Western hearts are tormented by their comfortable way of living...
While we rarely carry interviews, this one is particularly fascinating, because it provides insight into why Westerners in Russia are so often attracted to Russian Orthodox Christianity and how a particular Russian priest is able to reach people of different backgrounds with his message of traditional Christianity.
It features Fr. Artemy Vladimirov, a very prominent priest in Russia, who is especially popular among Moscow's English-speaking population for his intelligence, wit, and perfect command of the English language. Under his guidance, many foreigners converted to Orthodoxy.
He has a strong internet presence, travels regularly to the US to lecture, and published a book in English in 2010, called Bright Faith (which we highly recommend). It aims to introduce Orthodox Christian spirituality to Westerners.
He highlights the differences between Russia and the West and what traditional Christianity, thriving in much more bitter circumstances in Russia, has to offer to the modern, materially-flourishing Western world.
Here, we have chosen the excerpts that are particularly interesting for people in regards to the interaction between Westerners and Russian Christianity. (For the full interview, conducted for the periodical Road to Emmaus, click here)
(…Fr. Artemy pours wine from his neighbor’s glass to his own.) You are too slow. We in Russia seem not to respect les droits de l’
homme [human rights], and with no hesitation we do things like this.
It is a violence of one’s rights. We transgress their independence mercilessly. (Laughter around table as he pours from glass to glass.) It is a mystery of our Russia.
Road to Emmaus: Father Artemy, what do you think brings foreigners to Orthodoxy when visiting or working in Russia?
Fr. Artemy: Perhaps it is because our earthly life is so terrible here that you just have no other way out than Orthodoxy. It is the last gasp of a sinking man.
If we had no Orthodoxy in Russia, I think that Russia would be a nightmare. It is a nightmare without Orthodoxy. Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky said, “Russia without belief, without truth in Christ, is copulation and cruelty.”
This is because demons don’t sleep and if the Russian people reject a pious life they immediately become possessed by passions.
These possessions are not hidden behind the smooth exterior of Western culture, everything is very open here.
RtE: It seems that when foreigners who have not yet found what they are searching for in America or Europe, come to Russia, religion isn’t so frightening to explore because it is part of the new culture.
Fr. Artemy: Certainly, we believe that our foreign guests feel the unknown sanctity of spiritual life here.
Orthodoxy has the quality of permeation, and you can feel that people here badly need God.
When I asked our well-known spiritual father, Fr. Ioann Krestiankin from Pskov-Pechory Monastery, “Should I visit Europe or not?” he did not say “Yes” or “No,” he answered, “It is only Russia that is aching for God.”
Of course, every soul longs for God regardless of its origin, but certainly in Russia we have people who try to pray with all their hearts. They make their best effort to call out to God.
It is not something unusual here. It is not philosophical, it is not a cultural tradition, it is simply your pain. Certainly, the Holy Fathers teach that if your prayer is without pain, without effort, without some invisible cry, it is not a real spiritual child, but a stillborn.
St. Isaac of Syria says that prayer is always something painful, because sin impedes your prayer and prevents you from attaining a high quality of prayer.
RtE: What do you think brings foreigners to the church here at Krasnoselskaya? Obviously your ability to speak English and your willingness to reach out to them is important…
Fr. Artemy: My ability to speak English diminishes every year… We in Russia are always attentive to foreigners but this is not a virtue, it is even something suspicious.
We may be indifferent to our compatriots, inattentive and even callous, but when we see a foreigner… ahhh! …what he thinks of us, what he will say about us, what will his first and last impressions be… I don’t know why, but when we see a foreigner we become cherubim with wide-open eyes. It is our failing.
Nevertheless, when you think that this soul is very far from its homeland, very far from his or her parents, very far from his compatriots, and, at the same time, you realize that this soul’s first desire is God, revealed in Orthodoxy, then, of course, you want to help… particularly when you remember that the spiritual foundation of Europe is Orthodox Christianity.
You feel a great pity for people who only know something distorted. You would like to help them touch the real ground of salvation.
The foreigners I have met in Russia are very good listeners, because they are mostly people who appreciate culture, who are educated, refined (in the good sense of the word) and are very attentive to the manifestations of spiritual life.
Perhaps it is God’s Providence that these people do not arrive in Russia accidentally. They are souls known by God, Who wants to instruct and enlighten them.
RtE: Why do you think your very traditional church is so attractive to non-Orthodox foreigners?
Real tradition is a force and you cannot help but feel this spiritual force. In Orthodoxy, tradition is not a museum filled with interesting exhibits, but a stream you are to immerse yourself in.
The more material things we have the more illusory our visible life is, but our hearts can find peace only in Christ.
Western hearts are tormented by this comfortable way of living, and to feel anything deeply many Western people seek for vivid impressions.
For example, one Russian girl I know was invited to visit Russian Orthodox friends who are now part of the French culture. On an excursion to the country in southern France the family began jumping into a river from a great height.
