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NEW YORK: March 18, 2008
Teaching Through Humility. On the Death of Metropolitan Laurus

Andrei Zolotov, Editor-in-Chief, Russia Profile
Source: RIA Novosti  

When he began to appear on television screens four years ago, he seemed a strange man for the Russian public. Bearing the high title of Metropolitan of East America and New York, he was dressed accordingly. He met with President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Alexy II and then signed on May 17, 2007, the historical Act of Canonical Communion of the Orthodox Church in Russia and abroad, thus putting an end to the tragic division of the Russian people in the 20th century. He was ceremoniously met around the country and showered with orders and prizes. But his image starkly contrasted with the image of a church authority or, for that matter, any other leader that we are used to.

The apparently feeble old man was inarticulate and barely audible. During solemn services, he moved around without due pomp. He constantly seemed pensive or sleepy. Receiving awards from top Russian leaders, when it’s just about time for a high-flown patriotic speech, he would say modest thanks, but mainly a homily – on the Holy Trinity, for example, or on Divine Love.

How did it happen that it was this man, who did the seemingly impossible – with very little losses led his Church, many of whose members saw its raison d’etre in opposing the “Soviet” Moscow Patriarchate, toward unity with the Church in Russia? Today, looking back at his life or listening to the testimonies of those who knew him personally, one sees not only another example of the dramatic fate of an outstanding representative of the Russian diaspora. What we see is the often trite stilted notions of a monk, pastor, active love, humility and faith in God coming alive, and the conventional forms of a bishop’s service revealing its original essence.

“He was a monk, and not a politician,” said prominent German Russia expert Alexander Rahr, who grew up in the ROCOR and visited Metropolitan Laurus on a number of occasions. “But he came to believe that Russia was changing.”

“Metropolitan Laurus led the Church Abroad with his humility,” said Protodeacon Victor Lochmatov, who in 1957 at the age of 11 came as a volunteer to the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville and stayed for more than 50 years as Hieromonk—and later Metropolitan—Laurus’s assistant. It was he who found the metropolitan dead Sunday, when he brought lunch to his house: “His palms under his head, as I had always seen him asleep.”  

“Through his humility and the example of his life he taught people’s souls,” the Protodeacon said, overcoming tremor. “He got up before everybody else, worked more than everybody else, and never aggravated situations where people were hostile to each other. If I came to him to complain about someone – there were such cases—he would always find something good to say about this person. He looked at everybody with love – especially at people who committed some offense.”

Milica Holodny, the chief editor of the journal Russkoye Vozrozhdenie, published in Moscow and New York, recalled how she once came to the monastery when it was led by Bishop Laurus. She accidentally wandered into the kitchen and saw on the wall a schedule of dishwashing duties. Bishop Laurus’ name was on the list. “He was the all-powerful master in the monastery,” Holodny said. “That he put himself on the list of dishwashers is so telling. That has always distinguished him from the majority of people holding high offices. You could always come see him with any personal grief without making an appointment. You’d wait a bit, but he would definitely talk to you as if you are dear to him, and he did that to everybody.”

The monastic tradition so outstandingly represented by the late hierarch is traced to the Pochaev Monastery in Volynia (today, the Ternopol oblast in Ukraine). The 11-year old peasant son Vasily Shkurla started in 1939 as a novice in a monastery in the village of Ladomirovo, Slovakia, which was founded by a Pochaev monk, who later became Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko). The future metropolitan was an ethnic Carpatho-Russian (or Ruthenian), thus representing a small Slavic people with a Russian self-consciousness, which found itself in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and suffered a great deal for its traditional Orthodox Christianity and Russian orientation. Ladomirovo monks were active in publishing. They continued it in Jordanville, in rural upstate New York, where they moved in 1946, when the Red Army came to Slovakia. In 1948, Vasily Shkurla was tonsured as a monk and given the monastic name Laurus. He began to teach in ROCOR’s only seminary in Jordanville, while still a senior. Later, he be came an academic supervisor while running the monastery’s office and book warehouse at the same time, and was famous for his borshch. “He bore the burden of running the monastery,” Lochmatov said. In 1967, Laurus became the Bishop of Manhattan and secretary of ROCOR’s Synod. In 10 years, he returned to the monastery as its abbot and Bishop of Syracuse and Holy Trinity.

“He undertook every kind of work that had to be done in the monastery—from the barn to the linotype,” Lochmatov said. “Do you even know what a linotype is? At that time, the monastery published a lot of church literature and we tried to send things to Russia whenever possible.”

For many Orthodox Christians in the Soviet Union, it was the literature published in Jordanville and smuggled across the border that served as both a breath of fresh air and the only connection to the part of the Russian Orthodox Church behind the “iron curtain” that was not controlled by the Soviet power. Perhaps, for Laurus too, the connection to Russia through the publishing work became the seed from which his service to the church unity grew.

In 1986, when the ROCOR head, Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky) died, the much loved Archbishop Laurus was seen by his flock as the most likely candidate for the metropolitan’ s post. But the Church was led instead by Metropolitan Vitaly (Oustinov), who was notorious for his extreme intolerance toward the Moscow Patriarchate. When the Church in Russia was liberated and the reasons for an essentially political schism would be seemingly exhausted, a stark confrontation began instead of unification. ROCOR opened its parishes in Russia and put forward new demands on the ROC. The Moscow Patriarchate, in turn, claimed ROCOR properties in foreign countries.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Laurus devoured news from Russia and rendered quiet support to the forces within ROCOR who spoke against the anti-Moscow policy, often facing ostracism. For example, he let the convention of the St Seraphim Foundation, whose head, Protopresbyter Alexander Kiselev, openly criticized the opening of ROCOR parishes in Russia, and thus caused fury on the part of the hierarchy. When the ROCOR official paper condemned the transfer in 1991 of the relics of much revered St Seraphim of Sarov from St Petersburg to Diveevo in Nizhny Novogorod region as “false” relics in a “graceless” church, Laurus did not criticize the article, but went incognito to Diveevo and celebrated a service on these relics. When it became known, the talk of “gracelessness” stopped on its own.  

