American Life Through the Eyes of a Hieromonk from Kiev

Hieromonk Anatoly (Kimbirsky) Hieromonk Anatoly (Kimbirsky) The Church of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk is situated in the north-western part of San Francisco, some twenty minutes’ walk from the ROCOR cathedral. The temple occupies some space of a considerably large building, which also accommodates apartments of the clergy, the office of the ruling hierarch of the ROCOR Diocese of San Francisco, complete with a small museum dedicated to St. John (Maximovitch). It was Archbishop John (who shone forth with his mercy and compassion in various regions of our planet) that founded St. Tikhon’s Church in 1951.

Today, the church clergy consists of His Eminence Theodosius (Ivashchenko), Vicar Bishop of the Diocese of San Francisco and Western America; Hieromonk Anatoly (Kimbirsky); and Deacon Nikolai Sharkov. Fr. Anatoly bears most of the workload in the parish (Bishop Theodosius is on the move all the time); and it was he who I talked with during my visit to California. The hieromonk has lived in the USA not that long—since December 2016. He spent most of his life and many years of his ministry in Ukraine and moved to San Francisco from the Kiev Caves Lavra.

In our talk with Fr. Anatoly I touched upon such subjects as his conversion, his service in Ukraine and the USA, and his view of the development of Orthodoxy in California in our days.

—I was born in a non-religious family and my parents never went to church. There are three of us siblings: I have an older brother and an older sister. I was the first in the family to become a church-goer, much to our parent’s surprise. Though several years later both my parents and my siblings converted to the faith too. But initially my parents were shocked that I had become such a zealous parishioner.

How did you come to faith?

—In my time, when I knew nothing about spirituality but was trying to understand our world, seeking truth and reading different types of literature, I stumbled across the Confessions of Blessed Augustine of Hippo. It impressed me much, I began to think more deeply about many things and analyze them. Later, when I studied at the Engineering and Pedagogic Academy in Kharkov, the words of our Associate Professor Oleg Dmitrievich Ptashny stuck in my mind. He taught us an advanced mathematics course. Reflecting on the structure of vectors and of our world, he once said to the entire audience: “The more deeply I delved into mathematics and grasped these complex processes, the more I understood that all of that cannot exist merely by chance—there must be some interconnection of a higher level and the hand of God in this.”

His words were engraved on my soul. I began to go to church; some sort of zeal, fervor and the desire to be present at services appeared in my heart. So my life in the Church started in Kharkov, where I attended services at the Annunciation Cathedral and the Monastery of the Protection of Holy Theotokos.

But not everybody chooses the ordained ministry after coming to the Church. What inspired you to seek ordination to the priesthood?

—It is an interesting story. When I came to my native town of Svetlovodsk in the Kirovograd region and went to a church (I hadn’t been to it before), at the end of the service a church worker came up to me and asked me to stay after the service because the rector wanted to speak to me. I thought: “What does he want from me? We don’t know each other!” After the service the rector did come up to me and said point-blank without asking me what my name was:

“Do you want to be a priest?”

Of course, I was somewhat shocked and embarrassed and didn’t know what to answer. Though I had considered the possibility of becoming a priest. So I replied:

“I don’t know what to answer you; but, to be honest, I do.”

The rector said:

“This desire is written in large letters on your face!”

Perhaps the will of God was revealed through that rector, Fr. Alexander. I served at his church for five years right from my ordination in 2001.

You see, you had had the hidden desire before that miraculous meeting with Fr. Alexander.

—Indeed, even before that meeting I had considered the possibility of devoting my life to the service of God, though the primary concern was to work and provide for my family. I married at the early age of twenty and became a father when I was twenty-one.

Now, many years after my family broke up, I realize that I should have married later. In that case I would probably have made fewer mistakes, I would have had a more serious attitude towards my marriage and choice and would have taken responsibility for my actions. True, now I have something to share with people, I can give them advice and dissuade them from doing certain things on the basis of my own experience. That is very important in pastoral practice.

