This is not a tale from old Russia, or even so much a new tale, but it is a tale told by me, an American, born in 1953, who lived through the events of the 60’s, Vietnam, the whole mess. And strangely, Russia played an important role.
At the end of the 60’s my older brother was in the Navy (long story that) and by the early 70’s was on a destroyer heading to Hanoi harbor. I had been through several religious epiphanies and was deeply subject to the incipient cynicism that was growing throughout young America. A war that was increasingly unpopular, a Presidency that had fallen into disgrace, and an atmosphere that simply left authority in shambles was the legacy I was living into in those years.
I lived in a commune (Christian) for 2 years between high-school and college (grist for another post on another day) and so entered college in the fall of ’73. I carried more questions and few answers and more attitude than someone that young is entitled to have.
My cynicism was shaken up in those mid 70’s by the actions and words of Alexander Solzhnitsyn. Here was a man of integrity (unquestioned at the time and I think still intact) who was standing up to overwhelming odds and surviving to tell the tale. He was someone who captured the imagination.
When I began to read his works, and discovered in reading his essays, that he was, in fact, a practicing Orthodox Christian, something within me soared – not because I knew anything about Orthodoxy, but that such a hero had Christian reasons for the hope that drove his heroism. It saved me from despair.
It also created within me an interest to know more. I began to read Russian novels such as those by Dostoevsky and discovered that Solzhenitsyn was not an aberration but an example. Again my hope soared.
I had opportunities occasionally to meet people who knew the man personally (one particular time I remember was while I was in seminary). But in all of this a seed was planted that created a friendship and a kinship that remained unfulfilled.
At a retreat in an Anglican monastery I was given a book on the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov to read. I did not go to sleep that night until it was finished. At the book’s completion I had a friend in heaven I had not known before and a devotion to one of Russia’s greatest saints. It’s odd how many Americans have been touched by the life of this early 19th century Russian staretz.
Time has gone on, and though I think I am a very American priest (we do all English at St. Anne), I remain a man who is deeply indebted to a culture that is not my own, which gave me heroes when my own culture was failing me.
I believe in the long run the culture that was saving me was nothing other than the culture of the Kingdom of God which cannot be identified with Russia, Byzantium or any of this world’s kingdoms but is nevertheless present wherever God pleases. But if you have encountered it in any form, you cannot help but have a love for the place that harbored it. In time such places as Africa, Greece, the Mideast, Ninevah, Romania, and many others have come to have places in my heart. It is as though the whole globe is (within my heart) being transformed into a bearer of the Kingdom.
And so it should be. It remains to me and for those of us who live here, to make of Appalachia a place that so bears the Kingdom that it, too, may rescue others from whatever place they have wandered and bring them home to the only place any of us can ever call home: the Kingdom of God.