Russian literature has a long history of dealing with Church themes. Pushkin, Leskov and Chekhov come to mind at once. However, these themes are also central in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and more recently in Pasternak and Soloukhin, and in fact they are present in all Russian literature, as an underpinning and uniting background of spiritual and cultural values. What is original about this book is that the author is not just a very talented writer with a sensitive artist’s heart, but he is also a monk, priest and senior archimandrite in Moscow, the Superior of Sretensky Monastery, Fr Tikhon Shevkunov. And, above all, what is original is that this book has been written now, as a monument to what has risen a generation after the death of three generations of forced – and failed – State atheism. In other words, this book breathes Resurrection.
A spiritual child of the ever-memorable Elder Ioann Krestyankin of the Pskov Caves Monastery, Fr Tikhon has made his historic, central Moscow Monastery into a bastion of genuine Orthodoxy, with one of the best choirs in Russia. There is to be found a prominent seminary, with several international students, the best Orthodox bookshop in Moscow and probably the best and biggest Orthodox website in Russia (www.pravoslavie.ru), which also has an English-language section. Apart from being a gifted writer, Fr Tikhon is also a film-maker (‘A Byzantine Lesson’), runs the anti-alcohol campaign in the Russian Federation, is responsible for Church-cultural relations, and is a great friend of the Church Outside Russia – we see him regularly.
His book, Everyday Saints, is being translated into ten languages, the Greek edition having already appeared. Now we have the English edition of ‘Nesvyatye Svyatye’ (literally, ‘Unholy Saints’). This is a bestseller in Russia, having sold the unprecedented number of 1,100,000 paper copies and millions of electronic copies since it appeared one year ago. It has been read by all, believer and atheist alike, has changed lives, and really is unputdownable, as I know myself when I read it in one more or less continuous eighteen-hour sitting in September 2011. Little wonder that in Moscow it has been awarded the ‘Book of the Year’ prize for 2012.
At 490 pages long, the book is divided into 60 chapters, often but not always sketches of people, often but not always clerics, but all known to the author. Amusing and sad and edifying in turn, they are all profoundly human, but also profoundly touched by the Divine. These are the lives of Orthodox clerics and laypeople, a few of them known to the author of this review, like Bishop Basil (Rodzianko). You feel the author’s compassion, his total lack of any judgement about his subjects. Well, he is right to do this – we all have our weaknesses. As the translator notes in his preface: ‘Ultimately, though it may take a while, love and light and compassion conquer hatred and darkness and indifference’.
This book is a compendium of lives of Church people who lived in recent years. He describes how, despite their obvious weaknesses, their lives were transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, which, in the words of St Seraphim of Sarov, we are called on to acquire. Probably many Orthodox clergy know enough stories to write such a book – but we do not because we cannot. But Fr Tikhon does because he can. As a Russian, Fr Tikhon is no hypocrite and has no time for that sugary pietism which so mars the lives of Western clericalism and turns people away from Christ. The author pulls no punches and tells the truth: saints are not born, they started off like us, but they became saints. All of us are spoiled by our sins and weaknesses, however, as the Apostle Paul said to the Orthodox in Corinth, ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’.
As Orthodox life is patterned by prayer, conversation with the Living God, it consists of what the world calls ‘coincidences’, that is, ‘God-incidences’. These are the generous and loving and providential interventions of God in our everyday life, showing to us the presence of saints in our midst. This is made clear in another remarkable Church classic of Russian literature, Heavenly Paths, by Shmelyov. But this is also clear in Fr Tikhon’s work before us. Let us take just one short example of his content and style, his description of the saintly old nuns of St Seraphim’s Diveyevo, who had been captives of the Soviet regime for over 70 years, but had kept the faith:
‘In a ramshackle little hut on the outskirts of Diveyevo I saw something that I could never have imagined in my most radiant dreams. I saw alive the Church Radiant, invincible and indefatigable, youthful and joyful in the consciousness of its God, our Shepherd and Savior…There is no way to capture the sublimity of this service in words…These incredible nuns sang the entire service virtually by heart…they had risked death or punishment saying this service in concentration camps and prisons and places of exile..They said it even now even after all their sufferings, here in Diveyevo, settling into their wretched hovels on the outskirts of the town. For them it was nothing unusual, and yet for me I could scarcely understand whether I was in Heaven or on earth.
These aged nuns were possessed of such incredible spiritual strength…that it was then that I understood that they with their faith would triumph over everything – over our godless government despite all its power, over the faithlessness of this world, and over death itself, of which they had absolutely no fear’.
‘The reign of the Children of Ham has ended’.
Our life is indeed ‘a patchwork of God’s compassion’.
In an excellent translation by Julian Henry Lowenfeld, the book is priced at only $23.00 and ordering information is available from Everyday-Saints.com. The profits from this book are going towards building a Cathedral Church of the New Martyrs and Confessors at the Lubyanka in central Moscow (where the Soviet Secret Police Headquarters were located – the very site where so many confessed Orthodoxy and were martyred only a few decades ago). The new Church is to be completed in 2017 and will contain a museum of the New Martyrs in its basement. Here is a most worthy cause. Here is a most worthy book. It is warmly recommended. But I warn you now – once you have started reading it, you will not be able to put it down.