In olden times it probably happened like this: A person learns about spiritual life and that there are monasteries where monks give themselves entirely to the service of God. Without long deliberation he takes up his rucksack and leaves for the monastery where Divine Providence directs his steps. It is wonderful to see the same simple-hearted story happening even in our time.
How obedience is bound up with love, how a monastery can be built from zero, why elders are not wizards, and why a monk never justifies himself are a few of the topics we discussed with Abbot Mikhail (Semenov) of the Hermitage of the Savior “Made Without Hands” in the village of Klykovo.
Verily I say unto you: he who does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter into it.
A place where God is closer
--Everything done rightly is done out of love. How would the women of today react if their husbands were sent off to Siberia, like the Decembrist revolutionaries of Tsarist times? Would they follow them as those women did, not knowing when they might return? Not likely—a modern woman would probably get a divorce and marry a successful man who is not going to jail, who has nothing to do with criminality or treason. But the wives of the Decembrists, worldly women who were not poor, went into Siberian exile, to bad conditions, not counting on anything better, simply because they loved their husbands. It is the same with Christianity, with monasticism: everything is done out of love for God. It has no other meaning. It is not the indulgence of self-love or personal ambition. The problem is that modern man evaluates everything from the point of view of what pleases his own self. He thinks about the monastery: “Wait a minute, why do I need it? What do I get out of it? How do I profit from it?” But what does profit have to do with anything? If a person reaches some degree of love, he wants to be with the one he loves. That is how love for God is for a Christian. A person is capable of achieving everything in the world—he can earn money, he can have a good family. But he yearns for God; he yearns to have nothing in the way of his love, so that nothing would stand between him and God. But what better place is there for this than a monastery? A monastery is just such a place; people here live only for this.
--When did you understand that this was the case for you? Did you grow up in a religious family?
--Yes, there were no atheists in our family. But there was zero religious information in the country, and naturally people could not find a deep knowledge of Orthodoxy—there simply was no literature. We did have the Gospels at home. I remember how mother bought the book in church for 100 Brezhnev rubles1 and kept it as a treasure in the most honored place. It was wrapped in a towel, and she would only read it standing, holding it in that towel. Just having the Gospels was already an achievement! And under such conditions, what truths could we understand? Only the very simplest. I had a simple understanding of faith. I never was an atheist, and I never doubted, but was a believer to the measure of my own uncomplicated understanding.
--But might you have remained just that—“believing within measure”?
No, I did not want that. I was interested in another kind of life from an early age—the life that hid behind the façade of this everyday, comfortable life. Since childhood I knew solidly from my grandmother’s stories that the future life awaits us, that it is just as full as this one, only it is eternal. I never ceased to believe in this when I became an adult. And you must agree that if a person is not a fool and understands that this earthly life will end, that another life awaits him, then he wants to know how to get there, right? As the Psalmist says, Make known to me, O Lord, my end, and the number of my days—what it is—that I may know what I lack (Ps. 38:5). This always troubled me. Then, in my youth, understanding that man’s everyday life is in one way or another always bound up with sin, I decided: Alright, I am now living however it works out. If some other opportunity to live without sinning does not come along, I will end my days working as a guard in a church, serving God alone to save my soul. Those were my naïve thoughts! I didn’t even know that there were monasteries, that one can live a fully spiritual life. When I learned of their existence I did not ponder long over what path to choose.
--During your youth, you could count the number of open monasteries on your fingers. How did you learn about them?
--From books. This was in 1991, when Orthodox literature became available and I started reading it. I read very much, and learned about the writings of the holy fathers, hitherto unknown to me. This all touched me very deeply. I was angry that these riches had been hidden from us. To believe or not to believe is every person’s own choice. But they had taken that choice away from us.
--You believed and immediately left for the monastery?
--Well, yes. I learned more about the Church, because I was always a believer.
--And how did your parents view your joining a monastery? Didn’t they want you to get married?
--So does that mean you disobeyed them?
--No, why should it mean that? Before doing so I told them of my decision. This was a period of making sense of things. They tried to test the reliability of my desires, and then they agreed with it, and gave me their blessing. Therefore, I did not go to the monastery in a self-willed way.
