Theme: Modern Martyrdom
by Father Michael Plekon
by Mr. Jim Forest
by Donnie Carmichael
by Maria Degtiareva
by Jessica Precop
by Andrew Boyd
More information about our authors and contributors can be found here.
Theme: Modern Martyrdom
by Father Michael Plekon
by Mr. Jim Forest
by Donnie Carmichael
by Maria Degtiareva
by Jessica Precop
by Andrew Boyd
More information about our authors and contributors can be found here.
by Father Michael Plekon
A screen or TV writer could not create it, the sheer sweep and turbulence, the drama of Mother Maria Skobtsova’s life. Connected to the high society of St. Petersburg through her family, she was most at home in the almost Mediterranean wine country in Crimea, in Anapa, where her family’s country house was located. As a child, a favorite of the stern and much feared High Procurator of the Russian church, Constantine Pebedenotsev, she was thrown into a near breakdown by the sudden death of her beloved father. She then struggled academically though she was brilliant, and by adolescence she was hanging out in the Petersburg literary salons of Merezhkovsky and Gippius, where she met her first husband. For some time she was not only a protégé of the leading poet of the Russian Silver Age, Alexander Blok—still in her teens she was treated by him as an equal in literary gifts and personal insight. In recently published reminiscences of hers, then Lisa Pilenko literally stalked Blok during a period of social unrest and his own personal turmoil. Seeking wisdom from her mentor, Lisa became his counselor as well as well as conscience.
The first years of the last, the 20th century appear antiquated—the long skirts, high collars, hats and beards. But it was in many ways as radical as the later 1960s and perhaps more so than out own second decade of the 21st century. Lisa was very much swept up in the radical literary and political waves, part of the revolt against middle class manners, values and pieties. The loss of her father, the impending political upheaval, the criticism of the monarchy, the established church, the calls from so many corners for change, for reform—this was the world in which she flourished, breathed new life and hope. By 1917, after years of pressure for change, the Moscow Council of the Russian Church was convened, a council that would propose more sweeping reforms of church life at every level than ever in the history of the Orthodox churches. The Revolution made the implementation of those amazing reforms impossible, and that part of the story is better known than that of the council. Reds and Whites, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks—first the creation of a representative legislature, then the royal abdication, chaos as the effects of WWI and then internal turmoil made government impossible. Lastly the Bolshevik takeover, Lenin the visionary, and the turning upside of nearly every part of Russian society and life.
Lisa Pilenko was nearly executed by the Reds, only some quick talking and claims of personal ties to Lenin’s wife saved her. Then she was elected mayor of Anapa, the Black Sea family hometown. When the White Army came through, she was put on trial again, the assumption being that any village head, in this case the first woman mayor, must be Soviet. She succeeded in clearing herself, fell in love and married once more, A White Army officer, Daniel Skobtsov. Like thousand the family flees the Crimea, first to Georgia, Istanbul, then to Belgrade and finally to Paris, a center of Russian emigration during and after the Revolution. The oldest daughter, Gaiana, was from the first failed marriage. Two more children would be born during the journey westward. Nastia was born in Yugoslavia, a son, Yuri was born in Georgia. Within three years of their arrival in Paris Nastia would die of meningitis, her parents and the medical staff helplessly watching on. Not long after, Gaina, who had returned to Russia with her boyfriend, also died, only in her 20s.The trauma these deaths broke an already failing marriage and pluged Lisa into a crisis of faith. Lisa threw herself into work visiting Russian émigrés dispersed in industrial regions throughout the country. Quickly she realized that hostels for the suffering were desperately needed—houses of hospitality where meals, shelter, medical care, care and counsel could be obtained. Lisa’s connections with the Russian Christian Students Movement and with the Metropolitan bishop of the diocese in Paris, Evlogy, as well as Fr Bulgakov, dean of the newly opened St Sergius Theological Institute and other intellectuals and writers led her to more than social outreach but to a ministry to the neighbor which would be rooted in Christian life and prayer. She started seeking funding for and opened several of these hostels in Paris and one for the elderly in the suburbs. She asked if she could be tonsured as a nun and Evlogy agreed, only if Lisa were to make the world her monastery—such was his vision of the need for ministry in the city, to not just Russian homeless and suffering but to any who would come.
The love of the neighbor as the reality of the love of God—this became a dominant theme not only her work but in her writing. She devoted half a dozen essays to it. Every one of her houses had a chapel, the largest has a resident priest and eventually virtually a parish comprised not only of residents but of those in nearby neighborhoods. At the largest hostel, there were regular gatherings for presentations by religious thinkers, writers and philosophers. Out of these Lisa, now Mother Maria, formed with several friend the group Orthodox Action. They were convinced of the need for the authentic “churching” of life, namely the real presence of Christian faith and Christians in all parts of culture and society. They debated the political turbulence that was rising around them—the Fascist states in Germany and Italy, the Stalinist purges in Russia, The Spanish Civil War and the continuing pain of the Great Depression. Maria not only solicited funds and food for her hostels. She participated in the many gathering, and she wrote for several of the Russian periodicals, in addition to her own literary efforts—poems, plays and essays. The volume of her collected writings from the 30s and 40s is astounding, given her daily administrative work at the hostels. Along with her colleagues, she saw war inevitably approaching—and wrote about the tragic inability to counter Fascism before armed conflict erupted.
When France was occupied by the Nazis, she, her chaplain Fr. Dmitry Klepinin, her treasurer Ilya Fundaminsky, her son Yuri and others who staffed the hostels, began to hide the targets of the Gestapo—Jewish neighbors, Resistance members, others at risk for political reasons. After mass arrests of Jewish citizens, including thousands of children, Maria visited nearly 7000 held in a cycling stadium, bringing water and food and during her visits, she was able to smuggle some children out in garbage cans and into hiding. But by 1943 all those mentioned above were arrested by the Gestapo, the men sent off to Compeigne, then Buchenwald and Dora and Maria to a women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruk. All of the men—Fr Dmitri, Ilya, Yuri, eventually died of disease. Maria survived until one month before the camp liberation in spring of 1945. She went to the gas chambers on March 31, taking the place of another prisoner. In the almost two years of hell in the camp, she held Bible studies and prayer meetings, counseled desperate fellow prisoners, even embroidered an icon and a version of the Bayeux tapestry, a defiant gesture of hope that Normandy would be invaded once again.
Mother Maria and her companions were made saints by her local church, the Russian Orthodox diocese of western Europe May 1-2, 2004. The icon here of her and the others was made by Olga Poloukhine, whose mother, Sophie Koloumzine, worked with Mother Maria in Paris. Mother Maria called the faithful gathered for liturgy the “living icons,” saints in the making. Her writing and her tireless work for the suffering were the brushstrokes, as it were, of the icon that her life is, still for us today. A poet, a writer, a spouse and parent, a monastic, a social activist –she was a person of her time, fully alive. She shows us what each of us can become.
[The best available books remain Sergei Hackel, Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova 1891-1945, Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982 and Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, trans,Helene Klepinine ed., Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2003.]
by Mr. Jim Forest
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of “In Communion”, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and on the author’s website. We are grateful for their permission to republish it here.
In May 1942, two young medical students in Munich secretly formed an anti-Nazi project they christened the White Rose. The work they envisioned was simple but daring: publication of a series of anti-Nazi leaflets. In the months that followed, four more friends joined the White Rose. Once launched, the group managed to publish and widely distribute six leaflets advocating active resistance by the German people to Nazi oppression and tyranny. Rejecting fascism and militarism, the White Rose called for a federated Europe committed to tolerance and justice. The leaflets quoted extensively from the Bible, Aristotle, Goethe, Novalis and Schiller. Following the German defeat at Stalingrad, the White Rose also carried out a night-time action of writing anti-Nazi slogans on walls such as “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” as well as a white swastika with a red slash running through it.
In less than a year, all the principal participants in the group plus many collaborators had been identified, arrested and executed, but their memory lives on. Today not only has the White Rose become important to Germans, but it is internationally known. This is in part thanks to “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” the Oscar-nominated film that focuses on the youngest member of the White Rose, Sophie (only 21 when she died) and her brother Hans. There have also been several books, including Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, and numerous web sites.
Part of the initial inspiration for the activities of the White Rose came from a series of sermons by August von Galen, Catholic bishop of Münster, in which he denounced Aryan racism and the Nazi euthanasia program that resulted in the killing of members of society whom the Nazis regarded as unfit or unproductive.
