Finland: Between Sweden and Russia

Some 150 years ago Dostoyevsky compared Western Europe to a cemetery of the dear departed and so to a place of pilgrimage. However, if you dig deep enough, then in any Western country you can find Orthodox roots and it becomes literally a place of pilgrimage. Only in some Western countries you have to search less hard than in others. In Finland you do not have to look very hard; until 1917 it was a province of Russia, large in area, but tiny in population. Moreover, what was the eastern part of Finland, called Karelia, long ago converted to Orthodoxy and is still part of the Russian Federation. On the other hand, only 1% of the population of today’s independent Finland can provide a witness to even a Lutheranized Orthodoxy.

In Helsinki, the capital of modern Finland, which could be called ‘Western Karelia’ when looked at from an Orthodox perspective, there stands on high the Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition. Also, on the Square in front of the magnificent St Nicholas Church (Lutheran on the inside, but with thoroughly Orthodox architecture on the outside), stands the 1894 statue of Tsar Alexander II. Unfortunately, however, even the Russian buildings which give central parts of Helsinki the look of a suburb of St Petersburg, are buried beneath the layer of Lutheranized Scandinavian rationalism and post-Lutheran modernist utilitarianism that predominates in contemporary Finland.

You can go inside one of the Finnish churches (Patriarchate of Constantinople), see new, clean, perfectly painted (as far as technique goes) icons neatly arranged, but no iconostasis, no women in headscarves, no prayer, no sense of mystery and no Divine presence. The overwhelming impression is that of a ‘Lutheran Uniat’ church: Orthodox on the outside, but Lutheran, empty and devoid of the sense of the sacred, on the inside. As one Orthodox in Finland (of the Russian Orthodox Church) put it to me: ‘When you go inside a Non-Orthodox church, you are visiting a museum, it is of interest, but God is not present’. You have the same feeling in many such ‘Finnish Orthodox’ churches. They appear to be Orthodox without Orthodoxy.

This can be seen in daily life. If we compare Finland with Karelia, ‘Western Karelia’ with ‘Eastern Karelia’, as we might say, even the houses are different. Finnish houses are functional, clean, efficient and modern, but often devoid of atmosphere. The prettily and elegantly carved timber Karelian houses may not be as functional and efficient, but they do have inner life, presence and warmth, like the people inside them whose souls would seem to be alive with that inner presence which we know as Faith.

Some might say that we are confusing the spiritual and the cultural; but wherever, and only then, the cultural conflicts with the spiritual, the cultural must always give way to the spiritual; where there is no conflict, then we can rejoice in local culture in all its facets. Thus, we take joy in the Finnish language and the beautiful Finnish landscapes of lake and forest. However, the fact is that the ultimate source of any culture is in the spiritual. Here there is a lesson for all Orthodox, especially those of us who live in the Western world: Let us not lose the savour of the Faith and so become souls that are empty and suffering from depression, like a Western cemetery – so different from an Orthodox cemetery, which is a bright place of resurrection.

The Church shapes and influences the world; the world does not shape and influence the Church. Jesus Christ, today, tomorrow and for ever; not ‘yesterday’, as in the funeral anthem for the Western world sung by the Beatles fifty years ago. Let us not only not lose the savour of the Faith, but here in Finland, as elsewhere, restore it. We are living souls and we live not in cemeteries, but in life, for we believe not in the Western god of death, in the academic god, but in the Living God, in the Christian God, Who is risen from the dead and is gloriously triumphant over death.

Helsinki, August 2014