"Like relics like myrrh": Pussy Riot as a vomiting antidote to the lies in Christ’s name



[This article was written, first of all, for the sisters and brothers in Christ]

Australia, 11.43 in the morning of 17th of August 2012: I am typing these words just a few hours before the public announcement of the sentence to so-called punk-feminist group Pussy Riot. Whatever the sentence will be it will not change anything in my evaluation of the event which was called in the mass media a “punk prayer in the Church of Christ the Saviour” and therefore it does not matter when this article will be finished. However, sooner is better because I want to vomit all this out of my system. Precisely to vomit – this word defines the purpose of my article much more adequately than the word evaluate. One can evaluate singular events: unsightly behaviour of certain clergymen, the members of a congregation, congregations as a whole, and even heresies. But the global scale of the fake, of the lie in Christ’s name, one can only sense intuitively and vomit out as a poison before it is too late. The lie under the cover of the holy things, especially the lie of priests has the ability to unnoticeably but efficiently cloud the minds of their own brethren: the believers who make the Body of Christ – the Church.  

I admit that the poison polluted my system as well, preventing me from the initial recognition of the meaning of the “punk prayer”. When I first saw the video of young women dressed in multicoloured joker’s clothes, jumping up and down in front of the icons, my immediate reaction was “What a nightmare! – How is it possible, why did no one throw them out?” As an iconographer[1], I have an acute sense of harmony and of how one is obliged to conduct oneself in the church. However, even at that time I did not sense anything blasphemous happening. Something bizarre, absurd – certainly, mostly because it was plain to see that “the jokers” did not even know how to cross themselves properly and in which direction to look. If I was there I would probably push those jumping jokers out because it is not appropriate to raise one’s legs and play guitars in the church. At that time I did not notice the key to the event: in which particular church that inappropriate action was happening, so I could not recognize its symbolism.  

Every Russian knows about the history of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow: built to honour the victory in the Great Patriotic War 1812 “… for the commemoration of unprecedented zeal, faith, and love of Russian people for their Christian Faith and their Motherland, and as an expression of our gratitude to God’s providence which saved Russia from the great peril”[2], blown up in 1931 and rebuilt in 1994-97. Rebuilt, as it has been repeated many times, and is still being repeated, as a symbol of the revival of Russia. Precisely for the restoration of this symbol of revival I, being a student then, also donated a modest sum of money. I remember my disappointment when I discovered that the new cathedral was to be an exact copy of the destroyed one, not a variation of esthetically far more successful projects rejected by the emperor. I also remember very well the moment when I for the first time entered the new church. I was already an utterly conscious Christian, i.e. a Christian by my own agonized choice, living an active life within the Church. Already while approaching the cathedral I felt that something was very wrong. Closer – worse: its proportions and details, brick work and reliefs looked fake.

Under its roof I was hit – I cannot use any other word – by the outrageous, for any minimally theologically educated person, depiction of the so-called New Testament Trinity: God the Father as an old man, God the Son as a baby, and the Holy Spirit as a dove[3]. Hit not so much with its non-canonical image – unfortunately, there are plenty of such non-canonical depictions in churches all over Russia but with its fakeness. “It is all lie, double-dealing, absurd” – screamed the painting and the whole cathedral. Similar depictions of the New Testament Trinity in other churches scratched my eyes as well but it was clear that, though they were made with theological ignorance they were sincere, and the sincerity partially redeemed the ignorant zeal. In the cathedral I sensed something deadening, an unmistakable coldness of imitation. Its whole mood was heavy and oppressing.

Despite my zeal as a neophyte I have never retuned to the cathedral, in my mind referring to it as the “Samovar”. Later I heard about the fakes, i.e. plastic reliefs on its walls, underground car parks, rooms rented for corporate meetings – heard from someone and just waved it off: “It is a slander – which car parks can be in the church?” I waved it off because, although my understanding of the holiness of the Church was not simplistic and naïve, I had a certain naïve faith that the priests could not consciously collaborate with the lie, at least most of them. I explained the unpleasant impression created by the cathedral with the bad tastes of the clergy and their ignorance of true Christian art.

