Orthodox America

  A True Spiritual Father New Martyr Priest Sergius Mechev

Thousands mourned the death in 1923 of the popular, clairvoyant lay-elder of Moscow, Archpriest Alexey Mechev (See Orthodox America #80).  But the Lord did not leave his spiritual children orphaned.  Many had already discovered in his son, the still young Priest Sergius, a worthy and equally gifted successor. And with the recent publication of additional biographical materials, reminiscences and sermons, found in the two latest volumes of Nadezhda (Nos. 16, 17; Basel-Moscow 1993), the latter is certain to develop an equal and similarly deserved renown.

The Saint Nicholas parish on Maroseyka, where his father served, was still small when the future priest and new martyr, Sergius, was born on 17 September 1892.  He was the fourth child and arrived in a household that was already cramped for space and pinched financially.  The frequent shortage of food was at fault for the boy's weak constitution, but he had a strong-willed character inherited from his mother, Anna Petrovna.  Her death in 1901, was hard on him, but fortunately he had a close bond with his father, who was tenderly affectionate and even years later, in his letters, continued to address his son endearingly as "Sergunchik," signing them, "with many kisses from your papa who loves you." Fr. Alexey saw in his son his successor, but he felt the boy should choose his own path, and for that reason declined to send him to a diocesan school, where students were expected to become priests.  Instead, Sergius received a secular education at a regular school, and received his religious training at home and in church, principally by observing his father in the altar.  Upon graduating, he fulfilled a dream by taking a trip abroad, to Switzerland and Italy, and then entered the medical faculty at Moscow University.  Although he later transferred to the philology department, he acquired sufficient knowledge to work as a nurse at the front when the war came.  There he met his future wife, Evfrosinia Nikolaevna.  They were married in 1918.  While Fr. Sergius had still not made up his mind to enter the priesthood, he was active in the Church; he participated in a student theological circle and avidly studied patristics. As a member of a commission formed to negotiate relations with the new government, he came into frequent contact with Patriarch Tikhon, who became very fond of him and urged him to become a priest.  His decision to do so was inspired by a discussion he had with Elder Anatole of Optina in the fall of 1918.  The following April, on Holy Thursday, he was ordained by Bishop Theodore Pozdeev at St. Daniel's Monastery.

Fr. Sergius served at the Maroseyka church until his arrest in November 1929.  Like so many clergy, he did not recognize Metropolitan Sergius' Declaration of 1927, which essentially brought the Church under government control.  He was charged with heading a counter-revolutionary underground church and sentenced to three years' exile in the far north, near Arkhangelsk.  His matushka managed to visit him with their three children (another had died in infancy), and he kept in touch with his spiritual children, writing to them individually and addressing five letters to them in common, letters that have been preserved.  It was several months after his term had expired that Fr. Sergius was finally released; he was never free again.  A second arrest followed in March 1934, carrying a five-year sentence.  He spent some years in hiding, wandering from place to place, before being arrested yet again.  The spiritual daughter with whom he was imprisoned reported that he was almost certainly executed in early November 1941; elsewhere,** his martyric death is commemorated December 9 (OS). Fr. Sergius entered the ranks of Russia's New Martyrs for his uncompromising stand in ecclesial matters. His principal renown, however, rests upon his pastoral skills.  The Maroseyka parish was unique in Moscow in cultivating an inwardly monastic orientation.  Fr. Alexey often said that his task was to create "a monastery in the world," by which he meant a parish family guided towards the same goal of sanctity and deification as the monastic.  Fr. Sergius held the same principle although later on he stopped speaking of it as a "monastery in the world," because others had adopted this term as meaning some kind of community of secret monks or nuns who lived in the world while under obedience to monastic vows.  Instead, Fr. Sergius took from ancient Russian church practice the term "repenting family."  He also referred to his parish as a "repenting-liturgical family."  It was very apt.  As a spiritual director, he strove to cultivate in his flock a spirit of repentance and he encouraged frequent attendance at church services, which he considered to be the best school for the development of spiritual life.  The excerpts that follow illustrate his effective approach.

Fr. Sergius as father-confessor

Father Sergius said of himself, "I did not intend to be a spiritual father; I wanted to be a preacher." Nevertheless, from his first weeks as a priest he began acquiring spiritual children.

Those who knew at that time his father, Fr. Alexey, were often surprised by those at the Maraseyka church who chose to go for confession and spiritual counsel to Fr. Sergius rather than to Fr. Alexey, who possessed such an abundance of grace-given discernment.  Some people were frightened by Fr. Alexey's clairvoyance, his sanctity; they considered themselves unworthy to be his spiritual children and to take up his time, as he was always surrounded by people.  Whereas Fr. Sergius at that time was not so busy, and at the beginning of his pastoral service he was able to give a lot of time and attention to his spiritual children; he confessed them frequently, he followed their progress with the help of diaries which he advised them to keep and which revealed their particular character traits and their "favorite" sins and passions with which they had to struggle especially.

