His Eminence the Novice

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko). Photo by Yu. Kaver

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko). Photo by Yu. Kaver

The russian bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) died on September 17, 1999, in Washington, D.C. In reality, Bishop Basil had simply been waiting for this moment to begin a journey for which he had been preparing his whole life. Indeed, Basil often spoke about it, but no one seemed to understand. His interlocutors preferred to ignore it or to express their sympathy by saying: “Why, Vladyka”—this is what Russians call their bishops, an affectionate word meaning “Sovereign,” “Master,” or “Your Grace”—“you have a life ahead of you! God is merciful!” But the bishop himself looked forward to his journey onward with impatience and with lively interest.

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) in Pochaev. Photo by the author

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) in Pochaev. Photo by the author

The thing is that even during his life he had always been an inveterate traveler. Moreover, I would say that traveling was his true mission and true way of life. The beginning of his journey, without a doubt, was his birth in the aristocratic estate of Otrada, which was his family patrimony. The boy who was to become the bishop Basil was called Vladimir (Volodya) by his parents. The newborn boy’s paternal grandfather was Mikhail Vladimirovich Rodzyanko, the chairman of the State Duma of the Russian Empire. And his mother came from two ancient princely lineages of the highest rank: the Golitsyn and the Sumarokov families. Indeed, many noble Russian families were in close or remote kinship with this particular servant of God.

In 1920 the bishop undertook his next real journey. At the time he was only five years old. The road was long—by land and by sea, through Turkey and Greece and on into Serbia. The family was forced to leave because the new leaders of Russia were not willing to let the former chairman of the Imperial State Duma and his family live in peace. The Rodzyankos settled in Belgrade, and this is where the future bishop was raised.

He was fortunate to have wonderful teachers. The cream of the Russian emigre community had congregated in Yugoslavia. Among them were his immediate mentors, the Holy Hierarch John (Maximovich), who thirty years later was to become the distinguished Archbishop of San Francisco, and sixty years later would be known as a saint to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, as well as the great Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky). These were both spiritual giants, and they had a powerful and positive influence on their young pupil.

Yet there was another teacher who was no less important in the life of the future bishop—one whom Volodya could never forget. This was his tutor, a former officer of the White Army. No one but little Volodya knew that his tutor was constantly beating him and torturing him, and torturing the poor boy very skillfully too, hitting him without leaving any traces. This miserable officer nursed intense hatred for Mikhail Vasilyevich Rodzyanko, his little student’s grandfather, believing him to be at fault for the destruction of Russia. He had no way of venting his anger at the grandfather, and so, alas, he made the poor little grandson pay for all of it.

Years later, the bishop recalled: “My mother not long before her death said: ‘Please forgive me for unwittingly letting that man torture you when you were a child.’ ‘Mother, this was God’s will,’ said I. ‘And if it had not happened to me when I was a child, I would have never become who I am today . . .’ ”

The Church of the Feodorov Icon of the Mother of God in Tsarskoye Selo. Photo: uolliss.ya.ru

The Church of the Feodorov Icon of the Mother of God in Tsarskoye Selo. Photo: uolliss.ya.ru

When the bishop was already in his declining years, God gave him the chance to return to the Imperial village of Tsarskoye Selo. There Bishop Basil had received permission from the Church authorities to serve the Liturgy in the Church of the Feodorov Icon of the Mother of God, a church especially beloved by the Tsar’s family. When the service was over, the bishop came out to the people and confessed the guilt he had felt since his childhood solely because he had been the grandson to his beloved grandfather. The bishop said: “My grandfather only wanted the best for Russia, but as a feeble man, he often made mistakes. He was at fault when he sent his parliamentarians to his Imperial Majesty asking for his abdication. He didn’t think that the Tsar would abdicate both for himself and for his son, and so when he learned that this is what had happened, he cried bitterly and said, ‘Nothing can be done now. Russia is lost.’ And so he unwillingly became responsible for the tragedy of the massacre of the Imperial Family in Yekaterinburg. This was an involuntary sin, but a sin nonetheless. And so now, in this holy place I am asking for Russia, for her people, and for the murdered Tsar’s family to forgive my grandfather and to forgive me. And as a bishop, with the authority given to me by God, I forgive him, and release his soul from this involuntary sin.

***

The Rodzyankos settled in Yugoslavia. Vladimir grew into a kind, tall, and very handsome young man. He received a brilliant education, and fell in love with a wonderful girl who became his wife. And at the age of twenty-five he was appointed to serve as a priest in a Serbian Orthodox Church. When the Second World War began, Father Vladimir Rodzyanko fearlessly participated in the fighting against the Nazis. And when the Communists came to power, he remained unhesitatingly in Yugoslavia while most of the other White Russian emigres fled the country. Father Vladimir served as a priest in his Serbian parish and he believed it was wrong to leave his congregation, even if he were under the threat of prison or death. He was not killed, but he was sentenced to spend eight years in a camp. Tito’s camps were no less terrible than those in the USSR. Fortunately, Tito soon got into an argument with Stalin, and to irritate his former patron, he let all the White Russian emigres he had imprisoned out of the camps. As a result the bishop was let out of the labor camps after just two hard years and was allowed to leave the country. And so he immediately began his further travels.

Father Vladimir Rodzyanko in the BBC Studios

Father Vladimir Rodzyanko in the BBC Studios

At first he came to Paris to his spiritual father, Archbishop John (Maximovich). Then he was sent off to London to serve at a Serbian Orthodox Church. While in London he began to host religious programs on the BBC Russian language radio service. And through this program many, many generations of citizens of the USSR learned something about God, about their holy Orthodox faith, and also about the history of their Church and their country.

Time passed and Father Vladimir became a widower. The Church blessed him to take his monastic vows and he received a new name, Basil, and became a bishop. Soon afterwards, Bishop Basil undertook a new journey to the United States, where he converted thousands of Protestants, Catholics, and atheists to the Russian Orthodox faith.

But as it happens, he ended up like a fish out of water, not so much for his energetic missionary activity as for his conflict with a very powerful lobby—a group who advocated certain practices that have no place in the Orthodox Church. As a result, Bishop Basil had to retire on a very modest pension. But even this uninspiring event led to the continuation of his heartfelt dreams of wandering and became a reason for renewed activities. During those years, new opportunities for travel to Russia had opened up, and the bishop rushed back to his native land, which was so scary yet so important to him. I happened to witness a part of the events that took place during his return.

***

Sculptor V. Klykov, hieromonk Tikhon (Shevkunov) and Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko)

Sculptor V. Klykov, hieromonk Tikhon (Shevkunov) and Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko)

Bishop Basil appeared in my life and in the life of my friend, the sculptor Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Klykov, because of an astonishing and unexpected encounter. It happened in 1987 just before July 17, the anniversary of the Tsar’s family’s death. Vyacheslav Mikhailovich and I had wanted to serve a requiem for the repose of His Imperial Majesty before, but during prior years it had been impossible, and the idea represented an unsolvable problem. Going to a church in Moscow and just asking a priest to serve a requiem for Tsar Nicholas II was clearly unthinkable. Everyone knew that word would get out, and the very least punishment that such a brave priest could expect for such a deed would be dismissal from the Church. Having services in a private home was impractical, as many friends would have wanted to attend.

It so happened that during those days Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Klykov had just completed the monumental gravestone for Alexander

Peresvet and Andrei Oslyabya—two famous warriors, schema-monks who had been sent to fight for the victorious army of Dmitri Donskoy at the Battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380, in which Russia freed itself from the yoke of the Tatars. After a long confrontation with the local Soviet authority, a memorial gravestone for them was finally placed on the grave of these heroic monks in the former Simonov Monastery, the site of the famous Dynamo Factory during Soviet times.

And suddenly I had a thought—since there already had been an issuance of official approval for sanctifying the gravestone for Peresvet and Oslyabya, we could insert a requiem for the Tsar’s family during the service. They would definitely send someone from the KGB to spy on us, but the spies would be unlikely to understand the subtleties of the memorial service in Church Slavonic anyway—for them it would all simply be one long church service.

Vyacheslav Mikhailovich liked this idea. Now there was only one small problem: trying to find a priest brave enough to be willing to carry out the memorial service. Because there were, after all, quite serious risks. Perhaps not the greatest of risks, but risks all the same. And if any of the snoops and stool pigeons caught on to what it was that we were planning on doing . . . we preferred to not even think about this. On the other hand, we didn’t want to get any of the priests we knew into any trouble.

And then one of my acquaintances mentioned to me that Bishop Basil Rodzyanko had recently arrived in Moscow from America. Many of us had heard about this bishop, and some of us even knew about his radio broadcasts by the “voices of the enemy.” As we thought about this, we came to the conclusion that we would never be able to find a better candidate for serving the requiem for the Imperial Family.

First of all, he was a White Russian emigre. Second of all, since he was a foreign citizen, the risk he would bear would be far less than the risk that our local priests would be facing. The KGB wouldn’t really be able to do anything particular against him—probably. At a minimum, we thought it would be easier for him to get out of any pickles he might get himself into—after all, he was an American. That’s what we told ourselves. Lastly, as it used to be said in a slightly cynical but popular line from a poem of those days: “Grandpa is old and he doesn’t care.” In fact, when push came to shove, we just didn’t have any other candidates.

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) in Pochaev. Photo by the author

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) in Pochaev. Photo by the author

Anyway, that evening, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich and I went to the Hotel Cosmos, where Bishop Basil was staying with a group of Orthodox American pilgrims. The bishop came out to meet us in the lobby of the hotel . . . We were amazed! Before us stood a remarkably handsome, tall, elegant old man with a surprisingly kind face. To be more exact, he was the very model of a nobleman and an elder, without any irony or sentimentality, a perfect example of the best people of the times of old. We had never seen such grand prelates. There was something noble about him that we could sense—it was the old unspoiled Russia and her culture so long lost. This was a completely different bishop from all the other bishops with whom we had ever had dealings before. It’s not that those other bishops we knew were worse. No! But this one truly was a completely different bishop, from a completely different Russia.

Vyacheslav Mikhailovich and I suddenly were ashamed of ourselves for trying to put such a grand, kind, defenseless, and trusting dear old man into danger. After we first met him and said a few general words, we excused ourselves, stepped to the side, and before having broached the main subject of our conversation, agreed between ourselves that we would insist that the bishop think very carefully before agreeing to our suggestion.

In order to have our conversation the three of us went out for a walk on the street, to be further away from the KGB microphones in the hotel.

But as soon as the bishop heard why we had come to see him, he joyously stopped right on the sidewalk, and, grasping my arm as if he were afraid that I was going to run away, he not only gave his full agreement, but passionately assured us that we had been sent to him by the Lord God Himself. While I was rubbing my elbow, trying to figure out whether or not I would have a big bruise beneath my sleeve, everything was explained. It turned out that on this date every year for the past fifty years, since the time he had first become a priest, our bishop always said a commemorative memorial service for the Imperial Family. And now here he was in Moscow, and for several days he had been trying to figure out where and how he would be able to say this memorial service for the Tsar and his family even here in the Soviet Union. And suddenly we had turned up out of the blue suggesting our pious adventure! The bishop saw us as neither more nor less than angels, sent to him by Heaven. As for all our warnings about the dangers, he merely swept his hands indignantly.

There were only a few other questions, which Bishop Basil resolved instantly. According to ancient Church canons, a bishop who arrives in another bishopric could not celebrate Divine Service without the blessing of the local presiding bishop—and in Moscow, that meant the Patriarch himself. But the bishop told us that on the evening before, His Holiness Patriarch Pimen had already allowed Bishop Basil to have private supplicatory services and requiems. This was exactly what we needed. Furthermore, we needed a choir for the service. But it turned out that almost all the pilgrims who had arrived with the bishop sang in their local church choirs.

In the early morning on the anniversary of the murder of the Imperial Family, we all met by the entrance of the Dynamo Factory. Klykov and I had brought about fifty friends, and there were also about two dozen American pilgrims. For the most part these were Orthodox Anglo-Saxons who had converted to Orthodoxy but who spoke only English and Old Church Slavonic. We had to figure out something urgently, because if our “minders” became aware that foreigners had entered the territory of the factory, this could also cause us major headaches. Therefore, in order to make sure we would be okay, we were forced to scare our American Orthodox brethren half to death by warning them that they might end up in the basements of the Lubyanka Prison if they so much as said one word other than singing during the services. By the way, once the bishop began the services, they actually were quite an excellent choir, and they sang the entire service entirely by heart, almost without any accent.

The representatives of the administration of the factory and some gloomy minders conveyed us along through very long corridors and passageways until we reached the place where the monks Peresvet and Oslyabya were buried. My heart trembled when I saw with what suspicion those plainclothes minders were staring at this elegant bishop, and at his terrified, silent, but otherwise extremely not-Soviet-looking flock. But somehow, everything went okay.

Klykov’s memorial sculpture for the warrior monks Peresvyet and Oslyabya was remarkably beautiful: acetic, restrained, and yet majestic. We began with the consecration, and then, in a way that the official minders watching us could not understand, subtly switched into the fune­ral service. The bishop then gave the service with such passion, and his parishioners sang with such generosity of spirit, that it seemed the whole service was over in a minute. The bishop was careful not to say the words Tsar, Tsarina, or Crown Prince, but instead said the service for the fallen Andrei Oslyabya and Alexander Peresvet, praying also for the murdered Nicholas, the murdered Alexandra, the murdered boy Alexey, and the murdered young girls Olga, Tatyana, Maria, and Anastasia, as well as those who were murdered just for being close to them.

It’s hard to say whether those folks and plainclothes understood or not. I cannot quite rule it out. But none of them gave any sign of having understood. And they even thanked us when we took our leave—sincerely, as it seemed to me and Vyacheslav Mikhailovich.

When we left the territory of the factory and once more emerged into the city, Bishop Basil suddenly came up to me and hugged me, with a great affectionate bear hug. Then he said some words that will remain in my memory forever. He said that he would be grateful for what I had done today for the rest of his life. And although I myself didn’t really understand what it was that I had done that was so extraordinary, it was extremely pleasant to hear these words from the bishop.