--And what if they had not blessed you?
--If they had not blessed me, perhaps I would not have gone against their will. I had a very good relationship with my parents, and I counted on them understanding me. And they did. Later both my mother and father received the monastic tonsure; my mother is in Shamordino, and my father ended his days here, in Klykovo Monastery.
A one-way ticket
--Was Optina your first monastery?
--This is an interesting story. I did not know anything about Optina; I was named Sergei in the world, and my patron saint was St. Sergius of Radonezh. I read his life and it amazed me, so I went to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra with the intention of remaining there. But in my naiveté, I did not bring my passport, thinking, “Why would a monk need a passport?” Those were the days when you could travel throughout the country without identification documents, you didn’t need them to buy a train ticket, and no one ever asked you for them. So, I left without my passport. When I arrived at the Lavra they asked me, “Where is your passport? We do not take anyone without a passport!” I told them that I would not go back. I had resolved to go only one way, no matter what. I was talking with one priest, who told me, “Go to Optina Monastery.” In Optina they were more condescending, and I stayed there. I arrived there in 1992, on the feast day of St. Ambrose of Optina, October 23, and a year later, on August 15, 1993, I was already in Klykovo.
--Why did you leave Optina so soon?
--We came to this place with a blessing to build Klykovo Monastery. Historically there never was a monastery on this site, only a village church. When I came there was nothing here, only a ruined church and one house—formerly the priest’s house. But it is no longer there—in burned down.
--It must have been difficult? How many of you were there?
--Of course it was not easy to begin from nothing, but we were young and did not think about that. Seven of us laborers came from Optina, not yet in cassocks. We had an enormous desire to live and pray apart from the world. For two years we were merely surviving. We had no money, nothing, and lived in dire want, only by God’s mercy. Sometimes we did not know what we would eat the next day. Besides, we had to restore the church having no money whatsoever for it—not a cent. So we went to ask the prayers of Schemanun Sepphora.2
--How does one take a blessing from a woman?
--Schemanun Sepphora was waiting for us. It just so happens that in 1993, when Matushka prayed to the Mother of God to show her where she would end her days, the Heavenly Queen appeared to her and said, “Wait—the priests will come from Klykovo Monastery to take you there.” She waited for two years. At first there simply was nowhere to take her. We ourselves were living in very bad conditions here; we were building a building, and when we met her in 1995 it was half completed. Matushka starting hurrying us. “Build it faster, I am going to live with you.” We did what we could to finish the building and just before Christmas of 1996 we brought her here.
--How did you meet Schemanun Sepphora?
We do not do anything to “advertise” Schemanun Sepphora. It all happens by itself. People know her, and she really does help people. Some people told me, for example, that she stood during an operation next to one woman…
--But isn’t there a certain spiritual danger in people always coming to the monastery, to her relics, to pray by the grave of the eldress not because they are seeking God, but only to solve their problems of everyday life?
--Yes, often people have a poor understanding of God, but when they come up against an obvious miracle from a specific saint it strengthens their faith. After that, God looks for action from a person. But in order to light the flame in him a miracle is often needed. He is smart enough to turn to one or another saint and prays, and the miracle happens. It is a little push, and the person begins his first spiritual steps. He may not receive the same “advance pay” the second or third time—you can’t deceive God.
--Did you have such a launching point?
--I did not seek out miracles, and it was not my goal to pray one out. I simply lived my life with the thought that I wanted the Lord to form what was necessary in me. My sole desire was to learn from people of holy life. The Lord aided me in this—I knew many elders.
Why elders are not wizards
Worldly people, alas, view elders as wizards. They always want a quick answer to their problems, and when they come to an elder they often do not even know what they really want. They just come and come, riding the wave of the general hubbub. “Did you go to the elder? Did he tell you anything?” Do you understand? The Lord gives the elders a gift—as a rule, it is the gift of clairvoyance, of revelation. It is important to understand that in this revelation the elder is not speaking from himself. He is saying what the Lord reveals to him for a specific person.
