The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest

* We reviewed this book in the Summer 2014 issue.

hunted

Written by John Gerard, S. J.

(Ignatius Press, 2012), 370 pages

Reviewed by Colin Kerr

At first I didn’t know what I was looking at. An excited friend forced this book into my hand, and I thought, oh boy, how long will this one take to get to! I think most can intuit the long list of books to which I am committed to reading, as editor and mainstay of the Review.

I didn’t know what to make of this work because, for the first three or four years after my conversion, I feverously read every saint’s life I could get my hands on, and, autobiography, well, that was (and still is) my absolute favourite! I spent many hours in the BX 4700 (Library of Congress designation) section at the three universities in my home town in those days. Thus, I’m still not sure how this one slipped by me.

This is the detailed and edifying account of a priest who spent his time ministering to the persecuted hold-over Catholics during the time of Elizabeth I and James I. He was born in 1564 and died in 1637. Yes, while Shakespeare was writing his greatest works, Fr. Gerard was being hunted, tortured and imprisoned. And yet he escaped and continue on with his work.

This book is the record of a priest’s daily work. It describes the lengths to which he went to hide from the authorities who would drop by at a moment’s notice. It describes the torture he suffered, the personalities involved, and, most of all, the resiliency of his faith. One cannot but see in its pages a blueprint for the priests of our generation.

It is almost silly to point out that what this book records is what we can expect in the near future. As North American culture careens ever-closer to finally committing to the totalitarian enforcement of its valueless-values, thereby finally joining the ranks of the illiberal Muslim and communist countries of the world, we are seeing more and more governance of thought. Gerard was persecuted because it was supposed that priests—especially Jesuit priests—were plotting against the crown. This was one of the general suspicions under which the very first Christians lived in the Roman Empire. Plus ça change… Today real Christians are thought to foster violence against homosexuals. (Precisely where has this occurred?) It’s a flimsy allegation, but one that is promoted to justify modernity’s campaign of anti-Christianity. Christianity has been persecuted in almost every country in the world in the last hundred years, excluding almost only the U.S. and Canada. But it is now beginning. Whether you are talking about Mexico, Germany, Distribution_of_English_Recusant_Catholics,_1715-1720Russia, or Argentina ‘good reasons’ have always been given for doing bad things to Christians. You have to learn to spot these justifications and name them for what they really are.

But we don’t need to be afraid, Fr. Gerard clearly shows us. Persecution is not bigger than the Holy Spirit. One of the biggest lies is that we are powerless against the modern propaganda machine of the state. Put yourself in Fr. Gerard’s shows. Imagine living in a Catholic country, and that over a mere fifty years’ time 99% of the people abandoned the Church. That was England in the 16th century. And yet nearly five hundred years later, the Church of England is dying and the Catholic Church is yet still presenting itself as the only authentic form of Christianity that can stand against the tide of paganism. Much can happen with God. Gerard’s life revealed that. He lived in a hopeless time, perhaps as we do today, and yet he laid the seeds for the resurgence that we are harvesting today.

In dark times only a few candles will burn, and that’s all that’s needed. This book will encourage you to become such a light.

The-Rack

The rack.

Everyday Saints

We featured Julie Culshaw’s review of the Archimandrite’s book in our Christmas 2014 issue. Now we have the pleasure of adding to it the review of another valued contributor, Francis Phillips.

Everyday Saints and Other Stories

Written by Archimandrite Tikhon

(Pokrov Publications, 2012)

everyday saints

First published in Russia in 2011, this book, despite its unlikely title, has been consistently at the top of the country’s best-seller lists. This tells you something about Russia; although officially atheist for over 70 years, following the collapse of Communism there has been a dramatic rediscovery of traditional Russian Orthodoxy. Alongside the flashy oligarchs, the economic difficulties that followed the collapse of Communism and the nationalist ambitions of the current government, the religious soul of the country has steadily reasserted itself.

The charm and fascination of this work of over 450 pages does not lie in hagiography. In writing about the life of the monks in Pskov Caves Monastery, near the border with Estonia, the author has managed an almost impossible feat: to make the working of grace and the life of the supernatural seem entirely normal; this is the secret of his success. He simply describes monastic life – and occasionally parish life – as he has experienced it. Thus the reader is drawn irresistibly into an otherworldly dimension.

Beginning in 1984, Father Tikhon, a graduate from a prestigious film school in St Petersburg, relates how he and the other four novices in his group arrived at Pskov Caves Monastery. Four were from entirely irreligious backgrounds; all had excellent career prospects ahead of them. Yet “for each of us, a new world had suddenly opened up, incomparable in its beauty. And that world had turned out to be boundlessly more attractive than the one in which we had lived our… lives.”

