2nd Sunday in Great Lent : We bring one another before our Saviour

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
We bring one another before our Saviour
2nd Sunday in Great Lent
[Given outside of the Archdiocese]
15 March, 2009
Hebrews 1:10-2:3 ; Mark 2:1-12

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

We live in difficult times. It is not that it is worse than it ever was, but it seems like it is to us. It is good that the Lord comes to us regularly, reminding us about Who He is – Who He is in general, and Who He is to us in particular. He is not some sort of distant idea. He is not a manufactured product of our thoughts. He is not a projection of ourselves. He is the One who created everything, sustains everything, and is involved in everything. He knows everything, and does everything on the foundation of love. He is not someone who has wound up the universe, lets it sit on a shelf to tick away until it finishes its course, and that is that (big bangs, and other assorted theories included). He is involved in everything that has been happening and will be happening in His creation from the very beginning until the very end. This is, again, because of His love.

In the Gospel reading today, we are with the Lord in His love in this house where He is surrounded by so many people that I am sure that He Himself had difficulty moving. The persons who are bringing this paralysed man could not get in. I have always marvelled at the persistence of these four men who cared enough for the paralysed man to open the roof, and let him down into the middle of the house so that the Saviour could address him directly. In other words, they opened the roof and put him down straight in front of the Saviour, between the Saviour and all the people. When I was a child, I could not imagine how this could happen. However, since then I have learned a little bit more about Middle-eastern and ancient construction techniques, so it is not quite as amazing as it was when I first heard this at the age of five. Nevertheless, how our Lord addresses the man is always amazing. Just as He always does, our Lord immediately addresses the person who is in need. He understands everything right away, and even understands the cynical thoughts of the Pharisees sitting around there criticising Him. He addresses this man and says to him : “‘Arise, take up your bed [stretcher], and go to your house’”. And he does. He gets up, takes his stretcher away with him, and goes home.

This man who was released from his paralysis certainly was grateful, although there is no sign that he said anything today. Nevertheless, he has to have been grateful. Our lives do indeed have to be lived in an attitude of gratitude – gratitude towards the Lord for His love, His care for us, His nearness to us, His presence with us, His saving us. There is much more to life than meets the eye.

In the context of the short time that I lived in New Valamo in Finland, I want to share my experience of how the Lord works with us. People tend to think of New Valamo as being merely a new monastery sitting there in the middle of Finland. This is especially the case now, in the 21st century where everything is quite new, and there are not many people from former days around. This tendency is not helped by the monastery’s name of New Valamo. However, in 1940 in central Finland, this monastery was populated by about 250 monks who had recently been exiled from the island of Valaam in Lake Ladoga. Because of the big war between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1940, they all left the holy island of Valaam and went to live in New Valamo Monastery in very cramped quarters. They had a very difficult time.

The first time I went to New Valamo (in 1980), the first lesson I learned was the importance of stability of place. By 1940, the monks at Valaam Monastery had decreased from 1,000 to 250 because the Soviet Union had closed its borders from 1918. Far fewer persons were able to enter the monastery than there had been before. Previously, people had come from all over the Russian empire to enter this monastery. Therefore, entrance was limited to people of the Finnish territory or those who lived in Estonia or Latvia or one of the Baltic states.

When those monks were exiled from Lake Ladoga to central Finland in 1940, they suffered a terrible shock. They had left the island where the brotherhood had been established for close to 1,000 years. Even though the monastery itself had been previously destroyed several times, it had been always been revived by the brotherhood (even as it has been again revived after 1989). Nevertheless, the brotherhood suffered a great deal in its exile in Finland west of the new 1940 border. They also suffered from living too closely together because they were squeezed, all 250 of them, into the still existing small buildings that used to be something like barns on what had been a rich man’s manor in central Finland. When people live that close together (as you are certainly aware), they can catch every illness that is going around. Of course, people came, and they imported all sorts of viruses, and so forth. Many of these men were rather old by the time they had arrived there. Therefore, there were many deaths after 1940.

