From this article you will learn what it is like growing up in a family with thirteen children who are “people of the old school”—what kind of protection all of us have, how to overcome fear and find a spiritual father, what is the power of a parent’s blessing, the mystery of Divine providence, and many other interesting and miraculous stories.
My spiritual mentors
First and foremost, my parents were my spiritual teachers. They raised as many as thirteen children, and I was the youngest of my brothers. My mom is a “heroic mother” [in the USSR, a medal and title awarded to mothers of ten or more children], and my dad is an honorary citizen of the Isakly district of the Samara region.
It is easy for children of religious parents to move in the right direction in life, because such parents guide their offspring on the right path. The children in our family were neither “October Children”, nor “Young Pioneers”, nor Komsomol members.1 We would pray and read the Lives of the Saints from early childhood. We had a prayer-book for adults and another one for children, handwritten by my aunt.
My father, Dmitry Pavlovich, prayed the most in our family. My mother, Stepanida Ivanovna, had lots of domestic chores to manage and prayed briefly, while father would pray for a long time in the evening in front of icons, and we were aware that we shouldn’t distract him from prayer at that time. He knew both the morning and the evening prayers by heart. Four of my brothers labored at a monastery for several years, one of them became an archimandrite at Optina Monastery, and I serve as a parish priest. Our two aunts are schema-nuns at a convent.
Mother always kept the house clean and tidy while her thirteen children were still growing! All the children were involved in the common domestic duties, such as weeding the kitchen garden, harvesting potatoes, etc. In addition, each child had personal duties: as the youngest brother I would carry firewood to the stove in the evening so that mother could kindle the fire in a stove with it next morning (we used it for cooking).
A mysterious apple
Our mom is a quiet and gentle person, while our dad is strict. Casting a glance at us (instead of scolding us) was enough to make us obey him. He was very demanding. One of my older brothers used to recall the following story. One day father decided to put our obedience to the test. So he gathered us and said:
“Can you see that apple on the apple-tree? Feel free to eat any other apples, but don’t pick this one.”
And then he went on a business trip. We were roaming about burning with curiosity, wondering what was so special about that mysterious apple that we weren’t allowed to pick.
Then one of my brothers said:
“Dad doesn’t allow us to pick this apple. But we won’t pick it! We will just taste it!”
One after another we bit into the apple, while supporting it carefully, but it turned out to taste like any other apple.
Our dad returned:
“Well, how is your obedience?”
He looked at the apple and said:
“My kids are so clever! I can’t even punish you!”
How my father and I went to fell trees
Once my father and I went to fell trees for construction materials. I had just returned from the army and was an energetic, robust young man, while my father was in his sixties. He worked all day long, showing no signs of fatigue, whereas I became exhausted and was ready to drop with weariness. And I was too shy to tell him that I was tired because I was more than forty years younger than him!
Thus, I, “a strong young man”, proved to have less stamina than my elderly father; and I immediately figured out what the reason was. Firstly, our father was accustomed to labor. He has worked all his life. And second, with thirteen children to care for he acquired the habit of self-sacrifice. He always loved all of us dearly, and this love cultivated this spirit, this devotion and self-denial in him.
Fear and prayer
I remember as a child going with my dad to his work—he worked as a driver and drove milkmaids to their summer milking, some five miles away. While the milkmaids were milking, we were angling. When we were pushing our way through thickets of reeds, it seemed to me (an eight-year-old boy) as if we were walking in the tall jungle. It gave me the creeps! I feared that a snake could crawl out of the reeds or some wild beast could run out at any moment.
I asked my dad with embarrassment:
“Pa, are you scared?”
“When you are walking with prayer, you aren’t afraid of anything!”
And I have kept these words in my mind ever since.
