Orthodox America


  Monasticism in the World - New Martyr Valentine Sventitsky 


Spirtual Heroes of the 2Oth century

Unfortunately, very little is known to us about this zealous Church teacher of unadulterated, mystical Orthodoxy in our modern times. Whatever little we do know about him comes from his liberal contemporaries, who as a rule did not deign to recognize the uniqueness and uniformity of patristic philosophy, which to him constituted the very essence of life. In this respect he was their enemy, one whom they could not understand- evidently because of his genuine conversion experience.

The divinely-revealed teaching of God and man, preserved throughout the centuries and enriched within the saving enclosure of the Orthodox Church, is a limitless ocean of wisdom and should be approached with fear and trembling so as not to soil any aspect of it through our sinfulness and pride. It can in no way be improved upon by the daring hand of our intellectual worldliness. Fr.Valentine's inquisitive mind was in awe and wonder before the accessible reality of deification. In this respect he was not of this world, but remained in the world as a pastor who guided people to the realm of sobriety, hesychasm, and otherworldliness.

From the few details of his biography one can surmise that he came from an aristocratic Polish family, received a good education, and was a n extremely talented and impressive young man. His large eyes looked upon the world with seriousness. At the age of 15 he could already debate Kant with scholarly philosophers, and soon he started a crusade against the vices of society, in which he advocated strict discipline of body and soul. His talks produced a striking impression. He published at least two magazines ("Problems of Religion" and "Living Life") dealing with Christian problems in a society whose intellectual leaders were luring Orthodox Christians through foreign tastes and fashions away from Christ.

In 1905 he left Moscow for Petersburg in order to find supporters for a Christian Brotherhood of Sturggle”. While still a layman, he recognized the value of the monastic ideal for all Christians and ardently monasticism against the decadent free-thinkers of his time; thinly clothed in conservative Orthodoxy, the latter were, in fact, making rapid strides away from the sacred Tradition of the Church. His book, The Heavenly Citizens or “My Travels Among the Anchorites of the Caucasus Mountains” (Moscow, 1915) was inspired by his visit to the monk-ascetics of the Caucasus. Another book called Anti-christ had considerable success. His two available short works, Monasticism in the World (1921) and Against General Confession (1926), give evidence of his importance as a modern apostle of genuine Orthodoxy in a time of rising apostasy.

After the Revolution he married and was ordained a priest; he was the head priest in a Moscow church known as “St. Nicholas the Big Cross” on St. Elias St. There in the 1920’s he attracted a large congregation by his eloquent sermons, which were eagerly received as rich food in the midst of the general scarcity of genuine Orthodox spirituality in Russia at this time. He went to Optina Monastery and became the spiritual son of Elder Anatole, to whom he dedicated his masterpiece, Six Readings on the Mystery of Confession and its History in which he dealt a blow to the practice of general confession which had become fashionable among the liberal clergy of his day.

Father Valentine was an ardent proponent of the frequent usage of the Jesus Prayer. He held that monastic discipline in our day of universal luke warmness among Christians was not only possible but imperative in order to preserve the "salt of the earth,”' i.e., the Orthodox truths, in the hearts of men who are being cunningly attacked by the spirit of secularization. With this in mind, he con ducted a series of talks (from 1921-1926) using the strictly monastic teaching of the Ladder of St. John Climacus, where he strove to apply it to ordinary daily life in the con temporary world which had become actually hostile to Christianity.

One of his friends, S.I. Fudel, gives us a brief insight into the spiritual world of this otherworldly pastor:

“Father Valentine Sventitsky on the one hand seemed to be a regular priest with a family, and on the other – an experienced teacher of continuous prayer. He did much for the general defense of the faith. But his main significance was that he called all people to conduct ceaseless prayer, an uninterrupted burning of the spirit.

“’Prayer,’ he would say, ‘erects walls around our monastery in the world.’ It was also he who resolved the complex problem of inward evil in the Church. ‘Any sin in the Church,’ he said, ‘is a sin not only of the Church but against the Church’. He also taught that one should not interrupt one’s ceaseless mental prayer while attending church services.

“Once after I returned from exile to Moscow in 1925, I chanced to be at Liturgy when Father Valentine was serving. I came in at the end of the service and when he came out with the ambo prayer, I was shocked to see his face. I cannot express my impression other than to say that it was the face of a man having just sacrificed himself as a burnt offering – in truth and pain -, and now deeply shaken, was coming out to us, oblivious to his earthly surroundings.

“Another time I recall how, while in a crowded Butyrka prison-ward in 1922, I was endlessly pacing amidst the prisoners when I bumped into Father Valentine. In embarrassment I asked for some stupid reason, ‘Where are you going?’ All of a sudden his face became remarkably light with some inward warmth, and he said, 'I was coming to you. Usually he was so estranged, closed up, stern and impatient, like his distant relative, a Polish cardinal. But now he had the radiant and quiet beam of light of true Russian sanctity-the kind and all-seeing sanctity of a holy elder. He was coming straight to- wards me, towards my very soul which he was then probably protecting against some evil. Thus, a prison can enlighten and illumine a soul and wondrously reveal something which at other times is impossible to discover."

In 1927 Metropolitan Sergius issued his famous "declaration" which essentially reduced the Church to a state-controlled organization. This enslavement to the atheist authorities was not tolerated by the true pastors and the faithful of Christ's flock whose conscience would not allow them to agree to such a cunning compromise. Many hierarchs and simple pastors wrote open letters to Metropolitan Sergius, deploring his action and refusing to follow him on such a ruinous path. In December 1927 Father Valentine wrote such a letter, announcing that he was breaking off canonical and prayerful communion with Metropolitan Sergius and the council of bishops organized under him. His clear spiritual discernment at once identified the course taken by Metropolitan Sergius as one of the most dangerous forms of renovationism, "because while renouncing ecclesiastical freedom, at the same time You preserve the fiction of canonicity and Orthodoxy. This is worse than the violation of separate canons."

Anticipating that his action of separation would be construed as a breaking away from the Church, Fr. Valentine wrote:

"I am not creating a new schism, and I do not break the unity of the Church; I go away from and I lead my flock: out of a subtle renovationist trap-lest imperceptibly and little by little we lose the freedom which our Lord Jesus Christ, the Liberator of all Men, has given us as a free gift by His Own blood (8th Canon of the Third Ecumenical Council)."

We know full well what consequences were suffered by all those who openly disagreed with the "Declaration." Lev Regel son, in his Tragedy of the Russian Church, states that Metropolitan Sergius in 1929 pronounced all those who opposed his Declaration to be counter-revolutionaries subject to arrest; fifteen bishops were arrested right away. The arrests were conducted very simply: a GPU agent would come to the bishop and pose one question: "How do you regard the Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius?" If the bishop answered that he did not accept it, then the agent would conclude: "That means that you are a counter-revolutionary." And the bishop would automatically be arrested. So perished all those who raised their voices in protest. And the fate of Father Valentine could be no different.

Thus did Father Valentine acquire a crown of victory from God, for he preserved the flame of genuine Christian inspiration and pinpointed the essence of the subtle temptation of the enemy of our salvation, thereby leading straight into Paradise the flock en- trusted to him by God, to Whom be glory and honor for ever. Amen.

(from Chapter 13 of Russia's Catacomb Saints)

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