There has been much debate in the Catholic press during this past year about the “Benedict Option”, following Rod Dreher’s book of the same title. Whether this means following St Benedict, the father of monasticism, into the hills and away from the fleshpots of society or whether it means accepting and acting on the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who has correctly prophesised that in the future Christianity in the West will have shrunk to small, dedicated Christian groups, the point is the same: Christians are an increasingly embattled minority in what was once a Christian continent.
I have been thinking of this in relation to the book I blogged about last Friday: Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine. The Soviet Communists loathed Christianity. In Stalin’s campaign to crush Ukraine, he set out to destroy the ancient village structures, the whole social and moral order, symbolised for several hundred years by churches, priests and religious customs.
One of the tragic results of the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine, was that bodies were left unburied. Traditionally, Ukrainian funerals had meant a choir, a communal meal, the singing of psalms, Bible readings and sometimes professional mourners. When these traditional Orthodox customs were repressed, funerals came to an abrupt end. Bodies were collected unceremoniously and buried in huge pits. Reverence for the dead was deliberately destroyed.
Church bells were melted down. The wife of an Orthodox priest watched this happening in her village, relating sadly that “this was the last time the bell rang.” A peasant told a young Englishman, Gareth Jones, who managed to visit Ukraine at the height of the famine in 1933, and to smuggle a report out to the West, that “When we believed in God we were happy and lived well. When they tried to do away with God, we became hungry.”
Leaving aside the particular political and ideological undercurrents to the Holodomor, the peasant was enunciating a profound truth; whether the hunger is physical, as in Ukraine in 1933, or spiritual as in our country today, it will result in unhappiness and not “living well.”
When talking about the waning of Christianity in Europe one has to differentiate between the West and the East. Suffering reminds one of one’s human vulnerability; it opens up existential questions. In the last century, Eastern Europe suffered hugely, through war and dictatorship; this has led to a rebirth of religious feeling and practice, noticeable both in Russia and Ukraine.
Whichever shape the “Benedict Option” will take, in the future Christianity will only survive in intentional communities and among people who choose to be Christian. People will no longer “inherit” faith, as in the past. The traditional Christian way of life in the pre-industrial villages of Ukraine has gone for good; in my own 21st century village in the post-Christian UK, apart from a tiny minority, Christmas has no supernatural dimension. The church bells summoning the faithful to worship have long been silent. In Ukraine they went out with a bang; here the whimper is barely detectable.