Voices from Russia

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Fr Andrew on the Legacy of Vladyki Laurus

In Memoriam:

His Eminence Metropolitan Laurus Škurla 

Archbishop of New York and Eastern America and Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville NY USA

First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (MP)


Today, my heart and soul are filled with spiritual joy, spiritual mercy, and the mercy of God. I’m always joyful when I’m in the holy Russian land. For me this is a Holy Land. I’m joyful when I’m able to concelebrate with hierarchs, priests, and their flock, to pray to God and be worthy of the great mercy of God… to partake of the Mysteries of Christ here, in this holy land.

For myself, I’m from the Carpathians. That’s where the Slavs came from. We were brought up to look on Russia, the Russian land, as a Holy Land… I ask for your holy prayers that the Lord may make us worthy to be together with the saints, especially with the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, who suffered and abundantly watered our Russian land with their blood.

Metropolitan Laurus after the Divine Liturgy at Sretensky Monastery in Moscow on 24 February 2008

as recorded by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov


There are people whose calling and destiny it is to fulfil a great task. They do not in the least seek after this, but they are chosen by God. They have greatness thrust upon them. For example, in Moscow on Monday 17 March, the influential Russian Union of Orthodox Citizens (SPG) suggested naming a street after a poor peasant boy from Slovakia. “The merits of His Eminence Metropolitan Laurus are so great that streets in our cities deserve to be named after him. A majestic Cathedral should be build to commemorate this outstanding man and the unification of the Russian Orthodox Church”, said Kirill Frolov, the head of the SPG Moscow Department. He added, “The SPG regards Metropolitan Laurus as a national hero. The unification of the Russian Orthodox Church was a great deed on the part of His Eminence, who achieved it despite devilish resistance from opponents of the Church and of Russia. The fact that Metropolitan Laurus passed away on the day of the Triumph of Orthodoxy is the clearest proof of this. The unification of the Russian Church is indeed a great triumph for Orthodoxy”.

Vladyka had been found early on Sunday, 16 March, the morning of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, by Protodeacon Victor Lokhmatov. “His hands were under his head, as I always saw him when he slept”, he said. “He taught souls through the example of his life. He would get up earlier than all the others, he worked harder than all the others… He always had something good to say about others”. The future Metropolitan “carried out all the monastic obediences, starting from the cowshed to the typography”. We should not forget that the Monastery in Jordanville did its utmost to send out books to spiritually-starving Russia. Its postage bill to Russia at the beginning of the ’90s was $5,000 a month. As a bishop, the future Metropolitan was to be seen dressed as a simple hieromonk. One of his obediences was to wash the dishes in the Monastery. He would not have dreamed of removing his name from the rota, just because he was the abbot and had become a bishop. He was famed for his borshch soups. It was always possible to talk to this exemplary monk, always accessible like all the best hierarchs of the Church Outside Russia. And, on being chosen as Metropolitan in 2001, he said, “And, now, what I feared has come to me. In my old age, my brother bishops have bound me and entrusted the ship of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia to me. I have accepted this as obedience to God, to the Church of Christ and to our Council of Hierarchs. For my part, I do not feel any superiority or any strength to guide this ship. I merely trust in God’s help and the prayers of our flock. Russian Orthodox and Orthodox in general must be one in spirit and deed”.


The Shrine to St John Maksimovich the Wonderworker of Shanghai, Paris, and San Francisco at the Cathedral of the Mother of God the Joy of All Who Sorrow (San Francisco CA)


It was at the Council in San Francisco in May 2006 that I first understood the nature of the Metropolitan’s humility. Here I saw not a Metropolitan, but, rather a poor village boy, whose mother had passed away, in the Carpathian foothills in Slovakia. In my mind’s eye, I saw him pedalling his bicycle, one of the best investments that the local Monastery ever made, to school in Svidník, avoiding the Nazi soldiers. (Where is that bicycle now? Standing rusting in the corner of a barn in the Carpathians?) But, then, in San Francisco, Metropolitan Laurus stood side by side with Metropolitan Amfilohije Radović of Monetengro, with a dozen bishops, presiding over a Council of a worldwide Church on the far distant shores of the Pacific Ocean. This was a destiny. How was it possible? Because the Metropolitan was not a learned professor, not a politician, not a prince of the Church, who talk, but, do not do, but, for over sixty years a true monk, who simply listens and then does. He conquered by his example, by his Carpatho-Russian sincere faith, which is indeed greater than riches, by his virtue, by his humility.

As for the greatest event in his life, the canonical communion of the two parts of the Russian Church, the Metropolitan suffered greatly at the dissent of the vocal (but small) minority who opposed the episcopate. He always wanted to keep everyone together. Indeed, there will be those who will say that the stress caused by that dissent brought on his repose. He hid his emotions and his peaceful and calming spirit no doubt helped limit the amount of dissent, but nevertheless he suffered, a victim of the disobedience of others. Having returned from his beloved Russia two weeks earlier, the Metropolitan served all the offices of the First Week of the Great Fast, except for Saturday, because he was not feeling well. The manner of his repose was that which Orthodox pray for… “painless, blameless, peaceful”, and it happened on the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, when by Moscow time, that Triumph had been completed. The day of the restoration of the icons was the day of the repose of him who had restored unity. He had completed his task, fulfilled the destiny that had been asked of him, the good and faithful servant had run his course and it was time to rest.

