Historical change is always a test for the people and their church. The people of Latvia and the Orthodox Church in Latvia are both exposed now to a new historical trial - the trial of political freedom.
For the Latvian people, whose history has been such a dramatic longing for freedom, to be politically free is a serious test. It would have been so for any other nation, continuously traumatized by the expansionist campaigns of its dominant neighbours. "The Orphans of History", a song with this sad title was often sung at the unforgettable demonstrations of 1988-91, when the will of the Latvian people to escape the hateful embrace of the collapsing Soviet empire was expressed so intensely and directly. There was much bitterness in that song, which was in the form of a prayer. Maybe too much for people seeking to be free, since we can hardly be free if we are mired in the bitterness of self-pity. But it does take time to live out the pain of the last wounds of history.
Restoration of national life, so drastically cut short in 1940, is, doubtless, the surest way to the fulfillment of long-lived dreams and the calming of fears and frustrations. Latvia is now going through this healing process and has acquired at the same time a more realistic image of its statehood. Not always a favourable one. Thus, when we study a new society, we always pay attention to the way it treats its old and young. The shocking misery of the retired people of Latvia, who have been allotted by the newly reborn state a monthly pension of $75, a sum considerably below the poverty line, as well as empty, neglected nursery schools, which some six years ago were buzzing with the cheerful tattle of children, can hardly betoken a civilized attitude to those who, more than others, depend on state care. All in Latvia are well aware of this. These facts, in striking contrast to the flood of numerous newly opened shops, have already become the ambivalent sign of the new era. So the open letter of the American delegation of Latvian clergy to the government of Latvia in the spring of 1995 - a letter filled with Christian anxiety which insistently warned against the irreparable consequences of the present neglect of school education and the alarming growth of prostitution among teenagers - was placidly accepted as yet another news item.
The impressive Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity, erected in the l880s and situated most conspicuously in the very centre of Riga, lives its church life amidst the new contrasts of independent Latvia. These contrasts have become part of the daily life of the cathedral: there is always a flock of elderly beggars at its entrance (an unthinkable scene in the Soviet times) and in its basement functions the commercial enterprise "Agate". "Agate" provokes associations with the gospel story of the money-changers in the temple of Jerusalem, but the cathedral has its own wounds of history.
Under the Soviet regime, in 1961, when the cathedral was made the House of Science, it was totally reconstructed and its precious belongings disappeared. In 1991 The Cathedral of the Nativity was returned to the Orthodox Church empty, demolished, with all its richly decorative wall paintings destroyed and whitewashed over. But it had the brand new crosses on its cupolas. These crosses had been donated and transported from Germany by Mr. Feldmanis, a German citizen.
It may take some fifty years to restore the church, and the Dean of the Cathedral, Father Ambrosius, meanwhile feels quite positive about the commercial enterprise in the temple: "Agate" is paying a high rent to the Church and helps it with construction works. It reminds one of donations made to the Orthodox Church by wealthy merchants in Old Russia. Without their help such majestic churches could hardly have been built in the past - or now, be, restored.
In the course of its 111 years the cathedral has gone through various memorable experiences, reflecting the drama of the Orthodox Church history in Latvia. Thus, in 1921, when the Orthodox Church of Latvia was acknowledged by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarch Tichon as an independent Church, and its newly elected head, Archbishop Ioannes Pommer (1876-1934), the most outstanding personality in Latvian Orthodoxy, arrived in Riga, the cathedral stood devastated, plundered, with part of its roof taken away as building material. This was a consequence of the Bolsheviks' hatred for churches during the brief period of their power in Latvia in 1919 and the negative indifference of the succeeding Latvian government to Baltic Orthodoxy. Owing to its political associations with the threatening image of Russia, the newly independent Orthodox Church in Latvia could hardly be popular in official circles. So the traditional residence of Orthodox archbishops was handed over by the government to the Catholic Church on the very eve of the new Archbishop's arrival. Archbishop Ioannes chose as a place of his residence the basement of the devastated Cathedral of the Nativity.
There was something providentially symbolic about this underground residence of the head of the Orthodox Church in Latvia. He wrote about it in his testament:
"My living in the cellar is most probably destroying my health and stamina and shortening my life. But when the time comes for the people and history to consider and evaluate facts in order to pronounce a final judgement over the past, I am sure that my cellar will not be ascribed to the shortcomings of the Orthodox Church ..., on the contrary, it will be regarded to its credit. We have not built palaces at the expense of the people's poverty... My cellar will always be a monument to the position of the Orthodox Church during the difficult times we lived through. ... When I die, bury me in this cave of mine." The full text of this testament is published in the Orthodox Church year-book of 1996, and its ascetic pathos says a lot to modem Latvians who are witnessing new forms of social misery and black market wealth in their political life.
