Elena Zyryanova, the wife of Priest Igor Zyryanov of whom we wrote earlier, is a real Russian woman who combines kindness, mercy and strength. Elena Zyryanova has been with her husband in all his trials and challenges, sharing in all his joys and sorrows, supporting and helping him over many years. Eight years ago Elena converted from Protestantism to Orthodoxy together with her husband. Her choice was influenced not only by her husband’s example but also by the answers she had received on her spiritual quest.
—Elena, almost every Russian believer had a granny who prayed when he was a child. Did you have such a granny?
—I had some fragmentary memories of faith in God from my childhood. Actually, I did have an Orthodox grandmother who used to pray in front of an old icon of the Theotokos. I recall how she begged the Queen of Heaven for something and I remember coming up to this icon and examining it closely, touching it carefully with my finger. I think my other grandmother was a Catholic. I remember that she took me to some place where I could hear an organ play. I also remember my father’s acquaintances of whom my parents said that they had served in labor camps for their faith. These friends of our family never drank alcohol. Some books in their house were covered with bedsheets. I was always very curious to find out what kind of books they kept there.
My parents passed away when I was very young. When I grew up I began working for the railroad. My life was more or less prosperous—I was well provided for, I had my own apartment, good relatives and a good circle of friends around me. But in my heart of hearts I always felt that I needed something more than usual daily life. I longed for spirituality, purity, and joys that are different from the worldly joys.
—Why did your spiritual journey begin with Protestantism and not Orthodoxy?
—I came to believe in Jesus Christ at the early age of twenty-three, when I joined a Pentecostal community. There were almost no Orthodox churches near my home. A Pentecostal parish and an Orthodox chapel were opened at the same time; a lopsided hut was equipped for Orthodox services. When I came to the Orthodox chapel, I didn’t find a priest there, but I was met by unfriendly old women. And the building itself seemed inhospitable, bleak, and cheerless. At that time I had little knowledge of various denominations, and when an acquaintance of mine invited me to go to “other believers”, I readily agreed. And so we went to the Pentecostals. As luck would have it, an absolutely different atmosphere reigned there: It was bright, people were joyful, happy and amiable, albeit a little strange. After thinking for some time I decided to attend their services to get a better idea of their community’s life. During one sermon I learned that God had a Son—Jesus Christ. God sacrificed His Son for the sins of mankind. I came to realize that God loves us very much and this news made me feel so happy. I experienced true happiness and literally cried with joy, though I didn’t know why. The more I learned about the personality of Jesus Christ and His life the more I realized that He as God incarnate had revealed holiness and purity to us—exactly what I had been looking for. I began to read the Holy Scriptures and understood that we must keep the commandments of God; so I tried to mend my ways and not to sin anymore. Thus the Bible was the first to help me understand God, though it was still not a full understanding of Him. And I am indebted to Protestantism for that. The Lord Whom I discovered in the New Testament straightened my life out. As I read the Gospel I understood what I was supposed and was not supposed to do and how I should behave in one or another situation.
—And it was in the community that you met your future husband?
—Exactly. Igor Zyryanov and I first met when we were Protestants. Then Fr. Igor was a novice preacher and missionary and was a skilled speaker. Talented, sociable and kind, he always had a desire for knowledge and would read a lot of spiritual literature. We got married and served together.
—And your happy life began?
—Yes, our “nomadic” missionary life began. I gave my apartment to my relatives, and Fr. Igor and I decided that we should preach the Gospel to the west Buryats [the largest indigenous group in Siberia, mainly concentrated in the Buryat Republic.—Trans.). We travelled to the village of Bayanday [in the Irkutsk region.—Trans.) and gathered a small community. Then for missionary purposes we would often move from place to place, living in different Siberian towns. We “wandered” together with our children (we have four of them) and each time we started our life again from scratch. Even when my husband held high posts in the Protestant Church, we had no stable financial support. All that we received from donors was spent on our ministry: the translation of the Gospel into the northern people’s languages, recording of compact disks, and journeys to remote regions. We started a small business (photography) to make a living. Now I realize that it was thanks to God’s great mercy that we didn’t accumulate earthly wealth.
—When did you begin to doubt that Protestantism is the true Christianity?
