We are talking with Hieromonk Gabriel, monk of the Holy Dormition Pochaev Lavra, who has the obedience of spiritual father to the pilgrims. Throughout each day he hears the confession of pilgrims from various corners of Ukraine and beyond, and talks with them. As a rule, to this obedience are assigned the more experienced priests—men who possess the gift of discernment, who are capable of giving needed advice to each person coming to confess to God. We also spent time with Fr. Gabriel, asked him questions that concern every believing person not only in Ukraine, but in many countries of the world.
—Batiushka, monasticism is called the indicator of the spiritual issues of the times. Secular and even religious society can often be confused, not knowing what to do, but monasticism as a rule is of one mind and never wavers in its resolve over one or another issue. Why is that?
—Monasticism arose as the Gospel ideal. And during persecutions it became the stronghold of the Church. To be with Christ, to live in Christ, to be like Christ—all of this is placed in monasticism today. This lofty spiritual motivation called people to reclusion at the dawn of Christianity as it does also today. Purity, chastity, service to God—these are the ideals of monasticism. Monastic communities throughout the ages have been the strongholds of the Church, the strongholds of faith. We came to Pochaev Monastery in the 1990s, when the Philaret schism had already happened. And monasticism did not accept that schism. We know that the schism in Ukraine came about due to political reasons; nationalist ideas became part of it. Monasticism immediately rejected these ideas as something that does not answer to the spirit of Christianity. The task of a monk is to perfect himself spiritually, to be in Christ and with Christ. The goal of every Christian is to attain union with Christ, and monastics place this goal at the cornerstone of their lives.
We came to the monastery, as I said, in the 1990s, and were received by the fathers, who lived through the war with the Germans and the post-war Krushchev persecutions. Amongst those brothers were many decorated soldiers from the front, who took part in the taking of the Reichstag; amongst them were men who had gone through imprisonment, served two or three years’ time in Stalin’s and Krushchev’s camps... They had been shut up in psychiatric hospitals, like St. Amphilochius of Pochaev (Golovatiuk; † 1971), now canonized and whose holy relics rest here, or like Fr. Dimitry (Shchevkenik; † 2005). These were people of unbending will and faith. And they were our teachers, who came to Pochaev Lavra from various countries and lands: some from Russia, others from Belorussia, others from Ukraine, Moldavia, Romania... But they were all of one spirit, because according to the apostle’s words, in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free (Col. 3:11); and they held firm, regardless of all the trials and temptations. Why? Because they had strong faith, and were faithful to the vows they gave at their monastic tonsures. And the Lord melted them down like gold in the furnace. You could say that we saw holy podvizhniks (ascetic laborers) with our own eyes, and we lived with them.
—What do you think, why does the world, independent of political systems, attack such centers of spirituality as monasteries?
—One Catholic cardinal of our times said this: If Christ were to come today they would crucify Him in Rome. Not in Jerusalem but in Rome, because this Western faith has gone so far from the Gospel commandments that Christ is no longer there... Christ and His disciples only get in their way. That is why now in some European public places or in offices peoples can no longer come wearing a cross around their necks, and Christian teaching has been pulled from educational programs. Something similar is happening with us: A false church has been pronounced lawful, and the canonical, historical Church of Holy Rus’ and St. Vladimir is being called “the enemy”. What did they talk about today in Ukraine from the supreme political tribunals? Not about Christ or about the salvation of the soul, but about the need for some kind of national “united” church. And none of these people said that the Church already exists, that this is a living community of Christians, in which the Holy Spirit lives and God’s grace works. But they don’t see it, they don’t know it and do not want to know it. They do not want to accept that our Church is ruled by Christ Himself, and the apostle Paul talks about this—that God the Father hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1:22–23).
—But Patriarch Bartholomew decided to create a “united Local Church” in Ukraine...
