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Books blog: The Russians who found faith in a materialist world

An Eastern Orthodox Church in Antartica (AP)

In my Catholic Books of the Year blog last week I forgot to mention Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea’s long interview in the form of a book: God or Nothing, published by Ignatius. If any reader feels the Church has wandered off course in recent decades, this is the book to read: wise, authoritative, confidently Catholic.

As we are now in the Year of Mercy, it is worth pointing out that, for Cardinal Sarah, the mercy of God cannot be separated from conversion; to receive divine mercy is to be changed. Reading his book made me think that this is what it was like in the early Church and why Christianity spread so quickly: to be released from bondage to the false gods of pagan Rome was an extraordinary life-changing event for those who experienced it. It gave them the unbelievable (to our minds) courage to face the lions and the jeering crowds in the arena.

There is, of course, a modern form of bondage – to ideology. This was conveyed so clearly by Dr Anca-Maria Cernea in the blog interview I did with her. Growing up under an atheist Communist regime in Romania, it was obvious to a discerning young person that the people who had genuine intellectual and moral integrity were religious believers, not the Party apparatchiks.

Dr Cernea’s experience is also born out in Russia itself. For my birthday I was sent a book I hadn’t heard about: Everyday Saints and Other Stories, by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), from Pokrov Publications. More than one million copies have been sold so far and it was voted the most popular book in Russia in 2012. This fact alone reminds one that underneath the long years of atheism Russia had never lost its religious soul.

I have only read the first few chapters so far but they are worth sharing. The author, a typical young film student from a secular background (he was converted and baptised as a young adult in 1982) relates that it was only in studying Russian literature that he and his friends found any serious discussion of the meaning and purpose of life. He writes of their growing realisation that “All the great figures of world and Russian history…all those whom we trusted and loved and respected, all of them had thought about God in a completely different way than we did. Simply put, they were people of faith…” He continues: “By contrast, all the people in our histories with whom we had the most repulsive associations, those with a plainly horrible influence on Russia – Marx, Lenin, Trotsky – all those destructive revolutionaries – all were atheists.”

In their search for the truth, the author and his friends began to dabble in spiritualism as a way of countering the wholly materialist world around them. This brought its own dangers of a different sort: they made contact with evil spirits who gradually goaded them to thoughts of suicide. Archimandrite Tikhon writes that “an inexplicable melancholy and profound depression would come over us, accompanied by a feeling of inexplicable gloom and pointlessness.” He confesses, “We didn’t realise how defenceless we were against their onslaught.”

The students guessed rightly that these feelings were connected with their occult practices and by the grace of God they all went into an Orthodox church: “We didn’t know where else we could turn for help” he writes. Under the guidance of a wise priest he discovered that reading the Scriptures every day “seemed to be the only medicine to save me from the gloom and despair that from time to time came back to me”. The upshot was that he asked for baptism – and eventually became an Orthodox monk at the Pskov Monastery in Pechory. I will write more about this book when I have read more of it!