And it was true: the bishop for the rest of his life treated me with the most affectionate consideration and reverence, which became for me one of the most valuable and undeserved gifts ever given to me by God.

***

In those days the truth about the martyrdom of the Tsar and his family was only just coming out. Yes, there had been some books published overseas, and a few of the older generation of Russian Orthodox Christians had related what had happened—and these accounts, sparse as they were, were the source of what learning we could glean about the new martyrs of Russia. At that time, quite furious arguments were raging about the fate of Nicholas II and his family. Various people whom I very much respected were rather skeptical about the idea of elevating the Imperial Family to the status of saints. One of these skeptics was the wonderful Archpriest Metropolitan Nicholas of Nizhny Novgorod, who was as well as a professor at the Moscow Spiritual Academy, Alexey Ilyich Osipov. I had nothing to answer against the objections of these highly worthy individuals. Except for one thing: I just knew that Tsar Nicholas and his family had in the end been saints. This happened about two years after my acquaintance with the bishop, during one of the most difficult moments in my life. I was still just a novice, and I was in an unenviable state of mind when I wandered into the Donskoy Monastery to visit the grave of Patriarch Tikhon. I did this on the anniversary of the murder of the Imperial Family. In that year memorial services were said for him, but for the first time not in secret. And from the bottom of my heart I began to pray to these Imperial martyrs, asking them, if indeed they had attained holiness before God, to help me.

The memorial service ended. I left the church still in a despairing and quite heavy state of depression. By the doors of the church I met a priest whom I had not seen in several years. Without any small talk or questions from my side he immediately started talking about the subject and immediately resolved all my doubts. He calmly and clearly told me exactly what I needed to do. This without exaggeration in many ways influenced my further fate. And the question about how or whether the Imperial Family should be revered never arose further in my heart—no matter what I was told afterwards about the undeniable flaws, mistakes, foibles, and sins of the last Russian Emperor.

Of course, our own religious experience means relatively little if it has not been confirmed by the Church. But fortunately for me, the fact of the canonization by the Russian Orthodox Church of the martyred Tsar Nicholas II and his family gives me the right to recognize my own small personal experience to have been truthful.

Among my acquaintances no one has ever doubted that for Russia the monarchy is the most organic and natural form of government. This is true even though we were more than skeptical about various active and scattered monarchist movements of the time.

Once when I was working for Metropolitan Pitirim, serious people dressed up in pre-Revolutionary officers’ uniforms walked into the pub­lishing department where I worked. On their uniforms Imperial medals and orders were gleaming, including crosses of St. George—the very highest of Tsarist honors.

I was very surprised and asked: “What made you decide to put on such medals? After all, they were only ever given out for extreme personal bravery in the battlefield.”

My guests assured me that they had indeed won these medals honestly on the battlefield. They said that they wanted to speak to the Metropolitan immediately. The Metropolitan, to my surprise, received them, and attentively heard what they had to say with great curiosity for a whole hour and a half. The theme of their visit was hardly without controversy: these guests were demanding that the Metropolitan give them all kinds of assistance in the matter of the immediate restoration of the monarchy. But when Metropolitan Pitirim had shown them out, he remarked: “Give you a new Tsar now, and you’ll shoot him again within a week . . .”

***

After this, every time Bishop Basil came to Russia, he always called me ahead of time. I was always glad to accompany him on one of his amazing new adventures and pilgrimages. Indeed, the bishop always had innumerable occasions for these. Although, strange as it may sound, the bishop never once undertook a single one of these journeys of his own free will.

He told me one particular story about this. In 1978 his wife Maria Vasilyevna died. The death of his wife was a terrible blow for Father Vladimir. He had absolutely loved and doted on her. The loss caused some­thing that not infrequently happens to real, open-hearted Russian people: Father Vladimir began to drink. The bishop told me about this sad period of his life with a clear heart, explaining it as his most difficult ordeal, the worst he had ever been forced to undergo.

Fr. Basil with his wife

Fr. Basil with his wife

He became a real alcoholic. Fortunately, because of his incredibly strong constitution, large size, and great strength, for a while his drinking did not affect his ability to carry out his priestly duties or his radio broadcasts. Father Vladimir used to drink a powerful Balkan vodka popular in Serbia known as raki. It’s not clear how this all would have turned out, because neither his father confessor, nor his family, nor his friends could do anything about Father Vladimir’s drinking.

Things might have been absolutely terrible, had not the departed spirit of his wife Maria Vasilyevna, who in life, as they say, had been a woman of great spiritual strength and prayer, appeared from the other world in a dream to make her husband shape up. Father Vladimir was so shocked by her appearance, and particularly by the severity of what his wife had to say to him when she appeared, that he immediately pulled himself together after her supernatural scolding. His particularly Russian disease was cured instantly.

Well, he did stop drinking. But he also had to somehow live on. His children by that time had already grown up. And naturally, there could be no question of a second marriage. By the canons of the Orthodox Church, second marriages are forbidden to the clergy. In the event that a priest who is a widower remarries, he is forever stripped of any right to serve in the priesthood. But, even beside these rules, Father Vladimir had been so attached to his former wife and had loved her so deeply that the portion of his own heart that had known earthly love remained entirely devoted to Maria Vasilyevna until the end of time. Father Vladimir began to pray devotedly. And the Lord answered his prayers.

After the death of Father Vladimir’s father confessor (Archbishop John Maximovich), his new spiritual father became the Metropolitan of London, Anthony (Bloom) of Surozh, an old friend of the Rodzyanko family. It was he who informed Father Vladimir that the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church of America were delicately yet insistently petitioning him to try to talk the widowed priest Father Vladimir Rodzyanko into taking monastic vows, after which he should be sent to the United States to serve as a bishop in the capital city of Washington, D.C.

Father Vladimir knew all too well that true service as a Church hierarch has nothing to do with honors and rank, but instead with a multitude of ceaseless daily cares, and with the complete impossibility of ever having a moment to yourself, as well as with constantly bearing an enormous load of responsibility almost incomprehensible to laypeople. Furthermore, poverty is also the inescapable lot of a Russian bishop in the diaspora, even dire poverty. By this time he had nearly reached the age of sixty-six, forty years of which he had spent in the priesthood.

But Father Vladimir accepted the suggestion of becoming a monk and then a bishop as the will of God, and as the answer to his own prayers. He agreed. The hierarchs of the American and British Orthodox churches shook hands, and the fate of Father Vladimir was decided.

Metropolitan Anthony of Surouzh

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

However, right before taking the monastic vows, the future monk asked his spiritual father, Metropolitan Anthony of Surouzh, an unexpected yet heartfelt question. “Well, Your Grace, I will now receive the monastic vows from you. I will undertake for the Lord God and His Holy Church the great monastic vows gladly. As for the vow of chastity, I totally understand what it means. I fully accept the vow of poverty as well. All the vows related to prayer are also perfectly clear and acceptable to me. But as for the vow of obedience—here I can’t understand anything!”

“What are you talking about?” Metropolitan Anthony was very surprised.

“Well, I mean,” Father Vladimir reasoned, “instead of starting me out as a simple monk, you’re immediately making me a bishop. In other words, instead of being a novice and obeying the commands of others, my job will mean that I’m the one who will have to command and make decisions. How then do I fulfill the vow of obedience? To whom will I be a novice? Whom will I obey?”

Metropolitan Anthony grew thoughtful for a moment, and then said: “You will be in obedience to everyone and anyone whom you meet on your journey through life. As long as that person’s request will be within your power to grant it, and not in contradiction with the Scriptures.”

Father Vladimir was very pleased by this commandment. But later it turned out that people who made the acquaintance of the bishop did not have an easy time of it all in dealing with his constant willingness to carry out his decisive and unequivocal fulfillment of this monastic vow. Partly I’m referring to myself. Sometimes, the bishop’s understanding of his holy vow of obedience would prove to be quite a trial for me.

Bishop Basil blessing the fatihful in Russia. Photo: bishop-basil.org

Bishop Basil blessing the fatihful in Russia. Photo: bishop-basil.org

For example, we might be walking together through the streets of Moscow—on a miserable day, through the pouring rain. And we are in a hurry to get somewhere. And suddenly an old babushka with an old string shopping bag called an avoska (“perhaps bag”) stops us.

“Father!” She quavers in the voice of an old woman, not realizing of course that she’s speaking not just to a simple priest, but to a bishop, no less—and what’s more, a bishop from America! “Father! Please can’t you help me? Please, bless my room! This is the third year that I’ve been asking our Father Ivan, and he still hasn’t come. Maybe you’ll take pity on me? Will you come?”

I hadn’t even managed to open my mouth, and the bishop was already expressing his most passionate willingness to carry out her request, as if his whole life long he had only been waiting for the chance to bless Grand­mother’s little room somewhere.

“But your Grace,” I say desperately. “You don’t even have the slightest idea where this room of hers might be. Grandma, where are we going?”

“Oh, not far at all. Just the other side of town—in Orekhovo-Borisovo. It’s only forty minutes by bus from the last stop on the Metro. Really—it’s not that far,” she warbles joyfully.

And the bishop, canceling all our important plans (since it was impos­sible to contradict him in such situations), would first traipse headlong all the way to the other end of Moscow, the largest city in Europe, to a church where a friend of his gave him the necessary vestments and utensils needed for a house blessing. (Of course, I tagged along with him.) All the while Grandma, beside herself with joy (Lord only knows where she got her strength) and unable to contain her happiness, ceaselessly told the bishop all about her children and grandchildren who never visit her anymore . . . Then, after the expedition to the church, off we went in the other direction, jam-packed like sardines in the crowded Moscow Metro at rush hour, standing all the way and with several long walks to change train lines through the jam-packed corridors, and then standing that way as we rode all the way to the end of the line, on the very outskirts of Moscow.

From there, just as Grandma had promised, it was a forty-minute bone-rattling ride in a dusty old bus, also crammed full to overflowing. But finally the bishop blessed and consecrated Grandma’s little room, all eight meters square, on the ninth floor walk-up of some hideous Communist project housing. And he did it with sincerest prayer, majestically, and triumphantly, just the way he always performs any divine services. Then he sat down with the ecstatic Grandma (actually, both of them were ecstatic about each other) and praised to the skies her humble offerings— little Russian pretzels called sushki, and tea over-sugared with sickly-sweet cherry jam, full of pits . . .

Then, with immense gratitude, he accepted as an honor and did not refuse the crumpled one ruble note that she stealthily handed to her

“Father” as she said goodbye. “May the Lord save you!” she called out to the bishop! “Now it will be sweet for me to die in this little room!”

***

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko). Photo: bishop-basil.org

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko). Photo: bishop-basil.org

Time after time I was able to observe how Bishop Basil gave entirely of himself in carrying out his “task of obedience as a novice” to absolutely anyone who would ask for his help. What’s more, it was plain to see that beyond his sincere desire to serve people there was an inner and still more secret desire, known but to him alone. As I meditate upon this I recall that the Russian word for a novice’s monastic obedience, poslushanie,derives from the verb slushat (to listen, to obey). Gradually I began to grasp that it was through this humble vow of service and obedience, remaining a novice even upon attaining the rank of a very senior cleric, that our sovereign Bishop Basil taught himself how to sensitively hear and to obey the will of God. Because of this his entire life was nothing more nor less than one constant search for the knowledge of the will of God, one mysterious yet absolutely real conversation with our Savior, in which He would speak to mankind not with words, but with the circumstances of this life, while granting unto His listeners the very greatest reward there is—a chance to be His instrument in this world.

***

Sometime in the summer of 1990, during one of the bishop’s visits to Moscow, a young priest who looked like an old-fashioned grenadier came to meet the bishop, and immediately asked him to come serve in his parish. As usual the bishop did not need to be asked twice; meanwhile, I realized we were in for a few problems.

“And just where is your parish?” I asked the young priest gloomily. From my tone of voice the young grenadier understood that I was hardly his ally. “Oh, not far . . .” came his unfriendly reply to me. This was the usual answer always given to us whenever we were being asked to sweep at once across the vast expanses of our endless Motherland!

“You see, Georgiy? He says it’s not far,” said the bishop, trying in vain to calm me down. “Well, not too far,” clarified the young grenadier.

“Where exactly?” I demanded to know. The young priest began to stammer a little. “It’s quite a lovely little church, built in the eighteenth century. There are hardly any in Russia like it! It’s in the village of Gorelets . . . Not far from Kostroma . . .” My forebodings, as it turned out, were entirely justified.

“I see,” said I. “And how far is it from Kostroma to your Gorelets?”

“It’s maybe about 150 kilometers. Or probably more like 200 . . .” admitted this young priest. “It’s between Chukhloma and Kologriva, to be exact . . .”

I shuddered. Then I began to think out loud. “Let’s see . . . four hundred kilometers from here to Kostroma . . . then 200 more . . . by the way, Bishop, do you have even the foggiest idea what kind of roads there are over there between this fellow’s Chukhloma and Kologriva?”

I tried to grasp the last straw of hope. “Listen, young priest! Have you received the blessing of the Bishop of Kostroma for this bishop to come visit you? Because by our Church law, without your bishop’s blessing, our bishop is forbidden to give any service in another bishop’s parish!”

“Without our bishop’s express permission I would never have come,” the young grenadier pitilessly assured me. “All the required blessings have already been received well in advance from our bishop.”

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) and priest Andrei Voronin

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) and priest Andrei Voronin

And so this is how Bishop Basil ended up on a rut-filled, bumpy, winding “road” in the middle of nowhere en route to a lost village deep in the forests of Kostroma Province. Father Andrei Voronin, as our young grenadier was called, actually turned out to be a remarkable, devoted servant of the Church, as so many of those who came calling to us in those years proved to be. He had graduated from Moscow State University, the top university in the country, but had put aside career prospects in order to restore a ruined church, and create a parish, school, and a beautiful summer camp for children. The trip to his village, however, truly was long and arduous, and we, his travel companions, were soon thoroughly worn out.

But then our car suddenly came to halt. Literally a few minutes ago there had been an accident on the road: a truck had run head-on into a motorcycle. There was a dead man lying right in the dust of the road. Standing over him, numbed with grief, stood a young man. Nearby, the truck driver listlessly stood smoking a cigarette.

