Lutheran pastor and Latvia's best-selling author talks about living as a Christian in the Soviet regime
Translated by Paul Valliere
Explorefaith sat down recently with Juris Rubenis. Juris lives in Riga, Latvia, a small country in northeastern Europe where he is also the country’s bestselling author. Latvia borders Russia to the east and sits across the Baltic Sea from Sweden. A Lutheran pastor, Juris was one of the spiritual leaders of the protest movement against communist rule in this former Soviet country. Latvia became an independent nation once again in 1991. An author whose books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in his native Latvia, he was published for the first time in English and in the United States just last year. Finding God in a Tangled World is an introduction to the thought of this enigmatic spiritual leader.
Explorefaith: Juris, which came first in your life: writing books, pastoring a church, or involvement in politics?
Juris Rubenis: I have been interested in literature since childhood. I started recording my first reflections as soon as I knew how to write, at age six. For a long time, I thought that literature was my calling. I did not grow up in a Christian family, and there were no believers among my friends. It is worth mentioning that the crucial role in my life has been played not so much by deliberate human choice as by spiritual impulses and promptings, which I have tried to follow. I am not able to describe or explain these. They are something mysterious and very beautiful at the same time.
In this way, at age 18, I consciously started believing in God. God spoke to me and I obeyed. That was in 1980, when the Sovet Union, to all appearances unshakable, was governed by Leonid Brezhnev. Also at that time, I sensed an unmistakable call to become a pastor. I did not feel any fear about following this calling, only enormous joy. I got involved in political matters in 1986, when the human rights movement in Latvia was starting to become active. It was obvious to me that I had a duty to fight lies, violence and injustice. When Latvia regained its independence I discontinued my political activities, coming to see that my place is in the Church, not in parliament.I believe that it is futile to expect from government things that only God can provide.
Explorefaith: You were born in Latvia after World War II had ended. Did you ever consider leaving your country during the Soviet occupation?
Juris Rubenis: During the Soviet occupation it was almost impossible to leave the country. It was useless even to think about it. When I became a pastor, I thought that the Soviet regime would last for a long time. We young ministers were sure that we would have to serve under the regime probably all our lives. We had only two goals. First, we sought to defend the Church and, if possible, to expand its opportunities. Second, we pledged never to collaborate with the regime.
Explorefaith: What was it like to be the pastor of a Protestant church in a land dominated, at least officially, by atheist ideology?
Juris Rubenis: It was a very difficult but valuable experience. That period was characterized by all sorts of fears. Keep in mind that there was almost no Latvian family in which at least one family member had not suffered under the Communist regime. Most of the churches were closed. People who held notable positions were afraid to come to church. Sometimes they came to the pastor in the middle of night, like Nicodemus, so that nobody would see them. I remember how, at Christmas Eve services, school teachers recorded the names of students so that they could report them to the authorities.
During the Soviet regime pastors were made to feel like a lower class of people. You could get fired at any moment, get arrested. There was no tangible security to rely on, none at all. But in such circumstances valuable experience was born, the experience of what it means to rely on God alone. I can say that my service to the Church during those years was one of the most crucial factors which shaped and influenced who I am. My faith is a faith formed under such conditions. And I can say that I thank God for that experience.
Explorefaith: Please tell us about your spiritual practices. What do you do each day, or week, or season? How do you relate to God in your own, personal life?
Juris Rubenis: It is important for me to feel God’s presence every day. Every morning I devote some time to prayer, and in the evening I complement prayer with meditation. In meditation I sometimes use short prayer texts; however, occasionally it flows without words. Sometimes I spend thirty minutes, at other times an hour. Occasionally the sense of time vanishes. That is a way of becoming conscious of God’s proximity and being rewarded with the gifts which come from it. It is a time to listen to God.
Explorefaith: Do you usually hear God?
Juris Rubenis: Sometimes I hear more, sometimes less. At times I write down what I have heard; sometimes it is impossible to do that. But this conversation with God, this listening, is the most important thing I do. As I see it, prayer and meditation are the most significant parts of the Christian life. In one of my books, God, I Believe You Understand Me, I have described my prayer and meditation experiences. For me, it’s the most important book I have written, a sort of breviary I use every day. I know that many people in Latvia have acknowledged it as a very useful tool for shaping their spiritual life.
