Fr. Daniel Sysoev, formerly rector of the Church of the Apostle Thomas in Kantimerovskaya,was one of the most active missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church. Late in the evening on November 19 he was shot by a Muslim fanatic, and the next day he died of his gunshot wounds. In this last interview of his life, he spoke of the urgent need for Christian piety. It is especially interesting that Fr. Daniel, who would soon be martyred, spoke of love for God as the love the martyrs had—which hints to us that he himself had that love.
—How does the Orthodox Church understand piety? What is the essence of piety?
—Piety is the blessed worship of the Lord God. It is manifested in relations between man and God and between people. The apostle James said: “True piety is care for widows and orphans and to remain undefiled from the world” (cf. Jas. 1:27). A pious person honors God not only with prayers, prostrations, and sacred rites, but with his entire life. For example, you are recording an interview right now, and your interview should be a form of worship of the Lord God. If you do it for your own vainglory, it will be impiety, because you are reverencing an empty glory. Whatever a man lives for is what he turns out to be. Piety includes your way of life, and most importantly, a correct motivational system. Improperly motivated steps lead to improper deeds. This is very important to remember, because mistakes are often hidden in this small thing. People think that the main thing is to take action, and in the name of what—that’s not important. But everything is the opposite here. The sacrifice of an atheist is worth less in the eyes of God than the sacrifice of an Orthodox person, because you can sacrifice in the name of false ideas, become proud, and thereby destroy your soul, but an Orthodox Christian can humble himself, praise the Creator, and thereby be saved.
—Can we be pious in the conditions of modern life?
—The apostle Paul said: Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Since Christ is the same, then any person connected with Christ can be as uncontaminated by the world as before. As St. John Chrysostom said: “God is the same, and the devil is the same, but Job is also the same.” As before, so now, the only refuge from the attacks of evil is the Lord God, in Whom is our hope, strength, and glory. That is why we must learn to glorify God at all times. Some fear that, having begun to serve God and to live piously, they will become abnormal in the eyes of society, black sheep. But that’s very good! A pious person will always be the black sheep. Why should we be the black sheep?! A pious person is not bothered by anything: not by the internet, not by a cell phone, not by other technological devices. For example, you can work out by phone the details for giving confession and Communion to a sick person. You can find Orthodox books or the commentaries of the Holy Fathers online. You can use your GPS to organize a pilgrimage. A satellite on its own is the same kind of thing as a telephone or a rocket—completely indifferent towards God. In Rus’ they would say: “From the same stump comes a club and a rocking horse.” Time has nothing to do with it. As St. Athanasius said: “We are accustomed to serving not time, but God.” You can serve God forever, always, in any place at any time.
—What do we need to be pious for?
—To inherit the Heavenly Kingdom. When someone comes to Orthodoxy from Judaism, Islam, paganism, the Church asks him in the rite of joining the Church: “Why have you come here?” He answers: “I have come here to learn the true faith from the Church.” The Church asks: “What benefit do you want to receive from the true faith?” The correct answer is: “Eternal and blessed life.” We can say that Christians are opportunistic. We don’t understand it as a Stoic virtue when someone does good for the sake of good. We do good for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom and of God. A Christian can be compared with a man in love. A man in love wants to be with his beloved and ideally get married. It’s exactly the same for a Christian: They are selfish and want to be with Christ and the Father eternally. And for His sake, they are pious. The general troparion for the martyrs expresses the essence of Christian piety very well: “I love Thee, O my Bridegroom, and, seeking Thee, I pass through many struggles: I am crucified and buried with Thee in Thy Baptism, and suffer for Thy sake, that I may reign with Thee; I die for Thee that I might live with Thee. As an unblemished sacrifice accept me, who sacrifice myself with love for Thee. By his supplications save Thou our souls, in that Thou art merciful.” This is the meaning of Christian piety.
—What was the understanding of piety in the Old Testament?
—A pious man in the Old Testament kept a covenant with God and hoped that God would save him, and fulfilled the holy commandments in the hope of this covenant. The Old Testament has left us beautiful hymns of the Lord’s commandments. In the Psalms it says: “Thy words are dearer to me than gold and diamonds, they are sweeter than honey from the honeycomb, like unto pure water, they are my adornment, and I boast in them” (cf. Ps. 19:10-11). There was a love of the Law in the Old Testament, not just a formal fulfillment of the commandments as a forced obedience. I don’t think, for example, that anyone praises and hymns the criminal code!
The idea of the commandments as a wonderful symphony, and beauty is the basis for the piety of the Old Testament. The word “philokalia” is literally translated as “friendship with beauty.” It was the Old Testament that gave the teaching that doing good works is beauty, which Orthodoxy then received. But a perversion could arise in this idea. The law can eclipse God with itself, as it eclipsed Him with the Pharisees. But in and of itself, it’s a beautiful concept. This harmony of truth was felt by the ancient patriarchs, prophets, saints, and apostles. Therefore, we can say that we are inheritors of the piety not only of the apostles and the saints of the New Testament, but also of the Old Testament saints. It’s no coincidence that we sing at every service: “Blessed is the God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” They are our fathers—although many of us are not Jewish by blood, but we remember them as our own fathers, because we participate in the same union; we feel and delight in the wondrous harmony of the Old Testament.
