About Christ and the Church
by Fr. Alexander Men
reviewed by Fr. Michael Aksionov Meerson
What was the mind of the renascent Russian Orthodox Church, still semi-underground by the end of the 1970s? What questions were addressed to the church tradition by the generation of young Russians who were turning from Soviet style atheism to Christianity? Suprisingly, their questions were very similar to those asked today by young Americans deceived by the promises of secular culture.
Such is an impression that the reader gets from the small book of Father Alexander Men's casual conversations recorded in the last years of the Brezhnev era in Moscow. Men', a martyred Russian priest who wrote several volumes on the history of religions, a book on Jesus Christ, and several introductions into Orthodox faith, as well as a book on reading the Bible, did not intend these conversations for publication. They were simply recorded by his enthusiastic interlocutors who decided to edit and publish them recently, a few years after his assassination in 1990.
As Mark Weiner, the Russian editor, puts it in his preface, in the
prolific stream of Father Alexander's missionary activities --
These were the so-called "gatherings" of parishioners. Father Alexander chose the word deliberately, to avoid the then incriminating terms "group" or "seminar." All phone conversations, after all, were taped by the authorities. For the KGB such words as a "discussion group" or a "seminar" constituted a ready criminal charge. These gatherings were therefore THE mode of conversation with with Father Men' outside the church building."
Today, the Soviet Union, as well as its persecution of the Russian
Church, are history. Once again, as many times in the past, the Orthodox Church
emerged victorious. Its former persecutors now dutifully attend liturgical
celebrations, piously praying and kneeling with candles in hand, writing for
church publications, teaching theology and Orthodox spirituality. Fr. Men', who
for thirty years almost singlehandedly fought against the ideological fortress
of Soviet Atheism, did not survive to see its fall that he helped to bring
about. But he foresaw the challenge that the
That is why this small book of his conversations is more than a
historical testimony. It reveals the mind of an Orthodox pastor who clearly sees
and correctly assesses the challenges of contemporary secular culture that
Orthodox church must face not only in Russia but around the world. Thus his book
also addresses us, Orthodox clergy and laity who want to make our Orthodox
testimony to the
Fr. Men was raised in the Catacomb church in the strict faithfulness to Orthodox tradition. He was influenced by the most heroic efforts of such confessors of faith as Fr. Serafim Batiukov, Fr. Peter Shipko, Fr. Nikolai Golubtsov, and Bishop Stefan Nikitin who ordained Alexander Men' to the priesthood. Being a rightful heir to the best traditions of Russian Orthodoxy, Fr. Alexander was nonetheless able to relate this tradition to those who did not belong to it, or often to any religious or spiritual tradition. He had a tremendous success among Soviet intellectuals, born and raised in a militantly secularized society, for he literally opened the doors into the Orthodox faith for thousands of them.
This little book serves as an example of such introduction into the
Christian faith. It contains ten chapters: 1) on the Church and
Christocentrism, walking the Risen Jesus's path with Him, is the
Leitmotif of the whole book. I want to concentrate on the three
For a Christian, Men' emphasizes, the mystery of encounter with Jesus
Christ is always linked to the Resurrection. Christ's Resurrection was not
simply an occurrence localized in time and
Living in the presence of the Risen Jesus finds an expression in
traditional Orthodox spirituality -- in Jesus's Prayer. It is
and the end" of the Orthodox way.
Personally, what I found most helpful, uplifting, and pastorally useful in this modern days martyr's book is its Christian optimism that so powerfully recalls the words of the apostle Paul: "We are treated... as dying, and behold we live, as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, ashaving nothing, and yet possessing everything." (2 Cor. 6:8-10).
Fr. Alexander believed that in spite of all the failures and apostasies of our age, in spite of all the difficulties that Christians encounter, our living experience of the Risen Christ reveals to us that we keep growing and winning despite all our apparent defeats. As Men' says, "the natural, inspirited man always perceives only loss and more loss, while we keep gaining."
Fr. Men's conversations are permeated with his faith in the overwhelming, though not yet visible, victory of Jesus. The meaning of the Resurrection, for today and not just for history, is that Jesus "will triumph always; and He has only begun His work, only begun, because His aim is the Transfiguration of the world, the Kingdom of God." As Fr. Alexander points out to his listeners, and through them, to all of us, Jesus has personally called upon each one of us, so that each biography may become, in its own way, a small part of Church history.
The last chapter, "The Inner Step" speaks to the heart of every person today. It addresses the issue of how to overcome the exhaustion that we all endure in our daily struggle for survival. "Each one of us," he opens this chapter, "has his own personal and evident reasons for bearing a cumulative fatigue. It is hopeless to believe that by some means -- let's say when vacation comes -- things will radically change, since we have gone on vacations before, and have continued to rattle along as hunched over as ever." There is only one solution, only by the gift of God's Spirit we can acquire additional strength, overcome our spiritual flabbiness and weakness. There are four spiritual legs that hold us up: personal prayer, at lest 10 minutes a day, the reading of the Bible, the Eucharist, and church services. Fr. Men is as graphic as ever: "It is useful to remember the following analogy: if you remove one of the four legs, the table falters; remove the second, and it falls."
This simple advice rings true in my ears. Being his disciple, brought to the faith by following his example and through his pastoral care thirty two years ago, I am approaching the 20th year anniversary of my own priesthood, and can testify that his words are true and effective. I am especially grateful to Fr. Alexis Vinogradov for translating this book and for the marvelous words in his introduction. "For me," says Fr. Vinogradov, '"the words of Father Alexander resonate with those of another Father Alexander. Both Alexanders, Men and Schmemann, expanded the spiritual horizons of thousands on their respective, as well as the other's continents... Both of these priest-theologians, rooted in the emergent Russian theological revival of the end of the last century, and the middle of this one, have bridged diverse political and cultural streams with the same free spirit of informed inquiry, the courage to examine history critically, to recognize and denounce falsehood and accommodation, to avoid all 'reductions' (Father Schmemann's term) of the catholic faith to special interests, and always to point simply to the 'one thing needed.'"
(About Christ and the Church, translated by Fr. Alexis Vinogradov, is printed by Oakwood Publications 800-747-9245.)