Since 1991 I’ve spent five Easters in Russia and the Balkans. The first time i ever entered a Russian Church, in Kiev, was just before the Fall of the Hammer & Sickle, and it had only recently been re-opened for public worship. Little babushcka women went around snuffing candles and asking the mostly-gawking curiosity-seekers to please remove their hats, or please speak less loudly, and no camera flashes, please. Of the crowd of 150, I’m not sure if more than a dozen were there to actually worship. It was still a new thing in 1991, and the churches of Russia were fairly corrupt already when the tsars fell in 1918, so their road back has been more difficult than elsewhere in the Soviet Empire. I recall one of my translators asking me about a 3-day Moonie event she was to attend in the Crimea. I suggested she not go. Why, she asked? If you want your own understanding of faith tested, try to reduce it to the simplest level for a child, then explain it to a 22 year old. After 70 years and three generations, these “children” were moral, spiritual and ethical blank slates, and while eager to be “free” they entered this new world with no fixed stars in their heaven to guide them. No wonder they’ve lost their way again. (This is why I am so adamant that a clock is ticking for us.)
Eastern Europe was another matter. I have no doubt that the speed of fall of the Soviet Empire in eastern Europe was due in large part to the strength and vibrancy of the Roman Catholic Church in the bloc’s principal countries, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Men such as Karol Józef Wojtyła helped keep God alive in the darkest days of despair there.
And flanking these Catholic countries to the southeast were the eastern Orthodox nations that traced their histories back to the earliest days of Christianity and the old Byzantine Empire. Their sojourn with the official atheism of the state also lasted only 45 years, two generations. Still, the damage was greater, and the road back to a moral civil society slow, and as yet, after 20 years, still uncertain regarding most of the institutions we consider cornerstones to democracy. But as my old buddy Pascal said, those who are lost but seeking to be found will be found. So I am optimistic.
But some interesting observations. First, Lenin was wrong about religion being the opiate of the masses. It was the rural and urban masses that first, and most quickly discarded it, without so much as a backward glance. It was the intellectuals, the scientists, who sneaked into church to light a candle and say a prayer. Under communism Christianity and Judaism was kept alive by the educated classes, not the farmers. My best friend there, who died last year, lived in a city just outside Sofia. We would drive through this town, named Lyoolin, and he would point to a fairly new church, and say, “In my father village, 200 peoples, one church. In Lyoolin, 200 sousand peoples…one church.” Then he would laugh sarcastically, then say “Imperial communists.”
Even hard shelled communists, of whom I knew many, on Easter and other Holy Days would still hold a traditional feast…lamb and sweet meats…toasts of rakia, and “Christos Vozkrese! Voistina Vozkrese!” (“Christ is Risen! Blessed is the resurrection of Christ!”). Vain repetitions? Or just throwing a little salt over the left shoulder? I can’t say, but I can say it is better to be spooked by the possibility of God’s presence than to pay Him no mind whatsoever. (Hold that thought.)
Since 1993, I attended two churches in Bulgaria regularly, one Eastern, the other Russian Orthodox. (Later, after becoming friends with an Armenian Olympic weight lifting champion, I also attended the Armenian church…the priest very grateful, since the Olympian owned a bar just underneath his church. Only when i came did the great Nurikyian attend…and tithe.) St Alexander Nevsky is the national cathedral of Bulgaria, standing guard over a large square near the Parliament. Stunning is all I can say. It’s the home of the Patriarch, a vast reliquary, and the national choir, who, even today, you can just walk in and listen to for free on any Sunday. There are smaller more intimate churches throughout Sofia that had also reopened but this is by far my favorite place of worship.
When I first visited it, there were barely a trickle of people, and much like Kiev, a lot of gawkers, who had no manners at all. In the early days the principle parishioners were old women, since, in the days of “imperial communism”, while not illegal, a man could lose his job, his rank, and certainly his party membership (sort of like Democrats today) if it somehow got out that he was religious. You paid a price to be a Christian…and let it show. Back in the 1940s, crucifixes, silver crosses and other religious notions were hidden way, way away from peering eyes, then forgotten, only to show up again in the flea markets 45 years later, sold as curiosities by their grandchildren, with no intrinsic value whatsoever.
There were no benches or chairs in this cathedral in which to sit or rest. Much of the service was done standing up anyway, and there was a lot of coming and going, people in the back lighting candles and moving to various ikons to say special prayers. But a few came just for the mass, such as those old widows I spoke of. So the priests arranged it for them to lean against the marble rail that surrounded the king’s throne, last occupied by King Boris until 1943.
Watching that was one of the first of many knee-buckling moments for me in that church; those gals in their old scarves and coarse-woven skirts, white socks and cheap Romanian sneakers, leaning on those rails as the priests changed shifts…which thankfully, was often, for they were there for hours. True daughters of God. But of perhaps only 35 people in that church back in 1993, only those old ladies, slouched over that marble rail, knew the entire procession of the liturgies all the way through, the crossings, genuflects, the responsive answers, the prayers, including one or two prostrations on the cold stone floor. Everyone else was a novice. I always wished a few Baptists back in central Kentucky could have seen this. They might have come away with a different point of view.
Over the years I watched that church grow back. The dynamism was palpable. I never went there that I did not come home refreshed and encouraged. How can you watch a tiny 80-year old woman stand next to two young boys, aged five or six, and reach down to teach them how to hold their fingers, and cross themselves…because neither her children, nor her grand children had ever been (allowed) in a church…and not be forever changed? Or grateful that you got to see it? And pause and reflect until the day you die.