The bishop and his companions hurriedly got out of the car. There was already nothing that could be done to help. This cruel senselessness of how sometimes things are in the life of this world, this awful picture of irreparable human grief depressed all of us who happened to be there at that minute on the road.

The young motorcyclist, clutching his helmet in his hands, was weeping. The dead man had been his father. The bishop embraced the young man and said: “I am a priest. If your father was a believer, I can say the necessary prayers for him.”

“Yes, yes!” The young man began to cover from shock. “Please do whatever is needed! My father was an Orthodox believer. Although . . . he never used to go to church. They got rid of all the churches around here. But he used to say that he did have a spiritual father. So please, do whatever is required!”

They were already taking the necessary ecclesiastical vestments out of the car. The bishop could not restrain himself and gently asked the young man, “How did it happen that your father never went to church, and yet had a spiritual father?”

“It just happened that way . . . For many years my father used to listen to religious broadcasts from London. They were made by some priest named Rodzyanko. And my father considered this priest his spiritual father, even though he never saw him once in his life.”

The bishop sobbed and wept and got down on his knees before his spiritual son who had just died.

***

Wanderings . . . Near and far, truly they are blessed, as are all of those who are followers of our Christ, for indeed our Lord God Himself was once a wanderer among men. His very life was but one long wandering . . . From the world above the clouds down to our sinful earth. And then amidst the fields and valleys of Galilee, and through the blazing deserts and the crowded towns, and then on to His dealing with the descendents of human souls, throughout all of the world that He has created, and with all of its people, who have forgotten that they are His children and heirs.

***

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) in the desert

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) in the desert

It may be that the bishop also loved to travel because, in all his wanderings, surprises, and sometimes even dangers, he always felt a particular closeness to God. It is no accident that in every service the Russian Orthodox Church contains a prayer for “those who are voyaging and traveling” or “for those in peril on the sea.” This particular closeness to God that comes during travel may be one reason why even in this modest volume there are quite a few stories that have to do with travel. How many amazing, unexpected, and unforgettable events have taken place during all our voyages?

We have honestly always had the complete and utter “service and faith­ful obedience” in keeping with the monastic vows of this unforgettable bishop. In 1992, I was with Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Klykov and our wonderful old friend, the scholar Nikita Ilyich Tolstoy, chairman of the International Foundation for Slavic Literature, as we prepared the pil­grimage of a large Russian delegation to visit the Holy Land, in order to bring back to Russia for the first time Holy Fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.[1]

After the Easter service in Jerusalem our pilgrims were supposed to come back by bus to Russia bringing the Holy Fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher through various Orthodox countries en route: Cyprus, Greece, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, Belarus, and finally home to Moscow.

Nowadays, the Holy Fire is specially brought for the Easter Service by airplane to many cities in our country. But back then, since it was the very first time, the trip with the Holy Fire involved all kinds of worries and complications. It was supposed to take an entire month. His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy II sent two Archimandrites—Pancratius, who is now a bishop and the Abbot of the Monastery of Valaam, and Sergius, who was later appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Novosibrsk.

One of the participants in our pilgrimage was supposed to have been Maria Georgievna Zhukova, daughter of the commander of Soviet forces in World War II, Marshal Zhukov. But suddenly on the evening before we were supposed to leave she fell ill. We had to urgently find someone who could travel in her place. Complicating matters even further was the problem that it would be impossible in such a short time to arrange for visas for such a large number of countries. And then once again we remembered Bishop Basil, who happened to have just arrived in Moscow on that very day.

To our great shame we didn’t think about the fact that the bishop had already turned seventy and it might be not so easy for him to live for a whole month on a bus—not to mention the fact that he had all kinds of things to do in Moscow. The main thing for us was that the bishop, as always, would agree. The second thing was that the question of visas would be resolved by itself: the bishop was a citizen of Great Britain, and with his passport, he did not need a visa for any of the countries we would be visiting.

Best of all, with the participation of Bishop Basil, our pilgrimage had acquired a spiritual director—the kind about whom we could only dream. We even regretted that we hadn’t thought about him earlier. In addition to all of the other good things about him, the bishop, unlike many other participants of our pilgrimage, was fluent in English, German, and French, Serbian, Greek, Bulgarian, and a fair bit of Romanian.

And so His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy II blessed him to be the leader of our pilgrimage group, which filled the heart of our bishop with joy in the feeling of extraordinary responsibility. Furthermore, thank God, the bishop’s health remained favorable throughout the trip. One of our participants, Alexander Nikolayevich Krutov, would bind up the bishop’s aching legs every day, and make sure he didn’t forget to take his medicines. In short, as Bishop Basil himself said, Alexander took care of him like a devoted mother.

I remember how then before our trip we all helped him pack and pre­pare, and with what relief we set out on our long journey. All our problems had been solved!

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) on the ship

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) on the ship

The problems began again as soon as our pilgrims needed to cross through any country’s border control. Our delegation was supposed to cross through the border control exactly in accordance with the list that had been given to these authorities in a group visa. On that list was Maria Georgievna Zhukova. But there was now Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) to take her place.

The first problems began when we got to Israel, a land famous for its scrupulous rigor in all issues of security, border control, and customs matters. Israeli security services in the airport immediately asked this unusual group of Russians to step aside and began to call us out each by name. There was no problem with the first names in the group visa, such as Archimandrite Pancratius and Archimandrite Sergius, Alexander Nikolayevich Krutov. But then when they called out the name Maria Georgievna Zhukova, suddenly instead of her they saw Bishop Basil, who politely smiled at the Israeli border agent and bowed to him.

“Wait a minute!” The agent was confused. “I called out Maria Georgievna Zhukova.”

“Maria Georgievna Zhukova is me,” said Bishop Basil naively.

“What do you mean that she is you?” The agent got annoyed. “Who are you?”

“I? I am the Russian Bishop Basil.”

“Maria Georgievna Zhukova is a Russian bishop? Listen, this is not a place for joking! What’s your real name?”

“You mean on my passport? Or—?”

“Of course your name on your passport!” the agent snorted.

“My name on my passport is Vladimir Rodzyanko.”

“Maria Zhukova, Bishop Basil, and now Vladimir Rodzyanko! Where are you from anyway?”

“Actually, I live in America,” the bishop began. “We can explain every­thing to you!”

Other members of the delegation tried to assist. But the Israeli border agent rebuffed them. “All others are requested to keep quiet!” Then he turned once more to the bishop. “Let’s see if I get this straight. You say you are a Russian bishop, but for some reason you live in America? Interesting. Let’s see your passport.”

“I have a British passport,” said the bishop cautiously, as he handed it over.

“What?” Indignantly the border guard shook the list of the group visa and waved it in the face of Bishop Basil. “Where are you listed in this group document?”

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko)

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko)

“How should I explain?” The bishop tried his best, himself somewhat surprised and smiling. “The thing is, in this document I am listed as Maria Georgievna Zhukova.”

“Enough nonsense!” said the Israeli border guard. “Just tell me who you are! And right now!”

The bishop was genuinely upset to have been the cause of so much trouble for this young officer. Of course, notwithstanding his natural modesty, he also did not like being yelled at. “I am a Russian Orthodox cleric, Bishop Basil,” he answered with a dignified air.

“So you are Bishop Basil? Who then is Vladimir Rodzyanko?”

“That’s also me.”

“Well then, and who is Maria Georgievna Zhukova?”

“And Maria Georgievna Zhukova is also me.” The bishop waved his hands vaguely.

“Hmm! And you live—where?”

“In America.”

“And your passport is?”

“My passport is British.”

“And on this list you are . . . ?

“And on this list I am Maria Georgievna Zhukova.”

This delightful little scene was repeated every single time we crossed a national border. However, notwithstanding all these difficulties, Bishop Basil was utterly happy. It had been his dream to pray at Easter time in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And he was overjoyed that after so many years of separation he could be—even if only for a brief visit—back in his beloved Yugoslavia. What’s more, he faithfully executed the important task that he had been given, as head of our mission of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and, on his return to Moscow, on the day of Saints Cyril and Methodius, was able to participate in the Procession of the Cross, right next to Patriarch Alexiy, around the Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin on Slavyansky Square, solemnly carrying the receptacle of the Holy Fire as he did so.

***

Bishop Basil carrying the Holy Fire.

Bishop Basil carrying the Holy Fire.

Although the bishop never said as much out loud, it had always been his fondest dream to serve Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. He had been brought up this way. Once we were able to make arrangements with Channel 1, the Central Television Station, to record a series of broadcasts— discussions about God and the Church, about the revered saints of old, and about the new martyrs of Russia, about the Russian Diaspora, and about the fate of Russia itself.

Bishop Basil was not feeling well, but he raced to Moscow and worked day and night with all of his fading strength on these broadcasts. These turned out to be the first discussions on these themes that had ever been shown on what was then still Soviet television. These programs provoked immense interest among their viewers and were repeated many times. Wherever the bishop appeared later, people would come up to him expressing their gratitude for having acquired faith thanks to his programs. For the bishop these words were his very highest reward.

Much of the ecclesiastical history of the twentieth century was revealed to us in a completely new way by Bishop Basil. Somehow at one point an argument began about what was then a popular theme—the ecclesiastical authorities under the Soviet regime. Some of the speakers were quite bitter in their condemnation of their collaborationist mentality, expressing thereby feelings not just aggrieved, but poisonously inimical towards them. The bishop listened to the arguments silently. When these fearless judges of the Russian bishops of the past appealed to him to support their position, which they considered self-evident, the bishop merely told them one story:

In the beginning of the 1960s when he was still just a priest named Father Vladimir, he was visited in his apartment in London by Metropolitan Nicodemus, chairman of the foreign relations department of the Russian Orthodox Church. In order for them to speak, they actually needed to lie down on the floor, so that the Secret Service agents tailing Metropolitan Nicodemus, and never once leaving him alone, would not be able to record their conversation through the windows.

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) in Pochaev. Photo by Archimandrite Tikhon

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) in Pochaev. Photo by Archimandrite Tikhon

Lying on the floor, and whispering softly as he could, Nicodemus told Father Vladimir that the Soviet authorities were planning any day now to close the ancient Pochaev Monastery (the foremost Orthodox monastery in the Western Ukraine). The Church hierarchy back in the Motherland had already exhausted all its possibilities to stop this from happening. Nicodemus therefore begged Father Vladimir to organize special broadcasts on BBC Radio and on the Voice of America to put pressure on the Soviet government not to eliminate the Pochaev Monastery. Both Metropolitan Nicodemus and Father Vladimir perfectly understood what a risk the Metropolitan was undergoing in appealing to Father Vladimir with such a request.

But by the very next day, the theme of the threat to the Pochaev Monastery was the lead topic in the religious broadcasts of the BBC and the Voice of America. Thousands of letters of protest from all over the world flew in, addressed to the Soviet government. All of this was perhaps decisive in influencing the authorities to change their minds and once again allow the Pochaev Monastery to continue with its activities.

In 1990 Bishop Basil and I had the good fortune of finally visiting Pochaev Monastery. It was his first time there. He served Divine Liturgy and was able to meet with all the people who together with him had been participants in the dramatic events that had taken place thirty years previously.

***

What else can I remember about the bishop? Somehow every one of his visits always coincided with some extraordinary event: the thousand-year anniversary of Russia’s conversion to Christianity, the bringing of the Holy Fire to Russia for the first time, the first Memorial Service for the martyred Imperial Family, the first religious programs on the Central Television Station. But as the bishop himself liked to say: “Whenever I stop praying, the amazing coincidences stop happening.”

The visit of the bishop to Moscow in the summer of 1991 was no exception. He had come as part of a large delegation from the United States attending the first global summit of Russian-speaking communities. Representatives of the Russian emigre community from many countries and of all different political persuasions were officially invited to Moscow for the first time. The government planned this meeting to mark a new stage in the development of post-Communist Russia.

A large number of people arrived. They included various emigres who had forever decided to have nothing at all to do with the Soviet Union. There were so-called “White Guards” who would never believe that anything good whatsoever could come out of the land of the Soviets, and there were even certain representatives of Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army, famous for siding with Hitler against the Soviet Union during the Second World War, and mercilessly punished for this after the war. How anyone had convinced these people to attend remains a mystery to me! Maybe in spite of everything they truly missed their Motherland . . .

The Intourist Hotel was booked full to overflowing. Various emigres and their families wandered around Moscow, looking at the city and the faces of the people. They were all amazed to see how interested everyone was in meeting them. What amazed them even more were the high hopes, in some cases rising to the level of unbounded fantasies, with which they were received. At the time there was no shortage of well-meaning souls who truly believed in the myth that “we will be helped from overseas.” As to this, I wish to say that if anyone on behalf of the Russian emigre community truly contributed to Russia’s spiritual renaissance not just in words but in deeds, it was the ever modest retired Bishop Basil, along with several tireless laborers from the emigre community—bishops, priests, and laypeople.

Patriarch Alexiy II and Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko)

Patriarch Alexiy II and Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko)

The main event of the first global summit of Russian-speaking com­munities was Divine Liturgy in the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. After long decades in which service of Divine Liturgy in the cathedrals of the Kremlin had been forbidden, a service was held and presided over by His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy II. Bishop Basil also assisted the Patriarch at these services. Unfortunately, a week before flying to Moscow, he had broken his leg at his home in Washington. But he could not miss such an event—and so, with his leg in a cast, and hopping about oddly on crutches, he stood through the whole service, as well as all the events, barely able to catch up with the crowd of Russian emigres moving around from place to place.

Then on the early morning of August 19, 1991, on the day of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, several dozen buses crowded with Russian emigres from every continent set out from the Intourist Hotel. These buses brought the tourists to the Kutafyev Tower of the Kremlin. With tears in their eyes, hardly believing what was happening, they proceeded through the Kremlin Gates to the Dormition Cathedral, where His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy II with all his bishops (including Bishop Basil, hobbling on crutches) began the Divine Liturgy.

However, as is well known, this was precisely the day, August 19, 1991, of the attempted coup against Gorbachev and his government. Indeed, this coup was taking place exactly at the time that His Holiness the Patriarch was praying in the Dormition Cathedral. And so when these emigres, touched to the depths of their hearts and full of joy after the conclusion of the Liturgy, left the Kremlin, they were astonished to see not tour buses waiting for them, but a thick line of armored personnel carriers and tanks and soldiers with machine guns.

