Friday, March 14, 2003

Over the next few days, I will post my own idiosyncratic suggestions for Lenten reading. To start with, I like to draw your attention to three writers whose work came out of the experience of the long Lent of the Russian Church in the twentieth century. While we all know intellectually that the Church was persecuted under the Communist regime, it is hard to grasp what this really meant. Bishops died in the hundreds; priests in the thousands, executed or condemned to a lingering death in the camps. Ordinary believers had their churches closed, and faced loss of jobs, housing, even their lives for a simple profession of faith. Some survived by compromise with the State, some suffered in silence, some kept the faith in heroic fashion. After the worst of the persecution, the Church was allowed a kind of shadow existence, like a child chained in a closet. The threat of imprisonment was always there for those who grew too vocal. I venerate those who spoke out and suffered. I do not judge those who compromised or remained silent, having only the slightest idea what they faced. The Soviet system of prisons and forced labor camps, most familiar to Westerners from Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, swallowed generations of believers. The first two writers, Sergei Fudel, and Irina Ratushinskaya, are both survivors of the camps. Fudel (1901-1977) lived through the beginning of the darkness. Ratushinskaya, from a younger generation, lived through to the end of it, surviving prison and exile to return to Russia in the 90's, where she lives today.

There is only one work by Sergei Fudel available in English, a sampling of meditations, anecdotes, memoirs and short essays collected under the title Light in the Darkness. I first read the book in a sitting. I re-read it a little at a time now, skimming to find a story or a word that catches me, and then ponder it, seeing what I missed at first reading. Here are two passages selected almost at random, both in their own way appropriate for the Lenten season:

Everything in Christianity is determined and checked out by love. We should know some of the definitions of fasting given by saints:
Saint Isaac of Syria says: "Your spirit will not submit to the cross unless your body submits too" (This means effort, fasting).
Saint Paul writes: "You were called to freedom, bretheren, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for flesh" (Ga 5:13)
An elder said to his disciple whose fasting lacked love: "Eat everything, but do not eat people."

I do not understand the suffering of the world. I only understand that the Creator of the world became part of the world's suffering and let His beloved Son share in it. Christianity speaks to us of God who suffers, suffers not because of His guilt, but because of his compassion, because of love. If this is so, then suffering is not to be feared, because it cannot be separated from love, or from God. "God suffers in His flesh . . ." That is why we dare to say "Of Thy sufferings make a participant" (Stikhera on "Lord, I call upon Thee," Tuesday, 2nd week of Great Lent).

To come; excerpts from Irina Ratushinskaya and an introduction to Mother Maria Skobstova.