Russia, rock, riots and religion

It wasn't easy being a rebel in the Soviet Union, back in the 1970s when Sergy Ribko was a rock drummer who cherished whatever scraps of music and media made it through the Iron Curtain. Most of all, the self-proclaimed hippy who would later become a Russian Orthodox priest loved The Beatles.

The band taught "us to think about the meaning of life, good and evil, even about God and eternity, taught us to understand and love freedom in all its manifestations," wrote Ribko, in an open letter addressed to the "Dear and Highly Esteemed Sir Paul McCartney" that has been translated from Russian and circulated on the Internet.

"The absence of freedom was extremely felt in that totalitarian country, in which we were doomed to be born and live. The 'iron curtain' separated us ... from our mates in the free world where they could create and live according to their desires. ... Moreover it tried to hide from us the Heavens and God."

What would inspire the rector of Moscow's Church of the Holy Spirit to write such a personal letter to a rock patriarch in the West?

Here's the blunt answer -- Pussy Riot.

McCartney released a letter backing the members of this infamous music group who were recently sentenced to two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Their crime was a "punk prayer" in which they pleaded, in highly profane terms, with the Virgin Mary to oust President Vladimir Putin.

"I hope you can stay strong," concluded McCartney, "and believe that I and many others like me who believe in free speech will do everything in our power to support you and the idea of artistic freedom."

For Father Ribko and many others, the key is not that Pussy Riot attacked Putin, but that the group's members recorded their YouTube video as they danced, prostrated and pretended to pray directly in front of the holy doors at the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The video included images from another church invasion, as well.

"Some months ago Russia witnessed an act of evil. We, Russian believers, perceive this event in this way," wrote the monk.

"All this Bacchanalia was filmed and shown to the world. ... When Pussy Riot blaspheme in the street, it is their private affair. Many people do the same. But if they break into our church, disturbing praying people, blaming our God, out faith, our patriarch, they offend personally each of us."

It's crucial that these events have unfolded in a land still struggling after a blood-soaked century that included the worst sustained persecution in Christian history. The Communists closed 98 percent of Russia's churches and killed 200,000 bishops, priests, monks and nuns, while another 500,000 or more believers were sent to die in labor camps. Millions more died in purges under Joseph Stalin.

Members of the Soviet League of the Militant Godless -- including Alexandra Kollontai, a self-proclaimed "female Antichrist" -- took special glee in vandalizing churches, desecrating the relics of saints and performing profane, crude, blasphemous skits in, or even on, the altars of Orthodox sanctuaries. As their ultimate act of desecration, the Soviets in 1931 leveled the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

"Christ the Savior was a central shrine both of the Orthodox faith and of Russian national pride, and for that reason, the Bolsheviks targeted it for destruction," noted historian Philip Jenkins, author of "The Lost History of Christianity" and numerous other works, in an online commentary about the Pussy Riot case.

"Not until 1990 did a new regime permit a rebuilding, funded largely by ordinary believers, and the vast new structure was consecrated in 2000. The cathedral is thus a primary memorial to the restoration of Russia's Christianity after a savage persecution."

For many believers, these new acts of sacrilege at the altar of this symbolic cathedral resembled old Russian nightmares. Try to imagine, wrote Jenkins, protesters seizing a European synagogue that had been rebuilt after the Holocaust and using it as the setting for a profane video mocking Jewish prayers.

"Not only would international media fully support the governments in those circumstances, but they would complain bitterly if police and courts showed any signs of leniency," argued Jenkins. "However serious a group's grievances, there is absolutely no justification for expressing them with such mind-boggling historical insensitivity, and in such a place. Anywhere but there!"

Now that's a tough Lent

It was a decade ago during Lent that author Lauren Winner was visited by an angel, unawares. "Actually, it was my priest," said Winner, who teaches Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. "I have learned that people in my life often tell me what I need to do during Lent. ... It's kind of like hearing from angels."

Although the voice wasn't miraculous, Winner thought it would take a miracle to follow her spiritual guide's advice. The challenge was deceptively simple: Could she give up reading during Lent?

