On the 10th Anniversary of Sretensky Theological Seminary. Priest Vadim Leonov: “At Seminary, you receive the leaven which will enliven the rest of your life.”

In 1999 in Moscow’s Sretensky Monastery, a theological school was opened — Sretensky Orthodox High School, which was later reorganized as Sretensky Theological Seminary (STS). Instructors and students at STS talk about the choice of their life’s path and about their years within the walls of the seminary. Here we talk with Father Vadim Leonov, priest and instructor of Dogmatic Theology:

Father Vadim, where did you receive your (educational) formation*?

[*The usual word for “education” in Russian is “obrazovanie”, literally meaning “image-formation” — trans]

I still haven’t received my formation, but I would very much like to. “Educational formation” [literally “image-ation”] means the re-creation of the image of God in man. This goal is realizable, but is difficult to attain; or more precisely, is attainable in eternity with God. But you were probably not asking about that.

You’re right; I wanted to know where you did your studies.

Like everyone else, I first finished high school. Then, in 1984, I entered Moscow Machine-Tooling Institute; after the fourth year, I was sent for studies to the Budapest Engineering University, where I completed my training, receiving a degree from both institutions. I remember with gratitude this time of training; especially because, besides the specialty which I assimilated, there was always the possibility to travel around the world; during this time, I also managed to complete a three-year hitch in the navy. After finishing these studies, in 1993 I entered Moscow Theological Seminary; and then Moscow Theological Academy,* which I finished in 2000. [*Both are at Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra in Sergiev Pasad. A “lavra” is a large monastery-trans.]

And how did the desire to enter seminary take shape?

When I was younger, it never would have entered my head to study in a seminary because I grew as an honest, self-respecting atheist, the product of Soviet ideology. Religion seemed to me to be the outmoded product of human foolishness. Nevertheless, there was something mysteriously attractive in it, and I hoped to come to grips with it in my spare time.

In 1988 I went with some friends to Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra, for no particular reason, just to look around a bit. I remember how I went up to the fence protecting Moscow Theological Academy from unauthorized visitors, and long scrutinized the young men who were not simply on the other side but in a different world. I wanted very much to understand how they had come to be there. If one of them had come up to me then and said that in five years I myself would become a seminarian and study there, I would have thought he was out of his mind.

When I was still studying in a secular institution, I and many of my friends in the dormitory often discussed religious and philosophical questions, sometimes talking all night. I understood, inwardly sensed, that religious life is not a fantasy or illusion, that behind it is something real, but this “something” was somehow for me inaccessible.

And then came a turning point. In 1989, my friends and I traveled around the Vologda region. We stopped at St Ferapont Monastery to look at the frescoes done by Dionysius, and then to the Monastery of St Kirill-‘Belozersky’ [St Cyril of ‘White Lake’]. And when I saw the beautiful, ancient monasteries and churches, the thought occurred to me that if the Church did not have a real connection with God but was instead founded on human ignorance and delusions, then these churches would not have arisen 1500 years after the birth of Christ. Falsehood cannot long exist. Something so enduring and so infinitely beautiful could not have been founded on a fraud. And then a simple thought arose: if God exists, and He hears me as believers affirm, then I will speak to Him in my own words. If He answers somehow (but in a way fully understandable to me), then He exists. And if He doesn’t answer, then perhaps he doesn’t exist.

So at the St Kirill of White Lake Monastery, I turned to God for the first time in personal prayer and said something like, “O Lord, if You exist, I am ready to serve You and try to live according to Your commandments; but I ask you, show me in some way that You do exist and what You want.” After this prayer, the heavens didn’t part, lightning didn’t flash, and no voice resounded from heaven; but in my life there occurred an externally unnoticeable but inwardly fundamental change. The circumstances of my life began to change: new friends appeared who were “advanced” in Orthodoxy; they began to explain to me about church life, confession, and Holy Communion; they helped me get Orthodox literature (at that time mostly samizdat [self-published, underground]) such as the Bible, the Philokalia, the diary of Saint John of Kronstadt, the works of St Macarius of Egypt and other holy fathers. I began to read them avidly. And then in my life appeared friends in Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra*, and a spiritual father; a new life began. [*lavra: a large monastery]

After my fourth year at the Machine-Tooling Institute, the thought arose of entering seminary, but my spiritual father said, “You should carry everything in life through to completion; and if you are now studying in a secular educational institution, then you should finish it up; after that, if the desire hasn’t disappeared, you can enter seminary.” And that, in fact, is how it happened.

What do you remember about your years at the Seminary and Academy? Can you compare them with the present state of theological schools? What has changed during this time?

