Archpriest Nicholai Vedernikov passed away on June 9, 2020 in his ninety-second year of life. he was one of the oldest priests in Moscow, a famous church composer and a retired clergyman of the Church of St. John the Soldier in the Yakimanka district in Moscow.
Tell Him everything and He will definitely respond
—The thing that we must know is that each one of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit, which abides in us. These are the famous words: Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you? (1 Cor. 3:16), that is what St. Paul the Apostle says. That’s exactly what he was talking about. So the aim of going to the temple (the physical one, that is)—is to take care of your own temple not made by hands. That is, each one of us is a temple; and that says a lot.
I come to God’s church to meet the Lord Jesus Christ. During confession I tell everyone all the time that our religion is love of Christ and nothing more! Just the love of Christ!
Very often people forget that, they forget that our only goal is to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit.
That’s what St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “The goal of Christian life is to aquire the grace of the Holy Spirit”. But how do we do that? We can acquire it by using all the means that we have at our disposal. What should we seek the most? Our meeting with Christ.
People sometimes think that this is it: You light a candle, bow a few times, read the prayer rule—as if those were the most important things. Their attention is shifted to the secondary things. But the most important is the meeting with Christ and the love of Christ.
That is why I tell people: pay attention so that not a day passes that is wasted with regard to the meeting with Christ. That is why I recommend reading one chapter of the New Testament every day.
It is more important to read at least one chapter of the New Testament a day than all the prayer rules, because this is a meeting with Christ.
Aside from reading a chapter, I always say: You yourself, using you own words, speak with the Lord. Tell Him how was your day, what circumstances took place in your life, what difficulties you came across on your path. Tell Him everything, He will most definitely respond.
That is, when you rise in the morning, say: “Lord, bless me on this day, help me, so that the day would pass without sin…” One must also not forget to definitely thank the Lord at the end of each day.
I recommend before going to bed to look through your day by rewinding it back in your head. If you sinned somehow, repent mentally. That is independent of the confession to the priest—just simply say, “Lord, forgive me! I judged a person… I met a person, we had a conversation and I judged my nieghbor in my thoughts! Lord forgive me!” And if you repent of it sincerely, the Lord will most definitely forgive you. That does not mean that you won’t go to the confession and confess it—you will still bring your confession to the priest and through the Sacrament receive the forgiveness of your sins; but independent of that, each one of us can repent before the Lord. And if you repent sincerely the Lord will forgive you right then. You also must thank Him for the day that has passed…
To serve people. And through people, the Lord
Matushka and I had the most wonderful father-confessor. The first one was Father Nicholai Golubzov, well known personality by everyone, and after him it was Father Vladimir Smirnov, who served in the Church of the Prophet Elias in Obydensk. Our last and most significant father-confessor was father Vasily Serebryannikov, very well-known father-confessor. He died a very old man, but nonetheless we regularly confessed to him. He was a wonderful father-confessor!
These days unfortunately you rarely meet people like that! The last person I confessed to was Fr. Gerasim Ivanov, who passed away at the age of ninety-four. He was a wonderful artist and a wonderful clergyman. As for nowadays, well, in this regard I am an orphan. But I think that since the Lord hasn’t taken me yet, he will send me a priest to whom I will be able to confess. I really want that…
—Father Nicholai, you are a priest with extensive experience; for many years you have been standing before the altar and serving the Liturgy. Many people confess to you. Could you for example tell me which sins have been most commonly confessed in the last ten years?
I can honestly say that everyone confessed almost the same thing—that is, irritation. It is judging people. It is envy and, of course, idle talk. Some confess foul language, if such cases, sadly take place. What’s rarer is resentment—when one remembers offences. First of all, I try to uproot any resentment in people. These sins I listed are frequent sins. A person approaches during confession and names all these sins…
I have another responsibility that I didn’t mention: Twice a year I conduct a general confession. The first confession I conduct on Friday evening of the first week of Great Lent, because according to tradition, everyone in the church receives Holy Communion on Saturday of the first week. Everybody listens to the canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which is read on the first four days of the week, and so on Friday evening I always conduct general confession. The temple is always overcrowded then... And only after general confession do people approach me for individual confession, and I remit whichever sins they have.
And the second general confession is before Great Thursday. On Great Wednesday I also conduct general confession, and then everybody receives Holy Communion at the Last Supper, on Thursday.
Such are my responsibilities, which the head priest of our church has placed on me. Because this is how I help him. It is hard for him, he is infirm, has weak health [he is talking about archpriest Nicholai Smirnov, former rector of the Church of John the Soldier in the Yakimanka district of Moscow.—Ed.], but what is good is that he still has his eyesight, so he can continue to serve. If I had my eyesight, I of course would not go part-time, despite being of respectable age now. Nonetheless, glory be to God, there is still something left in me (at least something!), with which I can serve the Lord. This warms my soul and brings me joy, that the Lord hasn't taken me yet and I can still do something.
