The Sviatogorsk Lavra is one of the Orthodox treasures of eastern Ukraine. Situated on the high banks of the Seversky Donetsk River in Donetsk region, it was frequented by the future St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco, who was born and raised not far from there. Located as it is in the Donetsk region, it has received refugees from the war back in 2014 after Ukrainian forces began shelling the breakaway republic. With the Russian “special operation” and the Ukrainian army’s response, the Lavra has found itself under fire. In the months of May and June, 2022, it lost several brothers to artillery shelling from the Ukrainian forces, and one of its sketes was burned down.
To honor the heroism and suffering of this famous monastery, we have translated an interview with the abbot, Metropolitan Arseny (Yakovenko) from more peaceful times, in 2012.
On the internet and social media
All means of communication are good. But a monk is a citizen of the Heavenly Fatherland. As the Holy Fathers say, for a monk the earthly fatherland is protected by the monastery walls, and his only link to the world is prayer for the world.
Of course, we can allow monastics everything. But will they then be monastics, and will the monastic podvig be useful both for the Church and for the whole of society? A monk must protect himself as much as possible from everything that can distract his soul from communion with God. We do have access to the internet, but only in the monastery office.
I will give a simple example. A pair of sweethearts always try to be alone. They are not bored with each other, they do not need the internet, they do not need crowds of people around them, they do not need any other entertainment. They are self-sufficient because they love each other. The same applies to monks. God is real, He loves us and demands our love. When the soul of a person and God meet, then people go into seclusion for seventeen years, like St. John the Recluse of the Sviatogorsk Monastery [1795–1867; commemorated August 24.—Trans.], because they are not bored with God…
I was born to a family that loved old folk songs, as in our ancient village. One day as a novice in a cell, I asked my father-confessor:
“Father, can a clergyman sing folk songs?”
“What songs do you sing?”
“Galya is Carrying Water, Beyond a Green Meadow...”
“Well, sing Beyond a Green Meadow to me.”
I was only too glad to sing it. And he said:
“Interesting... We sang like that on our farm as well. As long as a person is not spiritual, he must strive for morality. That is, sing moral songs, listen to moral music, read moral books and watch moral films. When he establishes himself on this path of morality and begins to strive for spirituality, all this will be pushed to the sidelines. Likewise, a young man gets interested in cars, motorcycles, and ATVs—and plastic toys are simply no longer interesting to him.” We should not talk about whether it is possible or impossible to use the internet, but about whether life needs it.
I use a cellphone, but I only take it on journeys. When in the monastery, I don’t even take it in my hands. As His Holiness Patriarch Alexei II said, “There is a phone in my office and a phone in my car, but I have no cellphone. Why get attached to a phone?”
Many statesmen coming to the Lavra say:
“Why should we contact you through an assistant, Vladyka? Allow us to give you a cellphone.”
“You are a superior, and it is more convenient to manage things this way.”
I gave them an example:
“Were there cellphones after the Great Patriotic War?”
“But all the cities were restored, collective farms and state farms opened, and roads were built. Now that cellphones have appeared, it is convenient to manage and control with them, but we see the collapse of municipal services and enterprises, fields and collective farms are overgrown with weeds, and cowsheds look as if they had been bombed, to say nothing of roads.
“Besides, given that there is so much mess on the internet, a soul that is not spiritually strong can be tempted. Many people who visit us say that their families have even fallen apart because of this. A person is so addicted to social media that he forgets not only about God—he forgets about his children, wife, duties, and eventually even forgets to eat. Civilization is good, but it is very important to stop in time.”
On unusual sketes and St. John of Shanghai’s armchair
There is the wooden All Saints’ Skete on the territory of the Sviatogorsk Lavra. [This is the skete that was recently burned down, as locals say, by the retreating Ukrainian army.—OC.] Wooden architecture in our region was completely lost, because wooden churches were first to be destroyed—they were dismantled for firewood.