At the time, Winner was working as book review editor for Beliefnet.com and studying for her doctorate at Columbia University. She was a writer, editor and student and, naturally, was surrounded by books day after day.

How in the name of God was she supposed to stop reading?

Nevertheless, she decided to try.

"This was not your normal 40 days of work," said Winner, author of "Girl Meets God: A Memoir" and other works of contemporary spirituality. "What I was doing was attacking my own work obsessions. This forced me to examine the place of work in my life. It made me examine other parts of my life, as well."

Fasting traditions during Lent -- the 40-day penitential season before Easter -- have evolved through the ages, especially in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and liturgical Protestant churches that emphasize the church calendar. Winner is active in the Episcopal Church.

For centuries, Catholics ate only one real meal a day, with no meat or fish. Today, Catholics are supposed to observe a strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent and Good Friday at the end. In many parishes, the faithful are still urged to avoid meat on Fridays during Lent. Orthodox Christians strive to fast from meat and dairy products during all of Lent and Holy Week.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans in a variety of churches follow an informal tradition in which they choose to fast from "one thing" -- such as chocolate or soft drinks -- during Lent. This practice may be linked to a passage in the sixth century monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which states:

"During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God … something above his prescribed measure. Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter."

Winner noted that this practice of "giving up one thing" was supposed to build on the traditional Lenten disciplines linked to food, prayer and almsgiving -- not replace them. The goal was to shine a spotlight into some unexamined corner of one's life.

It didn't take her long, for example, for Winner to realize that she couldn't stop reading -- period. She needed, for example, to reread one book to prepare for an exam. She had to do some reading in order to do her day job, but she asked if she could be relieved from some assignments that she would have accepted, if not for this unique Lenten discipline.

The surprise, said Winner, was how this fast touched her life after the working day. That's when she could almost hear her favorite volumes of history and fiction calling her name (especially the detective novels).

"What this showed me was that I was using reading as an escape. I was reading books as a way to get away from some things," she said, and then laughed. "Fiction is probably a better way to cope with some issues in your life than heroin. But if books are what you're using, then you need to find that out."

In the years since, Winner has repeated this bookish fast several times, while searching for other disciplines that would have a similar impact. This year she is trying to fast from "saying 'yes' all the time," which is harder than it sounds.

"The thing is, Lent isn't a therapeutic self-improvement project," she said. "We're supposed to take a hard look at our sins and then repent. But how do we get to repentance if we have never truly paused to examine our lives? ...

"Most of us are morally and spiritually sleepwalking. We need to wake up and see where we are and what we're doing."

Orthodox bishop on hot spot

When an Orthodox bishop enters a sanctuary, he is traditionally greeted with the following words chanted in Greek -- "eis polla eti, despota."

In English this means, "Many years to you, Master." Witty bishops in the Orthodox Church in America have started using this sentiment as the punch line in a joke about the impact the episcopate can have on their egos.

"What happens to a guy?", said Bishop Jonah, during the church's All American Council in Pittsburgh. "You put him on a stand in the middle of the church, you dress him up like the Byzantine emperor and you tell him to live forever. You know?"

The audience of clergy and lay leaders laughed, but it was nervous laughter. The atmosphere in the recent gathering was so tense, Bishop Jonah said later, that some of the bishops were afraid that "everything was about to unravel."

Only 10 days earlier, the 49-year-old monk had been consecrated as assistant bishop of Dallas. Now, he was facing the clergy and lay leaders of a flock that was reeling after years of bitter scandal -- including the disappearance of $4 million -- that had forced the church's last two leaders out of office.

The new and, thus, unstained bishop volunteered to face the assembly and answer hard questions about reform. The bottom line, he said, was that investigators found a "fundamentally sick," corrupt culture inside the national headquarters that was rooted in fear and intimidation.

"Yes, we were betrayed. Yes, we were raped. It's over. It's over," said Bishop Jonah. In fact, whenever church members seek healing, "we have to confront the anger and the bitterness and the hurts and the pain and the resentment that we have born within us as reactions against the people who have hurt us.

