A Tale of Two Cities (Lk. 7:36ff.)
Moscow reminded me this time of New York in the middle of winter. Not the New York you visit when you come from Omaha or Portland — the glamor of Manhattan — but Brooklyn (or the Bronx) on a tentatively sunny day several days after the last two-inch snowfall, as things turn gray. Had I been left to myself, I would no doubt have entered into the Soviet Disney World of museums, palaces, churches, and monasteries, which rarely fails to trigger the Dr. Zhivago scenes in the traveler’s mental video cassette, and which makes a trip to what would otherwise look like the Bronx something of magic. I confess to succumbing to some of this “magic.”
But this time I had an acquaintance in Moscow who introduced me to a circle of young believers. We gathered one evening in an apartment. While frost brittled outside, children performed a skit around the Christmas tree, the adults sat around the kitchen table for many hours, the talk wandered hither and yon, but circled in gradually, discretely, on this Western visitor who is a Catholic priest. They were children of the Soviet “vanguard,” many from Jewish families whose parents had been loyal Communists, but they had needed something more than the sordid world of everyday business. This they found in the Church. Not uncritically (these were no novices). Not even romantically, insofar as it is possible for people in the Slavic world not to appear romantic to Westerners. They pray much, they work for the Church, they try to share their lives. They are hungry for theology, starved for books; but they have their liturgical books, their holy men, and their own minds and hearts. But I am not trying to write generally about Christians in the Soviet Union; Keston College, among others, is doing that magnificently.
No, I want to write about Misha, one of this group; Misha, husband and father (doting, bubbling, stumbling almost in affection); Misha our host, a technological wizard with the sort of library one finds in professorial homes in the States, a fine mind and an even better heart. Misha asked about the Dutch Catholics — could it be true the things they had heard? The issues — women priests, homosexuality, abortion “rights” — all seemed so utterly bizarre, so topsy-turvy in the warm glow of that Orthodox kitchen.
Misha offered to give me a tour of Moscow the next day. We went to his church for one of the Christmas-week liturgies; we toured a monastery. As the day wore on, we became ever closer as we talked about our faith. He was aware of the Fatima message, and Medjugorje, which gave him further hope. But in the end he did not especially believe in any special mission for Mother Russia — for he felt that being a Christian in Russia was probably not all that different from being a Christian anywhere else. A mass of materialistic indifference, a people who had basically forgotten about God — though Misha still might suffer what seemed to him vestigial unpleasantness, the life of a Christian seemed to him to be that of a waiting minority, whether in the Soviet Union or the United States.
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