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A Journey into the Religious Past & Present of Finland
by Jim Forest
Friday, May 8, 1998 / New Valaam Monastery: There’s thunder in the distance and a waterfall-like roar all around the building. I’ve opened the window—three layers of glass—just to better hear and feel it. It’s cool outside but not freezing, though there is snow here and there on the ground and the adjacent lake is still under ice. I’m a lot farther north than I was when I put on my spring jacket and flew out of Holland this morning. This is the Finnish part of Karelia. The nearest city with an airport is Finland’s easternmost city, Joensuu, 375 kilometers northeast of Helsinki and 65 kilometers west of the Russian border. Ten years ago I was on the other side of the border not far from here.
It was an easy flight, clear skies the whole way. After admiring the patchwork patterns made by polders near the Ijsselmeer, I had a fine view of the Wadden Zee and its sandbar-like islands, then across the North Sea to Denmark, over Sweden, then to Finland. There were three hours on the ground in the Helsinki airport before boarding a crowded plane to Joensuu, where I was met by Juha Riikonen, staff member of the Lay Academy at New Valaam Monastery.
We drove to the monastery, passing through a shower so heavy that it made me think of Noah’s flood. It was hard to see anything. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started, revealing the wilderness of rural Finland—dense forest and lakes. Finland has a population of five million people and nearly 200,000 lakes: one lake for every 15 people. We had a fine view of a vermilion setting sun sandwiched between gray clouds over lake and black forest.
There was a bag supper waiting when we arrived—by then it was past nine, when the kitchen closes. Before eating it in my little room, I walked around just to get a sense of the place. The main structure is a handsome, white-walled, copper-domed church in the old Russian style. The mosaic icon over the entrance indicates the church is dedicated to the Transfiguration.
Saturday night, May 9, 1998: Kristus nousi kuolleista! Totisesti nousi! (Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!) The Paschal greeting is hard enough to write, still harder to pronounce correctly.
It’s 10:00 p.m. and I’m in an office of the New Valaam Lay Academy adjacent to the icon painting room where a dozen skillful amateurs are busily at work despite the hour. Icon painting is one of the most popular courses here. The quality of the work is impressive, though all the students at this session are Lutherans except their Orthodox teacher, Alexander Wikström. Lutherans come in great numbers to New Valaam—about 150,000 visitors a year, probably 90 percent of them Lutheran. One of the monastery’s vocations is to be a place where non-Orthodox people can learn about Orthodox Christianity. It must be one of the reasons that about 600 adults each year join the Orthodox Church in Finland—this in a country in which the Orthodox population altogether is roughly 60,000.
The day began with the Divine Liturgy in the church. Before the service, I was able to venerate Finland’s most treasured icon, the Konevits Mother of God, painted six centuries ago on Mount Athos and given to the Valaam Monastery from its foundation. It has miraculously survived many fires and wars.
This afternoon I gave a lecture on prayer with icons to the icon students plus about thirty participants in other classes. By and large Finnish Lutherans, however attracted to icons and other aspects of Orthodox Christianity, seemed surprised at the idea that it might be a good thing to a have an icon corner in one’s home and to use it as a place of daily prayer. I read them Gorky’s vivid description of his grandmother’s time of morning prayer (from the introduction to Praying with Icons), then spent the next hour talking about what we could learn about the fundamentals of prayer from this hard-pressed, uneducated Russian woman who died before the 1917 Revolution.
The Lay Academy has about 3,000 students per year. The average course is three to five days and can be on a wide range of topics that have some bearing on Orthodoxy: Liturgy, prayer, icons (not only painting them but learning to see and understand icons), church architecture, church history, monastic life, literature by Orthodox authors, the social dimension of Orthodoxy, and so on. All students take part in some of the services in the church and get a glimpse of monastic life.
In the late afternoon there was a service at a tiny lakeside chapel built of logs and dedicated to St. Nicholas. If it had been yesterday, we would have been chased inside by the rain but today there was only one brief downpour, sudden and fierce, during the Liturgy this morning.
I visited the abbot, Igumen Sergei. His apartment is entirely furnished by things that had been in the abbot’s residence when the community was on the other side of the border. Apart from electric lights, there was no trace of the modern world. We could have been in nineteenth-century Russia, though New Valaam’s present monastic community is entirely Finnish. Fr. Sergei is not even Russian-speaking. When needed he can sing the Slavonic service, though nearly everything is done in Finnish.
