By Father Christopher Hill
“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty” (quoted in The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware, 1983 edition, p.269). These words, spoken by envoys describing their experience of Orthodox worship in Christendom’s greatest church of the Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, in Constantinople, were reported back to the ruler of the vast East European realm of Kievan Rus, Grand Prince Vladimir.
Vladimir, subsequently proclaimed a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church and now visually familiar to Muscovites and visitors to Russia’s capital by way of the monumental statue recently erected to him near the Kremlin, is credited with introducing Christianity to his people in the tenth century. Vladimir’s grandmother Princess Olga had also received Christian baptism, but this was something more of a private initiative than state policy. His pagan background notwithstanding (prior to becoming a Christian Vladimir enjoyed war and feasting, as well as numerous wives and concubines) and despite the political context of his conversion (adopting the religion of his wife-to-be, the Byzantine princess Anna, most certainly bolstered his image in the eyes of her brother and potential ally emperor Basil II), this experience of being drawn precisely to the beauty of Orthodox worship holds true for countless people who have made the conscious decision to join the Eastern Orthodox Church.
It is certainly true in my case. The first time I entered a Russian Orthodox church was in September of 1984 when I had arrived in the provincial city of Voronezh with about twenty other British students to immerse ourselves for ten months in the Russian language as part of our degree course. One of my two favourite Russian writers is Fyodor Dostoevsky (the other being Nikolai Gogol), and out of curiosity I decided to visit a Church which initially seemed so exotic and radically different from both the Catholic Church and the various Protestant denominations, and which so informed Dostoevsky’s work theologically and philosophically.
Whilst perhaps not as dramatic as the Russian envoys a thousand years ago in Constantinople, my impression of Orthodox worship nonetheless was a powerful and everlasting one. It was what in Greek is called a kairos, that moment in time when there suddenly comes a penetrating insight, an instinctual realization of belonging. Admittedly, I understood little of the symbolism of the liturgical actions of the heavily-robed bearded priests, nor the words of the unaccompanied choir. Certainly, the majestic chanting, the aroma of incense and the radiant colours of the icons and vestments made for a stark contrast with the grey, drab reality of the Soviet-era urban architecture outside.
But what I was even more struck by was a sense of a community at worship. Above, extending to the heavens was the iconostasis with its images not only of Christ and the Virgin Mary but also of the numerous saints who share in an eternal celestial glory with them. Below was the thronged mass of mainly elderly women, but also some young men, repeatedly crossing themselves, all facing towards the sanctuary and iconostasis. Yet the two elements – the saints depicted in the icon screen and the faithful below – appeared to comprise an integral whole, the Church triumphant and the Church militant, a ‘heaven on earth.’ To this day I can give no better advice to people interested in Orthodoxy than simply to be present at worship in the Orthodox Church in order to get a sense of that oneness of believers united in the Body of Christ. As I stood in that crowded church, people behind me repeatedly tapped me on the shoulder, asking me to pass on their candle to Christ, the Mother of God, St. Nicholas, St. Mitrophanes (the local city saint) and other saints. It took me a little time to realize that I was meant to pass the candle to the candle-stand in front of the icon of the saint. For Russian Orthodox Christians the saints are not remote figures, but living intimate friends whose intercession we ask for before God.
As I left Church that day, I wanted to find out more, but this was 1984, a time in the Soviet Union when the Russian Church lived in a social ghetto, either ignored by the state authorities or portrayed by anti-religious propaganda as a bastion of superstition and obscurantism. At Easter, the main city church would be surrounded by Komsomol activists to discourage people from entering. There were no church book shops or church libraries. The Church could not openly engage in charitable works or education – all this would come much later. I had to content myself with surreptitious conversations with other believers to find out what the Church meant to them.
For the rest of my ten-month stay in Voronezh I attended that same church, at one point copying into a note-book the words of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer set in relief on the outer church walls in the beautiful letters of the archaic Church Slavonic language in order to orientate myself better in the services. It was only shortly before I left Voronezh that I eventually got to talk to a real Russian Orthodox priest called Father Daniel, who advised me to get in touch with the head of the Russian Orthodox diocese in Great Britain Metropolitan Anthony Bloom if I was serious about wanting to join the Orthodox Church. Intriguingly, I was invited to a further conversation with Father Daniel, but when I turned up I was told by church servitors that under no circumstances could he ever see me again. Someone in the ‘organs’ had obviously had a word with him about engaging with foreigners.
So it was back in England that I devoured as many books as I could on the teaching of the Orthodox Church, most importantly Bishop Kallistos Ware’s classic 1963 book The Orthodox Church, (my dog-eared old copy of which I am referring to as I write this article!) and, by now sufficiently proficient in the Russian language, I could read theological books in Russian unfortunately not then readily accessible to ordinary Russians.
Eventually I joined the Russian Orthodox Church, in Oxford when I was a postgraduate student. I would not describe myself as a ‘convert’ to Orthodoxy (or, as English-speaking Russians jokingly refer to them, an ‘envelope’, the Russian word for the latter being konvert) as the Orthodox Church, and specifically the Russian Orthodox Church, has been and remains my only spiritual home. Like most people of my generation, I was christened in the Church of England, but it was a church I only ever attended for weddings and funerals. Brought up in Manchester, I cannot consciously recall a time when I was not a believer, but it was in the Orthodox Church in Russia that this belief found articulate expression. Indeed, I would say that being a member of the Russian Orthodox Church has enabled me to view my own English Christian heritage in a deeper and more appreciative way. In the summer of 2015 I visited the shrines of two of the great Anglo-Saxon saints, Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede, at Durham Cathedral. The feelings I experienced there were no different from those from numerous visits to the shrine of St. Sergius of Radonezh at the monastery dedicated to him located some forty miles north-east of Moscow. In both places I felt equally awed and at home in the company of those who had laboured for Christ and his Church.
My first encounter with Russian Orthodoxy was over thirty years ago and it led me on a trajectory towards becoming an Orthodox priest in Russia after the collapse of communism in the early nineties. Along the way, I have had more than one kairos, more than one defining moment in my faith journey, in encounters with people and events. To many it may seem an idiosyncratic choice, especially to those who know about the Russian Orthodox Church only through the prism of the political culture in which she now lives and operates. But I prefer to liken the life of the Russian Church to that of the ocean: on the surface it may appear at times calm, at times stormy making the journey turbulent, but in its depths there is a spiritual harmony and beauty that cannot be easily observed externally. The Russian Church has its imperfections, certainly, as do all organizations on a purely human level, but it is a home and a family, my home and my family, and not to be forsaken. To those who want to know the life of the Russian Church on a deeper level, it is enough to follow the simple words of the Gospel which led me to where I am today: “Come and see” (John 1:39).