“These are men and women, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters!” said Bishop von Galen. “Poor ill human beings. Maybe they are unproductive, but does that mean that they have lost the right to live?… If one adopts and puts into practice the principle that men are entitled to kill their unproductive fellows, then woe to all of us when we become aged and infirm! … Then no one will be safe: some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of ‘unproductive’ persons, who in their judgment have become ‘unworthy to live.’ And there will be no police to protect him, no court to avenge his murder and bring his murderers to justice. Who could then trust his doctor? He might decide that a patient is ‘unproductive,’ condemning him to death! One cannot even imagine the moral depravity, the universal mistrust that would spread even in the bosom of the family, if this terrible doctrine is tolerated, accepted, and put into practice. Woe to man, woe to the German people, if the divine commandment, Thou shalt not kill, which the Lord gave at Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God our Creator wrote into man’s conscience from the beginning, if this commandment is not only violated, but violated with impunity!”
No German newspaper reported the bishop’s remarks. The Gestapo, while not daring to arrest and imprison so prominent a bishop, put von Galen under house arrest. After the war, it was revealed that Hitler had put von Galen on a list of people to be executed after the German victory in the war. Von Galen’s sermons, and their clandestine distribution far beyond Münster, helped inspire the founding of the White Rose. Although not a religious group per se, faith in God was one of the main strands uniting those involved in the White Rose.
Though the printings of the first few White Rose leaflets were small – obtaining the paper needed was a serious problem – the leaflets caused an immediate sensation. The Gestapo began an intensive search for the authors. The White Rose founders and principal leaflet authors were Alexander Schmorell and Hans Scholl. Hans Scholl, born in Ingersheim on September 22, 1918, came from a Lutheran family. Hans’s father Robert had served in World War I as a non-combatant medic because of his pacifist convictions. Active in liberal politics, in pre-Nazi times he had been a mayor. As a boy, Hans had been active in the Hitler Youth, but became disillusioned and developed anti-Nazi convictions.
Schmorell was a member of the Orthodox Church, attending the liturgy regularly. His friend Lilo Ramdohr recalls he always had a Bible with him and in various ways expressed his bond with the Orthodox Church. Schmorell was born in Orenburg, Russia, on September 16, 1917. Friends often called him by his Russian nickname, Shurik. His father Hugo was a physician – German by nationality but Russian by birth. His mother, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest, died of typhus in 1919 when Alexander was only two years old. Hugo remarried the following year. His second wife, Elisabeth, though German, had grown up in Russia. In 1921, the Schmorell family plus their nanny, Feodosiya Lapschina, fled Russia for Germany to escape from the Bolsheviks and the civil war. They settled in Munich, where two more children, Erich and Natasha, were born. Within the home Russian was spoken. Elisabeth Schmorell was Catholic, as were Alexander’s siblings, but Alexander remained Orthodox, attending Orthodox church services as well as religion classes in Munich.
According to Nazi theories of race, Slavs (Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, etc.) were untermenschen, sub-human – a view no member of the Schmorell family could accept. At one point, Alexander had been part of the Scharnhorst Youth, but once the group merged with Hitler Youth he stopped attending meetings.
When Schmorell was drafted into the army and was required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, he told his commanding officer that he could not do it, asking instead to be released from military duty. Though not discharged, remarkably he was excused from taking the oath and suffered no punishment. Before his participation in the White Rose, Schmorell had served in Czechoslovakia and in France and so knew first-hand of the crimes the occupying troops were committing.
Schmorell began his medical studies in Hamburg in 1939, but by the fall of 1940 he was studying closer to home at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. There he met Hans Scholl. Scholl and Schmorell managed to obtain a duplicating machine – no easy achievement at the time, as such devices had to be officially registered – which they used in duplicating all the White Rose leaflets.
The first leaflet, issued in June 1942, declared that “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes – crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure – reach the light of day? If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in the lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other of God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.”
A passage written by Schmorell in the second leaflet, issued in June 1942, contains the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust. “We wish to cite the fact that, since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in that country in a bestial manner. Here we see the most terrible crime committed against the dignity of man, a crime that has no counterpart in human history…. No crime of this dimension has ever been perpetrated against human beings.” The text blames the German people, in their apathy, for allowing such crimes to be committed by “these criminal fascists.” The leaflet declares, however, that “it is not too late to do away with this most reprehensible of all miscarriages of government, to avoid being burdened with even greater guilt…. We know exactly who our adversary is.” The text adds, “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as possible and pass them on.”
The third leaflet recognized that many people “do not see clearly how they can practice an effective opposition. They do not see any avenues open to them. We want to try to show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system. It is not possible through solitary withdrawal, in the manner of embittered hermits, to prepare the ground for the overturn of this ‘government’ or bring about the revolution at the earliest possible moment. No, it can be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people – people who are agreed as to the means they must use to attain their goal. We have no great number of choices as to these means. The only one available is passive resistance. The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism…”
The fourth leaflet had a theological dimension: “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means, but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: the struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist.
“Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak, when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom, when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order, and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate.
“Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.”
n the summer of 1942, Hans Scholl, Schmorell and another soon-to-be White Rose member, Willi Graf, were sent as medics to the Russian “Eastern Front.” For Schmorell it was a homecoming of sorts, the first time since early childhood that he could experience Russia for himself rather than through such writers as Dostoevsky. He told his friends that there was no way that he could shoot at any Russian, adding he would not kill Germans either. As a fluent speaker of Russian, he opened the door for his friends to make informal contact with ordinary Russian people as well as doctors and Orthodox priests. He, Scholl and Graf attended Orthodox liturgies together.
When they returned to Munich in October, the activities of the White Rose were redoubled. Several new people were involved – Christoph Probst, Sophie Scholl (Hans’s sister), Professor Kurt Huber and Willi Graf – as well as others in a supportive outer circle. Through Alexander’s friend, Lilo Ramdohr, contact was established with Falk Harnack, younger brother of Arvid Harnack, active in a resistance group in Berlin.
In January 1943, the fifth leaflet was ready. Asking if Germany was forever to be “a nation which is hated and rejected by all mankind,” the text called on its readers to dissociate themselves “from National Socialist gangsterism” and to “prove by your deeds that you think otherwise…. Cast off the cloak of indifference you have wrapped around you. Make the decision before it is too late…. Separate yourselves in time from everything connected with National Socialism. In the aftermath a terrible but just judgment will be meted out to those who stayed in hiding, who were cowardly and hesitant.” Thousands of copies were distributed all over “greater” Germany – that is, in Austria as well. Schmorell’s travels brought him to Linz, Vienna, and Salzburg.
Two weeks after the fall of Stalingrad on February 2, 1943, a sixth leaflet was produced. In it Hitler was described as “the most contemptible tyrant our people has ever endured…. For ten long years Hitler and his collaborators have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words – freedom and honor – to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honor.”
On February 18, Hans and Sophie Scholl were caught distributing the leaflet at the University in Munich. Two days later Christoph Probst was arrested. On February 22, the three were tried and executed by guillotine hours later.
A Gestapo manhunt was now underway for Schmorell. Assisted by friends, he tried to escape to Switzerland using a forged passport, but he was inadequately clothed for a winter crossing of a mountain route – he had no alternative but to return to Munich. On February 24, with the city under heavy bombardment, he was arrested after being recognized in an air-raid shelter. On April 19 he was tried and sentenced to death and executed by guillotine on July 13, 1943.
At his trial, Schmorell told the court of his work as a medic trying to save lives on the Russian front, his refusal to shoot “the enemy,” and also his earlier refusal to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. The judge, the notorious ultra-Nazi Roland Freisler, responded by screaming, “Traitor!”
Schmorell’s body was buried behind Stadelheim Prison in the cemetery at Perlacher Forst. After the war, American forces built a base adjacent to the cemetery. Following closure of the base in the mid-1990s, the buildings, including a church, were turned over to the German government. Providentially the Russian Orthodox community was searching for a church building and was able to purchase it. As a result, Schmorell’s parish is across the street from where his earthly remains are buried, while in the church there is an icon of Schmorell.
Archbishop Mark of Berlin, head the German diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, says that in the near future Schmorell will be formally recognized as a martyr saint. In 2007, he led a pilgrimage group to Orenburg, Russia, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Schmorell’s birth, an event arranged by Igor Chramow of the Eurasia Foundation in Orenburg. During this trip, the pilgrim group met 87-year-old Nikolai Daniilovich Hamasaspian, who, while living in Munich, had been a friend of Schmorell. He had given Schmorell his Bulgarian passport for possible flight from the country. Hamasaspian recalled that Schmorell had often spoken with him about spiritual matters, since they were both Orthodox Christians.