Part of our conversation was about the history of Valaam Monastery, which began on an island on vast Lake Ladoga north of St. Petersburg. For centuries it was one of the centers of Russian monastic life and missionary activity. It was Valaam that sent the missionary saint, Herman, to Alaska in 1794, the first Orthodox priest in the western hemisphere. Despite periodic destruction caused by wars between Sweden and Russia, the Valaam Monastery survived until the “Winter War” between Soviet Russia and Finland in 1940. With bombs raining down day after day, the monks had to flee. The community loaded up every sled they had with church and domestic furniture, books, and icons. (Most of the icons they carried are typical examples of nineteenth-century iconography—a vaguely Orthodox tribute to the worst Roman Catholic art.) Their trek ended here, in a part of Karelia that, luckily for them, remained part of Finland after Karelia was cut in half following Soviet Russia’s victory.
We talked about problems the Finnish Church experiences these days in its relations with the Church in Russia. “Eight years ago the old Valaam was returned to the Church and monastic life restarted,” Fr. Sergei explained. “The buildings are gradually being rebuilt, in some cases with our help. Unfortunately many monks of the restored Valaam do not regard us as Orthodox at all—for them, you can only be Orthodox if you are on the old calendar.” It is a scandal for them that the Finnish Orthodox Church keeps the main feasts of the same calendar as the Lutheran Church—an arrangement imposed by the state when it recognized the Finnish Orthodox Church as being a second state church. The issue still causes occasional tension among Orthodox believers. For years the Valaam monastic community was deeply divided, part of the community on the old calendar, part on the new. It must have been easy for the monks to imagine hell.
Still another irritant for the community at the revived Valaam in Russia is that the monks who fled the bombing in 1940 carried away nearly everything smaller than bell towers. While nothing at New Valaam is stolen property, the monks at the original location want it all back. I suggested to the abbot that, though they have no duty to return anything, still it would be a healing gesture if the Finnish Valaam gave the Russian Valaam some of the icons that used to be there—an icon can sometimes melt frozen hearts. Fr. Sergei agreed but said this was not something he could do unilaterally. Such things had to be decided by the Council of the Finnish Church. There are attachments on both sides.
Another source of tension between the Finnish and Russian Churches is the complex problem of Estonia, where the local Orthodox Church was broken in two, some parishes under Moscow, others under Constantinople. Estonian and Finnish are sister languages and the cultures are similar; the Finnish Church therefore has a close tie with the Estonian parishes now linked to Constantinople.
After my visit with Fr. Sergei, I joined Pekka Tuovinen, teacher of the theology of icons at the Lay Academy, in a visit to the nearby woman’s Holy Trinity Monastery of Lintula for the Saturday evening vigil. Though the community is larger, the convent is a quieter place than New Valaam. While retreatants are welcome throughout the year, the nuns only open their doors to tourists in the summer months. This community too had a Russian base—a group of nuns who fled from the precincts of St. Petersburg in 1939, escaping with only one icon.
After supper, with the sun setting, Juha and I visited the monastic cemetery across the lake from New Valaam, walking among the many wooden crosses. Perhaps half the monks who came here in 1940 were dead by 1945. Many were old men when they arrived. One monk, Igumen Simforian, died in 1981 after 75 years in monastic life. Another had been a monk more than 80 years when he died in 1984 at age 110.
Sunday, May 10, 1998: I just left Joensuu by train a little while ago and have been watching trees, trees, and more trees out the window, with the occasional small wooden house—sometimes a log house—here and there, and lakes of various sizes. Juha and Pekka, plus Pekka’s dog Jona, brought me to the city by car, stopping at the social hall of one of Joensuu’s Orthodox parishes for a cup of coffee and a slice of Mother’s Day cake. On Mother’s Day the national flag, a blue cross on a white field, flies from many flagpoles.
The weather is taking a summery turn. Pekka said the thin ice that was on the nearby pond yesterday was completely gone this morning. We saw only a few pockets of snow in deeply shaded places.
It was a very beautiful Liturgy at the monastery this morning—a full choir today rather than two monks taking turns singing the choir parts as happened yesterday. It seems the practice in Finland that iconostasis curtains are rarely if ever used and the royal doors are kept open once the service has begun. As the melodies are in the Russian tradition, I had no trouble following the Liturgy—in fact, I felt carried into it as by an irresistible undertow. The whole congregation sang all the antiphons as well as the Creed and the Our Father.