When I began to spend time with Schemanun Sepphora she revealed her gift to me directly so that I would not doubt or think that she is just an old lady in an apostolnik.4 She said “I am not a talking doll. If you want to hear something from me you need to pray the night before to the Lord, to the Mother of God, and ask that God reveal it. Then, when you come, I will tell you what you need to hear.” After those words I never asked her questions. That is, I prayed the night before seeing her, asking for a revelation, and when I arrived I would sit down before her and she would tell me what I wanted to hear without even asking me anything. This is the gift of revelation and edification that God gives through the elders.
But if the Lord knows that a person does not need this revelation, He does not reveal it to the elder. Then the elder will talk to you as to an ordinary person, discussing things and giving advice. People come to Fr. Ilie and say, “Batiushka! What kind of metal should I use to roof my house—this kind, or another?” What is this? Does God need to reveal what kind of metal to use on the roof? So Batiushka says, “Take this one, or that one.” He is simply giving advice. “How much money do you have? Do you have enough for copper?” “No, I don’t have enough.” “Well, then use zinc covered metal!” This would be obvious to anyone. Any experienced contractor would be qualified to advise you better.
There are situations when a person seriously needs some sort of revelation on his life’s path. He simply cannot make an independent decision and doesn’t know how to act—there is much that is not obvious. That is when he needs an elder. Of course he may not necessarily like what the elder says and therefore not follow his advice. Nowadays people often try to convince the elder to blessed them to do what they “should”. They might come several times, get a blessing, and try to persuade the elder. If they succeed and the elder gives his consent, those people consider it the will of God. It is nothing of the sort. God’s will is when you hear what you did not suspect you would hear. And if you simply persuade the elder—“Batiushka, no, you don’t understand… I have this situation… I really need to…” and the elder says, “Well, then God bless!” does this really mean that God blesses? Of course not!
--Father Mikhail, can a person really be capable of perceiving his calling to monastic or to family life? Does a Christian hear this call himself, or does someone give him the hint?
--Yulia, what is your profession?
--I am a journalist and editor.
--And did you start creating articles immediately? Or did someone tell you how to do it?
--Of course I was told how to do it.
--So, don’t we need advisors in spiritual life as well? When a person grows spiritually and obtains some experience, he needs a spiritual instructor—we usually call him a spiritual father.
But it must be understood that the spiritual father cannot just be the first priest you come across wearing an epitrachelion and cuffs. A spiritual instructor is a person who has attained spiritual maturity. There are three spiritual ages: infancy, youth, and old age. If a person is in the infancy stage, even though he be a priest, he does not have the right to be a spiritual instructor. He may be able to hear confessions, but he has no right to give spiritual advice. He is of the same spiritual age as you.
By the same token, if you find an instructor who is spiritually inexperienced, you will lead each other astray. You will cultivate vainglory in him, and he will hang his own thought-up truths on you. If the spiritual instructor has gone down the spiritual path, he may not yet be an elder, he doesn’t yet have spiritual gifts, but he does have his own valuable spiritual experience and can share his experience with you.
--Did you have such an instructor?
--I spent time with Father Ilie and Matushka Sepphora. I tried to do everything impeccably, to live according to obedience.
--Obedience is something laypeople find terrifying. Is it a complete rejection of your own thoughts?
--What about fulfilling your obligations to your parents? Isn’t that obedience?
--Well, it is one thing to be a child, but what if you are already an adult? Shouldn’t you be using your own head?
--And what about respect for your parents? You are forty and your mother is sixty, and she says, “Do this!” What are you going to do? Obedience teaches us to act according to love for someone. Not because you want to do it, but out of love. You may not want to do something your husband thought up but you love him so much that you can’t not do it. In monastery life we strive to build just such relationships—this is the foundation, and everything hangs upon this. For some reason people have forgotten about love. After all, you will obey your mother at age forty, and even at age 60. There is no other logical reason for this.
Living life within the speed limit
--The Greek word, “monk”, or “monos” translates as “alone”. Should a person who embarks on this path get used to the idea that all other people disappear from him?
--No. We are not talking here about disappearance, but about the awareness of oneness with God. In one of the Psalms is written, Trust ye not in princes, in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation. Here we are talking about a monk’s building his personal relationship with God and striving to become closer to Him, regardless of the fact that he lives in a communal setting, in a monastery, where there are external rules and obedience. He builds his inner life with God alone, and that is where the aloneness comes in. A monk is alone with God.
