To become a hieromonk, to serve in the Russian Church, to conduct services in Church Slavonic and to establish a Russian Orthodox mission in a non-Orthodox country—all this Father Nektary (Haji-Petropoulos) was able to accomplish with the blessing and urging of Metropolitan Laurus (Škurla), the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Fr. Nektary, now Rector of the Russian Holy Trinity Monastery in Mexico City, reminisces about the spiritual and life lessons he received from Vladyka.
Vladyka Laurus (Škurla), and Father Nektary (Haji-Petropoulos) Vladyka Laurus and I knew one another for a short time; he lived in New York, while I never lived there until I came to the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville. But during the seven or eight months that I stayed in the monastery, I happened to see him every day, and if I may say so, we got to know one another. By simply observing him, being next to him and gaining experience from a righteous monk—all this allowed me to learn a great deal and get the feel of the monastic lifestyle.
I came to Jordanville to study the Church Slavonic language, liturgics, the Russian Church tradition, and the Russian Typikon. Besides, I was getting ready to be ordained a priest there. But when you are staying in a foreign monastery, you are simply treated as a foreigner. You don’t belong to this monastery, and quite possibly, the monks may not even speak to you.
At first, I really felt like the brotherhood didn’t really welcome me. More than once, I thought, “Is this really where I am supposed to be right now?” I’d been a monk for a while by then, but it still seemed like they were ill disposed towards me there.
I saw that Vladyka Laurus behaves in every situation like an ordinary monk
But then I saw that Vladyka Laurus—a righteous man—behaves everywhere like an ordinary monk. That helped me to realize that I probably had set my expectations of the monastery too high, and maybe the problem is me. I should have had no illusions but rather have done what was expected of me, and tried to study, because this was my main goal there. I had to accept everything around me.
I think that even simply observing this monk helped be to become a more humble man.
At the time, I was probably the only schemamonk in Jordanville—before my ordination. But still, I didn’t even have my own place in the refectory there. At first I tried to sit next to the stavrophore monks, but their table had no empty space. Then, I sat down with the ryassophore monks, but they told me: “No, you can’t sit here.” And so I had to go and sit with the seminarians, who said: “Father, you may sit here, but you really should sit with the monastics.”
Thus, it took me a while to find a place there. But I was observing the table where Vladyka Laurus was seated. He would often be served special meals. Despite this, he ate little—no more than a few spoonfuls, leaving the rest for other priests seated next to him.
One day, I happened to be in the kitchen on obedience and so I asked, “Do you cook anything special for the Metropolitan?” I was told, “Nothing special. The Metropolitan is truly a humble man, he won’t grumble about his food. Others might, but never the Vladyka—he will eat anything we offer him.”
I had this opportunity to observe Vladyka Laurus for a long time. Sometimes he had to leave and visit a parish, one of the clergy, or hierarchs from other jurisdictions. And I heard many monastics say, “We don’t feel safe; it’s because the Metropolitan is gone.”
It is true—whenever the Metropolitan was gone, the monastery had temptations. During those moments, accidents would eventually happen. For example, there would be a car accident, or some stranger would sneak in and steal things—there would always be an incident of some kind. The power of this righteous man’s prayer protected us, so whenever he was gone, I felt unsafe. And so I kept asking whether the Metropolitan was around. If he was in, it meant that everything was fine, and we were safe.
The power of prayer of this righteous man protected us, so whenever he was gone, I felt unsafe
It was imperative for me to see him in church—every day. Just to feel his presence.
I remember finding out one day that Vladyka comes to the chapel where the seminarians have their morning prayers in order to pray with them. I think he thus hoped to surprise them. It was six o’clock in the morning. He went in and left immediately, because there was no one there yet. Everyone was still asleep. I saw how sad he looked; the rule was that the seminarians would pray in the chapel and then participate in the Liturgy. But they were still in their beds not suspecting that the Metropolitan had come to join them in prayer.
But he never said anything to anyone—I just happened to witness this situation by chance. And I can assume that he visited the chapel often.
