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Faith: What does it mean to be Orthodox (part 8)

For more information on the Eastern Orthodox Mission to Alaska, see Michael Oleksa’s excellent book, Orthodox Alaska

Part eight of a 10-part monthly series in Kamloops This Week.

Beginning in the eighth century, the Slavic tribes of what is now modern Belarus, Russia and Ukraine invited a handful of Viking warriors to rule over them. These Vikings (also known as Varangians) established a medieval state known as the Kievan Rus.

After two centuries of forceful and bloody rule, one Rusyn warrior named Vladimir emerged as supreme and established himself as the grand prince of Kiev. Having consolidated his power, Vladimir made a historic decision — he decided to get a religion for his people.

Of course, the Slavs had a pantheistic set of pagan beliefs, but Vladimir felt the homemade religion would do little to gain recognition for his people among the other great empires of the earth. What he needed was a recognized faith.

A 12th century document known as the Primary Chronicle, or The Chronicle of Nestor, records Vladimir’s search for a national religion. He sent emissaries to explore the religions of neighbouring nations — to the German Christians in Western Europe, to the Muslim Bulgarians and to the Eastern Orthodox of Constantinople. He even received a delegation of Jewish Khazars to enquire about Judaism.

According to the Chronicle, based on the reports of his emissaries, Vladimir rejected Western Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but accepted Eastern Orthodoxy based on their impression of worship in Constantinople: “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.”

Whether he was motivated by the beauty of Byzantine worship or by a more political motive, Vladimir chose Byzantine Christianity for both himself and his people. He received baptism, married a Byzantine princess, tore down the pagan temples of his people and built churches in their place. He ordered a statue of the supreme Slavic god Perun to be thrown into the Dnieper river. Finally, he ordered the residents of Kiev to come down to the Dnieper, where they were to receive baptism as he had done.

The Chronicle records this event: “Vladimir made known throughout his village: ‘Those who day after tomorrow do not appear on the bank of the river, rich or poor, will be considered as rebels and traitors.’ The day following, Vladimir, accompanied by the priests, those of the empress and those of Kherson, went to the Dnieper, where there was gathered an innumerable crowd of men who entered into the water, some up to the neck, others only to the chest. The children stayed on the bank and were covered with water; some plunged into the river. Others swam here and there while the priests read their prayers. And this formed a spectacle tremendously curious and beautiful to see. At last, when all the people were baptized, each returned to his home.”

Left to Vladimir’s heavy-handed methods (he was a Viking, after all), the Slavs may never have taken to Christianity. However, the Byzantine missionaries who came to catechize the newly Christianized people did so not by force, but through cultural baptism, a process I have spoken about in a previous column.

Here again, six centuries after Christians first appropriated pagan Roman culture for their own purposes, Orthodox Christian missionaries insisted on the inherent value of local culture and spiritual traditions and attempted to translate their faith into those contexts, rather than imposing it at the point of the sword.

Most significant among these efforts was the creation of a written form of the Slavic language of Vladimir’s people. The Cyrillic alphabet (so named after one of its originators, Cyril, a Byzantine missionary monk) was used to transcribe Old Slavonic and render the Scriptures in a language the people could understand.

So effective were these methods that eight centuries later, a group of Russian missionaries sent to North America brought with them an inherent respect for native cultures. Arriving in Alaska, the Russian missionary monks simply re-enacted the process their ancestors had experienced — they sought to live with, listen to and understand the First Nations they found: the Yupik, the Aleut and the Tlingit nations of the northwest.

Indeed, such Russian missionaries as Innocent Veniaminov even imitated Cyril and created a written form of Tlingit, in which he could write the Gospels for teaching purposes.

Contrast this with Western missionaries who appeared a century later, destroying native language and culture, and we can see the historical significance of the mass conversion of Slavs in the 10th century, particularly in the light of our recent national observance of Truth and Reconciliation Day on Sept. 30.

Those long-past events show us that winning people to belief is not accomplished by political force driven by a vision of nation or empire. Rather, it is a matter of speaking to minds and hearts in a language they understand.

This conversation begins with literal spoken language, but it goes beyond that. It also means speaking the language of a people’s way of life, which can only be learned by living with and listening to them. And, ultimately, it means speaking the universal language of love, the language of the One who came to live with us, so that we might come to live with Him.

For more information on the Eastern Orthodox Mission to Alaska, see Michael Oleksa’s excellent book, Orthodox Alaska.

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