The next spiritual mentor I want to talk about is my godmother, auntie Evdokia. She never married and remained a virgin, though suitors did come and seek her in marriage. She chose to live a life of chastity and was a woman of prayer. Evdokia lived by her own labor; she grew a lot of potatoes and kept sheep. She would go to church, situated about five and half miles from the village, and liked going on pilgrimages to holy sites. We small children liked to tend her sheep, because she would recount the Lives of the Saints to us. Of course she prayed for me, her godson, and her prayers helped me tremendously!
People “of the old school”
My parents and my godmother are people “of the old school”. What does that mean? I will try to explain it by giving an example. My wife’s aunt is an old woman. She recently underwent an operation. The next day after the surgery she asked for permission to go home:
“Why should I lie here and trouble you? I have livestock and piles of work at home!”
The doctors told us that there was another woman of the same age in the neighboring ward who was constantly discontented with everything: she kept complaining that she was not receiving enough care and attention, that it was not very comfortable at the hospital, that it was drafty there, that it was too hot, that there were too many roommates, or even that there was nobody to talk to.
But my wife’s aunt felt good and thanked God for everything. The hospital staff admitted that they had not had such a patient for a long time. They tried to explain to her:
“You need to stay longer at the hospital to recover after your surgery.”
But she answered:
“It’s out of the question! I will go home! You have enough work to do without me!”
She is an example of a person “of the old school”.
Perhaps through the prayers of my parents and my godmother I ended up at Optina Monastery after the ninth grade at school. I lived there as a monastery laborer right up to my army service, and after the army I returned there. Optina Monastery had a great influence on me. Thus, in my awkward age, which is instrumental in the development and strengthening of the soul, the monastery protected me from numerous temptations.
Between 1996 and 1997 we worked as beekeepers; in the summer we would take beehives to the fields and live there. Elder Iliy would come to us and after supper, at about eleven in the evening; he would retreat alone to the fields or the forest for solitary prayer. He would come back in the morning. One day we asked him if he was scared to be alone out in the woods at night, and he gave us the very answer that my father had once given me:
“If you pray, aren’t afraid of anything!”
Every single person is under God’s protection. The Almighty protects him as long as he prays. His nearest and dearest, his patron-saint or spiritual father can pray for him as well.
Life at Optina Monastery helped me understand what the monastery and spiritual life are like. It was at the monastery that I got to know what demonic attacks are, and I experienced them. Why does this happen to people at monasteries and nowhere else? I believe that it is because of their way of life and prayer. If you don’t pray, you won’t experience demonic attacks.
It was at Optina Monastery that I realized the importance of prayer. As a boy I just knew that I should pray—it was a superficial knowledge. At the monastery I understood this by my own experience. I gained my personal spiritual experience.
One of my discoveries was the significance of unceasing prayer. I grew up in a religious family, confessed and took Communion on a regular basis, and knew many prayers by heart. But in the army I hardly had time for prayer.
There was one interesting occurrence. There were some hothouses near our military unit where we grew some vegetables for our army kitchen. One day, on account of poor yields, with our commander’s permission we invited a priest to celebrate a prayer service with the blessing of waters in our hothouses.
During the prayer service the priest asked me to read Trisagion Hymn through to the Lord’s Prayer. And, to my great shame, I started stammering out the words of the prayers I had known perfectly well since childhood, realizing that I no longer remembered them well. That is what it means to not practice prayer. Prayer should be daily and ceaseless.
A story about obedience
Divine providence works through our parents (particularly religious parents), spiritual fathers, and simply through circumstances in our lives. If a person makes efforts to discern God’s providence in his life, God will surely give him a hint.
Let us take the following story. A man drove up to the river. It was in March, so the river ice seemed to be solid. An old man who was standing on the bank warned the driver:
“Son, the ice has been broken! Don’t go there!”
“Why are you telling me about this?! People drive across this frozen river even in April! I have done it for years!”
The driver started the motor, yet he couldn’t get the old man’s words out of his head, so he rolled his car windows down. Suddenly he heard the ice break up and instantly turned back. When he stopped on the bank, he said:
“Thank you, grandad!”
This means that obedience is important, that we must heed the warning signs the Lord sends us.
