Orthodox Christianity has sometimes been called, “The World’s Best Kept Secret.” There is a certain truth to this – the ignorance in the Western world of Byzantine history, let alone Russian and Balkan history – is staggering. Many Orthodox are uninformed about the full story of their faith – as well as most modern converts. There is, at times, a make-believe history, created by lively imaginations of a pure Church somehow preserved from corruption for 2,000 years. A more accurate story of Orthodox Christianity is one written in blood and struggle – against principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness of the most insidious nature.
A new book has brought a small piece of this story to light – Irina Yazykova’s Hidden and Triumpant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography. She gives both an excellent and readable introduction to the theology of the icon, but also a wonderful summary of the modern struggles with forces that threatened to destroy the canonical tradition of Orthodox iconography.
Yazykova traces both the rise of iconography and the place it came to hold in medieval Russia, as well as its diminishment during the time of Westernization. The work of individuals who struggled to recover techniques and a way of seeing is a story of artistic genius as well as deep piety. In the Soviet period it is also the story of martyrdoms and work done in secret. The lively production of icons that marks the Orthodox world today (though still far too small) is traced as well with accounts of the connections running through the decades from teacher to student, from Russia to Paris, from Europe to America.
Of course the struggle goes far deeper than the most recent battles with Soviet iconoclasm. By the time of Peter the Great, the Russian state looked increasingly to the West for its inspiration – militarily, culturally, artistically, and, in many cases, religiously. The Patriarchate of Moscow was reduced to the level of Metropolitan and the Church strongly subjected to the needs of the state. Fr. Georges Florovsky traced in masterful detail the theological struggles of the past number of centuries in his magisterial Ways of Russian Theology (very hard to find these days). An account of relatively contemporary theological struggles can be found in any number of volumes that trace the work of Fr. John Romanides (I am very partial to the account given in Dr. Daniel Payne’s dissertation, The Revival of Political Hesychasm in Greek Orthodox Thought. Regardless of where someone comes down on the work of Fr. Romanides – the story is extremely engaging and informative.
The general constant within Orthodox life has been its liturgical expression. Though this has evolved through the centuries, it has preserved its piety and generally enriched its content across the centuries. There have doubtless been many places within the Orthodox world, many “corners,” in which the faithful remained the “faithful.” In the recovery of the art of the icon, a number of Old Believer iconographers played an important role.
The messiness and even occasional decadence of the world surrounding the Orthodox faith over the past number of centuries is not something that has diminished the faith nor morphed it into something other than what it truly is. But this history should serve as a reminder that to be an Orthodox Christian is not to have fled the struggle but to have thrust oneself into the very heart of it.
The nature of that struggle is simply to become and be an Orthodox Christian.
In the modern world the faith is lived out in the context of a secularized, modern culture. The default position of those born in the modern world is secularism. It is in the air we breathe and permeates our music our food our fashions and most of our ideas. This secularism has a room for religion, but only a room. Thus the great temptation of modern Orthodoxy will be to hold the Orthodox faith in a manner similar to that of any modern religious man or woman. The Church becomes the purveyor of religious program, sometimes the keeper of a now lost culture.
When attendance in the Church begins to conform to the American Protestant norm (just to use an example), there is every good chance that the grip of the Orthodox faith has begun to slip in one’s life. Of course, in places like America, many Orthodox find themselves living 50 or more miles away from their parish. Attendance in such situations is problematic, at best. However, learning to keep an Orthodox home and for the family to pray as family and observe the life of the Church is always possible. If the Orthodox faith is only practiced at Church and has not become an intimate part of the home, something is deeply missing and in danger of being lost. Church attendance alone is insufficient for the maintenance of the Orthodox faith.
We will not be perfect Orthodox Christians and the outcome of modern history does not depend upon us (it has always depended upon God). But the story of the underground struggle to save Russian iconography is an illustration of the struggle that has not ceased nor will ever cease until all struggles come to an end.
We do well to know where and when we live – and we do well to be reminded of how we got here and the price of the rich Tradition that has been lived for 2,000 years. Irina Yazykova’s book is a good read if you’ve never heard the story.