– Your Grace, my friend recently asked, “Why can’t monks marry?” I laughed, “Why must ballerinas use the ballet bar?” Seriously, how would you answer?
– There is earthly service, which requires a special concentration of all human forces —spiritual and physical. People of different professions have to give up familiar and seemingly natural things and limit themselves in some ways. The same ballerina doesn’t eat whatever she wants and must count calories, otherwise she would not be able to dance. Although she would like to! Also, there are even more restrictions for the special service performed by priests, nuns, and archpriests. Monks liberate the soul by taking the burden of ascetics upon themselves, and all free time, all strength, without reserve, is given to the calling and cause to which they devote themselves.
Not accidentally, monasticism, as a phenomenon, experienced its first upsurge and was flourishing in the IV century. Then, when persecution of the Church ended, belonging to Christianity became a privilege. At the same time, there was a cooling of the spiritual life and a lack of spiritual discipline. Therefore, those guarding the purity of the Gospel began to give up domestic well-being and, among other things, self-concern, to go into the wilderness. Monastic communities and whole monastic cities began to appear in Palestine and Asia Minor. The desire to live by the Gospel and to live for God and for people, giving one’s self without reserve, moved and moves Christians to be monks.
— Maybe you can tell us about the monastic vows?
– Three basic vows are made: chastity, fasting, and obedience. To this day, they are the foundation of monastic life, and each monk is required to keep them. It is very difficult, but possible with God. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” said the Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:13). Any limitation, any deed, taken for the Lord, is mainted with the help of God. This is how it has been in my life. I have experienced it myself.
— Can you please tell us more?
— When I first read that Apostle Paul colapsed in his service to God, in the spiritual life, and in return he was the voice of the Lord: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”, I thought: “Why in weakness? I don’t understand!” Then I realized that the feeling of weakness engenders humility, and it is the opposite of selfishness, pride, and conceitedness.
— How and when did you understand?
– When faced with taking the vows. As a human it is indeed difficult. Everything is difficult, but loneliness more than anything else (“monos” — one). There is no one — family or relatives — with whom you can just talk or cry. First, the biggest and strongest feeling, and most difficult, is abandonment. Through it though, after a monk endures this suffering, the Lord shows and reveals himself as the only Goal, the only important presence in my life.
After experiencing loneliness, it does not seem outrageous, but appeared as experiential knowledge of God’s presence. The first years of monastic life — the formative years — are very important. We needed to find and then not to lose Christ.
— And the tonsuring? Vladiko, please, remember that day.
— The clerical hierarchy tested my decision, as is befitting, for a long time. Would I have second thoughts? Would I change my decision? It wasn’t until the third-year of seminary, three years after asking for permission that I was informed about tonsuring, and then, the time and location was only known two days in advance. Mystery, and a little intrigue, remained about the name that they would give me (I only learned it at the very moment of tonsuring).
It took place during Great Lent, on the feast day of the icon of the Mother of God, Warantress of the Sinful. Then I began to see some deep symbols in all this. And then …
Confession before tonsuring can be very deep and lengthy. You relive and repent mistakes and downfalls from your whole life, from birth to the current day. After confession, the vestments are prepared. Then, they give time to rest, but I could not sleep at all. Initiation usually takes place after vespers. The whole seminary attended. This was perhaps the first tonsuring after the revival of spiritual school in the early 90s. Another who was being tonsured was a deep man who was a little older than myself. He is now a priest and a monk in Stavropol. We prepared together with him.
During tonsuring, everything is removed except for a white ankle-length shirt. Then you need to crawl from the beginning of the temple to the altar. At this time, they sing hymns for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son (that Sunday before Great Lent, when the church reads, with great attention, the Gospel story of the return of the prodigal son to his father). “Open my father’s embrace, O Giver of Life.” That chant is especially heartbreaking. I still can’t listen to it calmly.
