The apostle Paul wrote, “In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew” (Col 3:11). Therefore, there are no obstacles to worship Christ together, in the True Spirit. Orthodox Christians feel at home anywhere in the world, in any city and in any parish. In an incomprehensible way, the Lord interweaves both human destinies and the destinies of entire peoples. And then everyone becomes akin: Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, British, and Dutch...
About how Orthodoxy in distant Holland is connected with Russia and the Russian Church and how the Dutch by origin become priests of the Moscow Patriarchate, Father Hildo Bos spoke at a meeting held on March 22 in the assembly hall of the parish of St. Seraphim of Sarov in the city of Kazan.
Never could believe that life ends at death
I am Dutch and I grew up in Holland. My grandfather was a Calvinist pastor, and my mother was a Protestant. In the 1960s, like many others, she left the Church, but she did not stop believing. Thus, faith has always been present in our family. My choice in favor of Orthodoxy is due to two reasons. Firstly, I was influenced by Russian culture. At the lyceum, for a long time I could not decide which foreign language to study, until I got acquainted with the films of Tarkovsky, which were distinguished by some special approach to life and eternity, which attracted me.
Secondly, I was influenced by my encounters with death. I am a climber who lost close friends. Several times I myself was at death’s door. When I fell down, I understood that death was very sad, especially for parents, but that where I was going then was very good. I could never believe that life ends at death. It was some kind of inner deep confidence, and Tarkovsky’s films echoed my feelings. That is why I chose Russian when I entered the Faculty of Philology. In 1989, I visited the Soviet Union, where I talked with believers (which was far from obvious then). Such was my acquaintance with Orthodoxy.
For a long time I was sure that that was how I exactly came to Orthodoxy. But some time later I found among my things a drawing that I made when I was 10. It had two monks and an icon on it. And then I recalled that my mother had a sister who left the Protestant Church as well. She went to France, where she converted to Catholicism. There she became an assistant to a French lady, Marie-Madeleine Davi, who knew many Russian emigrants, including Vladimir Lossky, and collaborated with Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. That lady told my aunt that she needed to make a spiritual choice between family life and God. In order to help her, she sent her to a Russian monk who lived near Paris. This monk was Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), cell-attendant of St. Silouan the Athos. He listened to my aunt and said that marriage does not interfere with the religious life. She had probably told me this story when I was a child, so it seems to me that I did not convert to Orthodoxy but simply returned home. I adopted Orthodoxy in 1990 in the Novgorod region. I often met good people along the way of life who guided me. Through youth activities, I met my wife, whose grandfather was a Russian emigrated priest .
Now I serve in the only Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam - the church in the name of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. Besides, I work as a simultaneous interpreter - this is my secular specialty.
“We, the Orthodox, are the Church of all times and peoples”
Orthodoxy as such appeared in Holland even before the schism. In the 3rd century, Roman soldiers came from the South, among whom were Christians, for example, Servatius of Maastricht, a close friend of Athanasius the Great. However, after the Roman troops left, the Christian community in Holland ceased to exist.
In the 6th-8th centuries, missionaries from England arrived in Holland, whose relics we also venerate to this day.
After the split in 1054, Holland remained in the West, in the Catholic world, and until the 17th century there were no communities of Orthodox Christians in the country. In the 17th century, Greeks from the Ottoman Empire came to Holland to study; among them was the closest assistant to the future Patriarch of Constantinople Cyril Lukaris. In 1698, Peter I visited Holland. Almost every day of his stay is described in detail, so we know that there were divine services both at home and on the barge. In the house in Zaandam, where the king lived, a prayer room was arranged. Going home, Peter I left a priest who took care of the Russians who remained for practice. Thus, the first Orthodox community appeared in the country. Later, as we know, the interns and the priest also left for Russia. Peter I returned 15 years later, with his retinue, choristers, deacons and priests, and divine services were resumed. A few years later, Russian sailors and Greek merchants founded the first Orthodox Church in Holland. In the center of Amsterdam, in a small house on the third floor, a church appeared, consecrated in the name of the Holy Great Martyr Catherine. This small community, consisting of Russians and Greeks, existed until the second half of the 19th century. Dutch scientists who studied Orthodox worship were interested in it. In the 19th century, the Liturgy was translated into Dutch.