There were plenty of wooden churches in Slobozhanshchina [a historical region in what is now northeastern Ukraine and southwestern Russia.—Trans.], especially along the Seversky Donets River. Unfortunately they have not been preserved, but, of course I would like to revive wooden architecture for churches. Since Ukrainian wooden architecture in the Baroque style has survived only in Western Ukraine, and in Russia you can rarely see it (there are museums near Novgorod, in Suzdal and Kostroma), we could not but show such beauty as a component of our Orthodox culture. So we built a wooden skete in the style of the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. The brethren designed it.
There are also sketes outside the Lavra: a skete in the village of Bogorodichnoye [this skete also suffered great damage in the war—OC], St. George’s Skete in the village of Dolina and a skete in the village of Adamovka—the birthplace of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.
The place where St. John’s parents’ house stood was precisely in Adamovka. His parents lived in the Sviatogorsk area for a long time, and as a teenager he would run across the mountain to the services, dress his toy soldiers as monks and play in the monastery. Then his parents’ house was ruined, but the nobleman’s garden of the Maximovitches survives to this day. In this garden we are now building a church in honor of St. John.
The Lord sent us consolation: A family from Seattle handed to us the armchair in which St. John reposed. They had kept this armchair for thirty years—the older members of the family were St. John’s spiritual children, and their son Sergei as a fifteen-year-old boy carried the bishop’s staff in front of the deceased saint’s coffin. When Sergei’s parents passed away, he began to doubt: “Maybe the saint’s belongings should not be sent there, but left in ROCOR as a relic?” But at night his parents appeared to him in a dream and said, “Send it, and don’t doubt.” He, his wife and the dean of the San Francisco Cathedral, Father Peter Perekrestov (we maintain warm relations with them), brought the armchair here.
Locals have a great veneration for St. John. Only 150 people live in the village, but about 400 or more attend services on his feast-days. And it is in a remote village! People flock there from everywhere.
We also have a skete in the village of Karmazinovka in the Svatovo district of the Lugansk region, the Diocese of Severodonetsk and Starobelsk. Once Bishop Agapit (Bevtsik) came to us and said, “Vladyka, in our diocese we have ten churches in villages, which we are unlikely to ever restore, because there are practically no people left in the villages. These churches are like cathedrals, but they are ruined.” Bishop Agapit and I talked, and he made the official transfer of the church to the Sviatogorsk Lavra.
We have already restored the church outside and inside, raised the bells, installed heating, and are building the brethren’s cells. Occasionally we go and celebrate the Liturgy there. The locals are very good people—there are never fewer than 200 people at services. When we examined the village’s history, it turned out that Old Believers had lived there, and in 1871 they had adopted Edinoverie.1 Perhaps this accounts for the fact that many men attend services there (surely half the church), while in our time a larger percentage of parishioners are women.
On Orthodox journalism
There are so many of you in the hall, which means that Orthodox journalism is developing. This is a consequence of the fact that our society is becoming closer to the Church, that there is a need to convey to people what they (journalists) themselves have felt closely. This is good.
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Mt. 5:48). The limits of perfection have not been established, but each one of us needs to actively participate in the life of the Church and its sacraments of confession and Communion. The more we revive our souls and purify our hearts, the more likely will be that from the pure treasury of our hearts we will be able to give people something pure. Because the Spirit creates a form—both verbal form, and that of a newspaper article.
As Elder Paisios the Hagiorite said, people are figuratively divided into bees and flies. A bee flies into a garbage heap, finds a flower in the corner and drinks nectar. And a fly flies into a flowering garden, finds a garbage dump in the corner and feeds on it. So we can be either flies or bees. It depends on our inner state, on the purity of our thoughts. Without Me ye can do nothing (Jn. 15:5), the Lord said. We often cannot force ourselves to do good because of our passions and sinfulness, still less inspire do we someone else... We must ourselves first learn something.
As St. Ambrose of Optina said, “Know yourself and that will suffice.” It may seem to be a call for egoism—to pay attention only to yourself. However, Tsar Peter I said: “I rule the Russian Empire, but I cannot conquer myself.” If we learn to control ourselves and acquire spiritual purity of heart, then from our experience of communion with God, a drop of living water, which can revive others, will be poured out in the media.