Despite being written nearly 30 years later, Fr Tikhon’s book never loses its quality of gratitude and wonderment at “the beautiful new world” he had discovered, a world in which “above all, we can always sense powerful manifestations of divine strength and comfort.” These manifestations are reflected in the lives of some of the compelling personalities with the monastery walls. Many of the older monks had fought in WW II; others had survived years in the gulag. “Having liberated their own country…these young warriors had decided now to serve Almighty God…They were ready to engage in mortal, spiritual combat for themselves and for their living and dead companions – those who had not been called to fight this unseen yet crucial spiritual war between good and evil”. Fr Tikhon adds laconically, “You can imagine how tough they were.” All were men outstanding in courage and devotion – as well as a certain eccentricity.

Fr John Krestiankin, Fr Tikhon’s spiritual mentor, spent eight years in prison camps based on a false accusation. Gifted with prophetic powers, he was full of the “mysterious and all-forgiving love” of Christ. Fr Seraphim, who lived a hermit-like existence in a damp cave within the monastery grounds, had a reputation as a saintly confessor. Fr Nathaniel, the monastery treasurer, a “difficult” man, harsh and inflexible to the novices, nevertheless keeps the monastery open and flourishing, withstanding decades of Soviet harassment. Indeed, Pskov Caves was one of only two monasteries never to be closed down during the Soviet era, when thousands of other cathedrals and churches were destroyed or converted to other uses.

Fr Nathaniel was helped by the Abbot, Archimandrite Alipius, “model of a fearless spiritual warrior”, who offered to die himself rather than close the monastery when bullied by Soviet officialdom. Once he dressed up in his old military uniform, complete with double rows of medals, to confront the Party apparatchiks sent by the Kremlin; faced by this fearsome personage, they departed hastily.

Included among these biographical accounts are old monks’ tales of divine intervention, some brief homilies (more of praise than instruction) and anecdotes of Fr Tikhon’s particular friends and the exotic characters he meets in remote parishes in rural Russia. He occasionally mentions exorcisms, commenting that “demons are like parasites in the human body. You may not know about them and may not even believe in their existence, but they truly do act as parasites on our souls and, imperceptibly to their hosts, control their thoughts and deeds.”

One colourful yet attractive personality is Fr Raphael, formerly a model Soviet youth, who by chance picked up a Bible “and everything changed in an instant.” He discovered a world where “wealth was ridiculous and glamour and ostentation absurd, while modesty and humility were beautiful and becoming.” Fr Raphael was no preacher, scholar or theologian; but he had “discovered an amazing secret: from humility even the simplest of sinners comes closer to God.”

There is also Fr Dositheus, who lived in a hermitage on a swampy island, paddling to his parish duties in an unstable, homemade canoe, and who spent hours praying the Jesus Prayer in a hollowed-out tree trunk which he had dragged into his shack.

The book includes many photographs of the monks and priests described, along with some of the great religious festivals. They beckon the reader into a mysterious yet compelling world, unknown to western travel writing or political commentary. Proceeds from its sale will go to a memorial cathedral in Moscow, dedicated to the victims of Communism.

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Ivan the Terrible begging the superior of the Pskov monastery to let him take the tonsure. (Painting by Klavdy Lebedev.)

 

Upcoming Issues

Since we are a cottage industry, we are always behind schedule. The Winter 2016 issue is all but ready. It features new Catholic publications. Readers will find it really helpful in acquainting them with some great new books. As always, there are lots of other kinds of books reviewed too.

As we get more efficient at producing the journal, we have learned to think ahead more and more, and assemble material two, and even three, issues ahead of time. It’s not always easy to think about what might make a good issue feature. It’s not easy, but it’s fun. When we make a decision, it concentrates my reading for the the next month or so.

So, the issue that follows will be dedicated russian writersto Russian writers. Since Henri DeLubac wrote his famous Drama of Atheist Humanism, Catholics have had a great interest in Dostoevsky. My teenage hero was his contemporary, Leo Tolstoy. We will feature books by them, as well as books by other such literary luminaries as Pushkin and Turgenev.

That’s the Spring issue. The Summer issue will feature books ‘of wisdom.’ By this we mean a very broad collection of works, from fairy tales, to Biblical topics, to the great practical philosophical works of people like Marcus Aurelius.

george macdonald  perrault

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