Archbishop Ioannes died the death of a martyr: he was tortured, crucified and burnt alive in his summer house in 1934. The mystery of this murder was never revealed. His last will, however, was not fulfilled, in spite of the fact that some 160,000 Latvians expressed their protest in the letters to the government after it refused to fulfill the Archbishop's will. But it has never been abrogated, and this cannot but lead to the thought that the Latvian martyr's will should be obeyed. It might prove a great spiritual support for the Orthodox Church in Latvia, since the history of any Church is blessed by the miraculous contributions of its martyrs.
During the last two years citizens of Riga were fascinated and comforted by another miraculous contribution to their church life: the icons in the Cathedral of the Nativity were "weeping" with myrrh. This spontaneous dropping of myrrh is an incomprehensible phenomenon for scientists, but for orthodox believers the drops of myrrh on the two centuries' old icon "The Joy of All who Sorrow" were a welcome grace sent by means of the icon into their daily life,burdened as it is with new trials. There are more myrrh exuding icons in the same cathedral: that of St. Sergius of Radonezh and the newly painted icon of Our Lady. The interior of the cathedral makes a pathetic scene: the traces of the recent vandalism and the blessing of the few "weeping" icons. In October 1995 the wooden cross erected to the memory of the Archbishop Ioannes was also exuding myrrh - just on the day of his murder. All these signs are interpreted by devout people as a special blessing emanating in the cathedral.
Symbolically enough, the cathedral looks more like a reconstruction site than a normal functioning church. This sight reflects truly the present situation of the Orthodox Church in Latvia: most of its energy is given to restoration. Not only must buildings be restored. All social forms of the Christian life, cultivated during the millennia of Christianity but suppressed and deformed during the last fifty years of atheistic officialdom, are in the process of restoration. Only two aspects of this daring multifaceted restoration work can be mentioned here: education and the press - daring since it is being launched in spite of the general economic crisis in the country.
In the summer of 1995, 25 junior students of the Orthodox Seminary in Riga finished their first academic year. This seminary continues the traditions of the first Orthodox Latvian-Estonian seminary founded in Riga in 1847 which was designed initially for native speakers of Latvian and Estonian, as well for those who were thinking of becoming priests and religious educators among these Baltic peoples. The seminary was renowned for its high educational standards, especially during the decades before the first world war. Not only the Baltic clergy, but members of the first Estonian and Latvian governments had been among its graduates (e.g. Pjast, the first President of Estonia). The present generation of its enthusiastic students began their studies in 1994, in a rented classroom, hardly big enough to seat all of them. Nevertheless, their first academic year has been a very special educational and spiritual experience, bestowed. on those who venture to be pioneers. The Orthodox Church, however, is looking forward to regaining its former legitimate property: the spacious buildings of the old Orthodox Seminary and its higher school. This might bring about a solution of many economic problems, but restoration is a time-consuming process.
In 1995 the Orthodox journal Faith and Life resumed its publication. This monthly journal was published in Latvia in 19231940 (since 1926 in Latvian and Russian). After it was closed in 1940 by the Soviet authorities, a modified variant of this journal was published for some two years in the USA in the nineteen-forties and fifties. Now beside other journalistic functions Faith and Life performs a special restoration mission: it publishes materials related to the history of the Orthodox Church in Latvia. This history can be traced back textually to the twelfth century, but its popular version is essentially distorted by incompetent text-books and the general lack of information, the product of politically biased prejudices. Another important aspect of this restorational activity is the martyrology of the Latvian Orthodox Church in Soviet times. The Church lost half of its clergy in the persecutions of the 1940-50s and their, so far unwritten, martyrology, must mould the historical image of the Latvian Orthodoxy of that period. Publications of the journal contribute to the collection of necessary memorial data.
Wisdom, patience and self-sacrifice are required to perform restoration work on this scale. Sometimes one might have a feeling that the veneration with which the Orthodox Church regards everything that pertains to its traditions can hinder a more genuine response to the dynamism of the historical process. The twentieth century's atheistic totalitarian utopias have been a great test for the Orthodox Church, and its sagacious religious writers have left to us a deep critical analysis of those aspects of pre-revolutionary church life which fatally contributed to the victimization of the people by the communist utopia. God forbid that we ever restore those traditions.Restoration within the Church is a process of discrimination. The words of our Lord "new skins for new wine" (Luke 5:38) demand dynamism in the spiritual life within the Church. Those who pray know that there is a great need for prayers to ask God's help for the people and the Churches of Latvia, so that they may meet the trials of new age with the wisdom of the Testament, and the new wine of history will not be wasted because of our old wine-skins.