Fr Aleksandr Mazyrin, an instructor at St Tikhon Orthodox Humanities University in Moscow, holder of the degrees of candidate of historical sciences and master of theology, shared with Yelena Zhosul of Interfax-Religion his recollections of the recently-reposed Metropolitan Laurus, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Outside of Russia.
Fr Aleksandr Mazyrin
I only knew Vladyki Laurus slightly. For 10 days in October 2006, I visited the monastery in Jordanville for a conference in memory of the first Chief Hierarch of the ROCOR, Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky. Although I only had a few direct contacts with Vladyki Laurus, I had the possibility of seeing him in the course of the ordinary daily routine, and I received a feeling of the quality of his life and service.
The evident spiritual manifestation of Vladyki Laurus was striking. He was a hierarch in the authentic sense of the word, he embodied the ideal of an archpastor and monk, he was not a church politician, he was not an official in a riassa; he was a real podvizhnik. His entire life from childhood onwards was centred on the monastic path. It was the Lord’s work that a monastery founded after the Russian Revolution by some of the brotherhood of the Pochaev Monastery under the leadership of Archimandrite Vitaly Maksimenko was centred in his native village of Ladimirovo in Eastern Slovakia. Because publication of religious books was banned in Soviet Russia, Fr Vitaly founded a monastic brotherhood devoted to the printing trade to produce spiritual literature. The entire life of the future Vladyki Laurus was closely tied to this brotherhood and its publishing work.
Whilst he was still a boy, he often went to the monastery and helped in the services, and when he was ten-years-old, he asked the superior if he could join the brotherhood. The superior directed him to ask for his father’s blessing. Several days later, young Vasili (for such was his name in the world) brought his father to the superior, and his father said that he was not against such a calling. So, the future metropolitan entered into the life of the brotherhood. At first, he lived in the monastery and continued to attend the local school, later, he became a novice. At the end of the Second World War, the brotherhood fled to the West to avoid the advancing Red Army, and Novice Vasili went with them. He went with the brotherhood first to Germany, and then to America, and finally to the spiritual centre of the Russian emigration, Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville NY.
Vladyki did not seek for fame or prestige, but, he accepted the portion that the Lord gave him. He conducted his entire adult life in the monastery, and from the beginning, the signs of his being an authentic monk were visible. He had a disarming simplicity, humility, modesty, and accessibility. When you met him, you did not think that you were encountering a high-ranking hierarch of the Church. Vladyki did not care for the institutional business of the Church, although it seemed, by necessity, that he was constantly occupied in it. I even had the occasion to hear a complaint from Synodal employees in New York that the metropolitan only visited them from time to time.
However, Vladyki craved the quiet of his monastery in the American hinterland. Say the name “Jordanville”, and it is rumoured that some think that it is a suburb of New York City. However, in reality, it is not a suburb, it is a small village. There is not even a store in the town, although there was one once, but, it closed due to lack of business. Truly, there is only one main street in the town, with a town hall, a school, and a library… that’s all. Some would call it a god-forsaken place. The founders of the monastery at Jordanville searched for precisely such an isolated place, where in North America they would be in similar conditions to what they knew in Russia.
Vladyki lived in a small house near the monastery proper. He immersed himself in the cloistered life. He had a usual routine to his day, at five in the morning there were morning prayers, to which he came earlier than the entire brotherhood did. Then, there was the liturgy, which was followed by the usual obediences of the day, and he concluded the evening with Vespers and his customary farewell to the community. This is how each day passed. It was the rhythm of the cloister, which Vladyki had been accustomed to since childhood, and from which he did not desire to part.
You could feel that for him it was very hard to be in the public eye. It was not how he wished to conduct his life. On 17 May 2007, the evening of the day that we celebrated our reconciliation, Vladyki Laurus was assigned a fancy room in the guesthouse of the Danilovsky Monastery. He did not wish to have such a room, but, the rules of protocol were inflexible. However, Metropolitan Laurus did not speak a word of complaint. However, his assistants spoke to our representative, Metropolitan Kirill, about it.
Vladyki had a striking and disarming simplicity. Every day, after liturgy was over, he went with the brotherhood into the monastery refectory, and he sat down at the common table. He did not put on airs or assume a haughty manner, and he did not have a special kitchen. He took the same meal as the rest of the brotherhood did.
I remember when I first arrived at the monastery, I sat down at table, and I think that I was sitting in the middle of it. Everyone was supposed to help themselves. Being there for the very first time, I was confused, but, I did not wish to impose on anyone. There was the usual American breakfast food on the table, corn flakes and dried fruit. Apparently, you pour hot milk over them before you eat them. Vladyki Laurus saw my confusion, arose from his place at the head of the table, and came up to me and said, as if he were apologising to me, “Well, here we do everything the American way, shall you forgive me, this is how we eat this…” only a minor episode, but, of course, very characteristic of him. What an amazingly warm and joyful man!