I can add to this; it so happens that on Monday evenings my spiritual children gather together at my home, and we talk about what was read to us from the New Testament on Sunday.
Usually people gather on Monday evenings… At the beginning I tell them about the Gospel reading of the past Sunday and then each one shares the facts of their spiritual life. This is how communication between people takes place—there are around ten to fifteen of us, sometimes it goes up to twenty people who come to me on Monday for the talk. And so they share insights about their spiritual life and talk with each other. It brings them joy; they want it. Of course, physically it is demanding and not easy for me, but nonetheless these evenings do take place.
And after that we offer everyone tea; that’s how our evenings end. We talk about different topics: Each person has some problems in their own spiritual life. They express them and share them with each other; they seek that communication. And that brings me joy, because at least in this way I can serve people somehow, and through people—the Lord.
Here I have roughly described what my activities look like.
Learning how to be silent
—Today during the era of modern electronic technologies, the crazy rhythm of life, you can rarely meet a person who diligently prays to God, who devotes a lot of time to prayer. Often the spiritual is substituted with the physical, but there are also distracting moments: television, the Internet, social networks, entertainment… How can we learn how to pray, to overcome spiritual laziness and infirmness?
—This is the disease of the century, of course: Internet, television… I do not approve of it in other people and try to warn them. I cannot take part in it as my vision is poor, but these things do not interest me at all! The only thing that I can say is that every day I spare some time to listen to the radio program, “Radonezh”. At times I listen to a program that interests me and that makes me very joyful. I am very pleased about it, I am grateful to the staff of the radio station and everyone who creates such program.
As I also have secular music education. What makes me happy is listening on Wednesdays to Ivan Sokolov talk about the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, interpreting their spiritual meaning, their religious meaning… This programme in particular I try not to miss.
In any case, the only thing that I listen to now is indeed “Radonezh”. As for television, it absolutely repulses me now. That is why I don’t approve of those who are partial to it.
It fills up your life and gives an illusion of some kind of activity… What else can I say? Unfortunately, it is our modern scourge. People fill themselves with this emptiness, instead of at least reading a quality fiction book or reading something. It is terrible and it saddens me a lot!
This, of course relates to many people—such infatuation with all these devices. People live through experiences of someone else’s life events, which have nothing to do with them.
That is why I believe that one ought to learn how to pray—to pray and at the same time to learn how to be silent. To learn silence.
That is we got used to talking a lot, one way or another to take part in the events of another person; but we often do not like to concentrate on our own inner life. We do not like to force ourselves. What does this effort look like? Learning how to be silent, to have inner peace.
If you don’t learn inner peace, you won’t be able to perceive another person, even a neighbor who lives next to you.
Because in order to meet a person you have to have the skill to hear him out. You need to have listening skills. Nowadays we really don't like to listen, and when a person tells us something we respond to them by talking about our own thing. People try to come up with what to say and how to say it instantly, instead of just hearing the person out. Just to hear the person, meet the person. Unfortunately, one has to learn that skill.
I try to cultivate it in me. I am an old man already and I personally try every day to practice internal prayer. That is, I find the Jesus prayer particular precious and try say it at least little every day, but to abide in the prayer.
Always remember the words of Paul the Apostle: Rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing and in everything give thanks (1 Thess. 5:16). Give thanks for everything! These are the words of Paul the Apostle! So I try to say these words to other people, and as for myself, to live them as much as I have the strength to do so. Pray without ceasing, and for everything—for joy, for woes, for troubles and for anything—thank the Lord at the end of the day. You understand, that’s what is required! That is personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
That is the most important thing. Our religion is our personal meeting with Christ and love of Christ. And nothing more! If you would do all of this, if you exercise yourself in it, then I think you will be on the path to salvation.
Because if you are with Christ, then who could push you off the right path? No one! Because if I am with Christ, then I am under His protection, great protection. And what’s most important is to make true the words while you are still in this world: But seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Mt. 6:33).
“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” I always try to remind people of these words. And one naturally ought to start with oneself, because it is one thing to tell people and another to live it yourself. And if I do a little bit of that when it comes to myself, then I will feel that I have a right—a moral and a spiritual right—to say that to another person. And if I don’t do it, then I am like a pharisee, as Christ says: They teach but they won’t even lift a finger to do it themselves. That’s why it is very important to work on yourself.