There were times, like the one described above, when Vladyka did get upset. But I never heard of him punishing anyone. Usually, when the seminarians and the monks had disagreements, Vladyka would simply watch with sadness but he’d continue to pray with his prayer rope. I can recall only one occasion when he demanded that one of the monks ask forgiveness from a seminarian. This priest was treating the student rather harshly inside the altar, so Vladyka simply told him quietly, “Father, you must ask for forgiveness.”
I learned a lot when I had to combine my studies at the seminary with getting ready for ordination as a hierodeacon, and later a hieromonk. I must confess that it was a really physically demanding time. For forty days I had to conduct services every day. Followed by yet another forty days.
Just imagine it—I had to get up every day at three a.m. and go to the church to read my prayers, along with dozens and dozens of commemoration lists. We’d start by serving Matins, then a Litya for the reposed followed by Hours, and only then the Liturgy.
At the end of the Liturgy, all the seminarians would immediately go to the refectory and have breakfast. It would be about a quarter past seven. But since I was the only priest serving, I had to stay behind to consume the remaining Holy Gifts, place everything back in its place and clean up the church. I was able to finish it all by eight a.m., when there was no one left in the refectory. I had to rush right away to the seminary since the studies had already started. I was always ten to fifteen minutes late.
Our classes ended at noon, and we had lunch. It would be over at half past twelve, and I had about half an hour to go back to my cell for personal time, but in another half an hour, I had to go to the library for my obedience. I worked there till three in the afternoon, and fifteen minutes later, I would already begin the Vigil at church, which would typically last for three hours. After that everyone went to the refectory for supper, but I had to go to another church to begin a new evening service there at a quarter past six.
Therefore, I was only able to grab a meal once, at my lunch hour. I didn’t have breakfast or supper, because I served at church ten to eleven hours a day and worked in the library, aside from attending classes at the seminary and doing my coursework. It went on like that on a daily basis for a long time. I lost weight and looked like a stick. It was probably an almost unbearable workload for anyone, because I had to take care of so many different things.
As I had to serve and partake of Communion every day, I had to read the preparatory canons every day, too. I would start the reading around eleven in the evening. And by three in the afternoon, I would be up again getting ready for serving at church.
Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville
I was under so much pressure that I often skipped lunch in the refectory: I needed that extra half-hour just to stay alone and rest. So, I would often skip meals completely throughout the day—and this happened more than once. I would just walk to the lake, sit down and pray there with prayer beads. Such was my life in Jordanville.
Of course, it was hard, but I understand now that it was also wonderful. Truly, a great time! It’s true that if I had to do it again today at the same pace, my health wouldn’t allow it. I’m not that young anymore. And so if it was hard then, it would be almost impossible today.
For some time, I didn’t know whether I was going to be ordained or not. I once asked my archpastor about it and he said that it all depends on the Metropolitan. I really wanted to understand what I was supposed to do—I was there for only one semester and had to choose: either to go back home or stay in Jordanville.
I talked to Archimandrite Luke (Murianka), who is now a bishop, but at the time dean of the seminary. He told me that it would be nice if I joined their brotherhood.
Metropolitan Laurus (Škurla) of Eastern America and New York But then I got a call from Vladyka Laurus. Obviously, I felt uneasy; just think of it, you get a call from the Metropolitan, and you are immediately overcome with the idea that you must have done something wrong. But he said, “Batiushka, I would like to know a little more about you.” He asked me how long ago I was tonsured, and what my obedience was like. I told him everything, that I serve in Mexico City in a secular capacity at the university, that I studied medicine but had never practiced it. Then, Vladyka asked, “Good. What do you plan to do?” I said that have no plans, but my archpastor sent to me to Jordanville to study the Russian Church tradition. The Metropolitan said: “That’s good, everything is in God’s hands.” And that was all he said. He didn’t say anything else at the time. But the next day Fr. Luke asked me to sign the documents that had to do with my ordination as hierodeacon.
The time of my ordination had come and I came to have confession, just as Vladyka Laurus had suggested. He said: “It will be a long confession, because you will be ordained tomorrow.”
