What was happening in Russia 100 years ago is often called “the little apocalypse”. Yet it was then that the models of confession of the faith—the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church—were given to us. But how can modern people, who are weak and spoiled, take part in their experience of standing firm in the faith?
“Do I bear witness to Christ by my life?”
Bishop Veniamin (Likhomanov) of Rybinsk and Danilov:
Today we see a generation gap which is probably even deeper than that imposed by the Bolsheviks who seized power in the early twentieth century. Then people preserved many good qualities by inertia. But nowadays, when the last bearers of the pre-revolutionary royal Russian tradition are dying out, and the legacy of the Soviet experience has been reconsidered critically, a sort of vacuum has appeared.
All the more reason for us to learn as much as possible about the lives of those who preserved the faith in order to pass it on to us: to read the Lives of the New Martyrs of the Russian Church. What helped them withstand and hold fast to the confession of the faith? Their works and letters astonish us, especially when we compare this life expressed in words with the style of the forged documents that the investigators would palm off on them for signature after interrogations.
When modern people, including the unchurched, discover the feat of the New Martyrs—under what trials and at what cost they kept their faith—many convert to Christ.
Today we are “in clover”, spoiled by good life conditions, as Archimandrite Pavel (Gruzdev) would surely have said. In our days churches are open, the Gospel and the writings of the Holy Fathers are available to anybody! And do we withstand any pressure from outside, to say nothing of restraining our good selves?
Ascetic labor is necessary for our salvation—this is what our forefathers used to tell us. Begin to reform your soul in the minor troubles that were allowed to befall you so that you can love your enemies, as the Lord taught (cf. Mt. 5:44). The Holy New Hieromartyr Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky) made the sign of the cross over his executioners before his martyrdom, saying: “May the Lord forgive you.” But do we easily forgive small offenses?
There is always a place for podvig [a heroic deed, feat, exploit in Russian.—Trans.] in our life regardless of the epoch we live in. Now a majority of our society rejects Christian values, as in the godless period of the twentieth century. Though they stand up for some sort of “patriotic Orthodoxy”, these “patriots” will be up in arms against you as soon as you begin to live according to the commandments of God among them! This is where our confession of the faith begins: are we ready to show determination and be with Christ and not “with everybody”?
It is not until then that the experience of the New Martyrs and Confessors will become relevant to us. It concerns young people in particular. Among young people, where everyone tries to adopt a lifestyle that is the rule for the majority, opposition alone to these pseudo-values means the confession of the faith.
Standing firm in the faith is our main task, as it was with the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church. Do I bear witness to Christ by my life? Every act of mine is capable of inspiring somebody to think about God and the salvation of his soul in eternity.
The New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church are almost our contemporaries. Although we do read about the ascetic labors of Sts. Sergius of Radonezh and Seraphim of Sarov, let us be frank and admit that their labors are not for us, they are beyond our strength.
Acts of charity, for example, were given to us for self-sacrifice, in imitation of the New Martyrs, when we should make efforts and not judge anyone despite all the insults hurled at us and acquire the habit of doing good works. The New Martyrs help us stand firm in our faith even in everyday life.
“The New Martyrs and Confessors are heroes whose examples young people can follow”
Young people are strongly motivated to find meaning in their lives, which is revealed above all in very severe trials, where there are no shades of grey. That is why youngsters are fond of extreme sports, thrillers, and horror movies. We simply should show them that what happened in our country was more terrible than any fantasies of the sybarites from Hollywood. If our youth have not lost the ability to distinguish good from evil, they will surely see where is the truth and where is the monstrous surrogate, once we have shown them something genuine.
Nowadays young men and women are used to seeing rather than hearing or reading something. Visiting the sites where our compatriots were martyred has an astounding effect on them. In the extreme case, it would be good to watch a brilliant movie about the New Martyrs together with them or take them to a museum dedicated to their memory.
And, most importantly, if you want others to begin to feel something, you need to feel it very strongly yourself, as the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt said. So, if we want our young people to begin to venerate the New Martyrs, selfless pastors and teachers are needed to share their experience of involvement in the confession of the Orthodox faith together with our predecessors.
We must bring home to young people that there may be critical situations in everyone’s life. How will they behave? Whose example will they follow? The New Martyrs and Confessors are the heroes whose examples young people can follow. And it will have a salutary effect amid the atmosphere of irresponsible hedonism and selfishness that are promoted everywhere.
Military service, going in for serious sports or playing one or another musical instrument (which don’t usually come easy), are conducive to developing selflessness. Likewise, volunteering or pilgrimages to monasteries, where one can work during vacations, help overcome egoism, toughen souls and protect people from the corrupting effects of aggression and lechery, which are so frantically promoted on TV, the internet, and in computer games.
That is why many children are bullied by their peers in our days. While in the Soviet era those who failed to conform to the State ideology were attacked, today we face the new ideology of consumerism, which is as Godless and aggressive as the Soviet one. Depravity is considered the norm. Resistance to these tricks, which have a baneful influence on our souls, is like confessing the faith to young people.
“We must try our best to keep love in our souls”
Archpriest Valerian Krechetov, rector of the Church of the Holy Protection and the Church of the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church in Akulovo near Moscow:
Martyrs are witnesses to the Truth. The New Martyrs are the new witnesses to the eternal Truth. What was said by God Incarnate 2,000 years ago is still alive in their experience today—thus the Truth becomes evident and relevant to others.
No matter how much the propagandists are trying to persuade the masses that religion is obsolete, St. Nicholas (Velimirovic) of Zica would respond to such attacks in this way: “How can reality be contemporary or not contemporary? For God is the highest reality, dominating all that is generally called reality.” And further: “Unbelief means belief in non-reality and chimera… It is clear from the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God, what destiny awaits countries with a large number of non-believers. There is no peace… to the wicked (Is. 57:21)—this is their fate, this is what was written about them. And they will never be able to avoid war unless they eradicate godlessness.” It was an extract from his book, War and the Bible. In it he also wrote that there is no more up-to-date book on war, its causes, and possible outcome than the Bible and the Book of Revelation. A war against God is fraught with misery.
Today churches are open, yet people are too lazy to go to church services. The worries and cares of this world engross their attention completely. Many don’t honor the memory of the universal saints, let alone the memory of the New Martyrs…
When on the feast of the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church I read all their names aloud—there are around 2,000 names [though a great multitude of new martyrs, both revealed and not revealed ones and known to God alone, were canonized.—O. O.]—people don’t understand why it is necessary to do this. Lukewarmness has become dominant. The New Martyrs suffered so many trials in order to hand down the Orthodox faith to us! Can’t we not take some pains and honor them once a year on their feast-day?
Today people begin to bear grudges, judge, get irritated, envy, and have it out at the slightest discomfort… Can such people understand the New Martyrs and their spirit? The New Martyrs forgave and blessed their butchers, while we get annoyed with our nearest and dearest and explode with anger on being denounced… The martyrs withstood the trials because they had humility.
We hear time and time again: “My suffering is undeserved.” Of course, it is undeserved because we deserve more suffering as a result of our sins, but God in His endless mercy and love allows far less severe suffering and difficulties to befall us.
We should learn to suffer for our sins at the very least. Suffering for Christ is the criterion of saints and the New Martyrs.
We can endure everything only if we have love in our hearts. We must try our best to keep love in our souls: love is the foundation of our life in eternity. Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2): the only thing we are called to do is bear one another’s weaknesses in order to acquire love.
As one contemporary elder from Mt. Athos said: “Bear in mind that the time is coming when only love will be able to save us. Learn to cultivate love in yourself: Only love is life. The rest is sin which is worse than death. We will perish without it.”