One of my older brothers, who is now Archimandrite Anthony (Gavrilov) of Optina Monastery and my father-confessor, was obedient from his childhood. But I had self-will instead of obedience; true, I obeyed my parents in major things, but I would often act up too.
My father’s blessing
After the army I returned to Optina Monastery and then became a full-time student at the seminary in Kaluga. I had the desire to pursue a theological education. I didn’t think about becoming a priest as I considered myself unworthy of this most sublime ministry. I got married as a fifth-year seminarian and soon was offered ordination. I came up to my spiritual father, Fr. Anthony, to receive his blessing and advice. He answered:
“God has given us freedom of choice. He blesses every choice of ours provided our intentions are good. So it is up to you to decide.”
On the eve of the feast of the Greatmartyr Demetrius of Thessaloniki, we went to my father to celebrate his name day. We gathered around the table, congratulated my dad, whereupon he stood up and began to congratulate me. While he was speaking I was deep in thought: “Is God calling me to be a priest or I am unworthy?”
So my father arose, thought and prayed a little, and after a long pause said:
“Regarding the choice you’ve made, you must carry the cross you’ve chosen until the end.”
Once he had said these words, the thoughts about my unworthiness that had been pestering me disappeared. This is what a father’s blessing means.
In addition to my parents and godmother, another spiritual mentor of mine is both my blood brother and spiritual father—Archimandrite Anthony (Gavrilov) of Optina. For me and many other spiritual children he is a true elder.
All different factors contribute to the development of a child. In spring, when dirt roads are almost impassable, our mother walked five and a half miles to the nearest church, carrying her baby, the future Archimandrite Anthony, in her arms to have him baptized. It was her act of faith. As Christ said, According to your faith be it unto you (Mt. 9:29).
The Almighty blesses parents with godly children for their labors. When their children grow into respected individuals, it brings their parents great joy and a “heavenly reward” on earth.
An elder is he who obeys God
An elder is someone who has gotten to know himself, whether or not the movements of his soul are righteous towards God. When somebody begins to see himself through God’s eyes, he begins to see his neighbor as himself. And he won’t judge his neighbor as he sees him as himself. And the Lord reveals the state of this person’s soul to him, knowing that he won’t judge his neighbor.
On several occasions my confessor called me at the very moment when I was about to commit one or another sin. He phoned me for a reason—to keep me from sinning.
The Creator reveals knowledge about other people to true elders. If a Christian just wants to satisfy his curiosity, God won’t reveal anything to him. If an ascetic aims to gain something from it, he is not an elder. A true elder is someone who seeks only God and the salvation of the soul and lives his life in full obedience to the Savior. Then God reveals things to him, and he goes and fulfils them.
An elder obeys God in all things. This person has neither curiosity nor self-interest—he just feels God’s calling and performs his obedience. And there are neither obstacles, nor walls, nor distances for spiritual things; a spiritual person can see, hear and sense things that are not accessible to someone who is not spiritual.
How to find a spiritual father
Sometimes people ask how to find a spiritual father. For this you need time, communication experience, and sincere prayers addressed to God. As Archimandrite John (Krestiankin) wrote: “Pray to God and ask Him to give you a spiritual father. Don’t rush to call the first priest you meet a ‘spiritual father’. Go to church, confess your sins, ask many priests about the things that concern you; and once you have realized that one or another priest (one of many) is your kindred spirit, you will seek only his spiritual counsel.”
Here I cannot help but recall the words of one archdeacon of Optina Monastery, Fr. Heliodorus. One day I heard him tell some pilgrim off in his “serious-playful” manner:
“Are you silly? Don’t you see that thirty people are standing in line waiting to confess to this priest, while only one person is standing in front of that priest? Draw your own conclusion!”