And even thought I am an infirm man, the awareness that I am not living in vain gives me strength, that the Lord grants me more days to live for some purpose. I don’t know how many more days He will give me, but I am nonetheless very old already. People die at different ages and look how long I have been living…
We need to serve some more
—We must pray for our enemies too; but how can we reach such a state so as to accept with humility things that your enemies do to you—people, who consciously wish evil upon you?
—I don’t have nor have I ever had enemies (he laughs), neither in my youth, nor in my old age. And for that I thank the Lord. Christ says: Do good to them that hate you (Mt. 5:44). But what if I don’t have any enemies?! In my life experience I haven’t experienced such a thing as somebody being an enemy to me, somebody actively doing evil to me… There have never been nor are such people in my life; it seems so to me. There have been no enemies, do you understand?
How can I put it? During my student years, school years, even more so the years… And then serving in a Church… I had no enemies! Therefore, I have no such experience, the experience of communicating with enemies. Glory be to God!
Everyone around me is valuable to me and I want to serve them somehow, do you understand? To serve them in some way.
In this case my circle of people is rather limited—those, whom I told you about, who come to my talks, to confession in the church. There is the person who is closest to me, who is also spiritually close to me…
There is servant of God Alexander, who constantly takes care of me—of my nutrition. He makes me lunch (even though he has his own family, a wife and relatives). I think that through this podvig he is simply gaining the Kingdom of God and the Lord sends him His grace for helping me in this way. It came about to be this way a very long time ago, very long… Now I don’t even remember, but it can be specified how he got into my circle of life. He continues now to have a relationship with me, look after me and do everything that is necessary.
That is, all the people who surround me are precious to me. No enemies, no tensions with anybody. Maybe my character is the cause of that, I really don’t know, but nonetheless, I am very glad not to have enemies and I am thankful to God for it.
When God will take me, that is His holy will. There is nothing I can say about it. Since He still gives me life, I must serve some more! In some way, somehow—but do it for other people. In this way, maybe the Lord will save me also for eternal life.
—Our Church today lives and carries out its service, independent of the government. But church news and problems are often discussed on the Internet, by the mass media—on television, in the press, on the radio. It seems that the Church is undergoing real persecution at times, so there is yet a way to go to reach full freedom. For example, recalling the sacrilegious dancing of the scandalous group in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The faithful’s religious feelings were insulted and they were forced to react to these diatribes. This vicious circle gets created sometimes: We are accused, so we defend ourselves… Maybe Orthodox people should not react so acutely to different provocations from the outside?
—Well, perhaps so. Let’s remember the words of our Saviour: Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls (Mt. 11:29). Meek and lowly of heart…
That is, we always remind ourselves of the Saviour’s conduct with those around Him; it always hurts me the most when I read the New Testament about the Saviour’s last days on earth.
I am repulsed by those who surrounded the Saviour in those days—those high priests, Pharisees, scribes… This repulsive, vile crowd. I think that the enemies of Christ are my enemies, you understand? How could I think anything good about them? Of course, I cannot.
I read it with pain every year because it is linked to the Church cycle of services, the pre-Paschal period: Everything that Christ underwent before the Crucifixion. So if the Lord underwent such treatment, then what can we expect? What about us?!
I lived during Soviet times, I was born in 1928 and the Lord saved me (I am also very grateful to the Lord for this) from military service. I am not even talking about being on the front line. You see, the Lord saved me! He gave me a chance to be born during such times that I didn’t participate in such things… I always said that I do not want to learn about the military—the methods of killing people. Of course, I studied the subject, Military Studies, but to learn how kill people—for me that was very hard.
Nonetheless the Lord arranged everything in such a way that all such things ended during my time and I did not take part in any of it. There was no talk of the front line or war.
The war took place when I was only thirteen years old. For some time, we lived in hunger and cold, and later my grandfather brought me to his place. That was my maternal grandfather, an ophthalmologist. I finished the seventh grade and was studying in Ufa. Later I returned to Moscow.
My church career, if you can call it such, began with attending the altar during the hierarchical liturgies. Everything began from that!
When they started to teach me music, I felt that I had no gift and no love of music, which were necessary in order to build up such a career. But I didn’t quit. I am glad that I did not quit. I started learning music by playing the violin when I was seven years old, then I learned compositions. I graduated from conservatory in two disciplines: orchestral and compositional. I finished it all and had put a full stop to it, so to speak.
I will repeat with satisfaction that I did not quit, such is my character: to complete the obedience in full, I carried it out till the end and put a full stop.
