beating--and a passing stranger throws him a coin. What, asks the reader, can this be the picture of a hero? From a logical worldly perspective the conclusion is indeed very disappointing. But the reader who is careful to keep himself within an Orthodox Christian perspective sees very clearly that the novel has a very happy. ending. Lev Ilyich himself, in spite of his outwardly miserable condition, is extremely happy: he has entered that "other world" and is finally welded to the Church--symbolized by an old woman who, in that last scene, gives him a piece of prosphora. What hope is contained here, what joy in witnessing the resurrection of a soul from the abyss of nothingness, to a life full of machine and purpose. Truly, our God is a God of the living, trampling down death and "upon those in the tombs bestowing life." 

Dr. Eugene Zavarin