Perhaps what matters in this situation is that despite your family break-up you didn’t leave the priesthood and took a meaningful step by becoming a monk.

—You’re right. I served in Kiev and then in Moscow as a priest for some time, and in 2014 I was tonsured at the Kiev Caves Lavra. I came to love the Lavra dearly—it is like your home, like your mother whom you can never forget. True, it took me some time to choose the monastic life; but my strong attachment to monastic service was a contributing factor. And the years I spent in the Lavra were the best period of my ministry. My fondest memories and deepest experience of prayer are associated with it.

How did you happen to move from the Kiev Caves Lavra to the USA?

—Living at the Lavra and serving as the steward’s assistant, I didn’t think of the USA. But in 2016, Bishop Theodosius (we had known each other for some time because he would often visit Kiev) asked me to help him in San Francisco. In America you can feel that there is a shortage of Orthodox clergy. And I said yes; first I spent several months in the USA with a tourist visa, and then I was invited for permanent residence with a religious working visa. Of course, all of that was done by agreement with Metropolitan Pavel, the Kiev Caves Lavra Abbot.

Hieromonk Anatoly (Kimbirsky) Hieromonk Anatoly (Kimbirsky) After serving in Ukraine and (briefly) in Russia you moved to the United States—a country with a very different culture, language and traditions. Did you feel a fundamental difference in the parishioners’ attitude towards priests, church attendance, etc.?

—First and foremost, I should note that in terms of services the Church of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk is similar to what I was used to in Kiev. Here our main language is Church Slavonic, though we use English a little, too. Our clergy are emigrants (both Bishop Theodosius and I), and it would be difficult for us to serve in English, unlike the cathedral clergy, almost all of whom were born in North America. And most of our parishioners are Russian-speaking, though we have several Americans as well. But these Americans enjoy services in Church Slavonic and they have never asked for a transition to English. All in all our community is rather small, and we have around thirty worshippers at the Sunday Liturgy. It’s a shame that sometimes when I open the Royal Doors during the evening service, I see only a couple of parishioners, if any, in the church.

Right. I’ve noticed this deplorable tendency in Europe too: very few people come to evening services—for example, to the Vigil on Saturday.

—As a matter of fact, the first emigres who arrived in California after the Second World War were very devoted parishioners, who invested a lot of money and effort in building churches. Their children were lukewarm Christians, and emigres of the post-Soviet period were not very religious because they had grown up in an atheist country. But what surprises me is that people who were brought up after the collapse of the Soviet Union don’t want to go to church. There are many well-educated, competent people in California who have several academic degrees (the Silicon Valley workers, etc.); but when you begin to talk with them about God, they demonstrate some weird prejudices and fears. For example, when someone faces some difficulty, I advise him to pray [e.g., to St. John (Maximovitch)]. But he might say, “Since St. John is dead, how will I pray to him?” Or, “What if I pray to him and he takes my business and money from me?” So I have to encounter such spiritual ignorance, though these people are rather sober-minded, intelligent, nice and decent.

Was it hard for you to get accustomed to American life?

—For me it was a nice surprise when on arriving here I didn’t quite understand where I was. Firstly, people around me were Russian and we communicated in Russian. Secondly, services were held in Slavonic. And people are generally kinder here and are well-disposed to you. Some say that bishops are kinder in America, and I would agree with them. The Orthodox Church in America is a minority Church; its financial structure is different from that of Russia or Ukraine; and it isn’t supported by the State here. And when hierarchs are pretty hard up and more dependent on the laity, they behave more modestly, simply, and are easy to talk to. Though we have excellent hierarchs in Kiev, too. Take Metropolitan Onuphry, the primate of the UOC-MP—he is a living saint.

I too have the impression that Metropolitan Onuphry is very approachable. I remember praying at the evening service at the Kiev Caves Lavra four years ago; His Beatitude was anointing all the worshippers with holy oil. There was a multitude of people at the service, and any of them could come up to the primate; I didn’t even notice any guards accompanying him.

