To not get lost in translation: Interview with former ELCL diakone Marika Vidiņa

6. Mar, 2011

To not get lost in translation:

 Interview with former ELCL diakon Marika Vidiņa

Sally Benfelde

4 December 2010

In mid-December there will be a book presentation of the first Latvian translation of 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. The book is published by the language center Ad Verbum, whose director is Marika Vidiņa.

“Kirkegaard comes with me from my theological studies period and is very dear to me,” says Marika Vidiņa, when asked why Kirkegaard and why the language center, which daily deals with technical translations, decided to publish his book in Latvian. “The idea came slowly and for several years. Kirkegaard is translated into many languages – even Japanese and Chinese, but no whole book of his has been translated into Latvia. Now I have great joy that Inga Mezaraupa undertook the translation. Moreover my son Viestarts has worked with Kierkegaard’s texts; that’s why this in fact is his led project,” says Marika.

How was your life earlier,  that led to Kierkegaard?

Marika Vidiņa used to be an ELCL diakone serving in the Bolderāja [northern Riga] parish, but was forced to leave the Church, because it was forbidden for women to serve in the Church. Later, together with the entire parish of Rev. Juris Cālītis she was expelled from the ECLC, because the parish refused to renounce their pastor. Now Marika attends services conducted by Juris Cālītis in the Anglican Church and is a member of the Jēkabpils Lutheran parish served by Rev. Modris Plāte. “I have no objection to the Anglican Church, but I gave my confirmation promise in the Lutheran Church, and there are promises that cannot be broken,” thus she explains her conduct. Ad Verbum is Marika’s job, life and like a third child – self-created and cherished. 

Marika says of herself that in her life can be divided into several periods, and each one ended when the time was right. The first longest time period was in the Academy of Sciences’ People’s Film Studio; it was a marvelous time – in the film studio she worked for ten years, and they were completely free from Soviet ideology, but then changes began. “I cannot say, as often is said – presto! – and then something suddenly happens. With me everything happens slowly, consequently and, from today’s vantage point, logically,” says Marika.

Our conversation is long and takes place “ad verbum”, word by word, and step by step. After the interview I find in the Internet a Kierkegaard quotation that has become an aphorism: “The good is freedom. Only the one who serves freedom and freedom itself is that which creates the division between good and evil.”  For our conversation in fact is about freedom and its interpretation.

How did the transition period change your life?

I knew Rev. Plate, but more as one of the people in the Lutheran pastors’ movement Rebirth and Renewal [Atdzimšana un atjaunošana]. There were several practical things where I was able to help – even if only to distribute the freedom movement’s journal Auseklis (Morning Star). But of course there we had several conversations, he brought me books, for after all he is a pastor and had learned that I was however a Christian (she laughs). I usually said to Plāte, between me and God everything is alright. I come from a Catholic family, at the age of three I was baptized and there were no mutual problems between me and God. Then once I arrived in Kuldīga at one of Plāte’s Bible studies. One phrase: “Who are you and who is your God?” for a long time gave me no peace. I started to think that maybe not everything was alright between me and God, in fact this was a field, where I lacked knowledge. And so I began to go to Kuldīga for Bible studies. A year passed, and I decided to be confirmed; this was 1988. This was a tumultuous period – then there was the Religious Affairs Council which stripped Plāte on his right to work, but he worked illegally, and there were also attempts by the Consistory to stop Plāte, for the Consistory did things according to the order of the Council. Remember, in those days were the well-known “letters from the working people” that always appeared when it was needed to slander someone. And then Rev. Plāte also dressed improperly – at church feasts he wore a white robe. Absurd, of course. Lots of pretexts were sought, but the real reason was the Rebirth & Renewal movement, where the pastor was an active member. Apparently the prohibitors had the hope that Plāte would leave, but the parish defended its pastor. Once a representative from the Consistory came and probably wanted to make the parish elect a new pastor, but the parish people stood in front of the church’s doors and refused to let the visitor inside during the service. After the service, the people came out. – That was a fantastic sight: the representative stood by the church wall, the parish stood in front of him and sang: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” So the representative left, without talking with us.