As the Lord said, He that believeth on Me…, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water (Jn. 7:38). With the help of God, try to carry this living water.
On media and cooperation
We have a person responsible for relations with the media (he is standing with a camera)—Igumen Lazar (Tereshchenko).
We are open to everyone—correspondents have and still come to us. We try to share with them what good we have, but it happens in different ways.
One day a woman correspondent arrived and talked to me—such a good person and not foreign to the Church. She wrote an article, but once I read the title, I exclaimed: “Lord, have mercy!” The article was good, but the title read, “Indian Summer [in Russian, “Indian summer” is “babye leto”, which means “women’s summer”.—Trans.] was burning out in a men’s Monastery.”
To avoid such incidents we are always willing to cooperate with sensible correspondents and media. We cooperate with Ukrainian, Russian, Serbian, Romanian and Polish media...
On the revival of the village, agriculture and the East-West
We have our own cowsheds, an apiary, poultry yards, sewing workshops and a gold-embroidering shop—not only monks and nuns are involved in them, but also many rural young men and women. Secular locals are always helpers—we need to work the fields, plant out seedlings, make hay—and these are additional jobs. But we do not focus only on agriculture. For example, we have preserved a school in the village of Dolina and kept the positions of teachers. In Adamovka we are planning to build a kindergarten and open a store there. These are jobs too, which can inspire young people to stay. We also intend to start our own fish farm...
I want to express special gratitude to the Volhynians. We are on very good terms with Vladyka Nifont [Metropolitan Nifont (Solodukha) of Lutsk and Volhynia (1948-2017).—Trans.]. The Volhynians and Rivne people have long been suppliers of potatoes to our Lavra. We once studied at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra seminary with them, and now they annually supply us with fifty or more tons of potatoes, collecting them in their Volhynian villages. They come here in pilgrimage groups, we receive them as our kin, and for them the Sviatogorsk Lavra is a second home.
This is our answer to those who are trying to divide us or convince us that we are divided: “Let’s unite—the east and the west.” But we have not been separated! For example, I have never thought that Volhynia and the Rivne region are foreign to Eastern Ukraine. We have very good relations to this day. We met the priests during our studies, and now we are friends. If there is any trouble, we ask for each other’s prayers; if someone passes away, we pray for his repose.
On literature and reading
I lived at a time when there was no literature, when we cherished one surviving booklet as the greatest treasure. A pre-revolutionary Psalter or prayer book was such a treasure for us that we did not know where to keep it. The first printed editions appeared when I was in the seminary. Then St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)’s works in paperback and the Life of Elder Silouan of Mt. Athos were published. I was the class monitor, we were given books strictly according to the number of students, and I gave each one a booklet against a receipt.
The current situation with books can only be assessed by someone who experienced a spiritual “book famine”. Every human being has his own spiritual state. We convey to people what we have. A man can do no more than he can—you won’t write at St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)’s level if you have only been in the Church for two years. I would like all books to be published after double-checking and with discernment so there would be no frivolous publishing houses and literature.
I am an inquisitive person. I am interested in icon painting, architecture, literature... But you can’t embrace the unembraceable. When St. John of Kronstadt received bags of letters with prayer requests, he would lie down on them on his chest and say: “Lord, remember these poor people, because I am not strong enough.” That’s how I would fall onto books...
But I try to read something when I can. Father Lazar, my cell-attendant, knows that I always have a whole stack of books on my bedside table. Reading such literature is necessary to keep your head above water spiritually.
I read modern spiritual newspapers and magazines—sometimes with tender emotion, sometimes critically. I would like some of their authors not to impose their wild fantasies on people.
On the liturgical language
The liturgical language is a common language for all the Slavic peoples. For example, when Serbs, Bulgarians or Poles visit us, we serve in Church Slavonic with them, and no one says that we need to serve in Polish or Serbian.