A larger Orthodox community appeared in Holland 200 years ago, when in 1816 the future Queen of the Netherlands, Anna Pavlovna, married the Prince of Orange. First, the couple settled in Brussels, and then in The Hague. Anna Pavlovna was a very pious person: she always had a priest, a deacon, choristers and sextons with her. She opened churches in each of her palaces. When Anna Pavlovna found out about the Amsterdam church, she began to patronize it. We know that on the day of her coronation, before the celebration itself, she went to this church, where a prayer service was served.
The church in honor of St. Mary Magdalene, founded by Anna Pavlovna, has survived to this day. The parish archive has also been preserved, the earliest entry in which dates back to 1816. I must say that not only Russians visited this church. When sorting out the archive, we found the marriage documents of Russians, Serbs, Greeks, and even the Dutch who converted to Orthodoxy. We know that the Dutch began to accept Orthodoxy even under Peter I, whose doctor was an Orthodox. Anna Pavlovna personally rewarded and punished the priests who served in this church. A letter has been preserved from a priest who begged Anna Pavlovna to let him go to Russia. He claimed that the harsh Dutch climate ruined his health. The community kept this state until 1917.
After the October Revolution, the Russian Church was under the yoke of Soviet power, so the community of believers came under the jurisdiction of Metropolitan Evlogy (Georgievsky), who was subordinate to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Dionysius Lukin, a young priest who had studied in Paris was then sent to Holland. He actively engaged in the mission: he began to translate the service into Dutch. Some of the Dutch, who were not completely satisfied with the Catholic and Protestant traditions, were interested in Orthodoxy. As a result, the community began to grow: there were more parishioners, and two Catholic monks converted to Orthodoxy and decided to found a monastery. The monks dreamed of reviving the Orthodox faith in Holland, which existed before the split of the churches. It is worth pointing out that at that time among some Russian emigrants the idea began to emerge that Orthodoxy could be expressed in different cultural forms.
Vladimir Lossky and other founders in Paris of the brotherhood of St. Photius within the Moscow Patriarchate said in their manifesto: “We declare that the Orthodox Church is the one true Church of Christ; That it is not only the Eastern Church, but the Church of all the peoples of the earth, East, West, North and South; That every nation, every folk has the right to take its own place in the Orthodox Church, to have its own canonical autocephaly, while maintaining its own traditions and rituals an, its own liturgical language. United by canonical dogmas and principles, the Churches unite with people living in a given country.” That is: “since, by the will of God, we now live in France, we will build Orthodoxy that fits into this culture.” This idea was also supported by St. John (Maximovich), so the two monks who settled in The Hague came under the jurisdiction of Bishop John. The saint visited them many times when he was Exarch of Western Europe. He helped them with translations, explained the features of Orthodox worship, so the memory of him is still alive. Then Greeks and Serbs began to come to Holland to earn money, and Orthodox parishes began to appear throughout the country.
It should also be noted that very few Russians came to Holland after the revolution, since the Dutch then did not welcome foreigners. In the middle of the 20th century, the country was dominated by Dutch-speaking parishes, and the Russians had a feeling that their community was dying out. It seemed to them that no one else would come from Russia, so they began to give other churches church utensils from the Hague church founded by Anna Pavlovna. Thank God, a few years ago there was a man who found the lost items and restored them. Currently, all church utensils have been declared a value of national importance.
In the 1990s, there were more Orthodox Christians in Holland, as part of the Soviet emigrants settled here after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Now in Holland there are more than thirty Orthodox parishes of various jurisdictions. The most numerous jurisdiction is the Moscow Patriarchate. We have about a dozen parishes and monasteries. In some, the service is conducted in Dutch, in others - in Church Slavonic. Services in our parish are conducted in both languages. By the way, we have parishioners of different nationalities.
Two words about the parish of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in Amsterdam
Our parish, founded by Bishop Anthony of Surozh, recently celebrated its 45th anniversary. Let me briefly delve into its history.
