In Russia during Soviet times many churches were shut down. In a certain neighborhood of Kiev, Ukraine, one such church was not only shut down but demolished. As of 2008 what remained was an empty piece of land located next to a small dilapidated building that had previously been part of the city’s electrical-system infrastructure. Though their church had been demolished, the Christian Orthodox faithful remained. Sometime after the fall of communism they reclaimed the land their church had stood on, appropriating also the empty old electrical building next to it, which they converted into a kind of rectory and office space for the priest. Because they were unable to construct a proper church, they put up a large canvas tent that could hold maybe thirty people, and decorated it with icons, a cross, and some candles. I went there one time with a Ukrainian acquaintance. First we went into the converted electrical building. Inside they had on display some holy items they had unearthed from their demolished Church, which they were in the process of excavating. Then we went into the canvas-tent church, passing some younger guys who were taking a smoking break outside the thin door, and then after passing through another flap we entered the worship space. It was winter at the time and cold. Everyone inside was bundled up because there was no heating inside. You could see your breath. Like most other Orthodox churches, there weren’t any pews either. Some candles were lit and there was the smell of incense. Standing there we listened to the Byzantine chant and crossed ourselves at the frequent invocations of the Holy Trinity. People of different ages were there but there was a preponderance of old women—babushkas, as they are called, stooped from old age and wearing bandanas on their heads. At one point during the liturgy eight or ten of them went up to the priest and formed a semi-circle around him two or three rows deep. After a chant finished they all bowed, which was a curious thing. I couldn’t figure out what was happening until the priest took the Book of the Gospels and laid it on their backs. Then I realized that since there wasn’t an ambo in the church, they were making of themselves an ambo for the reading of the Holy Gospel. After the reading was finished, the priest removed the Book of the Gospels and the babushkas went back to their places. I stayed there for some time, but not for the whole two-hour liturgy. We left and I took with me a sense of reverence and awe.
This experience and others like it made me see the faith in a new light as something holier and more mysterious than I had previously thought it to be. When I returned to America the churches struck me as very comfortable. The sense of reverence wasn’t as noticeable. A number of the songs we sang were about us, the assembly, and seemed not focused enough on praising God and giving Him glory. The quality of the contemporary music seemed low, and this, given our rich heritage of music in the West, made it seem like we were offering to God a sacrifice of praise that was far from our best.
But the religious sense I had experienced overseas remained, and with it the impression of a great and beautiful mystery. The Jesus Christ I had known beforehand became more intriguing. I wanted to enter the religious life and was interested in the Assumptionists on account of their mission in the Near East: in Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria. The fact that the Assumptionists had operated one of the very few Catholic Churches allowed in all of Soviet Russia, that it was located across the street from KGB headquarters, that one of our priests there had been secretly ordained a bishop just in case something were to happen, that several Assumptionists had suffered in Gulags, all this made me interested in this congregation in particular. For Fr. d’Alzon, founder of the Assumptionists, working for unity with the Orthodox was important. I think so too. Catholics can be enriched by Orthodox spirituality and vice versa. As St. John Paul II said, we are sister Churches in the truest sense, two lungs of the Body of Christ.
That wasn’t the only thing I liked about Fr. d’Alzon. He was a fighter for God. He loved Jesus and the two earthly things Jesus loved most: his mother, Mary, and the Holy Church he was founding. D’Alzon wanted to form Jesus Christ in souls, our own first and then in others’. He understood the power of ideas to move entire peoples towards God or away from Him. The crisis of ideas in our own time is no less compelling than it was in his, hence the importance of study. D’Alzon extolled what he called a holy intolerance for false teaching. He criticized an over-delicate kind of prudence. He was wary of making too many accommodations to the spirit of the age. D’Alzon also loved the liturgy. He stressed the importance of the vow of poverty except when it came to the church. For the church and the liturgy no expense should be spared. He encouraged not just reciting the Liturgy of the Hours, but chanting it. To sing the Psalms is to enter more deeply into their spirit, and it is something I look forward to every day.
Religious life is an adventure, an exploration of the spiritual realm not all that dissimilar from the exploration of new lands, except that one is searching instead for God and an increase of charity in serving Him and His people. Giving everything over to Christ, everything, means saying to God, Do with me what You will. There’s a peace and joy in it. Not that I’m far along on this path or don’t sin or that it’s an easy path. But for anyone who has religious life on his mind, I just want to encourage you to explore it. Whatever your calling in life, God is good!