On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Cultural Christianity for Life

Two weeks ago, Toronto’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (OCA) welcomed a visit by the relics of the holy right-believing prince Vladimir of Kiev, “equal-to-the-apostles and baptist of all the Russias.”  (Announcement here; video, with our beloved and embattled Archbishop Seraphim Storheim, recently accused of sexual indiscretions with boys some twenty-five years ago, here.)  I betook myself to church mid-day that Monday, in a spirit of some gratitude for recent progress toward the completion of my doctoral dissertation.   I kissed the reliquary; I received my prayer cards (two of them) from the hands of a young-ish Ukrainian hieromonk with doubtful English; and went my way once again.

The story on this particular saint is not pretty.  He was a Viking, and did what Vikings did.  He was a fratricide and a polygamist in the old, cruel style.  His mother was regarded in Norse saga as a prophetess; his grandfather twice lay siege to the Christian capital of Constantinople.  Vladimir’s reasons for accepting Christianity, moreover, and in its Greek form, were infamously less than completely pious.  Islam prohibited the consumption of pork and alcohol, a prohibition impossible for Slavs to observe; and the Greeks presented a richer, more powerful potential ally than did the Latin-rite Germans, and (at least in the judgment of Vladimir’s ambassadors) the Greek liturgy was aesthetically more pleasing.

The popular veneration of Vladimir, indeed according him the honorific title isapostolos, distills in a single observance everything legitimately said to be wrong with the Orthodox churches.  There is the mere ritualism; there is the coarse sensuality; the slavish subservience of the clergy to secular power; the rabid nationalism.  No doubt.

And yet (my dear moderns), “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

So there I was, making full prostrations before the corruptible remains of a tenth-century Viking, covering the bits of glass and precious metals with my kisses, as might any superstitious grandmother … or as I might, in a different but not unrelated context, when nobody was looking, kiss a picture of a deceased and fondly remembered relative; or kiss a picture of my boyfriend.

A bisexual reader of this blog commented to me recently that a secular friend, herself a lesbian, had asked how anyone could belong to a church which at best ignores us, and at worst condemns us.  Perennial question. 

The fundamental answer, or mine at any rate, goes something like this: you don’t abandon your family.  The Church even in the New Testament is imaged as the oikos or the domus of God, that is, as a Graeco-Roman household.  An individual bishop in his diocese may, by analogy, be a tyrannical paterfamilias; but you don’t deny his authority, any more than you would or could deny your own flesh and bones, your very own genetic structure.  I returned to the Russian Orthodox Church at the age of 18 primarily out of a sense of loyalty to the faith of my birth and baptism, and though as time has progressed, and my reasons for adherence to the Christian religion and philosophy have become (I hope) at once more intellectually sophisticated and more charitable, the gut sense of belonging remains.

Throw the Priest in the Volga

Communal bondage to the altar has its advantages.  One of the most important is that when an ecclesial body by accident or design comes to sanctify an entire human society, it has to take human nature as it actually finds human nature, and not as it might desire human nature to be.

There is a charming anecote in the autobiography of the archpriest Abbacum Petrov, the bigoted but revered founder of the schismatic “Old-Believer” sect in Russia.  In September 1647, travelling to the city of Kazan with the newly-appointed governor, a Sheremetev, he refused to hear the confession of the governor’s son, for the latter, a friend of the tsarevitch, had, in a most “effeminate” and “unnatural” manner, shaven his beard.  Whereupon Papa Sheremetev threw the bigoted but revered protopope of Kazan Cathedral into the river Volga.  (According to the same autobiography, they were subsequently reconciled.) [1]

I call this attitude “pro-clerical anti-clericalism.”  Educated in a society long sanctified by Christianity, the Christian layman with an appropriately formed conscience knows when and how to take the clergy seriously, and when and how to take the clergy down a peg—because it’s all in the family.

V.M. Vasnetsov's "Baptism of Vladimir": Or, It's All in the Family

Back to S. Vladimir.