"By forgiving, we're not excusing the actions. ? We're not justifying anything. What we're saying is, 'My reaction is destroying me and I need to stop it. If I value Jesus Christ and the Gospel and communion with God, I need to stop it and move on.' "

The audience responded with a standing ovation.

Then, 11 days after he became a bishop, the assembly -- in a move that shocked young and old -- elected Jonah as the new Metropolitan of All America and Canada. Current plans call for his enthronement at on Dec. 28th at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The new leader of the Orthodox Church in America, which has its roots in Russia, was born James Paffhausen in Chicago and raised as an Episcopalian. He converted to Orthodoxy during his college years in California, went to seminary and, while studying in Russia in 1993, became a novice at the famous Valaam Monastery. After returning to America, he was ordained and spent 12 years building several missions and the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco in northern California.

Becoming a bishop turned his once secluded life upside down, explained Jonah. Now it's hard to even discuss his stunning election as primate on Nov. 12.

"They talk about 'his beatitude' and I wonder who that is," he said. "Your beatitude? Who? Where?"

On his 12th day as a bishop, he found himself delivering an address on his "vision for the church." The new Metropolitan Jonah stressed college ministry, calling for Orthodox housing facilities and evangelistic ministries near as many campuses as possible, to help students living in "Animal House" conditions rooted in "sex, drugs, alcohol and despair."

It's also time for leaders in the church's many ethnic U.S. jurisdictions to work together on charitable projects whenever and wherever they can, grassroots projects that he said will eventually produce Orthodox unity at the national, hierarchical level. Where are the Orthodox hospitals, schools and nursing homes?

If nationwide change is going to happen, said Jonah, it will have to grow out of respect and cooperation at all levels of the church.

"Hierarchy is only about responsibility, it's not all of this imperial nonsense," he said. "Thank God that we're Americans and we have cast that off. We don't need foreign despots. We are the only non-state Orthodox church. In other words, we are the only Orthodox church that does not exist under the thumb of a state -- either friendly or hostile.

"So the church is our responsibility, personally and collectively, individually and corporately. What are you going to do with it?"

Lutherans in non-Roman Lent

Eric Phillips really likes soup at lunch.

One of his favorites is baked-potato soup, a filling option that, at first glance, appears to be meat-free. That's important because Phillips isn't eating meat during the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter. Alas, baked-potato soup almost always contains chicken fat, as do many vegetable or pasta soups.

"I gave up meat for Lent last year, which was a pain in the neck," said Phillips, who has a Catholic University of America doctorate in Patristics, the study of the early Church Fathers' writings.

"I decided that I didn't want to go through all of that this year, but then I realized this was actually a pretty good reason to try to do it again. ... The whole reason we fast is to do something that gets our attention, something that reminds us that we're sinners in need of redemption."

While all this Lent talk may sound Catholic, Phillips is a convert into the conservative Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church. He grew up "low church" evangelical and is still adapting to a denomination that includes both modern multimedia megachurches and congregations that embrace old hymns, "high church" liturgy and some ancient traditions.

Phillips attends Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va., a small church near Washington, D.C., that includes many who are striving to embrace fasting, almsgiving, Vespers services and other Lenten disciplines. Some are avoiding meat, while others are surrendering one cherished pleasure -- such as desserts, soft drinks, pizza or candy. Phillips said a friend is "trying to give up sarcasm for Lent."

But Lutherans are Lutherans and these believers are not following a specific set of Lenten rules. They are not Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians who, to one degree or another, follow ancient traditions that ask them to fast from meat or even from meat and all dairy products.

For traditional Lutherans the words of Augsburg Confession, article XXVI, are clear: "In former times men taught, preached, and wrote that distinctions among foods and similar traditions which had been instituted by men serve to earn grace and make satisfaction for sin. For this reason new fasts, new ceremonies, new orders, and the like were invented daily, and were ardently and urgently promoted, as if these were a necessary service of God by means of which grace would be earned if they were observed and a great sin committed if they were omitted."