Katja Yurschak, a participant in the Orenburg pilgrimage in 2007, described to me in a letter how impressed she was by the comments Hamasaspian made over dinner one evening: “He said that his friend, Alexander Schmorell, loved his life and did not go around with the idea that he would become a martyr. It’s easy to forget that Alexander Schmorell, in many ways, was not so much different than most other 26-year-old young men at that time. I have always felt it easier to relate to Alexander Schmorell and the story of the White Rose because besides the story being amazing, it’s true, and in some ways, it’s easier to relate to people who are of a similar age, and who live in a similar type of world. In the bonus material for the ‘Sophie Scholl: The Final Days’ DVD, there’s an interview with Elisabeth Scholl Hartnagel, sister to Hans and Sophie. The part that especially hit me was when she said that she doesn’t like it when people call her brother and sister heroes because they tend to use it as an excuse – well, they could do what they did because they were heroes, but you can’t expect me to do anything of the same because I’m not a hero. It misses the point that it is more or less ‘ordinary’ people who work and struggle day by day to accomplish something bigger than themselves…. that the ‘cloud of witnesses’ is always around us, and that we can aspire to that in our lives. Alexander Schmorell was a young man with many talents. He had good friends and loved sculpture and music and literature. Apparently, he also was someone that young women became smitten with. All these things would point to a very bright future, but because of his faith, these alluring things did not hold him fast to this earth. Doing what was right was that much more important.”
In the letters Schmorell sent to his family from prison, he wrote about the deepening of his faith, assuring his family that, although he had been condemned to die, he was at peace, knowing he had served the truth. “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary,” he wrote, “to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God?” In the last letter, written the day of his death, he told his family, “Never forget God!!” Just before he was taken to the guillotine, he told his lawyer, “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.
Alexander Schmorell was officially canonized 4-5 February 2012 during services at the Cathedral of New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia in Munich. Photos of the event are available here.
By Donnie Carmichael
I have always loved and still do love Pascha. My year basically revolves around it. And even when it is Paschatide, I want to relive Pascha more and more, every Sunday and everyday. Every year through college I was at my home parish with my family, my ‘Church family”, all its familiarity and usual festivities. At the end of college I joined the Navy. The Navy is not necessarily conducive to taking time off. So my first Pascha in the navy came around and I couldn’t go back to Holy Trinity in Springfield, Vermont. I was blessed to spend Pascha at Holy Ascension in Charleston, South Carolina. My sister came to be with me for the weekend. Even though I missed home, it was a wonderful celebration with new (and some already very familiar) family and traditions. But I thought, “next year I’ll be home, just one year away is good.”
Next year came along. After fifteen months of classroom and simulator training for the Submarine Force, I had just gotten to my boat as a fresh ensign the first week of Lent. I was certain I would be home for Pascha that year, because it was a new construction submarine still being built, that wasn’t scheduled to go out for sea trials until August. After a few weeks of being there, my boss told me, “you’re going to ride another submarine for a month to get qualified [required experience to supervise the nuclear power plant and drive the submarine].” It turns out that sub was leaving port on Holy Monday. I didn’t really know what to think and I couldn’t say no. I was in the Navy and you don’t really have a choice about these things. I really didn’t know how to comprehend missing Pascha or being underway on a submarine for the first time, let alone both at the same time. So I packed my sea bag and “luckily” I had the Department of Religious Education Holy Week and Pascha books, the Reader’s Service, a Bible, and the lectionary calendar. I figured I’d just have to read the services and maybe there will be some other Orthodox on the submarine. But I still thought that, “this will be just one year. God wants me to learn something. I’ll be home next year.” I told my parents and they were just as sad that we wouldn’t be together again. My dad sent me a card (unexpectedly) with the icon of the Resurrection/Descent into Hades on the front. On the inside it said, “Dear Donnie, Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! You’re forever at my right hand at Pascha. Love Dad.” I cried.
The first time on a submarine is overwhelming for a number of reasons. 18-hour days, strange watch rotation, figuring out the sleep and meal schedule, ramping-up on submarine etiquette, all sorts of strange words/phrases, acronyms, acronyms within acronyms, flipping countless pages of a qualification standards with even more countless signature blocks for knowledge factors and practical factors, learning forward from aft and port from starboard. On top of all that, it was Holy Week and I just wanted to go home or at least read through a service in my rack. Well I didn’t get through many of the service books. But Holy Saturday lunch-time came. We had kielbasa. How wonderful I thought. God is looking out for me, something familiar. At lunch the captain said “all the ensigns are watching a movie with me tonight.” He’s the captain, so we watched a movie with him. In between lunch and the movie, I checked my email. My mom sent me one – “we sung about Jonah and the whale yesterday and we all thought of you and our prayers are with you!” My response was “I’m no Jonah, and I’m pretty sure living conditions are better than a whale. Thank you for your prayers.” Most movies underneath the sea start at 2000 (8:00 pm for you non-nautical folk). I don’t remember what the movie was but I gradually started to feel the joy one experiences at Pascha, hundreds of feet beneath the sea. It was about 2130/9:30pm. I thought how wonderful this is, to know that it is the Day of Resurrection, without having attended a service, seen the inside of a Church, or lit a candle. Even though it’s not midnight local time, Pascha is already being celebrated somewhere in the world. The movie ended and I went to my rack read through the Matins Service and the Paschal Hours singing the melodies I knew in my head. Next year I’ll be home I thought.
Well next year came along. We had a very busy winter and spring to get ready for a mini 3-month deployment in May. As anyone with military experience knows, the schedule kept changing. And changing. And changing. I wasn’t too worried because I had an experience of missing Pascha under my belt and I was confident that everything would work out for me being home. The beginning of April came and things weren’t looking so good. We had our pre-deployment over-seas certification during Holy Week and no one could miss that. But we were supposed to let the certification/inspection team off on Holy Friday in Florida and then transit back to our home-port in Groton, Connecticut to arrive on Bright Monday. Great! I’ll just ask for leave and miss three days of underway transit. This will work. I’ll be home.
Denied. Leave denied. Couldn’t miss the underway transit. Here we go again. Two years in a row. How? Why? I did this once already. Where am I going to get the strength to do this again? As Holy Week and our overseas certification progressed, all I could think about more and more was why am I missing Pascha again? I did a little better than last year with regard to reading the service books but not much. All of a sudden though it was Holy Saturday night. I got in my rack, got my Pascha book and readers service, and iPod with the Paschal music on it, and it was Pascha, the joy was there! Having the music really made a difference and helped bring the peace and joy of Pascha to me.
I woke up for watch a few hours later and went to breakfast. A good friend of mine, Joe, happened to be riding my submarine to qualify. Joe wasn’t Orthodox but he had come to Church with me a couple of times. He was at breakfast too and I greeted him with Christ is Risen! And he responded with “Indeed!” There were hard-boiled eggs for breakfast that morning on the table and my mom had given me Cadbury mini-eggs to take and share. We surfaced off the coast of Florida to drop off the inspection team. I was in the bridge and brought up my cell phone. Cell phones don’t work far from land. But I guess the wind was blowing in the right direction that day (which I know has nothing to do with signal strength) because I have enough reception to call home for about 5-10 minutes talk to my dad and say “Christ is Risen!” What a difference hearing and saying those words makes! How wonderful I thought. I’ll be home for Pasch next year. I’m not Jonah, surely God wouldn’t have me spend three years “in the belly of the whale.”
As with most things in the military and life the only constant is change. I was originally going to leave my boat in November of 2010. Well that changed to July of 2011. It ended up working out anyway because that was the end of my obligation and the plan was to return to civilian life. The scuttlebutt (gossip) on the boat was that we were going to do an ICEX. ICEX, short for ice exercise, is when the boat goes to the Arctic, plays war games with friendly submarines, tries new things, and surfaces through the ice. During ICEX 2011, the two boats going were even supposed to surface at the North Pole. This was really exciting, to go under the ice cap, drive a submarine, and surface. The crew underwent countless hours of practicing in simulators and training in classrooms to prepare. This was going to be awesome except; I was going to miss Pascha again. Why I thought? This once and a lifetime opportunity wasn’t worth it. Why did I get extended, why another year without Pascha? I can’t do this again. Many family and Orthodox friends tried to console me. I could only respond with “if you’re not part of the greatest story ever told [the life of Jesus] then there’s no point in having any other stories.” Only a mother, my mother could offer a story that provided comfort. “An old man was very sick in the hospital and about to die,” she told me. “His family came to visit him and when they arrived at his room they saw no Icons. They asked the man if they should go get some. He said ‘no that’s ok. I have Christ in my heart.’”