—What new thing did Christianity bring to the world in comparison with pre-Christian ethics?
—If before, people awaited salvation, now it has already come. If before we only hoped for salvation, now we are already saved in Baptism. We have only to preserve and increase this gift. We have already become children of God through Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Communion. As the Lord said: Many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them. But now we both see and hear. For us there are no ethics—we have the Commandments. Ethics are a fabrication of man, an attempt to somehow codify the demands of the conscience. It says: To be respected, you have to be a good boy, and for that you have to brush your teeth and not swear. But what are the Commandments? They are the personal relationship between God and man. “If you love Me, then follow after Me.” The personal relationship between God and man is one thing, and the standard that inexplicably exists in the public consciousness another.
—Humanity has already been saved by the death of Christ, but does that mean that apostates will be more seriously punished than before Baptism?
—St. John Chrysostom says that in the Old Testament, the punishment for sin was less than it is now. But now there are different punishments. A Muslim knows nothing about Christ, but he will answer for his evil deeds according to his conscience. But if someone knew Christ and rejected Him, not trusting Him, he will answer before the Father for the blood of His Son. The Father will say: “Christ poured out His blood for you, and you trampled upon it. You are the murderer of My Son.”
—What is the difference between the piety of a monk and that of a layman?
—St. John Chrysostom said that a monk differs from a layman only in the vow of celibacy. The commandments are the same for a monk and a layman. Man’s main task is to serve God in every place. It’s easy for a monk to do, but more difficult for a married man. Every family has temptations, because that life is concerned with material goods. Material goods are not good or bad in and of themselves, but attachment to them is bad. And here is the danger: You can be submerged in the vanity of the world and the seduction of wealth. There are temptations for monks as well. Unfortunately, sometimes monks forget about their vow of poverty. These temptations are overcome only by trusting in the Lord God. It’s even harder for a family man to fulfill the commandments because he bears responsibility for his loved ones. But his reward will be less, because he serves God less. Family men bring a thirty-fold fruit to God, widows sixty-fold, and virgins a hundred-fold. This is the traditional explanation of the fruits brought forth on the good earth. But a thirty-fold fruit to God is already a great fruit, a great harvest. Try to get thirty cucumbers from one seed! It’s a lot, but it’s possible to get even more. Christianity knows two ideas—good and even better. Marriage is a beautiful thing, but even more beautiful is monasticism.
—Should we strive for the better, for monasticism?
—That’s how it was in Rus’. Families reared children, grew old, and left for monasteries, to spiritually rise higher—Sts. Peter and Fevronia, for example. This was the very important core of marriage, because people understood that they strive for God together. But then again, a pure, crowned marriage is not just civil cohabitation. A God-blessed marriage, where everything is done for the glory of God, where the husband answers for everything because he is the head, the religious leader, and the wife is obedient to the husband, helps take care of his home, and they raise children together, is a form of service to God that brings them a great reward in Heaven.
—How can we remain Christian not just during the services, but also outside the Church?
—God sees everything, hears everything, and every place is His dominion. Walk before God, be blameless, and remember that you are walking with Him. As one English king sang (before the eleventh century, England was an Orthodox country): “Today I go out on my way; God the Father shows the way, God the Son leads the way—He is my guide—and the Holy Spirit gives strength along the way.” This is normal for a Christian. We should learn such an attitude from King David. We read the Psalter a lot, but we don’t ponder the words. David felt bad and simply whined to God: “How much can I endure? I walk and weep; they offend me.” Or in joy he begins to praise God, but this is not enough for him; he calls on the heavens, the mountains, the hills, and the oak forests to sing praises to God with him. This is a normal human approach. With God I leap over the wall.
—Why do many Orthodox Christians pay more attention to outward piety rather than to changing their lives according to the Christian ideal?
—Because it’s easier. It’s very easy to change externally. It’s easy to go to church, but it’s harder to confess. It often happens that a woman comes to confession and begins to confess someone else’s sins: “Batiushka, I am so sinful; I have such a husband,” and so on about the sins of her husband. Instead of condemning herself, she condemns another.
—Can we say that a fashion for Orthodoxy is continuing now?
—There wasn’t one before. Orthodoxy is not compatible with fashion, because Orthodoxy demands too much from man, even if he has a formal approach to Orthodoxy. How can we determine if someone is Orthodox or not? Not only by what he says, especially now, when everyone [in Russia] is basically Orthodox. There is a certain set of rules. If someone doesn’t believe in even one provision of the Nicene Creed—for example in the resurrection of the dead or that Jesus is the Son of God—he is not Orthodox. If someone doesn’t confess that the Orthodox Church is the only true Church, he is not Orthodox. Someone who thinks it’s okay to break the commandments is also not Orthodox. Sometimes someone stumbles, and there is a struggle. “There is no man who has lived and not sinned,” says Solomon, but some consider it abnormal, and others see sin as normal. What kind of Orthodox are they? But as for fashion, let there be a fashion for chastity. I’m only for that. If there were a fashion to not have abortions, that would be great…
—Or a fashion to not smoke…
—Or a fashion to not drink. That would be simply great. Let Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov) introduce a fashion.1 Let there be a fashion to do good; let people do good at least out of fashion.