The writings of Martin Luther make it clear that he was rebelling against practices common in the medieval Catholic churches and monasteries of his day, said Immanuel Pastor C.S. Esget.

Thus, it's easy to conclude that Luther rejected fasting and similar disciplines altogether, when what he rejected were mandatory rules. Instead, the Protestant reformer embraced voluntary fasting and almsgiving and argued that these disciplines were like weight lifting and running -- part of a spiritual exercise regime.

"The key is that anything that smacks of legalism will raise all kinds of red flags for Lutherans," stressed Esget, who has promoted Lenten disciplines in his own kitchen as well as his pulpit. "We want to be able to say that fasting, for example, is a good thing. But the minute it becomes a requirement, then there's going to be trouble."

For centuries, Lutherans in Europe chose to follow many fasting traditions found in Catholicism and other Western churches, such as the Church of England. But this gradually evolved into a minimalist tradition that Esget said he has never been able to find in Luther or any other church traditions -- the popular modern practice of giving up "one thing" during Lent.

"What has happened over the centuries is that many Lutherans -- especially after the move to America -- have tried to blend in with all of the Protestants that surround us in this culture," he said. "So most of our traditions have faded over time into a kind of vague idea that it's Lent, but we're not really sure what that is supposed to mean."

The pastor paused, struggling to define the safe middle ground between laziness and legalism, between apathy and dead ritualism.

"I wouldn't want to see my people doing all of these things during Lent just because I laid down the law," said Esget. "Yet, I have to admit that really wish they would do them. Does that make sense?"

Good news for Orthodox in Turkey?

ISTANBUL -- There are two front gates into the walled compound that protects the home of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Visitors enter through a door secured by a guardhouse, locks and a metal-screening device. They cannot enter the Phanar's main gate because it was welded shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: "We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. ... Patriarch you will perish!"

The capital of Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. Yet 400,000 Orthodox Christians remained in greater Istanbul early in the 20th century. That number fell to 150,000 in 1960. Today fewer than 2,000 remain, the most symbolic minority in a land that is 99 percent Turkish. They worship in 86 churches served by 32 priests and deacons, most 60 or older.

What the Orthodox urgently need is an active seminary and patriarchate officials are convinced the European Union will help them get one, as Turkey races to begin the formal application process. At the top of the list of reforms sought by the EU are improved rights for non-Muslims.

Thus, during the recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization Summit, President George W. Bush held a strategic meeting with Istanbul Mufti Mustafa Cagrici, Armenian Patriarch Meshrob Mutafyan, Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yusuf Cetin and Patriarch Bartholomew.

"The European Union here is not focused so much on religion as it is on basic human rights," said Phanar spokesman Father Dositheos, through an interpreter. "For us this means hope. Any attention to the rights of minorities has to be good for us in the long run. Here, a little bit of religious freedom would go a long way."

But hard questions remain, as terrorists compete with Turkish reformers for headlines.

Western politicos are anxious for Turkey to serve as a bridge between East and West, between secularized Europe and the Muslim world. But others worry that decades of work by Turkey to mandate secularism on its people will have the opposite effect -- creating fertile soil for the growth of radical forms of Islam.

The Greek government now backs the entry of its once bitter rival into the European Union. But one of the most outspoken critics of this move is the Orthodox archbishop of Greece.

"Turkey is not a European country and, while its culture is worthy of our respect, it is not compatible with our European culture," said Archbishop Christodoulos, during an interview in Athens. "This is not a matter of prejudice. ... Our European culture has a sense of unity that comes from the spiritual traditions and the common spiritual roots of these countries."

But officials at the Phanar disagree and hope to verify reports that Turkey will take concrete steps to demonstrate its acceptance of some Western values -- such as religious liberty. The Orthodox and other religious minorities are anxious to have more control over their finances, to be able to grant work permits to foreign clergy, to freely elect their own leaders and to build and rebuild sanctuaries.