Why did you decide to study theology?

I traveled to Kuldīga to the church services, but my job was in Riga and my children were small. I felt that something was missing – I wanted to learn more. In the Theological Seminary there was admission of new students; I thought I could enroll. I didn’t have the slightest notion of working in the Church, and when I was asked what my purpose was in enrolling in the seminary, I answered that my only reason was to study theology, as much as I had time and energy. This was a time of tremendous energy in people; more and more new parishes appeared, and it seemed that my entire class was assigned to serve in local parishes while studying, because there was an extreme shortage of pastors. Archbishops Kārlis Gailītis summoned me and said I had to go to the Bolderāja parish and conduct Easter service, for there was no one else to send. I replied: Archbishop, remember what I said to the admissions’ committee – I will never be a pastor, I cannot even imagine how to conduct a service! The archbishop said to me: Your may have your principles, but these people won’t have an Easter service. I’m not saying that you will be a pastor. I request you as a theology student – go there and conduct the Easter service. It was awkward to say “No”, and with that things began [during my study years]. In the middle, there was a hiatus for final exams and thesis writing, but all in all I served in the Bolderāja parish for four years.

But you didn’t become a pastor?

Yes, that was the amusing side of my ministry. We didn’t really have any kind of status – I guess the phrase was “serving students”. It was complicated for the parish had services with Holy Communion, baptisms, marriages, confirmations – and these were certainly performed by ordained pastors. That was a difficult to solve problem, but archbishop Gailītis decided that this would not last for many years, but for a short period, until students did their exams and finished their studies. So, “serving students” were given the archbishop’s permission to perform these sacred rites. I didn’t have such permission for a long time, for I kept refusing.

You were spiteful?

No, it wasn’t spite. At that time, I asked myself whether a woman should be a pastor, and I did not yet have sure answers to this question. I didn’t see myself as a pastor, I didn’t have inner conflict about working in a parish. The part about conducting services was easy.

This was a wonderful time in the Seminary because perestroika had opened up opportunities for theologians from everywhere to come to Latvia. In a short time, we heard lectures by many of the theological greats on many subjects. They were not only exiled Latvians, but also professors and pastors from various European nations. I used this opportunity and said to them:  if you have a free Sunday, you could come to the parish in Bolderāja; this Sunday we will have communion. The pastors usually did not refuse, and I think that then the parish was blessed, for we heard the likes of professor Visvaldis Klīve, pastor Juris Cālītis, the present archbishop of the LELC Abroad Elmārs Ernsts Rozītis, and many more.

How did you become a diakone?

Archbishop Gailītis invited me for talks and said: I very much want to ordain you.

I was taken aback and said “No”, although then I had no doubt about whether a woman could be a pastor. I declined because I still had not finished my studies. The archbishop replied that he however wanted to settle this matter and to ordain me as a diakone (deacon). In Latvia this was not a widespread practice; it was accepted that a deacon practiced social work, in contrast to the exile Latvian churches where ordained deacons worked in parishes that did not have an ordained pastor. And so it happened that the archbishop drove to my parish and ordained me. Soon after this, the archbishop [tragically] died, and I don’t think that this ordination was ever recorded in any of the Church annals, for we did not have the ministry of deacons with this understanding.  I served in the parish, but after the death of archbishop Gailītis, changes started to take place in the Church.

The new archbishop announced that women do not have a place in the Church.

This took place very slowly and complexly. Among the theology students about half were women, who as serving students were assigned all over Latvia. Serving students had voting rights, and I attended the Synod where Jānis Vanags was elected. I remember very well that in his candidate’s speech he said: know well that my conviction is that a woman cannot be a pastor, and if I will be bishop, I definitely will not ordain women. He was elected. Apparently the majority either thought this was not an important issue or they agreed with the candidate on this issue.

And then you were forced to leave the Church.