We left for ICEX at the end of February. We surfaced through the ice about half a dozen times, played war games, and even hosted some dignitaries and a news crew. It was a wonderful experience, something I’ll never forget. When it came time for Holy Week, I once again had my service books, Bible, and a lot more liturgical music on my iPod. I made it through reading more service books that year. Towards the end of the week I noticed on the plan of the week (a Microsoft outlook calendar) that there was training for officers on Pascha/Easter Sunday morning at 0100/1:00am. We’ve never had training on a Sunday and we’ve never had training on the mid-watch (0000-0600). This has got to be an electronic typo or scheduling error. I ignored it. But then the printed plan of the day (POD) came out on Saturday and the training was scheduled still at 0100 on Sunday morning. Maybe nobody noticed it, it was blindly copied and pasted, or it had to have been such a typo that it couldn’t be true. I asked the “powers that be” about the typo/scheduling glitch. I was told the training was happening, and make sure everyone else knows to be there.
I still didn’t know what to think. After dinner on Holy Saturday, I knew I needed some sleep. I can’t remember when I started reading Nocturns/Matins/Liturgy but I know some of it was before and some after this poorly scheduled training session. We had the training session, no one was really awake, to say participation was poor at best is an exaggeration, but we held out for the whole hour. I was frustrated. No one else in the room (I imagine) knew the “real reason” we should be up this hour – celebrating the saving Pascha of our Lord. We finished, and a few of us junior officers went to our stateroom to do what junior officers can be pretty good at – complain. I wasn’t angry yet, just really frustrated. I had some Cadbury eggs and I shared them with my dear friends Timmy, Will and Garth. I tried to teach them “Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!” and explain the Liturgical and celebratory events of this “chosen and Holy Day” and although they were receptive, they didn’t quite understand. To fully understand, or begin to understand, that Christ is Risen, you have to experience Paschal Liturgy. We parted ways to our racks for the remainder of the night; I finished the Pascha service and went to sleep filled with the Joy of the Resurrection.
There is always an hour blocked out on Sunday mornings on the POD for Catholic and Protestant Lay Services. I had the morning watch (0600-1200) and at our pre-watch supervisor brief we told everyone that if you have someone on watch who wants to go to (or you want to go) to services on Easter Sunday we’ll get you a relief so you can go. We coordinated with those who wanted to go and there were no hiccups.
On watch, there are certain training evolutions or drills that you perform to stay proficient. The captain gives in his “night orders” what specific evolutions or topics he wants you to cover and sometimes gives direction as to how many per watch. So we, the watch supervisors, decided to run a training evolution during the one hour Sunday service block as we had many to complete that morning. This training evolution would only affect those on watch and since there was no one on watch who still wanted to go to lay services, this was no problem. We commenced the training evolution/drill (which was a mini-fire drill), and shortly after announcing the evolution on the 1MC (ship-wide PA/speaker systems), the “powers that be” comes screaming into the control room.
“What are you doing!?! It’s Easter Morning during services and you choose to do what? Cancel it now!” I got so angry, so angry. I wanted to strangle him and start shouting back. All these thoughts ran through my head, “what about the people in the wardroom [i.e. me] that celebrate starting at midnight? You don’t think we thought of people wanting to go to services this morning?” Oh I was angry and want to grab him by the neck. Really. But I didn’t, nor did I say anything. I just stood there silently, staring him down. By this point the training exercise was over so cancelling it didn’t matter. He stormed off and I stood there silently and probably as angry and as frustrated as I had ever been. But how could I be angry on Pascha? So many lessons learned from years before both above and beneath the sea. I tried to let these feelings of anger go, but I couldn’t. All day long I fought this frustration and anger by saying/singing “Christ is Risen” in my head. But it was no easy task. As the weeks went on the feelings of anger and frustration subsided but for a long time I probably won’t forget just how angry I let myself get on Pascha.
Before I knew it, we were back in Groton, Connecticut. My discharge date, July 31 2011 came fairly quickly, and as happy as could be I took my DD-214 (Navy discharge paperwork) in hand and was gleaming looking at SUBASE Groton in the rear view mirror for the last time. Freedom! No more underway, no more duty, no more Navy nonsense. I still miss the friends I’ve made and keep in touch with them. But I won’t miss being underway or stuck on the boat in-port for important life events like weddings, graduations, birthdays, name days, funerals, Feast Days, and Paschas.
When I got home to New Hampshire my Dad and I went to visit Fr Sergious, a monk priest and long-time family friend serving at Holy Resurrection Church in Berlin, for lunch during the Nativity Feast. I told him of some of my experiences on the submarine, why I wanted to leave the Navy, and about missing Pascha. He told me “well, God is with us!” How simple and how beautiful! I had heard those words probably at least one hundred times over the years. But now it made sense or at least I understood it in a new light. Five years in the Navy, four years at a service academy, and 18 years before that just to learn that God is with us. Always, everywhere, no matter what. I understood why I had been on a submarine for Pascha. All the experiences were suddenly worth it.
by Maria Degtiareva
The original English translation of this article was originally published by Pravmir.com. We thank them for permission to republish it here.
The first time I found myself here was four years ago. I did not come on my own, although I had heard about this place more than once, even seeing some annotated photographs in the newspaper: Patriarch Alexei serving on the firing range beside the familiar faces of priests, rectors of churches in Moscow.
But my impression was then limited to certain scraps of sentences: “Butovo, place of mass executions,” “stone laying,” and something about a “memorial cross.”
I was taken to Butovo by an acquaintance, a nun from one of the Moscow convents. With her, we were ten people. For Matushka this is a special place: on this piece of land, in one of the common graves, lays her father. No, he was not a priest. He was an ordinary office worker. He just happened to be among those who landed on the “black list”; he was arrested and never released from prison. Only many years later, when the archives were declassified, was his fate clarified and his place of execution identified. Her childhood memories about the events surrounding this have retained a horrible scene: when, after the arrest of her father, the “black car”  came for the rest of them, the neighbors violated the unwritten rule of silence by making a scene and not giving them up. At first they went into hiding, not having a home of their own. Thanks to this, they lived. And now we are going to Butovo.
The Six-hectare “Specially Protected Area”
I had had the impression that it was somewhere very far away, but the entire journey from central Moscow took not much longer than an hour. For Moscow, that is no distance at all. It is practically next-door, in a grove just off the highway. Now that the city has grown, there is a new residential complex not far away: grey serial houses in which life goes on as usual, with children playing in the yards. Even in earlier times, back in the thirties, there was a dacha settlement here, not that far away. Families vacationed here, going sunbathing and wandering through the woods. Given, one had to walk carefully and cautiously, knowing that it was better not to walk near the long plank fence. Not because the gunfire was deafening, but because the place itself emitted a heavy, unfriendly smell.
Officially, it was known that light artillery was periodically fired in this specially protected area of the NKVD-KGB, a space of only about six hectares. Nonetheless, this was a strange place. In the thirties, residents of the dacha settlement would see how, at intervals of approximately once every two days, a fairly spacious covered car bearing the inscription “bread” would approach the firing range. People were perplexed: why was bread being brought in such large quantities to a military facility located on a small territory? By the mid-thirties this place had already acquired a firmly established “reputation”: one kept quiet about it. Only years later did the old dacha owners tell about how one of the neighbors happened to see how at night groups of half-dressed people were led under guard through the forest next to the range – and then shots were fired. It was also said that there were several cases of residents of the settlement also disappearing, possibly because they had witnessed something they should not have.
Now here is that very fence. It differs from an ordinary fence only in that several rows of barbed wire have been placed on top. Varvara Vasilevna Chichagova-Chernaya – the well-known scientist, academician, and granddaughter of the now-glorified Metropolitan Seraphim (Chichagov) – saw just the same thing in 1994. 
The circumstances compelling her to come here were as follows: many years ago, in 1937, when she was still a student, a misfortune took place in her family: her grandfather, Vladyka Seraphim, was arrested while alone at the family dacha in Udelnaya. The people taking him away were nervous, so they did everything they could not to draw the attention of outsiders. An ambulance came to the house and, a few minutes later, the ailing eighty-two-year elder was carried out on a stretcher and taken away, as if it had been a routine call. Attempts to discover at least something of his whereabouts led nowhere: the same answer awaited them in every hospital and prison in Moscow: “Chichagov is not listed.” Varvara Vasilevna’s search for her grandfather was postponed for more than half a century.