At first nobody knew what was going on, but then someone cried out: “I knew it! Those Bolsheviks have deceived this again! It was all a trap!”

The confused soldiers in their ranks surrounding the Kremlin looked around at this quite confusedly. Another of the emigres cried out: “I warned you! I knew we shouldn’t have come! They tricked us! It was a trap, a trap! All of this was arranged on purpose!”

Just at this moment an officer approached these panicked emigres. He had been given orders to protect these members of the foreign delegations. His orders were to accompany the delegates to Lubyanka Square, where there were buses waiting for them on the instruction of the troops who would surround the Kremlin. These buses were supposed to take these for­eigners as quickly as possible to the Intourist Hotel.

“Comrades, do not panic!” The officer’s voice rang out with authority and command. “You are all instructed in an organized manner to proceed to the Lubyanka! These soldiers will accompany you now!” As he spoke, the officer pointed to a squadron of troops armed with machine guns.

“No, no, no! We don’t want to go to the Lubyanka!” The emigres’ panic was only increasing at the mention of that dreaded place.

“But they’re waiting for you there,” said the officer with good-natured surprise. This only increased the terror further.

“No! Anywhere but the Lubyanka! Absolutely not!” Everyone was yelling.

Several times the officer tried to reason with the crowd, but it was all in vain. So finally he gave the order to his troops, and they, energetically pushing these emigres, sometimes with the barrel of their machine guns, and sometimes with their burly arms, forcibly drove them on towards Lubyanka Square.

Everyone was so utterly shocked that they forgot all about Bishop Basil. He was left alone by himself on his crutches by the Kutafyev Tower, surrounded by soldiers and armored personnel carriers. Up to this point, no one had even heard about the coup. People who were accidentally in the vicinity of the Kremlin might be guessing as to what was going on, but at this point certainly no one knew for sure. But many people began to recognize Bishop Basil and asked what they should do . . . So there was an entire crowd gathered around the somewhat confused bishop, who was a head taller than everyone else.

Meanwhile the emigres who had been driven forcibly on to Lubyanka Square finally understood that they had been brought to their tour buses, which would be taking them to their hotel, and not to the prison and the dreaded basements of the KGB. Then suddenly they remembered about the bishop! The bishop’s secretary Marilyn Suizi ran out of the tour bus and courageously ran back towards the Kremlin, fearlessly approaching the tanks of the armored personnel carriers in that foreign land, trying to rescue her dear Bishop Basil.

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko). Moscow, 1991

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko). Moscow, 1991

She recognized him immediately. He looked like a gray-haired prophet towering above the crowd in the center of the ever growing protest meeting. Marilyn stretched out her arm to him and briefly but convincingly talked him into taking the only route towards certain safety . . . to go with her towards the Lubyanka . . .

But the bishop on his crutches was physically unable to walk that far. He told Marilyn that he would go but somehow transport would need to be arranged for him. Marilyn dashed out of the crowd of protesters and looked around. There was no transport available except the armored personnel carriers of the soldiers with their engines humming. Marilyn walked up to a young officer and in her broken Russian with bits of

English mixed in explained that there was an old priest from America who was unable to walk and urgently needed to be transported to the Lubyanka Square.

But the officer shrugged his shoulders and waved his hands: “What transport can I offer you? Only a tank. Or maybe an APC . . .”

But suddenly Marilyn noticed that not far away from the tanks there appeared to be a car that might be sufficient for transporting the bishop. “How about that Jeep over there?”

“The police van, you mean?” The officer was happy to help. “All right, we can give him a lift in the police van! Let me work it out with the cops!”

For some reason this officer felt true compassion for the fate of this foreign bishop. And so the van, which had been brought up with the intention to arrest the crowd of protesters against the coup, instead drove through the crowd, in the center of which the bishop was standing towering above everyone else. Marilyn followed the officer and two policemen as they approached. Yelling above the crowd and the racing engines of the tanks, Marilyn told the bishop that they were being taken to the Lubyanka.

Everyone together—the policeman, the officer, and Marilyn—grabbed the bishop and dragged him through the crowd. When they saw this, the crowd became extremely nervous. “What’s going on? Are they arresting the priest?” The crowd grew utterly indignant.

When they saw policeman taking an old priest on crutches and with a cast on his leg and putting him in a black van, the crowd became so furious that the people immediately began to cry out in defense of the bishop. “It’s starting all over again! They’re already arresting priests! No! We won’t let them arrest that good father! We will die for him!”

“No, no!” The bishop tried to calm the crowd and get away from his own rescuers. “Let me go, let me go . . . It’s all right. I want to go to the Lubyanka!”

Those soldiers barely managed to put the bishop with his crutches and his leg in a cast into the police van and to drive off with him through the now utterly furious crowd of protesters. As the bishop looked out the window of the police van, tears of gratitude started rolling down his cheeks. “What a wonderful people! What a great country!”

Soon the bishop was met on the Lubyanka Square by his faithful parishioners.

***

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) in the Sretensky monastery

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) in the Sretensky monastery

Even in the last years of his life, when he was ailing, he always yearned for Russia and visited as often as he could, ever hoping to serve his native land.

The bishop was already quite ill when he visited Moscow for the last time. He spent several weeks in bed. Natalya Vasilyevna Nesterova, in whose home he was staying, took tender care of him. But I understood that the bishop possibly would never come back to Russia again, and therefore asked the brothers and nurses to sit by his bed in vigil, and ordered that he be attended to around the clock by monks and novices of our Sretensky Monastery. That way the young monks could converse with the bishop, ask his advice, and pose questions to him, questions that only an extremely spiritual, wise, experienced priest could answer.

More likely than not my monks were not the best nurses. Probably they asked the poor ailing bishop too many questions and wanted too much advice and too much of his failing energies. And yet just as for these young novices it was extremely useful to spend these days and nights with this elderly bishop, so it was extremely important and pleasant for the bishop to spend time with those who one day would be taking his place in the Church. He was actually happy that even at the cost of wearing himself out he was able to answer their questions, teach them, give them the benefit of his experience and knowledge, and yet again provide service, that service for which he had always lived and without which he would not have been who he was.

***

On his final voyage, away from the country in which he was living and on to the long-awaited Kingdom of Heaven, Bishop Basil embarked all alone. He was found one morning on the floor of his room in Washington, no longer breathing. The bishop had lived in this little room for many years. It was a tiny studio, and yet in addition to housing the bishop, it had somehow also contained a house church, a radio station, a library of decades of sermons and writings and radio and television broadcasts, a hospitable refectory for parishioners who frequently came to visit, and a study. Somehow there was even space for visitors. Guests from Russia would often show up at the bishop’s home to spend a night or two—or sometimes even a week . . .

Even after his death, the bishop did not deny himself the pleasure of traveling a little bit.

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) after death

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko) after death

His family could not at first figure out where it was that he should be buried. Some said he should be buried in Russia—his Motherland, after all. Others wanted to bury him in England, next to his wife, whom he had so dearly loved. Others suggested Serbia, a land that had always been close to his heart. I can only imagine what joy filled the soul of the bishop as it was hovering above this scene in the heavens: he would truly have enjoyed any one of these journeys! But in the end his body was brought from Washington only as far as New York: one of his relatives insisted that he be buried in the Orthodox convent of New Diveyevo, which is located not far from the city. However, for some reason the burial did not take place there and the bishop was brought back again to Washington. Here his worldly wanderings finally came to an end. The bishop was laid to rest in the Orthodox Christian section of Rock Creek Cemetery.

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko)

Bishop Basil (Rodzyanko)

Sometimes during his life the bishop used to call himself “the reposed bishop.” That is because under his status he was merely a retired bishop, who had been fired (or sent “into retirement,” a phrase that in Russian sounds like being “laid to rest”) from the American Autocephalous Church. A bishop who has been “retired” in fact is no longer really a bishop, and no longer makes any official decisions about formal ecclesiastical matters. That is why the bishop from time to time used to joke about himself that he was “the reposed Bishop Basil.”

But he was indeed a real bishop! He truly governed without borders the human souls who crossed his earthly path. He did so with the indefatigable force of that remarkable power which to this day continues to bless those who had the joy of knowing Bishop Basil and experiencing his unforgettable and irreplaceable goodness, faith, and love.

[1] The miracle of the Holy Fire is an annual event in which the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem enters the Holy Sepulcher with thirty-three unlit candles he has bound together and emerges with them lit. Both the Sepulcher and the Patriarch are thoroughly searched by civil authorities before the event to exclude the possibility of any technical igniting. The first written record of this event, which occurs on Saturday of Passion Week according to the Orthodox Christian calendar, dates back to 870 a.d.

“EVERYDAY SAINTS” and Other Stories

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A Holy Man’s Christmas Card

nativity-icon-5Paraskevi, who out of sheer humility does not wish to reveal her full name, was among the first spiritual children of Elder Sophrony, during the time of her studies in England. She sent us a copy of two handwritten scripts by the blessed Elder.

christmas-card

A good wish card which the blessed Elder sent during Christmas 1967, when Paraskevi was going through some difficult times because of the illness of a close relative.

christmas-card2

 The outside of the card

The Christmas wish card (handwritten):

Archimandrite Sophrony

The Old Rectroy,Tolleshent Knight

by Maldon, Essex

Christmass 1967,

+

Dear beloved in Christ, Sister Paraskevi.

May the Lord’s grace and peace be abundant in you. Let me first wish you Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!

Paraskevi, has it ever happened to do something according to my blessing and it turned out harmful? Or has it happened that you did something according to your mind and not according to my humble advice that it was successful and in accordance with God’s providence? Therefore, now you must listen to me, the old fool, and do as I give you the blessing to do. The only beneficial way for you and your relatives is to finish your studies and work at the same time, as my monks do from morning till the evening. Get rid of any worry for X and your family.

The unworthy Arch. Sophrony.

You have the love of all who are at out monastery.

***

christmas-card3

Handwritten inscription by the Elder on the 15th August 1975, when he sent her his book, St Silouan the Athonite

On the book St Silouan the Athonite (handwritten):

To my beloved in Christ sister Paraskevi with warm wishes and love

Arch. Sophrony

15th August 1975

Printed in Caps:

Hailing from various countries

And retreating to the Mountain,

Among the holy fathers of Mount Athos,

Escaping the unnatural

And safeguarding the natural

Rising to that which is beyond nature

Again, by hand of Elder Sophrony:

From the Holy Spirit gashes out love, and without it no one is able to know God ‘as He must be known’.

E.S. p. 443

(Note: E.S. refer to Elder Silouan, not yet recognized as a Saint at the time)

Censers of Flesh and Bones

nativity1.jpeg

I behold a strange, most glorious mystery: heaven- the cave, the cherubic throne-the Virgin, the manger-the place where Christ lay. The uncontained God whom we magnify in song”.

In a manger of love our Jesus was born, and in a cave he chose to visit our humanity.

By his descending, the Lord experienced all our weaknesses except for the sin. He did not chose the scepters or the sofas of the rich in order to preach the salvation, but the womb of a Virgin. He put us on so that we could put Him on. He dwelt in a cave so we may become citizens of Heavens. Jesus came looking for the humanity that was wounded with Adam and strayed with Eve. His incarnation reminds us of dispensation. It is the stamp of the divine love that looks for censed souls, like Mary’s, that spread  Creator’s scent worldwide. This is the case of Virgin Mary, the censor that spread the light of God for the mankind.

Let us put ourselves, just once, and see how this girl fulfilled the will of God, and how She became an example for us in all our troubles, even 2000 years after the coming of our Lord.

Mary was not one of those earthly “mighties”. But She was a mighty in Her prayer. She was not of a high class, but a girl of a humble love Who obeyed God’s order. She did not complain thinking about Her reputation, and She was not ashamed of getting pregnant of the Holy Spirit. Mary, the Galilaean, did not complain of the distress that happened in those days, which  looks like the distress that takes place nowadays. On the Contrary, She was armored with God. She was not ashamed of Her Son’s Cross, but She accompanied Him to the Golgotha, and She cried, just like us, over the tyranny of the falsehood.

Mary is one of many, who see the nails of falsehood being beaten in truth’s body just like those nails which were beaten in Jesus’s hands. But Mary did not deny Her God the way how some of us do today seeing how darkness overwhelming the light. She did not ask: where is God? Cannot He watch the sorrow of my heart? But, She said: God is the strength of my heart. Surely, Mary is a human, just like us. And surely, we may cry just like Her. But the strength and the uniqueness of this Virgin is the fact that She did not let the sorrow to overcome the hope. She was not afraid of putting her hope in God. And we are called upon to behave the same way in these difficult days in which we pass as humans, community, country and the whole East.

We are called upon nowadays to be united, and to follow the example of Virgin Mary and all the disciples. Their unity was mixed with an undoubted hope in God Who had victory over death. They buried fear because of their unity and love. And we are called upon, as much as possible, to bury our afflictions by keeping the unity of souls and hearts regardless of the geographical distances. Antioch is those hearts that are tied to Jesus. Before these bounds egoism, races, cracks and disputed melt out in order to make Jesus shine on the front.

We, as the Christians of the East, are called upon to contemplate in Jesus Who did not incarnate in days better than ours. Because of His love we put on His name first in Antioch, and with the power of His Cross our ancestors lived on this land. We are on it and we come from it. We were born from its womb and we will be buried in it. We are staying here, and we will carry our cross following the example of our Lord. And to those who abduct our people and bishops we say: We are a part of this East. In it we live together with our brothers from all religions. We won’t spare an effort to remain in this land defending our history and existence.

We pray today for the peace in Syria, and for stability in Lebanon. We pray for the suffering East, for the bleeding Palestine. We pray for the homeless, for the displaced, for the lost, for the abducted and for the martyr. We pray to Virgin Mary to send peace to the souls, because it is the seed of peace on earth. We pray to protect all Her abducted children, amongst them the two bishops of Aleppo Youhanna Ibraheem and Boulos Yazigi. We pray to Her to be with our people everywhere bestowing humanity the mercy of the Child of peace and the father of mercies.