Study at the Moscow theological schools was for me the most fruitful period of my life. I had absolutely everything that I wanted. Or perhaps I wanted to have whatever it was that I had, and was therefore always completely content. I remember having only a sense of fullness of life and deep contentment. Absolutely nothing disturbed me: everything contributed to my spiritual growth. I had ideal conditions, although I slept in a room with 26 beds, and other conditions also were extremely modest. Around me were a few classmates who would grumble about this or that, but it somehow didn’t disturb me. I consider that all the good things I now enjoy are the fruit of my life at the Seminary and Academy; I always remember that period of my life with great gratitude to God and unbounded joy. If one compares study at seminary with study at a secular institution, then I can say that such a deep sense of purpose and dedication to God, I have never ever met anywhere else. At theological school, I became acquainted with people amidst both instructors and classmates who sincerely thirsted for life with Christ. They inspired me with their personal example; and looking at them, I was ashamed when I permitted myself to “take it easy:” eat a little extra, sleep a little extra….

If one were to compare study at a theological school then and now, there probably is a difference. Then, at the beginning of the 1990’s, most of the seminarians had complicated lives and a great variety of life experience; and many of them already had a higher education. You could find things to discuss with them, you could learn from them, but you could also be “infected” by them….Many of them carried about with them a lot of experience not always of the highest standards. We helped each other, were always ready to stretch out a helping hand.

Now most of the young men coming to seminary have just finished high school; this has its pluses and minuses. Without a doubt, they have not been corrupted by complex circumstances in life, haven’t made a mess of their lives as we did; but on the other hand, their life-experience is insufficient, which can be a cause of mistakes. Often such a young man, already having received a theological education, still lacks personal maturity. He’s not ready to take responsibility for his own actions, much less those of someone else. And that, in my opinion, is a problem that must be worked out.

Batiushka, who taught you at theological school?

People whom we very much respected and loved. Many of them even now are teaching: the rector there, Archbishop Evgeny, Archimandrite Matfei [i.e., Matthew] Mormyl, Professor Constantine Efimovich Skurat, Archpriest Maxim Koslov, Archpriest Valentine Asmus, Professor Alexei Constantinovich Svetozarsky, and many others. They shared with the students their personal spiritual experience and, of course, their vast theological knowledge. And for me, they have been models in my teaching.

How did you get acquainted with the rector of Sretensky Theological Seminary, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov?

I had heard about Father Tikhon, naturally, long before. When I was first beginning to learn about the Church, his name was already constantly popping up in various mass media, both secular and religious. He always impressed me with his energetic and fruitful activities. And in 2003, at the request of Sretensky’s inspector, Ambrose Ermakov, then a hieromonk and now Bishop of Gatchina Diocese and rector of the Saint Petersburg theological schools, I was invited to teach dogmatic theology at Sretensky Theological Seminary. That’s when my personal acquaintance with Archimandrite Tikhon took place, which continues to this time. Father Tikhon is very astute and wise. And he is the right man in the right place. May God give him strength to continue to be attentive with such love and care to the seminary, to its students and instructors.

From your point of view, how should Dogmatic Theology be taught?

Dogmatic theology is one of the pillars of a seminary education; and for a future priest, the foundation of his spiritual life and pastoral labors. Change in the Faith, in one’s beliefs--that is, falling away from full and correct belief in Jesus Christ and the apostolic Christian dogmas—soon leads to a fall or moral decline; this is an oft-proved fact. The goal of teaching dogmatic theology, in general, is simple: the treasure of the Orthodox faith should penetrate and permeate the student’s heart and mind. How should this be done? A very difficult problem! The truths and dogmas of the faith have a sure foundation in Holy Scripture and in the traditional understanding of Scripture and the dogmas as found in the writings of the holy fathers and witnessed to and experienced in their lives; however, if the seminarian for some reason does not have a sufficient spiritual foundation, then everything disappears like water into sand. Sometimes a student’s learning is merely formal, because he lacks the inner cornerstone of personal faith. One must have a sincere and earnest striving for a genuine spiritual life, an inner conviction of the truths of the Faith, and a direct, prayerful bond with Jesus Christ. Then a person quickly understands and perceives that Orthodox doctrine is not empty sounds or abstract formulas but the great mysteries of God…crystallized into words. Without personal spiritual labor [‘podvig’], dogmatics seems to be a boring discipline, in which case the house of the soul is founded on sand; and in difficult circumstances of life, when: “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.” [Mt 7:27]

Tell us, please, about how you give exams.