One of the prayers of the Divine Liturgy reads: “Take away from me the heart of stone, and give me a heart of flesh”. Not a heart of iron or a callous heart, but a heart of flesh that responds to every sigh. A true elder and spiritual father has precisely this kind of heart. He loves people just as a father of a large family loves his children. He feels compassion towards them (even towards the most disobedient ones) as if they were his own children. He worries about them and never judges them.
Now I am going to share an edifying story that happened with me soon after my ordination when I was a very young priest.
Some priests and I took a trip to Mt. Athos. We borrowed a car from St. Panteleimon’s Monastery and took a tour to other Athonite monasteries. On the way back I saw a car that had drawn in to the side of the road. It seemed to me that its driver, a monk, was drunk, so I felt very disheartened. I was nearly a teetotaler and judged him. I said to myself:
“How can it be?! A monk allows himself to get drunk on Holy Mount Athos!”
At last we returned to St. Panteleimon’s Monastery very tired and decided to take a sip of the monastery’s wine. There were four of us priests, and five liters of wine. And guess what happened next… All five liters of wine were empty before we knew it! And we turned out worse than that monk.
Thus, from my own experience I learned that I shouldn’t judge anybody. That incident is firmly fixed in my memory; it was truly a powerful lesson I had to learn.
If an owner has acquired a new vehicle, it means his wife is pregnant
As I observe families, I better understand how God’s providence works. Family stories are a very interesting thing. According to a popular saying, if God gives you a child, He will give you resources to provide for him too. For example, I know one large family with seven children. They are not rich people (and how can they be rich living in a village?), although they own a big farm and keep poultry and livestock. And fellow villagers have noticed that if the father of this family has replaced his old car with a new one, it means that his wife is expecting a baby again. It appears that the Lord provides them money for every new child. Once a new baby has come into this world, He sends them more money so that they could acquire a new car.
Why do you want so much, if you are single?
But as soon as this man married and started a family, he miraculously obtained a house with a plot of land. It was God Who helped him: He doesn’t provide for adults as much as for children.
I am of opinion that it is best for spouses to acquire common property together in order to avoid a situation when one of the spouses says: “All of this is mine! I had acquired this before you!” There is a just observation: “If you want to become a general’s wife, you should marry a lieutenant and accompany him to all the garrisons.”
How I was going to marry
I met my future wife as a fifth-year Kaluga Seminary student. We met in Kozelsk: I came to Optina Monastery to celebrate the feast of the Kazan icon and called on my sister, and Olesya (Alexandra in Orthodox Baptism) came to celebrate the same feast and dropped in on her sister. As it turned out, our sisters were friends and lived near each other. It was they who introduced us to each other.
My future spouse graduated from a teachers’ training college; her family lived in the district center near our village, and when we first met I felt that I had found my soul mate. It turned out that Alexandra had come to Optina Monastery to pray to the Optina Elders for a good husband. And she took that meeting as the elders’ answer to her prayers.
As for my qualities as a husband, perhaps I’m not one to judge. We took a fancy to each other at once. The first meeting was very brief, but we began to correspond and talk on the phone with one another. Our second meeting took place at our relatives’ wedding party, and after our third meeting I went to my parents to ask for their blessing to propose. The parents gave me their blessing, and my older sisters and I went to my future relatives to propose to Alexandra.
We decided to marry in a church in Kozelsk. Then I returned to the seminary, while my fiancée with her folks were preparing for their journey to Kozelsk.
How I played a prank
It was not until my return to the seminary that I realized that I had forgotten to ask for my ruling hierarch’s (Metropolitan Clement of Kaluga and Borovsk) blessing, which was mandatory for seminarians. I remembered it on Friday, while the wedding ceremony was scheduled for Sunday and my betrothed with family had already started their journey from the Samara region to the Kaluga region.
On that day Metropolitan Clement was in Moscow. I caught the first commuter train and left for the capital. By the mercy of God the hierarch received me in his office. When I asked for his blessing, he said:
“The exams are at hand. Maybe you’d better postpone the wedding until after the examination period?”