There were rocks below, and if you didn’t jump far enough you would be dashed on the rocks. The father, mother, children…all jumped into the river. It was a real taste of life for them.
For the Russian girl it was a dreadful experiment, and she refused to jump because it was such a great risk.
This seeking for vivid impressions is a surrogate for spiritual life.
The other aspect of Western people is that they are looking for eternity, for heavenly grace, and many people who are searching, who were poisoned by the absence of grace, are open to receiving it here.
RtE: The Russian people in your parish also seem particularly open to foreigners, although they themselves are traditional and uninterested in pursuing Western values and goals. Why do you think this is?
Russian people are often welcoming, it is our way. Also, we are always to discern, to make a distinction between a person and his style of life, his world-view, his practical philosophy.
Priests especially must do this if they are to feel your soul, and your soul is something of great value.
We are all children of our Heavenly Father, therefore we are to discern the eternal soul in our neighbour.
RtE: How do you reach out to a new soul that comes to you from abroad, particularly if they are not Orthodox?
The best thing is to apply metalogical proof that God exists.
This means that we don’t need to exercise our intellectual pretensions, but, for example, if a Buddhist approaches you who is interested in Russian culture, who would like to know something new about the meaning of life, the metalogical way of proving that God exists is to take a sweet and give this sweet to him, praying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Then, it is not a simple sweet, it is a gift of the personal God, the living God, and he feels the reality.
For almost all modern people, the life of their soul manifests itself in intellectual work, but the souls themselves are asleep. The treasure of our hearts is hidden, latent.
There is only one key that you may use to open that treasure-love in Christ. Love in Christ is not a clever word, it is not a syllogism. You may speak with a person, not even discussing important matters, but if you try to give your heart, he will feel and cognize something yet unknown.
This is because all human souls are connected. We are tied, we are like connecting channels, and the level of water, as Pascal says, is the same in the neighboring channels.
When you love, the other will want to love also. When you cry, he will also cry. When you pray, he will feel something unknown even if he is not a believer, unless his heart is closed by pride.
RtE: Many of the foreigners that come to your church are visiting or working in Russia from Western Europe or North America-countries that are both less traditional and often more consumer oriented. What do you find in the psychological formation of Westerners that makes it easy for them to enter into Orthodoxy? What things in their make-up are stumbling blocks that make it difficult to take on an Orthodox world-view?
Fr. Artemy:We here in Russia are not in any way protected by social legislation, by any programs, any rights, any laws. Our hope is in our hands, our friends and Our Lord.
In Russia, earthly laws almost don’t work. It is the worst feature of our society. All the rights are constantly being violated.
Therefore, no one will understand when you appear in the middle of the square and in a loud voice begin to protest, to express your righteous indignation.
Because of this lack we are swift to become humble.
When you feel like a mouse surrounded by fat black cats…you will be humble. Willy-nilly, you will begin to pray. We have a proverb that rhymes in Russian,
“When thunder strikes, the muzhik crosses himself.”
When Western people, like Mary Poppins… (You know who Mary Poppins is, don’t you? Laughter and assent.) Mary Poppins is a very difficult psychological type. I don’t know what thunder and lightings are to occur to make her cross herself.
She is independent. She is immaculate in her cold, arrogant beauty. She is self-sufficient. She is like the personage from the Hans Christian Anderson tale, “The Snow Queen.”
So, this is a feeling of self-sufficiency, or self-satisfaction, or a feeling of protection that you have.
Maybe we Russians don’t know real Western life, perhaps this is our imagination, but when we think of a typical Western person it appears to us that you usually have capital in the bank, that you find yourself at a certain level in life, that all your energies are directed towards sustaining this level, and that you are not so free because of these conventions.
I think that the most important thing is that, as we call Jesus Christ our Saviour, we are to know, to feel deeply, that we are perishing.
When you truly feel yourself perishing, what self-satisfaction, what surety can you have?
Most Russian people tell me that when they find themselves in the West, within two weeks they feel mortal tiredness, moral exhaustion, and in two months, although surrounded by earthly goods, they are ready to escape back to our poor Russia.
Often they find that the bright superficial atmosphere of smiles, of tactfulness, of readiness to help in petty matters, does not necessarily mean that people are deeply interested in you or have real compassion for you.
Here in Russia we complain about our diseases, even at our jobs, “Oh, my heart, my head, my teeth…are aching…I cannot tolerate anymore of this anguish… Oh, don’t touch me, don’t talk to me…” It is alright. We are not yet obliged to hide our suffering under a sparkling smile.
But I believe that in Western people there is much more virtue than lack. They are obedient in the direct sense of the word. They are very obedient. If they read “No Admittance!"… “Propriété Privée,” it is impossible for them to trespass. They walk only when the light is green.
They are very disciplined, yes? They are prepared to become obeisant pupils. All of the Western people I have met in Russia are quite ready for spiritual life.