Orthodox America

  A Fisher of Men – Archimandrite Mitrofan (Manuilov)

    Voronezh, 1924. Alexis Pavlovich Manuilov had recently finished his course of study at the Institute of Agriculture. As the son of a priest he could hardly look forward to a bright future under the atheist regime. During the Revolution his grandfather, also a priest, had been tied to the horns of a bull which then ran about beating its head against the walls of houses in order to throw off its burden. Experience had instilled him with a good measure of sobriety, but the young man was nevertheless stunned upon learning from a friend that a serious case had been drawn up against him as "an enemy of the people." A thick cloud of despair settled over his soul, blocking out any rays of hope. His fate was sealed. He felt it was useless to bother anyone with appeals, and only out of love for his mother did he agree to go visit Archpriest Mitrofan Butchnyov,a righteous man of prayer living at that time in Voronezh. The priest was in hiding between periods of imprisonment, and Alexis found him in a basement room conducting a Bible study; he was explaining the calling of the Apostles. "And you, Alexis," he said, pointing to the young man whom he had never met, "will become a fisher of men."

    The next day they had a talk. Fr. Mitrofan said in a tone of assurance: The same people who fabricated your case will tear it up. Coming from another, Alexis would have dismissed these words as foolishness. As it was, the sun burst through the clouds Weighing upon his soul, dispelling every trace of gloom. Even strangers whom he met as he walked home smiled in an unconscious response to the joy which flooded his entire being. He had been awaiting death when life miraculously burst forth. The next day he received confirmation of the priest's prophetic words.

     It was the beginning of' a close relation-ship which brought Alexis to witness many miracle s through Archpriest Mitrofan's prayers before an icon of the Mother of God, "Unexpected Joy',': healings from cancer and tuberculosis, exorcisms of demons. Alexis became not only his spiritual son, but also his son-in-law when he married Fr. Mitrofan's eldest daughter Nadezhda. As a child she had often accompanied her father to Optina where Elder Nektary said of her: She has the soul of an angel. She knew the Psalter by heart, and although they remained childless, through her spiritual tutelage she prepared her husband to shoulder the responsibility of the large spiritual family which God' s Providence granted him in later years.

     Realizing the impossibility of leading any kind of normal life under the communists, the Manuilov couple fled from their homeland with the retreating German army. For several years they shared the hardships of life in the D.P. camps where Alexis Pavlovich served as a reader in one of the churches, an experience which nourished his desire to become a priest.

     He was deeply attached to his wife and it was a great shock when, on the Feast of the Neeting of the Lord, 1953, she died of cancer. Someone suggested that he allay his grief by reading the Gospel, praying at the end of each chapter for the repose of the slave of God Nadezhda. And indeed, in so doing he experienced not only an alleviation of his sorrow, but he sensed as never before the proximity of the other world--something he never forgot.

    Alexis Pavlovich was further consoled by a letter from Vladika John (Maximovitch), then Archbishop of Western Europe, whose acquaintance he had made not long before. "By God's Providence," wrote Archbishop John. "our earthly sorrows sometimes work to our great advantage in eternal life." Recognizing in this righteous hierarch the same grace-filled spirit of asceticism he had encountered in Archpriest Mitrofan, Alexis Pavlovich began looking to him for guidance, and for the rest of his life remained closely tied to this saint of our times.

    Following his advice, Alexis Pavlovich went to the monastery of St. Job of Pochaev in Munich to pray for his wife and calm his soul. There he conceived the desire to become a monk. The following year, on the feast of Great-Martyr George, he was tonsured by Vladika John and ordained to the priesthood, thus fulfilling--30 years later-the prophecy of his first spiritual mentor. In monasticism he was given the name Mitrofan, after the great saint and hierarch of his native city, before whose relics he had often prayed as a boy.

    In August 1954 the new hieromonk was sent to Tunis, Although there was a well established Russian colony there, it was spiritually dormant. For more than 30 years they had been satisfied with holding services in a single-room house chapel. At one time plans for a church had been drawn and a foundation had oven been laid, but progress stood still—and not for lack of money. It was a high-society community numbering many old naval officers and their families. Fr. Mitrofan did not know how they would receive him: newly-ordained, a D.P., the son of a simple priest; but he was full of enthusiasm for the task which lay before him and firmly believed that a Russian soul must simply be awakened, and then it can move mountains."

