The Church as Darkness and Light

IN HIS PREACHING OF CHRIST to the Gentiles St Paul was challenging the heart of Jewish practice in his day: the necessity of observing the Law. What was required, he taught, was faith in Christ.

In writing to the Galatians, St Paul mentioned an objection which he probably heard from critics: “if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin?” (Galatians 2:17) In other words, if a Christian sins, is that the fault of his faith or even of Christ in whom he believes?

St Paul would go on to say that it is a sinner’s heart, rather than his faith which is at fault. He believes in Christ, but does not act consistently with his belief. As one popular expression has it, “He talks the talk, but does not walk the walk.”

The Dark Side of the Church

There are many believers who sincerely wish to follow Christ, but are not able to control their passions in line with their faith. There are others who dismiss the Church’s traditional teachings as outdated, if these teachings contradict their own preferred way of life. Still others simply ignore Christ’s way of life because they have the power to do so. They have been called the dark side of the Church.

Sergei Fudel was a young Russian layman of twenty when he was first arrested for his religious activities in the Soviet Union. He spent the next twenty-five years in prisons, labor camps and internal exile. He witnessed many acts of infidelity on the part of clergy and other Christians, whom he called “the dark double of the Church.” Many people have been hurt in such circumstances. Some have even left the Church as a result.

In response, Fudel echoed the teaching of Moscow priest Valentine Sventitsky: “a sin within the Church is not a sin of the Church, but against the Church.” Evil has always existed within the very enclosure of the Church, Fudel stressed, noting the example of Judas. “We must see this with our eyes open, always remembering that ‘He who dipped his hand with Me in the dish will betray Me.’” (Matthew 26:23)

“The Church,” Fudel insisted, “is only Christ in His humanity, it is His Body… Breaking away from the Church because of the moral derelictions we see in it is religiously foolish and reflects our inability to think things through. Anything wrong, distorted and impure that we see within the gates of the Church is not the Church.”

God Makes Up for Our Failures

It is the Church’s traditional belief that the whole Church – those in heaven as well as those on earth – are present at its worship. Our liturgical texts are written with this faith in mind. Thus we sing at the Presanctified Liturgy, “Now the Powers of Heaven minister invisibly with us. For, behold, the King of Glory enters.”

From time to time people have been made deeply aware that the whole Church is with us when we worship. The Russian priest-confessor Arseny Streltzoff, held captive in a Soviet prison camp, was singled out for special punishment for trying to stop the beating of another prisoner, a non-believer named Alexei. Both Fr Arseny and Alexei were put in an outdoor steel cell in below freezing weather. They were not expected to survive. Fr Arseny saw this isolation as a chance to pray freely and without restraint. His companion told how the priest’s clothes were transformed as he prayed into brilliant white priestly vestments. “There was no more cell; now they were in a church… Alexei saw with surprise that there were two men assisting Fr Arseny. Both were dressed in the same bright vestments and both shone with an undefinable white light.” Alexei saw the universal Church in his punishment cell. Needless to say, he became a believer.

Fudel tells the following remarkable story that illustrates how God works to preserve holiness in His Church despite our failings. If what we see is the “dark double” at work, the angels and saints supply what is lacking.

“A five-year-old boy was baptized in a parish church. A week later he and his grandmother were walking when they met the priest in the street. ‘Say hello to Father,’ said Granny, ‘he baptized you.’ ‘No,’ answered the boy, ‘he did not baptize me, an angel baptized me and Father was lying on a bench, with his hands tied down.’”

A similar confirmation is attributed to a most unlikely source, the nineteenth-century German romantic poet Clemens Brentano. A frequent visitor to the nun and visionary, Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), Brentano recorded his recollections of their conversations. In one such recollection, she reportedly spoke of a vision:

“I beheld pictures referring to the defects in divine worship and how they are supernaturally repaired…  God receives the honor due Him from a higher order. Among other things I saw that when priests have distractions during the sacred ceremonies, Mass, for instance, they are in reality wherever their thoughts are — and during the interval a saint takes their place at the altar… Sometimes I see a priest leaving the sacristy vested for Mass; but he goes not to the altar. He leaves the church and goes to a tavern, a garden, a hunt, a maiden, a book, to some rendezvous, and I see him now here, now there, according to the bent of his thoughts, as if he were really and personally in those places. It is a most pitiful and shameful sight! 
“But it is singularly affecting to behold at this time a holy priest going through the ceremonies of the altar in his stead. I often see the priest returning for a moment during the sacrifice and then suddenly running off again to some forbidden place. Such interruptions frequently last a long time.”

What Should We Do?

Among the Twelve Apostles there was a representative of the dark side – Judas. He was in a distinct minority. At other times representatives of the “dark double” have been in the majority. Think of the years that Arianism and Iconoclasm were supported by many bishops. The existence of the dark double does not render the wider Church unfruitful. It is particularly helpful to keep this wider vision of the Church in mind when we seem to see only the dark double of the Church in our midst.

Believers who are troubled by the presence of the dark double in the Church should keep in mind:

A) The Apostolic Tradition of holiness is always present in the Church. When the words or actions of individual churchmen contradict the Tradition, keep your eyes on the Tradition.

B) Remember that any of us may be distracted in prayer and “wander” to other places, good or bad when we try to pray. Ask the Lord’s help in deepening your ability to focus on the words of your prayer.

Recalling Christ’s parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), Sergei Fudel reminds us, “Either you or I, or he or she, may be weeds at this moment, and in an hour any one of us may become wheat. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons said: ‘Every man is himself the reason why he sometimes becomes wheat and sometimes straw’ (Against Heresies, Book 4, ch 4).”

Passages from Sergei Fudel’s writings, which appeared in various Samizdat journals during the Soviet era, were published in English as Light in the Darkness by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY in 1989.