I experienced great difficulties at the time, as I was still unable to serve in Church Slavonic. I knew the letters, but I still couldn’t read it, since I had no practice. So I asked, “What language should I serve in?” It was suggested that I do it in Spanish, but I replied, “Of course, I speak Spanish, but I also know English and would prefer to serve in that language. I know a lot of English service books, and it would be easier for me.” Besides, I knew how to conduct a service in Greek, but never in Spanish.
As a result, I had to serve in English, but it was still quite complicated: I had to learn so many new things in a very short time. It was hard, because apart from my work in the monastery, I also studied at the seminary. On top of all that, I couldn’t grasp several elements of the service because the priests explained them in Russian. I tried to understand, but I failed. I served with the help of the liturgical books, but there were times when I forgot them at the altar. In those moments, I was afraid that the priest would get angry with me.
Vladyka Laurus once realized that I had left a book behind. I told the priest, “I am sorry I forgot my book. May I go and retrieve it?” I returned, the Metropolitan was there, and so I explained, “Vladyka, I am sorry I forgot the book here.” Then he asked, “Don’t you know all the ectenias “by heart”?” I replied that I was transferred from the Greek Church and I know them all in Greek but not in English. Vladyka then said, “That’s good, then read them in Greek. It will sound even better than in English. If it’s easier for you, simply read in Greek.”
I knew the service by heart in Greek and didn’t need any books, and that made my life much easier. And then I learned that Vladyka told one of the hieromonks about me: “He studies so much, it’s so hard for him, because everyone around him speaks Russian, but he doesn’t speak it. I allowed him to read the ectenias in Greek.”
By the end of my forty days, I overheard him talking about me: “He does everything beautifully. Every step he does is just perfect. He already knows how to serve. But he cares so much about the service—when will he find time to pray? He puts so much effort into worship! That’s fine, but when will he find time to just pray?”
That’s when I realized that Vladyka Laurus cares much more about my prayer life than about me serving. This revelation, along with the entire time I spent in Jordanville near him, truly helped me to “mature” in the spiritual sense. It was a worthy example for me. The First Hierarch was primarily concerned how I prayed, and only then how I conducted a service. It is truly remarkable, simply amazing!
The Metropolitan later asked me to be vigilant and pay attention to things around me. I asked him, “Why?” “Because you may encounter many temptations.” I didn’t understand at the time why he said this, but later I had an accident. It was December and the weather was freezing. I was going down the stairs on my way to church. The pathway was covered with ice, so I slipped and fell. I even had to go to the hospital. Only then did I realize that Vladyka Laurus was correct: I had to be very careful.
At that time, no one had told me that I would be ordained a hieromonk. I realized it only later that Vladyka thus tried to warn me: "Be careful, because you will be ordained.” He didn't say anything in words, but I later realized what he exactly meant to say.
In reality, Vladyka wasn’t someone who spoke at length. But he surely always noticed everything and took care of everything.
Even my return to Mexico was due to his decision and care. On the first anniversary of the death of Bishop Alexander (Mileant) of Buenos Aires and South America, his sister and other people from South America came to Jordanville. It was when Metropolitan Laurus received a letter from Mexico addressed to Bishop Alexander. He received it shortly before his death, but never opened it himself because he was already too ill. Therefore, Vladyka Laurus had read it.
Several Russian families had written this letter asking Bishop Alexander to start a Russian Orthodox mission in Mexico.
At that time, I was already contemplating moving permanently to Jordanville, along with two more monks from our community. I thought that as a large monastery it always needed people, and it would be beneficial equally for the brethren and us. I shared my thoughts with Vladyka Laurus. He didn't say anything right away, but later replied, “Father Nektary, you have already served as a monk and a hieromonk. What are your plans now?” I told him that with his blessing, I would like to go to Mexico and then to San Francisco and speak with the ruling diocesan archpastor about the possibility of staying in Jordanville. But the Metropolitan said, “I have received a letter addressed to Vladyka Alexander. People are asking us to start a Russian mission in Mexico City. I think you need to go back and start that mission."