—Decisions such as that cannot be made unilaterally. And we understand that initiatives like this “tomos” are not from God. This is not Christian, and there is nothing of Christ in it—no humility, nor meekness, nor love. And there is nothing of what Christ said: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! (Matt. 4:17). One can only come to the Church at this call of Christ. And how do the schismatics intend to enter into it under the aegis of Bartholomew? There is no talk of repentance whatsoever! Without repentance life in the Church is altogether senseless. But do we hear any words of repentance from the schismatics? All of them have only rebukes, pharisaical rhetoric, the rhetoric of the proud. These are the proudlings and schismatics that Patriarch Bartholomew is receiving into the bosom of the Church without repentance, automatically standing in the same row with them. Moreover he calls the canonical Church in Ukraine invalid, pronounces himself the primate here, and creates some kind of “united church” from two schismatic formations, which before he had himself called on all levels, apostatized from the Church... This is simply some kind of theatre of the absurd!
—Father, one can hear today: “I have already brought forth repentance, admitted my sinfulness, and the Lord forgave me. Why should I repent again?”...
—No matter what problems a person brings to the Church in order to come closer to God, he has to walk the path of repentance. A person should understand that he is obligated to change, because Adam and Eve were wounded by sin, and regardless of Baptism we carry this element of corruption within us. A person should understand that he needs God, and in order to obtain God’s mercy and forgiveness he has to work very hard on himself. Gradually, abiding in God’s Church, he begins to know himself. And in knowing himself he begins to understand that next to him live the same sinful people he used to hate, offend, disdain, humiliate, envy, or belittle. He understands that around him are our same imperfect contemporaries, with the same weaknesses, the same infirmities, the same problems. And the repentant person no longer judges anyone, but looks compassionately at people and prays for them. This is the Christian path. But are the schismatics calling people to this? Alas, no.
Nicholai Vasilievich Gogol said that society is made up of individuals. As are the individuals, so is the society. So, the Church invites each individual to change, to work on himself. Only in this way can he change the world for the better—by beginning to work individually on his own soul, in order to correspond to the Gospel commandments and God’s plan for man. And the Gospel, the holy apostles speak to us about this: For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever (1 Jn. 2:16–17). See: In order to abide forever in God, you have to do His will and not your own fallen, egotistical, fleshly will...
—But we are seeing the opposite: The highest ranking political officials are taking upon themselves the function of building church life...
—The Lord said, By their fruits ye shall know them (Matt. 7:16). So an official has taken upon himself that function, having decided that he can somehow influence church life and reorder it. And at this he considers and announces for all to hear that he is doing a good work. But what fruits do we see? An increase of tension in Church-state relations, persecution of the canonical, historical and lawful Church, all possible provocations, the clergy being called into the SBU (the new name for the KGB), all kinds of fake news and abuse against the Church in the mass media, slander against the Church and against monasteries, including the Pochaev Lavra and its monks. It has gotten to the point where they are searching the relics of the God-pleasers, as they did in the Kiev Caves Lavra. Not even the Soviet authorities did that. They are taking churches from the Lavra and giving them to museums and national parks, the law is being trampled underfoot, the constitution violated... What kind of fruits are these? These are not Christian fruits. The apostle Paul says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (Gal. 5:22–23). But not hatred, force, slander, anger, persecution... From whom do these fruits come, one asks? From the spirit of evil.
—But how can we talk with these people?
—How can we talk in different languages, when we don’t understand each other? We will be relying on Christ’s teaching, but they will be relying on their own understanding of how the church should be ordered. We can’t agree on anything with them. We can’t stand down from our Christian principles, because on them depends our salvation and our eternal lot. We can’t stand down like the politicians, moving to the left or to the right, or making compromises. What compromises can there be? There is either paradise or hell: What compromise can there be here? It is no accident that the Lord reminds us: But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil (Matt. 5:37). Therefore we act straight out, and speak straight out; and the faithful understand our monastic position.
—But after all, in initiating the creation of the new church, the president understood how this could be done and what consequences it would have...
—That’s the point, that the consequences of these initiatives can be simply ignored. After all, highly placed officials headed by the president understood that the canonical Church will not agree to any sort of unity with schismatics and will not violate its own canonical status. And millions of people stand behind our bishops. And if they didn’t understand, then why didn’t they ask us, those very millions of believers in all the dioceses of Ukraine, whether we want to unite with schismatics, whether we want to fall under the unlawful authority of Istanbul? Here is a blatant violation of human, secular and state laws, as well as God’s law. It is that very illustration of what consequences there can be when worldly people who are incompetent concerning Church laws take upon themselves the function of Church figures...
