Attached to Sretensky Monastery in Moscow is a theological seminary, where over 150 young men are currently being prepared for a life of service to the Church. Besides a theological education, the seminary gives them a taste of "brethren dwelling together in unity," a share in the work and the prayer life of the monastery, and opportunities to begin their service even before graduation. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds. As summer nears, so does graduation for the senior class, one of whom has offered his reflections on what led him to enter the seminary, and what it has meant to him.
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How I became Orthodox
|Seminarian Vitaly Brovko. Photo by Anton Pospelov/Pravoslavie.ru|
What happened after this, and what mostly determined my conversion to Orthodoxy, is too subjective in nature, and is unlikely to influence other Catholics, were I to tell the story. I will only say that after experiencing and analyzing the history of my conversion to Orthodoxy, a deep, unshakeable conviction took root in me that for a preacher of Christ's truth it is quite desirable—besides strong faith—to possess other fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness … meekness, temperance (Gal. 5:22–23).
My current spiritual father, Priest Alexander, Nikolsky, had a strong influence on me. He was conducting periodic theological discussions with the aviation students at that time. These discussions were conducted very simply: all those who wished to participate would gather in one of the dormitory rooms and ask him questions. The activists would organize the prior announcements, and tea. So, when my roommates heard that I was a believer, they sent me there directly, "to others of like mind." But as I recall, I did not resolve to go there immediately—I first investigated what sort of organization it was. The thing is, that not long before, I had asked (true, other people) to tell me the address of the nearest Catholic church, and they gave me the address of an Evangelistic community in Moscow. I did not take any precautions, and upon entering, received many smiles directed at me, plus a book of notes for common singing, which obligated me to remain for several minutes. I did not use the notes, but consoled myself with the thought that nothing happens by accident, and that this was like a lesson in comparative theology. Therefore, remembering that not all people are equally competent, I decided first to find out where I was being invited.
During my first year of study at the Moscow Aviation Institute, at a certain moment I decided to become Orthodox. This happened at the end of Catholic Great Lent. But Orthodoxy met me at the second week… There is much to remember, at any rate.
My parents were not disturbed by my decision to convert to Orthodoxy. My grandmother was a little upset—she was a staunch Catholic. She had always dreamed of me becoming a priest. Now she has departed to eternity, and knows that I was right.
Secular education vs. theological education
During the third year of the MAI, I wanted to abandon that secular learning institution in order to dedicate myself entirely to service of the Church. No, I was not thinking of becoming a priest—it all occurred out my awareness of the vanity of worldly knowledge and occupations. It seemed to me that the study of technical subjects had no meaning, for the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up (2 Pet. 3:10). Therefore, Fr. Alexander (my spiritual father) had to persuade me for a long time that I should finish my secular education. Only now, with the distance of time, can I appreciate the benefit of that education—in fact, beneficial precisely for a future clergyman. Such an education provides experience in relating to people, knowledge and the ability to gain it, which can later be salted with the teachings of Christ; it was also an experience in obedience.
Furthermore (and I consider this to be a very important circumstance), the study of natural and technical sciences gives one a deeper awareness and appreciation of God's wisdom manifest in His creation of the world, and His love for us.
It goes without saying that I entered theological school with the blessing of my spiritual father. Although I wanted this very much myself, I did not express my desire in any way. Study at the seminary was not a goal for me in and of itself. I understood it as an important milestone along the path of my personal salvation.
Therefore, when young men who have a desire to be exemplary Christians and receive an education ask my advice about their choice of schools (theological or secular), I tell them about my own path; and, well, the choice is theirs.
When I graduated from MAI, and decided to study at a theological school, people around me were of differing opinions, just as it had been in the first stages of my church life. As the Lord said, Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword (Mt. 10:34–36). Naturally, the multitude was divided (Acts 23:7): some approved, others laughed, yet others got offended. The only thing I regret now is that I myself did not seek to make peace with people. Although, who knows? Perhaps my inactivity was necessary in order to be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world (Col. 2:20). It is hard to say anything definitive in that regard now. But on my current stage in life, I am always glad when I meet up with one of my former acquaintances, and, of course,I do not avoid contact with them.
Obviously, I made new friends in the seminary. I see them all as the best people on the planet—they are all talented, noble, good, understanding, sympathetic, and always eager to help. Their remarkable qualities are innumerable. Now as I am nearing the end of my studies, I become more and more aware of how sorely I will miss them after graduation. But it is necessary to be separated now, in order to be together again in the future life.