—They introduced prohibition during perestroika, and what came of it?! People started drinking even more…
—Prohibition is an external ban, but this is an internal fashion. There used to be a good mechanism, which the devil broke: shunning. A man who lived in sin and was proud of it—you simply didn’t shake his hand. “Decent people don’t behave that way,” is an old, normal slogan. That’s how it should be. Decent people don’t swear; decent people don’t get drunk, they don’t commit adultery, they don’t kill children.
—But that’s another external factor…
—Let it at least be that, because it will help to avoid terrible sins. If you have an abortion every year, there will be no depth of repentance; and if a man does not dry out, if he drinks every day, what deep repentance can he have?! First he has to stop his external evil deeds, then he can fight with more serious sins.
—How do you feel about a concept like Orthodoxy-light—a simplified form of Orthodoxy? Is it like a cheap Orthodox print?
—The Lord said: Force yourself, enter by the narrow gate, because the wide path leads to destruction, but the narrow path leads to life, and even this path is not found. Therefore, broad Orthodoxy is the broad path to destruction, if we’re talking about the distortion of the commandments of God…
—What requirements for women’s behavior are there in the Church?
—The requirements for women are the same as for men. Men and women should be in church in clothes appropriate for their gender. This is a commandment of God. What kind of clothes—for men or for women—depends on the culture. If it’s customary for a woman to wear pants in some culture, then she doesn’t sin by going to church in pants. But attempts to mix the two genders are contrary to the will of God.
—From your point of view, should women work?
—If they want to. The children shouldn’t be cast aside. There are different types of women: For some, if they don’t work, they’ll completely wither up, while others, on the contrary, like not working and prefer to sit at home. There were various types of women in the past too, such as Princess Olga—state wives and housewives. Both are fine. I don’t think we need to artificially make something up here. There are women who are happy just to deal with children. It’s a special gift. Not everyone has it. Everyone has different gifts. Previously, when women stayed home, it was a household or an estate with cows, goats, and chickens. If it was a rich home, then she also had to watch after the servants and farmhands. The woman was a real businesswoman. She had work with a large house, not just sitting within four closed walls.
—Very often you hear Orthodox women say: “I don’t want a husband or children at all…”
—If they don’t want them, they don’t have to have them. God will help them. We’ve always had “chernichki” [women in black]—who devoted their entire lives to serving God. They worked at ordinary jobs and helped at church in their free time, and it was they who defended many churches during the post-revolutionary persecutions. Such active women can help with missionary work now, with charitable deeds…
—In Europe there’s a movement—“child-free”—voluntary childlessness. “Child-free” people claim that their lives can be complete without offspring. How do you feel about them?
—They break the commandment of God to be fruitful and multiply. It’s one thing when someone doesn’t want to get married—that’s fine. But if you’re married and don’t want to have children, then you sin, and quite seriously so. They are onanists, and not just spiritually. This was Onan’s sin: He didn’t want children.2
—Are priests always examples to be emulated in terms of piety?
—In the matter of piety, Christ alone is our model. We should orient ourselves only on Him. “Let us lift up our hearts.” It’s not to the priests that we lift up our hearts, but to Heaven.
—And who is an example of piety for you?
—For me, it’s the apostle Paul, who daily cared for all the Churches.
—Which books would you recommend to read and which films to watch? Do they have to be these splendid Orthodox works of art?
—There are different measures of spiritual growth, and everyone has their own spiritual food. We shouldn’t lump it all together. For example, for someone who has devoted himself to God, reading serious literature can be a fall, but for someone who has just crawled out of the muck of sin, this literature is elevating. We have to proceed from our own spiritual questions.
There are the most general principles: We do not have the right to allow anything depraved, impure, or vile into our hearts. Any text, painting, or music that praises sin is closed for us. Everything else is left to a person’s conscience. I would recommend neophytes to read C. S. Lewis, and the Russian authors: Dostoyevsky, Leskov, and Shmelev. As for music, follow the lyrics, and listen to what you’re putting in your ears. We have to refrain from dark lyrics, because they are mesmerizing, they turn over in your head, and in a difficult moment, they can play the role of a trigger; so take care of yourself, and remember that we have to watch after our windows—the five sense organs. Compare everything with the commandments, which are the only criteria on Earth. As for the level of literature—unfortunately “Orthodox literature” may not be on a very high level. But, in fact, our ancestors were raised on the lives of the saints, and they are better than any novel. Read the life of St. Cyprian3—it reads like a novel!