The results are obvious, and need no comment. We see how political leaders, political concepts change—one set of idols is traded for another. But Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever (Heb. 13:8). We do not follow the world or go against the world—we follow Christ. If the world wants to go with us, it is welcome! We would be very happy. But it if goes against us—that is the world’s business. What world are we talking about? About specific societies—political and religious. But we can come out of any society and say, “O Lord, forgive me! I have sinned and want to repent, I want to correct myself so that I will be with You forever, I want to be a true Christian.” And may God grant that the initiators of these ideas of a new church might understand their error and repent of their initiatives.
—Father, you hear pilgrims’ confessions every day. How do they relate to what is going on in the country’s religious life?
—You know, people are at peace. There is no panic—they hope in God. The statistics also testify to this. At the celebration of the Pochaev icon of the Mother of God there were over ten thousand pilgrims in the Lavra. And when on the Dormition of the Mother of God the cross procession from Kremenet entered through the central gates it took a half and hour for all to come in! How many thousands came in I won’t even attempt to estimate, but there were more people this year than ever—around thirty thousand. And just before that, the cross procession in Kiev on the feast of St. Vladimir gathered over a quarter of a million participants. It would seem that the situation concerning the canonical Church is deteriorating, but more and more people are expressing their faithfulness to it. What does that tell us? It tells us that, in the words of the Savior, the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18). You see, when danger increases concerning the Church, the Spirit of God acts in people, they are activated and ready to stand up in defense of it. Grace is especially sent during hours of trials, and that is why people have no fear, no panic. They calmly, prayerfully stand in the ranks, in cross processions, and are ready to walk hundreds of kilometers in any kind of weather.
That is how the spirit of confessing the faith works. That is how that spirit worked in ancient times in the martyrs and confessors, and that is how it works today. For Christ, as we already said, is the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever (Heb. 13:8). And the person is not afraid. In ordinary daily conditions people have fear, but in these cross processions I mentioned, when the participants know that danger awaits them ahead—various militants, aggressive forces, including armed forces might stand in their way—the faithful walk—women with children, the elderly, the young... What moves them? Love for Christ; and the Lord gives them strength and spiritual joy.
—Father, what would you tell people who consider that the so-called “Tomos” is necessary today?
—You know, we are talking together in a place where there have been great holy relics for many centuries now—after all, the Pochaev Lavra stood firm when practically all the monasteries of the former Soviet Union were closed. Now, again, there is schism, political upheavals, and the return of the Unia on our Western Ukrainian lands. But the Lavra stands and prays; it is continuing its life according to the rule and order from early morning to late evening. We can ask these people a direct question: Is the Pochaev Lavra an authority for you? Or the Kiev Caves Lavra, the Sviatogorsk Lavra, and 200 other monasteries of the Ukrainian Orthodox church? If the answer is yes, then follow our example and hold fast. That is all. And the Mother of God, as we sing in the canon to her wonder-working icon, will preserve the Lavra and our Church to the end of the ages.
If a person seeks spiritual advice on a spiritual matter, with God’s help he will find it. And if he asks questions while being politically biased, it is doubtful... We know how difficult it can be—after all, the government is agitating for the new church in businesses, schools, and universities. But people need to go for explanations not to the media but to the Lord. The Lord will never leave anyone without consolation. It is no accident that He told mankind for all ages: Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28). So we mustn’t waver, we must go to the True Christ of Christ, and it will not leave anyone without an answer or consolation.
—We can see today how a foreign patriarch is meddling in our Church life, and his symbiosis with politicians. How should we relate to this?
—We have to know that the enemy of our salvation is not interested in any political systems, Maidans or revolutions. For him it is more important to strike against the Church of Christ. So that people would be without pastors—then he will know what to do with them. The wolf knows what to do with such sheep. Therefore after all the political upheavals it was clear that the final and decisive blow would be struck against the Church. And for this purpose were our brothers from other countries pulled in. And if these brothers, in meddling in our Church life, consider that we are worthy of a martyr’s crown, then may the Lord save them!
—Batiushka, I would like to hear an optimistic word at the end of our talk. How and where can we draw the joy about which the apostle spoke: rejoice always, give thanks for everything?
—You have answered that question yourself with the words of the apostle. I think that you will not find any words more optimistic and proper. And let them also be the finale to our discussion, and good advice to everyone who hears us: Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil. And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:16–23).