Arts & Books

The Red Army veterans fighting a spiritual war

Pskov-Caves Monastery, near Estonia: ‘A new world suddenly opened up for us’

Everyday Saints and Other Stories
By Archimandrite Tikhon (trans. by Julian Henry Lowenfeld), Pokrov Publications, £20

First published in Russia in 2011, this book, despite its unlikely title, has been consistently at the top of the country’s bestseller lists. This tells you something about Russia. Although officially atheist for more than 70 years following the collapse of communism, there has been a dramatic rediscovery in the country 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 re-issued work of more than 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, Fr 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 within the monastery walls.

Many of the older monks had fought in the Second World War. 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.”

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 kept 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, who offered to die 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 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”.

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.

This article first appeared in the February 12 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here