—It is important for us clergy not to get too big for our boots, keeping in mind that we were ordained to serve people. I would sometimes come to church as if I were a layman and stand at the far corner, trying to experience what the laity feel during services as they pray. True, we priests are blessed to pray in the altar, but we should never forget those who stand behind us, behind the iconostasis. In the USA the attitude towards priests is more tranquil, perhaps even reflective and critical. For instance, if someone in Russia or Ukraine who seeks pastoral advice is told to eat apples daily for seven days, he will just do it without asking any questions. But in the USA people will ask, “Okay, but why should I perform this obedience? What effect can I expect?” And they don’t ask this in a provocative manner—they sincerely want to know how it works. In Russia someone may say that this is disobedience, but in the USA there wouldn’t be such conflicts. Here people are not indifferent and really want to get at the heart of the matter. That’s why priests should be very knowledgeable, to be able to explain everything. I don’t think that in the USA laypeople idolize priests, as some people in Russia and Ukraine do.

But American priests are obviously well aware that their parishes are financed almost exclusively by parishioners.

—Yes, we receive donations, contributions from parish members. All the church buildings in San Francisco were constructed through the efforts of the previous generations, though. There are sisterhoods at our parishes; they cook food and bring it to our priests and parishioners. This kind of help is important too.

The orphanage with the Church of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk in San Francisco. Photo by O. Chudova / The orphanage with the Church of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk in San Francisco. Photo by O. Chudova /     

But most priests have to have paid, secular work anyway, don’t they?

—Indeed they do, and in most cases these are physically difficult and not well-paid jobs. And priests have to face certain difficulties because they not only care for their parishes and parishioners but also must think of their jobs. Priests have to devote the time they would otherwise give to services and being with parishioners to their secular work. I don’t think it’s good; and this approach doesn’t solve the problem of the priest shortage in the USA either: not everybody can combine church ministry with work (at a factory or in the office) effectively.

Fr. Anatoly, how did the problem of the shortage of priests arise in the USA?

—At first there were many priests from among Russian emigres here. But years have taken their toll, and virtually all of them are now dead. The Orthodox who were born in America are now ordained as priests. But not many local men want to serve as Orthodox priests. More than that, there are almost no priests coming from Russia and Ukraine to serve in America. And it is understandable because the conditions for priests are worse here than in countries with Orthodox Christian populations. In Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine they don’t have to worry about extra work—they are provided with all they need by parishioners. In the USA, apart from performing their pastoral ministry, caring for people, the church and its furnishings, priests have to provide for themselves. And who wants to do this? Who wants to come and devote a lot of time and energy to work?

The priest shortage is also explained by the fact that our spiritual instructors are very few and far between. True, every pastor is drawn to Christ, but there is also the “earthly dimension.” In my view, a bishop is not only a manager but also a father to whom any priest should be able to come anytime to talk, ask for his advice, etc. Why did everyone love Vladyka John (Maximovitch) so dearly? Why was there no shortage of clergy then? Because people could come to him as to a father, cry on his shoulder, speak to him, etc. But if someone can’t do it, he has nowhere to go. If you have nowhere to go, what will you do? You’ll try to find something else, something unrelated to the priesthood.

Has “the granting of autocephaly” to Ukraine by Constantinople affected attendance at the Moscow Patriarchate Churches in California by Ukrainians?

—It hasn’t affected at it all. Everybody here knows very well which parishes the other believers attended or attend now. Those who were under the influence of nationalist ideology have attended “the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church” in San Francisco from the very beginning. The Ukrainians who years ago started attending our church are still our parishioners. Nobody has changed their attitudes here. If people have taken one or another decision, they are aware why they did it, why they go here and what kind of Church it is. Here you won’t find anyone who goes to one church today and runs to another church tomorrow; such behavior lacks common sense.

