Holy Russia

Like the returning exiles of Israel from ancient Babylon, the Russian people have been returning to a Church that was frequently devastated and constantly persecuted under 70 years of Communism. When an Orthodox Church is consecrated it is set aside “until the end of the world.” Thus you do not simply walk away from a Church gutted by the godless, but it is restored.

 By the same token, you do not walk away from a people whose soul has been under such oppression. For unlike a Church building, the soul, through the mercies of God, is eternal (as will be the body). These have to be rebuilt through prayer, fasting, returning to liturgical services, praying before the icons, learning a new charity, forgiving enemies, and becoming, “Holy Russia,” a very common name for a land once marked by the depth of its piety.

Many of us in the modern West have no roots in such a memory. The British isles once breathed a holy Orthodoxy during the years of St. Cuthbert, Sts. Cedd and Chad, St. Drithelm (one of my favorites) and something like 28 saints in their royal family alone.

America has not known a period of “Holy America” despite the propaganda surrounding the Founding Fathers. Some were Christians, but we have no saint to whom to point whose prayers and holy life provided an inspiration for this nation. There are saints of North America, largely the product of Holy Russia. Much prayer, and much holy living will be required of us to found a Holy America. It cannot be voted for and will never appear on a ballot. Grace knows no democracy, other than the single “yes” from our hearts.

Russia will only become Holy Russia as it fills its Churches, populates its monasteries, feeds its poor, and forgives its enemies. They are surrounded by a great cloud of new martyrs who will not forget their efforts.

Nor will God forget America. The saints know no national boundaries and will pray for us all. But to be a holy America will be a great burden and a cross.  

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



28 responses to “Holy Russia”

  1. bríde Avatar

    I like that you mentioned three saints of the British Isles – I am sad the St. Bríde of Kildare was not one of them. ;p

    I often wonder what it would take to make a “Holy America” possible. Obviously, the Constitution prohibits the establishment of a State Church. Our nation also prides itself on having and maintaining a high degree of diversity ethnically and morally, but especially religiously. It would seem that encouraging a renewed respect for Oneness and Truth would be our best bet at subverting this pluralism. I think that a good look at the supposed “union” of the many states in one country might provide a nice illustration…

    I am pontificating. Enough.

  2. bríde Avatar

    Oops – you mentioned four Britannic saints. Sorry.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    It takes people living holy lives. It’s that easy – it’s that hard. But living holy lives in the fullness of the faith. The salt must have kept its savor to be any good.

    In many ways, much American religion is already so essentially secularized (and I’m not speaking of the liberal protestants – they are irrelevant religiously) – that it will be hard for them to live a live that is truly holy while not being already captive to the culture.

    We must live our faith in a way that could be the basis of a culture.

  4. kristen Avatar

    “We must live our faith in a way that could be the basis of a culture.”

    Succinct and well-worded. Thank you!

  5. T Avatar

    Yeah, and having one unified American Orthodox Church will be great too.

  6. bríde Avatar

    “It takes people living holy lives. It’s that easy – it’s that hard. But living holy lives in the fullness of the faith.”

    That seems intuitively true – but I think my question is something more like, “How do we get those outside the Faith into it so that a significant number of Americans might be able to make an holy American culture?”
    To me, it seems that it would take more than a relatively tiny community of Orthodox Christians, as we have in America, to make the nation “Holy” in the sense that Russia was. After all, Russia was (and may yet be!) a Christian nation in a very holistic sense. I think, therefore, that my worry is more geared towards evangelism – the entrance – rather than holy life – the room.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One thing it will take is ditching false dichotomies like evangelism vs. living a holy life. If you think that Holy Russia was ALL Holy Russia you are sadly mistaken. Neither should we twiddle our thumbs waiting for “unity”. Parallel to holy Russia was a history of of muderous czars, oppressive feudalism, and ignorant superstition. There were plenty of reasons that allowed the Bolsheviks to take over. There were schisms within the Russian church. The holy ones of Russia simply chose God over the world, one by one.

    I have no doubt there are American saints both past, present and to come. Perhaps our eyes are so clouded, our hearts so hard that we are simply unable to see them yet. Perhaps we are still so in love with the holiness of other cultures that we ignore our own? Who knows one of the saints of America may be right next to you as you stand in worship. Christ is in our midst…!

  8. bríde Avatar

    Sheesh. Why don’t we put the polemical tone aside for a moment?

    I did not set up a dichotomy, since I have not said that evangelism is opposed to holy living. In fact, I would submit that evangelism is part of living a holy life, just as the entrance (the door) is part of a room. It would seem, however, that the holy ones of Russia must have been a somewhat greater force than those of America are at this time, and so evangelism might be of greater concern to the Church in America – assuming it aspires to the crown of holiness.