Before the service I had a chance encounter with Igumen Sergei, who once again invited me to return, but next time “with your dear wife Nancy.”
More trees, more lakes, more cloudless blue sky. A perfect day.
Krista Berglund, a Russian scholar, met me at the train station and brought me to the Helsinki parish guest room, a five-minute walk. The Helsinki “parish” turns out to be a subdiocese of 24 local churches with about 18,000 members altogether.
Leaving my suitcase, we walked down toward the harbor, stopping for a light meal at a café called Kappeli (the word means “chapel”), a mostly glass structure built in the days when Finland was a province of Russia. The heart of the city looks like St. Petersburg but with fewer scars. From our table we had a view of a fountain, the harbor and two great churches: the Lutheran cathedral to the left, the Uspenski cathedral to the right, the largest Orthodox place of worship in Europe.
Thanks to Krista, I begin to understand why Helsinki has such a Russian flavor. Russians and Swedes were contesting Finland for most of the past thousand years. From the twelfth century until the beginning of the nineteenth, Swedes had the upper hand. Then in 1808, during the reign of Czar Alexander I, Russia invaded, and the following year Stockholm ceded power to St. Petersburg, though Finland under Russia was granted a degree of autonomy. In 1812, the fishing village of Helsinki became the Finnish capital. The city center’s many fine Russian buildings in the classical style reflect this event. It’s one of the reasons Helsinki has played the role of St. Petersburg in such films as Reds.
The nineteenth century, the century of nationalism, saw Finns develop a deeper sense of national identity. In 1863, Czar Alexander II, whose statue still dominates Helsinki’s main square, began a process that made the Finnish language—in Swedish days illegal—equal to Swedish. There are still two “state languages.” In 1917, a few weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution, Finland declared its independence, which Lenin quickly accepted, anticipating that Finland would become Communist. Overnight the Karelian region, which included Valaam Monastery, with its population of Russian monks, found itself inside the borders of independent Finland. This turned out to be a good thing, given what was soon to happen to monks and other believers in Russia. Eighty years ago there was a brief but vicious civil war in Finland between “Reds” and “Whites,” with the latter winning.
In 1939, the USSR attacked Finland and seized the northern Arctic territories and much of Finnish Karelia—the “Winter War.” Finland, though attempting to remain neutral, allowed Nazi Germany to move troops across its territory against the USSR in World War II, but in 1944 managed to get out of the war, ceding land and agreeing to pay reparations to Moscow. In 1948 Finland reluctantly (“an offer you cannot refuse”) signed a “friendship treaty” with the USSR that obliged Finland to help resist any attack on the Soviet Union that involved Finnish territory and bound Finland to an uncritical role in regard to the USSR. The treaty, though allowing trade and good relations with the West, created a situation in which the USSR could influence Finnish foreign policy.
In 1989 Gorbachev recognized Finland’s neutrality. Three years later Finland and Russia signed a treaty that recognized equality, sovereignty, and positive economic relations. Also in 1992, Finland chose closer links with Europe by applying for membership in the European Union. In 1994 the EU accepted the application, endorsed by a national referendum. It seems to have been a good move—the Finnish economy is currently healthy after a long and deep recession.
One sign of the affluence is the omnipresence of cellular phones. In Finland they seem to be used by everyone but newborn infants. There are two and one-half million such phones in use in this country with its population of five million.
Tuesday, May 12, 1998: Fr. Heikki Huttunen took me to one of the city’s most remarkable establishments for lunch—the Orthodox Kitchen—two floors below the guest room in which I am holed up. This project of the Helsinki parish is open once a week to anyone who appreciates home cooking and has little or no money. Fr. Heikki explained that, though the social support system in Finland is strong, there is a growing number of people who fall through the net. There were fresh-cut flowers on all the tables. The main decorations were signs in a vast array of languages, all with the Pascal greeting: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.” My main surprise was to find Metropolitan Leo at one of the tables in animated conversation with several men whose faces showed as much wear as their battered clothing.
