We featured Julie Culshaw’s review of the Archimandrite’s book in our Christmas 2014 issue. Now we have the pleasure of adding to it the review of another valued contributor, Francis Phillips.
Everyday Saints and Other Stories
Written by Archimandrite Tikhon
(Pokrov Publications, 2012)
First published in Russia in 2011, this book, despite its unlikely title, has been consistently at the top of the country’s best-seller lists. This tells you something about Russia; although officially atheist for over 70 years, following the collapse of Communism there has been a dramatic rediscovery of traditional Russian Orthodoxy. Alongside the flashy oligarchs, the economic difficulties that followed the collapse of Communism and the nationalist ambitions of the current government, the religious soul of the country has steadily reasserted itself.
The charm and fascination of this work of over 450 pages does not lie in hagiography. In writing about the life of the monks in Pskov Caves Monastery, near the border with Estonia, the author has managed an almost impossible feat: to make the working of grace and the life of the supernatural seem entirely normal; this is the secret of his success. He simply describes monastic life – and occasionally parish life – as he has experienced it. Thus the reader is drawn irresistibly into an otherworldly dimension.
Beginning in 1984, Father Tikhon, a graduate from a prestigious film school in St Petersburg, relates how he and the other four novices in his group arrived at Pskov Caves Monastery. Four were from entirely irreligious backgrounds; all had excellent career prospects ahead of them. Yet “for each of us, a new world had suddenly opened up, incomparable in its beauty. And that world had turned out to be boundlessly more attractive than the one in which we had lived our… lives.”
Despite being written nearly 30 years later, Fr Tikhon’s book never loses its quality of gratitude and wonderment at “the beautiful new world” he had discovered, a world in which “above all, we can always sense powerful manifestations of divine strength and comfort.” These manifestations are reflected in the lives of some of the compelling personalities with the monastery walls. Many of the older monks had fought in WW II; others had survived years in the gulag. “Having liberated their own country…these young warriors had decided now to serve Almighty God…They were ready to engage in mortal, spiritual combat for themselves and for their living and dead companions – those who had not been called to fight this unseen yet crucial spiritual war between good and evil”. Fr Tikhon adds laconically, “You can imagine how tough they were.” All were men outstanding in courage and devotion – as well as a certain eccentricity.
Fr John Krestiankin, Fr Tikhon’s spiritual mentor, spent eight years in prison camps based on a false accusation. Gifted with prophetic powers, he was full of the “mysterious and all-forgiving love” of Christ. Fr Seraphim, who lived a hermit-like existence in a damp cave within the monastery grounds, had a reputation as a saintly confessor. Fr Nathaniel, the monastery treasurer, a “difficult” man, harsh and inflexible to the novices, nevertheless keeps the monastery open and flourishing, withstanding decades of Soviet harassment. Indeed, Pskov Caves was one of only two monasteries never to be closed down during the Soviet era, when thousands of other cathedrals and churches were destroyed or converted to other uses.
Fr Nathaniel was helped by the Abbot, Archimandrite Alipius, “model of a fearless spiritual warrior”, who offered to die himself rather than close the monastery when bullied by Soviet officialdom. Once he dressed up in his old military uniform, complete with double rows of medals, to confront the Party apparatchiks sent by the Kremlin; faced by this fearsome personage, they departed hastily.
Included among these biographical accounts are old monks’ tales of divine intervention, some brief homilies (more of praise than instruction) and anecdotes of Fr Tikhon’s particular friends and the exotic characters he meets in remote parishes in rural Russia. He occasionally mentions exorcisms, commenting that “demons are like parasites in the human body. You may not know about them and may not even believe in their existence, but they truly do act as parasites on our souls and, imperceptibly to their hosts, control their thoughts and deeds.”
One colourful yet attractive personality is Fr Raphael, formerly a model Soviet youth, who by chance picked up a Bible “and everything changed in an instant.” He discovered a world where “wealth was ridiculous and glamour and ostentation absurd, while modesty and humility were beautiful and becoming.” Fr Raphael was no preacher, scholar or theologian; but he had “discovered an amazing secret: from humility even the simplest of sinners comes closer to God.”
There is also Fr Dositheus, who lived in a hermitage on a swampy island, paddling to his parish duties in an unstable, homemade canoe, and who spent hours praying the Jesus Prayer in a hollowed-out tree trunk which he had dragged into his shack.
The book includes many photographs of the monks and priests described, along with some of the great religious festivals. They beckon the reader into a mysterious yet compelling world, unknown to western travel writing or political commentary. Proceeds from its sale will go to a memorial cathedral in Moscow, dedicated to the victims of Communism.