—Fr Alexey, tell us a little about yourself. How did you come to the faith and service of God?
|Archpriest Alexey Okhotin, Rector of the Annunciation Church, New York.
So Orthodoxy is in my blood. When I was six or seven, my mother would take me to church, and, coming home, I would “vest myself” with a big old towel, I had this little censer, and I pretended to be a priest.
This was something that drew me in… Also, I had survived World War II. I had seen a great deal of sorrow, horror and deprivations, and I came to realize that I want to help the people of Orthodoxy.
—Batyushka, this problem, the matter of human suffering, is how atheists explain or justify their disbelief in God. The world is filled with pain, children suffer and die, who had not even been given the opportunity to choose between good and evil.
—The Lord created Adam and Eve as pure, innocent and undying—with only one law: do not eat of the Tree of Knowledge. They violated this law, acting on their own will. And so suffering and death entered the life of mankind. From generation to generation, people, indulging in evil, weakened morally and physically. Take Cain, for instance, the son of Adam, who murdered his own brother. Remember the circumstances under which the Great Flood happened: people had become very deviant, except for Noah and his family, and there was no one else to save.
Human suffering is the result of the fall, falling away from God. Sin, unrepented, can sometimes weaken descendants even to the fourth generation. Yes, the Lord leads man through suffering, but He leads him into salvation. Look at how many wondrous examples of the salvation of souls have occurred through suffering and repentance in Russian Orthodoxy!
There is another side to human suffering—which is the sympathy it evokes in others. Beholding pain being endured, many begin for the first time to feel and express love and care for someone other than themselves, which helps purify their soul.
—So repentance is necessary not only for a person himself but for his descendants?
—Repentance is the humble acceptance of God’s will and the desire of the sinner to free himself from filth. We wash our bodies every day, we tend to our bodily needs, but how many times a day do we look into our own soul? There is so much filth that accumulates there… This is not the kind of filth we can sense with our noses, but it is far more perilous, because it causes decay in our souls… Sometimes a person is despondent, or anxious, or depressed, and can’t figure out why…
Meanwhile, his soul, covered with filth, cannot breathe.
—It happens sometimes that a person repents of his sin during confession and receives absolution, but does not forgive himself…
—In the Mystery of confession, a person opens his soul, and God forgives him through the priest. Sometimes even after absolution from a sin, a person is tormented by his conscience, and I suggest that this is not bad for the sinner himself. This is a form of expiation. When a person feels profound pain from his sin, he is not likely to repeat it.
—Fr Alexey, many people—and I know this from my psychotherapy practice—are fearful of assuming responsibility which believers do take upon themsevles. They fear beginning life according to Divine Laws. They reason: “Well, who am I anyway? I am weak and I cannot live by the laws.”
—Such people must read the Gospel, first and foremost. Remember that Apostle Peter asked of the Lord: “Lord, how how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” (That was the law of the Jews.) The Lord responded, “I say not unto thee, until seven times: but, until seventy times seven.”
So it turns out that we must forgive 490 times. But what does this mean? The Lord calls upon us to repent in all our sins, and if our repentance is genuine, then our sins will be forgiven. There is no sin that can overcome the mercy of God.
Once a monastic novice came to his elder and said “Father, I have fallen in sin.” And the elder responds “Arise!” Then he comes to him again and says “Father, I have fallen again.” And again he replies “Arise.” But when the novice sinned for yet a third time, and the elder encouraged him to arise, the novice asked “How many times must I arise again?” The elder responded: “For your entire life.”
The Lord does not judge us for the fact that we fall, but for our languishing in sin. “And him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”
—Father Alexey, as a priest, what sin is hardest for you to grant absolution for?
—There is no sin that is difficult for me to absolve someone of, because I myself am a great sinner. But I can say which sins are most difficult for a sinner to repent for: the sins of the flesh, and theft. These two sins are difficult for a sinner to even speak aloud. It is hard to say “I have committed adultery.” Or “I have stolen.” But for a priest, the most difficult is when a person comes to confession and makes a superficial statement: “Well, you know, batyushka, sometimes it happens, sometimes I lie… Well, that’s about it…”
That is, a sinner comes to confession but does not speak of his sin. But it is especially joyful when a person earnestly repents and appears to crucify himself on the cross, exposing what is inside, all his filth. Without compunction, without mercy. This brings joy to the priest, because he sees in this confession the return of the wayward son. This kid of confession positively affects the priest. He also remembers his own sins and repents of them.
—Batyushka, many baptized Orthodox Christians do not attend church services. They think that praying at home, or “having God in their soul” is enough.