Do I think that if the Psalter is translated into Ukrainian or Russian, everyone will run to church, and churches will be packed? No.
One priest said: “You go to Turkey—do you understand everything there? You go to Poland for clothes, and everything is clear to you there. But Church Slavonic is incomprehensible to you here?”
I’ll give you an example. I recently had to go to Germany for health reasons. A young Muslim lady from Ufa, who had been living in Germany for fifteen years and currently works in the clinic where I was undergoing rehabilitation, asked me for advice. She is very sincere and open-hearted.
Then she came to us at the Sviatogorsk Lavra and attended a service for the first time. We did not force her to be baptized—we just talked. She then herself asked to be baptized, and we baptized her here. Now she sings in the choir of the Transfiguration Church in Baden-Baden. But the lady had never been to church before then. Never.
When she came to us, she attended a service. I said to her: “Albina, our dinner is at 20:00. Come after the service—we’ll have dinner together and talk.” At 20:00 Albina still wasn’t here; neither did she return at 20:30. Our service ends at 19:30 and is followed by the brethren’s evening canons and prayers—rather monotonous reading without any entertaining moments. But there was still no trace of Albina. I sent Father Ipaty to look for her. And he found Albina... in the church.
She said, “What time is it now?” He replied, “It’s already nine. Vladyka has been waiting for you for dinner for an hour.” She came and said: “I came to the service and for the first hour and a half I didn’t understand anything, and then it was as if these words had begun to flow into my heart, not just into my head. I forgot about everything. As I stood I could not get enough of these words, which, like water, were pouring and pouring into me. I was feeling so good that I didn’t want to leave.” She stood at the service for four hours and did not notice it. This is what happens when a person comes to church with an open heart and love for God. An unbaptized person, mind you. Then the Lord converted her. Father Ipaty’s mother is her godmother…
I had a neighbor named Ulyana, aged ninety-six, who died four years ago. She had an old “Kiev Psalter” (in the USSR it was a rarity) which had almost fallen apart. She came to me (I was still a layman) and said, “Fyodorovich, take my Psalter and glue it.” I took it home. On the second day, while I was smoothing out each page, my neighbor came again and said, “Fyodorovich, haven’t you glued the Psalter together yet?”
“Give it back to me. It seems that if I live one more day without my Psalter, I will die. I am so used to reading it every day.”
This is how illiterate, unbaptized people love Church Slavonic.
You will notice that priests who adhere to the old tradition and strict discipline usually have full-fledged parishes. And those who use innovative methods, no matter how hard they try to attract someone, do not succeed. There were Renovationists who served in Russian, and now the autocephalists2 celebrate in Ukrainian. So what? Nothing.
A woman came to us and said: “I don’t understand Church Slavonic, but I’m used to everything in the Church being somehow Church-like. When I came to one church, I heard them singing like women in a beet field. I didn’t like anything there...”
Note that during the periods of schism people went to the churches where Church Slavonic was used. No one went to the Renovationists, no matter how hard they tried to innovate. Moreover, with the loss of Church Slavonic we will lose another component of our national culture, and we have already lost very much.
On the brightest moments and “army” Pascha
The brightest moment in my monastic life was the tonsure, which I was looking forward to. I remember that when I was still studying at the seminary I came to my father-confessor for holidays and said that I very much wanted to be tonsured. He answered me, “Do you want to be tonsured? Wait till you want it even more!”
The brightest day of my life in the world was Pascha in the army. For two years I served as a sergeant in a training unit for young conscripts. There we had a very strict colonel, and his strictness, as is always in the army, was often accompanied by strong words; but he was fair.
At Pascha I was a duty sergeant in a battery. On Sundays there were usually no officers except for the officer on duty. And then I heard: “Battery, fall in! Attention! Stand at ease!” I thought, “The colonel has come.”
We were not allowed to go on leave at Pascha. On such days there were many drunkards in the city, so we avoided getting into trouble. So I had to run to church by going AWOL. (I ran to the parish of the reposed Father Benjamin, an excellent priest who had served fifteen years hard labor.)