But besides this, it was evident that people were drawn to Fr. Sergius by who he was, by his intense faith, his love for the Church, his profound and effectual sermons. Fr. Sergius had many invaluable qualities for a spiritual father.  He had an exacting and keen conscience that was impervious to bribery, a rare sincerity and absence of any posturing, a profound mind and a heart that was sensitive to all that was beautiful; he had a zeal for a knowledge of the patristic teachings concerning the spiritual path, a desire for what is good, an ability-inherited from his father-to rightly discriminate not only in spiritual matters but also in more mundane affairs. Finally, he was kindly and responsive to the sufferings of others.  He acquired a great deal simply by living with his father, bearing out the saying of the Holy Fathers, "If you want to learn the fear of God, go and live with someone who possesses it."

As a young priest, Fr. Sergius was rather jovial; he liked to joke and have a good laugh with his spiritual children; sometimes he would tease them and give them apt, humorous nicknames.  But he always maintained a certain distance.  It was characteristic that he never allowed the least hint of undue familiarity with himself (or in general), cutting it off at its inception.  He did not permit himself to address even the youngest girls by the familiar "you" form.

Fr. Sergius would not tolerate any insincerity or compromise with truth, and he demanded the same of his spiritual children, instilling in them this lesson by word and example.  He did not like displays of humility whether by word or behavior.  Nor did he like it when his spiritual children "posed" as monastics; he wanted them to strive in spirit towards the monastic ideal, the ideal of Christianity: genuine repentance, ceaseless prayer, vigilance of mind and conscience.  Also typical was his imperative to work not out of fear but from a sense of conscience, and at home and at work to be honest before God.

For his spiritual children, Fr. Sergius did not favor difficult physical labors, long prayer rules-especially for those who were weak or ill and who had zeal without knowledge.  However, that moderate rule of fasting and prayer which he gave to each individually, had to be fulfilled without fail, according to the saying of the fathers, A moderate rule consistently fulfilled is of surpassing value.

In spite of his strictness, when it concerned a personal misfortune or the illness of one of his spiritual children, Fr. Sergius was compassion itself; he tried to arrange everything, to do everything, to find a doctor, medicine, even purely material assistance when this was possible for him (such possibility in the early years was very limited as times were lean and Fr. Sergius' flock was composed primarily of intelligentsia, who were themselves hungry and unadept to the circumstances).

Fr. Sergius considered the foundation of the life of his spiritual family to be the church services, and, like Fr. Alexey, he placed great emphasis on the frequent reception of the Holy Mysteries and the cleansing of the conscience through careful and thorough confession.  If repentance is a Christian's primary task, confession is the first step on the path of repentance.   Fr. Sergius frequently spoke about this and drew attention to the prayer of the priest over the penitent:  "O Lord God, the salvation of Thy servant (N), do Thou Thyself show Thy mercy upon Thy slave and grant him an image of repentance . . . Reconcile and unite him to Thy Holy Church. . ."  In uttering these words at the Mystery of Confession, Fr. Sergius gave them great weight.

Here are some of Fr. Sergius' thoughts concerning confession. "In what way is confession significant?  The Lord has given us everything. All the Mysteries-Baptism, Chrismation, the Eucharist-all this is given by God; we have nothing to do with it.   But in the Mystery of Confession, we are the principals; this is a gift which we bring to God: "Lord, take from me this heavy burden of sin!"  Without our participation, the Lord cannot help us."

"The Lord calls us to repentance.  Then it is up to us to recognize in ourselves our sin, first of all in relation to God, to the Church, the saints, prayer; then in relation to our close ones; and then in relation to our own passions.  Each person is possessed by a particular passion, which gives rise to sin;  we must work to uproot it.  Confession is to confess that which especially weighs upon us at that time, whereas repentance should accompany us through our entire life."

"The fact that I confess one and the same sin each time is not what matters.  That's only natural. After all, if a person has an ailing heart, he's going to come to the doctor time and again with that same condition. What is important is that there should be improvement."

"There is no greater joy for a spiritual father than being able to help his spiritual son or daughter. For this reason, to be ashamed to confess one's sins is nonsense; it a fraudulent sense of shame.  It is shameful to sin, but there is no shame in the fact that a person wants to be healed of his infirmity.  A true spiritual bond with one's spiritual father is formed only then, when the soul is laid bare before him, when he feels that he is of help."

Both Fr. Alexey and Fr. Sergius were opposed to the practice of general confession, which they considered to be harmful.  "St. John of Kronstadt was capable of holding general confessions, because he could see directly into a person's soul and did not allow the unrepentant to approach the chalice.  But we," said Fr. Sergius, "cannot do this.  With general confession the sin stays with the person.  Someone once came to me and said that a particular sin had been tormenting him for six years.  'How often do you commune?'  Each Sunday.'  'And you have confession?'  'General confession.'  Once the man had had a proper confession, he was delivered of this terrible burden."

"Why is it necessary to confess sins before a priest, and not simply before God?  Because the essence of confession is the suffering of the penitent and the co-suffering of the priest."

"Many come to confession with cold hearts. They enumerate their sins calmly, as if speaking about something foreign to them. And here a boy comes and cries and cries because he took a candy away from his sister. That, my dear ones, is how one ought to confess."

"Repentance, however, does not consist merely in feeling sorry and shedding tears at confession and then continuing with the same behavior.  Rather, one must feel oneself to be a great sinner before God; one must have in one's heart a constant lament over one's sins, and this lament need not have any visible tears."

(Selected passages translated from Nadezhda No. 16, Basel-Moscow 1993.)