As one adopted into the Church of Kyiv

As one adopted into the Church of Kyiv July 24, 2017

My chrismation, with the icon of Holy Olha of Kyiv as the furthest left panel of the iconostas in the background - photo by my wife
My chrismation, with the icon of Holy Olha of Kyiv as the furthest left panel of the iconostas in the background – photo by my wife

The first time that I ever stepped foot in an Eastern Catholic temple was for a retreat on the Umbrella Movement; as I recounted, I accidentally came in through the deacon door. After the retreat, a few of us – mostly younger Chinese evangelicals in Vancouver – came up to the deacon door, where the Eastern Jesuit who became my spiritual father began to introduce us to Eastern Catholicism by talking us through the iconostasis. He told us that the Catholic communion consisted of not only one Latin Church, but also twenty-three other Eastern Catholic churches in full communion with Rome; he pointed out that the large reredos with the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in the front of our temple was wrong because it was a latinization, at which I asked sarcastically if he didn’t have ‘assumptions about the Dormition‘; he told us that ours was a church not for ethnic Ukrainians, but from Ukraine for the world.

He then told the story from the Primary Chronicle about Holy Volodymyr, Prince of Kyiv, and the fact-finding mission about which religion he should join. After his emissaries told him about what I have come to call their ‘ethnographic field work’ in the Latin Church as well as Jewish and Muslim communities, they spoke of the Divine Liturgy in Constantinople, the same church where his grandmother Holy Olha had been baptized: We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Soon after, though not immediately, he was baptized, and with him, all of Kyivan Rus’, and while folks go on and on about how Volodymyr actually only wanted a political alliance with Constantinople, there is something to be said about his service to the poor and his codification of mercy into the laws of Kyivan Rus’ after his conversion.

I later learned as I was preparing to be received into this church by chrismation about a year afterward that the churches that can be traced to this founding moment might be referred to as the churches of the Kyivan tradition – indeed, the Church of Kyiv itself, the children of this baptism. There is a tradition of practice that flows from the descendants of Volodymyr and his grandmother Olha, called ‘equal to the apostles’ because they Christianized the Rus’ through their baptism. The stories handed down include Volodymyr’s sons Borys and Hlib who were killed unjustly by their brother Sviatopolk the Accursed and shared in Christ’s passion (for which they have been called ‘Passionbearers’), as well as, say, the monks Theodosius and Antony who founded the Monastery of the Kyivan Caves – and many more. Divided as the children of the Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles Volodymyr and Olha are in our contemporary world by our various communions and canons, allegiances and anathemas, we share the same founders, the same saints, the same practices of wisdom, mercy, and humility.

Still, I think it is a mere coincidence with very little cosmic significance that I soon discovered after my chrismation last year that my birthday coincides with the Feast of Holy Olha of Kyiv Equal-to-the-Apostles on the Old Calendar and the Feast of the Passionbearers Borys and Hlib on the New; my birthday is, after all, not my name day, which is June 1. To read too deeply into the coinciding of dates strikes me as quite a bit too ideological, a very real danger for those of us in the churches of the Kyivan tradition where the children of Ss Volodymyr and Olha have been so sundered from each other that we sometimes assert our own existence at the ontological expense of the other – ‘canonically’ Orthodox against ‘schismatics,’ ‘Orthodox’ against ‘Greek Catholics,’ ‘Russians’ against ‘Ukrainians.’ The Russian Orthodox Church, which is very much a church with origins in Kyivan Christianity, rails against my church for being in union with Rome by claiming that we have been splintered off from the Orthodox Church and are thus a ‘bleeding wound’ in the Body of Christ, as the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate has said. For our part, our Patriarch Myroslav’s apology to Moscow in the 1980s for our part in dividing the Kyivan Church and the invitation for mutual repentance and journey to the re-establishment of communion has gone unanswered, even as we have sought to find the truth about what happened in 1946 when Stalinist agents affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate liquidated our church at the Pseudo-Synod of Lviv, an event for which some Orthodox Christians have even publicly stood ‘in solidarity’ with our church in asking for public redress. There is enough mythologizing that goes on in all of our divided churches; let me not contribute to this game of altars and thrones, even if Cersei Lannister is right that we either win or die.

And yet the saints whose days coincide with my birthday reveal in a deeper way the spirituality of the Kyivan Church, the spiritual inheritance that is so much in common among our divided churches that our divisions can only be described as a tragedy. As Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it (with the russified spellings for some, and more, of the Kyivan saints I have mentioned), there is something to be said about the richness of the Kyivan Church’s patrimony:

Vladimir, Boris and Gleb, and Theodosius were all intensely concerned with the practical implications of the Gospel: Vladimir in his concern for social justice and his desire to treat criminals with mercy; Boris and Gleb in their resolution to follow Christ in his volutnary suffering and death; Theodosius in his self-identification with the humble. These four saints embody some of the most attractive features in Kievan Christianity. (Ware, The Orthodox Church, ch. 4).