So, he shouted: “Battery duty officer, quickly to the division commander!” I thought, “What does he want from me? At Pascha they didn’t let me go on leave...” With such a mood I went into his office.
“Comrade Colonel! Sergeant Yakovenko has arrived on your orders!” He asked me, “Is it Pascha today?” I answered, “Yes, Comrade Colonel!” He repeated, “It’s Pascha today, right?” “It is, Comrade Colonel...” The colonel opened a drawer, took out a colored egg and said, “Christ is Risen! Go and don’t tell anyone!”
Even if it had been a bolt from the blue, I would not have been as surprised as by that Paschal egg received from him, because it was under the godless regime. I said, “Truly He is Risen, Comrade Colonel!” I then had such Paschal joy that I don’t know if there would ever be another like that...
On theological schools and teachers of the “old” generation
We are thinking of opening an educational institution for novices, newcomers to the Lavra. Classes will be held three times a week separately from obedience, and at them we will identify the brethren capable of teaching. Then we will gradually set up a theological school at the cathedral in Sviatogorsk, currently under construction, and then—as God wills. We can’t just put up a sign that a theological seminary is open…
If we set up a new theological educational institution, not only is infrastructure needed (bedrooms, classrooms, a library, a reading room, a canteen)—it is very important to have teaching staff who read spiritual subjects at a serious level. Unfortunately, sometimes theological schools open in which the level of teaching leaves much to be desired. But I believe that if you take on something, you need to do everything gradually and thoughtfully.
Maybe I take this so seriously because I saw the teachers of the “old” theological school—Mark Kharitonovich Trofimchuk and Ivan Alexandrovich Glukhov. These were elders, whose example of life corresponded to what they taught. Ivan Alexandrovich Glukhov lived all seventy years of his life like a true ascetic. His mother was monastic-loving, very strict, and attended all services at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. I had a friend, Petya Grigorak, at the theological school (his brother, Father Dimitry, now serves in a church in Troyeshchina [a large neighborhood of Kiev.—Trans.]), who performed his obedience in a joiner’s workshop.
Once Ivan Alexandrovich came to him and said, “Petya, do you have some nails? I need to do some work at home.” Without hesitation he poured nails into a bag and wrapped it up. The next day Petya came to me in tears and said:
“This morning, even before classes, Ivan Alexandrovich Glukhov came and said, ‘Petya, please take the nails back.’
“‘Do you need other nails?’
“‘No. When I came home [he was already about seventy.—Auth.], my mother said, ‘How dare you take nails from St. Sergius’ Monastery? Poor people bring their last pennies from their pensions there. Do you have no money, that you have to take them from the Lavra? Take them back.’”
And Ivan Alexandrovich, having worked for decades for the good of the Church and trained many bishops, brought the nails back and gave them to the joiner’s workshop.
I also recall Mark Kharitonovich, a choir-director of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra... We youths always had fun, even at services, and we sometimes viewed kathismas as an intermission in the service. Once we were standing and whispering during a kathisma. And Mark Kharitonovich said: “Brothers, why aren’t you listening to the litany? What words are said there: ‘Help us; save us; have mercy on us; and keep us, O God, by Thy grace.’ The litany is short, but what is its meaning? It’s what we ask God for...” His words stuck in my memory for the rest of my life.
This is what teaching was like! They did not even share what was in their minds, but rather what was in their hearts.
It is very important for us not only to convey to the younger generation the dogmas of the Church, but to be able to convey what those people, without renouncing God, went to hard labor and executions for. To steadfastness in the faith and reverence for church life.
P.S. It is not surprising that we Orthodox journalists left the Sviatogorsk Lavra with many impressions, thoughts and gifts, and even reluctantly. By the way, according to the results of the fifth Orthodox Media Festival, Archbishop Arseny of Sviatogorsk became the winner of the FestSMI in the nomination, “For an Indelible Impression of the Positive Image of an Orthodox Archpastor, and Spiritual Discernment.”
June 26, 2012