To understand the dimension of the suddenly fallen upon me realization, the last blow of which was the “punk-prayer”, one must be clear about what an Orthodox church (a building) means for a believer. There are many books and articles about the theological basis of church architecture, about the symbolism of its parts (as well as depictions), and anyone interested can refer to them. I will simply say: it is my deepest conviction that absolutely everything in the Church (in the Church as a community of believers and in a church as a building), from the personal spiritual life of a Christian to the life of the Church as a whole, is measured by the Eucharist or the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The Eucharist is the starting point and the measure of everything and, if one keeps this in a mind, then much becomes clear even without a detailed knowledge of the symbols.

The sacrament of Holy Communion is a literal communion with God – the most extreme degree of closeness with God available to a human being in this world – and for this sake every church is built. Not for the purpose of reading the Bible, singing hymns, socializing, etc but so all the faithful can partake the Body and Blood of the Christ, according to his commandment thus becoming the mystical Body of the Christ.  Everything in a church serves this purpose of divinization, from its architecture to a shape of a chandelier. Not a single depiction, not a single item in a church can be a fake or a lie. We believe that during the Liturgy not only the members of a congregation are present but also the invisible Church: Jesus Christ, angels, saints and because of this we paint their depictions on the walls. We believe that we ourselves together with them become a part of the mystical Body of the Christ during the Eucharist – and this very fact is reflected in the visible world when the members of a congregation, while standing before the altar, are included in the rows of saints on the walls. It is very simple: we depict just as we believe and as it is in reality, without a postmodern “as if”, and exactly because of this it is prohibited to bring anything artificial into the church including artificial flowers – they are fake, an imitation of a real life. A Christian cannot believe half-way: either one believes and knows that in the sacrament of Communion she is united with the Christ, or one does not believe and does not know, and this impossibility of compromise and simplicity of faith determines one’s attitude to oneself and to the world.

If a Christian believes that while partaking Holy Communion she becomes a vessel of Jesus Christ, that her hands are the hands of Christ then she will never be able to tolerate any dissonance brought by semi-truth, semi-lies which in their essence are just lies, grime and filth. The ability to hear “the little bell” which signals about the fake at hand is given by the grace of God in communion with the Body and Blood of Christ who is Truth and Life. Being a gift of grace, this little bell is in no way a believer’s achievement. So, if we believe that a church is a house of God how do we dare to pollute it with something that has no affiliation with God and Eucharist? If we believe that in communion we are united with Jesus Christ, if we believe that the Sacrifice is taking place here and now and that the Saviour is in the Cup on the Altar then how can we allow in the same church the presence of car parks, car washing services, banquet halls and other inappropriate things? How is this possible that the Altar and the Cup are just above a car park and other “rooms” which have nothing to do with the Liturgy? To say that they are “behind the wall or under the floor” is Phariseeism and grime filth, much worse than an honest answer “we are ashamed but we need the money”. Why worse? – Because in the first case a priest is lying, swapping the intuitive reaction of a healthy conscience with a formal logic and thus conditions his congregation not to recognize the filth. In the second case he acknowledges that yes, it is filth.

I admit that it is quite difficult to explain, using logic only, why the car park under the church is filth. Just as I am unable explain logically why I feel like vomiting every time I witness the custom of circulating a plate for donations precisely during the Eucharist, after Our Father or, even worse, when I see a table with a plate put in a close proximity to the Cup: on this plate those who have just received Holy Communion are somehow invited to place their money immediately after receiving the Sacrament. I cannot say anything regarding that, apart from one thing: if one keeps in mind that everything in a church has symbolic meaning then such a table with a plate is rightly perceived as “a device to collect payment for the Body and Blood of Christ”. Precisely the blasphemous monstrosity of this symbol is responsible for the fact that nothing could make me “pay” for communion, but I have very much wanted to turn that table upside down. Thus, my reasons for spiritual nausea are a bit different from those of who are far from the Church but somehow very angry with its materialistic orientation.  Far from the Church materialists are enraged with Mercedes-Benz, expensive watches, mysterious “forced donations” and abundant Church properties. I, being a member of the Church, am enraged with how the “gathering of donations” is conducted and also with a formalistic logic of lies which provides a blasphemy with a very digestible, humanely understandable explanation “it is easier to collect a necessary sum during the Eucharist and we must keep the church”. Thus the church is placed above the Body and Blood of Christ but only those who acutely feel what the Body and Blood are can sense the sacrilege of this statement. The formalistic logic says “perhaps it is not so bad – we all know that we are not paying for communion” but the conscience is illogically shouting “how dare you to blaspheme!” and demands the sacrifice of “the decoration of the church” for the Ultimate Sacrifice. 