-Church attendance is necessary for a believer. The Holy Mysteries are performed in the Lord’s temple. Divine grace is present there. Just as a person who walks out into a splendid meadow, drawing in the fresh air into his entire being without even noticing, so in church, the Grace of God suffuses a person, even if he is of little faith. As much as personal prayer at home is necessary, so is prayer in church. Surrounded by those close in faith, people even pray differently.
There is another reason to attend church: it is there, in the Holy Apostolic Church, that people gather to praise God, bring thanks to Him. The holy prophets have revealed to us how the Angels praise God, and worshipers must do likewise.
—Tell me, Father Alexey, what are the special characteristics of Orthodoxy? What does Orthodoxy bring to the world?
—The Orthodox faith, having survived many false teachings, many persecutions and heresies, has preserved within itself the Truth and has remained unblemished.
In Orthodox Christianity we believe that man has fallen into sin. Our Lord Himself descended to earth, and, suffering for us and leaving behind His teachings, opened to us the path to the Kingdom of Heaven, showing us the path of the absolution of sins through faith, repentance and the fulfillment of God’s commandments. The meaning of Orthodox life is in perfecting the soul and preparing it for Eternity. This is an enormous challenge, to prepare one’s soul towards this goal.
The main holiday for Orthodox Christians is Pascha—the Resurrection of the Lord and the resurrection of all mankind, the rebirth into new life. For Catholics, for instance, and for other Western Christians, the main holiday is Christmas. Hence, Jesus Christ came to earth, and from now on we will arrange everything else ourselves. This is their main focus. We Orthodox Christians pray for the dead and yearn for our inseparable bond with the Kingdom of Heaven. There is the main difference.
—Batyushka, how would you describe “Divine love”? How can man understand God’s love for mankind?
—When the Lord created the angelic world, and this was a bright and joyous world, all the angels were holy. The greatest of angels that God created was the Morning Star of Divine Glory. This powerful angel was seduced by his own power and sought to set his throne above that of the Almighty God. Then the conflict began. And Archangel Michael challenged the Morning Star, who then became known as Satan, or Lucifer, and he left the angelic world, and together with him, a third of the angels fell, having chosen evil.
In order to compensate for the loss of the third of the angelic world, the Lord created new beings, similar to the angels but also different. He created man, who possesses a soul, in which he is similar to the angels, but also has a physical body. Man was given the gift of choosing between good and evil.
But mankind fell into sin and succumbed to evil. Then the Almighty sent His Son to earth, Who endured cold and hunger and humiliation, and finally Death on the Cross, atoned for our fall into sin and showed us the path to salvation. For the Son of God—in those days on earth—also had His will. But do you remember how He prayed at the rock as drops of blood appeared on His forehead?
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And then He proceeded to fulfill the atonement of the sins of mankind. Is this not the greatest of manifestations of God’s Love for man?
—Fr Alexey, our Orthodox website, Probuzhdeniye [radio-awakening.com], is primarily a dialog and conversation between believers and those who seek God, but has not yet come to the faith. What words would you like to pass along to our readers?
—I think that there are no people who have absolutely no faith. When the Lord created mankind, He breathed into him the spirit, the Divine Spark. This is our soul, our conscience, our striving for the Supreme Being. Every person knows this feeling. It is another thing when some people reject this attraction, binding themselves to the material, physical world. Or they rely too heavily on their intellect.
God is the perfect Spirit, He is inscrutable, as is His long-suffering patience. St Augustine once said that as he walked along the beach one day, he pondering how unfathomable God is and whether He can be comprehended, grasped by reason.
Suddenly he sees a little boy on the sand, collecting seawater in a shell and pouring it into a hole in the sand.
St Augustine asked “What are you doing?”
The boy responded: “I want to put all the water in the ocean into this hole.”
“Silly boy,” said Augustine, “That is impossible…”
Then the boy turned into an angel and replied “It is likewise impossible to comprehend the Lord.”
Everything has its limit. God has no limit. And we cannot comprehend Him only by our intellect. We can know Him with our soul.
Recently I read a story about a man who considered himself to be an unbeliever, who as a soldier found himself surrounded by gunfire. It was clear that the end was near, and he began to pray “Lord, help me!” And he surprised himself with these words. Yet he survived, and since then no longer denied his faith in God.
God is limitless. He has no beginning and no end. We have a beginning, but no end, because the human soul is eternal. The Image of God within us is reflected in our immortality, reason and freedom. The goal of the Orthodox Christian is to emulate God: God is merciful, and we must be merciful; God is all-forgiving, and we must learn to forgive. God is good and patient, we must also strive to be good and to be patient. For the readers of your site I would wish that they discern this Divine Spark within themselves and come to profound faith.
Translation by the Official website of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad