Here is my translation of a few selections from an interview with Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro and the Littoral, conducted last year by Aleksandra Nikiforova.
Question: Vladyka, in Russia the problem of the editing and partial translation of liturgical texts into modern Russian began to be systematically examined during the liturgical discussions that began in 1905 in preparation for the Local Council of 1917-1918. To this date no conclusion has been reached in these discussions. I know that our sister Serbia has over a century of experience in serving in contemporary language, and has translated the priest’s service book, the Psalter, and selected hymnography. When, by whom, and to what end were these translations made and what, in your opinion, has been their result?
Answer: Church Slavonic is, as we say, the Russian redaction of Old Slavonic. What does this mean? It means that modern Russian is closer to Old Slavonic than are modern Bulgarian or modern Serbian. It is not difficult for a Russian to understand what is sung in church, especially now that many books are printed in modern Russian script. It is entirely different in Serbia. Therefore our Church decided that would be better to translate the texts into a normal national dialect so that that which we sing and read at the Divine services might be understandable to the people. This has always existed in the Orthodox Church, as is witnessed by the ancient translations into Syrian, Coptic, Georgian… Church Slavonic books are, after all, translations themselves.
You know that the Latins in the ninth century rejected other languages, declaring that one can preach the Gospel and serve God in three languages only: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The holy brothers Cyril and Methodius called this approach the “trilingual heresy.” To this day there exists the danger of sacralizing one ancient language or another. Therefore I think that one can translate. Most likely this is not necessary at present in Russia, because the closeness between Church Slavonic and Russian has been preserved. But in Serbia this had become an essential need as early as the 1920s. It was the Venerable Justin (Popovic) who first translated the Liturgy of John Chrysostom and served it in Serbian.
I do not understand how one can “deify” a language, whichever it may be: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, or Church Slavonic. Every language is a vessel that must be sanctified by God’s holy things. On the other hand, it is very important to create authentic translations, like the ancient translators, and not simply philological ones! Those who know the ancient Greek and Old Slavonic translations can sense their inner kinship, their deep fidelity to the Biblical word in all things. They do not have the poetic license characteristic of today. In such manner, on the one hand one must humble oneself before the ancient languages and, on the other, understand that a language that has been immersed in the conciliar elements of the Church is sanctified and draws people to the evangelical experience. Therefore we translate into English, into African languages… It is dangerous to proclaim the infallibility of a language. But only those people who have the fear of God and accept the spirit of God, the spirit of the Tradition of the Fathers, can and should translate. It was always the better Church figures that created the best translations. When you read the translations of our Fr Justin (Popovic), you feel the same spirit breathing in them, the same rhythm sounding. His translations are faithful, although not in the sense of being literal, but in their inner feel.
Question: All the same, Vladyka, every language “evolves” in the direction of simplification. Does it not seem to you to be inappropriate to bring this simplified daily language into the Church?
Answer: Of course, a language needs to be renewed. A language is in need of repentance, as is the person who speaks this language. One cannot make due with philology alone. One can translate very exactly, “linguistically” exactly, but still leave the feeling that something is missing. Therefore a translator needs much wisdom and patience, daring and Church humility.
Question: Which language of Divine service is closest to your heart, Vladyka?
Answer: To tell the truth, when I serve for myself, for my own soul, I chose Church Slavonic – to which I have been accustomed since childhood. When I serve for the people, then I go out to meet them. But I try to convince them that they need to learn Church Slavonic, as well as Greek, and ancient Hebrew as well.
Question: Vladyka Amfilohije, many of your scholarly works are dedicated to the Mystery of the Eucharist. The absolute majority of people today believes “in their soul” and does not understand why they have to go to church. Explain, please, why it is so important to participate in the Liturgy.
Answer: The Liturgy is the heart of the Church, it is the Church itself, as Khomiakov said in the nineteenth century. He who knows what the Liturgy is knows what the Church is. The essence of the Church is precisely in the Liturgy. The Old and New Testaments are present in it, and God’s revelation. The image of the authentic Christian life is present in it, the image of repentance and humble-mindedness. The fundamental attribute of the Church is present in it: its sobornost [catholicity, conciliarity]. The apostolic faith, which the Holy Fathers have confessed for centuries, is present in it. The Holy Spirit is present in it, to Whom we offer the Gifts, and Who transforms them into the Body and Blood of Christ. Christ Himself is present in it, the same Who was yesterday, is today, and will be tomorrow. The living experience of Christ, the Communion of His Body and Blood – this is what the Liturgy gives us.
Contemporary man is a man of experience; he wants to touch everything with his hands. His nature is reminiscent of that of the Apostle Thomas: “If I do not touch Him, I will not believe.” The wounds of the Lord Church are in the Liturgy. Therefore after the Liturgy we sing: “We have seen the true light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit.” This is the Church’s deepest experience. All the Church’s powers are assembled in the Liturgy. Life beyond the boundaries of the Liturgy must be its continuation.
It is interesting that when, during the Soviet years, Metropolitan Nikolai (Yarushevich) of Krutitsa and Kolomena would be asked by western journalists: “How do you educate the people in Russia, if there is no catechetical instruction? Given such persecution, there is no possibility to study the history of the Church or Holy Scripture,” he would reply: “We serve the Liturgy.” This is, I think, a very profound and true answer.
It was precisely the Liturgy, served during the years of Bolshevik persecution of the Church, that preserved the chastity [lit., whole-mindedness] of the Russian soul. The Church renewed its life precisely because it experienced the cross of Christ, His crucifixion, and the new experience of Christ’s Resurrection. St Seraphim of Sarov prophesized that there would be suffering and trials, but he also saw this resurrection, which was born precisely from the Liturgy by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Question: Dear Vladyka, every guest from Russia visiting Montenegro awaits an unusually warm reception in every monastery, in every family. What is the root of such a strong love for Russia and everything Russian?
Answer: This is the spirit of God’s Church, which is present both in Montenegro and in Russia. The closer we are to this Church spirit, the closer we are to one another. Church love is a particular love, founded on the reason you mentioned. On the other hand, there is an historical context, true and deep, which goes back to Sts Cyril and Methodius. I had the pleasure of reading Russian writers; as a seminarian I conversed with Russian professors who showed us great love. I remember Fr Pavel, a deacon, with whom I quarreled a bit. But I truly felt one thing from this man – that he loved me! I did not understand this at once, but only after I had finished university, when I went to him for advice: I wrote him a letter and he replied immediately. Immediately! There were others: Fr Viktor Tsarevsky, Fr George Svishchov, who left nothing but the best memories. Fr Vikenty Fradinsky taught us Church history. He lived it: talking about the First Ecumenical Council, he himself was a participant in word! And Vladyka Antony (Bartoshevich). Whenever he saw me he always joked, recalling the words of Metropolitan Joseph from Transcarpathia: “We, idiot Serbs, and you, insane Russians”… Later I met Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Paris. He had been exiled from Russia, and I gave him a cross from Athos: “To the cross-bearing Aleksandr, an Athonite cross.” Our spiritual father [Fr Justin Popovic] went to Confession to Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) and later to Fr Vitaly Tarasiev in the Russian Church of the Holy Trinity. Fr Vitaly was the most beloved priest in Belgrade! The common suffering of Slavs has brought us together. The Church of God, like a stove, lit with the fire of God, renews and heals the soul. May God grant that the Orthodox spirit broaden and strengthen throughout the world!