Then one day, when she had already become a scientist of world renown and the director of a major scientific institute, on the second day after Nativity, the telephone rang in her apartment. A question was posed by an unfamiliar female voice:
“Do you know where your grandfather is buried?”
“No, I don’t.”
“In Butovo, in the KGB’s firing range.”
It turned out that getting into the range during the winter was impossible: it was closed. Nonetheless, Varvara Vasilevna went there immediately in search. The first time she did not get in. So there she stood before the tall, impenetrable fence with the barbed wire…
“The Russian Golgotha”
Through the efforts of a very small group of people with access to archival affairs, it became possible to reconstruct the history of this place. These people are amazing: two women working with documents and a few relatives of the victims. Xenia Fedorovna Lyubimova compiled a card index of those shot and buried in the Butovo firing range. At present, not all of the materials have been processed. The creation of the card index required time, patience, and, quite simply, physical strength. It must be said that the memory of the women working in these investigative matters is extraordinary. The following scene, for instance, took place in our presence: a Muscovite who had come to Butovo for the first time, not hitherto knowing anything about the fate of her relative and only guessing that he might be here, timidly gave his last name and date of arrest. In response she heard, in a firm voice, his first name, patronymic, and a confirmation: “Yes, he is one of ours.”
It was gradually revealed, layer-by-layer, what this protected area of “military purpose” actually represented. Formerly the estate of the merchant and manufacturing Zimin family, with a once well-tended park and a stud farm, it was voluntarily handed over by the owners to the new authorities after the revolution. In the twenties it was turned into an agricultural colony of the OGPU.  But in the beginning of 1934, prisoners from the former St. Catherine’s Monastery, where a prison had existed since 1931, began to be brought here by cart.  The barbed wire fence made its first appearance. Sentries were posted here and there… And then the shooting started, sometimes going on for several hours at a time. At first, the dacha residents did not attribute any particular significance to this: a firing range is a firing range. Suspicions arose later, when people returning to their houses late at night began to see the “black cars,” in the form of tightly covered vans. Sometimes there were several at a time. It would happen that distant screams would be heard. But times were such that people feared even sharing their suppositions with one another.
By now it is known that the former special zone of the NKVD-KGB in Butovo is the largest mass grave of victims of political repression in the Moscow area. Among those executed were a great many clergy, including six bishops, as well as monastics and simple believers, laypeople who assisted in churches. Over several years, by decrees of the Council and Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, 230 of them were glorified among the saints.
The peak of executions came during the “Yezhov era.”  In one year, from July 1937 to August 1938, there were 20,765 executions on the firing range. Of them, approximately 1,000 (based on investigative materials) suffered specifically for their fidelity to the Church and to faith.
But it seems that trouble had to be faced even in death. After all, the Lord Himself was crucified between thieves. Here, in the unmarked grave pits, lie the remains of both saints and persecutors of faith, of both victims and their torturers – side by side, one next to the other. This is a difficult thing to write about: the firing “brigades” accomplished their missions while drunk on vodka, so horrible was their work. And among the assignments of some of these “brigades,” as they say, was the “liquidation” of those they had replaced. In such manner, this place, where significant people were executed, was covered up, recorded in such a way that none would be the wiser.
Several years ago, the current rector of the Church of the New Martyrs in Butovo, Fr. Kirill Kaleda (grandson of the Hieromartyr Vladimir Ambartsumov)  made an attempt to uncover a small fragment of an execution pit, using every precautionary measure with the invited help of experienced anthropologists. It then became clear that finding relics, for which they had had a modest hope, was impossible. In one ten-meter square, nearly 150 human remains were discovered. People lay five layers deep – which means that the killed and wounded had landed on the dead.
With the help of aerial photography, the topography of the ditches has been established: there were more than ten. There are enormous trenches, sixty to seventy meters wide and four to five meters deep, in the shape of “pi” and “lambda.” Buried in them are people of sixty nationalities and of a wide range of socio-political views and cultural backgrounds. Butovo has become one of the most horrible testimonies to the apostasy of the twenties and thirties – and, simultaneously, one of the most significant symbols of fidelity to Christ.
During that first trip to Butovo, I caught myself thinking that it was terrible to walk on this ground. There is literally no free space in it: the entire place is a “common grave.” When no space was left in the fenced-in square, the shooting of small groups of prisoners was carried out in the nearby woods. And yet, regardless of the numbness that set in here at first – due to the exceptional severity, scale, and proximity of this tragedy – a different feeling gradually arose. I could not put my finger on where and when I had had this same feeling. Only later did I remember: it was just the same in Rome, on the Appian Way, in the catacombs of the first Christians!  There were tombs with the relics of martyrs killed in the Coliseum, a multitude of buried women and children – and then, suddenly, on the pier of one of the caves, on the wall, was a painting: heavenly, festal peacocks drawn in fine, elegant lines. The symbol of incorruption in early Christianity, in amazingly bright red, turquoise, and purple paint. The eternal Pascha! Yes, Butovo is our “Appian Way,” our “Golgotha.” It was December, and on the burial ditches, as if painted there by an artist, were crimson roses, carnations, and alstroemerias scattered everywhere. The caps of light from the burning candles here warmed the air above the grass, covered with a thick layer of frost.
Greater Than Death
And there they are, the Paschal symbols of this great and holy place: the tall, light, roofed memorial-cross (the work of the architect D. M. Shakhovskoy, son of the murdered Priest Michael Shika),  one for all those united by suffering and hope in the Resurrection; the wonderfully vivid icon of the Hieromartyr Seraphim (Chichagov); and the icon of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. The church itself is a symbol, small and wooden, erected right here on the shooting range, on the site of the forge where it is believed the first executions took place. It is remarkably light and warm inside. It is prayed in, especially on the day commemorating the saints of Butovo. It feels as though they are all here, next to us, with the small church holding everyone.
On the iconostas is a row of icons depicting the martyrs of Butovo. Among them are Archbishop Dmitri (Dobroserdov) of Mozhaisk, Archbishop Nicholas (Dobronravov) of Vladimir and Suzdal, Bishop Arkady (Ostalsky) of Bezhetsky, Bishop Jonah (Lazarev) of Velizh, and Bishop Nikita (Delektorsky) of Nizhniy Tagil. Here they all are: archimandrites, abbots, archpriests, priests, and parishioners.
Later, when I came alone, I asked Fr. Kirill’s blessing to photograph my beloved icon of the Hieromartyr Seraphim (Chichagov). I wanted to show it to my relatives and acquaintances, talking about Butovo to people who did not yet know anything about it or who were unable to come here. A woman working in the church lights the oil lamp. Lowering the lens, I see tiny droplets on the image. The icon is streaming myrrh. This happens before feast days and on the day of Vladyka Seraphim’s commemoration. With God there is no death for the saints; with Him they are all alive!
Translated from the Russian.
 “Black car” here translates voronok (literally, raven), the popular name given to the car used for the transportation of prisoners; this name was used because of car’s color (black) and because the raven was perceived as a bird of evil omen.
 Varvara Vasilevna Chichagova-Chernaya (1914-1999). Following a brilliant career in chemistry, during which she was highly decorated by the state while never belonging to the Communist Party, she was tonsured a nun in 1997 with the name Seraphima at the Novodevichy Convent in Moscow; shortly thereafter she was installed as abbess of the same convent, which had just been returned to the Church. She was the granddaughter of Metropolitan Seraphim (Chichagov) of Leningrad and Gdov, who was executed at Butovo on December 11, 1937, and subsequently glorified as a saint in 1997.
 The OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate under the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR) was a secret police body formed from the Cheka and at various times incorporated into the NKVD, which was later transformed into the KGB. It was responsible for the creation of the Gulag system and became the government’s main arm for the persecution of religious bodies.
 St. Catherine’s Monastery is located just outside the city of Vidnoye (formerly Rastorguyevo), a few miles south of Moscow city limits. Founded in 1660, it was closed in 1931. From 1938 to 1953 it housed the Sukhanovo Prison (a political prison of the NKVD notorious for its harsh conditions); later it was used as a police school. It reopened as a monastery in 1991.
 Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov (1895-1940) was head of the NKVD under Stalin during the Great Purge (1937-1938). During the period of de-Stalinization the term “Yezhov era” was used to describe his reign.
