Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

The conversion of Russia

From a talk on 2 September 1987

I should like to concentrate on the spirituality of the Russian Church partly because I know it a great deal better than other Churches and partly because next year, 1988, we keep the 1000 year of the conversion of Russia to Christianity. And when I say, the conversion of Russia to Christianity I am saying more than it was because to begin with it was a small community of people in the city of Kiev that received Christ and were baptised together with their prince. But it was the beginning, it was the first seed sawn, and it was a seed that gradually produced a very rich harvest. I would like to think with you both historically and theologically on the matter.

What strikes me in the conversion of Russia is that the Russians of that time where a rather primitive kind of nation, very different from the Greeks or the Latins, the Romans whom the Apostles had to convert. Their faith was a pagan faith, they revered gods that were to them more a terror, stern and blood-thirsty gods and they had no notion of a God or gods that would be gods of love, gods of salvation.

The result of it was that after number of centuries when this was enough for them, a time came when a spiritual hunger was awoken. They felt more and more that these gods could not be the God or the gods of Heaven, that there was another dimension in the divinity, that a god whom one had to fear and only to fear without awe and love could not satisfy the inner need of worship. And this is a moment when prince Vladimir who was then sovereign in Kiev and whose grandmother Olga had already become a Christian before him, began to send emissaries into different countries to find whether there was a religion that could fill the souls of the people, his own soul and the souls of the people around him ahungered for something greater, truer, deeper, more beautiful than the pagan gods whom they feared. They went to a variety of places, they met the Jews in the Crimea, the Tartars in the East, they went in the direction of Poland where Christianity had been brought by Roman missionaries and in the end also to Constantinople. And when they came back and were asked what they have found, what they said is, While we were standing there during the divine services, we did not know whether we were on earth or in Heaven. The first impact of Christianity reached the Russians through awe, through the majesty of God and through the unutterable beauty of worship.

And when I speak of the beauty, I do not mean that in terms of aesthetics. It isnt that they were impressed by the beauty of the rites or the beauty of the music alone. Of course they were. But they were filled with a sense that in a world that was full of ugliness, of fear, of cruelty, there was a place of stillness, a place of the divine presence, a presence so intensely felt that one could fall down and adore this God because of His greatness and His presence, a real presence, not an imaginary one. This was a decisive turn because as Plato has put it centuries before, beauty is a convincing power of truth; a truth about which you can not say: how beautiful, how wonderful, how it opens my mind and my heart is not a truth that you can serve with all your life and all your death. I am mentioning this because this is very much what is happening also now in Soviet Russia. In early days, in pagan Russia, there were pagan gods of a pagan society. Now in the last seventy years the secular society has created also pagan gods, objects of worship, idols, and what you find all the time when you visit Russia, not only when you visit congregations, but when you meet unbelievers or just people in the street who would not define themselves either as atheists or believes, what you find is a hunger: what we are given is poor, there is in us a dimension which is never fed.

I remember Michael Ramsey when he was Archbishop of Canterbury saying, There in every soul a vastness and a depth, which nothing can fill but God himself. And this is something which people perceive and feel in Russia even if they do not put it in such elaborate words as mine.

And another thing, which I have experienced myself on the first time when I went to Russia was this sense, this contrast between the drabness, the ugliness, the emptiness of a city of men emptied of the divine presence, and what happens to you when you walk into a church, not only because the buildings erected in the last seventy years are poor architecture, not any better than so many of the things which we have created here in the West. But they are lifeless, they have no soul, they are functional but they are not an expression of a spiritual experience or simply of an experience of beauty. It is not the beauty of the world collected by geniuses or by men or women of talent that have become buildings, become places, become space. It is the beauty of the world made drab and dead.

And when I first walked into one of the churches, I understood what believers and unbelievers alike felt when they walked for the first time either in Byzantine into a church or nowadays into one of the churches, which are still open in Soviet Russia its another world, a world of harmony, a place as one workman said to me, a place and the only one, he said, where one never hears anything except love and one meets nothing but human openness and brotherhood, and also this sheer beauty of the place, the beauty that is in such intense contrast with what you see around you. And I have met people who came and were merged into this mysterious beauty.

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