It could be said that I myself left, for it happened at the moment when it became clear that I could no longer guarantee normal work in my parish. It was clear that my path in the Church led nowhere, for I was a woman. And then one Sunday morning, as I was riding in the bus to the parish service in Bolderāja, I read the church’s newspaper Svētdienas Rīts [Sunday Morning]. I had not looked in the paper the previous evening, but it’s good that I opened the paper before the service because suddenly I spied a notice that announced that from this day on for everyone who had been given permission to consecrate the communion elements, this permission was annulled. I read this in the newspaper! No one had talked with me, I was not informed. This was strange. I cannot say for myself that this broke my heart. All at once I realized the door was shut and to bang my head against it would be stupid.

Then the issue of Christian education in the schools became a pressing one, and I worked not only in the Faculty of Theology, which organized training courses for teachers of religion, but also taught in a school. The courses were organized by Rev. Austra Reine, who was sent by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with missionary status. She was not a pastor in the exile Latvian Lutheran Church; she was ordained in the ELCA and served in the Užava parish in Latvia. The ELCL made a decision that Austra was no longer allowed to serve in Latvia and that her mission was not needed by Latvia. The reason, of course, was – she was a woman. Austra returned to America, and I took over the leadership of the courses. We slowly developed them into a professional program. My conviction was that in general education schools there could not be just one religion and even less so – one confession. As we know, the view that won out was that it had to be confessional education, and this to me no longer seemed to be worth the effort. Our language center Ad Verbum was founded. Ad verbum is Latin and means “word by word”.

However, your children gained bachelor’s degrees in theology?

Yes, my daughter got a bachelor’s degree in theology, then studied in a film school in Denmark, but then got a master’s degree at the Culture Academy [in Riga]. My son also got a bachelor’s degree in theology, but right now he is studying philosophy at the University of Louvain in Belgium

You said that one time you had doubts whether a woman could be a pastor. What created these doubts? Was it the Bible texts that are on and off quoted as proof that a woman is not allowed to serve in the Church?

The doubts came from ignorance. Plāte is an outstanding pastor, and if you have for a time participated in his teaching, then you can no longer allow yourself to play with Bible texts where you latch onto a citation and then suit it to your purposes. That happens everywhere, not just with biblical texts. If someone wants to force an idea of his on another person, then he very quickly finds some “authority” whom he quotes. That’s a common practice.

My parents were Catholics, and always when they took me to church, I saw a male priest. Therefore I needed to understand and know more about the ministry of women in the Church. I questioned myself, whether a woman was capable of doing this, because it is very hard work if you take care of a parish, if you do it from the heart, as it should be done. You have to study a lot if you want to use biblical texts and interpret them to others. The people come to the pastor with their problems; this is difficult also for the pastor. I was very lucky to meet certain persons who taught me to experience my life, for they not only spoke the truth, but they also lived it. Persons like professor Akmentinš, professor Grīslis, professor Klīve. These people are my Lutheran Church. If I had doubts, if something was unclear, I went to Roberts Akmentiņš [head of the Seminary], and he always told me a little story. When I asked about women’s ordination, I told him about my doubts. He said: just think in Lower Bulāna village in Siberia [many Latvians live there], where all those goodly male pastors ran away, there was a certain aunty Pauline. No one in Lower Bulāna was interested in the issue of ordination, but Paulīne baptized them one by one, did funerals and conducted worship services. No one of course appointed her there, but what do you think? How would Lower Bulāna be today, if Paulīne had not been there?

The issue of women’s ordination, of course, is nothing unusual. In all the churches where today women’s ordination is a completely common thing, at one time there were widespread discussions. We won’t have to invent anything new, we have to just become acquainted with the materials written so far – for and against. Sadly this sort of discussion has not really taken place in Latvia. The ejection of women from the Church is simply slowly taking place. Many women go to other countries [to be ordained] for they truly want to serve. Today they are serving everywhere with great success, they have gained doctor’s degrees in theology, they are respected and appreciated in society. And that’s a loss for Latvia that these women leave, that we refuse to accept them. In other words – no person, no problem.

Like the leitmotifs of Stalin and Beria.

I don’t wish to say such harsh words about the Church, but unfortunately that is what has happened.

But no matter how this “woman thing” may be in the Latvian Church, I was excommunicated from the Latvian Lutheran Church.