To that list I would add Olha (or as Ware might spell her name, ‘Olga’), the embodiment of wisdom both in her earthly cunning in outsmarting her enemies and the heavenly wisdom that came upon her in baptism.

This is all a bit of an understatement, of course: the truth is that Holy Olha Equal-to-the-Apostles is arguably our church’s badass founder. After the Drevlian people assassinated her husband in an attempt to get her to wed their prince, she buried their emissaries alive, burned the next batch to death in a locked bathhouse, murdered those who came to mourn the last set during their funeral dinner, razed their villages and cities, and sold their people into slavery. Much later, the story goes that the Emperor of Constantinople took a liking to her, but she flirtatiously told him that she wouldn’t be able to marry him without getting baptized, and to be baptized, she’d need a sponsor, which he was more than willing to do because he too was a pervert (like me). This played right into Olha’s hands because after her baptism, she told him that it was gross to marry her baptismal sponsor, as he technically would have been her godfather. About all of this political cunning and the supernatural grace afforded her by baptism, the Primary Chronicle comments: ‘Thus it was when the Queen of Ethiopia came to Solomon, wishing to hear his words of wisdom, and beheld much wisdom and many wonders. Even so, the sainted Olga sought the blessed wisdom of God. But the Queen sought human wisdom, while Olga sought divine wisdom. For those who seek for wisdom shall find it’ (Laurentian Text, trans. Cross and Sherbowitz-Wetzor, p. 83). The implication is that Olha is greater than the Queen of Sheba because the ancient Queen may well have beheld and heard the earthly wisdom of King Solomon, but in baptism, the wisdom of one greater than Solomon came upon Olha. Olha was already clever politically and militarily – brutally so, in a very primal, existential way – but the fusion of her human wisdom with the divine is the origin point of the Kyivan tradition. In Holy Olha, I might add then, are fulfilled the words of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian when he walked into the Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, beyond his wildest imaginations: Solomon, I have outdone you.

The paradox of the Kyivan Church’s tradition, as far as it seems to me, is that while it started out very much as a form of imperial Byzantine Christianity and in some expressions continues very much in an attempt to re-create empire and nation, the lives of these Kyivan saints demonstrate the limits of earthly limits, temporal power, and an immanent imperium. Such is the witness of Borys and Hlib, the younger sons of Volodymyr. Their older brother Sviatopolk feared that their existence would threaten his claim to the throne and sent assassins to end their lives with treachery, although Borys and Hlib had said that they would never raise their hand against their older brother, who should have been regarded as their own father as Prince of Kyiv. For them, the Kyivan Church had to invent a new category of saint, for someone who was not exactly killed for their faith and thus could not be called ‘martyrs,’ but whose assassination still resembled in a different way the Passion of Christ. The term that is used for them is Passionbearer, a term that has come to be applied for others who are killed not for their faith but still share in Christ’s passion as they relinquish their power in extreme humility. In such a way, my spiritual father says that the Holy Passionbearers Borys and Hlib can even be called the patron saints of pacifists; it is no surprise that I have in turn found many commonalities with my friends in Mennonite communities, some of whom also have a spiritual connection to Ukraine.

That my birthday coincides with the feasts of these holy women and men in the Church of Kyiv may be incidental – it’s not my name day, after all – but it has still given me an excuse to actively seek to be closer with Holy Olha of Kyiv and the Holy Passionbearers Borys and Hlib, as one born late into the Kyivan Church. I am, after all, an adopted child in the Church of Kyiv – it is not the church in which I started out, but it is now my family, my home, the people among whom I gather to invoke the Lord’s mercy and to receive the Body of Christ, tasting of the fount of immortality. To have joined this church makes me Orthodox, for the tradition that we practice is no more and no less than the wisdom we received from Byzantium-Constantinople. But it also makes me Catholic, not only by the fact of our communion with the ‘church which presides in charity over the churches,’ but also because the embodiment of wisdom in the persons of Holy Olha Equal-to-the-Apostles and the Passionbearers Borys and Hlib, among many others in our church, is universal, a call for the cunning of power and the might of king-making to be reversed through baptism into the wisdom from on high – the wisdom of meekness, the wisdom of humility and humiliation, the wisdom that ultimately reverses and undoes the power of empire. I can thus think of those in my sister Latin Church, my former Anglican Communion, the evangelicalism of my past, and the Cantonese street culture of my continuing present who might embody this, but since it is – as Bulgakov also points out – at the centre of my church, I have found new clarity about sophia here, the wisdom that comes only from G-d. No wonder, indeed, that the bishop who recovered so much of our church’s Kyivan practice, the Venerable Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, issued a pastoral directive (as Chirovsky recounts) to put the icon of St Sophia in the altars of every Kyivan Greek-Catholic temple. In this way, just as Holy Olha and the Holy Passionbearers Borys and Hlib have opened my eyes to the particularities of the Kyivan Church, my adoption into the Church of Kyiv is one that has revealed to me a new dimension of the universality of Christian practice: the practice of wisdom is love exercised as politics.

Perhaps I will meditate more on this dictum in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.


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