Approval by the Board
The history of my entrance into the seminary still warms me and gives me strength; it gives me hope and fortifies me during difficult moments. The fact is that at the time, due to my circumstances, I could not have relied upon my own knowledge—it was simply inadequate. I recognized this, and my soul was distressed. Then, when it was my turn to appear before the diocesan council, the honorable fathers who headed the council with Archbishop Arseny (Epiphanov) began to ask me one question after another. In a miraculous manner, they unmistakably found all the gaps in my sparse knowledge. They asked me about things I not only didn't know, but had never even heard about. Thus, I answered all the questions honestly, quickly, and… wrong. The situation became uncomfortable, and a heavy silence hung over us. One of the fathers broke the silence with the words, "Well, do you at least know any prayers?" "I do!" I answered, rejoicing in my soul over this new hope. After all, I considered my ability to recite prayers by heart to be my strong point. I was able to read the morning and evening prayers entirely from memory. So, they invited me to recite one of them. I would have begun, but I was suddenly aware that I could not go on… I was surprised at myself, but I could not remember anything! They offer a second, then a third… I silently hung my head, saying, "I am trying to remember." One of the venerable archpriests of Moscow could bear it no longer. "How could you? Why did you come here? You don't know anything! It's an outrage!" After him, others began to question me. Where did I come from? What parish? How long had I been in the Church? After a long, probing investigation, which yielded no positive results, they finally asked me to read something from the Church Slavonic Psalter. Opening it, I was basically prepared to discover that I could not remember any of the letters. But happily, I recognized them and began to read. It was the beginning of the thirtieth Psalm: In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped. Let me not be put to shame in the age to come (Ps. 30:1). I started reading, but I could not finish because of the feelings overwhelming me, for I was vividly experiencing the meaning of those words in that moment. My voice trembled, and tears rolled down my cheeks. That same archpriest evaluated the situation soberly and said without emotion, "And he is even going cry here! He should have studied!" I felt terribly awkward, and just waited for the first one to fling me a word of rejection. Then, yet another question: "Which seminary did you apply to?" This query came from Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), the only person there I knew by name. "To you, Fr. Tikhon, to Sretensky Seminary." "If you've applied to us, then we'll take you," he said. That is how I ended up in the seminary, and I am very thankful to Fr. Tikhon for his show of support and trust to us, his children.
Soon began my studies at the Sretensky Theological School—in fact, I began at the second level.
In the third year, I was already writing my thesis on the theme, "The Ascetical Teachings of St. John Cassian the Roman." Of course, we cannot help but admit that our works bear the stamp of imperfection. Just the same, the experience of writing our student theses, the study of sources, their analysis, and our familiarization with factual material is all very valuable for our own personal development, as well as for our future activity.
At first I thought I should choose a topic that I knew nothing about. Thus, I supposed, I can approach the issue from all aspects, and later describe my thoughts on it. However, practice showed that during my course of study, time did not allow for any deep examination, and therefore the result was not so successful. From then on, I decided not to take on a theme that I knew nothing about, but rather try to broaden the knowledge and groundwork that I already had. In the fourth level, I wrote a paper on the Old Testament, "Sacrificial Offering: a Biblical-Patristic View." I chose my graduate thesis again from the same discipline as patrology, "The Ascetical Teaching of Apostolic Men and Apologists of the First–Second Centuries."
Now a few words about my obediences. For three years, I was the seminary carpenter. At the time, I didn't know that the fruit of any obedience should be, first and foremost, humility, and not the product itself—a neatly hammered nail, or a masterfully installed lock. This understanding did not come to me right away—at first, I was quite distressed that I couldn't fully cope with my work and studies, and felt burdened by my duties.
Also during my studies in the seminary, I taught the Law of God to the Sunday school attached to Sretensky Monastery. I was given a group of children in the earliest grades—from six to nine years old. In my classes, I did not concentrate on the children's assimilation of knowledge so much as much as on cultivating an interest in them for acquiring it. This can only be accomplished when a child feels every minute a real connection with the teachings of the Church in his or her personal life. My experience of teaching Sunday school shows that this practice is very useful for students of a theological seminary.
I consider as a very important event in seminary life the blessing to wear a cassock. When I first put it on, I noted to my surprise that I feel very comfortable in it—not only because it was well tailored, but also because it harmonizes with my soul.
Neither can I forget the singing of our seminary choir. I love it very much, although I myself do not sing in it. I feel extraordinarily disposed to prayer just from the awareness that there, on the cliros, my seminary brothers are singing—souls dedicated to God, singing to Him, glorifying Him with their whole hearts. The choir members sing sincerely, and people feel this. I have often heard from the parishioners that they prefer the seminary choir [to the professional one], and their non-professionalism does not bother them in the least.
You don't always immediately recognize how important it is for a Christian to come into contact with ancient holy places and shrines, to see with one's own eyes and feel the places where Christ lived, where His close disciples lived, and to have contact with the culture of the East…. Only after months and even years does one become aware of the significance of the experience of pilgrimages made to the Holy Land, which our superiors organized for us seminarians. Along with this awareness comes an understanding and enormous gratefulness for the fatherly care of our dear instructors. We are therefore very thankful to our rector, Archimandrite Tikhon, and our pro-rector, Fr. John, for giving us an unforgettable pilgrimage.