A reader may start wondering what all this has to do with Pussy Riot – perhaps because their “punk-prayer” was yet another, just a very creative, blasphemy? No, I do not think so; Pussy Riot has something to do with it because their “punk-prayer” was something like an earthquake which, bending and tilting a building revealed exactly that “shit of God”[4] which I understand as “shit under an Orthodox mask”, grime, filth which has been conducted in the house of God by the people of God. The mask slid aside and the stench within began to spread unobstructed.

The major source of the current stench, in my opinion, is the eternal Russian disease: reduction of Christianity to a tool of national self-identification, a state cult and, as a consequence, inevitable merging of the Church with state and government. The heresy of Phyletism[5] (the primacy of national, political interests over the universal Christian Church) takes amazingly variable forms among Russians, and not just among the Orthodox but also agnostics and even atheists. One can see this heresy in action in Russian Orthodox churches in Australia when new faces: Anglo-Saxons, Aboriginals, Ethiopians and even Greeks are often told “this is a Russian church, why did you come?” It is in the dreams about the restoration of monarchy in Russia where Orthodox Christianity plays precisely the role of the source for the main dish. It is also found in the endless statements of agnostics “we must unite and support the Church otherwise Russians will be pushed out by Asians and other nasty people”. It is also found in atheists busily placing a candle in church, who to the question “Why are you doing this? - you don’t believe” answer angrily “What, aren’t we Russians? – it is our tradition!” And last, it is Putin with a sour face awkwardly crossing himself in “the major cathedral of Russia” during the Easter service and then on the New Year publicly stating that he is “a dragon, born in the Year of the Dragon”. Many love mentioning Orthodoxy when it is convenient, especially in conjunction with “Russia – nationalism – enemies”. But one who has Christ as a measure cannot feel anything but acute shame and righteous anger when hearing such words.

Russia is bigger than the Kingdom of Heaven and the monarch is bigger than Christ? Sure, for nationalists, idol worshipers, agnostics, atheists, bigger without a doubt but how can Christians join with them in humiliating the Christ? And, the most important, how can those with whose hands the Eucharist is done join with them – how can they humiliate God, that very God about transubstantiation of bread and wine into whose Body and Blood they pray every Liturgy?

Duplicitous faith and lies have always existed within the Church but particularly shamelessly they popped out (at least for me) during the trial over Pussy Riot.
From the prosecutor’s speech
[6]: “vulgarly, cynically, challengingly moving in the church”, “attempting to devalue preserved for centuries and venerated traditions and dogmas”, “dared to violate the equality and originality of Russian Orthodox Church”,  “threatening sacramentality and not responding to calls”.

This is not the speech of a believer or even of a nonbeliever who honestly studied the specifics of the matter – this is the speech of a parrot. These words could be said by a nationalist, idol-worshiper, nonbeliever – by anyone who learnt that Orthodoxy is “a national attribute” and the Church is the conductor of a certain “state cult”. In a non-Christian context these words are completely natural. In a Christian context they are acidic, shameful and farce-like.

The prosecutor’s words and the trial are the real offence to the Christians, not the “punk-prayer”, for one simple reason: the speech of the prosecutor is absurd and a lie, the trial is a lie, but the bishops of the Church are silent despite the fact that the trial is using notions which make a sense only inside the Church. The use of Church Council decrees by the philistines to whom sacred equals sacramental is to spit into the face of the Church, just as “the tables for the payment for communion”.
The defendant’s lawyer asks the question:
“Why do the banquets and corporate take place in the Church of Christ the Saviour? Why can Boney M perform in the church, jump up and down, shake and sing indecent songs but the girls who sang the political song are judged according to the Penal Code?”

Ah, how naïve this question is and how easy to answer it using that formalistic logic: the banquets and corporate take place not in the church but in “halls and rooms” and “the punk-prayer” took place in the church. No, dear logically thinking sirs and ladies: the banquets occur exactly in the church although in the underground, under the cupola with the New Testament Trinity and very unlike the communal meals in monasteries – those happen in separate buildings away from the church and even if not so far away then the monks and pilgrims eat there, for the glory of God and accompanied by the reading of prayers aloud, not by the chorus of "Ra-Ra-Rasputin" and drunken speeches.