The Power of Humility

    He was met at the airport by a colonel whose enormous physical proportions were matched by his stature in the community. "If you listen to me," advised the colonel, "everything will be just fine." As inexperienced as he was in his new obedience, Fr. Mitrofan was not intimidated. "I shall listen to the voice of the Church and to my conscience as a pastor," he replied firmly; he had only one Lord and Master. Displeased by this insubordination, the colonel managed to insure Fr. Mitrofan's unpopularity in the community. This the new priest might have endured, but the colonel was an ordained reader who served regularly in the altar, and the lack of harmony weighed upon Fr. Mitrofan, obstructing his concentration during the Divine services. Calling the colonel into the altar after service one day, he explained that unless his peace of heart were restored his conscience would not allow him to continue serving. "I know I am a sinful man," he said to the colonel. "If I have done anything to offend you, please forgive me." And there in the altar, still vested, he made a full prostration before the very one who had caused him such grief. His words tore at the soul of the colonel who turned white as a sheet and fell to his knees in tears, begging forgiveness for what he knew to be entirely his fault. Fr, Mitrofan's humility had ripped apart the nets of the evil one. The two men embraced; it was the beginning of a close and treasured friendship. At once the colonel enlisted the cooperation of the community, and the mountain of indifference began to move.

    Within two years a magnificent church was constructed, dedicated to the Resurrection. But. as Vladika John wrote to Fr. Mitrofan, the building of churches always brings trials, and the devil was not slow in seeking revenge. He stung some members of the community with jealousy, causing troubles to heap themselves upon Fr. Mitrofan who finally asked to be transferred to France to be with his beloved abba, Vladika John.

    In 1958 Fr. Mitrofan arrived in Paris where the close presence of his righteous mentor filled him with renewed zeal. There he served in the church of All Saints of Russia and gave religious instruction. His favorite obedience was to accompany Vladika John in his daily visits to the hospitals. A love for visiting the sick, instilled during these years, remained with Pr. Mitrofan to the very end of his life. With the exception of celebrating the Proskomedia, nothing gave him more joy than to take Holy Communion, the gift of life, to the sick and dying whom he was thus able to console.

     Through his close association with Archbishop John, Fr. Mitrofan was witness to many miracles, some of which he experienced himself. He told of one incident during their time together in Paris. They were hurriedly preparing to leave for some service on the outskirts of the city. Fr. Mitrofan had a nosebleed which wouldn't stop, and he was concerned that he would have to stay behind. Vladika waved his hand by Fr. Mitrofan's nose, and the bleeding instantly stopped.

     His faith in Archbishop John's power of prayer extended through time and space. Once when Vladika had already left for America, Fr. Mitrofan found himself flat on his back with a high fever that wouldn't allow him to get up. It was a feast day and he was expected at the church. "Vladika !" he shouted, "help me!" He rose from his bed and went to church where he served with more than his usual energy.

     Under Archbishop John's discipleship Fr. Mitrofan grew from strength to strength, absorbing the genuine pastoral spirit of his beloved abba; this was a fearless, self-sacrificing spirit whose concern was to ignite the Church--quite unlike the formal attitude which, said Fr. Mitrofan later, characterizes so many Orthodox priests today. Vladika himself acknowledged this spiritual bond. Before departing for San Francisco he told his flock that they had no need to grieve: "I am leaving you Fr. Mitrofan." Indeed, after Archbishop John's repose someone fittingly characterized Fr. Mitrolan as Vladika's "spiritual transmitter”

    Having grown accustomed to such a close spiritual relationship, Fr. Mitrofan sorrowed greatly over the physical separation and asked that he might follow Vladika's move to San Francisco. He arrived there in 1964 and settled in, with his abba at St. Tikhon's-a large house with a church, which served at that time as the bishop's residence. The fact that the church was dedicated to St. Tikhon who had been a bishop of Voronezh, made Fr. Mitrofan feel at home. He entered at once into a busy schedule of services and visiting hospitals; he gave catechetical instruction to both adults and children, and also taught Church Slavonic. 

