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Communism's last priest-martyr has bequeathed a legacy of courageous hope

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    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article4687131.ece Times Online September 5, 2008 Communism s last priest-martyr has bequeathed a legacy of
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      Times Online

      September 5, 2008

      Communism's last priest-martyr has bequeathed a legacy of courageous
      hope

      Father Aleksandr Men was brutally silenced in this life but now the
      churches built in his memory are spreading his message far and wide

      Aleksandr Men: his writings, some 20 volumes in all, have never been
      approved by the official church in Russia
      ============================================================
      Michael Bourdeaux

      Early in the morning of September 9, 1990, Father Aleksandr Men set
      out, as usual, to walk through the birch woods to the station to
      catch a train to Novaya Derevnya, a distant suburb of Moscow where he
      served as a priest. A few steps down the path someone approached him
      and asked him to read something. A blow from behind with an axe
      struck him down, most probably from a second person. His reading
      glasses were out of their case beside the path. Father Aleksandr
      staggered back a few yards to his house, where he died at the garden
      gate.

      As with so many other murders in Russia, no proper investigation ever
      took place. Why was this warm, charismatic — indeed brilliant — man
      struck down at 56, at the height of his powers? The police hinted at
      Jewish revenge against a convert from his family's faith to
      Christianity. (Actually, his parents were the converts, he being
      brought up as a Christian.) Equally perniciously, another theory
      placed the murder with some fanatical Christian who wanted to rid the
      faith of its Jewish elements. No shred of evidence supports either
      theory. Almost certainly, this was the last act of revenge by a
      fanatic from a dying, atheist-dominated Communist Party. After all,
      the victim was undoing more than 70 years of anti-religious activity
      by the State.

      The party maintained strict control over entry to the Moscow
      Theological Seminary, so the priesthood was barred to a young man
      urgently seeking to serve the Church. Father Aleksandr was too
      zealous, so instead he chose his second love, joining a forestry
      institute in Moscow, which soon transferred to Irkutsk in Siberia.
      There he met Gleb Yakunin, who would later become a thorn in the side
      of both the Soviet State and the Moscow Patriarchate. Both burnt to
      see justice for the faith and a breaking of the steel bonds that
      circumscribed it, but they chose different paths. A door opened to
      ordination for both, but Father Gleb became an active protester
      against the ongoing persecution of the Church, while Father Aleksandr
      chose the equally difficult task of trying to reform the Church from
      within. This, he envisaged, would be through education: by keeping
      within the law (just) and concentrating on reaching out to the
      younger generation deprived of even the most elementary Christian
      teaching.

      Aleksandr Men was a man of remarkable intellectual capacity, whose
      sum of acquired knowledge was, in the circumstances, verging on the
      miraculous. Last April I sat at the desk of his study at Semkhoz, now
      preserved as a museum in his memory. Surrounded by his library, I
      felt the power of his presence as I worked on the script of a radio
      broadcast I was preparing about him. His widow, Natalya, said that he
      used to scour the second-hand bookshops in the 1950s, a time of
      semirelaxation in the atheist campaign. Many did not wish to retain
      books that could have landed them in trouble, so occasionally
      valuable titles appeared on the shelves of these shops, books banned
      from Soviet libraries. He not only bought them but also assimilated
      their contents.

      Father Aleksandr's knowledge was soon encyclopaedic. He wrote a six-
      volume history of world religions, in which he paid tribute to the
      beautiful and positive elements he found in Buddhist, Hindu and
      Muslim scriptures. This was one of the reasons why his works have
      never been approved by the official church in Russia.

      Collections of his lectures, articles and sermons still appear under
      the auspices of the Men Foundation run by his younger brother. In
      Soviet times his disciples sent his manuscripts to Brussels, where
      the organisation La Vie avec Dieu printed them anonymously, gradually
      infiltrating them back into Russia, where they had an immense
      influence. Today the tally of his works comes to some 20 volumes.

      Before Mikhail Gorbachev permitted de facto religious liberty in the
      late 1980s, Men, although hounded by the authorities and forced
      several times to change his parish, taught a growing group of young
      disciples. They constantly demanded his time, his energy, his books,
      but he never refused their requests or turned them away either from
      his church or his home.

      In the period of perestroika all this changed. Almost overnight he
      became the public authority on the faith, the apostle of Christian
      glasnost. The demands on him were on the edge of what a human being
      could bear. He was constantly on the radio and TV. Most
      significantly, perhaps, he breached a physical barrier, becoming a
      frequent lecturer on official Soviet premises. As well as keeping
      going the regular services in his church, during the last year of his
      life he gave more than 200 lectures.

      He delivered the last one the night before he died. Some of those
      present felt this was his valediction, as he spoke of Christ's own
      sacrifice: "Through his love for humanity he stayed with us on this
      dirty, bloodstained and sinful earth, just to be beside us."

      It was almost as though he knew he was going out to face his
      executioners the next day. Now, though, as one stands by his grave or
      by the memorial at the place where he was struck down, there comes an
      overwhelming feeling, in the new churches built in his memory and
      through talking to the priests of great spirituality who officiate in
      them, that Father Aleksandr's legacy may be more powerful than the
      message he proclaimed during his lifetime.

      Canon Michael Bourdeaux is founder of Keston Institute. Father
      Aleksandr Men: A Man of Fearless Faith is on Radio 4 at 8.10am on
      Sunday
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