The monks, also, were suffering in their hearts because they did not know what to do. They were in exile, and just as other exiles, they were suffering a great deal of interior pain. Stability of place plays a big factor here, spiritually speaking. When any of us moves from place to place, it is destabilising, and it causes disturbances. It is a well-known old principle that if anyone might try to escape the devil in one place and move to another place, not only does that one come with the person, but new demons present themselves also. It may be said that that happened when they moved to central Finland. They went from a generally Orthodox environment to an extremely hostile Lutheran environment in an area of Finland where they would still in those days burn down an Orthodox church from time to time in a certain sort of evangelical zeal. It was not at all friendly territory. It was a very difficult place in which to live. In this context, you can read the works of Igumen John of Valamo and others.

I want to speak about two particular personalities that I met – the remnants of the old monks. These two men taught me by their example (I could not talk to them because I did not speak any Russian in those days). They did not speak Finnish (and neither did I), and certainly they did not speak English or French. Therefore, we could only communicate in the heart. I could see their example, and hear the other young people in the monastery speaking about what they knew about these men. The first thing I learned while I was there during that short time was that the prayers of all the fathers who had gone before in this monastery were still supporting the community that was there then. Their intercessions continue to uphold the community to this day. I cannot explain it, but I could sense strongly in my heart that that is very truly the case. The practicalities show that this is the truth. The fathers of this monastery, although long departed, still carry the current brotherhood, just as the paralytic was carried by the four men. In the same way, the fathers also bring the current brothers before the Saviour.

My story is about two old monks. One was Father Akaky. Father Akaky was just a regular monk. I do not think he was even a reader. At the time of the Russian revolution, he ran away from central Russia somewhere. He rode a horse as far as the horse would carry him before it died. He walked the rest of the way, all the way to the Arctic coast to the Monastery of Pechenga. This was not a small undertaking. He lived in this monastery until 1940, when the borders shifted, and again he had to move. He moved south, and joined the brotherhood of Valamo in central Finland, serving in the monastery as a groom of horses. He cared for all the horses that were used to work the monastery farm. When he was 95, the brotherhood stopped farming with horses. There were too few monks anyway, and by then there were tractors available. When they stopped using horses, that meant that Father Akaky was retired. Then he felt useless, and did not talk to anyone for three years. Perhaps there was anger there, too. After three years, he began to talk to people again. When I encountered him, he was 107. He was saying that God had forgotten him. At the same time, he got a notice from the Finnish school system saying that it was time for him to enter grade one because he was seven according to their records. However, he did not go to school, but every day he was brought by the brotherhood to church in his wheelchair. He could walk, but not a long way. He was all bent over with age.

Father Akaky was a very interesting man. The young novices who lived in the rooms above him said that they could still set their watch by him because every night at midnight they could hear him start to sing “O heavenly King” as he began the midnight office. At that time, he was 107 years old, and he lived to be 111. As far as I know, he kept going to church right up until the end in the same way, brought by his brothers in a wheelchair.

The other person I want to speak about is Archimandrite Simforian. For most of his monastic life, Archimandrite Simforian was a regular sort of monk. He was kellenik to a long series of abbots, even before they left the old monastery in Lake Ladoga. When they left the monastery, through God’s mercy, they had time to clean out the whole place, and move it to central Finland. The Communists did not get a chance to break up much. However, there was one very big bell that they simply could not manage to transport. They left in wintertime and they drove across the ice. As all the monks were leaving for the last time, Father Simforian went into the bell-tower and rang this giant bell. (I can imagine how heart-rending that whole experience would have been.) He went with the whole brotherhood to New Valamo where he lived and served in the same capacity for a long time.

