Vol. 1 No. 2 - Nativity 2006
Canadian Orthodox Martyrs?
"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" - Tertullian
From the earliest times, a vast number of those who have come to make their home in Canada have been seeking a better life, free from the struggles and deprivations of their former homeland. With perhaps the exception of the earliest Celtic monastics who touched our shores, this quest for a better, safer life has been the rule: the natives crossing the landbridge from Asia seeking a more reliable source of food, the Vikings who sought "Vinland" (the land of wine), the early explorers seeking an income in furs, and the waves of immigrants fleeing foreign wars and poverty. Even our Loyalist ancestors, who were willing to fight and die for their king and country, found security in the fact that king and country stood as a bulwark against revolution: a passport to future security and safety.
It is little wonder that as Orthodox North Americans, we tend to look at the great missionary saints and apostles to our land as remarkable heroes, who are in fact quite unlike us. Here we find examples like Saints Herman and Juvenaly who voluntarily gave up safe, relatively secure lives, to face the unknown challenges of mission work in an unknown land. Most of the saints of this land have similar stories, which stand in sharp contrast to the immigrant motivation that shaped and still shaped the Canadian identity: Canada is a safe place, where one can avoid major struggles, and eke out a quiet existence in polite neighbourliness within a diverse populace, knowing that others are doing the same thing.
The epic saga The Lord of the Rings presents this contrast nicely. While the heroes - Frodo and his friend Sam - risk their lives for the safety and salvation of others, most of their kinsmen back in the Hobbit country view their self-sacrifice as dangerous and strange, albeit admirable. It is much safer and prudent to simply remain in our holes, they tell their children, awaiting whatever might face us, than to actually sacrifice ourselves for others (or even risk our lives in order to save them). Thus, they live a variant of the old saying, " Better dead, than to get out of bed".
The hobbit-like Canadian existence has formed our missionary approach as well. A recent conference of the Russian Church Abroad in Australia raised the question of why mission work in far-off nations produces tens of thousands of baptisms, while North American mission work produces so few. The conference identified a genuine lack of apostolic spirit in the West. While there are a number of clergy and faithful who do display this apostolic spirit of self-sacrifice, for the most part, Orthodox life is characterized by extreme parochialism. One could ask the following questions of a parish: When is the last time visitors were invited to learn about the Orthodox faith? What ongoing commitment of funds and people does a community contribute to sharing the Gospel, and Christ's Holy Church? Or is this "witness" limited to food festivals, which like the festivals in Hobbit country, produce superb fireworks, which sparkle for an instant, then fade away.
The Church has historically experienced real growth only in times of persecution and martyrdom (mass baptism of nations being the notable exception). Barring the mass baptism of Canadians (or more accurately, a collection of different Canadian cultural communities), we must ask where this reality puts us. Are Canadians really in a position where martyrs could be produced, or would produced? Even in cases where the faithful were faced not with death for Christ, but with suffering or even social ostracism for Christ, we cannot be particularly optimistic about the harvest of martyrs or confessors we would see in Canada.
How do we know this? Historically, the Orthodox immigration has been very eager to fit into the increasingly secularized Protestant civil culture, looking, speaking, dressing, and living like other "mainstream" Canadians. Too often, the goals of Orthodox today, whether Canadian- or foreign-born, are virtually indistinguishable from those of secular Canadians. In nearly all cases, these goals centre around securing the comforts of our hobbit-holes, and minding our own business - a direct contradiction of the apostolic edict to go and baptize all nations.
Where might we start? It makes sense to begin at the heart of living the Orthodox life, which emulates Christ in pouring out our selfishness, in order to win salvation. Fasting, prayer and Holy Confession are at the heart of this question. So is tithing - that is, literal tithing, of ten percent of our income, in order to break down in a small way our obsession with securing our own comforts. The measure of our trust in God is really found right here: do we believe that Christ will take care of us, as He said He would do, or is it all up to us? If in fact the Lord proved to be a liar, and is not going to be around to save us, our own efforts to protect our comfortable little patch are destined for failure. Either we trust Christ enough to join Him and humble ourselves to Him for the sake of all, or we don't, and we're going to lose it all anyway.
The reality for many Orthodox parishes in Canada is an inward-looking one, which cares very much indeed for the preservation of culture, language, dance, and recipes, and little with sharing the Orthodox Faith. There is little martyrdom to be found here, with the exception of a remnant of bright and faithful witnesses in the midst of a corrupt generation. Heritage language programs might remain intact, but the grandchildren are lost from the Orthodox Faith. The statistics of many Canadian Orthodox parishes tell the tale.
Yet the tale is not over. As Canadians tire of the emptiness of the car culture, and the spiritual vacuum of the shopping mall, they are drawn back to the Church in remarkable ways, often despite (rather than because of) the approach of many Orthodox. Perhaps the Lord is once again raising up witnesses from the very stones, the building blocks that make up Canadian culture, in order to live and share the Gospel with all nations, resident within our borders.
Signs of such life are evident across the continent, and for this, we must give glory to God, and continue to pray for such grace. For short of a national catastrophe, martyrdom in Canada seems an unlikely upcoming event, and the path of the Confessors of Canada, a much more reasonable one to expect.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Nativity, 2006)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.