The Primary Chronicle relates a suggestive story about one of Vladimir’s sons, the Russian protomartyr S. Boris.  Assassinated without resistance in 1015, and formally canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1724, Boris’ life demonstrates the rapidity with which the highest, evangelical counsels of the Gospel may be adopted, even by the most pagan of social orders.  We read:

After offering this prayer [Matins], he lay down upon his couch.  Then [the assassins] fell upon him like wild beasts about the tent, and pierced him with lances.  They stabbed Boris and his servant, who cast himself upon his body.  For he was beloved of Boris.  He was a servant of Hungarian race, George by name, to whom Boris was greatly attached.  The prince had given him a large gold necklace which he wore while serving him….  But since they could not quickly take the necklace from George’s neck, they cut off his head, and thus obtained it.  For this reason his body was not recognized later among the corpses. [2]

SS. Vladimir Equal-to-the-Apostles; Boris Protomartyr of Russia, his son; and George the Hungarian, co-martyr and beloved: pray to God for us, and deliver your family from the tyranny of the criminal archpriests.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] A French translation of the autobiography is available: La vie de l’archiprêtre Avvakum écrite par lui-même, trans. Pierre Pascal (Paris: Gallimard, 1938).

[2] The Russian Primary Chroncile: Laurentian Text, trans. Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Cambridge, Mass.: The Medieval Academy of America, 1953), pp. 126-27, 132-35.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 4:01 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. Again, all I can say is thank you. What an excellent post. The idea of familial loyalty really factored into my return to the Roman Church. As I was saying to someone only today, I’ve come to see my baptism like a marriage vow—-in sickness and in health.

    I found this particularly inspiring:
    “”Communal bondage to the altar has its advantages. One of the most important is that when an ecclesial body by accident or design comes to sanctify an entire human society, it has to take human nature as it actually finds human nature, and not as it might desire human nature to be.

  2. Beautiful post. It is very true that one’s church is akin to one’s family. One takes the good with the bad, to a point. After receiving Holy Communion at the Age of Reason I did not receive the sacrament of Confirmation until 18, the same age I was coming out. Obviously this leaves me with a rather tumultuous relationship with my church, however I do and will always love my church. Thank you for articulating, beautifully and succinctly, why I maintain my love for my church.

  3. Victor,
    i truly enjoyed this story about the relics of St. Vladimir, and your feeling of belonging to a religious family. In july I was in St. Petersburg for a week, and went to the Lavra where a service (not Mass) was taking place in honour of St. Alexander Nievski. I knew who he was from my studies of Russian history, (and the famous russian film which ends with the words ”russkaja ziemlja”). The priest chanted for a wihle, then the faithful knelt down to the floor and received the blessing of the priest with the relic of the Saint. All very Catholic, as well. After which a queue was formed to go up and kiss the coffin of the Saint, whilst the faithful sang over and over again a hymn in honour of Alexander Nievski. I joined the queue and kissed the coffin of the Saint, venerating him not merely because he was prince of Novgorod and a Russian hero, but because i knew that he had towards the end of his life entered a monastery and become reknown for his holiness and wonders. (And i dislike the Teutonic Knights of the Cross!). If the Eastern Orthodox Church were not as homohating as my own Roman Catholic Church (with the exception of the Finnish Church), and allowed for a Latin-Rite Ordinariate or Uniate Church, i would seriously consider joining it, since in the Roman Church i am twice marginalised, as a gay person, and as a traditionalist. But, to relate to the essence of your story, i have all my life been true to the Roman Chruch of my birth, because – in spite of the rampant heresy, liturgical abyss, iconoclasm and spiral of self-destruction into which the Church of my birth ahs fallen, to which, hatred of gay people under the reign of John Paul II has been added and is ever increasing, I feel that to abandon this Church would be like abandoning the only family which I know. And (except for Orthodoxy – which looks much more like the Church of my birth than does the present-day Catholic Church) – I have no place else to go to.

  4. @Albertus: Thanks for this, and especially the anecdote about the Lavra of S. Alexander Nevsky.

    You write: “I have no place else to go.” Excellent. My thought exactly. As a Jesuit once quoted to me in connection with this same thought: “Then Jesus said to the twelve: Will you also go away? And Simon Peter answered him: Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” (Joh. vi. 68-69)


  5. […] fact is for me of some personal relevance, as it is “all in the family.” Andy grew up in the Russian Dolina in Pittsburgh. His ancestral village, Mikova, is not so very far […]

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