There may be some who will try and use his repose for their own ends. We believe it more likely that his repose will rather seal unity and bring back to the fold those of goodwill who are still reticent. As a prominent laywoman in New York, Lyudmila Kholodnya, has said, “The schism is already on the sandbanks and I think that it will end with this”. We recall that less than a month ago Metropolitan Laurus was in Moscow, receiving the Compatriot of the Year prize from the Mayor of Moscow. The Metropolitan said, “We must save our souls in love for each other and in unity”. Exactly a week ago, I sent Vladyka a postcard from the shores of the North Sea and asked for his prayers. I do not know whether he received it or not. I remember how I had once wanted to ask him a question. He smiled at me in his grandfatherly way. I had received my answer and it was no longer necessary to ask my question. Everything had been said in his smile. However, I will remember him best at the Council in San Francisco. In the talk I gave there, I said a word in his native Carpatho-Russian, po-nashomu, meaning “in our (Carpatho-Russian) language”. His smile was unforgettable. I think he was touched that someone had remembered his Carpathian roots, those simple and honest roots that had determined the course and pattern of his life and set us all an example.


Archbishop Hilarion Kapral of Australia and New Zealand (1948- ), locum tenens of the ROCOR


Metropolitan Laurus, the fifth First Hierarch of the Church Outside Russia in 87 years, was Metropolitan for only seven years. He was the last bishop of the pre-war generation. All our other active bishops are aged under 60. We do not know what will happen at their Synod after the Paschal celebrations and who will take the place the Metropolitan as Sixth First Hierarch of our Church. All we can do is pray and obey, as the Metropolitan would surely have advised us to do. But, if I may add a thought of my own, the best thing that could happen is that all those who call themselves Russian Orthodox and live outside Russia, whether in Western Europe, the Americas or elsewhere, should now, with the blessing of Patriarch Alexis and His Synod in New York, join themselves to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. In this way, the spiritual unity that we already have may be transfigured further into a visible administrative unity. This would be the greatest memorial to Vladyka Metropolitan, much greater still than a majestic Cathedral in Moscow. To him we all sing:

Eternal Memory!

17 March 2008

Fr Andrew Phillips

Editor’s note:

I can only wholeheartedly endorse everything written by Fr Andrew. I, too, wish for the unity of all Russian Orthodox Christians. It is time for the Soviet construct known as the OCA to end, and for the healthy elements within it to reunite with the mother church. We should ask the Carpatho-Russians and Ukrainians to join us as well, if they will, and one hopes that they shall. We should send the Romanians in the OCA back to their mother church in Romania, which is now free, with our blessings and good wishes, and with the hope that we shall remain good neighbours (and, no doubt, we would!).



Brothers! A sign of Orthodox unity in Moscow


There is no hope at all for the idealistic “union of all Orthodox Christians in America” preached by SVS and the Again crowd. Indeed, because of the nature of diaspora Orthodoxy, it may never be. Instead, we should work at uniting the various strands of Orthodoxy in our country, that is, there should be a united Serbian Church, a united Greek Church, a united Russian Church, a united Arab Church, and a united Romanian Church. We could indeed cooperate on projects of good will, and we could do much good together. Nevertheless, the discarnate “united Orthodoxy” preached by some recent converts (especially in the Antiochian archdiocese) is not only unattainable, but, dangerous in the extreme. This “Union Orthodoxy” is suffused completely with amoral American suburban notions, and its primary credo is not Orthodoxy, but, rather, it subscribes to a positivism that is little different from its secular analogue. Indeed, it is MORE dangerous because of its religious veneer. One can see this in the refusal of the OCA to effectively remove Nikolai of Alaska for ordaining a convicted sexual offender to the clergy. The OCA’s response has been psychobabble. What would the Metropolia bishops have done? They would have called in the Alaska State Troopers, removed Nikolai from church housing, and banned him from all Church property by the issuance of the proper court order (an easy item to procure, by the way). QED, done quite smartly, and without delay or fuss! Methinks that the OCA is a step DOWN the evolutionary ladder!

We must honour Vladyki’s memory by completing his project of Church unity. If a few unrepresentative intellectuals squawk, let them do so, and let them wander away to whatever destination they choose. They shall be happier there than amongst us. As for us, we should clasp our hands together and fashion the unity that God has set before us, not the notional unity that was nothing but an opium dream of heretics such as Alexander Schmemann. We owe Vladyki that much. We shall honour him by following his deeds, not by repeating his words. May God bless us in the completion of such a task.