What about relations with other jurisdictions? After all, the Moscow Patriarchate’s decision to sever full communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate applies to American parishes as well.

—It’s hard to judge because I don’t have close ties with the other local jurisdictions and have very little contact with Greeks. But you won’t find such radicalism in America. What do I mean? In my homeland, when someone first attended one church and then decided to go to another church, others would denounce him, saying, “You’re a traitor! We hate you and don’t want to know you!” In the USA people are more loyal, balanced and sober-minded. True, we currently don’t concelebrate with Greeks and don’t commune with them. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t greet each other or are going to puncture each other’s tires. Here we neither hate, nor despise, nor pursue one another. We obey the decision of the Holy Synod and explain it to people. But we haven’t severed normal human contact with anybody, including representatives of Constantinople.

Are there any differences in morality and moral behavior between US residents and, say, those of your native Ukraine? For example, in our countries, so-called “civil marriages”, which are nothing but sinful cohabitation, have become widespread; many marriages break up, including Orthodox ones.

—I nevertheless have to say many positive things about Americans and their way of life. After all, America was founded on Christian (Protestant) principles. Many Americans still adhere to strict approaches to marital fidelity, preservation of the family, and the upbringing of children. There are quite a few families with five or seven children here, and spouses realize their commitment to each other. As I’ve said, my family disintegrated; but, thank God, I took up the life of a monk. At the same time, I think without close-knit families there will be no healthy society and no bright future. When I taught at an Orthodox school in San Francisco, I talked a lot with my students’ parents. Sometimes parents know very little; we should tell them how they are supposed to treat each other and behave with their children. What we teach these children at our Orthodox school on the Law of God, on how to go to church and pray, will most probably remain unheard if parents don’t set good examples for their children. When children see that their parents’ deeds don’t agree with their words, they may grow into revolutionaries.

Recurring to the situation in America, I can say that in the USA, families are more united than, say, in my motherland. Meanwhile, I can’t say for certain why Americans manage to preserve their families. Of course, at best they are guided by true love, Christian values and the awareness of the importance of the sacrament of matrimony. This sacrament is our responsibility before God, our spouses, and the children we raise.

But that doesn’t always concern the Americans you’re talking about?

—I can’t always say what helps them preserve their marriages, especially in the face of the difficulties that would easily make my compatriots drift apart. Maybe that is thanks to their understanding of the core and essence of marriage; or maybe for fear of a long legal process that divorces in the USA entail. Or maybe Americans take marriage more seriously; future spouses talk to each other and agree on certain important things beforehand. Unlike them, some of my compatriots think that “since a priest has married us in Church, all will be fine.” Nobody can guarantee this!

Family presupposes enormous efforts. The monastic life means hard labor too; and who knows which path is more difficult? At the monastery we bear slander and humiliation from the brethren; in families we endure our other half’s irritation or bad mood and our children’s disobedience. We have to sacrifice something everywhere. Sometimes people fail to understand that marriage is about the ability to make compromises and forgive. Parents don’t always set a good example. I believe that priests should first talk with those who are going to marry, ask them about their expectations, goals and understanding of marriage. Why do you want to have a family? What do you expect from your future partner in life? What does your future helpmate expect from you? What will you do if your spouse behaves contrary to your expectations? If all people talked these issues over in advance, many would avoid disappointment and despair when they hurry to divorce instead of solving their problems. The latter isn’t done in America (though divorces do take place here too) and spouses try to keep together. It’s a significant positive attribute of American society.

Sergei Mudrov
spoke with Hieromonk Anatoly (Kimbirsky)
Translated by Dmitry Lapa


See also
Matthew12/24/2023 7:03 am
The good priest has a mistaken impression of the divorce rate in the USA, which is very high. No-fault divorce laws make it very easy to dissolve a marriage. All it takes is for one spouse to assert that there are "irreconcilable differences", which the court will accept without question.
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