One woman from Odessa ended up in Holland during the war. Here she married a Dutchman who converted to Orthodoxy. He was baptized by Bishop Anthony. And the sister of this woman married a returnee - a Russian emigrant who returned to the Soviet Union after the war. Previously, he lived in Paris and worked closely with prominent Russian theologians (he was the secretary of the Fotievsky brotherhood), and he was allowed to take his Christian library from Paris to Odessa. He began to work as a translator in the Moscow Patriarchate. And our future father, Alexy Foogt, who was the husband of an Odessa lady, when he visited his wife’s homeland, there he was able to get acquainted with the works of theologians and religious philosophers. In Holland, he became a regent in the temple, and then he was ordained a deacon. At that time, the Dutch, Russians and Serbs just founded a parish in the name of St. Nicholas. At first, a Serb was a priest, but then the Serbs organized their parish, and Father Alexy was ordained a priest. He taught Russian at the university and translated liturgical texts into Dutch. He organized the parish according to the principles of Metropolitan Anthony of Surozh.
Bishop Anthony said that there is a certain hierarchy of values: “Firstly, we are Christians. Second, we are Orthodox Christians. Thirdly, each of us has our own national roots.” Therefore, our parish uses two languages. This allows us to keep Russian roots and Russian spirituality and be open to the Dutch society. One week we serve primarily in Church Slavonic, and the next week - in Dutch. The Apostle and the Gospel are always read in two languages.
Metropolitan Anthony also said that it is very important to live according to the principles adopted at the Local Council of the Orthodox Russian Church in 1917‒1918. If you read the parish charter, which was then adopted, you can see that the laity in the parish is given a very important role. In our parish, for example, there are almost no paid employees, since we do not receive any money from anywhere. Our parish is supported by volunteers. Choir, candle workshop, and Sunday school - all these are supported by volunteers who have the right to vote in discussing issues related to the activities of the parish. I want to point out that all important decisions are made jointly. Our bishop even gave his blessing that he would ordain only those for whom the whole parish intercedes.
Our parish is quite large. The Sunday service is attended by about three hundred people which is quite a lot for the West. We started with services in the attic of the Catholic Church, and then moved to the former Catholic baptismal chapel. Then we bought the former first Pentecostal church in Holland, and 10 years ago, a former Catholic monastery with outbuildings.
We are trying to be a true church community. Every year on Trinity we go out for a picnic. Every year we make a parish pilgrimage or rent a tourist base for three days and spend time together. Our community comprises professors, former petty criminals, cleaners, Dutch conservatives, and Russian liberals... The community is rather motley, but its members get along well with each other. This is largely due to our current rector, Archpriest Sergiy Ovsyannikov, who has been serving in Holland for 25 years.
A few questions to Fr. Hildo
– Father Hildo, how do you, a natural Dutchman, perceive Orthodoxy – do you really think that the Universal Church is right for you?
‒ I am a true-born Dutchman, specialist in Slavic studies; I studied Russian, and came to Orthodoxy 20 years ago. I served here as a deacon for five years, and now, for four years I have been a priest, the fourth priest of this parish. We have, according to our last count, more than 20 nationalities in the parish. We are also very friendly with representatives of other Orthodox Churches: with the Greeks, with the Bulgarians, with the Romanians, and with the Serbs. There is no Greek, Romanian, or Bulgarian church in Amsterdam, and very many of their followers to attend our parish and we are very glad to see them. In our clergy of a parish, in addition to the rector, Father Sergiy Ovsyannikov, there are two Dutch priests, me and Father Seraphim; he is a hieromonk and he also has a parish in Germany. Father Melety is a native Englishman, has been in holy orders for more than 40 years, and he is a specialist in psychology and drug addiction, a man with great gifts. And we have two deacons, one Dutch and the other, again, an Englishman. And there are quite a lot of Dutch here who, like me, are somehow connected with Russia.
Many of the Russians who moved to Holland start going to church, missing their homeland, wanting to rub shoulders with their compatriots, and then they realize that the church is not a club but something more than that. Thanks to our rector, very active work is being done with them: study groups, conversations, and meetings. And almost all the parishioners were churched here.
‒ How does this process go - from the perception of the temple as a club of compatriots to a true spiritual life?
