Preserving Monastic Life Under Conditions of Persecution
Abbess Maria (Sidiropoulo)
The abbess of St Elizabeth Convent in Buchendorf, Germany, of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Abbess Maria (Sidiropoulo), delivered a speech on at the 25th International Nativity Readings in Moscow, titled “Ancient Monastic Traditions in Today's World” in Moscow on January 26-27, 2017.
The heavy persecutions and brutality against the Church of Christ, ultimately proved helpless in extinguishing the spirit of monasticism and to erase it's memory within the people for whom monastic communities exist. On the contrary, this has produced eminent personages, Holy New Martyrs, the podvigi [spiritual travails] of whom illuminated the path of today's monasticism. A significant number of New Martyrs that were canonized by the Church were monastics.
Monasticism is the fruit of Divine devotion, in which a person brings himself as a whole as a sacrifice to God. If an Orthodox monastery is a lantern unto the world, a spiritual haven and source of support for the laity, for monastics it is a place of sacrifice, struggle, tribulation and ultimately transfiguration. In the early 1920’s, as more and more monasteries were closed and monastic property confiscated by the Soviet state, a system of secret monasticism arose in Russia. Despite the fact that monasteries were being closed and their residents scattered, monastic life of those who remained did not cease, but they developed various means of survival in under new circumstances.
Despite the fact that monasteries were being closed and their monastics dispersed, monastic life did not cease but gained various forms of survival under the new circumstances. Those who at one time had escaped the world within the walls of a monastery in search of the solitary life were now faced with a new challenge, to become invisible in the world. Schema-archimandrite Ignaty (Lebedev) said the following to his spiritual daughter, none Xenia: “We will continue to observe the monastic life under the gaze of the Omniscient God, for the wrath of God we see now will pass; but we will have new names, you will be Catherine, I will be at Agafon instead of Ignatius… you will make confession to this old man from a different town, and, Catherine, wear your habit at home, but don’t even wear a black kerchief when you go to church…”
With the aim of disguising their true life, hidden monastics could not wear monastic garb, they were deprived of quiet monastic solitude, but the main thing they were able to retain was the monastic cycle of divine services. As a rule after a monastery closed, monks settled somewhere nearby. Some obtained small residences in cities and towns and lived in communities of four or five, remaining true to their monastic vows. In this way so-called “household monasteries” were established. Instead of one large monastery, these were small fragmented monastic communities which preserved the principles of communal life. No distance could divide them because they formed a single brotherhood and a single sisterhood. Following the spirit of communal life, the monks from destroyed monasteries preserved the unity of spirit, tried to support each other to the best of their abilities, maintaining their spiritual bond with their abbot or abbess, maintained correspondence with their spiritual fathers, frequently with no hope of ever receiving a response.
Along with written legacy there is an oral tradition which one cannot obtained from books. During the tribulations in the Russian Church, oral tradition particularly flourished, which, passed on from elders to their students, maintained a secret stream of Grace, the Illuminated life of the divine through the very lives of the elders. Monasticism thus survived, constantly renewing itself from the inside. Bearing witness to this are many examples of monastics during these years. The ancient traditions of communal monasticism was given new life by secret monastics of the times of Peter the Great. The elders of the Petrine period deemed work in state institutions as an obedience. A novice was to observe his obedience with his conscience, with full responsibility, and with love, wrote Nun Ignatia (Puzik). Part of their earnings went to the community.
The practice of discussing one's sins with his or her spiritual father, performing the daily cycle of divine services and making frequent confession were preserved. Along with open pastoral activity within the bounds of the law, spiritual fathers did not neglect their underground service. Fr Ignaty would gather his spiritual children at the home of the eldest nun of his community, Nun Evpraxia, whose house everyone called their “hermitage,” where they would read the monastic rule of prayer together, whereas most tonsures were performed at people’s apartments.
From the letters of Nun Ignatia, we see the power of the blessing of an elder and monastic obedience to him. As a young woman, Mother Ignatia was given two difficult obediences from her spiritual father: she was obliged to read the full cycle of services at home, and at the same time continue her studies. “Father first of all told us to love the Orthodox Divine service, he immersed us in the joy of church services,” said Mother Ignatia. “I read the services every day, and if for some reason I don't, I feel like I spend the day without my soul.”
Throughout all of Russia there were men's and women's communities, which lived with an internal order during the Petrine period. These are just a few examples: In the city of Peterhof, in a large two-story home, a monastic community was established under Hieromonk Varsonofy (Verevkin) with five or six nuns. They performed the daily cycle of services in the monastic rule, reading the morning and evening prayers together. Although some of them were not able to be tonsured before their death, in essence they lived a strict monastic life.
In the town of Kirsanov in Tambov oblast, nuns came from Orzhevsk’s Bololubsky-Tishenin Monastery. The town’s residents loved the nuns, but did not let them into their homes out of fear. The nuns lived in separate houses, receiving their spiritual ministry from persecuted clergymen. Instead of one large monastery in Kirsanov, there were a multitude of tiny ones.