The question raised during the trial about double standards is completely legitimate and I will expand it, adding my personal questions which have been torturing me for a long time.  

Why is “the main cathedral of Russia” a fake, namely a business-complex in the shell of a cathedral? Why are you, the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, not sensitive to sacrilege of this kind?

Why in so many Russian Orthodox churches is the Eucharist accompanied by the rustle of banknotes and jingle of coins, and the collection of donations is blasphemously joined with the most sacred part of the Liturgy?

Why, despite the apostolic rules which oblige every Christian who did not commit a grave sin to partake communion during every Eucharist without requiring a confession, in the Russian Orthodox churches is communion only possible after a compulsory confession, i.e., much more seldom than it is prescribed by the Church canons?
A believer who wishes to act according to the apostolic rules and their own spiritual needs is forced to make a formal confession which is supposed to be the Sacrament of Repentance which is independent from the Sacrament of Communion. Why is the Sacrament of Repentance being transformed into “a ticket for communion”, i.e., a profanation of the Sacrament? Why is the late Russian rule “to partake communion only after a confession and many days of fasting” still being kept – a rule which appeared during the extreme spiritual decline of 19th century when Orthodox Christians were forced, by the merger with the of state and government with the Church, to confess and partake communion once a year for the sole purpose of proving their loyalty to the state (for which an official certificate was given)? Why because of this rule are modern Christians unable to unite with Jesus Christ as often as they can and as it was commanded, while the clergy partake of communion during every Liturgy?

Why was the completely pagan statement of the “Orthodox Christian” Putin about his belonging to “the family of dragons in the Year of a Dragon” not judged by the Russian Orthodox Church publicly so that its congregations would not be tempted to deviate into paganism?

Why did you, the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, not intervene in the trial of the punk-group but preferred to keep silent while the state, using the name of the Church and the name of the Christ, i.e. polluting them, was prosecuting its and, clearly, your own enemies? Why did you not intervene out of Christian compassion for the defendants?

Because you will not answer me I will answer myself. Whatever your motivations are there is only one major reason: you behave like this because Jesus Christ is no longer your measure and starting point, despite your frequent, according to your status, communion. One who truly has the Christ inside himself cannot lie or be cowardly silent or, even worse, bar others’ way to the Christ – he is simply unable to do so. He can make mistakes, can hit an opponent in the ear like St. Nicholas struck Arius if he feels that his faith is offended (notice that he did it with his own hand and for this action was thrown out of the Church Ecumenical Council) but he will never lie saying that “business does not happen in the church” and crawl before an earthly king for the sake of “fortification of the Church of the Heavenly King”.  He will not. A Christian may throw the punks out of the church and give them a few punches on the way but he will never scream “burn the witches” and never be silent, gloatingly watching the trial-farce.

Your main cathedral is worthy of you – the lie and fake from the beginning to the end, grime filth covered by the superficial piety and speculation on history, suspiciously resembling the “Museum of Orthodoxy” in the novel Antichrist by Vladimir Soloviev. “The symbol of the revival of Russia” in reality is the symbol of its destruction. You know as well as I do about the destruction of the architecture of the old Moscow and about the destruction of Russian culture but I do not recall that any of you ever publicly judged the Russian government for the deliberate destruction of the history and culture of the people about whose good you like to speak so much. The priceless architectural originals are being swapped with the concrete soulless imitations-copies and true Russian culture – with a stenchy fake but you are silent, silent as long as the relative proportions of the façade are being kept. You are not offended with this sanctioned by the state obscenity, not even offended with the obscenity coming directly from the state itself but you are offended with “leg kicking in the church”. 

I do not know what people Pussy Riot are, whether they believe in God or not but I know that God can chose very “inappropriate” people as His tools. The more I think about what happened the clearer it is to me that the ‘punk prayer” was a sign whether His tools knew about it or not.