Explorefaith: Your writing seems to reflect a very thoughtful spirituality. You struggle with life’s big questions, and it’s clear that you have a profound connection to the sacred. Does that connection ever seem to come and go? When it goes, do you keep writing? Do you keep worshiping?
Juris Rubenis: For a long time I searched for a format that best expressed my inner experience, for it is very difficult to express one's experience in words. Gradually I came to the conclusion that the best way of saying precisely what I have come to understand are parables and short, paradoxical aphorisms. I understand that for some people this form is difficult to comprehend, but it is the only way of putting quite a few indescribable experiences into written form. It is also a way of getting readers not to stop at the text itself, but to go further and achieve their own inexpressible experience.
Of course, I also have moments of “desert” in my life. They are essential, I suppose, to recognizing our limits as human beings. During those times I do not write but do something else. For me, writing is not an end in itself. I write when I feel I have to.
Explorefaith: Do you feel especially called to your work?
Juris Rubenis: My life has been influenced and shaped by spiritual impulses and promptings, which I have obeyed. I have tried to do the things God has called me to do. I realize that such words can sound inflated, but for me it is very important that I do the task for which God has sent me into this world, and do it to the best of my ability.
Fifteen years ago I met my Catholic friend Maris Subacs, who had a similar spiritual experience. Together we have authored more than ten books. Life is short. There is not enough time for everything. But it is important to have time for what is really significant. I write because I feel an intense inner prompting to do so. The prompting is too strong to resist. It is like the call I felt before deciding to become a pastor.
Explorefaith: I know that there has been a lot of debate in recent years over whether or not the European Union should officially recognize Christianity as foundational to European civilization. How do you feel about that issue?
Juris Rubenis: Of course, it is a sign worth pondering that the Constitution of the European Union makes no direct reference to Christianity, one of the main forces which, historically and substantively, has formed European values and thinking. But the question is not just about a word on paper, but about its living presence.
There are many indications that Europe is tired, spiritually as well as practically. This is one of the surprising discoveries which many of us in the new European Union countries made when we joined the EU. Entering the Union with enthusiasm and ardor, we were often met with bored, indifferent and tired faces. We joined the European space with a desire to use our regained freedom in order to enrich our spirituality, but we found ourselves in an environment where many people use freedom as a means of ignoring the spiritual dimension of life. In many ways Europe today is in a situation like that which existed in the second and third centuries. Christianity is a minority alongside other ideologies and religions, which oppose Christian ideas very energetically. But a competition of ideas has never impeded Christianity. Perhaps this is the best context for European Christianity, a chance to take a fresh breath and give birth to some new and grand ideas.
Explorefaith: What advice would you give to Christians in North America who have never had to worry about the police interrupting a worship service, and who rarely feel much urgency in their spiritual lives?
Juris Rubenis: Although it is quite risky to advise others, I would say that a person should always be ready for the challenges of faith, ready for situations in which you have to show what you really believe in. Prosperity can create illusions. A Christian should use prosperity to prepare for a crisis, a crisis no one can evade. I would say to North Americans: be thankful for your opportunities, and ask yourselves: are you making sufficient use of these opportunities as a chance to grow spiritually?
Explorefaith: Juris, leave us with a Latvian prayer, if you will. Is there a unique Latvian spiritual expression that might speak to our mostly American readers?
Juris Rubenis: Latvians have a nice saying: God’s mill grinds slowly but surely. Sometimes it really seems like nothing is happening. But God continues to work in your life and in the universe. You have to be patient; big things do not happen in an instant.
Life, including spiritual life, is not a sprint but a marathon. Relying on God means relying on God's speed and God's decisions. As a Nordic people, Latvians are very reserved and measured. The methods of evangelism used in North America rarely work in Latvia. Truthfulness and honesty are what convince people. They need to make sure the message is right. Latvians think for a long time before making decisions about their spiritual life. But once a decision is made, it usually lasts forever. Nowadays especially, when people want to get everything fast, we need more patience and trust in our relations with God, with other people and with ourselves.
Copyright ©2008 Jon Sweeney
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