    A nation doesn’t become holy by only having a few holy people in it. Many nations can lay claim to that distinction. However, those that truly have an independent culture of holiness – a widespread and thriving, though not necessarily universal, Body – are called holy. Holy Russia, surely, was such a nation. If not, why on earth do we call her Holy?

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    I think your question is important and I think that the evangelism is happening. I have had more responses (private notes usually) from people who are now entering the Church this past year than I have members in my parish. One man sows, another reaps. But the evangelism is going on.

    What we cannot do is our great American penchant for planning. You can’t plan a holy nation, you have to be one. I say in my parish that our first task is to actually be an Orthodox parish so that when someone comes looking for one, there will be one to be found. Even that is difficult.

    I have no idea if I shall ever see a holy nation. God alone knows. But even if I see it from the palm of His hand, may my name be among those who took part in its coming into being. For a holy nation is nothing other than the showing forth of the Kingdom of God through the lens of a particular culture. It’ll be slow.

  10. Milan Avatar

    It’s very hard for me to think in the categories of “holy nations”. Russia is holy not because the nation is holy, but because there are many-many individuals from this nation who who have carried the holiness (which is the Spirit, the Grace) of Christ in themselves. It’s also quite hard to think about “Holy America” in the way “Holy Russia”, or “Holy Byzantium” can be thought about. I don’t believe that Orthodoxy can become a state religion in America in the way it used to be in Russia or Byzantium – and much more I don’t believe it would be a right ambition even if it was possible. It should not be forgotten that the Roman Church of the firs three centuries of Christianity was the holiest of all Churches – because of it’s martyrdom, not because of it’s secular authority. I somehow see the American way towards its holiness much closer to this early Roman model – and, looked from aside, American Orthodoxy has already started to “build” its holiness in this direction. It seems to me that the American and the Western European Orthodox Theology and asceticism puts the foundations of the Orthodoxy in the third millennium (which is a mission with enormous significance) – through their martyrdom (in the meaning of “confession”) of the continuously living tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    Yes, I would agree that the notion of a “Holy Nation” should be purged of any political content. Holy Russia does not contain political content, or not necessarily. Becoming a state religion is not a goal for the Church.

    But America, or Europe, dotted generously with living, functioning parish churches and monasteries and the light of living saints is not a bad vision, however God would bring it about. Wherever you are, it is a vision you can live towards – for it is nothing less than the Kingdom manifest in time.

  12. Jonathan Avatar

    How would V. Putin’s seeming control over parts of the Russian Orthodox Church fit into this vision?

  13. David Avatar

    As an Orthodox inquirer I will make a very bold statement (I’m still stupid enough to make bold statements and then beg forgiveness).

    If you want to make this Holy America, keep feeding the people the body and blood of Christ.

    We are dying. To repeat a phrase I’ve used recently, I am a fat man starving to death. Feed me. Not on books or blogs or YouTube videos (though all of those have benefited me), but all they have done is made my starvation more painful to me. Feed me the body and blood of Christ and I will be Holy. Feed the nation and it will be Holy.

  14. Hartmut Avatar

    I have the impression that in Russia strong forces are at work who try to abuse the orthodox church for their nationalistic interests. And not without success. And I see it with some reluctance that Mr. Putin pretends to be a pious christian now an when the russian clerus appears on to many photographs side on side with him.
    I do not deny the very pious soul of the russian people but I also see the heavy opression of these people under the regime of the czars. The 19-th century and the times before weren’t the “good old times” as it wasn’t the communist era. And now this unscrupulous capitalism.
    The russian people possibly had always hard times. When they proved themselves as christians in all this times then, maybe, we can speak of a “Holy Russia”. But the social state was never exemplary.

    Forgive me, if I am wrong. I don’t want to cause offence.

  15. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I’m sure the Church in Russia has plenty of temptations including having an Orthodox president in the nation. How much control he has, is of course, only known through American media, which may not be the most reliable source. Nor is it something you or I should concern ourselves with other than to pray for our brothers and sisters there. The rebuilding of the Church in Russia will take a long time (spiritually). As will what God is doing here. Every place the Church is, there are temptations and particular challenges. How could it be otherwise?

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I don’t think “Holy Russia” would be a description of that nation today – but a remembrance, perhaps even an ideal, that resides in the consciousness of many pious Russians. At its best it will help them resist the many temptations that face them. At its worst it will be a lightly disguised form of patriotism, which we are very familiar with in its American form.

  17. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell

    I passed the news stand today and noticed Putin’s picture on the cover of Time Magazine. I was reminded of this article, sent to me by a friend, that was published in the Dallas Morning News, Jan. 2, concerning Time Magazine’s request that Vladimir Grigorenko paint an icon of Putin. I was proud of Vladimir’s response, what else could it be! Vladimir and I have been friends for several years, having met him in Ksenia Pokrovsky’s studio shortly after his arrival in the USA.


  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is a good story – I used it in a sermon recently. “Holy things for the holy,” perfect reply.