--Isn’t it possible to build your inner life with God while living in the world?
--You can. But why have monasteries always been created? So that people can be away from temptations. One gets the impression that in the world, people have broken their self-limitation mechanism. Automobiles use to have a mechanism that limited their speed, so that a car would not break down before its time. In the world, such a moral mechanism does not exist—it is as if we can allow ourselves anything, and no one is binding us with chains… But after all, there should be a limitation mechanism on the conscience, and on what it allows. This mechanism works in the monastery.
--But doesn’t it also work on any religious, church-going person?
--It should work, but we have our sense organs—hearing, vision, etc.—through which we are tempted, willingly or unwillingly. We accept those temptations and begin to cultivate them in ourselves.
A person who lives in the world comes into contact one way or another with influences or information. This does not go by without leaving a trace; it nevertheless settles within us and accumulates. And then a person cannot live in total inner purity.
--Does the monastery guard one from this?
--The monastery creates conditions where some things are just unacceptable. Monks and nuns may use computers, they may read the news or watch films, but it is all within certain bounds.
A monk does not justify himself
--Let us say that a person wants to be a laborer, or a novice. Can you immediately tell whether he has what it takes to be able to remain in the monastery?
--Yes, you can tell by a person’s eyes! They are the mirror of the soul, and everything is written in them. Before I wasn’t able to discern this, but now I can tell at first glance if a man is psychologically unbalanced.
--So, you do not accept everyone?
--Now I have certain strict criteria, because, for example, former convicts rarely have good results… It is also very complicated with drug addicts; they very often just do not really want to do anything.
--Why do they come?
--Sometimes they simply have nowhere to live, nothing to eat, or they think that a miracle will happen to them in the monastery. Some do have miracles happen to them, but most often these people return to their former element after a period of time. There are very few people who can fully restore themselves after drug addiction. A monastery does not protect a person from sickness. Plus, there is a spiritual battle that begins here—the enemy also does his work…
--They say that in a monastery the spiritual battle is harder than it is in the world. Why is that? Didn’t the monk flee all the temptations of the world?
--If we did not have the sense organs, the devil would have fewer opportunities to tempt man. Our sense organs are our weak spots, through which he is able to act.
The brothers confess fairly often (not every day, but about every other day, or once a week), so that they can cleanse themselves, free themselves of sins that may have happened the day before. In this way, a person strives to preserve himself in outward purity.
But the passions remain, and the devil knows very well what every person’s weaknesses are. In order to throw someone off the path, the devil magnifies these inner passions. A person has to behave himself with the utmost restraint in order not to fall for these temptations. You can’t just turn off your thoughts—they are not a radio. In the monastery the real struggle comes on the level of thoughts. Neither can you turn off your imagination, and the memory of old sins remains. A person in a monastery begins to see himself more subtly and assess himself more realistically.
In the world it is like this: “I do have sins—well, what can I do. There are weaknesses, and there are weaknesses. But anyway I am a good person. I give money to the poor, I go to church.” It’s a mini-pharisaical life. But a monk tries not to justify himself but rather to be concentrated, to gather his thoughts, so that he might preserve himself from temptations. This is not so easy.
Dare to do more
--Do you think that the Lord “dreams” of somehow limiting people? Not at all. God out of love would like to give each of us what we dream of but do not dare. God’s Providence covers each of us. But you have to search, to understand what God is expecting from you personally.
You may not do it, and act as you like—you are free, and the Lord makes no claims on your free will. They are right who say that God will not save us if we do not want to be saved.
But in that case you risk never understanding and never being aware that you are living only according to the measure of your own desires. But you have an opportunity here on earth that no one can take away from you—you can dare to wish for more.
--Are people always led to the monastery purely out of the desire to please God?
--It is out of the extreme desire to please God. A person can achieve everything in the world: he can earn money, and support a family. But a monk yearns for God. Otherwise he would not come to the monastery.
From: Yulia Posashko, Monks: On Choice and Freedom (Moscow: Nikea, 2014), 39-60 [Russian].