And I replied:
“Your Eminence, I have no objection to waiting a little with the wedding, but my bride has already passed by Penza…”
“Oh, if she has passed through Penza, then we have no alternative. God bless you. Marry her.”
Thus, due to my lack of experience I put Metropolitan Clement in an awkward position. However, our metropolitan is a wise man—he didn’t get angry with me and was understanding about my problem.
We really feel at home here
After my ordination in 2007 I was assigned to the parish of the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos in the village of Khotkovo, situated in the Duminichi district of the Kaluga region. It was a small, God-forsaken, dead-end village. It was the end of a road there, and, though another village called Shubnik lay behind, only a couple of its houses were inhabited.
Before our arrival to Khotkovo, three priests had succeeded each other there within two years, so I was the fourth one. The priests’ wives didn’t want to live in the backwoods so they didn’t go here. As for the priests, they would drive to Khotkovo only celebrate the services and travel back to their wives right away.
As for my wife, she showed me obedience and remained here with me. To be more exact, I obeyed my ruling hierarch, and my wife obeyed me. Perhaps this is how things should go. We have lived and served here for as many as eleven years, and we really feel at home here.
According to legend, Khotkovo was founded in the sixteenth century. According to another, funny tradition, two centuries later Empress Catherine II stopped here en route to the south regions of Russia and stayed overnight in this village “in the remotest depths of the provinces”. In the morning her retinue found some valuables missing, and Catherine remarked:
“They will rob anybody here!”
Tradition has it that after these words of Catherine II our tiny village was called Khotkovo [meaning “anybody” when used in oblique case, “whomever”, “whoever it may be” in Russian, though spelled slightly differently—“khot kovo”].
Formerly the village was large; it had an old iron foundry—the main source of employment for the Khotkovo population (at one time around 1,670 inhabitants). The local ore was smelted into cast iron at this iron foundry and high-quality frying-pans, cast-iron stoves and other cast iron products were made. In the early twentieth century, a wooden church on a stone foundation was built in the village; it was demolished in 1939. In 1987, the iron foundry was closed down, and many of the Khotkovo residents moved away.
The village would have died out completely but for its benefactor, a native of Khotkovo named Pavel Nikolaevich Zavalny. He became a man of renown and decided to support his native village by restoring its farm, laying the gas line, rebuilding the church (in 2002) and even constructing the rector’s house. Though Pavel is a secular person, he has done so much for his native village; he wanted its children to be raised in the Orthodox faith, with love for its traditions, and patriotism. And, glory be to God, Khotkovo hasn’t turned into a deserted village. Now it is our duty to take care of the village.
“Father, there’s nobody here! Let’s go home!”
Now Khotkovo is home to over 300 people. Many of its residents gather at the church and pray on major feasts, while on weekdays only about eight people comes, and sometimes nobody attends.
One day my mother-in-law came to the church service, but there was nobody inside it except me and one chorister. She said to me:
“Fr. Dimitry, let’s go home! There is nobody here!”
“We serve the Lord.”
Indeed the Divine Liturgy is a great mystery that gives a lot to people and mankind. It is the mystery through which our salvation is accomplished.
How we looked for money to pay for our gas bill
The rector’s house was built together with the church, but the builders made a construction mistake by using only brick, so it was extremely cold inside the house, especially during winter when the temperature inside never exceeded fifteen degrees Celsius. And, consequently, our children got sick too often.
The temperature still doesn’t exceed fifteen degrees in our house in winter. Fortunately, we have managed to keep one part of our house warmer through insulation. So all of us huddle together in this part throughout the winter season—crowded, but not offended (as the Russian saying goes). Initially our water froze in winter because the pipe had not been buried deep enough. Thus I buried the pipe to a greater depth, drilled a well, and the water doesn’t freeze in winter any more. In a word, we have adjusted to the new surroundings.
Once we had to pay our church gas bills, but we had no money and no idea where we would find it. During the Vigil service both my wife and I prayed hard, asking God to help us find the required sum.