  19. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell

    Correction, “The Icon That Wasn’t” was published in Dallas News on Dec. 25. Sorry.

  20. Hartmut Avatar

    “I don’t think “Holy Russia” would be a description of that nation today – but a remembrance, perhaps even an ideal, that resides in the consciousness of many pious Russians. At its best it will help them resist the many temptations that face them. At its worst it will be a lightly disguised form of patriotism, which we are very familiar with in its American form.”

    thank you, father stephen, and forgive me, that I misunderstood the intention of your article. In the above sence I can fully agree. May God bless this tortured people and may he guide and protect his church there.

  21. Jonathan Avatar

    Truly you speak, Father. It is along the lines of what was said to Abba Antonios:

    The same Abba Antonios, pondering the ways of God, once asked: “Lord, how does it happen that many live very few years and yet others reach a ripe old age? And how is it that some live in poverty while others are rich? And how is it that the unjust continue to grow richer and the just are poor?” Then he heard a voice say to him: “Antonios, watch yourself, for those things which you ask about belong to the inscrutable ways of God’s wisdom and it is not to your benefit to learn of them.”

  22. handmaid Avatar

    Since nobody has appeared to answer your question and I am still dumb enough to answer questions, I’ll have a go…
    You will be fed when you have been baptized, chrismated and communed.
    Purification, illumination, theosis. Seekers don’t get “fed” but not because we don’t love you.
    Have you attached yourself to a church and found a spiritual father? Are you taking active steps to become a Christian, forgive me I tend to use Orthodox and Christian interchangeably. One has to want to BE an Orthodox Christian with all that this entails and this is more of a heart decision, not a brain decision.
    We have one woman in our Church that has been a catechumen for ten years, she is waiting for her youngest daughter to be able to read the Creed (her child’s request), she is mother of seven, and then she and this last beautiful child will be baptized. Here other children have already become Orthodox. May God bless her. A unique situation to be sure, there are other considerations there as well.
    I don’t know if your question is essentially about our closed communion or about something else?
    If it is, please understand that closed communion is essential, completely essential because of WHO is there in the chalice.
    In Christ,
    the handmaid

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Leah and David,

    I didn’t hear David asking a question about closed communion. It is closed because it is a true communion with Christ and His body. If someone wants true communion, then it also means being united to the Church as well.

    I heard David saying, keep feeding. If we feed without true union, we will have ceased feeding the only thing Christ has given us which is true union with Him.

  24. David Avatar

    Fr Stephen is right.

    I wasn’t so much asking as admonishing. I am very blessed to have found a spiritual father to guide myself and my family on the road to Orthodoxy. We are not catechumen yet, but though I do not “know” the Eucharist in experiential terms I “believe” that it is the one true food given by God to man the broken body and blood of Christ.

    Holy things are indeed for the Holy. Only an America surrounding the table at Eucharist will fulfill any dream of a “Holy America”.

  25. Andreas Avatar

    Father Stephen bless,

    Your wrote:

    “America has not known a period of “Holy America” despite the propaganda surrounding the Founding Fathers. Some were Christians, but we have no saint to whom to point whose prayers and holy life provided an inspiration for this nation.”

    While some of the Founding Fathers were Christians, many – if not all – of them were Masons. And yes, we have no “native” saint to whom to point whose prayers and holy life provide inspiration for this nation.

    I would also add that, besides much prayer, and holy living will be required of us to found a Holy America, but also much suffering.

    Is America ready for this? I think not. Too much of our culture is centered in “comfort” and “solutions” to discomfort and suffering. And the politicians are only too ready and willing to “promise” us the proverbial moon to deliver.

    You are so correct to say that it “cannot be voted for and will never appear on a ballot. Grace knows no democracy, other than the single “yes” from our hearts.”

    Perhaps during these next several months of campaigning, the American people will exercise spiritual insight – if they have any – into the real substance of what these politicos are saying.

    I am not here to endorse any one particular candidate, as I find them all lacking in what we should be hearing. Politicians only tell us what they want us to hear and not what we “need to hear.” It is only in confession that we will hear what we need, versus what we want.

  26. handmaid Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for the clarification, it wasn’t at all clear to me in your post David, so thank you as well.

    The term “feed” is somewhat loaded because it has different meanings, so many different things feed us within the Church, Holy Communion being the most obvious one.

    Forgive me, it is never my intent to be “polemical”, or even to sound challenging, this medium does not lend itself to inflection.

  27. tryphon Avatar

    I’m new here and I tremendously enjoy the posts on this site. Thank you to all for such reading. It’s a real blessing.

  28. tryphon Avatar

    The topic of Holy Russia is fascinating. I basically learn about russian history from an interest in byzantium. How surprised was I to learn that byzantium’s inheritor was Russiaand therefore, the magnificient faith and culture of the long departed civilization was present in Eastern Europe.

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