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

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For more information on the Eastern Orthodox mission in Alaska, see the excellent book by Michael Oleksa, Orthodox Alaska

Part eight of a 10-game monthly series in Kamloops this week.

From the 8th century onwards, the Slavic tribes of what is now Belarus, Russia and Ukraine invited a handful of Viking warriors to rule over them. These Vikings (also known as Varègues) established a medieval state known as Kievan Rus.

After two centuries of mighty and bloody rule, a Rusyn warrior named Vladimir rose to supreme and established himself as the great prince of Kiev. After consolidating his power, Vladimir made a historic decision: he decided to have a religion for his people.

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

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

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

Whether motivated by the beauty of Byzantine worship or a more political motive, Vladimir chose Byzantine Christianity for himself and his people. He was baptized, married a Byzantine princess, destroyed the pagan temples of his people, and built churches in their stead. He ordered that a statue of the supreme Slavic god Perun be thrown into the Dnieper River. Finally, he ordered the inhabitants of Kiev to descend to the Dnieper, where they were to receive baptism as he had done.

The Chronicle records this event: “Vladimir made it known throughout his village: ‘Those who the day after tomorrow do not appear on the river bank, rich or poor, will be considered rebels and traitors.’ The next day, Vladimir, accompanied by the priests, those of the Empress and those of Kherson, went to the Dnieper, where was gathered an innumerable crowd of men who entered the water, some up to their necks, others only. to the trunk. The children remained on the bank and covered themselves with water; some have plunged into the river. Others swam here and there as the priests read their prayers. And it was an extremely curious and beautiful sight to see. Finally, when all the people were baptized, each returned to their home.

Left to the muscular methods of Vladimir (he was a Viking, after all), the Slavs may never have embraced Christianity. However, the Byzantine missionaries who came to catechize the newly Christianized did not do so by force, but by cultural baptism, a process I spoke about in a previous column.

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

The most important of these efforts was the creation of a written form of the Slavic language of the people of Vladimir. The Cyrillic alphabet (so named after one of its authors, Cyril, a Byzantine missionary monk) was used to transcribe Old Slavic and render the scriptures in a language people could understand.

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

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

Compare that with the Western missionaries who appeared a century later destroying the native language and culture, and we can see the historical significance of the mass conversion of the Slavs in the 10th century, especially in light of our recent national celebration. of Truth and Reconciliation Day on September 30.

These past events show us that winning people over to belief is not accomplished by political force driven by a nation or empire vision. Rather, it is about speaking to spirits and hearts in a language they understand.

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

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

KTW accepts submissions on its Faith page. Columns should be between 600 and 800 words long and can be emailed to [email protected]. Please include a very short biography and photo.


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