A Lesson from Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

The favorite Samizdat1

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh I first read Metropolitan Anthony’s sermons and talks in Samizdat back in the 1970s, when I began to serve as a deacon at Pukhtitsa Convent. It was thanks to Nun Irinea (Maidanovich), with whom I established a good rapport at that time. When in 1978 I joined the Moscow Theological Seminary (the department of correspondence studies), Mother Irinea introduced me to her sister, Elena Lvovna, who worked at the Moscow Theological Academy library. Elena Lvovna was very favorably disposed to me and soon acquainted me with her family circle. Thus I met a wonderful person, Lev (Leo) Alexandrovich, the sisters’ father, and later with two other sisters—Natalia Lvovna and Tatiana Lvovna. Soon I received three Samizdat books in succession as gifts from Elena Lvovna—these were talks and sermons by Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom). At the same time I learned how much effort had been put into preparing these books, typed on a library typewriter after hours, printed on paper of mediocre quality, with typos corrected by hand here and there. As it turned out, Tatiana Lvovna, the youngest sister, lived in London and, as far as I knew, had a rather close spiritual bond with Metropolitan Anthony. So she took it on herself to make tape recordings of his talks and sermons and did it on a regular basis. Tatiana Lvovna would often furnish her sister Elena Lvovna with these recordings, and the latter, in her turn, would listen and type them, after which it took her Herculean efforts to bind the typewritten volumes; and then she generously shared the copies with her friends with no regard for the energies she had expended. I would enjoy reading and rereading the talks and sermons of Metropolitan Anthony and was strongly impressed by this preacher (who had already become very famous by that time), and his sermons naturally influenced the style of my early sermons at the beginning of my priestly ministry.

Rare meetings

But my acquaintance with Metropolitan Anthony was not limited to reading his talks and sermons. On several occasions during the whole period of my studies I had the good fortune to attend talks that Metropolitan Anthony gave at the Moscow Theological Academy every time he visited the USSR. The assembly hall would always be packed to capacity, with full-time and correspondence students of both the Seminary and the Academy gathering there.

The happy owners of cassette tape recorders (I wasn’t one of them) would loudly eject their cassettes and flip them over time and again. When clicks of several tape recorders were heard simultaneously in the assembly hall, the metropolitan would pause, and with a smile expressing his sympathy for the owners of cassette recorders, he waited till he could continue his talk. As far as I could judge, the students were happy to listen to the metropolitan “in the flesh”, and there was most probably no end of those who wished to communicate with the preacher face to face, although few ever hoped that their dream would come true.

A student’s risky venture

Archpriest Oleg Vrona Archpriest Oleg Vrona I dare not say that I was “a lucky exception to the rule”, but during one of Metropolitan Anthony’s visits to Moscow I was taking my winter examinations and I learned that he was going to serve in Minsk next Sunday. The nearest Sunday was free according to my schedule, although on Monday I was to “appear before the examiners”. But that didn’t stop me, and my plan for a trip ripened.

Now I realize that it was truly a risky venture. On Saturday evening I reached the Belorussky Railway Station in Moscow and was surprised to learn that I was able to buy a ticket to Minsk right away, without queuing at all, which was a rarity at that time. However, I needed a return ticket and not just a one-way ticket. But the situation with tickets to Moscow was bad as bad could be. I had an impression that the capital was trying to get rid of the “annoying guests”, while allowing entry to guests with great reluctance. I cannot explain this, but I had a gut feeling that things would go all right somehow and it would be easier for me to buy a ticket to Moscow while in Minsk. I got on a sleeper with reserved berths and departed for Minsk. The train got in early the next morning, so I had a real chance to attend a service at the cathedral, which was the point of destination. After some Minsk residents that I’d found had told me the way to the cathedral, I took a trolley-bus and, though half frozen, soon arrived at my destination. Having entered the cathedral and venerated its main relics, I went up to the cathedral shop and got the information I needed about the dean. He turned out to be a sturdily-built, middle-aged archpriest. Having shown him the certificate proving that I was a cleric of the Diocese of Tallin and explained that I wanted to concelebrate at the Sunday service at the cathedral, I stopped talking, waiting for the dean’s response to my request. Having read the diocesan document, he immediately picked up the receiver of a desk telephone and dialed. Hearing the answer on the other end, the dean said, “Your Eminence, bless!”, and informed him that a priest from Tallin asked for his blessing to concelebrate at the Divine Liturgy, and that his documents were all in order. After a minute’s pause the dean concluded respectfully, “Your Eminence, bless!” and, hanging up the receiver, said to me that the problem had been solved and I could go into the altar.