So, I crawled in white clothes, like the prodigal son to the Father. I cried. Because of repentance. Because of hope in God. Because of a new stage of life — and secondly, because of spiritual birth. Taking the vows was easy, as I had prepared myself for this. The Father Rector gave a very profound sermon, tonsuring … Then I heard valuable instruction and even revelations about how the monastic life would go, and most important – to endure all that the Lord will give in the form of sorrows, hardships and difficult situations.
Then, according to the tradition of Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, we spent two nights in prayer, without leaving the church. We didn’t sleep. The first night, we alternated reading prayers. Then there was the Divine Liturgy, we took communion in a new monastic state (monks — other than the world). Then there was a light meal, and we were in the temple again the rest of the day. The second night, there again was confession. Holy Communion. It is important to spend those nights in the temple. There is a new adjustment to one’s self and the new name. And most importantly (I left this entry in a journal): it feels as if time has stood still. There is no longer anything that gives worry – not plans nor obligations. It feels as if there is no time. There is only prayer you, God and the Church …
In these two nights, I first experienced the intense burning of solitude. Then there was a very great joy after Communion. The joy of meeting with Christ and with Eternity in a new condition. I lost a lot of weight before tonsuring and there was a lot of angst.
A very attentive relationship with my confessor helped. He watched us and made it impossible to be depressed or lazy, by keeping us busy with chores and by giving us a rhythm. Very correctly, he accented spiritual life, something for which I am still grateful. There was no force on his part. He did not break us, but instead he helped. Now Archbishop Yevgeniy of Vereyskiy is Rector of Moscow Spiritual Academy.
It was the beginning. … He needed to develop. We had to learn how to relate to what was outside and inside — monastically and patristicly.
— As, I know, though, they had prepared you for monasticism since you were a child — your grandmother, a secret nun, the whole family … I guess there was no doubt?
— There are always doubts. After all, we are all still living in the world. Perhaps the pursuit was not so turbulant, thanks to a very strict Christian upbringing that from the beginning led me toward this goal. It absolutely helped me but it is not done without searching and temptations.
— Did it seem like you finally attained what you had been striving and preparing for, and after that it became difficult? Did you expect this?
– I found it hard to survive the gradations of what we read in books and my mind understood this perfectly. In absentia, I was ready, but in reality it this path proved to be extremely difficult. I, probably, would not have made it if not for the experienced confessor that was nearby. This sort of mentor is very important in the spiritual life, as is a confessor for a monk — an exceptionally necessary phenomenon. This is because it is impossible to learn to be a monk without an image, worthy of emulation, and someone who is wise and able to give good advice. You can’t take a path established abstractly from books.
Rhythm against temptations
— Vladiko, in general, what are the reasons one becomes a monk? You can also serve the Lord in holy orders, being married. What motivates people who choose the monastic way?
— It’s difficult to answer that question. Why do heroes perform heroic acts, throwing themselves on embrasures to save people at the cost of their own health and life? Why, out of love for their neighbor, are they are able to do such feats? How can one explain this?
— There is a stereotype that monks are failures…
— If this were true, we would not be reading canons and hymns, which are almost all created by monks. A significant part of the service, icons, and all Orthodox Church culture is the work of monks. On the contrary, they have always been people of merit. Most of the saints were monks.
– You were talking about those living in the wilderness. We know that St. Sergius of Radonezh and St. Seraphim of Sarov were cloistered in the forest. Now, though, you will not find such wilderness. How can such solitude be achieved in the center of the city, being surrounded by so many temptations? Especially nowadays. After all, before monks didn’t see banners of naked girls on the street, and those that were living were dressed and weren’t painted up. Now, even in the temple they are sometimes dressed for the beach. How do you keep yourself from temptation? How can a monastery exist in the city?
— Solitude and seclusion only appears as one type of monastic life after an ascetic passes the initial spiritual school. All the great hermits —Seraphim, and St. Sergius — first lived in strong monasteries. A proper spiritual foundation is only achieved there, if one wants the knowledge necessary for spiritual warfare. They went into seclusion in the wilderness, in solitude, in order to travel a different path — the path of transformation and that of deep inner work on oneself.
