Father Alexander Men, of whose life and martyrdom I’ll speak today, was killed on the ninth of September 1990 early in the morning on Sunday, when he went out of his house to reach the church where he was to serve the Sunday Liturgy. The liturgy was not celebrated. An assassin’s axe took his life. My aim is to tell you about this man, who became the first Christian martyr in the history of post- Soviet Russia.
In Soviet times the church was suppressed by regime, and priests didn’t dare preach the Gospel. They served the liturgy and public prayers for old women who visited churches, and that’s all – that was the end of their activity. It was the Church of Silence, as John Paul II once called it. In contrast to his confreres Father Alexander Men did preach sermons, and young people, university students, intellectuals came to his services — came not on foot but by train, for he served in a village at a distance of 30 kilometers from Moscow. And not only did he preach during the services, but he organized small meetings at home, in houses and apartments of his parishioners who thus formed prayer groups, and it was the only parish in Russia where parishioners were not afraid of one another but knew one another and were friends.
In the ’70s it often happened that young people who came to believe in God gave up their work, gave up science or arts (in general, all they were engaged in) and, having adopted some very simple job like night guard, for example, they dove into purely ritual life: special prayers in praise of our Lady and different saints, pilgrimages, fasting, etc. Father Alexander was not satisfied by such kind of Orthodox Christianity. He thought it necessary for people who trust in God to work in schools and university, in libraries, etc., and to be engaged in arts, science, literature. He considered escape from reality especially dangerous for believers who ought to be the “salt of the earth” as Jesus Himself called them in the Sermon on the Mountain.
Not only did Father Alexander preach during the service, but he also wrote books. Thanks to Asya Durova, Russian Catholic and nun, who worked in the French Embassy, the The Case of Father Alexander Men typescripts of the books were carried over to Brussels, where they were turned into books and published by a small Catholic publishing house, “Life With God” or Foyer Oriental Chretien. Its founder and director, now deceased Irina Posnova, founded this ecumenical center with the support of cardinal Eugene Tisseran right at the end of the war. The purpose of the center was to help Orthodox Russia and Orthodox believers in the USSR.
It is in this very publishing house that Father Alexander’s book, In Search of the Way, the Truth and the Life, in seven volumes was published under a pen name. In this work Father Alexander shows how God Himself acts in the world history, precisely to say, in the history of philosophy and religion, how His presence, step by step, gradually and in a most difficult way, but more and more clearly, reveals itself to human beings.
With Father Alexander’s participation the so-called Bruxelles Bible was prepared, which is, in fact, the only Russian edition of the Bible with comments, analogue of the Jerusalem Bible. It is used in seminaries of the Russian Orthodox Church and by those who want to penetrate deeper into the biblical text.
Then the epoch of perestroika comes, the end of ’80s. Almost every day Father Alexander delivers lectures in the halls of different clubs, in the university and other educational establishments. He gains great popularity. Youth long for faith in God. In Russia, Orthodoxy is often said to be the traditional faith of the Russian people; in the minds of many Orthodoxy is the Russian faith, national religion. And Father Alexander spoke about faith in Jesus, about the Gospel, about the new birth experienced by a human being who becomes a Christian. Now these texts are turned into books by Father Alexander’s brother and they are published. They are sold out and they are a success. And after his death people are coming to Christ because of his words.
You can’t but talk about Father Alexander’s ecumenism. He always stressed timeless and eternal value of the world religious experience. “There is experience of some indefinite mysticism,” Father Alexander wrote, “there is experience of all religions, and in each there is its own value, all this is wonderful, all hands raised to heaven are marvelous hands, worthy of the name of human being, for these are hands of the creature made in the image and according to the likeness of God and they are stretched to seek their Primal Image.” I recall how interested he was when I told him that there is an Italian book where all prayers of all peoples and all religions are gathered. And nevertheless he constantly emphasized the uniqueness of Christianity. “But Christ,” he said, “is the Hand stretched out to us from above, as you may see on some ancient icons – from there the Hand is stretched down to us.”
Father Alexander Men was a staunchest supporter of peace among Christians of different confessions. In it he saw conditio sine qua non for future Christianity. As a common priest he didn’t conduct any talks with Catholic hierarchs, and was not present at the pope’s receptions, but he was fully devoted to the path of Christian unity. Now it is often said (especially by representatives of the Orthodox youth) that ecumenism of the ’60s to ’70s was dictated by entirely tactical goals, because in the atmosphere of the atheist state, constant strengthening of antireligious propaganda and severe struggle with religion, it was the support of the leading Western countries with Catholics and Protestants in their governments who lobbied interests of Orthodoxy in Russia that saved the Church from devastation.
It is not exactly so. Certainly, support of Catholics and Protestants, of Vatican and the World Council of Churches was extremely important for us then, for the Soviet regime had to take international public opinion into account. It was perfectly well understood by such a great personality as metropolitan Nikodim Rotov, who thus derived maximum benefit for Orthodoxy in Russia and other Republics of the former U.S.S.R. from these relations. On the other side Catholics (for example, Brussels Centre “Life with God”) and Protestants, presumably from the United States, helped believers in Russia in a simple and utterly unselfish way as Christians.