Fr. Heikki regretted that projects like this are so new to the Finnish Orthodox Church—the Orthodox Kitchen is only two or three years old. He blamed the delay in launching social activities on the Finnish Orthodox “refugee mentality.” He explained that 75 percent of the Orthodox community in Finland had to move west to be within Finland’s redrawn borders at the end of World War II. It was like the flight of many Orthodox to the Greek part of Cyprus after the island’s division. The Finnish Karelians were successfully resettled by the Finnish government but had all the usual traumas of uprooted people. Also many Finns regarded Orthodox people in general as Russians. For years many Finnish Orthodox felt like refugees in their own country. “We were for long caught up in our own difficulties.”
In fact Orthodoxy has been in Finland for centuries. The movement to translate the Liturgy into Finnish began around 1780. In 1815 the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided that in the Grand Duchy of Finland the biblical texts could be read in the language of the people. There are Finnish parishes in which the whole Liturgy has been celebrated in Finnish since about 1850. Much of this was thanks to the constructive role played at the time by Metropolitan Anthony Vadkovsky of St. Petersburg.
Once again Russians are coming to Finland, according to Fr. Heikki. Something like 40,000 people from the former USSR have become residents in the last few years. Last night at Krista Berglund’s flat I met one of them: Sasha Skopets, originally from Murmansk. She told us how tapes by Fr. Georgi Kotchetkov (the Moscow priest who is in hot water for using a modern Russian translation of the Liturgy) played a crucial role in her conversion to Orthodox Christianity.
My lecture—“Nationalism, Orthodoxy, and Peacemaking”—was in the same hall of the Helsinki parish building that is used at midday for the Orthodox Kitchen. Though Krista had prepared a translation, it turned out that everyone in the room spoke English fluently. As in Holland, films and many other programs are shown on Finnish TV in their original language, which is mainly English. For many Finns, English has become a second language.
Wednesday, May 13, 1998: I attended the Liturgy this morning at the oldest Orthodox church in Helsinki, Holy Trinity, a short walk from the Helsinki parish office in the direction of the harbor. It was like being in an old St. Petersburg parish: good examples of Russian iconography, silver work and architecture of the early nineteenth century. A choir of four sang.
For an hour in the late morning I met with Metropolitan Leo, head of the Helsinki diocese, in his top-floor apartment in a building next to the parish office. He is a widower living with his father and 23-year-old daughter. We talked about his recent visit in Istanbul with the ecumenical patriarch, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, the situation of the Orthodox Church in Estonia, the work of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and also my book on icons. At the end of our visit, he took me out on the apartment balcony, pointing out many Helsinki landmarks. We had a fine view of spring’s effect on Helsinki. You can almost hear the leaves bursting from the trees.
This was followed by a visit with Jyrki Härkönen, editor of Orthodoksi Viesti magazine, Finland’s largest Orthodox journal. Later I talked with their staff photographer, Pasi Peiponen, about the Russian pianist and outspoken Orthodox Christian of the Stalin era, Maria Yudina—a true Daniel-in-the-lion’s-den.
The next stop was at Krista Berglund’s for lunch: lentil soup and dark bread. Krista is editing a book on contemporary views by Russians writers as to what “Russianness” is all about, an issue much under discussion since the collapse of the USSR. We also talked about St. Seraphim of Sarov and the bear he befriended. Krista has a great devotion to bears. There is a sort of iconostasis over her computer made of photos of people dear to her, but mixed in with the human beings are bears. There are more bear photos on the refrigerator door, as well as several teddy bears in a corner of her small living room.
The day’s main event was a talk after vespers at Fr. Heikki’s parish, dedicated to St. Herman of Alaska. The congregation currently uses rented rooms in a sterile business building in a suburb of Helsinki, but the handsome church they are building should be finished in July and is to be consecrated on October 4. Many of the icons that will be used in the new church are now in the rented chapel—all exceptionally good work. Fr. Heikki estimates that there are about 200 Finnish iconographers doing work of a quality suitable for church use.
Deacon Juha Lampinen, who does youth work for the Helsinki parish, gave me a lift back into the city. It was after nine and, as I hadn’t had supper, I walked from the parish office toward the train station, and ended up having a MacDonald’s fish sandwich for supper: 15 Finnish Marks, about $3.50. Soon after returning to the guest room, Father Juha knocked on the door and brought me back to his apartment for coffee and cognac with him and his wife, Maria. Their 11-year-old daughter, Marina, introduced me to her pet turtle. It was a blessing to be in a place where one has to step over toys.