    Two years later his blessed abba, Vladika John, left this world, But for Fr. Mitrofan he remained a living, spiritual guide with whom he conversed as though he were present. Each time he left the house he would turn to Vladika's portrait and ask his blessing. No decisions were made and nothing of importance was done without consulting Vladikain prayer. Often, very often, he served memorial services in Archbishop John's sepulchre beneath the cathedral. "Prayer in the sepulchre," he would say, "is my medicine.'' In later years, when it became difficult for him to get about, he would pray in Vladika's room at St. Tikhon's, reading through his thick stack of commemoration lists which he had accumulated with time. 

Unexpected Joy

     People began seeking out Fr. Mitrofan as a man of prayer. Burdened with family problems, trouble at work, illness or grief, they came to him for consolation and advice. He was always ready to pray. There was in his cell a wonder-working icon of the Mother of God "Unexpected Joy ," a copy of the Voronezh icon, before which he served frequent moeliebens, imparting his firm faith in the help of the Heavenly Queen to those who came to him in their hour of need. He would stand before the icon and boldly address the Theotokos with his characteristic directness. "Mother of God, help the slave of God N..., restore love and harmony to his family and make him to be a fruitful servant of thy Son.” When he heard of an answered prayer he would say, "Well, what did I tellyou? Didn't we pray to the Queen of Heaven? Isn't she greatest among all the saints?" His great faith in the intercession of the Mother of God inspired him to follow the example of St. Seraphim in teaching people to say the Jesus Prayer with the insertion of "through the Theotokos" have mercy on me, a sinner.

    Father Mitrofan recommended everyone to read the Gospel and Psalter more often. "Most people 'swallow' the Word of God as they read; this isn't right, and can even harm the soul, just as gulping food is bad for the body. You should 'chew' each passage, word by word," he advised, "thoroughly penetrating into its meaning. Then, when you come to read the passage again, you will have gained a whole new understanding of it." Among those passages he frequently read aloud were "Man shall not live by bread alone..." and "Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another."

    Those who recognized Father Mitrofan's pastoral gift soon attached themselves to his growing spiritual family, although his frankness did not appeal to everyone. As a physician of souls, his method of treatment was very direct; he was not interested in appearances and was not afraid to censure an individual in front of others. Not a few people took offense at this and turned away from him. But those who bravely suffered their pride to be thus wounded, as true spiritual athletes, were crowned with spiritual progress. One of his spiritual children, a man who served as an acolyte at St. Tikhon's and who was the subject of frequent correction, remarked: "No other priest has effected such change in my soul."

    Someone attending a service at Saint Tikhon' s for the first time could be taken alack by Fr. Mitrofan's apparent severity in dealing with his flock. It was not unusual for him to raise his voice in admonition during a service: "Stop talking; have you forgotten where you are!" "Stand straight;" "Don't crowd; the first shall be last." But he was the first to admit to his passionate nature and quick to ask forgiveness of those he may have offended by a sharp remark. His flock understood that his chastening was rooted in love and responded with their devotion and gratitude.

    Very often Fr. Mitrofan's raised tone of voice was directed towards a careless or indifferent attitude which he did not tolerate, In showing someone how to trim the wick of the vigil lamp burning perpetually before his "Unexpected Joy" icon, he expected the person to listen carefully and repeat the same procedure if asked to do it again--not because he thought his way was superior, but because it served as a lesson in watchfulness and obedience. To give another example: Fr. Mitrofan always ate from the same bowl and used the same spoon. Those who helped out in preparing his meals knew this. If they overlooked the proper order he would immediately correct them. Again, this was not from any fastidiousness on his part, but an effort to instill a proper attitude. "Everything concerning spiritual life demands maximum attention and concentration ," he stressed. "We are small people, and small things have significance for us."