Why were you excommunicated?

My whole parish was thrown out of the Church. Our pastor Juris Cālītis was let go, and I was his parishioner. We knew that our pastor was excommunicated from the Church, and we came to know that a representative from the Consistory would appear, and we had to decide, what and how the parish would act next. Sunday the Riga dean and two other young people came – probably from the Capitul of the Consistory. The dean said that our pastor was excommunicated and we as a parish had to vote to invite a new pastor. In my opinion, this was a completely unintelligible demand, for no one had come to talk with us, to explain to us what were the heresies of our pastor (from Greek hairesis, “choice”, false teaching, a deliberate deviation from the generally accepted canon of faith, a wrong interpretation of basic postulates). It seemed to be something similar to what had happened with Modris Plāte [under the Soviet system], when pretexts were found, but the real reason was something else. In fact, I don’t understand one thing – how can people come to a church with the idea – if you don’t accept our version, then everyone will be excommunicated from the Church. What sort of thinking is this that one can calmly observe it? Yes, it could be seen that the dean was not feeling comfortable, but there were also these two other persons who sat behind the dean and spoke to no one, didn’t ask anything. They sat there like amateur inquisitors. I saw their gloomy, almost carved into stone faces and thought, what great fear these people must have if demons appear to them!

Are those not fears of thinking, of discussions, of the idea that when you gaze into yourself, you will see unanswered questions? And then the Church becomes no longer the source of God’s love, but judge and executioner?

I don’t know why these people acted like they did. I think that a large factor was the break from the 50 years of Soviet occupation. The people whom I understood, whose thoughts were important to me, were those who had been theology students in the 1930s [when Latvia was free for the first time]. They did not constitute a monolithic mass, among them were pastors with different viewpoints, but they did not deny the right to think, the right to hold one’s own view. We almost do not have a middle generation of pastors. We haven’t developed the ability to talk about theological perspectives. Our young pastors like to say that they are called, but I’ve never really understood, what that means. But looking at which is happening in the Church today, it seems they understand their calling to be the sameness of views.

The Church is a secular, humanly created institution. Can it declare that it knows the thoughts of God?

If the translated instructions that come with a vacuum cleaner contain an error, and the vacuum cleaner is operated according to the instructions and breaks down, who’s to blame? The translator, of course. What should we do, if an error creeps into the Church’s “translation”? Any kind of sacred scriptures are endlessly complicated texts. Most people use them in translation, in the real and figurative sense. Church people are people as we all are, but often they put on a mask and begin to talk in self-accepted “right” phrases, for they think that Church people should act in this manner. Who needs this? Why do Church people have to be different in their facial expressions or manners of speech? Why do they have to be different (from others) on the outside?

For me Kierkegaard was interesting and dear, because I wanted to understand what Protestantism is and how it basically is different [from other confessions]. Probably that’s why Protestantism appeals to me, for apparently I’m not a person for whom rituals are important. Probably rituals are important for many people, but I think Protestantism contains so many beautiful things that we at present are losing at a catastrophic pace. If we return to appearances by demons, then according to our ancient tradition, we should hurl an ink bottle at them and then tackle the Scriptures. In truth, this is what I greatly await from the Lutheran Church in Latvia, that pastors would finally turn to the Scriptures and seriously, deeply and painstakingly read these texts. And not to create their own inventions and then immediately grab the Bible to extract some citation to support their ideas, in this way the Church becomes an ideological unity. All that remains is to put on gaily colored clothes and pretend to be somebody, who towers over everyone else. Wait a minute! The Church is supposed to be the one thing that spreads itself as a firmament under the feet of others.

In the new Church Constitution that will be adopted, in contrast to the 1928 Constitution, in the Preamble is written the declaration that forbids any sort of differing viewpoints! If so, everything that the ruling power doesn’t like can be construed as heresy or promotion of schism. There is such a great desire to isolate oneself that I have a question – around what? The Church has fully and finally turned away from the Faculty of Theology, it has pushed away whole groups of people. The shunning of the Faculty of Theology is a great loss for both sides. And who would be worthy enough to be in such a Church? This hurts.