Orthodox America


  Letters of a Village Priest


Below are extracts from four letters written by a young Russian village priest to a friend abroad. Translated from "Possev" Frankfurt, May 1988

 

March, 1987

 Surely the two most important things in Christian life are fellowship with God through prayer and active fellowship with one's brethren in Christ. For this reason I treasure your letters; they always bring me joy.

    Outwardly, there's been little change in my life. The holy days of Great Lent are upon us, and because of it the services are longer and more intense; they are physically taxing but at the same time they bring the soul greater satisfaction.

     You write that you are interested in everything concerning Orthodox faith in these parts. I'd like, therefore, at least briefly to tell you about our Pskov diocese, about the life of our parish.

    The spiritual life of people here is shaped by the Pskov-Caves monastery. Nearly all the priests were schooled there. For this reason their attention is devoted primarily to the work of prayer. Our services are considerably longer and more complete than you find in Moscow or Piter.[nickname for St. Petersburg] During the first week of Great Lent, for example, they were the same as in the monasteries and lasted up to seven hours. The people here are simple; the parishioners bravely stand through the long vigils and some of them read the Psalter at home in the evenings besides.

     External church activity here is, of course, fettered. However, all the spiritual energy of the faithful is directed towards the inner podvig of prayer, towards struggle with the passions and with the spirit of this age. Here there are many true slaves of God who have acquired the fruits of the spirit, which the holy Apostle Paul defines as "peace, joy, meekness, longsuffering? (Gal. 5:22).

    Several years ago, for example, in Velikii Luki, there reposed a righteous woman of very high spiritual caliber, who spent her entire life in chastity, in spiritual activity. When she grew old she acquired the gift of clairvoyance and helped many people come to faith. Here they call her Eldress Katherine; she is greatly venerated among the faithful. And there are many other righteous ascetics; very likely it is by their prayers that our holy Faith is being maintained among us in sufficient purity, as it was handed down to us by the ancient fathers.

    Believers in the Pskov area--and they are not alone, of course--do not live according to their self-will; in everything they ask the advice of the eiders. Eldership is especially well-developed in the [Caves] Monastery where believers come from all parts of Russia. But there are also elders in ordinary parishes.

     I know that faith can also be understood through reading spiritual books, of which there area great many. However, one living and shining example of faith can equal a thousand thick volumes and is capable of transforming a person's soul--his whole life.

     That is how it was with me. Now I am in the priesthood, but still before my eyes there is always the face of a certain elder --and other elders as well, whom I have been fortunate to meet. No, pious faith has not withered in Russia, and the Lord will preserve it until His glorious Second Coming. 

     Only a small cemetery church has been preserved here, and for this--glory to God, True, on Feast days it gets very crowded and on Pascha many stand out on the street. But the faithful love their church; they do not complain of the overcrowding, and patiently bear all the discomforts.

    As I said, our principal activity in church is prayer, Gradually some restoration work is being done. Last year the iconostas was gilded, I've also taken a hand in it; I painted several icons.

    So, things could be better, but we manage, praising God for everything. We do not grumble at our lot, nor do we seek an easy life.

    In a single letter it's difficult to capture everything at once. I hope another time to write in greater detail.

 

June, 1987

 ...My soul has long yearned for peace and quiet in order that my prayers more readily ascend to God, and now my soul has acquired that which it sought.

     Although the village where I now live is sizeable, the church and the parsonage are located on the outskirts, among trees. A stream flows nearby, and the windows open onto a yard. In early summer everything here blooms with fragrance; in the evenings the nightingales sing--I've never heard such singing. The very surroundings dispose the soul towards prayerful contemplation, towards praising the Creator, and towards repentance. The world is so beautiful, while my soul is so evil, so rotten with sin that it sounds like a false note in an orchestra and spoils all the music of the 'world-creation.

     In general, it's very nice here. The church is wooden, small and cozy. The people are pious and, for a village choir, ours is not bad, Divine services are held only on Sundays and the major feasts, so there' s free time enough for reading, thinking, praying, painting icons. In little over a month I've already finished five icons--some for the church, others for friends. It's a most blessed occupation: through the paints, the colors, one makes contact, as it were, with celestial, divine beauty. From this contact even the soul is bettered, something bad leaves it forever.,.

     In general, praise God, all is well. I am growing accustomed to my new life, I work in the garden...

