Reviewed by Archbishop 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? Surprisingly, 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 — books, lectures, sermons, words of councils and general confessions — "there was a unique cameo, casual conversations around a dinner table. This form derived from Father Alexander's personality, his pastoral concerns, and the spirit of the times. His care for human souls was marked by personal, intimate spiritual communion, while the time of persecution rendered this flexible form particularly important and effective for preaching and spiritual direction.

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 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 single-handedly 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 Russian Orthodox Church would face upon its victory over atheism, the challenge of officious piety opposed to contemporary secular culture. He had worked to prepare his own flock to this new challenge.

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 world more effective.

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 history, 2) on the call for pluralism in the Orthodox church, a call which, according to Father Alexander, is imperative to Eastern Orthodox tradition; 3) on the Humanity of Jesus, 4) on the life in the Church, 5)on the role of the Church in the modern world, 6) on the Paschal mystery of the Church; 7) on the authority of the Church, 8) on Redemption, 9)on encountering the Risen Christ, 10)The Inner Step.

Christocentrism, walking the Risen Jesus's path with Him, is the Leitmotif of the whole book. I want to concentrate on the three chapters of the book, which deal with it — although the others also offer much food for thought and much consolation for one's spiritual quest. These three chapters discuss the humanity of Jesus, the encountering the Risen Christ, and the meaning of inner personal life in the Church's Tradition.

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 space; rather, it makes the Lord always present, a companion to each of us here and now, as He promised: "I remain with you for all the days until the end of the age." Thus the essence of our lives as Christians is to walk with the Lord. This task, however, brings us to the man Jesus as described in the Gospel. Perhaps the discovery of Jesus's humanity seems of little relevance to us, since we live among Western confessions that today emphasize Jesus's humanity at the expense of the belief in His divinity. Yet this emphasis is actually particularly relevant for today's Orthodoxy. Being rooted in Eastern Orthodox spirituality and tradition, we are not likely to forget about Christ's divinity, while the Man Jesus of the Gospels is not known to us sufficiently. To walk with the Risen Christ, one has to walk with Jesus of Nazareth surrounded by crowds and disciples; one has to listen to this Man's parables and to watch how He acts. It is this experience of meditating on the Gospel and living with it that Fr. Men stresses in his conversation on the humanity of Jesus.

Living in the presence of the Risen Jesus finds an expression in traditional Orthodox spirituality — in Jesus's Prayer. It is Christocentrism that distinguishes Eastern Orthodox spirituality from various other forms of spirituality that, like Zen Buddhism, attract the contemporary person. For Christians, as Fr. Alexander stresses, Christ remains "the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning 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, as having 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.)

From Jacob's Well
Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America
Winter 1997