Oh Jesus, Who descended to us as a Child. Come and fill us with the abundance of your mercy, keep our children and parents. Come and stay in the cave of our souls and trim our thoughts with Your holy light. Oh Jesus, whose presence filled us with peace, bless our life. Calm with the power of Your silence every disorder, fear and turbulence. Teach us to chant together: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”.

 
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Appropriately, the most soul moving Christmas messages this year have been issued from the parts of our planet where Christians are most prosecuted!

 

 

The Art of Spiritual Reading

An Introduction to the Art of Reading God’s Word accompanied by some of the most beautiful medieval manuscripts

Top 10 Most Beautiful Medieval Manuscripts

Black Hours (M. 493 › Morgan Library & Museum)

The Black Hours is a product of unequalled luxury. All 121 vellum folios are stained in black. To make the writing stand out against the dark background, only white lead and opaque paints were used for the miniatures, and gold and silver ink for the script. Only three of these black parchment manuscripts survive to this day.
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WE BELIEVE THAT THE SCRIPTURES constitute a coherent whole. They are at once divinely inspired and humanly expressed. They bear authoritative witness to God’s revelation of Himself – in creation, in the Incarnation of the Word, and the whole history of salvation. And as such they express the word of God in human language. We know, receive, and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is one of obedience.

We may distinguish four key qualities that mark an Orthodox reading of Scripture, namely

Top 10 Most Beautiful Medieval Manuscripts

Prayerbook of Claude de France (MS M. 1166 › Morgan Library & Museum)

In the words of Roger Wieck, curator of manuscripts at the Morgan Library: “An artistic triumph…” The personalized prayer book of the French queen Claude de France enchants us especially by its delicate paintings in a charmingly small format of 69 x 49 mm, and even more so by the unusual wealth of illustration it contains.

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Reading the Bible with Obedience

FIRST OF ALL, when reading Scripture, we are to listen in a spirit of obedience. The Orthodox Church believes in divine inspiration of the Bible. Scripture is a “letter” from God, where Christ Himself is speaking. The Scriptures are God’s authoritative witness of Himself. They express the Word of God in our human language. Since God Himself is speaking to us in the Bible, our response is rightly one of obedience, of receptivity, and listening. As we read, we wait on the Spirit.

But, while divinely inspired, the Bible is also humanly expressed. It is a whole library of different books written at varying times by distinct persons. Each book of the Bible reflects the outlook of the age in which it was written and the particular viewpoint of the author. For God does nothing in isolation, divine grace cooperates with human freedom. God does not abolish our individuality but enhances it. And so it is in the writing of inspired Scripture. The authors were not just a passive instrument, a dictation machine recording a message. Each writer of Scripture contributes his particular personal gifts. Alongside the divine aspect, there is also a human element in Scripture. We are to value both.

Each of the four Gospels, for example, has its own particular approach. Matthew presents more particularly a Jewish understanding of Christ, with an emphasis on the kingdom of heaven. Mark contains specific, picturesque details of Christ’s ministry not given elsewhere. Luke expresses the universality of Christ’s love, His all-embracing compassion that extends equally to Jew and to Gentile. In John there is a more inward and more mystical approach to Christ, with an emphasis on divine light and divine indwelling. We are to enjoy and explore to the full this life-giving variety within the Bible.

most beautiful medieval manuscripts lindisfarne gospels

Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV › British Library)

The Lindisfarne Gospels doesn’t need many words of introduction: it’s one of the finest works in the unique style of Hiberno-Saxon or Insular art, combining Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic elements.

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Because Scripture is in this way the word of God expressed in human language, there is room for honest and exacting inquiry when studying the Bible. Exploring the human aspect of the Bible, we are to use to the full our God-given human reason. The Orthodox Church does not exclude scholarly research into the origin, dates, and authorship of books of the Bible.

Alongside this human element, however, we see always the divine element. These are not simply books written by individual human writers. We hear in Scripture not just human words, marked by a greater or lesser skill and perceptiveness, but the eternal, uncreated Word of God Himself, the divine Word of salvation. When we come to the Bible, then, we come not simply out of curiosity, to gain information. We come to the Bible with a specific question, a personal question about ourselves: “How can I be saved?”

As God’s divine word of salvation in human language, Scripture should evoke in us a sense of wonder. Do you ever feel, as you read or listen, that it has all become too familiar? Has the Bible grown rather boring? Continually we need to cleanse the doors of our perception and to look in amazement with new eyes at what the Lord sets before us.

We are to feel toward the Bible with a sense of wonder, and sense of expectation and surprise. There are so many rooms in Scripture that we have yet to enter. There is so much depth and majesty for us to discover. If obedience means wonder, it also means listening.

Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (Acc., No. 54.1.2 › Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

All miniatures are in demi-grisaille, a painting technique using mainly shades of grey and coloring for the figures’ face and hands. The surprising amount of details that can be fit in such small space is outstanding.

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We are better at talking than listening. We hear the sound of our own voice, but often we don’t pause to hear the voice of the other person who is speaking to us. So the first requirement, as we read Scripture, is to stop talking and to listen – to listen with obedience.

When we enter an Orthodox Church, decorated in the traditional manner, and look up toward the sanctuary at the east end, we see there, in the apse, an icon of the Virgin Mary with her hands raised to heaven – the ancient Scriptural manner of praying that many still use today. This icon symbolizes the attitude we are to assume as we read Scripture – an attitude of receptivity, of hands invisibly raised to heaven. Reading the Bible, we are to model ourselves on the Blessed Virgin Mary, for she is supremely the one who listens. At the Annunciation she listens with obedience and responds to the angel, “Be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). She could not have borne the Word of God in her body if she had not first, listened to the Word of God in her heart. After the shepherds have adored the newborn Christ, it is said of her: “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Again, when Mary finds Jesus in the temple, we are told: “His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:5l). The same need for listening is emphasized in the last words attributed to the Mother of God in Scripture, at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee: “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it” (John 2:5), she says to the servants – and to all of us.

In all this the Blessed Virgin Mary serves as a mirror, as a living icon of the Biblical Christian. We are to be like her as we hear the Word of God: pondering, keeping all these things in our hearts, doing whatever He tells us. We are to listen in obedience as God speaks.

Westminster Abbey Bestiary

Westminster Abbey Bestiary (Ms. 22 › Westminster Abbey Library)

Out of all the Bestiaries, the Westminster is considered to be one of the most beautiful and richly decorated bestiaries in the world, and is full of all kinds of incredible descriptions, legends and myths.

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Understanding the Bible Through the Church

IN THE SECOND PLACE, we should receive and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is not only obedient but ecclesial.

It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture. A book is not part of Scripture because of any particular theory about its dating and authorship. Even if it could be proved, for example, that the Fourth Gospel was not actually written by John the beloved disciple of Christ, this would not alter the fact that we Orthodox accept the Fourth Gospel as Holy Scripture. Why? Because the Gospel of John is accepted by the Church and in the Church.

It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture, and it is also the Church that tells us how Scripture is to be understood. Coming upon the Ethiopian as he read the Old Testament in his chariot, Philip the Apostle asked him, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” And the Ethiopian answered, “How can I, unless some man should guide me?” (Acts 8:30-31). We are all in the position of the Ethiopian. The words of Scripture are not always self-explanatory. God speaks directly to the heart of each one of us as we read our Bible. Scripture reading is a personal dialogue between each one of us and Christ – but we also need guidance. And our guide is the Church. We make full use of our own personal understanding, assisted by the Spirit, we make full use of the findings of modern Biblical research, but always we submit private opinion – whether our own or that of the scholars – to the total experience of the Church throughout the ages.

The Orthodox standpoint here is summed up in the question asked of a convert at the reception service used by the Russian Church: “Do you acknowledge that the Holy Scripture must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which has been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, has always held and still does hold?”

We read the Bible personally, but not as isolated individuals. We read as the members of a family, the family of the Orthodox Catholic Church. When reading Scripture, we say not “I” but “We.” We read in communion with all the other members of the Body of Christ, in all parts of the world and in all generations of time. The decisive test and criterion for our understanding of what the Scripture means is the mind of the Church. The Bible is the book of the Church.

godescalc-evangeliary

Godescalc Evangelistary (Ms. Nouv. acq. lat. 1203 › Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Why is this manuscript so important? In the words of Godescalc himself:

Golden words are painted [here] on purple pages,
The Thunderer’s shining kingdoms of the starry heavens,
Revealed in rose-red blood, disclose the joys of heaven,
And the eloquence of God glittering with fitting brilliance
Promises the splendid rewards of martyrdom to be gained. 

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To discover this “mind of the Church,” where do we begin? Our first step is to see how Scripture is used in worship. How, in particular, are Biblical lessons chosen for reading at the different feasts? We should also consult the writings of the Church Fathers, and consider how they interpret the Bible. Our Orthodox manner of reading Scripture is in this way both liturgical and patristic. And this, as we all realize, is far from easy to do in practice, because we have at our disposal so few Orthodox commentaries on Scripture available in English, and most of the Western commentaries do not employ this liturgical and Patristic approach.

As an example of what it means to interpret Scripture in a liturgical way, guided by the use made of it at Church feasts, let us look at the Old Testament lessons appointed for Vespers on the Feast of the Annunciation. They are three in number: Genesis 28:10-17; Jacob’s dream of a ladder set up from earth to heaven; Ezekiel 43:27-44:4; the prophet’s vision of the Jerusalem sanctuary, with the closed gate through which none but the Prince may pass; Proverbs 9:1-11: one of the great Sophianic passages in the Old Testament, beginning “Wisdom has built her house.”

These texts in the Old Testament, then, as their selection for the feast of the Virgin Mary indicates, are all to be understood as prophecies concerning the Incarnation from the Virgin. Mary is Jacob’s ladder, supplying the flesh that God incarnate takes upon entering our human world. Mary is the closed gate who alone among women bore a child while still remaining inviolate. Mary provides the house which Christ the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) takes as his dwelling. Exploring in this manner the choice of lessons for the various feasts, we discover layers of Biblical interpretation that are by no means obvious on a first reading.

The Grimani Breviary

Grimani Breviary (Ms. Lat. I, 99=2138 › Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana) 

A monumental witness to the splendor of Flemish art produced during the Renaissance. Perhaps an outstanding features of this manuscript is the choice of motifs, which alternate between religious and lay themes.

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Take as another example Vespers on Holy Saturday, the first part of the ancient Paschal Vigil. Here we have no less than fifteen Old Testament lessons. This sequence of lessons sets before us the whole scheme of sacred history, while at the same time underlining the deeper meaning of Christ’s Resurrection. First among the lessons is Genesis 1:1-13, the account of Creation: Christ’s Resurrection is a new Creation. The fourth lesson is the book of Jonah in its entirety, with the prophet’s three days in the belly of the whale foreshadowing Christ’s Resurrection after three days in the tomb (cf. Matthew 12:40). The sixth lesson recounts the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites (Exodus 13:20-15:19), which anticipates the new Passover of Pascha whereby Christ passes over from death to life (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7; 10:1-4). The final lesson is the story of the three Holy Children in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), once more a “type” or prophecy of Christ’s rising from the tomb.

Such is the effect of reading Scripture ecclesially, in the Church and with the Church. Studying the Old Testament in this liturgical way and using the Fathers to help us, everywhere we uncover signposts pointing forward to the mystery of Christ and of His Mother. Reading the Old Testament in the light of the New, and the New in the light of the, Old – as the Church’s calendar encourages us to do – we discover the unity of Holy Scripture. One of the best ways of identifying correspondences between the Old and New Testaments is to use a good Biblical concordance. This can often tell us more about the meaning of Scripture than any commentary.

In Bible study groups within our parishes, it is helpful to give one person the special task of noting whenever a particular passage in the Old or New Testament is used for a festival or a saint’s day. We can then discuss together the reasons why each specific passage has been so chosen. Others in the group can be assigned to do homework among the Fathers, using for example the Biblical homilies of Saint John Chrysostom (which have been translated into English). Christians need to acquire a patristic mind.

Morgan-Crusaders-Bible

Morgan Crusader Bible (Ms M.638 › Morgan Library & Museum; Ms Nouv. Acq. Lat. 2294 › Bibliothèque Nationale de France; Ms Ludwig 16 83. M.A. 55 › Getty Museum)

In this manuscript history is depicted in great detail, without any text and recalls the Creation of the world, the Righteous Wars and the deeds of the most important characters of the Old Testament. The Crusader’s Bible fascinates through its rich and refined gold embellishment which comes to enhance the luminosity of the colors.

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Christ, the Heart of the Bible

THE THIRD ELEMENT in our reading of Scripture is that it should be Christ-centered. The Scriptures constitute a coherent whole because they all are Christ-centered. Salvation through the Messiah is their central and unifying topic. He is as a “thread” that runs through all of Holy Scripture, from the first sentence to the last. We have already mentioned the way in which Christ may be seen foreshadowed on the pages of the Old Testament.

Much modern critical study of Scripture in the West has adopted an analytical approach, breaking up each book into different sources. The connecting links are unraveled, and the Bible is reduced to a series of bare primary units. There is certainly value in this. But we need to see the unity as well as the diversity of Scripture, the all-embracing end as well as the scattered beginnings. Orthodoxy prefers on the whole a synthetic rather than an analytical approach, seeing Scripture as an integrated whole, with Christ everywhere as the bond of union.

Always we seek for the point of convergence between the Old Testament and the New, and this we find in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy assigns particular significance to the “typological” method of interpretation, whereby “types” of Christ, signs and symbols of His work, are discerned throughout the Old Testament. A notable example of this is Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem, who offered bread and wine to Abraham (Genesis 14:18), and who is seen as a type of Christ not only by the Fathers but even in the New Testament itself (Hebrews 5:6; 7:l). Another instance is the way in which, as we have seen, the Old Passover foreshadows the New; Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh at the Red Sea anticipates our deliverance from sin through the death and Resurrection of the Savior. This is the method of interpretation that we are to apply throughout the Bible. Why, for instance, in the second half of Lent are the Old Testament readings from Genesis dominated by the figure of Joseph? Why in Holy Week do we read from the book of Job? Because Joseph and Job are innocent sufferers, and as such they are types or foreshadowings of Jesus Christ, whose innocent suffering upon the Cross the Church is at the point of celebrating. It all ties up.