In Tashkent, a mixed underground monastery existed under Archimandrite Gury (Egorov, 1891-1965) had a large common treasury , where the earnings of the monastics were gathered, all of whom worked for the government. All divine services and Liturgies were celebrated in homes where they lived, so there was no need to visit the city church. There were great and small sorrows endured by the monastics, which only strengthened their inner spiritual joy. “It is a terrible thing to say, but persecution can have great purifying power. And should persecution return, it will be like outer shells crumbling away from one’s soul. God forbid that persecution returns, but it will inescapably come,” wrote Abbess Afanasia (Gromeko) of Radonitsa’s St Antony Convent in Kholm Diocese to Metropolitan Evlogy (Georgievsky), who evacuated with the wave of Russian exiles in the early 1920’s.
It was through search spiritual centers like the one at Radonitsa, under the spiritual guidance of Vladyka Evlogy, which in the 1920’s exchanged information and maintained a living bond with the Russian emigration. It was the secret correspondence that shed light on a true reality of those times. People fled the country to freely confess their faith; everyone did the best they could to serve Christ in their hearts, and no one condemned anyone else. Refraining from condemning one’s neighbor is the expression of the true monastic spirit. It helps preserve inner strength and devotion to Christ.
“While imprisoned, I enjoyed true prayer,” said Father Ioann (Krestyankin). “This is because every day I was at death’s door. Prayer became an impenetrable fortress beyond which the abomination of everyday life could not make its way. It is impossible to repeat such prayer in these times of well-being, although the experience of prayer and living Faith of that period I was able to preserve my whole life.” For prison is a place of great destructive force
Parish churches served as a cover for the continuing monastic communities. Being a persecuted clas, they did not fight back against their oppressors, but went from church to church, moved from city to city, humbly fulfilling the commandment of the Gospel: “When they persecute you in one town, escape to another” (Matthew 10:23). In the lives of many New Martyrs, one reads how they would pray for their enemies. “But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now” (Galatians 4:29), and as Christ Himself said: “these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me” (John 16:3).
Abbess Rufina (Kokoreva) of Cherdyn’s St John the Theologian Convent, who was not broken by physical hardships nor by the life of a wanderer, preserved her monastic vows in her heart and, remembering her calling, established monastic communities wherever she and her nuns went. As early as 1927, after long years of wandering and torturous physical struggles, she spoke of preparing her community to move to the USA. She saw an opportunity there to wait for the emancipation of Russia, considering her intentions not as fleeing her Homeland, but as returning to the Russia she served and whose rebirth she believed in. At first she did not succeed, but the convent gradually made its way to Shanghai, where the nuns found spiritual guidance from St John of Shanghai. There they were able to conduct normal vigil services with readings of the akathist, and Liturgy, at which all the nuns always partook of the Holy Gifts.
From the biography of Holy Grand Duchess Elizabeth we learn that, disdaining her aristocratic rank, she abandoned the glory and honor of this world when she could have enjoyed the fruits of comfort and safety, but preferred to serve the needy, the sick, the poor and orphaned. Refusing the option of fleeing Russia during the Revolution, she remained and was sent to exile, whence she continued to support, guide and console the nuns of her convent in writing, calling upon them to hold fast to love and unity of spirit. She comforted those who were sentenced to death with singing from the Liturgy. Nun Barbara, her companion, looking death in the eye, demonstrated staunch devotion to her abbess and was crowned with the eternal crown of martyrdom. The uncorrupted body of the Grand Duchess was found to have the monastic paraman [a piece of square cloth worn on the back, embroidered with the instruments of the Passion—transl.] showing that although novices were not tonsured in Marfo-Mariinsky Convent, she was in actuality a secret mantled nun.
Metropolitan Evlogy wrote of the founder of the original Lesna Convent,* Abbess Ekaterina (born Countess Efimovskaya), whose effort was blessed by St Amvrossy of Optina: «One can boldly state that the entire people of Kholm passed through her orphanages and schools, the entire ‘intelligentsia’ of the town: teachers, writers, agronomists, psalm-readers—most of them were her students.”
Holy Patriarch Tikhon said to Archimandrite Manuil (Lemeshevsky) during his consecration as Bishop of Luzhsk and Vicar of Petrograd: “I am sending you towards suffering, for the cross and sorrows await you on your new path of service, but be bold and preserve for me this diocese.” Soon thereafter—only 125 days later—Bishop Manuil “showed his obedience” to His Holiness and returned the Petrograd diocese from the Obnovlenchestvo schism.
Monastic life is constant martyrdom, demanding self-sacrifice and dedication to Christ and His Church especially under circumstances of persecution, to carry forth the light of faith to the godless world, demonstrating with their very lives that it is possible to fulfill the commandments of Christ. It was no easy task to live such a life, surrounded by temptations and dissolution, but that was the essence of their accomplishment.
* Lesna Convent was established in the town of Lesna in Konstantinovksy uezd of Sedlets guberniya (now Poland) in 1889. During World War I Orthodox monasteries in the Kholm and Podlyasha regions found themselves at the front and had to evacuate. Lesna Convent moved to its premises in St Petersburg, whence in 1917, at the invitation of Vladyka Anastassy (Gribanovsky), the nuns moved to his diocese in Kishinev and later settled in Khopovo, Serbia.