 Fr. Vladimir Ambartsumovich Ambartsumov (1892-1937), born to an Armenian father and a German mother, converted to Orthodoxy in 1926 after many years of activity as a Protestant missionary and preacher; he was ordained to the priesthood the following year. Shot in Butovo on November 5, 1937, he was glorified as a saint in 2000. A great number of his descendents have gone on to the priesthood or to other active roles within the Church (including Archpriest Alexander Iliashenko, founder and chairman of the editorial board of Pravmir.ru, who is his grandson).
 Appian Way (Via Appia) was the principal road south from Rome in classical times. It contains several Christian catacombs, most notably those of Callixtus and Sebastian.
 Fr. Michael Shik (1887-1937) converted from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity in 1918 and was later ordained to the priesthood. He was shot in Butovo on the same day as Fr. Vladimir Ambartsumov, with whom he had served in Moscow, along with dozens of other clergy.
In the early part of this month, Ms. Jessica Precop, on behalf of our department, traveled to the Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan to interview Father Roman Braga, who grew up and served in Romania under a communist regime. We are very thankful to Ms. Precop, Father Roman, and the Sisterhood at the Monastery for making this interview possible.
Father, to start with, what can you tell us about the monastic way of life?
This is a good question. First, however, you have to understand the Romanian cultural environment when I was young – in the 1920’s -1950’s. The Romanian people, I think, were always inclined toward the monastic way of life, because being monastic and leading a monastic type life does not mean only to go and live in a monastery. When Jesus was preaching the gospel: “…if you love your mother and father more than Me you are not worthy of Me…” or when Jesus said “…if you don’t take your cross and follow Me you are not worthy of Me…,” Jesus was not speaking to monks; monks did not exist at that time. Jesus was speaking to people, single people, married people, everybody. So in a way, regarding the virtues, there is no difference between monks and lay people. The monastic virtues are for everyone. I will give you an example: those who want to dedicate their lives to Jesus, to the Church and who want to save their souls through the monastic way of life, become at times at odds with the parents wishes who may want their children to lead a secular life. But remember, God comes first in our life, then come the parents and the family.
First we must listen to God because He is the father of all of us. So there is a monastic element in that. Abstinence, for example, is not just for monks. In general married people need to exercise more abstinence than single people. Lay people as well need to exercise more abstinence than monastics. Abstinence means to abstain from food, from alcohol, from many other things. Or, in our culture here in America, we abstain from certain things only when we are forced into it by medical conditions. But God wants us to abstain from certain things so that we are not dominated by material things; to be free of material things. The material things are temporary; we cannot take them with us. As persons we have to grow. We cease to be a person when we are dominated by material things. Sex, drugs, alcohol, smoking, over-eating, and many other things like that make you a slave; you are no longer a free person. Well, God wants us to be free because He made us free and this is our likeness with God: “Let us make men according to our own image.”
So the virtues are the same for married people as they are for monastics; The only difference is that the monastics go to a monastery, living in communities because they want to dedicate their lives to God without the social obligations. Monastics do not marry, instead they take a vow of virginity and of poverty. Why? Because they do not want to depend on possessions. Monks do not own land, do not own anything, other than their personal belongings. In the monasteries, the monks wear a habit- a special uniform if you wish – because they are considered the army of the Church, the soldiers of the Church. The Church depends on them.
As we speak, there is a session of the OCA Holy Synod at our monastery today. The Holy Synod of a Church is made up of bishops. The Church needs bishops. The bishops cannot be married, and they should be from among the monks. If the leaders of the Church come and tell you: “we need you for a bishop,” you cannot say no because you have to be obedient to the Church. Along with the vow of chastity and poverty the monk takes the also the vow of obedience. Or if the Church needs to send you somewhere to start a church you have to go. You don’t have possessions, a house to worry about: “oh I have a house, what to do with my house?” You have just a suitcase and you put in the necessary things and immediately you go. So obedience is another vow that the monks take.
As I said before, monks wear a habit. They wear long clothes and robes. This is outer monk, the monk that everybody sees. This “outer monk” so to speak is not for everyone. The inner monk is for everybody, in other words, the virtues of, abstinence, sacrifice, those are the same for the professed monk as well as for the lay person. So those monastic virtues; to deny yourself to take your cross, to abstain, these are for everybody. The virtues are the same and we go to the same place, married people and monks. And marriage is not an easy task. One needs much asceticism in marriage. You have three, four, five children, sometime you do not even eat, just let them eat, as you sacrifice yourself for them and others. So this is the difference between monks and lay people.
Romania has about 500 monasteries. There were always many monks and nuns in Romania. They are not cloistered; they go shopping, they go to the market. Romania is a small country, the size of the state of Ohio, and monks and nuns are influenced by the culture of the country. Even now the monasteries of Romania are full of nuns and monks. So it depends on the culture in which you live and the way you understand the gospel.
Can you tell us what led you to the monastic life?
I didn’t go to the monastery when I was young. I was in prison twice and after my first imprisonment I became a monk because I got more mature while in prison. When you experience suffering then you start meditating. I was a teacher. I was teaching in a high school in Bucharest. I was mature enough to understand life and to ask myself: “why am I not married at 30? and should I marry or not?” So the imprisonment gave me time to meditate and think: “What is better for me, should I marry and have a family or should I choose the monastic life?” And I decided that monastic life is for me to follow.
As a young boy I lived in a monastery, at the Seminary of Cernica in Bucharest and I loved monastic life, so for me monasticism was a natural way of life.
Can you talk about what it was like as a Christian to live under a communist regime?
As a Christian you had to make many compromises. For example, you have children and they go to school. And they are told in school there is no God and you do not have to pray and you do not have to have crosses around the neck and not to go to church. The children went home and grandma was praying with them and making the sign of the cross. We kept this Christian life in the family. Nothing could be manifest. You were not allowed to manifest your Christian life.
What happened to the churches and monasteries under the communist regime?
The churches were tolerated because Romania was basically a massive Orthodox country. The Church was very strong and the communist regime did not want to risk anything. Many monasteries, however, were closed. Only those that were declared historical monuments remained open, and Romanians were happy because almost all the monasteries were historical monuments. The communist regime transformed the monasteries into museums and they kept a few monks or nuns as tour guides to keep and take care of the museums and the huge libraries and archives that the monasteries possessed. And so the churches of the monasteries were also kept open. There was however a decree, decree #410 by the communist government to close all the monasteries who are not historic monuments and to force all monks and nuns under 50 years of age to leave the monasteries and go to work for the state. Only the old monks were allowed to stay in the monasteries to keep them open as historical monuments, and they kept the liturgical cycle of the Church: matins and vespers and liturgies, and they kept these all and they took care of themselves. Because people in Romania were Christians, they went to church in the monasteries and they helped these old monks and nuns. The communists couldn’t control that, and they were not so much interested in the simple folks; they were interested especially in the intellectual class because the intellectual class creates the habits, the culture.
The communist regime persecuted mostly the Roman Catholic Church because it was the minority and it was mostly for foreigners. Romania is 90% Orthodox so they persecuted mostly the other denominations by taking their property and kicking them out. With Orthodoxy they didn’t dare to go too far, so they pulled out young people from the monasteries but the old people still remained there and the churches of the monasteries were open and the liturgical cycles continued uninterrupted. During these times the monastic life was still going; it was not striving, was not growing, but at least it was maintained.
How did your own struggles with the communist government impact your spiritual life?
The communists could not control what is inside of you, but you couldn’t express what you were thinking, you were not able to express your opinion. And this not only as a a monk or as a priest or as a Christian, but as an intellectual in general. Not all intellectuals in Romania during the communist regime were communists. In order to survive they were forced to say one thing but they believed something else in themselves. So they had a double life. It was one thing what they had in their mind and in their soul – their convictions, and another what they were expressing aloud. It was all a matter of survival. So that was a very, very difficult life. It was not like here where you are not afraid of anything. You are not afraid to express yourself; it was not like this. People were saying exactly what the government asked them to say in order to be able to have a job, to be a teacher, to have a profession, to be able to provide for their family their daily bread. But what they thought and believed the communist couldn’t control.