In giving exams, I don’t try to be too creative; and in general, I do it according to the standard [Russian] system*: exam-cards, questions, answers. [*standard Russian system: 20 pieces of paper [“exam-cards”] upside-down on a table near the examiner; on each exam-card is written usually 2-5 very broad but specific questions; the student draws one card, turns it over and finds out what questions he must answer. He goes to his seat and prepares his answers, which he must give orally to the examiner. Since each question usually covers an extremely broad topic, he usually has 30-60 minutes to think over and prepare his answers. If something in his answer is hazy or incomplete, the examiner is quick to pin him down.-trans.] Sometimes I add a so-called “lucky” ticket, and the seminarian who draws it is supposed to, in the presence of all his classmates, tell me—without having to answer any questions--what grade to write down for him in the official grade-sheet [that is handed into the administration]. It’s a moral test which far from everyone passes successfully. What’s the catch here? At first, when the students hear that there is such a lucky ticket, they are all eager to draw it and get a free “five” [“excellent”, “A”]. But when one of them actually gets it, it turns out he’s caught in a trap: after all, he must give himself this grade in front of all his friends and the instructor; and they all know his actual level of knowledge. And sometimes he feels ashamed; his conscience pricks him when he tries to say that he knows it “excellently”: he feels pulled in two different directions and doesn’t know what to do. And thus in the end they often tell me to write down the grade that they actually deserve and not simply the grade that they want. There was one case when, having drawn the “lucky” ticket, the student asked to draw another, ordinary one. I immediately gave him a “five”, because he had chosen an honorable way out of this sticky situation. And so, sometimes we have such an experiment. But it often happens that no one pulls that ticket.

What can you say about the alumni of Sretensky Theological Seminary? Do they differ in any way from the students of other theological schools?

Every seminary has its own personality, its own unique character, since everywhere the inner life differs. Without a doubt, in various nuances the circumstances at Sretensky differ from those at other theological institutions. The specific character is determined in many ways by the rector, in this case Father Tikhon, who relates to all the seminarians and instructors with great love. The informal, family-like surroundings immediately create a particular atmosphere. I should add that Sretensky Seminary is not so large and diverse in its student body as, for example, Moscow Seminary [at Holy-Trinity-St Sergius Lavra]. This has both positive and negative aspects. The more students, the more often one runs into outstanding individuals on one hand; and on the other hand, the more problem-students. At Sretensky, the student body is comparatively uniform. And it must be admitted that, in such a situation, work is often more productive; it’s easier to get oriented regarding the level of the students, to find a common path suitable for all of them.

Father Vadim, you have been teaching at Sretensky Seminary since 2003. How has it changed?

It seems to me that there is a more serious attitude toward study and toward scholarly research. Year by year the level is being raised; but of course I know that this trend is found in all the theological schools of the Russian Orthodox Church. Also I see a common, general spiritual maturing in the students of all years simultaneously. I think that this is connected with higher entrance requirements and that the majority know why they are coming to seminary and what they want. This maturing is also a fruit of effective administration. And there are probably other causes. It also seems to me that the results Sretensky seminarians are showing is becoming better every year both as students and as human beings.

Please share with us your impressions of Sretensky’s faculty [teaching staff].

It seems to me, thanks especially to the efforts of the rector Archimandrite Tikhon, that the teaching staff of Sretensky Seminary is one of the best amongst the teaching institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church, both in the level of knowledge and in pedagogical skill. The conditions for seminarians here are all but ideal. But “to whom much is given, of him much shall be required.” [Luke 12:48]

What kind of impressions and memories do you have of Sretensky alumni?

I sincerely love all of them. And when we meet, I have the feeling that they remember the seminary with warmth and gratitude. I would like to wish all our graduates success and the help of God in their service to the Church. If I offended any of them with my strictness or any other way—I ask forgiveness. It seems to me that love combined with the proper degree of strictness brings forth the best fruit.

What qualities, in your view, does seminary cultivate?

Seminary prepares people for service in God’s Church and cultivates the corresponding set of qualities. It seems to me that seminary, first of all, gives a person a clear understanding of what service in the Church is, with all its positive sides, and also a proper understanding of all the difficulties. Often people entering a theological school still aren’t aware of a lot of things. Being immersed in a seminary environment, they come to understand that here one finds not only magnificent church-services and fellowship in love and oneness of mind, but also a particular set of inner trials and temptations. A person has to examine himself, decide if he is willing to put up with the downside. If he really goes through this school with its attendant trials and self-examination, he receives a leavening which will enliven his whole subsequent church life. By the time he finishes seminary, church-life should have become his ‘natural habitat’, congenial to his heart, notwithstanding its inevitable frustrations, trials and temptations.

[Small changes in the English version of this interview were made with the blessing of Father Vadim after personal conversation with him. — trans.]


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