Thursday, May 14, 1998: There was Liturgy at Fr. Heikki’s parish at eight this morning for a group of 20 or so high-school students plus a few adults, then a quick breakfast before we boarded a bus and set off for a two-day Orthodox youth trip, the theme of which is war, peace, and Orthodoxy.
Going east, our first stop was the town of Loviisa, which hosts a four-day peace festival that starts each year on August 6, Hiroshima Day. Next we stopped at a rural center where those doing alternative service participate in a month-long program of preparation for whatever they will do in the following 12 months. Quite a few Orthodox young men have done alternative service at New Valaam, which was the first Orthodox institution to open its doors as a place of employment for conscientious objectors. Finland still has military conscription for men and maintains a surprisingly large army, but about five percent of those drafted opt for civilian alternative service, though it entails a longer interruption of their life.
The last stop of the day was at Lappeenranta, a stone’s throw from the Russian border, once a Russian garrison town. It has changed so little that I could imagine Czar Alexander arriving on horseback any minute. There’s a dirt street down the middle, a string of one-story wooden buildings painted in pale greens and creams, creamy browns and mustards, several old brick barracks, and in the middle of it all the oldest Orthodox church still standing in Finland, built in 1785 and dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God.
This region is now as peaceful as Lake Wobegon, but 80 years ago, during Finland’s civil war, it was a place of bitter fighting and at times amazing cruelty. Not far from here an Orthodox priest was tied to the railway tracks by local Communists and killed by a passing train. For the atheist “Red” side, priests were by definition enemies of the Revolution, but occasionally the “White” side also attacked priests and pillaged Orthodox churches, as Orthodox Christians were regarded as Russian.
After a light supper, we sang a short vespers service in the church, after which I led a discussion on confronting evil and overcoming the fear of death. Probably the most important thing I did was to explain the St. George icon, telling the story of this young martyr and explaining why he is shown in armor, riding a horse, lancing a dragon even though he wasn’t a soldier, had no armor or weapons, and never saw a dragon. What he faced was the dragon of fear wearing the armor of faith and riding the horse of the courage God gave him. His lance is not a weapon but the Cross. Whether or not we become soldiers, we are required by baptism to be warriors.
Friday, May 15, 1998: The day’s main event was visiting a training center for army officers and meeting with an Orthodox chaplain who gives a witness to the priority of faith by always dressing as a priest though he is an army officer. Lutheran chaplains prefer the uniform to clerical attire. At least in Finland military chaplains have a choice.
Back in Helsinki I spent the evening at the apartment of Fr. Heikki and Leena Huttunen in the Tapiola suburb on the city’s west side: lots of trees, a breeze coming in from the balcony door, the sound of children playing outside. A week ago it was almost winter here—today it feels like mid-summer. I’ve given the last of the Dutch cheeses I brought along as house gifts and am sipping a dark Czech beer.
Saturday, May 16, 1998 / en route to Amsterdam: Breakfasting this morning with Fr. Timo Lehmuskoski, we talked about the tension within the Finnish Church between those born in Orthodox families and converts. Among the many converts is the current head of the Church, Archbishop John. The converts sometimes regard those born to Orthodoxy as bit players in the Church, less alert to Church teaching and practice than themselves, while the cradle Orthodox often regard those who came to the Church in adolescence or adulthood as Lutherans pretending to be Orthodox.
I’ve been gazing out the airplane window at the scenery below, a parade of Nordic countries: Finland, Sweden, and just moments ago the last of Denmark. Off the Danish coast I had my first look at an oceanic whirlpool—huge arcs of creamy white converging in the sea on a dense foamy core.
Ah! The first glimpse of the Wadden Zee islands and the Dutch coastline. n Jim Forest (“Finland Diary”) is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and edits its publication, “In Communion.” He is the author of many books, including Praying with Icons. He is a frequent lecturer and has led retreats at centers in both the United States and England. He and his wife Nancy have six children and make their home in Alkmaar, Holland, a city northwest of Amsterdam.
Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and edits its publication, “In Communion.” He is the author of many books, including Praying with Icons. He is a frequent lecturer and has led retreats at centers in both the United States and England. He and his wife Nancy have six children and make their home in Alkmaar, Holland, a city northwest of Amsterdam.