Remember the Babushkas
When the Communist Party under Vladimir Lenin seized power in Russia in 1917, a violent anti-religious campaign began. Over 100,000 clergy were shot or sent to labor camps, seminaries were closed, religious literature banned, and atheism publicly exalted. By 1939 only about 100 churches remained open. The other 60,000 or so were confiscated, desecrated, and turned into everything from museums and warehouses to public bathrooms.
Yet by 2011, a survey of religious practice showed that Russia was the most God-fearing nation in Europe, with 82% of her people believing in God. How did religious belief survive despite over 70 years of brutal persecution? The Russian people and the Church knew the answer: The babushkas.
So who were they? Well, “babushka” in Russian means “grandma.” It is derived from two words: Baba, meaning an elderly woman, and iyushka, meaning small or fragile. Elderly, yes; fragile? Hardly. The babushkas were the tough ones who did whatever they could to keep the flame of faith burning during those terrible years. They are a testament to the kind of faith so desperately needed today.
What kind of faith is that? The vigilant, resilient kind that expresses itself in prayer and action; that finds ways to survive even in the most hostile conditions, like those of the ancient Jews in Egypt. Life as a Hebrew slave, which must have been hard to begin with, only got harder when they dared ask for freedom to worship. Yet they never gave in; instead, they quietly passed on the faith to their children and prayed in secret. So in Russia; despite the violent hostility of those bleak years, the babushkas never gave in. Rather, they took action on two fronts. First, at home: Because Soviet mothers were forced to work, the babushkas watched the kids. They used that time to quietly teach them the faith. Second, in public: Dismissed as harmless and irrelevant, the babushkas haunted the abandoned churches, lit candles, and prayed for deliverance. Deliverance didn’t happen overnight, but for both the Jew and babushka, it did indeed come.
We can learn from them for we have challenges, too. We aren’t enslaved by any foreign power but our society writ large has virtually enslaved itself to the relentless pursuit of pleasure if not outright decadence. We aren’t suppressed by an atheistic government but our era knows the arguably worse infection of apatheism; the kind of spiritual apathy best summarized by a twenty-something who said to me during a conversation, “I don’t care if God exists or not.”
Despite these problems, or better in response to them, we too can rise to the challenge; we can show the resilient, vigilant faith of the babushkas. Perhaps you’re a grandma or grandpa. This is your call to action. Be babushka! If your own children have lost their faith and aren’t passing it on to your grandchildren, then you find a way to do it. Maybe you watch them during the day. Use that time to teach them the faith. Bring them to church with you if you can. If your children forbid it, then find an indirect way; watch movies with the grandkids that touch on spiritual themes or read them the classic literature that does the same. How could your kids forbid grandma or grandpa reading the youngsters stories like The Selfish Giant, the older kids The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or the book or movie The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Challenge your grandchildren; get them to think about the important issues facing them. However you can, find ways to teach and show them the self-giving love of Christ. When all is said and done, what’s more important than that?
Equally important, none of this is going anywhere without prayer. God has the power to deliver us but he wants us to pray, to ask him for help. The Hebrew slaves prayed, the babushkas prayed, Jesus himself prayed before all of the major events of his life. So we are called to pray, to lift up our hearts to the Lord and ask for his intervention.
We know that, but we also know that prayer isn’t easy even in the best of times. We get distracted, feel like God is far away, put off praying, or get discouraged. These factors only get worse when we’re going through hard times.
The answer to all of this is given by Jesus in the gospels and can be boiled down to one word – vigilance. If you sense that you are distracted in prayer, then let that become your prayer. Say, “Lord, see how weak I am. I can’t even focus on you now when I need you the most!” In your weakness Christ will be your strength. If you feel like God is far away, remember: God doesn’t move, we do. Weak faith causes us to drift. We strengthen it with exercise, so pray more, not less; attend Mass more often; see him in Adoration. If you find yourself putting off prayer, remember Christ’s words: At an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come (Luke 12:40). Also, remember his reaction to finding people not doing what he asked; it did not go well for them. Finally, when you’re discouraged remember our father in faith, Abraham, and everything he went through. In faith he left his native land, wandered homeless, and nearly lost his only son. As if that wasn’t enough, he was never allowed to actually live in the land he was promised. Those are pretty good reasons to be discouraged! Still, no matter where he was, he always built an altar and sacrificed to God. He could lose his home, his son, and the land of his inheritance, but he never lost heart; he remained faithful, prayerful, and vigilant to the end. So can we.
Finally, remember these ominous words of our Lord: Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more (Luke 12:48). The question is, what have we been entrusted with? The answer is faith. What is the demand? That we live it out and pass it on. It seems hard because it is, but when all seems lost remember the babushkas. On the one side, the government and force of the Soviet Union determined to wipe out the faith; on the other, a group of elderly women in scarves, working and praying to preserve it.
The Soviets never had a chance.