Orthodox America

  Letters of a Pilgrim

Like many young converts in the Soviet Union, Tatiana Goricheva (whose book Talking About God is Dangerous was reviewed in OA '75) sought to nourish her spiritual life by visiting various monastic communities. Below are excepts from letters she wrote in 1979 as a pilgrim at the Pukhtitsa Convent of the Dormition in Estonia. This century old community was brought under Soviet jurisdiction only after the war, and was thus spared the height of Stalinst persecution. Recent times have seen an increase of young nuns, and the convent is flourishing today. The letters were translated from the Italian "Russia Christiana," Nov.-Dec., 1982.

      Every journey to a monastery has been for me a fresh revelation. Every time, through the mercy of the Saviour, I have received a new understanding of the relationship between monastic life and the life of the world, This is of enormous value to me because as you know, the monastery is not an unreal structure alienated from the world, On the contrary, it provides the basic rule for the life of any Christian. 

      The Liturgy celebrated according to the monastic rite is a thing all its own. It has no pity for our human weaknesses, does not tolerate half-felt prayers or lukewarm feelings, or an incomplete commitment. One must renounce all laziness and self pity and stand for hours and hours and hours. Without looking for it, one finds an inexplicable interior strength and can forget how many hours have passed: three, five, seven...

     ·..Nearly every evening tourists come to vespers. They stand near the entrance, confused, their eyes wide with wonder. It's often the first time they have been inside a church. Mother Maria told me that it takes only one visit to a church to bring a person to faith. Sasha, who today is deeply religious, entered a church three years ago as a tourist and since then has been Christian. 

     I must dwell a little on the subject of pilgrims. The two old ladies who stand near me do nothing but pray. Even after' Mother Maria extinguishes the lights, the two of them spend the whole night kneeling in front of the lamps; at five they attend the Liturgy. Mother Maria herself is an absolute fountain of love. She embraces us and exclaims: "Sisters, how wonderful it is that we have all met Christ!" And she says it with such joy that she seems only this very day to have begun believing in God !

     Here even the children are beautifully quiet. I never thought there could be a child like five year old Antonina. She and her father, a priest, arrived from a remote village. There's not a trace of impertinence or precocious ness in her. She is always so recollected and loves God so much; she is a real example for others .... In church she stands straight as a candle. As for me, I see clearly that I still belong to the world·

      I've heard some Christians complain they haven't enough time for essentials--"let alone prayer"! Only those who have no experience of the spiritual world as a reality, who accept the Gospel only outwardly, while remaining basically materialist, can say this kind of thing... Here in the monastery, despite the length of the services and the duties I undertake, I have much more time than in the world, and I get a lot more accomplished. In fact, time passes more slowly here, but without dragging, or boredom; it's the time which flows into eternity, meaningful time to be savored. 

     Today I learned that St. John of Kronstadt prophesied that this monastery would remain to the end, that it would survive the trials of even the darkest years. And indeed, under the miraculous protection of the Heavenly Queen, this marvelous flower flourishes in the midst of an arid, lifeless desert. Beyond the stone walls the world may battle away in meaningless fury, while inside they shed tears and unceasingly intercede and repent for the world.

     What profound significance there is in the fact that here one doesn't reply "thanks" to a request, but "Glory be to God." that before entering a room one says, "Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." And it is the same with every step, with every breath. 

      A group of old women from Siberia has arrived. They'd been saving up to come for years. They read, whispering the words of the Gospel, which they are probably holding in their hands for the first time. They are weeping. I've never seen such beautiful faces in my life as I've seen here in the monastery. Many leave me stupefied by the expressiveness and purity of their profiles... Some of them seem almost incorporeal, entirely suffused by the Holy Spirit. They are not faces any longer, but icons.

    ·..It's a month now since I've seen empty prying looks, since I've heard evil laughter, since I've had no fear in talking to other people, or in going out, as I do along the road from my cell to the church. How much all that means to me! How many wounds have been healed! How much stronger I feel! 

     I went to the holy water spring, where some shepherds once saw the Blessed Virgin. There were many sick folk there. Imagine: the woods covered in snow and ice, intense cold, and a shallow well of icy water. There women immersed themselves in turn, without a trace of self-consciousness, as if they were stepping into a bath at home. No one has ever heard of anyone becoming ill as a result; on the contrary, there have been hundreds of cases of healing. "Your faith has made you whole." Here was utter fearlessness! 

    · ..Only in these last months have I been able to reduce the barrier which separated my life in the monastery from my life in the world. I don't throw myself any more into the life of the monastery as if it were a well; I enter it more consciously· The monastery allows me to deepen my life and prayers in the world. I perceive far more clearly the unity of life in faith; the lacerating contrasts pale and vanish, and I know that the monastery won’t make me inimical to the world (as happened before); rather, it makes it more lucid, and encourages me to love….

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