“We, the proponents of unity, were very much out of fashion at the time, and he tolerated us where he could and helped us where he could,” recalled Milica Holodny, Kiselev’s daughter. “It was never like Putin stomped his foot and everybody ran toward the unity.”  

In the 1990s, Archbishop Laurus made several such secret trips to Russia—in the garb of a simple monastic priest, without announcing his visit to a monastery or a church. “Just don’t call me Your Eminence,” Lochmatov recalls his boss’ instructions during these trips. “He was very sharp. As in the monastery he always saw more than people thought he saw; the same is true of Russia. He observed everything, followed the life there, especially—the life of Orthodox people, and it pushed him to the understanding that it’s time to end this thing [division].”

The internal processes leading to reunification began in the ROCOR long before Putin’s landmark meeting with the hierarchs of this Church in November 2003. In 2001 Metropolitan Vitaly retired, but announced later that he was forced to do it and found himself ultimately in a schism – one of many in the ROCOR, while its main part reconciled with the Moscow Patriarchate. Laurus was then elected Metropolitan.

“And so now what I would not do, that has come upon me,” Laurus said accepting the appointment. “Here, in my old age, my brother bishops have girded me and given me the ship of our Russian Church Abroad. I have taken this, as an obedience to God, to the Church of Christ and our Council of Bishops. I do not sense that I have any advantages, nor any strength to steer this ship. I rely solely on the help of God, on the prayers of our flock… It is necessary for Russian Orthodox people, and for Orthodox Christians in general to be one in spirit and action.”

After the meeting with Putin and the first official visit to Russia of a ROCOR delegation in May 2004, a complicated negotiation process began. According to its participants, the talks were on the verge of breakdown several times – so different were the experiences and approaches of the two parts of the Russian Church. When the prospect of reconciliation became real, the discord within ROCOR grew. There were many who disagreed. Lochmatov recalled how painful the discords were for the metropolitan, but he did not show his emotions. Due to his spirit of peace, which is noticed by everybody who met Laurus at least once, the number of breakaway parishes was minimized and numbered several dozen mainly in the former Soviet Union, where people came to ROCOR primarily out of their opposition to the official church. And overall, his leadership was as quiet as his entire ministry.

“He never spoke harshly, never forced his will any one,” Holodny said. “And frankly, he spoke poorly and sometimes vaguely. But God’s will acted through him. We had eloquent speakers and activists, who were furiously against it, or furiously for it. But to no avail. And here suddenly it was done!”

Should one say that Metropolitan Laurus’ passing is the kind of death that Orthodox Christians can only dream of, praying daily “for a Christian end to our lives, peaceful, without shame and suffering,”? Having achieved the goal of his life, having returned from beloved Russia just over two weeks before, having celebrated all the services of the first week of Lent except Saturday, when he fell ill, the 80-year-old elder quietly died in his sleep while the Church was celebrating the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

The reunification’s opponents will likely try to use his death to forward their agenda. But they will be unable to reverse the process. “This schism has already run aground,” Holodny said. “I think it will be over.”

According to the ROCOR statutes, the first hierarch is elected at the gathering of all bishops – the Council of Bishops. Each of the 11 present bishops of this self-governed part of the Russian Orthodox Church can be a candidate. According to the Act of Canonical Unity signed last year, the elected metropolitan must be confirmed by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. The temporary head of the ROCOR after Metropolitan Laurus’ death is his first deputy, Archbishop Hilarion (Kapral) of Sydney, Australia and New Zealand.  As a person closest to Metropolitan Laurus in his spirit and views, he is named by sources within ROCOR as the likeliest successor to Metropolitan Laurus. Another possible candidate is Archbishop Mark (Arndt) of Berlin, Germany and Great Britain.

Metropolitan Laurus will be buried in Jordanville on Friday March 21st, ROCOR announced.

And finally: working on this obituary, I spent a lot of time trying to find among Metropolitan Laurus’ published speeches some eloquent quote which describes the national, public and historical meaning of the Russian Church unification. And I did not find it. He spoke of unity in a different kind of language, which we are not used to. “We ought to save our souls in love toward each other and in unity,” he said less than a month ago, receiving from Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov the Compatriot of the Year award. “And it takes colossal labor, patience, humility and indulgence. Let us actively strive for these virtues in order to develop and strengthen the unity and peace in the Church, which we achieved, with God’s help. So that the divisions which befell the Russian Orthodox Church and the peoples of our Fatherland in the tragic 20th century would never repeat. Let everybody begin to care about the peace within, about the peace with one’s conscience – that is about personal peace and accord in life with God. Striving for this peace and achieving it, we will thus be striving for achieving peace and unity in the life of the society. Without this – no matter how much we’d try – divisions and enmities will continue. [The 6th century saint] Abba Dorotheus used to draw a circle. In the center of the circle is God. Around the circle are we, the people. How can we become closer? Everyone has to go from his place towards the center, to God. The closer we are to the center – to God – the closer we become toward each other. That is how I see the path toward a spiritual unity of the peoples of our fatherland. Going along this path, we will actively participate in the great cause of uniting all. Amen.”