Pastoral awareness

About a dozen priests with deacons had gathered in the altar by the beginning of the service. The service was headed by Metropolitan Philaret (Vakhromeyev) [the Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus until December 2013.—Trans.]. At once I was amazed by his voice—it was deep, rich, mellow, and with an exceptionally beautiful timbre. His appearance—his untrimmed luxuriant beard and thick black eyebrows (that hung over his large, hazel eyes)—blended well with each other; even his ample bodily proportions suited him; all accentuated his natural nobility, the kindness and “breadth” of his soul. Metropolitan Anthony was modest with Metropolitan Philaret, and his vocal qualities were clearly inferior to those of the Exarch of All Belarus. More than that, the liturgical exclamations of the honored guest from London didn’t sound as perfectly as did the exclamations of the Metropolitan of Minsk. But if you listened attentively to the way Metropolitan Anthony uttered such exclamations as, “For a good God art Thou and the Lover of mankind,” and, “For holy art Thou, o our God,” you came to understand that the celebrant knew from experience and not by hearsay that God was truly good, holy and the Lover of mankind. Meanwhile, the service was going smoothly, without any problems or unjustified pauses. The antiphonal singing of psalms gradually gave place to responsorial singing of litanies, which concluded with solemn liturgical exclamations uttered by the celebrating archpastors and the concelebrating pastors. At last it was time to read the Epistles and the Gospel—the undisputed right of all protodeacons and deacons to communicate the Good Tidings to the souls of the faithful during the Divine Liturgy. When the protodeacon of Minsk Cathedral with his strong baritone read the last verse from his extract from the Gospel, expressly addressing it to the congregation, Metropolitan Anthony made a slight bow from the waist to Metropolitan Philaret and came out to the ambo. The faithful unmistakably discerned the time for a sermon in the famous preacher’s movement, so they quickly moved up closer to the solea and stood still. The owners of tape recorders alone disturbed the silence for half a minute, incurring the displeasure of some parishioners who gazed at them in an unfriendly manner.

The one that came to love the blind man

Bartimeus, by William Hole, 1908 Bartimeus, by William Hole, 1908 Metropolitan Anthony’s sermon was dedicated to the healing of the blind man Bartimeus for whom, as I had noticed in his written sermons, he cherished much affection. However, then it seemed that the metropolitan didn’t say anything new about Bartimeus from what I had read in his talks. Nevertheless there was one important revelation for me: I saw that the preacher had attained such spiritual maturity that every word he uttered was an expression of his innermost experience of communion with God, and therefore, always powerful, meaningful and new to the listeners.

After the Litany of Fervent Intercession the protodeacon proceeded with the Litany of the Departed—as I recall, there was a particular occasion for that. Metropolitan Philaret politely inclined his head to the guest, which was a sign that he should read a special prayer. Metropolitan Anthony started reading the prayer, “O God of spirits and of all flesh…” in an unhurried manner and a singing voice… and suddenly forgot the text. So he stopped, and there was no sign that he would continue soon. There was a long pause, but for some reason no one made up their minds to tell the guest the words of the prayer.

What can you expect of a bishop?

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh Everybody was gazing at Metropolitan Anthony and waiting for the continuation of the prayer. I was gazing at him together with them, and what I saw in his serene face, his facial expression and his appearance, was that indescribable inner state of a man that we call “humility”. “What can you expect of me?” This is what you could understand while looking at Metropolitan Anthony in that moment. At last, after a prolonged pause the metropolitan imperturbably began to read the same prayer from the very beginning, as if nothing had happened, and read it to the very end without a flub.

The rest of the service was held without a hitch, and there was finally the point I had been waiting for with excitement. It should be said that one important moment in the hierarchical Divine Liturgy is sadly hidden from the eyes of parishioners. After Holy Communion, the clergy come up to the celebrating hierarch or hierarchs in the altar to receive his or their blessing. Then they have a chance to say a few words to the archpastor or even have a short talk with him if needed.

A bishop who was a “foreign tourist”

The fact of the matter was that I travelled to Minsk in the hope of taking Metropolitan Anthony’s counsel on what I believed to be an important spiritual question. So when I went up to Metropolitan Anthony to receive his blessing, I said that I needed his advice and asked if we could meet after the service.