‒ Sooner or later a person, wherever he is, is faced with the real issues of life - suffering, injustice, death, illness, or joy. He understands that in the first place in this life is the Lord. That the one who manages everything and the one who makes decisions is not a human being, but the Lord God. And that one needs some place that is reserved exclusively for Him, a place where one can share his sorrow and his joy with Him. It is universal; it is common to all people. It seems to me very good that here, on the one hand, a Russian person will find such a church life that will remind him of his homeland, that here he will meet his compatriots; there is nothing wrong with that, but, on the other hand, this life in the temple will allow him to move further. To move to the Absolute, to the meeting with God.
At the beginning we had 10 or 20 parishioners. Now their number is increased, but we are trying to keep the spirit of the family. We have meetings several times a year. For example, on Trinity we always go to the park, for a picnic, on Easter, likewise, - we break the fast with the whole community. We have a children’s camp and a Sunday school and we do our best to make people really friends. Of course, not everyone can be friends, but we are a living community, and this is very important to us. And it is even more important that in this community, with all the love for all national characteristics, with all the respect for Russian culture, for other cultures, the most important thing is the Lord.
– How do the Dutch come to Orthodoxy? I guess that many men follow Russian wives.
‒ We have a lot of mixed marriages, but situations are very different. A Russian or Ukrainian fiancée will outright present her bridegroom with a challenge - either you accept Orthodoxy, or I am not going to marry you. Sometimes it happens differently: a Dutch husband simply accompanies his Russian wife, and sees and understands that there is a place for him here too, that he is not a stranger here, and that this is not some kind of club of some incomprehensible people who do not care about him. Here we welcome unbelieving husbands, if they come to faith; we help them, talk with them, and explain the essence of our faith and the Church. But there are also those Dutch who came to Orthodoxy quite independently, some through icon painting, some through singing, and some through the study of theology. We have one elderly parishioner who had studied all the Christian denominations and concluded that Orthodoxy is closest to the original pure Christianity. And someone didn’t study anything but just walked in from the street and fell in love. We do not actively go out to missionary work, but our doors are open.
In Amsterdam, the so-called Night of the Churches is held every year, and different churches in the city open their doors; people can attend services, tours and talks are organized. We also participate in this, we open our doors, and someone gets interested, and those who are interested should definitely be helped. It is necessary to deal with such people both before they consciously accepts Orthodoxy, and after - because Orthodoxy is fundamentally different from both Calvinism and Catholicism, and you cannot just accept a person and leave everything to the will of God.
‒ The Dutch are Protestants and traditionally know the Bible well. Does it help them discover Orthodoxy?
– Yes, despite all their other doctrinal mistakes, they know the Bible well. And this helps them to understand and helps them to fall in love with Orthodox worship. Our chanters, former Protestants, immediately recognize the Old Testament roots of all our church hymns.
– What difficulties does the Orthodox Church in Holland face?
‒ I would not say that we have special external difficulties. I think that the main difficulty of our era is that the culture around us is completely devoted to money and the human “ego”. I think that the best example is the L’Oreal advertising campaign, which read as follows: “You are worth it.” When the Church speaks of self-restraint, of self-sacrifice, or of fasting, that the Lord, and not me, should be the center of our life, it runs completely up the stream. For a prayer life, the most important thing is to be able to concentrate, and when every minute in the hands of our children some gadget, iPad, iPhone, and some kind of computer toy that actually deprives the child of this ability to concentrate, it is difficult. But I often visit Russia; I know that Russia has the same difficulty. After all, one cannot hide himself or one cannot hide a child in some kind of closed Orthodox environment from everything that is going on. There are very conservative Protestant circles in Holland, there are people who live in their villages, and they have their own schools. But I myself witnessed how these young people then go to college, for the first time they encounter freedom and cannot dispose of this freedom; they simply cannot cope with it. Therefore, there are no simple recipes for life for us, but, thank God, in Holland we are given all the rights and all the opportunities. Today we went out with a religious procession to the street; this is allowed, even encouraged. The city authorities treat us very well. There is no special help from them but they do not throw any obstacles in our way either.
‒ Does the Orthodox Church in Holland express its position and oppose phenomena that are unacceptable from the point of view of Christianity?