At the end of the service, our parishioner who is a cashier in the only grocery store of our village came into the church. She told us:
“Fr. Dimitry, today one man who was in a hurry called at our shop; he left a sum of money for the church and asked me to hand it over to you.”
We opened the envelope and found exactly the amount of money we needed!
People often ask me:
“Fr. Dimitry, how do you manage to make both ends meet?”
And I answer:
“The Lord has been helping us!”
“How does He help you?”
And I tell them the story about the gas bill and the envelope with money or some other similar story. Some of them find it hard to believe this:
“Fr. Dimitry, these are just coincidences, good luck!”
But human life cannot be filled with “mere coincidences”…
A church built by a legendary general
Every Saturday I serve at the Church of the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos in the neighboring village of Chernysheno, one of the most ancient settlements of the area. It has a population of around 700. The Dormition Church was built between 1838 and 1843 by General Ivan Nikitich Skobelev (1782-1849). During the Great Patriotic War the church was half destroyed, and its surviving columns and walls retain a shred of its former splendor.
I cannot help but tell the readers a few words about the wonderful general—can you possibly pray for the repose of Ivan (John) Nikitich Skobelev? After his father’s early death, little Ivan was raised in poverty by his mother, a very pious and self-sacrificing woman. At the age of fourteen he joined a field battalion as a soldier, later rose to the rank of commissioned officer and eventually distinguished himself in action on many occasions, namely against Napoleon in Prussia, during the Swedish Campaign, in battles against the Turks…
In one of the battles the general’s left arm was badly shattered by a ball, so doctors amputated his entire arm right on the battlefield, while Ivan was sitting on the drum and dictating his last order to his regiment, which read: “Three fingers that were saved by the all-merciful Lord will be more than sufficient to hold the sword and the bayonet in defense of our father and Tsar, and the glory of our holy fatherland.”
In his “civil life” General Skobelev wrote about war under the penname “a Russian Invalid”. He recalled: “I remember good things, and I remember bad things, but I have to admit that I don’t remember anything better than Russian soldiers.” He published his books for charitable purposes to support the Chesma Almshouses and the children’s hospital in St. Petersburg.
Ivan Nikitich was the first in a line of outstanding Russian military generals. His son, Dmitry Ivanovich Skobelev, was a defender of Sevastopol, His grandson, Mikhail Dmitrievich, a brilliant general, was the liberator of Bulgaria, whose motto was: “Skobelev doesn’t know defeat!”
Ivan Nikitich became a Russian legend, and if the church (which he had built himself and which had the burial vault of his beloved wife) hadn’t been restored, it would have been a crime. Chernysheno residents worried much about their church, and some old ladies remembered attending it in their childhood. One of our grannies is in her late eighties, and she told us about this with tears in her eyes. Though these old women cannot support the construction project financially, they are praying to God, and He is listening to their prayers. Perhaps it is through their prayers and the generosity of our benefactors that our construction work is now in progress.
We ask readers to kindly support our construction project by your donations, and the Mother of God, the Heavenly Patroness of our church, will intercede for you before Christ.
You can transfer money to my wife’s card (Sberbank of Russia), the card number: 4276 8220 2770 2576 (Olesya Grigoryevna Gavrilova).
Details for donations:
The recipient: Религиозная организация «Приход в честь Успения Пресвятой Богородицы» в селе Чернышено Козельской Епархии Русской Православной Церкви (Московский Патриархат) /The religious organization “The parish of the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos” in the Chernysheno village of the Diocese of Kozelsk of the Russian Orthodox Church (the Patriarchate of Moscow)
The recipient’s bank: Калужское отделение № 8608 ПАО Сбербанк (the Kaluga branch № 8608 of the Sberbank Public Joint Stock Company)
The recipient’s bank identification code: 042908612
The recipient’s settlement account: №40703810722240000311
Correspondent account: № 30101810100000000612
Taxpayer identification number: 4005999802
We will pray for all the donors! May God keep you!