A Biblical Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, on every page of Scripture, finds everywhere Christ.

Wiener-Genesis

Vienna Genesis (Codex Theol. Gr. 31 › Österreichische Nationalbibliothek)

It is the most ancient purple manuscript surviving today. The fragment of the Genesis (from the Greek Septuagint translation) is compiled in golden and silver ink, on a beautifully purple-dyed calfskin vellum. Each page contains a lavish miniature depicting the text, for a total of 48 well-preserved images.

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The Bible as Personal

IN THE WORDS of an early ascetic writer in the Christian East, Saint Mark the Monk: “He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will apply everything to himself and not to his neighbor.” As Orthodox Christians we are to look everywhere in Scripture for a personal application. We are to ask not just “What does it mean?” but “What does it mean to me?” Scripture is a personal dialogue between the Savior and myself – Christ speaking to me, and me answering. That is the fourth criterion in our Bible reading.

I am to see all the stories in Scripture as part of my own personal story. Who is Adam? The name Adam means “man,” “human,” and so the Genesis account of Adam’s fall is also a story about me. I am Adam. It is to me that God speaks when He says to Adam, “Where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9). “Where is God?” we often ask. But the real question is what God asks the Adam in each of us: “Where art thou?”

When, in the story of Cain and Abel, we read God’s words to Cain, “Where is Abel thy brother?” (Genesis 4:9), these words, too, are addressed to each of us. Who is Cain? It is myself. And God asks the Cain in each of us, “Where is thy brother?” The way to God lies through love of other people, and there is no other way. Disowning my brother, I replace the image of God with the mark of Cain, and deny my own vital humanity.

In reading Scripture, we may take three steps. First, what we have in Scripture is sacred history: the history of the world from the Creation, the history of the chosen people, the history of God Incarnate in Palestine, and the “mighty works” after Pentecost. The Christianity that we find in the Bible is not an ideology, not a philosophical theory, but a historical faith.

Then we are to take a second step. The history presented in the Bible is a personal history. We see God intervening at specific times and in specific places, as He enters into dialogue with individual persons. He addresses each one by name. We see set before us the specific calls issued by God to Abraham, Moses and David, to Rebekah and Ruth, to Isaiah and the prophets, and then to Mary and the Apostles. We see the selectivity of the divine action in history, not as a scandal but as a blessing. God’s love is universal in scope, but He chooses to become Incarnate in a particular comer of the earth, at a particular time and from a particular Mother. We are in this manner to savor all the uniqueness of God’s action as recorded in Scripture. The person who loves the Bible loves details of dating and geography. Orthodoxy has an intense devotion to the Holy Land, to the exact places where Christ lived and taught, died and rose again. An excellent way to enter more deeply into our Scripture reading is to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Galilee. Walk where Christ walked. Go down to the Dead Sea, sit alone on the rocks, feel how Christ felt during the forty days of His temptation in the wilderness. Drink from the well where He spoke with the Samaritan woman. Go at night to the Garden of Gethsemane, sit in the dark under the ancient olives and look across the valley to the lights of the city. Experience to the full the reality of the historical setting, and take that experience back with you to your daily Scripture reading.

Then we are to take a third step. Reliving Biblical history in all its particularity, we are to apply it directly to ourselves. We are to say to ourselves, “All these places and events are not just far away and long ago, but are also part of my own personal encounter with Christ. The stories include me.”

Betrayal, for example, is part of the personal story of everyone. Have we not all betrayed others at some time in our life, and have we not all known what it is to be betrayed, and does not the memory of these moments leave continuing scars on our psyche? Reading, then, the account of Saint Peter’s betrayal of Christ and of his restoration after the Resurrection, we can see ourselves as actors in the story. Imagining what both Peter and Jesus must have experienced at the moment immediately after the betrayal, we enter into their feelings and make them our own. I am Peter; in this situation can I also be Christ? Reflecting likewise on the process of reconciliation – seeing how the Risen Christ with a love utterly devoid of sentimentality restored the fallen Peter to fellowship, seeing how Peter on his side had the courage to accept this restoration – we ask ourselves: How Christ-like am I to those who have betrayed me? And, after my own acts of betrayal, am I able to accept the forgiveness of others – am I able to forgive myself? Or am I timid, mean, holding myself back, never ready to give myself fully to anything, either good or bad? As the Desert Fathers say, “Better someone who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than a person who has not sinned and thinks of himself as righteous.”

Have I gained the boldness of Saint Mary Magdalene, her constancy and loyalty, when she went out to anoint the body of Christ in the tomb (John 20:l)? Do I hear the Risen Savior call me by name, as He called her, and do I respond Rabboni (Teacher) with her simplicity and completeness (John 20:16)?

Reading Scripture in this way – in obedience, as a member of the Church, finding Christ everywhere, seeing everything as a part of my own personal story – we shall sense something of the variety and depth to be found in the Bible. Yet always we shall feel that in our Biblical exploration we are only at the very beginning. We are like someone launching out in a tiny boat across a limitless ocean.

“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 118 [119]:105).

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Lectio Divina  is a four-part way of reading Scripture:
Lectio. Read. God is speaking, so I listen intently to what he says.
Meditatio. Engage. God is speaking to me, so I listen personally.
Oratio. Pray. God is speaking to me, so I listen personally and reply personally in prayer.
Contemplatio. Live. God is speaking to me, so I listen personally and reply in prayerful living.

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By Bishop Kallistos Ware: “How to Read the Bible” at http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/11/1/4.aspx#obedience

 

Source: MEDIEVALISTS.NET, “Top 10 Most Beautiful Medieval Manuscripts” http://www.medievalists.net/2015/10/03/top-10-most-beautiful-medieval-manuscripts/

Anam Cara

anam1

“O Master, either bring my children with me into Your Kingdom, or else wipe me also out of Your book … I am bearing your burdens and your offences … You have become like a man sitting under a shady tree … I take upon myself the sentence of condemnation against you, and by the grace of Christ, I will not abandon you, either in this age or in the Age to Come.” (Abba Varsanuphius)

st brigid1

St. Brigid and Anam Cara

A young cleric of the community of Ferns, a foster-son of Brigit’s, used to come to her with wishes. He was with her in the refectory, to partake of food. Once after coming to Communion she strikes a clapper. “Well, young cleric there,” says Brigit, “hast thou a soulfriend?” “I have,” replied the young cleric. “Let us sing his requiem,” says Brigit, “for he has died. I saw when half thy portion had gone, that thy quota was put into thy trunk, and thou without any head on thee, for thy soulfriend died, and anyone without a soulfriend is a body without a head; and eat no more till thou gettest a soulfriend.”

st. brendan

Anam Cara (lit. “soul-friend”) originates in Celtic Orthodox monasticism where it was initially applied to a monk’s spiritual father and finds its best expression in the role of  the “Abba” or spiritual father for all faithful —whom the Greeks call “Geron” and the Russians “Starets” for all faithful.

st2

The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity

by Bishop Kallistos Ware

“One who climbs a mountain for the first time needs to follow a known route; and he needs to have with him, as companion and guide, someone who has been up before and is familiar with the way. To serve as such a companion and guide is precisely the role of the “Abba” or spiritual father—whom the Greeks call “Geron” and the Russians “Starets”, a title which in both languages means “old man” or “elder”. [1]

The importance of obedience to a Geron is underlined from the first emergence of monasticism in the Christian East. St. Antony of Egypt said: “I know of monks who fell after much toil and lapsed into madness, because they trusted in their own work … So far as possible, for every step that a monk takes, for every drop of water that he drinks in his cell, he should entrust the decision to the Old Men, to avoid making some mistake in what he does.” [2]

This is a theme constantly emphasized in the Apophthegmata or Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “The old Men used to say: ‘if you see a young monk climbing up to heaven by his own will, grasp him by the feet and throw him down, for this is to his profit … if a man has faith in another and renders himself up to him in full submission, he has no need to attend to the commandment of God, but he needs only to entrust his entire will into the hands of his father. Then he will be blameless before God, for God requires nothing from beginners so much as self-stripping through obedience.’” [3]

This figure of the Starets, so prominent in the first generations of Egyptian monasticism, has retained its full significance up to the present day in Orthodox Christendom. “There is one thing more important than all possible books and ideas”, states a Russian layman of the 19th Century, the Slavophile Kireyevsky, “and that is the example of an Orthodox Starets, before whom you can lay each of your thoughts and from whom you can hear, not a more or less valuable private opinion, but the judgement of the Holy Fathers. God be praised, such Startsi have not yet disappeared from our Russia.” And a Priest of the Russian emigration in our own century, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov (+ 1934), writes: “Their held of action is unlimited… they are undoubtedly saints, recognized as such by the people. I feel that in our tragic days it is precisely through this means that faith will survive and be strengthened in our country.” [4]

st3

The Spiritual Father as a ‘Charismatic’ Figure

What entitles a man to act as a starets? How and by whom is he appointed?

To this there is a simple answer. The spiritual father or starets is essentially a ‘charismatic’ and prophetic figure, accredited for his task by the direct action of the Holy Spirit. He is ordained, not by the hand of man, but by the hand of God. He is an expression of the Church as “event” or “happening”, rather than of the Church as institution. [5]

There is, of course, no sharp line of demarcation between the prophetic and the institutional in the life of the Church; each grows out of the other and is intertwined with it. The ministry of the starets, itself charismatic, is related to a clearly-defined function within the institutional framework of the Church, the office of priest-confessor. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the right to hear confessions is not granted automatically at ordination. Before acting as confessor, a priest requires authorization from his bishop; in the Greek Church, only a minority of the clergy are so authorized.

Although the sacrament of confession is certainly an appropriate occasion for spiritual direction, the ministry of the starets is not identical with that of a confessor. The starets gives advice, not only at confession, but on many other occasions; indeed, while the confessor must always be a priest, the starets may be a simple monk, not in holy orders, or a nun, a layman or laywoman. The ministry of the starets is deeper, because only a very few confessor priests would claim to speak with the former’s insight and authority.

But if the starets is not ordained or appointed by an act of the official hierarchy, how does he come to embark on his ministry? Sometimes an existing starets will designate his own successor. In this way, at certain monastic centers such as Optina in 19th-century Russia, there was established an “apostolic succession” of spiritual masters. In other cases, the starets simply emerges spontaneously, without any act of external authorization. As Elchaninov said, they are “recognized as such by the people”. Within the continuing life of the Christian community, it becomes plain to the believing people of God (the true guardian of Holy Tradition) that this or that person has the gift of spiritual fatherhood. Then, in a free and informal fashion, others begin to come to him or her for advice and direction.

It will be noted that the initiative comes, as a rule, not from the master but from the disciples. It would be perilously presumptuous for someone to say in his own heart or to others, “Come and submit yourselves to me; I am a starets, I have the grace of the Spirit.” What happens, rather, is that—without any claims being made by the starets himself—others approach him, seeking his advice or asking to live permanently under his care. At first, he will probably send them away, telling them to consult someone else. Finally the moment comes when he no longer sends them away but accepts their coming to him as a disclosure of the will of God. Thus it is his spiritual children who reveal the starets to himself.

The figure of the starets illustrates the two interpenetrating levels on which the earthly Church exists and functions. On the one hand, there is the external, official, and hierarchial level, with its geographical organization into dioceses and parishes, its great centers (Rome, Constantinople, Moscow, and Canterbury), and its “apostolic succession” of bishops. On the other hand, there is the inward, spiritual and “charismatic” level, to which the startsi primarily belong. Here the chief centers are, for the most part, not the great primatial and metropolitan sees, but certain remote hermitages, in which there shine forth a few personalities richly endowed with spiritual gifts. Most startsi have possessed no exalted status in the formal hierarchy of the Church; yet the influence of a simple priest-monk such as St. Seraphim of Sarov has exceeded that of any patriarch or bishop in 19th-century Orthodoxy. In this fashion, alongside the apostolic succession of the episcopate, there exists that of the saints and spiritual men. Both types of succession are essential for the true functioning of the Body of Christ, and it is through their interaction that the life of the Church on earth is accomplished.

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Flight and Return: the Preparation of the Starets

Although the starets is not ordained or appointed for his task, it is certainly necessary that he should be prepared.The classic pattern for this preparation, which consists in a movement of flight and return, may be clearly discerned in the liyes of St. Antony of Egypt (+356) and St. Seraphim of Sarov (+1833).

St. Antony’s life falls sharply into two halves, with his fifty-fifth year as the watershed. The years from, early manhood to the age of fifty-five were his time of preparation, spent in an ever-increasing seclusion from the world as he withdrew further and further into the desert. He eventually passed twenty years in an abandoned fort, meeting no one whatsoever. When he had reached the age of fifty-five, his friends could contain their curiosity no longer, and broke down the entrance. St. Antony came out and, ‘for the remaining half century of his long life, without abandoning the life of a hermit, he made himself freely available to others, acting as “a physician given by God to Egypt.” He was beloved by all, adds his biographer, St. Athanasius, “and all desired to ‘have him as their father.” [6] Observe that the transition from enclosed anchorite to Spiritual father came about, not through any initiative on St. Antony’s part, but through the action of others. Antony was a lay monk, never ordained to the priesthood.

St. Seraphim followed a comparable path. After fifteen years spent in the ordinary life of the monastic community, as novice, professed monk, deacon, and priest, he withdrew for thirty years of solitude and almost total silence. During the first part of this period he, lived in a forest hut; at one point he passed a thousand days on the stump of a tree and a thousand nights of those days on a rock, devoting himself to unceasing prayer. Recalled by his abbot to the monastery, he obeyed the order without the slightest delay; and during the latter part of his time of solitude he lived rigidly enclosed in his cell, which he did not leave even to attend services in church; on Sundays the priest brought communion to him at the door of his room. Though he was a priest he didn’t celebrate the liturgy. Finally, in the last eight years of his life, he ended his enclosure, opening the door of his cell and receiving all who came. He did nothing to advertise himself or to summon people; it was the others who took the initiative in approaching him, but when they came—sometimes hundreds or even thousands in a single day—he did not send them empty away.