Parallel to music, the Liturgy was always my passion, our Orthodox Liturgy. In that sense the Lord gave me an opportunity to communicate with wonderful bishops. First of all, of course, there was Patriarch Sergius (Stragorodsky), whom I assisted by being a book-bearer during Liturgy. His Patriarchy was not extensive; it was rather short in my view—only eight months in total. We talked a lot, and I played church chants on my harmonium for him, I loved him very much. Although he passed away when he was seventy-eight years old, he was very feeble.
Later, of course, there was Patriarch Alexy (Simansky). This man was a role model for me in many ways—in the manner of serving the Liturgy and in the way he related to everything. For me it was a great happiness to associate with such a person.
At first I assisted him, and then he ordained me a deacon in 1958. I was ordained into the priesthood by the future Patriarch Pimen (Izvekov) in 1961. So, in 1961 I was already ordained a priest. From June 1958 to that time I was a deacon. These were all great church hierarchs, so I consider it sheer happiness that I had the opportunity to associate with them during the services and in everyday life.
—You said that you graduated from the conservatory of music. What place did music occupy in your life? What can you say about Church music, about Church chanting, about the choir? Have you ever been part of the choir, have you sang?
—I even composed a lot of Church music; I have compositions that are being performed in church. I started composing Church music during the time of the election of Patriarch Alexy I. That was a spiritual concert in the Large Hall of the conservatory of music; the Patriarchal choir sang there, Kozlovsky, Shpiller and a whole sequence of outstanding soloists sang as well. So I helped the choirmaster to achieve the correct pitch on the violin. That was backstage during the concert. Later the choirmaster asked me to compose my first chant for the meeting of the Church hierarchs. The chant was called: “From the rising to the setting of the sun”.
The sessions for choosing His Holiness the Patriarch were taking place at the time in the Cathedral of Christ’s Resurrection in Sokolniki, and different hierarchs attended. I remember that I wrote the chant, “From the rising of the sun,” and it was the first composition that the choirmaster asked me to compose. He wanted to diversify the Liturgy, and during the triumphant entrance of the hierarch into the temple, this chant was to be sang: “From the rising to the setting of the sun, the name of the Lord is to be praised. Blessed be the name of the Lord, from henceforth and forevermore”. This was the first piece I had to compose…
Later he asked me to compose, “O Pure Virgin”, a small chant.
After that I undertook composing the Liturgy and also the All-Night Vigil. Both of these compositions were created in the same style as the old chants. The last one I wrote was “The Cherubic Hymn” and four one-part choir concerts. The was one for Christmas, for St. Nicholas the Wonderworker—“A Rule of Faith”, for Great Lent—“I my soul rise up”, and the Paschal one-hour concert, “Having slept in the flesh as a mortal”.
The wife of the famous journalist Andrey Zolotov is a choirmaster. She is a very good choirmaster and conducted the concert, "The passage to Pascha", which began with composers of the previous centuries to modern times. During the one-hour Pascha concert my composition, "Having slept in the flesh", was performed.
Unfortunately, now due to my poor eyesight, recording music poses a great difficulty for me. I can’t write because I practically do not see anything. That is, I can play something, but someone else would have to write it down, to translate it into music notes.
So I do have experience when it comes to spiritual music.
—And what about classical music, how do you relate to it—for example, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms… If yes, then what especially attracts you to it, what ‘strings’ of your soul does it touch?
—My favourite composer is Johann Sebastian Bach; I can say that right off, as I recall my first concert in Rachmaninov Hall. I can’t recall whether it was “December evenings” or some other seasons, it was some perhaps autumn when my composition was being performed. It was a long time ago. And then I was asked exactly that: “Who is your favourite composer?” I replied—Johann Sebastian Bach. Of course, other composers have compositions that are precious to me. I love and myself performed the works of Beethoven and Chopin. But the most important one for me is of course Bach. It is like the New Testament for me, I feel it like my own breath, do you understand?
Which compositions did I listen to all the time? Mass in B minor, St. John Passion, St. Matthew Passion.
I remember there was an event in the 1950s when the Leipzig (where Bach was a cantor at some point in time) choir came to Moscow and Maestro Günther Ramin conducted the choir and performed the St. Matthew Passion.
I like this very much; I had recordings I listened too... So the compositions of Bach for me are a type of nourishment. I feel as if he lived at the time when Christ lived. He was so saturated with the Gospel spirit that when I was learning music, I liked to play Bach any other composer
Other composers have compositions I loved. From Beethoven I played the 14th Sonata, the 23rd Sonata and 32 variations. Well and of course I played the more simple compositions while studying at music school.
I played Mozart’s sonatinas. My wife was also a musician; she was taught by [Yakov Israelevich] Zak [1913–1976, pianist], and in her time graduated from music school specializing in fortepiano.