‒ Historically, there were very strong Christian political parties in Holland, but due to the de-Christianization of society, they are losing their influence. If this were not the case, we could hide behind the backs of those big Christian parties and not raise our voices. At the same time, I do not rule out that a moment may come when society will present us, the Orthodox, with demands that are unacceptable to us. What will we do if we are suddenly told that our rejection of same-sex marriage, any same-sex intercourse is intolerant? If we are told: is it discrimination that you do not allow such people to take Communion. Then an interesting situation will arise, and then, perhaps, civil disobedience will be required from us. But I don’t think it will come to that, because in Holland the internal freedom of the religious community has always been respected, and Holland arose from this soil. Our state was born when the Protestants were persecuted. And then the residents said: “No! Everyone should be free; everyone should live according to their convictions.” Any denomination in Holland can create their own schools, and these schools will be funded by the state. So I don’t think it will come to that. But, of course, Christians are to some extent an exception in modern society.
‒ Which features of the Dutch character are best revealed in Orthodoxy, and which, on the contrary, hinder churching?
‒ Dutchmen are remarkably straightforward people; sometimes it is perceived as rudeness: the Dutchman always says outright what he thinks. Simplicity: there is no question of losing face at all, a person is not afraid to seem ridiculous, understands and accepts a joke, and takes criticism calmly. These are positive traits. But when a person comes to Orthodoxy, the question always arises before him: what elements of my culture and my past can I take with me to Orthodoxy? Which of them should I transform, cleanse, or renew? And what should I forever leave behind the threshold of the Church? And it seems to me that we, the Dutch, have things that should be left behind. For example, rationalism, the belief that all issues can be solved by human reason. The legalization of same-sex marriage is an example of the Dutch consistency. Another example is the legalization of prostitution. If it is impossible to eradicate prostitution, it is unrealistic, let us legalize it. All this will be under the supervision of the authorities, including tax payment, etc. But this is an area that is inherently sinful, and it cannot be useful. As a result, criminal spheres still own this business and legalization did not help. The Dutch sometimes do not understand that morality is not only in the head; that the concepts of good and evil do not fit into the article of the law. Orthodoxy teaches us that everything cannot be measured by reason, that there are unconditional moral prohibitions that come from God, and a person cannot cancel them.
‒ Father Hildo, why did you accept Orthodoxy? How did it happen in your life?
‒ I have always been a believer. My grandfather was a pastor. My mother left the Church, as often happens with the children of the clergy, but she did not lose her faith. I just was not raised in the Church way. I also had an aunt who, in some interesting ways, met Schema-Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) in England. I have a picture which I drew when a boy – there are two Orthodox monks on it. I do not remember how, but it entered my childhood. I have always had interest in churches, especially those in southern Europe, Catholic churches, with lots of paintings. I did not recognize myself in Calvinism. I was led to Orthodoxy, probably, by what I saw in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky - openness to mystery, openness to beauty, but not the human beauty, but the Divine one. And, of course, the events of my life. I have faced death several times. I myself almost died several times, and my friends died in the mountains. It makes you think. After the lyceum, I chose Slavic studies and the Russian language - quite intuitively, but also thanks to Tarkovsky’s movies. I met believers. And I realized at once that the adoption of Orthodoxy is a natural step for me. Later I realized that what attracts me most of all is the attitude towards a person. Calvinism has a very gloomy perception of man: we are already predestined - someone will be saved, and someone will not; God is above, behind the clouds, He is punishing and He is terrible, but we cannot do anything. This is a very bleak picture. Besides, religiosity in Calvinism is perceived exclusively as something immaterial. But when I turned to Orthodoxy, I realized that God is present in everything; that the body, mind, and soul participate in our interaction with God and in the arrangement of our salvation. This all-encompassing quality of God was very important. But then I understood it intuitively, unconsciously. I realized it mentally much later. And then I realized: in order to become Orthodox I do not need to turn into a Russian peasant, that with all my love for Russia, I also remain Dutch. Just as I said: I take what needs to be taken and leave what needs to be left, and so the process goes. And, thank God, I have a wife who was brought up in a church environment, I, let’s say, received from the outside, and she from the inside.
Source: online publication Orthodoxy in Tatarstan / information and analytical portal Orthodoxy and Modernity