There’s a point to all this, and, no, it is not a sermon, but a cold analytical observation. What anthropologists call a certitude.
Yesterday was Good Friday and it’s my wife’s first day of spring vacation. (She’s a school nurse.) Her habit is to lock herself up in the house and watch “The Passion” and other Easter programming, listen to religious music and pray. I’m not a fan of most of her music, and she, mine, so it’s my habit to go to my office and play 2-3 hours worth of music from that church and choir in Bulgaria along with some Russian choirs I like.
And I visit the Y for a workout. At the Y there are older men, 75 and up, who swim together and they are telling each other about the grandkids Easter egg hunt, the Easter bunny. “Hey, VB, the Easter bunny coming to see you this week?” Small talk. Back at the office, i have some friends nearby who run small businesses out of the same building, businesses that have taken quite a hit the past year, losing about 50% of their work forces. Times are tough. Two of them (along with me) belong to a conservative business group here, although neither ever heard of Vassar Bushmills. But we talk a lot about what is happening in the country and in the economy. They talk activism, and if you asked either, they would tell you they are sincere and dedicated “protectors” of the Constitution and the country. Rotarians. They are also very good bosses, and care very much for their employees, who, as best I can guess, are as secular a blank slate as my little translator friend in Ukraine. Their employees are mostly young men, early-mid 20’s, none of whom are married, but all of whom have kids, and live with the “birth mama”, a term that’s new to me. (Wife sounds so much more…well…) Around noon on Friday, the pizza delivery truck pulled up and unloaded five or six large pizzas, and having been there before on days that kicked off a long weekend, there would be music, laughter and plenty of beer. I dropped by around 6 to confirm this….and mooch a beer.
This year, I couldn’t help but think of one communist friend in Bulgaria, a senior sports ministry official who invited me to his home during the Kosovo War in ’98 for an Easter meal. No greater atheist ever breathed. Still, his cup ran over with Easter tradition, including, since I knew more Bulgarian than he thought I did, the regular greeting “Christ is Risen!” to his parents, wife’s parents and others who stopped by for a piece of lamb during that four hour repast. I asked earlier, above; Vain repetition? Or just spooked? Hedging his bets? It’s more than that. It is custom. A custom that had been buried for nearly half a century. Everywhere, it seemed everyone greeted everyone else with this greeting. It was as ordinary as “Hello” or “Das va danya”. “Merry Christmas” used to be that way in America. Even in Russia, Happy Christmas has once again come back into vogue, replacing the time-honored-since-Stalin secular greeting of “Novom Godom” (literally: New Year).
In fact, you hear this more on the streets of Moscow than you do here.
And there’s the rub.
When I left the Y, there was no “Happy Easter”‘s, except by me. Merry or Happy Christmas? Well, everyone’s afraid to say it anymore, for fear of offending….forgetting that just the mere utterance of such a simple greeting can save civilization, if you stop to think about it.
If this sounds like a little thing, it is not, for quite simply, the Left and the State have spent forty years attempting to erase from all cultural memory in America any reminders of the “reason for the season”, whether religious or patriotic. It was never little to them. If we don’t know, at least they do know what it is we are losing. And they are succeeding.
So, this isn’t a sermon to get people back to church, but rather a reminder that our society, a society, any society, must pause and reflect, if for only a moment, about the many different things that are important in the creation, well-being and survival of that society. It is survival-enhancing that we do this. And just the words, lingering in the air often are reminder enough. Even a secular nation of Bulgarians, only just now getting their sextant out to re-plot their guide stars, sense that this is so. Having been so close to the abyss, they understand survival.
But on the eve of any (and every) holiday and every day off in America, the mind and senses are conditioned to turn toward beer, pizza, a day on the boat, sleeping late….without a single even momentary reminder of just Who, or who, it was that purchased that extra day off, or what the day off is a reminder for. Just don’t blame the state. Often the bosses, even self-identifying “protector” bosses fail to pass on the reason (a toast works as well as an invocation). But often, these days, they don’t even know themselves, which means the blame trickles up even further, so now I feel the heat, and a little sense of shame myself. I’ve known those guys for three years…and had all sorts of opportunities to propose a toast. Next time, i will.
God can’t compete with the state in giving people days off. He already set the price of living a life of leisure, at both ends of the economic spectrum. But the state can for sure make the masses forget God, as it did in Russia, and as it is now doing in the EU. What starts out as 10-15 days a years, then only 3-4 day work weeks, will end up being 200 plus days a year. Drunk. But few Americans outside the leisure classes have ever known these kinds of benders, the drinks of despair, and the hangovers of resignation. Life expectancy in Russia continues to fall.
As for our secular and religious “holidays”, look at how they are arranged. Only Christmas doesn’t include a free roll-over into a Monday. Easter usually kicks off a whole week of vacation. Memorial Day was created for a Sunday as much as Easter is, but is now just like Labor Day, with a Monday thrown in; the Fourth of July just like President’s Day, Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day, i.e., whatever comes closest to Monday. They are not holidays, but “Days Off”.
Why? It puts as much distance between the gift and the reason for the gift as one can get.
As Erick Erickson attached in his Good Friday message, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Answer, “Nope, I was at the lake.”
“Were you there when they honored our war dead?” Answer, “Nope, we were at the beach.”
“Were you there when they honored our Founders and our Independence?” “Nope, we went to Disney World.”
“Were you there when we celebrated the birth of our Lord?” “Nope, I was at Walmart.”
We must first beat the enemy in front of us. Then we must confront the one within us. If not, as my old buddy Pascal also said, Those who are lost and not seeking to be found…are lost.