Witness to Life

Interview with Igumen Damascene (Orlovskii), member of the Synodal Commission for the Canonization of Saints in the Russian Orthodox Church

Interview with Igumen Damascene (Orlovskii), member of the Synodal Commission for the Canonization of Saints in the Russian Orthodox Church, director of the “Memory of the Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Orthodox Church” Fund, author of the series of seven books “Martyrs, Confessors, and Ascetics of Piety of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 20th Century,” published in 1992-2002. 



  Igumen Damascene (Orlovskii)

  - Martyrs for the faith always have had a particular importance for the Church of Christ, and it is not by coincidence that the Liturgy must be served on the relics of martyrs. What do the new martyrs and confessors mean for our Church at present?

  - The Church, as one holy hierarch put it, stands on the blood of the martyrs, and this is not only in a figurative sense but also in a direct, literal sense. The Divine Liturgy is served on antimens, into which, according to the ancient tradition, is sewn the relics of particularly martyrs. The Russian Orthodox Church, although it covers the greatest territory and has the greatest number of members compared to other Local Orthodox Churches combined (though it is comparatively young and is not remembered first in the list of patriarchates), had always borrowed relics for the antimens. However, after the canonizations in 2000, we now have enough relics of martyrs to serve the liturgy on all alters until the Second Coming of Christ. 

  The immense is only visible at a distance, and this is not completely recognized by our contemporaries, but several times more saints have shone in the 20th century than in the previous 900 years of the Russian Church’s existence. And there are more than in any other Local Orthodox Church; for besides saints canonized by name, there were also canonized unnamed saints. 

  According to St Symeon the New Theologian, those who do not wish to attain, with love and through humility, to unity with the most recent saints never will be able to unite with the previous saints. For if a man does not know and accept holiness when it is so close to him, how can he comprehend holiness that is so distant from him? 

  The experience of the new martyrs and confessors is so much nearer to our lives than the experience of the ancient saints. The conditions of life and labors of Sergii of Radonezh, for example, or even someone nearer to us, Seraphim of Sarov, differ so much from our modern life that it is almost impossible for us to approach their experience. But the saints canonized in 2000 lived in the same historical epoch as us, and we can enter into their experience. Among them there are various saints that express all the diversity of the Russian people, and everyone can find someone that is near to them. 

  - How can you explain the downfall of the Russian Empire and Orthodox monarchy and the origin of a government of theomachy, in which the most cruel persecution of Christians immediately began? 

  - In order to understand why martyrdom takes place, you need to understand that the Church is not of this world and that its Head is the Lord Himself. This world, always having lived in sins of every kind and lying in evil, always battled and will battle against Christ and His Church. From the establishment of Christ’s Church to its end, this is unchanging. Sometimes that battle passes into an open attempt to destroy the Church and all followers of Christ, and then a period of martyrdom and confession of faith and faithfulness to Christ begins. 

  As far as the spiritual condition of Russia and Russian people at the time of the revolution, it is by no means possible to call it problem free. The system of governmental administration had come to a dead end that could only result in revolution. “Orthodox monarchy,” built upon the model of Western Europe, as a result of which serfdom was calmly accepted, had introduced a non-Christian institution and could no longer continue to exist. The moral and spiritual state of the Russian people, including the peasants, was not so satisfactory, which is also witnessed to by many contemporaries. Among the ruling nobility, Orthodox Christians were already a minority in the 19th century. Concerning the peasants, beginning from the second half of the 19th century, due to reforms in public education, a mass un-churching of the people took place. Public education became almost exclusively a prerogative of the Ministry of National Education and fell into the hands of non-believing bureaucrats who introduced a completely non-Orthodox mentality to the people. The Orthodox Church was definitively removed from the upbringing and education of the people, and the influence of parish schools at the beginning of the 20th century was reduced to nothing. Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, two generations of children educated in such schools were quite prepared for participation in a godless, anti-Church revolution. 

- Having studied many lives of new-martyrs and confessors (especially considering that their experience is historically near to us), tell us how a person becomes holy (a saint)? 

- Each Orthodox person strives to live piously, strives to fulfill the commands of Christ, because there is nothing more reliable than life with the Lord in this short life, and a person must manage to learn to live the life of the Church, life in Christ.  If a pious person is caught up in a time of persecution, he may be worthy of a martyr’s crown, and if a person was spiritually lazy and did not struggle much, then he is presented with the possibility to spiritually exert himself and show faithfulness to Christ in his last days before a martyric end. 

- What particularities does the martyr’s and confessor’s podvig have in the 20th century? 

- Compared to early-Christian times, when the martyric podvig was public, that in the 20th century was unknown. Even in 2000, the canonization of such a number of saints was a revelation to many people. That is, their podvig was even greater, for there were more grounds to renounce the faith in those historical circumstances, because no one would have known. However, there were not that many apostates in the Russian Church and, therefore, such a number of saints shone forth. 

- What significance do these new, thousands of Russian saints have for the modern Orthodox person? Do we sufficiently recognize this significance? 

- The first significance is that our martyrs of recent times, as in ancient times, witness to the truth. Secondly, the martyrs and confessors of the Russian Orthodox Church pray and intercede for us. Thirdly, the life and confession of the martyrs is an example for us; they call us to imitate their podvig and confirm that it is possible. Martyrs and saints in general are a kind of lighthouse for people, helping them not to lose their way among the turbulent waters of the sea of life. Looking at them, we can see what is important and unimportant and how they looked at issues presented to man in the modern world from the point of view of their faith and piety. 

This is the significance of the martyrs and confessors on the surface, but there is also another essential significance.  Imagine for a minute that there had not been the podvig of the martyrs and confessors in the 20th century, had not been Orthodox people faithful to the Truth, that everyone had yielded to godlessness, disregarded Christian ideals, and followed the atheists to the end. If that had happened, what history would we have now, where would we be? The martyrs and confessors displayed the podvig of faithfulness to Christ, which is a witness to life and to the capacity of humanity itself. If they had not been, there would be no history, just as it was interrupted with the flood. If the Church has martyrs, it means that there is still life on the earth, it means that the Word of God still dwells with us and leads us to salvation, to eternal life. When this will not be, the Lord will appear for the Last Judgment. 

However, we currently poorly recognize the significance of the martyrs and, in this way, do not display the Christian virtue of thankfulness. We are blind in the sense that we do not see the danger of our existence at the present time. If we saw that danger, we would run with prayer to them as to our nearest contemporaries and relatives, we would strive to use their experience and be enriched by it, for they also lived in an epoch ruled by atheism. The Lord now has given us some consolation for a time through their prayers.  

Anastasia Verina carried out this interview with Igumen Damascene (Orlovskii) 


May 7, 2003 (Source: