An interview with Archimandrite Athanasius (Nos), abbot of the monastery of St. Onuphrius the Great in Jabłeczna, Poland.
Archimandrite Athanasius (Nos) has two obediences in the Church: he is the abbot of the famous monastery of St. Onuphrius in Jabłeczna, and the dean of all Orthodox monasteries in Poland. Although the number of Orthodox monasteries is small here, the Polish Orthodox Church does have something to be proud of. “Monasteries in Poland are proof that our Church is alive,” Fr. Athanasius emphasizes. “Although there are only a hundred monks and not a thousand, we can be proud of our growth.”
* * *
—The monastery of St. Onuphrius the Great in Jabłeczna is the only Orthodox monastery in Poland that has stravropegal status. The first thing a visitor sees here is the inscription by the gates, which states that this monastery has preserved the true Orthodox faith since the fifteenth century. Fr. Athanasius, how did this monastery come into being?
—There is a tradition which tells of how this monastery came about. It says that an icon of St. Onuphrius the Great, our monastery’s patron saint, floated here along the Bug River. Even before that, St. Onuphrius appeared to some fishermen and foretold to them that his name would be glorified at this place. After some time had passed, the same fishermen found the icon of the saint, and accepted it as the fulfillment of his prophecy. According to tradition, they became the first monks. This was at the beginning of the fifteenth century, perhaps even earlier; the exact date is unknown. The history of the monastery itself begins in 1498—inhabitants of the city of Brest gave the already functioning monastery a Gospels then, and that year is marked on it. There were no other documents, and therefore we have accepted 1498 as the beginning of the monastery’s history.
—Then events happened, which greatly affected the fate of the monastery. On its territory there are monuments dedicated to one of them: to the Orthodox victims of the Brest Unia, and a cross in memory of operation Vistula (Polish: Akcja Wisła). What did these historical events mean to the Orthodox Christians living here?
—The Brest Unia, especially in these lands, was a tragedy for the Orthodoxy. Why? Even if from the very outset the intention to unite the two Churches—East and West—may have been good, the process of unification itself took place in the wrong way. It was forced. It was a total de-legalization of the Orthodox Church in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Orthodoxy ceased to exist as a Church, as a confession. There were thousands of victims, to whom we erected a monument on the 400th anniversary of the Unia.
One of the main defenders of the Orthodox faith at the time was St. Athanasius of Brest. He was the abbot of a monastery in Brest, went many times to Warsaw, and petitioned the government—not to request their defense of Orthodoxy, but simply to remind them that in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth there are not only Catholics, but also millions of Orthodox. That is precisely why he was murdered by the Jesuits; his death testifies to how the Orthodox Christians were persecuted.
—Father Archimandrite, were you named in honor of St. Athanasius of Brest at your monastic tonsure?
—Yes. I came to the monastery right at the time of the 400 year anniversary of the Unia and received the name Athanasius, in honor of that saint of Brest.
—And what happened to the monastery during the Unia?
—The monastery of St. Onuphrius the Great in Jabłeczna was the only one in this territory, which was border territory at the time, that remained true to Holy Orthodoxy. Even such large monasteries as the Pochaev Lavra, the Supralskaya Monastery, not to mention the smaller monasteries and parishes, accepted the Unia. Jabłeczna monastery remained the only one that preserved the Orthodox faith.
—On the monastery’s territory there is a cross erected in memory of operation “Vistula”.
—This event happened at a much later time. The cross was erected in memory of the Orthodox who were dispossed here, although the exiles also included Ukrainian Uniates, Lemkos [also called Rusyns] from Subcarpathia and the area around Sanok, Rzeszów, Przemyśl.
For us, the Orthodox, this was barbaric—twentieth century barbarism! The war had just ended; everyone wanted a peaceful and normal life. But suddenly and expectedly they began deporting thousands of Ukrainians, who in this area were mainly Orthodox. They were sent to the west or north of Poland, to “returned lands” [lands acquired from Germany after the war]. Their homes and property were confiscated; they had only two hours to collect at least some of their things for the trip. They had to start their lives all over in a different region of the county. Those people were deprived of the right to even come for a visit for ten years. In 1956, there was a “thaw”, and they were allowed to return, and many did return. At our monastery parish, practically all returned. Their homes, however, were occupied by other people, so they had to either buy them back or build new ones. This was a real tragedy. This cross was erected in our monastery on the sixtieth anniversary of that event.