“I think it is what God wills to do. You are the only one who can start this mission in Mexico,” Vladyka said
I said it would be very difficult, since I have nothing there. Sure, there are two other monks, but there is no building for the mission, nor any understanding of how to do it in general. Besides, many local Orthodox knew me as someone who belonged to the Constantinople Patriarchate. Now I’m in the Russian Church, so if I start a Russian mission there, they won’t like it. Besides, I didn't have a job there, didn’t know any Russians and had no idea where to start. Vladyka replied, “You have our prayers. I have prayed about it, and I think it is God's will. You are the only person who can start this mission in Mexico—you are a hieromonk, you practiced here with us in Jordanville for a while, you know the country and the language. Go back to Mexico City and open a monastery there—the people there need a Russian church.”
It didn’t take long for me to accept this decision. I was open to the will of God, and when the Metropolitan said, “You have our prayers,” all I could do was to say, “Yes, that's what God wants.” It’s not what I aspired to do, it looked different, but if I have the Metropolitan’s blessing and his prayers, I simply have to accept it. And so I answered, “Yes, Vladyka, I will do everything as you told me.”
Vladyka blessed me to go to San Francisco to tell my archpastor that I was assigned to travel to Mexico City and open a monastery there. And that’s how it happened: I returned to Mexico, told the brotherhood about the news, and they accepted everything.
Archimandrite Nektary (Haji-Petropoulos)
The Metropolitan took care of our mission even in the smallest details. I remember once saying to him, “Vladyka, I don’t have any vestments for worship. How can I minister in Mexico?” He replied, “Don’t worry!” and later we were given some vestments.
Vladyka gave many instructions about what not to do during the service, explaining how important it was to always follow the rules. He said that if you neglect them once, you will continue making that mistake over and over again, “You are to learn the rules and serve as it is supposed to be done.”
He also blessed me to return to Jordanville as soon as possible, during Great Lent, and learn how to conduct Lenten services and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. That’s what I did: I came back to the monastery and served during the entire first week of Lent. Once again, these were really long services (laughs). Typically several priests serve, but I was all by myself again.
One day before the All-Night Vigil, I developed such a bad migraine that nothing could relieve the pain. I told Archimandrite Luke (Murianka) about it, and he said—no problem. But later he said, “Vladyka Laurus is really worried about you, you should go to church. Since you feel ill, you can sit during the service, but you must be there, because tomorrow you will celebrate the liturgy.” My migraine was so intense that I had to close my eyes from time to time. But I stayed in church for the whole service.
Every recommendation and every example by Vladyka Laurus had a profound effect on me
These are seemingly mundane episodes, but every recommendation, every example of Bishop Laurus had a truly profound effect on me. He was the living example of a holy man. Holding a lofty position of a First Hierarch of the Church, he lived the life of a simple monk immersed in prayer.
Once Vladyka Laurus said to me, “Father Nektary, I want to visit Mexico. God willing, I will be able to come. But if not, please continue to serve.” Then I told him that I was already serving in Church Slavonic and he replied, “That's wonderful, because you came to Jordanville to learn and to become a Russian priest.”
It so happened that on the very day that Vladyka Laurus died, I arrived in the United States for a clergy conference in San Francisco. It hadn’t been too long since I had left Jordanville, so a lot of the seminarians with whom I had developed good fellowship still remembered me. I learned of the sorrowful news almost immediately.
I wanted to travel to Jordanville to pay my last respects to the Metropolitan. But I was on a tight budget, and besides, New York City, my destination, just had a heavy snowfall. I would be able to make it to the Synod in Manhattan, but never to Jordanville. As a result, I couldn’t attend the Vladyka’s funeral, a decision I later regretted.
When I called one of the seminarians, he told me, "Yes, Vladyka Laurus has died. When he didn't come to the Liturgy, we were worried. Two seminarians went to look for him and saw his breathless body. His face looked so calm, and so beautiful! We all thought, ‘Should we pray for him or to him?’"
That’s when I realized that I should pray to him as well. Because he was a holy man. And now I definitely feel his presence in my life. One day Bishop Luke brought prayer beads that once belonged to Bishop Laurus. I used them while praying and feel a connection with him. I know that his prayers protect us. I also know that he us praying for us, for our mission in Mexico. And his example will live in my heart for the rest of my life.