We were happy in prison in a way. Let aside all the physical tortures Physical tortures are nothing. You suffer from them even, you can even die. But the communist imprisonment is worse than physical torture. They want to keep you at the limit of normal and abnormal, but they couldn’t control what is inside of you. In a way, for a priest the communist prison was good because there in prison we were praying. Once you are convicted (of “crimes” you did not commit) you are placed in a cell, there is nothing else. They put the intellectuals and especially the priests in solitary confinement at least one or two years, and in a way that was very good for us. Not having anywhere to go or even look out a window because there were no windows in those cells of solitary confinement you have to look, to go somewhere; and so you go inside yourself, inside your heart and inside your mind to examine yourself, to see who you are and why God brought you into this world. You question whether God even exists, and what is your relationship with God.
When we were free we did not have time to ask ourselves these questions. Our faith was superficial because you can learn a lot of things and can have a mind like an Encyclopedia full of all the knowledge, but if you don’t know yourself and who you are!. Even if you know everything in the world you are superficial if you do not ask yourself who am I? Why do I exist? What is the destiny of my life? Why did God create me? If I believe in God what does God want from me? These things when you live in freedom you do not ask yourself because you are in a hurry to do a lot of things, to read a lot of books and you become the slave of the books, the slave of the knowledge, of concepts of philosophy and so on. But you do not have the time to meditate on who you are. When you are free you are made out of quotations from books. We were not allowed in prison to have any books. In 11 years I did not see a pencil or a piece of paper, or a book, and not only myself, but all the intellectuals and all the priests. The communists gave books and papers to read to simple folks because they wanted to convince them to become communists. They wanted, however, that the intellectuals be transformed into beasts, become like animals. The interesting think is that it did not happen. Instead you became yourself because you started to examine yourself. Once you were out of prison, they were interested that you do not make propaganda to tell others what happened in prison, and so on and so many of us were expelled from the country just so we do not to tell the others what was going on in prison.
How did you witness Christ is prison?
In prison most of the time you were by yourself. I was in a forced labor camp too. In the forced labor camp we had our groups of prayer and we had priests that were hearing confessions. Each priest had a group around him. We witnessed Christ more in the forced labor camp because there was not too much control there. It was a large community and the communists were interested in how much you worked. In prison it was impossible to witness Christ, even if you were alone or maybe two in the same cell. Sometimes there were four in the same cell, but you only talked to a small group of people. In the force labor camps we even had the liturgy there because we had priests, without vestments and without anything else other than a piece of bread, and some tonic wine that the doctors in the hospital provided. I was in a forced labor camp with 16,000 people, and there was a hospital and the doctors were from among the prisoners so they provided tonic wine for us for the liturgy and we spared two pieces of bread from breakfast and so we had liturgy. The guards did not know we had liturgy; as they were passing by, they thought we were just babbling; we sure did not show it. I remember in prison though, in the cell, a priest had liturgy under the blanket; when the guard entered he covered everything with the blanket.
Why is suffering important as a Christian?
Suffering is good not only for Christians but for everybody. Because if you do not suffer you do not understand anything. Suffering is a good experience. And in the scriptures it says that suffering is a sign that God loves you. In the Epistle to Hebrew Chapter 13, St. Paul says that if you do not suffer you are not children of God. Who is the Father who does not chastise His children? He punishes His children because He loves them. If you do not suffer you are not the sons of God. After you experience suffering, you understand more and better things in this world, much deeper than the others who do not experience any suffering. So suffering is maturing you in your spiritual life. You should not avoid suffering but you should not look for it. God takes care of that. There is a lot of suffering in the world. So many families who have children in the hospital. My doctor has a daughter 11 years of age with bone cancer; they are young, what a suffering for that family whose daughter may be dying. We ask ourselves why?
God allows into this world to have beggars and crippled people and all this because otherwise we would not be able to be charitable. We have to exercise our love because love is not just the word, is it something that we must do. And you do things for those who need them. So that is why there are orphan children and crippled people and so many other things, for us to exercise our love for our neighbor because Jesus said love God with your whole heart and whole mind but love your neighbor as you love yourself. But if my neighbor does not need my love what is love? Just a hand shake? That is not love. Or to give him a hug? That is nothing. Go there and take a crippled person on the street and give him a hug and ask him what can I do for you? That is love. Not to live for yourself; to live for others and always to deny yourself; to forget yourself and remember that others exist. That is Christian life. Not to say “what about me, and me, and I;” Who are you? You are nobody. Try not to pay too much attention to you. But when you say can I do something for you? Maybe you need me? That is meaningful Christian love. So suffering in this world is permitted by God that other Christians might concentrate their love on those suffering people and do something for them, to sacrifice themselves for them. In our own life suffering is permitted so we understand why Jesus was crucified.
I am able to forgive. I pray for those guards that tortured us in prison. I am not against them because I understand they were forced to do that. And you forgive only when you suffer. When you do not suffer you do not want to forgive, then you are condemned. There was a movie-maker who came and made a movie with me and Fr. Calciu. The interviewer said “how can you forgive them?” Well why not? They are the image of God. We know that in that kind of regime they were forced to kill us, to torture us, to do what they were told to do, otherwise their families would not have bread to eat. You are able to forgive when you suffer. When you do not suffer you are not able to forgive. You say “no, no, no, you should not do such and such a thing and if you do you should be punished because you did it”. So suffering is very important in Christian life.
How is life in America different than your experience in Romania?
I thought I came to a free country. And that is true; you have the freedom to do anything you want, as long as you do not to hurt anybody. If you hurt anybody for sure you have to suffer the consequences. Speaking of the freedom of conscious and thought, I doubt that we are free because being free to do everything you can destroy yourself if you are not mature. Freedom without responsibility is not freedom. Only when you are prevented of doing what you want to do, then you understand freedom. But when you say “I want to do everything I want” you are not free. Think about Genesis, the first book in the Bible, when God created man, he did not understand what freedom was until God told him you cannot touch this tree; the tree is a symbol, it is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So if God created man free, then you ask why He gave him a limit: “do not touch this.” Without this limit man cannot understand what freedom is. Freedom is just a word if you do not have restrictions. So freedom without discipline is not freedom. And many in our culture here in America think that they do not have to respect anything or anybody; they are free to do everything. This is not freedom.
What are some ways we can find Christ today, in the American society?
Well Christ first of all is in you. Christ is not just some nice guy. He is God and God is within you. God is in our conscious, in our heart, in our minds, is not something material you see outside of yourself. You find God in yourself. You descend in your personality. We are eternal, we never die, the body is going to the cemetery but the conscious, the person is continually living. So when you descend into yourself, your conscious is infinite. And this infinity is the temple of the living God. St. Paul says many times you are the temple of the living God because God lives within you. You find God when you know yourself, when you know who you are. If you neglect that, “I don’t have time to think about myself” you will never find God because God is not something material, you do not find him in a specific place. God is always with you if you want Him to be with you. You find God when you find yourself. “Who am I?” Pay attention to these verses of the scriptures: “you are the temple of the living God because God lives within you.” And Jesus said: “remain in Me and I in you. I am the vine and you are the branches” if you do not remain in me you do not have sap to feed yourself and you dry up. People who complain they do not feel God they are dry branches. They have to remain in Christ and to accept Christ by saying: “Lord, come, I am here. You created me. Open my heart because You created this heart. You created the door, enter please.”
You have to talk with God everywhere you are. Walking on the street, driving the car, you can say “Lord You are in the front seat, I know that You are here tell me something. Why did You create me?” You have a lot of things, an infinite number of things to converse with God and God wants you to talk with Him because prayer is not as much as you read in the book or how long you are kneeling, prayer is the whole life. When you eat, when you drink, when you drive the car, when you discipline your children: You are in a state of prayer. Life is a liturgy. It is not only in church that liturgy takes place, the liturgy is outside the church building too. The whole life should be a liturgy- if you have the feeling of the existence of God. But you have to get that feeling of the existence of God… how? I always say, especially to young people, have a dialogue, a permanent dialogue with God. Sure you are busy: you eat, you prepare your exam if you are a student, you work and you are very busy but always say: “Lord I know You are here I didn’t forget You. Look at me and do not abandon me.” See many times this permanent dialogue with God becomes a prayer because prayer is a communication between man and God.