    Fr. Mitrofan was particularly intolerant of any carelessness regarding church matters. Even such a simple task as placing the prosphora from Proskomedia on a tray was to be done with reverence. He chastised those who arrived late for services and those who began talking or left the church before the end of the First Hour. He impressed people with the need to pray in church, and not simply to 'attend.' He drew an analogy: If you go shopping you can't simply stand in the aisle waiting for your cart to fill up of itself; you have to either ask someone's help or get the items you need from the shelves, The services also demand your participation, otherwise you'll leave with nothing gained.

     He expected his spiritual children to be more than 'Sunday visitors'. "I'm going to pray only for those who truly help the Church and don't come merely to cross themselves, light a candle and then turn to talk with their neighbor. Such people are not members of the Church; those are members who help her; they form the Church, the Body of Christ... It's high time we stopped looking through the window. For all of us the time has come to think seriously about how we can serve others --the sick, the elderly. The Lord is not going to have mercy on those who have shown no mercy..."

    Fr. Mitrofan himself was first to give an example of 'action'. He was constantly making the rounds of hospitals, cheering up the sick with his greeting, "Christ is Risen!" He often took his icon "Unexpected Joy" before which he would serve moliebens at the bedside of the critically ill. To his great sorrow, very few of the miraculous healings worked through this icon were ever recorded. Those who drove him around on these missions shared the blessing of his God-pleasing labor.

    Another sphere of activity to which Fr. Mitrofan was particularly devoted was the raising of funds in support of the monastic communities in the Holy Land. Each year he collected several thousand dollars which he divided among the nuns of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives, and the Hebron community whose Abbot, Fr. Ignaty, was his close friend. Having made over 20 pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Fr. Mitrofan knew first-hand the economic hardships suffered by the nuns and the importance of maintaining these communities of prayer, and he tried to interest all those with whom he came in contact to add their support. He would come back from these pilgrimages laden with gifts of small icons and crosses, candles and other tokens of remembrance to be distributed. But, as one of his spiritual children observed, his greatest gift was the fount of grace which he shed abundantly upon them all for some time after his return.

    Fr. Mitrofan loved nothing better than being able to console someone, to flood their heart with warmth and to relieve them of whatever burden they were carrying. He had a special gift of detecting an unexpressed sorrow or hurt and of being able to melt it away with the fire of his love.

    He had a special love for children--and they felt at ease with him for he shared some of their most precious qualities. Tucked away, there was a box of candy, lots of candy, which would inevitably be produced when children came to visit--and not only children. "Life has enough bitterness," he would say, 'here's something sweet."

    His love expressed itself in so many ways --most perfectly, perhaps, in prayer. His boldness stemmed from his reliance on the help of his two spiritual mentors. "What am I but a sinner?" he would say. "By the prayers of Vladika John and Archpriest Mitrofan I live and serve God." He was filled with compassion and a genuine concern for the eternal fate of countless souls, and for this reason he was especially diligent in performing the Proskomedia which bestows great spiritual benefit on those commemorated. He concentrated on praying for the dead--who have no other recourse than the prayers of the Church--and for those who have no one else to pray for them. His Proskomedias lasted a few hours.

     For many years Fr. Mitrofan suffered from ulcerated varicose veins. Long hours of standing at prayer aggravated this condition; open wounds developed and he became unable to sleep from the pain. People urged him to rest, to lie flat, but he insisted on serving, on performing his priestly obedience. He miraculously recovered from one stroke, but a second greatly weakened him, and to relieve his faithful circle of myrrhbearers from the burden of the constant care he required, he moved to Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville in September, 1985. There in his cell he continued to receive people, to spread his warmth, and to pray. It was while he was serving a molieben before his icon "Unexpected Joy" that he suffered a third stroke, from which he never recovered. He reposed a week later, Dying in the hospital, minutes after a monk had visited him with the icon and sung its akathist. It was the Church New Year.

    During the course of the next 40 days, some of his spiritual children divided the Psalter, each taking a section, in such a way that the entire Psalter was read daily. They who had received so much in prayer from their beloved Fr. Mitrofan, now took their stand to pray.

(Based on an article in "Pravoslavnaya Rus'" Jan. 28, 1986; and personal reminiscences) See also Orthodox America #49, pp.4-5.