Without this intense ascetic preparation, without this radical flight into solitude, could St. Antony or St. Seraphim have acted in the same ‘degree as guide to those of their generation? Not that they withdrew in order to become masters and guides of others. ‘They fled, not, in order to prepare themselves for some other task, but out of a consuming desire to be alone with God. God accepted their love, but then sent them back” as instruments of healing in the world from which they had withdrawn. Even had He never sent them back, their flight would still have been supremely creative and valuable to society; for the monk helps the world not primarily by anything that he does and says but by what he is, by the state of unceasing prayer which has become identical with his innermost being. Had St. Antony and St. Seraphim done nothing but pray in solitude they would still have been serving their fellow men to the highest degree. As things turned out, however, God ordained that they should also serve others in a more direct fashion. But this direct and visible service was essentially a consequence of the invisible service which they rendered through their prayer.

“Acquire inward peace”, said St. Seraphim, “and a multitude of men around you will find their salvation.” Such is the role of spiritual fatherhood. Establish yourself in God; then you can bring others to His presence. A man must learn to be alone, he must listen in the stillness of his own heart to the wordless speech of the Spirit, and so discover the truth about himself and God. Then his work to others will be a word of power, because it is a word out of silence.

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What Nikos Kazantzakis said of the almond tree is true also of the starets: “I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God,’ And the almond tree blossomed.”

Shaped by the encounter with God in solitude, the starets is able to heal by his very presence. He guides and forms others, not primarily by words of advice, but by his companionship, by the living and specific example which he sets—in a word, by blossoming like the almond tree. He teaches as much by his silence as by his speech. “Abba Theophilus the Archbishop once visited Scetis, and when the brethren had assembled they said to Abba Pambo, ‘Speak a word to the Pope that he may be edified.’ The Old Man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, neither will be he edified by my speech.’” [8] A story with the same moral is told of St. Antony. “It was the custom of three Fathers to visit the Blessed Antony once each year, and two of them used to ask him questions about their thoughts (logismoi) and the salvation of their soul; but the third remained completely silent, without putting any questions. After a long while, Abba Antony said to him, ‘See, you have been in the habit of coming to me all this time, and yet you do not ask me any questions’. And the other replied, ‘Father, it is enough for me just to look at you.’” [9]

The real journey of the starets is not spatially into the desert, but spiritually into the heart. External solitude, while helpful, is not indispensable, and a man may learn to stand alone before God, while yet continuing to pursue a life of active service in the midst of society. St. Antony of Egypt was told that a doctor in, Alexandria was his equal in spiritual achievement: “In the city there is someone like you, a doctor by profession, who gives all his money to the needy, and the whole day long he sings the Thrice-Holy Hymn with the angels.” [10] We are not told how this revelation came to Antony, nor what was the name of the doctor, but one thing is clear. Unceasing: prayer of the heart is no monopoly of the solitaries; the mystical and “angelic” life is possible in the city as well as the desert. The Alexandrian doctor accomplished the inward journey without severing his outward links with the community.

There are also many instances in which flight and return are not sharply distinguished in temporal sequence. Take, for example, the case of St. Seraphim’s younger contemporary, Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov (t1867). Trained originally as an army officer, he was appointed at the early age of twenty-six to take charge of a busy and influential monastery close to St. Petersburg. His own monastic training had lasted little more than four years before he was placed in a position of authority. After twenty-four years as Abbot, he was consecrated Bishop. Four years later he resigned, to spend the remaining six years of his life as a hermit. Here a period of active pastoral work preceded the period of anachoretic seclusion. When he was made abbot, he must surely have felt gravely ill-prepared. His secret withdrawal into the heart was undertaken continuously during the many years in which he administered a monastery and a diocese; but it did not receive an exterior, expression until the very end of his life.

Bishop Ignaty’s career [11] may serve as a paradigm to many of us at the present time, although (needless to say) we fall far short of his level of spiritual achievement. Under the pressure of outward circumstances and probably without clearly realizing what is happening to us, we become launched on a career of teaching, preaching, and pastoral counselling, while lacking any deep knowledge of the desert and its creative silence. But through teaching others we ourselves begin to learn. Slowly we recognize our powerlessness to heal the wounds of humanity solely through philanthropic programs, common sense, and psychiatry. Our complacency is broken down, we appreciate our own inadequacy, and start to understand what Christ meant by the “one thing that is necessary” (Luke 10:42). That is the moment when we enter upon the path of the starets. Through our pastoral experience, through our anguish over the pain of others,’ we are brought to undertake the journey inwards, to ascend the secret ladder of the Kingdom, where alone a genuine solution to the world’s problems can be found. No doubt few if any among us would think of ourselves as a starets in the full sense, but provided we seek with humble sincerity to enter into the “secret chamber” of our heart, we can all share to some degree in the grace of the spiritual fatherhood. Perhaps we shall never outwardly lead the life of a monastic recluse or a hermit—that rests with God—but what is supremely important is that each should see the need to be a hermit of the heart.

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The Three Gifts of the Spiritual Father

Three gifts in particular distinguish the spiritual father. The first is insight and discernment (diakrisis), the ability to perceive intuitively the secrets of another’s heart, to understand the hidden depths of which the other is unaware. The spiritual father penetrates beneath the conventional gestures and attitudes whereby we conceal our true personality from others and from ourselves; and beyond all these trivialities, he comes to grips with the unique person made in the image and likeness of God. This power is spiritual rather than psychic; it is not simply a kind of extra-sensory perception or a sanctified clairvoyance but the fruit of grace, presupposing concentrated prayer and an unremitting ascetic struggle.

With this gift of insight there goes the ability to use words with power. As each person comes before him, the starets knows—immediately and specifically—what it is that the individual needs to hear. Today, we are inundated with words, but for the most part these are conspicuously not words uttered with power. [12] The starets uses few words, and sometimes none at all; but by these few words or by his silence, he is able to alter the whole direction of a man’s life. At Bethany, Christ used three words only: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43) and these three words, spoken with power, were sufficient to bring the dead back to life. In an age when language has been disgracefully trivialized, it is vital to rediscover the power of the word; and this means rediscovering the nature of silence, not just as a pause between words but as one of the primary realities of existence. Most teachers and preachers talk far too much; the starets is distinguished by an austere economy of language.

But for a word to possess power, it is necessary that there should be not only one who speaks with the genuine authority of personal experience, but also one who listens with attention and eagerness. If someone questions a starets out of idle curiosity, it is likely that he will receive little benefit; but if he approaches the starets with ardent faith and deep hunger, the word that he hears may transfigure his being. The words of the startsi are for the most part simple in verbal expression and devoid of literary artifice; to those who read them in a superficial way, they will seem jejune and banal.

The spiritual father’s gift of insight is exercised primarily through the practice known as “disclosure of thoughts” (logismoi). In early Eastern monasticism the young monk used to go daily to his father and lay before him all the thoughts which had come to him during the day. This disclosure of thoughts includes far more than a confession of sins, since the novice also speaks of those ideas and impulses which may seem innocent to him, but in which the spiritual father may discern secret dangers or significant signs. Confession is retrospective, dealing with sins that have already occurred; the disclosure of thoughts, on the other hand, is prophylactic, for it lays bare our logismoi before they have led to sin and so deprives them of their, power to harm. The purpose of the disclosure is not juridical, to secure absolution from guilt, but self-knowledge, that each may see himself as he truly is. [13]

Endowed with discernment, the spiritual father does not merely wait for a person to reveal himself, but shows to the other thoughts hidden from him. When people came to St. Seraphim of Sarov, he often answered their difficulties before they had time to put their thoughts before him. On many occasions the answer at first seemed quite irrelevant, and even absurd and irresponsible; for what St. Seraphim answered was not, the question his visitor had consciously in mind, but the one he ought to have been asking. In all this St. Seraphim relied on the inward light of the Holy Spirit. He found it important, he explained, not to work out in advance hat he was going to say; in that case, his words would represent merely his own human judgment which might well be in error, and not the judgment of God.

In St. Seraphim’s eyes, the relationship between starets and spiritual child is stronger than death, and he therefore urged his children to continue their disclosure of thoughts to him even after his departure to the next life. These are the words which, by his on command, were written on his tomb: “When I am dead, come to me at my grave, and the more often, the better. Whatever is on your soul, whatever may have happened to you, come to me as when I was alive and, kneeling on the ground, cast all your bitterness upon my grave. Tell me everything and I shall listen to you, and all the bitterness will fly away from you. And as you spoke to me when I was alive, do so now. For I am living, and I shall be forever.”

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The second gift of the spiritual father is the ability to love others and to make others’ sufferings his own. Of Abba Poemen, one of the greatest of the Egyptian gerontes, it is briefly and simply recorded: “He possessed love, and many came to him.” [14] He possessed love—this is indispensable in all spiritual fatherhood. Unlimited insight into the secrets of men’s hearts, if devoid of loving compassion, would not be creative but destructive; he who cannot love others will have little power to heal them.

Loving others involves suffering with and for them; such is the literal sense of compassion. “Bear one anothers burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). The spiritual father is ‘the one who par excellence bears the burdens of others. “A starets”, writes Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, “is one who takes your soul, your will, unto his soul and his will…. ” It is not enough for him to offer advice. He is also required to take up the soul of his spiritual children into his own soul, their life into his life. It is his task to pray for them, and his constant intercession on their behalf is more important to them than any words of counsel. [15] It is his task likewise to assume their sorrows and their sins, to take their guilt upon himself, and to answer for them at the Last Judgment.

All this is manifest in a primary document of Eastern spiritual direction, the Books of Varsanuphius and John, embodying some 850 questions addressed to two elders of 6th-century Palestine, together with their written answers. “As God Himself knows,” Varsanuphius insists to his spiritual children, “there is not a second or an hour when I do not have you in my mind and in my prayers … I care for you more than you care for yourself … I would gladly lay down my life for you.” This is his prayer to God: “O Master, either bring my children with me into Your Kingdom, or else wipe me also out of Your book.” Taking up the theme of bearing others’ burdens, Varsanuphius affirms: “I am bearing your burdens and your offences … You have become like a man sitting under a shady tree … I take upon myself the sentence of condemnation against you, and by the grace of Christ, I will not abandon you, either in this age or in the Age to Come.” [16]

Readers of Charles Williams will be reminded of the principle of ‘substituted love,’ which plays a central part in Descent into Hell. The same line of thought is expressed by Dostoevsky’s starets Zosima: “There is only one way of salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men’s sins… To make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone.” The ability of the starets to support and strengthen others is measured by his willingness to adopt this way of salvation.

Yet the relation between the spiritual father and his children is not one-sided. Though he takes the burden of their guilt upon himself and answers for them before God, he cannot do this effectively unless they themselves are struggling wholeheartedly for their own salvation. Once a brother came to St. Antony of Egypt and said: “Pray for me.” But the Old Man replied: “Neither will I take pity on you nor will God, unless you make some effort of your own.” [17]

When considering the love of a starets for those under his care, it is important to give full meaning to the word “father” in the title “spiritual father”. As father and offspring in an ordinary family should be joined in mutual love, so it must also be within the “charismatic” family of the starets. It is primarily a relationship in the Holy Spirit, and while the wellspring of human affection is not to be unfeelingly suppressed, it must be contained within bounds. It is recounted how a young monk looked after his elder, who was gravely ill, for twelve years without interruption. Never once in that period did his elder thank him or so much as speak one word of kindness to him. Only on his death-bed did the Old Man remark to the assembled brethren, “He is an angel and not a man.” [18] The story is valuable as an indication of the need for spiritual detachment, but such an uncompromising suppression of all outward tokens of affection is not typical of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, still less of Varsanuphius and John.

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A third gift of the spiritual father is the power to transform the human environment, both the material and the non-material. The gift of healing, possessed by so many of the startsi, is one aspect of this power: More generally, the starets helps his disciples to perceive the world as God created it and as God desires it once more to be. “Can you take too much joy in your Father’s works?” asks Thomas Traherne. “He is Himself in everything.” The true starets is one who discerns this universal presence of the Creator throughout creation, and assists others to discern it. In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite.” For the man who dwells in God, there is nothing mean and trivial: he sees everything in the light of Mount Tabor. “What is a merciful heart?” inquires St. Isaac the Syrian. “It is a heart that burns with love for ‘the whole of creation—for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for every, creature. When a man with such a heart as this thinks of the creatures or looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears; An overwhelming compassion makes his heart grow! small and weak, and he cannot endure to hear or see any suffering, even the smallest pain, inflicted upon any creature. Therefore he never ceases to pray, with tears even for the irrational animals, for the enemies of truth, and for those who do him evil, asking that they may be guarded and receive God’s mercy. And for the reptiles also he prays with a great compassion, which rises up endlessly in his heart until he shines again and is glorious like God.”’ [19]

An all-embracing love, like that of Dostoevsky’s starets Zosima, transfigures its object, making the human environment transparent, so that the uncreated energies of God shine through it. A momentary glimpse of what this transfiguration involves is provided by the celebrated conversation between St. Seraphim of Sarov and Nicholas Motovilov, his spiritual child. They were walking in the forest one winter’s day and St. Seraphim spoke of the need to acquire the Holy Spirit. This led Motovilov to ask how a man can know with certainty that he is “in the Spirit of God’:

Then Fr. Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “My son, we are both, at this moment in the Spirit of God. Why don’t you look at me?”

“I cannot look, Father,” I replied, “because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look, at you.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “At this very moment you have yourself become as bright as I am. You are yourself in the fullness of the Spirit of God at this moment; otherwise you would not be able to see me as you do… but why, my son, do you not look me iii the eyes? Just look, and don’t be afraid; the Lord is with us.”

After these words I glanced at his face, and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its mid-day rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes and you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders, yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his body, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and lighting up with its brilliance the snow-blanket which covers the forest glade and the snowflakes which continue to fall unceasingly [20].

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Obedience and Freedom

Such are by God’s grace, the gifts of the starets. But what of the spiritual child? How does he contribute to the mutual relationship between father and son in God?