Prayer is not just a short time and you say “I finished my prayer” and that’s it; you never finish your prayer. The definition of prayer is this: the feeling of the presence of God in you. And if you have this feeling of the presence of God you are in a continual prayer. If you pray only when you pray you don’t pray at all one of the monks said. So don’t pray only when you pray, you pray all the time because prayer is not “give me, give me.” Prayer is to say I love you and I want to spend time with you. Ask God something. And don’t worry God is answering you even if you don’t think it. He’s giving you good hints and good suggestions on how to resolve your problems. So to find God in our culture here is to be conscious that God exists first and God exists not outside of yourself but inside. And God is always with you and you can get the feeling of the existence of God.
by Mr. Andrew Boyd
It’s fun to celebrate the victorious image of Christ, to wave palms with the crowd and shout as the king enters in glory. Palm Sunday is a festive celebration of our King who will save us from the “others” the oppressors, whether they are Roman or modern. The rest of our Holy Week may not have the same mass appeal, the same mass effect of a celebratory crowd. When I return to church that Sunday night, for the first bridegroom matins of Holy Week, I am always completely surprised. “Behold, the bridegroom” we all sing in front of the icon of Christ humiliated. That victorious king who will save us from our enemies is replaced by Christ humiliated, beaten-down, and powerless, on his way to his own voluntary death by his own submissive choice.
The Church has always followed the way of Christ, and consequently, has always been persecuted in every time and place in a variety of subtle and glaring ways. From Steven’s powerful witness by his death in Acts through to here and now, the Church has always been persecuted. There has never been some sort of “golden age” when the Church was not persecuted by external or internal forces, by governments and hierarchs, heretics and heathens. Christ himself prophesied this before his passion in John’s Gospel. To be a Christian, to be a part of this Church which has Christ as the head, is to bear witness to the world through our own life-creating, and meaningful suffering and death.
When I think about martyrdom in our modern context, this image of Christ’s extreme humility always comes to mind. Christ the Word is silent. Christ the All-Powerful is powerless. Christ our immortal King and God is dead. This Christ is beautiful. This Christ who died for us is the most beautiful thing that most of us will ever see which is why we spend so much time decorating the tomb during Holy Week and it’s why we make our crosses so ornate. The model that Christ shows us for eternal life is his own martyrdom, his own way of extreme humiliation that led to life breaking forth for us all from his sealed tomb. He had to die, because death is the only universal human experience, and he came into the world to fully embrace humanity. He had to die, because our sin leads to death, and he came into the world to conquer sin and death. He encountered death and hell and rose again victorious over both. Christ’s self-sacrificial journey opened for all of us the path to eternal life, salvation, and life with him in his kingdom.
In much of modern Christianity, however, so much of the rhetoric involved in public discourse seems to be centered on a kind of odd victim identity. Like those in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, we want to make Christ into an earthly King, but Christ came into this world to save us from our own sins, not to save us from other people. Yet, if you turn on cable news or read newspapers or blogs, the constant message of Christians seems to be not the amazing, Gospel message of the Crucified and Risen Messiah, but rather a cacophony of noise that makes us sound more like a lobbying group and less like the body of Christ. “Our rights have been violated,” you might hear, or, “This is unfair and unconstitutional!” Increasingly the Christian witness to our world is just the noise of another lobbying group, begging for its piece of the pie.
Our priorities, our discourse should be of a very different tack. I heard a story once about an abbot of the Monastery of Stavronikita on Mount Athos. He was attending a theological conference in Greece, meeting with bishops and theologians, church leaders and thinkers. They were discussing how bad everything was, the troubles of the Church, and how the government was making everything worse. This abbot (who was exceedingly young at the time) got up to make his speech and said, “Yes, things are bad the world is bad, and there is materialism and secularism, and atheism, but let us rejoice, let us have hope because they can take everything from us, but they cannot rob us our death. In fact, they may even help us to glorify God in it.” We cannot be robbed of our death, and the ultimate witness to God is always ours to make, if we are courageous enough, and worthy enough. As bad as things might become for Christians, we can never be robbed of our power to witness to Christ, we can never be robbed of our choice to die for him as he died for us all, whether metaphorically or actually.
I am going to make a radical claim, Christians do not have rights. Ok, in reality in most countries in this world we do. But rights are a selfish concern. The great Russian religious thinker and writer, Nikolai Berdyaev wrote ““Bread for me is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.” Likewise, I would argue that my rights are a selfish concern, but the rights of my neighbor are a selfless one. We are spending an inordinate amount of time in the public sphere clamoring for our supposed rights. The only right that a Christian has is to the promised wage for the worker in the vineyard. That’s all the gospel says we are entitled to. But what about the rights of our neighbors? What about the rights of the poor, the immigrants, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the unborn? Instead of worrying about those rights it has become fashionable for Christians to feign offense at being greeted with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, or to worry about what some bus ad in London says.
This all seems to me to point to a disturbing loss of perspective. Have we lost the definition of persecution in our Church? Have we forgotten what it means to be a martyr, a witness, a Christian? Sometimes, I fear we have. As American Christians, we live in incredible comfort, wanting for very little compared to our ancestors and to Christians in other countries. We enjoy rights and freedoms unheard of in the Roman Empire, Holy Russia, Byzantium, or even most of modern Asia and the Middle East. We are called to be martyrs, to witness to the world the death and resurrection of our incarnate God, Jesus Christ. The perennial question is how to do that in our context. Do we witness to Christ when we clamor for attention and complain about perceived persecution? Or do we witness to Christ the way He witnessed to the world, by silently enduring all that the Father gave him, for the salvation of others? Our modern martyrdom is simply the martyrdom of Jesus Christ made present in our time and place through us. It’s His radical, extreme, and self-sacrificial love that we are called to make present, keeping in mind that He speaks out in defense of others, and keeps silent in defense of Himself.
Father Michael Plekon is a Professor in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology at Baruch College (City University of New York). He is attached to Saint Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Church in Wappingers Falls, New York. He is author of the book “Hidden Holiness” and the forth-coming “Saints as They Really Are–American Voices, Lives and Paths to Holiness”.
Jim Forest is the author of numerous books and a contributor to many publications. He also serves as International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and is associate editor of its journal and web site, In Communion. His books include The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying with Icons, Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton, and All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day. He is also the author of several children’s books. His photographs have been widely published.
Donald Peter Carmichael lives and works in San Diego. He grew up mostly in New Hampshire under the care of his parents, Fr Peter and Matushka Karen with a younger sister, Mary, and a younger brother, David and a “home” parish of Holy Trinity in Springfield, VT. He went to the US Merchant Marine Academy, graduated and joined the US Navy Nuclear Submarine Force and departed from after having spent five years. He now attends St Katherine Mission in Encinitas, CA and enjoys ladder-golf and bike rides.
Doctor Maria Degtiareva is a Professor of Theology at Perm State University in Perm, Russia.
Jessica Precop is a longtime member of OCF and served on the OCF Student Advisory Board as Great Lakes Regional Representative from 2007-2009. She has served on OCF Real Break Teams to San Francisco, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Constantinople. Jessica is from Livonia, MI and is a member of St. George Romanian Orthodox Cathedral in Southfield, MI. Jessica graduated in May 2012 with her Masters in Social Work from Michigan State University; she did her Bachelors Degree in Human Development and Classical Voice at Bowling Green State University.
Father Roman Braga was born in 1922 in Basarabia, Romania He graduated from the Theological Institute in 1947, Magna cum Laude, and the following year received a teaching certificate for theology, Romanian language, and literature. Arrested in 1948, he spent 5 years in prison. After his release from prison in 1954, he was tonsured as a monk and ordained deacon by the Metropolitan in Iaşi, Sebastian Rusanu. In 1959 he was arrested again and spent a full year under interrogation. He was accused of having been part of the Burning Bush movement, along with 15 other intellectuals of the time. After a show trial, he was sentenced to 18 years of forced labor. Father Roman spent the next 5 years in the labor camps along the Danube Delta, building dams and cutting reeds. In 1964, general amnesty was given to all political prisoners by the communist regime. Upon his release, Father Roman returned to Iaşi and was hired by Bishop Valerian Zaharia to work in the archives of the Episcopate of Oradea. That same year, Bishop Valerian ordained Father Roman a priest. In 1972, Bishop Valerian Trifa of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate in America asked Father Roman to come to the United States where he served in several parishes. In 1984, Father Roman moved to Pennsylvania and became the priest and spiritual father for the community of the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City. In 1990, Father Roman retired and moved to Michigan to the Dormition of the Mother of God Orthodox Monastery in Rives Junction. Although officially retired, Father Roman had remained active in the busy schedule of services and the rich spiritual and intellectual life of the monastery for several more years.
Mr. Andrew Boyd is the managing editor of this blog. He is a 2008 graduate of the University of Connecticut and a 2012 graduate of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He is a native of Guilford, Connecticut and a member of Saint Alexis Orthodox Church in the neighboring town of Clinton.