— Also tragic is the fate of the saint whose relics are preserved in your monastery—martyr Ignatius of Jabłeczna.
—This took place during the Second World War. Martyr Ignatius was a monk here. During the war, in the summer of 1942, a group of Nazis attacked the monastery, and for no reason decided to plunder it and burn down the buildings. Much was burned: the building that housed the monks’ cells and trapeza church, the library, the archives, and the abbot’s quarters. Only the bell tower, the main church, and the guesthouse were saved. And these were saved thanks to monk Ignatius. His monastic obedience was to ring the bells for prayer. When he saw the looting and arson, he risked his life and climbed the bell tower to ring the alarm for people to come and put out the fire. He was brutally murdered by the Nazis. This was witnessed by children who had come from Warsaw to the monastery on holiday. When documentation was being collected for his glorification, several of those children were still alive and related how cruelly he was murdered. St. Ignatius was canonized as a martyr for the Orthodox faith, together with the martyrs of Chelm and Podlachia, in 2003.
Today the monastery looks beautiful, and there are no traces of destruction. The monastery was restored, and there are remarkable frescoes on the church walls. Flowers are everywhere, and the paths are well-groomed.
—We thank the Lord, St. Onuphrius, and the kind people who have helped us restore the monastery. There are few monks here, only ten, but we joyfully fulfill the obediences to which we are called.
—What is life like in the monastery?
—I will tell you very simply: we live the life of monks. This means that we rise at 5:30 every morning, have our brothers’ moleben at 6:00, then Matins, the hours, and Divine Liturgy. At 18:00 are Vespers, Compline, and an Akathist to the Mother of God, with an Akathist to St. Onuphrius on Fridays. That is our daily schedule. Of course, each monk has his obedience—we have an orchard, many beehives, we make candles and honey, and receive pilgrims and tourists.
—Who comes to the monastery?
—People come from all over the world, and not only pilgrims. I call pilgrims those who come in order to receive some spiritual help. The rest I call tourists. Different people come—Orthodox, Catholic, non-believers—from both Poland and abroad.
—What is it that draws so many different people to this place? What are they seeking?
—There are people who come here because it is a monastery, a place of prayer. Others are surprised that such places still exist on the earth, where time has as if stopped, and people live in another way. They cannot imagine that a monk has no television in his cell, that a young man can be dedicate his life to prayer, remain unmarried, not have a family, and give himself wholly to the Lord.
But I think that they are first of all seeking emotional peace—if only for a minute. Probably they receive it, because some of them return to the monastery. There is a guesthouse were pilgrims can stay. There are people who come every year for a least a few days, in order to live and pray with us.
—The monastery is located on the Belorussian border, and forty kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Do pilgrims come here from those countries? Do you have contact with other monasteries?
—Of course. Many pilgrims come from Belorussia and the Ukraine. We have very close contacts with women’s monastery of St. Nicholas in Gorodok, Ukraine. We often visit each other. Priests come from the Ukraine, Belorussia, and even from Russia, although it is further away. There are hundreds of monasteries there, but nevertheless, Jabłeczna monastery is known even by the Russian Orthodox. As proof of this, I can tell you that on our 500th anniversary, His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II gave us an altar covering and chandelier. This was a gift of the Russian Orthodox Church to our monastery.
Many first hierarchs of Local Churches come to visit us. No long ago, Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem visited us; he was here for our major feast—the commemoration of St. Onuphrius the Great. Patriarch Bartholomeos of Constantinople visited our monastery two or three times. We have also hosted the Romanian Patriarch, the Archbishop of Sinai, and many other hierarchs of various Local Churches.
—Father Archimandrite, you are also the dean of all the Orthodox monasteries in Poland. Which monasteries are these, and how many are there?