It is far from all who reach the second phase, but it is very important to remember that after withdrawing from the world and transforming himself, a hermit returns to the world again, a victor over his own passions and vices, as a counselor, confessor, and pastor. After surviving a spiritual struggle within himself, he has the knowledge of experience to give advice and help other people.
A monastery in the city is a natural phenomenon. He is behind the high walls of the rules and traditions. Outside the fence of the cloister, it is his law and his principles. For example, monks have no right to leave the monastery without the permission of the confessor. If the abbot or confessor believe that is is not beneficial for the person to look at the surrounding views, then he will not allow this for a very long period of time, knowing that viewing it will be an opportunity for temptation. The walls of the monastery, protect a person from many temptations, to help him take the first steps in the spiritual life.
— What do monasteries give to city residents? The Spassky Monastery is now being renovated…
— It is very important for a monastery to be in the city, especially at the present time. It is important city residents know that there is such a place – not far away in the mountains or forests, but nearby, and the person seeking a spiritual deed, might appeal to the place where it is supported. One who starts the spiritual path needs this, in order to have everything at arms reach. I am happy that in only a year, as we started to rebuild Spassky Monastery, already two men had come to Father Nikon. Although there are yet no walls, the way in which they live is that of a monastery.
— Vladiko, but then, you, as the ruling bishop, and your closest associates have to take part in public life, to think and talk about things that monks otherwise would not have to worry about, such as politics, for example. There is a life in civil society. How can a monk respond to it, without falling to worldly temptations? To what extent can it affect him?
— I see two aspects here. First, it is very important the monk live in an undaunting rigorous rhythm, so as not to be seduced, for relaxation and carelessness can give way to temptation. It is very important to create a rhythm. Very important. It is formed in the monastery and is more important for a person who lives outside the monastery, but carries monastic vows. I work like this myself and demand the same from my subordinates. This is a rhythm in which it is impossible to relax.
As far as understanding secular life … I guess there are a lot of things you don’t understand. You may be out of style and not know the current trends in art or political subtleties and trends. All this does not matter, though. Even politics. It is important for all to see these internal causes and mechanisms, and the spiritual essence. It’s paradoxical, but as old as the world. Neither political opinion nor social status matter… “If the soul is born with wings, what is a mansion or a hut?”
— What is important?
— Give correct advice to youth, regardless of whether it is “advanced” or out of date, urban or rural … Its not even absolutely necessary to share one’s own secrets, mysteries, and methods of overcoming sin. I often speak with young people while traveling and always talk about topics that are relevant from the point of view of their inner, spiritual life. So a person’s intelligence and culture is not important. There are absolute basic valuesthat need to be cared for and only they are important.
— What kind of values are you speaking about?
— Protection of chastity, of course. Protecting yourself from sinful and ill-disposed habits. Understanding freedom as freedom from sinful attachments. Respect and love for parents, and devotion to family — and of course — the Faith. These virtues will forever remain essential and timeless.
— Vladiko, but where is the boundary? What will and won’t you participate in? For instance, will you support any party if asked?
— Never. Not because I am a monk, but because the Church is outside of political preferences. This is stated in the fundamental document “The Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church,” and the Holy Synod has reminded many times that a priest has no right to be in a political party and take part in political activities. I myself do not go for it and do not bless priests who do. Of course, in any case, I will not allow myself or others to participate in public events where sin and evil lifestyles are promoted, which violate basic moral values.
— What do you think are the duties of monks and priests to society and the state, if at there are any at all?
— I will answer with the words of monks and poets:
You ask: what is a monk?
The trumpet thunders. It is in God’s lips.
The Lord casts it away. It will be silent.
Monks are manure for the Lord’s heaven!
The whole soul is given to the Lord,
In silence flaming stringently.
And walking through a field or in the city
To pray is to talk with God…
…Nothing should be considered unimportant
Every hart is to guard against anger.
And, casting the word of your sowing,
With baited breath over each one…
Archbishop John (Shakhovskoy)
Interview conducted by Irina Dmitriyeva
Translated from the Russian.