And he immediately invited me to his hotel and appointed the time. Frankly, I was not merely surprised—I was dumbfounded. He just said simply: “Come to my hotel at such-and-such a time.” I had not seen such democratic and accessible archpastors before. After the service I had some time to take a short walk around the city near the hotel where the metropolitan was staying. Note that then, in the 1980s, any Soviet hotel where “foreign tourists” stayed (and Metropolitan Anthony was one of them in the eyes of its staff) resembled a well-guarded access-controlled facility. Much to my amazement, soon after they asked me who I was and who I wanted to see, we came to an agreement and they showed me the room where the “foreign tourist”—that is, Metropolitan Anthony, was staying, in a rather courteous manner. His Eminence opened the door himself, and I entered the room. When I asked for his blessing to greet him and left my overcoat on the coat rack, the metropolitan invited me to sit down on a small sofa, while he settled down in an arm-chair.

The reasons behind the archpastor’s silence

From the first words I was surprised at how easy it was for me to talk with him. His Eminence displayed a sincere interest in his conversation companion, which helped me gather my thoughts and formulate the core of my main problem more or less clearly. Although, I couldn’t avoid telling him a little about myself so that the metropolitan could have a general idea about his conversation partner. I think we talked for an hour, after which I left the metropolitan’s room, unable to argue with my conscience that kept denouncing me for availing myself of the venerable archpastor’s hospitality for so long. After leaving his room I continued our dialogue with him in my mind for a long time, musing on the result of our meeting. “Why did the metropolitan not answer my main question?” I asked myself. And instantly I found some potential answers. First and foremost, before the meeting I didn’t even bother to pray that God would inspire the metropolitan to give me the advice my soul would benefit from. And, honestly, what exactly did I expect him to tell me in response? It was most likely the confirmation of my own opinion. And, after all, it was not a kind of problem without the resolution of which life would have been not worth living. After these thoughts the doubts that had attacked me vanished quickly, and I began walking along the streets of Minsk, an unfamiliar yet welcoming city, with not a care in the world.

A miracle of a reserved seat ticket

However, I was in a good mood only until I remembered that I was to sit for an exam in Moscow the next day; the name of the subject was “early Oriental Churches”, while I was roaming about in Minsk with lecture notes in my travelling bag, with no ticket to Moscow in my pocket and no idea of what was going on in booking offices at the Minsk railway terminal. As the saying goes, “your tongue will get you anywhere”, so I got on a trolley-bus and reached the railway station easily. I went inside and became wary: There were quite a few people standing by the windows with the sign, “ticket office”. In any case, I didn’t see any queue crushing. I guessed that all the tickets had been already sold out. And it turned out that I was right. Little by little people moved away from the booking office, while some lingered beside it. I was among those who were still standing in the line, not fully aware of the situation I found myself in. And someone’s voice beside me said distinctly: “Who would like a ticket to Moscow?” I responded with lightning speed: “I need it!” And a moment later I was holding a ticket to Moscow in my hand and I didn’t even have to overpay for it!

Luckily no one questioned my right to hold this ticket, and I had some time to drop in at the refreshment room to take a snack. At last all my worries about my departure from Minsk were behind me; so, lying on a lower berth of a sleeper with reserved berths, I reflected on what I had experienced over that extraordinary day. But my conscience woke up and demanded that I open the notes and review the material. I opened the summary at random and started reading the history of the Malabar Church. But, having read the first chapter, “the Coonan Cross Revolt” with difficulty, I decided that it was enough for me, since the light was dim and the text was barely legible. My conscience didn’t reproach me anymore, and I fell asleep. Before that the image of the humble archpastor who forgot the words of the prayer came back to my memory for a few moments. And my last thoughts before dropping off were: “How attentively he can listen to his conversation partner! Perhaps that is why we listen to his words as attentively as he does? And why do we trust his words so much?” It was not until my first meeting with him that I came to understand that—Metropolitan Anthony always had faith in his conversation partners.

The most important lesson

Fortunately I didn’t fail the exam, though I had no time for it the day before. But, to tell the truth, the most important lesson I had learned over that time was not the history of the Malabar Church; rather, it was the living example of Metropolitan Anthony who combined respect for the priesthood and episcopal rank with accessibility, respect for and sincere attention to his conversation partner, whoever he was—visible evidence of a true pastor’s care for his brothers and sisters, and of the desire and ability to guide his flock to Christ by his own example.

Archpriest Oleg Vrona
Translated by Dmitry Lapa



1 Literally meaning, “self-publishing”, Samizdat referred to a system in the former USSR and other Socialist bloc states by which books and magazines banned by the state were illegally printed by dissidents and other groups; it also referred to the literature itself published by Samizdat.—Trans.

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