Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lost in the Taiga

By David Horn, ThD
Director, The Ockenga Institute

What could it be? Scanning across the sea of dark green coniferous forest, there it was, a square break in the darkness, a tiny patch in the fabric of the uninhabited Siberian quilt. It almost looked like a tilled garden. But, how can this be? They were hundreds of kilometers from civilization.
From their helicopter on that spring of 1982, Russian geologists looking for drilling sights in the subarctic mountains--taiga--of Siberia were desperately searching for a small morsel of land where they could put down. What they found, instead, was a thin fragment of civilization that first dumbfounded them and then captured their full imaginations. Parachuting in, they found themselves staring into the black din of a musty, sticky cabin, barely held up by sagging ceiling joists.
And from out of that cabin came an amazing human story. Huddled in that humble cabin came five hollow figures seemingly held together by bailing wire. First came the old man, his disheveled beard matched by his patched—his re-patched—shirt and pants. Two grown sons followed him, and then, behind them they could hear the hysterical cries of two grown daughters. It was summer so all were without shoes. But, come winter, they walked the snowy mountain range with homemade birch bark boots. The geologists stood face to face with the Lykov family. In turn, the Lykov family stood face to face with other human beings. The grown children had never seen another human face other than their family members. Never. They lived their lives completely to themselves, surviving solely on subsistence fare of potatoes and pine nuts.
What could have driven this family of hermits into this vast wilderness? Vasoly Peskov tells this amazing story that has reached millions of readers in his chronicle, Lost in the Taiga. What drove this family for decades into a life radically set apart from civilization? The Lykov family was part of a small group of “Old Believers” who began their journey from the outside world during the reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church during Peter the Great. Systematically setting themselves apart from the world, they spent what time they had each day that was not filled with scraping together enough food for the next, in long ritualistic, pietistic prayer. Their sole goal in life was to remain uncontaminated by the larger world.
The story of the Lykov family was part of my summer reading. I found it an amazing story not because it was so dramatically different from where most of us live our lives, although this is certainly the case in one sense. Quite the opposite, I found the story so compelling because I related so much to it. What is this impulse in all of us that closely measures our commitment to Jesus Christ by the degree to which we separate ourselves from the world around us? Like the Lykov family, I realize there is safety in maintaining a distance from the world, be it geographical, intellectual, or moral. But, in playing it safe, do we not risk a contamination of another sort? Like the Lykov family, losing contact with their world caused them to live tiny, utterly selfish, and distorted lives.
The point is, Jesus’ example in the Gospel clearly points us to the often forgotten truth that we, the Church, need the world out there—our associations, our towns and communities, our relationships with our unbelieving friends and enemies—as much as they need us. Without continuous, ongoing connections with our world, we all run the risk of living very small safe lives robbed of the very relationships that stirs the gospel in our souls.

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