However, as the brotherhood was diminishing, the needs were increasing. So the brotherhood sought his ordination to the diaconate and to the priesthood in due course. As the brotherhood continued to diminish, Archimandrite Simforian ended up being the abbot, the last of the old abbots of this monastery. Because of the illness and weakness of the remaining brothers, he served the whole typikon every day for 25 years without stopping. He served eight hours worth of services, and sometimes more every day. According to the old typikon, it was the custom in the evening to recite 500 Jesus Prayers within Compline. Therefore, it took a little longer than usual. This addition occurred long before because on the islands there was so much hard farm labour to be done that many of the brethren could only participate in this service of Compline every day.

Archimandrite Simforian did this all those years faithfully out of love for the Lord, and it bore a great deal of fruit in his life. He became very much a source of consolation to people. I remember that when I was there, the former Metropolitan of Tallinn (who later became Patriarch Aleksy of Moscow) came to the monastery to visit Father Simforian. Patriarch Aleksy had gone as a child to the old monastery in Lake Ladoga, and he knew Archimandrite Simforian and the brothers. He still snuck into Finland from time to time when he could, to visit the monastery.

Archimandrite Simforian lived and prayed in his cell very faithfully and quietly just as a regular, God-loving monk. During the time when I was serving in the monastery, I was serving almost every day. I had to serve about 80 per-cent of the services in the course of the time that I was there because the brotherhood was small, and the other priests had other responsibilities that they had to take care of. Even then, over the course of the summer, that monastery was receiving 100,000 tourists who would arrive on buses. That was one of the reasons I was brought there to serve.

While I was serving, Archimandrite Simforian, who was 88 at the time, would come into the church in the middle of Matins. I could hear him coming in by the sound of his loose slippers (because his feet were in rather bad condition by that time). I could also hear the feet of people running to him to ask for his blessing. Coming into the Altar, he would stand at my right hand beside the Altar during the whole Divine Liturgy. Every day he came up to the Holy Table for Communion, and every day he came with tears in his eyes. Always there was such a sense of peace and joy surrounding this man. That is why I say there was great fruit from his labours and his prayers. He was full of peace, and he was full of joy. This is the characteristic of the Christian, and this is the whole point of being a monk – to be filled with Christ and His love, and to share somehow, as God blesses it to be shared, but at least to share it with the Lord.

When I was there, Archimandrite Simforian showed his mettle. At Christmas-time, they had the custom of wearing vestments that had been given to the monastery by the Empress Catherine the Great. Each phelonian weighs 25 kilograms. He was a little man, who, when he was 88, came up to my shoulders. However, he was a strong man. After the New Year, he had a stroke. It was rather severe, so they took him to the hospital. He was suffering a great deal. While he was lying there, we discovered that there was one thing that helped him. (This was an example of the four men carrying the paralytic.) We found out that if we could say the Jesus Prayer in Slavonic audibly for him, he calmed down. Then the whole brotherhood took turns sitting beside him and saying the Jesus Prayer in Slavonic audibly so that he would be able to keep his heart focussed. He was a spiritual warrior. The brotherhood helped him to continue praying for some time until he reposed. He reposed in the middle of the winter. I was serving the Divine Liturgy as usual when, in the middle of the Trisagion, they brought him into the Temple in his coffin. We stopped everything, went and dressed him (he was still warm) in his mantya and klobuk. We prepared him in the middle of the nave, and finished the Divine Liturgy as we normally would.

I could not resist sharing these little elements from Valamo with you not only because this monastery has some sort of spiritual connexion with Valaam, but also with the hope that this will help you to persevere, yourselves. This perseverance is not based only on one’s personal determination, but by asking the Lord for help all the time, and looking for the support and prayers of our brothers who are alive in the flesh as well as those who have fallen asleep. Those who have gone to the Lord, in their love for the Saviour, still love us and pray for us.

Dear brothers and sisters in our Saviour, let us do the best we can to persevere in love, and allow the Lord’s joy and peace to grow in our lives, knowing that the Lord is with us, just as He was with those Valaam monks and others. He cares for us. He will support us. It is important for us always to hold on to Him, and to glorify Him, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.