There was no blasphemy – not formally, not in content. Pussy Riot did not blaspheme (i.e., attempted to insult or curse God), they did not break the icons, did not destroyed crosses, did not intrude the altar area. They conducted their “punk prayer” in the one place where it was, as my Christian sense tells me, completely appropriate – in the imitation of the Orthodox church, a fake. This event combined in itself the extremely inappropriate and extremely appropriate, features which can be fully understood only to those who are within the Church tradition.  

Despite their “inappropriate appearance”, the participants were dressed according to formal Church rules: head covers and wearing skirts (a great comment on the Pharisee’s doctrine about the special grace of skirts and head covers). They were inappropriately standing with their backs toward the altar but, if they were standing facing it than the “leg kicking” would be a sacrilege – therefore their standing with their backs toward the altar was pious and appropriate. Addressing Theotokos (Our Lady) they crossed themselves awkwardly – and Putin and company standing in the same cathedral would come to a mind. They shouted out the words which should have been shouted by the Patriarch, any bishop, or a common priest. They offended so many Orthodox with their “swearing” but it was in fact a normal reaction of a stunned person who faces something outrageously inappropriate. Just like that I, after hearing from a certain priest of the Russian Orthodox Church that “The Old Testament should be thrown away because there is too much nonsense there” said inside myself “Oh shit!”

Swearing not infrequently comes from the lips of rarely swearing people when they suddenly see an abyss broken open. I do not know if these women can be called holy-fools but the shape and content of their “punk prayer” was holy-foolishness without a doubt. The “punk prayer” was thought through to minuscule detail or more correctly not thought through but intuitively guessed or given (providentially) as a kind of a mirror or as a series of mirrors. It has an answer to every accusation, even to the “sacrilege of the order” “Theotokos, become a feminist!” – it was a request, not an order as some are trying to present it because these words were sung while kneeling.

I understand the “punk prayer” as a scream out of an unbearable existence in lies and as an attempt to get rid of spiritual nausea. Furthermore I myself many times experienced the desire to scream, if not “shit of God” then something very similar while seeing the obscenities inside the Church which I mentioned above. 

But what if I am mistaken and the “punk prayer” was in the reality hooliganism or even a provocation? Nothing, absolutely nothing – holy fathers of the ancient Church teach us that we must attribute to others good intentions and, if we are mistaken, then to learn something useful from a bad experience and God will reward us a hundred times more. Even if it was a provocation, it changes nothing in the sudden regaining of my sight, or more correctly, in the sudden improvement of my vision. Everything is very easy: Christians should not concern themselves with provocations, external enemies, secret societies because we have our constant measure – Jesus Christ and our desire to be with him. Even if we are told that our following his commandments “will make the Church more vulnerable” or “will weaken Russia”, etc we cannot be guided by these considerations because they push us away from Jesus Christ. If previously such sentences made me think for a minute now they become nothing to me and for that I bow down to Pussy Riot. The trial over them showed what “shit of God” can become “a people of God” if in its zeal it is ready to collaborate with whomever available: nationalists, politicians, liars, and other articulators of purely earthly interests. Christ demands mercy, not-of-this-worldness, his, Christ’s, truth which is insanity for this world. To think of him in these earthly categories means to humiliate the Christ. It puts the heavenly at the service of the earthly and God at the service of human beings. This is a true blasphemy, not “kicking legs up in the church”. 


Anna Terentieva, 18th of August 2012
 

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[1] A person who has a blessing [permission] to paint icons [holy images] for churches and the private devotion of believers.

[2] The Great Manifesto about building in Moscow the church in the name of Christ the Saviour, 25 December 1812.

[3] “To paint Savaoph (God the Father) with a grey beard and his Son and a dove between them is very absurd and indecent because God the Father does not have flesh and nobody has seen him…” – “About iconographers and Savaoph” quoted according to Acts of Moscow Councils 1666 and 1667, M., 1893.
The popular argument that the depictions of the New Testament Trinity existed in the destroyed cathedral has weight only if the rebuilt cathedral is considered to be a museum copy, a symbol of historical succession or succession of power but not an acting church. From a Christian point of view it is absurd to excuse the depiction prohibited by the Church Council by its “historical value” because the heavenly determines the earthly and not vice versa.  

[4] A line from the Pussy Riot song.

[5] Judged as a heresy by the Orthodox Synod in Constantinople in 1872.

[6] I kept the prosecutors’ peculiar choice of words although they are quite meaningless for a Christian.



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