No! I would go further than that. I felt that I was associating with a holy man. It is difficult to put this concept into words, but such it was. Unfortunately, my direct contact with Vladyki Laurus was slight, the 10 days in Jordanville, and during the time of the celebration of the reconciliation in Moscow I was near him several times, but, he had other things on his mind other than me those days.
I also met him in Washington during an exhibition devoted to the New Martyrs. Seizing a free moment, I invited Vladyki Laurus to come to St Tikhon University in Moscow, where I teach. We had had earlier conversations about this. Vladyki immediately said that he would very much like to come to see us. Generally speaking, he was always very excited about our University, and he always sent us greetings for all our events, and he always sent his representatives to attend our celebrations and conferences. He took great interest in all of our work, especially our research into church history, found time to read our books, and he even wrote reviews of them.
Less than a month ago, on 22 February, Vladyki Laurus showed up at our school, and let me tell you, there were warm and glad meetings with both instructors and students. It was not possible to fit everyone who wished to see him into the room where he was. There was a moment that was characteristic of him. During the meeting, he was asked some questions on the Church and politics, but Vladyki Laurus did not wish to answer them, so, he passed them to his assistants. However, if the questions concerned monastic life, his connections with Athos, or the elders of Athos, he pricked up his ears and gave lively and interesting answers. Vladyki felt strongly on those topics, they were close and dear to him, whilst the questions about church policy only bored and burdened him. However, we all know that he played a decisive role in the reconciliation of the ROCOR with the MP. It was necessary to do preparatory work for it, and because of his authority, the reunification process was not as painful as some had feared.
Was he not burdened that it was his mission to not only carry out, but, be an active participant in church policy, indeed, to be at the head of the process of reconciliation?
Fr Aleksandr Mazyrin
The restoration of church unity was a burden that Vladyki could not refuse. He desired in every way possible to reach this goal. For Vladyki, the most important and yet most difficult task was the preservation of peace amongst the faithful. There were many in the ROCOR who were very suspicious of us on the Moscow side. Vladyki Laurus had to do everything in his power so as to not lose this part of his flock, which was a very hard road for him to travel. As I have said already, he was an archpastor in the authentic sense of the word and he approached the question of the reconciliation in a pastoral manner. He refused to do it as a politician would, saying that this shall reveal to us new possibilities and so on, rather, he came to his parishioners as a loving father that understands the infirmities and confusions of his family, and he lived his very life for his flock.
As far as you know, how did Vladyki Laurus feel while he was in Russia, what did he do when he arrived here?
Fr Aleksandr Mazyrin
Of course, both in his trips in May 2007 and February 2008, he was nearly exhausted. However, in his trip to Russia that occurred a month before his passing, he took part in an extensive programme we had devised for him, even though he was feeling rather poorly. That shows how dear our reunification was for him. He would not deviate from the planned itinerary and official receptions, and met with many important people. He did not care for the official affairs, but, nevertheless, he bore his cross to the very end.
Now, many note in connection with the sudden passing of Vladyki on the day of the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy that the Lord called him to lay down his cross precisely when his mission was accomplished. His earthly life ended on such a note.
Fr Aleksandr Mazyrin
You speak the truth. The main goal of his life was the healing of the church schism, and Vladyki did bring that to an end. Of course, the death of Vladyki was very significant. The Lord took Vladyki Laurus from us in a special way, to indicate to us that his service was a celebration of the triumph of Orthodoxy. Remember, the reconciliation took place on the Ascension, and in God there are no coincidences. There were still many doubters, some found even in the brotherhood at Jordanville, especially amongst American converts and some Western Europeans, that did not understand why there must be unity. His passing on the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy was a signal for such doubters, to show them that the Lord called Vladyki Laurus to Himself on such a day. Not earlier, and not later, but, precisely on the day of the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
Does St Tikhon Orthodox University plan to publish a memorial anthology of recollections about Vladyki Laurus?
Fr Aleksandr Mazyrin
Of course, we plan to issue a volume dedicated to the memory of Vladyki Laurus, focusing on his trip to our University and his warm relations with us. There are also letters that he wrote to our rector, Fr Vladimir Vorobyov, some dating from before the date of the reconciliation, stressing the importance of the work done by our school. Certainly, we shall do our best to gather all of this material together. This was living history, enacted before our very eyes, of which the Lord gave us the honour of being participants. There is no doubt that we must spread this to all people, both believers and non-believers. We shall do our best to accomplish this task.
19 March 2008
When I was at the Unity Service on Saturday, I was struck by the fact that the “Russians” all seemed to have a greater regard for Vladyki’s sanctity than we did. It would not surprise me to see Vladyki glorified first by the Church in Russia. His portrait was in a prominent place downstairs under the cathedral. This is an evident signal for all of us American Russian Orthodox. Sanctity has shone forth from the ROCOR, and none from the OCA or its Parisian cousin (the chain-smoking Maria Skobtsova was no saint, thank you very much). That should tell you much…