He Taught People’s Souls: In Memoriam Metropolitan Laurus

When he began to appear on television screens four years ago, he seemed a strange man to the Russian public. Bearing the high title of Metropolitan of New York and Eastern America (sic), he was dressed accordingly. He met with President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Aleksei and then signed on 17 May 2007 the historical act on 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, who with very little losses led his Church, many of whose members saw its raison d’être in opposing the “Soviet” Moscow Patriarchate, toward a 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 dramatic fate of an outstanding representative of the Russian diaspora. What we see is the often trite and stilted notions of a monk and 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 Archdeacon Victor Lokhmatov, 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 as Metropolitan Laurus’s assistant. He found the metropolitan dead Sunday, when he brought his lunch to his house. “His palms under his head, as I’d always seen him asleep. Through his humility and the example of his life he taught people’s souls”, the archdeacon said, overcoming a 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 offence”.

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 paper listing 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 anybody”.


We can trace the monastic tradition so outstandingly represented by the late hierarch to the Pochaev Monastery in Volynia (today, it is in the Ternopol Oblast of the Ukraine). 11-year old Vasili Škurla, the son of peasants, started in 1939 as a novice in a monastery in the village of Ladomirova, Slovakia, which was founded by a former Pochaev monk (and later, archbishop) Vitaly Maksimenko. 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 they suffered a great deal for their traditional Orthodox Christianity and Russian orientation. The Ladomirova 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, Vasili Škurla was tonsured as a monk and given the monastic name Laurus. He began to teach at the only seminary of the ROCOR in Jordanville whilst he was still a senior. Later, he became an academic supervisor whilst 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”, Lokhmatov said. In 1967, Laurus became the Bishop of Manhattan and secretary of the ROCOR Holy Synod. In 10 years, he returned to the monastery as its abbot with the title of 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”, Lokhmatov said. “Do you know what a linotype is? At that time, the monastery published a lot of church literature, and we tried to send something 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 beyond the “iron curtain” that was not controlled by Soviet power. Perhaps, for Laurus too, the connection to Russia through this publishing work became the seed from which his service to church unity grew.

In 1986, when the ROCOR head, Metropolitan Philaret Voznesensky, died, his flock saw the much-loved Archbishop Laurus as the most likely candidate for the metropolitan’s post. However, Metropolitan Vitaly Ustinov, who was notorious for his extreme intolerance toward the Moscow Patriarchate, led the Church instead. When the Church in Russia was liberated and the reasons for an essentially political schism would be seemingly be ended, a stark confrontation began in place of unification. ROCOR opened parishes in Russia and it put forward new claims to 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 Kiselyov, openly criticised the opening of ROCOR parishes in Russia, and this 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 Diveyevo in Nizhny Novogorod oblast as “false” relics in a “graceless” church, Laurus did not criticise the article, but he went incognito to Diveyevo 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, Kiselyov’s daughter. “It was never like Putin stamped his foot and everybody ran toward unity”. In the 1990s, Archbishop Laurus made several such secret trips to Russia, in a dress of a simple monastic priest, without announcing his visit to a monastery or a church. “Just don’t call me Vladyka”, Lokhmatov recalls his boss’s instructions during these trips. “He was very sharp. As in the monastery, he always saw more than people thought he saw; the same was true in 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. “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 Synod 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 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. Lokhmatov recalled how painful the discords were for the metropolitan, but he did not show his emotions. Due to his spirit of peace, which is marked by everybody who met Laurus at least once, the number of breakaway parishes was minimised and numbered only a several dozen, mainly in the former Soviet Union, where people came to the ROCOR primarily out of their opposition to the official church. Moreover, overall, his leadership was as quiet as his entire ministry. “He never spoke harshly, never forced anyone”, Ms Holodny said. “And, frankly, he spoke poorly and sometimes vaguely. However, God’s will acted through him. We had eloquent speakers and activists, who were furiously against it, or furiously for it. Nevertheless, to no avail. And, here, suddenly, it was done!”

Should one say that Metropolitan Laurus’ passing is the kind of death that Orthodox Christians, who pray daily “for a Christian end to our lives, peaceful, without shame and suffering”, can only dream of? 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 the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

The opponents of reunification will likely try to use his death to forward their agenda. However, they will be unable to reverse the process. “This schism has already run aground”, Ms 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 Holy Synod. Each of the 11 present bishops of this self-governed part of the Russian Orthodox Church can be a candidate. According to the Act on Canonical Unity signed last year, the elected metropolitan has to 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, 21 March, according to a ROCOR announcement.

Now, to the last point. 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. However… I could not find one. 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, after receiving from Mayor Yuri Luzhkov of Moscow the Compatriot of the Year award. “And, it takes colossal labour, 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. This is to ensure that the divisions which befell the Russian Orthodox Church and the peoples of our motherland in the tragic 20th century would never be repeated. 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 centre 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 centre, to God. The closer we are to the centre, 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”.

17 March 2008

Andrei Zolotov

Russia Profile.Org


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