I have already said something about Father Andrei in another post. He was born in 1956 and grew up an agnostic. As a young man, he shopped around, looking for the Truth, a truth that would give meaning to his life. He became a kind of hippy and, after school, he went to drama school with the intention of becoming an actor. However, he found the Truth in Orthodoxy. He dropped out of drama school and became watchman in a parish church. He also became church cleaner and reader and, of course, slept in the church. In those communist days, the authorities made sure there were not enough priests to go round, and, between Mass celebrations, baptisms and marriages, there was usually no resident priest: hence, people came to him with their problems. This was an admirable preparation for his vocation. Eventually, he left his work as watchman and went to the seminary to study for the priesthood.
I don't know when he made the journey from Minsk to the island of Zalit, and asked Father Nikolai to be his spiritual father. In a certain sense, you hand over your freedom to your spiritual father, confess to him your most intimate thoughts and failings, and do nothing without his blessing. He is to his disciple what an abbot is in the Rule of St Benedict, and for exactly the same reason: a Christian life begins when we leave aside our own will to do the will of God in all things. The abbot or spiritual father given to us by Providence is the one who teaches us through obedience not to do our own will. Thus, it was probably with Father Nikolai's blessing that he gave up his job as watchman in a church and went to the seminary, and it was probably with his blessing that he married and started a family. He would also have received a daily programme of prayer from his spiritual father.
Once ordained, Father Andrei began his priestly service in the cathedral. The rest you know: how he became spiritual father of many people, especially women; how a couple of female parishioners of the cathedral came to him with the suggestion that a group of women should be formed, a sisterhood that would visit the sick and prisoners and put them in contact with the love of God through the teaching and sacraments of the Orthodox faith. They would be "Sisters of Mercy", modelled on those who followed the royal martyr, St Elizabeth, grand daughter of Queen Victoria and worked with her in the slums, before the Russian Revolution brought everything to an end. The idea took off after the blessing of Father Nikolai Gurianov who said to him, "You will be saved through the prayers of the sick".
The white sisters are now three hundred. In 1999, about twenty white sisters decided, under his spiritual direction, to become nuns, and now the monastic community of "black sisters" has grown to over one hundred. You know that, beside the sisters, black and white, who form the Minsk community under the joint protection of saints Nicholas of Bari (Father Christmas) and St Elizabeth, the royal martyr, there are also a number of young men who are serving God by participating in the prayer life and work of the community; and, from among them, there is now a growing number of monks.
MY INTERVIEW WITH FATHER ANDREI
I was having a wonderful time as a guest of St Elizabeth's Convent. The sisters, both black and white, could not have been kinder, and Fr Andrei's smile could not have been warmer on the occasions when I met him.
As for the Divine Liturgy, it was quite simply wonderful. Of course, it is the same Mass as ours, and, when I returned to Belmont, I found I appreciated our Mass more for having been there. Heaven on earth is not an exaggeration when the Byzantine Liturgy is celebrated in its own setting.
I was invited by one of the sisters to have an interview with Fr Andrei after the Liturgy one day. It had been celebrated in a room in the mental hospital on a temporary altar, with icons of Christ and the Mother of God in window sills on either side and a triptych of icons in a corner. The majority of the congregation were long-term mental patients. I was then led into a room in the convent to await Fr Andrei.
After his usual warm greeting, he went straight into a kind of little sermon. He wasn't aggressive, he wasn't attacking me. It was as though we couldn't waste time just chatting or making small talk when the kingdom of God is among us. When a nun came to see me, she too gave me a little talk and then waited expectantly for me to reciprocate. Fr Andrei said how the modern spirit of consumerism is subtly distorting the Gospel because people expect from the Church in general and from God in particular an increase of material happiness for their Christian faithfulness. It is as though God exists to serve them, rather than the other way round. They serve in the Church for what they can get out of it, and even some Orthodox priests adapt their message to meet these false expectations. Both sides forget the Cross and that Christian life begins only when we leave our own will and ambitions and adopt as our own the will if the Father, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" Even if we do not go as far as this, we can so adapt our way of life so that it is as pleasurable as possible within Christian parameters, seeking pleasure rather than the will of God without breaking any important commandments except the law of self-sacrificing love. "It must be worse in your country," he half-asked with raised eyebrows
This work here is the result of self-sacrificing love. Every brick was in place because someone somewhere has made a little sacrifice. Some of the money has come from Britain and from other countries. However, it all began with the blessing of his staretz, Father Nicholas Gurianov. When he blessed the project it was absolutely impossible. "We had no land, no money, no influence, no support from the government, nothing; and now look at it!."
"Are there still many elders like Father Nicholas nowadays?" I asked.
"Of course there are!" he said. The Holy Spirit is always with the Church, never more nor less from generation to generation, from the time of the Apostles till now; and the staretz is a work of the Holy Spirit. There are always people and places where heaven is really close and where ordinary people can touch eternity.
We chatted a little more before he went into the convent and I went to lunch in the monastic refectory.
Introduction to my visit to St Elizabeth's, Minsk (click)
FATHER NIKOLAI GURYANOV (click)