For there they were to publish religious literature for Russia, and then in diplomats’ suitcases it crossed the border to be brought illegally to the territory of the USSR. They prepared those books for print, among them the books of Father Alexander, which certainly couldn’t be printed and published in Russia. This constant help and support had no reasons except their faith in Christ. And here it should be mentioned that in the ’60s and ’70s all of us, believers in Russia, felt somehow very clearly that we were close to one another not only due to the fact that one and the same enemy was constantly struggling against us — CPSU with its Marxist ideology — but also due to the fact, which is much more important, that they (Communists) were struggling against their numerous enemies in this country and abroad, and we were struggling for the human right to trust in God freely and to have possibility to perfect oneself in one’s faith.
Andrey Eremin writes, “Practical approach is the main characteristic of Father Alexander’s ecumenism.” In the words of Christ, “May all be one” (Jn. 17:21), Father saw the call to action, not to theological philosophizing. That’s why he demonstrated tolerance and interest toward any positive beginning of Christians who belonged to other confessions. “Father Alexander,” Andrey Eremin said, “constantly reminded us, that Christ hadn’t come to teach us Filioque, but life with God, given to us in communion with the Born, Embodied, Crucified and Resurrected Lord.” Father Alexander constantly stressed that as Christians of different confessions we are united by something infinitely greater than anything that separates us from one another.
Once discussing the reasons for such a variety of confessions in the world of today he said, “Contradictions among different Christian confessions — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — are not a sign of destruction, split, but they are revelation of parts of the whole, one whole, that we should reach, in its depth.” When asked by a journalist about his attitude as an Orthodox to other confessions, Father Alexander replied, “I didn’t get my attitude ready-made, once and for all. By thinking a lot, by developing contacts and research I came to a conclusion that the Church is one in its essence, while Christians are separated mainly through their limitedness, narrow-mindedness, sins. This pitiful fact has become one of the main reasons for crises in Christianity. It is only on the path of brotherly unity and respect to various forms of church life that we may hope to gain strength, peace and God’s blessing anew.” It was precisely in those years that Father Alexander wrote, “We arrive at an idea of our need for integral Christianity that would include the whole gamut of spiritual paths and experiences.” “The causes of schism lie beyond purely spiritual sphere.”
Not just a feeling of God and awe of God lay at the heart of his religiousness, but the Holy Scripture – the Word of God, “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebr. 4:12) (New American Standard Bible). In this sense Father Alexander bore much resemblance to a prophet, especially to prophet Isaiah, who taught nothing to anybody but brought to the hearts of men the very thing the Lord says — “ko amar Yahve”, what the Lord says, as Father Alexander enjoyed repeating in Hebrew.
The most significant thing for a person is to understand what living contact with God is. And this living contact becomes possible when the Word of God is revealed to you, when you find out what it means to stand before God, what it means that Abraham “walked with God.” When you understand this you will become free of any restrictedness once and for all. “To know God is not a one-sided process, like the study of nature for example — it is always an encounter,” Father Alexander said. To experience this encounter, he continued, there is no need to be a sort of religious genius: “Every human being has an opportunity for the profoundest mysterious personal encounter with the Supreme Reality.”
The essence of Christianity from Father Alexander’s point of view is not in traditions and their sacralization, not in church antiquity and admiring it, but in the living presence of Resurrected Jesus. “He remained,” Father Alexander said shortly before his martyr death, “the greatest motive power of history — secretly, deeply He remained in the world. ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ He is risen from the dead to be present everywhere inside our life. And today each of us can find Him. He is not just a historical figure whom you may remember only to forget later. True, He lived 2,000 years ago. True, in 10 years we’ll celebrate 2,000th anniversary from His birth. But it’s not just so that He was: He is — and this is the whole mystery of Christianity, the clue to its power.”
Father Alexander was one of those people who are not afraid. He was not afraid of visiting hospitals, of visiting those who were seriously ill or dying, though it was strictly forbidden by the Soviet regime. He was not afraid of preaching and speaking about faith to unfamiliar people (the thing almost none of parochial priests did). More than that, he was not afraid of speaking about faith to children, which was considered a crime altogether. He was not afraid of the language of his epoch and unlike his confreres, other priests, he could (like apostle Paul) speak about Christ with “pagans” in the language of those “pagans.” Father Alexander was not afraid of synthesizing his predecessors’ experiences, though they were so different from one another and sometimes incompatible, and he did all this miraculously well, for he did it not on the level of a human being, but on the level of God’s love.
Deeply rooted in the tradition, knowing Orthodoxy not by a sort of bookish knowledge, but having grown in the catacombs of pre-war time, he was utterly directed toward the future. In his hands the Bible turned into a compass that rightly indicates the way to the times to come. This is indeed his feat.
“Our country,” as his closest disciple Father Alexander Borisov said, “will in the majority of its people be proud of the fact, that under the circumstances of the Soviet regime, under those circumstances when all was against the emergence of such people as Father Alexander Men or such books that he had written, under those circumstances nevertheless such a wonderful man lived and revealed to us God’s love. Through love that God poured into his heart he has led and will still lead thousands and thousands of people to Christ, to the truth, to the good and to creation.”