The Sufferings of Mother Russia

You’re puzzled, you say, by what seems an oxymoron. Filled with admiration for the many holy men and women of Russia who lived during the century and a half preceding the Revolution and “who spent their lives getting as close to God as they could and teaching others to do the same”, you rather indignantly wonder, “What good did it do their country? Stalin knocked off over 30 million people!” Even though the demons weren’t strong enough to overcome Optina and the country’s other spiritual strongholds, “it looks as if they were wiped out by a murderous twit with a big mustache”.

I just finished grading final papers for the seminar I directed this semester on the Oxford Inklings. The third and last of our authors was Charles Williams (following Tolkien and Lewis), and among the assigned readings were two short selections from his book The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church. You already know Williams as an author of fantasies—stories sometimes referred to as “supernatural thrillers”—and I believe you would find his non-fiction very rewarding as well. In any case I mention him here because he refers in one of the selections we read to an early tradition of the Church which claims that the heretic Arius died in great pain after a fall from his mule. (Other versions say he met his traumatic end in a privy.) Williams then comments:

“Accidents to such [figures] were, to their opponents, nearly always miracles of judgment, and during this period there was encouraged in Christendom the view which attempted to discern in exterior events an index to interior and spiritual truths … [a view] which in a later day invented terrifying death-beds for atheists and agonizing diseases for Sabbath-breakers. This in itself is dangerous enough, but it is made worse by that fatal tendency in men to hasten God’s work and to supply, on His behalf, the deaths and the agonies which they think His inscrutable patience has too rashly postponed.”

Though Williams doesn’t explicitly say so, it’s at least as “dangerous” to suppose this sort of visible or juridical tit-for-tat should work the other way round and that the Good Guys’ goodness should be manifestly rewarded, or at least acknowledged, by Heaven in a clear provision for their earthly comfort, security, and longevity. But surely a Christian—and for that matter a Muslim, a Buddhist, or a Hindu—has no right to expect this, indeed quite the contrary. Aren’t we told that “the last shall be first, and the first last”, and what about Job? Admittedly, his story ends on a happy note, or happy at least for Job himself, though whether his first set of children would agree is another matter. Be that as it may, the point is that we have no right to expect—as did Job’s oddly named “comforters”—some sort of direct correlation between spiritual perfection and this-worldly reward.

Mind you, I’m not saying the gruesome testing of Job makes the sufferings of Mother Russia more palatable, nor that they were inevitable or (all the more) deserved. All I wish to maintain is that these sufferings are entirely, and indisputably, consistent with a key Biblical principle, the sanctity of Her greatest elders notwithstanding.

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