October, 1987

 ..I received your letter long ago, but simply couldn't collect myself in order to respond. First it was the renovation work in the house and in the church, then it was harvesting the garden. We live in the country and feed ourselves with the work of our own hands. So there's almost no free time. Our life flows its usual course, unhurried.

    There are, as it were, two schools of clergy: those who emphasize theological learning and the development of intellectual talents, and those who prefer life according to the heart. Here in the Pskov territory there are few "theologians." Simple people are gathered from all over Russia; they always follow the promptings of the heart. This has created a special, warm atmosphere, Here the priest is not so much a teacher or superior, but rather a friend, it's easier, after all, to open one's heart to a friend, to trust him with your most treasured and hidden thoughts and feelings. For this reason spiritual life here is simple, closely resembling, no doubt, that of the early Christians.

    In general, I've noticed that between the time of the early Christians and our own last times, there is much in common. We have the same small communities, and the "external" world likewise knows very little about our existence; there is the same longing, as in ancient times, for fellowship among the brethren, the same desire to undertake Rood deeds.

     Today we really ought to study attentively the life of the early Christians. This will give us a better understanding of how we should proceed, how we can acquire that strong, rock-like faith, that steadfastness in the truth of Orthodoxy, and burning zeal.

    Otherwise we can soon grow cool and find ourselves in eternal perdition.

But, glory to God, so far all is well here. Now it's already difficult to imagine life outside the Church. The soul grows accustomed to prayer and increasingly runs away from the company of men into the tranquility and solitude of nature.

    Autumn is here. The birds have all flown away. Only the wind sighs at the walls.

    These autumnal evening hours are good for prayer, An uncommon peace settles in the heart--deep, secure. At these times I often recall my Orthodox friends scattered throughout this land.

    During my coming vacation I plan to visit my parents. I see them only once a year, and this year I must likewise fulfill my filial obligation.

    What does this coming Millennial year of our Baptism have in store for us--it's hard to say. For now we shall live as the early Christians--one day at a time. We lived through one day--food. God grant that we live through a few more.

 

February, 1988

Thanks be to God for your greetings and letters. They console us as a pledge of invincible Christian unity in the midst of a world fractured by enmity. One of the ascetics said that there are only two joys on earth: the joy of fellowship with God and the joy of fellowship with man. In Orthodoxy these joys fuse, as it were, into one: through fellowship with cur brother we also come to know Christ, for we all bear the image of God. It's just that in some--through sinfulness--this image is barely visible, but in others--by virtue of their ascetic struggles-it is much clearer, it is alive, like seeing face to face.

    And so, glory to God that we are given the gift of spiritual fellowship; it chases away all sense of alienation and brings the so many bright moments.

Now I shall tell you something of our life. With God's help we traversed the course of the Nativity Fast and basked in the festal services. Now, in the stillness of village winter, we are preparing ourselves for the cleansing days of Great Lent. The weather is exceptional: bright days, sunny, with hard frosts; this allows one to withdraw for an hour or two into the woods for prayer and spiritual contemplation. A quiet life is very beneficial and a curative for our ailing souls.

    By the way, circumstances are changing for the better not only here but throughout Russia. For the Millennium of the Baptism of our homeland, the Lord has softened the hearts of those in power, and we expect certain concessions in relation to the Church. For example, the famous Optina Hermitage near Kozelsk is being opened, and likewise the Tolga monasteryin Yaroslav and the Khotkov convent where the parents of St. Sergius of Radonezh are buried.

    There are many changes, and still more are anticipated after the Local Council. But we harbor no illusions: we understand that spiritual life cannot be renewed through administrative measures alone. Inner rebirth is the result of podvig, of battle with sinful passions and inclinations. This unseen warfare must be waged under the supervision of grace-filled elders, and they, unfortunately, are leaving us. There are fewer and fewer of them on the Russian side. And this is very sad. It makes one look at the Church resurgence with some reservation...

     Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov forewarned that in the last times there would be a flowering of Orthodoxy, but that this process would be only external; ...it would give neither spiritual revelation, nor spirit-bearing elders-ascetics. The outward forms will evolve but they will not contain the Spirit of Truth. And so it would be until the end.

    Was Bishop Ignaty speaking about our times? Or are they still some distance in the future? I don't know.

    In any case, it is joyous to look upon the renaissance of Orthodoxy in Russia today. One sees here the strong hand of God, which is capable of creating life from nothing. And in this right hand of the Lord we place our trust. It is through faith in God's wondrous Providence that we are still alive. 

I delight to do Thy will, O my God. (Psalm 40:8)


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