Orthodox America

  The Cry of the New Martyrs – Talking About God is Dangerous

by Tatiana Goricheva

"No one told me that the supreme thing in life is not to overtake and to get the better of others, but to love.”

    Tatiana Goricheva was a brilliant student, the pride of the philosophy department at the University of Leningrad. But her intellectual achievements brought fleeting satisfaction. Even as a child she hated the world she knew--communism's artificial creation--empty, petty, hopeless, full of lies, fear and anxiety. Like many other intellectuals of her generation, she began to dig her way out of this meaningless existence --through the discovery of existentialism, Nietzsche and Sartre, then Yoga with its concept of an absolute. But the emptiness was still there--to the point of madness--until While practicing Yoga one day she chose a new mantra suggested by her book as an exercise. It was the Lord's Prayer.

    "I was suddenly turned inside out. I understood--not with my ridiculous understanding, but with my whole being--that He exists. He, the living, personal God, Who loves me and all creatures, Who has created the world, Who became a human being out of love, the Crucified and Risen God."

    Her outspokenness concerning her newfound faith caused her to be targeted for several years by the KGB who eventually gave her a choice between emigrating and going to prison. She chose to emigrate in accordance with the wish of her spiritual father. "Remember," he told her, "you are not in exile. You are sent on a mission."

     In reading Goricheva's book, Talking About God Is Dangerous, one feels that, indeed, here is a mission accomplished. The story of her conversion from an arrogant intellectual to a child of God, humbled before the wisdom of a simple village priest, epitomizes in very personal terms the religious revival underway in the Soviet Union today and brings one to understand her intriguing statement: 

Russia today is going through the ninth circle of hell; at the same time the luckiest people in the world live in it.

     Among the most striking parts of the book are the numerous vignettes of the spiritual fathers--'startsi' (elders), simple priests, monks--those "who dared to look after the young people. It is clear that their way was a way of martyrdom from the beginning. The authorities feared nothing more than the newly converted."

    Goricheva describes her first meeting with a priest who himself suggested that he become her spiritual father. She was skeptical. "How would an ordinary priest with only an average education direct people like us, who led such a complicated intellectual life~" That evening, however. "in a conversation with him I first understood what a priest really is. There before me I had someone who could give himself not just half-heartedly, but with all his personality and all his soul to another person .... He was very patient about healing us. He achieved it quietly, almost without our noticing .... Step by step he became increasingly demanding, and directed his attention to every detail, to every false overtone, to every gesture, every look."

     Many converts in the Soviet Union today make pilgrimages to the monasteries, to receive a word of counsel from the God-bearing elders, "The starets," writes Goricheva, "is the icon of God. Even if one has seen him only once, one realizes that it is wrong to go on living as before, that from this moment on the correctness of everything in one's life must be tested in the light of this beauty and blessedness. In the person of the starets, holiness becomes summons and demand."

     "The startsi ," continues Goricheva, "are real doctors. I have never heard empty or flattering words from them. The medicine that they give is often bitter, but it always work s."

      She tells of a young woman who went to the late superior of the Caves Monastery, Archimandrite Alypy, for a blessing to enter a convent. He refused; ',Go into a hospital as a nurse," he told her. "You'll drink, you'll begin to complain, but such work will save you. A convent will ruin you. I will not bless you."

    Before emigrating to the West, Goricheva was prominent in the newly emerging women' s movement· It is the women who have been most adversely affected by the Soviet Union' s decayed socio-economic structure. In marked contrast to the feminist movement in the West--here Goricheva comments perceptively at length, she writes:

    "We saw that social change would not liberate either men or women unless they were connected to the main thing: with the spiritual revolution which was taking place in every soul and throughout society. We saw that women could only be free in the Church."

    As its title suggests, the book describes the hazards of religious confession in an anti-religious system. Many of Goricheva's Christian friends were imprisoned, sent to psychiatric 'hospitals,' lost hope of any career... Why? "Even now," she explains, "the Soviet authorities carry on an inexorable battle with faith, with the Spirit...with what they clearly regard as their most dangerous enemy."

    The title takes on yet another meaning as Goricheva describes her exposure to the Christianity of the West. Overriden by social concerns and lacking the experience of suffering, it manifests a painful shallowness. Here in the Free World, people pay a small price to be Christian; God is tailored to fit into a world of material comfort without making self-sacrificing demands; the sense of fear and trembling before God is eroded. Not so in Russia: "Our thought was maximalist: spiritual values or materialism, the way of contentment or the way of Christ. There was no third possibility."

    This ringing intensity which sounds throughout the book, proclaiming "the miracle of faith that moves mountains and raises the dead," is Goricheva' s much-needed contribution to her brethren in Christ. May it kindle in our hearts a flaming desire to follow the way of the Cross, that we, too, become partakers in the joy of Resurrection.

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