During his visit, Bush said he was satisfied that Turkey will soon let the Orthodox reopen the Halki seminary on Heybeliada Island, which was closed in 1971 under laws strictly controlling all religious education. In addition to training new clergy, this might strengthen two surviving monasteries. This is crucial since, under Turkish law, any monk who is elected Orthodox patriarch must be a Turkish citizen.

But change is slow and uncertain in this ancient city. The gate to the Phanar was been sealed for many generations.

"We hear rumors. The government officials say Turkey will allow us to reopen the seminary if the church will reopen the gate," said a church official who asked not to named. "The church says it may reopen the gate if the Turks allow the seminary to be opened. The government says it will allow us to reopen the seminary if we open the gate. We are used to this."

Episcopal actions, orthodox reactions

Few would fault the clarity of the Orthodox response to the September marriage of Denis Gogolyev and Mikhail Morozev in the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God Chapel in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.

The bishops defrocked the priest, bulldozed the church and burned the wreckage.

"Father Vladimir Enert, who married the gay couple, committed a sin in doing so," a church spokesman told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. "He desecrated the place. We therefore needed to destroy the chapel."

They call it the Orthodox Church for a reason. This is why ecclesiastical politicos gasped when they read that an Orthodox bishop attended rites consecrating Bishop V. Gene Robinson as the Episcopal Church's first noncelibate, openly gay bishop.

This was an historic occasion and the whole ecumenical world was watching.

"Frankly, I have been surprised that so many people are upset about this," said Bishop Paul Peter Jesep of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church-Sobornopravna. "I believe Bishop Robinson was duly and prayerfully elected and, besides, I think it's inappropriate for one church to try and tell another how to fulfill its mission."

The 39-year-old bishop -- a former lawyer, journalist, U.S. Senate aide and founder of ModerateRepublican.net -- stressed that acted on his own and that his church has not addressed Robinson's consecration.

Orthodox leaders also noted that Jesep serves a tiny splinter church that plays no role in the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas. There are dozens of non-canonical "Orthodox" flocks, including at least 16 other Ukrainian bodies.

Meanwhile, the American bishops are standing their ground. The conference proclaimed: "The Orthodox Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, firmly grounded in Holy Scripture, 2000 years of church tradition, and canon law, holds that marriage consists in the conjugal union of a man and a woman. ... Neither Scripture nor Holy Tradition blesses or sanctions such a union between persons of the same sex."

Greek Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh was blunter: "Do these Anglican thinkers realize that an evil spirit may be behind all these things? What the Orthodox denounce in these false practices and teachings is that they are the practices and teachings which oppose the Will of God as taught by the Bible, thus, being the result of our fallen, sinful, human 'experience!' "

Nevertheless, the New Hampshire rites drew many mainline clerics. The ecumenical procession included representatives of the American Baptists, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Unitarian-Universalists, United Methodists and others.

Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl of Sweden took part and it was announced that he also represented the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said Father Robert Stiefel of the diocesan transition team. This was symbolic, because of an ELCA and Episcopal accord to share sacraments and clergy.

Apparently no Catholic clergy took part, although Jesep said several Catholic lay leaders joined the procession. Catholic bishops have often been observers at Anglican consecrations -- but not this time.

Pope John Paul II recently warned Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that the ties that bind them are at the breaking point. "New and serious" obstacles block the path to unity.

"These difficulties are not all of a merely disciplinary nature," said the papal text. "Some extend to essential matters of faith and morals. ... Faced with the increasing secularism of today's world, the church must ensure that the deposit of faith is proclaimed in its integrity and preserved from erroneous and misguided interpretations."

No additional commentary was needed, especially in a time when the powerful Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is showing a willingness to build new bridges to Anglican traditionalists in America and England. Might there even be a new "Anglican rite" in communion with Rome?

Whatever happens will happen, said Jesep. While the New Hampshire consecration may rattle other altars and pews, critics of Robinson's ministry must realize that the U.S. Episcopal Church has made its choice and acted on it.

"The larger issue is not who participated and who did not participate," he said. "The real issue is that there is a gay bishop -- period. The issue now is how the church reacts to this as a Christian family.