Briefly, what he offers is his full and unquestioning obedience. As a classic example, there is the story in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers about the monk who was told to plant a dry stick iii the sand and to water it daily. So distant was the spring from his cell that he had to leave in the evening to fetch the water and he only returned in the following morning. For three years he patiently fulfilled his Abba’s command. At the end of this period, the stick suddenly put forth leaves and bore fruit. The Abba picked the fruit, took it to the church, and invited the monks to eat, saying, “Come and taste the fruit of obedience.” [21]

Another example of obedience is the monk Mark who was summoned by his Abba, while copying a manuscript, and so immediate was his response that he did not even complete the circle of the letter that he was writing. On another occasion, as they walked together, his Abba saw a small pig; testing Mark, he said, “Do you see that buffalo, my child?” “Yes, Father,” replied Mark. “And you see how powerful its horns are?” “Yes, Father”, he answered once more without demur. [22] Abba Joseph of Panepho, following a similar policy, tested the obedience of his disciples by assigning ridiculous tasks to them, and only if they complied would he then give them sensible commands. [23] Another geron instructed his disciple to steal things from the cells of the brethren; [24] yet another told his disciple (who had not been entirely truthful with him) to throw his son into the furnace. [25]

Such stories are likely to make a somewhat ambivalent impression on the modern reader. They seem to reduce the disciple to an infantile or sub-human level, depriving him of all power of judgment and moral choice. With indignation we ask: “Is this the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’?” (Rom. 8:21)

Three points must here be made. In the first place, the obedience offered by the spiritual son to his Abba is not forced but willing and voluntary. It is the task of the starets to take up our will into his will, but he can only do this if by our own free choice we place it in his hands. He does not break our will, but accepts it from us as a gift. A submission that is forced and involuntary is obviously devoid of moral value; the starets asks of each one that he offer to God his heart, not his external actions.

The voluntary nature of obedience is vividly emphasized in the ceremony of the tonsure at the Orthodox rite of monastic profession. The scissors are placed upon the Book of the Gospels, and the novice must himself pick them up and give them to the abbot. The abbot immediately replaces them on the Book of the Gospels. Again the novice take the scissors, and again they are replaced. Only when the novice him the scissors for the third time does the abbot proceed to cut hair. Never thereafter will the monk have the right to say to the abbot or the brethren: “My personality is constricted and suppressed here in the monastery; you have deprived me of my freedom”. No one has taken away his freedom, for it was he himself who took up the scissors and placed them three times in the abbot’s hand.

But this voluntary offering of our freedom is obviously something that cannot be made once and for all, by a single gesture; There must be a continual offering, extending over our whole life; our growth in Christ is, measured precisely by the increasing degree of our self-giving. Our freedom must be offered anew each day and each hour, in constantly varying ways; and this means that the relation between starets and disciple is not static but dynamic, not unchanging but infinitely diverse. Each day and each hour, under the guidance of his Abba, the disciple will face new situations, calling for a different response, a new kind of self-giving.

In the second place, the relation between starets and spiritual child is not one- but two-sided. Just as the starets enables the disciples to see themselves as they truly are, so it is the disciples who reveal the starets to himself. In most instances, a man does not realize that he is called to be a starets until others come to him and insist on placing themselves under his guidance. This reciprocity continues throughout the relationship between the two. The spiritual father does not possess an exhaustive program, neatly worked out in advance and imposed in the same manner upon everyone. On the contrary, if he is a true starets, he will have a different word for each; and since the word which he gives is on the deepest level, not his own but the Holy Spirit’s, he does not know in advance what that word will be. The starets proceeds on the basis, not of abstract rules but of concrete human situations. He and his disciple enter each situation together; neither of them knowing beforehand exactly what the outcome will be, but each waiting for the enlightenment of the Spirit. Each of them, the spiritual father as well as the disciple, must learn as he goes.

The mutuality of their relationship is indicated by certain stories in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, where an unworthy Abba has a spiritual son far better than himself. The disciple, for example, detects his Abba in the sin of fornication, but pretends to have noticed nothing and remains under his charge; and so, through the patient humility of his new disciple, the spiritual father is brought eventually to repentance and a new life. In such a case, it is not the spiritual father who helps the disciple, but the reverse. Obviously such a situation is far from the norm, but it indicates that the disciple is called to give as well as to receive.

In reality, the relationship is not two-sided but triangular, for in addition to the starets and his disciple there is also a third partner, God. Our Lord insisted that we should call no man “father,” for we have only one father, who is in Heaven (Matthew 13:8-10). The starets is not an infallible judge or a final court of appeal, but a fellow-servant of the living God; not a dictator, but a guide and companion on the way. The only true “spiritual director,” in the fullest sense of the word, is the Holy Spirit.

This brings us to the third point. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition at its best, the spiritual father has always sought to avoid any kind of constraint and spiritual violence in his relations with his disciple. If, under the guidance of the Spirit, he speaks and acts with authority, it is with the authority of humble love. The words of starets Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov express an essential aspect of spiritual fatherhood: “At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of men’s sin, uncertain whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it.”

Anxious to avoid all mechanical constraint, many spiritual fathers in the Christian East refused to provide their disciples with a rule of life, a set of external commands to be applied automatically. In the words of a contemporary Romanian monk, the starets is “not a legislator but a mystagogue.” [26] He guides others, not by imposing rules, but by sharing his life with them. A monk told Abba Poemen, “Some brethren have come to live with me; do you want me to give them orders?” “No,” said the Old Man. “But, Father,” the monk persisted, “they themselves want me to give them orders.” “No”, repeated Poemen, “be an example to them but not a lawgiver.” [27] The same moral emerges from the story of Isaac the Priest. As a young man, he remained first with Abba Kronios and then with Abba Theodore of Pherme; but neither of them told him what to do. Isaac complained to the other monks and they came and remonstrated with Theodore. “If he wishes”, Theodore replied eventually, “let him do what he sees me doing.” [28] When Varsanuphius was asked to supply a detailed rule of life, he refused, saying: “I do not want you to be under the law, but under grace.” And in other letters he wrote: “You know that we have never imposed chains upon anyone… Do not force men’s free will, but sow in hope, for our Lord did not compel anyone, but He preached the good news, and those who wished hearkened to Him.” [29]

Do not force men’s free will. The task of the spiritual father is not to destroy a man’s freedom, but to assist him to see the truth for himself; not to suppress a man’s personality, but to enable him to discover himself, to grow to full maturity and to become what he really is. If on occasion the spiritual father requires an implicit and seemingly “blind” obedience from his disciple, this is never done as an end in itself, nor with a view to enslaving him. The purpose of this kind of shock treatment is simply to deliver the disciple from his false and illusory “self”, so that he may enter into true freedom. The spiritual father does not impose his own ideas and devotions, but he helps the disciple to find his own special vocation. In the words of a 17th-century Benedictine, Dom Augustine Baker: “The director is not to teach his own way, nor indeed any determinate way of prayer, but to instruct his disciples how they may themselves find out the way proper for them … In a word, he is only God’s usher, and must lead souls in God’s way, and not his own.” [30]

In the last resort, what the spiritual father gives to his disciple is not a code of written or oral regulations, not a set of techniques for meditation, but a personal relationship. Within this personal relationship the Abba grows and changes as well as the disciple, for God is constantly guiding them both. He may on occasion provide his disciple with detailed verbal instructions, with precise answers to specific questions. On other occasions he may fail to give any answer at all; either because he does not think that the question needs an answer, or because he himself does not yet know what the answer should be. But these answers—or this failure to answer—are always given the framework of a personal relationship. Many things cannot be said in words, but can be conveyed through a direct personal encounter.

In the Absence of a Starets

And what is one to do, if he cannot find a spiritual father?

He may turn, in the first place, to books. Writing in 5th-century Russia, St. Nil Sorsky laments the extreme scarcity of qualified spiritual directors; yet how much more frequent they must have been in his day than in ours! Search diligently, he urges, for a sure and trustworthy guide. “However, if such a teacher cannot be found, then the Holy Fathers order us to turn to the Scriptures and listen to Our Lord Himself speaking.” [31] Since the testimony of Scripture should not be isolated from the continuing witness of the Spirit in the life of the Church, the inquirer will also read the works of the Fathers, and above all the Philokalia. But there is an evident danger here. The starets adapts his guidance to the inward state of each; books offer the same advice to everyone. How is the beginner to discern whether or not a particular text is applicable to his own situation? Even if he cannot find a spiritual father in the full sense, he should at least try to find someone more experienced than himself, able to guide him in his reading.

It is possible to learn also from visiting places where divine grace has been exceptionally manifested and where prayer has been especially concentrated. Before taking a major decision, and in the absence of other guidance, many Orthodox Christians will goon pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mount Athos, to some monastery or the tomb of a saint, where they will pray for enlightenment. This is the way in which I have reached the more difficult decisions in my life.

Thirdly, we can learn from religious communities with an established tradition of the spiritual life. In the absence of a personal teacher, the monastic environment can serve as guru; we can receive our formation from the ordered sequence of the daily program, with its periods of liturgical and silent prayer, with its balance of manual labor, study, and recreation. [32] This seems to have be en the chief way in which St. Seraphim of Sarov gained his spiritual training. A well-organized monastery embodies, in an accessible and living form, the inherited wisdom of many starets. Not only monks, but those who come as visitors for a longer or shorter period, can be formed and guided by the experience of community life.

It is indeed no coincidence that the kind of spiritual fatherhood that we have been describing emerged initially in 4th-century Egypt, not within the fully organized communities under St. Pachomius, but among the hermits and in the semi-eremitic milieu of Nitria and Scetis. In the former, spiritual direction was provided by Pachomius himself, by the superiors of each monastery, and by the heads of individual “houses” within the monastery. The Rule of St. Benedict also envisages the abbot as spiritual father, and there is no provision for further development of a more “charismatic” type. In time, of course, the coenobitic communities incorporated many of the traditions of spiritual fatherhood as developed among the hermits, but the need for those traditions has always been less intensely felt in the coenobia, precisely because direction is provided by the corporate life pursued under the guidance of the Rule.

Finally, before we leave the subject of the absence of the starets, it is important to recognize the extreme flexibility in the relationship between starets and disciple. Some may see their spiritual father daily or even hourly, praying, eating, and working with him, perhaps sharing the same cell, as often happened in the Egyptian Desert. Others may see him only once a month or once a year; others, again, may visit a starets on but a single occasion in their entire life, yet this will be sufficient to set them on the right path. There are, furthermore, many different types of spiritual father; few will be wonder-workers like St. Seraphim of Sarov. There are numerous priests and laymen who, while lacking the more spectacular endowments of the startsi, are certainly able to provide others with the guidance that they require.

Many people imagine that they cannot find a spiritual father, because they expect him to be of a particular type: they want a St. Seraphim, and so they close their eyes to the guides whom God is actually sending to them. Often their supposed problems are not so very complicated, and in reality they already know in their own heart what the answer is. But they do not like the answer, because it involves patient and sustained effort on their part: and so they look for a deus ex machina who, by a single miraculous word, will suddenly make everything easy. Such people need to be helped to an understanding of the true nature of spiritual direction.

Contemporary Examples

In conclusion, I wish briefly to recall two startsi of our own day, whom I have had the happiness of knowing personally. The first is Father Amphilochios (+1970), abbot of the Monastery of St. John on the Island of Patmos, and spiritual father to a community of nuns which he had founded not far from the Monastery. What most distinguished his character was his gentleness, the warmth of his affection, and his sense of tranquil yet triumphant joy. Life in Christ, as he understood it, is not a heavy yoke, a burden to be carried’ with resignation, but a personal relationship to be pursued with eagerness of heart. He was firmly opposed to all spiritual violence and cruelty. It was typical that, as he lay dying and took leave of the nuns under his care, he should urge the abbess not to be too severe on them: “They have left everything to come here, they must not be unhappy.” [33] When I was to return from Patmos to England as a newly-ordained priest, he insisted that there was no need to be afraid of anything.

My second example is Archbishop John (Maximovich), Russian bishop in Shanghai, in Western Europe, and finally in San Francisco (+1966). Little more than a dwarf in height, with tangled hair and beard, and with an impediment in his speech, he possessed more than a touch of the “Fool in Christ.” From the time of his profession as a monk, he did not lie down on a bed to sleep at night; he went on working and praying, snatching his sleep at odd moments in the 24 hours. He wandered barefoot through the streets of Paris, and once he celebrated a memorial, service among the tram lines close to the port of Marseilles. Punctuality had little meaning for him. Baffled by his unpredictable behavior, the more conventional among his flock sometimes judged him to be unsuited for the administrative work of a bishop. But with his total disregard of normal formalities he succeeded where others, relying on worldly influence and expertise, had failed entirely—as when, against all hope and in the teeth of the “quota” system, he secured the admission of thousands of homeless Russian refugees to the U.S.A.

In private conversation he was very gentle, and he quickly won the confidence of small children. Particularly striking was the intensity of his intercessory prayer. When possible, he liked to celebrate the Divine Liturgy daily, and the service often took twice or three times the normal space of time, such was the multitude of those whom he commemorated individually by name. As he prayed for them, they were never mere names on a lengthy list, but always persons. One story that I was told is typical. It was his custom each year to visit Holy Trinity Monastery at Jordanville, N.Y. As he left, after one such visit, a monk gave him a slip of paper with four names of those who were gravely ill. Archbishop John received thousands upon thousands of such requests for prayer in the course of each year. On his return to the monastery some twelve months later, at once he beckoned to the monk, and much to the latter’s surprise, from the depths of his cassock Archbishop John produced the identical slip of paper, now crumpled and tattered. “I have been praying for your friends,” he said, “but two of them”—he pointed to their names—’are now dead and the other two have recovered.” And so indeed it was.

Even at a distance he shared in the concerns of his spiritual children. One of them, superior of a small Orthodox monastery in Holland, was sitting one night in his room, unable to sleep from anxiety over the problems which faced him. About three o’dock in the morning, the telephone rang; it was Archbishop John, speaking from several hundred miles away. He had rung to say that it was time for the monk to go to bed.”

*

Such is the role of the spiritual father. As Varsanuphius expressed it, “I care for you more than you care for yourself.”

*

 Source: Bishop Kallistos Ware, “The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity” at http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/spiritualfather.aspx)
* For a non-religious, secular analysis of “anam cara” read Anam Cara and the Essence of True Friendship, by Maria Popova