—Of the men’s monasteries, of course our Jabłeczna monastery is the most significant; second is the monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary in Supraśl, then the monastery of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Ujkowici, not far from Przemysko, and the monastery of St. Demitrios of Thessalonika in Saki. There are also sketes: of St. Seraphim of Sarov in Kostomłoty, and of the Protection of the Mother of God in Wysowa Zdrój. There are the womens’ monasteries of the Holy Mountain of Grabarka, the monastery of the Nativity of the Mother of God in Zverki, the monastery of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Wojnovo, the Protection Monastery in Turkovici, and the skete in Zalezsani. Thus, there are six men’s monasteries, and five women’s.
—If you look at a map of Poland, you will see that all of these monasteries are located near its eastern border. Even if you were to take away the border line, the monasteries themselves would form it. What is the reason for this?
—This is because the majority of the Polish Orthodox people live there. There were efforts made at one time to start a monastery in the Wrocław-Szczecin diocese in western Poland, but it was not successful—there simply were not enough people to join it.
Today the majority of our Church's monasteries are the continuation of a tradition that existed earlier; they are reviving the traditions of those monasteries that were there before but are now gone, or are founded in places where an icon or saint is especially honored.
—Many of these monasteries were founded in the 1990s, even later. Could you tell us about efforts to renew the Orthodox monastic tradition in Poland?
—Yes, of course. Monastic life can only be renewed when there are people who want to live the monastic life. Without these young people, there would be no monasteries. Just because a bishop or council of bishops have founded a monastery does not automatically mean that the monastery will continue to live. People desiring the monastic life are needed.
The monasteries in Poland are a proof that our Church is alive. Although there are not a thousand monks, but only about a hundred, we can say that there is growth. After World War II, there were only five or six monks left on the territory of Poland, and now there are over a hundred monks and nuns. Even if our Church has a small number of believers, monastic life has renewed itself. The Church lives, it does not die, because the monasteries preserve what is most important in the Church. After all, where if not in monasteries can the purity of faith be preserved?
—You have seen monastic life in various countries of the world. Do the monasteries in Poland differ from them in any way?
—I do not think that there is a difference. Of course, every place has its own character; after all, people are different. But monastery rules are the same in Russia, Greece, Poland, and the U.S. There is one goal of monastic life—salvation of the soul. As St. Seraphim of Sarov said, "Save yourself, and thousands of people will be saved around you!"
In Poland, the specific character is bound up with language. Our liturgical language is Church Slavonic, but we give sermons in Russian, and communicate with each other in the monastery in Polish, because we are all citizens of Poland. It should also be remembered that the majority of the population in Poland are Catholics. As monks, we always wear our ryassas, even when travelling; we never walk around in secular clothing. Sometimes that surprises people, simply because the Polish Catholic priests now rarely use ryassas.
—What is the task of monasteries and monks in the modern world, which has so vastly changed?
—I will say it once again: our goal is always salvation. The world changes, but the Orthodox faith does not. We should not conform to the world; the world should conform to the faith. Circumstances in life can change, but the strivings of the human soul remain forever unchanged. A person can strive for only one thing—for fullness, which is Jesus Christ. This is the most important thing in the life of every person who believes, and not only of the monk.
—As the dean of the monasteries in Poland, what is your greatest concern and hope?
—I will tell you my cherished dream. I would like there to be more monasteries and monks. The existence of monasteries is very important for every Local Church—it is the fullness of religious life. From the beginning, monasteries have been places where people come to strengthen their faith, receive spiritual consolation and help (through talks or prayer), and to find peace. Today's world is not disposed towards concentration on spiritual life—it lives superficially, in the physical world. Today the world is busy with a cult of personality, with improving life, but in the physical dimension, and not the spiritual. But God is love. In the restlessness of the modern world, love is forgotten; there is much hate and envy, but no love. I think that the monasteries are the hope that this love will not die.
I remember so well my visits to this blessed monastery from 1994-1990, and the holy vigils that were held there. I rejoice that the Polish Orthodox Church is doing so well. I remember with fondness the time I spent teaching at the Seminary in Warsaw and conducting the Seminary Choir. I have never ceased praying for all Polish Orthodox Christans and earnestly hope I may see you again soon.
Gospodi! Spasi i sochrani lyudi Tvoya!