—My doubts increased little by little. I had some Orthodox friends, who communicated with me without trying to convert me or make me change my mind. One day they gave me a book on St. John of Kronstadt to read. I was amazed by his holy ascetic life and the wonderful miracles that were performed through his prayers. I had been thinking about this a lot until I realized that there were no ascetics like St. John among Protestants and even among the fathers of Protestantism. That fact upset me.
In some sense, I also strove for the ascetic life. I was unaware that being a person of moral integrity, even reading the Bible, praying and attending services would be not enough to attain this goal. I saw that while you could stop committing visible sins, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, etc. and become a good spouse, you would nevertheless continue to commit inner sins, such as envy, judging others, and gossip. You keep struggling with some repeated passions and seem close to perfection, but then slide down again. And this vicious circle exhausted me.
Besides, I didn’t like the gross invasion of the parishioners’ privacy by church leaders—this practice is widespread in Protestant communities. I saw that the heads of our meetings were ordinary people with their passions and shortcomings, while I wanted to heed the voices of people with true moral authority.
Divisions dispirited me very much as well. The communities were numerous, and so were their differences. We made friends from among representatives of various denominations, but each of them demanded that we fully share their religious convictions and share their opinions on absolutely all subjects. Otherwise, friendly relations were impossible. Once you dared to disagree with them on one or another point, you were already not a one-hundred-percent friend to them.
—Yes, people acted contrary to what is written in the Scriptures. I couldn’t figure out why ordinary secular people—for example, my former classmates—loved and accepted me for who I was. The Protestants declared: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”1. But their words were at variance with their deeds.
Because of those disappointments I feared that I would find something negative in Orthodoxy as well. Then we considered converting to Orthodoxy. Soon after getting in touch with Orthodox clergy my husband and our four children embraced Orthodoxy. As for me, I thought, prayed, and pondered for some time. One of the deciding factors was the fact that Fr. Vyacheslav Pushkarev who visited our Protestant community and delivered a sermon turned out to be wholly dedicated to God and his family. They had many children and they weren’t obsessed with the pursuit of riches. Fr. Vyacheslav and his nearest and dearest have always lived modestly, simply, and humbly. For me, he and his wife became models of ascetic life. The upshot of it is that I, like my husband, arrived at the conclusion that Orthodoxy is the only true faith. And I became Orthodox.
—How did you come to understand the meaning of the veneration of the Theotokos and saints? Did you have any problems with that?
—I did a simple thing. I turned to the Mother of God in prayer and with the open heart I implored Her to help me understand and accept Her. And while reading books on the Theotokos I discovered that she always glorifies her Divine Son and points us to Him, by no means belittling His glory. I learned Who she was, how she lived and was brought up. It became clear to me that she is a unique personality anywhere on earth and at any time in history, that she is the only woman who can truly be called Holy and the Most Pure.
—And how did you find your icon of the Theotokos?
—Once I read somewhere that many saints had their own icons of the Theotokos. It was mysteriously revealed to each of them. I begged our Most Holy Mother Mary to be extremely merciful to me and show me which of Her icons was for me. And I saw Her icon, “The Unfading Flower”, in a dream. I suspected that it was just my fantasy. But later, during a pilgrimage trip to another town I happened to see this icon-calendar lying on the ground. I picked this icon up carefully and kissed it. I still keep it. Of course, after that miracle I bought a normal icon “The Unfading Flower”, pointed out by the Queen of Heaven Herself.
—Elena, you have been an Orthodox priest’s wife for four years. What is easier: to be an Orthodox priest’s wife or a Protestant pastor’s wife?
—In Protestantism I felt far less comfortable than here. I was alone there, but in Orthodoxy the Lord, the Virgin Mary and saints help me bear my cross. In Protestantism everything is based on man, and in Orthodoxy upon the support of the Holy Bodiless Powers, so there is less fuss and hassle here. All problems are solved more easily and peacefully and you don’t need to exert strenuous efforts. The Lord cares for His Church Himself. True, Orthodox people expect the priest’s wife to communicate with them and devote her attention to them. But they certainly don’t expect you to have super spiritual gifts, realizing that you are a human being. An obvious “disadvantage” is the fact that I see my husband at home far less often because he has so many duties. But this is his ministry.
1 This phrase is often attributed to Blessed Augustine of Hippo. However, its true author is unknown.